Sometimes unexpected friendships are the best

I’ve been thinking a lot about odd couples, or what looking at from the outside seem like odd friendships. These musings started, as many of my musings do, watching the animals awaiting adoption at the animal shelter where I work (Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation, or ARF). Often, an animal housed with another animal will do better at the shelter, and in the home as well. So our behavior and animal care teams try out pairing roommates, and sometimes they come up with what turn out to be surprisingly winning combinations. Our marketing department even recently developed a campaign for 2 cats using The Odd Couple theme as a hook.

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The Odd Couple, Cash (black) and Swift (tabby).

In Neil Simon’s play (1965), later a movie (1968) and then a television series (1970-1975), the mismatched roomates are the persnickety neatnik Felix Ungar and cigar-chomping slob Oscar Madison. On Broadway in 1965, Oscar was played by Walter Matthau (he seems to have been born for the role), with Art Carney as Felix.

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Water Matthau and Art Carney, 1965 production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
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The ever-funny Neil Simon, still smiling at age 90.

 

Felix and Oscar were perfectly portrayed in the 1968 film by Jack Lemmon as Felix and Walter Matthau again as Oscar. When adapted for television, Tony Randall was cast as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar.

 

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Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as Felix and Oscar, 1974.

 

But back to Cash and Swift. Cash arrived at ARF as a tiny kitten with his sister Mermaid. The shyer of the 2, Cash watched as his sister and then several kitten roommates were adopted. Unfortunately, black cats, including kittens, tend to stay longer at the shelter awaiting adoption, so Cash was growing up at the shelter. I love our shelter, but kittens should grow up in homes with loving families. Swift, a little zany guy with a serious play drive, was so active that he overwhelmed his siblings. He, too, was the last of his litter reamining at the shelter. Cash was between roommates, and Swift needed a buddy, so the team decided to give them a shot, and it worked! Cash, in the role of Felix Ungar, taught Swift, as a tiny Oscar Madison, some calmer manners, and nutty Swift brought Cash out of his shell and showed him how to have fun. The first time I saw the 2 curled up together on their cat bed, I knew in my heart that they had to stay together. Others at ARF felt the same way, so we made sure to make a point of sending them to an adoptive home together.

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It’s not quite as odd a pairing, but it seems to work, for another cat set of roommates: Nathan and Wynn. Nathan is another shy black kitten growing up at the shelter. Wynn is a little older and also very shy. Nathan has done well with roommates, and Wynn originally came in with 3 other cats, more outgoing than he and quickly adopted. Wynn was really shut down at first, cowering in a corner behind his cat tree. But he and Nathan, in an example of mutual support, are both getting a bit bolder every day. It’s sort of more like 2 Felixes making each other feel better about life.

 

 

I suppose I’ve been a part of some odd couples. Not so much personality-wise, but more in the Mutt and Jeff way of me being not-tall and many of my friends being not-short.

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In the classic odd couple pairing, I was the quiet, good girl who ran off with the loud, bad boy (or wannabe bad boy, anyway). It worked until it didn’t anymore. That’s all water under the bridge, as they say.

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I was looking for famous examples of odd couples, not necessarily of the Hollywood celebrity variety, and this one in particular struck me: comedian Groucho Marx (1890-1977) and renowned poet, essayist, and critic T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). They became pen pals in 1961 (coincidentally the year I was born) and maintained a correspondence, finally meeting in person in 1964.

 

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The friendship supposedly began when the author of such profound classics as The Wasteland and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, wrote to Marx, who dropped out of school in the 7th grade, asking for his autograph. Yes, Eliot asked for Groucho’s autograph. My favorite lines from Prufrock:

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A Groucho Marx line that always makes me laugh:

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But as Groucho pointed out, they both liked puns, cigars, and cats. Remember, T. S. Eliot did write Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted into the musical Cats in 1980.

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T. S. Eliot stops to say hello to a cat.
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Groucho Marx with one of his cats.

Of course, let’s not forget all of the cats who look like Groucho Marx.

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Another human odd couple that I am fascinated by: Pulitizer Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005) and actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962).

