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?

Dumb Andrew

This is the second 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.

The gender breakdown of the animals left in our care was two female cats (Stella and Bala), one male dog (Oscar) and one male cat (Andrew). The first several weeks we spent living with these domesticates, I puzzled over their social structure and pecking order. Their individual relationships at first seemed tenuous and fragile, difficult to map, mainly because no obvious leader emerged, no supreme chief, ruling from atop their clan.

Stella was by far the smartest, and she clearly ruled the cat food bowl. But Bala was a mean old lady, with sharp claws and a short temper. Oscar, a terrier, had the strength, size, and speed advantage over all the others, and his raw energy made him the most wildly unpredictable. But we used a baby gate to confine him to the first floor—so the cats could have some peace away from him—which disqualified him as Supreme Chancellor. Unlike all the others, Andrew’s position, no matter where he was in the house, was clear: the absolute bottom.

Dumb Andrew

Oscar frequently attempted to assert himself over the others in typical canine fashion: the classic sneak-attack “dry hump” assault. While the other cats would thrash free as quickly as possible, clawing and biting and climbing beyond his reach, Andrew instead adopted an air of almost casual indifference. Apparently he had long ago decided that just “waiting it out” was a perfectly viable strategy. I made the mistake early on of thinking this approach was just a nonchalant, Oh well, better to live to fight another day. Later I started to figure Andrew maybe just kind of leaned that way—if you catch my meaning. However, after several months of living with him, I arrived at the clear conclusion that, rather than a brain, Andrew instead had some tiny bits of gravel rattling around inside an otherwise empty skull.

Kendra and I would be sitting studying, reading, or watching television on the couch together, when all of a sudden we’d be interrupted by a loud clack-clack-clack-clack! Startled, we’d look up and glance around, and here would come Andrew, walking stiffly across the wood floor, robot-like, apparently oblivious that he had his claws fully extended. Clack-clack-clack-clack!

“Andrew! Put your claws in!”

He’d stop, stare back at us blankly for a moment, glance down, appear genuinely surprised, draw his claws in, return his empty gaze forward, and proceed. Pat-pat-pat-pat. Eventually we got so used to it that we’d call him out from anywhere in the house. You could hear him upstairs strolling with his claws out, call to him, and he’d stop.

I don’t know whether from some injury he suffered in the Great Cat Wars, perhaps crossing some drunken gato in a border town barfight, or even the undesired side effect of a tongue extension à la Gene Simmons, but Andrew’s tongue seemed to be devoid of feeling. Frequently, we’d find him sitting, cat-normal in all other ways—except that his tongue would be dangling from his mouth. He wasn’t panting or anything. He just genuinely had no clue it was out. Have you ever heard that phrase, “Too dumb to come in out of the rain”? Andrew was too dumb to keep his tongue in his mouth.

“Andrew! Put your tongue in!”

He’d turn, regard you for a second, then suck it back in. Andrew was without a doubt the dumbest cat I have ever known in my life.

And every time I think back and remember him, I smile.

What’s the dumbest animal you’ve ever known? What did that animal do that made them, you know, “special”? Was their uniqueness the result of some unfortunate tragedy, or merely misfortunate DNA? If you could pick your perfect pet (any animal), what would it be and why?

Fat Stella

Today’s post will be the first in a short series that I’m unofficially calling the Vermont Animal Diaries. From August 1995 to May 1996,  Kendra and I lived in North Bennington, Vermont so I could attend graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in nearby Troy, New York. We rented a house from a couple who was out of the country during that time, part of our arrangement being that we would care for their three cats and one dog. For the next few days, I’m going to share them with you. Then on the last day, I’ll tell you a delightful story involving all three of them. Today is all about this porcine feline…

Stella was perfect. She was insanely soft and silky, and she absolutely lived for physical affection. She was the ideal specimen of a lap kitty in nearly all respects…save one: She weighed probably four times too much. When she would flop down on your legs for some attention, she was not unlike a good-natured Labrador or German Shepherd, panhandling for a love handout, with no concept of appropriate boundaries and personal space, and no frame of reference for her Bruhathkayosaurusian size. Stella was pleasant and big like that, except without all the mindless slobber and ridiculous hip wagging you typically get from a dog.

Fat Stella

Stella’s size actually played a significant role in her charm. She was soft as a plush toy not only because of her silky fur (which was luxurious), but more because of her generous folds of whale blubber. Stella could have fed a traditional Eskimo family and kept them in lip balm for the entire month of November. On a cold day, it was delightful to call her over, invite her onto your lap, and tuck your hands into her layers, kneading softly to warm your chilly fingers. And she liked it, too.

