Reflection 29: Clip-Art Cat

November 28, 2008

 (Copyright © 2008)

It is evening. I am in the kitchen putting away dishes. The drainer is to the left of the sink, the cupboard to the right and above. The cupboard door is hinged on the left, so when I open it, it blocks my way as I move back and forth. I move out and around the cupboard door, out and around. Suddenly a loud shriek—I have stepped on the cat. Leaping reflexively, I do some fancy footwork to release its tail from underfoot. In my mind, I picture a strange cat looking up at me—mildly I would say—blue-gray face surrounded by a mane of long fur. Trouble is, there is no cat. I have not had a cat in my apartment for over twenty-five years.

 

Moving back from cupboard to dish drainer, I caught the open cupboard door with my shoulder, swinging it open wider than usual. The shriek was the bottom hinge complaining under stress. I don’t remember it squeaking before, but there it was, complaining. My immediate response was to import a cat into consciousness, as if an imaginary animal would explain the whole thing. I responded quickly and appropriately to the cat that wasn’t there, and quite inappropriately to the hinge that was and always had been there. Now, where did that cat come from—that specific cat I saw looking back at me? I’d lived with several cats in the past, but never one like that. It looked like your basic tabby, a stock cat ready to leap out of the wings on cue when the occasion demanded. Not like a real cat which would take its time and probably head the other way, this one was right there in my mind when consciousness called for it. The meaning of that shriek was right there, a cat, not a dry hinge. By way of proof, a clip-art figment to embody the shriek in my ears.

 

It was as if my consciousness demanded an explanation. As if meaning must be made at any cost. But since feeling is first, as the poet says, maybe it was feeling, not meaning, that made me jump. That might explain the whole situation, even if it had to conjure up a cat to stand in for the true explanation. Which was that the shriek I heard startled me. Upset me. Made me feel guilty. The alarm had sounded. What was I to do? In stepping back to avoid the cupboard door, I put my foot on the cat, which obligingly howled, so I (feeling responsible) immediately leapt up and, mid-air, “saw” poor tabby, a ready stand-in for the source of the squeak, which was ambiguous.

 

All this happened in half a second or less, without rehearsal. The sequence ran: step back to avoid cupboard door, catch the door with my shoulder, causing a hinge to squeak, which I hear and link to stepping back, as if I had put my foot on the sound-maker, so I leap up to remove my foot, and justify that move by producing a cat out of my mental bag of tricks, which is always handy for use in emergencies. Rube Goldberg couldn’t have done it better.

 

This episode reminds me of seeing a black trash bag in the road as a dying crow (see Reflection 1: Dying Crow) or mistaking a rooftop TV antenna for a crashing jet (see Reflection 4: Crash). I’d guess now that crow, plane, and cat all came from the same ever-ready source. The hinge may have produced the sound, but the feeling that I was responsible (because I had stepped back) produced the leap and, at the same time, the cat. Somebody is watching my every move, just waiting for disaster to strike, preparing me to act intentionally in an emergency. That somebody lives inside my body with me, watching from the shadows of my mind. A kind of alter ego that, though wholly unknown to me, thinks far faster than I can. If not a somebody, then that fast thinker, whatever its form, is a silent servant of my own consciousness.

 

It’s as if I anticipate catastrophe at every moment, and at some level of awareness am prepared to act. Maybe I cast dire expectations onto my life world according to the specific situation I find myself in. Cats belong underfoot in kitchens, descending jets would be appropriate at rooftop level, crows by the roadside are familiar sights from a moving car. In a crisis, expectation supplies the speediest explanation of what is happening. It doesn’t wait to figure things out. Faster than a speeding bullet, a probable explanation is right where it is needed.

 

Like shockwaves preceding that bullet, expectations seem to radiate from the leading edge of my experience. Expectations that may be, 1) fulfilled, 2) denied, or 3) partially fulfilled. In each of the three cases—cat, jet, crow—there is a partial resemblance to the sensory phenomenon that caught my attention. The hinge did cry out like a cat. The TV antenna was swept back like the wings of a jet; both are metallic and glisten in the sun. The wafting trash bag fluttered as a dying crow might lift its wing. In each case, location was appropriate, the phenomenon apt. Apt, yes, but misidentified.

 

So my own expectations prepare me for fast action, as the Secret Service prepares its clients. Expectation serves me as a hidden secret service to alert me to occasions when I must act faster than I can think. It is at the forefront of my loop of engagement with the current situation, consciousness following behind to mop up when the situation I anticipate is poorly fulfilled. This doesn’t happen just occasionally. Every time the phone rings, I hazard a guess who it might be. When the doorbell rings, I come up with a quick list of possible visitors. I am full of dire predictions of what could go wrong in almost any situation. Raising children, I always saw danger lurking in the most innocent situation. The Scout’s basic message is, “Be prepared.” Rightly or wrongly, some part of me always is—or tries to be.

 

Consciously or unconsciously, life events always happen in a context of expectancy. Under comparable circumstances, we rely on our experience in the past in looking ahead. Current and future life situations are, well . . . situated in our pasts. That’s how we generate our expectations in extrapolating into the unknown. Not consciously, but we do it just the same. Life worlds unfold through successive approximations. The broader and deeper our experience, the better forecasters and prophets we become. Until a singularity occurs, an event rare or unique in our experience—tsunami, earthquake, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. Then expectation proves quite useless.

 

Back to the clip-art cat. Evidently, I brought that cat with me as I unloaded the dish drainer. And cast it before me just in case I might be called to act quickly upon hearing a sharp yowl. Squeaky hinge, angry cat—same thing. My expectations aren’t that finely tuned. I think it was that back step that made the cat the most likely option. Unwittingly, I have certainly stepped on many a cat in my day. Evidently that memory is still very much with me now. A possibility I wish to avoid, and if I can’t avoid it, then my secret service has trained me to make a fast response.

 

So, how does it run? Tying these stages together, I see a looping engagement with my situation as it unfolds in consciousness:

 

1) I act—Put dishes away, step back, brush cupboard door.

2) Feedback—Sound of squeaky hinge.

3) My expectation interprets the sound—Phenomenal cry of angry cat.

4) My reaction to interpretation—I feel responsible, so move my feet as if from a cat.

5) Expectancy is not done yet—To spur me, it flashes a stock image of a blue-gray cat.

6) Sensing cognitive dissonance, I check the situation—There is no cat.

7) Looking for the source of the sound, I move the cupboard door—It squeaks.

8) I process the above events by writing this blog.

 

What I make of all this is that I engage phenomena as if they represent goings-on in the real world. Until I catch them faking it on their own. On my own, for I am the faker and none other, caught in the grip of my past experience. Just as I am the believer that the phenomena I entertain fairly represent the situation I am in. This is one of life’s most basic illusions.

 

The greatest mystery here is how expectancy backed up its claim by pulling a stock photo out of its bag of tricks. I kept seeing the same image all evening. Even after I had gone to bed, there was that damned cat, the most innocent face ever put on an unidentified squeaky phenomenon (USP).

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