Dogless (#365)

We had never lived in our house without a dog. The night the owners of our current house accepted our offer, we got our first dog. Woofie came with us to the housing inspection. In less than six months, we’d gotten Woofie a buddy named Fey. Dogs were incorporated into our lifestyle from the start.

They prewashed our dishes, which was especially handy with egg yolk.

They made sure we got exercise: 2-6 miles daily.

They helped us meet our neighbors. (To this day, I generally know the names of all the dogs in the neighborhood. Their owners’ names? No idea.)

They guarded our house and saved us money on alarms and utility bills. If the dogs were home, we could leave the windows open when we were out.

They gave us a handy excuse to leave awkward dinners or parties: “Gotta get home and let out the dogs before Bad Things Happen.”

The dogs helped entertain and raise Baby D, as well as ensuring he had a very robust immune system.

Even in Los Angeles, I could walk those dogs at any hour without an ounce of fear. Only the most desperate, hopeful dog-lovers would approach me and my 160 pounds of canines. (When they did approach, it always made Woofie’s day.)

No TV show was ever as funny as watching their battles over water bottles or tug toys (which generally ended in Woofie dragging Fey around the yard as she hung onto said toy). We spent many summer evenings on our swing in the backyard laughing over their antics.

They were family, whether snuggling with us on the couch at night or counter surfing relentlessly during the day.

And we lost them both to different cancers within a year-and-a-half of each other.

I took losing Woofie hard. So did our Boss Cat. While Fey had guarded her yard all day, Woofie spent much of the day inside, playing with Boss Cat or getting attention from me. I kept expecting to hear his claws on the hardwood floor, or feel his muzzle lift my arm when I paid too much attention to the computer screen.

Boss Cat tried to play with Fey, but Fey was a sensitive German Shepherd mix. When Boss Cat batted her in the face, Fey barked and snapped. A normal cat would have fled. Boss Cat glared and hit Fey with her right paw so hard that the WHAP reverberated through the house. Fey—who had vanquished multiple loose pit bulls, a Tibetan Shepherd mix, and a Rhodesian ridgeback—winced and slunk away. Without a canine playmate, Boss Cat consoled herself with food, gaining a pound after Woofie’s demise.

Andy took Fey’s death hardest. She was his obedient girl who loved to jump on the couch and have him pet her face after he got home from work. Andy consoled himself with Boss Cat, who allowed cuddles and head bunting nightly.

*****

Our dogless house was a quieter place. Less mess. Less money spent at the vet. No need to hurry home from Baby D’s soccer tournaments. It was much easier (and cheaper!) to hire the girls down the block to feed Boss Cat than to find a reliable dog sitter to stay in our house when we traveled.

We closed and locked all our windows up when we left, returning to a house that was a veritable SoCal sauna.

We had to throw out leftover food and waste water rinsing away egg yolks.

I still went for early morning walks, but my only companion was Pokemon Go. Sometimes I would see a big dog and run over, cooing, “Oh my GOD! She’s so cute! Can I say hi?! I have a venison treat in my pocket in case she had allergies is that okay?!”

I had become the desperate dog stalker.

We took care of a friend of a friend’s dog for a few days. Boss Cat hated that dog on sight. She nearly tore out a window screen trying to escape the house and refused to come into the living room until the dog went home.

I told Andy, “I guess if we want another dog, it would have to have Boss Cat’s approval.”

“You want another dog? You’re the one that always goes on about how you have to train it and do all the work.”

“Yeah, but…our house doesn’t feel right. Every morning, going up the hill, I think, ‘This is such a waste of a walk. Some rescue dog out there would be loving this.'”

“We’d have to find a dog that is good with cats and kids.”

“But it has to be a rescue dog that needs a home. A big dog.”

“Not over eighty pounds,” Andy declared. “I need be able to carry the dog ten years from now when it’s old and sick.”

“It’ll have to be trained. And not a puppy. I am not up for spending hours on dog training again.”

“So we’re looking for a dog that’s good with cats, good with kids, is big but under 80 pounds, is young, but not a puppy and fully trained?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “We’re probably not getting another dog for a while, are we?”

