Sunday nibble #31: Two ladies, two bitches (Part 1 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the story into two parts. This is the first.

Dazé and Shadow

I’ll tackle that choice of title right off, because it is absolutely literal. Today is August 23, and that happened to be the day that I picked — because it was closest to the likely one — for the birthday of two of my dogs late, great, Dazé and Shadow. So yes, in the absolute definition of the word, bitches, but they were my bitches.

Okay, in reality, I was theirs, but that’s why I’m including them here. The bulk of the article is in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women in America finally being given the right to vote — and it is shameful as hell that it took 132 years from the ratification of the Constitution to the Amendment that fixed this major defect.

August was also the birth month of one of the women on this list. I don’t know when the second one was born, but I do know that the third was not born in August.

But I include those two dogs of mine as an example of how nurturing and protective feminine energy as opposed to masculine. In fact, it’s why I will only ever adopt female dogs.

Oh, I’ve known male dogs. I’ve lived with more than a few, interacted with many, and ultimately they are for the most part… well, go search for YouTube videos of “Stupid Things Frat Boys Do,” and you’ll get the idea.

Male dogs are energetic, and goofy, and they’ll hump your leg when you let your guard down, but they clearly don’t really have as much going on upstairs as their distaff counterparts.

I’ve written about it before, but Dazé always ruled the roost, no matter how many other dogs were around and how much bigger they were than her, and she did it without ever showing aggression. She was totally devoted to me, but never submissive. It always felt like an equal partnership.

Shadow could not have been more different in the sense that, while she was totally devoted as well, she was also completely submissive and dependent. Dazé saw it as her job to take care of me. Shadow saw me as the one who was supposed to take care of her.

But it was a pair of valuable lessons that led to a really amazing relationship with dog #3 (not born in August), Sheeba. Dazé taught me what a dog could do for me. Shadow taught me what I could do for a dog.

I guess that Sheeba must have been up on her Hegel, because with her it was a combination of both; a wonderful give and take in which we took care of each other. Dazé never needed my help and Shadow could never give me hers. With Sheeba, it truly was a two-way street.

That’s probably a big part of the reason that she was the only dog whose loss did not immediately inspire me to go out and rescue another, and it’s going on four months now. Sure, current events in the year of several plagues have also had an impact, but I’ve done surprisingly well without. At least for now.

But, to get to the important part: Here are three women who have had an enormous impact on my life.

Gloria

Okay, most people knew her by that name. I knew her as Mom, She taught me some of my most important skills: never put up with anyone’s shit, always question authority when they seem wrong, and cooking and baking are true and enjoyable art forms.

Keep in mind that my mother died when I was fairly young, after a long mystery illness that only seemed to be made worse by medical treatments from male doctors (only) who would never even for a second take seriously my mother’s attempts to tell them how the symptoms changed depending on what part of her cycle she was in.

“Oh, that’s all in your head,” these men who never had periods would tell her in that mansplaining tone. Looking back, I think the whole thing started with a bout of acid reflux that led to hyperventilation that happened (coincidence?) on my 13th birthday.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Mom was brought up with huge amounts of Catholic guilt and body shame, so wasn’t exactly that in touch with things. Looking back, to be honest, I’ve had the sudden “feel like you can’t breathe because your windpipe suddenly shut” thing a few times in my life, but I very quickly learned the cure for it: Hold your breath.

And yeah, I’ve felt guilty that I wasn’t there for her but, then again — I was 13. I was in school, like I was supposed to be. So it was just the next door neighbor there to rush her to the ER, toss her into the hands of the un-empathetic male doctors, and I think over the next few years they managed to medicate her to death.

Since her family all lived on the east coast, I really lost contact with them for a long time, since I didn’t have their phone numbers, or the wherewithal to fly or drive out there, and my dad certainly wasn’t doing it. But when I reconnected to my cousins and surviving aunts not that long ago via social media, one thing became immediately clear.

They were all like her, so they were all like me, at least in all the good ways: Stubborn, opinionated, feisty, creative, and feckin’ clever Irish-Americans.

This was partly what drove her to the west in the first place, because she had a bird’s eye view of her own mother’s hypocrisy when it came to religion. The Catholic Church ruled all! Except… only the church that the Irish people went to. The Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Latvians may have gone to Catholic churches as well, but they were filthy immigrants.

And it was perfectly fine if my mother invited her best friend Beverly to come to Grandma’s church on Sunday, but god forbid that my mother would even be allowed to go to Beverly’s church, because they were some weird, unacceptable Armenian Orthodox cult!

But the real biggie — and the one that actually wound up having the greatest impact on my own life, although I didn’t know it until long after she’d died — was that her first marriage not only sent her fleeing to the west, but it had everything to do with her relationship to me.

Long story short, she’d married her (Polish Catholic) high school boyfriend, George, at 18. She got knocked up (though not right away), he got drunk and violent a lot, and in her eighth month he gave her what we quaintly term “A Catholic abortion.”

That is, he pushed her down a flight of stairs and she miscarried, and there went the woman who might have been my older sister.

