"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ode to Josef: Nine-Lived and Contradictory

Look at Josef! Such a little genius!
One snowy afternoon in December 2000, Ben, Sam,
and their friends Sarah and Ethan,
decorated this box for him and stuck him inside
(just above his head, you can see that it says "Josef's House").
How did he know precisely where to step?
Right in the paw prints that they had drawn for him!


Taken during the same snowfall, December 2000
Josef appears to be about half the size of Sam at the time!

A year later, as part of a classroom assignment, Ben decided to write a poem about our dear old long - lived (1988 - 2007) Josef:

This cat lies down, not moving.
Contemplating. Why? What? When?
Will the world end today?
Tomorrow, now, then?

The Universe is great.
The cat knows its ways,
lying down, on my bed.
The sun flashes its rays.

Where did they come from?
Humans, I think they are called.
Interesting what they have done
with this planet, what they’ve hauled.

Well, they feed me, not what I want,
but they give me enough.
Sometimes it’s fun and entertaining.
Sometimes it’s boring and tough.

They give me a box of cardboard.
They give me a queen-sized bed.
They give me my own curtain.
They put me at their head.

But still I contemplate
The Universe. I know
they want to: tough!
They give me food and go.

by Ben McCartney, age 11
29 January 2002, 6th grade

And a few months later, Sam followed suit:

My cat is lazy and loving.

That is my cat, loves meat,

so sleepy but adventurous.

But no matter what,

my cat I love.

No not a thing --

he can scratch,

he can bite,

he can reject his meat.

I love him!

by Sam McCartney
August 2002, 4th grade

As I have a mentioned before (No One With A Nose / Wise Fool), when Ben and Sam attended St. Peter's School in Philadelphia, they were required to memorize and recite a poem every month. They became quite adept at managing increasingly long works, and I often urged them to choose from among my old favorites, such as these two, which I used to enjoy teaching as a Freshman English exercise in comparison and contrast:

may have killed the cat; more likely
the cat was just unlucky, or else curious
to see what death was like, having no cause
to go on licking paws, or fathering
litter on litter of kittens, predictably.

Nevertheless, to be curious
is dangerous enough. To distrust
what is always said, what seems,
to ask odd questions, interfere in dreams,
leave home, smell rats, have hunches,
do not endear cats to those doggy circles
where well-smelt baskets, suitable wives, good lunches
are the order of things, and where prevails
much wagging of incurious heads and tails.

Face it. Curiosity
will not cause us to die--
only lack of it will.
Never to want to see
the other side of the hill
or that improbable country
where living is an idyll
(although a probable hell)
would kill us all.
Only the curious
have, if they live, a tale
worth telling at all.

Dogs say cats love too much, are irresponsible,
are changeable, marry too many wives,
desert their children, chill all dinner tables
with tales of their nine lives.
Well, they are lucky. Let them be
nine-lived and contradictory,
curious enough to change, prepared to pay
the cat price, which is to die
and die again and again,
each time with no less pain.
A cat minority of one
is all that can be counted on
to tell the truth. And what cats have to tell
on each return from hell
is this: that dying is what the living do,
that dying is what the loving do,
and that dead dogs are those who do not know
that dying is what, to live, each has to do

by Scottish Poet Alastair Reid, b. 1926

more about Alastair Reid
(additional blog post)

Both the dog and the cat are admirable characters, rising above discouragement, discounting the naysayers, embracing their personal and political freedom. They have tales worth telling. The independent cat tells the truth about his nine lives, his near - death experiences, and the cost of curiosity -- the "cat price." The dog trots freely and fearlessly, facing reality: "a real realist / with a real tale to tell / and a real tail to tell it with." What excellent role models they are!

The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn't hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit's Tower
and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee
He's afraid of Coit's Tower
but he's not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog's life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
democratic dog
engaged in real
free enterprise
with something to say
about ontology
something to say
about reality
and how to see it
and how to hear it
with his head cocked sideways
at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
his picture taken
for Victor Records
listening for
His Master's Voice
and looking
like a living questionmark
into the
great gramophone
of puzzling existence
with its wondrous hollow horn
which always seems
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
to everything

by American Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, b. 1919

more about Ferlinghetti
(additional blog post)

Little Nipper, the RCA Victor Dog

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, August 28, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading


  1. Katy writes:
    "I loved all the pet stuff. Ben and Sam seemed really attached to Josef. I had heard about what he meant to you but hadn’t realized that little boys could be so attached to a big old cat. Ben’s poem seemed really good to me. . . . "

  2. Another Cat Memory: Marcus and Josef were extremely mellow, even - tempered, and mild - mannered, such that Ben and Sam grew up never seeing a cat growl or hiss. Every now and then, Sam and I would take care of our next - door - neighbor - cats, Daisy and Eugene. They were both smooth, shiny amber brown cats, kind of like our current Pine, but very different from our then fluffy old Josef! Sam adored them, but they could be moody. Eugene would usually greet us, ready for his supper; but Daisy was famous for playing hide and seek and giving us one of those "too lazy to get the spit out" silent hisses when we discovered her hiding spot. One day, out of the ordinary, we couldn't find Eugene either, so Sam checked the basement and soon came running up to tell me in astonishment: "Mom, I found Eugene up on a high shelf. He reached down and smacked my head and gave me the SNAKE FACE!"