Tag Archive: Birthday Surprises

Birthday Surprise(s) Part 9

I made me some art

I made me some art

Meanwhile, I progressed on finishing up the wife’s OTHER birthday present, the horse painting.  It looked even more painterly after I purchased some gloss black wood stain and a set of tiny brushes with which to apply it.  I laid the whole thing flat on my work bench, in the wood shop, and proceeded to fill in all the shapes of the horse’s mane and then outlining the entire silhouette before switching to a larger brush to fill in the middle.  It looked pretty darn good.  Especially because I was able to layer this stain to give it depth in places, making the foreground leg darker than the background leg, etc.  Took a day or so of this before it was time to show it off to the wife.  She loved it, but suggested that after I’d finished staining it, I should hit it with some sandpaper to scuff it up a bit.   Sounded like a plan.

I finally brought it into the house and leaned it against a wall.  Took us a bit to figure out where it would look best, and where we had wallspace for it.  We finally settled on a wall by the closet under the stairs, which had previously held an owl painting framed with barn-wood.  With some loops screwed into the back of it and some industrial wall hooks secured to the wall, we hung that bad boy up and it looked great.  The wife insisted I sign it, which I did.  Then she did a double take when she saw “Fritz `13” inked in stain at the bottom right.  “Fritz” is how I used to sign anything arty and has been since my days in middle school, back when I wanted nothing more than to be a newspaper cartoonist.   That the last time I used that signature probably read “Fritz `92” tells you something about how long it’s been since I created much physical art.

Me art on display

Me art on display

Over the days after the painting had been in the house, the wood it was constructed from began to dry out–most of it having spent years relatively exposed to the elements in the wood shed–and it began to shrink.  This caused the gaps between some of the boards to widen a bit, but in a pleasing way.

Maya, soon became accustomed to her collar, to the point that we were willing to leave her outside on it when we had to leave the house.  Which was handy, cause if we left her inside she would just pee, poop or bleed on something.

This seems a good place to end the Birthday Surprise storyline.  All of our characters are established, all of our surprises are revealed and/or installed upon the walls of our home.  However, the story continues, for we haven’t even tackled Thanksgiving, nor have I told the tale of last year’s particularly memorable Thanksgiving festivities.  That’s on the way soon.  But first, let’s tackle a Maya related story of the day this enormous dog disappeared.



Birthday Surprise(s) Part 8

Yes, the new puppy, barely two weeks in our care, was in EFFing heat.

I’d been suspicious that this might be the case, not only due to her 10 months of age, but also the fact that Moose pretty much had his nose buried in her dog-cooter for 9 out of any given 10 minute period during the day.  When the dog began to actually spot blood on our floors, though, I knew she was definitely in heat and we were definitely in trouble.

“It’s not as bad as a cat being in heat,” the wife assured me.  “Dogs don’t yowl all night long like Avie did,’ she said, referring to our long lost cat from our Princeton days.  However, while dogs might not yowl in heat, they certainly seemed to make up for it by bleeding all over the place.

The wife made her a diaper out of a towel, but it was held on with tape and only lasted for about 10 minutes before she had to go potty and tested its named function for us.  That diaper didn’t stop nothin’.

This knowledge in mind, it was going to be incredibly important that we get our invisible fence training done soon, because we couldn’t leave her bleeding and peeing in the house or garage and certainly couldn’t risk her heading down the hill to visit with the neighbors’ annoying, barky, car-chasing dogs.  This last point was driven home particularly well when, after removing Maya’s diaper to go potty, I popped back in the house to drop it in the laundry only to return to find her missing from the yard.  I ran to the edge of the blacktop and had a gander down the hill.  Sure enough, she was down the hill in our next door neighbor’s back yard, but was clearly headed in the direction of the neighbor dogs across the street.  I called after her and clapped for her to return.  She looked up at me with an expression I read as saying “Did you truly think that was going to work?”  Then she shrugged and kept going.

I started to scream and rant from atop my perch on Mt. Tested Authoritarian Dog Owner, but instead decided it would be fruitless other than to convince any neighbors who might be in earshot that I was well and truly fruit loop.  Instead, I grabbed a leash, hopped in the car and headed down the hill.

My relationship with the neighbor dogs is not without its problems.  They’re not bad dogs, per se, but they do quite a bit of barking at me and my dogs whenever we walk past their house, which is the only paved route between us and the rest of the neighborhood.  One looks like some sort of shepherd mix, another a beagle mix and the youngest a boxer mix.  Whenever we walk or drive past, they come out to bark and snarl and give chase, though they can only get so far before their own wireless fence system kicks in.  Still, they’re more than willing to test its boundaries in order to try and menace Sadie.  (Sadie, for her part, is menaced not in the slightest and could take all three of those dogs if she wanted to, but she’s terrified of the constant beeping of their collars as they crash against the boundary and are shocked back into their yard, so she spends all of her time straining at the end of the leash to escape, making them think they’re scaring her and egging their behavior on.)

When I got out of the car, Maya was already in their yard and seemed to be making friends with the shepherd mix.  When they saw me coming down the driveway the dogs came running to snarl.  That is, until I stepped into their yard at which point they looked very confused and got quiet, cause I was violating the rules they thought governed their universe.  It was our unspoken deal, I imagined they thought, that I was to stay in the street and they were to bark at me from the yard.  Furthermore, I was pissed off at Maya.  They did not know how to handle this angry incursion, so they ran away and barked at me from a very safe distance.

I hauled Maya back up the hill in the car and informed the wife it was time to train the dog with her “purty” collar.   Implied by my statement was that she, the wife, would need to do the training.  She inferred this successfully.

A few days before this, I had spent half an hour preparing for this moment by walking the invisible fence perimeter with one of the “purty” collars and planting flags whenever it beeped.  I had decided then that if anyone was going to train Maya, it should be the wife since she wasn’t getting nearly the same level of poop and pee (and now blood) duty that I was.  So the wife took the dog and a collar and went out to go train her.

She came back after 10 minutes complaining that the collar would not consistently beep at the boundary flags, so there was no point in training Maya until it did.

I was further annoyed.