She had the marriage annulled (the good Catholic way!) then headed west, to shock her mother by marrying a much older and divorced (gasp!) man with three adult kids who was maybe Protestant (what?) but definitely not Catholic (clutch the Rosary!).

They married, she got knocked up while they lived in a tiny Hollywood apartment, moved to their suburban home when she was about five months in — and then wound up delivering me two months prematurely back in Hollywood and, apparently, she freaked the hell out.

In all honesty, why wouldn’t she? She’d already lost one child in the 8th month, and here I was, popped out in the 7th month and not completely baked, so they had to stick me into an incubator. Somehow, it worked, I survived, and I’m still here and, oddly enough, I also managed to be the tallest member of my family on both sides and among three generations, at least.

Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with that part, either. Apparently, all of my grandparents barely grazed five feet. I topped six, and I only have one nephew who came close.

Anyway, the result of my mom’s life experience up to my birth was that she was ridiculously protective of me. Fearing losing me like she had her daughter, I would never say that she was clingy and suffocating. Rather, she did what she could to keep me close to home.

Good or bad? I don’t know. She certainly kept me from being over-adventurous, something that didn’t change until after her death — but I’ve always wondered: If she hadn’t done that, would I still be alive now, or would I have died in some stupid incident before I turned sixteen?

On the other hand, if she had lived on to a normal age, and if she were still around today (entirely possible), would our relationship be loving, or would she have long since driven me absolutely nuts? I have no idea. What I do have is one childhood incident that, to me, demonstrated her absolute devotion to keeping me safe.

I was in the 3rd grade, meaning that I was about 8 years old, and was out sick for a day. The procedure at the time was for returning kids to turn in a note from a parent at the office excusing the absence — basically, “This is Jon’s (parent.) He was out sick yesterday, but is feeling well enough to return today. Signed (parent.)”

Welp, up to this particular day, my father was always the one who wrote and signed the notes. He was also an architect, so he could writer block letters like a goddamn laser printer, and his signature was in perfect cursive.

Mom? Well… she was born left-handed and went to Catholic school, so what do you think? Yep. They basically tied her left hand to a chair, forced her to learn to write with her non-dominant hand and so, as an adult, her handwriting was even worse than mine at, oh, I don’t know… eight years old?

You see where this is going, right?

Dad forgot to write the note that day, so Mom did, and I took it in. An hour or two into class, I got summoned to the principal’s office (his name was George Linnert, btw, a total dick, and he is probably long since dead by now) to be accused of forging the note.

I tried to tell him that my mom wrote it, and if he just called her, she would tell him.

Nope. He was being a total dick, so he told me to write down, “I did not write this note.” And then he refused to believe me and threatened suspension, plus calling my parents in to tell them what an evil, evil boy I was.

Guess what happened when I told my parents about it that evening?

Yep. Mom went ballistic, and the next morning she did something so freaking amazing that I still remember every moment of it. I was going to walk to school, but she said, “No. I’m driving you.”

Okay, cool. Except that… while Mom has her license, she also absolutely hates to drive and never does it, and is nervous as hell. Sure, it’s not all that far to the school — maybe a mile at most — but I think she wanted to make a point.

So we hope into the Ford, she very, very cautiously backs out of the driveway, then takes the back streets to the school, leads me up the steps by my hand and into the principal’s office, very politely tells me that she’s here for a meeting with Mr. Linnert…

…and then the second we walk in the door, she proceeds to rip him not a second, or a third, but maybe even up to a fourth asshole and all I can do is just stand there in awe of this woman, this powerhouse, my mother, taking the piss out of an authority figure that, up until this moment, all of us had feared like the grim reaper.

I don’t even remember what exactly she said, except that it involved questioning his intelligence, asking if he got off on intimidating little boys, and whether he actually knew how telephones worked?

End result? She marched his ass to my classroom, we all entered, and he groveled and apologized in front of the teacher, my, my mom, and the entire class.

It was goddamn glorious. But I guess that’s why she was named Gloria in the first place.

R.I.P., Mom.

Amazing animal adaptations to the human world

If you think that animals haven’t continued to evolve in the wake of having wound up in the middle of human cities and culture, then you haven’t been paying attention. Our friends — furry and otherwise — are catching up to us. And why not? Some of them try to emulate us as much as possible, while others are just really good at reading our body language. Others still are good at figuring out patterns independent of our behavior, while a final group doesn’t think much, but knows how to follow instinct.

Let’s start out with our emulators.

It’s a typical Monday morning as you make your way from your house on the outskirts of the city to the subway station for your regular morning commute to your office downtown. You get on the train and take your seat, armed with the newspaper or touch pad or smart phone as the usual distraction, when you notice a half dozen or so unaccompanied dogs casually enter the last car with you and, like any other commuter, take their seats. They sit or lie quietly as the train heads off for the city and, as you stand to get off at the central station, so do they.

This would be an unusual sight in most major cities, but to the residents of Moscow, Russia, it has become quite routine. In the twenty years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the changing face of this metropolis of nearly twelve million has forced its population of stray dogs to learn the ways of their human counterparts. By night, they live in the deserted industrial areas outside of the city, a canine population last estimated five years ago at 26,000. By day, they head downtown, where the people are and, more importantly, where the free food is, and they do it the same way the humans do.

