Inhuman Swill : Ella


February 29, 2012

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day

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.

dogs | ella | rabbits

January 19, 2012


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.

death | dogs | ella | photographs | videos

November 22, 2011

When it suppurates, it gushes

[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.

doctors | ella | illness | injury | kidney stones | medicine

November 17, 2011

That dog in the insurance commercial's got nothin' on Ella

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.

communication | dogs | ella

October 27, 2011

The Ella Vader 2012 13-month calendar is available!

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

calendars | commerce | dogs | ella | photographs

October 7, 2011

Ella is eight

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.

dogs | ella

May 3, 2011

Rules for dog owners

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.

dogs | ella | poems

November 16, 2010

Floppy puppy

Between five and six this morning, I had a pretty awful dream. I was somehow in a big grungy rusty white panel van with my family, who I guess were visiting town. Except it wasn't my family as it exists now. It was my parents circa the mid-seventies and my four youngest brothers and sisters circa the mid-eighties. My three other siblings were not around, but for some reason I was being forced to go to church with the family—a stake conference, to be precise. I didn't want to go, but there didn't seem to be a way out, and as we parked in gray dusk light near the church I realized angrily that I was going to miss meeting my friend Kevin that evening for beer (which is actually on my schedule for tonight).

The church was a strange one inside, with a chapel that was much wider than it was long, and with the congregation seated on rising auditorium-style benches looking down at the pulpit. The only door in or out was in the corner behind and to the left of the pulpit, so if I tried to leave everyone would see. As I tried to work up my courage to leave, I realized that I wasn't wearing Sunday clothes like the rest of the family. I had on white shorts and a black T-shirt with something printed on it. (Probably something obscene, I don't know.) Feeling hideously exposed, I turned to my parents and loudly announced that I was leaving and they couldn't stop me.

Outside the church, I found Ella on the porch leaning against the wall beside the door. Apparently she'd been in the van and someone had left it open. Anger surged inside me. Ella was very groggy and didn't even lick me as I picked her up and cradled her in my arms. She flopped bonelessly, like a rag doll, and somehow I knew she'd been hit by a car that pulverized her skeleton. I kicked open the door to the church and strode into the chapel bearing my dog like an accusation. "You did this to her!" I screamed.

That's when I woke up.

Gee, I don't still have any issues.

dogs | dreams | ella | family | mormonism | nightmares

November 14, 2010

Infidel dog

This morning,
with a high of seventy degrees in the forecast,
amazing for a November in Chicago,
I drove the dog to Warren Park.
That's where we go for a special treat
instead of our usual neighborhood walk,
because the squirrel chasing is most excellent,
and there are never any cops there to harass you,
a scofflaw walking his dog off its leash.

We like to run up the steps of the sledding hill,
which a parks department sign actually proclaims "Sledding Hill,"
and then charge down the slope,
after which we make our way around the skirt of the hill
where the squirrels rummage through the leaves
like so many bargain hunters.
We crunch crunch crunch across the orange carpet,
and if we're lucky we spot a squirrel far enough out
in the open that Ella can chase it full-bore
back to its tree.
She has never once caught one.
Or at any rate never killed one.

Next we like to follow the cinder jogging path
all the way around the little nine-hole golf course embedded
like an off-center yolk
in the albumen of the park,
and that's exactly what we did this morning.
I walked in the leaves at the side of the path,
trying to encourage Ella to do the same,
but unless she has a rodent, lagomorph or marsupial in her sights
she prefers to walk on pavement. Go figure.

We were on the south side of the golf course,
the tall chain-link fence meant to protect us from flying balls
off to our left,
when I saw two men coming our way along the path,
youngish men—younger than I, at any rate—
neatly bearded men dressed in long robes the color of wet sand.
It was already warm enough out that I was regretting
the heavy coat I wore over my hooded sweatshirt.
I snapped my fingers imperiously,
calling for Ella to return to my side,
to leave the path and get out of the way
of the two youngish men engaged in animated talk.

Infidel dog

Ella is a good dog, shaggy-bearded herself,
and she mostly listens. But I know that Muslims
are afraid of dogs, or wary, or I think I know this,
having watched many women in headscarves
whisper urgently to their children to stay out
of our path. At least,
I assumed these men were Muslims. I admit I don't know
the taxonomy of robes and caps and beards.
They could have been Coptic Christians or even Jains for all I knew.
At any rate, they didn't have turbans on
so I knew they weren't Sikhs.
But despite my commands, Ella didn't leave the path
entirely. She shifted toward me, trotting along
the very edge of the pavement, but didn't leave it altogether.
"Ella," I hissed. "Come." She spared me only a sidelong glance,
certain she had already obeyed me to the extent required.
Letter of the law.
I only wanted to be a good neighbor.
The men were yards away.
Dogs are not consistent with Islam.
I braced for whatever.

