Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The cat comes back

[The Cat Came Back, Laurie Berkner]
I share a liking for this folk song with people I've never met - a fan club that probably has deeper roots than, say, the Facebook group I joined in celebration of the church-lady hat Aretha Franklin wore to sing at the inauguration. I've thought of the song as a celebration of endurance, of the vitality of life, and then, I like cats anyway.

Why is that? I wondered recently. It struck me that it's exactly about independence: Sherlock the Cat has none of the social-animal concerns that plague us monkeys. He is emphatically not a dog, constantly attentive to Who's In Charge. He's in charge. He knows I am in charge of a thing or two - putting out his dinner, opening a door - and he will demand those things but never grovel to get them.

He is pure, untrammeled ego, as self-centered as we were when we were born. Sherlock will sit in my lap if the room is cold and my lap is warm, and he will jump down when he wants to with no regard for my needs. Those of us who have sometimes felt trammeled by the community of monkeys enjoy the refreshment of relating to this bit of unfettered self-interest on four legs, whose cry is Me-mine-I! He represents freedom from social constraints. If you don't think so, try herding cats.

But if the cat is pure ego, his song can be read two ways: he is that annoying habit or trait in ourselves that just keeps coming back. We are never told why Old Mr. Johnson in the song wants to get rid of the cat, but if you've ever lived in a farmhouse you have experienced kittens hanging on the screen door when chicken is cooking, meowing like a chorus of the damned. (The short form of meow is me!) Sometimes the self feels that demanding. Sometimes it feels rowdy and unpredictable, leaving messes everywhere, attacking the knitting, chowing down on the company roast when you turn your back.

Ego. Self. It looks like there's no getting rid of it and, like Sherlock, it bites now and then, so it pays to be alert.

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