No one taught the dogs how to navigate one of the world’s busiest subway systems. They have managed to figure it out on their own, and have also learned the concept of traffic signals. Stray dogs have been observed waiting for the light before crossing the street, and they aren’t just taking their cues from humans – they exhibit the same behavior when the streets are devoid of people. What they do take from humans are their lunches, and some enterprising dogs will use a well-timed bark to startle a hapless pedestrian into dropping their shawarma onto the pavement, to be snatched away by the successful hunter. When not using this technique, they will scavenge from dumpsters, or just hang out in busy areas waiting for the inevitable handout. They’ve also been known to exploit human psychology by sending in the cutest puppers in order to do the heavy-lifting of begging for the whole pack.

Yes, these dogs are playing us.

Why they have figured out these tricks is fairly obvious: their environment changed when downtown was revitalized and they had to adapt. How they do it, though, is another question, and zoologists are still studying them to figure it out. The dogs can’t read signs, so their subway navigation, which includes getting on and off at the right stops, is still a mystery, as is their ability to obey a traffic light on their own. It would be one thing if they had been trained – but they have not.

This isn’t the only example of animals adapting to the human world. The next group are the pattern seekers, who use repetitive and predictable cues to figure out how to safely navigate the space in order to feed.

In Japan, crows have been observed exploiting roads and traffic in order to crack nuts that they can’t themselves — but the most remarkable part of this is that they use the traffic signals to tell them when it’s safe to go into the road to fetch the good stuff.

Next is the animal to exploit humans by using instinct over intellect, although ultimately a bit of both: Clever Hans, a horse that appeared to know how to do simple sums and count, until it was determined that what the horse was really doing was reacting to subtle human emotions given away as the horse approached the answer. Hans could literally tell when he’d hit the right number via tapping his hoof until the humans reached maximum excitement, by which point he’d learned that “Decrease in excitement means stop.”

At least this is a few orders of magnitude above the animal that reacts strictly by instinct, with no intellect involved — the “avoid that moving shadow and get out of the light” reaction common to cockroaches, who are far less intelligent than horses. They don’t think about what they’re doing or why. They don’t have the brain capacity for that. Instead, they just automatically skittle away from things perceived as danger. This is a very common behavior among animals, and in fact extends all the way down to single-celled organisms, which will also instinctively and automatically swim away from chemical signals that they consider unpleasant or dangerous.

That’s how survival and evolution work, and it’s how life on Earth evolved from being mindless single-celled organisms that only know “swim toward food, swim from trouble” to the complex primates that seem to be top of the food-chain for the moment and, at least for now, have developed our technology far enough to start to fling ourselves out into the solar system.

And that process is also how we inadvertently help all of our domesticated animals to evolve, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that as we develop more technology and empathy, our companions develop more empathy and intelligence. Sure, I don’t know whether it’s us or our pets getting smarter, or if it’s a mutual act, but whichever it is doesn’t matter. The only important part is that we seem to be increasing the emotional bond between ourselves and our animals that are above the purely instinctual level, since most of that latter group seem to be nothing but pests.

Maybe this will lead us to a meatless world, or at least one where all of our meat is grown in labs or fabricated from plant products. If you’ve never seen dancing cows, happy goats, laughable lambs, pet pigs, or even redeemed raccoon and frisky ferrets, you should. The more I learn about animals, the less I want to eat them.

Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted one year ago but which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it exactly one year ago, I had no idea that all three of my dogs would be past tense by now.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses it not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!

Momentous Monday: Homecoming

May 11th has become a date inextricably linked with all three of my dogs because of events a week ago today.

On May 11, 2001, #2 Dog, Shadow, came home to me for the first time. It was exactly eleven days after I’d said good-bye to #1 Dog, Dazé. Last week, May 11, 2020, #3 Dog, Sheeba, came home for the last time, and her ashes joined her sisters’, completing the shrine to them that I started over 19 years ago.

I finally also got around to printing their memorial pictures in the same style and finding nice standing frames for them, getting them all arranged, but then realizing to my great disappointment the total mismatch of funerary urns, as it were.

Over the years — and I think it has to do with the growing importance of our fur babies (at least when it comes to marketing to them) those ash containers have gotten a lot fancier.

Back in 2001, Dazé got a can wrapped in paper. Note that the paper is blue although she was a girl. I don’t think it’s because they mixed up the dogs. Rather, I think that it was whoever was running things at the time took one look at her goatee, assumed “boy dog,” and picked blue.

It was a common enough mistake in life, and for exactly the same reason. Humans assume “goatee = male,” forgetting that dogs have a lot less sexual dimorphism than humans do. Hint: if the only way to tell the difference is to flip them over and look at their junk, then the dimorphism is very low.

And, of course, humans throw a ton of artificial dimorphism on top of the moderate degree that we already have in all of those secondary characteristics — namely body shape, body hair, vocal range and timbre, and whether taking your shirt off will offend prudes. But I do digress.

Shadow also got a can, this one papered in pink, but it came inside of a nice brocaded box in a pale blue decorated with an abstract gold paisleyesque pattern.

