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Keeping the faith is a lot easier to do when you’re Billy Joel. Or, you know, Jesus.

February 5, 2011

I’m not gonna lie. The past couple of weeks have pretty much sucked, and keeping my New Year’s resolution has proven to be next to impossible. It all started around Christmas, when Jenn got a sinus infection. Followed by an adverse reaction to a gynecological procedure. Followed by a concussion. Followed by the stomach flu. Followed by being laid off by the company that hired her exactly two months ago. And yes, for those keeping track at home, this is the third time Jenn’s been laid off in the past 14 months, and the second time in the past four. And the moral of the story? Social workers get the short end of the stick, kids, so do yourself a favor and study something super useful–like journalism.

There, there, Connor. I'm sure Jenn and Vicky can still afford to feed us.

Needless to say, we’re both a bit stressed out right now. Case in point? It’s one-thirty in the morning, and I’m still wide awake. Even though I know that one has absolutely nothing to do with the other, I can’t help but wonder if I’m somehow being punished for having quit my job at the university. You see? a devilish voice in the back of my mind whispers. This is what happens when you behave irresponsibly. You never should have resigned. Now you’re both going to be living on the streets and your dogs will have to eat out of garbage barrels. Which, come to think of it, they probably wouldn’t mind so much.

This logic is, of course, flawed. Before I resigned, I made sure that I had an entire year’s salary in savings, and I’ve supplemented those savings with freelance writing gigs and other odd jobs. Jenn will qualify for unemployment, and if God forbid we get into trouble, I know our families will help us out. But I’m willful and stubborn, and the mere notion of asking for help feels like a big, fat failure.

On top of this, I’m really beginning to panic about my impending graduation from grooming school, which is only two months away. That’s right, they’re going to set me loose in less than 60 days, and I can’t confidently groom anything expect maybe a golden retriever. And that’s on a good day. We still aren’t allowed to do faces, and I cut a nail too short at least once a day. Last week Susan told me that the hair between my dog’s toes wasn’t short enough, even though I’d taken extra care to clipper the dog’s pads and I thought it looked pretty darn good at the time. I still don’t know which blades to use, or when to use a snap-on comb instead of a finishing blade, and two weeks ago it took me three hours to groom the neighbor’s shih tzu. Which brings me to the ultimate question: how the hell am I ever supposed to earn a living doing this, exactly?

Jenn has decided that she wants to open a private practice, which totally makes sense, given that she’s been laid off so many times, but now we’re both talking about working for ourselves, which means no health insurance, no built-in vacation or sick days, no 401Ks or flex-spending accounts. Hell, we won’t even be paying into social security.

In his 1933 inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Hrmph. Easy for him to say--HE had a job. I mean, so what if he took office in the midst of the Great Depression?

A few weeks ago on lecture day, Susan recommended that we read Napoleon Hill, who wrote a series of personal-success books, including Think and Grow Rich and Napoleon Hill’s Keys to Success: The 17 Principles of Personal Achievement. I’ve always been pretty skeptical about the whole motivational speaker, self-help movement, but I took notes during Susan’s lecture anyway. “According to Hill,” Susan said, “ninety-eight percent of people have few or no resolute beliefs, and this alone puts true success firmly out of their reach.” Furthermore, she continued, 90 percent of getting a business started is motivational–in other words, it’s all about your thoughts, dreams, goals, and visions. Only 10 percent of starting a business is actually about actions–skills, techniques, and how you implement them.

I thought about this earlier today during a discussion with Jenn. I was feeling extremely discouraged, hopeless, and overwhelmed, which always makes for a pleasurable afternoon. “I’m freaked out over money,” I confessed. “And I’m tired. I feel like the past year and half has just been punch after punch after punch. When is it going to stop?” “Everything’s going to work out,” Jenn said. “Yeah?” I demanded. “How? I’m in school, you’re unemployed, we both want to start our own businesses, and I can’t even groom a dog without Susan coming over and pointing out everything I’ve done wrong.” “You just need to have a little faith,” she said. “Jesus, Vic, don’t you believe in anything? A higher power, a guardian angel? How about yourself?”

