Inhuman Swill : Ella

How can you live with a dog,
with its lifespan of ten to fifteen years,
and not realize how quickly the clock
is ticking?

I think I've finally figured out how Ella can be all the way at the front end of our apartment and detect the presence of a squirrel in the back yard. Birds are the key. When a rodent invades their garden space, the sparrows set up a particular squawking racket that Ella has learned to associate with the presence of a squirrel. She hears that sound and charges toward the back door yipping and yelping like her tail's on fire.

Late one morning last week, alerted by one of these yelping fits, I rushed to the kitchen to open the back door for Ella. As usual, she tried to squeeze through the opening before it was wide enough for her. Then she clattered down the stairs from our second-story deck, and I could hear her charging around the yard like a wounded rhino. She started barking from near the gate at the side of the house, so I leaned over the railing to make sure the gate was shut.

What I saw when I looked down was a squirrel climbing past the security lights installed on the corner of our brick building. (I wished I had a camera but my iPhone was in the apartment, charging. The photo below is one I took a few minutes later.) Ella was on her hind legs, barking up at the squirrel. The moment the crafty little rodent saw me peering down at it, it changed direction and darted along the railing of the deck below ours.

I hurried toward the stairs, my only intent being to flush the squirrel in Ella's direction. (I'm a good wingman for her in that regard, as is Laura.) But the squirrel didn't stop when it reached the end of our downstairs neighbors deck railing. It launched itself through the air, over Ella's head, leaping six feet to snatch at the branch of a tree in the garden. In moments it had swarmed up the trunk of the tree and made its escape over the roof of the garage.

That left Ella whining and snuffling and rushing around the yard in frustration. I went back inside. A wingman can't do much to help when the prey slips away.

Squirrel's-eye view (sorta)

A couple of weird things happened yesterday. The first came relatively early, as Ella and I were out on our Sunday morning walk. Laura and I usually walk Ella together on Sunday mornings, but Laura had a cough and a fever so I was walking Ella alone. We try to walk her for a couple of hours on weekend mornings, to wear her out for the rest of the day. I took Ella on a long loop to the Lake Michigan shore (about a mile and a half from our house) to run around on the sand, then to a big adjacent park to chase squirrels.

At the doggie zoo We were on our way back home after nearly two hours out when Ella communicated to me that she would like to explore the alley we were passing. She did this by stopping at the mouth of the alley and looking down it pointedly. At this stage in our walks, I'm usually eager to get home so my custom is to tell her no and make her keep walking. But we had plenty of time that morning and I'd made her leave the park before she was quite ready, so I relented.

Ella spent a lot of time sniffing around a group of black plastic trash bins in the alley before she'd let me move on. Her fascination with squirrels is rivaled only by her fascination with rats, so I kept a close eye on her. We continued through the alley and then back up the next block where a squirrel with a peanut in its mouth taunted us from a tree behind a fence. Soon we were back on our original route home, but Ella tugged me into the next alley we passed. She made a beeline for another group of black plastic bins and darted into a gap between them.

I saw a little shadow with a naked tail flash through the gap. Ella struck, and when she drew her head back a rat the size of my fist was wriggling in her jaws.

Several things happened very fast all at once, or in such rapid succession that I couldn't tell any differently. I let out a low, loud, gutteral yawp of surprise and fear. The rat let out a squeaky shriek. Ella released the rat. The rat flew through the air, flailing all its limbs, and scurried away behind the bins.

I dropped to my knees to check that Ella was okay, that she hadn't been bitten. (Of course she hadn't—she would have yelped, I'm sure.) She was fine, if you ignored the look of utter disappointment and contempt she leveled at me. Ella has been chasing squirrels and rats and rabbits and even the occasional opossum or raccoon for all of her eight and a half years. This was the first time she had ever caught one.

And I yelled like a scared puppy and made her drop it. "Oh, Nice Bill," she seemed to say with the contemptuous expression she turned upon me. "Are you ever on my whatever-smells-so-bad-even-I-won't-go-near-it list now."

I swear to God, she pouted all the way home.

