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Thinkin’ about Rufus

We have these really great friends whose son Drake (not his real name) is roughly 168% boy. He’s a great kid with a good heart, and he’s really smart. When I picture Drake, even now, in my mind’s eye, I can only see him smiling. But because he is all boy, and because our public school system’s really set up to benefit only the children who are willing to sit, silently comatose, and have lessons taught at them as they follow a tax code’s worth of Draconian rules… Well, let’s just say he struggled when he was five.

Unable to sit still, and also unable to stop asking “Why?” every fifteen seconds or so, Drake was constantly on the dark side of his teacher’s moon. Let’s call her Mrs. Manacle (not her real name). Mrs. Manacle had a really hard time keeping Drake under control, and Drake likewise had a really hard time with a sweet, smiley young woman constantly trying to keep him under her control. But then one day Drake stumbled upon, quite by accident, a magical technique of psychological judo for which Mrs. Manacle was wholly unprepared.

When Mrs. Manacle would ask Drake to do something, some task with which he had no intention of complying, or to answer some question that might as well have involved a slide rule and quadratic equations (keep in mind that he was five), he would simply look far into the distance, forlorn, and respond, “I’m sorry. I can’t right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”

And when Drake was thinkin’ about Rufus, there was simply no reaching him. It was as though he shut down emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, fortress walls and impenetrable forcefields surrounding the very essence of his being. He was C-3P0 in The Empire Strikes Back, blown apart mid-sentence by offscreen stormtroopers. Mrs. Manacle could tell that Drake was truly, profoundly affected by thinkin’ about Rufus. Often, his eyes would well and glisten with tears that never quite pooled enough to fall. And when it was so evident that she was not going to be able to break through, Mrs. Manacle knew she had to back down.

Drake skated by for some time on the “thinkin’ about Rufus” ruse. However, as is most often the case with elaborate plans masterminded by five-year-old kindergartners, Drake had not thought through the calendar and realized that eventually, inevitably, Mrs. Manacle would have access to his parents, at which point she would no doubt ask them that most probing of inappropriate questions: “Who is Rufus?”

In fact, at the very next teacher meeting, where Drake was not present, but where both his mom and his dad sat down with Mrs. Manacle, to chart out elaborate strategies and plans and a coordinated effort to help ensure that Drake’s academic performance in kindergarten would not suffer, because as everyone knows, that phase of life is so critical for five-year-old boys to one day get themselves into the right college, which as everyone knows, is the only way one can procure sufficient employment in adulthood, the question surfaced.

His parents looked at each other, confused, as the words hung there in the air, a mist not yet fully dissipated. Drake’s mom, Andrea (not her real name), was first to break the awkward silence. “I’m sorry. What?”

Mrs. Manacle repeated herself. “Who is Rufus?”

Again the parents looked at each other, baffled. Mrs. Manacle realized she was going to have to do what she had not wanted to do: delve into this family’s personal business and press for that most difficult of resolutions. So she explained. “Well, sometimes—often, actually—when we’re doing work in class, I’ll turn to Drake and ask him to answer a question. Or I’ll ask him to complete some task—some center, some activity, some craft, whatever. And he’ll draw up, his eyes will water, and he’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Manacle. I just can’t talk about that right now. You see, I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.’ So of course, I feel like I have to know: Who is Rufus?

Andrea choked. She chortled. She wheezed. She snorted.

Mrs. Manacle wriggled uncomfortably in her seat. Clearly, Rufus was a person of some importance, someone very significant in all their lives, who just as deeply was felt as a wound in Andrea’s heart as in sweet little Drake’s.

And then Andrea full-on laughed. She roared. She guffawed so hard that she gasped. Tears came. But not like Drake’s tears. Tears of exuberance. When she was able to regain her composure, she began to explain. “Rufus,” she began, “is a cat.”

“Well,” she corrected herself, “actually, Rufus was a cat. Bryan (Drake’s dad, not his real name) and I had a cat for several years named Rufus. We still had Rufus when Drake was born, but he died while Drake was just a baby. Drake didn’t actually know Rufus. Not really. I mean, I guess, sort of through pictures. But he wasn’t attached to Rufus. It seems, Drake has found a way to avoid doing his work. I’m so sorry.”

