Tonight when I got home from work, I pulled into my driveway and was sitting in my car trying to summon the energy to get up and walk into the house, when a dog walked through my front yard. Not my dog, just a random dog I didn’t know. So I got out of the car (barefoot, because I usually take off my shoes on the drive home) to help this poor lost creature. That’s when he turned around and started barking at me. Really loudly.
I wasn’t scared. I have pretty good dog intuition, and I could tell he was probably friendly, just wary or protective, but I couldn’t approach him like that, and he wasn’t wearing a collar, so there was no tag to read anyway. I said, “It’s okay, boy. Hang on a second.” He hung on, still barking, while I reached back into my car and dug around for the tennis ball I knew I had in there. I was just about to offer him the ball and see if we could come to a compromise when a car pulled up and a neighbor got out.
“Bowser!” she yelled. “What are you doing?” (Note: Bowser is not the dog’s actual name.) She got out of her car and came to grab him, saying, “I’m so sorry! He just ran out the door!”
I said it was fine.
When Bowser saw his mom, he stopped barking and started running around me and my car, happily evading capture. I stood still while the following things happened, simultaneously and repeatedly.
Bowser ran around me.
Bowser’s mom ran around me.
Bowser ran around my car.
Bowser’s mom said, “You’re a teacher, right? How’s the first week of school going?”
Bowser jumped up and put his paws on my butt.
Bowser’s mom yelled, “Bowser no!!!”
Bowser laughed with his eyes.
Bowser’s mom said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Finally, on one of his trips around my car (which was still open), Bowser decided to to jump into the driver’s seat, at which point his mom yelled, “Bowser! Why are you getting into her car and not mine?!” and apologized about twelve times. Then she grabbed this forty-pound dog, yanked him out of my car, flipped him around so that she was cradling him like a baby with all his legs up in the air, and apologized one more time. I said it was fine. And it was. Truly.
Then I said, “You asked about the first week of school. Well…” I gestured to the big, doofy, furry, bundle in her arms. “It’s gone pretty much like this.”
As the woman carried Bowser to her car, scolding him all the way, I reflected on my little joke and realized how accurate it was.
Exhaustion + The Unexpected + Conflict + Problem-Solving + Remaining Calm During Chaos + Tackling an Obstacle and Subduing It Through Sheer Will + Laughter = The First Week of School
The truth is I’ve had a great first three days, I promise, even though I’m exhausted and overwhelmed and my ears are ringing. The other truth is Bowser didn’t bother me one bit, I promise, even though I had to clean a little dog pee out of my front seat.
* I don’t want to hear any of your complaints about how it’s not even Friday yet, and I can’t actually review the first week until it’s complete. Let me tell you this: The first week of school takes approximately A YEAR of your life. If I want to say it’s been a week on Wednesday night, I can. Deal with it.
I love my home. I love my husband. I love my life. But two days ago, I took my dog and left it all behind.
Let me explain.
Teaching takes a lot out of you. Not only is it a lot of work, but it’s a lot of extroversion. You have to be ON all day, summoning patience and smiles and enthusiasm even when they don’t come naturally. On a good day, you get a conference period or two, during which you can bask in forty-six minutes of alone time (mostly spent checking emails or grading papers). But sometimes (like the past two weeks, for instance) practically every second of your conference time is taken up with meetings, which means you have to keep that patient, enthusiastic smile plastered on your face all day.
I love my job, but there are many days where I go home after work and just sit in a quiet room, alone, for half an hour. And often fall asleep. So, when spring break arrives, I’m not screaming, “LET’S PARTY!” and calling all the friends I haven’t seen in ages. Instead, I’m craving comfy clothes, quiet spaces, books, blankets, and tea.
All of which I have at home, which begs the question: Why did I run away?
Let me explain some more.
Writing puts a lot into you. Not only is it mental and emotional work, but it also opens the floodgates of creativity. I’m not good at compartmentalizing my writing. I’m not one of those writers who writes a chapter on her lunch break or gets to the doctor’s office a few minutes early and whips up a couple hundred words of a short story. I wish I could work that way, but I can’t. For me, it’s all or nothing. When I’m writing, I’m not doing anything else, and when I truly open my mind to the creative process, the ideas and inspirations start flowing in. While writing a chapter of my novel, I might also jot down notes for a story, or quickly pen a poem, or doodle a cartoon for my next blog post. My brain is everywhere all at once, and it can be very rewarding to get in to that zone, but there’s no room for laundry or alarm clocks or needy pets or schedules. I need time and lots of it, with no responsibilities except to the process. So, when holidays arrive, I often tell myself I’m going to finish those writing projects, but secretly I know that unread emails and unpaid bills and well-meaning friends and family will likely keep me from truly taking the dive.
