Saturday, February 05, 2011

Curiosity and Hope

They say curiosity killed the cat, but I don't think cats are actually all that curious.

I don't claim to have any particular insight into the cat mind, but if a cat is walking down the sidewalk and happens to notice an old mattress lying in the middle of an empty lot, I don't think it's going to ask itself a lot of questions like, "What's that mattress doing in that empty lot?" or "Did someone put that mattress there deliberately, and if so, why? Was it simply to dispose of an old mattress, or was there some other reason the mattress was brought here? Is there something about mattresses and empty lots that I don't understand? Is there a special purpose for either that I'm unaware of? And why is the mattress in the middle of the lot? Why wasn't it just left near the edge of the lot, which would have required a lot less effort than dragging it across the ground until it was at the approximate center? On the other hand, if bringing the mattress to this lot was not a deliberate act, then how exactly did it get there?"

I don't think the cat would ask those questions or any others. I think it would just trot over to the mattress, lie down on it, and stay there until it felt like doing something else. I don't think cats are deep thinkers. And I don't think they're particularly curious. As an old college friend once said to me, "They have brains the size of walnuts."

These aren't anti-cat remarks, by the way. I like cats just much as the next guy (unless the next guy is one of those animal hoarders they have a show about on TV). But more to the point, cats aren't unique in this regard. The same can be said of dogs, snakes, rabbits, or, for that matter, humans.

Okay, I will grant that a lot of humans are more curious than the average dog, or even more curious than the most gifted of dogs, but if you compared an average human to an average dog, I'm not sure which way the scale would tip.

However, that isn't even my point, because no matter how curious human beings are, at some point in their early lives, they don't really question a lot of things. They don't ask questions like, "Why are most rooms rectangular?" for example -- they just see that most rooms are rectangular and then use that observation in the formulation of their world view. In other words, they accept things as they are and learn to live with them, in exactly the same way that a cat would.

Here's an example from my own childhood. I went to two elementary schools when I was a kid, and architecturally they had a lot in common. I won't go into all the details, because they're totally irrelevant, but I will mention that both schools had a chain link fence that went all around the perimeter. There was a main entrance, and probably a secondary entrance, but in the first school I went to, there was also an auxiliary gate at one corner. That corner was farthest from all the buildings, and it was usually locked. I don't even know why the gate was put there, except maybe as some sort of emergency evacuation exit. But I do remember it being open a few times, and one of the things I remember is that on the concrete pad between the sidewalk and the gate, someone had carved the word HOPE in big block letters.

It's one of those things I noticed every time the gate was open, but I never thought much about it. It was just like a mattress in an empty lot to me: I saw it but I never wondered why it was there or who put it there or if it had any meaning. To me, it was just the word "HOPE" etched into concrete. I knew that someone must have written it with a stick or something sharp when the concrete was still wet, but beyond that, I never gave it any thought. I assumed it was nothing more than defacement of public property, although somewhere in the deep recesses of my unconsciousness, it probably seemed to me that "hope" was a fitting message for young elementary school students.

I never wondered anything more about it, and it never even occurred to me to talk to any of my friends about it. I probably would have eventually forgotten about it completely, except that one day, I was near the gate with a few other kids and some guy told us how it got there.

It turns out that "hope" in this case had nothing to do with optimism about a better future or anything like that. Hope was simply a girl who carved her name in the concrete a few years earlier. She used to go our school, and she had the reputation of being a bad student and a troublemaker. She might have even gotten expelled -- I don't remember.