The Buttered Cat Paradox–In Which I Count My Blursings

Dear Lily June,

The paradox goes like this: A cat always lands on its feet. A piece of toast, once dropped, always lands butter-side-down. So what would happen if you strapped a piece of buttered toast to the back of a cat? The answer is obvious: The cat would spin, hopelessly suspended in anti-gravity revolutions for perpetuity. Ha, ha, ha.

What’s so great about this paradox, though, are its implications to language and life. The phenomenon of a cat always landing on its feet is a real scientific fact. Cats have something called a “righting reflex,” the innate ability of a feline to orient itself as it falls in order to land on its feet. Fling a kitten from a rooftop (no don’t, Lily), and you’ll find that, due to the presence of an unusually flexible backbone and absence of functional collarbone, the kitten can contort its parts as it falls, flipping itself head side up every time. There’s actually a fair bit of science to this–with terms like “angular momentum” and “moment of inertia” involved–but suffice it to say, it’s a real deal, Lily.

Falling_cat_1894
This chronophotography of the righting reflex, taken by Étienne-Jules Marey in 1894, luckily predated the ASPCA’s admonition that just because cats land on their feet doesn’t mean you should make a hobby of tossing them around.

It’s where we get the expression “to land on one’s feet” as praise for someone who escapes seemingly risky or dicey situations. Don’t worry about Ferris Bueller skipping school (we might say when I force you to watch the hideously outdated classics of my youth); he always lands on his feet.

The buttered toast phenomenon is representative of the opposite impulse in human nature, the tendency of excrement to hit the air conditioning. No matter how good or bad a person you are, Lily, sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes you’re the cause of those bad things. After all, toast doesn’t leap off of tables. You have to drop it in the first place for it to land anywhere but in your mouth.

This phenomenon is said to have originated in 1884 with a parodic poem written by James Payn:

“I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side!”

There’s significantly less science to the truth there though Robert Matthews, of Aston University in England, did take earn a 1996 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for a study showing that toast flipped its butter toward the floor roughly 62% of the time.

The point, though, Lily, is that we have two expressions, both dealing with falling items, that serve as the kind of yin and yang of the universe–the blessing of the cat versus the curse of the toast. In that spirit, I’m going to coin the term “blursing” for those moments in which the cat, with the toast strapped to its back like a buttered bomb, keeps hovering and spinning, spinning and hovering. I have a tendency to be pessimistic, Lily, a tendency that’s become more transparent and concerning to me now that I have you to raise, and I want so desperately for you to see yourself–and the world–for the best.

But really, optimism and pessimism alike stem from the same buttered cat, so to speak, who is simultaneously half-empty and half-full of milk (though, don’t give her to Schroedinger or she’ll also be both dead and alive at the same time). An American satirist, James Branch Cabell, after all once wrote that

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”

So which of these, my darling Lily, are you?

***

I was first inspired to write this post when I came across an inspiring story within an inspiring story (no, you didn’t read that wrong). A Speck in Nature, on her blog, wrote about a painful discovery in old hospital records, which revealed both an unexpected mental health diagnosis but also a younger self driven not to conform to “accepted social standards.” The same document had both hard and encouraging news. A blursing. And within that post, she referenced the story of a woman named Giulietta Carrelli, credited with an artisanal toast fad that was sweeping across California a couple of years ago.

You should read “A Toast Story” as it narrates this exceptional woman’s story much better than I can. Suffice it to say that this woman, Guilietta, who came from humble beginnings where cinnamon toast was her immigrant family’s only means of comfort food, and who suffered from schizoaffective disorder to such a degree that she couldn’t hold down a job or live in one place for too long, came to own her own coffee shop, the Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club, which serves, amongst other things, the original product that launched the artisanal toast craze.

She turned her childhood poverty and adulthood mental illness into business ownership built around a simple principal: If people knew her and recognized her, they could help her. The more customers that came into her shop, the larger her network of support would grow. All from a piece of toast. Blursing.

Toast-3
Toast itself is just bread that turned a sunburn into a marketable skill. Blursing.

***

I got further confirmation that I was on the right track when I came across this blog, inspired by this blog, both of which were discussing the same topic: The Top 9 Talents You Wouldn’t Want. So I suppose, Lily, all of that setup was to get us to this moment, when I list my own Unwanted Talents. But the long lead up was necessary because, in exchanging emails with one of my favorite bloggers of all time, I realized how much both of us tend toward negative assessments of ourselves. But I’m not always the toast, Lily. And I need to work more often on seeing myself as the cat. Or, if not that, at least seeing myself as the cat with the buttered bread tied to her backside. A woman living with her own nine lives  blursings:

1) I am the corporate Angel of Death.