One of the only troubles we’ve had with the wireless fence system is that it’s great when you’re talking about level ground with not a lot of brick or metal or dirt or pavement to block or bounce a signal.  However, this is West Virginia, we’re all about a hill here and our house is on top of one of those hills, with sides that slope down at the edges of our property.  If a dog is able to duck under the signal before reaching the actual boundary of that signal, the signal just keeps sailing along at the level of the flat portion of the yard and the dog can potentially get pretty far before the collar says beep one, if it says beep at all.  (At least, this is my understanding of how it works based on trial and error–mostly error.)  When we first moved to Lewisburg, we had to buy the second transmitter not only to cover more ground but also to try to better coverage in several deadspots that developed close to the house, we think due to signals bouncing off the brick of our home’s exterior.  So we now have one transmitter in the house and another in the woodshop.

I went out with a collar and tried my luck, thinking that the wife was crazy because the thing had beeped for me properly when I’d put the flags out a few days earlier.  It didn’t.  Oh, it would eventually beep, but never in the same place twice, and I was often able to get pretty far past the flags before the system took any notice.  Grrrr.

So I marched back and forth to the transmitter in the woodshop and the one in the house adjusting the range dials to try and dial things back just enough to still give the dogs plenty of space, but also consistently beep in all the right places. Eventually, I found settings and even repositioned one of the transmitters until I was satisfied.  Then I sent another 20 minutes repositioning all the flags.

When it came time for training, I brought Maya out myself, convinced that if I sent the wife again the transmitters wouldn’t cooperate and I’d have to eat crow and go redo everything again.  At least if I was the only one there I’d be the only one to witness it.

My method of training with the invisible fence is not to try and trick Maya into crossing the boundary, for that wouldn’t be fair or nice.  Instead, I walked along the boundary’s edge with her, telling her not to cross beyond the flags and calling her back whenever she came close.  We did this at the top of the driveway, where the wife had tried earlier.  Maya mostly obeyed, but eventually strayed across the boundary and I heard the collar start to beep.  Much like the wife’s old dog Honeybee, she kind of looked around to see what was stinging her, but didn’t seem all that put out by it.  This wasn’t good.

I removed the collar and tested it on myself by holding the shock prods on the back of the collar to my hand and then walking across the boundary.  It shocked me and was certainly not pleasant, nor something I would want on my neck, but I could tell from the intensity that the collar was only set on #2.  The range of the Purty Collar is between setting 1 to setting 4, with #1 being just beeps and no shock and #4 being Shock-the-Ever-Loving-Shit-Out-of-You, with #2 and #3 being lower levels of #4.  I set it to #4.

Maya continued to be good as we walked the border.  That is, until we reached the side of the yard nearest the neighbor dogs’ house.  Then she peered down the hill toward them, looked back at me once, and trotted on through the flags like she was headed down the hill to see her new boyfriends.  I tried to call her back and told her “No.”  I said it emphatically enough that she even stopped for a second.  Then she gave me another “Did you truly think AGAIN that was going to work?” expression, but only got as far as “again” before the collar started beeping.  It gives the dog a couple of seconds to change its mind and return within the confines of the fence field before it shocks.  I began calling her, telling her to come back, knowing she was about to get hit if she didn’t.  She didn’t.  It shocked her and Tiny Dancer, with a loud yipe, began to dance.

“Come on, Maya!  Come on, Maya!” I called, clapping my thighs with my hands.  She ran away from where she’d been so viciously attacked, but the look she gave me was one of understanding.  It said: You did this.  She ran past me, clambered up the steps of the deck and went to the back door.  She was done.


Birthday Surprise(s) Part 7

The following day, having cleaned the garage three times in as many hours due to Maya’s refusal to stop trodding through her own piss and smearing it absolutely everywhere, I decided to find our corkscrew tie-out and stake that puppy to the yard.   It made me sad to do so, since tied down to a stake made her look like she did in the photo of her back in Kentucky.  But then I’d think of having to hose out the garage repeatedly, and of the many times I had to clean and disinfect the interior door and I just drove away with no more sad feelings.

A day or so later, the wife put up Sadie’s old rope run out, that we used to keep her on whenever we left our old home in Princeton.  The rope run had a chain on a pulley that allowed Maya a good deal more freedom.  It went up just in time, because she had pulled at her corkscrew tie so much that the only thing keeping it in the ground at all was faith.

Meanwhile the other dogs were allowed free run and didn’t even have to wear their shock collars (“purty collars” we call them) because they know where their radio signal boundaries are and they tend to stay away from those areas.  (We know that they know that their collars are what keeps them on their best behavior, and that they also know they can sneak away if they’re not wearing them–cause we’ve seen them do it–but since our nearest neighbors’ dogs also wear the same collar system and frequently try their boundaries when we walk past, they know that the terrifying beeping exists beyond their own collars, so they’ve started towing the line.)

I knew it would soon be time to train Maya with the wireless fence system.

We bought our system back in 2009, a year after we first brought Sadie home at our house in Princeton.  In that time, she’d logged a lot of hours as a free roaming dog, but had mostly stayed within the confines of our yard.  Our neighborhood there was out in the woods a bit, without a lot of traffic, so we didn’t much worry about her getting hit.  However, as she got older and more daring she would travel further, usually chasing after her arch-enemies, the local deer.  She also enjoyed running up and down the fence line of our next door neighbor, an attorney, chasing his dogs along it and generally refusing to come back to the house when called no matter how loud we screamed.

We didn’t really want a fence, but we needed a way to keep her in the yard without just tying her out.  We knew that the previous owners of our house there had had some sort of Petsafe invisible fence system, because we kept finding their old boundary flags in the woods.  We considered this, but weren’t sure it would even work with Sadie, because the wife had some experience with invisible fence systems from her former St. Bernard, Honeybee.  The wife had once spent a day wiring up the entire back pasture of her grandmother’s farm in order to let Honeybee run free.  Once the system was hooked up and the collar placed on the dog’s neck, Honeybee stepped across the wire boundary, twitched at the shock, looked annoyed and then bounded away.  It never worked and we were afraid of sinking dough into such a system only to have it fail for our St. Bernard mix.

Then, on one of our near daily visits to Lowes, I saw a product that I hadn’t before known to exist: a Petsafe wireless invisible fence. This product purported to be a radio transmitter that would establish a half an acre area in which a dog could run free, but which if the dog attempted to leave would cause the accompanying collar to give off a warning beep and then a shock. The kit cost three times as much as a wire-based invisible fence system, but the more we thought about it the more we were of the opinion that it would be worth paying that much more if we didn’t have to hassle with burying damned wires.  If it didn’t work, we could return it, no extra calories burned.  Furthermore, the system was portable, which would make keeping Sadie in line at the in-laws house a much easier prospect.

