Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Worth a thousand words

It was clear after his initial attack on the couch cushions that Murdoch was a chewer. I think it was a way for him to release his pent up energy and I much preferred him chewing on things rather than people. So we gave him cardboard and sticks and toys to chew on. For a while he relished every new piece of cardboard we handed him. Egg cartons were especially intriguing for a while, how they opened and closed, the thickness and texture of the cardboard, and all the different ways he could hook his teeth into them. They were even better when we put treats inside.

Whenever we had an empty box of pasta or granola bars or crackers, we’d either hand it to his eagerly awaiting mouth and marvel at how wide he could open his jaw as though it had an extra hinge, or toss it over the railing down to the entryway and watch as he pounced on it, then grabbed it with his teeth and shook his head. Eventually the sounds of ripping cardboard would float up to where we sat in the kitchen. He could make boxes last for ages, ripping the pieces into ever smaller chunks.

One day I handed him the empty cereal box. He took it from me with eyes bright yet somehow not really there as though his attention had already shifted to the next glorious half-hour with a new box. Excitement vibrated right out of his body and through the cardboard to my hand.

I heard the calamitous sounds of the box being pushed around the floor and bashed into things, then of it being picked up and dropped, pounced on, sat on, completely investigated. It was some time later, I’m not sure how long, when I became aware that everything was silent. It was odd because the box was a big one and I was sure he couldn’t have finished with it already and if he had, he would have found something else to do that was equally as loud and destructive. I got up from my chair and walked over to the railing to peer down into the entryway. There he sat, still as a statue, tail between his legs, with the cereal box crammed down over his head right to his shoulders. My hand flew up to my mouth to suppress the laugh that tried to burst from my lips. I didn’t want to disturb him before I could get a picture.

With camera in hand I crept down the stairs and then said his name. The entire box swung towards my voice but the rest of Murdoch never moved. I laughed out loud then and snapped a bunch of pictures before rescuing him from the evil box. As soon as I pulled it from his head, he snatched it away and stomped on it and proceeded to rip it to shreds.

It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen and he proceeded to do it twice more, on separate occasions, with completely different cereal boxes.

Murdoch’s need to destroy things has abated a bit over time, giving the socks and mitts and other small items of clothing in our house cause for joyous celebration. It wasn’t always as easy as taking hold of any bits of material hanging from Murdoch’s mouth, calmly but firmly saying “mine”, and feeling the easy release of his jaw and a sheepish look in his eye as if to say “just kidding”. It used to be all out warfare.

The dramatic scenes that once played out almost daily over mitts or toques held hostage in Murdoch’s unrelenting mouth were not for the faint of heart. Battles ensued at the flick of a switch, usually at the most inconvenient moments. It would happen like this:
Gathering up an armful of laundry from the indoor clothes line which is strung up in a corner of our entryway to capture the heat of the woodstove, I wander by an innocent Murdoch lounging on the couch chewing a piece of cardboard clasped between his front paws. As I head towards the stairs up to our kitchen, there’s the gentle shoomp of a sock falling from my arms and hitting the floor. The sound registers with me at the same time Murdoch hears it. I turn and see his eyes are already locked on the poor helpless thing just lying there. I throw what I’m carrying to safety, flinging my arms towards the baby gate at the top of the stairs as my body is already turning back to the sock.

Like a slow motion scene in an adventure movie, the world has shrunk to our entryway as Murdoch leaps from the couch and I take my first frantic step towards the centre of the room where the sock lies completely exposed. “Murdoch, nooo!” I yell as I see the focus in his eyes and he closes the distance. He is half a step away and I am almost on top of him. I throw myself forward to make up the extra distance and reach with my hand but his teeth are already unsheathed and my finger just brushes the edge of the sock as his mouth closes around it. If I’m too slow, it will disappear completely behind his steel trap jaw, so I lunge again and snag a tiny corner of material. My thumb and forefinger turn white as they hold on with all the strength they can muster.

