My editor asked me to preface this column with a few words about the catastrophic results of the recent election and how to respond to it. Thousands of people have already posted comforting and useful advice online, and I must have read several hundred of these posts in the past two days. I will distill what I took from them:
Love and protect one another. Publicly support your fellow Americans who are Muslim, Latino, African American, female, undocumented, indigent, Jewish, disabled, or LGBTQ—and anyone else who has reason to feel threatened or disrespected. Look to your friends and family for comfort. Take care of yourself, and give yourself some time to get your bearings. Then take action, without further delay.
Do not give way to despair or complacency: the middle way, hope, is the only one that leads anywhere. Keep working for the causes you believe in, even if it may be hard to see the point just at present. Start working for new causes. Shore up causes that are threatened. Contribute as much time and money as you can. Remember to be grateful for all we have in this country and on this Earth, and do your damnedest to preserve these blessings and see that they are shared more fairly. “Don’t mourn, organize,” Joe Hill told us. “Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living,” added Mother Jones.
As many of you know, the founders of Cleaver chose its name in large part because the word “cleaver” is a Janus word, or auto antonym: a word that can mean its opposite when used in a different context. This year the American electorate seems to have been hacked in two, like a slab of meat—Thwack!—or the devil’s cloven hoof. But now it’s time to think about the other meaning of the word, as we cleave unto one another on this darkling plain, resolving to protect our democracy. I think what I am trying to say here is that we are stronger together.
Before I turn my attention to baby names and anhedonic cats, I’d like to share a thought that comforted me. This past Wednesday morning, still in numb shock, I was sitting in the soothing greenhouse of my car in the Acme parking lot, trying to think of some things to count on. I came up with two: the vastness of the universe, and the sense of love and duty that wells, sometimes anyway, in my heart. It occurred to me that, in his second Critique, Kant had said pretty much the same thing, and that (in addition to using his quote as the epigraph to an interminable unpublished novel) I must have internalized his values against this hard time. It was heartening to be reminded, after that vile and know-nothing campaign and its appalling result, that right reason and good will can still help us see a way forward.
Here is the quote:
Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry sky above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.
Nobody can vote away our love and concern for one another, and no government can destroy the heavens, at least not yet. Fight on!
Now to the cats and babies.
You seem to understand cats, so I hope you can help me. I have a four-year-old grey tabby, Foss, who seems to be depressed lately. He needs to be tempted to eat or play. When he lies down, he doesn’t even bother to find sunny spots any more. Mostly he just mopes around. The vet says that she can’t find anything physically wrong with Foss, and suggested that if I want him to be more active and engaged I should consider getting another cat for him to interact with. But I worry that this will just annoy Foss, or make him feel rejected. What do you think?
—Single Cat Lass in Skaneateles
I am not sure anybody understands cats, but I will try to help anyway.
Even happy cats tend to be finicky about food once you give them a choice, and cats are also a rather laid-back—none dare call it lazy—species, so Foss’s picky eating and sedentary preferences are not necessarily troubling in themselves. But his not wanting to play, and his losing interest in an activity he used to like (sunning himself), could be signs of depression, or whatever you call it when cats have it. Besides, you seem to pay very close attention to your kitty, so if you suspect that he is depressed he probably is.
I think that introducing a new cat might be a good thing for Foss. If you read up on what age, gender, observed temperament, breed temperament, etc., are likely to be compatible with a cat like Foss and choose accordingly, your two cats could end up being great friends and playmates. Many housecat duos become inseparable pals, and others become respected, if not warm and fuzzy (to each other), partners.
Even if your two cats don’t get along that well and Foss finds his new housemate annoying, it will probably be good for Foss’s physical health and even his long-term mental health if the new cat gets him moving and makes him more involved, however grouchily, in an active daily cat life. This is especially true if you work outside your home or are away a lot; it is usually better for a pet to be annoyed sometimes than to get bored and lonely.
Of course, if one of the cats actually ends up seriously hurting the other one, or trying to—or if the tension makes one or both of the cats prone to completely trashing your house—you may have to keep Foss and the newcomer in separate rooms occasionally, or even rehome the new kitty. I confess, though, that I have never been able to return or resettle a cat myself; so if you are also on the softhearted side, you should consider that the cat you bring in will probably live out his or her life with you and Foss, and choose judiciously.
This may be an outlandish question to ask a devoted cat owner, but have you considered your own needs and desires here? Would a new cat make you happy, or do you prefer a one-on-one relationship? Can you afford doubling the cost of cat food, vet bills, boarding, cat-sitting, toys, and furniture repair or replacement? Do you have a love interest who cares one way or the other? Are you in a stable housing situation?
Given your cat’s name, I am guessing you are a fan of Edward Lear. I think he would tell you to get a second cat, but only if you really want one and if your current circumstances warrant doing so. Unless Foss and the new kitty actively loathe each other—a prospect that can be made far less likely if you choose your cat with care—both kitties should be fine. And if you sense that Foss “feels rejected,” you can certainly fuss over him even more than you do now. But try to stop short of total abject servitude.
My husband and I are fighting about what to name our baby boy, who is due in February. Ben insists that we name the baby Abraham. He says that he has wanted to name his firstborn son Abraham since he first started thinking about having children, which allegedly happened around the time of his bar mitzvah. He tells me that he loves the sound of the name, and that he especially loves it because of the biblical Abraham’s faith and obedience, as shown in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. The kicker is that Ben’s beloved grandfather, who died just after we were married, was named Amos, so family and religious and tradition favor a name that begins with A (but not Amos).