Finally, Sheeba only got a vacuum-sealed bag, but in a lovely locking cedar box with a plaque with her name on it. This one also came with a paw-print — something that I think had been an option with Shadow that I’d turned down — a fancy certificate of cremation, a little wooden heart with her name engraved on it, a paper heart on the whole thing with her name and my last name on the cord on the mesh bag everything came in, a packet of forget-me-not seeds, and a tiny vial with a bit of her hair in it.

Wow. Considering that Shadow and Sheeba went just under five years apart, Sheeba’s send-off was quite a bit fancier.

At first, I was upset that I don’t have exactly the same memorial for each of them, and even while Sheeba was alive had considered getting matching containers for all three of them. But then when looking at the rag-tag collection tonight, something struck me.

They absolutely should not be the same because none of these dogs was at all like the other two, and that is what made them special. And the more I considered the ways they came back to me, the more I realized that each container actually reflected the dog in it much more accurately than the crematory could have ever predicted, and this made me very happy.

After all, I have their collars with the containers as well, and all three of those are very different.

So Dazé came back in a simple, possibly misgendered, metal can. And that suits her perfectly, because when it came to training and dealing with her, she was the simplest dog I’ve ever had. No frills, no drama, didn’t need anything fancy.

Her favorite “toys” were old socks, and her prized possession was a huge sock-toy I made out of my old, worn-out ones. It was about the size of a large ferret, and she loved nothing more than to pick it up and “kill” it over and over, or get me to toss it around the room for her to hunt.

Like the can, Dazé was pretty basic and, in fact (as a friend pointed out when I told them this) you could say that she was the original basic bitch.

She wouldn’t have disagreed.

Shadow got the same can in pink, but inside of a simple box, and to me this represents her also sweet and simple nature, but one which came with a need to be protected by me. She really didn’t like to show her true self outside of the few humans she trusted. And, like with the box, no one not privy to the knowledge could really know or predict what was inside.

When she trusted a human, she did so completely, but even when she did trust a human, any kind of big energy made her very nervous. She would freak out and tremble in the corner if I got into even a minor disagreement with an S.O., then would come skulking back to me when things had settled down as if it had been her fault.

Dazé had never had that reaction, by the way. She’d just give us a look as if to say, “Stupid humans. Work it out. I’m taking a nap.”

Of course, Shadow would also freak out if the vacuum cleaner came out, or somebody whipped the sheet in order to drape it onto the bed, and so on. Inside that trembling, delicate façade, she really was made of the same stuff as Dazé in terms of love to give. She just never had the confidence to know it.

Then again, I think that Dazé may have come from the unwanted litter of a family dog in the first place, so she was a middle class dog. Shadow was found wandering the streets of South Central L.A. in the company of a male Siberian husky, so who knows where she had escaped from. It could have been a family. It could have been a junkyard. It could have been a dog-fighting ring. She was never able to tell me.

Sheeba’s funerary gear is completely different than the other two, but she was completely different as well.

The first big difference, of course, is that her ashes are in a clear bag. They’re also a lot finer than either of the other two — yes, I’ve looked. This is fitting, because Sheeba never pretended to be what she was not. What you saw was what you got, take it or leave it.

But that transparent bag came in a hard wooden exterior with a lock and key. She was tough and aloof on the outside, hard to get inside, and it took her a long time to trust anyone who wasn’t me. Oh, she would tolerate everyone and be friendly, but actual petting privileges were limited to the very few.

The elegance of the box indicates that she was never a kids’ toy. Sheeba, in fact, hated and feared children. I never held that against her because I’m not so fond of them myself.

Finally, the plaque on top with her name on it echoes a game I used to play with her when I got her to give me a high-five (four?). I would hold her paw up and say, “I am Sheeba. Yay!”

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She seemed to enjoy it.

I named her for a queen because she always presented herself as one, and the fact that her final remains came with a much more elaborate presentation is only fitting. The folks at the crematory knew.

So those containers sitting on my altar of dog are absolutely mismatched on the surface — but they absolutely match the heart and soul of each of the dogs within them.

I — and they — wouldn’t have it any other way. And Sheeba finally coming home for the last time on the anniversary of the day that Shadow came home for the first gives a really nice full-circle closure, although that doesn’t mean that the grieving is over.

If anything, this is the start of round two. I still imagine that I see or hear Sheeba here, and I think about Shadow more than I have in a while. I absolutely know that the perfect way to complete the current memorial to my lost dogs is to rescue my next dog, and give her or him a long, good life in honor of the others.

That’s how I wound up with Shadow after I lost Dazé and thought there could never be another. It’s just that I’ve never lost a dog before in such extraordinary times.

Then again, having been through over two weeks without a dog, I realize that, perhaps, one is the only way to survive such extraordinary times.

Image sources © 2020 Jon Bastian. All rights reserved.

Three dog night

My fans and followers may have wondered why the logo on my page is basically a flag with a dog on it, although my connection to the Dog Whisperer is probably a big clue. But the specific silhouette on that flag is my dog Sheeba, who I adopted when she was eleven months old.

