Plumbing Problems: My Life Down the Drain

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Conrad. We were talking about writing books, among other topics. Conrad is working on his second novel for young adults. If I was thinking about writing a book, he advised me, I should look for an overarching theme that ties my narrative together.

Well, tonight the theme came to me: Plumbing. Plumbing connects my narrative. I could write an anthology of short stories about plumbing and me.

I’d skip over the mundane events such as the time Ryan and Katie decided it wasn’t terribly fun to merely run through the sprinklers. Instead, they unscrewed all the sprinkler heads in the backyard to create gushing geysers of water.

Another day, water droplets started raining down from the laundry room ceiling. This time, Ryan was filling water balloons in the bathroom and didn’t notice the water spilling over the counter, onto the bathroom floor, which eventually seeped down through the ceiling. But, oh well. Kids will be kids.

My plumbing book could begin the day one of my little darlings flushed something down the toilet that utterly clogged the commode. I have no idea what was flushed, but no amount of effort with the toilet plunger could clear the pipes. (We lost our cat around the same time. Not that I think the two items are related...)

I have skills. Really. Near the top of my executive summary on my resume, I could/should list that I’m extremely proficient with a toilet plunger. But despite my best efforts, that toilet wouldn’t clear. I’d plunge and then flush, and the water would rise. The waters rose for 40 days and 40 nights. Oh wait, that might be another story. I finally had to turn off the water to the toilet and call a plumber who couldn’t make it out to my home for another two days.

The next day, my housecleaner, Ludya, arrived. She’s Russian, and although we can’t really communicate, we speak the universal language of love: Lysol disinfectant spray. She cleans, and I clean beside her because I can’t help myself. I like cleaning. We wipe and spray and smile and nod. Luyda and I have grown pretty tight this way.

That particular day, I tried to explain to her that I needed to keep the toilet water turned off or the water would slowly rise and keep rising. She nodded in comprehension. I showered, changed, and left for a date.

Dinner. A walk. And a few hours later I returned home with the date who invited himself in for coffee which I didn’t know how to brew. He told me I could make him tea instead. I told him his dog pooped in my family room, but that’s another story. I told him I was tired. We should probably call it an evening…as soon as he picked up after his dog. He told me there was water dripping from the ceiling in my study room.

Apparently something about keeping the toilet water key turned off got lost in translation, and Luyda turned the water back on. The toilet had flooded my upstairs bathroom and was leaking through the recessed lights in my study.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the details, but I wanted to share the epiphany of my evening: plumbing weaves together the significant events of my life. I should conclude by tying up a few loose ends:

My date gallantly offered to help me with my plumbing issues. I declined. He asked me if I was ever going to write about our date. I said I wouldn’t think of it.

The plumber did indeed show up the next day. Whistler, who has a need to meet and greet people with gifts in his mouth, rummaged through a pile of laundry when the doorbell rang. He came to the door to meet the plumber with a pair of my underwear in his mouth. And so it goes…

Everyone’s Fighting a Mighty Battle

It started with my dog, Whistler. Most of my troubles can be traced to him. When my son, Ryan, left the breakfast table to use the restroom, Whistler snagged Ryan’s bagel and gulped it down…didn’t even bother to spread some cream cheese on it first. His sister Paige stood by and watched.

It was negligence on the scale of passive observation to the holocaust. Ryan was ready to haul his twin to the Hague and have her tried in front of an international tribunal.

I was brokering peace accords and grabbing jackets and blocking the refrigerator with a chair (battery’s dead on Whistler’s invisible fence collar, so he’s back to opening the fridge for snacks). I climbed into the car, started the engine, and realized Katie wasn’t in her car seat.

So I’m back in the house on a frantic search mission only to find her huddled in the corner of her closet wearing just her panties and crying. She had “nothing to wear.” Hard to believe that the There’s-nothing-in-my-closet gene on that second X chromosome had switched on already. She’s six!

I offered up five shirts and two pairs of jeans before Katie agreed to get dressed for school. By then we were running late, and Ryan’s wrath had transferred from one sister to the other.

We pulled up to the school. As Ryan exited the car, he slugged Katie’s arm for making everyone late. Katie snarled and took off after her brother, slinging her lunch box at him for hitting her.

