Animal Stories: We’ve Been Skunked!

Note: This is the seventh and final story in a series of super-short stories about animals. 

A skunk sauntered by our door, stopped to look in, and continued on its way. We’ve had lots of different animals peek inside our home from our deck: raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and neighborhood cats. We’ve had foxes and, one time in broad daylight, a wounded coyote sitting in our backyard. (I correct myself from yesterday’s story: I did invite a friendly police officer to my front door, this time for the coyote. He came into our house with a shotgun to get a view of the coyote. Fortunately, he decided to chase it from our yard and not shoot it.)

But the skunk put the whole family on high alert. “Nobody move,” I whispered through gritted teeth. We let that little guy wander off unmolested.

Over the last several years, the skunk population has increased in the Great Midwest, and you don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to realize that. Just open your windows on a summer evening and you might get a whiff of that distinctive skunky smell. (Unless you live next to potheads; then it might be something else you’re smelling.)

Last summer, though, we got skunked so far beyond what we had experienced for a few days, I was thinking the skunk was purposely targeting our house. I’d walk around in the daytime, looking but hoping not to run into the critter.

My lovely wife Jen likes to keep the windows open instead of the AC on, so we’ve been on alert for skunks for a long time. That first night our yard got skunked, I ran around and closed all the windows at about 2 a.m. By the morning, the smell had mostly dissipated.

The next night, we got skunked again. Dang it! Something in the yard was frightening the little guy. Same routine: close the windows in the middle of the night, let the smell go away during the day, open the windows before bed.

By Day 3, no one in the family was happy, and the smell was stronger. Plus, I was a little cranky from sleeping with one eye (and one nostril) open, ready to activate the lockdown when needed.

I don’t know how to describe how bad the smell was. You’re probably thinking that you know how a skunk smells, but this was worse. It smelled like the foulest food smells (rotting onions, rotten eggs), rotting garbage, combined with the skunk smell; it was so rancid. It would actually irritate our nasal passages, and I would tear up. All night and then all day; this one didn’t dissipate. It got into our family room, and no one wanted to be in that part of the house anymore.

Jen said, “Have you found where the skunk is living? Maybe we need to call someone to have it removed.”

“I looked. I can’t tell. Hopefully it will go away.”

It didn’t go away. Jen was in the basement for something, and she glanced out the window and spotted it: the telltale black and white fur, sitting in our window well. She came upstairs and told me. She said, “How many times have I told you to get covers for the window wells?”

We don’t need to rehash how many times she did or did not tell me to get window well covers. I’ve had to rescue a few kittens and other small animals from the window wells, and my children loved hunting for toads in the wells. We had butterfly nets just to get the toads out. One of the wells is about 2 feet deep, and the other is deeper, about 3 1/2 feet.

(In my defense, about 10 years ago, I did buy cheap plastic well covers, but I didn’t secure them, and they blew away in a windstorm. Like, just blew away. Somewhere. I’m imagining someone 3 or 4 blocks from us finding these things in her backyard: “What the hell?”)

The skunk was in the deeper window well. Naturally. Jen said, “How are you going to get it out?” When I rescued the kittens, I stacked some crates for them to climb up. I said, “I don’t wan’t to scare it.” “Maybe you should poke it with a rake handle and run.” “Do I have to?” “Yes, you have to.” Etc.

So I went out there with a long garden tool handle, poked it, and ran. After a little time (about 4 hours), I looked back in. “I think it’s dead,” I told Jen. “Then I think you have to remove the body.” “Do I have to?” Etc.

I knew just the person to help me with this problem.

“Randy!” I was knocking on my handy neighbor’s back door. He answered cheerily and put his dog on a leash to come over, not knowing what I was about to subject him to.

We both peered over the edge of the window well. “Huh,” he said. “That really is a dead skunk.” His dog stretched the leash out as far away from the well as he could.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked.

“Well, I think you should scoop the body up, put it in a bag and dispose of it off your property, and then there are chemical cleaners that get rid of smells like that.”

I said, “And when you say ‘you,’ you mean…”

“I mean you. There is no way I’m coming close to that thing. You’re on your own with this one.” And he and his dog left me.

Dang it. So I turned to Google. Turns out that when skunks die, they release all of the chemicals contained in their glands, and this can take up to 2 weeks, and then the smell can linger for more than a month after that. And everyone knows that you don’t want to get the chemical on your skin or hair because it’s difficult to get rid of.

The first thing I tried to do was take two hoes and slide them under the skunk body and lift it out of the well. The problem was, apparently the skunk had burrowed its nose into the corner of the well (probably out of panic), trapping itself between the home’s foundation and the corrugated-metal well. Jen came out to give it a try. She pulled on the skunk, and its tail removed itself from the rest of the body. (Ugh.) I picked it up out of the well and put it in a garbage bag. I suited up with clothes I didn’t care about and gloves, then I dropped into the well. I had to scoop the rest of the body out of the corner. The smell got worse.

Then I read that you have to remove the debris that the body was touching to get rid of the smell. So I scraped out a ton of rocks and put them in the garbage bag.

Also, what Randy told me was true: deposit the dead body off your property, or it will continue its foul ways. Since garbage pickup was 4 days away, I decided to take the bag to the dumpster at Jen’s office. I didn’t want to put the bag in any of our vehicles, so I got my bike out and tried to pedal over there.

Have you ever tried pedaling a bicycle with a black plastic garbage bag filled with 30 pounds of rocks? Not easy. The bag got caught in the spokes of my front wheel, so I abandoned that plan.

I hiked down the street for a half mile, in full sun, on an 85-degree day, wearing gloves, a long flannel shirt, and jeans, with a 30-pound black garbage bag over my shoulder. The world’s worst Santa Claus.

