Category Archives: Cats

Posts that feature either natural or divine cats

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Christian Computing

Science and religion are often portrayed as fighting like dogs and cats. Both claim superiority and a comprehensive worldview that should make sense of everything. With reality television probing deep into the lives of rural folk who still hold to the old ways, it is easy to think that religion is awkward and backward and an embarrassment to the technologically sophisticated. In electrons we trust. As with most simplistic views, however, this dichotomy is overly dramatized. I recently found a flier for Computers for Christ. I didn’t have time to read it carefully, but the space-age font immediately told me that this was vintage 70s or 80s, back when computers were still so new that most of us had never seen an actual exemplar and we had to guess what the future might hold. Would these things catch on or not? A little closer reading revealed the date of 1982, back when I was a college freshman. I had, by that point in my life, never knowingly glimpsed a computer.

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Sitting here with a computer on my lap, and another in my pocket, I wondered what ever happened to Computers for Christ with its space-age crosses and early embracement of technology. I didn’t find anything that really matches it with a half-hearted web search, but it did make me realize that some enterprising Evangelicals had latched onto computers long before I ever did. I recall making a pact with a couple of friends my senior year in college that we’d never give in and use computers. Since I can’t find them online, my guess is that they kept their end of the deal. As usual, I caved. By 1985 computers had found their way even to Grove City College. A strange thing called a “server” allowed people to access it via multiple “terminals.” The computer science professor wore a large cross around his neck. I would go on to seminary and graduate with a second degree not ever having used such a device.

Dogs and cats are both mammals, and neither regularly preys upon the other for food. Although Computers for Christ may no longer exist, the internet has been fully exploited by some of the religious. Jesus was an early meme. I remember when “the winking Jesus” was all the rage since an image on screen was actually animated! The savior virtually moved an eyelid! Now we can find Jesus doing everything from walking on water to riding on dinosaurs. The son of God has adapted to life on the web quite well, and often with a sense of humor. There are those who would argue that this is a travesty of true faith. There are others who would argue that it is a silly use of serious technology. I grew up with both dogs and cats and learned that when domesticated together they seldom fight. As I file away this aging paper, I wonder how the world might change if people behaved so sensibly.

Rocket Cats

Franz_Helm_rocket_cat_full_page_1

A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

Not Knowing

WhatIDontKnowAboutAnimalsBegin with a basic premise: we cannot know what a creature without language thinks. Add in the thoughtful anxieties of a post-domestic writer who knows about animals and you have What I Don’t Know About Animals, by Jenny Diski. Part biography, part science, part philosophy, wholly human. I knew from the day the book was released that I would read it since, like the author, I am one haunted by the relationship between the exploited and the exploiter. Diski’s confessions are difficult to read at times, veiling herself, as she does behind the curtains of one’s most private experiences, but she reveals plenty to those who read on. We can’t know for certain what another person thinks, so how can we know what a sentient animal thinks? Some, following Descartes and Skinner, would declare that animals don’t think, they simply do as programmed. The rest of us know that they are wrong. The evidence accumulates more each year that animals think and feel, but, as Diski repeatedly points out, we need to drive with the brakes on. We can’t get inside them to actually know if human experience corresponds at all with animal experience. We’ve shared the planet for millions of years, but we’ve lost track of our common origins.

As I suspected, the Bible came into the discussion. The book of Genesis lurks in the background of most human-animal rationalizations. The divine division into separate “kinds” must be kept discrete at all times. The problem is, nature won’t always play along with that game. One type slowly morphs into another and some biologists are even questioning the usefulness of “species” at all. Fear of bestiality, as Diski points out, is found already in the Bible. Best to keep everything in its proper pigeon-hole, whether that’s where it belongs or not. Genesis gives us the right to exploit, and so we continue to use animals for our own purposes. Although the feline, it turns out, may have figured out how to set this order on its head. In some cases.

What I Don’t Know About Animals is not a defense of vegetarianism or of radical, thoughtless abandon. Diski writing on spiders will cause many heads to nod in agreement, and her rage against the loss of the common lady-bug struck an amazingly responsive chord with this reader. The lady-bug’s demise came at human tampering, importing asian beetles as pest control—beetles that eventually edged out the harmless lady-bug, replacing the Volkswagen of beetles with a biting, omnivorous, massing pest. In Wisconsin the southern side of our faculty house was literally blanketed with them in the spring. Diski uses the same word I did then: biblical. Swarms seem to be the way that the Almighty has of telling us too much of even a good thing will go bad. Although I couldn’t agree with every statement Diski makes, I have the feeling this is a book I will reread more than once. Wisdom often comes in the form of admitting just how little we know.

Schrödinger’s Luggage

I recently had the misfortune of flying on Delta Airlines. In all honesty I suppose my antipathy to Delta began with a flight on which I was not actually a passenger. A few years ago a news story of a Delta flight navigating to the wrong city created smirks for those who can afford to fly airlines that have better track-finding skills. With all of my flying over the past years, I’ve ended up on Delta a couple of times and my sense of their muddled thinking has only been confirmed. On a recent flight before which we were informed that our boarding would be “expediated” since the captain was late landing his jet at the next gate and would be flying right back to Atlanta whence he’d just arrived, I hoped the navigation would be better than the grammar. Landing in Atlanta for a flight to the thriving metropolis of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the gate agent repeatedly told us that the flight to “Aberdeen” was about ready to board. Several customers had to call out “Allentown” a few times before the agent realized her mistake. My misgivings grew. When I landed in Allentown, my checked bag had decided to take a tour of Detroit. It was late at night and I might have been a bit brusk with the poor, graveyard-shift Delta agent, but he assured me that my bag would be in by noon the next day.