I shrugged. I’m fairly indifferent toward organized religion, and I’m not sure how I feel about guardian angels. I’ve never been very spiritual. I don’t pray or meditate, and every time someone tells me to relax and focus on my breathing, I get nervous that I’m doing it wrong. That’s right, I don’t even know how to breathe. I tend to rely on myself, my family, and my friends in times of crisis, and as for believing in myself–well, let’s just say I’m working on it.

Jenn’s right about one thing, though: I am crippled by fear. And because I don’t know how to overcome it, I try to escape it by eating or sleeping or marathoning episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix. Deep down, I think I know that things will work out–that my grooming skills will improve and I’ll open a shop someday. I think a small part of me even believes that one day I’ll be a writer again. But in the meantime, I’m really scared.

Everyone who goes to Vermont comes back a hippie, including the neighbor’s shih tzu

January 17, 2011

Our landladies Karin and Kathy, who also happen to be our dear friends and upstairs neighbors, recently returned from a month-long trip to Cambodia. In their absence, Jenn and I took care of Daisy, their teenaged daughter’s guinea pig, while Sasha, the rottweiler with the eating disorder, stayed with friends in East Boston, and Nemo, the shih tzu, went with Karin’s sister to Vermont.

Now, I’m not one to encourage stereotypes of any sort, but I’ve heard that Vermont is full of hippies. And since Karin drinks lots of herbal tea and has been known to wear Birkenstocks with hand-knitted wool socks, AND her niece lives in a treehouse, I can’t say I was all that surprised when Nemo came home sporting a cooler full of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a beard that would make Pete Seeger proud.

It took me all afternoon to groom him, and he’s far from perfect, but he looks slightly less old-man-of-the-mountain now. I used a blue snap-on comb for his body and scissored his face and legs.

Someday I will have a real grooming table.

We’re still not allowed to do faces in school (they want us to perfect our bodies before tackling heads), which means I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing when it comes to trimming anything above the neck. Nonetheless, I did my best to give Nemo a puppy cut. Next time I groom him, though, I’d like to soften his cheeks a little–round them out and make them less blocky.

Better... but next time, a little more off the sides.

And today I groomed a cav-poo who thought he was a pill bug

January 13, 2011

I’ve been in grooming school for three months now, and during that time I’ve come to learn that there are very few dogs who stand perfectly still while on the table. You have the sitters. And the prancers and the spinners. There are the toy breeds who try to claw their way up your arm so they can hide themselves in your neck, and the terriers who yank their feet away every time you touch them. Golden retrievers like to lean. Poodles are prone to dancing off the side of the table, and pugs send themselves into a snorting fit if you try to trim their nails.

And then there was the dog I groomed today, a cavalier King Charles spaniel/poodle, also known as a cav-poo, named Skippy. While the name might lead one to believe that he has something akin to a bouncing personality, this assumption would be dead wrong.

When curled up atop my grooming table, Skippy bore an eerie resemblance to the armadillidium vulgare, more commonly known as the pill bug or roly poly.

Here’s how the day went down: I placed Skippy on the grooming table to dry him. No sooner had I picked up the high-V, he laid down and curled himself into a tight ball–kind of like those hard-shelled bugs that live under rocks and coil up if you poke them. Now, generally when this happens, I reposition the dog and lightly place my hand on its underbelly. For some reason, the mere sensation of my hand on the dog’s stomach acts as a deterant from sitting down again. But Skippy was having none of that. So I tried a different tactic, wrapping my arm around his belly and holding him up while simultaneously pulling him tightly against me. That way, I reasoned, he could lean against me while I dried his opposite side. His reponse was to stand on his head. I managed to get my little contortionist dry, but I knew that grooming him would be next to impossible.

“Is Skippy really old?” I asked Jaque. “Nope,” she said. “Does he have hip or joint problems?” She shook her head. I glanced down at the black-and-white lump on my grooming table and sighed. “Is there any physical reason that he curls up like a pill bug whenever I touch him?” She gave me an amused smile. “No, that’s just his thing.” “Awesome,” I muttered, slipping a leash over his head to take him for a potty walk.

