Modernism on the Feast of Pope St. Pius X

Here’s a few selections from the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s write up on Modernism, in honor of Pope St. Pius X, who was pope at the time this encyclopedia was being written and who gave Modernism both barrels.

What Modernism is:

A full definition of modernism would be rather difficult. First it stands for certain tendencies, and secondly for a body of doctrine which, if it has not given birth to these tendencies (practice often precedes theory), serves at any rate as their explanation and support. Such tendencies manifest themselves in different domains. They are not united in each individual, nor are they always and everywhere found together. Modernist doctrine, too, may be more or less radical, and it is swallowed in doses that vary with each one’s likes and dislikes. In the Encyclical “Pascendi”, Pius X says that modernism embraces every heresy.

One reason a full definition of Modernism would be difficult is that Hegel, the tent-pole Modernist, held that definition – stating what something or some idea *is* and *is not* – is right out. The world is Becoming, not Being, so that all statements of being are essentially meaningless. Thus, expecting some sort of consistency in the beliefs and behaviors of Modernists is also nonsensical. They are all manifesting, in better or worse, or more or less advanced, ways the feelings of the age.

That “embraces every heresy” line is interesting. The future saint doesn’t say “is open to” or “may fall victim to” but “embraces” – a positive act. This embracing of the heretical, expressed in phrases such as ‘everything is a social construct’ or ‘that’s your truth’ is not just a letting down of our guard against heresy, but, in keeping with the Hegelian rejection of statements of being, a necessary step in the upcoming synthesis. A heresy is not wrong, it is merely the expression of the antithesis to some dogma, destined to become suspended yet not contradicted in a new and better understanding.

Note that one outcome of this kind of emoting – it would hardly do to call it thinking – is the readily apparent moral race to the bottom we’re seeing now. Nothing at all can be fundamentally wrong, but merely daring or transgressive, soon to be incorporated into enlightened understanding. Hegel, who imagined the Spirit driving all this enlightenment, may have not meant it that way, but it’s a funny tendency of ideas to get off leash and be pursued to their logical conclusion regardless of who thought it up and what they may have wanted.

A remodelling, a renewal according to the ideas of the twentieth century — such is the longing that possesses the modernists. “The avowed modernists”, says M. Loisy, “form a fairly definite group of thinking men united in the common desire to adapt Catholicism to the intellectual, moral and social needs of today” (op. cit., p. 13). “Our religious attitude”, as “Il programma dei modernisti” states (p. 5, note l), “is ruled by the single wish to be one with Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of the age”. The spirit of this plan of reform may be summarized under the following heads:

– A spirit of complete emancipation, tending to weaken ecclesiastical authority; the emancipation of science, which must traverse every field of investigation without fear of conflict with the Church; the emancipation of the State, which should never be hampered by religious authority; the emancipation of the private conscience whose inspirations must not be overridden by papal definitions or anathemas; the emancipation of the universal conscience, with which the Church should be ever in agreement;
– A spirit of movement and change, with an inclination to a sweeping form of evolution such as abhors anything fixed and stationary;
– A spirit of reconciliation among all men through the feelings of the heart. Many and varied also are the modernist dreams of an understanding between the different Christian religions, nay, even between religion and a species of atheism, and all on a basis of agreement that must be superior to mere doctrinal differences.

Every get frustrated with the idea of Progress as an intransitive verb, divorced from any idea of progress toward something? That’s a feature, not a bug.

So Rodney King’s ‘why can’t we all just get along?”, that Hull House lady Jane Addams (I think) who convinced John Dewey that there are no real disagreements, only misunderstandings, and Jo Swenson’s Empathicalism, where the goal of life is “to project your imagination so to actually feel what the other person is feeling.”  – these are all flavors of Modernism. Right?

Perhaps Modernism could be defined as the idea that humanity will find peace only once all join hands in a sufficiently murky emotional miasma.

