Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Angst and Compassion from the Urban Homestead

I am headed to court.  I didn’t receive a citation and notice to appear.  I demanded it.  Demanded, as in “come back here and give me a ticket, and I will see your ass in court.”  

Anyone who has followed this blog can already guess: this is a story about the dogcatcher.  A juicy, meaty, Dickensian story about the dogcatcher.  I’ve even nicknamed your villain, the dogcatcher, Mr. Bumble.  Your protagonist is a tiny and sweet baby pygmy goat named Whiskey.  He is named Whiskey because that’s what my husband swore off the day before I brought him home.  To make a long story short (though I can’t promise I won’t tell it at length some day, dear), a couple nights before his birthday, my sweet husband drank a lot... I think really, really a lot, judging by the stupidity of his behavior... of whiskey and found himself in trouble with the Missus.  I’m talking serious trouble here.  Being a reasonable woman, I went out the next day and bought him a baby goat for his birthday, knowing that he in no way wanted a baby goat, but that he couldn’t exactly refuse the gift since I couldn’t have even heard his muffled protests from inside the doghouse... if he’d dared protest.  He didn’t.  Sober, he’s a wise man.  

Several weeks before, he’d proclaimed loudly that if one more thing that eats or poops moved in, he was moving out.  That was about two hours before we found out we were pregnant.  Still, he accepted his gift graciously, with a wan smile, when I announced: Happy Birthday, motherfucker!  Here’s your present.  It’s a goat.  A baby one.  I suggest you name him “Hell Hath No Fury.”   Life has a way of checking your game.  So do wives.  And that’s only two more little things that eat and poop.  It’s not like I got him a herd of buffalo, not that he could have rejected them if I had.  I’m telling you, he was in big trouble.

A large man backed into a corner by a tiny goat.
What I didn’t expect was that within hours he would be deeply in love with the goat.  Maybe he was in love with the redemption it brought with it, this tiny, shy, wobbly little creature with the odd, rectangular blue eyes, curled up on his lap and quietly bleating his wife’s forgiveness.  

Or maybe it was just because it’s a baby goat, and your heart would have to be a shriveled, moldy old walnut to resist one of those.  We have plump hearts here.  We’re all in love with the goat.  

Then last week the dogcatcher came and said “Love, bah!  Get rid of that goat.”  Then everybody started crying and some of the children stopped eating and I started writing letters to city commissioners while my kids wrote letters to Sarah McLachlan and President Obama, except they were all gibberishy and nonsensical and they couldn’t spell anything right because they had been on a hunger strike for almost an hour and they were too weak to sound things out.  Meanwhile, the goat was in a diaper on the couch because we didn’t trust that the dogcatcher wouldn’t just snatch him up while we weren’t looking, and he was laying on the couch just watching while the kids were asking me how to spell things like “coup d’etat” and “Che Guevara” and I was sighing heavily with impatience at them and asking them to please Google that shit because I am also trying to write a letter here.  

Then the next day we called and pleaded with the dogcatcher to read our petition and our letters to the President and consider making a temporary exemption while the city commission considers them, but she refused to read any of it and effectively told us that if we didn’t get rid of the goat right away, she would confiscate it and we’d never see it again.  Don’t worry, there will be a happy ending there.  And don’t worry about Whiskey, he’s with some dear friends who are taking great care of him, though they’re probably pretty pissed at us because now there is no way their kids are not going to ask them for a baby goat.  

We are petitioning the city for permanent inclusion of pygmy goats into the local pet ordinance.  They’re great pets, and beneficial ones at that, and lots of cities allow them.  We live in a pretty progressive community and I write very persuasive petitions and I’m just sure we’ll win, but in the meantime, we’ve ignited the ire of the already vengeful dogcatcher, Mr. Bumble, who is actually a woman, but the likeness is uncanny.  Mr. Bumble likes power, and she likes to use it where she can.  Which brings us to my court date later this month.  

Today’s visit from Mr. Bumble was in regard to our chicken coop, which she cited as out of compliance with the city ordinance.  The issue, she said, is with adequate shelter from predators.  Our chicken coop is walled on all sides with fencing and sheltered from above by a very large, low hanging crab apple tree.  We live a stone’s throw from the river.  We have hawks, owls, possums, raccoons, foxes, even coyotes in the neighborhood.  I’d estimate that within a quarter mile radius, for each of our chickens, there are about a hundred critters with hungry bellies and sharp claws and lots of teeth.  As any chicken owner will attest, if our chickens were not properly protected, there would be no issue.  They would just be dead.  End of story.  

They even give us water, Mr. Bumble.

Mr. Bumble first spoke with my mild-mannered husband, gave him a copy of the ordinance, and told him we need to bring our coop into compliance.  Then she got a call from me.  Not-so-mild-mannered-me.  The call went something like this:

Me: “I understand you have an issue with our chicken coop, and I’m reading the language of the ordinance, which states that we need to provide adequate shelter on all sides.  It says nothing about the specifics of what materials are compliant, only that you must have adequate shelter, which we clearly have, so we are not out of compliance.”  

Mr. Bumble: “You are out of compliance, and if you don’t put a roof on your coop I will issue you a citation. What don't you understand about that?”  

Me: “I understand this situation perfectly, and I’ll save you the trouble of a follow-up.  Come on back and write me a ticket right fucking now, because I’m not putting a roof on that coop.  It has a roof, the roof is a tree.  I’ll be on the porch waiting.”  