And we didn’t.

Until I found the Tank.

The Red Demon: A Short Story (#362)

The orange dog refused to fade.

She still trotted her guard route across the yard and patio, though her black claws no longer clicked against the brick.

Her humans couldn’t see her.

The little boy ran right through her once, waving his giant stick.

Worst of all, her once ferocious bark made no noise.

And it was nearly time for the red demon.

The orange dog had protected her yard, her people, and even the dog-smacking cat for years. Once a week, just after the sun rose, the red demon approached the house, growling. She could smell its oily scent long before she heard it—a combination of metal blades, minerals, and death.

Every week, the orange dog raced along the fence, warning the demon off with her deep, fierce bark. The red demon would draw close, but turn away at the last minute—unwilling to challenge her.

If there hadn’t been a six-foot fence between the orange dog and the demon, she’d have killed it long ago. Instead, she could only drive it away weekly.

Now, without her fierce bark, how could she scare it away? Without her fighting claws and strong jaws, how could she protect her people? Her packmate had died years before, but that dog had been useless even in his prime. If she hadn’t been around, he’d have invited the demon in to play ball and been slashed to bits by its blades.

Labradors were stupid like that.

The orange dog was both German Shepherd and Chinese Shar-pei. Nothing came in her yard without her permission. Burglars, basset hounds, utility men—they all fled from her.

Even the red demon never tried to breach the fence.

But would the red demon turn away this week? Or would it realize, without her barking, that the yard was unprotected?

Would it try and get her humans?

*****

The red demon’s day dawned cloudy. The mother and the little boy were eating when the orange dog scented the demon. She raced along the fence, chest heaving, her jaws opening and closing.

But the only sound was the red demon’s growl.

Growing louder.

The orange dog raced into the house, around the table, frantically trying to warn the humans.

They didn’t see her.

The red demon drew closer.

The humans kept eating.

How did they not hear its growling? Or smell its sharp metal blades?

The red demon was nearly at the house when the woman cocked her head and said to the little boy, “It’s the mower for the school field.” She sniffled and said, “I keep expecting to hear Fey barking at it. Remember? She really hated that thing.”

Then the woman barked. Just a small, “Roof-roof-roof!” Nothing at all like the orange dog’s powerful, “ROOF-ROOF-ROOF! MOVE ON OR DIE, RED DEMON!

The little boy began barking, too: “Roof! Roof-roof-roof!!”

Crying and laughing, the humans barked. Joyously, Fey barked with them, though they could not hear her.

The red demon turned away. Just as it had for the orange dog for eleven years.

The humans understood. The yard was protected.

Content, she slipped back out to her patio. A stray shaft of sunlight had warmed the brick. Fey curled up in the light.

And faded away.

 

The Fire Is Out (#350)

Once upon a time, I was good at dating. Like, fire emoji good. If I didn’t have a serious boyfriend, I was usually dating several different guys (and very open about that fact, don’t be thinking I was a serial cheater or something). I was always on the lookout for potentially new, more interesting boyfriends. Every place I went, I automatically assessed the men:

Like every other woman in the world, I sometimes ignored my own assessments and made some Very Bad Choices. I also dated some very nice men where our timing, our religion, or our goals just didn’t work out. By the time I met my future husband Andy, I had accrued quite a few gifts from those exes. Plus a bunch from the messed up ones, too.

Once Andy and I were dating, those gifts not-so-mysteriously disappeared (i.e., Andy broke them or threw them away). The only survivors were jewelry I hurriedly gave to my younger sisters.

After we got married and Andy heaved my box marked “Romantic Correspondence” into a dumpster, he declared victory. (What? Doesn’t every writer keep a box like that? It is was potential material!)

Andy hasn’t been jealous or competitive with other men since. Not that he had reason to be. Other men? An affair? When the fuck would I even have the time, let alone the interest?

Baby D and his army of plushies. Wars staged daily.

 I was (and still am) too busy with our pets, raising our tornado of a child WHO NEVER NAPPED, running our household, volunteering at school/ soccer, and trying to squeeze in writing to even think about men. Except in a smash the patriarchy kind of way.