Mrs. Manacle no doubt realized she had been bested. It happens. It’s a hazard of the position, certainly. One learns, one moves on. Notes were made. Adjustments to plans and schedules and files. And the jig was up for Drake. Sadly, he would have to start “Thinkin’ about Lucy” or about “Peanut Butter” or about “Snowflake” instead. The “Rufus” work deterrent was taken from him, Benedict Arnolded by his own kin.

Now the beauty of the “Thinkin’ about Rufus” technique is that it’s available to anyone. Kendra and I use it. And I would encourage you to as well. The next time your boss wants to have one of those difficult conversations with you. The next time your spouse walks in and says, far too seriously, “We need to talk.” When a creditor or representative of the IRS is hanging on the other end of your phone to discuss “terms” or perhaps “irregularities.” You sigh deeply, inflating your chest fully with air, and find it within yourself to moisten your eyes from the inside. And you apologize with authenticity and say, “I’m sorry. I really can’t talk right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”

What works for you? How do you passively-aggressively avoid conflict (or perhaps work)? Has your child ever managed to put one over on their teacher? What did they do? Wouldn’t grown-up life be so much better if we all had a little “rest time” built into our workday?

Intruder Assassin

Twelve years ago, Kendra and I were sitting comfortably in our living room, enjoying a pleasant visit with close friends, Matt and J.J. It was early evening, the warm, late summer’s twilight just beginning to settle, visible through the windows into our backyard. And I saw him: The beast, slightly larger than a Yeti. Although his features were indistinguishable in the fading light, clearly he was possessed of a demonic rage and evil intent, his blood boiling, filled with malice, positively radiating a soft red glow like lava.

But I should back up a little: A series of two retaining walls held back our yard from crashing through our house, one Lego-stacked pile of carcinogenic creosote-soaked railroad ties stacked on top of the other. In the weeks previous, I had noticed a large hole underneath the top wall. Upon closer inspection, I observed evidence that some diabolical usurper had been coming and going from the hole. For days I dubiously staked out the hole, taking several hair samples and readings in an effort to gather more data about my foe, the better to formulate a suitable paramilitary response to his encroachment. But thus far, the wily creature was toying with me, demonstrating that he was onto me, as he was either using some animalistic ninja trick to turn invisible in his comings and goings, or perhaps escaping and returning at will through some miles-long tunnel system he had somehow managed to camouflage from my detection. I had caught not even a glimpse of the bumble, when suddenly this opportunity presented itself, a gift from the very gods of fate.

Now that I had seen him for certain, no way was I letting him escape. (Call ME crazy, I thought. You want crazy? I GOT your crazy!) I hastily excused myself and ran, Clark Kent-like, for the garage to grab a shovel, intent on manic violence. In just a few moments, I would learn that violence actually has a name. And a face. And that its name…is “Matt.”

Certainly one could be forgiven for misinterpreting my intentions that evening, as from all appearances, I was running in the direction opposite the threat, whereas Matt was in fact running headlong towards it. I bolted for the garage; he bolted directly out the back door. I was headed to procure a weapon; he was a weapon. At first, our attack might even have appeared to be coordinated, with him flushing the beast in a purposeful direction towards me, as I came careening around the corner of the house into the backyard from the garage, my Shovel of Destiny in hand.

And then Matt handily demonstrated how superfluous was my weapon of mass destruction, indeed, how unnecessary was even my presence. I could better have served him by remaining in the house and freshening up his sweet tea, perhaps running out to have his car detailed and to pick up his dry cleaning.

No, Matt was not flushing the Acid-Clawed-Monster towards me, as I had supposed. Rather, he was running it to ground. As it hurtled across the backyard, shrieking its murderous Hell-fury, I rounded the corner just in time to observe Matt close the distance between them, in perhaps three quick bounds, and in one deft motion, Beckham-like, he punted. Matt felled the creature by immediately increasing its velocity ten-fold, taking full advantage of the laws of physics by forcing it beyond—far beyond—what its advanced physiology dictated it could run. And it toppled, end over end, some twenty feet—not unlike a soccer ball, in fact (although of course fifty times the size).

When the beast came to rest, he was clearly disoriented, dizzy and damaged from his tumbling dance across the landscape. It was at this moment that finally I was able to see through his campaign of psychological warfare. He was, in fact, an opossum.  Although, clearly, he was no ordinary opossum, rather more like the giant spider from Stephen King’s It, capable of projecting himself as a terrible, giant fiend. I stood not three feet from him, faltering in that moment, my shovel hanging impotent in my grip, debating whether this might in fact be just another of his clever deceptions.