She was with me for the next fourteen and a half years and passed away one week ago today. It’s the first time in almost twenty years that I’ve been dog-less, but that last gap only lasted eleven days. There have been three dogs in total that I’ve wound up calling mine, although the first was originally the family dog and meant to be my mom’s.

As a tribute to Sheeba, here are the tales (and tails) of three dogs who were very special to me.

Dazé

She was the only dog of the three adopted as a puppy. My Mom and Dad found her at a rescue when she was twelve weeks old, although I’m really the one who picked her. Or maybe it was vice versa. In my youthful excitement, I dashed in ahead of my parents and soon came to this little white puppy who was just hanging out under an inverted rabbit cage.

I went over and knelt down and said “Hi,” and I swear I could see her thought processes as she gave me a look and a head tilt, then smiled back and sat down as if to say, “Okay. I choose you!”

I talked my parents into that one — her rescue name was Lucy — and we took her home.

My mother didn’t bond with her at all. In fact, at one point, she was on the verge of taking her back and we’d even made it as far as the shelter, but my seething anger changed her mind. Whether it was my dad who talked some sense into her or sudden Catholic guilt, I don’t know, but after that, there was never a question of taking the dog back.

I didn’t name her. My parents dubbed her Daisy, although I always spelled it Dazé. She attached to me almost immediately, and I was the one who trained her and taught her tricks, and she was a very fast learner.

She was also the only dog of mine that I have ever trusted 100% off-leash in public, although I never did it that often. But she was still the family dog, so there was a point when I’d moved out and couldn’t be with her for various reasons — starving student, dogs not allowed, and so on.

But once I’d gotten my first adult job and moved into a house with friends, it was time. My mother had died by that point and my dad had adopted a second dog, so it was a very easy task to talk him into letting me bring Dazé into my life full time.

Now while I was living in that house, I went out with a couple of friends around Thanksgiving to a bar in, I think, Silver Lake, and on the walk back to the car during a cold, west, misty late night, we saw something on the ground. Definitely an animal, with its head stuck in a Häagen-Dazs container.

Now, being an animal lover, I didn’t hesitate for a second to pick it up and pull that container off, even though we were in an industrial neighborhood and it could have easily been a rat. No. It was a puppy, and all I could do was bring it home.

The most likely explanation was that it was part of a litter from a guard dog at the shuttered auto repair yard that had wandered off, but I could bring it back in the morning.

One of my roommates vetoed that suggestion very logically. “If it got out once, it could again, so why let that happen?”

Thus did Toad come into Dazé’s life, and although the tiny pup eventually turned out to be a gigantic and very loving Rottweiler, Dazé was always the boss. She was fascinated with the pup from the very start, although eventually would play tricks on her, like act all excited to go outside until someone opened the door. Toad would race into the yard and Dazé would stroll back into the house, happy.

That was probably the most significant thing about Dazé. She was always boss dog without even trying. Later on, I lived in a house with two other adults and four other dogs, each of them huge. Keep in mind that Dazé weighed about 28 pounds and was what would be considered medium.

Didn’t matter. She was completely in charge, and all of those other dogs followed her rules, no matter what the humans said. Apparently, Dazé had banned the other dogs from “her” room, so even if I invited them in, they were having none of it.

She took good care of me for almost seventeen years, and it wasn’t until she abruptly stopped eating at the beginning of April that I figured out something was wrong and took her to the vet. (Hint: One of her nicknames acquired over the years was “Food Whore,” so the not-eating thing was serious.)

She was diagnosed with pancreatitis, normally treatable, but then two other problems popped up: kidney failure and cancer. And the problem there was that treating one would make the other worse and vice versa.

One day shy of four weeks after she stopped eating, we said good-bye at an animal hospital in Glendale.

Shadow

I had been told originally that Dazé was an American Eskimo and West Highland Terrier mix, although we didn’t have doggie DNA tests back then. Still, I searched online for those two breeds and available dogs, and found exactly one: An Eskie/White German Shepherd mix with an organization called German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County.

They had assumed she was part Eskie because while she looked like a white GSD, she was a lot smaller — about 35 pounds — and she was around a year old. But I was smitten, applied, had the interview and home inspection, and then was approved.

Two volunteers brought the dog to me. Her rescue name was Marina, and her initial reaction to me could not have been more different than Dazé’s.

The volunteers snuck out, and Marina refused to have anything to do with me. She went out on the patio and curled up in a corner, keeping a wary eye on me, and nothing I could do would get her to come in.

It gave me major flashbacks to my mom wanting to return Dazé. Had I made a huge mistake? So I decided to just ignore the dog and go about my business. Little did I know that this was exactly the right decision.

Eventually, I was in my bedroom when I heard the jingle of her dog tags at the door. Without looking at her, I sat at the foot of the bed, then just patted the space next to me. It took a while, but then I felt her jump onto the bed and come over and sniff me, and then she sat next to me.

That was the moment she decided that I was okay, and then became clingy as hell for the rest of her life — and that was okay.

Now, my parents’ choice of the name Daisy was totally arbitrary and something that had always bothered me, because that girl was way too tough for that name. If it had been my choice, I might have gone for something like Athena or Boudica.