For [Modernists] external intuition furnishes man with but phenomenal contingent, sensible knowledge. He sees, he feels, he hears, he tastes, he touches this something, this phenomenon that comes and goes without telling him aught of the existence of a suprasensible, absolute and unchanging reality outside all environing space and time. But deep within himself man feels the need of a higher hope. He aspires to perfection in a being on whom he feels his destiny depends. And so he has an instinctive, an affective yearning for God. This necessary impulse is at first obscure and hidden in the subconsciousness. Once consciously understood, it reveals to the soul the intimate presence of God. This manifestation, in which God and man collaborate, is nothing else than revelation. Under the influence of its yearning, that is of its religious feelings, the soul tries to reach God, to adopt towards Him an attitude that will satisfy its yearning. It gropes, it searches. These gropings form the soul’s religious experience. They are more easy, successful and far-reaching, or less so, according as it is now one, now another individual soul that sets out in quest of God. Anon there are privileged ones who reach extraordinary results. They communicate their discoveries to their fellow men, and forthwith become founders of a new religion, which is more or less true in the proportion in which it gives peace to the religious feelings.

The attitude Christ adopted, reaching up to God as to a father and then returning to men as to brothers — such is the meaning of the precept, “Love God and thy neighbour” — brings full rest to the soul. It makes the religion of Christ the religion , the true and definitive religion. The act by which the soul adopts this attitude and abandons itself to God as a father and then to men as to brothers, constitutes the Christian Faith. Plainly such an act is an act of the will rather than of the intellect. But religious sentiment tries to express itself in intellectual concepts, which in their turn serve to preserve this sentiment. Hence the origin of those formulae concerning God and Divine things, of those theoretical propositions that are the outcome of the successive religious experiences of souls gifted with the same faith. These formulae become dogmas, when religious authority approves of them for the life of the community. For community life is a spontaneous growth among persons of the same faith, and with it comes authority. Dogmas promulgated in this way teach us nothing of the unknowable, but only symbolize it. They contain no truth. Their usefulness in preserving the faith is their only raison d’être.  They survive as long as they exert their influence. Being the work of man in time, and adapted to his varying needs, they are at best but contingent and transient. Religious authority too, naturally conservative, may lag behind the times. It may mistake the best methods of meeting needs of the community, and try to keep up worn-out formulae.

Those church songs I’m always going on about, where we, the gathered people, are mentioned directly or indirectly to the exclusion or near-exclusion of God – these are not some accident. They embody the above emphasis on *us* as the source and summit of religion.

What could possibly go wrong?

All heresies are rejections of the Incarnation. From Satan on down, pride inclines us to reject the idea that an all-powerful God could ever be so humble as to become one of us. Modernism rejects the idea that, having become one of us, Jesus might have something to say, and, having said it, might expect us to embrace it. They called him ‘Rabbi’ that is, ‘Teacher,’ yet we are incapable of being taught. No – we turn to feelings, to our personal direct experiences without any animating influence from that guy on the cross. We may stumble across Him (not that that could be all that important) and feel some connection. Or not. But that hardly matters. What matters is that we embrace our feelings and each other as we stumble into the sulfurous cloud.

Little heavy, there. But nothing compared to Pope St. Pius X. He was metal. Perhaps his St. Michael’s pray would be a good palate cleanser at this point.

Pope St. Pius X – Pray for us!

Image result for st pius x
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Home Improvement Update 08/18/19

Got lots of little essays percolating, but writing those takes time and and thought and quickly begins to resemble actual work. Therefore,

BRICKS!

When we last checked in, way back on July 23, the front planter project looked like this:

Some progress has been made:

The capping bricks along the front are not yet mortared in. I first needed to lay out where the holes go for the upright spikes on the fence. This requires carefully laying out the bricks, numbering them, marking the seams, then marking where the uprights go, so that I can then take the bricks that need cutting, cut them, check them, then stack all the bricks on the ground so that I can mortar them in in the right spots one by one. Only then can I epoxy in the little pieces of angle iron to which the bottom horizontal runner of the fence will be attached, fill the square towers with concrete up to that point, add another 7 rows, add another couple little pieces of angle iron for the top runner – THEN I can attach the fence.