Halfway there, a friend spotted me and pulled over. She rolled down her window: “Looks heavy. Can I offer you a ride somewhere?” I didn’t know how to explain exactly what was going on with what clearly looked like a crime scene coverup, so I just said, “No thanks, you don’t want to get involved with this one.” She gave me a funny look and drove off.

I tried to fix the smell by spraying this deodorant spray all over the carpet of the family room, but then the house smelled like the fake chemical smell and the skunk smell. No one was happy with me.

I found two things that worked: One was an absorbent spray that I soaked the window well with. I used a rag to rub and scrub all the metal, the cement, and the window itself. That seemed to help. But the thing that saved us on the inside of the house was this stuff called Fresh Wave Odor Removing Gel. It claimed that the gel could absorb the smell and release a fresh eucalyptus scent using all-natural ingredients, but at that point I didn’t care if it was radioactive as long as it got the job done.

The skunk smell lingered in the house for a month. I remember thinking about 3 weeks into it, “Is this ever going to go away?” But it did.

Almost immediately afterwards, I bought high-quality window well covers and secured them in place. See, I told Jen I’d get to it eventually.

Animal Stories: Stay Away, Bunny!

Note: This is the sixth in a series of super-short stories about animals.

After a few years of flooded yards and icy sidewalks because of the runoff from our sump pumps, my neighbors and I decided to do something about it. The city had installed a storm drain along our property line, so three of us rented equipment to dig a trench, and we buried some 4-inch corrugated drainage tubes to connect our sump pumps to the storm drain. (And by “we”…)

I had two pieces of piping left over, each about 8 or 9 feet long. My handy neighbor Randy suggested that I might want to keep them in case any of the pipeline leaked and needed replacing. Instead of putting it in my basement or garage like a normal person, I laid it in the sedum against the north side of our house. My theory was, it was not bendable enough to wrap up, so I didn’t want 9 feet of tubing taking up space in the basement. I figured I’d find something useful for it eventually.

Fifteen years later, it was still sitting there.

I noticed that small animals liked to run into it when I was mowing. Specifically, my two favorite backyard critters: rabbits and chipmunks.

Chipmunks were my favorite animal when I would visit the zoo as a child. (Yes, I am aware that they weren’t part of the zoo’s menagerie.) I was thrilled when we moved into our house and I first heard the distinctive “chip-chip” call of the chipmunk. Over the years, I told my kids that the same chipmunk, Chippy, would return to our yard every spring. (Which would be amazing, considering the lifespan of a chipmunk is 3 years. Don’t tell my kids.)

Chipmunks like to live underground, so they wouldn’t usually nest in my black plastic tubes. Also, they had to stay away from the rabbits, who loved the tubes. Sometimes I would spot three rabbits at a time going into the tubes; they were like little rabbit hotels.

Our yard is a bunny haven, as if we are cultivating dandelions and clover just for them. Add the fact that some neighbors trap and release them because of their destructive tendencies on plants, and bunnies know it’s better to hang in our yard. I’ve had to hop the fence in our vegetable garden like Mr. McGregor in the Beatrix Potter tales to get rabbits out, though. Then I see them lingering outside the fence, pretending to munch nonchalantly on clover, but secretly plotting their next assault on the garden.

Last summer, I thought that maybe I should get rid of the plastic tubes. They had outlived their usefulness; they had a few cracks and holes in the sides, so even if the drainage system needed updating, these things were no good. As I went to grab one, I wondered if there were any bunnies in them right then. I took one end of the first one and gradually lifted it, peering into the hole. Nothing, I shook it a little to see if anything came out the other hole. Nothing. So I tossed that one to the side.

I did the same with the other one. Lifted, peered, nothing. But it felt a little heavier than the other tube. I looked more closely into the hole, and I heard a little pitter-patter-pitter-patter, and all of a sudden, a small rabbit was running up the tube straight at me! I tossed the tube aside, but he sprang out and landed on my chest. “Hey! Hey!” I yelled as he ran up my front side to my shoulder; I spun around, and his body brushed my chin as he ran back down my front side, down my leg, and landed on the ground beneath my feet.

We both stood there staring at each other for a moment. I’ve chased tons of rabbits in our yard and never caught them; this was the first time I actually touched one. I don’t think he knew what to do, after being so intimate with me. I grabbed the tubes and left; he was gone when I returned.

Animal Stories: Going to the Dogs

Note: This is the fifth in a series of super-short stories about animals. Except this one’s not so short. Sorry!

Let me set the mood for you: It’s the spring of 1983. The final episode of “M.A.S.H.” had just aired, Michael Jackson introduced the moonwalk to the world, and children across America were waiting for the final episode in the “Star Wars” trilogy to be released. On our boomboxes, we were rocking out to the Stray Cat strut, or passing the dutchie pon the left-hand side, or trying to figure out what a Vegemite sandwich was.

I was a sixth grader heading to a friend’s house on a sunny Saturday morning after watching the Smurfs and Scrappy Doo cartoons. No one was home at my house. I’m sure my parents had no idea what I was doing that day.

At my friend Jim’s house, we decided to play either Kick the Can or Whole-Block Tag or some game where we sneaked into backyards. Jim’s block was unusual for our neighborhood; it had an alley, making it easier to open neighbors’ gates.

I remember it was cold; I was wearing jeans and a winter coat. It might have been the end of spring break. Most of the 12 houses on the block were fair game, although everyone knew to avoid the house next door to Jim; that was the home of Macduff.

Macduff was some sort of terrier. Not too big, but he made a lot of noise (he had a Napoleon complex going on, and as a smaller-than-actual-sized human myself, I related). The rumor was that he had bitten multiple people. So stay away from Macduff’s yard.

At one point in the game, my friend Dave and I found ourselves about to be caught, and rather than giving up, we decided to do what no one would expect us to do: we’d cut through Macduff’s yard! Genius!