So I decided that I was not going to call this girl Marina, but that I would also wait a week so that she would let me know what her name would be — which she very quickly did.

For one thing, she followed me everywhere, like my shadow. She also had the ability to suddenly appear in a room without making a sound, like a shadow. Finally, on walks at night, she would stop and stare into the shadows.

So… Shadow she was.

Personality wise, she was pretty much the opposite of Dazé. She was nervous and insecure and, like I mentioned, very clingy. She was still very smart, but definitely had separation anxiety. She also wasn’t great around strangers and could have fearful aggression toward other dogs — although I eventually figured out that a big cause of that was me being worried that she would show fearful aggression.

Dazé sometimes slept on the bed with me, while Shadow always did, or at least tried to. See, Dazé understood the rules: When daddy is having sexy time, I stay in my bed. Shadow, not so much, and even though we’d banish her beforehand, more often than not we’d suddenly become aware of her very quietly trying to sneak up onto the foot of the bed.

Like I said, clingy. Probably her most notable example of that happened whenever we had either thunderstorms (rare here) or fireworks (not so rare.) She would start shaking uncontrollably, then come to me and get on my lap.

Now, while she was entirely capable of just jumping up onto my lap while I was sitting at my desk, she wouldn’t do it under these circumstances. Instead, she’d put her front legs across my lap, and then laboriously climb the chair until she was up there, where she would sit and tremble.

I did manage to get her over thunder, though, by turning it into a game. We were in my second bedroom office (back when I had two bedrooms) during a storm, so I opened the blinds so we were looking at the street in front of the apartment.

When I saw a flash of lightning, I would happily tell her, “Here it comes. Here it comes,” and so on, then, when the thunder hit, I’d go, “Yay!” while hugging her. After a few tries, it actually seemed to do the trick.

There is some overlap between Shadow and Sheeba, but I’ll get to that in the next part. Suffice to say that Shadow taught me more by being not quite so perfect than Dazé ever did by definitely being perfect.

And, unlike Dazé, Shadow’s decline was not quick. She had suddenly started losing weight despite maintaining the same diet, so over the course of a few months, her vets tested her, and ruled out everything. She didn’t have cancer, or pancreatitis, or any kind of organ failure.

Yet… it got to the point where I had to swap her collar for Sheeba’s, because Shadow had gotten too skinny for hers to not slip off of her head. The inconclusive tests went on for well over a year until the morning I woke up and Shadow had lost all control of her legs and was stuck on the floor by the closet, having soiled herself.

I took her to the vet and they told me that there was nothing to be done. It was time. As with Dazé before, I absolutely insisted on being with her at the end, and I made sure that Sheeba was there, too.

And just like with Dazé before and Sheeba after, I had no qualms whatsoever about crying like a baby in front of both strangers and the staff at the Pet Doctors.

Shadow was a special girl because she leaned so heavily on me whereas Dazé had been so independent. Probably not a surprise, either, that she had the shortest lifespan of any of my dogs. But the thing she most reminds me of now in thinking about her is that yes, eventually the pain of loss does go away. It just takes time.

Sheeba

Which brings us to number three dog, and probably the most interesting of the bunch. Because of Shadow’s separation anxiety, I decided that she should probably have another dog around the house, so I headed over to the East Valley Animal Shelter to see what was there. This was the day before Labor Day, and I was immediately smitten by a small black dog  with a white “sword” on her chest and “spats” on her feet — if you’re paying attention to the pictures, you’ll see that I definitely have a “type.” What most struck me about her was that she seemed so calm despite being in a shelter, just sitting there by the front of the kennel, hanging out.

They estimated that she was about eleven months old.

I didn’t even find it out until later, but I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in, which is impressive thing number one. Number two: Apparently, she had been thrown out of a car. I didn’t find that part out until after I’d adopted her.

Oh, right. There was a waiting period until she was available, but you can bet your ass that I was in line at the shelter the second it opened at 7 a.m. the following Friday, and the dog who didn’t even have a shelter name came home with me.

This was before I worked for Cesar, but somehow I knew enough to not just shove Sheeba into Shadow’s space, so a friend took her in at first because step number one had been having her spayed, and she needed some healing time.

What I also didn’t know then is that it’s a very bad idea to put two female dogs together, related or not, and it should only be two males or a male and female. Oops.

In what we called the Dog House, with the four big dogs, two were male and one was female, so I suppose that worked things out, although Toad was also female, and Dazé did meet her as a puppy, although she still pulled shit on her.

Anyway, we finally introduced the two on a walk. By this point, following my “one week to name” rule, I had settled on Sheeba — using that spelling so it would have the same number of letters as Shadow — and for me it fit because, more than anything, Sheeba just seemed to have a calm and very regal air about her.

She always kept her head up proudly while sitting or lying prone, and there was just always something in her eyes that expressed some vast and ancient wisdom. This girl knew.

She was also always pretty aloof when it came to physical affection. She was never cuddly, and I could never get her to sleep on the bed. She was also never into toys at all. Play fetch? Sorry, that was beneath her.

