Fur, feathers, and folderol

On the About page of this blog, I caution that my writings here are “forever random and rambling.” Rarely has that been so true than right now … 

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The Tao of Cubby 

Cubby, the über-mensch of mutts, scurries across the wood floor, his nails recalling the tip-tap of a typewriter. (If only he could actually type. That would save me tremendous carpal tunnel distress.) 

He is fleet, balletic. Though he resembles a gray Oscar the Grouch — bodily bedhead, articulate brows — the dog is chipper and civil, venting frenzied yaps only when evolutionarily expected (read: Amazon). 

Cubby is also mindful and meditative. He follows the flow of the universe and the whiff of tacos. Part Chinese sage, part Scooby-Doo, he adheres to the Taoist tenets of simplicity, patience, compassion, and the canine tenet of raw sirloin. 

Spiritual but godless, Cubby finds solace in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” — self-deception! free will! — but not in Scripture. He likes to quote Socrates: “I am the wisest dog alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

For Cubby, things just are. Why this, why now? As Cubs might say, Because. Just because.

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In anticipation of Easter, a short tale featuring baby chicks

When I was five, we had a pair of baby chickens, a female (yellow) and a male (black). They scuttled around our backyard and slept in a wood and wire coop, also in the backyard. The birds were strictly decorative. We had no intention of consuming their flesh.

One night a possum tried to get the chicks. Hearing the ruckus, my Dad went outside and our black Lab followed, charging and half-killing the hissing marsupial. Distressed by the injured animal — drama in suburbia — Dad tried to put it out of its misery using a broomstick (why not a spatula, or a straw?). 

He failed, unsurprisingly. The possum was either unconscious or playing dead. Because the next morning the creature was still moving in the garbage can in which it was placed. A man sans a plan, Dad left it there to die on its own, to the collective horror of his family. 

Soon after, we gave the chicks to a cousin who cared for them on his sprawling farm. I’m sure they were delicious. 

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Speaking of chickens …

Braided with wisdom, wit and woe, Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” is a deceptively slight novel about a woman caring for a small brood of chickens as she copes with the personal tragedy of a miscarriage. 

Not sold? Be, because Polzin’s debut is sublime. It’s steely, and gentle as a breeze.

The chickens are both main characters and peripheral walk-ons in this compact book, so don’t fear a poultry-centric story. In fact, there’s not much of a story at all. Deeply contemplative and minutely observed — à la Jenny Offill (“Weather”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) — Polzin limns her nameless narrator’s life with by turns clinical realism and dazzling impressionism. There is much to learn about chickens, and life.

The precision of the prose, so nipped, tucked yet vital, is a marvel. Even the chicken passages, with their homely brown eggs, scratch feed and scaly feet, are poetic reveries. A human- and chicken-scale miniature, “Brood” loses none of its emotional texture next to its lo-fi humor. It’s one of the most lulling and pleasant books I’ve read in a spell. 

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The larger worth of small talk

Strolling down the sidewalk, you run into an acquaintance — someone you know only faintly, yet well enough for a stop and chat; say, your mechanic or a few-houses-down neighbor — and you find yourself beaming hello, how are you, and before you know it things have devolved into vapid chitchat, the dreaded small talk.

Small talk eats the soul — the empty jawing about weather, work, kids, traffic, assorted gossip and platitudinous pleasantries. Defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters,” small talk reeks of the banal, the trivial, the sort of airy transactions saved for your Uber driver, that guy you went to high school with and haven’t seen in years, or the faux-cheery barista you encounter each morning. 

Still, while it can be painful, what with the groaning predictability of the exchanges, small talk serves a purpose: it fills the dead space we all fear. It’s a buffer, prosaic padding, a time-killer of minor moments that would otherwise be awkward, excruciating, or both.

Words. They will save us. No matter how crudely utilitarian.

You are getting sleepy. Not.

The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I took a dog sedative. 

That will do it, I thought. That will put me down like a tranquilized caribou. The Benadryl isn’t working, the Xanax has flopped. It’s 3 a.m. and time for the big guns, even though the dog, Cubby, weighs about as much as a couple of gallons of milk.