Dave went first. I was always the kid hanging in the back of our group of friends, saying, “Guys, I’m not sure this is a good idea.” We entered from the alley, and there was Macduff, sitting quietly on the patio, on a long leash. Dave cut straight past him to another gate, but  I hesitated near Macduff. He was wagging his little tail, looking at me curiously. I don’t know why, but I went to pet him.

That’s when he turned into the Tasmanian devil. He snarled and leaped into the air with his teeth baring. He clamped down on my right thigh and locked his jaw.

I let out a scream that was so high-pitched that neighborhood windows probably shattered. Flocks of geese lifted up off of nearby ponds and scattered. Other dogs started barking.

I came to my senses and smacked Macduff off of me. I turned to see Dave holding the gate open, and I went to run, but Macduff wasn’t done with me yet. He lunged back and latched himself onto my calf muscle, digging in. I shook my leg up and down with him still attached; for a split second, he released his grip, and I kicked him away from me.

If you are picturing the scene from “There’s Something About Mary” when Ben Stiller wrestles with Puffy the border terrier, you’re on the right track.

I ran out of the yard, and we all gathered back at Jim’s place. My jeans were ripped open in two places, and blood was oozing down my leg. What we probably should have done was gone into Jim’s house to tell his parents and seek medical attention. What we actually did was mumble, “Well, I guess we should get going,” and I said, “See ya tomorrow!” and limped the 4 blocks home by myself.

When I got home, no one was there, except our dog, Tiger. I took off my jeans, which was painful with the open wounds, and tossed them in the garbage. I grabbed a package of Band-Aids and (I remember this clearly) used 16 of them to cover the thigh wound. The blood soaked through almost immediately, so I used 16 more. I sat in our living room with my leg propped up and covered both wounds with Kleenexes. I kept thinking, “Oh man, Mom and Dad are going to kill me.” There may have been a little bit of shock involved. Tiger knew something was up and stuck close to me.

My dad was first to return home. He walked into the front door, saw all the blood, and went into emergency mode. “What happened? Are you alright? Where’s your mother?” This was in the age before cell phones, plus I was 12, so I have no idea how he contacted her and let her know he was taking me to the ER. There was never a moment where my parents got mad at me.

We spent the afternoon in the hospital. Turns out I had done a decent job stanching the bleeding with my 16-Band-Aid soak-and-replace routine.

I remember that for the next 2 weeks, I got permission to wear sweatpants to school because it was too painful to pull jeans or cords on over the bandages covering the wounds. (Was there a dress code at our public school in 1983 that wouldn’t have allowed me to wear sweatpants without the permission? Seems unlikely; I used to wear a T-shirt that said, “Where the Hell is Nashwauk, Minnesota?,” and no one said anything.) There was a lot of bruising, similar to when you have surgery, and afterwards the bruising and swelling is sometimes worse than the incision pain.

The Monday night after the bite, there was a knock on our door. A police officer wanted to talk to my parents and me. If ever there’s a moment in a 12-year-old’s life when he decides to dedicate himself to the straight and narrow, having a cop at the door would be that moment. Officer Friendly explained that since Macduff had already bitten people before, he was all caught up on his shots, so I wouldn’t have to get any shots myself. (How convenient that he was a repeat offender.)

Also, since I had gone into the yard uninvited, Macduff’s family wasn’t getting any citations. Put yourself in their shoes: your little dog has bitten someone, so you decide to erect a fence to your backyard, and for extra safety, you put the dog on a leash so he can’t go anywhere anyway. And somehow a neighborhood kid still manages to get himself bitten by your dog!

The scars faded. I can just barely make them out if I look closely. One bonus to the whole ordeal is that, as a general rule, I try to avoid doing things that lead to police officers knocking on the front door. (I was probably heading in that direction anyway, but Macduff gave me a good nudge.)

Animal Encounters: Free the Bird!

Note: This is the fourth in a series of super-short stories about animals.

I woke my lovely wife Jen early one morning. “Do you hear that?” There was this scratching sound outside our house. She heard it too. It sounded like someone or something was trying to dig its way into our house, from the roof. I ran outside to look for where the noise was coming from, but it stopped before I could find the source.

A week later, I was coming home from a walk, and I saw a gray squirrel, gnawing on the wooden gable vent over our garage, trying to break into our house!

“Hey!” I yelled. “Hey!” It didn’t stop. I looked around; we have rocks in a landscaped area in our yard. Generally, I would not recommend throwing rocks at your house, but I grabbed a handful and started tossing them. The squirrel took off, ran along the roof’s edge, and climbed off the house.

The wood on the gable vent was partially destroyed, chewed away. I knew I’d have to fix it eventually. I put it on my to-do list.

A few months later, I heard a different noise. “Jen! Jenny! Do you hear that?” Of course she heard it. I said, “Maybe the squirrel’s back. Or the raccoon.”

Outside the house, I looked at the chewed gable vent; no squirrels were there. The noise was coming from the side of the garage. It sounded like something was running back and forth. I couldn’t pinpoint the noise. I knew what I needed to do.

“Randy!” I was pounding on my handy neighbor’s back door. Probably thinking Here we go again, he came over to my house.

He thought we should look in the crawlspace above the garage because that’s what the vent is there for. So we set up a ladder and both climbed up. The crawlspace is huge; we could convert it into an extra room, but there’s no access to it other than the cutout.

Randy spotted the problem: The squirrel had broken through the flimsy insulation sheet that was behind the vent, and animals had been coming and going freely into the crawlspace. The builder should have installed a screen behind the vent to keep animals out. (Again, should I just leave the doors wide open to let all the critters in the house?!?)

We then found the noise: A bird, who had been living in here (judging by the mess), had gotten trapped in the soffit along the crawlspace edge and was running frantically along the soffit vent. We couldn’t get to it because it squeezed into a tiny opening.

