Bird balm

My good friend Tiva just bought her young daughter a pet parakeet. It’s blue-green with a sloped yellow head and small enough to perch on the girl’s slight shoulder. Tiva texted a photo:

“You see a cute birdie,” I texted back. “I see dinner.”

This sentiment is more pressing when she tells me the tweetie thingy’s name: Pickles Billabong. (Pickles Billabong!) Naturally, I demanded to know who cursed the poor creature with this name, which is straight out of Dickens or Dr. Seuss at their most baroque, or most high. Her daughter, of course, is the culprit. 

“She came up with the name by looking at a list of bodies of water (river, brook, etc.) because the bird is a kind of aquamarine color and a billabong is a pond that is created when a river changes course. Pickles is because the bird is shaped like a pickle,” Tiva explains. I am impressed. 

“The bird is her best friend,” she adds, and I don’t know if I should smile or sob. 

She goes on to say that the daughter and her twin sister are having a turbulent time during Covid — they’re not sick, just bored and longing — and so Pickles serves as a kind of therapy animal. It’s the Prozac parakeet. 

Birds. Indeed. They’re the one pet, besides a rhino and a manatee, I never had growing up. I stuck to dogs, rats and cats, with the occasional fish, salamander and turtle thrown into the mix. 

No birds, and I can only guess we skipped them because our friends had parakeets and they were awful. They didn’t really do anything that’s anthropomorphically charming, like dogs, which are half-human anyway. There was no fetch or leg humping. I mean, really.

The birds seemed stuck in a poo-encrusted cage, bopping around, whistling occasionally, cocking their robotic heads. When they got out they flew all over the house, perching high up on the curtains to avoid human clutches, and were generally an avian pain in the ass. I desperately wanted to open a window and watch them flap away.

Not so now. I hope Pickles Billabong thrives as a bright, animated companion, although, according to experts, parakeets can live 10 to 20 years. On that note, I immediately start thinking about the best sauce for a tiny, braised bird. And what are the best sides — carrots, potatoes, pet rabbit? 

But this is somewhat serious. The girls are in a needy space. Covid has cut a hole in so many lives, and kids especially are confused and adrift. They wanted a friend, exotic, potentially chatty, therapeutic — some thera-keet. The bird then is a balm, sweet, attentive, pretty, and other things I’m sure. They do have a dog, but it’s more Tiva’s baby than the children’s. We’ll see how this whole thing flies.

Meanwhile, I wonder: Does the dog look up at old Pickles and go, “Yum, yum”? Good dog. 

Dogs with blogs

This actually happened. From 2012 to 2015, the Disney Channel aired a sitcom called “Dog with a Blog,” which was about the loopy shenanigans of a cookie-cutter suburban family whose dog just so happens to talk. 

And type. And write. So good is the dog, Stan, at writing that when everyone’s in bed, he slinks off to the glow of the family computer and authors a blog entry, reflecting on the day’s events, affairs and lessons. He does it in a wry voiceover mash of Steven Wright and Woody Allen (furnished by comedian Stephen Full). 

In the TV-spotless house of five, only the kids know Stan can talk. Of course the parents, big dopey grownups, have no clue the mutt can mutter. A show description: “The children learn of Stan’s talking ability and agree to keep it a secret from their parents, fearing if the world finds out that Stan can talk, he will be taken away for experimentation.”

(Experimentation?)

I watched “Dog with a Blog” with my pre-tween nephews, and it was one of the few kid’s shows I survived (the essential, wackadoodle “Adventure Time” is another). It’s actually very funny; not excessively clever, but wreathed with Stan’s dry, sardonic quips, which have a soft adult edge. 

Now, my dog, Cubby the Incandescent, also happens to blog. He’s followed my lead and decided he needed a forum for his daily observations and deep contemplations, things the world should know. Blogs: the great dumping grounds.

I’ve got Gnashing and, Cubby, as a canine, aptly has Gnawing. He’s quite adept at navigating the laptop keyboard, even if he occasionally hits the wrong key. As Stan says on the show, “Delete. Well, that couldn’t be clearer. Or more hurtful.” (Dear doggies, man isn’t your best friend; Command Z is.)