If this wasn’t a constant scenario, if we didn’t have so many items of clothing with the shiny coating of Murdoch slobber plastered on them, if I wasn’t concerned that he might gulp the sock further into his mouth with my hand behind it, this would be pretty funny. Murdoch sits with his mouth buttoned up so tight it looks like he has sucked in his lips and is trying desperately to keep some scandalous secret. His face becomes slightly elongated, which looks ridiculous because of his shaggy beard and eyebrows that already give him a long face. He looks at me with his wide eyes bulging from his head as if he is truly surprised about what is happening, but at the same time they dart from left to right as though planning his next move. He looks like a cartoon parody of himself.

He sits, with a corner of fabric sticking out the side of his mouth with my fingers attached as I sharply admonish him and repeat one word over and over again, more strongly with each utterance “Mine, Mine, MINE!”

Finally, sometimes with the aid of a few squirts of apple bitters to his lips, his hold loosens and I can grab more of the material in my hand and I become like a magician, slowly and dramatically hauling a string of coloured handkerchiefs from inside a previously empty top hat. Eventually the sock is released, a sopping wet and warm slimy limp thing pinched between my fingers. I scowl at Murdoch and he looks back, quite pleased with himself.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Is a naked couch still a couch?

The day we stripped the couch it was overcast and cold. It really was perfect weather for the dark deed at hand. The sky, a lowering slab of solid grey, sent a cold, metallic light filtering down through the tree branches to where Morgan and I carried the couch from its most recent temporary home beside the driveway, where it sat covered in pine needles and drying leaves.

While the couch had become somewhat of a thorn in my side, what with the agonizingly long process we went through to make a decision about it, and then it taking up residence outdoors for so long, I really didn’t want to strip it that day. I even became angry at the prospect of the whole thing, and reflected a scowling, grumbling demeanor back at the skies which crowded in closer and cast out damp air like a giant raspberry on the verge of freezing.

The weather was quite willing to oblige my bad mood. As I trudged backwards across the gravel driveway, grasping the exposed wooden frame underneath the couch with one hand while trying to keep the other planted firmly on its taut and somewhat slippery rounded back, the cold from the half-frozen ground seeped quickly through the thin wall of my rubber boots and made short work of my thick socks. My toes were ice cubes before we’d barely begun.

We set the couch down on the green metal arms of Morgan’s portable saw mill, which put it at just the right height so we didn’t have to bend down awkwardly to dismantle the couch. I stepped back and looked at the broken, battered, cushionless thing and realized the magnitude of what we were about to do. It had originally been my idea to reupholster the couch, but now faced with the first step of that project a part of me felt like I couldn’t bring myself to tear it to bits. This was our couch, the couch. Would it be the same without its ‘70s stripy orange? Would it not just be any old couch? Would it be a couch at all?

Morgan made the first fatal stab and slash with his knife while I stood there contemplating. He then took the flap of fabric in his hand and ripped a giant strip off the back of the couch. I reluctantly grabbed the frayed edge left behind and pulled on it. The fabric was thick and sturdy and didn’t appear to want to be removed from the frame. I had to take it in two hands and use the weight of my whole body to rip it away.

The crisp November air bit cruelly at my hands making them sting. They felt as though they might break into pieces so I hid them in a pair of work gloves, but the gloves made it difficult to handle the fabric, I may as well have worn oven mitts. They felt awkward and useless as the fabric slipped from my grasp again and again until I balled up the fabric in my fist and yanked as hard as I could. My fingers still froze and ached inside the gloves anyway.

Morgan and I toiled silently on either end of the couch, the sounds of tearing fabric filled the air between us as we worked our way through various layers of different materials, taking pictures the whole time so we would remember how the couch was constructed when it came time to rebuild. It was way more complicated than I expected.

As we peeled off the first layer - the once shimmery stripes, the actual personality of the couch - a pile of fabric strips grew on the ground between us. It was as though our couch had disrobed to step into a shower and left it’s clothes piled unceremoniously on the floor.

The more we pulled it apart the harder it looked to put back together again. There were layers of thin cardboard filling the spaces in the armrests, straw underneath, and yellow foam stuffing that was shaped in wide rectangular sections and looked like a mouthful of old teeth. It had given the back and arms a billowy, familiar shape. Then we found burlap and, in spots, there was also a cotton wool-like material that appeared to be randomly placed, like some kind of runny white icing poured on a cake as a last minute thought. We tore all that out, ripped out staples and the piping along all the edges of the couch.