It was a fine start to a beautiful autumn day in Washington. The leaves were turning red and falling off the trees. My kids were seeing red and falling out of bed. Megan was at home with a cold. Not the full-on symptoms of swine flu, but piglet flu, perhaps?

Thank goodness I’d spend the day in meetings with mature and professional adults.

I work on a virtual team producing a weekly program for public radio. Reporter assignments are made from Chapel Hill to journalists around the world. Scripts are edited in Boston; the show is tracked by our host in Dallas or Chicago; the program is mixed in Seattle and posted to ftp sites for public radio stations across the country to download.

It’s invigorating to work with a group of amazingly intelligent colleagues, but distance has its difficulties. We try to have in-person meetings at least twice a year to plan our shows and work through production and editorial issues. This time, we were meeting in Seattle.

I was planning to start the meetings with a Powerpoint presentation on our program–financials, web analytics, web marketing results–but my computer caught a virus and was in the intensive care ward of our IS department.

Hotel shuttles delayed team members at the airport the night before. The hotel had placed someone in a first floor handicapped room which wasn’t acceptable to her. They were served fake eggs at the hotel breakfast buffet. WiFi wasn’t working at the hotel or in the office for them.

By the afternoon, I was beginning to feel overlooked by the Nobel committee; bitter that Obama had received the honor.

But no time for self-pity. My phone indicated my nanny was trying to reach me. The kids had set off the car alarm while she had taken one child to the bathroom.

By five ‘o clock, I rushed home to placate my frazzled nanny, hand off the kids to their dad, and then back out the door for dinner with my staff. At the restaurant, our server took copious notes of food orders and special needs. Shell-fish allergies. Mushroom allergies. (Just some types of mushrooms. Fine with the hallucinogenic variety.) Gluten-free meals. Vegan diets. Preferences for free-range poultry and locally grown organic ingredients.

I silently wondered if our server would deliver our dishes with napkin-wrapped EpiPens. I imagined our group in a third world feeding center and wondered if I could get them to eat Unimix. Maybe plumpy nut would be a better choice for this team…

In the course of our conversations, I listened as team members told me about a parent fighting cancer; dealing with the aftermath of a spouse’s death; worries over mothers/sons/daughters/spouses; and their own health issues.

That was Day 1 of our week’s meetings. After dinner, I picked up my kids from their dad’s and headed home to read stories, make lunches, run a load of laundry and clean the cat litter. Whistler met us with the cat litter box door stuck around his head like an Elizabethan collar.

I started to pack lunches, only to discover that Whistler had pushed aside the chair in front of the fridge and helped himself to the roast beef for the kids’ sandwiches.

The Shirelles sang, “Mama said there’ll be days like this, there’ll be days like this, Mama said…”

But Plato said it better: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

ImageA mighty battle, indeed.

Whistler’s Mother

My father recently sent me an email about the steadfastness of dogs. It read: “Want to know who truly loves you? Lock your husband and your dog in the trunk of your car for two hours. When you open the trunk, see who greets you with tail-wagging kisses.”

I love dogs. Always have. I grew up with two Shetland Sheepdogs, a Samoyed, three Bouvier des Flanders, and a German Shepherd—not all at the same time, but it can safely be said that I’m a dog person. Either that or I grew up in a kennel.

Even so, I wasn’t sure as an adult that I was ready to be a dog owner: the time commitment, the house-breaking (as in, truly breaking!), the care and feeding of a four-legged creature. I decided to have four children first, kinda as a trial run. Turns out four kids isn’t so tough.

I remember to feed them—usually. I give the kids fresh water every day. The potty-training took some time, but now they’re great about whining at the door when they need to go outside to do their business. All in all I was gaining some confidence that if I could raise four kids, I might just be ready to go to the next level and get a dog.

Guys at work were pretty helpful with dog breed suggestions. Jon told me to get a Labrador as they were great with little kids. John also recommended a Labrador because they were gentle and good-natured. (Yes, all of my friends are named John/Jon. I’m hoping this will simplify my life when senility sets in. And judging from this wide, scientific sample, all Jons/Johns like Labradors.)

