"Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war...."
-- Julius Caesar

"Life...is a tale...full of sound and fury...."
-- Macbeth

"No woman can be too rich or too thin."
-- Wallis Simpson

"Let them eat cake."
-- Somebody, but not Marie Antoinette

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Free Will

Setting: The front room, a summer day.

Roomba: Help! I am stuck under the sofa again!

Penelope: Every day you get stuck under there. Why don’t you just avoid it and then you can finish your job without having to cry for help?

Roomba: But I’m programmed to go this way. Everything I do is on a program. You know that yourself. When you see me coming, you know that I don’t slow down or try to go around you, so you move out of my way.

Not always. Sometimes when I am in a deep sleep you bump into me and then you turn away.

Penelope: This is true. When Mommy wants you to go in a different direction, sometimes she will stand in your way so that when you run into her toes you will turn.

But that’s also part of my program. I was made to sweep the floors no matter what obstacle was put in my way. My tenacity has no parallel. My makers just didn’t factor in the problem of the low-sitting sleeper sofa.

Stray Kitty:
Looking in from the window. Poor Roomba! Poor dogs in the house! You don’t have the freedom that I have! You are slaves, and I am not.

Duncan: That’s not entirely true, Stray Kitty. The Lady Who Dotes bought Little Dog with money when she was a puppy, so she is a slave. But I, like you, was a stray. I ran away from the first Guy Who Fed Me and found this new one. I liked the new one better, so I stayed. I did it by choice.

Penelope: I stay by choice! I am charming and all the people love me so I could go with whomever I choose! Big Dog, sometimes you treat me like I’m such a puppy.

Roomba: You are all mistaken. Don’t you know that you have programs just like I have? You are carbon-based so programs are encoded in your DNA, while mine is on my silicon microchip. But they still function the same way.

Stray Kitty: I am not “programmed,” Roomba.

Roomba: But you are! Don’t you get hungry? Don’t you get sleepy? Don’t you want affection? Don’t all of these things happen like clockwork? When you see a mouse, you chase it, just like when Duncan sees you he chases you.

I can’t help it.

Stray Kitty: But you don’t follow the exact direction that you are programmed to, Roomba. Like the dogs said, you make allowances for obstacles, at least. It’s just like when I am in a yard with a fence, I climb the fence and can move out on the open road.

Penelope: I would like to be able to do that, but I do not climb like you, Stray Kitty. Dogs don’t do that.

Dogs are not programmed to do that. Neither are they constructed to do that. Just like me -- I am not constructed to handle word processing. I have no keyboard. The computer up there on the desk has no vacuum. It is not constructed to clean the floors.

Stray Kitty: You say all of this, Roomba, from your position stuck under the sofa. For my part, I am going to demonstrate my freedom by saying goodbye and finding a sunbeam to lie in. She starts to leave.

Roomba: At least I know where my next meal comes from, Stray Kitty. I’ll get it when I go back to my power source in the kitchen.

Stray Kitty:
No, I don’t know where the next mouse is, or if a neighbor will leave food for me on the porch. This is true. It is also true that I don’t know what other cats I’ll meet tonight, and if they will want to fight or how I will make out if we do fight. But my life has a flavor that none of yours has. I’m like that girl in the opera. I live la vie boheme. You Roomba, dogs, are slaves to bourgeois entitlement. Here in your comfortable home, you limit yourselves.

Duncan: I have always wanted to light out for the territory ahead. I did that once and I came upon the Guy Who Feeds Me. I did it another time and after three days the Guy Who Feeds Me found me. I did it a third time and got hit by a car.

Penelope: I am a princess.

Roomba: I am still stuck.

Stray Kitty: Au revoir! She runs away.

Duncan: Jumping at the window screen. Oh! I always do that when she runs!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Stray Kitty

There is a stray kitty who lives in our yard. Her name is Stray Kitty. Sometimes she lives in the shed, sometimes she lives in the Virginia Creeper, sometimes she lives between the fence and the garage.

Stray Kitty is a little calico with one yellow eye that sees and one pink eye that has been horribly scratched. She comes to our garden room to drink from our water bowl.

The other day she sat on the rug in the garden room, looked up at the back door, and started mewling. She ran away when Mommy took out the recycling.

She doesn't like it when Duncan and I are in the yard. That is when she hides. Duncan likes to chase her and I would like to play with her.

She wants to make friends with Mommy, though. Stray Kitty was in the garden room again this morning. Later, when Duncan and I were in the house and Mommy was gardening, Stray Kitty followed Mommy through the yard. Then, when Mommy was pulling weeds, Stray Kitty walked up to her and started brushing up against her and purring. Apparently, she was a very sweet kitty, because Mommy came in the house and said, "Dogs, we have a responsibility."

Now, the only responsibility I have is to chase things out of the yard, so I was jealous of the milk that Mommy poured into a bowl and brought out to Stray Kitty. Mommy never pours milk into a bowl for me. Neither does Mommy open up a can of tuna and present it to me to eat. But she did both for Stray Kitty, who ate right out of her hand.

