Photo Essay

The Enigma of Cats, or A Cautionary Tale About Electricity

In my dream I see the Sphinx fading up mysteriously onto the screen of my darkened Blackberry. And we talk.

By Mark Fenton
Published January 18, 2008

Perhaps my most vivid image from this past Christmas is the above photo of our cat entangled in the wrapping paper of opened presents. But as with any activity a cat insinuates itself into, she seems only superficially engaged in it.

The sphere of her eye suggests that her thoughts are elsewhere. The eye is not focused on an object. Rather the cat's essence is contained within the primal geometric form of the eye itself.

Cat's-eye, it occurred to me, is the name for a type of marble. Now I have no personal involvement with the picayune and snooty community of marble traders (and here's an example of what I mean, taken from some fast surfing off into

I'd previously given cat's-eyes short shrift, treated them as a weak sister in the marble field and generally parroted the usual jingoistic feelings.)

and don't necessarily want to communicate with anyone who does, but I might posit that the mystique of cat's-eye marble lies within the ocular enigma of the animal's eye itself.

A few days after this study of our cat was taken (I believe by my younger daughter) our family was at a restaurant. I am large and clumsy at the best of times and taking off my bulky coat I somehow entangled one of the arms in the restaurant's challenging system of halogen track lighting.

There are two parallel cables running just below the ceiling from wall to wall and the lamps hang on wire like a hammock held in balance by spherical glass weights at each end dangling down over the outside of the track, thus:

I would like to say I was struck by the large, translucent marble spheres and made a connection between them and cat's-eye marbles, and by extension the impenetrable eye of the cat.

But I didn't. I had actually noted these lights before, and always thought the track was just there to support them and that they were powered by some small battery. The lights hang about 5.5 feet above floor level and I knocked into one of the spheres as I was taking off my coat. The ends are so light that one swung and wrapped itself several times around the other.

It turns out the track actually powers the light by making contact with the individual lamp wires. All of it live and bare. As the two end wires met they caused what I imagine was a short circuit. A spectacular array of white sparks sprayed from the wires. And the light went out, as did the series of lights down the track.

(Being an older house owner, I know that insurance companies get uptight at the prospect of knob and tube wiring, but it seems live wires slung below head height in a restaurant are just fine.)

Already staff and customers were looking at me. I decided, unwisely in retrospect, to unwind the two spheres, which was difficult given that they were many times encircling one another like lovers long apart who would now defy any separation.

Unwinding them caused a series of small electric shocks to course through my entire body as I alternately untangled and released them in reaction to involuntary electrolysis. I got them apart just as the waitress arrived, and asked if I was OK (sternly enough to indicate that I should know better than to fool with such things, but kind enough to suggest it was unfortunate that the restaurant was presenting such pain and peril within the first minutes of my stay).

There is a scene in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a 70s caper film about the ransom of passengers on a New York subway by a gang of four men

who identify themselves by the name of a colour prefixed by "Mr." The scene I was thinking of involved the criminal "Mr. Blue," played by Robert Shaw, finally aprehended on the track, at gunpoint, by Walter Matthau, an enforcement officer for the Subway.

Rather than be captured and face life imprisonment he chooses self-electrocution by placing each foot against the electrically charged subway tracks. We then see him expire in a haze of smoke.

Sure, the voltage of restaurant-lighting would be less than that required to move a train, but I was still glad that I hadn't touched BOTH ends of the wire simultaneously.

After I'd finally gotten the wires apart and the lights had come back on, the live sphere-weighted cords continued to pendulum dangerously close to one another for what seemed like the whole time we were dining. The family across from us wouldn't stop staring.

Also the waitress kept returning to see if I was alright and that I wasn't interested in suing the restaurant. She didn't seem to want to let the issue drop. And I sensed something accusatory. That I was adult enough and competent enough to have avoided this.

I didn't like that.

In The Idiots by The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier a group of fine-arts graduates, too unambitious even to become performance artists, decide to live together and go about in public pretending to be members of a group home for the mentally challenged. They appoint one of the group to "mind" while the others all "spaz."

A lot of it involves the group of them getting naked in public places (which I wasn't prepared to do) but they also go to restaurants and wander around with no regard for propriety, taking bits of food off the plates of strangers and drooling, as the minder runs around trying to keep them under control and apologizes profusely.

I thought it might be an idea to pretend I was someone like that who couldn't help running into electrified lines. So I started speaking in slow broken sentences and referring to my partner as my nurse, which just made her roll her eyes like a minder might. The kids looked like they wished they'd stayed home.

I can only imagine the staff meeting following the incident.

Owner: How the hell would you run into those things? They're right over the middle of the table! Do we put up a sign that says "PLEASE REFRAIN FROM HANDLING ELECTRIFIED TRACK LIGHTING."

Waitress: I think the guy might have had special needs.

Owner: Huh?

Waitress: He kept calling the woman he was with his nurse. That would fit. She was way too attractive and together to be with a spaz like that.

Owner: Great. We put up a sign that says "IDIOTS SEATED AT OWN RISK."

