Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Patterns and Pathos

In late October 2008, my 16-year-old cat, Sara, lost the use of her hind legs. I brought her to the vet's, left her there for observation, and came home. It was a particularly gloomy day, even for late autumn, with a sky like a cataracted eye. As I stood in the living room in a daze, wondering what would happen with her (there was a slim chance she would recover), I heard a raptor cry outside. I looked out, thinking I might see a Peregrine Falcon (as I'd seen elsewhere in the city). A smaller bird landed on a wire, upright like a raptor, not a songbird. Luckily, I had my binos. It was an American Kestrel (pictured)! Given the rarity of a bird of prey in the city, and the nature of the day, I found my innate sense of superstition kick in. I saw the bird as an augury of death. (Sure enough, Sara had to be euthanized.)
Two weeks ago, just as Pablo started to act a little quieter than usual, I heard that screech again, same window. I went out and saw a kestrel chasing a pigeon (that was about its own size - talk about eyes bigger than your stomach!). Oh no, I thought, what happened last time I saw a kestrel fly overhead?! That was pattern recognition of the worst sort.
If that were not strange enough, as my husband and I returned home from a walk on Saturday, mere hours after saying good-bye to Pablo, a kestrel cried out as it flew across the street from our apt.
It is a very useful adaptation to see patterns amidst the chaos of information that pours into our senses every moment, and from the myriad events and phenomena out there. The trait is so finely tuned, it tends to look for patterns even when coincidence better explains what's going on. I suppose culture, personal experience, and wisdom (which may never come!) help us separate true patterns from false ones - and prevent us from hanging people for the latter.
In my case, it is a combination of birdwatching awe and an overdeveloped sense of narrative, for the want of a better term, that led me to frame these phenomena. When we are in the grips of a strong emotion - grief, love, anger - the tendency is greater. It pays to keep perspective.

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