So how much doggie dope to take? I haven’t the foggiest. I don’t want a measly Cubby dose. Well, this chunky pill looks about right for an adult human. Gulp.

And it worked. A little before 4 a.m., the tossing, turning and cursing ceased. I was out, and it was good. I woke up with paws and a tail, but it was worth it.

My accursed insomnia comes in waves. I’ll have a few months of it, then it clears up and I sleep like a normal person, six to eight hours if I’m lucky. But those sleepless stretches are agony. So I medicate, with reckless abandon. 

And it rarely works. I’ve tried Ambien, melatonin, Benadryl, booze, Xanax and Clonazepam, sometimes all at once. Maybe they’re cancelling each other out.

Everyone sings the drowsy praises of Benadryl, a common over the counter antihistamine. I know people who can’t even wake up the next day if they take one and a half pills. That’s insane. I’ve taken up to eight Benadryl in one night and got zero winks. I think I need a shot of sodium Pentothal.

I don’t like how many drugs I ingest, everything from Pristiq and Benadryl, to Zyrtec and Xanax, to Clonazepam and Advil. My blood must be a sludgy brown, or a nuclear green. It can’t be good.

In college, the pharmacist at the student health center told me he puts nothing in his body medicinally, not even aspirin. I mulled if that was even humanly possible. I wonder where he is now. Probably a heroin addict. 

Last summer was especially slumber-free. When insomnia strikes, the mind reeling in futile spin cycles, I typically get up and try to make myself tired by doing stuff. I write, read, plan trips, watch videos, get a head start on the day’s online news. Once I went ahead and shaved in the middle of the night, an existential triumph of baby-soft smoothosity. And I rarely neglect my journal, like this bit from August:

“2:40 a.m. I cannot sleep and I’ve taken two Clonazepam, a Xanax, three Benadryl and three more just now, making that six Benadryl. I am tense and restless, bored. Went downstairs at 1 a.m. to read and sip a splash of rosé and still nothing. I’m so damn antsy. … 5 a.m. Cannot get to sleep. Two more Benadryl and whole body cramping and restless. No sleep whatsoever. Zonked in the head yet my body wants to run a 5K.”

Those are the tedious musings of a fatally bored, somewhat drugged individual. Where’s the dog pill when I need it?

About that pill: Turns out the sedative given Cubby to calm him before vet visits is an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication for humans, so it’s not like I was eating dog food or committing a creepy interspecies caper. The pill is Trazodone, which in 2017 was the 30th most commonly prescribed medication in America. So I’m in good company.

Sleep shouldn’t be so elusive. While it’s a precious and pleasant commodity — cuddling, dreaming, flipping the pillow over to the cold side, snoring with roof-rattling gusto — snoozing is also mandatory. I for one become a deep-fried ogre without sleep. Just as scary: some reports say up to 50 percent of adults suffer chronic insomnia.

That’s a rotten figure, yet one that makes you think. Those hours swiped of sleep, when you’re desperately, hopelessly awake, can be surprisingly fertile. I can’t tell you how much world-travel mapping I’ve accomplished in the wee morning gloom of sleep deprivation.

Sure, I’d rather be unconscious and under the covers, but maybe some good can be wrung from the midnight malady. Maybe in the restless hush books can be read, letters written and Tokyo hotels booked. Maybe we can commune with ourselves with a kind of meditative calm and aloneness. Maybe, after all, sleep is for suckers.

Tale (tail?) of a hirsute hound

Cubby the wonder dog has gone a very long time without a good, healthy grooming. His face is downright Ewokian, that wet button nose struggling to peek out from the furry foliage. His brows are thick, heavy, senatorial. His body would make Bigfoot blush. Such inordinate overgrowth is witnessed in only the most luxuriant jungle weaves and tangles, invoking machetes, flamethrowers and scythes fit for Death himself. 

Cubby, we submit, needs a haircut.

He knows it, we know it. Supercuts knows it. As does the kid down the block who mows the neighbor’s lawn for five bucks.

Seriously, clippers and razors should be at the ready. Cubby fears and loathes the grooming ordeal — sedatives required — and we sympathize. And so we let him go, and grow. But it’s in his best interest to be shorn, for comfort, hygiene, and to not look like David Letterman. 

