The word varmint has become an integral part of my lexicon in the last 15 months. Aside from the words calamity and Ben, I may have used varmint as a hashtag more than any other. It peppers my conversation now, and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I think my life is richer for the presence of the word varmint. Thus, Varmints, The Thesis was born in my second year of my MFA program.

Because who doesn’t want to read about animals?

Dogs and cats are the obvious choice for animal stories, and the bookstore has the titles to prove it. Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul. Simon’s Cat Gets Neutered. 101 Tales of Noble Pets Guaranteed to Make You Sob Like a 20-Year-Old Who’s Just Been Dumped by Wren, the Grimy Hipster Guy Who Makes Organic Soap Out of Sheep Snot. These are just a few of the titles you can find in the “schmaltzy dogs” section.

Schmaltzy dogs dominate the animal storytelling industry. Show me a movie about a dog that doesn’t end one of two ways: a) with Rufus getting hit by a car or taking a bullet for little Bobby and dying with quiet dignity while his humans wail, or b) with the final scene revealing that Rufus actually survived the shooting/road rash and, as the crescendo builds, he limps over the rise in the dusty driveway and drags his ever-loyal hindquarters down the lane to the waiting arms of Billy. Er, Bobby. Whatever I called him. That’s the MO for dog stories.

But if we pull back a bit, we can see how much room there is for a whole complement of animal stories that don’t revolve around young Bobby’s flat cat. We cross paths with animals every day, as soon as we leave the house. And, for most of us, those animals are urban critters like squirrels, crows, and deer.


That time Mama Rat brought out her babies and
then I poisoned them all.

The word has a distinctly negative connotation. The very definition of varmint is “a troublesome animal.” People dedicate time on weekends for varmint hunting. You can walk into Cabelas right here in Wheeling and buy a varmint rifle. Go to YouTube and check it out, if you have the stomach. I normally do not, but when I was doing varmint research for my thesis, I found a British varmint hunter with a channel on which he posts videos of his nocturnal rat hunts at the family dairy. I don’t begrudge him a rat hunt. God knows I’ve had my share of trouble with rats, and poison is a far worse idea because it works its way out into the food web, into hawks and owls and such. In the video, he scopes them and shoots them. The only part of the video that truly disturbed me was when he said he pops them right in the brain so they don’t suffer. Then, he zooms in on a dying rat who is clearly having a grand mal seizure, and he says, “See? He’s not in any pain.” And the rat thrashes. But, it’s a rat. And the death of a rat is far more complicated–ethically–than Old Yeller’s.

Skippy, the groundhog who lives under the porch.

That’s why I like varmints. They really stir up complicated thoughts about morals and ethics. And, more importantly, the varmints pull the curtain back on a very interesting phenomenon and a very sad one: as we see to it that our megafauna disappear, these adaptable little critters fill the empty void. Megafauna have highly specific needs. The mountain lion, for example. The wolf. These are predators who used to populate Appalachia, and they were responsible for controlling deer populations. But, as humans always do, we came in and tinkered with the lion and wolf populations (translation: we killed them all). Now the deer run rampant and eat my hosta every night and my garden looks like shit.

But what we’re really doing is making room for the varmints. And though we’ve waged war on
varmints in the same manner that we waged war on the apex predators, the varmints reproduce quickly and adapt easily. Ever have a raccoon problem? I do. I caught two little jerks in my fish pond this summer at 6am. I went out into the dark to feed the cat and there they were, red-handed in my pond, reaching for my fish. They’d unscrewed the lids on my koi food and dumped it all into the water, and they’d thrown the cans into the neighbors’ yard. My father came over when he heard the commotion and told me to call Critter Control, to get those two varmints out of there.

I declined to do so. First of all, my dad thought that the critter guy would just release them in a happy forest where they could go on to lead a life of raccoonly fulfillment. Not so. I know from past experience that the law dictates a trapped raccoon must be destroyed. But let’s say for the sake of the discussion that I was okay with that. After all, raccoons aren’t in short supply. Nobody is going to miss two trouble-makers. What’s the harm in making them disappear before they eat my big, beautiful koi?

Busted in the fish pond.