Outside, Skippy was a completely different dog, bounding across the snow and snuffling it with his nose. I let him have his fun, because I knew that as soon as we went back inside I was busting out the Groomers Helper.

Invented by 20-year pet-industry veteran Chuck Simons, the Groomers Helper is a system of loops, clamps, and tethers that eliminates sitting, spinning, biting, and head dropping through a series of six positions. I watched a demonstration of the Groomers Helper during last fall’s New England Pet Grooming Professionals expo, and I was eager to try out the product.

I wasn’t disappointed. Once I’d rigged up Skippy, it didn’t take long to groom him at all. I wouldn’t want to use the the system on every dog–I think it would be more trouble than it’s worth for most–but for the sitters, spinners, dancers, and nippers, I can certainly understand why it’s a time-saving device.

The Groomers Helper may look like a medieval torture device, but it's perfectly harmless. And there's no way I could have groomed Skippy without it.


All I need to know about raising kids I learned from my golden retriever

January 12, 2011
While bathing Harry, a dandie dinmont terrier, the other day, I noticed some dingleberries caught in the hair under his tail. Dingleberries aren’t uncommon among dogs, particularly elderly ones. While carefully removing the feces with my fingers, I marveled at how nonchalantly I can perform this task. My indifference to picking poop off a dog’s butt stands in stark contrast with wiping poop from a six-year-old child’s rear end, which incidentally, I do most Monday afternoons–quite unsuccessfully, I might add. 

I suppose if I, like Harry, was old and oblongly-shaped, I might have dingleberries, too.

I’m an only child. Instead of younger siblings, I grew up around dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, and (briefly) a python named Irma from Burma. I totally thought the Baby-sitter’s Club books were the shizzle when I was eight, but by the time I was actually old enough to be left alone with them, I’d decided that kids weren’t really my thing. As the years progressed, so did my aversion. It wasn’t that I disliked children, exactly–it was that I had absolutely no idea what to do with them, and no real desire to learn.

Yet through some strange twist of fate, I landed a weekly babysitting gig back in August when my friends needed someone to watch their son (who, for purposes of privacy, I shall call Samuel) for a few hours after school on Mondays. Knowing that I was out of work, they asked if I’d be interested. Samuel is six, has severe autism, expressive aphasia, and some serious sensory integration issues. Of course, I said yes–never mind that, to this day, I’ve never changed a diaper, tended to a scraped knee, or even opened a juice box for a child. Hey, you have to start somewhere, right?

In the five months since we started hanging out, I’ve come to realize that babysitting Samuel isn’t that different from watching my own dogs. Case in point: Connor and Bailey spend hours playing fetch, while Samuel spends hours sending his stuffed elephant, Nellie, down the sliding board. All three love to swim, sit on my lap, and ride in the car. Also? They are all mildly obsessed with balls.

One day when Jenn was home, I brought Samuel over for a visit. Putting a bowl of blueberries and a glass of juice on the table, I called him in from the living room. “Samuel, come here, buddy,” I said, clicking my tongue. “Are you hungry?”

Jenn popped her head around the corner as Samuel–and both dogs–came trotting over. “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. “Did you just click your tongue at him?” “Um,” I stammered. “Maybe?” “I don’t believe you!” she said. “HE ISN’T A HORSE, VICKY.” “Well, obviously,” I huffed. “But it works. See, all three of them came.” Jenn threw up her hands in exasperation. “You are seriously a menace,” she said.

