Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bisou Goes To School

This was Bisou's first day at puppy kindergarten. We drove down roads bordered by foliage so gorgeous that five years ago I'd have had to stop the car and look. But not this time. I had a puppy to get to class.

There are five dogs in the class: two of Bisou's littermates, an almost full-size Golden Retriever, and a wiggly, vocal German Shepherd about seven times the size of Bisou.

The teacher, whose classes I had attended for almost two years with Wolfie, reminded us of basic principles that I found, to my surprise, I had entirely forgotten.

We did some “look at me and you'll get a treat” exercises, and then we let the puppies loose to interact with each other. There were gasps as the German Shepherd galumphed over to Bisou. But she, accustomed to dealing with 95 lbs of same, was happy to meet one of a more manageable size. She was equally glad to interact with the Golden, and the Golden's entourage of twin boys. She (literally) bowled over her brother, Bear, but didn't have much to do with her sister, Deja, who was feeling shy and hunkering between her owner's ankles.

We did some on-leash “with me” work, and I was chided over and over for looking at Bisou as we walked. But it's hard to keep your eyes off a dervish whirling about your ankles.

The lesson lasted an hour, and Bisou's ears were “up” and her tail was wagging the entire time.

I am accustomed, after a lesson, to have a puppy or even a grown dog conk out and nap for pretty much the rest of the day. But not Bisou! When we got home she was too charged up to eat lunch, and I had to throw many, many balls before she would settle down for a nap. Which I did myself, the minute she went down.

What am I going to do with this red little ball of fire? When I got Wolfie, I specifically said to the breeder that I wanted a CALM puppy--I didn't feel up to dealing with an intense 95lb dog. But with a Cavalier, I didn't think this would be an issue. Never gave it a thought. And now here she is, my little tornado.

I'll just have to find ways to drain her energy. Wolfie will help, once the two of them get coordinated so they can play together (that's coming along nicely). Bisou's mother is quite the agility star, and her father, who has his own website, is some kind of Mach IV agility champion. So I imagine we'll be doing agility soon.

In the meantime, I rejoice that she's small enough to get a workout inside the house, and calm enough to lie in my arms, all warm and velvety, just before she goes to sleep.

Monday, September 28, 2009

All Is Calm, All Is Bright

Ever wonder what those words mean? They mean that the Baby Jesus has finally fallen asleep! The minute a baby falls asleep, calm and brightness descend upon the world.

My life is calm and bright right now because Bisou is asleep in her crate, and in the barn the baby goats, their bellies full of milk, are curled around each other like yin/yang symbols. The big goats are chewing their cud and the little field mice are gleaning the remains of the grain. The chickens are asleep in their coop. The rain is pouring outside, and the big dogs are snoozing on the rug. This is my favorite time to be awake.

Birth Of A Goat, Continued

12:45 a.m. I was sitting inside cuddling Bisou, with the baby monitor next to me, and at 11:30 heard an atypical sound. Not loud, not urgent, just atypical. Popped Bisou in her crate, rushed to the barn, and there was Blossom, lying down, with a baby half out of her.
I slid a paper feed bag under the baby, who was literally swimming in, you know, birth goo, and moved her around to Blossom's face, so they could meet.

Blossom instantly went into high gear, licking this weird little thing--I'm not sure she knew quite what it was, but she knew what she was supposed to do—and talking, talking, talking. And the baby, the minute I wiped its face off, started talking, talking, talking back in this incredibly high-pitched little voice. As soon as it was somewhat dry, I picked it up and checked the important bits—a doe! A lovely reddish brown like her mother, with a white spot on top of her head and more white on her belly, her long ears still folded longitudinally as a space-saving measure.

Next thing I know, Blossom lies down again, gives the slightest grunt, and out slides little sister. Twin does! I take this as a sign of favor from the universe. Little sister is really little, also brown with white spots, also gooey and in dire need of cleanup. Poor Blossom, now she's got two talking babies, one in front, one in back, and she goes from one to the other, urgently licking, licking, and talking, talking.