While we stood there considering the purchase, a guy who was standing nearby piped up, saying, “Hey, if you’re thinking about buying one of those, I just wanted to let you know something,” he began. We looked over and noticed that the man happened to be our trusted and much-liked veterinarian. He went on to tell us that the wireless fence was a very good product, but if we lived in an area prone to power outages we should be cautious because if the power went out it would shock the dog. He said his parents used the same system, but had also purchased battery backups so their dogs would not be harmed. We thanked him for his advice and bought the wireless fence immediately.

The instructions for the system suggested that it would take a good two weeks of thrice-daily training sessions in order to make an average dog understand where it could and couldn’t go in the yard. I’m proud to say that Sadie had it down within a period of 12 hours and 2.5 training sessions.  These amounted to her trying the boundary, which I’d marked with the little white flags the system comes with, getting shocked, and then never going past that flag again.  The next time she went beyond her boundary, the warning beep alone was enough to send her packing for the house, so we counted her trained.

When Moose came along, it also took him one training session, but when he got shocked he ran in a circle yiping and yiping and we had to call him back to us because he just kept spinning in the area that was continuing to shock him.  He too was counted as trained rather quickly.

I didn’t relish having to do this with Maya, but knew it would be necessary.  Especially after we discovered that she was in heat.



Birthday Surprise(s) Part 6

My first day as Maya’s sole guardian went about as you would expect–if what you expect is chaos punctuated by feces, urine and occasional naps.  It felt very much like the times my wife and I have babysat for the infants of friends, where everything is fine and good so long as the child is asleep, cause once they wake up there’s lots of screaming and poop.

Moose’s bonding moment.

I have to confess here, too, that I was kind of in shock throughout Day 1, because I was still wildly unsure that agreeing to take this dog was a good idea AT ALL.  Sure, she was a nice enough dog, and all, but she was definitely throwing a wrench into the relative calm and normalcy of my usual world.  Here I’d spent the better part of five years getting our first two dogs to a place where they didn’t crap in the house or attack people too often, and were pretty calm chill dogs most of the time, and now we had this bladder-spasm-afflicted lummox (albeit a sweet one) who was, when awake, constantly in need of attention and always ALWAYS in danger of excreting things I didn’t want to deal with.  In other words, I had yet to bond with Maya in any fundamental way and so everything she did seemed like a rude intrusion upon my life, rather than temporary inconveniences that would lessen as she acclimated and was properly trained.

I had a similar reaction to Moose’s arrival a few years ago and it took a couple of days for me to bond with him.  (I think the moment I did was when he fell asleep in my underwear, which happened to be around my ankles at the time due to my seated position on the toilet.)  It’s a good thing we did bond, because he was a toothy monster to potty train.  Took at least a month to get the heavy lifting done so that he would let us know when he needed to whiz.  Even after that, he wasn’t perfect and would have lapses about twice a year, though about age 4.  (Now he’s great.  In fact, he’s very polite about it.  These days he just comes over to me and quietly stares at my face, waiting for me to pay attention to him.  He might give off a low “brrrr,” if I’m taking too long, but usually just keeps mum.  Then, once I’ve noticed him staring, I’ll ask if he has to go potty at which time he’ll just light up with barking, the volume level depending on how urgent it is.)

I was hoping that Maya, being female and of similar breeding to Sadie, would be quicker to train.  Sadie picked up the whole potty training thing in a couple of weeks.   Maya’s willingness to let fly with whatever she had in the chamber, however, didn’t bode well.

Throughout Day 1, any time I saw the dog wake up I would immediately take her outside to potty, because if I didn’t she would start searching around for somewhere to have a squat.  Whenever she successfully pottied potty outside, I would praise her for doing so and give her lots of pets.  Through this method, I managed to make it most of the day before she had an accident in the house and it was completely my fault when she finally did.  (A wise man once said: when a puppy piddles on the carpet, whose fault is it, the puppy’s or its owner’s? Answer: the owner’s, because he’s the one not paying attention to his puppy.  That’s paraphrasing, but we read something very similar on a puppy potty-training website, back when we were first trying to train Sadie. It’s as irritating a statement as you’re likely to find, but it’s also true. Potty training a dog to “go” exclusively outside is a long and uric-acid soaked process that can drive you nigh onto insanity.)

Can’t say we had a bonding moment, but she seemed to like me pretty good.

It occurred to me that I really should start training her with our shock collar wireless fence system, since she would need to know about for the times we both could not be at the house.  However, doing so requires the inevitable moment when the dog fails to come back when you tell her to stay away from the border flags and I just didn’t want to see that moment yet.  Let her have a few days to settle in before the painful realities of the yard were introduced.  Instead, when I had to leave the house, or, as I had to on Day 1 Solo, step into the studio to do a Skype interview for the nonfiction book project I’ve been working on all year, and which is finally in sight of wrapping up, I left her in the garage with a small fluffy throw rug.  She didn’t like this and jumped and jumped on the inside garage door, but that was about it.  Or so I thought.

The first time I left her in the garage, I returned to find the fluffy throw rug soaked with urine.  Should have known that was going to happen.  When I left her in there the next time, sans fluffy throw rug, I returned to find a puddle of urine in its place by the interior door to the house, which she had then trod through and then spread all around the garage in pissy footprints.  She had also smeared similar pissy footprints ALL OVER THE INTERIOR DOOR!!!  These were NOT bonding moments!

What was something of a bonding moment–or at least was in sight of one–was Maya’s developing relationship with Moose.  As I said before, Moose doesn’t always get along with other dogs and tends to drool and snarl at them.  Maya, however, he warmed up to.  By mid-way through Day 1, they were actually running and playing together.  It made me cry, because while Moose used to play like that with Sadie all the time, we’ve not seen him play like that in months.  Moose occasionally suffers from a reoccurring condition in which he has sudden bouts of painful weakness in seemingly random legs.  It’s a condition he developed a few months after we moved back to Lewisburg from our 4-year extended stay in Princeton.  We initially thought it was Lyme disease, as the symptoms seemed right.  But no amount of super deep testing could prove that and the vet school in Blacksburg was unable to determine a conclusive cause for it, beyond build-up of lymphatic fluids in his joints.  He went through months of heavy steroid treatments with Prednisone, which requires a lengthy weaning period.  And he was fine for a couple of months after being off entirely before it reoccurred.  It has reoccurred three times in the months since, so when it does happen we just put him back on a much smaller dose of Prednisone and it goes away for a while.  That he was playing like his old self truly made me happy, to the point that I had to send the video to the wife so she could cry too.

