Monday, July 16, 2018

Froby: The Great Dane Who Thought He Was A Deer

Froby: the Great Dane Who Thought He Was A Deer:
Part 1. How It All Began

“I confess I’ve been totally smitten
By a canine vast, not by a kitten.
He was found at the pound
But he’s bound to come round
To our house, when the papers are written.”

I penned this little ditty on July 19, 2011. We had just found the successor to Enkidu, our sensational Portuguese water dog, and were waiting for the animal shelter to deem us worthy of adopting one of their own. It had taken us quite a while to find a dog not thin enough to get between the uprights of our fence, not agile enough to jump over it, and not clever enough to dig his way to freedom under it. I was looking at the animal shelter's website when my eye was caught by a family of Great Danes: a female and her three, seven-month-old puppies. We hied ourselves to the shelter and asked to see the male.

Kobe was named after Kobe Bryant, the basketball player of Extreme Height and Even More Extreme Notoriety for Sexual Misconduct. “I’m not naming our dog after a rapist,” protested Eldest Son Iain, and who was I to argue? We changed his name to Froby after the notorious Sir Martin Frobisher, the man who single-handedly put the “fool” into “fool’s gold”  (But that’s a story for another day.) Kobe was duly brought out on a leash and handed to Robin.  What a sorry sight!  He looked for all the world like an English-style toast rack covered with a harsh, staring coat of black, gray and a rather grubby white. He could have been an illustration from a textbook: ”The Skeletal Structure of a Dog”, for every bone in his body was painfully visible. Great Danes are inveterate leaners, and true to form, Frobe leaned heavily against Robin, while fixing us both with his expressive, golden eyes. "Take me," he implored. “I'll do anything you want if you’ll just take me out of this ghastly dump. All I need is a little TLC, honest! You’ll see, I’ll love you forever, I promise!"

The staff looked us over critically. I was entering the 10th year of my adventure with Parkinson's, and my mobility was sorely compromised.  They were obviously wondering how I would cope. I thought about long walks, even runs, such a colossal dog would surely require and wondered too. Was I taking on too much— more than I could handle? Was it fair on the dog? What about my husband—was it fair on him? On the cats? My ruminations were cut short when the staff raised the subject of Wobblers Syndrome. They were pretty sure that our chosen one was developing this malformation of the spine that would lead to partial, then total paralysis of his back legs; that we were probably facing a short life for him, and not a very healthy one at that. They were not at all sanguine about the prospects of finding a better qualified, willing adopter, however, and so it was agreed. Kobe, now Frobe, would come to live with us, and we would all muddle through as best we could.

Froby was willing, even eager, to get into the car. So far, so good; maybe there was less to taming semi-wild dogs than I’d feared.  Call me Dog Whisperer . . . Home again, I leaned  down almost imperceptibly to reach the leash looped around his neck, with a view to affixing it to his animal shelter-issue collar, I was blown away by the sudden eruption of raw canine power that pulsed through his meager frame.  Talk about strong—the leash was ripped from my hands, and our brand new family member disappeared into the tangled, overgrown corner of the yard that none of us had yet ventured into.

We went to bed that night with three questions uppermost in our minds: 1) Is the yard Great Dane-proof; 2) Assuming it is and we still have a dog, How in the world will we begin to make his acquaintance, and 3) What will the good folk at the shelter say when we confess that we lost him already, less than one hour after they gave him into our care?

With these concerns buzzing in my brain, sleep was, to put it mildly, fractured. I had an inkling that I’d need to be well rested come the morrow, so I practiced relaxing exercises and waited, with some apprehension, to discover what the morning would reveal.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Whatever's the Matter with Percy?