Perhaps, but thus far, my treat-the-kid-like-I-do-the-dogs strategy is working for me in every circumstance except potty breaks. For whatever reason, I can pull tapeworms out of a dog’s anus without batting an eye, but ask me to clean up after Samuel’s bowel movements and I’m rendered helpless. Apparently, human poop is my kryptonite. The first time Samuel went for me, I puked into the sink. The second time it happened, I managed to get him cleaned up before dashing out the back door and vomiting into the flower bed. It doesn’t help that he insists on closing the door every time he goes. Or that the sound of the exhaust fan freaks him out. At one point, he suffered from some pretty severe constipation, and I was temporarily off the hook until I discovered a cure to his blockage: my bathroom. For reasons I cannot explain, the kid loves nothing more than to poop in my toilet. Most recently, he locked himself in my bathroom for 40 minutes while I washed dishes, watered the plants, made the bed, folded laundry, and dusted the living room. Every so often, I’d ask him if everything was okay, to which he’d reply with a cheerful, “Yeh!” When he finally finished, it smelled so bad that I couldn’t even stand in the hallway without gagging. To make matters worse, I couldn’t find our baby wipes. After several failed attempts that only resulted in my retching into the sink, Samuel got fed up and ran into the living room, his bare bottom making a beeline for the leather sofa. “Gah!” I cried, stumbling after him. “Wait!” After spraying enough lavender to choke an aroma therapist, I managed to get him cleaned up, at which point he looked up at me with his beautiful brown eyes and asked for a cookie.

I thought about Samuel yesterday as I scrubbed Harry’s crusty butt. Henceforth, I told myself, I shall think only of doggy dingleberries while tending to Samuel post-poop. I shall think of tapeworms and anal glands and dirty litter boxes and hair balls. And in case that doesn’t work, I’ll start carrying alcohol swabs in my pocket. You know, to help with the gagging.

That annoying Siamese cat song from “Lady and the Tramp” is stuck in my head. It’s probably stuck in yours now, too. Sorry about that.

January 6, 2011

One of Jenn’s coworkers wants me to groom her two cocker spaniels, so this morning I asked Jaque if I could groom a cocker within the next week or so. No sooner had the question left my mouth, Rhonda, one of the receptionists, poked her head into the grooming room and asked if we could fit Harrison, her six-year-old cocker spaniel, into the day’s line-up. “Ask and you shall receive,” Jaque said. “I could also use a million dollars,” I told her. “You know, to help with start-up expenses for my imaginary grooming salon.” I’m still waiting for that money, Jaque.

As you may recall from my last attempt at grooming a cocker, they’re not the easiest breed to groom. Their coats are extremely thick and curly, they’re prone to warts, eye and ear infections, and oily skin, and–for someone who’s new to grooming–the cocker pattern is pretty complicated. Nonetheless, I was determined to approach grooming Harrison with a clear head and a positive attitude. He’s a sweet boy, and Rhonda typically lets us get creative with him. One time the girls even gave him a green mohawk.

Peace out, dudes. Now get me the bleep off this table.

Despite his young age, Harrison has had a number of health issues, which sadly isn’t uncommon among cocker spaniels. According to registration statistics provided by the American Kennel Club, they were the number one breed in America from 1936 to 1952 and again from 1983 through 1990. As is typically the case, their popularity resulted in excessive and irresponsible overbreeding, which in turn led to a myriad of health and behavioral problems. As a result, cockers have earned a reputation for being “difficult,” which is a shame because they’re truly beautiful dogs.

Before I bathed him, Susan demonstrated how to properly clipper a cocker’s face. Because Harrison recently had surgery to remove some abscesses on his eyes, she didn’t want me to clipper around his cheeks or muzzle. But she did allow me to clipper V’s on his inner and outer ears. Trimming his ears is rather tricky because his face is slightly lopsided–the result of a stroke and palsy–so we trimmed one ear slightly higher than the other in an attempt to make him appear better balanced.

Unlike Nola, Harrison barely has any skirt, and his coat isn’t nearly as thick as hers, which makes it easier to brush and clipper. And because Rhonda has him groomed about every three weeks, he rarely has any nits or mats, which makes for speedy prep work.

My family robbed me of the chance to name my grandparent's dog after Lady, a Disney icon who may or may not have contributed to the overbreeding of the cocker spaniel during the second half of the 20th century.

With one eye on my Notes from the Grooming Table book–dutifully turned to the cocker spaniel page–and the other on Harrison, I began to clipper his back with my 7F blade, mindful not to nick any of his warts. It was at about this time that my mind wandered to Lady and the Tramp, which happened to be one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. I remember when my grandparents got this dachshund/beagle mix, and I begged them to name her Lady, which my entire family protested. Instead, they let my aunt name her Biscuit, a decision my grandmother severely regretted five years later when she inherited my mother’s border collie/Australian shepherd mix, whom I’d christened Muffin when I was four. This is why you should never allow children to pick out your pets’ names.

