November 19, 2010

Out of the bag

Considering how much you have learnt from me, my cat told me yesterday, rubbing itself on the leg of my chair, I should own the intellectual property rights to the book. He was talking about a treatise on shipmanagement that I have been threatening to write for some time. The only thing that has held me back, so far, is that I am sure that nobody will read it.

But the cat, as usual, had a point. There is a lot sailors can learn from cats and their approach to life. There is also the fact that ‘Shipmanagement by a cat’ makes for a catchy rubric. Better than ‘Shipmanagement for (and by) Dummies', which was the original working title of the book.

One of the first feline lessons we learn is that curiosity does not kill the cat: quite the contrary. Watch a cat entering unfamiliar terrain for the first time. Cautious, treading softly. Whiskers sensing on full alert. Examining everything in minute detail. Crouched and silent until it has familiarised itself with everything around it. This is an excellent practice for a sailor to follow too- the habit of complete familiarisation with the ship as soon as possible. Certainly makes one a better professional, and can even save lives.

Even in familiar territory, a cat will usually and periodically take a quick glance at its surroundings, registering changes and possible threats, going from relaxed to full alert in one point eight seconds. What I call the cat scan. A lesson for our watchkeepers there, I think, and maybe our crews too.

Much larger than these practical disciplines are the soft skills that cats intuitively display- their emotional intelligence could teach us a thing or two when it comes to dealing with others aboard and ashore. Forget the Human Element- it is the Cat Element that rocks.

For example, cat wisdom says we should talk only when we have something important to say: no pointless barking for the cat. It mews when it wants something, or wants to indicate something. The rest of the time, it leaves communication to one’s imagination. Particular lesson at sea today, I think, with much unnecessary communication, both aboard and from shore to ship, that detracts and distracts us from the basics.

Live with dignity. No running around with tail wagging and tongue hanging out like a dog. Cats live in a businesslike environment, treating each incident on its own merit and each person with the respect that they deserve; so should we. Nobody owns the cat; nobody should own the sailor.

Have no favourites. A dog has a master; a cat prefers nobody in particular. It will sit and purr in one lap today and in another the next. It gets along with everybody, and invites everybody to get along with it. Wish I could do the same.

Always land on your feet. Useful mental ability, what with the particular pressures sailors face at sea- and ashore- today.

Be a partner, not a slave. Unlike a dog, a cat cannot be taught to do anything on instruction- unless you are one of those Hollywood pet trainers, I guess. Otherwise, it will work with you, not for you. Good pointer to effective crew-management relationships.

Be poker faced. Keep them guessing. I swear I do not know, looking at the cat, whether it is going to purr or attack in the next instant; the expression gives nothing away. Useful for senior officers when dealing with problematic crew and managers, I think. And vice versa.

Relax whenever you can. Watching a dozing puss is a complete lesson in instant relaxation techniques. Just looking at a cat stretching lowers blood pressure. Fatigued seafarers note: a catnap is a wonderful thing. Corollary: Taking time off for yourself increases output and decreases the chances of a coronary.

Treat irritants with disdain. A cat walks away with obvious contempt when peeved. To deal with the cat, one has to factor in the possibility that it will just disengage if pushed beyond a point. I daresay we would have fewer retention issues if shipmanagers understood this lesson well.

If you play with a cat, expect to be scratched. If you go out to sea, expect what comes along with it- the tough life, the hazards and the annoyances included. Take the bad with the good.

Useful lessons for sure. But, much more than all this, the defining classroom that my cat conducted for me was held a few years ago, when a kitten walked into our home and adopted us. After the initial flurry of vet visits and shots were done with, my daughter dragged us to a pet shop where I bought, amongst other things and with scant knowledge of any animal except a pet dog, squeaky toys shaped like mice, rattles more expensive than we had bought for our children, yellow table tennis and tennis balls that were guaranteed to keep the cat gamboling cutely for hours on end, and an assortment of similar artifacts. My wife even produced a ball of wool from a ten-year-old shopping bag at home. Kittens are famous for unraveling and raveling this, usually accompanied by oohs and aahs of human delight, right?

The kitten investigated all the goodies thoroughly, then ignored all of them and spent an hour and a half playing with an empty plastic bag on the floor. The lesson, I thought immediately, was that things are not important. What you want to do is.

It was much later, though, that the incident triggered in me what I discovered was the deeper lesson- and the most basic one of all.

Slow down, the kitten was telling me. Forget money for a while. Forget the one-more-contract syndrome. Forget even that commercial shore job that you are half-heartedly chasing, because you know, with previous experience, that it will kill your soul. Find your own game to play and enjoy. Make your own rules.

Slow down, it was telling me. The first rule of the game of life is this, that whoever dies with the most toys does not win.


No comments: