community, Friends, Home

This Happening

Open Now

The vet’s best guess is that our rescue dog was born sometime in the fall of 2013. Over scrambled eggs and waffles this morning Bug says, “Let’s make her birthday October 12 .”

October 12, as it happens, is a school holiday in the states. Indigenous People’s Day is what the more enlightened of my fellow American’s have begun calling it. I’ve taken off work so Bug and I can hang together, but the neighborhood kids have been asking for him all weekend. I know I’ll be sharing him and that’s just fine — it will provide some needed post-window-replacement cleanup time. Every piece of furniture in every room of the condo is still sitting three feet from where it belongs.

Now it looks like my tidying plans will have to make room for Noodle. “What do we do for a dog birthday party?” I ask. Continue reading “This Happening”

Family, Home, Mindfulness, Things I Can

84. Things I Can Snap: The Family Photo

. . . and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what “now” is while one’s in it.

From Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince”

I lay flat on the stained carpet, felled by a muscle spasm with diamond-tipped talons. My boy, stung pink with sun, is sprawled across a twist of sheets and pillows. He has been complaining about a stomach ache. “I just don’t feel good,” he keeps repeating while he looks at me with a mix of longing and irritation.

Beside us, Noodle mopes in her crate. All the pacing and fussing and nosing  to spur one of us to action had the opposite effect, and now she sighs heavily and frequently while staring right at us.

A pillow props up my knees up and I grit my teeth against waves of pain as I read. We’ve just begun The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which we’ve inexplicably overlooked during the previous eight years of literary peregrination. Bug sips from a cup of seltzer water and kicks the blanket further down the bed.

Right in the middle of Edmund’s box of Turkish Delight, Bug turns and reaches across me. Scootching his hand under my shoulder, he inches me closer to his mattress. Then he leans in and plants a slow, soft kiss on my cheek. I see a smile ease loose across his face as he lets me go and flops back onto his bed.

“It’s all three of us right here,” he says. “Wouldn’t this be a perfect family portrait?”

I put my finger in the page, close the book against my chest, and look around.

My boy, the dog, a home, this night.

One story, one kiss.

Our perfect family.

 

community, Family, Things I Can

76. Things I Can Lead: This Pack

warthog-family

I sit cross-legged on the path and fold Noodle into my lap. A little boy who was stroking her with such a soft touch continues. Two others — younger, toddlers — step closer. One with a mop of curls squats in front of her and stares with the focus of a hypnotist. Unwavering, he peers along the length of her snout and into her steady eyes. She is so still. He ventures a touch, two fingers on the side of her head. She barely blinks. He steps closer and touches her flank. “Ga-ggie,” he says.

“Yes,” his dad smiles. “She’s a nice doggie.”

This is enough for the small one. He steps back and considers Noodle from a safe distance. His brother keeps that rhythm along her back, as regular as a metronome, as soothing as surf. Noodle’s fur drifts and settles, blanketing my black work trousers. She shifts ever so slightly and surrenders her weight to my belly. I feel her exhale. The third boy — another toddler — stands at his daddy’s shin. He grins and squeals then shoves a finger up his nose.

Behind me, Bug snaps off his rollerblades and tosses his helmet in the grass. I hear a basketball. Voices.

It is nearing dusk. Neighborhood moms call to summon their stray men home for dinner. I dump Noodle back onto the trail. She gives passive resistance a shot but her dead weight is more pliable than she thinks. Soon she falls into step beside me.

Bug is trotting around the blacktop in his socks, his blonde surfer hair flopping. Another boy passes him a basketball and Bug shoots then passes it back. I circle the park a few times watching while the boy’s dad stands and texts from center court. The duo abandons the game and strolls back and forth across the pavement. Bug trails a long stick. His companion holds the ball tucked beneath his arm. Their heads are bent together in a conspiracy of murmurs. They walk the length of the court at least six times over, six times back.

“Hey you,” I call. Noodle and I cut across the grass. Bug scratches his pooch under her chin and shoves his feet back into his skates. I chat with dad and boy. I’ve never seen them here before, although they live a block over from us. We talk schools and child care and pizza. Tomorrow, they kick off a week-long hiking trip in the Monongahela National Forest.