Miller And Monroe

They married in 1956 and divorced in 1961 (something about that year, 1961). Famous for such heavy-hitters as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, Miller and sex symbol Monroe faced numerous hardships: investigations into Miller’s communist sympathies and Monroe’s depression, miscarriages, and drug use. Monroe died the year after their divorce, at age 36, of a barbiturate overdose. You know I had to look for a pet connection. Marilyn was an animal lover, saying, “If you talk to a dog or a cat, it doesn’t tell you to shut up.” That’s a really sad quote when you think about it.

 

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Monroe with one of the many animals she loved during her too-short life.

 

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Miller, Monroe, and dog Hugo.

 

On a lighter note, there are so many examples of unlikely animal friendships: the gorilla Koko and her love of kittens, Bubbles the elephant and Bella the dog, Mabel the chicken and her puppies, to name a few. There are even several books available about these friendships.

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While not quite as exotic as some of these, our late Golden Retriever/Cocker Spaniel mix Sadie was mother to abandoned kittens Ben and Sara, and she and Ben were close their entire lives.

 

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Ben and Sadie in their senior years.

 

More in alignment with the original Felix and Oscar theme, we also have Misty, our gorgeous but persnickety 6 year-old diva of the Greta Garbo “I want to be let alone” school, and goofball and wild child, 1 year-old Marble, who insists that they play together. And sometimes Misty will play. When we decided to keep Marble, I was afraid Misty might try to hurt him, but he is persistent and she can’t help but play chase and wrestle with him. He is a force of nature, an irresistible force to her immovable object.

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Misty, up top, with Marble, down below.

 

I was that unmovable object once, in the face of an irresistible force–a pit bull named Snuffalufagus. I never thought I’d feel so much affection for such a big dog. She changed my mind forever about pit bulls.

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She’s irresistible, and I turned out to be movable!

 

 

Don’t resist–make friends where you find them, even if they seem to be unlikely candidates. Greta Garbo didn’t say she wanted to be left alone, she said she wanted to be let alone, and there’s a big difference. Treasure your friends and family.

Peace and hugs.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother (okay, he’s heavy, but still, he’s my brother)

I never understood what the song that goes “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” really was about. It just sounded kind of cool back in the day (1969). You know, he ain’t heavy, but he’s groovy, man.

The phrase originates, as far as I can tell, from a story about Boys Town, in Omaha, Nebraska, founded in 1917 by Father Edward Flanagan as a community for homeless and troubled boys. One boy wore leg braces, and the other boys would take turn carrying him on their backs. One of these boys is reputed to have said, when asked, “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother.” A lovely story. True? I don’t know. But there are several statues titled Two Brothers at Boys Town, and the line made it into the movies in which Spencer Tracy portrays Father Flanagan.

 

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Photo that is said to have inspired the stories.
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Two Brothers, Boys Town, in Omaha, Nebraska.
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Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan in Boys Town.

This isn’t about my brother. I wrote about my own brother not so long ago. This is about 2 brothers, Ringo and Tiger, and their special relationship and what they’ve been through together. Ringo and Tiger are, of course cats, not humans.

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No, not these goofballs.
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Yes, these goofballs.

Ringo and Tiger are very special cats, and I feel privileged to be a part of their human fan club. To put it bluntly, these cats would likely have been euthanized in many other shelters. They are 9 years old, which is considered “senior” in the world of cats, although it is the equivalent of only 52 in human years. So at almost 56, if I were a cat (oh, what a thought!) I would be a senior, even though I don’t think of myself as one at all as a human.

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Ringo is termed “morbidly obese” at 18 pounds. Tiger has cancer, and is not exactly a petite guy himself at 12 pounds. They’ve been together all of their lives. They were surrendered by their guardian to the Humane Society of Broward County in Florida, from where they were evacuated in advance of Hurricane Irma.

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Wings of Rescue (a wonderful organization) flew them out with about 160 other cats and dogs on September 7, 2017. When they landed in Hayward, California, volunteers from Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) were there waiting to transport them to the shelter in Walnut Creek, California.