Percy has been going through a rather difficult phase lately – staying out all night, snarling at her best pal Froby, refusing to come when called . .  . I'm not sure whether it's teenage angst or a midlife crisis. Yes, I am aware that it's generally an easy question to discern– age of onset gives the clue - but that's for humans, not dogs. What does middle age look like in dog years? In Great Dane years? In Great Dane with Wobbler’s Syndrome years? There is an unfortunate correlation between the size of a dog and its expected longevity: the smaller the dog, the longer it lives. Thus the demise of our faithful, 130-lb Newfie, Phoenix, from lymph node cancer at the tender age of 8; of our glorious, medium-size Portuguese water dog, Enkidu, of an enlarged heart at only 12. Meanwhile the tiniest Yorkies and Chihuahuas yap their way through as many as twenty-plus years. But I digress. Back to Percy . . .

 It all started with the kitchen door. Now, bear in mind she had used this door multiple times a day for as long as she’s been with us, about six years. Considering the number of times she asks to go out every day purely in order to bark a request for re-entry, I estimate her “kitchen door events” at approx. eleven thousand and fifty-seven . Despite this, I say, she simply refused the kitchen door, going instead to the dining room’s French doors where she sat on a  small rug conveniently placed, and waited  expectantly for me to open it.
Many years of living with Froby’s sporadic, prolific and entirely unpredictable incontinence meant that I took her urgent request to go outside seriously.  l hurtled over - “hurtling” being for me a relative term these days, implying not so much speed of movement as "with a mounting fear of the ghastly repercussions should I not get there  in time".  I decided to engage in warfare with her: she would return to using the kitchen door!

 All the dog training experts tell you never to begin a battle unless you know you can win it; I chose to ignore them all, and next morning, unleashed my opening salvo.
“Other door”, I commanded when she went to the dining room door. “Go to the Other Door.” Percy smiled at me, wagged her tail, and budged not an inch. I tried again, my words a little slower and louder (rather in the manner of a tourist in foreign lands convinced that the natives will understand proper English if only it is spoken loudly and slowly enough: “OTHER DOOR!!” Her smile morphed into a grin, Robin proffered his help, to no avail. My fundamental error of logic struck me full force: true, I had her breakfast held hostage, but she had a weapon infinitely more  menacing – after a full nine hours in the house, her bladder was FULL (and who knows what else besides?)

As they say at Wimbledon, Game, Set and Match!  Hastily I told her, “You can go out of any door you like, just as long as you Go Outside NOW! “
And. She. Went!
She has returned to her old, sweet, goofy self. True, she still insists on only using the dining-room door, but I have perceived a method to her madness:  the red tiles of the dining room are smaller and less smooth than the pale ones in the kitchen.
And thus less slippery!

So what appeared to me to be nothing more than arbitrary caprice on her part turns out to be nothing less than the far more laudable Instinct for Self Preservation: she knows that, with her Wobbler’s Syndrome worsening, walking into the kitchen has become a Very Bad Idea indeed. Her legs slide out from under her and her poor, bony elbows, ribs and knees hit the hard tile floor with a bang that makes my teeth curl.

Forgive me, Percy, for doubting the moral integrity of your actions.
Wow, but it’s hard to second-guess the mind of a Dane!

Monday, January 1, 2018

THOMAS: the Perfect Fire, Part 2.

I cannot recommend trying to sleep in a car, even next to such an enchantingly picturesque beach as Carpinteria. This is especially true if you have a cat yowling at full volume in the back seat. I wondered dimly if a towel draped over the carrier would shut him up, as it does a parrot, but was far too cold and stiff to go to all the trouble of finding out.

Our first day as refugees from the fire: actually, I suppose "evacuees" is more accurate than “refugees", which I think implies something political. Nuances of vocabulary aside, once a brief glance at the fire map had dispelled all hope of returning home in the foreseeable future, we needed two things in fairly short order: breakfast, and a bathroom.  (How I felt for families wjth babies or small children to care for!) The first café we tried could not serve us breakfast because power outages had played havoc with their computers, which were down for who knew how long. I briefly considered volunteering to scramble any number of eggs with no help from a computer whatsoever, but thought better of it. Which is quite possibly why I’m still alive today.