I wasn't all that jealous of the crate, though. I didn't begrudge Stray Kitty the time she spent locked up, even if it was for a ride in the car. Stray Kitty was not as devious as I am when Mommy tries to crate me. She didn't even put up a fight, or show her claws. She only uttered a few meows of protest.

She had clearly been in a crate before. She had also clearly been for a ride in a car and for an examination at the vet before, because she didn't protest one bit. Instead, she played and purred and was on her best behavior. At least that is what Mommy said, because I didn't get to go.

When she had been checked over and given her shots and after Mommy made an appointment for an operation to have the bad eye removed, she came home. Mommy let her out of her crate in the back yard and she disappeared into one of her hiding places.

We have not seen her all day. But Mommy and the Big Guy are sure she'll be back for breakfast. As much as she likes to be free, Stray Kitty is not a self-sufficient Kitty.

Do not worry, fans. I, Poppy, have not been demoted to second fiddle to a kitty. The Big Guy is allergic to cats and as he would like to breathe, Stray Kitty can't become part of the family.

Mommy will catch (if that is what you can call it) her again on Tuesday and take her for her operation. Then Stray Kitty will have to stay in our garden room until she's done with her antibiotics. Meanwhile, the kind vets at Planned Pethood Plus will be helping Mommy and the Big Guy find Stray Kitty a home.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Socratic Dialogue: Courage

Setting: The front room. A summer day.

Penelope: Sees another dog walking down the street in front of her house. Penelope barks loudly.>Oh! There is that dog who walks by our house again! He is in our territory! I am barking at him as loudly as I can! Duncan! Duncan! Go get him!

Duncan: Why should I go get him? I don’t care that he’s in our territory. He walks through it rather quickly with his human and never stays.

Penelope: Barking at the dog even louder now> But don’t you see? He’s in our territory and it’s wrong that a strange dog is in our pack’s territory. Go get him!

Go get him yourself.

Penelope: What?

Duncan: Go get him yourself if you feel so strongly about it.

Penelope: I won’t do that.

Why? You will certainly make a big fuss when he comes by.

Penelope: I’m scared.

Duncan: Of what?

Penelope: Of the other dog. He could hurt me. That’s why you have to go get him for me.

Duncan: I’ve already told you, I don’t mind him. It’s you who minds him. And if you mind him so much, you should go get him. Stand behind your barks.

Penelope: I want to tell him that he’s an invader, but I really don’t want to have to back it up. I’m little and he’s big. I need some one to stand up for me. It’s like when we go for walks and I bark at other dogs but when they come up to me I hide behind Mommy because she can protect me.

Duncan: So what you are saying is that you make it a policy to say one thing and then do another?

Penelope: Yes.

Duncan: What meaning do your barks have if you don’t back them up? Without the conviction to back them up they are just sound and fury.

Penelope: Well look at that, he’s gone. I must have scared him away with my vicious barking.

Duncan: Yes, that’s exactly what he’s responding to -- your all bark and no bite strategy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Socratic Dialogue: Complicity

Setting: The kitchen. The cupboard has been opened and the trash has been looted.

Penelope: Yum. This trash is delicious. Thank you for opening the cupboard, Big Dog.

Duncan: Penelope, I can’t help but wonder about our conversation earlier. You seemed to take the moral high-ground in that discussion. You seemed to imply that I am doubly guilty in this garbage caper. Your line of questioning suggested that I am guilty not just of being disobedient, but being two-faced.

I guess that my questions could be construed in that way. But you can also look at them as honest questions. Really, your actions lead me to wonder who the real Duncan is. It’s a question of integrity. Are you being true to yourself by pretending to be something that you are, in reality, not?

Duncan: Perhaps. But obviously such things don’t trouble me. I’m curious about your behavior, Little Dog. Why are you sharing in this wonderful feast of trash? Earlier, you suggested that to open the cupboard and take out the trash even though we are not supposed to is wrong. So why are you engaging in this activity with me?

Penelope: Big Dog, you know that it is silly to think that I could open the cupboard by myself. My face is flat. I do not have the Swiss Army Nose that you have.

Duncan: I understand that you are not equipped to do it, and that alone you would not be able to. But does not being able to mean that you would not?

Penelope: Oh, no. I would if I could. I have dreamed of having your nose.

Duncan: So, if you could, you would open the cupboard and take out the trash, even though you know it is wrong?

Penelope: Of course.

Duncan: You know that I get punished when I go into the garbage, don’t you?

Penelope: Yes.

Duncan: So would you say that you deserve to be punished tonight when the Ones With Thumbs get home?

Penelope: No! Why should I? I didn’t open the cupboard. We just agreed that I can’t open it, remember? I didn’t do the bad thing.

Duncan: Yet you are here, sharing in the fruits of the bad thing.

