She loves me (but she don’t know why)

My mother, the incorrigible humanitarian she is, remains convinced that whatever connection dogs and humans have is based on humans projecting their emotions/expectations/desires on dogs. She seems to firmly believe that dogs are in no way differentiated from the rest of the animal kingdom, and treats them as such. Growing up, any family dog we had was neglected, isolated, and eventually put down when he/she ceased to “behave” properly.

 

Well, no shit. If you use the same glasses to look at dogs as you do to look at chickens, you’ll end up either blind, or putting down the dogs. Both, most likely. Why? Because dogs are unique. They’re pack animals; they need companionship. They need structure. They’re incredible interpreters of human will, capable of binding themselves permanently to their people much in the same way that lifetime human partners do, of grieving when they lose their family.  Recent research indicates that, rather than being tamed by humans, dogs and humans evolved together, mutually benefitting from each other’s’ independent strengths.

 

I believe that. As the owner (life partner?) of a big, goofy pup, I totally believe that. Lois, who turned two on Sunday, looks to me like a toddler looks to its mother: an independent, intelligent will, easily manipulated by comfort (read: cuddles and food, mostly food).  But loved, loved, loved, and appreciated nevertheless.

 

Indeed, dogs (even the smartest ones) seem to mature at about the mental capacity of two year old Homo sapiens. Lois, not the smartest of all canines, may not quite hit the learning curve that her more evolved counterparts do, but she displays common characteristics of young humans nonetheless. A constant need for physical affection. A desire for incessant praise. The need for reward for good behavior, and immediate, reasonable punishment for the bad. A stubborn desire to do whatever the fuck she wants, even if you’re calling her to come, and she looks in your eye, and knows exactly what you mean, and refuses to cooperate. A frustrating tendency to pee on the floor when you least expect it.  But she, especially as she gets older, comes when I call (unfailingly if I hold a piece of string cheese). She knows that I feed her, and when I say, “Want to go outside?!” that a really awesome treat is coming her way.

 

Once, I read online about dog intelligence tests. There were all these fancy ways to tell how smart your dog was, and just by looking as most of them, I was able to say, “Lois would never be able to do that.” One, however, seemed reasonable and feasible. You can, in theory, take a hand towel and drape it over your dog’s neck. The amount of time it takes them to figure out how to remove said towel corresponds with their intelligence (there was a time limit, I can’t remember exactly). I thought, “That’s easy enough. Let’s try.” I took the kitchen dish drying towel, called Lois close, and carefully draped the towel over her neck. She looked at me. I looked at her. She looked at me some more. I breathed. She breathed more loudly. I said, “Come on, Lois!” She breathed some more. We looked at each other some more. I clapped my hands. She wagged her tail. Then, with rampant abandon, she got bored and threw herself onto the floor with a desperate sigh. The towel remained in place. I snatched it off, shook my head, and poured myself a double shot of whiskey.

 

Lois has begun to display some of the early signs of hip dysplasia. Her back legs have ever so slightly begun to bow outwards like a lanky cowboy’s. She limps just a little when we come back from long, brisk walks (which, admittedly, don’t happen often—she doesn’t like them that much, and neither do I. We’d rather ramble slowly along Evanston’s sidewalks for an hour, take our sweet time, and then come home and take a nap. Along the way, she admires fire hydrants and piles of poop, and I admire houses and gardens).  I’ve placed her on a diet, consisting of less food, more often. We’ll see if that helps. I hope so.

 

If not, I’ll get her a hip replacement. Fuck it, I’ll get her two. Even if I’m not the best dog mommy in the world, my great big little Lois means the world to me, and I’ll keep her around as long as I can. She’s hairy, loud, shifty, sneaky, dumb, lazy, and I love her.

 

As she gets older, Lois’s personality is changing. Sometimes, she needs some coaxing to get up in the morning to pee (for some inexplicable reason, she sleeps between the bed and the wall with her face firmly wedged under the bedframe). She doesn’t jump on me anymore when I come home, although she’s still very excitable. If we turn around and come home from a walk sooner than she wants, she begins to growl and crowhop until I say, “Knock that shit off, Lois,” and then she actually does, promptly, knock that shit off. She eats less. She chews less. She sleeps more and snores more deeply. Her nightmares (of what? Chasing rabbits? Scaring the neighbors on the stairs?) become less frequent. She’s growing up.