Though the kids know Stan talks, no one on the sitcom is aware Stan blogs. I sort of wish no one knew I blogged, and in fact, most of my closest friends are oblivious. If they find this place, great. I just don’t feel like advertising it. 

Why? Plain shyness. Writing is partly a private act, I think, though obviously I want to get some of it out there. It’s complicated. (Notice I post no recent photos of myself or my last name on this site. I’m the stealth blogger.) 

Cubby is more of a hambone. (Stan, I don’t know. It’s never clear who his readership is, if anyone.) Cubby will carry on about chasing the cats away from his bone, like a big hero. He’ll crow about yelping maniacally at the FedEx guy, as if the FedEx guy gives one goddam. He’ll lament the trauma of getting groomed (even though he takes sedatives before his haircuts). And somehow he wrings material from napping 16 hours a day. I’m pretty sure that’s where he cooked up the entry about hunting dik-diks on the Serengeti.

Me, I go for the absurd, offbeat, anecdotal and reminiscent, with some straight-up travel dispatches and lots of made up phooey. Unless you’re hawking a service — all those preening fashion, workout and health sites — the point of a blog, I think, is to entertain, elicit a laugh, enlighten with fun facts and regale with good photography. It’s to get personal, reveal who you are, and sometimes wrap it all in old-fashioned folderol. 

Like this whole post. Purely asinine. Though it goes to show the variety of blogs and bloggers out there doing hard work for their respective audience. We’re a motley crew. 

Stan’s a dog with a blog. 

Cubby’s a dog with a blog. 

And me? I’m a dawg with a blog.

Cubby gazing perplexedly at his own photo on the computer. He’s working on his next blog entry. More navel-gazing.

Boyhood bedlam

Once, when we were young and evil, my brother, a friend and I decided to dig a pitfall trap for a neighbor kid we disliked on that particular day. 

Right: Three pre-tween boys thought we could shovel a human-size hole in the hard earth, obscure it with, say, palm fronds, then lure our nemesis to the pit, where he would dutifully tumble in and, with hope, writhe in pain and cry for his mama. We might even bury him alive. 

The sheer outlandishness of our artless ruse — we’d seen way too many jungle movies and reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” — betrayed a warped sense of humor and advanced sociopathy. We were, in our way, hardened hellions, backyard scamps in Sears Toughskins and Keds sneakers who lived for the most mailbox-damaging firecracker and perfect pile of dog poop to leave on the neighbor’s porch. 

In hindsight, trapping a helpless child in a deep earthen hole was low on my brother’s list of mayhem; he was busy splatting passing cars with eggs. The high-concept stuff, like the ingenious pitfall trap and starting brush fires, had all the earmarks of a Chris and Gene production — me and my boyhood bestie Gene, a character of almost dangerous precocity, whose rascally misdeeds I chronicled in a previous post

My inner children? Probably.

Boys are bad. If I tell you Gene, who bore galaxies of freckles, threatened to stick an M-80 in a poodle’s rear-end, then I should probably fess up that I peed on a kid’s head from the strategic perch of a tree fort. 

If I describe how my pal Don smashed a huge, harmless tarantula with a rock, I guess I can admit to nicking .22 bullets from my Dad’s small stash, prying them open with pliers and lighting the black powder for a dazzling little dance. In my bedroom.

If I do all that, you either see dumb juveniles paving the way to prison or common boys-will-be-boys behavior that’s as benign as saying boys are made of “snakes and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.” (They are made of that and so much more: fire, lizards, toilet humor and horrors, nudie pin-ups, rock ’n’ roll, illicit cigarettes, contraband beer, and other primal excitements.)  

I was a boy and I can hardly explain our innate appetites for destruction. I loathed team sports but my friends did not, yet we found common ground and ample time to — name it — mutilate frogs, melt “Star Wars” action figures into gooey globs, boil alive bitty Sea-Monkeys, hurl dirt clods into traffic, shoplift rubbers and records. It was wrong, all of it, but oh-so thrilling.

Little girls are awful, too. I can elaborate but prefer a don’t ask, don’t tell stance. Rest assured, the distaff devils are not “sugar and spice and everything nice.” They are funny and cruel, vindictive and viper-tongued. But we know that. And that is why we love them.