Waitress:'t think you can actually do that...and I don't think "idiots" is really the acceptable term...

Owner: THANK you...I KNOW you're just doing this job until you get your MA. I never wanted those finicky things anyway.

Decorator: Excuse me, but those lights MAKE the décor. The rest of it is just an EXCUSE for the lights. If they go I want my name OFF the job.

The nightmare didn't end here.

The next day I discovered that my Blackberry was behaving very strangely. It had been strapped to my belt at the restaurant and I can only attribute the effect to damage done by electricity coursing through my body and into the unit strapped on my bet.

Now when I typed a message, the letters came out all wrong. It wasn't even a letter-for-letter code. A single letter pressed would often produce two unrelated letters. For instance the sentence you're reading would appear something like: "Pppee kgilelln nnj peintenc ksidk wskkdim wkggjhr opkkuiie uefsktish wllcr."

"This is a code," I thought, "and like any code it can be broken."

I thought back to the early months of the 2nd world war. Communication amongst the German Navy was coded and decoded through diabolical device known as the Enigma. The machine had a keypad and then a corresponding alphabet with each letter attached to a bulb that lit up according to the coded relationship. But so complex was the set of cogs and wires between the two keypads, that, for example, the letters zzz could be decoded by the machine as "cat."

An Enigma was intercepted by the British. Alan Turing, the great mathematician and forefather of the computer, was recruited to break the system.

The message from the Enigma forced on it's decoder a set of possibilities equaling somewhere in the range of 150,000,000,000,000,000,000

Enigma Machine (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Enigma Machine (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

The plugboard, keyboard, lamps, and finger-wheels of the rotors emerging from the inner lid of a three-rotor German military Enigma machine

and this is the kind of challenge my Blackberry seemed to be presenting me with.

It was only some hours later that it occurred to me the culprit may have been the electrical charge that passed through my body and into my device.

However, not having a Turing-like intelligence and military resources to supply a decoding machine to every person I might email, I went to visit the vendor of my Blackberry, in a shop in a strip mall, which I approached shamefully through back alleys,

and which, despite my anxiety, impressed me with its mathematically perfect regression of angles into the distance, like some monumental Egyptian passageway to a sacred idol.

A brisk young man dressed effectively in office-casual-wear met me. We looked up my contract. Everything was in order. I'd even applied for extra warranty. It was all good. I was to hang on to the unit for now. They would order a replacement and I should have it the next day. I thanked him and - perhaps a tiny bit hastily - made to leave.

"Oh, just one more thing."

I turned. He was, for the first time, making penetrating and steady eye contact.

"I should caution you - they examine the units, when they're returned. If they discover liquid or electrical damage, they will make you pay for a new unit."

The rhetoric was alarming. Not "They will charge you for the unit," But "THEY WILL MAKE YOU PAY!"

"Um...Electrical damage... ?"

"For example, if it was subjected to a battery charge in excess of clear instructions in the owner's manual. Extreme heat would be another..."

I shrugged, thanked him again, and left.

When I was about 14 I stayed home sick from school, on a day when, truth be told, I was just fine. I simply wanted to miss Mr. Rihm's science class. I was no Alan Turing then (or now). My experiments never went well.

The one we were going to be doing involved electricity and I had recently put my finger in a light socket because I'd wanted to see what would happen and had received an angry jolt. Electricity wasn't my friend, but reading fiction was. So I acted sick, stayed in bed all day on a Tuesday in February, and read Crime and Punishment in its entirety.

It was horrible. I felt as culpable for missing science class as Roskolnikov was for murdering the old woman and her young tenant. For years, whenever I felt guilty for anything I thought immediately of this exchange between Roskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovitch, the detective on the case:

"Then ... who then ... is the murderer?" he asked in a breathless voice, unable to restrain himself.

Porfiry Petrovitch sank back in his chair, as though he were amazed at the question.

"Who is the murderer?" he repeated, as though unable to believe his ears. "Why, you, Rodion Romanovitch [Roskolnikov]! You are the murderer," he added, almost in a whisper, in a voice of genuine conviction.

- translated by Constance Garnett

And I saw Mr. Rihm, my science teacher, with similar certainty and advantage over me knowing full well that I'd feigned illness only to miss his class.

Today I saw such an accusation in my Blackberry sales rep.

I have no memory of the trip back to office. I kept imagining some assortment of Blackberry technicians and members of the Petersburg detective squad dissecting my unit for electrical damage.

Later that afternoon, to my surprise and joy, the unit was behaving better. It had recovered most of its functions. The only real problem at this point were the letter's "b", "n" and "m." Each produced two letters instead of one, both of them wrong.

"B" became "tg," "n" became "rf" and "m" became "ed", thus: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" became "The quick tgrowrf fox juedps over the lazy dog."

This was something I could work with.

I called my Blackberry vendor to cancel the replacement. Thankfully it wasn't the rep who answered, but a woman with no knowledge of my shady eye contact. She put me on what seemed to me a suspiciously long hold, but returned saying the order was cancelled, no problem.