How I loathed those stupid cats.

Before long, that song from the Italian restaurant scene–you know, the one where the dogs eat opposite ends of a single strand of spaghetti until meeting in the middle–was stuck in my head. (I always thought it was super romantic when Tramp rolls the last meatball over to Lady with his nose. Then again, I really like food, and it thrills me when Jenn offers me the last of anything, particularly if it involves chocolate, ice cream, or bacon.) Pretty soon it was replaced by “He’s a Tramp,” the tune that Peggy Lee sings when poor Lady is trapped at the pound, and before I could stop myself, I thought about those damn Siamese cats. “We are Si-a-mese if you plee-eeze–ba dum dum dum…” That’s right. Now the song will be going through your head all day, too. You’re welcome.

By the time I finished grooming Harrison, I’d reviewed the entire film in my head, from Lady’s Christmas Eve arrival at Jim Dear’s and Darling’s house to the heart-wrenching climax when Jock and Trusty chase down the dogcatcher’s wagon and rescue Tramp. (To this day–even though I know all he has is a broken leg–I still tear up when the wagon falls on Trusty and Jock howls mournfully into the night.)

And that, dear readers, is the beauty of my new profession. Because unlike writing–which requires one to remain focused on the subject at hand at all times–dog grooming gives my mind the freedom to wander and think about important things, such as whether or not the Siamese cat song can be construed as racist. (Given their obviously slanted eyes, buck teeth, and horribly misconstrued use of the English language, I think maybe it is. Great, now I’m worried that I’m a racist because I happen to really like that movie.)

Sadly, Harrison doesn’t look a thing like Lady. Nevertheless, I plan to Netflix Lady and the Tramp this weekend. For research purposes, of course.

This year I resolve to think positively, even if I suck at it

January 1, 2011

If 2011 isn't any better than 2010, I'm moving to Australia.

Anyone remember that children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Multiply that by 365,  and you get 2010. In fact, most of last year was so awful that I kind of want to forget it ever happened.

Well, hell. Already I’ve started this post all wrong. See, my New Year’s resolution is to limit negative thinking, which is something I do extremely well. I also excel in areas of guilt, self-loathing, resentment, and fear. You know–all the good, happy, healthy stuff.

Last year, I almost lost myself in a labyrinth of hate, and it was all directed inward. If I ever caught anyone saying the horrible things that I say to myself every day–you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re lazy, you’re selfish, you’re talentless, you’re a terrible daughter/partner/friend/writer/groomer, I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-hate-you–I would be absolutely appalled.

The truth is, no one treats me as poorly as I treat myself. And that has to change, here and now. No excuses.

During a recent dinner party, my friends Danna and Lindsay discussed the Law of Attraction, which is essentially a theory that “like attracts like.” Lindsay explains it as such: “Whatever you focus your energy and attention towards, you will attract into your life – even if that is something you don’t want. So, if I spend time thinking about how cranky a certain job makes me feel, I’m going to continue to feel like a curmudgeon and continue to have a crappy job. But if I think about how wonderful life is (or can be), then more good will come my way.”

I definitely need to put this philosophy to practice, because let’s face it, negative thinking didn’t get me very far last year.

I’ve always been fairy skeptical (and–to be perfectly honest–more than a bit judgmental) about any sort of idea that is the least bit spiritual. I tend to mock “kooky” new-age theories and anything that involves self-affirmation or self-love of any kind. (My girlfriend-the-therapist has plenty of speculations regarding this attitude, none of which I care to get into here.) One afternoon while I was vacuuming last summer, I happened to catch a reflection of myself in the bedroom mirror, and what I saw disgusted me so much that I began to rake my fingernails across my arms, chest, neck, and face. You’re repulsive, I told myself. Inside and out, you sicken me.