We were relieved to find a Motel 6 with a vacancy, and planned to spend the next night there. But ever-vigilant fire watcher Lorna had other ideas: parts of US 101 had been closed, or were in danger of being closed; Thomas was roaring north and would soon be threatening Carpinteria. She strongly advised that we move up the coast to Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, and adjacent to the airport.

Ah yes, the airport. For, in an act of cosmic serendipity, we were booked to fly up to Seattle from Santa Barbara that very Thursday, returning on Monday.  It seemed downright cavalier to leave our pet sitter in charge of a house that might burst into flames any moment, but she insisted she was up to the challenge. Knowing how much the dogs loved and trusted her, also that there was still absolutely nothing either Robin or I could do apart from look anguished and wring our hands - and I’m none too sure how to do even that. (Note To Self: watch more Victorian melodramas), we reasoned that, once evacuated, we might as well be in Seattle as in a motel.

Meanwhile, we looked into having the Humane Society go and rescue the dogs, as they were picking up large animals (horses, zebras, giraffes etc.) in the evacuation zone: they refused, unimpressed by my argument that both Great Danes were easily the size of a small horse. I'll swear I shrank a good three inches under the withering glare of the H.S. rep when I admitted that yes, we no longer owned a vehicle big enough to transport both dogs.

My special relationship with my clothes was getting pretty intense by now, and we were both longing for a shower; thus we disobeyed Lorna's explicit orders and drove home. That was probably the most extraordinary drive of my life. The air, as we crossed the Ventura County line, became putrid with smoke. Where it was thinner we saw evidence of the firefighters’ extraordinary work: over and over again, fire blackened hillsides reached right down to houses that stood unharmed at their base. But tragically, some still smoking piles of rubble amid charred trees marked the spot where a family’s life-as-they-knew-it was terminated, an enforced fresh start imposed

Hopes of a shower were thwarted yet again: Lorna told us that all four exit roads had been closed an hour or two previously, sealing off the flaming Ojai Valley from the outside world. One exit was now open, and we should take it while we could. Pausing only to grab a few clothes for our Seattle trip, and to reassure the dogs of our fundamental, all-appearances-to-the-contrary-notwithstanding dependability,
we bade our home au revoir, hoping it would not prove to be adieu.

I can prevaricate no longer: I must tell you about Tuesday and Wednesday nights. But first, a slightly more intensive geography lesson: the Ojai Valley sits roughly 750 feet above sea level and is approximately 3 miles wide and 10 miles long. To the north are mountains ranging from four or five thousand feet to the imposing Topa Topas, visible to the north-east from our dining room window, at close to 7 thousand. Mountains to the south, which our kitchen looks out on, are not to be sneezed at, checking in at around 3 thousand.

Only one road, the 150, traverses the valley, providing the sole exit to the east; to the west it is briefly joined by the 33, which offers a straight run to Ventura in one direction, a “gee, it sure looked shorter on the map” mass of sudden inclines and hairpin bends leading – eventually – to Maricopa in the other. Firefighters were making a desperate effort to redirect the fire to bypass Ojai to the south. That is to say, within a few hundred yards of our house. This critical time was to occur on Tuesday night; danger was directly proportional to wind speed.

Tuesday evening's weather forecast was far from reassuring; in fact, it was downright terrifying. The Chief Weather Guru waved his arms at a map featuring a massive, immobile high pressure area centered on us which, he stated bluntly, meant inevitable winds of at least thirty mph blowing the fire from the mountaintops, down the valley, straight at our little town. Losing our home looked like a certainty. “It’s only stuff” was the mantra I had heard repeated. True, true, but we are at heart a sacramental people, imbuing our “stuff” with all the power of the memories that it invokes.

We went to bed dreading what the morrow would bring – and yet when we awoke, the weatherman had been dumbfounded, the “inevitable” winds had failed to materialize. Ojai was saved! The fire chief himself called it “miraculous”.