But she excelled at hanging out with humans, and over the years she was the one — not Shadow (who was too nervous) — who came to various writing groups and rehearsals and to my box office shifts at ComedySportz (until another bitch said “No”)

I did bring Shadow to work as well while I was at the Dog Whisperer, although, again, she was definitely freaked out by it. Sheeba was… fascinated.

Everyone who ever met her loved her, and I can’t count the number of times a stranger on the street would complement her looks.

What did confuse people, though, was that the white dog was Shadow and the black dog wasn’t. I got tired of explaining how that came to be.

Once Shadow was gone, I couldn’t have been more grateful to have Sheeba around the house and, again, while she never was really cuddly, she did fall into a routine with me, and tipped her hand a couple of times that, yeah, she really did love me.

She did show excitement whenever I did come home from work after those times I couldn’t take her, and this led to one of her nicknames: “Monkey.” This came about because I’d come in the back door and hear her from the bedroom letting out excited sort of squeals that sounded like a monkey’s call.

One of the things I most loved doing with her was taking her to the dog park, because she would alternate between engaged and aloof. Sometimes, she would take off running to romp and play with the other dogs and just have a hell of a time. Others, she’d meander off on her own and take a long time to wander around the edges of the park by herself, investigating and sniffing everything.

And, every so often, after she’d wander a good bit away, she’d stop and look around until she spotted me, and then come running back.

Out of the three of them, her decline was the fastest. She was fine and doing well until the Tuesday evening before the end. That night, she started wandering around the apartment aimlessly, stopping to stare into corners, or trying to walk into narrow spaces between furniture and the walls.

Neither of us slept much that night, as I had to keep helping her go back to her bed. Wednesday morning she seemed better, but then that night it was more of the same and, this time, she started to get wobbly on her back legs.

Thursday morning, I actually did get her outside for a walk, but after she peed, she went a few steps and her back end plopped down. I had to carry her inside. The rest of the day, I was helping her up constantly and, tough little girl that she was, she refused to stay in her bed where she’d be safe.

I also noticed that she hadn’t eaten since Tuesday, and when I tried to give her food or water by hand, she’d only just flick her tongue at it instinctively, but not drink or eat anything.

Friday morning, I called her vet and the earliest they could see us was at 3:50 in the afternoon. I spent the longest day of my life just hanging out with Sheeba, bringing her up onto the couch with me to cuddle and comfort her, and otherwise trying to make her comfortable.

At 4:44 p.m., it was done and she was gone, and I came home to a house that has been the emptiest of any place I’ve ever been. Yes, it doesn’t help that this happened during lockdown. Then again, my dogs never have the best timing.

Will there be a dog number four? Oh, yeah. Inevitably. I just don’t know how soon.

Sunday Nibble #7

Okay… my dog is one little badass. Here’s the story. I came home Monday night, which is one of my two stupid-long days on which I don’t come home until close to fourteen hours after I leave. So I come home last Monday night to find Sheeba lying on her side on the living room floor, trying desperately to get up by slapping her left paw on the floor, and I freak.

I mean, I have no idea how long she’s been lying there. This could have happened five minutes after I left, or five minutes ago. I try to help her up, but she has no traction and her feet slide out from under her on the hardwood floor. I finally have the insight to make the floor not-slippy, so I grab a big bath towel and spread it out, then lift her up and get her onto that.

Some success. She manages to stand, a little wobbly, so I lead her off hoping to take her on her walk, but as soon as she’s on wood… splat. Figuring that the problem is the floor, I get her leash, put it on her, then pick her up and carry her outside and set her on the grass and, indeed, she’s suddenly much more stable, manages to pee, and we take a bit of a walk until, suddenly, plop. Her back legs drop her on her ass.

I carry her home and wonder, “Okay, is this it?” Because, unfortunately, if it’s anything that costs anything, I can’t afford it right now. I bring her inside and put her to bed and spend a lot of the evening crying.

Now, oddly enough, because some of the maintenance crew is coming in on Tuesday, I’m going to have to leave Sheeba shut in the bedroom, which I consider a blessing in disguise. She won’t have the chance to wander out and strand herself in the living room. So I move her food and water into the bedroom, put towels down so that she has a non-slippery surface to walk on, leave a note on the door in Spanish and English saying “Please don’t come in,” and head off to work.

When I come home, she’s still in bed, and it looks like she hasn’t really moved all day. And despite my urging, she tries to get up, but can’t. And it puts me back in my funk. About a half an hour after I get home, I look in and see that she’s stood and moved toward her bowls, but isn’t eating, then watch as she goes back to bed.

I do the only thing I can, go back to my desk in the living room, but about a half hour later, I hear her tags rattle, look over, and she is standing in the bedroom doorway and giving me this look as if to say, “Yo. Forgetting something?”

I go to the kitchen to get her leash and poop bags and although she’s moving haltingly, she is walking, and makes it into the kitchen, and this is when I’m reminded how damn amazing she is.

This girl is Uma Thurman in the “Move your pinkie” scene in Kill Bill. She’s the one who pulled herself from “can’t even move my ass” to “Here I come.” And the only help I had to give her after that was to pick her up and carry her down the steps and then back up. Otherwise, she took her damn sweet time enjoying a stroll and sniffing everything, and not once falling down.

