Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning to Fake It

R.I.P.  O Christmas Tree
“So ... I’m just throwing the idea out there, but ….”

My husband looks at me, waiting for me to continue.  I wring my hands in imitation of the contortions my stomach is performing.

I shake my head, shrug.  “I was just wondering if maybe ….”

My husband nods in encouragement.

“Well ….”

“What?” he finally asks, although now he’s a little pale and he’s biting his cuticles.

“What do you think about a fake tree?” I blurt out.

He stops biting his cuticles, but his brow falls and his lower lip slides out just a little.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Well, I’m just thinking …  every year we get a tree …sometimes two - -“

“Only once,” he interrupts.  “We only got two trees once.”  And then he gets puppy eyes.  “And that was really nice.”

“But we get really big trees,” I say.  “They’ve got to be at least 10 or 15 years old.”

“They’re from tree farms, they’re not clearing out forests or anything,” he adds.

“Well, yeah, but …” I concede.  “Still, 15 years is a long time and if you figure in the water and then the waste - -“

“The city recycles them,” he says.  “They get all the trees and then make them into mulch for the parks or something.  The trees don’t wind up in the dump.”

“But it’s a live thing,” I say and his face drops.  I’ve hit the right note.  “It’s a live thing that we kill just because we want something that smells good in the house.”

His brows go back up and start to furrow as he thinks.

“It’s like we kill something to make a giant air freshener,” I say.  And then for the final note, “ … and it’s a fire hazard.”

“It’s not a fire hazard,” he argues.  “I keep it watered so it stays fresh all through New Year’s.”

Doh, I pushed too hard, I think.  “Well, they’re messy,” I say.

“You’re a Grinch,” he says, narrowing his eyes at me.  “You’re hating on Christmas again.”

“No,” I say to my own defense.  “I feel sorry for the trees.”

He groans and rolls his eyes at me.  “You eat vegetables.”

“But they don’t take 15 years to grow,” I say.  “And I’m eating them, not just looking at it and smelling it.” 

He sighs.

“And the trees are expensive,” I say, especially since we moved away from our bargain tree place in Southern California.  “And it’s inconvenient since we don’t have a truck.”

We had borrowed his brother’s truck or a family friend’s truck in the past.  He didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone up here.

I know my husband’s a reasonable man.

“O.k., we’ll look,” he says.  “But it can’t look fake.”

I know he’s thinking about my mom’s lop-sided wire bottle brush tree.

“And nothing funky,” he warns, knowing that it’s not beyond me to suggest a feather tree or a tinsel one.

“No,” I assure him.  “We’ll look at something realistic.”

“We’ll look,” he says not fully committing.

“Michael’s has one on sale,” I say.  “It’s nine feet tall and bushy.”

His eyes light up.  “Nine feet?”

“Yes, and they have some taller,” I say.

“Taller?” He grins.

When we get to Michael’s, I can tell he’s wary.  He eyeballs the various trees, surreptitiously touching the “needles,” peering beyond the ornaments to check out the trunks.

“They’ve got too much crap on these trees,” he huffs.  “You can’t really see the trees.”

“But aren’t we going to put a bunch of ornaments and stuff on the tree, too?” I say.  “We hardly see any branches as it is.”

He snorts disgruntledly.  I walk over to a tree with a mix of wire and plastic needles.

“This is the one I’m thinking of,” I say cautiously.

“It’s too short,” he says quickly.

I look at it towering over us.  “It’s nine feet,” I tell him.

“No, it’s not,” he says and points to the raiser beneath all the trees.  “It just looks that way.  They just want you to think it’s a tall tree.”

I hold up the tag for him to read.

“It’s nine feet,” I repeat.

I can tell he’s still skeptical. 

“Look at the cute pinecones on it,” I say and he rolls his eyes and wrinkles his nose.

“Nobody buys pinecones on a Christmas trees,” he says.

“On sale, this tree costs as much as a live tree and it’ll last for several Christmases,” I say.

It’s a losing battle, I think.  Another tree is going to bite the dust.

Then suddenly it comes to me.  His Christmas nemesis.

“It’s pre-lit,” I say quickly.


“The lights are already on it,” I say.

“How can they do that?” he asks looking at the tree closer.

“The tree comes apart in sections and each section has its own set of lights,” I explain.  “When you put the tree together, you plug in the lights.”

“Hm,” he grunts examining the interior of the tree.

Putting the tree on the lights was always an ordeal.

“No more hours spent untangling,” I say.  “No more cursing,  No more frustration.”  I can see this is a deciding factor.  “Just plug it in, and it’s good to go,” I say and then take a step back.  “And there are lots of lights on the tree as well.  Just the way you like it.”

“Um-hm,” he says.

I can see the wheels turning.

“You can even get the multi-colored lights if you want?” I offer.

So, that Christmas we unfolded the fake tree.  He actually went for the white lights.  I put every ornament we owned on it.  I made sure it was the best looking tree we ever had.  I even bought a wreath so he could smell real pine. 

“See?” I said victoriously.  “It’s perfect.”

My husband gave a small nod that wasn’t entirely convincing.

“And you didn’t have to struggle with the lights,” I reminded him.

“That’s true,” he said with a sigh of relief.

That Christmas, we also acquired the Wee One.  He was a mellow dog who came to us as a “foster dog” while he recovered from kennel cough and an eye infection.  He got along perfectly with the Uber Hund and Rockstar and was so cuddly that we couldn’t let him go.

“Where’s Wee One?” my husband asked as he was putting away the empty ornament boxes.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I thought he was with you?”

Guess I got some 'splaining to do.
My husband glanced around.

“Wee One, NOOOOOO!” my husband cried out.