Maya was something of a wonder of awkward puppyness.  Being mostly legs, she was of the habit of walking along  a perfectly level surface, only to trip over a line in the floor and go sprawling.  We gave her the nickname of Tiny Dancer and quickly made up a voice for her.  We have voices for all of our pets, which sound consistent no matter which of us is doing them and which pretty accurately depict their base-personalities.  Maya’s, at this point, is that of a proud, naive, country-girl who says things like “My paw calls me `Tiny Dancer,’ cause I’m so petite and graceful.”  Our pets also all have nicknames, sometimes multiple ones.  Sadie is “Pa’s girl,” “Mama’s girl,” “The Baby Dog,” “Say Say Dog,” and “Sadie Mac.”  Moose is called “Pa’s Buddy,” “Moosetastic,” “Moose E. Boy,” etc.  Actually, Moose’s real name is Seamus, so “Moose” is the biggest nickname of all.  I used to make fun of dog people who treat their mutts as kids and lavish attention and cheesy nicknames on them.  They say you mock what you fear and become what you mock, so I’m afraid we’ve become those people.  (If any of you ever catch me trying to bring one on a plane as an anxiety comfort dog, you have my permission to punch me in the dick.)

On the afternoon of Day 2, I took Sadie and Maya for a ride to the vet.  It was time for Sadie to get some shots (an appointment I’d missed two days earlier) and I figured Maya should get a checkup to make sure she had all her fingers and toes.  I brought her in first.  While we waited in the lobby, Maya charmed most people who saw her and was sweet, if restless.  Then she began barking.  At first I thought she was barking at the life-size cat cutout on top of a shelf of woefully expensive dog food.  Then we discovered that she was actually barking at the small flatscreen TV that was affixed to the wall next to the shelf.  It was showing vet-stuff on a loop and she would give off deep woofs at the motion she saw there.  I had to turn her around so it wasn’t line of sight, but she kept looking back to it.  That’s when I realized I had not watched TV since the night the wife had left to go pick the dog up, so she’d not yet experienced our big flatscreen at home.  Fun times were in the offing for sure.

The vet had a look at her and pronounced her healthy.  She wasn’t even all that alarmed at Maya’s thinness, saying that even though she was a little ribby she was still in great shape.  I explained that we didn’t have any vet records for Maya, so we didn’t know what shots she might need.  We were pretty sure she’d not been spayed yet, which was a priority in my book cause I did not want to spend any time dealing with a dog in heat and at 10 months of age, she was probably ready to go into heat fairly soon.  We opted to wait until we received her records, though, which Amber had said the former owners would soon be sending.

Sadie Mac Dog: the good dog

Sadie Mac Dog: the good dog

I took Maya back to the car and retrieved Sadie.  While she was terribly excited to be out of the car, Sadie and Maya were night and day in their behavior.  It wasn’t until I got her into the vet’s examination room that it became apparent, but I realized that Sadie–for all the hell she gave us as a puppy and young adult–has become a remarkably good dog.  It’s why people like my parents, who had run ins with her during the early years, are so pleased to see her now, because she’s really settled into a superb dog.  She’s still a nervous nelly and, as such, has occasional issues with strangers, but she pretty much does what she’s told.

“Wow,” I said aloud to the vet.  “The contrast between the two really makes me realize what a truly good dog Sadie is.”

“She’s a great dog,” the vet said.



Birthday Surprise(s) Part 5

blog-dsla2 A 10-month-old St. Bernard, while technically still a puppy, is not a small thing.  I could see this particular not-small-thing as it wandered around the back area of the wife’s element.  Even with the seats folded up, there didn’t seem to be a lot of space for it.  The Element shook with the weight of this thing bounding around inside of it, trying to find a way out.  The wife hooked a leash to her, then opened the door and let “Darla” out.

First sight.

During the first few minutes of her time with us both, I tried in vain to get a picture of this dog.  I wanted some sort of record of her arrival, but she simply would not sit still.  Making matters worse was that I insisted on trying to use my cell phone camera to do the job.  It’s great for outdoor shots with lots of light, but not so great when your subject is in constant motion.  If she was still, by the time the camera had summoned up the energy to snap the picture, she’d long since moved on.  So I just started randomly snapping in the hope that I might accidentally get a good shot.  “Darla”just kept moving as fast as she could go and as far as the leash would allow.  Meanwhile, our other two dogs, Sadie and Moose, barked ferociously from inside the glass of stairwell window as the new dog ran around sniffing and peeing and pooping willy nilly.  She was a giant wiggly, wobbly mess of a dog, and seemed to be composed of mostly legs and tail.  She was also terribly skinny, though not what I would call malnourished.  The wife said she was pretty aggressive in her eating habits, as though she might not be used to receiving more than one meal a day, but we could train her out of that pretty quick.  When we finally let the other dogs out, there was lots of growling and barking and sniffing to be done.  Couldn’t say anyone made any fast friends in the first few minutes, nor really for the rest of the night.  Moosie drooled a bit. “Darla” didn’t seem too concerned with the other dogs, though.

“Darla” the aggressively non-photogenic dog

After introductions has been made with everyone and the new arrival, the wife asked if she could see her present.  “Which one? I asked.  “You have one on the table, one on a leash and another in the shop.”

“The one in the shop.”

So I led her in to see the horse project, in all its weathered, spattered glory.   I led her in with her eyes closed until she was positioned in front of it.  I’d turned on all the shop lights to help catch the gold spatters.  She then opened her eyes and grinned.  She immediately recognized the inspiration and loved what I’d done.

“I don’t know how we’re going to hang it up, it weights 500 pounds,” I said.

We both agreed that my stain idea was probably a good one, which would help the horse shape stand out more and be more in tune with the original inspiration.  It would just be a matter of getting some and painting it on.

After admiring the painting a bit longer, we finally left it and headed to the house.  The wife’s sister, Amber, who had spoken with one of Maya’s former owners, had explained that the dog had at one point in her life been housebroken.  However, she had spent a considerable time outside of anyone’s home, so they weren’t too sure if she had regressed in this training.  We soon found out that she had indeed forgotten most of her excretory etiquette.  This led to such phrases being spoken as: “Your present just pooped in the kitchen.  Happy birthday.”

