Burn Down the “She Shed”!

photo of bonfire
Photo by Jason Villanueva on Pexels.com

At first it sounded like a good idea: a dedicated space where a woman could pursue her interests. Kind of like a Man Cave, but with curtains and flowers.

You’d think that as a writer, I’d love a She Shed where I could create and recreate to my heart’s content. Maybe have a friend over for a glass of wine or some tea and cookies.  But the more I thought about it, though, the more I kept asking myself: Do I really want a First-World, savings-sucking, sexually segregated hut that smells like mulch and motor oil to pursue my dreams in? I think not. And here’s why.

The She Shed Is Elitist

The only people who can have She Sheds are those who live in suburban or rural areas and own at least a quarter-acre of ground. Just imagine living in a three-room apartment in an urban center and asking the landlord if you can build a She Shed on the roof. It seems to me that the woman in that situation is the one who needs a She Shed the most.

Of course, this is true of the Man Cave as well. Small apartments just don’t have a garage or a spare room to devote to manly pursuits (whatever they may be).

The She Shed Is Expensive

You can certainly build a She Shed from scratch, but even the materials are pricey. The smallest pre-fab DIY shed kit I’ve seen runs over $1000. And that’s without furnishings, paint, amenities, and whatever equipment you need to pursue your hobbies or dreams.

The Man Cave is expensive too, with all those super-sized televisions, kegerators or mini-fridges, billiard tables, recliners, work-out equipment, and possibly power tools.

The She Shed Is Impractical

Many of the articles I’ve seen recommend repurposing an old shed you already have – say, a lawnmower shed – for your dream woman-friendly den. Never mind that most existing sheds either already serve a function (say, lawnmower storage), they are also too small for all the necessities and frills that Pinterest tells us are part of a proper She Shed. A potting shed, maybe – but who has a potting shed that they’re not using for actually potting? Or is that supposed to be the woman’s fun and fulfilling activity? If so, why build another shed for it?

Besides, tool sheds and potting sheds lack many of the necessaries for a properly inviting environment – electricity, say, for the writer’s computer or the reader’s lights, or even running water. Just to go to the bathroom, a woman must leave her She Shed, troop back into the “real” house and avail herself of the plumbing, then reverse the process. Unless, of course, there is another shed-like building outside – the kind with a crescent moon carved on the door.

Man Caves have the advantage here, since they’re usually located in an “unused” room or a garage, which usually have all the modern conveniences built in or within easy reach.

The She Shed Is Sexist

Which bring us to another point. Why should a man get to take over an entire room of a house, while a woman is relegated to an outside structure, which has the feeling of a children’s playhouse (not to say doghouse)? The house is hers too. Doesn’t she have as much right to that den or garage as anyone? A couple could also share that den, spending alternate days in it and leaving it empty one day a week.

Man Caves are sexist too. They imply that women are so awful or annoying that men must have a place where they can be alone or with other men. That a woman, if not forbidden to decorate a room, will fill it up with frou-frou furnishings and paint colors like daquoise and saffron and elderberry. That no woman enjoys sports and beer. That men are such boors that no one but other men can stand to be around them. It insults both sexes, which in its way is quasi-egalitarian, though not desirable.

The She Shed Is Ridiculous

We have a few sheds out by the driveway and around the side of the house. I suppose I could repurpose one of them into a writer’s retreat, except for the no-electricity thing and the trek to the bathroom thing. But these sheds are made by Rubbermaid. They have no windows for darling curtains or even fresh air. A person trapped inside would be overcome by a scent like the sole of a sneaker. Besides, they are full of lawn and gardening supplies, which means that if I took one over, we would need yet another shed. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve reproduced enough.

Besides, “She Shed”? The term is ridiculous. What do you keep in a shed? Gardening supplies. Chainsaws. Lawn tools. Cases of motor oil and washer fluid. Lumber. Chickens. Stuff you don’t know what else to do with.