 I rushed over, expecting to see a puddle, a common misunderstanding for dogs experiencing their first indoor tree. The Wee One popped his head up from behind the tree and gave a low tail wag.

It was worse.  Much worse.

My husband held up the two pieces of chewed lighting cord.

As Lucy Ricardo would say, “Eeeeeeeeewwwwww.”


Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Ghost from Christmas Past

"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth"
and for my sister to be out of prison garb.
It’s not unusual to wax nostalgic during the holiday season.  After all, Christmas as a child generally consists of all the fun parts of the holiday season, decorating, eating, visiting, and making and receiving gifts.  As adults, we realize the work involved in creating holiday “magic,” the hauling down of decorations from the attic, the unraveling of the light strings, the planning and shopping for the holiday feasts, and coping with irritated holiday shoppers.  What restores the holiday cheer is often the music, music that can instantly put us in front of the tree, sharing cheer with our loved ones, or singing in the school chorus.  To this day, the opening line of “We Need a Little Christmas,” brings me back to fifth grade on one particular day with the chorus teacher, Mrs. Krause.

It was the third year I was in the chorus.  That year, we “auditioned,” although I didn’t know anyone who was cut.  Without any advanced notice, those who wanted to join the chorus went one by one into an empty room with Mrs. Krause and were told to sing something.  I froze up, not knowing what to sing.  Mrs. Krause started me on “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” except she was a soprano and I was … well, I suppose an alto, but “halt-o” might be a better description.  Still, the tune was identifiable, so I was “in.”  Whether through kindness or charm, being a bad singer was not reason for exclusion.

In those days, school really did feel like a second family.  It seemed like all the teachers, at least by grade level, knew all the students.  Or maybe, as I learned when I took my turn behind the desk, it was that they learned the names of the rabble-rousers first, so that when they called out that child’s name, the rest of us assumed they knew all of our names. With turnabout being fair play, the students also knew all the teachers.  I never had Mrs. Krause as a teacher, but even I knew that no one messed with her.  One kid tried, and she took him by the ear to the principal’s office.  Teachers took in loco parentis seriously back then and our parents supported them.

When I first heard the term “battle ax,” I knew immediately what it meant.  Mrs. Krause was the “Coach Beiste” of our school with an undershot jaw, a pugilist’s nose, and a chest that entered the room significantly before she did.  She always wore dresses (as did most of the teachers in the mid-70s), but because of her build, they looked homemade, usually of a “sensible” fabric, to go along with her sensible shoes.  The bottom of her slip and top of her knee-highs usually showed, probably because her chest blocked the view of anything below it.   

But Mrs. Krause was also one of the kindest teachers I knew.  There was one girl at our school who was from a seriously troubled home.  While this girl frequently acted out, I remember seeing her in quiet conversation with Mrs. Krause several times, and as I was well acquainted with the girl, I knew Mrs. Krause frequently bought her her lunch.  On cold days, Mrs. Krause left her classroom open for lunch and recess, so her students and their friends could take shelter.  Mrs. Krause also wasn’t afraid to give hugs, grabbing us with her Popeye arms and smushing us against her iron clad bosom to express thanks or to praise us for a job well done.

That one day of chorus practice, we had gone through our repertoire of traditional songs and were finishing with “We Need A Little Christmas,” one of our favorites.  We couldn’t get past the first line and we could see the growing frustration on Mrs. Krause’s face.

“Can’t you hear the difference?” she said in exasperation.  “It’s not, ‘Haul out the hooo-oooolly,” It’s, ‘Haul out the hol-ly.”

We sang it over and over again, some of us hearing the difference, others still struggling.  We muttered among ourselves, exaggerating the desired version to help those that didn’t understand until finally we all got it right.  Mrs. Krause beamed and we grinned back, continuing the song with smiles on everyone’s face.  She praised us afterwards, not just on the song, but for rehearsal that day, congratulating us on our persistence.  My friends and I laughed about how long it took for us to figure out the problem and how glad we were that we did.  Other students were doing the same as I could hear smatterings of “haul out the hol-ly” as we walked out the door.  When it came time to perform the song, we all gave a little extra effort to do “hol-ly” and Mrs. Krause proud. While I don’t think she intended for us to accent the word, her nod and wide smile said our conscientiousness was appreciated.

Whenever I hear “We Need a Little Christmas,” I always listen carefully for the “hol-ly.”  37 years later, I still smile.  My heart swells as I remember Mrs. Krause and how our chorus came together to bring a little Christmas to each other that day.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Carol of the Dogs

It might look like an ordinary porch light, but it's magic.
“What time was the guy supposed to come?” my husband asked when we first moved into this house.

“About an hour ago,” I shrugged. 

“Well, I just got a phone call from him and he said no one was home.”

“What do you mean ‘no one was home?’ I was home the whole time,” I inform my husband, my voice an octave higher with irritation.

“He said no one answered the door when he knocked.”

Crap.  I had been upstairs and the backyard.  At that time, we only had the Uber Hundus and Jindos don’t bark.  The guy could have come and gone and I would never have known.

“We need to get a doorbell,” I sighed.

Our 1929 house has had multiple additions over the years and at some point, a two car garage was added and was later converted into the current living room/dining room.  No one bothered to put in a doorbell at the “new” front door, although I suspect someday we’ll discover a doorbell somewhere in one of the closets.

When an electrician arrived for another job, I thought I’d ask about a doorbell as well.  He went outside and examined the entry, the door jamb, felt along the clapboards, knocked on walls as the Uber Hund watched with interest.  The Jindo was an excellent supervisor.  The electrician frowned and came inside and studied the interior wall and jamb.  He flicked on the light switch to the porch light.

“This shouldn’t work,” he declared, flicking the switch on and off several times.

It was the first of many times I would hear that phrase.

“Well, it does,” I said, reinforcing the obvious.