There’s no harm, outside of my own moral compass. But I’d be flushing my money down the toilet. What did I learn in a year of research for Varmints: The Thesis? I learned that there is always another raccoon. Always. Another. An endless supply of little masked bears waiting in the wings. The raccoon you saw this morning isn’t necessarily the raccoon you saw yesterday morning. The trash raccoon may be a different fellow from the pond raccoon. So yes, I can call the critter guy and have him trap and destroy my pond offenders. Another raccoon will arrive shortly, taking up the mantle of his koi-snatching, trash-digging relatives.

This is why varmints are so successful. There are always more of them. Moreover, varmints are endlessly adaptable. In this article from Lousisiana Sportsman, the author reports on the state’s feral hog problem. The gist of the article is that feral hogs have surpassed white-tailed deer in terms of what hunters bag, and that the hog has lots of hoglets (er, piglets) and most of them survive. They’ll eat anything.

Now, granted, feral hogs are a different category of animal from deer and raccoons and possums. Hogs were introduced to North America back in DeSoto’s day, while raccoons have been here for ages. Raccoons are a native species. But the point is that varmints adapt, and do so quickly. That’s precisely why they become varmints. They’re just fine with whatever changes we make. The big beautiful animals can’t hack life with the humans, but the critters we love to hate thrive right under the porch. Grilling out tonight? Guess who’s licking the drippings after you go to bed? Erecting a little storage barn down by the tomato garden? Way to provide a solid roof over their heads down in their hidey holes. Varmints. You can’t piss ’em off. You can’t drive ’em away.

Research from the 1960’s.

I envision a future, sometimes, that’s pretty bleak. But it’s not one too far out of the realm of possibility. Imagine us in fifty years. We’ve triggered the collapse of the oceans. We’ve deforested the shit out of our own country, to say nothing of the Amazon. Water quality sucks. Obviously the black bears aren’t doing so well. The Yellowstone wolf project was a huge failure–we shot them all when they tried to eat our sheep. Now look at the coyote population. It’s exploded. We have coyotes coming out of our asses. We try to shoot them; they just keep coming.

Because they’re varmints, and they’re thriving. And on so many different levels, you’ve got to respect raccoons and varmints in general. They’re adaptable. They’re successful. They’re bound and determined to make a life in a place that seems harsh and unfriendly. They’re up for meeting a challenge even if it claims their lives. And they’re driven to take advantage of every situation. that. In calm moments when you’ve finished picking up the scattered trash and pulled the severed frog’s head from the pond waterfall, consider how well these creatures reflect human beings.

It’s is interesting, isn’t it? When humans take advantage of every situation, we’re bold. Explorers, meeting our manifest destiny. By God, we conquered that wilderness and made a life for ourselves in the great unknown. Sure it was risky, and many of us died. But we made ourselves fit.

Slappy, our resident fox squirrel.

Now consider a varmint doing the same thing: the rat who moves into the basement because he and his buddies can survive the winter. The groundhog who lives under the porch next to the dryer exhaust. The possum who eats the leftovers in the dog bowl on the deck. The raccoon who snacks on my big, beautiful Japanese koi. It’s not manifest destiny. It’s a series of offenses punishable by death. And yet, like the Europeans who marched across this country and decided that they belonged, the varmints like it here. It’s slightly risky living but the rewards are glorious.

A.B.C. Whipple wrote about Canada geese in his book, Critters, noting that many geese have eschewed migration for a cushier life overwintering in city parks. It’s easier than flying south, the geese have decided. The Canada goose is the only species we know of that has actually overridden its evolutionary urge to migrate. Stop and think about that. Think about migration. Some animals migrate knowing they’ll die at the end of their journey, knowing that the trip will be hazardous and exhausting. Monarch butterflies take four generations to complete a full cycle of migration. But the Canada goose has decided within the last hundred years not to migrate. Boom, just like that. How cushy must life be among the humans for a species to make such a mind-boggling change, to override evolution itself?

Sweet Pea, the deer I stupidly hand-feed.

