Monday, May 26, 2008

The biggest sham of them all

As I recently settled down into our grizzled old recliner that has been handed down through the generations like a folk story, I grabbed a pillow and slid it behind my back. Through the first thirty years of my life, pillows had been an accessory almost exclusively employed on or about the cranium, but lately I’ve found myself putting them to more geriatric uses, uses that include propping up spinal columns.

I opened the lid on my laptop and was immediately reminded that my last session ended abruptly and without my consent; the error message asked if I’d like to restore my active desktop settings.

“Sure, whatever that means” I thought, clicking the “yes” button.

“Are you sure?” the computer asked ominously. Apparently, restoring one’s active desktop settings is not an activity to be taken lightly. Deciding to have children, choosing a career path, restoring your active desktop settings: those are the biggies.

My finger trembled as it hovered over the mouse button. I clicked “yes” and winced, wondering how many launches I’d just authorized NORAD to make. Instead, the computer put the pretty wallpaper picture of a buttercup back on the screen. Why this action required more fail-safes than my credit card company puts on the personal information that it accidentally distributes once a quarter, I’m still not sure.

My wife Kara strolled into the room and said, “Hey, don’t squoosh that pillow. It’s a sham. You’re only supposed to use it for decoration.”

“I’ll say it’s a sham,” I replied, removing the ostensible pillow from behind my back. Kara likes to have stuff that we’re not allowed to use, things like shams and every single item that we received as a wedding gift. Personally, if something is going to be useless and lying around the house, I think it should be me.

Kara and I differ in opinion on some of these matters, but any issues we have stem largely from our being of different eras. Though we’re only separated in age by less than three years, the gulf between our experiences can be wide.

The other day, I pulled a kitchen chair around backwards, sat straddling the back of it and said, “Hey, hey, hey. What’s happening?”

She stared at me blankly.

“Hey, hey, hey. I’m sitting like Roger from ‘What’s Happening?’ Remember that show?” I asked.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.

It wasn’t just that she’d never seen the seminal show of my childhood summer vacations; she’d never even heard of it. Dwayne accidentally spilling secrets. Dee eating peanut butter out of the jar. Rerun dancing in his red beret and getting caught taping a Doobie Brothers concert. These things never existed to Kara, but she’d seen every episode of “Saved by the Bell” several times over. It’s a wonder we can even hold a conversation.

I suppose our different perspectives are occasionally helpful. If there’s one important thing I’ve learned after nearly four years of marriage, it’s that it’s okay to put utensils in the dishwasher pointy-end-down. Growing up in a pointy-end-up household, I never knew any other way. The occasional finger stabbing seemed normal. Going pointy-end-down, you could practically belly flop onto the loaded bottom rack if you wanted to, though I could think of better ways to spend an afternoon.

So I’m still not so sure about having an entire class of pillows that can’t be used for any activities that might be considered pillow-like, but there’s a chance that I’ll change my mind. Usually, over time, I come to see things Kara's way. This is due to a phenomenon known as love. Or Stockholm syndrome. Either way, pointy-end-down is definitely the way to go.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Call of nature stronger than Call of Duty

Last week, I held an empty plastic barrel above my head and said, “Finally, I did it!”

“That’s quite an accomplishment,” my wife Kara replied, and I think she might have meant it. Not everyone has what it takes to polish off an entire barrel of cheese balls without calling in for assistance. Kara had given up on the effort long ago, demonstrating her complete lack of perseverance by popping a handful into her mouth and saying, “Ew, these are stale.” Champions know that freshness is a state of mind.

I’d been working my way methodically through the thirty-five ounce container ever since our New Year’s party when we forgot to put it out on the table, which was a shame because that barrel really would have classed the place up. Thirty-five ounces might not sound like all that much, but the last time I saw a barrel that size, Donkey Kong was rolling it down a ramp.