“I’m going to play on the playground equipment,” Bug says, rolling away. I love that he calls it that. Playground equipment. “Okay,” I shout after him. “But not in your blades.”

“I’ll take them off,” he hollers back. When the dad and I make our way over, I see helmet, wrist guards, socks, and wheels lying in a heap at the bottom of the slide. Bug is up high, straddling the outside of a suspended tunnel. His buddy is swinging from a bar. A third has joined them, a preschooler.

The small one points to Noodle. “Is she curly too?” He asks.

“Curly?”

“Yeah,” he poofs his arms around him. “Fluffy. Like that.”

I shrug. “She sure sheds a lot. You know how I know when she’s been sneaking up on the couch?”

Bug grins from his perch. “She can’t fool us!” He cries.

“She’s tricky,” I shake my head in disapproval and glare at Noodle who is straining, straining to play with the kids. “Fur all over the sofa!”

The preschooler stomps a foot. “My bro-zher is the smartest of all!” He declares.

“Are you sure? I think you’re the smartest of all.”

“No my bro-zer is! He teached me math. See?” He holds up two fingers on one hand and two on the other. “One -two-free-four.

Bug is swaying way up high. “Do you know how to do squares? You know the square root of 100 is 10?”

The one from the basketball court swings then plants his feet. “I can divide.”

Then it’s time to go home. A mom collects her mini math whiz. Hiker dad answers a text from home. “Dinnertime, buddy,” he says. He and his boy wander off in the direction of the townhouses. Bug clambers down and slips mulched socks over filthy feet. Buckles, helmet, wrist guards, off we go. Noodle trots along beside us.

“So that boy goes to your school, huh? Did you know him from school?”

“No,” Bug says. “He’s in first grade.”

“You just met him today?”

“Yeah.”

I picture them again, whispering as they strode off together like they’d been buddies since kindergarten.

“You know what? That’s a really cool talent,” I say. “You find friends everywhere you go.”

Bug shrugs but I see he’s sort of smiling.

What a marvel.

To my right, this clickety-rolling kiddo who enters every setting as if the place has been waiting for him to arrive. He strikes up a conversation. He jump-starts a game. He conjures up companions, assuming friendship is a given.

To my left, Noodle the Wonder Dog, a magnet for toddlers ready to face their fears. A touchstone for kids who still believe that contact with a fellow earthling is the high point of any day.

And me in the middle, a mama leading this bold pack out into the world.

This force, small yet mighty.

My family.
 

.

 

Poetry, Things I Can

71. Things I Can Let Be: Spider Brother

Fine as needles and just as quick.
But for the ants, the broom,
I say, yet the company is welcome
such as it is. A beating heart
of any size, really.

Silence outmanned Eros
and he left for the second time
today. The dog paws at the patio door,
bends her head
and tries to peel back
with her teeth the intractable pane
on which a cousin clings.
This one is fatter by degrees,
brown as the wilting marigold
stems where it tatted lace
bedclothes and sampled
from the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet
mosquitoes, midges, mites.
To the dog, this one is meat.

She eschews shadows
inside where domestic kin live,
whole families of them,
behind the woodpile, under the toy bin,
tucked below the lip
of the bathroom cabinet
where my bare toes
trouble their determined stillness.

She pivots and tries again to press
through glass. I understand
this fascination with the promise
waiting outside, even if that promise
has better things to do
than wait
or be a promise
at all.
 

Family, Home, Things I Can

24. Things I Can Cherish: This Home

Bug builds a nest by the sliding glass door. A foam mattress from his old bunk bed serves as a wall. He hauls in a heap of blankets and a camp chair. “Dogs and kids only,” he tells me. He fits a bag of soil into the nook by the wall to block the entrance.

Nestled in under a table, he listens to an audio book whose plot I can’t follow. Islands, magic, a group of children, danger. Noodle is splayed out in the sun next to him on an old Oklahoma Sooners blanket.

