Cats (3)

My sister’s cat played cards. Actually both of her cats played cards. Legend has it that Zack – her old dreamsicle tomcat who died when I was in preschool – would actually play Concentration. Most of my friends call it Memory: the game in which fifty-two cards are laid face down in a grid on the carpet and each person takes turns flipping one card and trying to match it by flipping a second. I was terrible at Concentration because I was terrible at “memory.” At least that sort of memory.

I’m the sort of person who finds his keys in the refrigerator or writes down accounts of vivid memories that turn out to involve perhaps more fiction than he might like. But those two things aren’t really the same. The card game, the keys, are more properly called something like “retention” and involve recalling specific information.

Finding my keys in the refrigerator comes from my dad’s side of the family. He worries that he’s losing his edge when he misplaces his crossword puzzle or gets flour from the cupboard and can’t remember where he put it. But I remember being little and racing my sisters to find his wallet because he’d put a $10 bounty on its retrieval. He was probably in his late thirties at the time. I lose something at least once a day and I’m not even in my thirties yet. I tend to think he’ll be fine.

The story telling, weaving of details, would more properly be called “memory” and embellishing memories a little probably comes from him too. My Granddaddy Melvin told all manner of tall tales, but Dad isn’t so blatant. He used to write a column for the local paper – about growing up in the area, people, old businesses, etc – and some friends questioned him once on minor details.

“Did those things really happen on the same day?”

“Did he really say it that way?”

I can’t remember exactly what Dad’s response was, but it was the verbal equivalent of winking and changing the subject. The same thing happens when I write stories. They’re all true, but do I really remember if the sun sank below some splendid horizon as I looked out the window, washing the sky in one or another florid synonym for orange? Eh. So maybe I’m a little better at memory than I tend to think – it depends on your standards. The sort that meets the demands of the game? Certainly not.

“Concentration” on the other hand was always a strong suit. I do the same thing several hundred purposeful times in a row without stopping. But “concentration” without the “memory” didn’t do me much good when it came time to flip a second card. Zack, on the other hand, was an ace. Or so I’m told.

Zack wasn’t interested in Casino or Cribbage or Rummy or the various other card games we’d play in the living room floor – only Concentration. He would trot into the living room and perch on his haunches beside the activity. Mom swears that, after Kate would flip up a card, he would swat a different one. She would indulge and, lo and behold, flip up the card matching hers. Mom swears this happened often. I don’t remember how true that is, but it certainly happened more than once. Dad and I fumble around for things that we put on the wrong shelf, left on the bathroom sink, or put a moment ago in our back pockets. Mom is sharp as a tack. I think there’s a little embellishment happening but I’m inclined to trust.

Kate’s other cat, Wilma, was a flabby white tabby with gray and orange splotches. She was the shortest of our three cats, nose to tail, but made up for it around the middle. Every time we sat down to play cards and made some audible signal of our plans – roughly opening the sticky drawer in which the cards were kept, shuffling the deck on the carpet – she came waddling briskly into the room. Wilma didn’t actually play, but rather plopped herself down in the vicinity, occasionally rolled onto the cards, or circled us watching. It feels weird to make that clear. Wilma didn’t actually play cards. Obviously. She’s a cat. But Zack did, so there must be something to it.

In reality, there are all sorts of cognitive biases and logical fallacies at work. The hot hand fallacy illustrates our tendency to believe that because something happened once or twice in a row, that trend is likely to continue. A paw strikes the right card twice and coincidence becomes magic. The texas sharpshooter fallacy illustrates our tendency to look at a jumble of information and isolate only that which confirms our predetermination. A paw strikes a hundred cards, most of which are wrong, but is unusually accurate for a stretch in the middle. We remember that stretch. Availability bias describes our tendency to draw conclusions based on the most readily available information – the most recent, that which jumps out, the story heard most often. I only recall the handful of times that Kate responded to Zack’s swatting of the cards and, of those, only the few times that he swatted the correct card.

I think that examination probably brings me much closer to the truth. Memory is often a complicated tangle of biases, recollections, and misrepresentations that can be explained away, cleaved from the bare facts. But we still say that Zack played cards with us. I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it, but it’s certainly a much better story.