Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hoarders: TFV*

No, we haven't acquired any more animals. This confession is from Flash, being channelled through me. At least, this is what I hope he would say if he could talk. Because the first step in getting help is admitting you have a problem.

"My name is Flash, and I'm a hoarder. My old owners thought it was cute--they'd give me a dog biscuit, rawhide or other so-called 'treat' and stand there as if they were expecting me to put on a show of eating it. Please. Those things were either cardboard-y, rubbery or scratchy and hard. No matter how you sliced it, so to speak, they were nasty. In my opinion, dog treats created by people are going to be nasty. They claim to be the smartest animals, but hellooooo? If you're smart enough to know about our extraordinary sense of smell, don'tcha think it'd be nice to give us treats with flavors we can appreciate with that sense of smell?

So they'd give me these bone-shaped pieces of stuff and the only way I could get away with not eating it in front of them was to go bury it. The yard, the planters downstairs, heck I even hid one under a corner of the carpeting. I forgot all about it until they pulled up the rug and there it was. I almost laughed out loud! Anyway, they thought it was cute, and I'd get out of having to pretend they were yummy. I mean, come on. Lasagna for breakfast, beef lo mein for dinner and then rawhide?

But now I live with this new family. Sure, I still get to go home to visit my aunt and cousin and stuff when they stop by the old house every now and then, but things are definitely different on the whole. Last time I went to the old house, I dug up an old piece of a bone I had hidden in one of the plants downstairs. It was still hard, even though it was covered with wet dirt. But it was a piece of home, ya know? So I took it with me. I'll never tell what I did with it after, and I don't think my new owners noticed. Their place isn't as clean as my old one was. For one, they have carpet that's a few decades old. And they also have rats--rug rats, I think they call them. Mini-humans. And these minis have toys coming out the wazoo, tables with trains, tables for air hockey, tables for LEGOs, and lots of containers and shelves of even more toys. So there are TONS of places to hide stuff. I think this is where my problem started.

Last week, the head human gave me and Bailey each a GIANT rawhide bone. I practically squeaked with excitement. The thing was so big, it was like the ULTIMATE challenge to hide it! I couldn't wait! I took it right downstairs to where the mini-humans keep all their stuff, and went to work. Well, the head guy saw me in that room, but thankfully didn't come in. All I needed was a few minutes, and then I came trotting out. And pretty soon they were all, "Hey Flash, where's your bone? What did he do with it? I can't find it anywhere!" I'm telling you, it was brilliant.

You'd think after such an achievement (they still haven't found it), I'd be happy. But here's the thing. I had to get my teeth on Bailey's bone next. I mean, it was like I was compelled to hide it! I don't mind telling you, I was a little scared of the feeling, but I went and got the bone anyway.

But the humans, it's like they could read my mind or something. They stopped me. They took the bone and gave it back to Bailey. Then when I was able to grab it again, they actually chased me around the dining room and took it again! I let them have it because I didn't want them to see me struggle, but I felt like I was getting the DTs or something. It was weird. Like, I had to get that bone and hide it, like my life depended on it!

Long-story-not-very-short, I wasn't able to get the other bone. For two days after, I was beside myself. I couldn't eat. Couldn't poop. One night, the big human left a big hunk of fried chicken on the bone sitting out on the low table downstairs and just walked away. I was shocked! Of course, I was overcome and grabbed it, heading right into the playroom to hide that. I got busted though. Man, was he mad. He yelled so loud it scared me, so much so that I peed on the kitchen floor later.

That's when I knew I had a problem.

Anyway, thank you all for listening. It's good to be here. I hope we can all help each other. Peace."

*The Furry Version

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Looking A Gift Bunny In The Mouth

My family and I are practicing agnostics. I used to call myself a Unitarian Universalist, but the truth is, I just don't do well with weekly attendance at any kind of service. So while we don't have a spiritual 'community' in the usual sense of the word, we instead engage in various volunteer activities to help build, aid and beautify the community we live in, with hopes that others will pay it forward.