I figured other moms felt the same. Until the fire department arrived.

Every year, a nearby fire department goes around our neighborhood, stopping at each hydrant to test new recruits on connecting hoses to the hydrant. Every year, the fire truck collects a mesmerized audience of toddlers, preschoolers, and their caretakers. The first year, I followed fire department aficionado Baby D in his little cozy coupe car, grateful I didn’t need to entertain him with stuffed animal wars or Nerf weapons for a whole 15 minutes. (All I had to do was listen as Baby D lectured me on the differences between the pumper truck, the aerial ladder truck, and the urban search and rescue truck.)

When the fire pumper truck finally drove away, one of the moms said, “Some of those firefighters were pretty cute, huh?”

I looked at her blankly and said, “What?” because I literally could not comprehend what she said.

She winked, laughed, and said, “Yeah, right” before spotting her kid scootering into the street. “Wyatt! Back on the sidewalk!”

I don’t know if those firefighters were all male, let alone “cute.” What men looked like no longer registered. One of them could’ve started dancing and stripping down and I’d’ve been like, “Hey, can my kid have your hard hat so he can pretend to be a firefighter and maybe entertain himself for 5 seconds?”

I don’t know where my neighbor mom got the energy to assess firefighter attractiveness.

Maybe little Wyatt took naps.

One Mom, Every Mom (#349)

My husband did (and still does) a lot of wrestling with Baby D. But our son’s main playmate, when there was no school, sports, or playing with the kids on the block, has always been me.

Baby D loves the water. Swimming is a good way to wear out any kid, even those of the inexhaustible variety. We’d always get to the pool at least a half-hour before lessons and play games. And by games I mean:

Baby D: “Mommy, let’s pretend you are Mommy Whale and I am Baby Whale!”

Me: “Can’t I be Mommy Shark?”

Baby D: “No! Because I am Baby Whale!” (Swims out to middle of pool, proceeds to spin and thrash.) “MOMMY WHALE! MOMMY WHALE! Baby Whale is caught in a whirlpool!”

I would sigh, ignore the sniggering lifeguard and go to “rescue” Baby Whale.

Golden Pond, Town Beach

When Baby D was older, but stuck with only me as a playmate at a New Hampshire lake, the games became more involved. They were inevitably based on whatever he’d read most recently:

Baby D: “Okay, this rock is Momdor and you have to defend it and not let me touch it!” (Baby D charges, freestyling like mad. I scoop him up and throw him a few feet back. Repeatedly. I tire out way before my kid.)

Me (mining blowing a horn): “Momdor calls for aid! Momdor calls for aid! Where are the Riders of Rohan?!”

Baby D (outraged): “Momdor isn’t GONDOR! It’s MORDOR!!”

Me: “Not a chance, Baby Sauron. I’m Gondor AND the Houses of Healing.”

I certainly felt like a besieged nurse on a regular basis. Andy had one of his lemon episodes soon after our beloved rescue dog Woofie was diagnosed with a terminal fibrosarcoma. Then our other rescue, Fey, injured herself shoving Woofie out of the way in order to claim attention from friends and neighbors who came visit Woofie one last time (Woofie had always believed everyone was his friend. Turns out, he wasn’t wrong.)

That month had a lot of trips to human and canine physicians. While sitting in yet another waiting room—don’t ask me which kind—I wrote the following (apologies to Tolkien):

Three X-rays for the denizens
In the house of sturdy brick
A canine with a cancer
And a skull that’s awfully thick
His wussy shar-pei sister
Yelps with compressed discs of three
And the man that ought to walk them
Had surgery on his knee.
One Mom to nurse them all
One Mom to chide them
One Mom to find those pills
Wherever doggies hide them.

I was not, however, the only poet in the family. The following Mother’s Day, Baby D’s class wrote poems about their moms. Baby D’s started off and ended as quite the ode:

My mom is hardworking
She always supports me
She lets me do soccer and
Supports me with glee…

…I love my mother truly
She is the greatest for me
Amazing she can see
What is the best for me!

But the middle? It contained this gem:

When my mother is resentful
I know to hide in my room
Else will come my doom!

Maybe Momdor is Mordor after all.