Although Stella was not the strongest of our landlords’ three cats, she somehow had her bluff in on the others. I guess she was like that one fat kid on the playground who, although he’s not actually tough at all, is simply bigger than everybody else, so he’s just accustomed to getting his way. All of the cats shared their food from one large bowl in the upstairs bathroom. When we’d pour food at feeding time, that clanking was like ringing the triangle on a chuck wagon: Everybody came bounding in, immediately circling up to start gobbling like greedy pigs at a crowded trough.

Everybody but Stella. Because the bowl was upstairs, it required physical exertion just to get there, and she’d have you think her moseying was because she was the kind of classy gal who prefers to take her time. She would instead meander slowly into the room and draw up for a long pause, regarding her peons with abject disgust. All eyes around the bowl would rise to meet her icy empress stare, and jaws would begin grinding even more staccato-like, more swallowing than chewing. Once Stella had determined everyone had had enough, she’d wobble toward the bowl, and everybody else would scatter for higher points, looking down from a safe distance, hoping she’d leave them at least a few crumbs.

She had her bluff in on us, too. We hadn’t been living there very long when we discovered what kind of a person Stella the cat really was. Kendra was lying in bed one morning, trying to sleep in a little. But the sun was up, and Stella required maintenance. She crawled up on Kendra’s chest and purred softly, occasionally dobbing her nose on Kendra’s chin. When Kendra didn’t respond, Stella escalated to phase two, gently patting Kendra’s cheek with outstretched paw. When Kendra told her, “No, Stella. Not right now,” Stella had to lay down the law. She extended her claws on that paw and tapped again. She was gentle and did not scratch, but she conveyed her clear warning. This was her shot across the bow, if you will. And Stella’s obedient human woman responded, untucking her hands from underneath the covers to accommodate her queen.

Stella was perfect.

Did you ever have a perfect pet? How did they communicate their desires to you? Were you their slave—as you know you should be—or were YOU the boss? Don’t you ever wish our animals would treat US with the same kind of plush welfare lifestyle we lavish them? What might a world where WE were the pets look like?

Addictive Chemicals

TONY: So who’s in this Pentaverate?
STUART: The Queen, The Vatican, The Gettys, The Rothschilds… AND Colonel Sanders before he went tets up. Oh, I hated the Colonel! With ‘is wee beady eyes, and that smug look on ‘is face: “Ewww, you’re gonna buy my chicken! Ohhhhh!”
CHARLIE: Dad, how can you hate… the Colonel?
STUART: Because he puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes ya crave it fortnightly, smart@$$!

From So I Married an Axe Murderer, probably one of the  most underrated comedies ever. Starring Phil Hartman as “Vicky,” and Mike Myers as both Charlie and Stuart (Charlie’s dad).

KFC’s Double DownAnd I know exactly how Stuart feels. I myself have had a love/hate relationship with KFC for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many pounds of their Original Recipe and Extra Crispy pieces I’ve succumbed to over the years. My earliest fond memories are of the chain way back in the day, when it was still actually called “Kentucky Fried Chicken” (the way God and the Colonel intended), sharing Mother’s Day festivities with our extended family—along with about half of Oklahoma City—at Stars and Stripes Park.

Now, I can’t say exactly when our relationship soured, but it was sometime in adulthood. Something changed in the magic formula. Oh, it still tastes like the chicken from my memories, but it affects my digestive system in a profoundly negative way. Even so, I pressed on, just not quite ready to break up and move on.

You see, for all the joy that KFC has brought me, it treats me like it’s my abusive girlfriend. She seems all beautiful and shiny and glistening at first, promising wonderful things. It’s even fun hanging out with her…at least for a while. Everything will be going well, and everybody’s happy. And then…KFC’s recipe has one of her crazy (although by now completely predictable) mood swings, bipolar-like, roughing me up with mindless violence.

Kendra and I will be sleeping in our bed, and hours later, here KFC will come, kicking the door down, waking me up and dragging me off to the bathroom, where she’ll just start whaling on me for an hour or so. I’ll still be pretty jacked-up the next day, too, washing my face over and over to try to de-emphasize the bags she left under my eyes, keeping me awake till the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes the day after, concerned friends will ask, “Hey man, are you okay?”

And I’ll answer weakly, “Rough night. We had KFC.”

And that’s all I have to say…because everybody knows about her.

After a few weeks, the injuries heal up, and you start to forget a little. We’ll see her when we’re out driving around, and she’ll promise she’s a new woman: “Hey, baby! I’m business partners with Long John’s now! I’m all cleaned up. We’re best buds. Why don’t you come add a piece of fish, get some crumbs…maybe have a piece of chicken?” Or, “Look what *I* have…” and she’ll hold out those two succulent fried patties with cheese and bacon sandwiched inside. She’s the devil.