I’ve done this once already, worked out fine. Lot of little detail tasks.

Marks and numbers:

May be a few days before I get to this. Our lovely and beloved younger daughter, Anna Kate, is home for a few days before heading off to South Sudan for a year of missionary work with the Salesians. 22 years old. Kids these days.

Meanwhile, a little progress on the front steps. We left them here:

Doesn’t look like much, and it isn’t really, but today we’re here:

Got the rebar epoxied in; cut and shaped a piece of round stock for the bottom hinge – a very simple post through a hole style; got a corner piece for the rain spout, which will help guide exactly where I put the bricks. This little square tower is critical, as the gate will hang on it – must be sturdy and exact. There will be, again, little pieces of angle iron with holes for the hinge rod and the rebar, to tie it all together so little kids won’t destroy the gate when they (inevitably) swing on it.

I’m holding off a bit on epoxying stuff until I’ve got a bunch to do, so I’m not opening and closing the tube of industrial epoxy mix (works like a caulking gun, only with two internal tubes that must be mixed) and thereby wasting the stuff. I’ll do the brackets on the front planter and the hinge on this tower at one time.

For your possible amusement: we had 3 old coolers, each with various issues: the hinges on the big one broke off, and the little drain plug went missing; a handle broke on another, and a crack developed in a third. After pricing replacements, decided to throw the cracked one away and repair the other two so they are at least useable.

Have I mentioned I tend strongly to overthink and over do things? I replaced the handle on the smaller one with a piece of broomstick with a hole drilled through it lengthwise (1) tied to the cooler with a length of heavy nylon cord – well and good. Then came replacing the little plug on the larger one.

The lost original was a plastic cap that screwed on. Now, you may be thinking, as I was after 5 minutes of trying other solutions: how about getting a piece of cork, shoving it in there, and calling it a day? I have in my shed a little drawer full of various sized corks. Entire process would take maybe 60 seconds, if I sauntered my way through it. I eventually did just that:

But no. The above fix took place maybe 20 minutes after I had started trying other solutions, and 15 minutes after the smarter part of my brain started whispering, then yelling: just get a cork, you schmuck!

We’re talking washers, expansion bolts, butterfly nuts, plumber’s tape, futzing with pliers and power drills and looking through a couple dozen little drawers with bits and pieces of plumbing hardware and nuts and bolts, none of which worked even a little…

And then I put a cork in it.

On the garden front, God is maybe trying to tell me something. Might be something simple like: plant in good soil with plenty of sun and water and far from any walnut roots. But I’m thinking it might be more complicated. For this year, a number of surprising things happened in the garden.

A little background: I grew up in Southern California, land of the long, perfect growing season, son of a man who grew up on a farm. When I was 12, we moved to a house with enough land attached that Dad cleared a nice area, had a truckload of manure delivered, and we put in a vegetable garden.

My childhood memories of gardening are that you plant stuff, make sure you don’t forget to water it, and you get more vegetables than you can use. And tomato worms.(2) Easy-peasy.

About 27 years ago, we rented a house with an overgrown dump of a backyard. I thought: garden! and put in a ton of work clearing and tilling a nice chunk of it. Beneath the dead grass and weeds, the soil was iffy – closer to the house, it showed signs of having been worked at some point in the not too distant past; the farther out you got, the harder the clay.

Thus began 27 years of gardening frustration. In Northern California, while the weather is still very good, nothing from my childhood seemed to work. I added manure. I watered and watered. I fertilized (which we never did when I was a kid). We’d get some stuff some years, but never anything like what we got when I was a kid. Our house where we’ve lived now for 23 years has rock-hard clay soil and a couple huge walnut trees in the back. The only way we get anything is planting in planters, and that only sort of works.

