Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Lately there've been a lot of pair-flights in my neighborhood, little duos of ravens wheeling and dipping over the treetops, flying their swirling, romantic, aerobatic courtship displays, grace on the wing. This is, for me, an unmistakable sign of spring here. Even though I have that brain perversion that makes me think spring happens about the end of January, I think nearly everyone would agree with me that the juice is rising now. There's daylight both on my way to and on my way home from work, I've decreased the heat in my house, and things buried for months in my back yard are starting to emerge from under the snow.
Mind you, at a casual glance, one might be decoyed: It's the season of brown.
Summer here is unrelentingly green, and fall is often gloriously golden. Winter, of course, is white - at least in the daytime - bracketed at dawn and dusk with the most glorious shades of red and gold and peach and violet. But early spring (which in my mind is mid-spring) tends toward brown: the snow is disappearing, but the green-up hasn't started yet. Even MY twisted little brain can't make it look green... yet. That's coming - along with the return of the swans, the swift bullet-flights of the ducks, the evocative calls of the cranes and the haunting songs of loon and grebe. Then my lake will be open water, glimmering in the long light of summer, a thing of peace to be found, always, at the slightest glance out my windows.
I like living on the water. There was a time when I lived literally ON the water, in a boat: a 40-foot 1960 Chris-Craft yacht, to be exact. Now I live more metaphorically on the water, in the sense that my house is situated on a peninsula into a lake. Back in vet school, though, I had to make do with an irrigation ditch.
I lived on a property that had a small acreage, two frontages, several mature apple and cherry trees, a small house, a detached garage (which I rented out to a friend) and an irrigation ditch running through the fenced pasture area. Mind you, this was really quite pleasant and much prettier than it probably sounds. I'll grant you than in the winter the ditch was dry, which wasn't as pretty, but did have one advantage: It allowed my mustang mare to go across the ditch to a part of the pasture that she would not dare approach in the summer. The thoroughbreds would cross at will, fording the fast-flowing water without the slightest concern, but the mustang would not even consider this behavior, no matter which side her best friends and pasture-mates were on.
The down-side of the winter-dry ditch became apparent one day when a trio of adolescent boys came trundling down the ditch, evidently using it as their own personal highway, without regard to property lines or trespassing. They appeared unexpectedly from under the bridge that spanned the ditch where it passed under the adjacent road. I happened to be outside at the time with a classmate, Jean. We were treated to the experience of seeing all three horses in my pasture startle and bolt at the appearance of the boys. They ran down the fence-line, two of them crowding my mustang against the fence. Trapped tight against the wire, she leaped over it into the neighboring pasture, taking down the top wire as she did.
I bolted after the horses, hopping the remaining wire to catch up my mustang and inspect for damage. Jean, who had at one time been a Sheriff's deputy, took several brisk strides toward the ditch, calling in a deep, authoritative voice, "You kids are trespassing! Get off of this property!" It was quite a transformation: Jean is normally soft-spoken and rather gentle in her body language, and all of a sudden she's striding along like a colossus out to bust some heads, and her voice had dropped an octave and risen in volume by a factor of ten. The kids all leaped a half a foot in the air and turned, scrambling, to run back the way they had come.
I never saw them again. Quelle suprise. Not.
Meanwhile, my mustang, blowing and snorting, eyes wide and ears swivelling madly to catch any hint of threat, consented to pause by the far fence of the neighbor's pasture as I approached her. She held her head high and tense, surveying the ditch, but when the boys disappeared under the bridge she dropped her head a little and allowed me to sort through her dense winter coat for the source of the blood I could see streaked against her grey dapples. Nothing too bad: three parallel cuts, not quite full-thickness through her skin. Lucky it wasn't one of the two thin-skinned thoroughbreds, in which case I was fairly certain I'd be doing stitches.
Ah, well. That was the worst of the things that came of having an irrigation ditch run through it.
Most of the time it was rather a delight to have the ditch there. It meant I didn't have to worry about water if I decided to empty out and scrub the stock tank, and it was home to a family of muskrats and one of ducks. It was a delightful thing, of a morning or an evening, to go down and sit by the ditch with my notes and perhaps a cup of coffee, studying and sipping and enjoying the quiet sound of flowing water and the antics of the wildlife... well, sometimes studying and sometimes not. The muskrats would generally disappear when I first arrived, only to venture forth again a few minutes later, after I had failed to do anything frightening. They would swim up and down the ditch, sometimes emerging on the far bank, sometimes paddling along against the current, diving now and again with a little flash of their long bare tails. Once in a while one of the babies would climb out on the bank and huddle there, peering nearsightedly at me and sniffing the air for a while - until my evident boringness caused them to lose interest and they disappeared amongst the grasses on the bank, or slid seamlessly back into the water.