Or maybe every Gondor has a bit of Mordor in it.

Actual poem & picture. Baby D says it’s tree. Andy says it looks like our dog Fey up on her hind legs. I say words always trump illustration.

If you were hoping for a Christmas Post, here’s my husband’s first New England Christmas. If you want Christmas AND you got every single Tolkien reference in this post, here’s the perfect read for you: The North Polar Bear.

 

To Prance, Perchance to Soar (#345)

Our rescue dog Woofie was a tough cookie. He ran headfirst into everything from a shovel to a Volvo station wagon without a single yelp. He took endless hits across the muzzle when playing with Boss Cat.

Maybe Woofie was extra tough because he had a back hock that was slowly disintegrating, due to an injury as a puppy. We’d explored putting in a plate and screws to fix the joint in place and provide stability, but that would still be painful—even after surgery healed. Woofie loved to stretch out his legs behind him, too, which he’d never be able to do again.

We tried to give Woofie enough exercise and play to keep him happy without further injuring the joint. He was on pain meds daily, but the vet warned us to be careful about how many we gave him, since longterm use can cause organ damage. Sometimes Woofie would play too hard and the next day we’d be icing his ankle until he was willing to put weight on it. He loved walking Baby D and the neighborhood kids to school. Unfortunately, the walk was over a mile and uphill, so I only took him once a week. When I took our other dog Fey instead, I had to hide pillows and stuffed animals, lest Woofie eviscerate them in fits of pique.

Fortunately, Woofie loved to spend hours basking in the sun as well as playing. When it was cloudy outside, he’d whine at me, as if insisting I personally push back the clouds.

Despite his injury, Woofie was a super happy dog who loved every dog and person he ever met. He was ninety pounds of prancing love, and universally adored.

So of course he got cancer. When he was nine, a bump appeared on his muzzle, . A trip to the regular vet led to a trip to the cancer vet which led to X-rays and a biopsy.

“It’s a fibrosarcoma,” I told Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister, who was an oncologist.

She let out a sigh and said, “Fibrosarcomas are the badasses of the cancer world. Even if you remove it, it’s gonna come back.”

“Yeah, that’s what the vet oncologist told us. Woofie would lose part of his nose if they remove it, and we could try and keep the tumor in check with radiation, buy us some more time with him, but… What do you think we should do?”

“There’s no wrong answer.”

“I bet there is.”

“Really, there isn’t,” insisted the most judgmental person in the whole world.

“I know you think there is one, so just tell me.”

“You are not giving me enough credit, Autumn. You have to pick the option that seems best to you,” is all that Dr. Sis would say.

Which either showed personal growth or was good oncologist-speak, but also total bullshit. I knew there was a wrong answer. I knew she knew it. I just had to have the courage to face it.

While humans generally depend on our eyes, dogs take in the most information through their nose. Even canine hearing, while superior to human hearing, is not as vital to a dog as a sense of smell. Blind and deaf dogs have easily compensate with their amazing olfactory receptors, which can smell everything from a grain of cocaine to plummeting blood sugar.

Woofie was all about his muzzle. He poked dogs, humans, and cats with it to demand attention. He stole cookies, bread, and potstickers from the counter. He sniffed down every errant cheerio Baby D ever dropped in the house or the car. And he chewed everything from cow femurs to wooden Thomas the Tank Engine  train tracks. It was essential to his quality of life.

Radiation might give us more time with Woofie, but was it worth the pain he’d have to endure? Just because Woofie could take the pain didn’t mean it was fair to inflict it.

With a dog, you can’t explain the future or death (though maybe we can someday—some animals can communicate amazingly well with soundboards). You can’t ask dogs if they are willing to trade pain for more life. Dogs are creatures who live purely in the moment. How could I make any of Woofie’s moments more painful in order to postpone my own pain when he was gone?

I could not.

Andy, thankfully, agreed.

We opted for the quality of Woofie’s life over the length of it. Since we no longer had to worry about longterm damage, we loaded him up on pain meds and removed all activity restrictions.