I want to say it’s not easy being a varmint, that they take a huge risk in affiliating themselves with humans, in living on the fringe of our society. But it’s not really true, is it? First of all, they don’t live on the fringe. Let us not pretend they aren’t under our feet at all times, or under the porch, or watching us from beneath the yew bushes. More importantly, we’ve all but invited them in. Our existence is too easy to ignore. The rewards vastly outweigh the risks of hanging around with the human crowd. Sure, once in a while you end up in a trap, bound for an unsettling fate. Occasionally, you get popped in the brain by a trigger-happy Brit with a night-scope. Once in a while, the Roberts’ German shepherd roughs you up in front of your buddies, leaving you to limp home beaten and bedraggled. It’s doesn’t matter. You’ll be back. And if you aren’t, your kin are waiting in the wings to take your place a thousand times over. You’ve adapted. You’ve become a part of the landscape, the ecosystem. These humans aren’t going anywhere, and neither are you.
Homo sapien

Varmints, you’re golden.

I Won’t Stand for This

I’m typing this blog standing up.

And I hate it.

Sure, it worked for Hemmingway and Kierkegaard. Smithsonian Magazine says the average office worker spends five hours and forty-one minutes each day sitting, sending those sitters hurtling towards diabetes and cancer, and that sitting is the new smoking. But still I’ve tried to ignore the growing movement to get us all to stand while we write/work/type. Standing is an awful pastime. Whether or not it aligns my spine, it hurts my lower back. It hurts my knees and the bottoms of my feet. I’ve never been a stander but rather that awkward adult in the corner of the waiting area outside the restaurant who’s plopped herself down on the dirty floor.

Hey Chairy! Today’s secret
word is “chiropractor.”

I got the most wonderful writers’ chair for Christmas a few years ago, to get me through some serious computer time in grad school, and I’ve finally reached the point where my ass has hollowed out just the slightest impression (not because I have a small ass but because it’s a really good chair that doesn’t cave under my weight) and I fit all snugly (and snuggly) in there. This chair comforted me during the long hours of grad school, when I sat staring at my unfinished thesis feeling like a loser and a hack. This chair held me in its warm leathery embrace for two years. It supported me during my thesis defense, quietly, in the background, gently rubbing my gluteal muscles that had tensed into lumps of granite.

God dammit, this chair loves me. And now I’m just supposed to stand up and shove it away? I’m supposed to shun it? To turn my back quite literally upon it while I go on with the work it carried me through?

That’s cold, man.

But the chiropractor won’t have it any other way. Stand, he told me. You will stand. That’s your homework assignment. Stand. Stand and write, lest ye be hunchbacked and askew. Sure, I’m still supposed to sit, sometimes, and this caveat actually further complicates his orders. Now, not only do I have to have a stand-up desk, but I have to have a place where I can retreat to sit as well.

I’ve been getting massages for several years now for my wretched neck. Perhaps this falls under my fibromyalgia diagnosis, perhaps it’s just a function of poor spinal health, but at any given time my neck is quietly harboring a minimum of four giant knots. Most people’s knots can be rubbed out, broken up with pressure, an iron will, and the Lamaze breathing one massage therapist told me to implement during her “therapy.” Ever had a giant knot worked on with intensity? It brought me to the point of tears and puke. I’m thankful to have found a massage therapist now who believes that pain does not heal pain, and she takes a far softer approach and really keeps me running (metaphorically). The thing about these knots is that they don’t break up very well. The big ones have been squatting on the property for so long that the tissue has grown accustomed to being knotted and seems to have some sort of sadomasochistic desire to remain in a state of perverse contortion, which of course brings me nothing but intense pain most of the time.

Two stools and four copies of my thesis work pretty well.

My neck has swallowed up a huge chunk of my life since it began acting up right after Andy was born. I’ve gotten hundreds of massages. I’ve had cortizone injected into the hearts of the knots. I’ve had acupuncture and been dry needled–a procedure during which a physical therapist inserts an acupuncture needle into the knot and jerks it up and down, eliciting a twitch response in the muscle (i.e. it contracts like a mother fucker and then is supposed to chill out and relax, but of course mine never do). I’ve had therapy and been given stretches. I’ve rolled on balls. I’ve rolled on foam rollers. I’ve bought an s-shaped green thingy that allows me to dig into my own knots. I’ve taken enough muscle relaxers to stop a heifer’s heart and enough ibuprofen that the lining of my stomach is sending me signals that it’s ready to die with dignity. I’ve seen four chiropractors (one of whom went on to break my mother’s rib when I recommended him to her), been heated and electrically stimulated. I’ve said, “I feel much better, thank you” and then gone home to lift nothing more than a kitchen chair and ended up in agony again. I’ve lain in traction and hung upside down. I’ve put my legs up a wall. I’ve had my kid rub my neck for a quarter and slathered expensive essential oils all over my skin. I’ve burned the imprint of a heating pad into my flesh.