There were strings that attached the outer fabric to the frame in places and threaded right through the middle of the cardboard and the stuffing in the most inconvenient ways. I couldn’t figure out the purpose of those threads and tried to wrap my brain around that conundrum before tearing those out too.

When the flurry of destructive activity subsided, we stepped back and looked as the couch sat completely denuded. Springs that had supported the weight of many a creature coiled and undulated through wide open spaces between the delicate curves and dead-straight runs of the wooden frame. It was no longer the couch. The magical qualities held in the fabric and the tiny buttons that pushed into the toothy grin of the foam backrest, highlighting its contours and folds, had vanished.

We gathered up all the scrapped bits of fabric and foam and cardboard that lay strewn about on the ground around us then carried the much lighter couch frame to the woodshed where it could dry out before we stored it under the house.

It may have been the same frame, the same shape the same springs and wood, but without the fabric, the personality of the couch was gone and fuzzy pictures of the reupholstering job were barely shadows in my mind.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What couch? I didn’t eat a couch

If the couch was lucky Bear never turned her frustrations on it, it was not so lucky when it came to everyone else. Once the avalanche of animals began, the couch’s days were numbered and I’m sure if it had a sense of anything, it had a sense of that long before Morgan or I did.

As each of our 10 animals paraded into, over and through its existence, the couch took on different characteristics specific to the life that was unfolding around it. It almost mimicked each wave of animal, as though attempting to blend in.

The couch started its life with us clean and shiny and almost perfect, kind of like Bear whose shiny black coat made it believable that her hair was always in place, never fell out and most certainly never wriggled its way between tightly woven fabrics or into food - which of course is completely untrue.

After Quincy showed up, the polite and kindly soul who quietly slipped in and out of our lives, the couch remained in pristine condition, even avoiding the great projectile pus mishap. It didn’t start to show a marked change until the climbing, tumbling, devil-may-care kittens turned up. At which point I think I heard it utter an audible sigh and sink into a comfortable slouch, becoming like the rumpled and loved khaki shirt of an explorer as each adventuring kitten traversed its terrain.

By the time Max came to live with us, the couch was showing its wear. Just as Max was a bit rickety around the edges, a bit care-worn, the couch reflected those things too.

Then there was Murdoch, scraggily, scrappy, Murdoch. Rougher around the edges than a saw blade, shaggy and unruly, he was the embodiment of chaos and by that time so was the couch. Gaping holes in the cushions, stuffing seeping out from beneath strategically torn fabric, wooden frame peeking through material pulled taut over armrests and threads haphazardly stuck out in all directions.

Our couch definitely had a presence in our home from the beginning. If it ever had a personality of its own, before all the animals, I suppose it would have been described as quirky with its shiny veneer and pinstripes of orange, cream, burnt ochre and army green. It was a centrepiece in our little rented cottage, mostly because it was our first item of real furniture and there wasn’t much space for anything else in our livingroom, with the exception of Morgan’s low-profile brown recliner.

It fit so perfectly into our home just as Bear and Morgan and I had fit so perfectly into each others lives. We didn’t name the couch or discuss it as another living thing in our home, but we definitely appreciated it, we admired it, we used it, we marveled at what a great find it was, and we even may have loved it just a bit.

I’ve often wondered what sorts of things the couch would say if it could talk, what stories it could tell of our brief time together, the stream of animals that slept on it, climbed over it or jumped on it. The food that got spilled on it, the claws that were stuck into it, the toys it hoarded between the cushions or behind its valance. The animals that hid beneath it alongside the dust bunnies, the dog slobber it absorbed, the bagfuls of animal hair it incorporated into its fabric.

Besides the zoo-like atmosphere though, the couch also functioned as just a couch. It was my refuge for three years, the place I sat to escape into a book with mug of tea in hand and more in a pot steeping nearby. It was where Bear and I napped together some afternoons, her body sandwiched between me and the backrest, the weight of her head pressed reassuringly on my leg or stomach. It’s where our friends sat when they visited, it’s where people have slept some nights when visits went late and where Morgan and my families sat crammed between the armrests two days after our wedding, watching the video of the big day and looking at pictures.

