The It in losing my shit

I never know when it’s going to happen, but when it does? Look out.

What’s the It? The It is “losing my shit.”

It’s probably been building for a few weeks given the b.s. time of year. What time of year, winter? When the decreased sunlight depletes my Vitamin D resources and leaves me susceptible to Seasonal Affect Disorder?

No, I’m talking the time of year that seems to happen every damn January when I show up at the Y at my normal time and suddenly have to park 3 miles away because of everyone’s bullshit New Year’s resolutions;

The time of year when you have to show up a half hour early to Body Pump to be sure you get a bar and aren’t stuck in the front row six inches away from the instructor;

That time of year when Dan Marino, Marie Osmond and now fuckin’ Oprah Winfrey are peddling weight loss deals and I’m supposed to be cleansing, eating clean and counting my calories. Fuck that shit. Fuck all that shit. Hand me the Doritos.

But this is all normal, right? This certainly isn’t the IT that made me lose my shit, right? Right. My tipping point came cloaked in fur: cats and dogs, folks. Cats and dogs. Mainly dogs, but the cats played a role, too.

Without getting into the dirty deets, a couple weeks ago we volunteered to foster a female dachshund. She arrived in our care a little distressed, a little malnourished, a little wigged out. We’ve tried to keep our door open to animals in need, but I gotta be honest. At my core I am a cat person. Dogs are too needy. And this little weiner dog definitely needed love. Lots of love. (And let’s just say two of the three house cats are p-i-s-s-e-d over this entire situation.)

Sure there are the accidents one must attend to, but the shit started getting lost last night when my husband treated our refugee with some gnarly smelling herbal flea treatment that stunk up the house. Upon realizing the stench, he promptly gave her a bath, but once that smell got in my nose, she may as well have been sprayed by a skunk. The stench stuck. And it was bedtime. And she’s taken to sleeping in our bed.

Despite my husband’s attempt to lure her into our son’s bed, she knows where Menopausal Mom sleeps. And so, after my husband fell into an unconscious sleep, sure as shit “tap tap tap tap tap tap tap” go the wee little toe nails as our stinky refugee skips across the hall and into our bedroom. She scampered, “tap tap tap tap tap tap tap,” from one side of the bed to the other, whining for someone to pick her up so she can nose her way under the covers and snuggle down.

This still isn’t the It. The It would happen eight hours later after I’d finally fallen nose blind and asleep after an awful night of stink-induced insomnia. And I’d woken to the “tap tap tap tap tap tap tap” and whining of a cold refugee because my husband had taken her was downstairs when he woke and promptly forgot about her whilst enjoying his coffee and morning computer time.

This is the It: I storm downstairs only to find puddles of pee. Dog pee on the floor next to a clean pile of unfolded laundry and cat pee on the counter . . . right. next to. the fucking coffee pot.

*sigh* Happy Monday, folks.

Clyde the Cat adjusts to domesticity


Sullen Boy remains a pouty force about the house. Some of this I attribute to hormones, a little might be connected to the weather, but I’m beginning to suspect he thinks it’s funny to act so moody. But it’s when he’s with Clyde that his guard drops and the ooey-gooey sweetness of this 11-year-old boy is revealed.

Recently he told me he thought readers would be interested in an update on our semi-feral housecat. In October, I shared about adopting Clyde from the Quad City Animal Welfare Center in Milan, Ill., after reading his story on Facebook.

clyde gutHe’d been brought into the shelter in January 2013. He was roughly 6 months old at the time and was rescued from the streets of Rock Island. He had a few “issues” that had made him not the most sought-after cat. Mainly, he wanted to hide and stay hidden for the rest of his life.

It broke our hearts to think of this somewhat mentally-effected cat craving solitude among 20 or more other felines in the shelter’s cat room, so we threw our own sanity out the window and adopted him. This was in early September and when I wrote in October, he was still a solitary being, sticking mainly to Marty and my bedroom, specifically under our bed.

In the three months since I wrote that, Clyde’s personality has morphed from fraidy cat to crazy cat. It’s been a daily journey watching his confidence build and his personality change. He’s no longer the scared, untrusting cat we brought home in early September.

Because he does not venture downstairs, he continues to live a bit of a solitary life and likely why he’s made friends with the guinea pig, Nova. The pig’s cage is on the floor in one of the upstairs rooms and has an open top. It’s not uncommon to find Clyde in the cage with Nova, nose to nose.