I replace the busted bike tire and air up the tube. One load of laundry whirls in the dryer while another hangs in the sunlight on a rack in my bedroom. The pots and pans are done, but the breakfast dishes haven’t made their way into the dishwasher yet. That’s Bug’s job. He can tackle it later.

The tea kettle gurgles. I pour steaming water over tea bags. Decaffeinated black tea for Bug, Bengal Spice for me. I dig through the recycling for the two old egg cartons. The packets of new seeds are waiting. Perennials this time.

Bug acknowledges neither the milky tea I slip into his clubhouse nor the the basket of pencils and markers. He pretends not to notice when I sneak off with the sack of soil.

Splayed on the kitchen floor, I rip the tops off the cartons and use a sharpie to mark the sides. Thyme, rosemary, lavender, sage. Each tiny seed falls into an almost invisible divot in the dirt. Dormant, they nestle in under a thin blanket of soil. I soak each pocket with a soft drizzle from the sink sprayer. The cartons sag until I fit them into their inverted lids.

The sunlight slices a long triangle into the table by the sliding door. I step up on a chair and stretch over the mattress wall. A swath of Bug’s blonde head peeks out from under the table. He’s leaning back in the camp chair using a marker to draw a battle scene with towers and little people dropping rocks on their enemies. He’s painted his fingernails purple. Noodle’s eyes twitch towards me but she only sighs and closes them again.

I slide the seeds into the sun next to the snap peas and spinach, their first threads already climbing towards the light.
 

Family, Home

Make Room

pooch curled
One question concerns me: Was she was someone’s family pet before the smugglers took her? It’s likely. She climbs up onto any willing lap and folds her flanks into the knobs of her knees, tucking her nose under her tail. She burrows like a deer into this nest of her own bristle and bone. She stays, riding the chop even when the lap belongs to a shouting Pictionary player who is trying in vain to sketch a triceratops before the timer runs out.

My office is powered down for two full weeks. Bug is with his dad’s clan up north for half of winter break. This would have been a perfect time to go get a haircut. Assemble those shelves in the utility closet. Catch up with faraway friends. Sleep.

Our lives have no room for this. I can barely keep a philodendron alive. Nevertheless, Bug reminds me about the promise I made a few months after our pooch passed away last spring. “We can start thinking about it in September.”

In September, he asked, “When can we start talking about it?” I told him Thanksgiving.

At Thanksgiving, he asked, “When can we start looking?”

I don’t head into Petco’s December adoption event with the intention of adopting. I’m just checking things out, just starting a process that might take months. But there she is. She lays with her paws crossed and ears up, keeping a polite distance from the shrieking tumble of puppy-ness.

They tell me she is from Thailand. A rescue. Undoubtedly a dog of rough beginnings. Undoubtedly full of needs and fears and miswired circuitry that might make her a heap of trouble. The little boy from her foster family says she follows him around and curls up with him every time he sits down. He doesn’t seem to grasp what a nightmare she might be. He chatters on about what a cuddler she is, and how gentle, and what a good friend.

In the days after I submit an application (just an application, not a commitment), I learn more than I want to know. She slips free from her foster family and disappears into the sprawling suburbs. She is prone to flight. This is not surprising, given how she’s learned to survive. The illegal meat trade is a brutal teacher. In Thailand, smugglers lure both pets and strays off the streets and stuff them into crowded crates. They tear off to slaughterhouses in Vietnam or China to sell their wares.

Animal protection laws are lax at best. When merchants are caught, they may not even pay a fine. Rescued dogs land in safe but spartan shelters with hundreds if not thousands of other disoriented creatures. Inadequate funding and sparse veterinary care leave many of these dogs with grim futures. In Thailand, pet adoption is exceedingly rare.

A few organizations from around the world fly volunteers out to select one or two to ferry across the ocean to new homes.

She’s come this far only to make a break for it the first chance she gets. She has no idea that anything good — anyone good — is on the other side of trust. During the uncertain week when she is missing, they tell me she unlikely to make it back.

What they don’t know is that this little girl was born under a lucky star. Maybe a whole constellation.