“We’ve got to do something about that name,” I said. The only Darla I’ve ever heard of was the girl in the Our Gang shorts, and she–at least in my memory–was kind of a manipulative bitch. And while you might think this would make her name fitting for a female dog, it just didn’t sit will in our minds. We were still hesitant to change it if the dog was used to “Darla,” cause why confuse matters unnecessarily? But then again, she was going to have to learn a whole new set of commands that would match up with the ones we’ve taught our dogs already, so maybe a new name would not be that much of a stretch (particularly if it was a better name).

“What’s your name?” we asked the dog. Not that we expected a response, but this is what we usually ask a new animal that comes to us without a name. (Or, as was the case with our cats, inappropriate names–theirs originally being Emma and Dejavu, for male cats. Emmett and D.J. are much happier with their current names, we’re sure.) Asking the pet their name sometimes causes them to give you an expression that might suggest something to you. Nothing great really came to mind. The wife suggested “Clara” as a name. And this might actually be a perfect name for a female St. Bernard if it didn’t come loaded down with the baggage of it also being the name of a character on Doctor Who. I’m such a reknowned Who fanatic that I would have to either own it, or spend all my time explaining that I had not named my dog after the Impossible Girl. (Though Clara: the Impossible Dog did have a nice ring to it.) We toyed with other possibilities and heard more suggestions on Facebook. My mother-in-law insisted that we should call her “Heidi.” While I think it’s a great name for a saint, I already have two friends named Heidi and wouldn’t want to answer the inevitable questions there.


Maya, captured in a rare moment when she wasn't actively pooping on our floor.

Maya, captured in a rare moment when she wasn’t actively pooping on our floor.

The one name we kept coming back to, though, was a suggestion from my sister: “Maya.” Other than being a bit of a hippie-sounding choice, it seemed to fit well enough. This would be a giant Earth Mother of a dog, and we thought the name would work in that regard as well.

As for how she was received by the other dogs, it was pretty mixed. Moose wasn’t actively unfriendly, but was still cautious about the new arrival. He didn’t drool as much as he did with Amber’s dog Thane, but then again he wasn’t being pursued as a target for rough-housing nearly as much. Plus, Maya was a girl, with all her female bits intact, which he seemed to think was pretty cool. Sadie, however, wanted nothing to do with Maya and would snarl at her whenever she came near. Maya began to bark in return, though usually only when Sadie snarled in proximity to us. We quickly figured out that Maya was trying to be protective of her new people and didn’t like other dogs snarling at us. After a bit, Sadie settled into a pattern of trying to herd Maya, which we figured would be just fine–it would give her something to be active with and might keep Maya in line.

The cats were also a mixed bag.  D.J. Kitty, our gray skinny cat, is a pretty decent soul who gets along with our other dogs.  Sure, they chase him, but he understands that it’s only because they want him to run, so he just stops whenever they try and ends their fun.  Emmett Kitty (a.k.a. “Fatty Lumpkin”), however, while willing to put up with our existing dogs, has let it be known that he will suffer no more and has chased dogs three times his size away and left many a nose scarred.  (He actually tried to kill my mother-in-law’s tiny dog, Rascal and we had to literally stitch the poor thing back together with superglue.)

At bedtime, we brought them all into our bedroom.  We already had three dog beds in our possession, one of which usually lived in the garage.  Dogs were settled on each of them. Moose still preferred to sneak into our bed after he thought we were asleep, but we let him since we figured he’d had a hard day of it, too. The following days would prove to be a real test, not only of Maya, but of me. After two days off and a trip to Kentucky, the wife had to go back to work for a four day stretch, leaving me to ride herd and bucket over the new addition.



Birthday Surprise(s) Part 4

I walked in to find the wife reading a text message from her sister Amber.  She then hurried to her laptop and brought up Facebook.  “Ohhhh,” she said a moment later, in a sad tone.

Future family member

Future family member

“What?  What is it?” I asked, moving over to look.  On the screen was a picture of a St. Bernard sitting on a patch of bare dirt, a chain attached to the collar at her neck.  She looked a little dirty and thin, but was beautiful all the same.  The Facebook page was a collection of classified ad listings for the Fort Knox-area.  The dog in question was a 10-month-old full-blooded St. Bernard called “Darla” who was owned by a family whose financial circumstances had recently changed to the point that they had to leave their home and could no longer care for such a growing large dog. The pooch, we were told by Amber, was living with some relatives of the owners.  Inwardly, I cursed when I heard this, because I could see in that moment a terrifying possible future outcome, one which I had been fighting against for the past two years and hoped to continue doing so for years to come.

Let me back up.

For the past, say, 26 months now, the wife has wanted a St. Bernard.  She used to have one named Honeybee when she lived in Alaska and loved her dearly.  Unfortunately, Honey Bee died about a year after we began dating in 1998.  Since then, she has wanted another Saint and our existing dogs were acquired while trying to acquire St. Bernards.

Our little pound puppy

Our little pound puppy

In fact, it was a very similar photo of a very similar sad orphaned puppy that I saw staring at me from a computer screen back in 2008 just days before she came into our life as our dog Sadie.  Sadie was supposed to be a St. Bernard, but turned out to be a more likely candidate for a Great Pyrenees/Border Collie mix.  Our more recent dog, Moose, was also supposed to be a mix of St. Bernard and Leonberger, which would have made for a ginormous dog had this actually been true.  No one thought to tell him he needed to keep growing beyond the 45 pounds he’s managed in his four years of life, though, so mainly he’s just a brown dog.  During the past couple of years, though, the wife has continued to lobby for trying again to find a full blooded saint and this is a lobbying effort I have fought strongly against.