Once we came back in, she wandered around the apartment, and it was almost like she was practicing and exercising, and willing herself to get better. And I swear that when she caught me looking at her in amazement, the look she gave me back was, “What? I got this.”

And she did, plus she left me in complete fear on Monday night of having to finally say good-bye and have the vet give her the blue juice to thinking, “Okay, no. This bitch is going to fight to the end.”

She turned fifteen last November, which means that she’s about 78 in human years — no, it is not seven years per year for dogs, sorry. But I really swear that she’s going to pull a Betty White on me, and that’s a good thing. No. It’s a great thing.

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Game night therapy

While it’s generally agreed that animals play, there’s not agreement on why. For a long time, the theory was that play was preparation for adult survivial — learning how to hunt and kill, bonding with specific animals for life, and so on down a long list. Other researchers say no. Play behavior doesn’t confer any of those benefits, but it can have an immediate psychological effect of relieving stress, even if it’s an adult animal that never played as a juvenile.

Humans definitely play games, though, and we make up rather complicated ones. As a member of that species, though, I can definitely say that we play games for a number of reasons, but the main ones are that they’re fun, they are a bonding experience, and they allow us to experience potentially high-stakes loses at no actual cost, at least if we’re not in a casino.

Nobody is losing real money at Monopoly, or Clue, or Chutes and Ladders, or any of however many countless board or card games we’ve invented.

Speaking of cards, though, I have a group of friends that I frequently play Cards Against Humanity with, and one of the ironies is that we are one of the more liberal and progressive bunches you’ll ever meet. But somehow the challenge of coming up with the worst possible non-PC play in the game is kind of the point. In a way, I think it actually armors us against thinking like people who’d agree with some of the combos that come out.

So there’s that “practicing to be an adult” angle, if we realize that the game generally teaches us exactly the wrong things to think, do, or say.

Case in point, to paraphrase just one of the plays from tonight, the question card was “The blind date was going terribly until we both discovered our shared love of _________.” The winning answer was “Auschwitz,” and the person who chose it as the winning card for that round happened to be a Jewish American currently living in Berlin. In fact, his immediate response to seeing that card was to lean back laughing his ass off in that “Oh my god, this is terrible” way that I’m sure we’ve all felt.

But now a slight interlude before I move on to a further salient point on humans and games. Tonight’s Card’s Against Humanity match included the inaugural use of a new set, Cards Against Star Wars, and I have to say that the group opinion of that set was very… lackluster. It had typos and grammatical errors galore, not to mention our quick consensus that there’s no way in hell Disney would have even licensed this and there’s not enough fair use coverage as parody for it to happen. I mean, the cards in this box were as raunchy as anything else from CAH. Then again, a number of them seemed to be free of Star Wars references and just quoted CAH cards.

Since we were playing with all of the CAH decks my friends own, we saw more than a few .repeats of generic, non-themed Cards against Star Wars picks. We were speculating on how it happened. Maybe they had to rush this one out to meet a Christmas deadline? Maybe they had it made cheaply in a country where English isn’t the first language for a lot of workers? (Since a lot of the spellings were British, we thought maybe Hong Kong or Singapore, although they mostly tend to be well educated in that city and that country.

Once I got home, two minutes of internet research revealed that… it’s not an official expansion pack at all. It’s not on the CAH site, but Amazon turns up a bunch of sets with blatant typos in the listings and box art — Cads Against. Cames Against. With both Star Wars and Disney as the targets.

My friends were just as relieved as I was when I shared the news. Our faith in (Cards Against) Humanity was restored.

Still, despite all of that, tonight was an important gaming evening first because it was a birthday pre-party (nearly a week in advance), and second because it gave me the chance to bring together good friends from various times and places in my life who had never met before, and then I got to watch them connect and bond. In one particular case, it was almost like destiny happening. A writing friend of mine had moved to a foreign city five years ago (with great success) and it just happened to be a place an actor/director friend of mine has plans to move to this summer, so they networked like hell, and I got to watch actor/director friend be handed the road-map to do exactly what he wants to do.

Meanwhile, surrogate big sister really hit it off with surrogate little brother (except he should be big brother when it comes to the emotional maturity) and within about ten minutes, this group of insiders (to me) and outsiders (to each other) bonded and it was glorious to see.

Now what I have to wonder is this: Did it happen because I only befriend certain types of people? Or did it happen because the people I tend to befriend are generally cool as fuck?

Maybe a little of both? But the best (pre)birthday present tonight was spending time in a room full of people I love and, thanks to games, getting to know them better.

And that is probably the true function of game play in humans: To bond with the ones you love and rely on, and know that when you’re playing with loved ones, you really can’t lose one way or the other.

Which is why we all need to arrange for and have a regular game night with friends in our lives. Whether it has minimal equipment, like charades or poker night, or it’s something as complicated as Risk or DnD or Settlers of Catan, or whatever… find friends who are into it, get together to do it, invite other friends outside the circle, and watch as magic happens.