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Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek, California.

 

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Ringo and Tiger arrive at ARF from Florida.

Two very lucky cats indeed. According to the ASPCA, every year 5 to 7 million pets enter the shelter system. More than half of these are cats, of which approximately 70% (yes, 70) are euthanized. And who are most likely to be euthanized? Guess. Older cats and cats with medical issues. Ringo and Tiger are defying the odds.

 

 

 

Ringo is a laid-back cat, loves to sleep on the bed with his people and follow them around, and gets along with everyone! Tiger is sweet, sociable, and loves to cuddle. Those are pretty good dating, I mean adoption, profiles.

Because they have been together all of their lives and are attached to each other as one would imagine they would be, they are a bonded pair, meaning they have to be adopted together. Another factor that means it will be just a little harder to find a home for them.

 

bonded pair

 

Ringo obviously doesn’t carry Tiger on his back. But Ringo could live a long and healthy life if his adopter works with a veterinarian on a careful weight loss plan. Tiger’s potential life span is not known, but his adopter would basically be taking him in for hospice care. It will be a special person or family with big hearts who will take these brothers into their lives. It will be worth it. And I know that person or family is out there.

 

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Best of all, at ARF Ringo and Tiger have a great room to stay in together, they get love and attention from the staff and volunteers, and they have all the time they need to find their human family. I take great pride in working in a system that allows for cats like Ringo and Tiger a chance to start a new life. Please support in whatever way you can your local shelter so they can help more animals in need. And do consider a senior and/or special needs pet. They need love too, and will add so much to your life.

You can help support the work of Wings of Rescue as well.

 

Peace and hugs. And meows and purrs from Ringo and Tiger.

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Please support your local animal shelter

Believe me, I hate asking for money as much as anyone. I could never work in development in any of the non-profits where I’ve worked or that I support. I am terrible at schmoozing, and I’d love it if we didn’t have to ask. But we do.

Yes, we all work hard for what we have. Most of us have causes near and dear to our hearts. I give money when I can, usually to animal shelters and rescues. I know people are in need as well, and I am glad that there are advocates for children, the homeless, the hungry, the environment.

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In searching for numbers, I found that in 2015, Americans gave $373.25 billion to charity in 2015, a record whether measured in current or inflation-adjusted dollars. That is incredibly generous. Americans also gave their time. Also in 2015, about 62.6 million people volunteered through or for an organization. Non-profits depend on generosity of heart, mind, and, obviously, wallet.

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My cause of choice is animal shelters and rescue. For more than 6 years I volunteered at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland, California. I made many friends and met some of the animals who now live with me. I still try to help out by fostering cats and kittens.

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Chiclet, my most recent foster for the East Bay SPCA.

 

I have been fortunate enough to change careers to now work for another animal shelter in the community, Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF).

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Baseball’s Tony La Russa founded ARF after the famous incident of a cat, later named Evie, running onto the field of an Oakland A’s baseball game.

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Located in Walnut Creek in the East Bay area of California, ARF is a wonderful facility. A private shelter, we rescue animals from the over-crowded public kill shelters and give them the time they need to find their forever homes.

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ARF offers many wonderful programs and services in addition to adoptions: many youth programs (my favorite being All Ears Reading), dog training, the Pet Hug Pack therapy animals, FoodShare (pet food pantry), the ARF Emergency Medical Fund, low cost spay/neuter services, a mobile clinic, and the awesome Pets for Vets program.

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Children develop reading skills by reading aloud to Pet Hug Pack animals through All Ears Reading.

 

 

So, here’s the part where I ask for money.

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I am fundraising for ARF’s yearly Animals on Broadway event, a pet walk and festival on Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek on Saturday, May 20. I won’t be walking in the event, as I have to be at work at the shelter helping adopt out animals! I am a virtual walker, a walker in spirit.

 

My fundraising goal is fairly modest, at $500. I have $300 as of the writing of this blog post. Thank you from the bottom of my animal-loving heart to those of you who have donated. I love you all!