 

I loved Lois as a puppy, and I’ll love her as a dog. It’s a testament to how much we trust each other when I say I want Lois to be alive when I have kids, and I know she’d equally love my mini-humanites. When we were at the beach last summer, and the little Mexican niños asked if they could look inside her floppy ears, and I let them, and she loved it, I knew she’d be a good baby dog. You know what? Now that I think about it, I knew way back when Chad and I took her to an outdoor patio restaurant and a baby just old enough to walk came right up to Lois, sat in her lap, and began to pull Lois’s face to and fro. Lois loved it, and she was maybe three months old.

 

Isn’t that weird? That I want Lois around for my kids the same way I want my friends and family? That’s because Lois is my girl. She’s my wingwoman, my sidekick, my best bud. She gets me and I get her. I wish she would live forever, keep me company till I get old, and then we can meander Evanston together at 1.3 MPH, because I know she wouldn’t rush me and she’d scare away all the ne’er-do-wells. She’d probably still lay down in the snow, mid-walk, just because. I’ll never be a little old lady, but maybe I’ll be a large old lady, and if we were large old ladies together, I’d lay down in the snow next to her, and we’d just be tired and snuggly and snowy together. It could happen. Right?

 

Lois and I are bonded through the invisible process of oxytocin release, that same mind drug that makes humans fall in love. When you pet a dog, your brains both explode in a total happy neurochemical Baker bomb of happiness. They get it, you get it, and it makes the tough, strong, intense connection that we silly humans call love.  Even if dogs (or my mom) can never quantify why they love us, they do. It doesn’t make it mean any less, or devalue the relationship between the two species. If anything, it makes it mean more.

 

Lois, I love you. You’re a total dumbass, and so am I. We get along in our stupid, goofy way because I’m a walking disaster and so are you. I pick up your poop, and you pick up my food spills. I scare away vacuums and hair dryers, and you scare away the neighborhood punks. I provide you with food, and you provide me with total destruction of all valuable property I own. We provide each other with companionship, female buddyhood, silent communication, and long moments of looking into each other’s eyes (you panting heavily, me drinking heavily) and we. get. each. other. We’d probably menstruate together if I hadn’t paid someone to scoop out your lady parts years ago (sorry about that). You didn’t like that guy who stopped us midwalk, asked for my number, and constantly harassed me thereafter. I should have trusted your judgment. Screw him, right? (nonliterally. You’ve never humped him and neither have I).

 

Happy motherfuckin’ birthday, girlfriend. May you have many, many more.

 

Love,

 

your mommy, best friend, roommate, and unintentional chew toy provider

Seven Boys and Me

I have seven brothers.

I used to say it for the shock factor. People were surprised even when there were only four boys, and their reactions grew correspondingly with the ever increasing physical embodiments of the XY chromosomal combination.

I remember I used to go with Mom to the ultrasounds. I wanted a sister so badly I was regularly dressing the youngest boys in my clear lip gloss and clip on earrings, pulling a large t-shirt over their shoulders so it hung like a dress. On at least one occasion, I remember crying bitterly when the nurse located a little phallic shadow and congratulated us on another boy.

Reactions from those I informed of my dire lack of sisters ranged from, “You must be so spoiled!” (HA!) to, “I bet you’re pretty tough, huh?” (sometimes) to, “I’m sure you help your mother out around the house” (you have no idea—according to my calculations, if beginning at age five I changed at least two children’s diapers thrice daily (although by the time I was ten it was more like three or four little dude’s bottoms needing wiping throughout the day), over the course of about ten years till the youngest was potty trained, that makes at least six diapers a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for a grand total of 21,840 diapers. That’s only including calculations for two kids, not including major baby diarrhea blowouts, waterlogged diapers that exploded all over the backyard in the summer, or toddlers who went through phases of taking off diapers just because. It also doesn’t count the kids who were potty trained during the day but still required nighttime assistance and the resulting cleanup. If I never have children, I will be sixty years old before I have changed one diaper for every day I’ve been alive.) There were also those who sagely assured me that when we grew up and stopped beating the shit out of each other, I would have seven devoted bodyguards who all happen to be well over six feet tall. I scoffed.

Happily, they were right and I was wrong. I could never completely and sufficiently express the extent of my love for my brothers, but I’ll tell you a little about these seven incredible men and you can judge for yourself whether they’re deserving of my abundant admiration (hint: I think you shall agree).