“Man Cave” isn’t even alliterative like “She Shed.” At least call a woman’s retreat something dignified, like, well, a “Woman’s Retreat.” Personally, I call my study “My Study.” And my husband comes in regularly for conversation or to look up things on the computer. He doesn’t mind my collection of stuffed animals – he bought at least half of them for me. We write his appointments on my whiteboard along with my projects. And there’s a small TV and a sound system, plus iTunes on the computer.

And that’s what we do with our spare room. Make it inviting for both of us.

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A Not-Mother’s Mother’s Day Post

This is my mother. I’m not like her – I never had children. But what if I had? What would my life with children have been like?

In my younger days, I never really expected to get married and had never pictured myself having children. But I married in my mid-20s and kind of assumed that I’d have children, or at least one child. I remember telling my husband that if we did so, I would like to have said progeny before I turned 30.

That never happened. Then or later. There are various reasons for that, most of which boil down to choosing not to procreate. Suffice it to say that my husband and I have remained childless, or child-free, or whatever you wish to call it, and (as far as we know) not because of any medical complication.

But recently I stopped to think: What if I had had those theoretical children according to my imaginary schedule? Where would they (and I) be now?

First, I assume they would have been boys with bad eyesight and funny hair. My husband’s family runs not-quite-exclusively to boys, he’s near-sighted and I’m far-sighted, and he has a non-Afro-Afro, which his mother determinedly tried to part and subdue, to little effect.

I also picture them – or him, at any rate – being a difficult child. Dan’s “inner child” is, shall we say, very close to the surface, and I’m certain that among the three of them (Dan, inner child, and outer child), the testosterone level would have been high enough to cause a flight hazard for jetliners. I would have been severely outnumbered and completely unprepared, never having had even one brother. They would have ganged up on me, I feel sure. That would have left me to be the “Bad Mommy,” in the sense of being the one trying vainly to impose a little order, something I’ve never really been able to do in my own life.

Long before now, we’d have been paying for little Jim’s therapy. (James is a name that appears in both our families, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave out all the negotiating that would have happened.) Jim would have needed the therapy because my bipolar disorder would have not just affected my parenting skills, but might have increased his chances of having the disorder too.

(I’m sure there are bipolar people with children who manage somehow, but I don’t understand how they do it. Really, I don’t understand how parents without bipolar do it.)

Most of my friends who reproduced around the same time I “should have” turned out children that are intelligent, sociable, as well-behaved as one could reasonably expect, and likely to be talented at artistic or scientific endeavors. They are now, by and large, collegians, college graduates, and productive members of society – and some even parents themselves. (And wasn’t that a shock when someone I was in Girl Scouts with became a grandmother!)

One or two of the kids have had difficulties of the kind that need extra nurturing and support, or illnesses or conditions that require medical treatment – but there’s no way to predict those or blame them on the parents. Only one that I know of has had trouble with the law, which is a pretty good average, considering all the friends I have and the propensity they’ve shown for reproduction.

The children have brought the families love, satisfaction, struggle, pride, work, expense, joy, tears, and excitement – exactly as we kids brought my parents, I believe. And that’s what I believe children would have brought to me as well.

I don’t regret not having children. Eventually I learned that was not the path for me. But still sometimes I wonder:

Could I have done as well as my friends? As my own mother? I’ll never know.

 

The Year Our Christmas Presents Changed

Our family Christmases were idyllic, if simple. Each year on Christmas Day, we would all open our presents. My sister and I would get doll clothes (this was when you got outfits, not multiple Barbies) and plush animals, Spirograph and paint-by-numbers, and such.

Then we’d get dressed, jump in the car, and drive to Granny’s house, where we’d open more gifts of clothes and stationery and Avon cologne. We’d wreak havoc on a turkey and trimmings, before the adults went off for naps, after dropping us kids off at the movies.

Then came the year when my sister and I had to grow up fast.

