Blog Archives

A postscript to yesterday’s offering

Yesterday I rambled on about the consciousness of cats.

Then I broke the blog. Sorry, if you were the reader affected.

The cat came and fixed it for me and then went back to eating her dinner and reading a book.

Not only is the cat possessed of consciousness, she can also multitask.

Coming to sort the blog out

Coming to sort the blog out

P.P.S. She tells me it’s a good read

The Consciousness of Cats

Look, it’s Sunday morning, and I am not about to attempt a definition of consciousness of my own because that would be like… hard work. So, lazy like Sunday morning, let’s just use this one below as the working one, for the purposes of this morning’s post at least. I’ve lifted it directly from Wikipedia, obviously.

Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”

I was lying in bed thinking that, in the current fuss about horse meat in the food chain, do we in the West have a problem with eating animals that we commonly keep as pets – I include horses in this because as anyone has kept a horse can tell you there is plenty of time spent in that mode with them. Then I thought about the animals we have invited into our homes, or at least our lives, and I suppose the driver for the most common of these species was that they served some useful function for man. Cats catch vermin (in theory, some can be most indolent as we know), dogs can protect us, horses used to act as transport and still do in certain cultural rituals (weddings, funerals) and for recreational purposes. So then I was thinking, do we shy away from eating cats, dogs and horses not just because they are pets, but because as we have lived in close proximity with these animals that we have observed aspects of these animals’ consciousness? How much harder it is to eat an animal that you strongly suspect thinks about things. An animal that might, at some cognitive level, have an opinion if you were to entertain the notion of setting about it with a knife and fork…

So, having thought all that, I had to attempt to test the concept of animal consciousness. I can only do that through the observation of my own pets, which to me is preferable to a bunch of animals in a lab and perhaps equally empirically useful on a micro scale. All scientists have to start somewhere – Jean Piaget’s studies of his own children informed his hugely influential theory of child development, Darwin kept chickens or pigeons or something whilst writing the Origin of the Species and there will be many, many more. The first pet that sprang to mind this morning was not the dog, with whom I have the closer relationship, it was in fact the cat. The cat and I are not particularly close; mutual respect might be as far as it goes – after all I mainly buy her food. It is however the children’s father who feeds her the most important meal of the day: breakfast and based on that function I have had a chance to observe her behaviour which is as follows.

The cat likes to break her fast somewhere between 5 and 5.30 a.m. She’s greedy, what can I say? The alarm goes off about 5.30 but often he is up and about before then. The cat has developed a number of behaviours based on what I can only imagine are based on some internal concepts – probably hunger more than being able to tell the time. A hungry cat might miaow, or wait by the bowl, that would be instinct not consciousness. This cat, comes upstairs, walks into the room, walks round the bed ignoring the nearest human which is me, sits round the other side of the bed and miaows. When this does not get an immediate response she starts clawing at the sheet that covers the side of the bed. This more assertive claw-based approach normally gets her breakfast order sorted, pronto.

There are a few aspects of this behaviour that make me think she is actually not merely conditioned as per a Pavlovian dog.

1. She doesn’t always do it (fair enough maybe she’s not always hungry)

2. If the alarm does go off before she’s been in the room, she then acts as an extra get-out-of-bed alarm, miaowing away

3. That she doesn’t go straight to clawing the sheet – she tries the miaow first

None of this is conclusive though, that this particular cat has consciousness, that she is thinking about how to get the same person out of bed to feed her. It could be reasonably argued that she is simply hungry and her behaviour is driven by instinct. However, what utterly confounds this theory is what she does at weekends, when there is no alarm and no-one gets out of bed at 5.30 a.m.

On weekends she does not come in the bedroom at all. Her breakfast is served at the human’s convenience. Sometimes as late as 7.30 a.m.

Never.

For me, this knocks the behaviour based on a hunger instinct out of the water.