This works fine for adults, but once you have kids, not having structure for spirituality makes it a bit challenging to impart your values. Especially when it comes to holidays. We have a tree and a menorah in December; we have a seder and goody-filled baskets in spring. We atone in September, even though school has just started and the kids can't really figure out what they have done wrong in such a short period of time. So we are constantly talking about what's important, what life and the lives of others mean to us, and the best way to live in the world while keeping those values in mind.

After a week of school vacation that involved outings, movies, down time, playtime and lots of fighting, Easter morning arrived. This year, the Easter Bunny decided to give, in addition to sweets, a video game cartridge to each of my kids. One had been purchased on sale some time ago, and lusted after by my youngest son for much longer. With no birthdays, loose teeth or other opportunities for gift-giving in sight for several months, the basket seemed the perfect place for it. And to avoid trauma and in-fighting, Jacob received a game as well, though his was less expensive and not specifically requested. That, however, seemed to be the rub.

Here I was thinking myself magnanimous for going a little over the top for Easter, giving them actual gifts instead of just candy; enough over the top to earn disapproving looks from Mr. Bunny. Truly, Easter is not a gift-giving holiday--why was I spoiling the children? No, I said, this is OK. Less cavities, and guaranteed fun. Ben, at least, was thrilled.

"Mom, do you think the Easter Bunny kept the receipt?" Jacob asked me.

"I really don't know, Jacob. Why? Don't you like Pokemon?" I asked, a bit miffed that he didn't appreciate the fact that he'd just gotten a gift for no reason.

"I do, but I have another game that's a lot like this one, and it's pretty lame," he answered.

And that moment was when I realized my folly. The more we give our kids, 'just because' (fill in the blank: they want it; it's on sale; it's Easter/Passover/4th of July or any other holiday that has yet to be commercialized), we're only feeding the monster. Like our attention when they were younger, no matter how much you give, it will never be enough. Mr. Bunny was right--I'm sending the wrong message. I'm spoiling them.

When Mr. Bunny announced that there would be no video game playing today, I ducked, prepared for the backlash. After all, they had just gotten new games--how could we forbid them from playing? I dreaded the rest of the day, fueled by chocolate and the knowledge that those games were so close, yet so far. I thought him unreasonably cruel.

But then I realized two things. One, it was my own fault for setting up the situation, and two, I really hate video games. I would love to get rid of all of them, as well as our television set and fill the spaces with books, games and puzzles. But I can't, so instead I give them what they want, despite my better judgment. Maybe a bag of M&Ms would have been the better route, cavities be damned.

As the day has worn on, the kids cleaned their rooms, showered, and played outside with friends for an hour and a half. Next we will switch their winter clothes for summer ones in their closets and dressers, and then make sure the bookbags are packed with all they'll need to go back to school tomorrow. The games have been put away, and will likely be forgotten until next weekend. The lesson, though, will stay with me.

At least through Memorial Day.

Friday, April 22, 2011

This One's For You

Nothing says "I'm unhappy" like poop in the bedroom. Or should I say, nothing feels like your dog thumbing its nose at you like finding a log on your bedroom floor. And dogs don't even HAVE thumbs.

Look, rules suck. Just ask my kids. They have to do homework, bathe, clean up after themselves and go to school. They can't play video games all day, lie around on the couch until all hours or eat ice cream for dinner. But it's a lot harder to explain that these things build character and teach you to live in the real world when you're talking to a dog. A dog, mind you, who is used to sleeping in bed with his owner at night, on the couch during the day, and eating lasagna and chinese food more often than kibble.

I give Flash credit. He lost both his owners in a span of a couple of years. He had to move into a house that already had a pet, one very much loved by the family, and very well trained. He had to learn a new house, family dynamic, schedule and rules, and all while grieving his lost owners, home and lifestyle. And with all that, he's really been doing great. He's quick to learn, likes to please and is obviously trying to go with the flow until he figures it all out.

