29 Aug

The trouble with Charlie

I’m beginning to think that, although our dog Charlie has been blessed with a super-powered Beagle nose, perhaps he didn’t get a great deal of Beagle brains. I’d like to believe he’s the smartest dog around, but it’s getting harder to ignore the mounting evidence that indicates otherwise.

It started shortly after we adopted Charlie. For weeks we tried to convince him that the things he kept digging out of the cat’s litter box were not, in fact, gravel-coated candy bars. I was disgusted and had to fashion a hiding spot for the litter box so Charlie wouldn’t use it like a snack bar.

There are also times I find Charlie happily chewing on his own back leg, as if it’s a toy and not actually connected to his body. To prevent him from gnawing it off, I give him and his backyard companion E.J. rawhide chew sticks.

Charlie happily takes his chew stick and trots off with it. But when he notices E.J. getting a chew stick, too, suddenly he doesn’t want his stick anymore. He wants E.J.’s stick, and he wants it bad. So he drops his own stick and circles around E.J., nudging and bumping him until he pries it from his jaws, at which point Charlie snatches it and sprints to the other side of the yard in victory.

Because E.J. is much older and wiser and has no energy for puppy shenanigans, he doesn’t object to having his chew stick snatched. He simply picks up the perfectly good chew stick Charlie abandoned and then he lumbers away to eat it in peace. The Beagle is convinced that a stolen chew stick is the superior one, even though they are exactly the same.

Our Beagle is also confused about when he is and isn’t needed for guard-dog duties. He barks – a lot. The new neighbors on either side of our house probably wish we’d move to Alaska. Charlie barks at squirrels, moles, birds, lawn mowers, rustling leaves, moving clouds, neighbors who go for a walk, neighbors who check the mailbox and neighbors who come within 200 yards of the wrought-iron fence where he stands watch.

I’ve tried teaching him that not everything that moves is a threat, but he doesn’t seem to hear me. He’s too busy barking. So at night, we let him sleep on an enclosed back porch so he won’t bark and wake the neighbors. Once inside, he typically settles down on a blanket next to E.J. and they snooze peacefully until daybreak.

But one night last week, at around 3 a.m. Charlie launched a full-scale barking assault on the back porch. I assumed he’d spotted a raccoon or a mole out the window and would settle down once it disappeared from view. But he kept on barking despite all my shushing and finger-pointing.

The next morning, we discovered what had triggered Charlie’s all-night bark-fest. It was a white plastic shopping bag we’d left by the back door. By the light of the moon, it must have taken on a ghostly appearance that scared all the sense out of Charlie because he “protected” us against that plastic bag for over an hour. You’ve heard of the boy who cried wolf? Ours is the dog who barked “bag.”

When we brought Charlie home, we asked a dog trainer to help us civilize him and she did a great job. He learned to sit, stay, and he can even shake hands on command. It’s very cute.

But now what I really need is a lesson on how to make Charlie shut up.

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29 Aug

Mama in a quiet house

By this time next week, I’ll be sitting in a quiet house. The boys will have gone back to school and this time they’ll be taking Kate with them. Kate, the baby of the family, begins kindergarten on Monday. Her new Tinkerbell backpack is stuffed full of school supplies and waiting by the back door.

For the first time in more than a decade, I’ll have seven whole hours stretching in front of me once the three of them walk through those elementary school doors. I’m mostly happy about it. It has been so long since I was able to work and write uninterrupted that I’m not even sure I’ll know how to handle it. I’ve become accustomed to the sudden starts and stops of working in a noisy house where someone always needs a grilled cheese sandwich or a Band-Aid or a witness to their new high score on Super Mario Brothers.

The thought of that much time to myself sounds decadent. I can finally clean out those closets and work on that photo album and tackle the long list of projects that get put off for another day. Heck, I might even stop and take a little cat nap if I want to. No one will be here to wake me and ask for a juice box and a game of Connect Four.

But that’s what makes me a little sad, too – the fact that no one will be here to ask for a juice box and play time. Kate won’t crawl into my lap while I’m at the computer and ask me what I’m writing about. My babies – my best and most important work – will be off chasing their own adventures at school.

As much as I’m looking forward to some peaceful hours on my own, I also wonder if I’ll still feel like a mama if I don’t have a baby on my hip or a toddler to tag along with me to Target. Will I still feel as needed if I’m not shuttling a preschooler to play dates or reading picture books before naptime? It’s not just the kids who are growing up and changing. It happens to mothers, too.

Other moms who have already cleared this hurdle tell me that life will be different but I’ll adjust quickly. They say those seven peaceful hours will go by in a blur and get filled with work and errands and the countless responsibilities we all juggle in addition to kids. They say the main difference is that I’ll get to go to lunch with a grown-up when I want to and not feel the need to pick a restaurant with chicken nuggets on the menu. I’ve got to admit – that does sound nice.

Having all three kids in school will hopefully bring a little more balance to the day – some quiet hours to work while the kids are away, balanced out by the flurry of activity that rushes in when the bus drops them off at 3:15 p.m. There will still be after-school grilled cheese sandwiches to make. There’ll be basketball practices and gymnastics lessons and swim team sessions to shuttle them to and from. And there will be homework, of course, to fill in the gaps.

As they walk away from me Monday morning, I’ll be walking away from this phase of my life – a phase that has pushed me to my physical and emotional limits at times but one that has also blessed me with so many incredible moments. Raising human beings is the ultimate adventure. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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15 Aug

What’s in YOUR basket?