“We have two options,” Randy said. “We could let it die, or we could rip off your siding and try to take the end of the soffit off and see if it would fly out through that.”

“Well, I don’t want it to die,” I said. So we decided to tear apart my house to save the bird’s life. (And by “we,” I mean “he,” while I handed him tools. I had gotten adept at working on projects with Randy, and my home and auto repair skills improved. I was learning the names of tools, which was the most important thing. Randy would be fixing something at my house and say, “Do you have an Allen wrench?” I’d say yes, then run to the tools in my basement while Googling “what is an Allen wrench.” I’d then put back the crescent wrench I was holding and grab an Allen wrench.)

Project Freebird took about an hour. Randy got on a ladder, removed a portion of our siding covering the soffit end, and with some coaxing, this starving robin flew out the hole. Randy snapped the siding back and said that two things needed to happen: the end cap, and any openings all around our house, should be caulked or foam sealed; and the gable vent should be taken down and chicken wire should be attached to the back of it to keep squirrels and birds out.

So we took care of that. I Googled “how to caulk.” We climbed an extension ladder to remove the gable and install chicken wire to the back of it. And by “we,” I think you know who I mean.

Animal Encounters: Attack of the Birds!

Note: This is the third in a series of super-short stories about animals.

The first time I was attacked by a bird, I was running on country roads. I went onto the frontage road next to a highway. On the fenceposts, I noticed a few birds; they were black with red and yellow coloring on their wings. Cool, I thought.

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The evil red-winged blackbird. He’s a jerk. (Photo by Bryan Pfeiffer, www.bryanpfeiffer.com.)

As I passed a small tree, I heard a bird making this noise: “Chit. Chit. Chit-chit-chit!” And then one of the birds swooped down and smacked me on the head! I was wearing a baseball cap, so I took it off and started swinging wildly at it while yelling, “Hey! Hey!” I looked up, and two of the birds were flying over my head, corkscrewing around in the air, and then divebombing me; there was something dizzying about the way they set me up for the attack. My long, slow jog turned into an all-out sprint as I swung my cap.

I’m picturing a family on a vacation in their minivan, driving down the highway. A child looks out her window and says, “Mommy, Daddy, there’s a man waving his hat at us, and birdies keep landing on his head.” And her mom says, “That’s nice, sweetie. Now go back to the movie on your iPad.”

When I got home, I said to my lovely wife Jen, “I was attacked by a vicious pack of birds!” She said, “What? Wow. How many were there?” I said, “At least two. Or maybe it was one, but the way it was spinning, it seemed like two.” Jen said, “Ohh-kayyy. Are you bleeding or anything?” I said, “No, I managed to fend them off with my hat.”

Needless to say, no one believed me. We have a friend who lives with us each summer, and she said, “I’ve been bicycling for years, and I know the birds you are talking about, but they don’t attack. You’re crazy.”

So I looked it up: the birds are red-winged blackbirds, specifically the males. And they do attack. (And I’m not crazy.)  From Wikipedia here: “Males have been known to swoop at humans who encroach upon their nesting territory during breeding season.”

We took a vacation out west, and all through Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming, I kept seeing these evil birds sitting atop fenceposts, taunting me, waiting for me. “They’re not evil,” Jen said. “They just defend their nests.” “Oh, they’re evil,” I muttered under my breath.

A few years later, our summer friend reported that a red-winged blackbird bopped her on the bicycle helmet when she rode past its nest. Who’s crazy now?

I see them all the time on the canal towpath where I run. From mid-May to early July, they are aggressive. If they start “chit-chitting” as I approach, I clap my hands or cough loudly to scare them off. I also swing my cap.

Last year, I was running in the opposite direction of where the blackbirds normally are (not because I was afraid), and as I was trotting along, I felt this massive claw grab the top of my head. “Hey! Hey!” I yelled and started sprinting. I took my cap off and swung it around. After about 50 yards, I turned around to see what it was:  a huge owl was sitting in a tall tree above me.

I ran home. “Jen! Jenny! I was attacked by an owl!” I had her examine my head; there was no bleeding, just a scratch. I gave her the blow-by-blow account. She suggested that I need to put on a little weight because the owl could probably carry a tiny human. Ha ha, so funny I forgot to laugh.

When I shared my story with friends, I heard back that an acquaintance was also attacked by this same owl, but she actually was bleeding from the talon scratches. I saw her on the towpath a week later. She showed me her injuries. We both avoided that stretch of the path for the rest of the year. And I put on a little weight over the winter. Just in case.

Animal Encounters: What’s the Buzz?

Note: This is the second in a series of super-short stories about animals.

I was mowing the lawn one day when a bee flew by me. Yikes, I thought. On my next pass by the same spot in our yard, a few bees swept past me. “Creepy,” I said. The third time around, several chased me, so I abandoned my lawn mower and ran. “Holy bleep!” I yelled.

I went inside and said to my lovely wife Jen: “There are bees swarming me in the backyard!”

“Oh,” she said. “And are you planning on leaving the lawn mower running out there all day then?”

I went back in the yard to see where the bees were coming from: Our air conditioner’s condenser had two coolant tubes that went into our house. There was a circular hole cut out in our siding so that the tubes could enter, and the bees were going in and out of the house freely.

I managed to mow the lawn like this: I approached the condenser slowly, and as the bees got annoyed with me, I ran backwards as fast as I could with the mower. I had a nice little dance going with the bees, but I knew that wasn’t sustainable. (Also a little embarrassing, if any neighbors were watching.) I had to get rid of them, and I knew just the person to take care of it.

“Randy!” I yelled as I banged on my handy neighbor’s back door. I’m sure he was thinking, Now what with this guy?!? after the raccoon incident, but he has the patience of Job, so he came over to help.