So I have to assume that, now that he fully grasps that this is his new home, he has decided to put his paw down, and put some things back into place. I've had to chase him off the couch twice this week--once, he got up there without my even noticing and likely had a nice nap before Ben realized where he was and alerted me. And Bailey has been uncommonly clingy. Perhaps his allergies are kicking in and he's feeling uncomfortable and grumpy, but when Flash comes over for a pet while Bailey is next to me, Bailey growls. Today, for the first time, he actually barked at Flash.

I admit I feel sorry for the little guy. For as far as he's come, he still knows he's second dog, he has to sleep on the floor, eat dog food and listen. We don't tolerate begging, rarely give out scraps, and don't take our dogs for car rides very often. Now that he's realized not only that his life has changed, but that it's not going to change back, he's pissed. So to speak. And who better to take it out on than the humans?

Like a typical mom, I want to give him more loving, more attention and make him feel better. But I also know that he knows the rules, and this was a blatant flouting of those rules. I've never been good at tough love, but I suppose now is the time to practice. The kids will be teenagers soon enough, and while a missed curfew isn't as bad as pooping in my room, it will still constitute a tightening of the rules. And while it will likely get the lesson learned, I guarantee the kids and dogs will agree, it still stinks.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's All Relative

I have to take issue with the fact that girls always get a bad rep for keeping boys waiting for dates. Granted, when I am getting ready to go out, I often have to get the kids bathed and fed, give instructions to the babysitter and walk the dogs first. Only then can I begin the increasingly arduous and lengthy process of prettying myself up for a date. So when my husband says, "are you almost ready?" and I answer "five more minutes," I really think that's all it will take. That's all it used to take. But since I'm getting old, these things end up taking longer. At least I have a good excuse.

Whether this is genetic, learned or just a circumstance of age, both my boys seem to have the same trait, but without the excuse. If I tell one of them that it's time for dinner and he needs to stop playing the video game he's playing, I'm told,

"OK, I just have to kill this guy and get to the next level."

While that sounds like something that should take all of three minutes, this is in fact the equivalent (in parenting language) of

"OK, I just have to finish middle school, college, medical school and go do my internship where I'll find the cure for cancer."

In other words, I'll be there soon-ish, with 'ish' being the operative quantifier. So don't hold your breath waiting, or you'll pass out.

As much as it's taken me time to figure this out, to realize that they will not be done as quickly as they make it sound, I also can't really get mad. Because the fact is, I get it. I'm a writer. I know what it's like to be 'in the zone,' totally focussed and absorbed, and then looking up five minutes later to find that I'm an hour behind schedule for starting dinner.

Like any problem (if not necessarily any genetic defect), recognizing the problem is the first step in working toward correcting it. But in a way, it's like the blind leading the blind--I know I need to get the kids off the video games and into books for a while each day, but at the same time, they are being very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that I can actually get some writing done, writing that I didn't think I'd get to do over the break because we'd be too busy running around doing stuff.

So now the question becomes, do I address my problem and be the good mommy, steering my kids back to interactive and educational activities for the rest of the afternoon? Or should I be selfish mommy and let them enjoy themselves a few minutes more? Just fifteen minutes, so I can work a little on my book outline.

Oh, and edit my chapters.

Oh, and finish updating my blog.

Wow, how did it get so late?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Steal My Thunder. Please.

As with any new event that changes the dynamic of a family, there are things that can be anticipated before the change, and things that cannot. Because we adopted Flash in the winter, we anticipated lots of 'indoor time' with both dogs as they got to learn how to live with each other, figured out the new pecking order and were taught the rules. There would be logistics to negotiate, such as feeding and sleeping areas, walking schedules and pet toy storage.

But one thing we didn't consider, because it had not been an issue for almost a year, was weather. Or, more specifically, storms. Not blizzards.


Last night, with a house full of us and family visiting from out of state, we got our first, albeit mild, thunderstorm. Our guest room is in the basement, right next to the playroom, which is where we usually send Bailey during severe thunderstorms that rile and torment him. Downstairs, he can bark, pace, howl and moan at what we assume he perceives to be a fleet of big trucks going by on our road. Endlessly. Thankfully, once the, thunder stops making noise, so does Bailey. But with actual guests in our guest room, this wasn't really an option (although I did consider it very briefly).