Now I have a couple of jobs to do: dip the cords and navels in iodine, and see that the babies get colostrum WITHIN 60 MINUTES OF BIRTH. This is very important, and heaven help me if I don't get it right.

The iodine dip goes pretty well, except for dark brown spots all over my clothes. Getting the babies to nurse is another story. It is a wonder to me that the species manages to survive at all. Here are two wobbly babies, crying and muttering and falling over, and a mother who is obsessed with cleanliness and has no idea what that object that has been growing ever larger between her hind legs is for.

The clock is ticking, and I'll have to help. I pick up the first baby, who screams bloody murder, and gently steer her towards the udder. She has no idea what the object between her mother's hind legs is for either, but she knows she's supposed to be looking for something. I hold a teat in one hand and move the baby towards it, but she shrieks, and Blossom quickly turns around to see what is wrong, thus moving the udder completely out of reach.

This goes on for quite some time. Finally I give up (temporarily) on baby #1 and pick up little sister, who has the sense to keep quiet and, miracle of miracles, latches on right away and takes a few drops of colostrum. Weak with relief, I try again with baby #1, who again shrieks and refuses to latch on. Meanwhile Blossom is intent on making sure her daughters are spotless. Who cares about food when there's a mess to be cleaned up?

I go to the kitchen and fill a small bucket with warm water and pour molasses into it—the post-partum pick-me-up par excellence. While Blossom imbibes this, my husband puts down the camera and sneaks baby #1 to the udder, and she too has a little drink. Whew!

We carry away the wet towels, the iodine, the just-in-case jar of vaseline. We make sure that each little doe has a second drink, and then we leave the herd in peace.

A word about sizes. I am not a tall person, but Blossom doesn't even come up to my knees. We did not have the presence of mind to weigh the babies at birth, but on average Nigerian Dwarf kids weigh two pounds. Baby #1 may weigh that much, but little sister feels about as heavy as a silk scarf.

I'll be looking for names for these two—send suggestions!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Birth Of A Goat

6:30 p.m. I'm sitting on the milking stand, waiting for Blossom to have her babies. The goats are not in the milking room or they'd be typing right along with me. They are in the stall next to the milking room, and if I stand up and peer over the partition, I can see what is going on. I do this every five minutes or so.

Right now, nothing is happening, other than Virginia Slim slamming into sweet Alsiki. For all her dainty, porcelain looks, Virginia Slim isn't very nice to Alsiki, especially when they are in an enclosed space. But this is not something I can do anything about, and is typical goat behavior.

But back to Blossom. When I came to check on her at five on this rainy evening, I thought I had proof definite that things were imminent: a small amount of mucus (the seal that keeps the babies safely inside and germs outside) was draining out of her. The first look I took at her this morning had already told me that this might be the big day. Her udder, which had grown progressively over the last six weeks was, if possible, even larger. And she seemed clingier somehow, and talkative, she who has always been a practically silent goat. But these were “soft” signs, open to over-interpretation. No way I'm imagining the discharge, though.

I'm far from an experienced goat obstetrician. In the three goat periods in my life, I've seen fewer than ten births, and they've all gone swimmingly. So who knows, I may be here all night, waiting for the blessed event. One disconcerting sign is that goats usually stop eating when they go into labor. Blossom, on the other hand, hasn't stopped eating all evening. She's pulling great wads of hay non-stop out of the feeder, and she polished off her grain.

7 p.m. More discharge, and she's talking, making little strangled sounds that mean—what? That she's worried, looking for her babies, in pain? Giving birth makes goats talkative for the rest of their lives. They talk while they're giving birth, they talk to their babies after they're born, they talk when they need to be milked, they talk because the sun is out or because they have just caught sight of you behind the kitchen window.

This milking stand sure is hard to sit on. case you're wondering, it is my plan to chronicle this event as it is happening, as faithfully as I can. I won't be taking pictures, though.

How many babies will Blossom have? Goats usually have two, but they can have one, or as many as four. Blossom is a Nigerian Dwarf—a miniature dairy breed—and these teensy goats often have triplets or quads. Blossom is as wide as she is tall right now, but she might just have one large kid...and that can make for a difficult birth, especially for a first-time mother. But let's not think about that.

