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De Otio

August 20, 2009

De Otio (On Leisure) is one of 459,396 letters authored by L. Annaeus Seneca, a Roman guy. Do you like “author” as a verb? I don’t. Seneca was one of those smug cocksuckers who think they know exactly the right way for themselves and everyone else to live, and to compound the obnoxiousness, he had enough free time that he was able to compose not only dozens of preachy self-congratulatory letters about the purported awesomeness of Stoicism per day but also a big pile of staggeringly awful tragedies as well as one short satire, the Apocolocyntosis, that surprisingly enough doesn’t suck at all and is about a 4 out of 10 on the comedy scale. That’s actually a pretty high rating for a person in 2009 to be giving to anything written before 1950. Humour is not timeless. The only exception is bathroom humour, and Aristophanes was the only classical author who really understood that. The rest of them were busy attributing comedy value to things like infidelity, savage beatings, and rape. Anyway, the emperor Nero made Seneca kill himself. Well, that’s the government for you. Am I right?

I’ve been shamelessly unemployed since July 10. I quit my full-time “real” job because I thought I was going to start a psychology BA in the fall. I had everything all figured out. Then I spent two weeks at SFU writing workshops, during which time I realized that the gods were going to keep doing crazy shit to me until I moved my literary ambitions from the inconvenient, overlookable back burner to one of the much larger front burners that heat stuff up way faster and are easier to reach. I should be applying for jobs and/or freaking out about money, but instead I’m hanging out at home, blogging (I like “blog” as a participle even less than I like “author” as a verb) and picking at my manuscripts and scheming and plotting and dreaming about 2010 and agonizing about non-work-related things and drinking too much the right amount and watching the birds hectimate the seed at the feeder.

STRAYER’S ETYMOLOGY CORNER: In these meaning-oblivious times, “decimate” is considered synonymous with “annihilate.” But it actually means “to eliminate 10% of.” Decimation was a tactic used very very rarely by Roman generals. The soldiers would line up and every tenth man would be killed. This was intended to strongly encourage the remaining 90% to shape up and fight better.



When I’m feeling lazy, I can usually make myself feel better by thinking about my cat, Sappho, compared to whom I am a captain of industry. Seneca’s De Otio makes no mention of cats. Roman cats must have been more industrious than their modern counterparts. At the very least, they were verminators. But Alberta is rat-free, and my apartment is mouse-free, and due to Calgary’s ridiculous restrictions on unleashed pets, Sappho couldn’t legally kill birds even if she wanted to, which she pretty clearly does not. She weighs at least fifteen pounds. She is barely agile enough to jump up onto my bed. She is guaranteed two feedings of delicious Science Diet per day, delivered at predictable intervals to a predictable location. She has spent literally her whole life lying around. Lions and tigers in the wild can appear lazy due to the amount of sleep they require, but these cats earn their rest by undertaking marvellous feats of hunting. Sappho won’t even chase a toy. When I toss one her way, she checks it out with cautious distaste and then looks up at me with this expression in her eyes like, “Seriously? You’ve known me for seven years, and you think I’m going to run after it? You disappoint me.”

This cat spends about eight full hours a day passed out on her side of the couch. I love her, but I’ll be the first to admit that she contributes nothing to society. Now and then she wakes up, looks around, mutters irritably, stretches for like five minutes, and heads slowly for her food dish. With a snack having been consumed, it’s right back to the couch. More and more often these days, she’ll roll over onto her side, open her eyes a crack, and whine grumpily until I reach over and pet her. My favourite is when she theatrically throws her gigantic seven-toed paw over her eyes like a hangover victim shunning the light.

I realize there are less otiose cats in the world. My BFF and her husband – let’s call them Roxanne and, uh, Jurgen – have a cat, Seneca (yes, named after the



Roman asshole mentioned above), who is the exact opposite of Sappho. He will happily chase a toy mouse around the house for hours, after which he still has the energy to spend a good long time sinking his little Dracula fangs into your feet and arms. This makes me wonder whether Sappho’s laziness is a result of my influence and/or “parenting” style. I mean, how do I know that Sappho spends eight hours on her side of the couch? Because I spend those same eight hours on my side, that’s how. And I too refuse to engage in anything resembling a physical activity; the look of perplexed horror that appears on my face when someone invites me to come to the gym or go for a bike ride must be roughly comparable to the one I get from Sappho when I throw her a toy.

I think the only way to settle the feline nature vs. nurture debate would be some kind of cat-trading experiment. Ethics preclude attempting this kind of thing with kids, but several TV stations have done it with wives, so maybe it could also be done with cats. I suspect that three months in, Seneca would have gained 1.5 pounds and totally stopped attacking feet, while Sappho would have learned to respond with grudging politeness to a dangling string.

It’s a beautiful day. I think I’ll make the most of it by spending it outside. By which I mean sit in the sun for eight hours, getting up only when I need a snack.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    August 20, 2009 1:07 pm

    So one might expect that to decimate ten times would be synonymous with annihilate – but not so, for the remaining fraction, (assuming that the general generously recalculates the fraction to be done in each time) would be nine-tenths to the power ten which is a hearty 35%. Thus to decimate ten times is do away with about two of every three – to “besimate” ?

    btw let’s not call him Jurken; how about WFF?

  2. Kate permalink*
    August 20, 2009 1:27 pm

    All generals are generous; it’s right there in the name. So you’re right, it’s kind of a Zeno’s paradox situation. If he eliminates one tenth of the men each time, will he ever kill his entire army?

    Jurgen is a sturdy German name. I think it’s the equivalent of George, which is weird, because given that George comes from Greek and means “earth worker” (=farmer), the German version should be something like Erdwerkmensch or Herr Doktor Landwirter. I guess Jurgen is a transliteration, not a translation. Anyway, the individual in question is welcome to choose his own pseudonym, so WFF it is.

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