Most of the time, if I was sitting by the ditch, Cassie the mustang mare would come join me. Sometimes she would nuzzle at my coffee cup, attempting to taste the contents, or else sniffing deeply and then turning her upper lip up to funnel the aroma into her nostrils. Sometimes she would riffle softly through my hair with her thick velvety lips, blowing and snuffling gently at my skin, twitching her upper lip side-to-side to give me a companionable scratch. Sometimes she would lay down nearby, taking advantage of my guardianship to have a little lie-down. Sometimes she would simply stand next to me, head drooping companionably to the level of mine, her eyelids half-mast and blinking sleepily. Every once in a while she would poke her nose over my shoulder, peering at my notes and trying to turn the pages with her nose. She was insatiably curious, and relentlessly social - both useful traits for a wild horse, I imagine. Having been caught at approximately a year of age, Cassie had had the lessons of the wild to reinforce her own natural temperament - a lucky thing for me, given the number of times she devised a new means of escaping from the pasture. She was always to be found a few pastures down, visiting the nearest neighbor horses, but the moment I showed up she would turn away from them, bright-eyed with interest, to walk up to me. You could almost see her thinking "Hi! What are YOU doing here? Got anything to eat?"
Most fortunately, I could walk Cassie back home without benefit of halter or rope. All that was necessary was to reach under her throat-latch and pinch about 18 of her mane-hairs between my thumb and forefinger. This seemed sufficient lead by which to convince her to walk home with me, the other horses trailing in her wake. As she was always fascinated with whatever boring thing I was up to - and there was every chance she might be rewarded with food for accompanying me - she was more than willing to walk along home with me. I sometimes wondered what passing motorists thought of this odd little parade: Me (usually dishevelled, having been woken out of a sound sleep at 6 in the morning by some helpful stranger pounding on my door and yelling "Hey! Your horses are out!"; walking at my right shoulder, a sturdy and beautifully dappled grey mare wearing a bright, interested expression but nary a halter nor rope nor anything else; and two chestnut geldings clopping happily along single-file in our wake.
The pasture was a peaceful refuge for me on many an evening when I'd driven my brain hard all day and needed a little mental break before putting it back to work for the evening's studying. Quite often my little old dog Merrik - then 12 years old and missing one eye as a consequence of cancer, but still tough and active and otherwise bursting with health and energy - would accompany me out into the pasture, wandering around and sniffing things, sifting through the feed dishes for stray bits of sweet feed, milling peacefully amongst the horses, all of whom tolerated her presence without the slightest animosity. It was a lovely, restful, soothing ritual, often repeated throughout vet school.
Except for the day Merrik saw the ducks.
Merrik was pathologically fearful of water. Like many dogs, she dreaded being bathed, and spent the entire time attempting to escape the tub (or sink, or wherever I was bathing her). She was a relatively small dog (only 20 pounds) but she had the magical ability to gain twice her usual weight - not to mention several extra limbs - whenever I tried to pick her up to put her in the tub. Outside, she would skirt all but the smallest puddles. She would certainly go up to the irrigation ditch for a drink, but she was careful to place her front feet on the bank where she could balance herself securely without risk of getting wet.
One day, though, while walking around the pasture with me, Merrik happened to notice the duck family on the waters of the irrigation ditch. Well, this is an enticement not to be ignored: There, right in front of her, is a large mallard with four or five babies trailing in her wake. Who could resist chasing that?
Merrik takes off, growling low in her throat, darting at a shallow angle toward the ditch. The duck babies immediately begin paddling rapidly for the far shore. The mother duck begins swimming fast against the current, but hugging the near shore to decoy the dog away from her babies as Merrik (ignoring me as I try to call her off) closes in. At the last minute, the babies all having made the safety of the far bank, the mother duck churns it into overdrive, angling sharply across the water to follow the babies. At the same moment, Merrik - focused now on nothing in life but that duck - makes her leap.
She missed, of course.