If you can give any amount, please consider helping out. If not to my fundraising page, to someone else’s, or to your local shelter, or to whatever cause is important to you. If not money, time if you have it. Getting involved was the best decision I ever made. You won’t regret it.

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Snuffalufagus says Give!

 

 

Mary Pickford, the Girl with the Curls (and the cat, and the cool Google doodle)

I don’t usually pay attention to the ever-changing Google doodle. I don’t always get it, not being all that culturally hip, and I am often on a Google mission that keeps me from lingering on the home page. April 8 was a day on which I did linger. I was attracted to the blue background, the vintage female figure with the movie camera, and of course, the cat on the figure’s shoulder.

Mary Google

Who was the woman, a woman I immediately wanted to be? I clicked. April 8 would have been Mary Pickford’s 125th birthday. I realized I knew very little about Mary Pickford. I had a vague idea of her being a silent-film era damsel in distress, an early cinematic American Sweetheart. But she was so much more than that.

Here is the Google blurb:

 

    • Lights, camera, action! Today’s doodle honors the “Queen of the Movies,” Mary Pickford. An actress, a film director, and a producer, Mary Pickford proved that actors weren’t relegated to careers in front of the camera. She co-founded the film studio United Artists and was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

      Before she became one of the most powerful women who has ever worked in Hollywood, she was “the girl with the curls,” and one of the most beloved stars of the silent film era. She appeared in as many as 50 films per year, and eventually negotiated wages that were equal to half of each of her films’ profits. She went on to demand full creative and financial control of her films, a feat still unheard of to this day.  

      She used her stardom to bring awareness to causes close to her heart. She sold Liberty Bonds during World War I, created the Motion Picture Relief Fund, and revolutionized the film industry by giving independent film producers a way to distribute their films outside the studio system. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her role in Coquette (1929), and an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1976.

      Today, we pay tribute to Mary Pickford’s enterprising leadership on what would be her 125th birthday.

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      Born in 1892 in Toronto as Gladys Marie Smith, she began in a traveling theater company at age 7, with her family, and was known as Baby Gladys Smith.

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      In 1908, a producer gave her the name Mary Pickford, changing her middle name Marie to Mary, and using her mother’s maiden name, Pickford. She appeared in her first film in 1909. 

      It was her performance in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in 1917 that finally gave her the fame and fortune that she built on to become the Queen of Hollywood.

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      This is from her first talking picture, and the one for which she won an Oscar, Coquette (1929). She is said to have been dismayed at hearing the sound of her own voice.

       

      In her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow (1955), she wrote that as a young girl in Toronto, she would buy a single rose and eat the petals, believing the beauty, color, and perfume would become part of her.

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      Here she is in 1976 receiving her honorary Oscar; I was dismayed at the zebra skin rug in the foyer at her home Pickfair, but more on that in a bit. It’s a bit sad to watch but remember she is 84 years old in the video clip.

       

 

Pickfair, the estate where she lived in Beverly Hills until her death in 1979, was a gift to her from second husband Douglas Fairbanks.

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Sadly, so-called actress Pia Zadora (“Who?” I can hear you ask) razed the house in 1990, having purchased it in 1988 from Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Russ. In its place, she build a “Venetian-style palazzo”, eventually claiming after much criticism that she did so because the house was haunted, not by the ghost of Mary but by one of Douglas Fairbanks’ mistresses. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. said in a public statement after hearing that the house had been destroyed, “I regret it very much. I wonder, if they were going to demolish it, why they bought it in the first place.” In its heyday, Pickfair was second only to the White House in American house fame.

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Pia Zadora, literal home wrecker.

Zadora sold the “palazzo” (17 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms) in 2006 to Korean businessman Cory Hong. It was listed for sale again in 2008, with an asking price of $60 million.

Despite the zebra skin rug, which seems much more Pia Zadora than Mary Pickford to me, made me think about Ms. Pickford and animals. Many images of her include animals, particularly dogs and cats, but also rabbits and birds.

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Of course this one is my favorite.

I wonder, even though in some images I found she is wearing fur, if that is also of the era (like the zebra skin rug), and if she was in fact an animal lover. I feel she might be a kindred spirit.

