Family, Home

Good Stay

It’s our first day back at work and the neighbors are complaining. Out on the balcony, the lady from next door smokes as she watches the snow. She greets me with a friendly “Good morning.”

Then, “Oh, by the way…”

First comes an excruciating description of the 8-hour howling marathon. Then her recommendations: bitter apple, a towel with my scent, a plastic crate, a muzzle. She and her husband work from home. They listened to it all day, she tells me. ALL DAY. “Hours,” she says. “We could hear her all the way outside. She didn’t stop.”

I apologize and thank her. Then I stand there listening. I need to stay on her good side, if that’s even possible. Nodding, agreeing, I’m not sure what to say. Finally, I tell her I just don’t want to give Noodle up, which is the same as giving up on her.

Most of the neighborhood has heard about Noodle’s history. What we know is bad enough. What we don’t know is probably worse. From initial snatching by the smugglers through her arrival in our home, she’s endured at least six separations. Those are just the ones we can count. Add a measure of abuse followed by an overseas migration, and anxiety is a given. Aggression would not be a surprise. Even so, after all she’s been through, this tormented creature has managed to hold on to all the traits that most endear dogs to humans: groveling, nuzzling, cuddling, sitting. She gazes through glimmering eyes when we read on the couch and quivers with joy when we return from the store. She has not so much as nipped at Bug despite the horseplay he requires of her (“Mom, look! Conga, conga, conGA!”)

The codes run deep. They work. Bug is madly in love with her.

Also, she has crippling anxiety.

My finances are limited, and what little I have comes from a job at an office. I had foolishly assumed that the two-week winter break would be a sufficient adjustment period. Unlike my work-from-home neighbors, I can’t stay all day to train this pooch through months of desensitization. I live in a condominium instead of the country cottage, so ignoring the problem isn’t an option.

As ever, life is generous with its opportunities for growth. This is yet another reminder that I’m not all alone in a world on the brink of crashing down around me. The neighbors are, thanks to all things holy, dog lovers. Also, my superhero mother has offered to stop in for a mid-day walk. Being a member of Noodle’s pack, her presence is a comfort and a godsend for one hour of the day.

Even so, it doesn’t erase the four hours of howling on either side of her visit. I’m no fool. Neighbor-dog-love has its limits. Somehow I’ve got to hold down my job, take care of my son, and placate the neighbors all while keeping this dog from impaling herself on the busted bars of her crate.

I’m trying hard to La-La-La plug my ears against the little voice telling me this one of the the top five worst decisions of my life.

Is there a convincing argument for putting so much at risk and for this neurotic, sweet girl?

Why does anyone make these sacrifices? No one gives out awards for adopting abused dogs. Accolades are similarly nonexistent for all other do-gooders, from library volunteers to vegetarians. Maybe some folks trust the promise of delayed rewards. While the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be reserving a place at the head table for me, faith is generally missing from my list of motivators. Beyond that, altruism is irrational at best. It rarely leads to financial payoff, professional success, fame, leisure, an advanced degree or a smaller dress size. In fact, of the many ways to squander personal resources for some greater good, dog ownership is a guaranteed drain. The costs of food and care are just the beginning. Sleep takes a hit. Those extra hours at work needed to get ahead? Lost, along with evening classes and weekend conferences. And forget about tagging along for happy hour.

So why do it?

Because ___________________. Pick your platitude. Because you care. Because if you don’t, who will? Maybe because maybe you want to add to the sum total of kindness in the world, or because you hope someone would do the same for you.

Because duty. Because love.

Maybe all altruism is selfish. Being good feels good. A little hit of dopamine accompanies an action in sync with a value, especially when it leads to some small improvement. Or a big, sloppy kiss.

