Sometimes the best decisions are the toughest

“She has an incredibly strong hunting instinct and you can’t change that,” my vet said. “One day, her instinct will override her training and it’ll happen so fast, there’ll be nothing you can do.”

I had asked the vet about Dorothy, our 1-year-old, 70-pound German shepherd and her obsession with our cats. Having tried everything, the vet made it clear there was only one decision, albeit hard, to make.

Last June, a month after we brought puppy Dorothy home, four tiny kittens marched out from under the porch of the house where Claude lives.

I drove over with Jules and Leif. Sure enough, when we pulled in the driveway, there they were: three white kittens and an orange one frolicking in the front yard. As soon as they saw us, they darted back under the porch.

The underside of the porch is open but covered with lattice. I slid the lattice to one side and sent Leif, who was 7 at the time, into the dusty space. One by one, he delivered the kittens to us.

What to do with four feral kittens? The best we can, because feral kittens become feral cats, which have more kittens. One of a Kind Pets was so full it was not accepting even young kittens. Nothing to do but take them home.

With eyes still blue, they were between 3 and 4 weeks old. A good age to tame feral kittens. At home in our back garage, we placed them in a sofa box we’d been saving because how much fun is a box big enough to hold a sofa?

Since they were too young for chemical flea treatment, I washed each kitten with dandruff shampoo, which stuns the fleas. While they were in their torpor, I pinched dozens of fleas off each kitten with a pair of tweezers.

Two weeks later, we trapped two more kittens at Claude’s house (I’m his landlady). Again, all-white kittens, but one significantly larger than its buddy, who was slightly smaller than the first four.

Turns out we had two white mama cats in the neighborhood. We eventually caught and spayed both, thanks to One of a Kind Pets, which has a very affordable trap-neuter-and-release program for feral cats.

Suddenly our household included seven people, three dogs, a 16-year-old cat and six kittens.

We quickly found a home for the largest of the six kittens. Claude said he wanted one, but I told him he must take two as I strongly believe, when possible, that pets should live with at least one other member of their species.

When they were old enough for flea treatment, the kittens moved into our basement laundry room. For weeks, I started my days by pouring a cup of coffee and heading down to the basement. When I’d open the door, the little kitten we took in last would stop playing and go hide. I named him Pipsqueak because he was so tiny and his meow sound like the noise from a squeeze toy.

Kittens play in the laundry room.

Sitting on the floor with my back against our upright freezer, I’d watch the kittens chase each other, tumble and roll. Like Jane Goodall with her chimpanzees, I mostly observed my wild subjects. Soon, Pipsqueak would cautiously rejoin the kitten rampage.

Playtime ended with the kitties making their way to my lap. There they licked one another and fell asleep as I stroked them.

When I went back upstairs to start my workday, I often was shocked to discover I’d spent 45 minutes or more sitting on my laundry room floor. It was perfect meditation — I stayed completely in the moment when watching them.

In September, the kitties turned 3 months old. Claude took his two back to his home and we let the remaining three roam free in the house. Dorothy immediately began stalking them. We figured she needed some time to get used to these new creatures.

But time only deepened Dorothy’s obsession. She was not allowed on the second floor or the basement. None of my dogs are allowed in the basement, which is where the cat boxes are kept, because cat boxes are to dogs what open bars are to college students.

Day after day, Dorothy paced back and forth between the bottom of the staircase leading to the second floor and the top of the staircase leading to the basement, waiting for a cat to try to pass.

Dorothy and Pipsqueak

So long as they could stay up on furniture, the cats came into the same rooms as Dorothy. When one settled on a dining room chair, Dorothy often sat next to it, her face level with the cat’s, aching for it to make a move. Several times she air-snapped at them.

When she went outdoors, Dorothy could not wait to get back inside. She began jumping on the back door regularly and only moments after being let out.

She begged to be let in even when all of us, the people, were outside in the yard. To her, the cats were prey and as a predator, she could not “leave it” as we all told her repeatedly.

She forgot about the cats only when we walked in the parks. Watching Dorothy, solid and lean, gallop at peak speed across a field is a glorious sight. She’d then come slide her big head between my body and hand so I could rub her ears while telling her what a good girl she is.

After a family discussion in which we had to choose which animals to keep, I called the people we bought Dorothy from and told them what our vet had said. They quickly offered to take Dorothy back, but asked if I wanted the rag doll kitten they’d adopted last summer. Their dogs were on constant alert around the cat. “I’d never forgive myself if I came home one day and found the cat’s neck broken,” said the mother of the family.

I was relieved they understood exactly what we had been struggling with. I thanked her but said with four cats, we were maxed out.

Good parents, like good pet owners, take into consideration what is best for each member of the family and the family as a whole. With divorce, relocating for jobs, choosing where and with whom to live, taking ego out of the equation isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. What is best for the children? Where will they thrive?