I find all this surprising and kind of strange. Ben is not the least bit religious. I don’t think he has set foot inside a synagogue since his bar mitzvah except for funerals and other people’s bar/bat mitzvahs. When we got married—in a field, by the judge I clerked for, and with absolutely no trappings of religion unless you count two smashed glasses—I doubt if half the people there even knew that I’m not Jewish, and I don’t think anybody cared, except maybe for the soon-to-be-departed Bubbe Amos.
So this Abraham-as-a-man-of-faith thing kind of weirds me out. I honestly don’t like the name itself. “Abraham” is too long for a baby, and “Abe” makes me think of some old guy with suspenders and a fedora. But I think I could put up with not liking the sound or the old-guy connotation if I didn’t absolutely HATE it that Ben wants to name our kid after a man who was willing to sacrifice his own kid on an altar, just because God told him to, no questions asked. I was horrified by the story when I first heard it in parochial school, and when I was in college I got even madder at Abraham when we had to read Fear and Trembling in some Existentialism class.
Last night Ben and I got into this screaming match and said a bunch of stupid things. When he actually brought Kierkegaard into it and started mansplaining, with his STEM degree, about how noble Abraham was to give up his son and his moral beliefs in the name of religion—that “teleological suspension of the ethical” notion that pissed me off so much when they made us suffer through Fear and Trembling—I pretty much lost it. I told Ben that I would never have married him if I had known he was going to be an apologist for the patriarchy, not to mention the kind of man who thinks of children as THINGS a father can just decide to slaughter on a slab of rock because he thinks God told him to. He told me that I had no understanding of symbolism or allegory, and that we should probably talk again later when I had gotten my emotions—he came way too close to saying “raging hormones”—under control. I told him that I would pit my emotions against his half-baked philosophy any day.
This is so dumb. But I will not back off. Why should I have to give my child a name I never liked, and have come to hate now that I know why Ben wants it?
—Battling in Brattleboro
Dear B in B,
You are so right about Fear and Trembling. The biblical tale may have many lovely and illuminating symbolic interpretations, but the nuts-and-bolts story as Kierkegaard presents it annoys the hell out of me, too. How can a person “suspend” his or her ethical principles? They are basic, or they would not be ethical principles: ethics must be our foundational intuition. Okay, I get it that God is testing Abraham. But, in that case, either Abraham’s faith makes him certain that God is going to back off at the last minute, in which case the whole story is not really one of sacrifice but of Abraham’s playing along, basically to curry favor; or Abraham really thinks that God may go through with it and make him kill Isaac without giving any reason, in which case Abraham is simply slaughtering an innocent and betraying his own son to appease a powerful bully.
The fact that doing so would also cause Abraham intolerable pain and loss does not make the act any less morally repellent. I suppose one could argue that Abraham is “suspending” his ethics on the ground that God, being God, knows something he doesn’t—some set of facts that would make Isaac’s death serve some greater purpose. But shouldn’t he at least request an explanation? Or one could get into that whole knight of faith leaping into the absurd thing. But one is not an undergraduate.
Maybe your resistance, and mine, is just another way of saying that we back Team Works in the faith vs. works game, and that we are disposed to think of children, and women, as creatures with rights and voices. It would be fun to look into all this, but I will nip my philosophical musings in the bud—because, even though I like getting all worked up about ethics, and even though I wanted to reassure you that you are not alone in chafing at the Abraham story (I kind of think Kierkegaard intended us to), none of this really matters here. When it comes to naming their baby, both parents should have veto power, within reason. And having an aversion to a single name is certainly within reason.
Now how to convince Ben of this? And how to get to a name you and Ben can both live with?
As I am sure you know, there are plenty of websites with lists of baby names. It sounds as if you have not settled on a choice of your own, and it does not sound as if you oppose the initial-A idea. So why not propose one, or a list, of the many other great “A” names as a compromise?
I like Alan, Andrew, and Adrian. There are several great biblical names, if this would make Ben happier: Aaron and Asher come to mind. And then there is Adam, which is about as biblical as it gets—the original Adam, the first human to have a name, would probably have sympathized with your plight, since he had to name all the animals and did not have a whole lot of experience to draw on.
If you wanted to be magnanimous—not that you have to, not at all—you could even agree to Abraham, or Abram, as your baby’s middle name. (Perhaps you could train yourself to think of Lincoln, not the Patriarch, when you hear it?) It will probably dwindle to an initial over time; and if your child ever wants to use only initials, you can’t do better than “A. A.” This solution seems more than fair, since you would be agreeing both to limit the first name to an “A” name and to use Ben’s choice, which you hate, as part of the full name.
But I want to emphasize that this is just an idea that might work, not a suggestion. I would not have you accept Abraham as any part of the name if you really think you can’t live with it. And don’t give up on using your own family name as the middle name, if that plan is already in place. That would be patriarchal indeed!
If none of this works, there are other strategies. When my husband and I chose my daughter’s name, we talked for a few minutes about our general preferences—nothing too novel or made-up sounding, something that could work for two different ethnicities—and made separate lists. It turned out that one name was on both our short lists, so that was that. Other people flip a coin to see who decides, or so I have read, but I would not advise this in your case, where emotions about a particular name run so high on both sides that I think it should be taken out of play. A third strategy is to put the issue to a disinterested third party you both trust. If Ben digs in and offers only Abraham, while you present a whole list of names, most or all starting with “A” to honor Ben’s family tradition, I would not bet on him to prevail with an unbiased third party. But I suppose you would have to live with it if he did.
If you still can’t work it out, you might try counseling. I hope it does not come to that, and it rarely does. I predict that you and Ben will come to an agreement soon and spend a cozy winter anticipating little Arthur, Ari, Alexander, Arthur, or Aldo.
A postscript about punctuation. I put it to my readers: Was anyone bothered by my failure to put quotation marks around names when I was mentioning the name itself, not using it to name somebody? Would people be bothered if I did the opposite?
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.