She was a trailblazer, and even today not many women have the creative control and power she had.

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American woman finally get the right to vote in 1920. Canadian women first received the right in 1916 in Manitoba. The last Canadian province on board was Quebec in 1940.

 

 

I’m never going to be an actress or a director or a producer or any kind of “powerhouse”, but I admire Mary’s determination and seeming sweetness. I’ll have to read more about her. In addition to her autobiography, there are quite a few books about that early era of Hollywood and the people who made it happen. The one I am going to look for is Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (2007) by Eileen Whitfield.

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In the meantime, this will have to suffice as my homage to Mary Pickford and women like her: strong, determined, and happy to have a cat climbing on her shoulders.

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Peace and hugs from me and little Chiclet, foster kitten extraordinaire.

P. S. Please support me in my fundraiser for Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation. My goal is fairly modest. Mary would approve.

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When an irresistible force meets an immovable object

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In physics, it’s called the irresistible force paradox: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The paradox exists in that at its center are two incompatible principles–an unmovable object and an unstoppable force. The logic arises that neither such thing exists.

In music, it’s a  wonderful 1955 song called Something’s Gotta Give, with words and music by Johnny Mercer and famously sung by Frank Sinatra.

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Johnny Mercer

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In my life, I am the unmovable force and a dog named Snuffalaffugus (a misspelling of the Sesame Street character’s name Snuffleupagus) is the irresistible force.

 

As many of you know, I work at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF). I am Proud to be a Crazy Cat Lady. I love dogs, yes. The world’s cutest dog lets me live in his house.

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Einstein, another irresistible force, adopted from the East Bay SPCA.

At the shelter, I am more comfortable over on the cat side than I am on the dog side. I love scruffy terriers, and if a dog remotely resembling a Cocker Spaniel arrives at the shelter, I immediately start singing songs from Lady and the Tramp.

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A Cocker Spaniel and a scruffy terrier–I’m in! Plus there are cats, evil Siamese cats. A Disney classic.

 

Then along came Snuffalaffugus, who I call Snuffy. This 91-pound American Staffordshire Terrier (also known as the Amstaff or Stafford or by the more common pit bull terrier) mix does not look like a dog I would hang out with. I confess to a lingering fear of large dogs, especially the “bully breeds”. In short, I am afraid of pit bulls.

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The classic American Staffordshire Terrier. This is not Snuffy.

 

As an adoption counselor, I remain neutral on breeds and help potential adopters with whichever dog or cat they’d like to vist. The first time I was called on to show Snuffy, I went into an internal panic. But I pulled on my big girl panties, grabbed a leash, took a deep breath, and entered her kennel. And fell in love.

My first meeting with Snuffy. The irresistible force won.

 

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Meet Snuffaluffagus.

 

We were recently asked to submit photos to use on the Foundation’s organizational chart. A group of us decided to take each other’s pictures with ARF animals. I went against Cat Lady character and decided to pose with Snuffy. It took quite a few shots, but we finally got one with both of us sitting still.

 

Now I spend every spare minute I have visiting Snuffy in her kennel, getting doggy kisses and singing to her. We both need to lose a few pounds, so I really should be out walking her around, but I prefer sitting on the floor while she tries to fit herself in my lap and knocks me over in her enthusiastic face licking frenzies.

 

Amstaffs are one of the several breeds referred to as pit bulls. Pit bulls have had a lot of bad publicity and have become subject to insidious breed restrictions. These restrictions make it harder to place loving dogs like Snuffy with good families.

Amstaffs historically were considered to be loyal family dogs and good with children. In old photos, you often see pit bulls pictured with children.

 

The classic early comedy short films from 1922 to 1944, Our Gang (The Little Rascals), featured the gang’s loyal companion Petey. Petey was, you guessed it, an American pit bull terrier.

 

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The RCA Victor dog is a pit. So is the dog from the Buster Brown stories and shoes.

 

So, what happened to lead us up to the days of stories like Michael Vick and his dog fighting pit? (I will not show the horrible images of the maimed dogs he is responsible for.)