Right now, three months after the photo below was taken, Cubby’s corkscrewy fur looks like swirling oceans of gray Reddi-wip, curling waves lurking with mythical sea monsters. If you think he looks lush here, you should see him now. To namecheck another “Star Wars” critter, he’s wildly Chewbaccian. I live with a barking, carpet-staining Wookiee. 

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Then again, here’s what he looks like after a spanking professional shearing. Such grooming makes him appear bald and sprightly, thinner, a bit rat-like, though retaining that preposterous Spaghetti-O tail (which I adore). Gone are the Austro-Hungarian mustache and frowzy Haight-Ashbury beard. (Gone too is that panting smile, curiously.)

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All of which is to say: 1. A barbershop chair awaits Cubby’s fuzzy tush. 2. Call it a springtime trim, ripe for warmer days. 3. Wanted: Dog groomer who can handle a hirsute hound that’s neurotic, nervous and Xanax-popping, and may require a John Deere to cut mighty scrubland. We exaggerate, a little.

Boning up on how to be a real dog

I thought it’d be nice for Cubby the dog to have, at long last, a true, honest-to-god bone, the kind dogs spend hours gnawing and worrying, trying to get at every last nip and nibble of gristle and gore and marrow, keeping boredom at bay, digging into denuding the hunk of flesh-coated cow skeleton with grunting determination, tail-wagging vim and feral gusto. I thought it’d be a fitting Christmas present for the rescue hound who hasn’t experienced all the things prototypical cartoon dogs (see Marmaduke bury his bone in the backyard like treasure) have enjoyed in their inky realms, a rite of passage, like college graduation, or circumcision.  

So the other day I impulsively bought a $6 beef bone at Whole Foods, which was wrapped in that red fishnet nylon in which holiday pet stuff is so often swaddled — festive but peculiar. My plan was to present the bone to Cubby on Christmas morning, per the whole gifting hullabaloo. But at home, when he sniffed it out in the grocery bag with disarming excitement, I decided I wanted right there and then to see how this would all play out: Cubby the beef bone virgin getting his first totally supreme chew chunk. It went …

Hang tight. I digress. First, in the seasonal spirit, Cubby was forced to do what so many little boys and girls must do: get their picture taken with Santa Claus. Children over 3 years old tend to love this ritual because Santa asks what they want for Christmas. It’s like sitting in the lap of a magic, wish-granting genie. (Those under 3 tend to use Santa’s lap as a red velvet diaper, bawling all the while.) 

Pretty sure Cubby’s Santa, part of a charity for Doggie Daycare, didn’t ask what the dog wanted for Christmas (and if he did, I hope Cubby replied: “A big, real-life bone, Santa!”) 

So here he is, posing, pantingly, with the third least convincing Santa Claus ever, be he at the North Pole, Macy’s or in the mall atrium:

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If Santa looks befuddled, Cubby looks mortified, thinking, “For Christ’s sake — really?” That wide canine smile is pure theater, gleaming fakery, a gaping signal of full-body shock. (It’s exactly the kind of “smile” I pull out of my bag of humiliations for those mechanically posed group shots on “special occasions.”)

Cubby survived the photo shoot with Santa Paws. The bone was a slightly different story. He loved the smell of it but he didn’t quite know what to do with it. It was big, a fist-sized rock, and Cubby is not so big. Frankly, he acted weird about the whole thing, unnerved, as if an alien creature had been introduced into the house.

He sniffed it and gingerly circled it. He daubed it with tentative licks. When the cats sauntered past, Cubby suddenly became proprietary — this is mine — and angrily chased them away.

And then it happened. Cubby gripped the marbled brick in his little maw and trotted about with it. Acceptance!

As this mating ritual played out, I thought the dog was nuts. Not only was he acting neurotic, he was putting off chomping on this amazing bone that had meat and sinew baked on the outside that he eventually tore off with his front teeth, stripping it like bark, before digging into the tunnel stuffed with roasted marrow.

He worries it fiendishly and greedily, like there’s gold inside. (And there is. Anybody who’s had bone marrow in a better restaurant knows what culinary pleasures await.) 