What we discovered during this 30-minute, middle-of-the-night storm, though, was that Flash hates thunder. REALLY hates it. Like, he seems to think dozens of scary people are trying to knock down the walls and get into the house to steal the big, white box in the kitchen that holds all that awesome food. And like any good watch dog, if someone is trying to break in, you sound your alarm.


Flash's alarm, normally a cute little, high pitched bay, is, shall we say, not quite as cute at 1:30 in the morning as it is in the light of day. And for every ten minutes of alarm that plays without a snooze button option, the cute factor drops exponentially. After 20 minutes, I was praying the thunder would stop. After 30, I wanted to take Flash next door to his old, empty house and let him make all the noise he wanted. After 40, though the thunder had stopped, the alarm played on and I had my head buried under my pillow to no avail.

When he finally decided that the house was secure and the bad guys were gone, Flash finally gave up barking. Thankfully, it didn't take long for me to get back to sleep. Had the thunder continued though (or, dare I say it, had there really been bad guys trying to break in), I am certain that this little guy, with all the energy and passion and sense of duty he possesses, would have continued to warn us of the 'danger'. Like a furry postman, rain, lightning, dark of night and even exhaustion would not have caused him to quit. His sense of purpose is strong, and his loyalty high. At least, that's what I tell myself.

But I also know that, come summer, he will likely be getting to know our basement a lot better too.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Culinary Canine

Ben is my best eater, hands down. He will try anything, even if it's green. He loves vegetables, exotic foods and doesn't shy away from funky textures or combinations. Nor is he restricted by rules about what is acceptable food for certain times of day. This is a kid who eats cheeseburgers and raspberries for breakfast.

So it's no surprise that I consider him something of an expert on how to enjoy food, and I am not surprised when he stops everything to follow his dad downstairs when it's time to feed the dogs. This is especially true when they are getting leftovers, or as we like to call it, 'something from the big, white box' because the dogs go nuts when we pull something out of the refrigerator to heat for them. Then, noses in the air, they file behind dad as if he were the pied piper, drinking in the smell of melting beef fat that wafts behind him. It's music to their noses, and Ben trails behind them revelling in their excitement, feeling a kinship to those whose passion for food rivals his own.

But the excitement doesn't end there. Once kibble, fat and gravy have been divided and dispersed, Ben stays to watch the pooches chomp and slurp at their breakfast until the empty bowls clang against the tile floor.

On a typical dog food-only day, Flash will nibble his kibble and leave half behind. Sort of like Ben with chicken nuggets. It's bland, boring and processed, and therefore not worth the effort or calories. But when there are leftovers, Flash goes to town. Though only half of Bailey's size and weight, Flash often empties his dish first, putting on a show of grunts and snorts as he goes, as if he can't eat it fast enough. This has always amused Ben, but today something shifted in his thinking, and he commented on it.

"Mom, Flash always finishes his food first, but he just chomps it down. He doesn't saaavor it. He doesn't breeeathe."

He sounded disheartened, as if Flash had let him down, exposed himself as a gourmand rather than a gourmet. Clearly, if Flash eats so fast that he can't even breathe, he is not tasting the food. He therefore must not be enjoying it, and Ben seemed to pity the dog for what he is unknowingly missing out on.

If that's the case, so be it. I chalk it up to Ben's first in what will surely be many character studies. Surely it won't be the only time he sees someone for what they truly are, when reality will shatter illusion and someone will suddenly become a disappointment to him.

I try not to think about the day when Ben will realize his mom and dad are just people, not superheroes, and that we make mistakes like every other human, even when raising our kids.

If I'm lucky, his experience with the dogs will help him retain his faith in us--even after this jarring realization--and his love will continue unwavering.