The other unsettling thing yesterday was something I saw while I was out biking. Laura and I are training for one of the crazier things we've ever attempted—RAGBRAI, a 7-day, 470-mile bike ride across Iowa this July. I'll post more about that another time, but suffice it to say that I've been doing my best to adhere to the recommended training schedule with increasingly long rides along the Chicago Lakefront Trail. Yesterday I was supposed to ride 25 miles, but since I'll be working in California for the next several days, I decided to push it to 36 miles instead, my longest day yet this year by far.

That was fine, but as I was rolling south on the outbound leg of my trek I saw a police SUV parked on the grass between Lake Shore Drive and the bike trail. Off to my left, a small yacht was beached in the choppy surf, rocking back and forth. Down the slope, a police officer was talking to two men who looked, at least from a distance, to be in shock.

I passed the scene, then pulled over and watched the yacht rock for a minute or two, waiting to see if anything else interesting would happen. I figured that two unlucky or foolhardy boaters had tried to get a little too close to shore and had run aground. I shot a brief video and continued on my way.

I reached a good turnaround spot a couple of miles later, at the 63rd Street Beach. We live way up on the North Side, and I had come 18.5 miles from home. Definitely time to go back. (Especially since my phone battery died while I was taking pictures there, and I wouldn't be able to text Laura for the rest of the ride to keep her apprised of my whereabouts.)

So I headed back north, into the wind (sob!). As I approached the site of the boating accident, I saw a Chicago Police boat not far offshore. Two officers in lifejackets were making their way like commandos toward the prow of the boat. The first one there picked up some kind of long boat hook and readied it over the water. I couldn't see anything in the water. Apparently they couldn't either, but this made me worry that someone had been lost overboard in the accident.

Virgin America - I feel like I'm taking off ... for the future! There were at least three police vehicles parked near the boat as I passed. I didn't stop this time, and I have no idea what happened before or after I happened on the scene. I haven't found any news reports about a boating accident. I suppose I might find something in the police blotter if I knew where to check on I keep thinking about that boat, though.

Anyway, I made my 37-mile round trip in about three hours. I'm a little stiff this morning as I sit composing this on my Virgin America flight to Los Angeles. More on this trip later.

Ella had a tough night, with thunder and lightning hunting for her in the early morning hours. I had a hard time getting her out the door at dawn for her walk. Then I had a hard time getting her out of the yard. Then I hard a hard time getting her down the block. It was no longer storming, but Ella well knows that the thunder is just lurking around the next corner, waiting to spring out of hiding and attack us. She can sense it.

Normally Laura or I will walk her for a full hour in the morning, but Ella and I had only been out for ten balky minutes this morning when I made a deal with her. (And she understood the deal. She did, at least the key words.) I told her that all she had to do was poop, and then we could turn around and go home. She trotted along after me after that, not happy but at least hopeful.

We reached a townhouse development where we frequently chase squirrels. She trotted along the short side of that block just fine, but then she balked when we reached the corner. She would not budge. She was done.

I try not to lie to our dog very often, but I was desperate to keep her moving and not compromise my authority (further) by turning us around. So I said, "Ella, there's a squirrel around the corner."

Nothing. She didn't budge.

"Wait, it's a rabbit. Rabbit, Ella!"


"Rabbit! Rabbit!"

Finally Ella's hunting urge overcame her thunder fear, and she raced around the corner, tugging me along by the leash.

And what do you know. There was a rabbit around the corner, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. We chased it half a block before it lost us in the bushes around someone's front porch.

Ella pooped about thirty seconds after that, and we headed for home. Thank you, rabbit. You kept my lie from destroying my credibility. You're the best.


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Dog at my knee Ella has now possibly ruptured her other CCL (cranial cruciate ligament, analogous to the ACL in humans). She's on tramadol for the pain (an anti-inflammatory would be better but they're really tough on her digestive system) and on limited activity for a week or more. This is actually good news, though, because when I described Ella's symptoms the vet's gut hypothesis was arthritis. Fortunately, the physical exam and X-rays did not support that diagnosis.