The couch was more than a silent guest in the room through the insanity and the soaring joy and heartbreaking sadness of life, it became an integral part of it all, an observer and a player. In the end, broken and sagging, dirty and completely falling apart, it was a well used, well loved, well appreciated couch.

We watched as its once vibrant colours faded further beneath the cold sun of autumn that filtered down through bare branches to where the couch sat amongst the leaves just off the side of our driveway waiting for us to decide its fate. As we stalled for a decision, we could feel the weight of an unfair truth descending on our high hopes and prying into our thoughts - maybe you just can’t save everything.

Maybe, but that wasn’t going to stop us from trying.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Of course I’m number one

Lucky for the couch Bear never turned her frustrations on it. If she had, the couch would have been stripped, the springs mangled and the wooden frame splintered and spit all over the floor before the cats ever had a chance to stick even one tiny little needle claw into the fabric in search of the white cottony stuffing beneath.

Bear focused her ire mainly on her own toys and any stray tennis balls that had the great misfortune to roll past her nose. She developed her art so completely during her frustrated period that she can now strip a tennis ball of all its yellow fuzz and have the hollow rubber orb that’s left behind split in half in a matter of about 15 minutes.

She used to relish those things, take her time, make it last - sometimes for days. Now she switches to demolition mode the minute she catches a whiff of rubbery vinyl or hears the distant thwack of a tennis ball bouncing off the ground.

Actually, she becomes kind of obsessive about it. No longer does she contemplate these things, she gorges. We’re not sure if it’s mainly because of the extra stress we forced on her with the avalanche of animals after Quincy or because she suddenly had some competition and if she didn’t get her jollies from tearing something to shreds almost instantly, someone else was bound to get there first.

Bear’s life was forever changed when this parade of animals began and Morgan and I have both been determined to make it up to her in some fashion. Mostly we try to make her feel like number one amidst the rabble, which she is, but sometimes she doesn’t believe us.

The minute we moved into our new house we made it clear that she had free rein of all four levels, while Murdoch was relegated to the entryway and Max could go as far as the kitchen on the second level. Of course, if Max could have made it up all the stairs to the livingroom he would have joined us too. Only once did he manage to drag himself up those fourteen steps. I’m really not sure how he did it, he just appeared in the livingroom one afternoon, exhausted, and with a look of sheer determination on his face. His back legs still worked then, but they were becoming a burden to haul around behind him and weren’t much use in propelling his weight anywhere, let alone up. I think he did it just to prove that he could. He never tried again.

The very top floor of our house poses an interesting problem for Bear. The day we moved in, two of our good friends came to help and as we walked them through their first tour of the house, Bear marched right along beside us, not wanting to miss a thing. She plodded up the stairs from one level to the next amidst a small crowd of human legs and poked her nose into every nook and cranny we pointed out, plus a few more. When we reached the flight that led up to the bedroom on the top floor, everyone stopped to ponder the interesting configuration of steps.

The flight of stairs was designed to take up as little space as possible. Each riser is about half the width of a regular stair and slightly offset so there is a step for each foot on its own level, then placed in such a way that you can climb the same height as a regular flight of stairs in half the space.

It gives the impression of climbing a steep hill and looks as though a pile of boxes are stacked somewhat haphazardly against the wall, one on top of the other, until disappearing into a hole in the livingroom ceiling. It is very much like climbing a boxy ladder up to an attic. I suppose it could be considered one step up from a ladder, though it’s mildly reminiscent of one of those rickety metal spiral staircases found in old libraries.

We really didn’t think Bear would even attempt to climb them. But as we led our friends up to the last level of the house, Bear clambered right along behind us. She didn’t even hesitate. It wasn’t until we all climbed back down that she realized there was a problem. She couldn’t understand that the stairs were offset and as she looked down, processing only one side of the stairs, she realized each step was twice the height of a regular step and clearly were made for giants.