I look to Kendra for strength. She reminds me that she loves me, that she wants only the best for me, and that KFC’s just no good for me. But the longer we’re away from each other, the more her siren song beckons to me. And I know: It’s just a matter of time.

What food do you love/hate? Have you SEEN the “nutritional” information for the Double Down? Seriously? Have you ever had one? (I haven’t.) If so, is it really as delectably lascivious as it looks? Do you like it when chains partner and have both menus (or even more) all in the same building?

Catch Them Bones

This is something a little bit different. Because I write for a living (so you don’t have to), many people often ask me for writing advice. So I may from time to time share some general ideas from my vast experience and *brilliant insights* into that particular topic. I’ma do that today…

When people struggle with their writing, one of the most common troubles I hear about is how hard it is to get all your thoughts together. You sit down and begin to write, and things just won’t “gel” for you. If this happens to you, it’s not because your thoughts are no good. (Well, maybe that’s why. But probably not.) If you can’t organize your thoughts on paper, it’s most likely because you haven’t first organized them in your mind.

Many people fantasize that there’s some great mystery, some grand writing process that only insiders know—a secret society with elaborate handshakes, funny hats, code words, and custom embroidered silk undergarments. Allow me to pull back the curtain for you: None of that is true (except maybe the undergarments part—but that’s actually a matter of personal choice, and not a strict requirement for inclusion in our club). You imagine some genius “writer” with unique gifts you’ll never possess, sitting down and effortlessly cranking out page after page of flawless story, fresh off the top of their head. Am I right? A lot of people do in fact write this way—except for the “flawless” part.

Remember in school when your English teacher constantly tried to stifle your creativity, burying you under all her nonsensical rules about spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence diagramming, outlining and a whole bunch of other things you didn’t like and didn’t understand? It turns out she was right. (Not about everything, of course.) But writing is like any worthwhile endeavor, whether outdoor grilling, lifting weights, throwing a perfect spiral, tying French braids, or hand-stitching your family crest onto the most exquisite silk fabric, soft to the touch, delicious against your skin: It takes practice to get good at it. You have to actually do it if you want to improve.

I’ll break down each of these nonsense rules for you in other posts, but for now, let’s focus just on outlining.

UGH! you think. That’s just soooo boring!

And you’re right. Sort of. But also not.

Outlining is boring and a pain because you’ve likely been taught to try to do it in order: chronological, priority, whatever. And you try to type it out from scratch or write it on a notepad. But your brain doesn’t work like that. Your brain is like a giant dresser, with thousands of tiny drawers (millions, even). When you have an idea or learn something new, your mind opens a random drawer, throws that thought into it, makes some weird little notes about the drawers surrounding it, and then slams it shut. Recalling just one specific thought is a delicate matching game, like flipping over tiny cards with pictures of dinosaurs or kitties when you were a little kid, looking for an identical pair. The approach is time-consuming, inefficient…and boring.

What you need is to dump all of your ideas out of the drawers onto the floor where you can see them. You dump them essentially in the reverse of how they were stored in the first place. Just start jotting your thoughts down. I call this “writing down the bones,” a phrase which I stole from the title of a book I was supposed to read in graduate school, but didn’t and then lied about at the time. (I hope you can forgive me.) In my experience, a way that works for most people is to use Post-It notes and a huge blank wall. Write just a couple of words or a phrase on a Post-It—just enough to jog your memory for that idea—and stick it on the wall. Anywhere. Do that for every idea that you can possibly come up with related to what you want to write about. Eventually, your idea well will run dry. When it does, stop.

Now, start moving things around. Group Post-Its into categories that make sense to you. You’ll see stories emerge. Themes. Entire chapters. This process will also reveal the places where you have gaps. When you see a gap—a spot where two ideas need another thought (or more) in between them to make sense—write the bridging thoughts on Post-Its and stick those where they go.

Once you have all your thoughts arranged into groups—whether it’s into columns, circles, clusters, whatever—then sort within that group in a logical sequence. Is it a story? Then sort the events in the order in which they happened (chronological). Are they ideas you’re trying to share? Do you need to share some ideas first, to give your audience the foundation they’ll need to be able to understand your other ideas? Then put those foundational ideas first. If you again see gaps, write Post-Its that bridge them and stick them in place.

Once you have all of these things sorted into the appropriate silos, what you’re looking at, stuck there on your wall, is all of your ideas, neatly organized, showing you clearly where you should start, where you need to end, and what you need to do in between to get there. Also, what you’re looking at…is an outline. And it wasn’t boring at all. It was fun.

What are some other fun ways you know to organize your thoughts? Do you ever outline? Have you ever done the same kind of approach, only with 3×5 note cards, maybe on the floor? Do you remember learning the Dewey Decimal System in school? I think it’s genius. (Is it just me, or don’t you think the dude who designed it probably used drugs?)

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