Whilst writing this I have been thinking too. Do we only notice a form of consciousness in animals that we closely share our lives with? If I was to share my house with a few cows would I notice some form of consciousness in them? I suspect, yes. Certainly cows that are ready to return from the field to the farm to be milked might congregate by the gate. Instinct and classical conditioning – certainly, but if we lived in closer proximity to all manner of beasts I am sure we would notice a deeper consciousness of some kind. The outstanding question for me is whether the cat’s consciousness is developed by living in close contact with humans, or whether it just gives us a better opportunity to notice it?

What lies behind those eyes

What lies behind those eyes

Disembowelling poetry

Mine, you understand, not other people’s, that would just be rude.

For me trying to edit poetry is the most messy process. I start off with what I think are some respectable enough poems, that might be built upon somewhat, or improved.

I go back with fresh eyes and consider rhythm, metre and form.
I look at the words and imagery and see whether it works.
I speak aloud and see how it sounds and feels.

Then what I do is awful. After a few hours, or days, I end up with sentences pulled apart, words all over the floor, ideas stuffed into forms that don’t suit and generally get to the point where I have most certainly lost the itness of the original; that elusive essence of anything that makes us what we are, life what is and a simple poem work, or not. Don’t ask me what that essence is though, because if I knew, perhaps I wouldn’t lose it in the first place.

The whole process becomes a traumatic incident in my head. Instead of a couple of poems I end up having a whole heap of tangled thoughts and words in all the wrong places, and I have only two choices. One is to go further into the torture of the poor poem, the other is to shove the pile under the carpet and pretend it never happened. I have done the former before. Today I did the latter. It was like being a butcher.

I hung, drew and quartered, I disembowelled. I burnt whole sentences on the stake and pressed others to a slow and painful death. I dragged verbs through the street until they cried out in pain. I walled up sonnets and I stuck the heads of villanelles on stakes on the bridge. It was a bloody and brutal exercise and nothing like the one I expected which would have been something like a neat little back and sides and a bit of a trim up.

All this bloodshed and torture only goes to show me that I have probably never done the job properly before. Living and learning I suppose, for now.

Here’s someone who has done a proper job.

The cats of Greece

The cats of Greece have
eyes grey as plague.
Their voices are limpid,
all hunger.
As they dodge in the gutters
Their bones clack.
Dogs run from them.
In tavernas they sit
at tableside and
watch you eat.
Their moonpale cries
hurl themselves
against your full spoon.
If you touch one gently
it goes crazy.
Its eyes turn up.
It wraps itself
around your ankle
and purrs a rusty millenium,
you liar,
you tourist.

by Marge Piercy, from Eight Chambers of the Heart

London bricks: encrusted with snow

Side order of icicles

Today seems like a good idea to come up with Gedankenexperiment III, featuring a cat.

Probably my cat. The cat that shat on the bathroom mat in the middle of the night… before commencing loud miagolare so that those that serve her might wake up, let her out and clear up the mess.

Gedankenexperiment 1: The Buttered Cat Paradox

Feeding the cat – an epilogue

I returned the neighbours keys yesterday. I hope your cat is alright I said, I never saw it once. By the way is it a he or a she?

Oh, he’s a he. And you wouldn’t have seen it because it was shut in the wardrobe. We heard it miaowing and let it out when we got home. He was very grateful and ate three packets of food.

Oh dear, I said. I must have been feeding a fox with all that cat food I left outside. I think it was a fox because when I wasn’t leaving cat food outside in a bowl the creature was ripping into the black bags of rubbish that I kindly meant to leave out for the dustman in my neighbours absence… After all who wants to come home to a smelly heap of rubbish torn out of your black bags? Not me.

Then the neighbours gave me the ‘thank you’ gift for taking good care of their cat and said that being on holiday with the dog was a bit restricting. I obviously then volunteered to take care of the dog as well next time they are away. Hopefully they’ve got double wardrobes.