“First, those aren’t bees you got there; those are wasps,” Randy said.

“Right,” I said. “I knew that.” Later, I Googled “difference between bees and wasps.” Turns out bees are beneficial pollinators who rarely sting, and wasps are aggressive, mostly non-pollinators who like to sting.

Randy explained that as long as you stay out of the path of where the wasps (or yellow jackets) are going for their food source, they won’t harm you. He showed me: we noticed that they would exit the hole and turn to the left, so he eased his way next to the hole on the other side to peek in it.

“I see hundreds and hundreds of wasps in there. And I don’t know why the builder didn’t seal up this hole in the first place.”

I was starting to wonder that myself. How many other holes in the house were there for animals (raccoons, wasps, etc.) to enter? Why don’t I just leave the doors wide open to make it easier for them to stroll in?!?

Randy’s plan was, we wait until dark, when the wasps are at their least active and most of them have returned to the nest. Then we stand next to the nest and spray the crap out of them with wasp killer. (And by “we,” I mean “Randy,” while I stand a safe distance away, holding the flashlight.) Then, in the morning, I seal up the hole with foaming sealer.

That night, after dark, we went out there, and that’s exactly what we (“he”) did. And the next morning, I sealed it up with the foamy stuff.

Here’s the thing I didn’t count on: not all of the wasps died immediately, and they had to find another exit spot to get away from the spray. So over the next several months (!), we had wasps come out from behind the basement drywall and spend their last hours and days in our house. Fortunately, they had no food source, so the wasps would basically die on the concrete floor. I swept them up once a week and kept checking the sealed hole, and we’ve been wasp-free ever since.

A few years later, we had to get a new condenser, and we decided to move it to a different part of the yard. I made sure the installers sealed the new tube hole well. They thought it a little strange, but I take no chances.

 

Animal Encounters: The Thing in the Basement

Note: This is the first in a series of super-short stories about animals. 

When we first became homeowners, I was paranoid constantly about any little noises I heard in the house. “What was that?!?” I’d hiss when something creaked in the middle of the night. My lovely wife Jen would soothe my worries with her calm words: “The furnace kicked on,” or, “It’s the sump pump again,” or, “Stop waking me up with these dumb questions!” Etcetera.

One night, before bedtime, I heard a bump in the kitchen. “Don’t even say anything,” Jen said. The next night, same thing. Then I started hearing a similar sound early each morning. After about a week or 10 days, I would stand in the kitchen and try to locate the noise. I got up before sunrise and hovered near the door that opened up to our deck; the door is in a little bay with a window on either side of it, jutting out from our house’s foundation.

I heard the bump. It sounded like it was coming from inside our floor vent. I popped off the vent cover and didn’t see anything. Then I pushed against the metal sides of the duct and held my hand there. And something pushed back against my hand! I ran downstairs into the basement to see if I could find anything down there, but part of our basement is finished, with drywall blocking access to where the duct runs. I ran outside but couldn’t see anything.

That night, around bedtime, we heard the whatever it was rustling around again. It seemed as if it was coming into our house and then leaving in the morning. Or vice versa. So again I ran to the basement. About 10 feet across from where the vent is, the finished part ends, and I could get on a chair or ladder in the unfinished part and look between the kitchen floorboards and the basement ceiling. I set up a ladder and glanced: I saw something moving but forgot a flashlight, so I ran back upstairs to tell Jen: “I saw either a cat or a kitten, or maybe a tiny rodent. But it was dark.”

I sprinted downstairs with the flashlight, whipped through the finished part, through the doorway into the unfinished part, and around to the ladder. And there, coming out of the crawlspace, about to place one paw on the top of the ladder, was the biggest raccoon I had ever seen in my life.

I screamed at the top of my lungs. Not a manly scream, and not intelligible words either; one of those “is someone strangling a goose?” noises. I scared the bejesus out of the raccoon, who hightailed it back through the crawlspace, out whatever hole was in our house, and out from under our deck. I went outside and piled a bunch of stones over every conceivable opening into the base of the deck.

The next day, I called Randy, my handy neighbor. Randy came over, and we (and by “we,” I mean “he,” while I handed him tools) tore my deck apart and looked under the bay: the house builder had stuck some insulation under the bay but had never installed any sort of wood to secure it. So animals were free to enter our house, which obviously this raccoon had been doing. I got a large piece of  plywood, and we (“he”) cut it with a circular saw and hammered it in place. There have been no raccoons in the house since then.

Also, Jen listens a little more intently when I say, “I heard something!”

How to Screw Up Your Knee with Winter Running: Trust Me, I’m an Expert

Faithful blog readers, let’s play a fun game I like to call, “Let’s All Pretend There’s Not a Global Pandemic Shattering All of Our Senses of Well-Being and Keeping Us All on Edge.” Shall we?

If you live near me, this winter you may have seen me running around town with two beer cans in my hands. I told my lovely wife Jen that she should prepare for comments from co-workers and neighbors: “Was that your husband I saw with a Schlitz in one hand and a Truly hard seltzer in the other?” To clarify, I did indeed have two cans in my hands, but not for personal consumption.

First, some backstory: Around the time my older brother joined cross country in high school, my dad started running. There was a private country club in our town, and my dad would run on the street along the chainlink fence outside the golf course. (This is of course a metaphor for how close we were to being members there.) After every run, he would come home and exclaim, “You won’t believe how many golf balls I found today!” He would have balls in his hands or his pockets with random logos: Harris Bank, Schmerler Ford. He would place them on the kitchen counter, where they would roll all over and annoy my mom. Then he would pile these into his golf bag and use them when he golfed. My siblings and I would be like, “Can you believe Dad does that? Just leave the balls there and buy new ones! I hope nobody recognizes him as our dad!” I swore that I would not grow up to be the type of oddball who grabbed stuff from the roadside on his runs.