“It shouldn’t,” he said wonder written on his face as he flicked the switch on and off again.

“It’s magic.”

Uber Hundus and I exchanged looks.  The Uber Hund gave a sniff of disdain. 

“So, can you put in a doorbell?” I finally asked, suspecting wizardry was not one of this electrician’s fortes.

“I - - , “ the electrician shook his head in marvel and flicked the switch once more for good measure.  “I don’t know how I would do it.”

The following weekend, my husband and I went to the hardware store and purchased a remote doorbell, the kind that is double-taped onto a surface and has a battery operated receiver.  It worked o.k., except that it wasn’t loud enough to be heard upstairs.  So, I bought an additional receiver, the kind that’s programmed to match the other receiver and I plugged it into an outlet.

It worked.  It worked very well.  We discovered that our neighborhood was a magnet for faux magazine and security system sales, with the occasional missionary and child asking for support of his/her school, club, or team.  There was also UPS, FedEx, and other shipping companies.  And the pizza guy.  And friends.  The doorbell rang at least once a day.

Not long after installing the doorbell, we acquired The Rockstar who, unlike the Uber Hund, does bark.  A year later, we got the Wee One, who also barks.  And bays:  “Aa-rooooooo!  Aa-rooooooo!”

In classic Pavlovian fashion, the younger dogs learned to associate the doorbell with pizza and friends.  Whenever the doorbell rang, The Rockstar and Wee One scrambled, barking and aa-roo-ing, to the door.  They jockeyed for front position, leaping and jumping, trying to out bark and out greet each other.  The Uber Hund observed cooly from a distance, it wasn’t going to be the pizza guy if it wasn’t Friday night.  If it was friends, they’d want to see the Uber Hund first anyway, so there wasn’t any rush.

Because of all the sales, faux and real, we stopped answering the doorbell if we didn’t recognize the person on the other side.  However, the dogs were ever the optimists.  They were staunch believers that whenever the doorbell rang, it could be the pizza guy or friends.  In fact, they probably believed that the more they barked and jockeyed, the more likely it would be the pizza guy or friends, because everyone else would be frightened away.

Fortunately, the police started to crack down on the door-to-door sales scams so they diminished significantly.  We lived here long enough so that the local missionaries stopped trying to recruit us.  We watched for the pizza guy and friends’ arrival and went out to greet them rather than have them ring the bell. 

The house got quieter and calmer.  It was a huge improvement.

And then the doorbell started to mysteriously ring on its own.

Once more, the dogs got whipped into a frenzy.  They’d do their routine, charging at the door, barking and baying.  But most of the time, they’d fade out in confusion since there was no shadow of a figure at the door.    I was a little confused as well.  At first, I thought it was a game of ding-dong ditch.  But there was no giggling, no scampering away as I watched from the upstairs window. 

After a while, I realized that whenever our doorbell rang on its own, the people next door had visitors.  Apparently, the neighbors didn’t have a traditional doorbell, either.  Our doorbells were on the same frequency.  Not only did we get double the ringing of sales visit, but we’d know whenever the neighbors had friends visiting.  And they had lots of friends.

I yanked out the upstairs receiver.

As a Christmas gift last year, we purchased a new front door.  My husband did the installation, pulling out the jamb and hanging and aligning the door.
Waiting for the pizza guy.

“What do you want me to do with this?” he asked, holding up the remote button to the doorbell.

I looked at The Rockstar and the Wee One who wagged their tails with giddy anticipation.

“Chunk it,” I said.

He examined the button doubtfully.  “Really?”

I went outside and stood in front of the glass panel of the new front door and knocked.  The Rockstar and Wee One burst into a joyous noise.

“Yep, really,” I said.

One less bell to answer, but no chance The Rockstar or The Wee One will let me miss any more service visits.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Training Tip:  Do not reward bad behavior.
Let me say it again:  No gifts, please.  Seriously.  I mean it.  None.  Don’t.  I’m not joking.  Please.  Really.

Every Thanksgiving, a queasy sensation grows in my stomach, and it’s not just from sucking too much whip cream from the can.  It usually starts with the Black Friday ads for inane products, like the Forever Lazy or Pajama Jeans.  It’s that feeling of dread of the holidays.  It’s knowing we’ve entered the “gift-giving” season. 

Let me clarify.  It’s not the giving that freaks me out, it’s the receiving. I’m terrified of offending the giver, and it’s a justified fear.  I was not blessed with a poker face and my social filter is defective.  I’ve been known to blurt out things, horribly ungracious remarks.  I know, “it’s the thought that counts,” and I do appreciate the thought.  Really, I do.  And yet somehow I can’t help myself.  And then I just feel awful. 

I try to avoid gift giving situations.  I don’t have bridal showers or housewarming parties or birthday parties.  Although, I did have a fortieth birthday party.  I was blunt on that one.  I specifically stated on the invitation and with conformations “no gifts.”  But, wouldn’t you know, I still received some.  So I’ve decided to no longer mention that an invitation is in celebration of an event.  Still, when the holidays come, there’s no getting around it.  It’s expected for one to give AND receive gifts.

It’s not that I’m a Scrooge.  I enjoy holiday decorations, parties, kids getting whipped up about Santa and reindeer.  I like going into The City and looking at the giant Christmas tree in Union Square and seeing decorations in the stores and shop windows.  I like how people try to be a better version of themselves.  I even like getting gifts for my nieces and nephews, especially because they know exactly what they “need.”  The older ones prefer gifts they can put in their wallets and the younger ones have their consistent likes.