I hung up the phone and waited on the porch, and said something to my husband about being my father's daughter. Generally, I shrink from confrontation.  It disagrees with my basic constitution.  I know that’s surprising, considering how good at it I am, but really, I much prefer the passive-aggressive approach, like quiet revenge via baby goat.  Also, I'm a nice person. I like to make people feel happy. However, I’m aware that there are little eyes watching me and weighing my movements on little scales inside their little brains.  “What’s she doing now? Oh man, she’s letting the dogcatcher have it. Okay, now she’s getting her driver’s license...”  

For the record, I would be well within compliance to cut off my chickens' heads and serve them in a casserole tonight. Why this sudden concern that a coyote might beat me to it?

I have a kid who has been bullied and harassed at school.  If I wither and immediately comply when I am bullied and harassed, what am I showing him about courage, about bravery, about making a stand for your own dignity and for what you believe in?  I know that sounds dramatic, considering that the scene in my parking lot probably looked more like something from a Lorne Michaels movie than anything else... Mr. Bumble and I, each extreme caricatures of our peripheral personalities.  Her, the Barney Fife dogcatcher with her trousers belted tightly over her belly, sniffing authoritatively yet avoiding eye contact with me as her county issued polo shirt got snared on a low branch of the very crab apple tree at the center of our debate, while I, the pregnant hippie, smart-assed goat activist, coolly remarked that it snags anything that tries to get through it: hawks, owls, dogcatchers, whatever, now write me my ticket, you walnut-hearted goat hater.  

I’ll tell you why I’ve nicknamed the dogcatcher Mr. Bumble.  In Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble has a short episode of humanity, a brief show of sympathy, from which he retreats to fall back on his habit of insecure tyranny.  Pity is a weakness.  Mercy is too disarming.  I saw it in the dogcatcher: a pitiful moment of vulnerability that passed and quickly shifted back into an entirely transparent power trip.  That makes it worse.  I can’t hate the dogcatcher.  There’s a reason she insists on wielding the small amount of power she has in the world so ferociously, and I’m sure that reason is not a pretty one.  It never is.  Damn it, I hate this part: I have to try to love the dogcatcher.  Middle of page two says so.  If you don’t know what I mean by that, and you have some time to kill, you can read about my middle of page two theory here.

So my challenge is to defend myself and my chickens, to reclaim my husband’s goat, to be an example of bravery for my children and a voice of dissent against ridiculous micro-enforcement of twisted interpretations of chicken coop ordinances, all without degrading or damaging the fragile and obviously wounded psyche of the dogcatcher.  This means that my trusty burns and zingers must be pocketed, and I’ll have to deal with Mr. Bumble, from now on, in a respectful, adult manner.  Mano a mano.  That just made me laugh out loud, for probably a full minute and a half.  

Somehow, the notion of gently confronting authority immediately and contrarily reminds me of my angsty fourteen year old self, when everyone was out to get me and nobody understood me and the law and the man and my parents were all part of the same conspiracy to push me down and hold me back, man, and I quipped angrily and loudly in short bursts from behind slammed doors.  Until they took my bedroom door off its hinges.  I can still harness that energy and wit, but I can't call up that anger.  Not ever, ever again.  That destructive girl is dead and buried and that is that.  I'm not angry anymore.  Time and age and motherhood and love of baby goats and other living things have cooled me to a warm simmer.  And I can even find love and empathy for the dogcatcher if I try.  But I'm not lying down for her bullshit.  

Save Whiskey!


  1. I love this. I love the poetic writing, the insight into the human condition, your use of passive agressiveness (which I endorse) and yet your recognition that Mr. Bumble has a reason for being an overbloated power-hungry bitch and that reason, as you said, is probably "not a pretty one."

  2. YOU GO MEG! I've already mentioned my pygmy goat story, so you know that I stand behind and in front of you if need be. Just call! XO We love you, Whiskey, Arthur, and all the kids!

  3. Thank you for writing this, for writing. You are a riveting, eloquent and passionate writer when faced with an injustice. It was very good to be reminded of this:
    "I have a kid who has been bullied and harassed at school. If I wither and immediately comply when I am bullied and harassed, what am I showing him about courage, about bravery, about making a stand for your own dignity and for what you believe in?"
    I, too, prefer to avoid direct confrontation...but that's not always a good role model for my kids. Thanks for reminding me to stand strong when necessary.

    Also, and oh-boy-did-this-come-at-the-right-time:
    " angsty fourteen year old self, when everyone was out to get me and nobody understood me and the law and the man and my parents were all part of the same conspiracy to push me down and hold me back, man, and I quipped angrily and loudly in short bursts from behind slammed doors."
    This one pricked a few tears because I see a little more clearly what's going on now with someone in my house who I adore, who I love more than anything...who seems a bit alien from the sweet, adorable boy of a year of two ago (sigh). Just have to get through this stage...

    Wishing you success in your petition! Save Whiskey!!
    (p.s. I posted this blog entry on my Facebook status...)

  4. Someone just steered me toward your blog--love your writing style! We have a few acres in rural Oklahoma, and reading this post has made me realize how spoiled we've gotten about doing whatever the hell we want: building wacky sheds, adopting all kinds of animals, etc. Lawrence is getting too regulate-y.

    Keep up the good fight!
    (Tracy, of MAW)