You have to take accomplishments in life where you can get them, because most of the time, despite your best efforts, you’re going to get blown away by twelve-year-olds. My buddy Derek and I discovered this last weekend as we attempted for the first time to venture into the world of online PlayStation 3 gaming. Bolstered by our recent achievements in both cheese ball and beer consumption, and after amassing decades of life-wasting, game-playing experience between us, Derek and I confidently stretched out our button-mashing fingers as Call of Duty 4, the most popular online video game for the PlayStation 3 and opiate for countless masses of nerds, loaded.
Kara walked through the room and said, “I thought you guys were going to play multiplayer. You only have one controller.”

She can be so silly sometimes. Nobody plays video games against people in the same room anymore. You play against people in other cities and countries so that you don’t have to share your Doritos.

Eight dispiriting hours later, Derek and I had taken turns being killed in ways too numerous and horrible to describe. The game allowed players to wear headsets that broadcast their voices through their opponents’ TVs, so our deaths were usually accompanied by prepubescent cackling.

“Dude, that kid sounds like he’s twelve,” Derek said after getting knifed in the back by someone with the user name KillingUsoftly96. It occurred to us that the year 1996 was likely printed on this kid’s birth certificate just like it had been printed on our high school diplomas. Don’t these kids have better things to do than hanging around online, killing thirty-year-olds? They should be out doing normal kid stuff like I did when my games were on pause, things like catching butterflies and experimenting with fireworks.

After Derek left, our puppy Memphis came and sat beside me as I played one last game. She looked at me and then to the door. Then back to me.

Memphis, can you make it for another three minutes? This game doesn’t have a pause button,” I explained, rationally. Memphis’ housebreaking had finally started to take; she had gone four days without an accident, a streak that in our household could be described as nothing less than Ripkenesque.

She looked at me with eyes that I interpreted to say, “You go ahead and have fun. I’ll just patiently sit here and hold it.”

“Good puppy,” I said.

As the timer counted down to less than a minute, I stood up to let Memphis know that I meant business. I began to scooch slowly towards the door as my fingers continued pounding the buttons in a futile attempt to avoid the adolescent killer angels. I congratulated myself on my multitasking abilities, simultaneously providing both exemplary pet care and valuable target practice to the next generation. But Memphis had been busy doing some multitasking of her own, both snapping her streak and teaching her owner a thing or two about priorities.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Where the dogs and the antelope play

*This is my last puppy column for at least a week, I promise.*

When my parents came to visit last weekend to meet Memphis, the floppy-eared, multibreed puppy that has recently taken residence in our home, they brought with them a squeaky rubber chicken that has not stopped squeaking since they left. When people call the house now, it must sound like a nervous clown is pacing in the background.

My folks hit it off swimmingly with their new granddog, but during their visit I got the feeling that, in the space of just one generation, dog ownership has become an entirely different animal.

“How did you housebreak Ginger?” I asked them, referring to the golden retriever that they’d picked up as a puppy nearly thirty years ago.

Mom and Dad looked at each other and shrugged. “You know, I don’t really remember. We sure didn’t get up in the middle of the night, though,” Mom said.

It wasn’t that they couldn’t remember it in the way people can’t remember car crashes, which is about the only hope I’d ever have of forgetting the past month of playing personal assistant to a bladder with a carrying capacity that could easily be put to shame by your average tablespoon, it was that the whole thing was such a non-event that it didn’t even register for them anymore. Crate training might be the more effective way to housebreak a dog, but anyone who has gone through the experience is more likely to forget their first kiss or their last oil bill.

As we headed out onto the deck last weekend, I pulled Memphis aside so the humans could go first. When Dad looked at me, I explained, “The dominant dogs always go first. If you let your dog go out the door first, it thinks it’s the pack leader.”

He smiled and nodded, pretending that what I’d just said made perfect sense, even though a month ago I would have thought the notion pretty ridiculous as well. I imagine that when I turned back towards Memphis, he probably exchanged a glance with Mom that roughly equaled taking a finger and circling it around your temple.

When I was a kid, if a dog slobbered on you when you came home, didn’t destroy things with too much regularity and seemed vaguely aware that it had a name, you had yourself a good dog. People didn’t worry about being pack leaders or following their dogs around with plastic baggies. Growing up, I didn’t know many of my neighbors very well, but I knew all their dogs. Electric fences were for prisons and pastures, and Ginger and her compatriots roamed the countryside like four-legged Jack Kerouacs.

