Raining Cats and… More Cats

Google “cat”, and you’ll get a return of 6.4 billion hits. Spend five seconds per hit and you’ll need a millennium to get through ’em all. That’s a thousand years on everything there is to know about cats. Your dog will think you’re nuts. Your cat, on the other hand, will wonder why you didn’t start your search sooner. Felis catus, after all, is more manipulative than we humans want to believe.

Something in the cosmos moved me to write about cats this week.  When I started this post (last week), the calendar just closed on National Black Cat Day (10/27) as well as National Cat Day (10/29).  Then my daughter relocated to Seattle, which involved two cars, her cat, and a whole lot of packing.  (Pretty sure half the packing was for the cat.)  Then Monday Night Football happened, and the video of a black cat eluding officials during the Giants-Cowboys game went viral.  Finally, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) spiced up its headlines with a piece called, “Should Your Cat Be Vegan?”

I think this cat-aclysm of events caused all other blog topics to step aside this week (again with the manipulation).  Maybe it was my daughter’s cat, a little upset I hadn’t written about her after several hundred posts.  More likely it was another WSJ article I’ve been saving from last April: “There Is Now Scientific Proof Your Cat Is Ignoring You”.  Now there’s a headline.  Talk about manipulation.  Assuming a little obedience school and training, you probably have your dog right where you want him.  Your cat?  Obedient?  Never.

Per the WSJ article, cats hear and recognize their names; they just choose to show no response.  When they do show a response it’s not for affection, but for potential reward, like petting or playing or food.  Jennifer Vonk, an animal cognition psychologist, says, “…we (humans) sort of reward them for doing what they want to do… they’re better at manipulating our behavior than vice versa.”  In other words, your dog wants to please you while your cat just wants to please itself.

Aside from persistent clawing (which can take down an upholstered chair faster than an army of serrated knives) I rather enjoy the company of cats.  They’re quiet.  They’re soft.  They’re cute when they’re little fluff balls rolling around the carpet playing with toys.  And they’re low maintenance, preferring to catnap or full-on sleep while you dutifully attend to their litter box and food bowl.  So it’s a wonder to learn (“…Scientific Proof…”) – despite their outward laziness – cats have the cognitive ability to do everything dogs can.  They just choose not to.  A little disturbing, no?

Dogs make six distinctive sounds: barking, whining, whimpering, and so on.  Cats – as if to one-up their canine competition – make seven, and they all mean different things.  Cats meow, purr, trill, chatter, yowl, hiss, and growl.  (Listen to every one of them here.)  If you’ve ever heard a cat chatter, it’s mildly disturbing, as if he’s on the verge of a paws-to-the-walls freak-out.  But if you ever hear a cat growl, it’s one of the most unsettling bass-voice attention-getters ever emitted from a small, carnivorous mammal.  My daughter’s cat growled while sitting on my lap once.  Small wonder I didn’t wet my pants.

Domesticated cats have a long history, dating back to 3000 years BC in Egypt or something like that.  They fare well whether “house” (dependent), “farm” (semi-dependent) or “feral” (fully independent).  They also have an impressive list of trivia bits.  A few of my favorites:

  • Cats spend up to 50 percent of their day grooming themselves.  Maybe humans should too.  Grooming tones down their scent to avoid predators, cools them down, and promotes blood flow.  Smart.
  • A group of kittens is called a kindle.  I’ll never look at my e-reader the same way again.  Also, a group of full-grown cats is called a clowder (hold the clams).
  • The average running feline can clock around 30 mph.  No wonder I’ll never catch my daughter’s cat after she “autographs” the upholstery.
  • Cats can’t taste sweets.  In other words, keep an eye on the steak but don’t worry about the big cake in the middle of the table.  Your cat doesn’t care.
  • Your cat has more bones than you do: 244 vs. 206.  No wonder they’re so nimble.
  • Cats sweat.  Through their paws, in fact.  They also pant, which should be the eighth distinctive (and disturbing) sound they make.
  • Disneyland hosts approximately 200 feral cats.  Their job, of course, is to control the amusement park’s rodent population.  Think about that the next time you’re deep inside the Haunted Mansion.

I learned a lot about cats as I prepared for this post.  I realize the whole “nine lives” concept simply means cats are smart enough to cheat death more than most animals. Including humans.  Maybe that’s why they ignore us.  We’re less intelligent.  And easier to manipulate.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Thanks to another pro football season, America’s allegiance to its flag is once again called into question. My wife and I chatted with our German exchange student recently, asking whether her own country found patriotism so controversial. To this she said, “You Americans are considered very patriotic people. We Germans not so much; perhaps, because of Hitler in our past”. I was a little taken back by that comment. Americans can point to shameful events in our colorful – albeit brief – history, and yet; we still sing the anthem and stand for the flag. Well, most of us.

This week in Colorado, primary and secondary schools begin another year of formal education. The setting is not so different from schools I attended. The classrooms are laid out the same (technology aside). The cafeterias offer up borderline-edible food. And the students – every weekday morning – stand, face the flag, place their right hands over their hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Forty-six of America’s fifty states mandate the practice.  Congress opens its sessions with the Pledge, as do countless other government and private meetings across the land.  Another day begins in America.

     

The Pledge has a rich history for a phrase spoken (or sometimes sung) in less than fifteen seconds.  It was based on Captain George T. Balch’s Civil War-era pledge: We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!  The version we use today – reworded by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, was first published in the children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion in 1892 (albeit with simpler wording).  The Pledge was also first used in public schools on October 12th of that year, coincident with the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair.  The Pledge was designed to generate patriotism in young people, at a time when this kind of energy was on the decline.  Sounds like something we need just as much today.