My parents had always tried to keep any bad news away from us and carry on as normal, but there was no hiding this bad news. After being accidentally hit by the garage door, my father’s injured neck turned out to be something much worse than a sprain, strain, or contusion. It wasn’t the garage door that caused it. of course, but that was when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

It’s a horrible form of cancer that attacks the bones all throughout the body and destroys them. I hope the treatments have gotten better in the decades since, but for my father cancer meant radiation, chemotherapy, and an operation to fuse the bones of his neck using bone from his hip. He lived many years longer than the doctors predicted, which I attribute to his stubbornness. He certainly wasn’t a health aficionado.

Naturally, all those cancer treatments and hospitalizations were expensive. My parents had good insurance, but even that was nowhere near covering the costs. And my father’s illness was not something my parents could keep secret from us kids, much as they would have liked to. It affected every part of our lives.

When Christmas came that year, I was 15 and my sister was 16. My mother explained that because of the family’s medical expenses, we wouldn’t be able to have Christmas as usual. No driving from Ohio to Kentucky to see our relatives. And no Christmas presents.

Except one.

My mother said that all we could afford was a magazine subscription for each of us. Our choice of titles. She hoped we weren’t disappointed.

I wasn’t. To me, a magazine subscription was special, something that grown-ups got, and something that kept giving all year long. I chose Analog, a science fiction magazine, and my sister chose Sixteen. It was exciting to watch the mail for each month’s issue. (As kids, we didn’t usually get much mail, except cards on our birthdays.)

For the Christmases after that, my mother would renew our subscriptions, or let us change to a different title. When I started studying astronomy in high school, I switched to Sky and Telescope. When she turned 17, my sister switched to Seventeen.

Now I subscribe to the electronic versions of three magazines –Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Discover. I still get a little thrill each month when the new cover icon appears on my e-reader screen. It reminds me of the first time I ever got an actual, grown-up present – when I started becoming an adult, whether I wanted to or not.

 

The Not-So-Traditional Cookie Challenge

Make three different cookies – a dozen of each – inspired by your family holiday memories and traditions.

That was the assignment on a recent holiday baking show I watched.

It occurred to me that I would have failed miserably. It’s not that I can’t bake, or that I can’t bake cookies. I just have no family memories or traditions associated with cookies.

My family never baked at the holidays. Occasionally we’d get a tin or box of assorted cookies – chocolate and plain shortbreads, butter cookies, and so forth – that we kids called “kind-a-wanna cookies” because we could each choose the kind we wanted.

My mother’s baking exploits centered around box cake mixes, lemon meringue pies for my father (his favorite dessert), and slice-n-bake chocolate chip cookies. (I notice that now the company that makes these believes even slicing to be too much to task the modern baker with.)

I did have one holiday cookie-baking ritual in my teens, however. I would go over to my friend Peggy’s house and we would make either chocolate chip cookies (from scratch, no slicing involved) or sugar cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies were ones we had learned how to bake in home ec class and Peggy still had the original recipe on the original 3″ x 5″ index card. (I know she recopied the card when it became old and ragged, and I think she may have laminated it.) Actually, Peggy did the baking. I helped with the math (2/3 cup butter times 2 is 4/3 cup is 1-1/3 cups) and ate some of the raw cookie dough, this being back in the days before that was dangerous or if it was, we didn’t know it.

Our other holiday cookie tradition was Christmas sugar cookies. Again, these were from scratch and my assignment was to sprinkle the cut-out Santas and bells and stars with red and green sugar sprinkles. We’d listen to the radio (but not Christmas carols) and tuck the cookies lovingly away in colorful tin boxes with layers of wax paper. After eating just a couple ourselves, of course.

So, were I to be magically transported to a holiday baking contest, what could I make? Chocolate chip and sugar cookies, of course. Though I’d have to think up trendy flavors like bourbon-guava-cinnamon-chip cookies and sugar cookies adorned with fondant and gum paste and decorative isomalt shards.

But what would my third cookie be?