In my rather cold calculation, sticking by this dog is service to my son. After all, his status as an only child confers benefits and costs that a pet can complement and correct, respectively. My boy is king of the castle here. He chooses a great many of our activities and habits. His preferences certainly aren’t equal to mine, otherwise there would be no school, broccoli, or bedtime. That said, his vote counts more than it might if a sibling or second parent weighed in. This superior position may seem grand, but it costs him in social skills. My son has a long way to go to master compassion and consideration. A dog — especially one with a troubled history — is a good teacher. No quantity of playdates comes close to the humbling experience of sharing a home with a fellow being. Having a dog means more than sharing the back seat when running errands. It means waking every day to the awareness of someone else who matters.

Bug’s elevated rank also leaves him as his own and only best companion. At eight years old, he still tells me he’d rather live at his other house because there, he shares a room with his dad. He doesn’t like sleeping alone. On those mellow weekends when we spend more time at home than running all over creation, Bug sometimes wanders aimlessly, at a loss for how to entertain himself. He’s tired of Mama but he wants to engage with someone or something. This kind of quiet, TV-free existence is good for him, true. It’s on-the-job training in resourcefulness, creativity, and the innovative potential of boredom.

Also, it makes loneliness routine.

Not so great a norm to set for a kid who’s been handed two genetic suitcases packed with depression.

Noodle is Bug’s guide. She is also his buddy. Bug adores and curses her in much the same way a sibling might. He plays with her, gets irritated with her, wants her close, wants her gone. He always comes back to her though, learning all the while to temper his reactions and be a good companion. He’ll screw up (as will I), but she’ll probably survive. Noodle nudges Bug — and me, if I’m honest — up and out of ourselves. More than just waking us to the world, she engages us in a lasting and full relationship with a fellow earthling.

I’m sure the crazy dog people will skin me alive when they find out my motives for adopting are anything other than pure love. Alas, I’ve never been known for purity except in contrast, so Noodle and all her champions will just have to put up with my labyrinthine rationale.

Anyway, she’s home now. She can make do with this imperfect family.

Tomorrow, I’ll move the crate to my bedroom and shut all the doors, hoping the extra layer of drywall will muffle her cries. I’ll give the bitter apple and towel a try. I’m not sold on the muzzle. If we’re lucky, the neighbors will indulge us as Noodle’s little brain works out that there’s nothing on the other side of that door she needs.

This is it. She’s not going anywhere.

Neither are we.


Choices, Dogs


In the fourteen days since she joined us, she’s destroyed:

  • One chest harness
  • Two dog blankets
  • One nylon leash
  • One leather leash
  • The molding around the bathroom door
  • The molding around the front door
  • A good portion of the bedroom carpet
  • The cap of Bug’s new marker
  • One magazine basket handle
  • The zipper of a purple down vest
  • The zipper of raincoat #1
  • The hem of raincoat #2
  • One complete ham bone
  • The pink bathrobe sash
  • The metal bars of her crate
  • An entire issue of the Washington Post Sunday magazine, all the way down to Gene Weingarten


Dogs belong to that elite group of con artists at the very pinnacle of their profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it.

– Stephen Budiansky, The Truth About Dogs

It’s pushing 11:00pm. I want nothing more than to stash the last of plates in the dishwasher and collapse into bed. Instead, I will don a scarf and a jacket (one with an intact zipper), and pocket a few plastic sleeves from the Sunday Post. The little monster will quiver in a half-sit until she hears the harness snap, then she’ll lunge for the door. I will stumble out into the dark trying in vain to keep her behind and to the left of me as we circle the block half a dozen times. Only after she’s memorized every drop of canine urine that’s graced the grass in the past 72 hours will she relax enough to do her business. Then we’ll come back in where she will dedicate another 30 minutes to pacing from my room to Bug’s room to her blanket to her crate and back to my room again, collar jingling all the while, until she finds the right place to curl up for the night.

And I’ll be the grinning idiot who coos and strokes her back as she sighs off to sleep.