But those few moments of facing the prospect of arthritis only reinforce the sad knowledge that Ella is getting older. She's eight years old, well into middle age for a dog, and though we joke (somewhat desperately) that she has another thirty or forty years left in her, we know that's not the case. (It's more like fifty.)

News organizations keep obituaries of public figures ready to go, just in case. I keep thinking that I should start working on Ella's obituary now because I'll be in no shape to do it when it's needed. We are no respecters of species here—Ella is the third person in our family, and I know that when I have to write that blog entry I'm going to leave out some of the important details of her life and personality that I want so much to preserve.

There's the slight crookedness of her spine, which means that when you're walking behind her in a straight line you can see how her hindquarters are angled a couple inches to the right. There's the way she decides some mornings that she wants to walk all the way to the lakeshore and resists all attempts to turn her from that eastward path with a withering staredown. Pick your furry friends wisely There's the way she often misses the first step when she goes charging up the back stairs. There's the way, when she has a toy in her mouth, that she likes to bash you in the backs of the legs so you'll keep playing tug with her—even if that toy happens to be a stick three feet long and perfectly positioned to take you out at the knees. There's the way that she'll try to pick up even a huge fallen willow bough to drag around with her at the park. There's the way she can't control herself when you reach for the plastic bag with her basketball inside and starts hurling herself into the air to bite at it. There's the way that she invented her own game to play with that basketball, chasing it so she can push it around with her face. There's the way she kicks back dirt in every direction but the direction where she left her droppings. There's the way she loves to tease other dogs when they're leashed and she's not. There's the way she sometimes goes on a tear at the park and runs in huge figure-eights for the sheer joy of it. There's the way, when it snows, that she can't seem to walk four feet without throwing herself down on her back and wriggling around in the powder. There the way, when she hasn't eaten her breakfast, that the urgent devouring of it suddenly sidetracks her when we're trying to usher her out the back door. There's the way that, if we give her a treat before leaving her alone at home, she won't eat it until one or the other of us has returned. There's the way she scratches at the hardwood floor like making a nest before she collapses onto her side and curls up. There's the way she sighs and rests her chin on your knee while you're reading on the couch.

I have to make myself stop now, because I could just keep going. Just like Ella is going to, dammit.

While we're on the topic, some of you have wondered how I get so many good photos of Ella. The answer is, I take about ten times as many as I ever put online, and when I see Ella do something unbearably cute I try to make her do it again so I can capture it. This picture of Ella examining a toadstool, for instance? Totally restaged.

If you're curious to see what sometimes happens behind the scenes on an Ella photo shoot, this video should give you some idea. I'm not actually taking photos of her here (I'm shooting video, duh), but I am trying to incite her to keep doing cute things over and over again when she's clearly ready to go home already. Oh, well. At least she sleeps well after a play session like this.

[Spoiler warning: Mildly squicky medical details within. The squeamish may not wish their appetites spoiled.]

It had been quite some time since Laura or I had visited a doctor, probably too long. Now we're all too familiar with the decor at our physician's new office.

Do I need to tell you how it started? Okay, it burned a little when I peed. (Don't worry—Laura's story and mine are not related.) This went on for a couple of days and I didn't pay much attention to it, but then on Saturday morning it didn't just burn. It felt like a red-hot poker was being jabbed up there when I peed.

Our doctor doesn't have office hours on weekends, so I took myself to a clinic. The doctor there didn't take much of a medical history from me, but he put me on an antibiotic in case it was a urinary tract infection, told me to drink lots of water, and sent me home.

I kept meaning to make an appointment with our regular doctor, especially since the burning, while its intensity fluctuated, never really got any better. On Wednesday, however, something new happened. My urine looked normal at first, but was followed by a bright red stream. When the panic subsided, I called my doctor to see if I could get in that day. I realized that, far from having a UTI (which I already pretty much knew I didn't, since the antibiotic wasn't helping), I probably had stones. I passed a stone once before, in 2006, and the things apparently run in my family. I should have realized what it was sooner, but I guess I didn't want to think about that possibility.

