Sunday, November 16, 2008

here kitty kitty

If you've ever been trapped in a car or at a dinner table with cat people for very long, you know that we like to engage in casually speculative feline psychology. "Cats do such weird things!" we observe tirelessly. "Why do they do such weird things?" Then we proceed to document for one another the special weird things that our particular cats do, offering evolutionary or developmental guessplanations for these profoundly enigmatic behaviors. "Princess Fluffy always dips her left paw into the toilet water, never her right paw! She must have fallen into the toilet on her right side when she was a kitten!"

I've come to appreciate the inverse corollary to this practice. I like to think that cats are similarly watching us, acquiring data to support shaky conjectures about causal origins of our own bizarre activities. My roommate's cats watch me constantly. Wendy the cat will sit motionless at the foot of my bed for thirty minutes straight, staring as I read a book. (This can be extraordinarily creepy at night, especially when she maintains exactly that pose after I've turned off the lights.)

Jake, Wendy's brother, loves to watch me get dressed, prepare food, put on makeup, comb my hair, or do any other bit of morning maintenance that has no precise analog in the feline world. (Jake's own morning ritual involves yowling until he's fed and then licking himself.) He is especially obsessed with precise motor behavior involving repetitious employment of a small instrument, such as the brushing of teeth or the application of mascara.

I imagine that when I'm at work Jake and Wendy sit around discussing my behavior, and arguing about its underlying import. "Isn't it weird that she puts on jeans one leg at a time, rather than just jumping into both at once? She must have had an accident as a child." "Why does she always react so readily when that alarm clock makes noise? Humans must have been prey to gigantic buzzing digital displays in their ancestral environment!"

This is perhaps a part of the attraction of cats. Something about them - their panopticon eyes, their ability to purr contentedly in your arms mere seconds before violently and inexplicably perforating several square inches of your epidermis - suggests an intelligence keen enough to engage in something like psychological theorizing and a sentiment alien enough to motivate perplexed curiosity as to the ways of hairless bipedal apes.

A cat's unbroken gaze invites you to see yourself from the outside, to wonder how your own behaviors might appear to someone suitably distanced from your own point of view. Dogs, as wonderful as they are, seem to accept our actions enthusiastically and uncritically. "If Human is doing X, then there must be some darn good reason to do X!" No one takes cats to go hunting in the woods; they wouldn't stand for it.

Cats are living mirrors whose observant presence reminds us that there are other ways of seeing, and other ways of being. Sometimes that is enough to put obstacles in front of a rampant ego. And sometimes it is enough to remind the abstractly rambling subject that it is also a curiously concrete object.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

primary results

I heard someone (I think it was Jeff Zeleny of the NYT, speaking on PBS's 'Washington Week') make an interesting point about the election. Part of Obama's victory is due to his campaign's deliberate attempt to win across the country, even in states traditionally assumed to be Republican (such as Indiana and North Carolina). Part of that, we know, is a credit to Howard Dean's 50-state strategy for the DNC.

But part of it is also due (this is Zeleny or whoever's point) to the punishingly long Democratic primary season. Obama did so well in the general election because he put together campaign offices in states where Democrats don't normally bother, and he did this because the results in those states actually did matter during the primaries.

Consider: Obama won the Democratic primaries/caucuses in states like Montana, Virginia, Idaho, Colorado, and yes, North Carolina. The Clinton campaign notoriously failed to set up offices in several of these states, expecting the primary season to end on Super Tuesday, and lacking the logistical resources to adapt thereafter. Further, the Clinton strategy was based upon banking delegate in large states (like California and New York) that traditionally vote Democratic anyway, while the Obama strategy relied upon a slow accumulation of delegates from every state.

Arguably, it was the length of the primary season that induced Obama to be active - early and aggressively - across the country. Imagine that he had won all of the first several primary contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. Suppose Hillary had dropped out before or immediately after Super Tuesday. Surely then Obama would have done much less to create a campaign apparatus in traditionally Republican states - why bother at that point? But as it happened, North Carolina and Indiana held their primaries on the same day, May 6, three months after Super Tuesday. Surely Obama's intense efforts to win those primaries (he got NC by 15% and lost Indiana by 1%) contributed heavily to his later general election results there.

So it is likely that Barack Obama owes his victory - at least in part - to the tenacity of Hillary Clinton's opposition early this year. That is something that the Party should keep in mind when it gets to work revising the crazy primary rules. Maybe those rules are just as they should be.