Until this year:

Two of 4 cantaloupes on a volunteer vine in the front planter, along with one of 8 nice butternut squash on another volunteer vine.
A few of the couple dozen large tomatoes on one of two plant in the front.
One of 5 and counting sugar pumpkins.
Scale is hard to get here, but that’s a large and growing giant pumpkin, heading toward 100+ lbs (we hope)

And there’s some peppers and sweet potatoes, along with a lot of fruit from the fruit trees. The backyard stuff in planters is disappointing as usual (although we’re getting a few melons and some nice peppers) but the front yard in-the-ground stuff is a flashback to childhood! Woohoo!

So: I lost my job 14 months ago; my wife quit her (modestly salaried) school job in June. We’re both trying to get some home stuff taken care of before hitting the job hunting trail. Yet this is the year of the fairly epic garden and orchard. Like I said, not sure what if anything this means.

  1. If you’re wondering, I drilled a hole freehand the length of the handle, coming at it from both ends and meeting in the middle. Got lucky – the holes met up exactly. I mention this because if the Universe wants me to stop doing stupid things like this, which had probably under a 20% chance of working, I need to fail the *first* time I try. Otherwise, flush with success, I’ll keep doing stupid things, thinking they’ll work. Ya know?
  2. My little brothers and I were greatly amused when we showed the dog the tomato worms. They’d spit at him, he’d eat them. He’d have green whiskers the rest of the day.

Future Families

Been thinking about the confluence of technology and people considered both as individuals and as members of a family. The loss of family estates and the rise of existential dread by Adam Lane Smith inspired me to blog about it.

Mr. Smith’s short essay is about how human being have always tended to organize themselves along the lines of an extended family. He maintains – and I agree – that it is within such a family that human happiness is best obtained. This need for family is not limited to natural tribes. St. Benedict, when he created the Western monastery – literally, a collection of solitary hermits, as the ‘mono’ here refers to alone – he was reining in the dangers of individualism untethered from social relationships. Monks – again, the name comes from being alone – now lived in community. They had plenty of time to pray and study alone, but had reciprocal duties with the community: monks take care of the community, and the community takes care of the monks.(1)

The bug in my brain: we may or may not like the idea of a society organized around a family estate headed by a patriarch, but I think technology is going to push us in that direction, or push us over a cliff.

Consider two factors: for centuries now, since, perhaps, the first troglodyte knapped a good flint blade, technology has been eliminating jobs almost as fast as it has created them. Take any remotely modern job, even, say, a farm working picking crops, and you can back up into a million bits of technology that make that job possible: trucks, refrigeration, irrigation, pumps, herbicides, supply chain management, communications, and on and on. It’s a truism that each of these technologies puts the case-specific buggy whip maker out of work, but the greater fact is that technological advances generally create 10 times as many jobs as they destroy, each of them generally safer, more productive and more highly remunerated than the jobs lost. We would not have 7 billion people on earth if this were not the case, and fewer impoverished people both as a percentage and absolutely, than at any time over the last century or two.

Image result for robby the robot
I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords, especially if they’re as slow and clumsy as this thing. Cool styling, however.

The fear is that, eventually and possibly very soon, robotics will put almost all manual laborers out of a job. Maybe. Sure has and will put a lot of people – warehouse workers, burger flippers – out of job. The reason for this fear seems to be the belief that robots, broadly understood to include AI, will soon be able to do not only virtually all blue collar jobs, but many or most white collar jobs as well. A robot can not only flip your burger and fulfill your order in a warehouse, it will soon be able to design the warehouse and all the robots in it from scratch, and design and build the robots that fix the robots, and the spec out and design the AI that will replace it. And do the taxes and fill out the forms. And then run the software that produces the increasingly life-like CGI replicas of dead people and put together the propaganda movies that will help keep us sedated…

And so on.

I have my doubts. But let’s grant this – dystopia? Here’s what it would mean in practice: those jobs that the robot AIs can’t do economically will fall into two classes: comparatively trivial jobs such as hairdressing or lawn care, which could be done by robots, but why bother? And jobs that are really tricky, involving human judgement and creativity on a level AIs can’t match.