Cubby’s horizons keep expanding. He learns new things all the time. I look at the big bone experience as a critical test of true doghood. 

He passed.

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Cubby zonked after a long day of gnawing and jawing his new bone.

Dogma of the dog

I’m pretty sure Cubby the dog doesn’t believe in many things — God, playing dead for treats, how wonderful I am — though I’m convinced he believes in some things. Like meatballs and bully sticks and tummy massages and bedtime snuggles and brisk walks and peeing on the rug. He’s a good dog. And like most good dogs, he’s ridiculous. Neurotic, but nourishing. 

Rescued from a shelter, Cubby has, in the past year or so, learned how to act like a tried-and-true doggy, a small, curly-haired mutt with a pleading gaze and a tail that swoops up and over into a large Spaghetti-O. 

He now knows how to worry a bone, chomp stuffed toys, play tug of war with said toys, scurry after the bone when it’s tossed then make you chase him around in a game of try and get it, sucker. All this is heartening. He’s maturing. He’s getting sillier. 

But I think he’s deeper than all that stock dog stuff. Cubby is a wise old soul, beyond his four or five years, attuned to his lot in life, his place on the totem pole of existence, and, with a melancholy tinge, his impermanence.

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No, I don’t believe in God. Death, yes.

This struck me last summer, detailed in this blog post, where I observed: 

“The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he wipes his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s existentialist theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.”

Cubby may be a Buddhist. He is mindful and meditative, his solace arriving many hours each day. (Some call these naps; I call them rumination, deep cogitation, mini comas.) He is a passive soul. Barking he does sparingly, almost exclusively when the mail comes, then he claws the paint off the front door and cries like an aggrieved banshee. It is the yelp of an injured Indian spirit, whose dead have been gravely molested. Then he shuts down, curls up, and ponders the teachings of Siddhartha and the joys of a good tennis ball.

We wonder. What does this animal believe in? Tasty bones, yes. Death, alas. A vigorous rub behind the ears, certainly. Bacon Beggin’ Strips, no doubt.

Yet the question resounds: Can animals really believe?

Cats — pshaw; they believe in their own supercilious godliness. Forest dwellers — a humble group deeply in accord with nature’s bylaws, true believers. African wildlife — a hot mess, as seen on “Planet Earth,” strictly heathens and satanists that believe in ritualistic bloodletting and organized torture on the Serengeti.

None of that for Cubby. He’s a fuzzy little wiseman. He should be wearing beads and vestments and lighting incense. He is a philosophical creature; don’t let his crazed, leg-scratching greetings fool you. When you gaze into his small eyes, worlds are revealed. One’s heart softens and the soul cracks open. He is telling you something, and not just “Get the leash, I gotta poop.”

Was it Nietzsche who said “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs”? Or was it Harpo Marx? No matter. This is an inversion of the master/slave equation, wherein the master (you) succumbs to the overpowering ardor and joy provided by the slave (doggy). That is this dog’s wisdom. He has our number. And he calls frequently. Collect.

Cubby’s beliefs are better than his bite. In his canine universe, he is disciplined, devout, enlightened. He has found meaning and purpose. The dog is, indeed, dogmatic, a mutt with a mind. And, uh, yes, that’s him over there, avidly licking his genitals.

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Cats and dog sweetly coexisting. Mostly.

The dog pounces at the cat, stopping short, directly in her expressionless face. He thinks he’s fulfilling his role as a tough-guy mongrel, a canine Cagney, intimidating his housemate, the ice-cool kitty. They lock eyes and stand nose-to-nose. She doesn’t flinch, budge or blink. She has seen him coming, fast, and she holds her ground, not a single whisker aquiver.

The dog, Cubby, is small. The cat, witheringly, seems to be saying to him, “You’re too short for that gesture,” as George Saunders tells Anne Baxter when she swings open the door and tries to eject him from a room in “All About Eve.” In the end, the dog capitulates, and the cat sashays away.

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It’s really not like this, at all.

For the most part, the animals, including another cat, coexist impressively peaceably. They are very mature about their roommate situation. Drama is minimal, and, when it happens, laughable. No one gets hurt.