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The concept of pit bulls as Nanny Dogs may be a bit overstated, but the bad reputation of the dogs is something fairly recent. For reasons I don’t know and won’t investigate here, dog fighting rose in popularity in the 1980s and continues today. Pit bulls are incredibly strong dogs and super smart, meaning they are highly trainable. Which can mean trouble if the dog trainer has bad intentions. With the pit bull’s massive head and jaws, their bite can be deadly. In addition to fighting dogs, they have come to be seen by some as cheap, effective guard dogs. I prefer an alarm system myself.

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At the animal shelter, our aim is to place companion dogs in homes with loving families. Snuffy’s previous family was displaced by a house fire and had no choice but to relinquish their beloved dog to the shelter system. They loved her dearly. She was a member of their family. Now she is with us at ARF, and we will do our best to match her with guardians who understand her and will give her the love and exercise she needs.

You might ask why I don’t adopt her myself. One, I have a full house: Einstein, 3 cats, and a continuing rotation of foster cats. Two, I am at work full time, as is Bob. We aren’t able to provide Snuffy what she needs. Three, I want to see her make another family as happy as she makes me. It’s one of the rewards of my job. I can’t adopt each and every animal I fall in love with, but I can feel the joy of someone else falling in love. I get to be a part of something special.

Consider donating to or volunteering at your local shelter so they can continue saving lives like Snuffy’s and Einstein’s. Adopt, don’t shop. And spread the word for Snuffy and all the other animals who deserve better than the cards they’ve been dealt in life.

 

Peace and hugs.

 

I’m not bad at mindfulness, I just have my own approach

I’ve tried several times over the years to get myself into mindfulness and meditation through classes and workshops, and I always felt like a failure.

My best experience was last year through the Kaiser Behavioral Health department in Oakland. The class, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, is an 8-week program and includes a day-long silent retreat. What, a day of silence? How is that possible? Could I stand it? Would I go nuts? It was actually pretty awesome! Our instructor was a lovely gentleman named Charlie Johnson, and just the sound of his voice leading us through our practices soothed my nerves. Being in the old Julia Morgan building that used to be the ominously named The King’s Daughters Home for Incurables on Broadway in Oakland lent a certain je ne sais quoi.

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The King’s Daughters Home for Incurables, now part of Kaiser in Oakland.

But I don’t practice at home. At least not deliberately. I’ve found that I achieve mindfulness in my own ways, not from sitting quietly with my eyes closed. When I do that, I end up with a dog in my face, a cat on my head, and a fit of the giggles.

This is about yoga, but you get the idea.

 

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Now that I am in my post-retirement second career (I love saying that) working at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation I am not nearly as stressed out as I used to be. And part of the reason is oddly enough, given my yoga and meditation animal interference references, because I work with animals. Animals reduce my stress. Since I’ve been fostering cats and kittens, I find myself at the end of every day just sitting on the floor in the room with the fosters, usually in my pajamas, letting kittens crawl all over me. It’s the best!

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The key to total relaxation.

I often think of our kitchen as my happy place, cooking as a way to decompress. It’s a form of mindfulness for me. I found out that there is a term for it: culinary therapy. According to one article in Psychology Today:

“Now culinary therapy is the treatment du jour at a growing number of mental health clinics and therapists’ offices. It’s being used as part of the treatment for a wide range of mental and behavioral health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, ADHD and addiction.”

Even the Wall Street Journal is on board:

“Many cooks know what a sanctuary the kitchen can be.

Now, some health-care clinics and counselors are using cooking or baking as therapy tools for people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental-health problems.”

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Sure, this is how I look in the kitchen.
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Hell’s Kitten, that’s me. Look out Gordon Ramsay!
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It’s magic!
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Even if I need a stepstool, like in Norway, it’s something I love to do.

This got me thinking about other things that are forms of mindfulness for me. Reading, definitely. Not the “oh my god I have to read this for school NOW” kind of reading, but curled up with a good book and being immersed in a story reading.

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Yes please!
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I understand what Salinger was getting at here.