This is one example of his continued “odd” nature. On the one hand, he’s wary of any other living thing, yet on the other, he absolutely craves connection with any living thing. And in this craving, it appears he’s “imprinted” on me.

I’m the first one he approached, I’m the first one he let pet him, I’m the only one he lets pick him up. When he was still sleeping under our bed, I remember talking to him (yes, in the house, we talk to our animals) and telling him he’d probably be more comfortable on our bed.

I’m not sure how soon after that, but it wasn’t long before he found his way up. I’d sense a presence at our feet in the middle of the night, but by morning, he’d be gone. Soon after this started his bravery grew. In the minutes I read before turning out the light, Clyde would emerge from under the bed and meow at me. I’d coax him up and he’d stay at my feet. If I moved toward him, he’d bolt.

But eventually, he inched his way toward me and nightly nestles in against my chest, my hand stroking his soft fur, his purr lulling us to sleep.

Now when I go upstairs he doesn’t charge out of sight. In fact, when I’m gone, he usually wrestles back the covers on my side of the bed, kneads himself a nest and wriggles in for a long winter’s nap . . . every day. His sanctuary is no longer under the bed or behind furniture!

And when I show up on his turf, he merely yawns and stretches, waiting to be pet. While he remains skittish with both kids and Marty, Sullen Boy is developing a bond with this weird cat. Sullen Boy has figured out that Clyde loves to watch his fish tanks, especially at night.

We realized this after waking suddenly to Clyde galloping from the hallway into our room, leaping across our bed, stabbing a claw into the palm of unconscious, slumbering Marty and leaping back to the floor, charging back to the hallway and skidding to a stop before the closed bedroom door of Sullen Boy.

We assume the whole performance was his way of saying, “I’d like to watch some fish. Now.”

And apparently Sullen Boy has a softer approach than either KidGirl or Marty. He talks low and softly, approaches slowly, and he’s often rewarded with a rubbing of Clyde’s generous gut. Clyde has thusly taken over Sullen Boy’s room, chilling out under his bunk beds, stationing himself before the fish tanks or snoozing on a pile of clothes in a wide swath of sunshine.

KidGirl, on the other hand, with a personality more joyful and cheery, continues to foster a relationship with Clyde. Her glee being her biggest hurdle. She approaches Clyde with laughter and smiling while Clyde remains wary and easily rattled. But they’re working on it.

Marty? As Clyde grows more comfortable, so does Marty. When Clyde isn’t sleeping against me, he’s usually at our heads, wriggled in between our pillows. Marty’s an animal lover, through and through, but he was never 100 percent on board with Clyde’s adoption. Yet he’d readily admit that rescuing Clyde from the cat room at the shelter was a good thing.

But his punctured palm did not win Clyde any points.


Originally published 17 January 2015 in The Observer.

Joe Brown’s goes to the dogs, literally


By now, it’s no secret we’re a family of animal lovers. And except for a couple of cats we had during the seven years we lived in DeWitt, our entire cast of fur-covered Murrell children have dwelled in the confines of the old Joe Brown place.

Our family began with Tuttle, a black lab wedding gift from Marty’s brother and his family. Named after M*A*S*H character Hawkeye’s childhood pretend friend, Tuttle was kind of ours and kind of my parents.

When our first human child arrived, we determined Tuttle needed a vacation and would be happier at my parents’ Grand Mound farm. Mom laughs about it now, but apparently we never really verified that little agreement. I assumed Marty had cleared it with them and vice versa, but as Mom tells it, “One day, you brought Tuttle out for a visit. And left! Marty would take her hunting . . . and then bring her back!”

maudry in pastureBy the time Moira was three and Maclane arrived, Tuttle was back. Back in DeWitt for a couple more years before heading north to the old Joe Brown place.

By the time we moved, Tuttle was around eight. Though not terribly old, she’d lost the spring in her once-youthful step. Enter Zeke.

A RAGBRAI teammate from Ames realized his behemoth, caramel-colored giant of a mutt was too big for his small house in town, and since we had a big ol’ house and all that fresh, country air. . .

But Zeke turned out to be awesome with the kids and a buddy for Tuttle before her health deteriorated into a debilitating spinal condition that ended her life.