My doctor confirmed that was likely the case when I saw her that afternoon. She put me on a different antibiotic, Cipro, just as a precaution, told me to drink lots and lots of water, told me to make an appointment with my urologist, and told me to go to an emergency room immediately if I started having pain in my sides or developed a fever.

That was thirteen days ago, November 9th. I still haven't seen my urologist because the earliest appointment I could get was November 30th. The blood in my urine has only recurred once since then, but the pain during urination fluctuates between pretty intense and nonexistent. I think I've passed at least one small stone, which felt very strange but not at all painful, but I can't be sure that was the case. All I can say for sure is that urinating felt completely normal for the rest of that day, but that it was back to burning to next day.

Still eight days to go before I can see my urologist, at which point I imagine he will stick a camera up my urethra and take a peek around inside my bladder. Fun times. It's happened to me before.

Meanwhile, my left eye had been bothering me a little, but I didn't really pay much attention to it since all my energy was focused on my quarter-hourly trips to the bathroom. But on Tuesday last week Laura told me that my eye looked really terrible, all red and a bit puffy. Like I said, I hadn't been paying much attention. My glasses have thick rims and narrow lenses, which has the effect of casting a shadow onto my eye when I look in the mirror, so I hadn't noticed how red the eye had become.

By now our doctor was on vacation, but I dragged myself over to the office the next morning during walk-in hours and saw one of the other doctors. Probably conjuctivitis, she said, though if, as I told her, it had really been bothering me for almost a week, I should have been waking up with a lot of crust around my eye, which I wasn't. "Maybe the Cipro tablets you've been taking have kept the conjunctivitis from worsening, like it normally would," she said. "I'm going to give you Cipro eyedrops. Hopefully you'll start to see improvement within a day or two."

I did, and I'm happy to report that my eye is pretty back to normal. If only my damn knee would stop hurting now when I'm going up and down stairs.

Since everything seems to happen at once, Laura has been in and out of doctor's offices at the same time. It was a little over a month ago that we made a trip to New York City. Because of a work commitment that came up, she ended up leaving Chicago a day later than I did. As she tells the story, that first night that I was in New York, she was riding the subway home from work when the train banked hard around a curve. A woman standing near her, texting, was not holding onto anything and fell onto Laura, smashing her hand. When the woman straightened up again, Laura's left pinky finger was sticking out at a funny angle at the second knuckle.

Laura looked at the finger, as did the shocked woman. Then Laura took her right hand (which, you may or may not know, consists of only two opposing digits, thanks to a birth defect, and is nicknamed The Claw) and popped the left pinky back into place. The woman turned ashen—though Laura says she doesn't know whether it was because of the finger-popping or because of the unexpected appearance of The Claw itself—and fled through the crowd to the far end of the train car.

(I told Laura she should have held her hands up accusingly and shouted, "I'm a hand model!!!" She does guard her fingers jealously since, as she says, she doesn't have any phalanges to spare.)

Anyway, the finger ached for a while, and it felt stiff, but Laura thought it was actually getting better. Finally, though, the knuckle swelled up and she went in to see the doctor. An X-ray confirmed that there was a hairline fracture in there. She visited an orthopedic surgeon in case surgery was going to be necessary, but he said he didn't think it would be, that it looked like it was going to heal right on its own. He did, however, pull out a gigantic needle and administer two injections of an anti-inflammatory directly into her finger joint. Laura says the surgeon asked her first how well she dealt with pain. Pretty well, Laura said. No, said the surgeon, as in do you pass out?

She didn't, but that's how much the injections hurt.

Laura's finger does seem to be improving, but that's not all that's been going on. Ella recently visited the doctor because of a limp in her left hind leg. She was diagnosed with a probable partial rupture of her cranial cruciate ligament, or CCL, which is the canine equivalent of the ACL. This knee injury meant we had to prevent Ella from running for an entire week, though walking was prescribed as "very good for her." Question: Have you ever tried to walk a dog and prevent it from running at all? It was a long week. Also, Bart (our Honda Accord) has been to the doctor to have a brake light fixed and a new set of tires installed.