It’s more complicated with adults.  As adults, we usually have the funds and access to get pretty much anything we want, especially in this age of instant gratification.  We all hear the suggestion to get the thing others wouldn’t get for themselves.  Well, there’s a reason why we don’t get “it” for ourselves.  I’ve gone to enough yard sales and thrift shops to see where these gifts end up.  And gift cards, while widening the possibilities of purchases often end up languishing in wallets or bureau drawers – money generously spent, but frequently wasted.  And I feel guilty about that as well.

I understand the desire to give gifts, to show appreciation but at least in my case, my family, friends, and colleagues are gifts in themselves.  I neither need nor want more “stuff.”  I’ve finally convinced my husband that we should do something together for our anniversary, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas to avoid a gift exchange.  I’m being perfectly honest when I tell him all I want is to spend time with him or to share something we both can enjoy, like our new front door or a great bottle of single malt scotch.  Ideally, that’s what I want from my family and friends as well, a moment of sharing.

The holidays are full of hustle and bustle, so I know time is the one gift few can spare, but there’s no reason that the gift of time must be given during the holiday season.  The best gifts I receive are spread throughout the year:  the glasses we raise at Great Big Sea concerts, the confidences exchanged over Wahoo Fish Tacos, the emails we send sharing news of our lives, the words of encouragement we exchange when we’re feeling low.  These are the gifts that I treasure, and truly, they’re enough.  They can’t be purchased and they can only be given by those who love me and by those whom I love.  That’s why receiving tactile gifts worries me so much. I don’t want to hurt the people I love with my boorishness, especially knowing they have only the best intentions at heart.

And yet, there is the compulsion to give.

Some memories have grown a bit hazy with time and martinis...
So, how about a compromise then, dear family and friends?  Since I don’t take pictures, a photograph of you or your children at a memorable event would be great; consumables that we can share at a later date like cookies or a bottle of Two Buck Chuck; a self-made coupon to watch a dvd together at one of our homes, share a frozen yogurt and chatter, or a martini and gossip, or a hike and dog play time; an email with a link to a video that conjures a fond memory we share.  Easy on the wallet and guaranteed to bring a smile to both of us.

For my part, I will try try try to find something that won’t force you to grimace politely and hide that cringe with a sneeze.  I’m sure I’ve come up with some doozy gifts, but my family and friends are much more gracious than I. 


Well, there you go.  That’s another gift given to me, which I’ve been too ungracious to appreciate.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Fox and the Hound

Giving thanks can change at a moment's notice
As a child, Thanksgiving began when my father pulled out the homemade red stained table with detachable pipe legs.  The holiday consisted of cleaning my room (and later the house and yard with my sister), fanning the smoke alarm, waiting for guests, eating and ending with my parents complaining about the outrageous rates plumbers charge for holiday visits. 

We always had a huge holiday spread.  Appetizers consisted of the standard mixed nuts, salami and red wax covered gouda cheese with crackers (if I was lucky, Wheat Thins, if not Triskits, or worse, Ritz).  Crudités with dill or onion dip and pitted black olives which all the children, including my sister and I, immediately popped onto our fingers and waved around like finger puppets made the appetizers Thanksgiving.  The main menu and serving containers were always:  turkey and stuffing on the spiked teak cutting stand,  ham, spikey with cloves, on the pink rimmed platter, Pillsbury Crescent Rolls, kept warm in the electric casket-shaped bread warmer, marshmallow topped yams baked on pineapple rings on the white platter, mashed potatoes in the white casserole dish, gravy in my parents’ wedding china gravy boat, and my father’s creamed corn casserole (one of the three dishes he cooked), served in my grandmother’s brown glazed casserole dish.  Salad made its appearance in any variety of bowls because nobody really cared about salad, except that we needed something “green.”  Mushrooms marinated in Wishbone Italian Dressing were served in a stainless serving bowl.  It was the 1960’s – 70’s.  “Cooking with convenience” was all the rage.  Most of the food was canned or rehydrated.   Except for the turkey. 

My mother and I hated turkey.  It was dry and crunchy.  I assumed that was the nature of the bird, until I went to summer camp, and we cooked a turkey in a dutch oven on hot stones, buried under charcoal and ash.   It was delicious.  Who knew?  After that, my sister and I took turns cooking the turkey.  I stuck to a traditional roast while my sister went the Martha Stewart route, placing herbs beneath the skin, making it look like stained glass when it came out of the oven. 

By far, my favorite part of Thanksgiving was the guests.  My father had some friends who were “larger than life:” the colonel who reminded me of a walrus and his beautiful cat-like wife, the professional gambler who showed up with interesting women when he was “up” and no one when he was “down,” the magician who scared my mother by throwing flames from his hands, and the Italian Count and the Countess.  The Count and Countess were our regular Thanksgiving guests.  In exchange, we went to their house for the Fourth of July, which was ironic considering they still relished their unrecognized titles and the wife was from Hong Kong, still a British colony at that time.

To say the Count and Countess were eccentric would be an understatement.  Their cars were beautifully restored Packards.   The Count was a tall man who only wore bespoke (according to my mother) clothing.  He had a thick black mono-brow and longish wavy grey hair that he combed back so that it looked like a powdered wig (appropriate for the Fourth of July, less so for Thanksgiving).  He had a booming laugh that exposed sharp canines, giving him a dangerous air.  His wife was a petite woman who wore stilettos that made her take tiny minced steps.  She styled herself after Elizabeth Taylor, with exaggerated eye make-up and frosted hair teased into a froth.  She delicately brushed stray locks from her eyes with her pinky finger.  Most of the time, she wore a giant fur coat. 

On one Thanksgiving, the Countess wore a fluffy red fox coat.  It was too large to fit into the coat closet, and for whatever reason, my mother didn’t think it would be appropriate to store in either my sister’s or my room.  Actually, I understood why not my room. I would have petted the fur off of it.  So, instead, she left the coat hanging off the arm of the couch, next to the Countess.  They sat and chatted.