As a young adult, I had a recipe for a spice cake with raisins that I adored. Back in the day my friends and I were always broke, so I made small loaf pans of spice cake and my husband made miniature banana cakes from his Grammy’s recipe. So I suppose I  might have to fudge a little and make banana-spice cookies with raisins. (Fudge! Now there’s an idea!) Not a childhood memory, but sort of a family tradition, of a new family just starting out anyway.

I suppose I could make some kind of peanut butter cookie. That was one my mother did make from scratch, and I loved pressing the fork into the dough to make the criss-cross on top. (I suppose today we would call them “hashtag cookies.”) They’re not very “holiday,” but at least they represent a family memory.

Or, if I was a really accomplished baker, I could invent some kind of lemon-bar cookie with a toasted meringue on top, in honor of my father’s favorite, but non-holiday, pie. My mother would slip the pie into the oven to brown the meringue, but nowadays I see people using blowtorches. I still think of blowtorches as things that belong in the garage, though, not the kitchen.

No, this year I’ll do the same as ever. I don’t have children and Peggy’s son is now grown, but when she comes to town for the holidays, I fully expect we’ll both make time in our schedules for a cookie-baking fest. Chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. They won’t win any competitions, but I can honestly say they are holiday traditions.

 

 

Getaway: Creepy to Castle to Country

“How far away is Massachusetts?”

“About 12 hours, maybe more.” My husband has less than a keen grasp on geography. Also, he asks questions out of order. When he asks me about Massachusetts, I know there’s a question behind the question.

“How would you like to sleep in Lizzie Borden’s house?” Ah, the real question. Dan had read that the Borden residence was now a bed and breakfast and he was pretty sure I’d be interested. After all, he’s met me. When we went to London I insisted on taking the Jack the Ripper Walk, the one led by Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper, so I could get him to autograph my copy.

I’m not saying that I would want to do the Assassination Vacation thing like Sarah Vowell, but true crime interests me and we had been talking about a long weekend getaway.

But there was a problem. Two, actually. Apart from the fact that Massachusetts was too far to drive for a three-day weekend, there was the ambience of the Borden b-n-b, as I learned online. Far from true crime, it was being billed as paranormal. Psychic readings. Ghost cams. All that ooga-booga shit I have no use for. I was glad to abandon the idea and search for less hokey, and closer, accommodations.

The next thing Dan suggested was a castle. I had told him about the wonderful castle tours in Ireland, and he thought he remembered that there were castles – or at least replica castle hotels – within our state. So back to the Internet I went.

There are indeed castles in Ohio. None authentic, as we’ve never had an Earl of Chillicothe or Baron of Akron, but several nonetheless. Some sounded very interesting, with little, attached taverns or pubs or assorted square and round towers. The problem here was that they were out of our price range. We could afford one night. Driving somewhere, spending one night, and driving back isn’t my idea of relaxation, unless we have an interesting relative within driving distance, which we mostly don’t.

(We’re keeping some of the non-hotel castles in mind as day trips. A tour and a meal sound like a fine one-day getaway.)

By chance, the next day I got an email from a travel discounting service (all right, it was TravelZoo), advertising a 60% off rate on a stay at a working farm in Kentucky. Not an old farm, but one built in the 90s, recent enough to have Jacuzzis in some rooms and Wifi throughout.

If that sounds a lot like glamping, well it is. But the place also offers opportunities to milk cows or goats; gather eggs for breakfast; learn canning, gardening, and other farm-type activities, plus take tours of a thoroughbred horse park or bourbon distilleries and vinyards.

Two discounted nights at the farm were only a few dollars more than one night in a castle, and only three hours or so away. And it seemed a pleasant combination of rest and recreation. I emailed, got a speedy answer to my question, and booked right away, in the middle of the night, from my tablet. Now we have a voucher and just have to pick a date, perhaps around our anniversary.

There’s no crime connection, and no pseudo-castle, but there is fresh air in different surroundings, plus activities that will take me back to my childhood stays at Uncle Sam’s farm. (Yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam. I also had an actual Aunt Jemima. Yes, I know it’s funny.)

In one day our travel plans had ricocheted from creepy to medieval to rustic. We’re flexible like that.