One of my favorite Zeke memories occurred during a particularly long road trip. If it’s possible for a dog’s hair to turn green, poor Zeke’s had. When that oh-too-familiar stank wafted to the front of the vehicle and I turned around, a woefully comic expression rested on his face. Zeke was car sick.

After depositing some of his stomach’s contents in the back of our old Ford Explorer and leaving the rest in a ditch alongside the road, he eventually passed out.

His favorite pastime, however, would also be his demise: chasing down the many milk trucks that travel to and fro Blanchard’s nearby dairy.

After Zeke died, Tuttle’s health failed and we found ourselves dogless. Within days Marty located a beagle pup, Sydney. She was an absolute sweetheart except for an irritating habit of snacking on dirty underwear, specifically small, pint-sized Spiderman briefs.

Sydney was our one and only mother, having found herself in the family way after dog-sitting Dad Reed’s fully-loaded springer, Chubby. Dad couldn’t remember if Chubby was fixed, but when we’d taken Sydney to the vet to be spayed, it was too late.

Following a litter of seven puppies that winter, Sydney, like Zeke, met her end on 136. Again dogless, Marty and the kids visited a local shelter and were sweet-talked into taking TWO dogs: a massive black lab mix named Gordy and a small, ugly-as-sin rat terrier, Maudry.

After a few months, 136 struck again by luring Gordy to his death. This was around 2009, which I’m happy to say was the last such victim. For now.

Maudry, who wheezed like a chain-smoking 87-year-old bridge player and exhibited a similar level of fitness, remained committed to her belief that she be allowed to hump all the couch pillows and sleep her days away. What a peach.

As lovely as she sounds, old Maudry needed a companion. When a neighbor called to see if we wanted a puppy, a springer/collie mix, that’s when Joe Brown “The Dog” entered our family.

Joe, who remains alive and well with my brother, Matt Reed, is one of the funnier dogs. One Christmas we went south and Dad Reed agreed to dogsit. When we returned and brought Joe home, he seemed blue. When Dad came over for supper, Joe jumped in his car.

The two were perfect for each other. Dad thought Joe should stay outside, Joe thought he should be in. Come sunset Joe would bang on the front door and Dad would yell, “Knock it off!” This banter became an evening routine with Joe always winning. The most faithful of companions, Joe remained at Dad’s side until the end.

Prior to Joe’s taking over Dad’s place, we briefly had a trio: Maudry, Joe and Pugsley, a stray pug. We quickly learned, he was probably a stray for a reason.

Whether it was finding him on top of the dining room table or snorting dead flies, Pugsley was at once both cute and gross. His biggest fault, though, was his running.

It should’ve been no surprise given that’s how we got him. We could barely let him out to pee without him taking off. On one such adventure, we learned he’d shacked up for a weekend with Joe and Kelly Sparks under the pseudonym “Larry.” What a player.

It was clear Pugsley needed open, corralled spaces and we weren’t about to fence in our yard. Though Maclane continues to resent me for it, I encouraged Marty to find Pugsley a new home with an enclosed yard.

And then a pregnant stray showed up at Marty’s parents’ Arkansas home! When the pups arrived, they looked a bit Labrodor’ish. And Marty wanted a hunting dog.

So with hopes the Lab line ran strong, Charlie was brought from Arkansas to Iowa where he continues to be the best darn dog on the planet! He loves the outdoors, tries to flush birds and is a pro at avoiding eye-contact with cats. He’s great at scaring off possums and skunks, doesn’t snore too loud and has the most expressive face ever.

He’s so mutt’y he probably has a dozen different breeds flowing through his veins, but he’s proven himself the most devoted overseer of the Joe Brown place.

Except for having to put Maudry down a couple years ago due to her suffering with COPD-like breathing troubles, we’ve had no further canine sorrows. Let’s hope this lucky streak continues!


Originally published 6 December 2014 in The Observer.

Our uphill journey adopting a semi-feral cat


I don’t know if I’ve been effected by the spirit of Joe Brown, but I’m a total sucker for animals. Living in his home, people often share with Marty and I stories about the animals that Joe Brown let reside with him in this cavernous abode.

There are tiny chips along the edge of the porcelain bathtub, surely remnants of duck nibbles. The grooves along several window sills? Probably dogs. There’s goat horn rubbings on the basement doors and in the attic we found a large, wooden crate with old, nasty straw. We assume it was a whelping box for momma goats. This house has seen its share of wildlife.

early clydeAs of late, our menagerie includes just two indoor cats, one indoor/outdoor dog and one indoor guinea pig. Outside, we have a herd of uppity farm cats amenable to petting only when their food bowls are empty.