I have a theory that check-out clerks know a lot about people. And they don’t have to read tea leaves to do it. That long receipt tape curling out of their cash register tells them plenty.

The check-out clerk is usually the second person to know a baby is on the way – the first being the woman who’s buying a home pregnancy test to confirm what her morning-sick belly already knows.

Clerks also know who bakes from scratch and who pretends to. They know who needs a tube of Preparation H. They know who throws a copy of National Enquirer onto the conveyor belt at the last minute. They even know who indulges in less-than-nutritious cereal and tries to balance it out by buying an extra bag of lettuce. (Captain Crunch and I have been having a late-night love affair behind my diet’s back for years now.)

What we buy says a lot about us. And what we buy over and over again may be the most telling. Not long ago my mother and I went shopping and wandered into an aisle with new dishes. We both stood there a long time, gazing lovingly at dishes we do not need.

“I could buy dishes every single day, if I could,” I said as I admired the rows of colorful plates and bowls on display.

“Me, too,” Mom said. “I’ve always loved dishes.”

But we love dishes for different reasons. She is an excellent cook so the love of new dishes makes sense. I, on the other hand, would rather clean the kitchen than cook in it, so, for me, the new dishes are more like little pieces of art – their vibrant colors stacking next to each other in the cabinet.

To test my check-out clerk theory, I made a short list of the other things I would absolutely buy every day – if money, time, common sense and storage space weren’t an issue. Here’s what made the list in addition to pretty dishes: pajamas, school supplies, cosmetics, and storage containers.

What does that list say about me? I’d say it means I’m a nerdy, comfort-loving homebody who loves the idea of being super organized, even when she’s not, and who has high hopes that the next tube of lipstick will be the perfect mixture of pink and coral. And that’s a pretty accurate description – my shopping basket knows me well.

For decades, marketers have been trying to find out why we buy the things we do. Why do certain products call to us over and over again while others leave us cold? According to an article in Scientific American magazine, a researcher at Atlanta’s Emory University did an experiment in 2003 in which he asked people to look at different consumer goods and rank them according to which ones appealed to them most.

Then the researcher put each volunteer through an MRI scanner and once again showed them the same products, while the MRI kept track of the volunteers’ brain activity. The common link was that when people saw a product they really liked, blood rushed to an area at the front of their brain – the “medial prefrontal cortex” lit up like a Christmas tree (or a busy cash register). And that particular part of the brain is the part that decides who we are and how we see ourselves.

So when certain products make us do the “happy dance” in our heart of hearts, it’s because those products fit into the carefully designed image of who we think we are.

Gives whole new meaning to the phrase “head rush,” doesn’t it? Happy shopping.

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08 Aug

From one heat wave to another…

Sweaty greetings from the middle of a heat wave. Today I took the kids to the pool for a swim lesson and waited by the water’s edge, watching the class learn the backstroke. It was mid-morning and the temperature had already climbed to a humid 96 degrees.

The wind blew hard, but it wasn’t a cool breeze. This was the hot breath of an angry dragon. The heated gusts blowing against my damp skin made me wonder if this is what it feels like to be a wet sock in a clothes dryer set on “hot” – the stifling winds buffeting you to and fro as you tumble for what feels like eternity.

The only thing good about a heat wave is knowing it’ll be over – eventually. When I was 7-years-old, the record-making heat wave of 1980 gripped the little farming town in Southern Arkansas where I grew up. It was one of the most devastating natural disasters in history, and the agricultural damage it caused totaled about 20 billion dollars.

When you live in a farming community, a heat wave coupled with severe drought threatens the livelihood of nearly everyone you know. Drought was the daily talk around every table at the donut shop. On Sundays, local preachers led their congregations in prayer for rain and relief.

We were glued to weather forecasts in hopes there’d be news of a coming storm front. I remember one 5 o’clock newscast when the apologetic meteorologist emphasized that he only reported the forecast and wasn’t personally responsible for how terrible it was – evidence that people were blaming the television messenger in addition to Mother Nature herself.

We lived in town, a block off of Main Street, so I didn’t see crops withering in the fields like so many families did. But I did see the heat wave in action just steps from our backdoor.

There was an alley running behind our yard that gave us a shortcut to the dollar store. My older brother and I walked down the alley nearly every day, kicking at pea gravel while we jingled quarters in our pockets we’d found under sofa cushions. We’d stick our quarters into the dollar store’s Coke machine because an icy cold NuGrape soda made the intense heat a tad more bearable.

One day in July, we noticed a hairline crack snaking its way through the center of the alley. It grew each week, longer and wider, as the rain refused to come and the hundred-degree heat baked the earth. By the end of July, the crack was about 10 feet long and it was wide enough for my foot to fit into it. By mid-August, it was big enough to fit both feet inside. It was as if the earth was opening its mouth, begging for a drink of life-saving water.

That drink didn’t come until a force as powerful as the heat wave itself – Hurricane Allen – made landfall in southern Texas in early August. As the hurricane fell apart and moved inland, it triggered the end of the 1980’s heat wave stretching across the Southern Plains.

When the rain finally returned, we were thankful. No one complained that winter when temperatures frosted windshields. The brutal heat had made us mindful that things could always be worse.

If this summer’s heat wave is a mere glimpse into the climate of Hell, then maybe God uses extreme weather patterns to remind us of where we don’t want to end up. If so, you’ll find me inside marveling over the genius of air-conditioning and brushing up on the Ten Commandments. Bring on the fall.

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Photo credit: Failblog.org

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