The Human Condition:

The Catbird Seat – September 29, 2013


In a James Thurber short story from the 1940s, a character makes reference to someone “sitting in the catbird seat,” a phrase attributed originally to baseball announcer Red Barber. It means holding an inviolable position, able to do no wrong, untouchable, golden.

The catbird seat is not something you necessarily achieve through hard work or merit. It’s not a position you attain by being better, quicker, or faster, like a tennis player with an indomitable backhand or a commercial competitor with a demonstrably better product. The catbird seat, in the original baseball sense, was “like a batter with three balls and no strikes”—and while you might avoid strikes by skill, balls are an inadvertent gift from the pitcher. Sitting in the catbird seat is like drawing a full house in poker, a position of sudden power that is yours to play and hard to play badly.

Something about sitting in the catbird seat is mildly offensive to the American sense of justice and fair play. If it’s a temporary advantage, like a batter having three balls and the breathing room to take a few injudicious swings, the catbird seat can be an admirable thing. In the long run, every baseball player settles into a network of lifetime averages—hits at bat, home runs, runs batted in, errors—that fairly accurately reflects his skills and attention to the game. The catbird seat is a rickety perch, and nobody actually lives there.

Some people will try. You see this in the small or weak person who suddenly attains a position of power: the head of an obscure department whose treatment of the people below him is not immediately apparent, through its affect on the bottom line, to the people above him; the blackmailer who believes that holding an embarrassing secret or evidence of wrongdoing confers unlimited power over the wrongdoer; the aristocrat or heir to a commercial fortune who lacks the imagination to foresee a change in the political or economic winds; the politician who thinks he knows where all the bodies are buried.

When I was learning karate,1 one of the bits of fighting lore they taught was never to back an opponent into a corner. True, for some fighters finding a corner is a good thing, a safe and defensible position that limits the angles and sides from which enemies can approach. But for most people, going into a corner means going into a box from which there is no escape. The rule was, if you limit an opponent’s ability to quit and run away, you invite him to heroic efforts which might suddenly overmatch your own skill and technique. Panic is a tricky thing in a fight, and you want to avoid it on either side.

As noted elsewhere, I’m a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books, because they have a lot to teach about interpersonal relations.2 One of his more interesting inventions was the Bene Tleilax, a mysterious organization numbered among the Great Schools, who are described as “amoral scientists.” These are unpredictable people who will follow an interesting line of investigation past the limits of rationality and morality onto unstable ground and unthinkable pursuits. In the later books, we learn about their troupe of Face Dancers, humans with malleable flesh and minds who can duplicate the body and persona of anyone they touch. In the Dune worlds, Face Dancers are used as assassins and spies. But they have an unusual ethic: they always leave their victim a means of escape—if he can find it.

For the Face Dancers, this is a kind of grim courtesy. But it reminds me of my karate teaching: always leave your opponent an exit path. And in the larger world, beyond the sparring floor and the fencing piste, in any exchange—a debate, a commercial confrontation, an affair of honor3—you want to leave your opponent a chance to escape, a way to withdraw without losing face. The best way of fighting is to avoid a fight. This is not to say that your opponent will then owe you a debt, repay your kindness, or become your friend. It’s enough to say that he will not force you to bruise your knuckles in beating him.

Someone who thinks he or she lives in the catbird seat will not be mindful of letting an opponent find an honorable escape. Habitual sitters upon that perch tend to think they have the right, if not the obligation, to baffle, batter, and daunt those about them with impunity. And that’s what the thoughtful person will find distasteful.

No one sits in the catbird seat forever. And, as any baseball player will tell you, skill and attention will always play out, and your rightful place in the averages will always catch up with you.

1. In the active sense of attending a dojo and taking instruction. As a karate practitioner, you become a life-long learner. See my web page Isshinryu Karate.

2. See The Dune Ethos from October 30, 2011.

3. Affairs of honor are rare these days. Most people would consider them a barbaric relic of our aristocratic European past. But they served a purpose: a gentleman was expected to back up his words with an act of courage. If one chose to call another gentleman a liar, a cheat, or make some other indefensible attribution, one would expect to meet him at dawn to prove the allegation. Or in the language of the barroom, “Step outside and say that.” An affair of honor had the virtue of reminding everyone to drink abstemiously and hold his tongue. Today we have no such recourse, and the medium of civil exchange is usually the worse for it.