To cut a very long story short, we had an almost exact replay on Wednesday, with the exception that the fire, driven by winds of 3-4 mph (not 30-40, thank you CWG) and strongly encouraged by legions of fire fighters, skirted Ojai to the north, threatening our good friends’ homes, but ultimately leaving most of Ojai standing.

Postlude:  January 1, 2018
And there the story of the fire – or at least, our involvement with it - comes to an end. Still no rain, but the winds finally show signs of abating, giving firefighters a chance to contain the active edges of the fire. But back in early December, Thomas was till 100% unchecked. We flew out of Santa Barbara the next day, Thursday, on a packed plane, returning on a half empty one four days later (funny thing – nobody wanted to be in Santa Barbara anymore). Our car was covered in ash, which blew off as we drove. Breathing masks were essential, both indoors and out; the air in town looked like diluted porridge, and was chokingly hard to breathe (shades of Beijing). Everywhere we went, we were acutely reminded of our good fortune: so many people were homeless, or had lost their livelihood – a car mechanic’s garage with all his tools, a potter’s barn, burned to the ground; a craft shop aimed at the tourists who ordinarily flock to Ojai, closed for lack of customers. Restaurants with a freezer full of spoiled food and no patrons. It has been inspiring - and truly humbling – to see how the community has rallied to help those affected by the fire.

Incidentally, the entire firefighting system was incredibly impressive – they fought with brains, not just water and fire retardant. Foreseeing a problem, they moved to extinguish it like a panther closing in on its prey. Would that our government acted with such grace and economy of movement! The police too were phenomenal, maintaining order and preventing looting.

It could have been so much worse, but Thomas still stands unchallenged as the biggest and most destructive wildfire in the history of California.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Story of a Fire: SoCal, Dec 4 - ?? '17

THOMAS:  the Perfect Fire

I had a strange feeling that Monday as I picked out my clothes for the day: a suspicion that I would feel rather differently about these clothes when I took them off; that I was entering into some kind of a special relationship with them.

That evening, around 9 o'clock, a friend texted me: "Have you heard about the fire?" No, indeed I had not. I pushed aside a gnawing sense of unease – Santa Paula was 15 miles away, surely a comfortable distance -  and called Robin who was still at work,  blissfully ignorant of the fire. He told me he would come home directly. By now my sense of dread was had grown to unbridled fear; I wished Robin would hurry up  and  come home. Surely once he was home, everything would go back to normal! But news grew still more dire: much of Santa Paula was under mandatory evacuation orders, while Ventura  - well, it was hard to know what exactly was going on in Ventura. We heard rumors – a brand new apartment building  burned to the ground; bone dry vegetation erupting in flames at the touch of a single spark. dozens of homes in flames, the fire, 100% uncontained, spreading like . . . , well, like wildfire.

Helpless to do anything to help apart from pray and stay out of the firemen’s way, Robin and I sat on our patio praying the rosary, and watched the orange glow move along the mountain peaks at an alarming rate.  I went to bed with my clothes on, (see “special relationship” above), just in case we needed to evacuate, while Robin made himself fairly comfortable on the sofa in the living room, setting his alarm to wake him every hour to check on the flames’ progress.

He never got the chance: at 2 AM the sheriff knocked at the door.  “Evacuation in your area is not mandatory, but if I were you I would get out now, and I wouldn’t stop to think too hard about what to take with me.” That was enough for us!  I stumbled about, trying to think of things I would need and, for the most part, failing miserably.  My own personal Eeyore was silent, replaced by a sort of desperate positivity: "We'll just have to spend one night out, and then it will be all clear and we can go home.. So I don’t really need to worry about clothes, do I? " Meanwhile, Robin grabbed the yearbooks that were the record of our homeschooling years, and which, I am happy to say, came quite willingly. 

