A locally famous cat lives down the road from me. He is an especially big and pissed off Maine Coon with a giant tail that he drags all around the place. He hangs out on this one corner underneath a big tree whose roots are slowly taking up the pavement, and he seems to really like it when there are a lot of leaves on the ground for him to lie in. You can see him on the corner of Milner and Tamboerskloof Road about once a week, hulking around in the leaves like a small, strong crocodile.
You do not need an especially vivid imagination to give this cat a complicated personality and a list of grievances. The big cat is good to look at and relaxing to discuss. You can be walking in the road and bump into the brother of someone you used to date and have a little neutral conversation along the lines of “Well, I saw the big cat.” “Biiig cat.” “Big tail.” “Lying around in the leaves.” “Okay see you around.”
Many times over the course of this year I have looked at the big cat and thought, “This animal should go viral. Its visibly foul mood and judgmental demeanour seems like something a lot of people would enjoy.” Depending on my mood, the thing I think after that is either: “People really would love this” or, “Wow, grim.”
Meet Knickers, Australia’s biggest steer!— Sunrise (@sunriseon7) November 26, 2018
He’s 194cm tall, weighs 1.4t and has been saved from the abattoir because he simply won’t fit through the doors. 🐄 pic.twitter.com/uKKlxIpDLm
This November, the month when the duck and the big cow shot to international fame, I thought the second thing far more frequently than the first. If you are feeling worried and cynical about the world, the spectacle of many people having a nervous breakdown about how much they love a duck and cow can potentially add to your worry and cynicism. For instance, is it not very, very telling that in November, a month after the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that we have about ten years left before climate catastrophe, we turned our frantic and besotted attention to a duck and a cow, AKA animals that are likely to stick around long after the last polar bear has died? Yes? Maybe? Is the whole thing about people being massively horny for the duck and wanting the duck to be their own boyfriend not at least slightly peculiar? A bit?
The duck is obviously great, and I wish it all the best. Stunning feathers, good attitude. I saw one just like it at the Bird Park in Durban and it stood its ground even among the massive parrots and hornbills and so on. The duck is a showstopper, no question. The big cow is also good. HUGE, called Knickers, looks like it’s wearing platforms, head too small for its body, narrowly escaped death on account of its freakish size, resistant to churlish attempts to prove that “it’s not actually all that big.”
Before dabbling or dunking, the MANDARIN DUCK always sets his bill perpendicular to the water surface. Watch and see -- at the Central Park Pond (60th and Fifth) this rainy Friday. 📷 @IAMASONFLOWERpic.twitter.com/lBSs6AWv0d— Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark) December 21, 2018
In a moment where contemplation of nice-seeming things can slide inexorably into contemplation of things that are objectively dreadful, however, people having ecstatic freakouts over the duck and the cow can look a bit grim, in certain lights. “New York is charmed by a lovely Mandarin duck that mysteriously ended up in Central Park” feels, at first, like the kind of story that the rabbits in the doomed warren in Watership Down would be forced to read and then go talk within earshot of upper management about how happy and contented they were.
We are adults, no? How much contentment can we derive from such things? “The whole world is crazy about Knickers.” “Everyone loves this duck and so they should.” “Absolutely nothing to worry about.” Is this what currently passes for a feelgood story — news about a shiny duck and a large cow? For better or worse, the answer seems to be yes.
There have been many other alleged feelgood stories this year, and most of them have ended with “lol tricked you: it is once again time to think with renewed despair about structural inequality.” To pick one example from this year: A story about a teacher whose students' parents chipped in to buy her a car is a story about how badly paid teachers are. Then, stories that would’ve instantly passed as heartwarming five or 10 years ago are immediately identified as insidious: an incident where a black teenager cut off his hair so he could compete in a wrestling event is notabout teamwork, but about racism. These are not conclusions that have been derived after assiduous digging by someone determined to find a downside. They are not “the deeper meaning” but the immediate, obvious, unmistakable meaning that can only be avoided if you are living on Mars.
On the other hand. A story about a shiny, stunning duck and an implausibly big cow called Knickers is maybe, maybe, from far away a story about infantilism in the face of growing terror re: the future, or about our utterly dysfunctional relationship with what is left of the natural world, but mostly it is a story about a beautiful duck and a big cow, name of Knickers. You would have to be a real drag to think otherwise. It is a story about everyone trying, in the face of considerable odds, to take pleasure in small, ridiculous, thoroughly harmless bullshit. Witness the outrage that resulted after each mean-spirited attempt to suggest that Knickers was really nothing to write home about. Witness the unalloyed pleasure people take in the shininess of the duck. November has always been a bottom-tier month, and this year was no different, but thank god for the duck and the cow.