So there you go. We've now been to doctor's offices more often in the past two weeks than in the past two years. The lesson here, kids, is to go visit your doctor at the first sign of any problem. Don't put it off! Also, stop that damn texting, unless you can do it one-handed.

I'm not usually home when our dogwalker comes to take Ella out at midday, but yesterday I was. Once a day, Ella gets a treat called an Oinkie, which is basically tube of a smoked pig skin wrapped around a sweet potato center. Because of how they look, Laura and I call them Ella's "cigars."

Fat cat robber baron Anyway, I was working in the study yesterday afternoon when I heard Paul opening the back door. Ella heard him too, of course, and came trotting into my office with her cigar in her mouth. She stopped by my chair, looked up at me, and set the cigar carefully down on the floor. Then she looked up at me again and scooted out the door to greet Paul. The implication was clear: Will you please watch my treat while I'm gone?

Or, as Laura put it in a text message when I told her what had happened: You are the keeper of her most precious items!!!

It's eerie how clearly Ella sometimes manages to communicate her intentions. It's obvious what she wants when she brings a tennis ball to one of us and wags her tail, but some more complex messages are just as easy to parse. Early one morning a couple of weeks ago, Ella came to find me in the study once again. She stood looking up at me and wagging her tail until I took notice of her, then turned and trotted to the door. She looked back. Okay, she wanted me to follow her, so I did.

Geometric bear She led me through the kitchen and out the back door, which was open. (We had left it open for her. She didn't do that herself!) She very deliberately bent her nose to the surface of the back deck, sniffed around for a second or two, pointed her face here and there, then looked up at me, wagging her tail.

Now, I happened to know that Ella had been chewing one of her cigars there on the back deck the evening before, so I knew what it was she was looking for. But even if I hadn't, I would have understood perfectly that something she had left in that spot was missing, and she wanted my help finding it. So, thus recruited into service, Laura and I spent the next five minutes scouring the apartment for Ella's missing cigar. When we found it, Ella grabbed it from me and ran out the door. She hasn't figured out yet how to put across the concept of "thank you."

For all that her intentions are sometimes so clear, there are many other times when she's trying to tell me something and I have absolutely no idea what. I often think of Ella as a furry little person instead of a dog, but on those occasions I'm reminded that it's an alien creature living in the house with us. I wonder if she's as confused and curious about all the odd things her alien housemates do and say.

Hi, gang! The new Ella calendar for 2012 is available now from It features thirteen months of great collages of all your favorite Ella photos from 2011—well, okay, all mine and Laura's favorites—and it retails from for the low, low price of only $17.99.

But wait! For a limited time only, we're offering a 20% off discount. That's a whole year of Ella for only $14.39. But wait! Through tomorrow you can take another 20% off that already crazy price if you use the discount code BURIED at checkout. That's only $11.51 plus shipping and handling. What a steal!

Click below and buy now, and keep the Dog Lord of the Sith on your good side!

Ella Vader 2012 13-Month Calendar

Ella Vader 2012 13-Month Calendar

Ella is eight

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Flying bear! Today the fabulous Ella turns eight. This morning, to celebrate, I took her to the beach for her morning walk. She flung herself off a ledge of sand, and it was so cute that I asked her to climb back to the top and jump off again so I could take a picture. She is such a good dog, she did just what I asked.

I made my first ever post about Ella on April 12, 2004. That was just a couple of days before Laura brought her home from the Chicago suburbs to our Queens apartment. Ella a little over six months old. She's been part of our family now for nearly seven and a half years, and it's hard to remember a time when she wasn't with us.

Happy birthday, Ella! We look forward to celebrating eighty more with you.

We often say, my wife and I,
that Ella is our first dog,
the one you make your mistakes on.
But for me, that isn't true.

My first dog was Jessie,
a runty black shepherd mix.
Some of the mistakes I made
with Jessie were things like

Don't scold the dog unless
you catch her in the act.
Don't let the dog bite you.
Don't ever hit the dog.

Don't buy a dog with someone
you don't like, let alone love.
All mistakes I wouldn't
ever ever make with Ella.

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