“To get _______ to _______ is like herding cats.” You can put any unruly category and action in the blanks. The meme first planted itself in my mind around 1999 or so when I was skimming through comments on a Democratic Party online forum. One of the members wrote, “Getting Democrats to agree on issues is like herding cats.” I was hooked. The phrase certainly hit home.
The political forum was not the first time I ever heard the phrase, though. My friend Casey, who is good at movie trivia, reminded me that I probably heard about herding cats in the opening sequence of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”. While the scruffy shepherds discuss sheep, their topic switches to cats. Casey Googled the movie and found this quote: “Can you imagine a herd of cats waiting to be sheared? Meow! Meow! Woo hoo hoo.”
On the same search page, we discovered an oddball observance to add to my peculiar holiday notebook listing. The “Wellcat” company created “Cat Herders Day” to be celebrated on December 15th, each year. Since I don’t have permission from the “Wellcat” people to discuss the holiday, I’ll leave the promotion of the holiday to them and not me. However, the Monty Python quip and the quote from the Democratic Forum are just too good to not expand upon.
Apparently, the current meme started in the electronic tech industry. The frustration of getting engineers to coordinate planning was expressed by some anonymous supervisor when he spouted, “Managing engineers is like herding cats.” The story is an urban legend myth, but it works for me. After all, researching Internet memes is like herding cats.
The cat herding analogy has taken on a life of its own. It began as a way to express the difficulty in organizing groups of people like an office full of employees or a classroom full of pupils. Since then, many self-help writers and bloggers have expanded the meme to include difficult tasks that require organization. These tasks might include decluttering a home or learning a foreign language.
My regular readers know that I have been chipping away at a decluttering project for quite awhile. The cat herding comparison works very well when I think about all the various items that have been brought into my home. That project is progressing slowly but surely. Right now, there are a couple dozen books, several coffee mugs, flower vases, and a nice quilt in the trunk of the ol’ Camry, ready to go to the Goodwill Store.
This year, another long-lived fascinations has been to taking shape. I’ve finally gotten serious about learning to speak and write in Russian. The various aspects of that nation have been incubating in my mind, ever since childhood. The country has seemed to be an intimidating and forbidding place ever since I learned about the old USSR. Now, current events are conspiring to make the Russian Republic off-limits
Besides the perception about the vast, mysterious land of Russia, is the seemingly arcane, difficult nature of the language. My email friend Alexei, who lives in Novgorod, has become a catalyst for my reemerging interest in Russia. Because we are learning each others native tongues, we can help one another. The hope is that we can do away with those handy, but inaccurate Web-based translator apps. Alexei hopes that I can visit Novgorod on an extended stay, someday. Thanks to him, Russia is back at the top of my bucket list.
The process of learning Russian is like herding cats. Approximately translated, “Процесс обучения русскому языку, как выпас кошек.” The aspects range from the forbidding job of learning the Cyrillic Alphabet to the innocuous task of learning how to roll my R’s.
There is the hurdle of real-life comprehension of native speakers. I’ll also need to have enough skills in order to speak Russian at a normal pace and not make my listeners suffer through tortoise-slow talking.
In the alphabet, there are some letters that resemble the familiar Latin letters we use in English. Others that appear the same, but sound radically different. There are still others that literally derive from Greek. Of course there are those that look like a backwards N and a reversed R.
I can understand and write Cyrillic in block printing fairly well. The big problem, for me, is reading and writing the cursive form of the alphabet. Alexei tells me that I really need to know cursive Russian, because it is still widely used. So, there are numerous cats that need herding, just to learn to speak and write rudimentary Russian. This is all very well and good. I love a good challenge. Thankfully, I have a fellow cat-herder who gives me fine advise.
On this day that we salute cat herders, I hope that you are also getting a handle on the frustrating tasks you have in front of you right now.