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November 5, 2007
Willing, but not eager: that's pretty much how I felt about taking in Ben the Quacking Cat. He was blessed at birth with a meow that sounds exactly like the quack of a duck, and he simply could not turn it off. I wonder if there is such a thing as feline Tourette's Syndrome? If there is, it would explain a lot.

He would station himself at Anna's bedroom door at 4 in the morning and begin to quack, and he would quack his way mournfully through the day. If he was awake, you heard him.

Maybe it was the apartment. Unless you're really, really rich, your New York City apartment will be quite small, roughly the size of your bedroom when you were a teenager. Maybe he'll be quieter if he has more room, I told my daughter. She was tearful at the thought of getting rid of Ben, but she teaches school and needs her sleep, and besides, she was engaged: the first year of marriage has stresses enough of its own. And it wasn't as if we were turning him out on the street; Ben would still be in the family. She could come to see him on holidays.

It was worth a try.

So he had some strikes against him when he came in, did Ben: a personality trait that annoyed absolutely everyone with whom he interacted. For weeks we thought what all new parents think, that all the noise must surely mean that he was hungry, but feeding him had no discernable effect. So that wasn't it.

Well, what do we need? Food and water. Air. We need meaningful work, although I've had cats all my life and have yet to meet one with a job, so maybe cats don't need work. That leaves just one thing: maybe Ben needed love. Not that Anna didn't love him. But Ben drove away anyone who might have been moved to the physical expression of love with his incessant noise. Maybe what he needed was the very thing he drove away.

He wouldn't have been the first to have done that. How many are there? Tons. We alienate the very thing for which we long, sabotage the love we crave. The thing I wish to do, I do not do, St. Paul wails in his letter to the Romans, and the thing I do not wish to do, that is what I do. Without realizing what I am doing, I set things up so that I will not have what I need, and then I am miserable because I do not have it.

I determined to stroke Ben's chin and cuddle him every time he began to quack. Won't that just encourage him to do it even more? Q asked, unconvinced. But he couldn't possibly have quacked any more than he was quacking already, since he was never still except when he was asleep. So there was little to lose.

He would begin to quack, and I would pick him up. All cats love to have their chins stroked; well, their jaws, really: they have scent glands there, and gentle pressure on them feels good to them. And it worked: he would stop quacking after only a few strokes. Ben's black coat is very soft and rich, and his white bib is luxuriant; stroking and cuddling him was fun for me, too. And, as Ben began to quiet down, something began to happen to me: I began to love him. Soon he stopped immediately upon being picked up. He took to coming up alongside my face in the night; I would reach one hand out from under the blanket and give him a few strokes. That was enough, it seemed: he'd walk back down to the foot of the bed and go back to sleep. It was sweet to have the touch that helped him calm down. I realized that he had never wanted to quack all the time. He just hadn't known how to not to, and it was the physical expression of love that helped him stop.

I now adore my Ben. I love him as much as I've ever loved a cat, and I have loved some cats in my day. I bury my face in his lovely fur and tell him that he smells like a flower -- I'm sure there's a flower somewhere in the world that smells like Ben. I call him in from the back yard and he trots toward the back porch, quacking all the way, and I reach down when he's close enough, for a couple of quick chin-strokes. I now think his quacking is charming: the very thing that made me resigned, at best, to his coming to live here in the first place, now seems to me to be cute and funny.

Love made him lovable! And showing him love made me love him! It appears that love causes love, then. It seems that it is infinitely available among us, the rich milk of it produced on the spot, on demand, in as much quantity as we need, if we will only surrender to its delight.
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