Then Matt caught up to him. Still without breaking his gait, Matt kicked him once again, this time more American-football style…directly into the brick wall of the house next door. In defense of what some might mistake for my apparent ineptitude and skill in dispatchment, Matt was wearing boots at the time, and I was wearing just sneakers. As everyone knows, of course if you’re going to kick an opossum, you’d best be garbed in the appropriate footwear. The implications of attempting such a feat in the absence of the proper equipment are simply too dangerous for one to even consider.

But Matt wasn’t done. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “playing possum,” and you thought these mastermind marsupials do that intentionally, you’d be mistaken. In fact, they can’t control it. When presented with grave danger, a chemical reaction occurs that both paralyzes and immobilizes them. Matt was counting on that with his first kick. What he was doing with his second kick was ensuring it. He placed his foot over the back of the opossum’s neck, and I suspected he was going to suffocate it or to crack its skull. But of course that’s no way to be sure that your opponent truly expires. What he was in fact doing was applying another principle of physics—leverage—pinning the base of its skull to the ground between the heel and forepart of his boot. He grabbed its tail and jerked its hind end straight up. It’s a maneuver I’ve observed in the game Mortal Kombat, although certainly never perpetrated against a real-live creature, and particularly not against a large rodent. C-R-AAAAAAA-C-KKKKKK!!! went its spine. Yup, he was finished.

I lamely offered to scoop up the corpse with my shovel to dispose of it. Still holding its tail, the opossum now essentially hyperextended to around five feet in length or so, Matt grinned at me, shook his head lightly, as though he felt some mild embarrassment for me inexpressible in words, and he chuckled. He simply released the head from under his heel, lifted it slightly higher by the tail, carried it to the trash bin, and dropped it in.

What can I say? The monster had seemed much bigger in the dark.

What’s the most savage creature you’ve ever dispatched? And what method did you use? By all means, share with us the gory details. Have you ever witnessed another person violently murder a helpless, innocent animal in a way you could never have expected? Why are Kraft Macaroni & Cheese boxes so insanely difficult to open?

Ghost Chaser

This is the fifth and final installment in an informal series, The Vermont Animal Diaries, about the pets Kendra and I tended when we lived for a year in Vermont. Part One was Fat Stella. Part Two was Dumb Andrew. Part Three was Crazy Oscar. Part Four was Evil Bala.

One night during our first week living in Vermont, Kendra and I were sitting quietly on the couch in the living room, watching television. Each of the animals was sprawled in his or her usual favorite comfy spots, just pleasantly lazing.

Now, they say that animals have a kind of “sixth sense,” that they can tell when something huge is going to go down, like a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, a tsunami. They say also that most animals are in touch with a dimension that most humans can never feel—an afterlife, a parallel existence if you will, the spirit realms. So when animals start to freak out, smart people take notice. You can take full advantage of their highly attuned senses going off, leveraging that for your own survival.

Pretty much all at once, everybody (and by everybody, I mean all the cats and the dog) scrambled first to their feet and then to the floor, and then all stampeded as a unit for the front hall and directly up the stairs. (This still being early in our stay, we had not yet blocked the stairs with the baby gate to contain Oscar.) There was no barking, no growling, no meowing—just a cacophony of desperate panting, claws, and a herd of little footpads slipping and sliding across the wood floor, then clacking up the wooden stairs.

Kendra and I just sat there dumbly, still on the couch, spellbound, blinking at each other, our mouths gaping. “What was that all abou…?”

And then just as suddenly, there was a loud BANG! somewhere over our heads, and the entire crash of beasts came thrashing down the stairs just as quickly, just as frantically as they had gone up. From our spot still on the couch, we could hear them piling up on top of each other in the front entry hall, and then we witnessed one of the most bizarre images ever etched in my memory: Some freakish, giant, dark butterfly-like thing fluttered across the living room, herding our entire cowardly cavalry in front of it, pretty much directly in front of us. They were falling all over each other, trying desperately to escape the demon beast, scrambling into the kitchen and cowering into various hiding spots. And the entity vanished into the dark behind them, just as quickly as it had materialized.