Before I can mention why they are so wonderful, you have to understand a little bit about our family as we grew up. First and foremost, we were homeschooled from infancy—a decision my mother made in part because she (rightly) thought public schools are frequently a rampant waste of time, and also partly because she was a well-educated woman who wanted to give her kids a good start (by the time we were five, we were all reading and writing well beyond our peers, and she encouraged us especially in the realm of math and science, so much so that I finished Calculus the first time at age 16). This meant the boys and I were constantly home, around each other, all the time. We played together, fought together, ate together, napped together, and basically existed in our own little Emery kid world. It was both awesome and miserable at the same time; as you can imagine, we got fairly sick of each other and fought constantly, but there were so many of us that you were basically guaranteed to have someone on your “side” in all conflicts.

On top of being homeschooled, we also moved a lot. By the time I left to my own apartment in college (the first time), I had lived with my family in ten different homes. (State College, PAàLogan, UTàSandy, UTàSomewhere I can’t remember the name of, CTàNorwalk, CTà Millersburg, KYà West Jordan, UTà West Jordan, UTà West Jordan, UTà Logan, UT.) This meant that our friend groups were frequently uprooted or broken up (in addition to regular accusations of “stealing” each other’s friends), which brought us even closer together. By the time we lived in Kentucky, the older kids were getting old enough to start being pretty good buddies more often than not. The boys began creating their own characters and worlds, whether based on people they knew in reality or no, and played off each other so efficiently and so hilariously that years later we still speak to each other in our various (probably obnoxious, always very funny) character demeanors.

Then, my parents divorced and a complicated five years followed where we hardly had any relationship with Dad; Mom feared we would follow him in his apostasy from the Mormon Church. She worked hard to inculcate in us strong notions of his debauchery, and only a few months after they separated (which literally consisted of Mom packing us into the car and driving to Utah from Kentucky without alerting Dad until we were well on our way), we were convinced he was a drug-addicted, cigarette smoking, frivolous money-spending whoremonger who would drag us down the path to hell. He only visited two or three times a year. Even when he did visit, I was so alertly on guard, watching for his sinful ways, and he was so virtually a stranger to us, that the visits tended to be short, awkward, and frustrating because there are only so many things you can do out of a hotel room in Utah. What’s more, because she seemed sure that Dad would do serious physical violence to her if given the opportunity, Mom always brought along a witness to our visits (Grandma, usually) just in case. I’m no psychologist, but my uneducated guess is that it’s not particularly healthy for a young child’s psyche if they’re seriously concerned that one parent intends to inflict egregious bodily harm on the other.  Fortunately, Dad never killed Mom and the visits saw us safely back home at the end of the weekend.

Near the end of our five-year tenure living exclusively under Mom’s stewardship, it was pretty clear things were not going well on the home front. One brother had long since moved to live with cousins in Arizona, one brother had been kicked out and lived with Dad in Pennsylvania, I had been kicked out for encouraging Dad to move to Utah, and one brother had been taken out of the home by child protective services. Until this point, Dad had never lived in Utah after the divorce because Mom insisted if he did so, she would take the kids and leave the state again; but things had gotten so bad that, at the encouragement of a close relative, Dad finally came to Utah in the summer of 2008. True to her word, before his furniture had even arrived, Mom disappeared with the four remaining children on an impromptu “vacation,” and turned up in North Carolina two months later, where they were going to remain forthwith (if you ask the little dudes about this time, they distinctly remember thinking it odd that the vacuum cleaner had to be packed in the car for a vacation).

An ugly three year custody battle ensued, with Dad finally earning custody of all of the kids under 18. We were in Utah. Mom stayed in North Carolina. Except for Sam, who went on a Mormon mission and then attended Brigham Young University, we were all living together again. But the period from when Mom and Dad divorced, all the way up until we were finally reunited, was a time of intense familial hardship. Even though we kids fought continually, we really learned to depend on and support each other. Whether that meant sneaking out to get “real food” when Mom frequently left us alone at the house, or buying clothes and shoes for each other, or creeping in blankets and pillows to the ones in trouble who had to sleep on the bare kitchen floor as punishment—we did it all, always to the best of our abilities. The big kids watched out for the little kids, the little kids looked up to the big kids, we all beat each other up here and there, and we are who we are now because of our past.

Which brings us to now. The oldest, Sam, is happily married to an excellent woman who’s baking a young girlchild due in July. The youngest, Jason, lives with Sam because Dad travels for work so much. I’m lucky enough to have two of my brothers, Nate and Matt, here in Chicago with me. Jared and Aris, self-sufficient in schoolwork and other aspects of their lives, live with Dad. Mike is almost done with college (he got a pilot slot with the Air Force! yay!) and lives in Logan still. We all talk fairly frequently, and holidays in Utah are momentous occasions for playing poker, eating enormous piles of food (happily prepared by yours truly), watching South Park, laughing our butts off, and, of course, fighting. When we all get together, it’s loud, it’s rambunctious, and it’s really, really, really fun.