As luck would have it, I was standing at a receptionist’s desk one morning and glimpsed a photo of some Labrador/Rhodesian Ridgeback pups on her desk. They were adorable puppies, as opposed to those non-adorable puppies whom I’ve never met. Sure they had ginormously big paws, but that’s what made them so cute. They were 7 weeks old and looking for homes…though not in the real estate sense.

I did the levelheaded thing and told my children that we were “just going to look” at some puppies. Then we were just going to cuddle the cute little guy who snuggled up on our lap…all the way home. Spontaneity requires afterthoughts, so we detoured to Petco on the way back to buy a few items for our new puppy: a water bowl, a food bowl, dog food, a leash, a collar, a dog crate, a puppy gate, piddle pads, chew toys, bones, and 15,000 other “critical-only” items needed for our new pet.

If I had taken the money we spent that evening and invested it in Petco stock, I’d have a controlling share of the corporation today. But really, who can put a price tag on puppy love? Well, yes, my father can give you a running total of the financial damage wrought by my dog to date, but deep, deep down, he secretly loves my dog.

We considered several names for our puppy: “Semiahmoo” based on a recent visit to the seaside resort; “Chewy-barka” because he chews and barks and we’re avid Star Wars nerds; and the first runner-up name suggested by my friend, Kari, was “B.I.” ‘cuz my last name is N-G-O, so Bingo was his name-O. In the end, we settled on Whistler.

Bob, a contractor who’s been to my house several times to repair puppy damage, calls Whistler his retirement account. It started with Whistler chewing on the corners of my wall—and chewing through the dry wall to the studs. I consulted the Jon/Johns at work about this. Oh yeah, Jon told me, suddenly remembering a few of the downsides to Labrador-ownership. Apparently Jon put metal plates on the corners of his walls for oh, say two or three years, until his dog outgrew the chewing phase.

Whistler is largely indiscriminate about his diet: Legos, Christmas ornaments, leather car interiors, underwear, Barbie dolls, American Girl dolls—he eats ‘em all. Soon, almost every doll around the house was an amputee. We have Sierra Leone Barbie, and Samantha, the American girl who needs an orthopaedic surgeon to re-attach her limbs.

Whistler has a special fondness for unattended cups of Starbucks coffee; also an intestinal intolerance for Target’s plastic bags. We learned this the hard way when he ate a bag and then tried to expel it at the dog park the next day. He squatted. Part of the bag made the journey out. Then, with the job half-done, the dog gave up and got back to the business of meeting new canine friends.

The dog-park dogs did the usual canine handshake of sniffing each other’s behinds, only Whistler had half a Target bag there to greet everyone. He was nonplussed. I was mortified. Especially when other dog owners started noticing the white bag hanging out of “that dog” and wondering who the owner was…

I’ve attempted to be a responsible dog owner, so I signed us up for Positive Approach dog-training classes and discovered that I was being very obedient to Whistler’s whims and fancies. (I’m thinking that Negative Approach classes might be the thing to explore.) Nowadays, I do my best to establish myself as the authority—the alpha dog in the family pack—but sometimes my instincts are off.

One time, the phone rang and Whistler, true to his breed, “retrieved” it for me. I was delighted. Wrong response. From then on, Whistler eagerly sought out phones—house phones, cell phones—to carry to me for my praise. Unfortunately, he has iron jaws, so the very act of carrying the phone to me has damaged endless handsets. I couldn’t believe how flimsy the plastic was, so I tested a phone by placing it in my own mouth and biting as hard as I could. That was the moment that my daughter Megan walked in, looked at me oddly, and wanted to know why I was carrying the phone around in my mouth…

When you get past the moments that Whistler’s gone swimming in the pond of a golf course, learned to open the refrigerator to help himself to luncheon meats and cheese, or ingested the fill material of my wrist weights causing the vet to insist that intestinal x-rays showed his stomach was full of buckshot, he’s actually a pretty wonderful pet.

Whistler loves his kids. He devotedly sits with Katie when she’s on a timeout. The dog gamely demonstrates the dangers of riding without a seatbelt in the car by body-slamming into the dashboard when I hit the brakes—a visual lesson for the children. He plays hide and seek with his kids. And he climbs onto the girls’ beds every evening to listen to nighttime stories.