From those early years, about ages 7 to 12, I graduated to harder middle-school mischief, the kind where you don’t inhale, cops knock on your car window beaming flashlights, and parents cancel certain privileges. (And of course girls. Don’t ask, don’t tell.) 

Those were darker years, when heedless devilry came with tougher consequences and higher expectations amounting to: Knock this shit off, now. It’s strange, but having a homeless guy purchase you beer sounds almost worse than burying a child alive in a large ditch. There’s about a four-year gap between those two impish delights, and that’s a lifetime at that age. Either way, it’s all kid’s stuff — tutorial, twisted, and so terribly, wonderfully wrong.

Hounding the strays of Istanbul

With a camera trained at butthole level, the street dogs of Istanbul bustle across the city, romp in parks, negotiate congested thoroughfares, brawl, chase cats, gambol, loiter and partake in public humping. 

This is a day in the life of the Turkish city’s derelict dogs in the patient, panting documentary “Stray,” released today. The film is a quiet, lolling chronicle of both canine and human behavior — the mutual respect and tolerance is moving — done minus narration. With few dramatic accents, though alive with built-in pathos, “Stray” is almost uninflected — unvarnished life through a studiously objective lens. What is spoken comes from the pups’ playful pantomime.

I’m on good terms with the stray dogs of Istanbul, having befriended, pet and fed several during my four trips to Turkey. The hounds are plentiful in the rolling, seaside city and are protected under a no-kill, no-capture policy. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. One of my favorite canine pals wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

They get you like that, these streetwise mongrels. Locals are mostly kind to the wandering, well-behaved dogs, leaving out bones and food and, when annoyed by them, gently shooing them away from storefronts and doorways. It helps if you have a soft spot for animals. My mushy affection led me to feed and pamper the friendly hounds, which I happily photographed. More than just memories, the animals were also sweet, licky mood-enhancers, a pack of therapy pups just for me.

Here’s where to watch “Stray,” and here are some of my street-dog snapshots.

My good pal Red Tag
I fed them cans of tuna.
Red Tag, again

In space, no one can hear you woof

Sometimes I want to shoot the dog into outer space. Suit him up, slide on a big round helmet, and strap him into a tin-can capsule, ready go, boom

Really, I want to keep old Cubby on terra firma, safely earthbound, away from martians and pesky space debris. Still, when he barks and wails and scratches the paint off the door when visitors knock, I think: Jupiter, yes. Jupiter would be a fine place for a dog park.

Such was the fate of Laika the space dog, a small, blameless pup who was hurled into orbit for the Soviet space program in 1957. A stray street mongrel with a skittish gaze, Laika was really three animals in one: a dog, guinea pig, and sacrificial lamb. 

Laika the cosmic canine

Many critters had flown to space before Laika — monkeys, mice, mutts — but she was set to be the first to orbit Earth. Probably quaking with terror, surrounded by lab-coated apparatchiks, Laika was loaded into the satellite Sputnik 2 for an experimental flight to prove that a living passenger could survive a launch into orbit and weightlessness. 

It was a suicide mission, or more accurately, murder. Laika was never expected to survive; once they sealed the capsule, the Soviets knew she was toast. 

And toast is practically what she became. Within hours of her spectacular orbit, Laika died from overheating and panic. Even the Soviets were mortified: the true cause of her death was not made public until 2002. They initially said she was euthanized with poisoned food before her oxygen ran out, a classic, blundering cover-up. The dead dog floated around up there for six months. She was incinerated when Sputnik re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The world mourned the pioneer pooch. She’s gone down in lore as an unwitting hero, nicknamed Muttnick, and honored with commemorative stamps, dolls and children’s books. A monument to Laika was erected in Moscow in 2008.

Muttnick. I like that. Maybe, with a nod to David Bowie, she’s Major Dog. Or Apawlo 13. Or Chewbarka. Never mind. What matters is that Laika lived as a Moscow street hound and died for Soviet sins. A would-be martyr — Joan of Bark — she’s a helpless symbol of the sketchy side of science and progress.