With the help of professional trackers and an army of volunteers, someone finds her hiding in brambles on a side street in Chantilly. The vice president of the rescue organization decides to hold onto her for the time being. They call me up to tell me we can bring her home.

Home?

There’s no way we’re ready for this.

Of course, neither was that family in Thailand. More to the point, neither was she.

It isn’t possible to send them word. She has no records except the ones written in an unfamiliar alphabet and cobbled together before she boarded her flight. Even if we were certain she’d had a home, if we could find a town, a street, someone to ask, who would translate our inquiries?

Would a photo would be enough?

It is for Bug.

He loves her at one glance. “Look at those cute little eyes!” He fawns over her tiny snapshot on the smartphone.

Thaya

Two days later, they meet in person. She whips her tail so hard she can barely keep her back legs on the floor. She tries to scale him to get to him face to lick lick lick. He squeals and laughs, petting her all the way down her wiry back.

Despite it all, she trusts him. Trusts us.

Foolish girl.

At home, she finds a lap. It’s far too small for her. No matter. She burrows in.

An earthquake, a tidal wave, a belly laugh. She isn’t going anywhere.

She claims her place.

We have no room for her.

Anyway, she stays.

  • Soi Dog is a Thai animal welfare organization that aims to end pet cruelty and homelessness in Thailand.
  • This CNN photo blog takes a hard look at the dog meat trade.
Children, Music

Jamming the Signals

He won’t stop talking about them. “In Animal Jam, my daddy plays on his laptop too and I made another pet who is just like the fox, and there were these phantoms I put in a crate, and. . .” The mere possibility of more screen time before bed reveals this unrecognizable boy who:

  • plays 45 minutes of basketball at the park and even shares his ball with a neighbor
  • finishes his spelling words (15 right, no mistakes!)
  • reads two chapters of his Bunny Private Eye book out loud
  • finishes dinner too fast, including all the broccoli
  • lets mama clip his scraggly fingernails
  • brushes teeth
  • changes clothes
  • does it all without a moment’s hesitation by 7:40 p.m.

“Yes!” he shouts as he jets across the living room. “Twenty minutes!” He plops himself down before the the growling, pinging machine and goes from dervish to droid in half a blink.
 
Seven years, and I finally gave in. Video games now live on the computer and my boy has a hand-held tablet at his disposal. It was only supposed to be weekends. Or maybe it was only supposed to be in exchange for reading. Or maybe on a timer-measured budget. Whatever model-parent solution I meant to try, we ended up here. The boy deliberates vocally about his moves while we’re dressing. Plans strategies in the car. Describes in excrutiating detail what he likes about the characters as we eat waffles. Lists the games he wants next and outlines their endless benefits as I brush his hair.
 
He talks. And talks. And TALKS about video games.
 
We keep the gaming down to little pit stops along the winding adventure of our days. We go ponk a tennis ball around a court or ice skate or visit friends. We slop around a trail or bake cakes or scoot around the block. We blare music and read joke books and draw. Then and only then does is Bug free to travel to pixel world. I hate seeing his turbo-charged engine idling to a stall as he hunches over his latest visual fixation. This kind of play may require cognitive engagement and it sure beats TV and cheetos, but here is what gaming isn’t:
 
Motion. Friends. Planting. Body. Magic.
 
Pulse.
 
Seeking.
 
Song.
 
Yet for all it is not, Bug’s new diversions prey on his attention even in their absence. Especially in their absence. Their sirens call. He talks and talks more until I finally bark,
 
Enough. For every minute you talk about video games, you lose one minute of playing them.”
 
Which is unfair and childish, but oh, how badly I wanted a home free of that electronic static. I wanted no static. All dynamic. All flesh and soil and story. But this is not my home. It is our home, Bug’s and mine. My son will have his loves. Some will baffle me. Others will make my skin itch. In any event, this kid should be free to feel his way and free to talk about the shape his desires take.
 
Still. I don’t take back the threat. Not yet.
 
In bed, we have finished books (one about Hieronymous Bosch, for god’s sake) when Bug turns and says, “One day, I’ll have a house with nothing but video games. Computers and ipads and video games.”
 
