Sep 28, 2006

My Father and the Cat Show

My dad was a calm and very quiet man who loathed the idea of drawing attention to himself. He preferred the arts and more scholarly pursuits over playing ball and getting down with it. He was older than all the other dads I knew, having been almost 55 when I was born. I was the last (and an accidental) child and his only daughter. We had a very special bond: I adored him and the feeling was mutual. He died when I was only 16 and it's that aching hole left in my heart when he went away that makes me yearn for the chance to spend time with him as an adult, not a child. To really talk with him. To know him and see him beyond the child's eyes I had when last I saw him. So it is with great surprise I discover a tiny side of my father behind that austere outer shell that I never knew existed.

Long before I was born, nearly a decade in fact, my mother bred persian cats for show. She tells me that my father had nothing to do with the day to day proceedings. She fed them, groomed them religiously, tended to their veterinary needs, cleaned their cages and arranged for the cats to get with other expensive, fancy cats worth a ton of dough to make little expensive, fancy cats that would themselves be worth a bundle in the claustrophobic world of cat fanciers. It was a full-time job. My father would occasionally pet a cat as he walked by one while at home in the evening. Occasionally. And my father seldom attended the shows.

On one occasion though, he did accompany my mother to a championship cat show where she had a cat- just one cat that time- entered for judging. It had done well in it's group and had gone on to be judged in the Best of Show Grand Champion group. Her cat had been one of the first to be judged in that last group, so there was quite a wait while the judges went over all the other cats who had made it to within one step of the championship circle. My mother was in knots and couldn't settle down. My father, being my father, was calm as ever, and told her gently that even if the cat didn't win the big prize, this was a great victory and to be pleased with all that she had accomplished.

When the Best In Show judge proclaimed my mother's cat the winner, and my mother was about to take a step towards the center stage, my father stepped in front of her, pushed her out of the way sideways into a crowd of people and leaped up into the show ring where he not only excitedly shook hands with all the judges and thanked them for their praise for what a perfect specimen of cat he had bred, but also raised the trophy and the blue ribbon high over his head while turning in a circle to accept the crowd's adulation. My mother was stunned.

And so was I when she told me this story. I never saw my dad behave this way, but I sure wish I had. And this hidden side of him goes a long way in explaining a great many of my own behaviors. Clearly, it's genetic, a thought that makes me very happy indeed.

Sep 21, 2006

You Can't Teach an Old Dog Anything

Cordelia Mabel is a really old dog. She's nearly 16 years old, which even by "really old dog" standards, is really old. We bought her from our local shelter when she was just 6 weeks old, and our son was two (he's heading off to college in less than a year). Most of our friends' dogs have left this planet at nearly half her age. And while I know it's a testament to how well we have cared for her, how well she's been treated, and how much she is and has been loved, it still really sucks to have a dog who's this old. Cordelia is deaf, almost completely blind, can no longer manage stairs without a nervous fear of slipping on them (which she has done as her hips quite often play cruel tricks with her mobility) and thus remains solely on the first floor of our home, slips in and out of a foggy and confused sort of dementia depending on the day and smells really creepy. Various people have told me I should put her down, but when I see her pouncing to play and trying to jump up onto me in greeting, I know in my heart it simply isn't time yet. True, these playful episodes last only moments, but have them she does and that alone keeps me from making that awful decision a pet owner must eventually make. She's not so far gone she isn't enjoying life.

To be honest, I have my days where I just wish time would move a bit quicker for her, and for me, as selfish as that is (and I feel the guilt to prove it, trust me). With a house full of antique rugs, a dog who is frighteningly incontinent thus also making for exorbitant rug cleaning bills, and a husband who refuses to let me put Cordelia in a doggie diaper ("Let her have some dignity," he pleads. "A dog was not meant to wear diapers." To which I reply, "And a 19th century sarouk wasn't meant to be smeared with dog shit, either."), my patience is often sorely tested. Between Cordelia Mabel and our cat Maia Louise (who has been afflicted with pica since kittenhood and who will attempt to eat anything left on the floor small enough for her to cram into her tiny mouth only to vomit it up shortly thereafter), I am frequently at my wits' end.

A good day involves the dog being aware of where she is and who we are, the cat isn't teasing the dog to within an inch of her life (at nearly 8 the cat is no spring chicken herself, but still has more than enough Oom in her PahPah to work the dog into a senile lather in a heartbeat, which she heartily enjoys doing and of which the dog isn't so fond), the dog hasn't peed or shit on anything, or peed or shit on something and then managed to sneak a bite or two of it before I can clean it, thus vomiting her snack up on another carpet moments later while I'm still cleaning up the first accident, the cat hasn't eaten a) a ball of lint, b) carpet fibers, c) grass, d) a ball of her own fur, e) grout from the loose bathroom tiles, f) the dog's toenails, g) stray bits of chicken bedding from the barn that accidentally was tracked into the kitchen on my boots, h) the ears off a sock mouse, i) loose bits of down from bedroom pillows, j) small bits of straw that have broken off the broom while sweeping, or k) anything but her expensive little cans of cat food to which she turns up her nose and refuses to eat at every meal, every day and then vomits it all up on the stairs where I invariably step in it while barefoot and trying to get quickly down the stairs because I can hear the dog launching another bodily attack in what is usually the room furthest from where I am at the time and/or the room which has the most recently cleaned rug.