The rest was like a cartoon. Merrik, on hitting the dread miasma of (gasp!) water, leaps strait up in the air. It's like watching a rocket launch, spray flying everywhere as she explodes out of the drink. Somehow, about two and a half feet above the surface, she manages to change direction and comes down on the bank rather than falling back into the ditch. This is rather a relief to me, because the laminar flow in the ditches - deceptively smooth and calm on the surface - is swift-flowing and powerful under the surface, capable of drowning adult humans. Apparently the shock of landing in water is enough to completely short-circuit Merrik's brain, and she races madly about the pasture for the next ten minutes, making wide, swift loops and zigzags and barking incessantly the entire time. Meanwhile I laugh helplessly, unable to catch my breath long enough to call her to me to reassure her, and slightly unhinged by the relief of not having my beloved dog sucked into the undertow to her death. The horses look on in bemusement, their heads turning to watch Merrik's progress as she criss-crosses the pasture at top speed. Cassie, excited by the activity, trots a few strides, tossing her head, but then stops again to watch the show.
Eventually Merrik outruns her shock and horror and slows down, and I am able to catch my breath and call her to me. She is panting and muddy, and her one remaining eye is wild with excitement. I take pity on her and decide not to bathe her; instead we hang out under the apple trees until she dries and I brush the mud out of her coat.
Merrik is many years in her grave - she lived to be fourteen, and the four years we had following her diagnosis and treatment for cancer were the best of her life. We did everything together, every fun thing I could think of for a person and a tough little terrier mix dog to do together. I suppose I will always miss her; but I can't help but smile when I think of her. She was the perfect sidekick to me for many years, and (bless her heart) saw me through vet school and into internship. She was everything charming and delightful and engaging and sweet, everything tough and cheerful and good-hearted and adorable a dog could be. She made me laugh more times than I could ever count, and makes me smile to this day whenever I think of her. I don't think I ever saw a dog more conscious of her dignity, yet more willing to abandon it when the opportunity presented itself. I'll have that afternoon always in memory: the sun slanting golden in the late afternoon, the green of the pasture, the muddy brown of the water, dappled with sun... the horses wandering about, copper and smoke drifting over the grass, and my little silver-black dog, racing wild-eyed through the mix, barking hysterically the while.
It might not have been quite as good as having a river run through it.... but the irrigation ditch was a pretty decent substitute.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
So last night was the Wild Women of Wildwood Farm Wine-tasting Festival 2010. It was all very nicely set up by S&R, who procured seven wines (three white and four red) for us to try. Rae had all the bottles shrouded in plain brown wrappers, marked with a letter designation. Susan made up little wine notes for us, listing the reds and whites separately. There were spaces for us to rank our favorites, make our personal wine-tasting notes, and indicate which wine we thought corresponded to which letter, and another space to print in which grape it ACTUALLY was, so that we could score ourselves – because there was going to be a quiz, and there was a prize for the winner. Each varietal represented was listed – in random order – with a description if available. In addition to all this, there were various snacks and savories – not to assuage our gluttony, but to cleanse the palate between tasting, I assure you. (Hey! Was that a skeptical look I just saw?!)
About an hour after I arrived, the various guests were assembled: all women, all congenial, all in a festive mood. We collected a few tasting glasses each, dutifully marking them A, B and C. As is sensible, the whites were first. Now, I'm not typically a white wine drinker; as a rule, I prefer the dry reds. I love the dry complexity and strong oaks and smokier, more sensual tones they offer. But hey – I'm always game for a challenge, a little education of my palate, a chance to try something new. The alcohol content has NOTHING to do with it. I swear.
Accordingly, we all parked ourselves and took a little tot of each wine: a pinos gris, a cardonnay, and a viognier (of which I had never before heard – but hoped I might identify by a process of elimination).
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm really quite the amateur when it comes to serious wine tasting. I know the basic steps – you know, tilt the glass, inspect the color, sample the bouquet both before and after swirling, take a wee sip (ditto), chew, inhale, all the usual jazz. Personally, I am too frugal to spit the wine, however, so I will unfortunately always be a complete amateur and a hopelessly gauche provincial with no sophistication whatsoever. Personally, I believe in a little taste of smoked salmon in between tastes, or maybe a sip of water or a Greek olive or a sliver of red bell pepper, to cleanse the palate. (See? I'm telling you: a complete rube.) In between noshing, raucous conversation with my fellow tasters and lots of laughter, I made my rankings and my guesses as to which wine was which. Then – and I swear this is only because I'm frugal – I finished all the remaining wine in my glasses while I waited for the tasting to finish so I could find out how truly I suck at determining which wine is which.
Amazingly – the more so given that I rarely drink whites - I scored three out of three. Huh. That was weird.
