Now, Soon, Forever

As anyone who has lived with a cat knows, they sometimes understand time much as we do, but other times their perception of time is baffling. After extensive observation, I believe I finally understand the perception of time by felis catus.

For the average domestic cat, a very few events are set: dawn, dusk, in some cases mealtime. Stanley is about 90% consistent now on waking me up 0-10 minutes before breakfast time, for example. But, for the vast majority of events, cats rely on a scale of time that is significantly different than most humans’.

Now: Much like the human concept, but with less tolerance for delays. “Now” does not mean “as soon as you put your shoes on”–it means instantly, and any delay is unacceptable, because it is no longer “now”.

Soon: This is a loose translation—the wordier but more-accurate term would be “as soon as I’m done with this”. This is a very flexible unit of time by human standards. It means whenever the cat is done with whatever it is currently doing, and thus ranges from [in human terms] a minute or less (when using the litterbox) through a few minutes (when eating dinner) to several hours (when sleeping). But from a cat’s point of view, these are all the same unit of time.

Forever: Any unit of time greater than “soon” and still today is approximately forever from a cat’s perspective. An hour until dinnertime? Forever. Waiting 3 minutes to go outside? Forever. You’re gone at work for 9 hours? Forever.

Forever and Ever: Longer than “forever,” up to and including some time tomorrow.

Any unit of time longer than a day, or any event further away in time than tomorrow, is literally incomprehensible to the vast majority of cats, so they have no term for it. For them, units of time beyond “forever and ever” are simply meaningless–the proverbial third dimension for a flatlander.

Stanley Squirreltail Chatters-at-Crows

I don’t feel comfortable naming others. It just seems presumptuous of me to decide for someone else what their name should be. I’m not sure how I’ll feel if I have kids—though I know I’d prefer to take the route of either not naming until they’re a few years old, or planning right from the start for the kid to choose a new name for herself once she’s a certain age. But, last I checked, they won’t let you out of the hospital until there’s a name on the birth certificate.

I don’t even like naming pets and other animals. Luckily for me, all my pets have been used, so they came with names—with one exception. My 4th ferret was 2+, and had never been given a name. I have no idea how his previous human related to him—it seems so weird to me to have someone in your life that long and not have some sort of name for them. Regardless, I solved that by calling him Nony, short for Anonymous, because all the names I tried out just didn’t feel right.

Though I think it was mostly the deciding-on-the-name part that bothered me, not the bestowing. I guess I just don’t feel like I can possibly know someone else well enough to decide how the world should label them, which is what name-giving feels like to me. And it’s particularly hard for a new child or pet, whom you don’t know very well yet. What if you name him Tim and he turns out to be more of an Xavier or Rajesh? Or Evangelina is really more of a Sue? But, of course, while it is theoretically possible to let humans choose their own names—and plenty do; how many people do you know that go by a middle name or nickname?—that doesn’t work so well for animals.

On the other hand, where do nicknames come from? To some degree, they are self-determined, based on behaviors, personality traits, and physical appearance, as much as explicit choice. And animals, just like people, can choose to not respond to a name they don’t like. [Well, at least in theory. In practice, I’m not sure they even recognize the sort of identification with a name that we employ, much less distinguish between a “proper name” and a “nickname” or term of endearment.] But, more realistically, i think that our pets often “tell” us their names through their behaviors.

Much like rugged Viking warriors, mighty Greek heroes, noble Arthurian knights—and a fair number of real-world peoples—pets should have the bynames they have earned. And while I feel weird bestowing or changing a pet’s name, I have no problem “recognizing” a byname that they have earned. So, from now on, our cats Stanley and Orion shall be known as Stanley Squirreltail Chatters-at-Crows and Orion Squeaker, respectively. Though I suspect Orion may outgrow that byname and earn another, once he learns how to speak meow properly.