To each his own 'comfort zone'

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I've been wondering if I have a "comfort zone." I am not entirely sure. I may not have one, in fact. This is not a matter of grave concern to me. I get on pretty well without. But then, on the other hand, I am not a cat. Nor, as it happens, am I an athlete.

I have been subliminally aware of this phrase being increasingly bandied about. One day recently, I happened to hear a TV sports commentator say, as we were watching a long-distance runner pad relentlessly on the tarmac, "Ah - now she's found her comfort zone." This runner looked, to my unprofessional eye, as if she were on some kind of arduously rhythmical autopilot. She did not, I felt, look as comfortable as she might be if, say, she were sitting in a good armchair. So I had a touch of doubt about the commentator's observation. But he seemed to know what he was talking about, and the ubiquitous usage of this phrase decisively entered my awareness zone and probably, at the same time, took a further step toward clich├ędom.

Of course, cat owners - and their cats - have known about comfort zones forever and a day. Not that all cats find theirs the whole time. Our small black doesn't. But when cats do opt for luxuriating comfort celebration, they do it big time. Our other cat is a 99 percenter. "Biscuit" is her name - don't ask me why, for it has far too brittle a sound to onomatopoetically represent her cushiony character and habits. "Pudding" might come nearer - purring pudding. Arguably, this cat has not just found her comfort zone, she is one.

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But the black cat shows what might best be described as a sporadic interest. There are other things for a cat to do! And although he is now, with a slight show of potential maturity, able to sit on my knee and let me stroke him for maybe five minutes, that is enough, thank you. And he slips down to the floor again and slopes off in search of spikier adventures. Sometimes, just to show how much he loves me, he gives me a good quick nip on the fingers first.

But Biscuit never bites. And she keeps her claws scrupulously sheathed. She is the gentlest of cats. Her claws only engage with the outside world if she is extremely scared of something - the mongrel sheepdog, Bugsy, for example, on one of his important policing-the-kitchen prowls. He believes it his duty to keep cats in their place, and Biscuit tends to agree.

Bugsy's own sense of comfort is complex, deep, subtle, and puzzling. Before he came to live with us, it seems that he had formed a habit of sleeping on the stairs. He continues to do this, in spite of the fact that our stairs are narrow and made of hardwood - beech, in fact - with no give and no ameliorating layer of carpet. The management has provided him with his own cozy, soft bed - identical to the one the other dog uses - but he often prefers an unyielding timber tread. He also sometimes stretches out on one of our flat, firm floors made of tiles or wood - though on these occasions he first performs a peculiar ritual. This practice persuades me that Bugsy may not, after all, be quite as intellectually oriented as I sometimes like to fancy he is. Putting two and two together is not exactly his forte. The notion of cause and effect hasn't quite dawned upon him, it seems.

I sometimes hear the ritual through my study door. He is scratching and circling repeatedly, convinced apparently that by doing so he is carving out a rounded and comfortable crater in the floor. The floor remains totally resistant and unmodified, though The Bugs eventually collapses with a satisfied grunt, evidently under the impression that he has made himself a bed.

A few weeks ago, Bugsy went for his annual shearing. Usually he returns looking kempt and smart, his long and tangly coat nicely sorted out, but not much shorter. This year, however, he came home strangely changed. Even now he still seems rather like a different dog. The "salon" (actually a lady who lives in a row of houses a mile or two away) decided Bugsy's coat was in such a state that it must be radically shorn. He isn't a true collie; there is a degree of confusion in his pedigree. But when he returned from beauty treatment, he looked like a new and unrecognized breed. My wife defends him, saying he is more beautiful than ever and looks like a puppy again. The unvarnished truth is that he has a bushy head and a hairy tail, but in between he looks like a titivated French poodle. Fortunately he doesn't do farm work, so he is spared the ribald ridicule of the agricultural fraternity. But I tease him anyway, telling him he is a Coodle or a Pollie.

He takes this well, actually. But the reason I mentioned his new and clipped shape is that I thought it might mean he was just too close to the bone, now, to be comfortable on our rigid stairs, having had his cushioning coat shaved.

I was wrong. He is still there, second step down, making it extremely difficult for us to negotiate the stairs, ensuring that he will wake up when we climb awkwardly over him, so that he can clock our every movement. Maybe that is the point. Physical comfort is not his prime concern. Knowing where we are, is.

Perhaps that is Bugsy's notion of "comfort zone." He chooses his sleeping positions strategically, so that he can be sure his sheep don't escape from the fold without his knowing.

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