Mom and Dad raised a perfectly sweet and loving dog in Ginger without the benefit of the recent boom in the Dog Whisperer brand of pooch psychology that says humans must eat first, go up the stairs first, walk in front of the dog on the leash and win all staring contests, lest the dog think it is the one bringing home the Beggin’ Strips. A dog will also think it’s the boss if you don’t constantly maintain a calm and patient demeanor, communicating through your posture and body language that you are the lead dog, ignoring the common sense that might otherwise suggest that the lead dog rarely has to pry open clamped jaws to rescue its snowman-festooned underwear.

Kara and I are a bit skeptical as well, but we’re not willing to take any chances. It would be disastrous if a dog became the pack leader of our household. A canine couldn’t possibly know how to do the important pack-leading activities that Kara and I perform on a daily basis, like reading novels with bare-chested Scotsmen on the covers and becoming gunnery sergeants in Call of Duty 4, respectively.

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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Getting puppy schooled

Ever since we adopted a puppy a couple of weeks ago, the typical conversation around our house goes something like this: “You are so smart. Yes you are! You must be the smartest dog in the whole wide – dude, stop eating mulch. No! Drop it!!”

The reader(s) of this column will have to forgive my recent fixation on puppies, but I’ve found that when you have one in your house, taking time to think about anything else usually results in the need to think about where you left the carpet cleaner. An inside tip for investors: whoever makes Brawny paper towels is having a very good quarter.

After watching an episode of The Dog Whisperer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a dog can be trained in about ten seconds, requiring the handler to simply stand up straight, give a couple of tugs on the leash and make a “ch” sound whenever the dog acts up. In the worst cases, when a dog is trying desperately to make Alpo out of the handler’s calves, a couple of finger snaps may also be needed to turn Cujo into Lassie.

Since we’d vigilantly prepared for puppy ownership by watching a Dog Whisperer marathon, my wife Kara and I were excited to try out this magical technique on our own dog.

“Ch,” I said to our puppy Memphis as she pulled on the leash like a Clydesdale.

“Ch, ch, ch,” I repeated, tugging on the leash as if I’d mistaken our dog for a lawnmower that wouldn’t start. Memphis lunged forward, pouncing on her favorite prey – an acorn – and devouring it.

“Let me try,” Kara said, taking the leash. The last I saw of them, Memphis was doing a wheelie down the street, her back legs churning as she held her front legs aloft like a T-Rex, dragging Kara along and testing the tensile strength of the nylon leash between them. It might be easier just to teach the dog to walk upright. Until we find a technique that works off camera, though, it seems we’ll be doing a good bit more dog yelling than dog whispering.

During our first weekend of puppy parenthood, Kara and I each lost about three pounds and twenty hours of sleep. We’ve been trying to crate train Memphis, which requires constant vigilance and many backyard trips during the wee(-wee) hours. As a consequence, I’ve learned that deploying the hood on a sweatshirt that has been donned backwards greatly complicates frantic nocturnal navigation through the house.

Throughout this process, I’ve seen one piece of advice on several dog training web sites that has been most useful. It describes the important role that a rolled-up newspaper plays in training a puppy: “Bring the dog over to the destroyed object (or mess), then take the rolled-up newspaper and hit yourself over the head as you repeat the phrase, ‘I FORGOT TO WATCH MY DOG, I FORGOT TO WATCH MY DOG!’”

After two weeks of puppy ownership and countless instances of swatting ourselves over the head, Kara and I have often wondered how much harder a human baby could possibly be. Sure, babies can’t entertain themselves for fifteen minutes using nothing but regurgitated acorns, but that’s why DVD players were invented. Parents of human children may disagree, but the bottom line is that you never see an adult standing in the backyard beside a baby at three in the morning, shining a flashlight in its face and sighing as the baby chomps at moths.

In any event, things do seem to be getting easier as we all learn to communicate with each other. Just this morning, I learned that destroying a sandal is a dog’s way of saying: “I needed a chew toy ten minutes ago.”

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