For my first job ever, I worked for a dining company at a nursing home called Manor Care. Within a year of hiring me, the company went out of business. The new dining company that came in to replace them chose to keep me on staff. They quickly perished for that mistake, too.

I got hired at a toy store called Family Toy one August in high school. By January–the month after Christmas–they were down for the count. That’s impressive considering that a company’s largest profits, especially at a toy store, are made at Christmas time.

The Best Buy I worked at during the start of college was the single lowest ranking Best Buy in my state.

And when I took a transition job in a cash office at K-Mart post grad school, what happened? You guessed it. That Muncie K-Mart closed its doors forever. This officially makes me an excellent employee if you’ve got a Dirty Deeds situation. I can wreak revenge on your former employer by getting hired there, and within a year or less, bringing the company to its knees.

2) I never tan.

Unlike toast, my skin has two settings: pale as a ghost or burnt to a crisp. The upside? I’m never attacked by vampires. They think I’m a member of the family.

3) I have OCPD, manifested through an obsession with organization and lists.

I schedule everything, right down to recreation. The good news? I can multislack with the best of them. At work, it makes me look too busy to be bothered.

4) I can grow a thick and luxurious coat of fur. On my teeth.

Proprieties of dental establishments, you are welcome. Enjoy your next vacation on me.

5) I can gain weight with impressive speed.

Some actors have to work really hard to add love handles or a muffin top in preparation for a role. (See Renee Zellweger a la Bridget Jones’ Diary.) I don’t. That shit comes easy to me. Just luck of the genes (and the ever-expending jeans), I guess.

6) My hair collects more rats’ nests than hoarders collect cats.

Well, hello birds. I didn’t see you there. Might I offer you a location in which to comfortably roost?

7) The scent of my feet can clear a room.

Wherever you live, Lily, please don’t ever take up the Japanese custom of genkan, removing shoes at the entraceway of a home. That is, of course, unless the guests have overstayed their welcome, and you’d like to use your mother as a polite excuse to shoo them out. Claim you must have forgotten to find the eggs at Easter and now they’re surely rotting in your home somewhere. You’d love to talk more but it’s hunting time.

My toes are also terrifyingly calloused. They’re thinking of taking up the guitar any day now.

8) Sometimes, the length of my sentences is enough to make Charles Dickens, once paid for his serial pieces by the word, go to jelly school on account of the fact that as a shy person, I’m not loquacious IRL and feel the need to torture syntax until I’ve squeezed every last possible piece of vocabulary I own into it until a single sentence can span the length of an entire paragraph, which made it remarkably easy, in college, to meet a required word count on an essay.

The plus side? I’ve got a big diction.

9) I am exceptionally skilled at self-deprivation. It’s, like, my best talent.

This whole list is pretty much proof. If self-deprivation were a marketable skill, I’d be killing it. I single-handedly improved productivity in the “mocking myself” department by 62.5% last quarter alone!

***

The point is, Lily, that with a large enough sense of humor, you can turn any quality that others might label a flaw into a blursing. And life lived like a buttered cat can be a rewarding path to enlightenment!

Picture Credits:

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16 thoughts on “The Buttered Cat Paradox–In Which I Count My Blursings

  1. Allie P. says:

    The optimist sees the glass half full, the pessimist sees it half empty. The engineer (moi) sees the cup twice as big as it needs to be. It’s all about the perspective.

    Even so, I am determined that the west coasters on the U.S. need to overseed their lawns, because there is no better way to ensure that a massive deluge of rain will come and wash that money away. Drought? What drought?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      I do love a good portmanteau. But I’m willing to bet someone else on the internet was clever enough to think of it first. Because I didn’t look it up to verify that, I’m going to go ahead and claim it for my own! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ellie P. says:

    What a fun read!! With a tinge of self-deprecation. Okay, maybe more than a tinge. Anyway, I totally loved it! BTW I just want to mention something about cats righting themselves when they fall. It’s indeed true… as my friend whose kitty fell from her window (loose screen!) down six floors and suffered only a very sore paw. And major loss of dignity, I would add. But it’s also true that if they fall from a much lower height, they may not have time to flip over and could meet a sad end. Just a caveat. (cat-veat?)

    Liked by 1 person

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