August 31, 2007
Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall
I have two cats, and I like them quite a lot. I don't like them at all, however, when they start freaking out on me, because watching cats freak out is like watching an exorcism gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Unfortunately, my cats freak out on a relatively regular basis, for reasons that are pretty predictable. The biggest contributing factor is the presence of undomesticated, feral cats sniffing around the windows of my house. I don't know if my cats are threatened by this uninvited interloper or simply jealous that some cats get to roam free while I, their tyrannical host, force them to stay inside near a steady supply of food and fresh water, presumably so that I can maintain the exclusive privilege of scooping up and dispensing their waste products. But I digress. Whenever a feral cat comes within view of my cats, they respond first by darting from window to window, trying to get the best possible vantage point, then by howling, hissing and screeching at levels that build quickly from mild agitation to what resembles demonic possession. And of course, because I'm a mean guy and won't let them outside, they can't take out their aggression on the feral cat, so they take it out on each other. Everyone involved is inconsolable for long stretches of time afterward--except for the feral cat, which just ambles away lackadaisically, its work apparently done.
I react generally by shaming my cats, speaking sarcastically to them about how proud I am of them for defending our home. I can't imagine what would possess a sentient being to react so irrationally to the mere presence of another sentient being. But this week I started to get a clue.
I looked out my window early one morning to see a strange-looking guy walking around on my driveway. Now, in his defense, he didn't look really strange; if I saw him at the mall or in the dentist's office I probably wouldn't give him a second thought. But in my driveway he looked decidedly strange and positively menacing. I started darting from room to room, trying to get a sense of where this guy had come from, where he was going and what he was doing on my private property. I was moving quickly from mild agitation to sputtering near-madness.
I should add that (a) I share a driveway with my neighbor and (b) I have a new neighbor, whom I've met only once in passing. Although I can't be sure, this stranger in my driveway was probably my new neighbor in his driveway. I came thisclose to welcoming him to the neighborhood by charging out after him in my bathrobe, ready to defend my turf to the death.
Now the question: Is this kind of behavior more excusable in cats or people?
I'm embarrassed by my vulnerability to the psychology of turf. We're conditioned in the culture we inhabit to protect our domain, to jealously guard the boundaries that we have established for ourselves and, more significantly, for our neighbors. "Good fences make good neighbors" is poetry quoted as often as "There once was a man from Nantucket," I'd wager, and it's usually quoted approvingly--even though the poem's tone is more aptly communicated in the more melancholy opening line "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Good fences may make good neighbors, but in so doing they subvert what was good about us in the first place.
God hadn't said much in sacred Scripture by the time he said "It's not good for the man to be alone," and I think we do that comment an injustice by interpreting it (as we so often do) solely as the case for sexual intimacy. The psychology of turf was nowhere to be found in Eden--the only thing off limits was the thing that kills. Meanwhile no one in God's good creation was condemned to be alone. We've done that ourselves.
The mere fact that I share a driveway, my former neighbor in the real estate business tells me, is countercultural, a boundary transgression that most homebuyers wouldn't dream of committing. But having transgressed that cultural boundary, how now shall I live?