Posted by Shanti Roy on November 23, 2011
“How is Lyra?” my sister asks.
“She is all tuckered out” I reply, “She’s spread out all across my bed, sleeping.”
“N’aww” we both say in unison.
“Do you have a bubba?” my sister’s friend interjects, thinking I’m talking about my own child.
“No” I laugh, shaking my head. “She’s my cat.”
I can understand the confusion. The way I talk about my cat Lyra is with the heir of a new parent, and I certainly do go on about my Lyra like one would talk about their own child.
“See that? Lyra is so smart. She understands my words completely” I’ve been known to praise.
I’ve lately been aware that the way I speak to Lyra, in fact all cats and even dogs, is not how I speak to young children or even babies.
Yes, when it comes to the term ‘baby talk’ I don’t even apply it to the intended target. I usually look upon a baby like a work of art; bright eyes, upturned nose, cubby little fingers – yep, it’s all there. Or I might focus or the roundness of the nose, that bit of dribble sticking to the bottom lip. Or sometimes like a physician because autistic symptoms show by 18 months old and when they are in those first few months I wonder ‘will this child be autistic?’ I look for hand flapping and eye wandering.
The way I talk to a cat especially my own is like this: “Hey Lyra, hey baby, how you going?” I admit the ‘baby’ is mimicry from my mother who often called her that. I also give her such ‘pet names’ as Bubbles or Buckles or something in a sweet voice that makes me stop and wonder – just what am I doing?
When I cuddle her I squeeze and hang on for dear life and only let her go if she squirms. When I hug (not even cuddle) a person it’s as if they are made out of sandpaper and my arms are tree branches. It feels awkward and forced and really has no emotion to it. I still love these people, I just don’t hug well. It’s like giving a social nicety: it’s forced, no matter how genuine I am and it’s not my chosen way to convey these feelings.
When it comes to talking with children I notice I don’t simplify words for them. Once two children came over to my house – some children of my mother’s friends – around the ages of 9 and 12 and because I was my mum’s youngest she said I should hang out with them. Well, they talked to me and I smiled like I cared but the whole time I had the overwhelming feeling to talk about astronomy. I put on a documentary because I thought I’d find it interesting and my sister came in and made some remark about it being boring and the two kids laughed, and then I left to go into my room and sulk.
Another time I watched my step brother play with his son while in my mind I tried to construct the best how to draw exercise for him to do because I thought maybe I could teach my four year old nephew how to draw using a geometrical model to get the scale right. His potato faces and tiny beady eyes just weren’t up to par.
And recently while I was aware that the best baby talk I could ever do was to say ‘hi’ in a high pitched voice while feeling immensely awkward, I tried to show one of my niece’s how to work a motorised toy but it’s was faulty so I spent half the night obsessing over fixing it. I basically learned what codec it used and how to hack into it so I didn’t have to pay extra for a play set, while looking up how to activate this mode that wasn’t working on Google on my smartphone.
When speaking to my nieces I don’t put on a ‘baby’ voice as if they are small kittens pleading for the remaining milk in my cereal bowl but like I would any adult, teenager, ten year old, seven year old and new born. My style of talking to each age group is universal and it’s because my social skills were developed throughout my early twenties. I basically only know how to speak to an adult audience - and I struggle to that properly at times.
So, what’s left is how to transfer this speaking style from cute fluffy animals onto the young of people I find confusing to begin with.
“Would you like some Whiskas treats” might be a start but could be misinterpreted as me trying to feed small children cat food, and that won’t go down very well, especially because their parents are vegetarian.
I tell Lyra, “Want your rope?” when I’m trying to get her to play with me. I even talk to her like a child when taking photos of her: “it’s OK, last one I promise. I know it’s loud. I know you hate it.”
How can I transition this over to babies and young children – you know, the ones you’re actually supposed to talk like this to?
When I’m lost at what to say to adults (or people – I don’t see age – I just see people more socially competent than me) I try to find a common interest. Conspiracy theories are what get me engaged into a long conversation but again…little children. “What’s woswell?”
Really, the only common ground I have with little children is my old special interest in The Lion King, but again I can’t just talk to them in a way they can relate. I usually end up talking to their parents or any adult around who end up ignoring me because my excitement about talking about this long ago obsession can be misinterpreted as arrogance.
“I saw the original movie at the cinema when it was first released.”
“I’ve still got the very first preview of this movie. It’s upstairs, on VHS. Yes *laughs* on VHS.”
“I remember when they brought out the extended edition, thought I was experiencing memory loss.”
“So, who else had a crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas when this came out?” *looks around expectantly*
I’ve very protective of my cats too especially around young children. When those two kids that came over to my house pet my old cat Ari I told them rather firmly to pat him gently and not on the back because he is very delicate.
After returning from a particularly disappointing night out I witnessed Lyra jumped from a balcony and land beside me. I was panic stricken. I picked her up and ran up to my room and told her while holding onto her dearly: “You’re all I got. Don’t you ever do that to me again. If I lost you I wouldn’t know what to do.” I’d never proclaim something so emotional to a person and somehow I think that's what a aprent would say to a child.
The difference between Lyra and other cats I’ve owned is that we are both attached to each other. We moved to a strange place that is confusing and scary and we have bonded strongly because of it. Lyra has always had canine characteristics; she comes when I call her and craves attention. I don’t know if all Maine Coon’s are as loyal and loving as her but I know she loves me. She jumped off the balcony because she missed me and like a true cat got jealous when I pet another cat.
As much I want to have a relationship with another person like I do my cat I struggle to. Even when I talk to people and find common ground there’s no feeling of connection, that I really am of the same species. People are very social minded and driven by emotions and are less analytical. I can tell by the way they speak and their choice of words and the emotionality of their words – not to mention the five seconds they spend talking on a subject that interests me and then nring up something completely random and unrelated and don't return to said interesting subject. Socialising to me is nothing more than obtaining information and sharing it. While I can enjoy being with someone, after I reflect on it when preparing for the next encounter I’m thinking about what I will say because I really need to share the information and simply hanging out and enjoying each other’s company doesn’t occur to me.
If I lack a connection with adults then what does that say about the way I feel about children? At the end of the day I’ll always have my cats to talk to, to cuddle, stroke and pet and feel comforted by and still be at a loss to know why I feel this way about them (especially my Maine Coon wonder cat) and not the progeny of my own species. Probably because I call them the progeny of my own species.