This entire event, from the first moment everybody leapt up to the run up the stairs, the crash, the falling back down, and the running into the kitchen to hide, all took place in the span of literally less than two minutes. I got up to investigate, flipping on every light within reach. And I found…absolutely nothing.

After several minutes, having gathered her courage, and no doubt discouraged with my own obvious lack of progress, Kendra joined in the hunt. And she found it. There, perched inelegantly, dangling from a knitted white blanket hanging over the back of a chair, was…a bat. And it was a cuh-reepy son of a gun, no bigger than a small mouse.

And then ensued a comedy of errors involving a broom and a bucket. Have you ever heard the phrase “hysterical laughter”? That’s a real thing. For the next ten minutes or so, Kendra flailed around on the couch, with her feet drawn up, mingling terror with shame, trying to contain her bladder, cackling as I tried first to smack the vile beast to the floor, then to beat it to death, then to get it into the bucket. Once the deed was done, I took the body unceremoniously outside to the compost heap, where I disposed of it.

The very next evening, Jean and Dan, whose pets and home we were to be caring for over the next ten months, called to check in on us. They were staying at Jean’s parents, and they were leaving the very next morning, bound for India. I told them the story of what had just happened the night before. Silence on their end. My mind raced. Do they think we’re crazy? ARE we crazy? Did that really even happen? Was it a pet, and I killed it?

And then Jean said to Dan (who was on another phone): “Can you believe that? That’s crazy!”

And Dan said, “Yeah, I would never have believed it. There was no reason even to tell them about that.”

And then Jean proceeded to explain that they had lived in that house for several years, and one evening during the first week they lived in the house, essentially the same thing had happened to them. A bat had gotten in and terrorized all the pets, they had searched for it and finally found it hanging on the back of a chair, killed it, and gotten rid of it. It didn’t occur to them to warn us about such an eventuality, because it had only happened the one time, and it had been years before.

When my own turn came, I’m just glad I was man enough to rise to the occasion.

Have you ever had a bat in your house? How did it turn out? What about some other freaky devil beast that scared your pets? Why do bats even exist? I mean… really.

Evil Bala

This is the fourth in an informal series, The Vermont Animal Diaries, about the pets Kendra and I tended when we lived for a year in Vermont. Part One was Fat Stella. Part Two was Dumb Andrew. Part Three was Crazy Oscar. Monday will be the final installment, a wild story about everybody.

If Evil were a cat, it would embody Bala. On our first day in Vermont, as the animals’ people were introducing us to everybody, Jean (the wife) referred to Bala using terms like “regal old lady” and “sophisticated” and “intelligent.” What Jean neglected to mention were important tips like “sprays pillows with urine” and “claws and bites if approached” and “God help you if you fall asleep in the same room she’s in.”

She did say that Bala was “particular” and “picky.” Bala had been Jean’s first cat, and they had been together for a long time. Because she was older and had already endured all of the family’s changes (adding a husband, moving, adding a dog, two cats, and eventually a baby), Bala had a tendency to act “stressed” when her routine changed. You know, like your family leaving the country for a year and abandoning you in the care of two young strangers who smell like dirt from the South. Because of her longstanding girl-bonding with Jean, Jean fully expected Bala to eventually warm up to Kendra and become “her” cat. That turned out to be wishful thinking at best.

Vermont Cats

Of all of the cats, Bala had the thickest coat, and she really needed regular brushing to keep from getting mats in her fur. We tried more than once to approach her, figuring she’d welcome the attention and grooming. Turns out it was more like trying to safety-pin a bell to a dragon’s tail. We gave up time after time.

Finally, when the knots all over Bala’s body were too far gone for us to pretend it was okay anymore, Kendra hatched a foolproof plan. We would follow her into the bathroom where the litterbox was, close the door, let her finish her business, throw a beach towel over her like a net to trap her, and then work together to cut the knots out of her coat with scissors. Astonishingly, it went down almost exactly like that.

Unfortunately, from Bala’s perspective, it was probably something more akin to the sort of shenanigans that once took place at Gitmo. I got the towel over her head and managed to pin each of her legs, keeping her ominous claws contained. I let her face out and tried to make her as comfortable as possible, while Kendra patted her down for knots. When we’d find one, we’d work the towel to expose just that spot, and Kendra would snip it off with scissors and then brush it out. Complicating the proceedings was that Kendra was laughing maniacally pretty much the entire time—equally unsettling for both me and the cat. It took about 45 minutes, but we got her all fixed up.