But I'll be happy if he just deigns to share a good meal with us every once in a while.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Good Humor Men

It's hard to be little. You have to look up at everyone, you can't see the tops of counters, and you have to do what you're told. Things are confusing sometimes, and you want to be independent but you have no choice but to rely on others because you can't get a job. Sometimes you get yelled at, and you don't know what you did or why it was bad.

Just ask my beagle.

Perhaps this is why Ben has been so sympathetic with Flash lately: because he can relate. Before our dog days, Ben was the puppy in the pack. Everyone was bigger, smarter, older and better at stuff than he was (notice I didn't say 'louder'). Of course, being the smallest and youngest has its challenges, not the least of which is carving out your own niche, finding your place in the pack.

Not only were you not the first one here, but now you're competing for attention while trying to make up for lost time. Plus, everyone seems to know the rules, and their place, but you. So you go through your options:

Boy? Taken.
First born? Taken.
Smart? Taken.
Eager? Taken.
Obedient? Taken.
Creative? OPEN
Funny? OPEN

And there you go. Through the process of elimination, Flash and Ben have both been able to find their places in the pack. They are feisty, emotional, controversial, demanding and ultimately will do what they want regardless of what they're told.

But they are also the cuddliest, goofiest and funniest of the bunch. They love fearlessly and without reserve, and are creative in getting what they want. Ben will debate and finagle, tell you jokes and make ridiculous suggestions to get what he is after. Flash will roll around on the carpet like a wind-up toy, dig through the recycling bag to pull out and play with an empty peanut butter jar and use the couch to get up to the bay windowsill to bark at passersby. You're so busy laughing at their creativity that you forget to be angry at them. Henry Ward Beecher once said, "Men will let you abuse them if only you will make them laugh."

To Flash and Ben, rules are meant to be bent, looked upon as 'suggestions' rather than restrictions. In this family, at least, being the littlest means grabbing hold of what power you can and using it to your best advantage.

And if everyone is laughing at you, you've definitely got power. And a better chance of getting what you're really after.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

If You Give A Kid A Pancake

One of the most dangerous aspects of the adolescent brain is its inability to consider potential consequences before acting or making decisions. It's dangerous because adolescents are often presented with situations in which lack of forethought can have life-long effects. Sex, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, driving too fast, missing the deadline for scholarship applications, etc. have caused many a sleepless night for loving parents.

This is why many school programs focus on pre-teens' and teens' planning abilities. But I discovered today that this problem of lack of forethought isn't restricted to teens. My eight-year-old suffers from it as well. And while he's not in potentially life-threatening situations on a regular basis, today was an exception.

When Ben gets hungry, if he doesn't eat something and instead lets the hunger get out of control, he becomes (as my family used to call it) EVIL. That means, in essence, that he is cranky, angry, loud and obnoxious toward everyone. He cannot be reasoned with, talked down or placated, making him pretty much miserable for anyone to be around. This happens primarily on the weekends, when he gets too absorbed in a video game or cartoon and doesn't heed his grumbling stomach until it's too late.

This morning, I figured we'd be able to avoid the problem by attending the Lion's Club pancake breakfast at the high school. We'd eat all the pancakes, sausage and bagels we wanted, pick up Ben's baseball uniform and be a happy bunch of campers. Plus, I wouldn't have to cook or clean up. It was a win-win plan. Unfortunately, I failed to execute it before Ben had crossed over into "the evil zone."

By the time I had gotten him dressed and dragged him to the high school, he was yelling, lashing out and dangerously close to being left in the parking lot. (I'd have strangled him, but there were too many other families around as witnesses). Instead, I stayed calm, we made our way to the mercifully fast-moving line, and got our trays of yummies. Ben was off like a shot to find a seat, and was already unwrapping his plasticware by the time I found him and got my coat off. I offered him some antibacterial cleaner for his hands before he dug in, and he put out his palm to accept it. But he pulled away too fast, and a blob of it went into his orange juice. Acting quickly to avert a crisis, I handed him my orange juice and took the ruined cup away. Whew.