This second class of jobs, which will include work such as directing the robots, marketing (no, really – there’s some serious voodoo involved on occasion) and perhaps the creative end of ‘creative’ jobs (anybody really think a bot couldn’t write most pop music? But you’d still need, for example, John C. Wright and Brian Niemeier to write their novels) will become increasingly better paid.

Jobs that the robots can’t do will be needed in order for the robots to do the jobs they can do. Someone will need to direct them towards an end, even if the bots can figure out the optimal way to get there. Robots creating movies will still need the parts of the stories that make it real and tend to defy algorithmic solutions – plot twists and character arcs, for example. (2) Those people whose jobs defy automation yet are critical to the workings of the automation would do really well, in other words. So well that they could easily support many other people.

So: I’m seeing a future with many ‘family estates,’ where the patriarch has a job that pays so well that he can support many people on his income alone. He will follow two paths: build capital over his lifetime so that the estate can continue without him, and groom successors. He will provide opportunities to his ‘family’ to work in various ways, as managers of the estate or creative contributors toward its functioning and beauty. Maybe they want to grow and cook their own food, or make their own furniture, or paint the family portraits, or write family biographies. Who know?

Over time, more and more people will belong to such estates, either as patriarchs or his family, or as ‘clients’ in the old Roman sense. If – big if, largely contradicted by history – his successors can maintain the family fortune, generations of people may live this way.

Lot of speculation here. The point I think I’m making: one option that may appear if robotics do in fact obviate most jobs is the reemergence of the ‘family estate’ broadly understood. The good side, as in Smith’s description, is that natural familial affection would be given room to grow; the down side is that those inside who have no other economic options may come to feel trapped. And the potential for human evil never goes away, but that can hardly be uniquely laid at the feet of the family estate.

Just dumping something that’s been running through my mind. Of course, the evidence suggests that many such tech and creative overlords, perched upon their piles of cash, will behave very badly. They certainly do now. Such are unlikely to leave offspring capable of continuing a family estate in the unlikely event they ever form a coherent family in the first place.

There could be conflict between those wanting to build for the future and those who believe they are the future. It could get ugly. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see how this comes out, as predictions of this ‘singularity’ (yeech! What a dumb expression!) being right around the corner seem to always be a few decades off.

  1. An illustrative fact: since to the Catholic, especially medieval Catholic, mind, rights are an emmination from duties, monks could own no property. Unlike a farmer or a knight or even a parish priest, a monk had no duty to support others. His duty was to obey his abbot; it was his abbot’s duty to direct the activities of the monastery to make sure the monks were taken care of. So there was no justification for a monk owning anything. His vow of poverty simply fixes this idea to the front of his mind.
  2. No doubt bots could produce 90% of what passes for art/movies/music/literature/whatever. If they in fact don’t already. That other 10% may prove difficult.

Book Review: Nowhither

Nowhither: The Drowned World (The Unwithering Realm Book 2) by [Wright, John C.]

The long-awaited sequel to John C. Wright’s epic multiverse-spanning fantasy Somewhither (reviewed here), Nowhither is the second book of The Unwithering Realm series. Short and sweet, and it hardly needs saying, if you liked the first book, you need to read this one, too, and probably already have. Over a 3 year wait!

Our hero, the deathless hulking teenager Ilya Muromets, has just made a breathless escape from the heart of the enemy’s stronghold, rescuing 150 soon-to-be harem girls and his heartthrob, the voluptuous sea witch Penny Dreadful, with the indispensable aid of Nack, a headless monstrosity with the strength of 100 men and the distressing habit of eating people, Foster, a magical gypsy from some parallel world with all kinds of tricks up his sleeve, Ossifrage, an Old Testament style holy man with way cool super powers, and Abby, a young teenage girl with boundless spunk and heroism and some way cool powers of her own.