And the most incredible thing about all of it—the divorce, the ensuing drama, the changes in custody and schools and etc.—it how sane we’ve all turned out (thus far, I guess). Seriously, though. I know I’m biased, but my seven favorite people on the planet are all smart, funny, loyal, hungry, funny, intellectual, wise, funny, kind, generous, and insanely funny. We’ve been through some crazy shit, but they’ve all turned out impressively well, and—what’s more—they’re nice to look at (see Exhibit A). Imageexhibit A, for your viewing pleasure

All this awesomeness translates to me having an unlimited supply of brotherly support. It means breakups aren’t the end of the world, because seven good strong men are always in my life. It means that if I have a shitty day, I can play Brother Phone Roulette and be guaranteed to be cheered up in no time. It means that, as I search for a partner to start my own family with, I can be sure that exactly the kind of man I want exists—having all the qualities I already listed—because I have empirical evidence seven times over.

So last night, pretty late in the evening, Nate and Matt and I are all hanging out at my apartment. We get the notion in our head that going out to the backyard and skipping rocks on the lake is a decent idea, so out we head. I’m entirely inept at rock skipping, and as an ardent sisterly admirer of everything my brothers do, I prefer to just sit and watch them. These two guys—tall, muscular, shocks of dark Emery hair sticking in all directions—vacuum the beach like six year olds for perfect skipping stones, emitting shouts of delight every time a “dude, look at this”-worthy rock is discovered. They’re trying to beat each other for best skip, farthest skip, longest throw. Matt picks up a ten pound rock and manages to skip it twice, to gleeful hoots and celebratory clapping from me and Nathan. I can’t hear everything they say, but they keep cracking each other up. The lake is practically still, and it’s cold enough that we have the park to ourselves. Orange lamplight floods the beach and tiny pricks of light on the black horizon are airplanes coming in to land at O’Hare. Every once in a while they fly over, dragging their loud whine, and quickly changing speculations of “Oh my god, it’s a—no wait, it’s bigger than—dude no, I swear that it’s—747!” ensue. I’m so happy sitting here watching them that if I weren’t slightly shivering, I could do it forever. Even still, I’m tempted to try.

Sometimes I’m plagued by the kind of motherly fears that come from being so incremental in their upbringing. I feel a very complicated sense of responsibility towards them (another subject for another time). What if one of them gets caught in a drive-by on their way to work? What if someday one of them becomes hooked on dangerous drugs, the plague of so many brilliant minds? What if a drunk driver, or gang banger, or careless teenager makes a mistake and takes one of my brothers away from me? Dreams of ridiculous accidents—Jason falling through the floor of an airplane midflight, Jared getting lost and freezing to death wandering around Logan barefoot in a snowstorm—wake me up with a pit in my stomach so sickening I can’t go back to sleep. It feels too real. These kids mean the world to me.

And all of this combined: our fierce loyalty to each other, our complicated, difficult lifetime of history, the complete assurance that nothing any one of us could do would ever permanently break our relationships—completely affects how I perceive family, especially after so many family members ostracized us when we left Mormonism. I can never take seriously when fraternity “brothers”, or coworkers, or any other group of nonrelated people who really don’t know each other all that well throw out the “family” word. “We’re like family,” I hear way too often, and all I can think is, “No, you’re not.” Until you’ve slept in the same room every night, bugged the living shit out of each other just because you can, punched each other for touching your toys, risked receiving serious parental consequences for each other, schemed with each other, fed each other, kept each other somewhat sane over weeks and weeks of being grounded on end—you’re not truly family. It absofuckinglutely blows my mind that any family lets money, or possessions, or education, or even religious differences separate them. Real family sticks around, treats each other right, overcomes differences because the relationships are worth it. Real family acts like my brothers always have.

I’ll jump off my didactic soapbox now, and say that for all intents and purposes, my brothers and I are readily on our way to the happily-ever-after part of the story. I think, I hope, the hardest parts of our lives are behind us already, and that moving forward we continue to grow and develop and foster nurturing, badass families of our own. Someday, when I’m ready, I’ll write the full story of everything that happened at Mom’s house, during the custody battle, and our almost unanimous exodus from Mormonism. Until then, I’m looking forward to everything that’s heading in our family’s direction. I have seven best friends, and I’m related to all of them. I’m a pretty lucky girl.