I love my coloring books and sketch pads and various craft and sewing projects (see The Do It Yourself Museum ©, maybe someday brought to you by the Hallmark Channel ™). Maybe the reason I never finish any of them is that I enjoy the process more than the finishing.

Another wonderful class I took at Kaiser, in Vallejo (I lived in Napa at the time), was one called Phobease, taught by Dr. Fear, aka Dr. Howard Liebgold (see Falling in love with frogs). He describes cortical shifting as a way to alleviate anxiety. A great example is singing while driving; I hate driving but singing while driving keeps me calmer. As long as I get to choose the music.  And I keep my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road.

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If you are interested, check out his book Freedom from Fear: Overcoming Anxiety, Phobias, and Panic.

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Book blurb:

“In Freedom from Fear, Dr. Howard Liebgold, M.D., a psychiatrist who overcame a claustrophobic condition that lasted 31 years, reveals the techniques that he has used to help thousands of patients to conquer their fears. In the course of just a few weeks, everyone suffering from acute phobias will learn simple but powerful methods for the cure of their symptoms and how to stop panic attacks. Finally, even the most anxiety-ridden will learn the strategies and coping mechanisms to gently and safely overcome devastating, constricting fears or obsessive compulsive behaviors. By following this ten-week, step-by-step program, readers will learn to: – Understand the nature of phobias- Design a personalized strategy to conquer their fears- Understand and practice non-avoidance- Develop a mutual support system- Follow sound nutrition and exercise practices- Master relaxation techniques- Freedom from Fear is the first book on phobias written by a physician who suffered and recovered from crippling phobias.”

Now I have to go cook up something (I also like cooking while listening to audiobooks, combining two of my go-to therapies). But first I have to go to the store. And if someone can figure out mindfulness through grocery shopping, let me know!

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Having a heart can be expensive, or, I’ve decided not to be thick-skinned about the homeless who ask me for money

Living in the Bay Area had the effect for a while of hardening me and my usual soft heart against the homeless. According to the San Francisco Homeless Project, SF has the second highest rate of homelessness in the United States. And for the Bay Area, it has double the rate of Oakland, and three times that of San Jose.

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During the 11+ years I worked in Berkeley, there were times I swore Berkeley had the highest rate of homelessness in the US. Granted, if I were homeless I’d rather be in Berkeley than a lot of other places, but I got to where I hated leaving my office to walk down Durant Avenue toward Telegraph Avenue.

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Mike Harris has been homeless for years and often plays music on a boombox while panhandling outside of Asian Ghetto (Durant Food Court). He takes heart medication. He asked me for money everyday for more than 10 years. I rarely gave him any, and didn’t know his name until today when I found this image.
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The streets of Berkeley.

Not that I had to leave work to be confronted with my discomfort. The old location of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) was a natural place for people living on the streets to go in to use the restroom facilities. Anyone who is out and about and has to use a bathroom faces a hard time finding places without the “restrooms are for customers only sign”.

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I much prefer this sign:

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My initial annoyance at having to share the facilities with the woman who came in regularly and cried while taking a sink bath became empathy and a realization of “There but for the grace of God go I” (or the equalivalent since I’m not into the God thing).

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Benita Guzman, 40, washes her hair in the sink of a public restroom after dropping her children at school in Port Hueneme, some 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, California February 28, 2012. Benita Guzman, 40, and her niece Angelica Cervantes, 36, are homeless but stick together in an effort to keep seven of their eleven children together as a family. One in 45 children, totalling 1.6 million, is homeless, the highest number in United States’ history, according to a 2011 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness. California is ranked the fifth highest state in the nation for its percentage of homeless children. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES)

My attitude first underwent a shift when I was working on my Masters in Library and Information Science a few years ago. For a class on Libraries and Society, I decided to write a paper about the use of public library facilities by the homeless. The research was so difficult to read; such heartbreaking stories and real despair. Libraries are meant for everyone, I do believe, but as a wanna-be librarian I was worried about having to be a social worker on top of everything else. But just as the museum restroom off of the Durant Avenue entrance to BAMPFA made sense when I thought about it, so did libraries. They are  quiet, warm in winter, cool in summer, relatively safe places to get off of the streets.