Next came the reds. Here I was pretty sure I had my work cut out: I like red wine, but while I have some favorite varietals, I'm really not very sophisticated about it, and I was fairly sure I would embarrass myself by really screwing this one up. This would be less embarrassing if I didn't actually make my own wine, which you would think would educate me a little (although I was fairly sure it had not.) Also, I figured that since I DO prefer the reds, I would like them all and therefore be harder pressed to choose between them. This in fact turned out to be the case. I had one very clear favorite, which I felt sure was the pinot noir – well, okay, I wasn't sure. I hoped it was, as pinots are one of my favorite varietals, and I thought it would be way too embarrassing if I got that one wrong. There were, however, some varietals I rarely drink (shiraz and malbec), and one that was new to me (a carmenere). Oh, well. Time to punt.
So, I sipped and I chewed and I inhaled and I squinted at the color. I giggled at the antics of some of my compatriots, and admired the combat photography technique of the woman sitting next to me: At various intervals she would extend her (very nice) camera above her head, aim it at the center of the action, and take a shot. Because it was a digital camera, she could immediately inspect the results and regroup for a better shot if needed. I milled about the delicacies on offer (two kinds of salmon, one kind of salmon dip, tangy home-made goat cheese, home-made duck sausage, some kind of rumaki-like creation, chips and guacamole, spicy devilled eggs on French bread, various kinds of really delectable olives, sliced bell peppers with some kind of tasty white dip, two different kinds of brownies – I can't recall what else.) Susan – a teacher – came around and inspected our tasting notes. Those who were spending too much time tasting and not enough time on their notes received - in red pen – a notation that they need to stay on-task. Those who had been more diligent got commendations. (I got "Good describing words".) Oooh. Now I'm all proud and stuff.
Eventually it was time for scoring. Yup, I did just as bad as I expected: one out of four. I WAS right on the pinot noir – thankfully proving I'm not a complete philistine and that while largely wasted, my 6 years of wine-making experience were at least not a total loss – but everything else I screwed up: The malbec I thought was the carmenere, the shiraz I thought was the malbec, and the carmenere I thought was the shiraz. Oh, well. At least I had enough taste to enjoy drinking them.
Now it's time for the overall scoring. Rae made everyone who got one right out of the seven put up their hand.
"Okay, how many got two right?" she asked. A few hands went down. "Three right?" Down go a few more hands. "Four right?" Just two hands left now, mine and one other. "Five right?" Both of us put our hands down.
"Ooh, a tie-breaker!" Susan exclaimed. She polled us all to find out which wine was the favorite; turns out I was in good company, as the one I personally ranked first was the overall favorite. "Okay," she said. "As the tie-breaking question, what is the percentage of alcohol content in the pinot noir?"
"Twelve percent," said my 'opponent' after a moment's consideration.
"Fourteen," I said without hesitation. I don't know why; it just popped into my head.
"Thirteen and a half," Susan replied. "You're closer."
Well, what do you know. I never win these things. Quite a shocker.
We divided up the winning present (it WAS a tie, after all); my opponent got a wine caddy (a tote internally divided into separate compartments so that you can carry six bottles at once); I got the game Wine-opoly, a variant of Monopoly. This looks like a riot, and also somewhat educational: there are wine quizzes on some of what would be the "community chest" cards, and the "deed" cards have information about different wines. Of course, how educational it really is may depend on how many glasses of wine you drink while playing the game. I'll let you know, at any rate: I have a feeling I'll be breaking this game in at Wildwood.
Just a guess.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
I've noticed that all my patients have pants.
Now, I know that a lot of people object to dressing dogs and cat in clothes; I've heard Jay Leno complain about this more than once, although in fairness I believe he's taking only about decorative clothing, not clothing meant for utility (such as a working harness on a service dog, or coats for thin-coated breeds in the deep cold of Alaska or similar environs). For this reason I must here defend my clients: it's not the owner's fault if their pet has pants. It's actually my fault. For some reason I can't quite explain, nearly every time I see a patient I designate pants for them.
It goes like this: In comes, say, some adorable little puppy. I enter the exam room. The puppy will be variously wandering around on the floor, sniffing everything, cuddled in the owner's arms, or up on the exam table (or some combination of the above). It is very uncommon for me to walk into the exam room without the puppy investigating me – usually with joy and excitement, although sometimes with caution and/or trepidation. Very rarely I have one that is actively hostile – a situation that gives me pause, since by their natures puppies are rarely hostile, and seeing aggression in an animal that young is disquieting and warrants immediate intervention from the owner in the form of training, beginning as soon as possible.