Friends, Home

Choosing Teams

We need others to bring us back into the comity of human life. This appears to have been the final lesson for me — to appreciate someone’s embrace not as forgiveness or as an amicable judgment but as an acknowledgement that, from time to time, private life becomes brutally hard for every one of us, and that without one another, without some sort of community, the nightmare is prone to lurk, waiting for an opening.

Barry Lopez, “Sliver of Sky” in Harpers Magazine, January 2013

Bug has his seatbelt off before I’ve even pulled up to the curb. He reaches for the door handle. “My team! My team is here!” he cries. Up the low hill at the park, the big kids play basketball in the deepening dusk. Bug jumps out of the car, clambers over the fence, and starts across the grass. But it is not the court he is after. He veers right and aims for a tree with low branches at the corner the blacktop.
A small gang of boys swarms around tangled limb and leaf. Bug makes a beeline for this flush-cheeked hive of activity. I follow my son and once I am closer, familiar faces resolve into view. Our upstairs neighbor. The bully from the pool. The shaggy-haired big kid from the townhouses who watches out for the little guys. Half of them hold sticks. One is directing some kind of game. Several dangle from the higher branches.
I get Bug’s attention, or some fraction of it, and tell him I’ll be sitting over at the playground. He nods, his head already turned away from me. The group swells to absorb him before sucking itself back into the shadows like some kind of amoeba. A moment later, my boy is nothing more than a white-blonde streak at the center of a stick-brandishing, howling horde galloping across the grass.
I chat with parents whose names I’ve just learned and whose history with each other takes up far more room on the bench than I do. Too soon, the last of the light recedes carrying reluctant children off with it. It is dark a little earlier each visit. Soon, we won’t have time to come after school and we’ll have to make do with each other.
My kiddo and I are the last ones. We find a place to sit together. A bat dips low. Bug leans his head back against the bench and laughs when another one flutter-bumps against the sky.
The next night, he is not with me. This is the way. Half the nights, half the weekends. It is a whole life scored right down the middle. Not quite torn in half, but thin enough at the seams that you can see through to something far worse.
It’s risky to pull too hard.
When my son is with his dad, this new home, this first-place-of-my-own home, is warm and full with the kind of space that invites me to open into it. A crowd of authors chatters at me from the shelves. The music whispers my bones awake.
When my son is with his dad, this place is as empty as an abandoned grave. Silence is a hungry throat closing around me.
When my son is with his dad, I am me with me with me.
Except for the dog. Ain’t no getting around the dog.
When I drag in from work, she and I walk. These days, we don’t speak much to each other. We have a way of finishing each other’s thoughts. We meander over to the shortcut that passes through the park. When Bug is not with me, it is only a path I am after. My head has gone off on its own magic carpet ride. I float along the sidewalk in a bubble of dog-padded solitude.
It’s only when I am halfway through the playground that I see someone waving. A face I recognize. One of the moms from the townhouses. Then one of the other moms whose kid is in Bug’s class. And a dad, too, whose son is Bug’s favorite and most disastrous friend.
I lift my head. My hand. My attention. The dog’s tail wags bigger. As we cut through the woods, I lean down and give her a head scrub.
My team! My team is here!


Breaking In

First, it is a hilt and sword. It grows into a lady in a hat and then a pig head on a pike. A dragon emerges. Now it is a stingray caged within the outlines of the aquarium tank surrounding it.

Its beginning falls on the two-month anniversary of our moving in. The ink is dry on the mortgage. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the ceiling.

The leak grows bigger every day. Brown stains find the joists and then the seams in the drywall. It is reaching out into the living room. I pop upstairs to tell the neighbor above me. We haven’t met yet but he lets me step into his entryway to so I can point out the suspected source near the front of the kitchen. “It’s coming from behind your dishwasher. Or maybe the line to it from the sink.” I trace the area below with my toe.