“Yeah?” I look at him. “One day, I’m going to have a house with 37-foot ceilings and a giant swing hanging right in the middle. And a three-story treehouse bed you have to climb a winding ladder to get into. Do you know what will be at the end of the bed?”
 
“What?”
 
“Big jars full of paint. So you can paint right on the ceiling above the bed what you want to see when you are dreaming. And my house will have an ice cream factory right inside with all the stuff for any flavor anyone wants to make. And a trampoline floor. And above the trampoline, a trapeze.”
 
“A bunch of trapezes,” he says. “So you can go down, and bounce up again, and swing.” He is arcing his stuffed polar bear through the air. “And go down and up and down and up and. . .”
 
“And a basketball court. And I’ll be able to make it really cold and turn it into a ice rink with flashing lights.”
 
“And 38 dogs,” he adds.
 
“Right. And a pool with a glass bottom so you can go under and see all the people swimming with all the dogs, and it’ll be just like the water-bowl-cam on Puppy Bowl.”
 
“And we’ll have the kitty halftime show.”
 
“And a whole room full of musical instruments. Anything you want to play, anywhere.”
 
“Except when you’re pooping,” he says.
 
“Are you kidding? Especially then. We’ll have a violin right there next to the toilet.”
 
“Not when you’re playing basketball.”
 
“Why not? I’ll put bells on everyone’s ankles so when they’re playing it’ll be like ching-ching-da-ding SWOOSH!”
 
“Is that someone making a basket?” He asks.
 
“Yep, and all the other players will be all jumping and jingling when you score the 3-pointer, it’ll be all jing-ding-a-ding-jing, like jazz.”
 
“What’s jazz?” Bug asks.
 
I explain that jazz is an American musical form rooted in the. . .
 
“No, how does it go?”
 
I attempt to bop-hmm through the opening bars of Charles Mingus’ Prayer for Passive Resistance. “Sorta like that.”
 
From who-knows-where, he asks, “What’s the blues?”
 
I turn and face him.
 
Well I woke up this morning. I reached across the bed. I went to hug my baby but I hugged a cold teddy bear instead.
 
I give his bear a limp squeeze. Bug is looking a little sideways at me. I kick it up.
 
Oh, I got so hungry for a sweet pickle but there’s none left in the jar, my baby got up in the night, ate the last pickle and drove off in my car.
 
Where the hell is this coming from? I belt it out before my mind can catch it.
 
Oh, I know she done left me because I’ve been gettin’ home late, I ain’t helped with the dishes and I left old cheese stuck to my plate. O-o-oh I got the blues. I got the empty bed, no pickle, teddy bear blues.
 
Bug bounces his polar bear and grins. I tell him the blues are usually about someone leaving.
 
“Like what?”
 
“Like. . . ”
 
I woke up this morning.
 
“The blues are always starting when you wake up.”
 
Looked for my panting dog. Ain’t no fuzzy tail a-thumping and the house is cold as a fallen log. I got the blues. I got the dog-gone-to-leprechaun-heaven blues.
 
“No, she didn’t go to leprechaun heaven.” He looks at me then tucks his head and sorta-smiles. Our pooch died on St. Patrick’s day. “That’s right. I forgot. Okay. Sing more.”
 
I reached for my furry lop-eared girl but she’s not there to warm my hands. Ain’t got no one to wake me up or lick bacon grease off the pan.
 
“I could do it,” Bug volunteers.
 
Oh, we got the blues. I wrap both boy and polar bear in a squeeze. The no Fenway in the morning, fallen-log, dog-gone, teddy bear blu-u-ues.
 
“Look,” Bug says. He pulls a tangle of Fenway’s black fur from his polar bear’s coat. “She left this.” He hands it to me and I rub the little remnant of our dopey girl between my fingers. Bug turns and curls around the bear. I tuck the fluff into my back pocket and curl around him.
 
Mama’s feeling good. For the moment, her boy’s absorbed in something. It’s raw and sweet hits the blue notes. And it sure won’t fit on a screen. Not even this one.