Then he reached for the red bottle on the table labeled "Syrup" and gave a squirt over his plate. At that moment, someone's belated April Fool's joke culminated in a big pile of ketchup landing on Ben's pancake. And just like that, the tears began to flow.

I know it was partly my fault for not getting up earlier and making sure he at least ate a banana to hold him, or reminded him what happens when he gets too hungry. But I had also hoped that, now that he's eight, he'd be getting the hang of that thought process on his own.

Sadly, that is not the case. And considering this type of problem continues into children's early- to mid-twenties--until their brains are fully developed--all my nagging probably isn't going to be able to change it. The best I can do is leave cereal bowls and boxes on the table at night, and a note on his door for the morning that suggests he start with breakfast before anything else.

Because after I pulled away the ketchup-laden pancake and gave Ben one of my own, he chowed down two of them along with sausage and orange juice without even pausing to wipe his tears. And just like that, he was transformed back into the boy I love. Such a simple solution, such a miserable reminder.

What I learned today is, If You Give A Kid A Pancake, And You Do It Soon Enough, You'll Save Yourself And Your Family A Lot of Unnecessary Aggravation.*

Oh, and always, always, use the pre-packaged syrup containers.

*With apologies to Laura Joffe Numeroff.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sex Ed

Anyone I ever spoke to who grew up on a farm was very matter-of-fact about sex. I attributed this to the fact that they grew up surrounded by animals annually courting, mating and giving birth and--let's face it--the farm is no place for modesty.

Contrarily, I grew up in a strict, Christian household that believed in Heaven, Hell, God and the stork. Needless to say, in my house, sex was the "s" word, and was therefore never discussed. As far as I knew, babies came from married people through osmosis and fervent prayer.

Now our home is not quite so conservative, but neither is it a farm. Yet along with our new pooch, I think my kids are getting a bit of an education about sex lately too.

The sexual tension in the house is high since we got a second dog. True, both dogs are male, but this actually seems to be adding to the problem. Luckily for us, Bailey is bigger than Flash, because the reality of, er, size has naturally settled the issue of who is the top dog. While Flash would love to step in and take over, run our house the way he ran his old house, Bailey is having no part of it. Apparently, male dogs try to dominate other dogs by mounting them. When Flash first moved in, he tried to mount Bailey. This happened exactly once. At least Flash is a fast learner.

Before Flash came along, Bailey had also worked out his own little system for what to do when he feels like sowing some oats, so to speak. He grabs his bed by the scruff of it's neck and dominates *it*. Flash, though, having learned Bailey is not a willing partner, just walks around the living room humping the air.

Ben has watched this quietly before. The other day, though, he called to me when he caught Flash doing it again.

"Mom, come look! Flash is doing his Victory Dance!" I didn't correct him.

Then this morning on the way to the school bus, Ben asked his dad, "Dad, what's that pink thing sticking out under Flash?"

"That's his penis, Ben," was all Dad said. Silence ensued as Ben studied the dog from a distance until the bus arrived.

I laugh at how the kids glimpse different actions by watching the dogs, get questions answered by us and then try to put it all together with what they know about their own bodies. But I also know that it will make understanding more complex concepts a lot easier down the road. The biology of it all is being given to them piece by piece as they grow, thanks in part to the dogs. The emotional and social aspects of love and responsibility will come later. It's just nice to know that "the talk" in our house is already going on, one long conversation that will evolve and grow as the boys do.

Of course, we are all learning since our pack has grown, and not just about sex. Bailey has learned how to beg and hover by watching Flash. Flash has learned to ignore me when he's called by watching Ben, and how to play with his squeaky toys by watching Bailey. Both dogs have learned how to touch each other's stuff by watching the boys, and David and I have learned how to break up fights and discipline the dogs by watching the children.

Lumped into all this behavior are the natural instincts of males, acted out by the dogs and learned by the boys. It's silly, funny and strange, but opens up the lines of communication between us all so that even I have to admit to this unforeseen benefit of pet ownership. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?