Flash forward 35 or 40 years: Because of all the winter snow and ice on the canal towpath I frequent, I ran most days on paved roads. You have to be careful of black ice and other hazards, but I feel safer doing it. The main route I took got me quickly out of the city and into the country. I run against traffic so that I can step off the road quickly when vehicles are coming toward me.

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Here I am on a long winter run, before injuries wiped out my spring running plans. Oh, happy day!

Anyway, the particular route I took is, I’m guessing, the perfect dumping ground for teenagers who don’t want to get caught with beer cans. I have a neighbor who takes his aluminum cans to a recycler for cash, so I started collecting the cans for him. Each day, if I was wearing a jacket, I could stick one or two cans in the pockets, but at the very least, I would have two cans in my hands. Which made it awkward to wave to drivers: “Hi there! It’s just friendly old me, hydrating on my long run with a Four Loko and a White Claw!” Like an oddball. Or my dad.

One day, I counted the number of cans I saw on the side of the road. Really only a 3-mile stretch was in the country on my run. Do you know how many cans I saw? Take a guess. Higher. No, even higher. I saw 186 cans! Ridiculous! That’s about 62 cans per mile! That’s just crazy. So I picked up 2 to 4 cans per run, but I never got close to gathering them all, and more were added every weekend. To be fair to teens, it could be anyone of any age throwing cans out their vehicle windows. (Looking at you, White Claw-loving thirtysomethings.)

Also on this route is the Catholic cemetery. To add mileage to my runs, I would go in there and run on the paved path. There were a few headstones for people I know who are still alive. I guess it’s a thing to prepay for a plot and have everything but the end date added to your headstone. Um, creepy!

Some of you might recall that late in the fall of 2018, I injured my hip while “Griswolding” the crap out of my house with Christmas lights. That little niggling injury turned into a major setback from which I didn’t fully recover until September of 2019. I ran two marathons in the fall and wanted to use them as a springboard for more: more running, longer winter runs, possibly longer races.

The main problem that I have is that I’m not a high-mileage guy. Whereas elite marathoners average 70 to 100-plus miles per week, and runners at about my level average around 40-60 per week, I usually struggle with injuries if I exceed 30-35. But there’s that little voice in my head that keeps telling me that I should ignore my own experience and bump up the mileage. So every year, typically after my last fall marathon, I try it, and every year, I develop a new injury, probably related to my increased mileage.

So here’s what I did: I increased my mileage, eventually averaging 43 miles/week. I sometimes ran on ice and snow; the towpath is well marked and relatively straight, and I didn’t want to run on country roads on my longest runs, which were 19 and 21 miles.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when an old injury flared up: my iliotibial (IT) band became excruciating on March 6. By March 11, it was clear that I should shut things down for a while. The IT band is a fibrous band runs from the top of your hip to the outside of your knee; when the pain is worse, your knee kills and is tender to the touch. It hurts to run, it hurts to walk, it hurts while sitting. It’s difficult to sleep; it loosens up after about half a day of movement, so it is worse in the morning. What causes it? Lengthening or altering your stride (typically, in winter while on ice or snow); running on unstable or uneven surfaces, which causes your leg to be unsteady with every step (ice or snow); and not being careful while gradually increasing mileage (I thought I was).

I swear I was even deliberate with my physical therapy, but now I know that I need to add some extra exercises to help it. What helps in the recovery? Rest is the most important step. When I first injured my IT band, in 2013, I had to take 2 solid weeks off, and then limit my runs to 2 or 3 miles a few times a week. It took 9 weeks (yikes!) to get back to normal.  What else helps is strengthening your glutes and your core.  (It seems that everything goes back to the core when it comes to injuries.)

When it first flared up, I decided to use a foam rolling tube. I was lying down on the tube on my left side, rolling my leg up and down the tube. Jen walked in and was like, “What are you doing?” It hurt a lot, and I said, “I’m (argh!) rolling out my (grr!) IT band because (ouch!) I read on some guy’s website that (ow!) rolling is beneficial (aagh!).” Jen said, “That doesn’t look good.” I said, “Trust me (argh!). I know what I’m doing (grr!).” The next day, I read on an actual medical website that maybe you shouldn’t roll it while it’s flared up. Oopsie!

(This might be a good time to mention my shoulder injury. Last September, I was digging out the rootball of a dead peach tree in our yard. I kept jamming the pointed blade of my shovel into the thick roots, over and over again. The next day, my shoulder killed. It felt, oddly enough, the same as when I tore the labrum in my left hip. It turns out I tore the labrum in my left shoulder. Instead of going for physical therapy or surgery, I chose to rest it. Seven months later, it’s better, but I still have limited range of motion. Take your left hand and reach it behind your right shoulder; you can probably touch your back, right? I can only reach over to the top of my shoulder. There go my dreams of being a major-league pitcher.)

So, no running for a while. Time to heal. I had signed up for 4 marathons this year, and so far, one of the spring ones has been moved to the fall; no word yet on the other one, but I would be shocked if it gets staged in early May. Which, as sad as that is, means that my rest time corresponds with this pause on all my planned races.

If you see me around town now, I’m the guy on the bike, riding alongside my daughter or Jen as they run. And definitely no beer cans in my hands. At least not yet.

The Best Films I Saw in 2019

My lovely wife Jen and I had some people over for dinner a few months ago, and one of them noticed a red envelope sitting near our TV.

“Is that a Netflix DVD?” he asked.

“Yeah. Why, are you not a Netflix member?”

“I didn’t even know Netflix still did the DVD-by-mail thing! I thought they ended it years ago!”

I asked him, “Then how do you watch new movies?” and he catalogued a bunch of different ways: Redbox, streaming through Xfinity, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc.