 

 

For Caregivers Everywhere

I have bipolar disorder. My husband is my caregiver. He didn’t sign up for this gig when we met, except for later vowing the part about “in sickness and in health” when we married. I could not negotiate life without him. I try to thank him daily.

My mother was my father’s caregiver when he was dying of multiple myeloma. She knew she was doing a good job of taking care of him, but she asked me to tell her that. She needed someone to tell her she was doing it right.

So this is for my husband and my mother, and for caregivers everywhere.

Thank you. Good job. We need you and we know it.

Some of you are unpaid caregivers who help loved ones for the necessity of it, for the obligation of it, or for the love of it. All of you deserve our thanks.

Some caregivers receive pay, and you deserve our thanks, too. There are many other professions or jobs you could be doing, but you chose to help those who needed it most.

All parents are caregivers, but the parents of special needs children are extra special. You share a task and a worth that few others recognize. You didn’t ask for the job, but you step up to it every day.

You work in homes, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, schools, and group homes. Your work matters more than most people realize. You help not just the sick, but the struggling, the frail, the dying, and the trying.

Respite care workers deserve recognition too. You allow caregivers to continue their work refreshed – give them a space to catch their breath and recharge their spirits. You are caregivers as well.

The care you all give is not easily definable. It involves the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional needs of the medically, mentally, or emotionally fragile. It provides sustenance, both literal and figurative. It keeps the people you care for going, or helps them lay down their struggles.

Recently I wrote a blog post called “Caregivers Need Care Too,” specifically about people who care for the mentally disturbed (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-wh). It talked about what caregivers need in return for the attention, care, support, assistance, and love they give.

In it I said that those who care for others need something from those they care for, and from the rest of society. They need appreciation, validation, time away to refresh and re-energize themselves, understanding, support, and recognition. Not all of the people you care for are capable of giving back, for whatever reason.

So, please accept this from me, one who has known caregivers and benefited from caregivers, and loved caregivers. Your work and your devotion do not go unnoticed, Even if the ones you care for are not capable of saying “thank you,” I say it for them.

You are appreciated. You are worthy. You are loved. You are respected. You make a difference. You have value. You are valued. Even if you never hear these words from those you care for, please accept them from me.

I am grateful.

 

 

How My Husband Got Me Hooked on Buffy

Twenty years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show with a target audience of teen girls. My husband, despite not being a teen girl,  turned me (also not a teen girl) on to the show and got me hooked.

I had seen the movie and wasn’t that impressed. It was silly fun, with a classic over-the-top death scene acted by Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). There was also an appearance by a very young Hilary Swank, and Donald Sutherland played the Slayer’s mentor. But not anything I’d ever want to see again.

So when a television series appeared, I ignored it.

But my husband didn’t. He became a fan.

He wasn’t one of those fans who sits people down in front of a TV and says, “Here! You have to watch 15 episodes of this amazing show!” (This would be appropriate for Firefly, another show that, like Buffy, was the brainchild of Joss Whedon, except that it never made it to 15 episodes.)

No, he was more subtle than that. He’d be watching the show and invite me to join him. “I don’t think so,” I would reply. Still, I would see a few minutes of the show as I passed through the living room.

And then one day I caught a scene from an episode in which Buffy was working at a fast-food establishment where employees had been disappearing and the food had a “secret ingredient.”

“Hah!” I thought. “This is so predictable!”

Then the top of a little old lady’s head came off, a monster emerged, and tried to eat Buffy. The secret ingredient in the meat turned out to be meat flavoring, which was being added to non-meat patties.

That sharp left turn caught me. Maybe this show did have some wit and style.

I still didn’t pay a lot of attention until the show went off the air. When it went into reruns, I could watch one episode a day and follow the story arcs (yes, it had them) and found out that Buffy was more than just teen-girl-kills-monster-of-the-week pop fluff.

It had bite. (Sorry.)