Woofie pranced the kids to school every day. On the weekends, I let him chase the tennis ball on the school field as long as he wanted. We went to the dog park, mud and kennel cough be damned. We took him to the park to chase squirrels. At home, without any twinges in his hock to stop him, Woofie countersurfed relentlessly, stealing tortilla chips, a corncob, and a pizza. Of course we let him have everything (except the corncob, which he had tried before and thrown up).

The bump on his nose kept growing, but Woofie didn’t seem to notice.

He was flying high.
Literally.

Cat on the Run (#343)

Some cats see an open back door, yawn, and go back to sleep.

Some cats bolt at the speed of light.

Our Boss Cat would bolt—and then stop in the center of the patio. She’d look back at the human in the doorway, tail twitching. If no chicken bribe appeared within 30 seconds, Boss Cat would climb a tree and disappear over the fence.

Her hapless humans would then circle the block with chicken, calling, “Here, kitty-kitty! C’mon, Boss!”

The speed with which we found Boss Cat was inversely proportional to the time since her last meal. If she’d just eaten or already gorged on a chicken bribe, she couldn’t be lured home. Instead, I’d walk around, checking in with dog walkers.

Boss Cat liked dogs. She liked to play with them. She especially liked to hit them in the face. While out hunting for Boss with our dogs, I once ran into one outraged neighbor and his prized Basset hound show dogs.

The Champion Basset Hounds

 “Look out,” he warned me. “There’s a cat back there that’s followed us half a block and keeps trying to attack my dogs! I think it might be rabid!”

I sighed. “She’s not rabid. She’s mine. She likes to beat up dogs.”

The neighbor stared at ninety-pound Woofie and seventy-pound Fey. “Even those big dogs?”

“These dogs are her personal punching bags. She’s clearly bored and hoping for new targets.”

A neighbor across the street, one who didn’t have a fence but who trained her Labrador retrievers to stay on her property (mostly), flagged me down during another hunt for Boss.

“Your cat was sitting in your front yard a little while ago. My six-month-old puppy saw her and went on alert. I told puppy to leave it, but she charged across the street and straight up to your cat.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Your cat didn’t even MOVE until puppy got close. Then she smacked puppy right across the muzzle. It was so hard I heard it, clear across the street. Puppy ran back to me as fast as she could. I don’t think she’ll be leaving the yard to chase cats again,” the neighbor laughed.

Boss could clearly take care of herself, but I still worried. All it would take was a car or a coyote, and we’d have no more Boss Cat. Baby D would be devastated. I would be devastated. Even Andy would be devastated (maybe).

One evening, when my ExStepmother was visiting, I circled the block repeatedly, unable to find the cat—until a neighbor over the back fence finally pointed up.

Boss Cat was lying across the telephone wire above our backyard, a foot or two from the telephone pole. Maybe she got there while in hot pursuit of a squirrel (telephone wires are the squirrel highways of the neighborhood). Her perch was precarious, at best, with her belly straddling the wire and one front claw snagged on the wire.

I could see the problem. If Boss yanked hard enough to pull her claw out, she’d lose her balance and fall. She might even wind up hanging by that one claw.

Baby D turned to me, face full of alarm. “Mommy! You have to save her!”

“That’s twenty feet up!” exclaimed my ExStepmother. “Mommy needs to call the fire department!”

I shook my head and went to get the ladder, telling her, “I read recently that fire departments don’t do that anymore. At least not in big cities.” (ExStepmother is from a small town in New Hampshire.)

Now, no one knows better than I do that even if Boss Cat fell, she would probably be fine. Cats are built to land from great heights. Humans…not so much.

I climbed the ladder anyway.  I couldn’t stand to see Boss Cat stuck like that, especially not as nightfall approached. And I couldn’t let my cat or my kid down.

At the top of the ladder, I was still about 10 feet shy of the cat. I moved to the telephone pole, continuing upwards using the metal rods driven into the pole that utility workers use to access electrical and phone lines.

Which was when I discovered why utility workers always wear heavy clothing and gloves, even in summer. Those telephone poles are not smooth. They are splinter fucking central.

Close up of a never-been-sanded telephone pole.