Poor Cubby. He’s all bark and no bite (except in play, when he nips fiendishly). He loves to hear himself yap, yelp and yowl when the mail carrier mounts the porch, producing a piercing cacophony and, somewhat comically, a rousing display of feckless theater. He growls, spins and crouches, a shrimp-size showman, his nails doing a fine tap dance on the wood floor.

Yet open the door when someone rings and he clams up, giddily sniffing the newcomer, tail wagging, a bundle of excited curiosity. The animal is operating on pure instinct, doggie DNA, so we try not to make fun.

The house cats, Tiger Lily and Spicy, tolerate Cubby, despite their frequent sighs. They mostly ignore him and his occasional manifestations of machismo. They are unflappable, standoffish. Basically, they don’t give a shit. And when they do, they swipe a samurai paw at his face. He recoils.

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Cubby: a badass in his own mind.

Yet sometimes he gets their goat. Periodically, he will chase one of them up the stairs and the cat will bolt, scramble, fly. But not without emitting a long hiss, like a leaky tire or a king cobra. Cubby doesn’t relish that sound, and he stands down and returns to worrying one of his irresistible bully sticks (which are actual 100% bull penises, dried and seasoned).

The whole cats and dogs as mortal foes narrative is a hoary myth. Of course some dogs antagoznie some cats. (As a kid, our otherwise dreamy black Lab tore apart the neighbor’s cat in a scene out of “Cujo.”) It’s nothing personal. It’s biology and psychology: genes and instincts run amok.

There’s a fluffy black cat in the neighborhood that ambles right up to Cubby when he’s on his walks, and the animals casually sniff each other out, the cat practically rubbing against the dog, purring. Cubby is mostly indifferent to this, and promptly moves on.

But he can’t help needle his pet-mates in the house. Close proximity, boredom, jealousy, general annoyance — many reasons spring to mind, all of them conjecture. Sometimes he gets feisty when a cat gets too close to his bully stick, as if they’ll snatch it. Other times he’s just asserting his virility, his wishful doggie dominance.

The cats and the dog are in many ways classic shotgun roommates: imperfect fits, possessive, a little irritable, eating each other’s food, each from different worlds. One roommate likes rap, the other likes Rachmaninoff. The cats want their space, Cubby wants to invade it. He wants to be the pack leader, the alpha male honcho. It’s sad yet funny.

Don’t tell Cubby, but it’s pretty clear: Tiger Lily could lick him.

The unexpected pitter-patter of rain on a snoozy Saturday

Today I walked two miles, to the cafe and back, and on the return journey the skies broke and a steady rain began to fall. Not wearing proper gear, I was lucky enough to have a plastic shopping bag in my backpack, which I hurriedly spread over my head like a hapless vagabond, rain gathering on top of it, overflowing and dripping down my nose.

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This guy’s a pro.

This lasted about 15 minutes, the remainder of my walk. Cars passed. Drivers surely sniggered at the sight. I paid no attention. I was annoyed but contained my annoyance by dint of the bag actually doing its job, for the most part keeping my head dry. My sneakers didn’t fair so well, but they’ll live. No water got inside my shoes, despite a hearty split along the seam of one of them, another bit of luck.

Later, the dog was taken out to do his business in the rain. He came back damp, not soaked, and he smelled like a pile of dirty wet towels. He started to flail about on my bed, limbs flying, nose snorting, but I stopped him in mid-tumble because he was, frankly, disgusting. No amount of rain is going to supplant a good bath. He’s currently air-drying with a little frown on his face. He smells like tacos.

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Wishful thinking.

Rain is a pain. I’m not a giant fan because, well, it’s just a bunch of inconvenient water dropping on you. On my travels I pray for no rain, and I have been exceedingly fortunate that I’ve almost never required an umbrella on the road. When I do need one, I really hate it. I’m the guy whose umbrella turns inside-out in a gust, fuming.

Hours later it’s still trickling outside and the neighbor’s aluminum gutters are making a determined percussive patter. Tomorrow promises more of the same. We need the water. So much of the world does. So I don’t make a point of cursing the heavens. “Do not be angry with the rain,” said Nabokov. “It simply does not know how to fall upwards.”