Two dogs, in my oft-stated opinion, was great—especially our two dogs, who are just wonderful, eager-to-please little beasties who only occasionally roll in fecal matter (which one of them has done TODAY!!!!).  However, it’s taken a long time and a lot of work to mold them into their near-feacalless-semi-perfection.  They mostly get along, hardly chase the cats at all, and it was a delicate dynamic I wasn’t interested in upsetting by introducing another dog.  Three dogs, I said, would be terrible, especially when two of them would be very large dogs.  We’d have to walk them in shifts.  (Heh, “we.”)  And forget just popping them in the car and heading to the beach to stay with Ashley’s parents and grandmother.  Two they can handle, but with three it gets crowded, and fast.  Plus, I said, what about the camping trips we’ve recently begun to take–especially the kayaking camping trips?  We can barely kayak with two dogs, let alone a third really giant, heavy dog.  It would have to have its own kayak or learn to swim.  There was also the matter of caring for, training, and providing post-midnight potty sessions for a new dog, most of the responsibility for which would fall upon my shoulders.  The wife would get to come home and have all the good times with few of the bad times.

However, as many selfish reasons as I was able to come up with, the major reason I saw came down to our existing two dogs and their temperament around other dogs: it’s been dicey.  Sadie either tries to herd them or growls at them and Moose, when he’s been around puppies in the past, tends to start drooling and snapping at them.  Adding a third would potentially be catastrophic.

With all that in mind, I was fully prepared to go back into my list of reasons a third dog was a woefully bad idea.  I didn’t want to look at the dog’s picture, I didn’t want to hear its sob story.  I just wanted to maintain our comfortable status quo.  (And plot revenge against Amber for this attack up on our household.)  However, there were two factors getting in my way:

1) My own stupid mouth, which betrayed me a year or so back after I had spotted an ad on the bulletin board at our vet’s office offering a free adult St. Bernard which could not be kept by its owner because it didn’t have enough space to roam, and then my mouth told that fact to my wife later, like that was a good idea somehow.  Her response, of course, was “Let’s go.”  And then I had to list all my reasons why we shouldn’t do that.  Could have just kept my damn lips zipped, but had to go blabbing something I knew would hurt her soul.  I still felt guilty at my own dumbass nature.

The second factor was that even then I could see tears welling up in Ashley’s eyes.  She wasn’t pouring them on for my benefit, but was genuinely moved at the plight of this dog (a dog the listing assured was sweet and great with children).  I could feel my resolve beginning to crumble.  I still believed all of the reasons I had in hand to be true—however, what was also true was that I loved this woman enough to endure the potential tragedy and turmoil of a new dog.

The first draft

The first draft

She looked to me to make the final decision, knowing full well what I was likely to say.  And in that moment, I thought, “What the hell—it’s her birthday.  She said she wanted something big.”  I said, yes.

The wife immediately called her sister, and they made arrangements for Amber to drive to where the dog was living to pick it up.  Ashley, in turn, waited until our guests for movie night had been fed, then hit the road for Kentucky to pick up her new pooch.

The next day, I finished up my painting on the horse project—which was starting to seem a bit less worthy of a birthday surprise when compared to a new St. Bernard.  Soon it was time to remove the horse decal and see what I had on my hands.  I was very hesitant, because there would be no going back, especially if I tore the decal.  And when I did slowly peel the decal away, I did indeed tear the shit out of it.  Still, what lay beneath—or rather, what didn’t—looked pretty good.  It was the silhouette of a horse in bare, weathered wood.  It wasn’t exactly… striking–at least not in the same way as the original piece I was inspired by.  But it was kind of cool.  Seeing it made me wish I had done a bit more painting around the edges, to help give the bare shape contrast.  Maybe it would need staining.

Not long after I did the reveal to myself, I got a text from the wife saying she was in the area and would be home within 20 minutes.  Soon enough, her Element pulled up and I got my first glimpse of the gigantic thing that was to be our new pooch.



Birthday Surprise(s) Part 3

The Shop

The Shop

I could see the wife peering in the window of the door to my wood shop.  However, from her angle, and with the dimness of the shop’s interior, she could probably only see my basic shape and little detail of anything I was working on (wooden boards on a wooden floor).  Unfortunately, there was no way she hadn’t heard me drilling the screws into the supporting crossbeam of her birthday present as she made her way across the yard to the shop.

The wife knocked on the door.  I cursed, knowing I was busted, and went over to unlock the door and open it a few inches.

“Why did you lock the door?” she asked in a tone that suggested she was amazed not to find a meth-lab under construction within the shop’s interior.

“To keep you from coming in,” I said.

“What are you doing in there?” she said, trying to push the door open.  I held it firm.

“You don’t get to know that, yet,” I said.

She narrowed her eyes at me.  “I don’t?”


“Are you working on a surprise?”


“For my birthday?”

“Yep,” I said.  “Amber’s not the only one who gets to surprise you.”

The wife looked thoughtful, annoyed and pleased all at once.  She went back to the house without having a peek.  However, the fact that I was busted in mid-assembly on this birthday gift meant one major thing:  there was no backing out of this now; I was committed.  The wife now knew I was working on something—something that involved not only power tools but likely wood—and she would be expecting an end result as her surprise.  If I was truly going to see this thing through, I realized I had better make with buying a horse decal and quick.

That afternoon, I did a bit more searching online and finally found what appeared to be the perfect horse decal.  It was, again, a bit more expensive than you’d really care to pay for something you were just going to wind up peeling off and probably tearing to shreds in the process, but it matched my dimensions and the style I wanted.  And, if it worked, it would create an effect I would be hard-pressed to recreate by hand.  I ordered it.

The cat being out of the bag that I had a secret project in the shop, I didn’t even have to do any sneaking to work on it over the following days.  Not that there was much work to be done on it without the horse decal.  As for the wife, I didn’t think she would actually go out to the shop to have a look around, but I decided to make it annoying for her if she did.  In addition to keeping the shop locked at all times, I stationed tall items in all lines of sight from sweety-accessible windows.

While the wife was in the shower, a day or two later, her sister Amber told me that the wife had been grilling both her and Ma as to what I was making.

“Does she have any idea what it is?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

This kind of surprised me.  I had actually been shocked that the wife hadn’t immediately guessed what I was doing based on the sound of me drilling screws into wood to begin with.  Given the day she’d had to think on it, though, it struck me as amazing that she hadn’t put together the number of pretty obvious clues lying about, many of which I knew she had seen and/or heard.  Somehow she had not, though.

“She’ll figure it out,” I said.  “There’s no way she won’t.”

The sister and mom-in-law left on Sunday, October 27.

On Monday morning, before the wife left for work, she asked me if her surprise present would be ready by the time of her birthday, two days away.  I told her I hoped so, but that I was still waiting for part of it to arrive.  Her eyes gleamed evilly at this.

“What are you waiting on?”