I sensed rectitude and the experience of one who knows enough of my type to have predicted a person foolish enough to handle electrified cables with a Blackberry strapped to his hip wouldn't push it once consequences were clearly explained.

Here was my first glimpse of the light of deliverance. George Perec, the late French author, published an entire novel called La Disparition which made no use of the letter "e." Perhaps more miraculously it was translated into English -

still without using a single "e." Sure, I was dealing with three letters, but none were vowels. And I was writing a few sentences at a time, not 200 pages.

The ghost of Georges Perec was cheering me on." alt="" title="">

George Perec
George Perec

George Perec

Over the next few days I keyed through this obstacle course. The message

"I should be able to make the meeting by 6:00 pm" had to become "I should get there to discuss issues at the hour we agreed: 18:00."

"Trip cancelled tomorrow," had to became, "Kill trip for day after this!!"

"Roger Wilco" was still good. But, alas, I couldn't make the "M" for Mark, or the "n"s in Fenton. "F" alone didn't seem good. "Sincerely" wasn't allowed. "Regards" dangled meaninglessly.

So my emails were abrupt and unfriendly and, having vowed I'd never do this, I finally succumbed to using emoticons, my identity fading to a generic grin, like the Cheshire cat. :/

It was contrived and affected. And it got worse. We all know our spoken language influences our written language, but the reverse is true as well. My manner of speaking started to change to accommodate the stylistic intricacies dictated by my new 23 letter alphabet.

I'm not saying that I religiously avoided "b"s "n"s and "m"s, but some common words with these letters I had clearly trained myself to regard as danger zones and my manner of speaking wanted, unconsciously, to match the syntax of my writing.

The sentences I spoke were contorted like an intestine; as though the trauma was to the neural patterns in my head as well as to the electrical patterns in my unit.

There was, of course, some integrity to having my written and spoken communication in sync, but after a week of delivering statements like: "That's what I will go to do forthwith," and "You'll wish WHAT for the reports requested last August plus six?" I found co-workers avoiding me, and in meetings the minute-taker was conspicuous in not recording my comments.

I am happy to report that my unit has recovered still further. It now gives me full use of the keypad about 50 percent of the time. I relish this. There the Blackberry sits, inert and unlit on my desk. I quiver in anticipation at the two potential and equal scenarios: "B"s, "n"s and "m"s versus NO "b"s, "n"s and "m"s. Like Schrodinger's Cat

Schrödinger's Cat (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Schrödinger's Cat (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

I posit a functional keypad and a non-functional keypad, smeared like the live/dead cat until I press enter and the quantum superposition collapses.

Not being able to use my Blackberry all the time is actually a blessing, as I no longer feel I need to respond to a message the second it arrives. Coworkers imagine that their request or question is in a queue with other senders or other tasks a busy person like myself might have on his plate. The wait time until my unit is functioning again says to them that Mark Fenton does NOT respond to having the button pushed as immediately as a track of halogen lights.

So at this point I am punished only by a few electrical quirks. I feel relieved at how light this punishment is, rather the way Roskolnikov must have felt, following his conviction, on being given a mere eight years of servitude in second class detention.

Readers will be happy to hear my spoken communication has returned to normal as well (i.e. as normal as it gets for me). The other day a co-worker offered to buy me a coffee. I see this as a step toward reintegration.

* * *

I am still impressed by the phenomenon of the Enigma machine and Turing's response with the Bombe machine, which was able decode it within an hour, despite the fact that the Germans reset the code at midnight every night.

Rebuilt version of Turing's Bombe (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Rebuilt version of Turing's Bombe (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

It reminds me that with a valiant enough exercise of will anything is possible.

Like everybody I dream of perfection. A final release from my sentence. A day when my Blackberry works perfectly again. In my dream I am well past the anxieties of interrogation by Porfiry Petrovitch and the impossibility of Turing machines. In my dream I am visited by the eponymous Enigma: the riddle that the Sphinx asked of all Thebans, and to which Oedipus alone answered correctly.

In my dream I see the Sphinx fading up mysteriously onto the screen of my darkened Blackberry. And we talk.

Sphinx: What speaks with one voice, walks on four feet at dawn, two feet at midday, and three feet legs at dusk, and is weakest when it has most feet.

Mark: HA! That is what I call a no-brainer. It is a HUMAN, just like myself, you cat-limbed wretch, a HUMAN goes about on all fours in infancy, on two feet as an adult - and on three, the third being a cane - in old age. Begone pale feline and update your questions! Two and a half millennia is too long to give the same test. People STUDY those old exams.

And the face will fade to a grin. Then nothing. I will not, like Oedipus, gain the Kingdom of Thebes and Jocasta for my bride (which proved creepy and incestuous and tragic for Oedipus anyway) but I will have dominion over my Blackberry once again, and I will have gained the grace and self-control to move safely in local restaurants.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at

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By kevin (registered) | Posted January 19, 2008 at 11:05:11

I love these pieces, Mark; funny, enigmatic, and always lots of great pictures.

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