Cubby should be so symbolic. But he’s of a different breed, and an entirely different kind of nobility. And though he wouldn’t last as long as brave Laika in space — I give him two, three hours tops — he’s ready for lift-off and would do NASA proud.

I could see him as a stowaway on the Mars rover (did you say Rover?) Perseverance, which is up there sniffing for signs of ancient Martian life. Or he might hitch a ride to the Moon on one of Elon Musk’s radical SpaceX rockets, joining other civilians who are nutsballs enough to pay millions to pierce the wild blue yonder. That would be fitting, because the dog is definitely daft, a total and irrevocable space cadet. (Fun facts: Laika means “bark” in Russian. Cubby means “preposterous” in any language.)

I’m glad Cubs is still on Earth to provide happiness and headaches, and I hope he sticks around before zipping off to Andromeda. Laika, well. She did the impossible for all mankind. She gave us enlightenment. She cracked opened scientific universes. She kissed the stars and the heavens, where she now eternally resides.

Laika’s monument

Loving animals, doggedly

As I was scratching the dog’s belly today, he squeaked out a tiny fart that I excused him for since, as far as I know, he can’t speak English and isn’t versed in basic human etiquette. I kept scratching and he emitted customary groans that I tend to interpret as vague doggie ecstasy. Sounds coming from both ends, très stereophonic.

Cubby the Wonder Mutt likes to lie on his back, supine, head tossed back, eyes squinched, rear legs spread-eagle, his pee-pee out in all its centerfold glory. He’s a good dog, as they say — always “good,” never “great” or “fabulous,” why is that? — even if he resembles one of those diabolical pygmy hellions, an Ewok. Compare, contrast: 

OK, not exactly, but sometimes I glance at him and scream in fleeting horror.

Animals, like ol’ Cubs, are always on my mind. For some reason, I’ve been watching more YouTube junk than normal and it seems like half the videos are prefaced with ads for heart-curdling, soul-gutting animal causes. 

They’re the kind that show emaciated puppies and starving bony horses and shivering dogs with so much eye goop they can barely see. It screws everything up. I don’t even feel like watching the video I was set to watch after those damn commercials. 

They get me every time. So there I go, helplessly dropping cash into the coffers of PETA, the Humane Society and other groups, like the crazy one for abused donkeys in India and the World Wildlife Fund’s stupendous adopt an octopus program. 

And I recently joined the ASPCA’s modest monthly membership, which amounts to an obscenely affordable 63 cents a day. I told them to save resources and keep the free t-shirt, which would only wind up as a dust rag. Pretty soon, thanks to all my donations, I’m going to own about 14 complimentary animal calendars that I really do not want.

I think I’m so nuts about animals and their welfare because I was raised with a rotating menagerie of pets: dogs, cats, rats, turtles, fish, rabbits, hens, salamanders. And I was scarred by “family” films like “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” that only make you love animals more and hate sadistic filmmakers. Even “Charlotte’s Web” planted a screwdriver into my heart, and she was just a crummy spider. (Even now I don’t kill spiders. I scoop them up and plop them outside.)

I hate to rate my animals, but since Cubby is in the other room probably flashing the neighbors on his back, I present the best dog my family ever had, a black Lab dubiously named Spooker. That’s her below, the one flicking her tongue. (I’m the one with the righteous tiger slippers; my brother Craig sports the scandalous red onesie.)  

Usually when I profess my love of animals I essentially mean dogs. I care a lot about monkeys, mice and manatees, but I can’t say I love them. Even as tykes, you can see how much we love our big black Lab, our companion, our third parent, protector and pal. Dogs are furry clichés: loyal, cheerful, eager, bursting with unconditional love, even if that means the occasional, totally misguided leg hump. That’s a pretty good package. 

Cubby fits the bill. He sort of represents all animals for me — penguins, porpoises, platypuses, the random narwhal — and so by caring for him I’m embracing the whole animal kingdom. 

That sounds super corny, and re-reading that sentence makes me shudder. But it’s true. Cubby contains multitudes. He’s small in body, big in heart. He lavishes affection on us and only asks in return walks, food, and heartfelt belly rubs, the kind that make him groan and wheeze like a 79-year-old with emphysema. Sometimes if you press just right, he produces the tortured warbling of bagpipes. Then he slowly passes out.