“Something very important without which I can’t do the rest of it.”

“It’s something you’re building?”


“Will I like it?”

“I hope you love it,” I said.

I could see her studying my face for any clues.  Then I saw her expression shift in a very dangerous way.  “I know what it is,” she said.

“You do?” I asked.


Now I studied her face and saw there was a degree of certainty to be found there.

“I’m astounded it’s taken you this long,” I said.  Still, I wasn’t going to give anything away without proof.

The wife seemed to think for a few more seconds, then said, “Do some friends of ours have one like this?”

Er.  This seemed odd.  Cause even though we are friends with the owners of the gallery in which the original inspiration for this gift was for sale, her phrasing somehow made me believe she was thinking of something else.  I didn’t know what, exactly, but it didn’t seem like what I was creating.

“Nope.  You don’t know it,” I said.  She declined to speculate further.

Later that day, the horse decal was delivered.  It came in three sheets–head, rear and tail.  The head portion, however, fit perfectly with the image I had in my noggin.  I followed the instructions to carefully apply it to the boards.  After that it was just a matter of starting the painting process.

I was determined to use some of the extra house paint we had stored in the shop, but the splatter paint effect I was able to get by dipping a brush into them and flicking it at my wooden canvas was not exactly the effect I had hoped for.  It was too drippy, chaotic and difficult to control.  Granted, I wanted that look as well, but I decided instead to use some of the 20 cans of spray paint we had to achieve a more controlled effect.  For the benefit of those of you who are not taggers, if you depress a spray paint nozzle ever-so-slightly it will spit out a spatter of paint as opposed to the standard spray.  With some practice, you can control the thickness of the spatters to a degree.  When applied from a sufficient distance, this gives a nice speckled effect.  I started with beige, dark blue, red, black and gray (including the last of a small can of Testors gunmetal gray primer I’ve had since college).  It started to look pretty good.  I gave it a few hours to dry and came back to do some more.  I was careful to wash all the paint off of my hands, and had worn my painting clothes so as not to cause any questions any noticed spatters would bring.

On Tuesday, while the wife had the day off, I went back out to the shop to work some more.  This time I added some gold spatters, though only sparingly.  I wanted something that would catch the light.  I didn’t have a lot of time, though, because we were having some of the cast of Dracula: A Rock Opera over to eat stew and watch bad vampire movies.  I eventually left things to dry and returned to the house.  And this was when my life changed.



Birthday Surprise(s) Part 2

blog-dsla2First up, I needed wood, and old wood at that.  The original print looked as though it were painted on old fencing with lots of character and weathering to it.  Fortunately, our house, when we purchased it nigh on two years back, came with not only a wood shop but a wood shed as well.  The wood shop is an outbuilding that is kind of wasted on me, as I’m by no means a wood worker and own very few of the power tools necessary for the cause.  Our home’s previous owner, however, was a woodworker and built the shop to spec for all of his carpentry needs.  It’s basically a long one room structure, on a cement block foundation, lined with peg board and with a rough wooden floor.  In the summer, it can be cooled with a window air conditioner.  In the winter, it can

The Shop

The Shop

be heated via wood stove.  We mostly use it for the storage of tools, paint and gardening supplies, though I have a desk out there to occasionally go and write.  The wood shed is a different outbuilding that is, as its name suggests, a shed filled with split wood.  This is less useful because the only wood-burning heater on the property is the wood stove in the shop.  We have a fireplace in the house, but its currently set up for gas logs.  However, the wood shed does allow us room to store mowers and there was also a small supply of 2×4 lumber that had been weathering nicely for years.  Bingo.

I hauled the selection of lumber into the wood shop and laid it on the floor.  I tried to arrange it side by side in

The Woodshed

The woodshed (it’s hidden behind the trees)

as eye-pleasing a fashion.  After several rearrangings, I was satisfied that it looked good.  My next step was to flip it all over and try to secure it together with smaller, thinner lengths of wood, barn-door style.  I already had a supply of self-piloting wood screws.  What I didn’t have was a drill with batteries that were charged.  After several hours on the charger, neither battery for our Black & Decker Firestorm drill gave up much power.  Great.  They were dead.  Which meant more delay in the assembly of the present.  It was looking like my emergency backup jewelry would be needed.  Still, I ordered new batteries and hoped for the best, deciding that their not inconsiderable cost could be counted toward the total value of the present.

A few days later, Monday, October 21, my mother-in-law arrived for her visit.

On Tuesday, while the wife was out running errands, I shared with her my potential horse-painting on wood surprise project and gave her the backstory on its origin.  I still wasn’t sure how I was going to paint the horse part of it, but had a few ideas.  Ma said she thought it sounded nice.  She also let me in on a birthday secret, which was that my sister-in-law from Kentucky would be sneaking into town to surprise the wife on Wednesday.  This, I knew, would be a great surprise and was more incentive for me to pull the trigger on my surprise so that I was not left out of the surprise game.  This meant finalizing the plan for the horse.

The idea I had for doing it was to purchase a large horse silhouette wall decal which I would (hopefully) be able to affix to the boards I would (hopefully) soon be securing together.  I then planned to splatter paint the whole thing, allowing the splatters of paint to create a reverse silhouette so that the horse silhouette would appear as just bare, weathered wood against a Jackson Pollock backdrop.  I did a bit of research on such decals, but most of them were either not what I wanted or were a lot more expensive than I’d hoped.

On Wednesday my drill batteries arrived.  The wife did not seem suspicious.  Nor was she suspicious when someone knocked on the front door at 9:00 that night.  In fact, she thought it was me home early from my play’s dress rehearsal, `til she opened the door and saw some woman standing there in the darkness.  It took her a few seconds to see through the gloom that it was her sister, Amber.

On Thursday, October 25, while ostensibly outside hauling lawn furniture to the basement for the winter, I snuck out to the wood shed.   I figured the wife would be distracted by her mother and her sister and wouldn’t know I was gone until I’d had a chance to try out my new drill batteries, which had been charging all night.  Sure enough, the drill sunk a self-piloting screw through the thinner bit of wood on the back of my weathered boards and with great efficiency.  I tried another.  It also worked great.  Soon the whole upper cross beam was affixed to the boards.  I was so happy that I did the lower beam, too.  Then, as I was starting the first screw in the diagonal cross beam, I felt a disturbance in the force.  Somewhere nearby I was missed.  Every psychic fiber of my being cried out that I should put down the drill and return to the house, for a one woman search party would soon be sent out.  Alas, I ignored this in favor of finishing the cross beam.  A couple of minutes later, I was just about to drill the last screw when I heard the shop’s door knob rattle and looked up to see the wife trying to peer in through the window in the door.