It's not that I thought anything worse
than embarrassment might transpire,
but my dog does have a history.
She grew up in Queens, and she still has some of that attitude.
We socialized her with people pretty quickly,
my wife and I, but that didn't prevent her from
barking her selectively bred head off at any unfamiliar creatures
we encountered on the street,
ones with strange colors, shapes or motions.
Woman in full burqas, like shambling mounds of midnight.
People in big hats.
People on crutches or in wheelchairs.
Black people--a sad reflection of the diversity
of visitors to our apartment.
The worst was the time she lost it at an old black woman
in a wheelchair
in front of a funeral parlor
on Astoria Boulevard near the elevated tracks.
As we dragged her in a wide, apologetic berth
as far from the frightened woman
as possible.
As the woman's decked-out younger companions yelled at us.
As if we'd trained our dog to hate old black women in wheelchairs.
That was the worst.

But it's not as if Ella has never met a Muslim man before.
We used to walk her up Steinway Street in Queens,
right past all the Middle Eastern restaurants and pastry shops
and bookstores, and the men's social clubs with the curvy hookahs,
and even past the mosque.
Some people avoided us, though we never walked her
up the middle of the sidewalk or in such a way
as to block anyone's path.
We didn't mean it as a provocation
but more as a statement, an exercise of our rights
to free association, an exercise in multiculturalism.
And not everyone avoided us. One time
a group of three thirtyish Egyptians stopped us
as we walked Ella up the far edge of the sidewalk.
One of them with a reedy mustache and a look of childlike wonder
asked if our dog was friendly. "Yes," we said.
He asked if he could pet her. "Of course," we said.
We made her sit.
Ella could care less about most strangers, but she doesn't like
surprises, so we told the man to reach out slowly.
His fingertips barely grazed the hair on the top of her head,
while Ella sat patiently and yawned.
"Good dog," we said, while the man straightened up
with a smile as wide as the world on his face.
You could see him already composing the story in his head
that he would tell his friends,
about how he petted a dog
and didn't even get struck by lightning.
He'll be dining out on that one for years.

We loved that neighborhood for reasons like that meeting
on the street. We loved it for our friend Ali,
who would never touch Ella because he was cooking
in his little restaurant, but who always had a kind word for her,
and still asks about her when we visit.
I love it for the times I stayed out all night drinking
with Ali, who knew everyone, for the times he Virgiled me
into the social club across the street from his restaurant,
where I smoked shisha with the Egyptian men and listened
to monologues on history and hieroglyphics,
on all the important things that Egypt invented, or did first.
Our travels in Cairo and Luxor and Petra and Amman,
talking Islam and politics and Christianity
with virtual strangers in coffee shops and cafés,
sometimes seemed the inevitable endpoint of our years
in that neighborhood, which we loved.

What I'm trying to get at is, I don't hate Muslims,
and I especially don't want any Muslim to think I hate Muslims,
or that my dog hates Muslims.
Which she doesn't.
The two men on the path had nearly drawn even with us,
and Ella still hadn't moved off the pavement.
But there was enough room for her and the nearest man to pass
each other without touching, which they did.
"Good morning, sir," he said to me with a cheerful trill,
his face like a gibbous moon, beaming.
"Good morning, how are you today?" I said with a smile
as wide as Lake Michigan,
a smile trying a little too hard,
wanting to be seen as a friend, not a fraud,
and reflect the genuine shiver of camaraderie I felt.
"Very well, thank you," he said, dipping his head.
He, the respectful, non-threatening immigrant,
me, the welcoming, tolerant native,
both playing the part of open-minded, ideal world citizen.
Maybe he was born here, I don't know, and maybe I was not,
as far as he knew.
No matter.
We both still played our proper roles—
roles still, even if based on a true story,
inspired by real events.
I might wish for a deeper connection,
a meeting of the minds,
but at least we all passed on our leisurely errands
without baring our teeth,
without drawing our guns,
and I can live with that.

Ella, more alien than us all,
paid none of our human posturing the slightest mind.

astoria | chicago | city life | dogs | egypt | ella | islam | jordan | kabab cafe | nyc | poems | queens | race | religion

November 5, 2010

Cheap bitch

Don't call Ella cheap, but she did just get less expensive. Take an extra 30% off her 2011 calendar when you enter the coupon code EARLYBIRD305 at checkout! (Offer good through November 15, 2010.)

Ella-Mental 2011 13-Month Calendar

calendars | dogs | ella | photos | publications

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