“Jeepers!” I said. “I can barely keep up with regular TV shows; do you think I’m with-the-times enough to subscribe to all those?”

“Not if you’re still using words like ‘jeepers.’”

Anyway, my point is, there’s too much out there, and too many ways to watch it all. (And no one gifted me the Disney+ subscription I asked for over the holidays, so I’m missing out on baby Yoda!) So you might notice that my best movies list is a little Netflix-heavy. Here’s my annual disclaimer: This isn’t a list of the best movies of 2019, but a roundup of the best films I saw, no matter what year they were released. Here we go:

91rKEgY1qDL._SY679_10. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” 2019 sci-fi directed by JJ Abrams, starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, and Kerri Russell. Okay, that’s a wrap on 40-plus years of Star Wars films shaping my worldview. If I had to rank Episode 9, I’d put it at fifth-best in the series. If you don’t know the major plot twist, I’ll ruin it for you now: Rosebud was a sled.

Unknown9. “Fyre,” 2019 documentary directed by Chris Smith. I first became aware of the Fyre Festival when one of my favorite bands, blink-182, announced that they were headlining the weekend music festival/experience. Then they pulled out at the last minute. Then the (mostly wealthy) customers who bought the pricey tickets started posting on social media how much of a ripoff the trip was turning out to be (e.g., the “gourmet meals” they were promised were cheese sandwiches). Then came the lawsuits, the accusations of financial misdeeds, and the jail time for one of the founders. A fascinating, funny look at how a few social-media influencers drove the initial success of what was essentially a house of cards.

Unknown8.  ”The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” 2007 Western directed by Andrew Dominick, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sam Shepherd. This film reminded me of another one based on a real-life outlaw, 2009′s “Public Enemies,” with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, in the sense that both criminals, Dillinger and James, brought about their own downfalls when they had to rely on less and less trustworthy partners to continue their robberies. Really two separate character studies, one of Jesse James and the other of Robert Ford, a wide-eyed fan of James’ who becomes a minor player in the James Gang but hopes for greater glory in bringing down the outlaw.

Unknown-17. “Someone Great,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, starring Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, Lakeith Stanfield, and Peter Vack. A star vehicle for Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), we follow one day in her life as her two best friends try to cheer her up after her breakup with longtime boyfriend Stanfield, and we see their relationship through flashbacks. Great soundtrack and great female friendships.

Unknown6. “Always Be My Maybe,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Nahnatchka Khan, starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, Daniel Dae Kim, and Michelle Buteau. Terrific story of a successful chef returning home to San Francisco and running into her childhood sweetheart (Park). Also with a very special cameo of a certain actor who parodies his own public persona mercilessly.

Unknown5. “Booksmart,” 2019 teen comedy directed by Olivia Wilde, starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Billie Catherine Lourd, Diana Silvers, and Molly Gordon. Some have called this the girls’ version of “Superbad,” and that’s not far off (Feldstein’s character is very much like that of her real-life brother Jonah Hill), but there’s more heart and depth in this film, even though it follows the teen-movie trope of two kids deciding to finally have fun and party on the last night of high school. Teen life in all its awkward, embarrassing glory. If you were a nerd in high school (hint: if you were one of my friends back then, you probably were), you will watch along in painful self-recognition.

Unknown-14. “Unicorn Store,” 2017 comedy/fantasy directed by Brie Larson, starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, and possibly a unicorn. I don’t even know where to start with this. If you are looking for another Marvel-type action movie with the “Captain Marvel” co-stars here, you’re in the wrong place. Larson plays Kit, a lost-soul artist living in her parents’ basement, who receives an invitation from a store purporting to have available to her the purchase of a unicorn. Jackson plays the Salesman, the unicorn-store’s only employee. This will leave you confused as to where this film is going, in a good way. A sweet, big-hearted film.

Unknown-13. “Plus One,” 2019 romantic comedy directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer, starring Maya Erskine, Jack Quaid, Beck Bennett, and Rosalind Chao. Erskine and Quaid are best friends who find themselves single during high wedding season and agree to be each other’s plus one for every wedding invitation. We know where this is leading, but it’s a fun ride getting there. Quaid is the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, but he looks and acts more like a younger Joel McHale. Erskine is a revelation of the less put-together adult of the duo; she had a few moments that made me laugh out loud.

Unknown2. “Eighth Grade,” 2018 coming-of-age film directed by Bo Burnham, starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, and Luke Prael. This unflinching film about the growing pains of life in the social-media age is painful. There’s no glossy Hollywood sheen over this story, and Fisher is almost too real as the eighth grader struggling with depressive tendencies, boy crushes, FOMO caused by Instagram, and a father who is trying a little too hard to be liked by her. I happened to be living through this story (from the dad’s point of view) when I saw it, and I loudly recommended it to all of my daughter’s parents. Watching this actress bravely play out the pool-party scene was amazing (also very hard to sit through).

shopping1. “Three Identical Strangers,” 2018 documentary drama/mystery directed by Tim Wardle. What an amazing, “this can’t possibly be true, but it is” story. In 1980, a New Yorker named Bobby Shafran goes to a community college and on his first day on campus is constantly mistaken for another guy who had gone there the year before named David Kellman. One of David’s friends calls David and says, “You have to meet this guy, he looks just like you.” So they meet and discover that they were both adopted and are indeed brothers. After the story runs in New York papers, another New Yorker, Eddie Galland, sees their photo in the paper, and thinks, “I look just like them, and I was adopted…” The story that ensues is at first celebratory and uplifting. But then things take a darker turn as we learn about the reasons for their separation at birth and how their different upbringings affect their adulthoods in tragic ways. A sometimes sad, sometimes heartwarming documentary that stayed with me for a long time afterwards.