I could be thinking about what I do want Blossom to have. My first impulse is to say, “it makes no difference, as long as it's healthy,” the standard answer of parents-to-be in pre-sonogram days.

In the world of animal husbandry, people devoutly wish for females: heifers, doelings, ewe lambs, pullets. They will give milk, eggs, babies. Bull calves, buck kids, rams and roosters can only give...meat (something for ovo-lacto vegetarians—of whom I was one myself—to keep in mind). Oh, yes, and they give sperm, too. But thanks to Nature's bizarre design, and to a technology that can collect semen and fly it anywhere, a single bull could theoretically supply enough sperm to impregnate every dairy cow in America. But the sex ratio of farm animals at birth is the same as for humans, roughly half males and half females. So the little boy animals get eaten.

Theoretically, then, I should be wishing for does. But I'm not trying to increase the size of my herd—the three does I have now are actually one too many. And I don't want lots more milk, thank you very much. In my dairy operation, smallness in size and number is key. If Blossom has a doeling or two, I will sell them. But does are considerably more expensive than bucks, and so perhaps harder to place. I do NOT want to get attached to these little animals. It's a slippery slope, and one can end up with a hundred goats in no time at all. Bucklings are often bought for pets, or as companions for horses or donkeys. Or for meat....

8:30 p.m. No further developments. Blossom is lying down, chewing her cud. This could be a long night. I'm going to cancel tomorrow morning's herding lesson. Wolfie will be disappointed, but I will need some sleep.

It is now raining cats and dogs, and I couldn't be more grateful that we when we built our little barn we attached it to the back of our attached garage, so I can go from house to barn without getting wet. THIS is real luxury.

9:30 p.m. Change of plans. It's clear that Blossom is not in active labor. I don't need to stay in the barn all evening, but I will sleep fully clothed on the couch downstairs tonight, with the baby monitor by my side. I've given all three goats what they love most in the world, a good brushing, and will leave them to get some sleep.

Now I'm going to check on the puppy Bisou, whom my spouse has been kindly babysitting all evening, and I'll post again as developments occur.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bisou In The Morning

The alarm rings at seven, and before I open my eyes the scrabbling inside the crate next to my bed tells me that Bisou is ready to greet the day. I take her in my arms, trying not to fall down the stairs, trying not to drop her as she wriggles, and let her out into the back yard, along with Wolfie and Lexi. I stand in my flipflops and pajamas in the low-forties dawn while Bisou gets up the nerve to wade into the (to her) shoulder-high, freezing-cold grass.

The minute she's done, I swoop her indoors, leaving the big dogs outside, and prepare her breakfast. The second she's done eating I swoop her outside and let the big dogs in. And now I have a dilemma: Wolfie and Lexi need breakfast, but I don't want Bisou inadvertently getting into trouble by nosing into one of their dishes. Plus, she has to relieve herself, again. I could leave her in the little exercise pen we have set up for her in the yard, but the grass is too cold, and she doesn't like to use the pen as a bathroom. I could put her in her crate in the house, but she's just spent ten hours in it, plus she is supercharged with energy from her meal.

My sleep-addled brain has trouble figuring all this out, but eventually I decide to take her on a walk down the driveway to give her some exercise and the opportunity to find a more comfortable spot to poop in. Down the driveway we go, me still in my pajamas, Bisou endangering her life by dashing around, way too close to my feet.

I can hear Wolfie and Lexi racing and crashing inside the house, skidding on the rugs and bunching them against the walls and furniture. I check Bisou for signs that she's winding down, but she's running like a bullet, tail high and ears streaming in the wind.

Eventually we go back inside, I pop her in the crate, and fix the big dogs' breakfast. While they're eating, I fill the water bucket to take out to the goats. This reminds me that I haven't been to the bathroom yet myself, but never mind, there's no time for that now. For all I know, I've slept through Blossom's labor despite the baby monitor by my pillow, and there's an obstetrical hecatomb awaiting me in the barn.