Nothing has ever offered me permanent relief. After ten years, that really starts to bog a person down. Long drive? Neck pain. Rough night of sleep? Neck pain. Spent 2 seconds looking under the bed for a shoe at a weird angle? Neck pain. Planted a flower? Neck pain. Walked the dog? Neck pain.

And of course, the neck pain has evolved into severe headaches, pinched nerves, shoulder pain, and TMJ disorder (for which an oral surgeon happily offered to break my jaw and reposition it on my face to correct the problem). I’ve swiped so many cards and written so many checks that I could have bought a catamaran by now. A big one. With one of those fun nets in the front where you bounce up and down.

This is utterly ridiculous.

But ultimately, nobody can tell me why this is happening on repeat. The rheumatologist mutters about fibromyalgia. The chiropractor tells me I spend my life with my neck in flexion–bent forward and down. He says, “You’re a writer. That’s bad.”

Tell me about it, dude.

I can’t do much about an autoimmune issue, but I can work on my spine. Technology is evolving far faster than the human body ever could. We’ve taken hundreds of thousands of years to reach this point in our physicality. Cell phones went from flimsy, flippy things to tiny computer screens overnight. Shorter laptops became more popular than taller desktops. Texting. Candy crush. Facebook mobile app. All we ever do is look down, all the time. And for those of us who work on a computer, who spend hours every day working on some god-forsaken essay or tax document or legal brief, there’s no way around flexion.

So, in addition to the $79 keyboard I’ve added to my laptop so I can raise the computer itself to eye level, and in addition to the stand-up desk I’m going to buy for some ridiculous price, I’ve been working–as instructed–on standing erect. (Eat your heart out, Homo habilis.) The result of constrant flexion, it would seem, is a head that sits too far forward on the shoulders. We’re all out of alignment, out of whack. My massage therapist notes my weak neck muscles and has given me an exercise to strengthen them, and I also work at simply standing straight. That’s a tall order for a head that’s been leaning forward for 20 years. Those back muscles are terribly weak, and when I remain in that proper position for more than 10 minutes they start to scream and throb. Small steps I take in this position, small increments of time. After all, you don’t build beefy pecs by grabbing 400 pounds and holding it up over your chest for three weeks because eventually, you’ll tire and break your face.

It’s a shame to think that human bodies are all eventually going to crap out due to our lifestyles. There’s really no way to avoid it, unless we’re off in the New Guinea jungle squatting to poop and climbing trees and doing things evolution designed our bodies for. And if we are there, we’d better watch the fuck out because there are cannibals lurking under every rock. I hear they won’t eat American necks, though. Too ropey. Anyway, we convenience ourselves more and more, make our lives comfier and more efficient. And the time we save Googling on our new LG V20 rather than driving to the library to look it up? We can apply that to our biweekly hour in physical therapy.


Eye of round roast cooking in a California red blend.

But back to this standing desk bullshit. While I’m hemming and hawing about what I’m going to buy, and if I am willing to pay for such a seemingly ridiculous setup, I’m working on cheap alternatives. I’ve got an angled stool and an Ikea uber-stool (it’s high) set up on the kitchen counter. For now, it’s the perfect height, and I fully expect my cheap ass to write this way for six more months before settling on a proper standing desk. Perhaps I’ll eventually learn to love my erectness, but for now, I absolutely hate it.

Except for the part about writing next to the crock pot. Every few paragraphs I can season my roast.

The Problem With Panther

Another cat post. Boy, this lady must really dig her cats, huh?
Honestly, I don’t think I’m a true cat person. I like cats. I enjoy cats. But my beating heart is 100% dog. While the rest of you are watching cat gifs, I’m watching dog gifs. I think perhaps it’s because my OCD brain–which tries so hard to figure each and every one of you out, and analyze why you just said to me what you did, for better or worse–needs a dog, an animal who, though not simple by any means, is not complicated in a moody teenager way. I understand dog. I speak dog. For years I’ve read about dog behavior. On a most fundamental level, dogs truly want to belong to us. Dogs are no longer wolves. Their society is our society; we came together 40,000 years ago. And though it was a mutually beneficial relationship that eventually spawned the collie mix snoring on the pillow beside me as I write this, let us not ever believe that the dog is a foolish creature because she is not a cat.