A good dog indeed. No. A great dog. How about a fabulous dog.

Freud, meet Fido

And so the dog, small and fleecy, plops down for a nap on the couch, and he is out. Which means at any moment the show will commence, an alternately startling and amusing bugaloo of twitches and flinches, pop dancing by way of late Katharine Hepburn and robot street performers. Cubby, the peerless pup, is about to dream. And it’s a marvel. 

Behold, he’s off. Stubby legs kick and quiver. Furry eyebrows twitch. Lips tremble and emit muffled woofs and squeaky whines. As he hyperventilates, his rib cage rises and falls, a small basketball being pumped. It appears he is running in place. Outstanding.

Until, that is, I recall how traumatic dreams can be. Mine, at least, are nocturnal ordeals, dark and gnawing, filled with ragged memories and wraithlike faces from prior lives. They’re about 35% anodyne and 65% anguish. I typically awake from them with a small head throb, a daub of sweat, an aftertaste of dread: the dream hangover. I might as well have met Freddy Krueger.

dog-dreams-about-you-dreaming-dog-750x440
This is not Cubby, but you know he’s ecstatically dreaming.

So, no matter how entertaining his dream exhibitions are (oh, and they are), I worry about the substance of Cubby’s nap-time reveries. What’s he woofing at? Why the whine? Is he chasing, or being chased? Is he yawping at the postman, as in everyday life, or is he after an intruder? Is he playing with us, scampering off with his crazy bone?

Whatever is happening, he is assuredly dreaming. Anyone with a dog knows they do this. One doggie site says “dogs are similar to humans when it comes to sleep patterns and brain wave activity. Like humans, dogs enter a deep sleep stage during which their breathing becomes more irregular and they have rapid eye movements (REM).”

Bonus factoid: “Research suggests that small dogs dream more than larger dogs. A Toy Poodle may dream once every ten minutes while a Golden Retriever may only dream once every 90 minutes.” Meaning, compact Cubby is a dream machine. (“We infer that dogs can have nightmares, too,” adds the American Kennel Club, with worrying certitude.)

Sometimes Cubby’s slumbering exhalations sound heavy, husky, demonic. Is he having a nightmare, or is he being naughty and promiscuous? Maybe he’s rocking a death metal show. “The dream is the liberation of the spirit from the pressure of external nature, a detachment of the soul from the fetters of matter,” wrote Freud, the original cigar-sucking dream guru. He added: “Dreams are never concerned with trivia.”

So maybe Cubby isn’t just frolicking with a bone during his alarmingly kinetic dream states, which resemble nothing less than a buckling seizure or a zippy electrocution. I’ve said here that Cubs is a deep character, a wise old soul, vigorously seeking meaning in his transience, pawing to the bottom of the mysteries of the conundrum called life. Merely chasing cats is unworthy of his elevated subconscious; sniffing Bowzer’s butthole is extravagantly beneath him.

The id, that deep sea of sloshing neuroses, engenders the happy and the hellacious and everything in-between. In sleep, you might trip joyously in love — or you might be scorched to a pork rind by a weirdly random dragon. Closing eyes, placing head to pillow, is a fraught crap shoot. 

Cubby’s not dreaming about dragons, we’re certain of that. His purview is relatively minuscule. Despite his rich introspection, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what TikTok, J.Lo or The Rock are.

I’m also sure I will never know what populates the dog’s leg-twitching dreamscapes. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Yet with Freudian reflection, I will ponder these deep enigmas. Let me sleep on it.

Dog Splayed Afternoon

CubbyThis is Cubby, über-hound, chillaxing on the cool wood floor on a balmy late-spring day. Sprawled out in sharp symmetry, almost X-shaped, he looks like a doggie cookie-cutter, or the puppy piece in Monopoly, or a pendant dangling from the neck of a dog lover of strenuous devotion. In a word, he looks amazing. Like an artwork Jeff Koons could only dream of, or a taxidermist’s dampest fantasy. He would look stunning on a mantel, a small, regal canine, with a muzzle oh-so fluffily bearded.