I rush to the barn with the bucket and the milking pail. The goats are lying down, drowsily chewing their cud. Relieved, I grab some laying mash and go to feed the chickens and let them out to pasture. The goats, fully awake now, start calling for me. Back in the barn I fill the grain dishes and the hay feeder, milk Virginia Slim, fill the water bucket, and assure Blossom that I will be checking on her throughout the day.

Back in the house, I'm straining the milk when Bisou tells me that she needs to go outside NOW. I take her out, but the grass is cold, etc. She pulls a water plant out of my little garden tub. I replace the plant, replace Bisou in the crate, put the milk in the fridge. Suddenly the universe smiles upon me: Bisou falls asleep. I go to the bathroom. I eat breakfast. While I eat, Wolfie brings me a toy to throw. I tell him we mustn't wake Bisou. He gives me a look that drowns me in guilt.

Now it's time to give Lexi her aspirin and her joint medication, and to brush everybody's teeth. By the time Lexi's and Wolfie's teeth are done, Bisou pipes up, so I brush hers too (without toothpaste, and just for practice). Bisou waddles over to the water bowl and has a big drink. I take her outside again.

We come back in and I take her into the guest room with a tiny ball she loves, for a retrieving session. I throw the tiny ball many, many times. She brings it back faithfully, but has difficulty with the concept of letting go . After a while she decides to forget about the ball and just try to sever my fingers from my hands. Play session is over. I take her outside, then put her in the crate.

Now the big dogs need some quality time. So I let Lexi wander in the big field in search of deer droppings while I do some heeling work with Wolfie and then throw balls for him. I'm still in my pajamas, but have managed to put on a jacket.

I let the big dogs in the house, begging them not to make noise. Bisou is still asleep. Yesss! I go upstairs and brush my teeth.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Puppy FAQs

How do you say “Bisou,” and what does it mean?
It's pronounced “Bee-zoo,“ and it means “kiss” in colloquial French.

How old is she, and when did you get her?
She was ten weeks old yesterday, and we got her at nine weeks old.

What breed is she?
If you haven't been following the course of my obsessions: she's a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel—big name, little dog.

How big is she now, and how big will she get?
She's just over six pounds now. I've seen Cavaliers that weigh as little as eleven pounds. I hear that some big males can reach twenty pounds. I'm hoping she stays on the small side, though when I took her to visit her siblings a couple of days ago, she towered over all of them.

What does she look like?
She looks like a miniature Irish Setter/Cocker Spaniel blend—you know, big eyes, blocky muzzle, long, curly ears, reddish-golden coat.

What is her personality like?
A combination of St. Theresa, the Little Flower; and Kali, the Indian goddess of Chaos and Destruction.

Does she sleep through the night?
Yes! From the beginning! And, through the tireless efforts of her amazingly conscientious breeder, she arrived practically house-trained.

Does she travel well?
No sooner had she learned to relieve herself on our grass than we whisked her off to Philadelphia. There she had to figure out the uses of a flower bed in a narrow row-house yard. The minute she got used to that we whisked her back to cold , wet Vermont grass. It's a wonder she hasn't come down with a huge case of constipation, but so far she hasn't.

How do Wolfie and Lexi react to her?
Lexi pretty much ignores her. Wolfie adores her, and she reciprocates. Their Tristan and Isolde relationship will provide fodder for many future posts.

Is there anything else going on that we should know about?
Yes. Our Nigerian Dwarf doe Blossom is great with child, and will be kidding any day now. We have installed the baby monitor in the barn, and it keeps us awake all night with the sounds of hay munching and cud-chewing. Do goats ever sleep?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


My granddaughter Violette wants a doll for her seventh birthday, and I am giving her one. This is not just any doll, but an American Girl Doll, complete with 18th century costume and a historical novelette of which she is the heroine. One can also purchase an entire Revolutionary-era environment (clothing, furniture, transportation) for this doll, whose name is Felicity.