He is non-committal. “We’ve had problems like this before.”  Continue reading “Breaking In”

Happy Days, Living in the Moment, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 83

After the small scuffle at the Chicken School about leaving (he hates leaving), the tiff in the car about the lipstick (he threatens to smear it on the ceiling), the cuddle on the couch and the talk about talking about feelings (“Mom, I don’t know how to explain how I feel!”), the dinner I make from scratch in 15 minutes because I had an odd moment of foresight and marinated the chicken and prepped all the sides last night (“This rice is so good!”), the conversation sputters and Bug zones out. I catch him staring in the general direction of the dark kitchen window. We loll at the kitchen table, too tired even to drag ourselves upstairs to bed. I know there is homework in his backpack, but I just can’t bring myself to force it on him tonight. Not at 8:00pm on a Wednesday, and not in kindergarten, for Pete’s sake.
I open the Style section to get my fix of Carolyn Hax, but Bug is not having any of it. He reaches for the paper and scoots closer to me.
“I want to read with you, Mommy.”
“Okay.” I turn to the Kid’s Post at the back, and we read this article about the fact that pets can have preferred paws, just as humans have dominant hands.  As we work through the percentages, I pause. “Do you know what it means that 10% of people are left handed and 90% are right handed?” He does not. “Which hand are you?”
He thinks about it then holds up his right.
“You and me, we are in that 90%. Here, let’s see if we can figure this out.” I find an envelope and a scrounge up a couple of pencils. I make ten hash marks and then draw a circle, dividing it into ten sections. “Ninety percent means nine out of every ten.” We count the marks together, cutting off the single leftie at the end. I keep checking Bug’s body language for signs of resistance, but he has picked up the pencil and is counting along with me.
We talk through coloring one slice of pie for left handed people. We write together “10%” and “90%.” I don’t know if any of this is making sense to him, but his eyes are bright and he is copying every single thing I do, including my little key for which section of the graph represents which hand. We do the same exercise for dogs, which, as the article indicates, are usually about 50% left-pawed and 50% right. I ask him to compare the two circles, and see how much of each one is colored in. “See? Many more dogs use their left than people do. Half of dogs are lefties, but only that little bit, that 10%, for people.”
His eyes light up, and he breathes a big “Wow!”
“So, the article says something funny about cats. It says that 50% of them are right-pawed, 40% are left-pawed, but 10% have no preference.”
We find a fresh envelope and start on the cats. Bug is buzzing with excitement despite the fact that it’s nearing 9:00 and he almost fell asleep in his barbecue sauce. He is bent over the page now, making his hash marks and circles. I explain that he can remove all the zeroes from his percentages and make them into numbers easy to count. He decides that right paws should be dark, left paws should be dots, and no preference should be stripes. He draws a key, makes his ten-slice pie, and begins to color in the sections.
“Bug, look what you did! You made pictures to compare dominant sides for a whole population of dogs, cats, or people. This is really cool stuff, and it makes the numbers easier to understand.”
Beaming, he writes “cats” on the top of his last drawing and tells me again what it all means. I am dumbfounded. This, from the boy who claims he is too tired even to set forks on the table at dinnertime?

On nights like these, I am more resolved than ever to keep a TV from setting foot in our someday-home. It is nearly an hour past bedtime at the end of an exhausting day, and my boy would like nothing more than to stay up half the night creating a graphic model of an animal population. Who would be more tickled by this, Edward Tufte or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? Perhaps Bug’s own granddaddy, who is at this very moment down in the basement puzzling out one of his mutivariate equations, those Faberge eggs of math, adorned as they are with their many-shaped numerals and their strange Greek baubles.
When Bug is finished, he makes a giant check mark on the bottom of the page and draws a big smiley face just like the teacher does. He is delighted enough to grade his own work and give it high marks. I quiet the urge to tell my boy how happy this makes me. That’s the sweet little secret of intrinsic motivation, isn’t it? The itch is his to notice and to scratch. And it doesn’t matter one smidge who is proud of Bug, other than his very own self.