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At the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.
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It’s hard to navigate life without access to a computer these days. Libraries provide them for the public.

Most of the people I know say they never give money to panhandlers and the homeless. If I admitted that I did give money now and then, I felt kind of stupid. I used to believe that if someone couldn’t take care of themself, they had no business having a companion animal. But companion animals are one of the most important joys of life to me, and I’ve changed my mind. This was brought home fully to me after hearing Karen Hamza of Angel Hanz for the Homeless speak on her own experience of being homeless and the services she now provides for the homeless to be able to keep their pets with them. I’ve been through some tough times emotionally in my life, and having the cats and dogs to comfort me and to take care of kept me going. I get it now.

At about the same time, my inspring and beautiful friend Molly posted on Facebook about how the homeless aren’t treated like humans and her experiences talking to people on the street, asking their names, and doing what she could. She and I went to lunch together one day not long after, and she really brought it home for me. We were walking back to our cars with our leftover boxes after lunch, when we started to pass two older guys who appeared to be homeless, or at least really down on their luck. I was going to keep going, but Molly stopped. I reluctantly stopped too, and then as I listened to her talk with them and ask their stories, and watched her give them her lunch (which was going to be her dinner), I couldn’t just stand there. I handed over my box, and was so touched to get a hug in return. Hugs are good.

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Ken Nwadike, founder of the Free Hugs project. He’s got the right idea.

I learned a lot from this encounter about myself and about compassion. When I was recently working at a mobile adoption event for Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation outside of the Pet Food Express in Lafayette, I had the chance to practice my empathy and compassion.

Lafayette is not a poor community, and one does not expect to encounter the homeless there. Back in 2012, the median household income in Lafayette was $150,000, more than double the statewide average and nearly triple the national average. The real estate overview I looked at lists the median home price in Lafayette at $1,320,000 and the median rent per month as $5,000. That’s a lot of money. A lot. It’s like Monopoly money to me when talking about these unimaginable sums.

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Lafayette, California.
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The only way I’d ever have that amount of money.

When the 40ish-looking man came over with his dog, I didn’t even stop to think about him being homeless. He was very proud of his dog, a mixed breed with an adorable underbite, appropriately named Smiley. He mentioned he got the dog through Pets for Vets about 5 years ago, and how important the dog has become in his life.

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He then talked about his traumatic brain injury and cognitive difficulties and how much Smiley helps him with his post-traumatic stress disorder. By that time, it was clear to me that he was lonely, a bit confused, and in need. I channeled Molly and opened my ears and my heart. He finally said he was”kind of homeless” and quietly asked me for $3 for a coffee at the cafe across the street. I admit to very brief inner struggle and thought of fibbing and saying I didn’t have any cash. But my better nature won the struggle. I gave him a $20. Not the Monopoly kind, a real one. That’s not a small amount of money for me. Animal shelter and animal rescue jobs don’t pay a lot of money. But I can give up a few visits to Peet’s coffee and make up the $20. And I got my hug.

Then I heard from the people I know that I shouldn’t have given him money. You know what? It was my money and my choice. He was a nice guy, taking good care of Smiley, not aggressive, wearing clean clothes, and didn’t smell of alcohol. He is a man who has fallen through the cracks of  veterans’ services after suffering serious injuries in serving his country.

I didn’t take his picture; I have more respect than that. Most of these images are from Google Images searches, not my phone.

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Homeless veteran with dog, name and location unknown.
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Homeless veteran and dog at a hearing for increasing housing programs for veterans.

My naysayers make me think of the lines spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

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I am not trying to make anyone feel bad. I am not fishing for compliments or validation. I am asking you to think twice next time you turn away from someone on the street. And do not take the good things in your life for granted. We are taught the Golden Rule as children. Let’s follow it as adults.

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Peace, love, and hugs.

Recommended reading: 3 Ways to Respond Responsibly and Compassionately to Panhandlers