The weird thing is, I'm excited about Felicity. I've been tracking her progress all the way from Wisconsin, a progress almost as slow as it would have been in Revolutionary times. She is being delivered to our house instead of going directly to Violette because I want to open the box and lift her out and check out her outfit and her underwear and shoes. I want to feel her hair, sit her down, move her arms, turn her head.

I grew up without siblings or cousins, so dolls were my companions. I had big dolls and tiny dolls; boy dolls and girl dolls; I even had a Black doll. I had good dolls who always behaved properly and others who were disobedient and had to be punished by being made to stand in the corner. Most of my dolls could open and close their eyes—I can still hear that tiny click—and they made a mewling sound when you lay them down. I had a doll that walked, and one that wet its diaper if you fed it water in a baby bottle.

My favorite doll, however, had no mechanical capabilities. Her eyes were painted on and she couldn't turn her head, much less walk. Her hair was made of thick yarn, gathered in a ponytail. Her trunk, arms and legs were stuffed, and you could see the seams where her “skin” was sewn together. She was big and floppy, and I loved her precisely because she couldn't do tricks. Tricks—the clicking eyeballs, the robotic walk—inevitably reminded me that a doll was not alive. But this one was a blank-slate doll, who let me project my maternal fantasies without mechanical interference.

She was my last doll, the only one that, when we left Spain for Ecuador, I was allowed to take with me, and I carried her in my arms throughout that week-long trip.

No, we did not walk to Ecuador. We flew, but in the 1950s that meant spending a couple of days in fancy hotels both in New York and Bogota waiting for the next scheduled flight. I have a photo of our arrival in the Quito airport. There is the welcoming committee from the Department of Culture; there is my father holding his violin case; my mother in a suit she had had made for the occasion, a hat, and a fur stole. And I am there, in my braids and round glasses, my best dress and shoes and—oh God, I just remembered, my father's socks.

Apparently, in the course of that week of flying and staying in hotels, I had run out of clean socks, and my mother insisted that I wear a pair of my father's. Some day before I die I hope I can forgive her for that.

Anyway, there I am in the picture, a robust ten-year-old in men's socks, clasping that big doll to my chest. And I kept her close for the next couple of years at least, until the moment when, mysteriously, my attention shifted from her to a boy I met at a bar-mitzvah.

I don't remember an interim period between dolls and boys. I believe I went straight from dolls to boys, then from boys to a husband, husband to babies...and now here I am, back to dolls again.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Haying Season

This endlessly rainy summer, we had started to worry that our fields were turning into woodland before our very eyes. The goldenrod was shoulder-high, the queen anne's lace luxuriant, the grass so tall that it was a chore to walk through it. But we're having a week of cool, sunny weather, and the farmer who hays for us, or one of his minions, came over in a big tractor with an enclosed cab, dragging a mower the size of a Cadillac, and in one morning the grass was cut and drying in the sun.

I was glad to see the job done, but the Robert Burns poem “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough” kept running through my head. You remember how it goes,

“Wee sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!”

I figured that most of the birthing and nesting and nursing was done for the year, but still, there must have been many a panicked breastie as the tractor dealt death across our land.

Gone are the days when a farmer-poet could stop and apologize to a mouse for disturbing her nest. Though I am not a contemporary of Burns, I can remember in Spain mowing being done with scythes, lines of men advancing slowly across a field, swinging their blades. It was graceful, it was quiet except for the swishing of the scythes, and it gave the field-dwelling creatures plenty of time to get away.

Not so on our meadows. When the clattering machinery left for the day, the vultures arrived—six, seven of them, calm and stately--and alighted in the middle of the big field. Something must have died there, because they spent quite a while on the spot. That evening I took Wolfie out to the general area, and he sniffed around but didn't find anything. The vultures had done their work.

The next day the tractor came back, dragging a different machine to bale the hay into big, squat cylinders. Now our formerly disheveled fields look like their hair's been put up in rollers. It is all very civilized, and beautiful in its way. Our grandchildren will look back with nostalgia on this method of haying, back in the good old days, when there were still vultures.