Penelope: You did the bad thing, you just let me eat the trash with you. Eating the trash isn’t bad. We agreed implicitly that it’s the getting into the trash that is the bad thing. The trash is just here, independent of the bad thing.

Duncan: I don’t think so. I don’t think that it’s the only bad thing. I think that you are doing a bad thing by benefiting from a bad thing. I think that that makes you as guilty as I am. You didn’t stop me and you are deriving as much pleasure from this caper as I am.

Penelope: How could I stop you? You are the Big Dog. I am the Little Dog. I follow your lead. I’m really just along for the ride on this one.

Duncan: True, you didn’t stop me, nor did you encourage me. However, that’s just an omission. It doesn’t make you innocent. Maybe if you had stayed out of the kitchen, had told me to go into the kitchen, and out of principle not joined me in this meal you might not be guilty.

Penelope: But you are the one who opened the door. That door would never have been opened if you were not here. Hey, are you going to lick out the rest of that bleu cheese container? If not, can I finish it?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Socratic Dialogue: Sneakiness

Setting: A cold, snowy day. The kitchen. Just after Mommy and the Big Guy have left for work.

Duncan: The Lady Who Dotes and The Guy Who Feeds Me forgot to put up the garbage. The chicken bones from last night smell so delicious. I know you can smell them. Get out of the way, Little Dog. I need to open the cupboard.

Penelope: Those bones smell delicious. If I had your nose, I’d be opening up the cupboard, too. My mouth is watering. I can’t wait for you to get it open. However, I can’t help thinking that this is a bad thing we are doing.

Duncan: Little Dog, what are you suggesting? I don’t like it.

I am suggesting that maybe it isn’t a good idea to do this.

Duncan: Why, can’t you smell the bones?

Penelope: I can, but that’s not what I am struggling with here. (And you know that I am an impatient pug and hate to struggle). I’m interested in why you don’t get into the garbage when the Ones With Thumbs are home. Tell me, when the Ones With Thumbs are home, do you still want to get into the garbage?

Duncan: Of course. They keep delicious stuff in there. Last week The Guy Who Feeds Me put Chinese takeout in there.

Penelope: So, you want what is in the garbage when they are home. But I have observed you get into the garbage and take what you want only when they are not home. Is this observation correct?

Duncan: Yes.

Penelope: So what is the difference between when they are home and when they are not home? Why do you choose to take the food out of the cupboard when they are not home?

Duncan: Because if I did it when they were home, there is a better chance that they would see me do it.

So you don’t want them to see you do it?

Duncan: Really, I don’t want to get punished. When I get into the garbage, they yell “No! No!” and then put me outside and do not look at me until the mess is cleaned up.

Penelope: So you don’t do it when they are at home because you don’t want to be punished?

Duncan: Yes.

Penelope: Why don’t you think they will punish you when they get home?

Duncan: Don’t you get it? They won’t know it’s me who’s doing it if they don’t see me doing it.

Penelope: So what you are telling me is that you are one way when the Ones With Thumbs are home, and another way when they are not?

Duncan: Yes, that’s right.

Penelope: So you are saying that you pretend to be a good dog when you are around the Ones With Thumbs, but it really doesn’t matter to you if you are a good dog when they can’t see you?

Duncan: Right. By pretending, I minimize the risk of being punished and maximize the reward of being adored.

Penelope: So tell me, who is the real Duncan?

Duncan: What do you mean?

Penelope: Who is the real you? The dog who is good and obedient when the Ones With Thumbs are around, or the dog who disobeys them just because they are gone for the day?

Duncan: I am uncomfortable with your insinuations, Little Dog. What are you accusing me of?

Penelope: I am not accusing you of anything. I am not trying to pick a fight, because we both know who would win -- you, Big Dog. I’m just wondering, who is the real Duncan?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Unexamined Life

Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living.

I disagree.

I, Poppy, live a wholly unexamined life. I do not question who walks by the house and whether they are a threat. I do not question my reputation in the neighborhood as a barker. I do not question my parents' reputations as poor disciplinarians. I simply bark. I can because the humans I live with are omnipotent, with the powers of treats and leashes, thumbs, fences, doors, locks, and keys. When they walk into the room, the lights turn on! When they come home in the winter the heat goes up! I can bark at the passersby because these immortals are on my side. When the stranger comes to the door, I can always stand behind the person who comes to answer it.

Is this unexamined life not worth living? What is so bad about lying spread-eagle on the tile floor to stay cool in the summer? What is so bad about sitting at the door and sniffing the breeze? What is so wrong about licking the salt off of human legs? What is so wrong about sleeping in a sunbeam all day long? Are these activities worth nothing because I do not ask myself, "Poppy, are you righteous?"

Witness Roomba. He toils daily but does not complain. When he gets stuck under the sofa he waits quietly until freed. He does not wonder about his destiny or his free will. When he is tired he returns to his dock to recharge. He does not ask himself, "Roomba, are you righteous?"

What does Socrates know?