Not so Pyga the kitty cat, a hissing, spitting ball of fury who, lacking any clue as to Robin’s good intentions in cramming him into his cat carrier, let out a shout of protest on every outbreath. I know, I know, cats don’t “shout”, they “meow”. Not Pyga. He shouted. It was the most unearthly racket – I later tried to imitate it, but try as I might, could not attain the decibel level Pyga achieved so effortlessly.  At least, I assume it was effortless – he was able to keep it up for hours on end, with no appreciable wear to his vocal cords.

Another indefatigable family member was our daughter Lorna. From her apartment in Seattle, she kept us informed of damage thus far, of  the fire’s progress, and road closures. Thank God for a computer literate daughter! It was eerie, driving through the night in pitch darkness with only Lorna’s voice for company. And Pyga. Mustn’t forget Pyga . . .

The Ojai Valley is ringed with mountains, and there are only four roads going in, much the same number coming out. (Thank you, Fiddler on the Roof). Hwy 33, the main road, was closed, so we took our chances with Hwy 150, the grossly contorted hypotenuse of the triangle formed by Ojai, Ventura and Carpinteria, bordered by Hwys 33, 150, and US Interstate 101.

News relayed by Lorna was increasingly grim: the fire (nicknamed "Thomas") was spreading at the rate of one acre per second (you read that right - one acre per second), fanned by winds of 60 mph, gusting up to 80. Hundreds of homes in Ventura were in flames, the firemen too occupied with their efforts to prevent Thomas from spreading to deal with houses that were already ablaze - a sort of real estate triage, in effect..

We reached Carpinteria, pulling to a halt  by the sea, not far from where Eldest Son Iain had camped with his family last summer, under somewhat rosier circumstances. I didn’t know what the morrow would bring,  but one thing was clear:

Thomas looked as if he was planning to stick around for quite a while.

To Be Continued   .

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"I can't believe I've lived all these years without knowing this word". . .

Today's "I can't believe I've lived all these years without knowing this word" (courtesy, as ever, of Anu Garg’s magnificent A.Word.A.Day) is . . . wait for it . . . 'tenesmus'.

It is a noun, and it means, "A distressing but ineffectual urge to defecate or urinate."
There - see what I mean? Only think about where and when you might have used this truly remarkable word, and I fully expect you will find possibilities stretching in an unbroken line to the horizon and beyond. (Kindly do not ask me how I know what lies beyond the horizon: let's just say, I have my sources.)

And so I exhort you - make up for lost time, for all those squandered opportunities when you could have used 'tenesmus' and didn't (admittedly for good reason, since up till now you had never heard of the word), and beginning today, simply insert 'tenesmus' into your everyday conversations! Your friends and family will be gobsmacked, as will any potential job interviewer with an ear for unorthodox vocabulary. (You may want to consider carefully the  tension implicit in the phrase, “distressing but ineffectual”;  does this really imply, as indeed it seems to,  that something distressing will, in the normal run of things, be effective?) 

 Also, if indeed you find yourself in a job interview and the subject of tenesmus is raised, consider carefully whether you ought not look for a different job.

And now it’s time for our Exciting Contest: just use “tenesmus” in a sentence of any length, preferably in English, using words containing not more than 15 syllables,  and add it to the Comments section. 
You’ll be glad you did -

And so will I!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Which I Consider The Possibility That I Have Gone Completely, Stark Raving Bonkers.

Yesterday I opened an email from my friend “Cicely” (names changed to avoid embarrassing innocent victims), and noticed with some surprise that, while it was dated May 1, the previous email was from February 2. Had I really not communicated with Cicely in those three months? Of course I had – but here was proof positive that I had not. How could this be? What did it signify?

Feeling just a wee bit queasy, I opened the email: it told me that she and her husband “Cuthbert” were going to San Juan on Thursday, returning on Friday, to check on the new renters. Now, bear in mind that this was first thing in the morning and my brain was still more than a little groggy from sleep and caffeine-insufficiency, also that for quite some time now my mind has (quite of its own volition) been taking mini-vacations in the Pacific Northwest where we lived for twenty-four years and all six of our children were born, and you will understand what happened next: I thought she meant the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington and British Columbia!