However, the vast majority of puppies (and adult dogs – cats, somewhat less commonly) are happy to see people – even vets. (I know! Amazing!) Some are more outgoing or confident than others, but even the timid ones will usually essay at least a few sniffs and maybe a little tail wag (or a purr-and-head-butt, depending on species). Most puppies are absolutely dying to come have cuddle and (usually) lick me. Naturally I have to comment, either to the puppy or the owner. Usually it somehow accidentally comes out like this:
"Oh, what a cutie-pants!"
Well, the owner can hardly disagree with me, right? So now the dog has pants. Cutie-pants.
Sometimes, though, we have a dog or cat who is feeling a bit growly. Those animals shop at a different boutique and generally come in wearing their cranky-pants. Sometimes the owners complain about the pet's behaviors, because their pets are wearing naughty-pants. Sometimes pets want to hide from me (because they're wearing scaredy-pants) and others are just thrilled to see me (obviously wearing their happy-pants). Sometimes we'll have an in-heat bitch come in for a breeding (typically via artificial insemination, because while vets may be a weird group, we're not THAT weird – or at least, not weird in that way); such females usually rivet the attention of every male dog in the clinic, because they've arrived in their sexy-pants.
By the same token we have pets in curly-pants, fuzzy-pants, fluffy-pants, dancey-pants, bitey-pants, itchy-pants (I don't recommend getting this kind for yourself, just as a by-the-way); we also see those in sweetie-pants, pukey-pants (also not recommended), runny-pants (ditto), smelly-pants (make your own decision there, but I'd suggest "no"), squinty-pants, waggy-pants, wiggly-pants, bossy-pants, smarty-pants, gaggy-pants (I'd advise skipping this), ouchy-pants (also to be avoided), huggy-pants, snuggly-pants, messy-pants (use your best judgment), fancy-pants, baldy-pants, scruffy-pants, lucky-pants and so on: Nearly any kind of pants you can imagine.
Many dogs and cats have a fairly full wardrobe. My dogs, for instance, possess happy-pants, hairy-pants, scruffy-pants, noisy-pants, wiggly-pants, greedy-pants, snarky-pants (ahem, Raven), speedy-pants (Ali), messy-pants (Finn), shorty-pants (Kenzie), grubby-pants, muddy-pants (seasonally), stinky-pants (far too often), poopy-pants (typically at 3 a.m. and 40 below zero, thanks so much), cuddly-pants, snuggly-pants, and, quite often, the well-known naughty-pants. You'd think I'd stop letting them shop in the stinky-pants department (where you can also find poopy-pants, pukey-pants and so on), but somehow that hasn't worked out. (Evidently it was a mistake to let Finn get his own credit card. Go figure.)
Some pets share their pants wardrobe with their owners. (Generous of them, don't you think? And if, for instance, I've forgotten to wear my muddy-pants, my dogs will happily rectify this oversight, generally just before I have to go somewhere nice and don't have time to change.) Still, there are several kinds of pants animals seem completely uninterested in, such as braggy-pants, snooty-pants, meany-pants, stingy-pants, Machiavelli-pants, huffy-pants, pervy-pants, cheaty-pants, and, ironically, weaselly-pants. Even actual weasels never wear weaselly-pants (although they may wear slinky-pants and wiggly-pants and snuggly-pants, and sometimes licky-pants and even bitey-pants.)
Surprisingly, even though I have two bitches, the only one to ever wear bitchy-pants in my house is me, actually. I try to leave those at home, but some days, you're all out of other pants to wear. I'm sure this has never happened to any of you, of course, but evidently (and most unfortunately) there are some days that that's all I have left to wear.
Oh, well. At least I can count on my dogs forgiving this behavior… because no matter what other pants they might be wearing that day, they're always wearing their sweetie-pants.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
It's kind of a chilly morning here in Alaska: Eleven below at my house this morning. Having nothing in the house to eat for breakfast (well, okay, nothing I WANTED to eat for breakfast), I elected to come to the local Pandemonium cafe` for quiche and coffee - from whence I now blog to you.
It was clear and starry last night, with a brilliant half-moon hanging in the sky. This morning a towering fog bank is rising over the Knik Arm, hiding all but the highest peaks of the Chugach, buliding and drifting slowly to the west. The ravens are in flight, wheeling and chasing each other; it won't be long before they begin their aerobatic courting flights. Spring is definitely on the way. I don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for it, myself.
Spring, of course, gets me to thinking about lambing, and lambing, this morning, has me thinking about my friend Yvonne; for some reason I'm flashing back to a time when I took Gumby the orphan lamb - be-diapered and convalescing from a bout of anorexia and diarrhea - to Yvonne's house. Yvonne's Westie, Heather, appeared to be offended by the idea of a lamb in diapers, so she promptly grabbed the seat of Gumby's diaper and yanked it off. Yvonne found this hilarious. I might not have, except for the fact that I had spare diapers with me. Gumby, at the time, was not master of his GI tract, and had significant issues with continence as a result. Picture driving home with an incontinent lamb in the front seat of your truck smearing yellow goo on everything. Delightful! Not.