She took one step down, then backed up. She tried again, and backed up again, then she knelt down on her front legs and craned her neck over the side of the top step, stretching out a tentative paw. I tried to show her where to put her paws on the offset stairs, first one side, then the other. But she didn’t seem to see that and wanted to take a straight line down. After she’d tried for about the tenth time and it was clear she wasn’t getting it, we had to lift her down the stairs, all 80lbs of her; a harrowing experience on the tiny steps with a dog on the verge of panic. But once she was back in the livingroom, faced with stairs she could understand, she was the happiest dog in the world.

So, Bear doesn’t go up to the bedroom with us, she prefers to sleep in the livingroom, on the couch. It’s our new couch, the one we bought with the house, the one that is supposed to be animal friendly, easy to clean, the one that is now covered in little black hairs and dried spots of slobber.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bear’s universe implodes

When we had lived in Thunder Bay for just two months, Morgan brought up the idea of adopting a dog. He said he felt like it was something we could do for a less fortunate creature since we were doing so well - in our furniture-less house, keeping our milk cold by pushing it up against the back wall of our kitchen cupboard, and sleeping on an inflatable bed.

He also suggested it would be nice for Bear to have someone to play with. The idea of getting another dog had never even been an ember of an idea in my mind and I was taken aback that it seemed like a growing flame in Morgan’s. He and Bear and I were the three musketeers, though somedays it was more like the three stooges.

For the previous year, the three of us had been together everyday, all day. We worked together, ate together, slept together, played together, it was the perfect system. We just fit nicely, I didn’t want to mess with a good thing, and adding a fourth member to our little family was not something I wanted to do.

The issue was dropped for a couple of weeks and then Morgan brought up the idea of fostering a dog. I probably wouldn’t have gone along with this half-formed notion if Morgan hadn’t been looking at pictures of sad, forgotten dogs on the Humane Society website as we discussed it.

Fostering was something I didn’t think I’d be very good at since the idea is you eventually have to give the dog away after you’ve bonded with it, but soon after our discussion, we returned home with a quaking Quincy in the back seat of our car. Beside him, looking straight ahead and sitting so tall her head just about brushed the roof of the car, sat a disgruntled Bear, casting sideways glances out of a face that had become stony and very serious. I imagined her thinking that if she ignored the dog, and me in the front seat turned around to talk soothingly to both of them, it would all just go away and return to normal.

I read in a book shortly after bringing Quincy home that Labs prefer to be the only dog in the family, they’re more of a one-on-one breed. So introducing another animal was a bit like telling her she wasn’t good enough. I felt terrible about it since as far as I was concerned Bear was the perfect dog and Quincy wasn’t there to replace her, but she didn’t know that.

It didn’t take them long to work things out though. Their very different lifestyles meant they often didn’t cross paths and we all settled into a workable routine. I think she may have even enjoyed his company on our long walks It was the kittens that eventually pushed Bear over the edge.

Kittens by their very nature are stressful creatures; they get into everything, they destroy things, they demand so much attention and time, especially when there’s six of them unable to feed themselves.

When they were still tiny balls of fur that peeped inside their cardboard box, Bear was mildly curious about them, but after a good sniffing she seemed to dismiss them as uninteresting and nothing to do with her and that was that. But then they started to grow and found Bear endlessly fascinating. For a while they thought she was their mother and would traipse along behind her, a little fuzzy mob of determination, while Bear bobbed and weaved in a vain attempt to lose them.

Bear found solace on the couch where she could hang her head over the side and watch the circus play out on the floor around her. Then the kittens learned how to climb and Bear wasn’t safe anywhere. I didn’t really notice the effect all of this was having on Bear until one day she just couldn’t take it anymore.

Almost a year to the day after we gave Bear her Baby - her beloved purple gingerbread man stuffed animal - I walked into the living room and my mouth dropped open, allowing a gasp to escape. My eyes flicked so quickly around the room I thought they had spun right around in my head. There was Bear, lying on her blanket with a scrap of purple fur hanging from her mouth and all around was a sea of white fluff, as though a freak snow storm had blown through. She looked positively triumphant at having located, at last, the plastic bubble that was the source of her beloved Baby’s “voice”, and puncturing it between her sharp white teeth.