Beyond gobsmacked, that I was! How could it be that in all the years I had known her, Cicely had never once let slip that she and Cuthbert own a rental property on the San Juans? Moreover, they were flying up to Washington on Thursday and back on Friday. Highly uncharacteristic – there was definitely something fishy going on. Add to this the missing three months of emails, and you will get some idea of my complete bewilderment and confusion.

So this is what it's like, I thought. This is the beginning of the end, of the utter mental chaos and inability to manage one's environment that gives dementia such a bad name.

Maybe, I thought, I am misremembering the islands’ name: maybe the San Juans are actually the California islands – could that be it? Hastily, I Googled San Juan Islands. Sure enough, there they were just as I remembered them, firmly plunked in the Puget Sound. Not only that, but Oh Glory! As my eyes traveled down the list of San Juans, they came to a screeching halt at San Juan Capistrano. Aha! Capistrano I know about: our family spent three months there living in a house right on the beach, while my husband was running an anti-euthanasia campaign back in ’92. San Juan Capistrano was where I bathed our then youngest in the kitchen sink and practically wiped out my right knee on a rock, body-surfing.

San Juan Capistrano is also where Cicely’s mother’s house is: a house that has been rented out for some years, ever since Cicely’s mom moved on to a place where she has no need of an earthly dwelling.

Even the three months of missing emails had a benign explanation: Cicely had been clearing out February’s emails, found “If you loved ‘LaLaLand’ you’ll love . . . “, and forwarded it to me to see if any of their movie suggestions appealed.

Ta-da – vindicated! Guess who isn't crazy after all – but when I looked up LaLa Land in the dictionary and learned that it is “a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life”, I think I may just pay it a visit.

I’ve had about all I can take of the “harsher realities of life” for the time being.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017



Like a thunderbolt out of the blue it struck me: Waltzing Matilda, which is practically Australia’s national anthem, is in duple time. That's right, two beats per bar! All my life, I have unquestioningly believed that it is in triple meter – after all, that's what a waltz is, isn't it? ONE – two – three, ONE – two – three . . . and now I put on my critical listening ears, I find it is actually a march: ONE – two, ONE - two, LEFT- right LEFT - right. What, Waltzing Matilda not a waltz? Next, you’ll be telling me that Brighton rock is not made in Brighton, or that toad-in-the-hole is not now, nor has ever been, an amphibian.

What's up? Have the Australians, with their highly developed sense of irony, been playing an elaborate practical joke on the rest of the world? I found the answer here, in Rolf Harris’s entertaining and highly informative preamble to his inimitable rendition of the song:

Aha! All stands revealed: a “swagman” (wandering hobo) carries his meager belongings, and such tucker (food) as he possesses, in his “swag”, a ragged blanket tied around his shoulders, which he mockingly refers to as his “Matilda”, or life companion. So “waltzing” has nothing to do with dancing, but rather evokes a slow, weary trudge through the Australian bush, whose grimness is briefly relieved every morning by such magical sounds as these:

Alas, we learn that our hero has run afoul of the law – he has stolen a jumbuck! What is a jumbuck, I hear you ask. Hmm, should I tell you, or make you listen to the song? I’ll tell you this much: the penalty for stealing one in 19th century Australia was death . . . and uh-oh, here comes the “squatter”, or landowner, (strange isn’t it, how the meaning of the word has changed?) mounted on his thoroughbred. Choosing a quick death by drowning over a protracted one ending with hanging, our lamentably uncatechised swagman leaps into the billabong, crying, “You’ll never take me alive!”

So there we have it: a rattling good song, a brief foreign language lesson, and an introduction to Australia’s unique wildlife (be sure not to miss the Thorny Devil.) And if you’re still itching for a waltz, try this one: Tchaikovsky - Waltz of the Flowers