Birthday Surprise(s) Part 1

blog-dsla2As I’ve chronicled in the past, across several blogging platforms, my wife loves nothing more than for me to try and surprise her for her birthday and for her to guess what it is I’m getting her.  Loooooves it.  Can’t get enough of it.  Lives for it, really.  It’s the only good reason to have birthdays.  Or Christmases.  Or anniversaries.

The way this almost always goes down is that she’ll pester me for hints for days on end until I finally give her the most perfectly hand-crafted hint, one designed to in no way convey actual information about the gift at hand while at the same time being completely valid as a hint about said present.  Then, with the hint still hanging in the air there next to my self-respect, she dashes both by pulling the answer out of the ether and then announcing that she knows what it is.  Almost always, in these cases, I am able to tell from her tone and facial expression that, yes, she does indeed know.  I then have to tell her to go ahead and say it, which she does, and then she gets to watch my expression as it transitions from one of hope that she’s gonna get it wrong for once to one of dammit, she got it right again.  This, for her, is fun.  And it’s happened time and time again, and I’ve only been able to keep gifts a secret on a scant few occasions.

Over the course of our marriage, though, our major annual celebrations have dwindled somewhat to the point that we don’t really do anything huge for one another, even at Christmas.  Sure, I might find something crafty off of Etsy that I know she’ll like.  Or she’ll get me something Doctor Who related.  But mainly if there’s something out there we want, we usually just go get it and don’t have to wait for a big celebration to ask for it as a gift.  This has greatly cut down on the amount of gift-guessing on her part, which is the major downside as far as she sees it.

This year was different.  For her birthday in October, I knew I had to come up with something good because she had given me a massively cool and very expensive gift for my birthday in September in the form of a leather satchel.  I’d been searching for just such a satchel at the time she picked this one out, as I was trying to find a replacement for my decade-old Magic Bag (a.k.a. the CompUSA laptop bag which I won as a runner-up prize in an online sweepstakes I’d evidently entered in 2002 and which has served me well since, save for the daylight I could see pouring in the fabric around the reinforced strap rings).  I’d figured that if the Magic Bag had to be replaced I may as well replace it with something cooler and had begun looking at leather bags.  The thing is, I’m terribly picky about the requirements such a bag would have to have–being as it would have to live up to the reputation and utility of the Magic Bag.  I’d finally found something I liked and showed it to the wife.  She balked at the price of $140, which I had to admit was a bit more than I usually spend for personal luggage.  Then she proceeded to go online to Etsy and find a bag that cost four times as much and was four times cooler.   This she purchased for me for mine day of birth.  I didn’t even have to try and guess what it was.

After the bag had arrived and I’d had a few days to bask in its glory (it is quite possibly the coolest thing I own) she let it be known that I’d better have big plans for her birthday, cause I now owed her.




I pondered this for some time.  It was going to be difficult to come up with something anywhere near as cool as that bag.  My first impulse was to schedule some sort of vacation destination–which I’ve had good luck with in the past.  However, I was already contracted to act in two upcoming plays at the local theatre and would have very little time unaccounted for in that department, not to mention the freelance writing gigs I was also contracted to complete in a timely fashion.  This sucked, because the wife had managed to get several days off in a row during the week of her birthday, but I was acting in Dracula: A Rock Opera during that time and couldn’t get away.  Thankfully, my mother-in-law, who I adore, agreed to come up and spend that week with us, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about it.  I still had to come up with a gift, though, and the days in which I could put it together were rapidly decreasing in number.

Now, ladies, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but most guys in long-term relationships have a gift in their back pocket that they know they can rely upon to get them out of the dog house if need be, or which they can use in case of emergency for big-event gifts such as the one I was facing.  (In fact, I have one friend who, I am told, has a secret stash of pre-purchased gifts that he knows his wife will love and which he raids as needed to keep things on an even keel.  And if you happen to be married to one of my friends, wouldn’t you like to know if it’s you?)  I too have had a gift in my back pocket for some time, but it’s one that was going to take some effort to achieve.  The wife and I, whilst driving down town a year or so ago, spotted in the window of a gallery a beautiful piece of country-chic art that the wife was really taken with.  It appeared to be a series of narrow, aged boards, around an inch and a half thick and probably four feet in length, fastened together and with bits of old posters still adhered to some of them, as though these boards had once been a part of a fence on a busy thoroughfare which was a popular place for people to adhere notices to.  Painted onto these boards was the silhouette of the neck, head and front feet of a horse.  The paint appeared to be very thick, but some of the layers of it had chipped away and been repainted over, leaving wonderful textures to it.  The wife loved it.  The thing is, though, once we got a close look at it, her admiration turned to disappointment as we realized that it was not boards at all, but instead a print on canvas wrapped around a 1.5 inch thick frame.  This meant it was light-weight as well as beautiful, but also fake as anything.  Sure, the texture of the horse had been incorporated into the texture of the print, but it just lipstick on a hog at that point.  She no longer wanted it, particularly after we saw the $480 price tag on it.

My back-pocket gift was the idea of recreating this work of art–not copying it exactly, but approximating it with my own touches added to it.  I even had some old lumber around in our woodshed, just a gathering age and looking appropriate to the task.  The major difficulty would be the horse, since I’m not a good enough artist to paint one on my own that would look at all good.  However, I thought I might be able to trace one on from some sort of projection of a horse, assuming I could find a projector.  The real question was whether or not I needed to pull the trigger on such a project given the short amount of time I had.

While the wife was at work, I drove down to the gallery and had another gander at the original.  It still looked impressive and expensive.  And while the cost could be justified by the amount she’d spent on my bag, I knew she would never be happy with a print picture of wood when the real thing was within grasp.  Feeling guilty for potentially stealing the intellectual property idea for my proposed gift, though, I went ahead and purchased some copper jewelry from the same gallery.  It would serve as either a bonus gift or an emergency backup gift should my artistic project not pan out.  At that point in mid-October, though, I had time on my side since the wife’s birthday was not until October 30.  But there were a few other things I would need should I decide to pull the trigger on the project.



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