And that’s why I ran away from home for spring break. To write and relax and be among people I don’t have to smile at or talk to. It’s temporary, but much needed.
Originally, I was going to take a solo journey, but then I remembered what happened at the Books With Bite Workshop. There, I was in a cabin by myself, but friendly faces were just a few yards away, and I knew the following morning we’d all have breakfast together, my absence noted if some dark thing dragged me away in the night. Since I generally prefer for dark things not to drag me away in the night, I decided to bring one responsibility with me—my faithful guard dog.
So here we are, at a cabin in an undisclosed location in the Hill Country. I’m reading and writing and walking and napping and basking in the sounds of nature (and the sounds of teenagers whose behavior I do not have to monitor). So far, I’ve finished reading two books, drafted one and a half blog posts, written two poems, added 1,000 words to a promising short story, and snuck up on my novel-in-progress to spy on it. (I’m planning my attack.) Uno’s stats are not quite as inspiring, although he has peed on an impressive number of trees and chewed on some fairly large sticks.
I think my favorite moment so far was the first evening of my stay, when Uno had finally stopped growling at every tiny noise, and I sat down to do a Tarot reading (as you do on the first night of an adventure). I was itching to get to writing, so I decided to do a simple three-card spread about my retreat, symbolizing what led me here, what will happen here, and how it will affect me. My Halloween cards never let me down, and they came through once again. The first card couldn’t have been more perfect.
According to The Halloween Tarot by Karin Lee, the Two of Pumpkins (Two of Pentacles in the traditional deck) “signifies duality, or a struggle for balance. The masked jester balances on her tip-toes, weighing two jack-o-lanterns (lit and happy on one side, dark and sinister on the other) in her hands.” Yep. A balancing act, indeed. These three days away are all about me holding on to just one pumpkin for a change.
The rest of the reading was spot-on too, but I’m going to keep that bit of magic to myself.
Tomorrow Uno and I will go back home. A few days from now, I’ll go back to work for the last long stretch before the end of the school year. I’ll pack my patience and enthusiasm and extrovert self to take with me. And my smile? Well… I never truly put that away. 🙂
I’m not talking about sit, stay, and roll over. These tricks will save you time, money, and sanity.
In 2010, my husband and I got married. We formed a blended family. He came to the relationship with two cats, and so did I. Our cats were pretty old.* We loved them all.** But we knew, realistically, that they wouldn’t be with us for much longer.***
* We only THOUGHT our cats were old. It turns out, they were just middle-aged. ** I loved them all. My husband loved two and a half of them. *** We were wrong. So wrong.
For our one year anniversary, we got a puppy.
Six years have passed. We’re still married. We still have our dog and all four of our cats. The oldest cat is 17 and a half. The youngest is 14. The dog is 5.
In case you’re not keeping up with the math, that’s 2 cats + 2 cats = 4 cats + 1 dog = 5 pets = 5 pet mouths (requiring feeding, often prone to vomiting), 5 pet butts (doing what pet butts do best), 10 pet ears (for ignoring our verbal commands), 20 pet legs (perfect for tracking mud, clawing furniture, and being sat upon by unwary humans), and 1,000,000,000,000 pet hairs (to be spread in every space, container, nook, cranny, appliance, and orifice, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for 6 years****).
**** and counting.
How to Stay Married in a House Full of Pets
We live in a house with four indoor cats and one mostly-indoor, sixty-pound dog. It’s like a zoo but with fewer cages and more chaos. The lolling tongues and wagging tails and cute cat naps and furry snuggles definitely help, but cleaning up after these adorable creatures is exhausting, and maintaining a living space that’s suitable for both the animals and their human companions can be a challenge.
Here are a few things that have helped us preserve a moderate level of sanity.
Level 1: BASIC
Trick #1: The marinade is the key.
Problem: Cat toys are expensive and the allure wears off too quickly. Solution: Marinate in catnip.
There’s no need to buy new cat toys when all the good smells wear off the old ones. Just buy a bag of catnip and marinate the old toys in it. The longer they’re in there, the better, so I keep one or two toys in the catnip at all times and periodically switch them out.
Catnip toys keep cats happy. Happy cats are less likely to knock random objects off your desk.*****
***** not actually proven
Trick #2: This weapon will be called… the FURMINATOR.
Problem: HAIR and lots of it Solution: The FURMINATOR
These grooming tools are not cheap, but they actually work. Five minutes of brushing your cat or dog with this brush and you’ll remove so much hair and undercoat you won’t believe it. It truly does reduce shedding and hairballs.