This is the most stable our family has been in quite a while. In the nine years since we moved here, we’ve gone through about as many dogs, a hedge hog, many farm cats and two indoor cats.

And it’s the indoor cat situation that remains an issue. Ever since Jan. 2 when our matriarchal alpha cat Turbo died, the younger two have battled for dominance. And these battles are so passive-aggressive it’s ridiculous.

There’s the older, stately Fluffy vs the sassy teeneager, Stashy. Without the calming presence of a Boss, these two will go through periods of destruction that explain why we have only area rugs in our home and yet still own our own carpet shampooer.

Earlier this year, you may remember we fostered a ginormous male ginger cat, “Carrots.” He was a wonderful addition to the brood, but after getting stuck in the rafters of our attic over Easter weekend (being rescued only after Marty opened a rafter with a buzz saw), he then snuck outside the following day and has never been seen or heard from again!

The disappearance of Carrots was so sad! He was a lovely, low key cat, but we fear he was too freaked out when we hosted Marty’s entire family that weekend. We later learned he had a tendency to go on “walkabout.”

For the next several months, we tried to live with the chaos that is Fluffy and Stashy. When they avoided each other, things were fine. But when they’d “rediscover” the other on their turf? Ugh. We knew we needed an alpha.

In late August, a Facebook post from the Quad City Animal Welfare Center in Milan shared a picture of “Clyde,” a tiger-striped male who had been brought to the shelter with his sister, “Bonnie,” when they were about 9 months old.

They’d been found behind a dumpster and were semi-feral. While Bonnie had been adopted, Clyde remained at the shelter for the next 18 months, living in the Cat Room with 20+ other felines. Needless to say, this guy had emotional baggage.

So why would we want him? Excellent question considering the issues Fluffy and Stashy had already brought to the table.

I reasoned that our current situation with Fluffy and Stashy couldn’t get any worse and that helping Clyde may be the best thing for all three. We formulated a plan for bringing Clyde into our family, starting with where he’d live.

Our house is rather large and the idea of letting loose a semi-feral cat who’s known nothing but a single room filled with cages and cats for the majority of his life did not sound like the greatest approach.

After several visits to the shelter, when I brought him home, we placed Clyde in the “Sunroom” off Marty and my bedroom. He’s what’s considered a “bush dweller,” staying low to the ground, hiding behind things and burrowing under blankets. The Sunroom offered both low and high spots for him, sanctuary from other animals as well as peace and quiet.

He was easy to find and easy to pet, though I still bear the evidence of my one and only attempt to pick him up.

After two weeks in the Sunroom, I opened the door to our bedroom, allowing him access to now two rooms. A week later, I opened our door to the hallway. A few days after that, we opened the door to the stairs, thus granting him full roaming privileges. He’s yet to venture downstairs and when we’re upstairs, rarely comes out from under our bed.

But as I sit downstairs, working on this column, Fluffy and Stashy sleeping on the couch, Nova the Guinea Pig rattling his cage in the kitchen, Clyde is galloping around upstairs, paws thundering along the floor like horses hooves.

And what a fabulous ruckus it is! He sounds playful and free! But we still have far to go.

I’ve started folding laundry upstairs to acclimate him to our presence and our voices. He rarely peeks out. In fact, it’s become standard practice for all four of us to flip up the bedskirt and peer under to say “Hello.”

But in the moments when he thinks he’s alone, I’ll see him slink from under the bed to the Sunroom and his food, water and litter box. In a calm voice, I greet him. He used to skitter back under the bed, but will now look back at us. If we stay still, he’ll proceed to eat or drink or sniff around.

This is progress. I’ve seen him jump onto window ledges for a look-see and I’ve found him venturing into other bedrooms. We’ve even watched him walk past us and not scramble away.

I’m not sure he’ll ever be a lap cat, but I’m growing a bit more hopeful he may one day let us pet him.

As for his effect on Fluffy and Stashy? While Fluffy can hardly be bothered to inquire, Stashy is a jerk. Sneaking into the Sunroom and eating his food, drinking his water. I’m waiting for one unsheathed claw to put Stashy in her place.


Originally published 11 Oct 2014 in The Observer.