The Gentleman as a puppy.  Note the "piglet belly."
At that time, we had an elegant standard sized long-haired dachshund.  My father taught him basic manners as well as tricks.  We called that doxie The Gentleman because we could leave food on the very low coffee table and he’d never try to take anything. When we had company, The Gentleman would lie quietly on the couch between my mother and the guest and my mother would share her hors d’oeuvres with him as she toyed with his silky hair. 

The Gentleman had one flaw:  he loved to gnaw on fabric.  He could look adoringly at the guest, chin on their laps all the while working his lower jaw on a shirtsleeve or pant cuff.  Nobody would be any the wiser until they stood to leave and saw the wet spot and hole.

On the Thanksgiving the Countess brought her fox fur coat, The Gentleman sat between the Countess and her coat, rather than next to my mother.  Despite the fur coat collection, the Countess loved animals and had two Pekinese dogs that she adored.  No one thought anything was amiss, believing that The Gentleman knew an animal lover when he met one.  The Countess alternated between stroking her coat and petting the dog.  My sister and I were excused from the room.

After a while, my dad announced that dinner was ready.  My sister and I dashed into the hall, but stopped dead when we saw the Count and my dad staring, eyebrows raised, into the living room.  It was as if all the adults were frozen in time.  My mother was ash white, her eyes and mouth open wide in mortification.  The Countess held her fox coat by the shoulders and on the coffee colored satin lining there was a large dark area with a hole through the pocket.  My sister and I looked at The Gentleman who slid off the couch and hurriedly trotted down the hall past us, into my parent’s bedroom, most likely to hide out under their bed.

“I’m so sorry,” my mother managed to say.

My dad’s eyebrows kept lowering until they were set in a glower, and his mouth went tight.  His face turned a dark plum color.

“Uh - -“ My mom’s mouth opened and closed but no other sound came out.

Even I knew that the coat was expensive and that there was no way that we could replace it, like we did with the neighbor’s cashmere trousers.  I looked back at my dad.  He had a terrible temper with us, especially if we embarrassed him in front of his friends.  All I could think about was what he would do with The Gentleman.

“Would you like me to hang up your coat?” I offered, pretending the damage was too minimal to notice.

“I’ll have the Count put it in the car,” the Countess said icily.

The Count sprang back to life.  “Of course,” he said, taking the coat and going out.

“We’ll … we’ll pay for the repair,” my mother offered.

“Don’t worry about it,” the Countess said with a tight smile.

“Please,” my mother insisted, her tone stronger as she shot a sharp look at my father.

“Forget it,” the Countess said with a lighter tone, although it was equally false.

I was relieved but couldn’t understand why my parents seemed embarrassed. 

The count returned. 

“Let’s eat,” he roared, smiling broadly, eagerly rubbing his hands together.
The tension broken, we entered the kitchen.  I knew first hand that my father’s punishments were always immediate and swift, company present or not.  The Gentleman was safe.   That Thanksgiving, I was eternally grateful that my father was more forgiving with animals than he was with people.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Saying, "Good-bye"

R.I. P. Uber Hundus Maximus April 1999?- November 18, 2011
This is not the entry I was intending to write.  I knew this was coming, but no matter how prepared I thought I was, the actuality hit with an abruptness, a finality that sucked the air out of my world, left an enormous hole in my heart, left me wandering in a haze of loss.  My Uber Hundus Maximus has died. 

I had thought about writing something earlier and then storing it, like newspapers do when they know a great celebrity is nearing the end of his or her time, and then adding the necessary details at the actual moment of death but I’m superstitious.  I thought that I could delay the process, so I didn’t.  Now, I feel compelled to write something, but there’s just so much I want to say, most of which won’t make much sense to anyone except for me and the people that knew him.  Even so, let me tell you about my Uber Hund:

He came into our lives, October 2000, on his own volition, as he did everything.  He had been wandering the streets of my mother’s neighborhood for a few weeks.  He walked by my parents’ house.  My mother, never seeing an empty mouth she didn’t want to fill, set out a bowl of food and went back to the house.  A few minutes later, as she was doing dishes, she felt like she was being watched.  She turned around and saw the stray looking at her through the window.  Not a pushy look or desperate look, but one of curiosity, as if to say “oh, so this is where you live.”  Then he turned around and left.

My mother called me, saying I should come and look at this dog, come help him.  My husband and I were both working full-time and living in a townhome.  It was an especially stressful time for us because several of our friends were also ill and dying.  Anyone could see it was a bad situation for dog ownership.  In fact, the dog I had gotten pre-marriage, a spaniel mix, was living with my parents, their dachshund and two cats.  Still, my mother encouraged me to see this stray dog.

So, after work, I drove up to her neighborhood, not really having a plan in mind.  She’d put out bowls of food and water, and there he was, eating and drinking.  She hadn’t prepared me for the sight.  He was a medium sized dog, incredibly thin.  I could see his spine, ribs, and hip points.  He was nearly hairless, his skin that dark grey elephant skin texture that dogs often get when they have mange.  But he still had fur on his foxy face and when he turned to look at me, he wasn’t frightened or exuberant.  He was incredibly calm, relaxed and confident.  He gave a wag in greeting, then returned to eating.

When he was done, he came over to me.  He wore a wide leather collar, that was so tight that his skin had grown over the edges.  There were no tags.  He let me pet him.

“Let’s see if he’ll get in the car,” I said.

I opened the car door and he approached and looked, but didn’t want to go in.  I tossed in a treat to no avail.  I tried to pick him up, but he balked and when I let go, he ran a couple steps out of reach, but then returned.

I told my mother that I would try again the next day, since my sister would be there to help.  If he was gone, then it wasn’t meant to be.