Yvonne - also known as "Satan" at her place of work owing to a temperamental resemblance to Catbert the evil HR director, from the Dilbert cartoon - is a client with whom I've established a friendship. The very first time I saw her it was to check her cat Christie for a mass on her face.
All unsupecting, I walk into the exam room. There stands Yvonne next to the exam table, the more conveniently to pet her cat, who is walking up and down the table, inspecting it with interest. Christie is a sleek black cat, glossy of coat and elegant of build. Yvonne herself is something of the opposite: she is almost alabaster pale, with large, expressive blue eyes and thick, strait hair the color of ripe apricots. She looks up altertly as I enter the room.
"Are you the doctor?" she asks.
"Yes," I say, introducing myself. "So we're here to see Christie for a mass on her face?"
"Yes," Yvonne says. "I just noticed it last night. I was washing her face - she has her own washcloth, you know - and that's when I saw it." Her voice is highly inflected, as expressive as her eyes, and her diction is precise, almost formal, which lends a certain emphasis to her words. Her tone is confiding, as if she is sharing with me some personal anecdote - which, in a way, I suppose she is: This is her ritual with her cat, part of their personal relationship, unique to them. How many people, after all, wash their cat's face at night, or provide it with its own washcloth?
"Okay," I say. "Did she seem painful when you washed that area?"
"No, it didn't bother her at all," Yvonne says, opening her eyes wide, her tone suggesting that she finds this fact completely amazing.
"Hmm," I say. "Does she seem normal in other respects? No coughing, sneezing, vomiting or diarrhea? Eating and drinking oaky? No decrease in activity?"
"No, everything else is normal," Yvonne says definitely. I figure that if this client is meticulous enough that she is washing her cat's face at night before bed, she's probably up on what else is going on with the cat, and I am prepared to accept as true her assertions that Christie has not been pawing or scratching at her face bump, and seems in all respects otherwise normal.
"Okay, let's start with a physical," I say. It is my habit to do the entire physical exam first, then to focus on the presenting complaint; this is useful for a number of reasons. One is that it's possible I may need more information than I would get just looking at the item of concern; all amimals are integrated systems, and nothing exists on or in an animal that is completely independant of its other systems. Another reason is that I have countelss times detected, on doing a routine physical, something relatively unrelated to the presenting complaint, but of which the owner was unaware; a heart murmur in a pet presented for treatment of a skin complaint, for example. The third reason is that if I proceed in a methodical fashion, I am unlikely to omit anything by accident; habit is a powerful force - so much so that I have often embarrassed myself in a social setting by consequence of it. I have no idea how many times I've been at someone's house for, say, dinner, having a little pre- or post-meal chat, only to notice them staring at me oddly. Sometimes they go so far as to ask my what I'm doing. Startled, I will then look down to notice that - their pet having presented itself for affection - I am automatically doing a physical exam, peering into their dog's ears or lifting its lip to look at its teeth, groping under its jaw for lymph nodes or inspecting its eyes for conjunctivits, jaundice or cataracts. As I say, I have no idea how often I've done that, but the number lies somewhere between "frequently" and "REALLY frequently". (Surprisingly, most of these people asked me back to visit again. I know! Amazing!)
I complete Christie's physical exam; everything internal is presenting normally. I turn her to face me. There is, indeed, a raised black bump on her face, its color slightly more bluish than her glossy jet fur. Yvonne watches me, sharply focused, her fingers trailing over Christie's silky back as I inspect the mass.
"What kind of mass do you think it is?" she asks me intently. "I hope it's not something bad," she adds in the sort of hushed tones one generally uses for salacious gossip.
"Not too bad," I smile. "It's not a mass, it's a tick."
Here I think I'm delivering good news, but Yvonne's eyes spring wide with alarm. Because her eyes are so large and expressive to begin with, the effect is dramatic. Her hands leap off her cat as if burned and she staggers back to fall against the exam room wall. Her horrified gaze fixes on Christie, who is now bathing her paws unconcernedly on the exam table.
"But - but- but she's always been so healthy!" Yvonne wails, as if Christie's having acquired a tick is somehow a sign of being riddled with internal corruption.