Joss Whedon has said that the show was about female empowerment. Instead of being a stereotypical victim-of-a-vampire, Buffy is the strong, capable hero who defeats evil, aided by her “Scooby Gang” of mostly female sidekicks.

Except those sidekicks have story arcs of their own. For example, Willow is a witch who dabbles in black magic in addition to the good kind. But magic, it seems, can become an addiction. Multiple episodes follow Willow as she goes from magic tweaking, to heavy involvement, to jonesing, to a destructive habit that wrecks her relationships with those around her (and almost destroys the earth).

Buffy used the basic vampire/monster plot to comment on common events in a young person’s life – high school, dating, freshman roommates, binge drinking (which turned students into cave people) – as well as topics like the aforementioned addiction, teen suicide, performance-enhancing drugs, and various shades of morality.

And the dialogue! I’m a language junkie. I don’t deny it. And in addition to the then-current teen slang, the show had its own idiom, known as “Buffy Speak.”

TV Tropes describes it thus:

[It] can give the sense of a teenaged group’s special jargon or argot without necessarily imitating anything actually found in the real world. Slang language, especially for the younger set, tends to change at warp speed. Buffy Speak allows a level of timelessness…. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuffySpeak

And here’s a scholarly article about it: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/08/buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

(Speaking of dialogue, Buffy also featured some break-the-mold episodes, including one in which no one can speak and one in which everyone sings their lines, musical-style, with dancing.)

Was it the feminist subtext? The busting of stereotypes and tired plots? The playful language? The hunky vampires? Perhaps the secret to my eventually becoming a fan of Buffy is the fact that, despite my chronological age, I’ve got a 14-year-old living inside my head (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-g1). And maybe my husband knew that.

Although I don’t want to speculate who’s living inside his head.

Why I Should Get a Say About Raising Your Children

I know that childless people (of which I am one) like to bitch about how parents are raising their kids. I feel confident in saying that virtually every parent has had the experience of going out in public and being chastised for your children’s manners and behavior, your discipline, or the latest theories of child-raising. (Or for that matter, the good ol’ theories of child-raising.)

You’ve heard it all, from praise of Dr. Spock to “Dr. Spock is the root of all evil”; from “those kids could do with a good spanking” to “spanking is child abuse”; from “children should be seen and not heard” to “you’re stifling their creativity.”

The automatic reaction is, “You don’t have children, so you don’t know what it’s like.” And that statement is entirely true.

I don’t – and shouldn’t – have a thing to say about discipline, behavior, and manners (although I do wish your children wouldn’t fingerpaint with the salsa at a Mexican restaurant, especially when it’s at our table and you’ve assured me that the children know how to behave in a restaurant, to choose one example not completely at random).

Unless I see your child actually pocketing the server’s tip or harming an animal, I will keep my big mouth shut. And if I do see those things, I will do my best to respond in a polite, calm, and constructive manner.

What I can’t stand by and see without commenting is children not receiving a proper education. Even though I don’t have children, I still care deeply about – and will act upon – my notion of what is good for your children in school.

Part of this is selfish, I will admit. Your children will be the workers of their generation who will be affecting the quality of life for my generation. I don’t want to be governed by politicians who don’t understand civics, treated by doctors who don’t know the facts about human reproduction, or “informed” by scientists who have not had a chance to encounter the varied opinions of their field.

I also want my health aides, restaurant servers, mechanics, computer programmers, hair stylists, tour guides, garment workers – all workers – to be able at least to read and write basic English and do basic math. This is not entirely selfish – workers who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills are more likely to be cheated by their employers and less able to negotiate the treacherous paths of bureaucracy that every American, without exception, must deal with. I want these things for children with disabilities as well, or at the very least the presence of well-educated aides and advocates.

For that matter, I want some of your children to grow up to be painters, musicians, singers, dancers, actors, athletes, craftspeople, writers, and animators who will make my future richer and more sustaining as I age.