They dodge certain death when they dive through a Mobius Gate into a multiverse transfer station, where they are promptly trapped! But between Ossifrage’s ability to ignore the laws of gravity and Nack’s ability to reduce buildings to rubble, they hold off the pursuing vampires just long enough to escape…

…to another way-station, on another world in another parallel universe – at the bottom of an ocean! And so on. The non-stop action of the first book continues through roughly the first half of the second. Then the story takes a bit of a break from the action and banter of the first book in the series in order to fill in some much appreciated backstory. It gets emotionally complicated, and has all sorts of who-can-you-trust twists that I will not spoil.

A quick, fun read, well deserving of you money and time. Wright never fails to blow my mind with the pure density and variety of his imagination. Another author might take 2 or 3 of the ideas in this series and write a perfectly acceptable story; Wright kicks it up a whole bunch of manic, entertaining notches. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.

Classic SFF Book Review: The Metal Monster

Metal monster sharp.jpg

Short and sweet: This novel appears on John C. Wright’s list of essential SF&F reading (I’m working my way through the list here), for good reason. Cool story, presenting in 1920 images and concepts that reappear in such things the Machine City in the Matrix and the Borg. Well worth the read, and available free through Project Gutenberg.

The over-the-top yet fun prologue I affectionately mocked here. A Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, fresh off a trip to the Himalayas, charges the author with recording and spreading the unbelievable tale he is about to tell him.

Part of the charm of this book is the lovely, over the top (by degenerate modern standards) language. It’s a bit of a vocabulary quiz, at least for me, full of delightful, colorful words I did not know, but do now. And Merritt layers on the history and science, circa 1920, to give the story versimilitude. Here’s a taste:

For almost three months we had journeyed; Chiu-Ming and I and the two ponies that carried my impedimenta.

We had traversed mountain roads which had echoed to the marching feet of the hosts of Darius, to the hordes of the Satraps. The highways of the Achaemenids—yes, and which before them had trembled to the tramplings of the myriads of the godlike Dravidian conquerors.

We had slipped over ancient Iranian trails; over paths which the warriors of conquering Alexander had traversed; dust of bones of Macedons, of Greeks, of Romans, beat about us; ashes of the flaming ambitions of the Sassanidae whimpered beneath our feet—the feet of an American botanist, a Chinaman, two Tibetan ponies. We had crept through clefts whose walls had sent back the howlings of the Ephthalites, the White Huns who had sapped the strength of these same proud Sassanids until at last both fell before the Turks.

Over the highways and byways of Persia’s glory, Persia’s shame and Persia’s death we four—two men, two beasts—had passed. For a fortnight we had met no human soul, seen no sign of human habitation.

(“Impedimenta” is definitely going into the quiver.)

Goodwin has gone to do some botanical research in the remote mountain valleys of the Himalayas. The hills are alive – with Americans. Can’t hardly turn around without meeting some. Goodwin and his cook/guide run into Dick Drake, son of an old science buddy. They decide to travel together.

Things get weird. Or weirder. First off are bizzare atmospheric phenomena that defy description and any sort of natural explanation. Goodwin tries a little early 20th century handwavium on them, something about high mountains and inversion layers, but Drake isn’t buying it. Then they come across what appears to be a gigantic footprint, perfectly geometrical, that has crushed the stone beneath it into what appears to be a surface machined flat. Finally, the two explorers and their guides follow an ever-narrowing mountain crevasse into a huge green bowl shaped valley, stumble upon some ruins.

A mysterious despair grips them, a tangible effect of the place. As they struggle their way out of the valley and the emotional pall, they run into more of Goodwin’s old friends, Martin and Ruth Ventnor, brother and sister scientists. Ruth is of course lovely, and she and Drake promptly fall in love.

Ruth and Martin are fleeing some Persians, like from 24 centuries ago, an ancient civilization still alive in this secret, remote place. But that’s not all that worries them. In the ruins, Ruth shows Goodwin some small metallic cubes, spheres and other geometric forms. Goodwin picks one up to examine it, and is quickly confronted by many others, who stack and form themselves into a little vaguely animalish shape and threaten Goodwin until he drops the one he’s holding. The little shapes disappear into a crevasse in the floor of the ruin. They are living metal creatures of some sort, who coordinate their actions in a sophisticated ways, forming and reforming shapes as desired.

