In the past few months, I have developed the habit of instinctually tapping my thumbs against my other fingers, as if I’m pantomiming a crab, or my hand is a pair of tongs grabbing at a piece of air.
I think I adopted this mannerism as an iteration of something my friend Emily does, who got it from my friend Aviva. When they’re excited to see each other, their forearms fold upward and they rotate their hands and wrists with their fingers in a fist, in a celebration of mutual recognition. When I imitate them, I tap my fingers together, my arm folded upward on itself, with my fingernails pointing to the sky. The conclusion of the motion is reminiscent of the hand in the chef’s kiss expression.
I’m not exactly sure what put this into my emotive vocabulary other than that it’s fun to pick up expressions from one’s friends. I have noticed myself tapping my fingers together more regularly, usually when something is particularly satisfying or memorable. They pressed each other to grab at the air when I stepped out onto my back porch and saw the white traces of the first snowfall of the season, and they seeked to lift the words off the page when I reached the ending of a short story that shifted my perspective. They picked at the chords of a song that caught me by surprise, and sometimes remembering the way a brick building looks against a blue sky ten years ago is enough to prompt my fingerprints together.
When I was ten or eleven, teetering on the fulcrum between elementary school and adolescence, my parents signed my brother and I up for a day camp at our local Humane Society, a national organization of animal shelters. Inspired by our pet cat, Penny, we were to attend the Cat and Bunny Training camp at the Society’s West Michigan branch. Hopes and dreams of converting our cat from a wayward, kitchen-counter-wanderer to a living room star evolved quickly, and we imagined her leaping over couches and ottomans with grace. This would become even more marvelous once we told others that Penny was 13 years old, a feline senior citizen. We would prove our case against those that called cats untrainable and develop a repertoire of tricks that would be the envy of all.
Our father drove us out to the camp’s location, at the animal shelter tucked in a dull office park near the expressway. We walked up to the brick building under a June blue sky, and checked in at the front desk. My brother and I were sent down the linoleum corridor to the multipurpose room where, upon opening the double doors, we were greeted with the echoing voices of dozens of seven to twelve-year-olds. The counselors, high schoolers simply in need of community service hours, tried to herd all of us into chairs at the long folding tables — but order was not truly restored until the woman in charge of the camp, Ms. Ashley, stepped into the room. Reminiscent of a principal striding into a rowdy school cafeteria, she first decried the noise level but then welcomed us “to the first ever Cat and Bunny training camp!”
Announcing this before the glossy stares of eighty school-age children suddenly made Ms. Ashley aware of the difficulties this first-time effort would entail. Could she really promise these kids the skills to train their cats and rabbits to sit, stay and roll over?
Her admittances of “we’ve never done this before” and “we’ll see how this turns out” certainly did not garner confidence within the crowded room; the high school counselors still dazed with the task of training children to sit and stay themselves. Nevertheless, we would set out to do what we signed up for, and after Ms. Ashley’s not-quite-inspirational speech, the room was split up by table group and we were sent off to the next activity.
Activities at Cat and Bunny Training Camp varied by day, but all were accompanied by the overtones of the noxious smell of animal waste and a chorus of dissonant meows. Near the end of the week, we mainly just pet the bunnies and kittens, and fed them under the burnt-out guidance of program staff.
In the beginning, however, a genuine effort was made to educate and indoctrinate the rabbits and cats on various commands in the English language. The training was based on a program used for dogs and other animals: mark and reward, or clicker training, involving a device that makes a click! sound, similar to a button on a computer mouse, but more amplified. The problems with giving these devices to dozens of elementary-age children quickly became apparent thanks to the cacophony of sharp pricks of sound piercing everyone’s ears. “Silence!” was eventually ordered.
The idea behind this first round of training was simple. We would seat ourselves in a circle on the floor, creating a human fence around the rabbit placed in the center. We were to all have treats for the rabbit in our hands. In the event that the rabbit hopped next to our lap, we would positively reinforce the behavior by pressing the clicker (the mark) (click!) and handing out the treat (the reward). This was to continue until most of us had handed out treats to the rabbit, and the rabbit had consumed a high multiplicity of its normal caloric intake. The hope was for the bunny to realize the mark and reward pattern and seek people out for treats, as well as get familiar with the clicker.
The reality involved the rabbit hopping to a staff’s lap (click!), getting the treat (reward!), and then proceeding to try and escape the circle of twenty pairs of beady eyes and dirty palms. The first round was over once the counselors had to chase after the rabbit, which had run under the tables and chairs across the room. During the next trial, too many kids had too little self control, and the pricks of clicks were once again sent across the room even when the rabbit was not doing anything particularly interesting. We were instructed to give back our clickers and move on to the next activity.
I would like to tell you that we progressed onto more advanced clicker training exercises, and that after my brother and I had completed the camp, our visions of a living room feline circus would be a groundbreaking reality. What actually happened was a few more failed attempts of putting bunnies and cats inside circles of children; the animals that did end up ‘sitting and staying’ did so out of their own lethargic behaviors. Upon arriving home, we kind of taught our own cat, Penny, to sit, but one could more accurately predict a coin flip than whether she would actually respond to the command.
Although our Cat and Bunny Training Camp experience went about as well as Ms. Ashley’s half-hearted speech indicated it would, there is something to be said about marking and rewarding, or click!-ing certain moments as a form of positive reinforcement. As I have gotten into the habit of touching my fingers together, something in my brain shifts, almost instinctively upon folding my hand. A miniature rush of happiness melts over my gaze and coats the moment with a glint of celebration. I often don’t remember what prompted the action between my fingerprints in the first place, but I can find memories of satisfaction stored in the crevices on my palm.
With the constant flow of work that comes with university life, it is easy to feel out of touch with the values and principles that matter to us individually. The abstract notion of school-life balance can be hard to achieve in actuality, but the physical action of tapping my fingers together, the tendons and muscles working along with my bones, remind me that I exist. The white traces of snowfall. The chords of a song that caught me by surprise. The colors of a brick building against a blue sky. My fingerprints press (click!), to give me the feeling of being content (reward!), and I’m reminded that this moment matters.
Statement Columnist Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at email@example.com.