The original version of the Pledge stated: “...allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands… ” The change in 1923 to today’s version: “… allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and the Republic for which it stands…”, was a nod to America’s immigrants, so as not to deny loyalty to birth countries.  Finally, the phrase “under God” was added in the 1950’s, and formally adopted on Flag Day (June 14th) of 1954.  It was also at this time students began the everyday reciting of, as President Eisenhower referred to it, “…a dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

Along with saying the Pledge and standing for the flag, America’s students “place their right hands over their hearts”.  This gesture also has a history.  In lieu of a military salute (reserved for those in the Armed Forces), students originally stretched out their right hands towards the flag, palms down, ending the Pledge with palms up.  But the practice was associated with the Nazi salute and quickly abandoned, in favor of the hand-over-heart (or cap over left shoulder) we use today.

To no one’s surprise, America’s Pledge of Allegiance (almost unique among countries) is not without controversy.  Since 1940, there have been at least a dozen high-profile legal challenges.  A few target the practice itself, claiming a violation of the First Amendment.  But most target the use of the words “under God”, in conflict with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (freedom of religion).  None of these suits succeeded, with the typical defense, “…the [Pledge’s] words represent a patriotic (not religious) exercise…”, and [to atheists], “…participation in the pledge is voluntary.”

Three years ago, in the most recent defense of the Pledge, New Jersey Judge David F. Bauman declared, “As a matter of historical tradition, the words under God can no more be expunged from the national consciousness than the words In God We Trust from every coin in the land, than the words so help me God from every presidential oath since 1789, or from the prayer that has opened every congressional session of legislative business since 1787.”  Amen to that, David.

Aretha Franklin – America’s indisputable “Queen of Soul” – died last week after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.  Aretha’s most famous lyric was undoubtedly, “…all I’m askin’ is for a little respect…”.  No coincidence; America’s flag makes the same request.  The Pledge is a voluntary act – sure – but who’s going to argue with, “…liberty and justice for all”?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and from Erik Larson’s novel, “The Devil in the White City”.

Game Over

Tag the Dallas Cowboys with “politically correct” for their actions Monday night. The National Football League staged fifteen games last weekend – and thirty protests – but it wasn’t until the final contest Monday night where we saw something bordering on considerate. With the Cowboys, we witnessed unified “free speech” and regard for the American flag; neither action compromising the intent of the other.

If you missed Monday night’s game you would’ve been misled by Tuesday’s headlines, including, “Jerry Jones Leads Cowboys in Taking a Knee…”.  Jones – the Cowboys’ owner, president, and general manager – did take a knee, but he did so alongside his players and coaches; a unified show of disagreement with President Trump’s comments.  More importantly, Dallas knelt prior to the national anthem, so as not to confuse protest with allegiance to country.  During the anthem, the team stood with arms locked together and helmets removed.  I’m okay with that approach.  Even President Trump is okay with that approach.

As for the other twenty-nine teams, it was myriad versions of disunity and disrespect before kickoffs.  (NPR’s website lists them all here).  Random players knelt during the anthem while other stood – a visibly mixed message.  Owners and coaches stayed away for the most part, suggesting the same divisiveness alluded to by the President.  The Pittsburgh “Kneelers”, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans – in total contempt of country – stayed off the field entirely during the national anthem.

Athletes exercising their right to free speech in sports venues is a distraction and nothing more, at least to the average fan.  The football field is simply not an effective platform for politics.  I, along with millions of others, tune in to watch the game, so anything outside the action itself (i.e. commercials) is irritating.  It’s the same reason I no longer watch awards shows; I don’t want the inevitable helping of political commentary along with the acceptance speeches.  The day the same thing happens in movie theaters is the day I buy my last ticket.  Sports and other entertainment venues should be escapes from the endless newsreel of the real world.

With the NFL, I’d argue the protests are not just irritating, but damaging.  Based on the number of emails Sports Illustrated received from disgruntled fans after last weekend, viewership is already taking a significant hit.  The NFL can’t afford to lose viewership.  The league is having enough trouble dealing with losses of sponsorship, and lawsuits tied to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  Forget about viewers; one of these days the NFL might not have players.

Tyler Eifert, a tight end for the Cincinnati Bengals and a graduate of my alma mater Notre Dame, contributed one of the better player perspectives in his essay, “Why I Stand“.  His words could’ve been mine when he said, “I am not questioning anyone’s reasons or rights to protest, but instead the method.  This entire protest about raising awareness for racial inequality has gotten lost in the media and turned into a debate about whether to sit or stand for the national anthem… I stand because I love my country.  I stand because I want to honor the people putting their lives on the line for me on a daily basis…”  Tyler Eifert gets it.  The American flag stands for the freedom allowing him to play football in the first place.

Kneeling in front of the flag (or absence from the field altogether) is trickling into other sports as well.  Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first pro baseball player to join the anthem protests by taking a knee before his team’s game.  The Minnesota Lynx joined arms on the court before the WNBA finals began on Sunday, while the Los Angeles Sparks returned to their locker room during the anthem.  Even high-schoolers are kneeling.  Until we see something more constructive, these actions have little merit.

NFL player protests will cease, especially if franchise owners enforce a league-sanctioned code of conduct they currently choose to ignore.  The country is no less divided because of these demonstrations.  Rockies baseball manager Bud Black says, “…for me to be arrogant enough to say that the other half of the country is wrong or that I’m definitely right, I think (that) is the wrong thing to do. … I’m proud to be an American. And I’m also thankful to have the First Amendment, so I see it both ways. I have my opinions, but that does not mean they are right, so I’ll keep them to myself.”

I wish NFL players would keep their opinions to themselves, at least on game days.  Sports fans are switching off their televisions in record numbers, including me.  I have better things to do with my Sunday afternoons.

Fade to black.