He wasn’t there when I arrived, but appeared a bit later, checking in at the window again.  He let me remove the collar.  It made a sucking sound when it pulled off of his raw skin.  He let me put a harness and leash on him and with my sister’s help, we got him into the car and she held his leash while I drove him to the vet.

After a few weeks, the hair started to grow back.
I left him at the vet for a few hours so he could have a work-up and a bath.  I alerted my husband to the situation, and being an animal lover himself, he gave the o.k. to bring the stray home, reminding me that we didn’t have the ideal conditions for keeping a dog.  I concurred and assured him that as soon as the dog regained his health and fur, I would find him a permanent home.  When my husband came home that night, the dog greeted him at the door with what would become his usual reserve.  Although my husband was stunned by the dog’s condition, he was sold on the personality.

Because we didn’t know anything about the dog, that first night I slept on the couch downstairs and the dog slept on a folded comforter.  He slept hard almost as soon as he lay down, waking once to come to the couch and give me a kiss on the nose before returning to his bed. 

I was smitten. 

In the morning, I went upstairs to change.  The dog waited at the foot of the stairs for a minute, then came up.  He stopped when he saw our bed.  He glanced from my husband to me and back with a look that would become his trademark, a look that said, “Wait.  There’s a bed?  Why the heck were we sleeping downstairs?  That’s ridiculous.”  And then he jumped up on the bed.

The next night, he slept on the bed with us.  But the next morning was Monday, a work day.  My husband went downstairs and called the dog.  The dog came.  My husband put on the harness and leash and opened the front door.  It was dark and cold.  The dog glanced from outside to the warm bed upstairs.  “Wait.  I was sleeping in a warm comfy bed and you woke me up to go out into the dark and cold?  That’s ridiculous.”  He ran back upstairs to bed.  And from then on, the dog was convinced that my husband ran a few kibbles short in the mental food bowl.

Even so, once the dog’s fur returned, when I followed through and asked if I should look for a new home for the dog, my husband gaped at me.

“We belong together!” he exclaimed.  “How could you ask such a thing?” 

And so Uber Hundus Maximus remained with us

Uber Hundus was different from my other dogs because he always made it very clear that he didn’t need us, kind of like a cat.  If we did something that displeased him, he would give us a puzzled look as if to say, “I don’t need to take this crap, you know.   That’s ridiculous.” And then he would check out either physically or mentally, until we did something that interested him.  However, he also made it clear that he chose to be with us.  He was willing to work with us, he’d hang out with us, and he’d always come back to us.  His choice was our privilege, and I have to say I agreed. 

When his fur grew back and he went from 25 lbs. to 45 lbs., people would literally stop their cars and back up to compliment how handsome he was and ask about his breed.  My husband and I assumed he was a shiba inu mix, perhaps some type of dingo, since he didn’t bark.  However, whenever I walked him through our townhouse neighborhood, Koreans would stop us, saying we had a beautiful jindo (their national dog) and asking if we wanted to breed him.  They were horrified to discover I’d had him neutered, saying he was a perfect jindo specimen.  The breed was relatively new to the United States, the first introduction being during the L.A. riots.  They were the dogs guarding from store rooftops.  When I looked up the breed, they looked like my Uber Hund, although Uber Hundus Maximus was even more handsome, as he would concur.

The Uber Hund didn’t like bullshit.  He had to take a variety of pills throughout his life because of his compromised immune system during his life on the streets.  At first, I tried to hide his pills in food.  Regardless of the kind of food, he would spit out the pill.  One time he spit out the pill and stood on it, “You think you can fool the jindo?  Ridiculous.”  From then on, I gave him the pills straight, but I’d open his mouth from underneath and give him a treat chaser.  He was perfectly fine with that.  He also hated baths, but wouldn’t suffer the indignity of being lifted into a tub.  Once he was in the bathroom, he’d jump into the tub on his own and take his “punishment” like a dog.  After the bath was over he wanted to chase me or my husband around as payback.

Very unlike jindos, the Uber Hund loved people.  He enjoyed parties and would work a room, greeting everyone, but never jumping up to take a plate or to counter surf.  When he volunteered as a therapy dog, he loved working the sitting room of the assisted living facility.  And the Uber Hund was an exceptional flirt.  He always picked out the prettiest girl in any situation.  He’d sit in front of her, and put a kindly paw on her lap.  He’d work her with “big eyes” first, and if cute didn’t work, he’d break out the “sexy eyes,” where he’d narrow his eyes just a little and give a little head chuck, as if to say, “Hey, baby, how ‘bout a treat?” 

Uber Hund with my niece.
He was exceptionally gentle with children.  When he saw children, his eyes would go soft and he’d want to visit.  They were entranced by his foxy appearance. He loved having them ruffle his fur and would let them play with his fuzzy ears.  When my niece visited, she would pet him as she colored and he would fall blissfully asleep.  When my later-to-be nephew visited, he wanted to walk the Uber Hund.  He strutted as the Uber Hund walked easily at his side.  When I asked my nephew why he wanted to walk with the Uber Hund, he said it was because it was like walking a wolf.  I think even Uber Hund liked that idea.

Although the Uber Hund liked to play the role of lone wolf, he eventually allowed other dogs into the household, so long as they didn’t cramp his style.  He’d never admit it, but I think he more than tolerated the company of Wee One and Muzzy, a dog we adopted but died before we moved.  There are even a few photographs of the Uber Hund touching – he would vehemently deny “snuggling” - the other dogs while they slept together.  When I was training the other dogs, the Uber Hund wanted to participate.  But, he didn’t want to do what the other dogs were doing.  He made up his own routines to get a treat.  Then he’d look at the other dogs as if to say, “Top THAT!  What you’re doing, it’s ridiculous.”