The Persians attack! An army more than a thousand strong descends upon our heroes, trapped in the mountain valley. Our team, with guns, is doing serious damage, but cannot defeat so vast an enemy. Up from the crevasse arises a goddess, tall, stately, glowing. At her gesture, the humans gather round her, and the crevasse vomits forth vast numbers of the metal creatures, who form themselves into a killing machine, and exterminate the Persian force….

And it builds from there. If you like fantastic action, detailed word-painting in the 19th century tradition, and surprise endings, this is a book for you. Fun stuff. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.

On Treachery and the Breaking of Oaths: Quote-fest

Some quotations on oaths and treachery. Possibly appropriate to our current state.

“I am Brother Alberigo,

One of the fruits of the corrupted garden

Who here gets dates for figs I handed out.”

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “are you already dead?”

And he said to me, “How my body does

There in the world above, I do not know.

For Ptolomea has this privilege:

Often the soul falls down into this place

Before Atropos sends it out of life.

And that you may be all the more willing

To scrape the frost-glazed tears from off my face

Know this: as soon as the soul proves a traitor,

As I did, its body then is snatched away

By a demon who takes possession of it

Until its time on earth has all run out.”

Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIII, v.118-132, Translated by
James Finn Cotter

Notes: from Sinclair’s translation, my faulty memory, or somewhere else.

  1. Albergio murdered his younger brother and nephew over a slight, at a dinner he had invited them to.
  2. “bad garden” – the very lax “Jovial Friars.”
  3. “date for fig” – idiom, to get more than bargained for.
  4. “Ptolomea” – the third and penultimate zone of the bottom circle of Hell, where traitors to guests are punished. After Ptolemy, a captain of Jericho who murdered Simon Maccabeus and his sons at a banquet, as recounted in Maccabees..
  5. “Atropos” – the Fate who determines time of death.
My beloved well-thumbed set of Sinclair’s translations of the Divine Comedy. 40+ years old, held together with tape and glue. Based on the number of times I’ve reread it, it’s my favorite book.

After having promised his cousin that he would wake him when he left to speak to Parliament, Lord Ivywood, in order to avoid having discussion on an amendment he was to propose, leaves him sleeping:

Phillip Ivywood raised himself on his crutch and stood for a moment looking at the sleeping man. Then he and his crutch trailed out of the long room, leaving the sleeping man behind. Nor was that the only thing that he left behind. He also left behind an unlighted cigarette and his honour and all the England of his father’s; everything that could really distinguish that high house beside the river from any tavern for the hocussing of sailors. He went upstairs and did his business in twenty minutes in the only speech he had ever delivered without any trace of eloquence. And from that hour forth he was the naked fanatic; and could feed on nothing but the future.

G. K. Chesterton, the Flying Inn

When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

NOT Breaking My Pledge…

…to never write about cats or sports. I’m writing about animal behavior. It just happens to be my cat’s behavior. Totally different! No, really!

I like pets. In addition to dogs and cats, I’ve had fish, reptiles, frogs and toads. My family briefly had a canary. Kids have had mice and hermit crabs, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. So, pets, yes.

I like dogs and cats, but like cats more because a) I find their ‘personalities,’ such as they are, more interesting, and b) cats are a lot easier to care for than dogs. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

One thing is clear: virtually all discussion of animal intelligence is projection. Dogs and cats are intelligent, in some sense, but not usually in the senses people seem to think. Both are predators but of very different kinds, and have ‘intelligence’ that reflects how their ancestors stayed alive in their environments of evolutionary adaptation. At least, that’s the party line among evolutionary biologists, and seems to me to account for the vast bulk of Fluffy’s and Fido’s behaviors. There’s behaviors around the edges, such as cats attacking dogs who are attacking their humans, or dogs standing watch over the graves of their former owners, which are harder to explain, or rather, the explanations come off as egregious ‘just so’ stories.