"Well, she's still healthy," I say, smiling. "She just has a tick." I feel my lips twitch, fighting laughter. I can't help it. Yvonne's face is nothing if not expressive, and she looks so completely stunned and dismayed by the thought of her elegant little black cat having a tick that you'd think I'd told her Christie was carrying a virulently contagious and gruesomely fatal form of leprosy.
"But how could she have a tick?" Yvonne persists with a little shudder. "We don't have ticks in Alaska!"
"Not many," I agree, "but we see them occasionally."
"But what will we do?" she asks.
"Well, I think we should remove the tick and use a little medication on the bite mark, and then watch for tick-borne diseases - of which we also have very few in Alaska, so the risk is minimal," I add, hoping to forestall panic. Yvonne, still wide-eyed with dismay, nods; she also listens to my aftercare instructions carefully, and asks questions that indicate that she is having no trouble following me and is completely willing to do whatever nursing care I prescribe. Well, that makes sense, after all; her pet care is obviously meticulous, what with the bed-time kitty face-washing and all. As we discuss Christie's care, Yvonne gradually eases back toward the exam table, and her hands drift hesitantly toward the cat's silky fur again, as if Yvonne is afraid that having a tick makes Christie somehow too fragile for normal contact. I pluck the tick with a pair of hemostats, inspecting to be sure I have the tick's head; Christie herself seems mightily unconcerned with the entire procedure; her eyes drift half shut and she commences to purring quietly as I talk.
Christie recovered uneventfully from her tick encounter. The next time I saw her was perhaps a year later. This time Yvonne is concerned that Christie might have a fever.
"Okay," I say, taking my history. "What is Christie doing that makes you think she has a fever?" Clients very rarely take their pets' temperatures, and those who do are often unsure of the animals' normal temperature range, so I always ask this question.
"Well," Yvonne says, in her usual dramatic way, as if preparing to tell me a fascinating story. "Last night I was sitting with her on the couch. I was putting her ears in my mouth - you know, the way you do with baby's fingers, like this," she says, demonstrating: she rolls her lips in to cover her teeth and makes little "nom nom nom" noises while she does gentle little biting motions, indeed exactly as one usually does when some curious infant decides to investigate one's mouth with its fingers. My eyebrows are halfway up my forehead in astonishment (who comes in and tells you they put their cat's ears in their mouth?!?), but I try my best to make my expression look like one of polite inquiry rather than astonishment at this unusual behavior. Perhaps I am successful, as Yvonne continues her history without pause. "I do it all the time," she adds in a conspiratorial fashion, as if she is certain I do the same, and we are just sharing pointers about a favorite hobby. "So I'm used to what her ears feel like, and when I put them in my mouth last night I thought they felt hot."
I smile broadly, privately enjoying my mental picture of this rather endearing confession. "Let's find out," I say, getting out a thermometer. I take Christie's temperature while Yvonne exhorts Christie to be good for mummy and let the nice doctor help her. Christie does indeed have a fever; she's a degree and a half higher than I'd like.
"Well, you're right, she has a fever," I tell Yvonne frankly.
"I knew it!" she says, as if I've vindicated some deeply-held philosophical principle for her. I design a course of treatment for Christie, while Yvonne continues on. "I can't wait to tell them at work; they all think I'm weird for putting her ears in my mouth, but look how useful it is! If I hadn't done that I wouldn't have known she was sick, and she probably would have died!"
"Well, maybe not died," I temporize, smiling, "but there's no doubt it was helpful in this case."
"Well, I'm going to tell them - not that they'll believe me, but still."
"Why wouldn't they believe you?" I ask absently, scribbling in my chart.
"Oh, half of them are 19 or 20, and you know how kids that age are; they come in unbuttoned down to there, wearing their full metal makeup, sure they know everything, and that no one over 25 has a brain in their head. Sometimes I look across the desk at them and think: If I died right now you'd be the last person I ever saw - and then I just wish I had a flamethrower!" Yvonne says fiercely.
I start laughing. With her delivery - dramatic and expressive - it's impossible not to. I'm also amused by the expression "full metal makeup", which appears to be of Yvonne's own invention, but which I find so perfectly descriptive that I have no trouble understanding what she means.
It was after that that I decided that Yvonne and I might have to go out to coffee together. Her wit is ascerbic, but her delivery is so expressive that the most ordinary story is often wildly funny. She has a gift for description that relies at times on misdirection and overstatement, but which invites collusion. As an example, one day (while changing in the locker room for racquetball), Yvonne was again talking about Christie.