In the aftermath of my divorce, Whistler was the one who kept me company when the kids were at their father’s place, moping almost more than I did when the kids walked out the door.

My kids are leaving, again?!

Whistler and I covered miles of trails and roads as I tried to clear my head on long walks and jogs. And when some friends from high school died in a plane crash a few months ago, that darn dog somehow had the sense to once again curl up at my side through a long, teary evening.

At the beginning of a conference call one afternoon, my work colleagues somehow started in on a litany of the things Whistler destroyed on visits to my home: car keys, shoes, purses. It was embarrassing to listen to the damage report. But when one of them suggested I get rid of the dog and find another, more suitable one, I found myself rising to his defense: You don’t just get rid of your pet because he’s difficult or destructive. It’s tough love. You work with the dog. You establish boundaries. You make accommodations. You stick with it and figure it out.

“Do you think that maybe you’re projecting your feelings about your marriage onto your dog?” my colleague asked.

“Of course I am,” I told her. “But come what may, Whistler and I are planning to take a cruise together for our 20th anniversary.”

And that’s the thing of it. Some dogs are perfect. Well-behaved and obedient. Naturally loyal and loving. Whistler is some of that. He’s also something of a work in progress. But that’s life, be it with pets or partners; friends or family or anyone worth loving. All relationships can be messy at times yet perhaps our pets have the unique ability to teach us the most about unconditional love.

It’s Sngo-ing

I told my mother I’m a good all-weather driver. Snow’s no big deal. There are multiple routes back to my house if one road is icy. We headed out in my rear-wheel drive car this afternoon. Hmmm. Maybe I should have thought that one through.

Evening settled in. Snow melted and then re-froze on the road. We tried one road with an incline back to my house and gave up after a few slides back down. A second hill wasn’t any better. I’m so glad for neighbors with AWD vehicles. We abandoned the car on the side of the road (where six other vehicles were stuck), and my neighbor, Dave, came and drove us up to my house. It was nice to be home…except I didn’t have my car to open the garage door. And I didn’t have a house key. And we didn’t put the key back in the key safe. And every friend with a spare key was unavailable/out of the area!

I walked around the back of the house and tried the doors and windows that I normally forget to latch and close. (Thank you, Jeff, for noticing my unlocked windows yesterday and promptly bolting them for me!)

I peered in the backdoor and saw that Whistler had once again opened the refrigerator. The fridge light showed that he was sampling a bit of buche de noel, some spanakopita, and had emptied the remaining tray of caramelized onions puffs with feta. I don’t get it. He usually prefers a diet of Legos, American Girl doll arms and plastic Target bags… sometimes little lead beads from wrist weights that look like buck shot when you x-ray his intestines.

If the dog can open the refrigerator, you’d think he could meander to the front door and unlock it for me. But he just stood there in the light of the fridge and looked blankly at me. Was there a trace of a smirk on Whistler’s face?

Desperate times require one to swallow one’s pride. Mom, after all, was standing at the front door with her purse and her second bag filled with food she had packed in case we got stuck in the snow. (Mom could have been a boy scout, she’s so prepared. Except when it comes to having a spare key.) I called my ex-husband and asked if he could bring Katie to my house. What did I need Katie for? Well, to crawl in through the dog door to let us into the house.

He showed up an hour later with my baby, aka as Chinese acrobat girl. I had to remove her puffy coat and a few more layers to allow her to lithely climb through the dog door. I could hear her cooing inside to Whistler. “I wuv you, Whistlewer. I missed you so much, doggie.”

Oh no. They were going to have a love-fest in the laundry room, and Katie would forget her mission! Stay on target, Katie. Stay on target!

She eventually remembered her cold Mommy and Grandma and opened the front door. I cleaned up the leftover smears and crumbs that Whistler had left in the kitchen and dining room. (He prefers to take his meals in the formal dining room.) I found the string cheese Whistler had buried underneath the cushions in my couch–stored for his midnight snack, I guess. He went out his dog door and returned with another piece of string cheese he had buried out in the snow.

Then mom came downstairs and announced that she was cleaning out her purse. And whadda ‘ya know? She had a spare house key in her purse the whole time…