Yet on the whole, our furry pets’ behaviors seem to make sense, once you think of a dog as a pack animal, and a cat as a largely solitary hunter. Dogs, like people, ‘know’ instinctively that their survival depends on belonging to a pack/tribe/herd. Belonging is survival Job 1, and so dogs are forever seeking affirmation, showing submission (or dominance, if poorly trained), and trying to engage you in play of some sort. They also really have a hard time with the ‘my food/your food’ distinction unless you are there to enforce it. In the dog’s world, the alpha should simply never walk away from food he still wants.

A cat, on the other hand, will leave you a present. That dead rat, mouse or bird on the welcome mat is a gesture of affection perhaps even more profound than a dog’s leaping up to lick his master’s face. This is food we’re talking about – life and death. You ‘share’ cat food with the cat, which in some ways must blow his tiny mind. They must really like you to share back.

We are currently down to one pet, a cat. Our cat is a Siberian. Unlike other breeds whimsically named for exotic places, Siberians are called that because they come from Siberia. They look the part, with the thickest, softest fur, suited for a place where it gets really, really cold. They are also large – helps with heat retention.

Siberians are most well known for low levels of allergens in their saliva, meaning that people with cat allergies can tolerate Siberians better than most other breeds. (1) Everyone in the family except me and the Caboose are allergic; we all went to the breeder’s house together and spent an hour there, and nobody reacted very strongly – and so I paid actual money for a cat, something I’d never done before.

They are also known for their strong ‘personalities’ – they tend to be smart, playful, athletic and fond of their humans. They can also have a mean streak: our son very presciently named his cat ‘Razor’. He’s a nice cat, usually, just don’t cross him. Sharp claws and teeth, and he does not hesitate to use them.

So, anyway, here’s the interesting situation that occasioned this post. The Caboose is the cat’s human; I am the number one back-up. In general, this means that when the boy is sitting around playing video games or watching something, the cat can most often be found draped on him. When his boy is not available, he wants my attention.

This cat’s idea of getting attention is to act like a toddler: he will follow me around, and any time I stand still, he will put his front paws on my thigh to get me to pick him up. Usually, I obligue. When I don’t, like when I’m up early and trying to make some coffee and breakfast, the cat generally gives up after a few tries, and then maybe tries again when I’m done eating.

Well, his boy has been on three one-week Boy Scout adventures this summer so far, and the cat is not taking it well. When I get up early – almost every day – and the boy is not around (2), the cat freaking panics. He doesn’t just follow me around, meowing, and putting his paws on my leg, he freaking chases me down if I try to walk away. No amount of ignoring him will get him to stop. I finally had to put him in another room and close the door just so I could have a cup of coffee.

By now – 2:00 p.m. – I’ve picked him up and held him and petted him for a bit at least half a dozen times today. He finally went off to nap somewhere, meaning I can type this. His boy got up mid-morning (hey, he’s 15, it’s summer) and that helped. But it didn’t fully end it.

This behavior seems much more dog-like than cat-like. I certainly have never seen it before. I’m trying to map it to ‘solitary predator’ behavior, and it ain’t working. What is up with this crazy cat? I’m sympathetic and all, but it’s also driving me nuts. What will happen when our son goes away to college in a few years?

The Caboose is scheduled to be home for the next few weeks, then is heading off for another one-week Boy Scout gig. Sure hope the cat figures this out on some level, or he’s going to be spending alone time in closed rooms.

For reference only: the animal in question, with his boy, as of a couple years ago.
  1. All this means is that for people with allergies that are not too severe, jut having Siberians around will likely be tolerable. If you hold them and play with them for extended periods, are bets are off. Works for us, anyway.
  2. We all keep our bedroom doors closed at night, as the cat will otherwise decide he needs to work on his prowling and pouncing skills at some point during the night, or needs some petting at 2:00 a.m. or other such nonsense. So he really doesn’t seem to know who is home and who isn’t until we get up.