Some of our cats won’t use the enclosed litter boxes with the lids, and those can be a pain to clean anyway. But if we remove the lid, the cats kick litter EVERYWHERE or do that annoying thing where they hang their butt over the edge to pee. So we bought tall plastic storage bins and cut “doors” in them instead. These are our litter boxes.
They’re not the prettiest things in the world, but… it’s not like we show them off to people anyway. (Until now.) The high sides keep the litter in, but they’re still easy to clean because of the open top. Plus, they’re cheaper than most litter boxes and easy to replace.
Trick #4: What Lies Beneath
Problem: Hair, drool, and that all-encompassing DOG STINK on your furniture Solution: Treat your dog like a baby.
We let our dog get on the furniture, in moderation, meaning we gave him one section of the couch (the largest section, for some reason) and some space on the bed in my office. When he was a puppy, simply putting down a towel or blanket for him to lay on was sufficient to keep the cushions and bedding underneath clean. But now that he’s a full-grown, sixty-pound, hairy, smelly DOG (who we love) one thin layer between him and the furniture isn’t enough. His stink seeps in, especially when he licks himself or chews on his toys or drools because we’re eating pizza and won’t give him any.
I got tired of washing the quilt and the couch cushion covers over and over, so I looked for a better solution, and I found one: crib pads.
For just $10-$20 you can buy a thin, washable, waterproof pad to go between your dog blanket and your couch or bed. It works SO WELL. Now Uno can shed and drool and chew all he wants, and the moisture and odor won’t reach the furniture. To make the space suitable for human use, I just have to remove the blanket and pad. Er… and the dog.
Note: Our cat has also thrown up on the dog’s couch cushion, and the blanket/crib pad combo kept that from reaching the upholstery too.
Level 3: EXTREME MEASURES
Trick #5: Location, Location, Location
Problem: One cat terrorizes the rest of the household. Solution: Move cat to his own apartment.
I have a 17-and-a-half-year-old black cat named Gink who I got when he was just a baby. I love him very, very much. He’s very, very special.
He’s also a recovering holy terror.
Gink has mellowed out a lot in his senior years. If you met him today, you might not believe that he used to terrorize friends, family members, vets, pet sitters, and dogs. But he did, and he was quite good at it.
When we formed our family of 7 (cat, cat, cat, cat, dog, human, human) in 2011, things were a bit rocky, and most of the blame was aimed at Gink. He terrorized one of the other cats, he showed aggression toward the dog, and he peed everywhere. Things were rough.
I could list all the (many) things we tried that failed to remedy the situation, but instead I’ll skip to the end. Eventually, through trial and error, research, and a well-timed episode of My Cat From Hell (Season 4, Episode 3: “Penny Hates Puck”), we figured out the truth: Gink doesn’t want roommates. He doesn’t want other cats hanging around, flaunting their catness in his face. He doesn’t want a dog following him around. (Seriously. Gink used to get mad just because Uno was walking behind him.) And he really, REALLY doesn’t want to share a litter box.
The solution was unavoidable. Gink needed to move to his own place.
So we got him an apartment. In our house. Gink now lives in our master bedroom & bathroom suite. The rest of the pets live in the rest of the house. We, the humans, inhabit both sides. We keep the door between the two areas closed at all times. Gink has his own litter box, his own food and water bowls, his own toys, his own bed.
If this seems like an extreme measure, it is. But it works. EVERYONE is happier. It’s amazing how much more relaxed our other pets are now that Gink isn’t around to traumatize them, and I don’t have to constantly clean up cat pee. Plus, Gink is happier too. He loves having his own space. He lives like a king.
That’s not to say he doesn’t sometimes try to get out. Once in a while, he scoots past me into the rest of the house. When that happens, the other cats freeze, and I tiptoe after my escaped panther until I can safely scoop him up and return him to his abode, usually with much hissing. Then I close the door and everyone breathes a sigh of relief once more.
I will say it again. Gink is special.
Trick #6: Deny everything.
Problem: Guests. Solution: Lie.
Despite all your preparations, there will still come a time when you have guests over and one of your pets decides to:
A) Steal a slice of cheese off the kitchen counter
B) Take a bath on the dining room table
C) Hack up a hairball on the living room rug
D) Eat a corner of the curtain
E) Sharpen their claws on a leather purse
F) All of the above
When that happens, your best line of defense is denial. Look your beloved pet in the eye and say, “What the heck do you think you’re doing? You’ve never done anything like this before! Stop it! Stop it right now!” Ignore the fact that your pet is gazing back at you, confused and bewildered, wondering why something which was perfectly fine yesterday is causing you such stress today. Later, when the guests leave, you can give your pet a treat and apologize and tell him he’s a very good boy.
* * *
If you have any pet tricks you’d like to share… Oops—gotta go. I hear the song of the hairball.