“Bear,” I said, somewhere between a gasp and a hiss. “What did you do?”

Bear’s eyes were bright with the spark of a frenzied-obsession and in response to my incredulous exclamation, her tail thumped against the bare wood floor.

Within a month we had to rescue Fishy from a similar fate. Bear had taken to pulling viciously at his rubbery green body with her teeth while holding the rest of him securely against the floor with her front paws. She tore a hole in his back before we got to him.

Fishy lives on top of the fridge now. He’s still our mascot, but Bear’s not allowed to play with him anymore.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bear’s universe

On Bear’s fourth birthday, just over a month before we moved to Thunder Bay, Morgan and I presented her with her very own stuffed animal. It wasn’t much to look at, it wasn’t particularly fluffy or cute, it wasn’t very big or, indeed, very interesting; it didn’t even have a face. Essentially, it was a purple gingerbread man-shaped toy not much bigger than my splayed-out hand.

Bear loved it. She treated it with the same reverence with which Fishy had become accustomed. When we gave it to her, that late November day, she accepted it with an air of immense importance, as though we had bestowed upon her some great honour. If she could have spoken then I imagine it would have been something along the lines of, “I will hug him, and love him and call him George.”

Bear had never had her own stuffed animal but anytime she caught a glimpse of someone else’s, her eyes became giant black pools of shining giddiness and amazement. Thoughts of intrigue flashed across her face and her entire universe shrank to her and the stuffed animal. We thought it was time she had her own.

With the same soft-mouthed care she had reserved for Fishy, Bear took the stuffed animal between her jaws and held him there while tiny droplets of drool gathered along her lips and spotted onto the toy’s purple fur. She then settled down with him on her bed of blankets, held him between her front feet and proceeded to lick him from top to bottom, laying down the first layer of what would become the slightly crispy coating of dried dog drool that made him extra special.

Because of the way she cared for the purple gingerbread man, we called him her Baby. When we asked her where her Baby was, she would disappear in a flash and return with him in her mouth, gnawing gently on his head. She had in no time discovered to her delight, Baby had a tiny squeaker nestled inside that made a thin little breathy kind of peep when she pushed on it.

Bear seemed quite content with her whispering Baby, her loud squeaky Fishy and new blue bone. Her original bone, the black one we set out with, was long gone, buried on a lonely beach along the shores of one of the great lakes, we weren’t sure which. All we knew was after a summer and fall of exploring isolated shorelines by canoe, the bone had disappeared. Bear had definitely buried it, we just didn’t know where.

We had caught her trying to sneak away from us a number of times while we set up camp on various sandy beaches that summer. We could tell she was hiding something by the way she walked, almost tiptoeing and taking much smaller and slightly quicker steps than usual, trying very hard not to be noticed. She kept her head turned away from us and bent at a strange angle as she tried to conceal the bone in her mouth. We knew for sure she was up to something by the way her eyes darted towards us and away in a very less than nonchalant manner.

When we called her name, her body stiffened, and then she turned to look at us with the guiltiest expression on her face, ears pulled down, big brown eyes trying to look innocently up from under her tiny eyelashes. Caught in the act, she would turn slowly back to where we stood and drag her feet through the sand, head hung low, then grudgingly hand over her bone so we could tuck it away for safe keeping. I guess that’s exactly what Bear had planned to do to, and eventually she did it.

I never understood why she would want to bury something she cherished so much in a place that was only a temporary home. Temporary for us was usually one or two nights, though at most we might stay a week, and Bear knew that. So, I was extra shocked one day to find Bear trying to sneak off with Fishy.

We were stopped on a tiny northern lake in the middle of nowhere, contemplating a spit of sand that turned into grass, then scrub when I saw out of the corner of my eye Bear slink away from us with Fishy clutched protectively between her teeth. We watched her like hawks after that, only letting Bear have Fishy in the tent or, if we were travelling, in the car.

It wasn’t until we let our guard down, safely planted in our rented cottage in Thunder Bay, that we realized Fishy’s days were numbered.