He loved cheesecake, smoked cheese, car rides, and supervising in the front yard as we gardened.  He was a great supervisor.  When we briefly lived in an apartment, I came home to see the jindo’s tail wagging as his front end was under the sink with the plumber.  When I called away the Uber Hund, the plumber actually protested.  “He’s o.k.  He’s just keeping me company.”  So, the Uber Hund returned to the task at hand.

Working the "sexy eyes."
Uber Hundus Maximus always had That Look ready, the Uber Hund look, the look that said, “don’t even try to understand the way of the jindo,” the look that wondered at human ineptness, “What?!  Why did you make it rain on BOTH sides of the house? That’s ridiculous!” the look that said, “You don’t know how to do it.  I’LL DO IT.” We got to know that look and love the look.   

We knew the Uber Hund was old, fragile with health issues.  In the last few months, he had a bout of pancreatitis, breathing issues, and something going on with his liver.  We thought we’d have to make The Decision a few weeks ago, when he started to become incontinent, drinking lots of water, breathing heavily.  We even prepared by asking our vet if he could make a house call when The Time came.  We should have known that the jindo wouldn’t let us do that.  However, over the last few weeks, the jindo prevailed, as he has been known to do.  He regained energy, held his bladder, ate with enthusiasm.  He wanted to go for walks and climbed the stairs. 

Friday, November 18, was a regular morning.  Uber Hundus ate a whole chicken breast and some special kibble.  The dogs did their business.  I took Rock Star and Wee One for their walks.  Uber Hundus was in my husband’s office and when my husband went out for a second, the Uber Hund and Wee One migrated to my office.  I was upstairs, with the Rock Star, changing clothes.

 There was a yowl. 

My husband rushed to my office.  Each dog was in their usual place, Wee One on the couch, Uber Hund lying on the carpet next to him.

“Uber Hund?” my husband said, touching the jindo.

Uber Hund yowled again and went lax.

And then we realized.  He had just said, “Good-bye.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Music of the Night

The things that happen while you're asleep.
It’s 3 a.m. and I’m up again, not because I have to go to the bathroom, although I will, but because of stress, minor aches and pains and a general lack of sleepiness.  Like my husband, I’ve been struck with insomnia, but unlike him, I usually initially fall asleep quickly only to wake up later to watch the clock tick off the hours. This night, though he is able to sleep.  Good on him.

It’s a chilly night, my favorite kind.  I dash to the bathroom and back, jump into bed where my spot is still warm, not waking anyone, including the dogs.  I’m not angry or frustrated this night.  I don’t have any appointments in the morning, so when I eventually do fall asleep, I won’t have to worry about the alarm clock jarring me awake.  I’m comfy and cozy, but not sleepy.

And so, I just lay there, listening.

There’s a period of time from around one or two a.m. to about four a.m. that’s deliciously devoid of human interference, the witching hour, so to speak.  When I’m in a writing bender, I love this time period because it’s like dead space where everything’s muffled and quiet, although I’m sure those young’uns out there in the clubs would beg to differ.  But, when I’m in bed, staring at the ceiling, it seems to be a completely different world.

First, because one of our dogs is an old guy, I always key into his breathing, just in case.  One never knows, although I’ve never been “fortunate” enough to have any of my dogs pass on in their natural sleep.  Uberhundus Maximus, as we’ve taken to calling him, has always had upper respiratory issues - allergies, sinus infections – so there’s usually a bit of a rasp to his breathing when he’s not completely congested.  It’s a good night for him.  He’s snoring lightly, regularly.  I can’t see him because he’s sleeping on the floor next to my husband, but I can picture his whiskers ever so slightly waving back and forth.  Then he makes “smacky lips,” one of my favorite sounds, the sound of relaxation and contentment.  I smile, knowing how much his life has changed since he joined our family over 12 years ago as a street dog.

My husband is also softly snoring in a pitch only slightly deeper.  He and the Uberhund are harmonizing.

“Mmmmmmm,” the middle dog groans as he shifts positions in his crate.

He’s our loose wire.  We call him The Rock Star because he always needs management, and yet when the slightest thing goes amiss, he immediately appeals to his people for assistance.  He likes to make his presence and condition known, hence the groaning whenever he shifts or adjusts even while he’s sleeping.  He gives a long sigh.

“Moof!  Moof!” 

The bed jiggles as The Wee One, who really isn’t such a wee dog at 65 pounds, is next to me, dreaming.  He’s the baby.  His paws move as if he’s trotting through the park (or woods or savannahs of Africa) and he suddenly spasms, his eyelids twitching, his head jerking back and forth.

“Grrrrrrrrr.  GRRRRRRRRR!”

It’s a bit unnerving hearing him growl while he’s sleeping because he never growls while he’s awake.  He’s our expert communicator, giving all the polite doggy signals so he never has to get to the growling stage.  But, when he’s sleeping, he’s a badass.  I don’t know what or who he’s taking on, but he does it with a great deal of gusto and his tail is wagging wildly.  He’s having a fabulous time.

By day, mild-mannered dog, by night, Cujo.
I try not to laugh and I move over a little to avoid his gnashing teeth.  He drops back into deep sleep.

Very faintly, I hear honking.  Canada geese.  I’ve left the skylight open, although the shades are closed.  The honking gets louder and closer.  I can hear the rush of wings and it’s almost like the geese are going to fly right through the room.  I’m tempted to wake my husband so he can experience it as well, but I know it’s not his thing and he’ll never be able to get to sleep afterwards.  The sound is exhilarating and I can’t help but think of Julie Andrews singing, “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings, these are a few of my favorite things.”  I don’t even need to see it, and it’s still one of my favorite things.  The honking fades into the distance, probably going to the high school where the geese will hang out until the kids either chase them away or feed them sandwiches.