It’s not funny though, is it?

It's a disgrace says Kevin

Feeding the cat

I am ‘looking after’ a neighbour’s cat whilst they are on holiday.  So far, I have not seen any evidence of said cat, which is a bit of a worry.  On Monday, when I was in there doing my duties, someone knocked on the door.  A young man, quite good looking, slightly earnest.  I can’t remember what his opening gambit was but I quickly replied, oh, I don’t live here (meaning don’t try and sell me something).

He looked at me quizzically, so I qualified with, I am just feeding the cat.

Oh that’s a good one, he said.  I’ve not heard that before…

It would have been quite marvellous if he’d knocked at my actual house when he was working the other side of the street and I would have taken great delight in repeating the line at my own front door, but when I got in, he had already been.

Clearly, he’d not been reading the signs…

Ok, it is in a posher part of town, but still

A Holding Pattern Post

I have this post in the pipeline that is taking ages to do, it’s not even that long, but it’s causing me problems. I thought I might finally have cracked it this morning but actually I haven’t.

So rather than leave a blank space on a Saturday morning I thought I would share this.

The kids wanted pancakes for breakfast, a reasonably regular request. The thing is, since the kitchen got plastered, everything has been in a state of flux. Half the kitchenalia is hiding in the dining room and things are commuting between the two rooms on the misery line. In fact, I have given up trying to keep track; the kitchen is like the enemy within at the moment. So the pancake batter is made, but we can’t locate the frying pan. In complete harmony with my defeatist outlook, I sat down and the kids went off to investigate. They came back initially and reported that it should be by the toolbox: it was not. Then after some time had elapsed they came back and said it had turned up and could I go and get on with making a breakfast stack.

Where was it? I said.

Under the dog’s bed! they replied.

How, how is this possible? I wonder.

Just don’t go there… what is left of my rational mind whimpers.

I love my pets but… (title shamelessly plagiarised from Old Stokie)

I have spent the night with the dog pinning my legs down and the cat perched on me as if I were the shed roof on a sunny day.

Then there is my one wish about pets: to be free of their hair. Actually, that’s my one wish. If a fairy ever visited me and offered me wishes I wouldn’t want money or endless wishes, I would just want to be an anti-magnetic device for animal hair. When I had dogs to begin with in my mid 20s I went through rolls of sticky tape weekly. I could not tolerate a single hair on my clothes. My mother is the same now. She has two dogs, but you wouldn’t catch a stray pet hair on her. Not in a million years. I think she does a lot of hoovering.

Now my “standards” have slipped terribly. My two measures are to tell the girls not to roll round on the floor (hairs in their hair) and I usually give the settees a quick bash with a hair-covered cushion before I sit down. Then the dog comes and leans all over me anyway, leaving my left arm covered in cream hairs. The cat hair is worse, it can sort of float around in the ether before coming to rest where you don’t want it.

Once I bought some magic US scraping device in New York that was meant to easily get hairs off upholstery and so forth. It did not. So this is my mother’s top tip for pet hair removal: scrape affected areas whilst wearing a rubber glove. I have modified that slightly and find that a quick scrape with a Havaianas flip-flop does an excellent job too and you don’t even have to bend down. Except I can’t use the method on the cashmere cardies.

Thank Goodness

I’ve been thrown a distraction. The lovely Daisy of our family is a super-talented student of computer graphic design, or something similarly whizzy. I am now a sufficiently aged aunt to be allowed not to remember the detail of things which is quite nice I must say. Anyway, she has asked on Facebook for votes on her graphic novel illustration which is #7 in this link.

I don’t know what the brief was, but it seems to involve cats which is fine by me. Daisy has also reinterpreted the white fluffy cat image in an attractive but kickass way which is very much to my liking, but you are free to make your own decision. I’m not going to sit to your left glaring at you in a Simon Cowellesque manner to make you agree with me. Much.

Go Daisy