Cubby knows none of this. If he had heard the above during his spread-out siesta, he’d be all, “Enough. Leave me alone. I am napping on the cool floor, dreaming of squirrels, fire hydrants, and fat kielbasas. You are a ridiculous man. Be gone … zzzzz.”

What we have here is a tableau titled, say, “Dog Day Afternoon.” Or “Dog Splayed Afternoon.” Some kind of post-modern still-life William Wegman could appreciate in all its unposed dogitude. (Although, of course, Wegman meticulously poses his long-suffering Weimaraners, what with their fancy clothes and anthropomorphic exertions.)

So what we have is less Wegman and more found art. Cubby, surely warm under that carpet of curls, located open range in the cool foyer, plopped down and stretched out from his head to his pom-pom tail. He exhaled and sighed: Goddam.

And this is how we found him, still as a statue, a statue of such accidental perfection it might be worth lots of money. Certainly, because his preternatural pose notwithstanding, Cubby, that cuddliest of canines, is worth a million bucks.

Buyers?

Fido meets the face mask

What, social distancing with the dog? Six feet apart? Are we going to scratch his belly with a broom stick? Throw the ball and ask him to please not return it, or to drench it in Purell first? And, pshaw, a mutt mask, too? How is he possibly going to blithely lick his loins?

Fortunately, most of this scenario is wryly fictive. Yet we tried the face mask and the bristling, headstrong Cubby was having none of it. He ate it. Cubby, so marvelous he should wear a cape, isn’t falling for all this preventive Covid-19 twaddle. He scoffs, nay, woofs, at it. 

dogmask
Not Cubby. Just a stunt dog.

Is he being irresponsible, a paragon of screw-you selfishness? Is he following in the paw tracks of our dear leader in all his voluptuous stupidity? Is Cubby, heaven forfend, a far right anti-vaxxer, who protests outside capitols to “liberate” shut-down states? Is it OK to put down a dog that is spry and healthy but whose mind is politically poisoned?

We go too far. The dog is none of that, despite his puzzling penchant for “Fox & Friends.” He’s actually kind and magnanimous. He’s wise, thoughtful, deep. He’s voting for Biden. He’s a good dog.

Rossy is a good dog, too. Who is Rossy? This is Rossy: 

rossy-blog-768x576-1.jpgRossy, in a word, is a charity case. A sickly street dog, Rossy was taken in by the brimming hearts at Animal Rahat, an India-based rescue sanctuary for all manner of “beleaguered animals,” which I previously mentioned here. Rossy is goo-gooed over by visiting school children and hangs out and plays with the local menagerie of misfits over acres and acres of open land. 

This pampering paradise “allows elderly and ailing animals to be retired from lives of daily toil” and rescues imperiled pups and other critters from assorted accidents (falling into wells is a big problem). Nursed back to health, dogs and donkeys and camels and cows roam free, routinely fed, bathed and lovingly socialized. 

As he watches me type this, Cubby’s curly ears prick up and his head cocks to the side. We are in a donating mood during this deepened charitable moment when giving is grace. 

I lean toward animal causes — local shelters, the Humane Society, ASPCA, PETA, Animal Rahat — all of which have plucked my heart strings with the virtuosic brio of Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption.” It’s music to my ears.

Himself a rescue pup, Cubby is also pledging gifts to these groups, his furry families, though I’m not sure what he can contribute; he’s rather broke. Could it be the tooth-scarred bully bone? The moist, balding tennis ball? The mini Yoda doll, both squeaky and skeevy. (Dog slobber — destroyer of worlds.)  

It doesn’t matter. I’ll spot him with my monetary donations. Watching me is a good lesson in altruism during these darkly divisive times when much of the country is in suicide mode — no masks, frolicking on crowded beaches, flagrant body contact, toting large guns in packed public spaces — and the “president” advances brain-exploding lies, toxic misinformation and Machiavellian myopia.

Speaking of individuals who elect vanity over safety, Cubby still won’t wear a face mask. Even the mailman wears one, and his arrival at the porch is a cue for Cubs to shed his angelic image. He rockets off the couch, furiously scratches the paint off the door, barking and howling uncontrollably, like a very pissed-off banshee. It’s nearly cinematic.

We sigh. We yell. We shake a fist.

Hey, Cubby. Cut the crap.