The domestic doodle

The dog showed up in wolf-form at an ancient human encampment, or more likely on the edge of it, to scavenge the scraps. In so doing, they deterred other predators from approaching. Gradually, both canid and hominid recognized the potential benefits of this relationship, and as braver and tamer wolves got closer to humans, the two species forged quite possibly the oldest interspecies relationship built on trust and love. It’s foolish to say that humans domesticated dogs; I think it’s far more likely that dogs saw humans as a very workable project. They’re a most opportunistic species–just look at the way Maya can’t stop herself from snatching a hot dog off the counter, the way Nugget cleaned out a bag of butterscotch chips the other day. If a dog sees a benefit, she’s not about to wait around, and no matter how much she wants to please, her dogginess tells her that she needs that wiener, just in case there won’t be another meal coming. Eat while you can, and trust that your soft ears and wagging tail will earn you the forgiveness of your person.

The dog fits well into our lives because she chooses to, because humans and dogs grew up together over the last forty thousand or so years. And thus, I think humans are good at speaking dog. I understand dog. I know why a dog does what she does. They fundamentally make sense to me, and the dog wants to make sense to her human. (Because if she makes sense, the human is happy, and a happy human offers food and love. And food.)
Cat, on the other hand, doesn’t give a shit. 
This is where cat loses me. Why, cat? Why don’t you give a shit?
Cats are opportunistic too. It’s just that ancient cats didn’t see us as a necessary part of the equation. William S. Burroughs wrote that “the cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.” How true. And while dog genetics are distinguishable from wolf genetics, cat and wildcat genes don’t offer the same level of distinction. They’re blurrier, indicating that the cat is only kinda, sorta domesticated. Any cat owner will confirm this. I have a cat-loving friend who refers to herself as her cats’ staff.
Cats don’t need us, really. They’ve been content to drift in and out of human lives, to cross paths with us when coincidence so dictates, making appearances on pyramid walls and in oil paintings from eras bygone. The dog in those paintings sits at the side of the monarch, his head in a lap, leaning, as they do, on a human leg. The cat in those paintings is off to the side, and probably disappeared long before the artist even finished opening his paints.
I have cats. I had two, until recently: Putter (Put-her, as in putter tat) and Gimli (Son of Gloin). I like the cats. They’re soft and meowy. Gimli is neurotic; Putter is more of a cuddle bug. She has moments of catly joy. But Putter also likes to pee on Ben’s rug when she gets angry. She likes to play and play and play and then bite. She gets offended when I sneeze and stalks out of the room with her butt parts exposed in my direction. 
She’s a cat. 
Now, enter Panther, who is a different sort of beast than my family is used to. The other two cats live strictly indoors, but Panther came to us as a homeless chap who had been living outdoors. He uses the bathroom outdoors. Like all indoor/outdoor cats, he must roam. He simply must. His urge to come inside is driven not by his desire to find love and physical contact with his humans (who have grown to love him) but to find his bowl filled upon demand. Let us not kid ourselves by thinking that Panther would have stayed with my family if we weren’t providing piles of food. 
And I do mean piles: he’s 18.5 pounds. 
I really do enjoy Putter and Gimli, but not on the same level that I love my dogs. Hence, the “dog person” label I’ve always worn. If the kids are the heart and soul of our family, the dogs are the lungs. We need them to help us take a moment to breathe. They’re right there in our midst, rolling on the floor with and snuggled up to our precious children. And now, suddenly, so is Panther. Unlike Putter and Gimli, Panther has inserted himself directly into the middle of the family unit. He’s here with the dogs. He doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be involved in our activities, in our living room moments. And like the employee who makes himself invaluable to the company by refusing to leave the office, Panther has so become a member of the inner sanctum in fewer than two months.
No matter his motives, that’s very dog-like, in a way.