Movies that just missed the cut: “Juliet, Naked,” “Free Solo,” “The Tomorrow Man,” “A Simple Favor,” “Studio 54,” “All Is True,” “Under the Eiffel Tower,” “Echo In the Canyon.”

Best Books 2019

Let’s get right to it: I didn’t read many books last year. A total of 23, or 1 every 16 days. That’s embarrassing. I got bogged down in some books that I didn’t really like but felt obligated to finish, because I’m that kind of reader.  (And yes, I’m also a member of the clean plate club.) I have many, many other excuses. I promise to do better this year, faithful blog readers (hi, Rossi family!) . Anyway, here’s my top ten list:

shopping1. Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s hilarious novel is about Lillian, a twentysomething slacker whose successful best friend from high school married a U.S. senator and needs a nanny for her twin stepchildren while she cares for her own son. The twins are a handful, and oh by the way, when they get agitated, they spontaneously combust. Somehow, Wilson makes this seems plausible, and we are rooting for Lillian and the flaming twins. The best thing about this book is that I didn’t know where it was going and it was exciting to see where the next chapter led.

shopping2. Very Nice, Marcy Dermansky. Rachel Klein seduces her college creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, who then leaves his dog in Rachel’s care while he returns to Pakistan to care for his ailing grandmother. Rachel brings the dog from New York to her mother Becca’s Connecticut mansion. Sooner than expected, Zahid turns up at the house and falls into a relationship with Becca. Funny and smart and dipping its toe slightly into the current political situation, this novel has the feel of a film where connections between characters are made that seem conveniently coincidental (e.g., Zahid’s NYC apartment is being sublet by a woman who works for Rachel’s father in investment banking, and this subletter also happens to casually date a female friend of Zahid’s, etc.).

Unknown3. High School, Sara Quin and Tegan Quin. These twins, better known as the indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara, co-wrote this memoir about growing up and rebelling in Calgary, Alberta. The cover of the book is supposed to look like a mirror, as in, we can all see ourselves in their stories. Even though I have almost nothing in common with them (that is, I didn’t drop acid and attend raves, struggle with my sexual identity, or form a band before graduating high school), I totally related to their tales of being outsiders and outcasts in their teen years. An especially good book for LGBTQ kids looking for stories of how two kids found their voices and turned out okay.

Unknown4. Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., Jeff Tweedy. I was interested in this memoir by the founder and lead singer of Wilco (and co-founder of the late, lamented Uncle Tupelo) partially because we have mutual acquaintances and I wanted to see if Tweedy talked about them. Very honest, very funny, very entertaining. In the opening, Tweedy says that he is not going to stoop so low as to discuss his prescription drug addiction battles and that he is only going to talk about the songwriting process and art. Then he says something to the effect of, “Just kidding! Of course I’m going to talk about the addiction stuff! Why else would you be reading this book?”

shopping5. Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder, Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL, RD Rosen. Rosen grew up a fan of the Chicago Bears, and in a lucky happenstance, one of his neighbors during his 1960s childhood was the retired Bears great Sid Luckman. (As any diehard Bears fan knows, the Bears haven’t been able to find a QB as successful as Luckman, who last played in 1950.) The book was only going to be about Luckman’s playing career, but then Rosen saw an interview with a former teammate who said, “It’s too bad about Sid’s dad.” It turned out that when Sid was in high school, Sid’s dad, who was mob-connected in New York, was sent to prison for the brutal murder of a family member, and somehow the Chicago media buried this story so that it didn’t follow Sid around. A great read for football fans and for true-crime enthusiasts.

Unknown6. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein. Yes, another musician’s memoir. This one is by Brownstein, a founding member of the Seattle punk group Sleater-Kinney and one half of the creative team behind the great TV series “Portlandia.” This is less to do with “Portlandia” and more about her musical background. Like the others on this list, a fun way to see how someone goes from outsider teen to successful rock star.

Unknown7. Talent, Juliet Lapidos. Anna Brisker, a graduate student in English at an Ivy League-type university, is struggling with writer’s block on her dissertation, a treatise on the intellectual history of inspiration. She establishes a friendship with the niece of the famous author Frederick Langley, a JD Salinger-type author who struck literary gold early in his career but apparently never wrote again. Or did he? Anna discovers unpublished work of Langley’s but also uncovers a plot by his sole surviving heir to cash in on her uncle’s fame. A modern take on the Biblical parable of the talents.

Unknown8. The Adults, Caroline Hulse. It starts with a frantic emergency call; someone has been injured in an archery accident at a family vacation destination. What plays out is differing explanations of all involved in this comic holiday trip gone sideways: Claire and Matt, exes who decide to spend Christmas together for the sake of their daughter Sophie; Claire’s uptight boyfriend Patrick; Matt’s sensible new gal Alex; and Sophie’s imaginary friend, a human-sized bunny named Posey.

Unknown9. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Sprawling, darkly funny novel that bounces back and forth in time from the 1970s to the present about Benny Salazar, a record company executive who got his start as a teen in a punk band, and Sasha, his self-destructive assistant. This Pulitzer Prize winner weaves several characters’ inner thoughts into one story; sometimes the reader doesn’t find out the connection between seemingly random characters until many chapters later. A book that I had to flip back through and reread.

shopping10. I Am C-3PO, Anthony Daniels. The English actor’s tales of portraying the iconic Star Wars droid for over 40 years. Daniels almost exclusively details his C-3PO years, with only a few stories about his early childhood and his other acting roles (and practically no stories about his personal life, an oddity for a memoir). Not always a flattering portrait of life in the Star Wars universe.

Other books that just missed the cut: Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite, Roger Daltrey; Past Tense, Lee Child; The Parade, Dave Eggers; There’s a Word for That, Sloane Tannen; Wham! George Michael and Me, Andrew Ridgeley.