Our most terrifying experience with Bala was one morning when Kendra was asleep in our bed, wearing not much clothing. Kendra woke me, which ordinarily under such circumstances would be a good thing. In this case, not so much. She was poking me under the covers, trembling. I opened one eye, only to see Bala seated cozily on Kendra’s chest, face to face with her. I covered myself with blankets, just certain this was how they were going to find our bodies. Bala purred softly. After several minutes, Kendra worked up enough courage to slip a hand out and tried stroking her. Bala purred more urgently. Kendra pet her some more. After about ten minutes or so, Bala was satisfied, and she hopped up and left. Crisis averted.

That turnaround was in 1996, the same year we left Vermont, and Bala was already old then. We went back for a visit several years later, and Jean reported (sadly) that Bala had passed on. And I imagined that hell was just a little warmer, a little furrier, a little clawier.

Did you ever have a pet that you were just certain was demon-spawn? What about someone else’s evil pet? What’s the craziest thing you ever had to do to an animal?(—For its own good, of course.)

Crazy Oscar

This is the third in an informal series, The Vermont Animal Diaries, about the pets Kendra and I tended when we lived for a year in Vermont. Part One, Fat Stella, is here. Part Two, Dumb Andrew, is here.

Each of the pets left in our care had unique annoyances, but Oscar was the hands-down winner. Some kind of godforsaken rat-based terrier, Oscar was like a half-blind, crack-addicted, ADHD, jack rabbit on a speedball bender (to put it nicely).  Oscar would occasionally take time out of his busy schedule—digging in the couch, licking the baseboards, sniffing the corners of the rugs and blankets, rubbing the sides of his body against the kitchen trashcans, lifting his hind legs and tail and using his forepaws to drag his rear end across the carpet, begging to be taken outside so he could chase random birds, insects, and leaves in the yard, and leaving Christmas-tree dog-piles in the front entry—to do some really annoying junk.

For example, Oscar loved to watch television. At first, it seemed almost endearing…until we learned what was actually going on inside his odd little melon: He was stalking. Oscar watched television expectantly, in tense anticipation, waiting for any moment that an animal—any animal—would appear onscreen. Why? Well, so he could attack it, of course. Why else would anyone with any sense want to watch television? (It was a foolish question, and you should have known better than to ask it.) In the picture below, Oscar is actually attacking a video that features himself running around in the backyard.

Crazy OscarWe brought our own cat, Beatrix, with us when we moved to Vermont. When we first moved in and were still learning about Oscar, he took special delight in randomly leaping on Beatrix’s back and pinning her to the floor. (I imagine he was thinking simply, “New smell! New smell!”) Regardless, she was an only pet, unaccustomed to having to deal with such atrocious behavior, and understandably appalled. This was why we had no choice but to banish Oscar to the downstairs by applying a baby gate at the foot of the stairs—so that Beatrix (and honestly, the other cats, too) would have a safe haven where they could go for asylum.

I mentioned one of Oscar’s annoying habits was relieving himself on the wood floor in the front hall. In his defense, this was due mainly to the fact that often he would come to the foot of the stairs when the rest of us were upstairs, and whimper, lonely because nobody liked him. And it was difficult for us to discern his “Hey losers, feel sorry for me” whine from his, “Hey humans, I’ve got some waste on deck and could really use a visit to the little terrier’s room.” Our bad. However, even our disdain at taking him outside was his own fault. He wasn’t a normal dog, one you could just let out, he’d do his business, and then come back in. No, you had to go out with him and keep him focused and on task, or he’d forget why he was outside, run off, and get lost.

To his credit, Oscar was really fun to play with, at least for me (a dog person at heart). He had this Nylabone frisbee that he’d chase, literally as long as you’d throw it. Kendra even enjoyed throwing snowballs for him, because he’d dig and dig and dig in the deep snow, frantically looking for each snowball where it landed.

After his owners came back and we returned home, we spoke to them a few months later on the phone, and they remarked how odd it was that he refused to go upstairs anymore. “Do you know what that’s about?” one of them asked.

“Hm,” I said. “That’s really strange. No, no idea.”

Are you a dog person or a cat person? If you gravitate toward one or the other, why? What’s the craziest behavior you’ve ever witnessed in a pet? Does anybody else think the word “Nylabone” is as funny as I do?

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