I have had Cordelia wander off in a mental fog while I am trying to round up unruly chickens that have escaped from their pen while feeding them, am watering the gardens, or simply have been absent-minded enough to have turned my back to her for more than a minute. For her own safety, I have to make sure she comes back into the house with me, and since she is deaf, I can't simply call to her. For a time I was able to jump up and down and flap my arms wildly at her and she would come when she saw me (I can only imagine what the neighbors thought I was doing), but as she's now blind as well, that's no longer an option. Now I have to beat a path through the woods to find her and only when I am able to walk up to her and touch her head does she return to the yard with me. And being so much shorter in stature than myself, it's far easier for her to move through the brush than it is for me, which leaves me covered in bits of leaves, burrs, and brambles, all of which must be removed from my clothing before I go into the house or the cat will eat every last bit of wood fluff, with the predicted result.

I often dream of what my next dog will be like (since I can't imagine life without a dog), but both guilt over thinking about this while Cordelia is still clinging to this world and thoughts of running another doggie geriatric care center give me pause. When you purchase a pet, you're in it for the long haul, not just until it gets icky and isn't so much fun anymore. And Cordelia deserves nothing less. She wouldn't give up on us and I would never give up on her, young and playful, or old and goofy and everything in between.

Sep 16, 2006

You Can Pick Your Chicken, You Can Pick Your Nose, And Apparently You Can Pick Your Chicken's Nose Too

These are two of our new birds, Tessie Suzette (in the foreground with the molting tail) and Zelda Pearl behind Tessie (Zelda is the chicken disturbingly partial to setting on my husband's head). After quarantining in the kitchen for two weeks, all seemed well with them and they made the move out to the barn to settle in with all the other girls. And all was bliss. No more chickens in the people house (and as such no more chickens roosting on non-chicken surfaces), no more staggered grazing times to keep the old birds separate from the new ones, no more extra work. Within 24 hours of the pullets' reentry into the poultry world, little Tessie took on some alarming symptoms: a very sore and foamy eye and a terrible rattling gurgle in her chest. And then panic set in. Okay, so it wasn't exactly panic, per se, but it was at the very least grave concern. I thought, "What have I done? I may have killed all my chickens. Or made us sick by keeping her in my kitchen. How could I have missed the early onset symptoms of a respiratory illness this severe? What have I done??" Now, I'm not one of those people who are constantly fretting over bird flu and the annihilation of mankind as we know it. Bird flu, or some variation thereof, has been around since the first bird popped out of the first egg somewhere. This is not a new disease. But I have birds, and as such am aware of the warning signs in a flock, and the gurgling in her chest was making me rather nervous. This could be any of a number of illnesses, all of which are contagious to my other birds. I immediately pulled little Tessie out of the barn and set her up in a cage of her own in a separate building. And not only did she cease to exhibit any further symptoms of illness, her existing symptoms disappeared. Completely. Hmm. I watched her for a bit. Nothing. Back into the barn she went as I had clearly begun to hallucinate. The next day her symptoms returned and she even was ambitious enough to have added a new one overnight: a grossly swollen cheek under the foamy eye (not a very attractive look for a chicken) and the rattle was back in her lungs. I checked her from beak to tail and off she went once again to solitary confinement where her symptoms either continued or disappeared in a completely random pattern. So I wasn't hallucinating, but I figured it couldn't possibly be too deadly and put her back in the barn. After all, the other birds had already been exposed to whatever this now-you-see-it-now-you-don't affliction was, and a killer sickness doesn't pop in and out on a breeze. Still, it had me baffled and after days of worry and obsessively checking every chicken in the flock for symptoms, I once again picked up Tessie to give her yet another going-over. And there it was. How I had missed it in the dozens of times I had checked her for signs, I'm not sure. But a pair of tweezers and a quick nose pick later and out came the piece of corn she had managed to wedge up her left nostril. I was telling a duck breeder about this and she told me that she has a duck who regularly gets feed shoved up his nose and has to have it plucked out before it becomes infected. Fabulous. I can't say enough just how thrilled I am at the prospect of picking my chicken's nose regularly for her. Thank you Tessie, from the bottom of my heart. I'm just happy you're healthy.

Sep 10, 2006

Lady Godiva: Just a Naked Girl on a Horse?