Not a particularly trusting soul any more, I called Delta baggage information the next morning after looking at their website. The website showed the bag sitting just 15 gates from my departing Atlanta flight but then taking off to Detroit. When I called the representative told me that no information was available on my baggage (the artistry of understatement!). I informed her that I had the website up and that it showed my luggage in Detroit, I wanted to know when it would be in Allentown. Her tune changed to indicate, “oh yes, it is in Detroit.” But then, she could neither confirm nor deny that it would be on its scheduled flight. I had already determined to drive back to the airport to collect it. If Delta cannot be trusted to navigate to the right location in the air, then what would be their chances be on the ground in New Jersey? As I kindly suggested to the representative that they hire employees who could read, I couldn’t help but think of Schrödinger’s cat.

Erwin Schrödinger was the physicist who came up with the thought experiment of a cat placed in a box with a deadly substance. Whether the cat is alive or dead is only a matter of speculation without looking in the box, so, in reality, the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously. I’m no physicist, but I thought of Schrödinger’s luggage being both in the cargo hold and not being in the cargo hold at the same time. This was the very mystery of the universe, courtesy of Delta’s ineptitude, being foisted upon my frantic brain. Where was my bag? It was not in my possession, and I had last entrusted it to an airline that thought the best route from the Midwest to Allentown was through Atlanta and then Detroit, but they weren’t really sure if that was the case either. There is a consolation, however. You can get a refund of your twenty-five dollar baggage misplacement fee, in the form of a voucher for your next lost luggage episode on Delta airlines. I’m about ready to crawl into that box with Schrödinger’s kitten and await my fate.

Both here and not here.

Both here and not here.

Neither Black nor White

What hath Rome to do with Lagos? In the portion of the newspaper where religion is freely discussed—the Sunday edition, of course—Jeff Kunerth published a thoughtful piece entitled “Black atheists might feel lonely, but they’re not alone.” Kunerth reveals a double dilemma for the African-American non-believer: strong emic social pressure to be religious and etic deconstruction of race by many atheists. I know African-American humanists, and I have been informed of the lack of attention given to humanism and race. Both, in many circles, are troubling concepts. We like to think we’d evolved to the point of “race” disappearing from the social spectrum, but we also feel pride concerning cultural achievements, some of which are tied to “race.” Where would our culture be without the influence of African-American music, story, and art? Is belief required to truly belong?

I often wonder why it is that skin tone is used to divide people. Inevitably my thought goes back to the Bible. In the ancient view reflected in the book of Genesis, all creatures, humanity included, were created with inviolable boundaries of “kind.” As mules and ligers demonstrate, however, boundaries are often only as strict as we permit them to be. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” Jeremiah rhetorically asks in 13.23 of his eponymous book, “or the leopard his spots?” Not only is race fixed, but gender as well. Each according to his own kind. It’s this easy division that’s troubling me. Humans of all “races” may interbreed, something not possible for the liger or mule. We are free to change our outlook. The leopard spots are in our minds.

None of this is meant to belittle the difficulties faced by black atheists, or any others who are excluded by their own “kind.” It is simply a suggestion that we might enlarge the pie, to borrow from Getting to Yes, before dividing it. Belief has to be a matter of conscience, and acceptance should be a matter of principle. Too often religious beliefs divide rather than unite. Atheists and true believers, of one “race” or many, have a common cause to make a better world for all. The prophet anticipates a negative answer to his rhetorical question. Allow me, Jeremiah, respectfully to disagree. Yes, a leopard may change its spots anywhere except in the prejudiced savannah of the human mind.

Leopard_africa

Nine Lives

A warm and wet holiday weekend is a good time to watch movies. Since my daily work schedule leave scant time to view anything from most Monday-to-Fridays (and it would claim even more if I’d let it), relaxing often involves watching. I first saw Cats as an ambitious stage production for a local outdoor theater some years ago. Andrew Lloyd Webber has acute talent when it comes to mixing show tunes and popular music; so much so that even a vague storyline will do to carry a show. Cats, of course, is based on a set of children’s poems by T. S. Eliot—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There is no narrative, and they show’s emotionally charged hit “Memory” had to be culled from among Eliot’s other poems. Nevertheless, the musical, now long off-Broadway, exists in a film version that is heavily endowed with religious themes. This weekend I watched it for the n-th time, and each viewing brings out new nuances.

The “story,” such as it is, has two very basic events: Jellicle Cats choose who can be reborn on the night of the Jellicle Ball, and Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of Jellicles, is kidnapped (cat-napped?) and must be recovered before the choice can be made. The vignettes feature cats dealing with loss, love, and crime. The character who resonates with many viewers is Grizabella, the glamour cat. She is the has-been who sings “Memory,” the cat who was somebody before her fame and fortune faded to a tawdry existence among questionable society. The musical is about transformation, however. Transformation is a religious theme, the desire we have to be something more than we are, to transcend the hand life has dealt us. Now, I’m no theater or film critic, but I have to wonder whether the obvious fades and duets of “Memory” point to Grizabella as the older but sadder version of the young and lively Jemima.

Certainly as the finale builds, Grizabella is chosen to be reborn and is sent to the Heaviside Layer, but the camera keeps coming back to Jemima. She is often framed in the center and the suggestion is made that the new life has already begun. Religion thrives on transformation. I suppose that is the reason I find it so ironic that in politics religion, Christianity in particular, is championed as the pillar of the status quo. Whether they are new or old, religions serve no purpose if they do not challenge the “business as usual” model of the secular world. Perhaps that’s why successful artists such as Andrew Lloyd Webber thrive—they can pack theaters of seekers weekend after weekend, even for decades sometimes. Even those of us watching on the television at home click the eject button with a sense of hope that seems possible only on a holiday weekend.

A stray Jellicle cat?