Bidding farewell to Shale with a bid for her immortality.

By yearning so relentlessly, Shale showed us all of life.

Shale, léminence grise you see to the right, is dying as I write this. She’s been with us for 19 years, and in that time she taught me more than I ever hoped to know about human (actually all animal) motivation.

I gave her name to the verb I coined to denote the kind of behavior she taught me to watch for: Shaling. From the Willie story Emily Brownbangs at the conception of guile, here is an extended definition of shaling:

Shaling is a word I made up. I named it after a cat of ours – Shale – who turned a commode into her actual throne, the seat of her elaborate cargo cult in and of our guest bathroom.

Looked at as behavior subject to observation, to shale is to window-shop obsessively, and the most aggressive shaling of the train consists of fondling it when it’s parked back at the station. Toddlers will toddle over to inspect and then touch the train. Tentatively and fearfully at first. It’s a benevolent dragon, but it’s still a dragon, after all. But, then, in time, they will caress the lacquered coaches with a loving devotion, the way dad might lovingly caress a sports car – or lovingly caress mom, for that matter!

Shaling is yearning, a wanting that doesn’t stop, but shaling is a way of working to satisfy or at least palliate that desire, too. In the imagination of the kid – or of anyone – the shaling behavior will somehow result in the realization of the dream.

And: Bingo, bango, bongo: The cargo cults I promised you emerge, each one unique to the cultist.

I’m talking about the kids at the mall, but I’m talking about their parents, too. I’m talking about you and me and everyone: We all do this – whether it’s shiny ladies hob-nobbing over snobby baubles or their lonely husbands lingering over the catalogs of virtual companionship online.

Whatever it is, cats or cameras or bison or boats, if you want it badly enough, you’ll work to get it – ideally in a way that can actually work. But between the wanting and the getting is the shaling, and it’s the shaling that keeps you working. We’re all of us chasing a dream – all the time – and that is what makes horse races.

But the essence of shaling is right there to see: Shaling is the propitiation of the god of a cargo cult. The god is what you want. The propitiation is what you’re doing to get it. And the shaling is the wishing and hoping and planning and anticipating that drive your mind to drive all that effort.

I want for my work to outlive me. It answers questions and resolves dilemmas in ways nothing else does. But I want what I’m doing to survive for Shale, too. I want for her name to live forever, in recompense for what she taught us.

Sleep deeply, kitten. More than any other cat I’ve known, you’ve earned a rest.

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  • Splendid and moving. I am totally engaged in shaling and yearning after my piece (and my peace) to come easier after having read this. Splendid my friend.

  • A postscript:

    Shale died last night at around 12:30. She was the sixth cat to die in my arms, and, if there is no pain, that’s a very nice way for cats to go. Going to the vet is not a trauma for dogs, and they go downhill fast once they get started dying. But the last kiss is too short – in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, overlit, clinical space. By contrast, Shale had three weeks of shaling the drain in the perfect cat heaven: Nearly-infinite attention and lobster bisque on demand.

    She learned new shaling gestures to propitiate those indulgences, which was wonderful for me to see: What was that about old dogs and new tricks? And I realized this morning that Shale’s occupation of the guest bathroom was a way of playing the Dutch Uncle game using her own body as the game token. I’ve been thinking a lot about the mere fact of one’s physical presence as an expression of either social attraction or repulsion – inclusion or exclusion – and that thinking is much informed by having watched cats play Dutch Uncle Chess for nearly twenty years. I’ll have more on this in due course.

    Meanwhile: Ave atque vale, Shale. Cura ut valeas. I am forever enriched by you, and I yearn to shed your grey grace everywhere.

  • Monsieur RawFrawg

    Fantastic outlook on life/purpose, thanks for writing this! Could it be that conciousness is the ultimate window through which to shop and want? We all have much in “store” if the price is right.

    Shale on!