It’s quiet for a long while.  I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that digital clocks don’t tick.  When I was a kid and our family got a puppy, my dad said that wrapping a clock in a towel would remind the puppy of his mother’s beating heart.  He cried anyways and my sister climbed into the box and slept with him instead.  I press the button to start one of my “sleep inducing” cds.  It only plays for a couple seconds before I turn it off because it’s irritatingly electronic.

A dog barks in the distance.  It’s not a warning bark, like dogs do when they see a rat or squirrel.  It’s a bark of boredom, a plea for interaction, but it doesn’t last long.

“Mmmmmm,” the Rock Star groans.

My husband shifts and I hear the soft whispering sound of him ruffling the Uberhundus’ fur.  Uberhundus responds with smacky lips.
The Wee One readjusts so that he’s nestled between my husband and I, his head on the pillow, cold nose and hot breath on my neck.

To think, I’d miss all these things if I were sleeping.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Legends of Fall

The elusive Fall
 “California has three seasons:  fire, earthquake, and awards.” - K.V. Muir

Despite having grown up in a Southern California beach community, I’m not a fan of summer or warm weather.  True, where we lived, it seldom got into the 90s and the evenings were always cool.  But, it was late fall and early spring, on the rare days when the wind kicked up after a rain and there was a bite in the air, when I was in my element.

I remember being in kindergarten and learning about seasons.  At the beginning of each month, we made a calendar and got a lesson on the events of the month as well as the season.  It was a strange thing to learn about leaves changing colors or snow.  My teacher, Mrs. Cook, who had lived in Connecticut, showed us pictures of fall color and snow covered towns.  It was beautiful, but like something on t.v. or a movie.  We painted brown, orange and yellow leaves, made paper snowflakes, watched Frosty the Snowman.  But none of it seemed real.

Autumn was a shape shifting season and not just because of Halloween.  It did get cooler but neither palms nor pines seemed to care.  My mom talked about autumn in Japan, the colors on the mountainsides and buying hot chestnuts to eat and keep her hands warm.  She bought and roasted chestnuts for my sister and I, cursing when she burned her fingers or jabbed under her nails with the shells as she peeled them for us.  We’d go for neighborhood walks, eagerly pointing out red or gold leaves on specimen trees as excited as if they were a Bigfoot sightings.  However, we never got to dive into a pile of leaves nor smell burning leaves (burning is BAD in California).

My dad had lived in the Midwest and the Southeast, before moving to California.  He had nothing to say about fall, except that it was the beginning of football and hunting season, and he had to wear a sweater when he golfed.  When I asked him about winter, he had a canned response.

“It’s goddam cold,” he’d snap.  “Why the hell would you want to go someplace goddam cold?  California’s got the best goddam weather in the world, dammit.  You can play golf just about every day in the year.  Why the hell would you want to live anywhere else?”

He’d say this every time I, or anyone else for that matter, talked about moving out of Southern California.  He never seemed to catch on that numbers of days I could play golf were irrelevant to me since I didn’t play golf and most of my hobbies were done indoors.  For my dad there weren’t seasons.  There was weather and only two kinds of weather:  golf-able or non-golf-able.  His golf bag held sweaters, sun screen, and rain gear. 

Liquid Amber a.k.a. gumball maple tree
When I started high school, my mom pointed out a little park area as we drove by it.  There was a cluster of three liquid amber maple trees.    

“I like those trees,” she said.  “It makes me feel like we have seasons.”

Through the school year, we watched the leaves turn red, gold, then brown.   They dropped from the trees, leaving the branches bare in the winter morning fog.  Then, when spring arrived, we would watch for the little chartreuse buds and the bright green leaves that sprung from them.

At one point, we had birch or aspen trees by our car port.  I remember the white trunks and seeing leaves turn yellow gold and then dropping.  My sister and I liked to strip the ruffled seed pods.  They looked like tiny inverted cat tails made with hundreds of papery layers.  They’d flutter away with the breeze and we’d watch in amazement, wondering why we didn’t have hundreds more birch/aspen trees, since the dandelion seeds we blew created hundreds of dandelions.

I asked my mother why they were cut down.

“Your dad said they were messy,” she said.

When I moved to Louisiana, I expected tropical weather, something along the lines of the Florida Keys.  I wasn’t looking forward to it, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that Louisiana had three seasons: Spring – pleasant temperatures, blooming wisteria and dogwood, and stinging caterpillars; Summer – hot and humid all day AND night with warm late afternoon thunderstorms that dropped inches of rain in an hour, but at night the egrets roosted in the cypress trees like glowing Christmas ornaments; and Winter – frost, occasional snow, and bare Cyprus trees.  But still, no autumn.

My sister moved to Maine to go to school.  Back in the pre-e-mail days, she sent photos snail mail of the gorgeous fall colors.  I had the opportunity to visit her one Thanksgiving, and while I saw snow flurries and 20F degree temperatures, the few leaves that remained on the trees were already brown and desiccated.  My heart sank.

My husband was offered a job in Northern California.  We were originally hoping for something in New York or Pennsylvania.  We even went to Pennsylvania several times so I could experience its seasons, but because of school, we could never go in fall.  Still, the Bay Area was second choice, and realistically more convenient for both of our families.  My husband moved up first so we wouldn’t be “stuck” in case his job didn’t work out.  I visited frequently to explore the area and eventually to look for our future house.  Living in San Francisco was a romantic notion, but the reality of our finances and commute time, the East Bay was more practical.  We were initially looking at larger properties, which brought us further inland.

A swirl of red and gold.
On one of the trips, we were driving down a major street.  It was chilly and the sky was an amazingly bright blue.  The street was lined with walnut trees and every one blazed in yellow and red.

“Wow,” I gasped.

“Looks like fall,” my husband said.

At last.
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