In order to achieve these things, I have a vested interest in the education system. Just because I have no school-aged children – or any children at all – does not mean I should keep away from school boards, community volunteer programs, decision-making bodies, etc. I will support good education issues with my tax dollars and my votes. I will oppose any that limit a child’s access to good-quality, thorough, well-informed, factual, adequately funded, modern education.

I want your children to be smart, motivated, curious, skilled, artistic, problem-solving, conscientious, well-adjusted, healthy, helpful, effective, competent, confident adults, both for my sake and theirs.

The best way for me to contribute to that is to support, fund, and, yes, influence both the local and national system of education. I will help all you parents who want the same things for your children, and I will oppose those who settle for second best (or worse, given the international statistics).

Give me a well-educated world of your grown-up children and I’ll even overlook the salsa fingerpainting.

 

 

 

Who Would Spend Thousands on a Pet?

Me, for one. And quite a few other people I know. None of us is wealthy, but still we have laid out what some would consider extreme – even obscene – amounts on our pets.

First, let me say that these are regular cats and dogs, mostly rescues, strays, and shelter animals, not fancy, purebred show animals. The expense doesn’t come with the initial investment. Vet check, shots, worming, spaying and neutering – though shelters and local organizations sometimes offer lower-cost options on these – are just the cost of entry into pet guardianship.

Likewise, toys, beds, pet furniture, and other accouterments don’t need to be large investments. I’ve known cats that would ignore fancy toys to play with the plastic rings that come on milk jugs. Dogs can be amused for hours with a stick, tennis ball, or Frisbee.

No, the real expense comes with veterinarian bills. When I was a child, hardly anyone took pets to the vet, except to get the mandated yearly shots or to stitch up an injury from an attack by another animal.

My, how times have changed!

We know a lot more these days about heartworm, feline AIDS, urinary or intestinal blockage, fatty liver disease, kidney failure, and a host of illnesses that pets experience. We sympathize because we humans can get many of the same or similar ailments as well (though we don’t generally catch them from the animals).

So how do the costs scale up into the thousands? Well, veterinary training is as rigorous as medical school – perhaps more so because of the number of different animals a vet might be expected to treat. (A cow and a cat have different anatomy, after all.) Veterinary drugs can sometimes the same ones humans take, though usually at different doses. An x-ray is an x-ray and an ultrasound is an ultrasound. And you can expect to pay more for an after-hours emergency clinic visit than a regular office call.

Still, thousands?

Yes. We’ve been through it a number of times. When my cat Laurel had fatty liver disease, she needed, in addition to all the regular medical care, several weeks of intensive treatment – hand feedings, fluids, specially mixed vitamins. The vet actually took her to his home and treated her there for several weeks. I got a raise that year at work, and every cent of it went to that marvelous vet. He didn’t have to do what he did for Laurel – and I suppose not many people would have paid for the personal care. We did so willingly.

When our dog Bridget developed a tumor on her shoulder, the vet was honest. “We can operate on it, or we can do nothing.” Bridget was middle-aged, as dogs go, a formerly feral rescue dog.

“Do whatever it takes,” Dan said. “She deserves a chance.”

“She’s lucky to have you,” the vet replied.

Bridget came through the operation, never had a recurrence and died peacefully at the age of 17.

We’ve learned to give subcutaneous fluids to cats with kidney failure. We’ve taken them to specialty vets who have given them – literally – years of comfortable life with us. (Once we even had a parakeet that needed an operation – and pulled through.)

Every time we pulled out a checkbook or a credit card and paid willingly, though often with a wince. Some vets kindly allowed us, as long-time customers, to pay in installments.

But the question remains, why? Why do we spend this time, energy, care, worry, and especially money on maintaining the health of our pets or making them comfortable in their last days?

I don’t expect everyone to understand this, but these animals have become family to us. And as family members, they deserve our attention, care – including medical care – and love as long as they are capable of benefiting from it.

When the time comes that we have to let them go, when there is nothing we can do medically except prolong their misery, we take them to the vet for that final act of mercy, or let them pass quietly at home.

And the only cost we count is in our hearts.