Later that evening, when I admitted to Jenn what I’d done, she asked if I’d consider posting “notes of positive reenforcement” on the bathroom mirror. “Come on, Vic,” she said. “Just write, ‘I love myself’ on an index card, tape it to the mirror, read it, and repeat it aloud every time you go into the bathroom.” “I can’t do that,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Why not?” she demanded. “Because it seems cheesy and self-indulgent,” I said. “It’s all touchy feely and sounds like something I’d read about in a self-help book that’s written by lesbians who worship the moon goddess and spell ‘woman’ with a y.” “The depth of your self-hatred truly astounds me,” she replied, shaking her head.

Five months later, I’m able to look back on that conversation with an objective eye. I can certainly understand Jenn’s frustration with me, but I also know why I so adamantly rejected her idea. For someone who thinks so little of herself, repeating “I love myself” every time she looks in a mirror is unthinkable. Last summer, my poor body image–coupled with my “failure” at my former job–left little room in my brain for any thoughts besides ones of self-loathing. Enrolling in grooming school is probably one of the healthiest decisions I’ve made in recent years, because the positive feedback that I receive each day from my classmates and instructors has slowly helped re-establish my self-confidence. For the first time in more than a year and a half, I feel excited about my future.

My friends Liz and Dave (whose dog Sadie we happen to be watching this weekend) recently quit their jobs to go into business for themselves. Liz opened a private therapy practice in Andover and Cambridge, and Dave is in acupuncture school. Liz recently completed a year-long course in aromatherapy, which she plans to incorporate into her practice, and Dave–an avid believer of energy work–has practiced meditation, qi gong, Chinese medicine, shamanic healing techniques, reiki, crystal healing, and heart-mind integration since 2002. Liz and Dave are also both certified reike practitioners.

While browsing through their library during a recent visit to their house, I noticed a collection of index cards taped to the wall above Liz’s desk. “I will support myself through my private practice,” one said. “I will supplement my income with aromatherapy and reike,” said another. “I will save money for our honeymoon.” “I will have a successful practice.” “I am happy.”

Liz’s wall was not so different from what Jenn suggested earlier this summer, but for whatever reason, seeing those affirmations written by someone else made the idea seem… not so weird.

In the upcoming weeks, Jenn and I plan to create a wall similar to Liz’s. And my first index card will say, “I will learn to love myself.”

Connor, Sadie, and Bailey wish you a very happy new year.

Here’s a theory: there was no room at the inn because my cat is the size of a baby elephant

December 24, 2010

Like all lapsed Catholics, Jenn and I have a nativity set for the Christmas season. Ours is fairly large–Jenn’s grandfather found it at the supply yard, also known as the community dump–so we display it under the tree, next to all of the colorfully wrapped presents because both are equally important.

Jenn’s family has this unique holiday tradition of never placing Baby Jesus, Mary, or Joseph in the manger until Christmas morning, reasoning that none of them actually arrived at the stable until December 25. Instead, they hide Baby Jesus in a drawer and move the Mary and Joseph figurines around the room every few days to symbolize the couple’s journey to Bethlehem.

When Jenn and her siblings were little, their mother came up with a highly effective system for convincing them to help her around the house. For every chore they completed, she allowed them to place a single piece of straw into the manger. “If you don’t wash the dishes,” she’d warn, “Jesus won’t have a nice, warm bed. You don’t want Baby Jesus to be cold, do you?”

Jenn has continued this tradition–minus the guilt-trip–in our own house, but this year I regret to report that, despite a full bed of fluffy hay, Jesus may need to find himself some other quarters. Because ever since we set up the damn manger, my cat’s been sleeping in it.

That’s right, everyone. Edward thinks he’s Jesus.

Sorry, Jesus. No vacancies here.

Move over, guys.

This isn’t the first time that Edward has suffered from a major identity crisis. For several years now, he’s thought he was a dog. He greets us at the door with Bailey and Connor. He tries to follow us outside when we take them for walks, he meows whenever he sees a leash–he’s even taken to sleeping with them on their bed.

Still, there’s a huge difference between believing yourself to be a golden retriever and believing yourself to be the Messiah. Then again… God spelled backwards is dog.

Merry Christmas, everyone.