It may not be with you, and there is no shame in that.

I cried as I drove Dorothy to the breeder’s house. And I’ve cried since when I view photos of her playing happily with other German shepherds and bonding with one of the sons in her old, now new, family.

As much as Dorothy loved us, she is much happier in an environment where she’s not constantly struggling against her instincts.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 18, 2018


Screen time: less is always more

In the 1980s, a bumper sticker that read “Kill Your Television” was common, especially around college campuses. A rather radical notion at the time, today, when most people have smartphones in their pockets, it seems charmingly quaint.

For many years, my school bus let me off at my house at 3:30. Minutes later, my mother would leave for work. I made my dinner and ate it alone in the kitchen while watching syndicated shows on our 12-inch black-and-white TV. I believe I’ve seen every Hogan’s HeroesThe Odd Couple and Adam-12 ever made. Multiple times.

When the news came on, I did my homework and got ready for bed so that at 8 p.m., network television’s prime time, I was ready. Many nights I watched until 11.

Lonely. If I had only one word to describe my soap-operatic childhood, I would choose lonely.

At 15, I ran away to my father and stepmother in Northern Michigan. During the 10 years I hadn’t seen them, I romanticized what life would be like with this other set of parents. I was soon disabused of those dreams. That is, except for family nights.

Those nights, my dad made popcorn on the stove top. He shook the dedicated pot until it overflowed as he poured batch after batch into large bowls.

We played rounds of backgammon or cards. My sisters and I often painted one another’s toenails. In the background was always the sound of … music. Proper hippies that they were, my parents did not own a television.

On those nights, I felt I belonged.

I remembered this when I had children of my own.

When my big boys were little, we had a tank-like monitor that got no television reception. We used it to watch videos or DVDs. Claude and Hugo had cartoon movies they watched repeatedly, but also had long runs with musicals such as The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

(Tip: If anyone is interested in dating one of my boys, you have to pass the movie test. Tell that son of mine you love Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or you won’t make the cut. Their rule, not mine.)

By the late ’90s, Nintendo Game Boys were popular. I saw young children, including those of my friends, silenced at length by the little screens. I never wanted that to be my kids.

When Claude went to kindergarten, I made an ironclad rule that we would never own a gaming system or Game Boys. It was probably the best single decision I ever made as a parent.

This year, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its list of diseases. Rightfully so.

When I was in high school, my friends and I often hung out in video arcades on the weekends. We’d play Pac-Man and Space Invaders, flirt with boys. It was fun, but then we went home and did other things.

I talked with Claude a few months back when writing a column about the heroin epidemic. I asked him if not having video games was part of the reason he never used drugs. It’s been well documented that gaming companies use psychological strategies to make games addicting.

Claude agreed but then said, “You know, I think it’s as much that people who game all the time don’t make many real social connections.”

I’ve known many kids who played a ridiculous amount of video games and turned out just fine. But what do many children lose when they are drawn, as I was, to screens over all else?

“Holly is very bright, but they don’t give her much intellectual stimulation so she doesn’t stretch her mind.” My grandmother wrote this to my father in August 1979.

She was right.

Kids who do not have screens available find things to do. Eight-year-old Leif plays with his Legos; 5-year-old Lyra listens to her music while looking at her books. Leif plots out elaborate stories for his dinosaur figures; Lyra undresses her dolls and puts them to bed. Both children go outside and play in the yard.

They also listen to stories.

For 20 years, I’ve regularly checked out children’s audiobooks from the library. I think today’s increase in reading comprehension issues is possibly connected to children seldom getting the chance to imagine a story told to them.

Claude, who was diagnosed early on with severe dyslexia, became a voracious reader. In 2016, he graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature.

Hugo, who quickly learned to read, was not a bookworm. Instead, he played the guitar, the piano and sang. His dedication to music earned him entry and scholarships at one of the best music schools in the country.

The summer he was 17, Hugo spent time with one of my most absurdly talented friends. She took him to a wedding of musicians in rural North Carolina. It was a three-day bluegrass jam fest. Hugo joined in on his guitar while my friend played her banjo. It remains one of Hugo’s favorite memories.

“How can I get my son to play guitar?” my friend asked Hugo. “He says he wants to but all he does is play video games.”

“Get rid of the video games,” Hugo said.

It’s not easy, once that Pandora’s box is opened, to remove games. Max recently learned this firsthand when he let Leif play Lego Creator Islands on our iPad. Sounds reasonable enough, right? In short order, it’s all he wanted to do. Max quickly put strict limits on Leif’s time with the Lego video game.

I make my living on the computer. I studied French film in college. I expect my kids will play video games at their friends’ homes. But as parents, we have the power to save our children from themselves. To teach them balance.

For two decades, my rule has been no screen time on school nights (with the Winter Olympics and the U.S. presidential debates as exceptions to this rule). Our only television is in the basement and the adult in charge must approve any viewing, which is limited.