But Panther isn’t a dog. Though he’s made it onto the living room couch, he still succumbs to his need to do cat things. The problem with Panther is that he’s a killer. In the last week I’ve pried a (sort of) live Goldfinch from his mouth and discovered a quivering, chewed chipmunk under the television stand. I hate this part of cats. I’ve always fed wild birds and squirrels. The activity at the feeders gets me through the long winters. Now, I hesitate to fill them up, as it might be akin to a flashing arrow that reads: Buffet Line Begins Here. Our yard, a hidden acre in the middle of Wheeling sheltered by silver maples, poplar, pine, and oaks, provides sanctuary for a huge range of wildlife, most of which is edible. As I mentioned in an earlier post, statistics indicate that domestic housecats kill between 3.7 and 6 billion wild birds each year. Billions.  
Frantic chipmunk in the bathroom

I don’t like those numbers. At times I think that Panther’s presence in our lives has ruined the chance for a healthy wild bird population out there. At times, I wish he’d bypassed our house altogether. 

He didn’t come home yesterday morning. Nightly, he vanishes into the yard when Shawn goes to bed, and I welcome him home in the morning with a bowl of meat. So when I blindly opened the door in the foggy dark and no warm form came barreling past my legs, announcing himself with a loud squawk, I was surprised. The sky lightened, and I drank my coffee and waited for him. As the kids ate breakfast I kept a vigil at the door (as much as I hate to admit that it was a vigil, I would be lying if I said otherwise). When the sun rose high, I walked the neighborhood, looking for a carcass on the streets around the house, but I found no trace of Panther. 

Since his arrival in our lives, I’ve warned the children that cats who go outdoors rarely live as long as indoor cats. They must run the nightly gauntlet of cars, coyotes, and other cats. Things happen. Some never come home, leaving their families always uncertain of their fate. But Panther is New Hampshire Cat: he chooses to Live Free or Die. And knowing this gave me a tiny but palpable slice of consolation as I waited for him to appear in the kitchen. At 2pm he finally limped in, crying. His breakaway collar was gone and x-rays revealed no visible fractures but did show a twisted ulna. He purred while they worked on him, while the techs shaved his paw and wrapped him in a splint. I saw a burly, furry-faced vet tech carrying him like a baby. (Cats purr when they are happy and content, but they also purr when they’re injured. This article in Animal Wellness talks about the idea that the vibration of the purr may actually induce healing in the cat body. “Interestingly, research has shown that exposure to frequencies at that same 20 to 50 Hz [as a cat’s purr] induces increased bone density, relieves pain and heals tendons and muscles.”
Miserable cat still manages to find his appetite

There’s nothing more pathetic than a cat in a cast. He hobbles around the house, desperate to get outdoors, back to his catly routine, but his pain levels keep him subdued. The evening after the injury, his breathing was sharp and ragged. He panted and drooled until his pain meds kicked in, and yet, every time I moved him, he purred as he endured the process. Thankfully, he’s accepted the litterbox as a substitute for the neighbor’s garden. 

The real problem with Panther is that I’ve developed feelings for him, stronger feelings than I expected. He gives me no indication that I am particularly high on his priority list. My number one job is to be at the back door no later than 6am with a can of Fancy Feast dished out and waiting. (The price for tardiness is steep: he trips me as I try to prepare his meal.) And yet, he appeals to me in a way that no other cat has before. He’s huge, and he’s butch, with his testosterone-fueled stud jowls. In every way he’s disrupted our lives. But he’s got a quality that my other cats lack, and I wonder if it’s a product of his former life as an orphan. There’s something about Panther that’s genuine, a quality I don’t see in a lot of cats. It’s not that they’re necessarily disingenuous because cats don’t pretend to be anything they aren’t. Panther, however, seems to possess a quiet gratitude for his recent adoption into our lives. Sometimes he looks at me, his eyes constantly runny and watering from what the vet thinks are allergies, and I see acknowledgment. And when I bend to kiss his forehead–something I have never done with Putter and Gimli because I’ve never been much of a cat-kisser–he bows his head down and parts his ears and offers up a robust purr. I think it’s a thank you.
Blissful domestication
and uneasy tolerance

Panther and I both feel uncomfortable with labels. I’m not willing to commit to a cat-person label, and he’s not sure he wants to wear the mantle of semi-domestication. As I type, his pupils are huge because he’s watching falling leaves and mistaking them for fluttering songbirds. Though he’s comfortable here on the couch, it’s only a matter of time before he’s back out there looking for his inner wildcat.