The Great Thanksgiving Ratatouille

One Thanksgiving, the thing I was most grateful for was my husband’s only friend. John became Dan’s only friend when Dan was on his way to ultimate burn-out at work. John was there to listen, which he did exceedingly well. He was my friend as well because we shared similar tastes in books and music.

John was a welcome addition to our small family holiday gatherings. Often the guest list was me, my mother, Dan, and John. All of us lacked other family in the area, so we’d gather at my mother’s and order in Mr. Kroger’s holiday fixin’s.

Occasionally, one of us would cook. That year I felt ambitious. Not Martha-Stewart-huge-turkey ambitious, but I thought I could manage a one-pot meal – ratatouille. I was in the habit of preparing non-traditional holiday meals because they annoyed my sister, who was old-school in her thinking: Thanksgiving and Christmas must feature turkey, Easter is for ham, Fourth of July is for hamburgers and hot dogs, and Earth Day is for, I don’t know, mud pies? She wasn’t present that year, but it’s the principle of the thing.

So I chopped eggplant and onions and zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms and tomatoes and put them in a large pot, along with stock and garlic and assorted herbs and spices, and left it to simmer until all the ingredients got acquainted and agreed to play nicely together. Because John was a committed carnivore, I added some kielbasa as well. I like to think the kielbasa would have added a level of outrage had my sister been there, but really, the ratatouille would have been enough to set her off.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so my Mom and John and I gathered in the living room for chat and shrimp cocktail. So far, so good.

Eventually we moved into the kitchen and I dished up heaping bowls of fragrant, chunky ratatouille. I watched in anticipation as John dipped his spoon in and lifted it to his lips.

He swallowed. Then he raised his hands to his throat and started making hacking noises.

Now, most cooks would be alarmed by this sort of thing. And I was.

I rushed around the table and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver, but discovered my arms were too short to Maneuver properly. “Do you want us to call an ambulance?” I asked.

“Yes,” John croaked. (This actually calmed me an infinitesimal fraction. A person who can talk under those circumstances is not going to die right then.)

Shortly a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police cars pulled up in front of the house. It must have been a slow Thanksgiving. Emergency personnel trooped in as each vehicle arrived, decided that John was unlikely to die in the next few minutes, and turned their attention to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

“Wow! That smells good! What is it?” each asked.

“Ratatouille,” I would reply.

“What’s that?”

“A Mediterranean vegetable stew made with eggplant.”

“Maybe he’s choking on a bone.”

“An eggplant doesn’t have bones,” I would explain. This entire conversation was repeated, verbatim, each time another would-be rescuer walked in.

John was hauled off to the emergency room and I followed. Medical-type events ensued. John was asked to cough, substances were sprayed into his throat, and an x-ray was taken. It took a while.

It took so long that our friends, the ambulance people, brought in another patient, saw us in our little cubicle, and said in amazement, “You’re still here?”

At this point I gave up and went to the hospital cafeteria for a festive Thanksgiving cheeseburger, and thought about my sister while I ate it. When I returned, John was still waiting patiently (no pun intended).

Finally, a truly clever doctor arrived and looked down John’s throat with a scope. “There’s something lying on top of his vocal cords,” he reported. “It looks like … some kind of leaf.”

Instantly I knew what had happened. “It’s the fucking bay leaf,” I said. John had swallowed it with his first spoonful of ratatouille, and it had lodged in his windpipe. The doctor asked John to cough really hard, and the bay leaf came flying out. It was the first time the doctor had ever encountered a bay-leaf-related emergency, he told us. It was our first, too.

We went back to my mother’s house, fed John some ice cream for his poor, abused throat, and he left to go home and lie down. As the door closed behind him, my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to sue us.”

Forever after, the dish was known as my killer ratatouille recipe. Not many people ask for it, for some reason.

This year, I’ll use a bouquet garni! Then I can be thankful that everyone will live through Thanksgiving dinner.

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This is a revision of a post from a couple of years ago, but I thought it was worth resurrecting.