It was like climbing a porcupine–and I was wearing light cotton clothing. I collected slinters on my stomach, chest, and hands. I gritted my teeth, continuing until I was high enough to reach the cat.

This was the part that worried me. Cats are not the most rational or trusting creatures. Boss might fight me, or try and flee. And how was I going to carry her back down? I had not thought this rescue through.

I was an idiot.

Luckily, my cat was not an idiot. Boss Cat didn’t fight as I unhooked her claw. She immediately crept across the wire and my arm, settling herself smoothly across my shoulders. Like she’d totally thought this through while I was climbing. Or like she rode human elevators daily. The cat stayed put until we were about 8 feet off the ground. Then Boss Cat jumped down and went straight to Baby D, who carried her inside and fed her chicken.

I put away the ladder and spent the following week removing splinters.

The next time Baby D’s Cub Scout troop visited the local fire department, I did ask one of the firemen, “You guys don’t get cats out of trees anymore, do you?”

The nice young fireman said, “Actually, we will if we aren’t too busy.”

SONUVABITCH.

Author’s Note: If your cat ever does get stuck in a tree, who you gonna call? An arborist. 

A Doggie Story (#339)

Our rescue dogs were very different in temperament. Woofie, the Labrador mix, saw every creature as a potential playmate. If he could have, that dog would have opened the door to any stranger with a ball…or a knife, or a gun.

Fey, our German shepherd and shar-pei mix, saw every stranger as a potential threat, unless they were a white male over six feet tall who smelled like In-n-Out burgers. (You can probably guess who rescued her from the streets of Los Angeles and what food they used to gain a starving dog’s trust.) Fey refused to let the gas meter man near the house, which was a pain in the ass, but she also refused to let burglars break into the house, which everyone except Woofie found heroic.

Woofie shook off criticism like water. “Bad dog!” meant nothing to him. So did “no!” and even, “Jesus fucking Christ, Woofie, how did you dig up an entire bougainvillea in two minutes?!” Continue reading A Doggie Story (#339)

Sweetsgiving (#330)

I love sweets. But as a kid with a ton of siblings and not enough money, sweets only appeared in abundance for special events.

My parents’ weddings had cake. Birthdays began with doughnuts. Halloween had candy. Christmas had cookies.

Thanksgiving? A total letdown. My mom and stepfatherspent hours trying to get their homemade cranberry sauce to come out of a ridiculous antique rose mold. It molded properly exactly once and ALWAYS tasted bitter. And pumpkin pie? Could there BE a blander pie?

My dad made the only decent Thanksgiving dessert—apple pie. So of course our Labrador retriever Toffee got on the counter and ate it. Continue reading Sweetsgiving (#330)

Mother’s Day Musings (#321)

Content Warning: We’ve lost so many millions of mothers to COVID this year that even relentless jewelry-hawkers like Pandora are exercising a modicum of compassion in their Mother’s Day advertising. If you aren’t up for reading about the holiday, skip this post and consider yourself hugged.

My mom died when I was a teenager. I dreaded Mother’s Day every year after that.

I’d’ve liked to ignore the entire day. Or better still, the entire week.

Instead, there were celebrations for the other moms in my life. By the time I left home, I had to remember cards and gifts for my ex-stepmother, my current stepmother, my former stepfather’s current wife, etc. (My family is so complicated that my Big Brother finally made a PowerPoint presentation for those foolish enough to marry into it. My husband is still bitter Big Brother didn’t make it until after we got married.)

After I got married, though, Mother’s Day wasn’t so bad. Continue reading Mother’s Day Musings (#321)

Shoe In, Shoe Out (#317)

When you marry across cultures, there are bound to be a few differences.

Some differences are jarring at first—like my husband’s Chinese-American family openly discussing money. If you’re open-minded, however, you can learn to embrace coupons and brag about how much money you saved.

Other differences seem insurmountable, especially when much vaunted Western autonomy clashes with Asian filial piety. That’s when it’s important to distance yourself from the issue. I found that 3,000 miles proved effective. Mostly.

But every so often, a practice from another culture makes you say, “That’s brilliant! Why don’t we do that?!”

Like shoes. Continue reading Shoe In, Shoe Out (#317)