"She's just the smartest cat," Yvonne declares. "If she's hungry she comes and cries at me and then leads me to the pantry where her food is! Isn't that amazing?" she inquires, eyes wide. "I swear next week she'll complete her calculations for the Hubble Telescope and finish the proper identification of the Shroud of Turin!"
Two women have entered the locker room just in time to hear about the Hubble Telescope. One of them raises her eyebrows, trying politely not to listen to our conversation, but unable to completely suppress her reaction. I purse my lips judiciously, playing along with Yvonne's exaggerations. "Well, you're probably right; no doubt she'd be done with those already, if not for the fact that she's been working out the design for that pocket atomic decay analyser - you know, for carbon-dating the Shroud of Turin. Of course, she might be delayed a little, since she's brokering that peace accord for the middle east and eradicating world hunger this week."
The two women are now alternately exchanging curious looks and glancing at us from the corners of their eyes, wondering who this woman we are describing might be. Yvonne, oblivious to this, and not missing a beat, replies, "Well, you know the atomic analyser took longer than she wanted it to, because she had to miniaturize it so it would fit in a locket on her collar. I don't know how she does it, without opposable thumbs!" Yvonne exclaims in tones of admiration. "Besides, you know she'll get the peace accord knocked out before lunch. She'd have it done by ten in the morning, you know, except for the fact that she's authenticating a copy of the Gutenberg Bible for the Louvre that day," she adds.
"Oh, I forgot that," I say, nodding. "Well, maybe the atomic analyser will come in handy for that; she can carbon-date the ink and the binding. Isn't she presenting her results at the Hague next week? That would make a good case-study for her paper," I add. I notice that our two locker room companions are moving in slow motion, evidently riveted on our conversation against their will.
"You're right!" Yvonne exclaims. "I'll mention it to her. Of course, this afternoon she's correcting some calculations from one of Einstein's journals - I swear, the man was just riddled with misconceptions about particle physics. And his handwriting! She should get the Nobel Prize for deciphering that!"
The two women exchange increasingly mystified glances; who are we talking about, and why have they not heard of her? And what kind of accident did she have that she doesn't have opposable thumbs?
"I thought she was getting the Nobel Prize!" I say, frowning. "Didn't you say she was getting the award in Economics, for creating that formula for eradicating the national debt in two weeks without raising taxes?"
"Oh, that," Yvonne says dismissively. "That was nothing. Christie doesn't consider it her best work. It was so obvious, she's almost embarrassed."
"Well, I think she should accept the prize anyway. If she's embarrassed, she can always sit down on the podium and have a bath." I pause; our two listeners exchange a shocked look before I continue, squinting judiciously. "She IS a cat, after all - isn't that how all of them cope with embarrassment?"
One of the two women listening to us suppresses a snort of laughter. The other grins into her locker, biting her lower lip hard.
"What?" Yvonne exclaims in tones of outrage. "Christie would never do that! She's far too ladylike! And what would Queen Elizabeth think? You know Christie is her personal advisor for protocol and etiquette! The next thing you know, the entire Royal Family would be stoping to have a bath in the midst of their press conferences! It wouldn't do. Christie has to watch that kind of thing - she has to set an example!"
"Hmm, I didn't think of that," I allow, tying not to laugh. "My apologies for suggesting Christie wold be so inappropriate."
"I should say!" exclaims Yvonne, putting her street clothes in her locker. "So, you ready?" she asks, with an abrupt return to matter-of-fact, swinging her racquet experimentally.
"Yep," I say, picking up my own racquet. I frown at it for a moment. "This is getting pretty beat-up," I mutter to myself. "Say, didn't you say Christie was working on a new graphite polymer? Maybe she can give me a prototype racquet," I say. Snickers erupt from behind one locker door. The other woman firmly presses her towel to her face.
"Oh, yes - that was her tea-time project Wednesday," Yvonne says carelessly. "I'll ask her about it. Of course, that one tennis player - you know, that hairy one - he wanted to get the formula and patent it, but Christie can't abide him - skinny calves. So naturally she said 'No'. She has a contract with Nike instead, so they'll ship her some prototypes next week, I think."
"Isn't she going to be at the Everest base camp next week, doing oxygen telemetry?" I ask as we mosey out of the locker room.
"Yes, but she's invented a new cell phone - did I tell you? - and she'd be happy to call Nike from there and have them deliver one to your door; she re-engineered their corporate jet, you know, so they owe her."
Behind us a muffled guffaw is heard. Someone else is giggling uncontrollably. I nod sagely.
"She really is handy to have around," I muse.
"Yes, she's my favorite," Yvonne says.
Well.... and who can blame her?