Kill all your screens? No. But for everyone, especially kids, less screen time is always more.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 4, 2018


Treat friendships as though your life depends upon them–for it does

Until this month, the last time my friend Jen Marvelous and I had a long, uninterrupted visit was Jan. 5, 1994.

I met Jen in a plant pathology class at OSU’s College of Agriculture. She and I alone seemed to notice that the professor’s solution to all plant problems was to hit them with chemicals. At our request, he let us co-teach a class on sustainable agriculture.

Jen moved to Kansas to work at the Land Institute after graduation, but always stopped by when she was back in Ohio. After lunch that winter’s day in ’94, we sat down in my living room with mugs of tea. I suddenly felt a hot wetness spread across my legs — my water had broken.

Our lunch visit lasted more than 24 hours as Jen stayed and helped with the home birth of my first child, Claude.

The second and third time I gave birth, again Jen was there. And when she had her second baby in 2003, I went to her house in Philadelphia to help care for her oldest daughter. Sasha and my third son, Jules, were both 3, so I took him along, too.

For decades, Jen and I have regularly gotten together whenever she visits her parents in Painesville. With kids in tow, we’ve been to parks and museums together across Northeast Ohio.

For several years, we’ve tried getting away together without our kids, but with nine of them between us, it’s hard. Now, however, our kids are older and more self-reliant. So when Jen recently accepted a new position at the University of Pennsylvania, she purposely gave herself two weeks between jobs.

Kayaking through mangrove forests in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands

We each bought cheap flights to Florida, rented an economy car and toured the lower half of the peninsula together. We stayed with friends and at Airbnbs. We talked leisurely and at length for seven glorious days.

It was one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a long time.

Social beings

Lately, reports about the importance of a variety of relationships are in the news. Evidence indicates that being lonely can have the same negative effect on health as smoking and obesity.

Furthermore, couples that have been together for a long time find they feel more romantic with one another after spending time socializing with another couple than after a clichéd candlelight dinner for two. Socializing is the “spice of happiness,” according to social psychologists.

I’ve only recently focused on the importance of friendships for adults. But I have long thought about it for my kids.

In the 1970s, when I was a girl, nobody worried about finding friends for their kids. The streets were choked with children tossed outside until the streetlights came on. Stay-at-home moms were still common. If you wiped out on your banana-seat bicycle as I often did, in all likelihood a mom would come outside to wipe away your tears and blood.

Today, parents are often their kids’ social secretaries — regularly organizing supervised play dates. Yeah, that’s not me, but my first three boys, who are each three years apart, had built-in playmates. Still, they didn’t roam the neighborhood with other kids like I did.

Currently, there are no children in any of the homes near ours. Leif has Lyra, and they play together, but it’s not the same as it was for the older boys. We’ve had over several of Leif’s classmates, but it’s not regular time outside of school with friends. We’ve decided to sign him up for Boy Scouts and hope it will be just the ticket.

Alone in technology

Changes in child rearing are compounded by technology, another major culprit in loneliness. Children don’t learn appropriate social interaction when they communicate using devices rather than in person.

Technology exacerbating loneliness is not limited to kids. It makes people of all ages seem connected when, in fact, they are not.

Exhibit A: Me. I make most of my money sitting alone in front of a computer. I check my email and Facebook while I work. But clicking “like” for someone’s picture of their dog/kid/dinner is not the same as socializing.

Five years ago, I picked up a part-time job in a store. My time there is an energizing social outlet, where I interact and have relationships with my co-workers and the customers.

Some friends are lost when the commonality is gone — co-workers at a previous job, people whose kids went to school with yours, neighbors who move. Other people are just not value added. With more days behind me than ahead, I find it better to wish those folks well and move on.

I treasure all my close friends, yet there is something deeply rewarding about those friendships cultivated before parenthood, marriage or even adulthood. Friends who have seen each other develop and age yet who also recognize how much of who we are now was always there.

A poignancy of middle age is realizing “one day” may easily never arrive. In 1990, I studied for several months in France. I loved the country and the French people (they are chronic interrupters, just like me) and considered staying. But I was only two terms away from receiving my bachelor’s degree.

I returned to the U.S. promising myself I’d move to France soon after graduation. I have yet to step on French soil in the nearly 28 intervening years.

My friend Sam and I regularly promised to meet each other in Columbus. Like the lead vest dentists place on your chest before taking X-rays, I have been cloaked in a weighted pall since Sam was killed last month.

I can give you many reasons why we never had our date in Columbus, but because our one day will now never arrive for Sam and me, those reasons are as irrelevant to me as how many drops of rain fell today.

With the people you cherish, those who invigorate your days on this planet, do not count on one day getting together with them. Move around what are really just errata on your calendar, pick up the phone and make plans with those friends right now.

I am so glad Jen and I did.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 25, 2018