Last night my husband and I went to our 25th high school reunion where I struck up a conversation with a very old friend I haven't seen in a million years, a friend I first met at elementary school when I moved to my hometown at 7 years old. She told me, "I'm glad you're here because the other day I was thinking about tonight and out of the blue I suddenly had a very sharp memory of when I first met you. You and another little girl named Janice used to trot around the playground every day at recess whinnying and prancing and pretending you were both horses." Unfortunately, I remember that well, though I hadn't thought of it since probably around the time I ceased to behave that way. (I did, in fact, prance around a lot as a child pretending I was a horse, both in and out of school. Funnily enough, I always seemed to have a current best friend who did it as well. In the few hours since being reminded of this bizarre activity, I now wonder if this was a behavior that the best friend du jour would have engaged in on their own time as I did even when alone, or whether I was somewhat influential in steering their behavior towards my own interest. Since a time-machine isn't currently available to accommodate my return trip to see if I was, in fact, a weirdly manipulative little girl, the world may never know. After all, Mr. Peabody and I aren't as close as we used to be). And last night this old friend went on to say, "But the really funny thing was that I suddenly remembered the first time you spoke to me. You galloped over, whinnied, and told me quite proudly, 'When I grow up, I'm going to pose in Playboy Magazine. And off you went.' " Well. What could I say to that? I have absolutely no memory of that little nugget coming out of my mouth 36 years ago, nor can I imagine why it would have, since I don't believe I even had an inkling of what Playboy was at that age or for many years after, but there you have it. I laughed and laughed and told her that it just goes to show how far from normal I am, to which my husband added, "And how far you've clearly always been." But the truly funny part is that this friend then went on to add that in her 7 year old mind, Playboy was an equestrian magazine of some sort and she thought how neat it was that there'd be pictures of me in there riding all those pretty horses I loved so much. Who the hell knows what in my 7 year old brain I thought Playboy was. Clearly anything is possible. I wonder if I posed for Playboy now, in lieu of payment, Hugh Hefner would buy me a horse?

Sep 1, 2006

"This Old House" Meets "Green Acres"

When one's antique home is in the midst of a rather extensive renovation project, and things are already a chaotic mess from one room to the other, it is perhaps not such a good idea to sally out and impulsively purchase a few more young chickens, only to find that the separate outbuilding where you usually quarantine any new birds is temporarily unusable, thus facilitating the need to put said chickens in your home for the two week period necessary for guaranteeing that they will not enter your barn and kill every pre-existing resident in there. So on top of the dust and old wood, drop cloths and tools, there sits a very large cage in my kitchen with some birds in it who I hope are not ill, as now they're being housed in the only room in our house left to eat in (other than maybe a closet or two upstairs), as the dining room is one of the many rooms under siege at the present moment. And as the floor in our office is presently in another outbuilding waiting to be reinstalled, our office essentials (read: the computer) are also in the kitchen, along with our nearly blind and stone deaf 16 year old dog who can no longer manage the stairs and spends most of her time feeling cozy in this one room. Besides all this, come nightfall it's very disruptive to the chickens when the kitchen lights are turned on and off, thus waking them up over and over again in the misguided belief that morning has once again arrived, resulting in said chickens being cranky, exhausted and, well, rather screechy. And how much bedding and poultry-debris becomes airborne is in direct relation to how fussy said chickens become. Oh, and let's not forget the cat. Personally, the cat could give a rat's ass that there are chickens in her house and barely glances sideways at them, but the chickens aren't quite as nonchalant about the cat, thus precipitating a cackling racket to wake the dead when the cat meanders through for a snack. I also feel badly that the birds are stuck in a cage, albeit quite a roomy one, for so many hours a day, and last night decided that it wouldn't be so bad, given the filthy state the house is in anyways, to let the girls out for a foray around the room. As a result of my kindheartedness, we ended up with a chicken on the stove, a chicken perched atop the computer, and in the worst case, a chicken on top of my husband's head as he was attempting to get some work done on the computer before bedtime. While I found it rather amusing, it's safe to say he did not. Chickens in the house are not his favorite thing. But as to the chicken on his head, maybe it's the same thing with chickens as it is with, say, dogs, whereby they always seem to gravitate to the one person in the room who can't stand dogs. Alright, so it was most likely a case of his head looking big enough and high enough up to make for quite a covetous place to settle in (this is not to imply that my husband has a head that's disproportionately big around or really tall from chin to crown, he doesn't, simply that it looked that way to a little chicken with a brain the size of a shelled walnut. A really small shelled walnut). Needless to say, the chickens were hastily reinstalled in their temporary digs, shortly thereafter we went upstairs to bed, and my husband was kind enough to not remind me that once upon a time not so long ago I promised I wouldn't be buying any more poultry for some time as I already had all the birds I could want. And the chickens, for the most part, slept quietly throughout the remainder of the night. But at breakfast time....
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