We Love Our Animals

Have you ever wondered why we humans form such strong bonds with our animal companions? Here’s a simple thought-experiment to illustrate one possible reason:

Put your spouse / significant other and your dog in the trunk
of your car. When you let them out several hours later, which
one will be happy to see you? (Seriously, this is only a
thought-experiment. Do not try this at home, or anywhere else,
for that matter!)

The unconditional love of companion animals, coupled with their unique ability to listen to everything from our superficial complaints to our darkest fears–without uttering a single judgmental word–is a beautiful thing. Here’s a brief look at just a few of the many animals that have touched the hearts of my family over the years.

Jocko the Spider Monkey

My dad grew up in rural Ohio, the youngest of several siblings. Along with the regular farm animals, horses, and hunting dogs, he and his brothers had a few more “exotic” pets. About once a month, a traveling salesman Pop described as a self-important little bald guy in a sweat-stained suit would come around to take orders for feed and grain. One particularly hot summer afternoon, the salesman walked, uninvited, into the barn to get out of the sun. From the hayloft, Jocko silently dropped onto the little man’s back and wrapped his long tail around the man’s pudgy neck. I’m sure my dad and his brothers were hooting with laughter as the salesman ran from the barn, screaming about the huge snake that was around his neck, about to strangle him.

Rumor had it that there was also a six-foot-long alligator living behind the warm stove in the kitchen of that farmhouse, too. Someone had brought it back from Florida as a baby. Family legend? Maybe. Maybe not.

The Old Farmer and His Pigs

I heard this story from my grandma, a wise and illiterate woman who emigrated from Romania to America in the early 1900s, babushka and all. The old farmer that lived across the road raised pigs to supplement the family income during the Great Depression. Every year, the farmer would sell two pigs to the local butcher, and every year, he would cry his eyes out for three days afterwards. Grandma thought he was a silly man, but I think those pigs must have listened to the old farmer’s darkest fears. If you’re interested, The Dictionary is a short story about my mother growing up in Grandma and Grandpa’s house with only two books, and you’ll know why the house I grew up in looked a lot like a library.

Wilbur and Molly, Two Shaggy Horses

These two horses put in their time on my other grandparent’s farm, plowing and pulling wagons. My dad grew up with them, and he loved them dearly. A few years after he’d gotten married and moved to his own house, Pop brought my mother and my older brother by the farm for a Sunday family dinner. He parked his pride and joy, a shiny black 1952 Chevrolet, in the yard, under the shade of a big tree near the house. After dinner, my brother and his cousins went outside to play, while the men smoked and drank coffee, and the women chatted in the kitchen and washed the dishes.

It was early evening when Pop walked out to his car, and the low sun highlighted the deep scratches running the length of the Chevrolet’s hood. As the story goes, Pop started yelling for my brother, sure that he was somehow responsible for the damage, and ready to mete out a harsh punishment. Just as my brother came skidding to a halt next to him, unaware that he was in deep trouble, Molly reached her head over the fence next to the car, and continued to scratch her itchy chin along the hood, the rivets in her halter peeling paint off with every stroke, as Wilbur stood beside her. Confused, my brother watched the expression on Pop’s face go from dark to light, as he started to laugh. He was still laughing when he walked over to hug Molly and Wilbur’s necks and scratch Molly’s chin, a safe distance away from the hood of his favorite car.

So now you know that it’s no coincidence that shaggy little horses named Wilbur and Molly play a prominent part in the story of An Irish Miracle. I only said that any resemblances to actual people were purely coincidental. Some of the horses? Well . . . not so much.

Cricket, My Family’s First Schnauzer

There have been a lot of Miniature Schnauzers in our family over three generations, but Cricket was the first. I was a first-grader when we brought her home, supposedly a puppy for me. But it wasn’t long before we all realized that she was my dad’s dog. He would make her wait by the garage when he went to the mailbox, and when he came back, she greeted him like he’d been gone for half her life. Cricket rode everywhere with Pop in his pickup truck, her head poking out the window right below the pipe clamped in his teeth. When he got out, he taught her to wait on the seat. When he clapped his hands, she would launch herself straight into his arms. On the rare occasions it happened, Cricket hated to be left alone. To this day, I still don’t know how she reached those high curtains, but they were shredded and tattered when we got home.

Pop has been gone for over thirty years now, although I still hear his voice with a hello or a word of encouragement from time to time. Cricket has been gone even longer, but I’ll bet she’s still riding on Pop’s lap, with her fuzzy face in the breeze. And I’ll bet that pipe is still clamped in his teeth, too.

Corky and Yankee Joe

Yankee Joe was a sweet, seventy-pound Dalmatian (all ‘a’s, no ‘o’s) and big brother to Corky, my immediate family’s first Schnauzer. At fifteen pounds, Corky was the boss, and Yankee was happy to go along. His joy in life was to run at top speed until something solid got in his way. He took my wife lawn-skiing on several occasions. An unlikely pair, Corky and Yankee got along famously, despite their size difference.

We adopted Yankee Joe from a Dalmatian kennel owned by Karl and Barbara, and in turn, they adopted us. (As a gift, I photographed their daughter’s wedding, even though I was more nervous than the lovely young bride.) Karl and Barbara invited us to bring nine-month-old Yankee Joe and go with them to the Dalmatian Club of America’s national show in Fort Collins, Colorado. Four-hundred-and-fifty spotted dogs in one extremely well-run Holiday Inn was a sight I will never forget.

I won’t ever forget the eager-to-please, sit-in-your-lap Yankee Joe and his little-tough-guy buddy, Corky, either.

Bandit and Murphy, My Writing Companions

Bandit is around thirteen years old now, still very healthy, although going a bit deaf. He’s the sweetest, most gentle Schnauzer I’ve ever seen. Three years ago, the amazing veterinarians and students at the University of Georgia Small Animal Hospital pulled his little behind out of the fire for us, after ten days in intensive care. The clinic was ninety miles from our home, and the vet or the student taking care of him called me twice a day, every day, without fail. They took as good a care of me through that ordeal as they did my sad little Bandit, and for that, I am forever grateful.

Murphy is the eternal puppy. Even though he’s fully grown, at seven years old, he’s about half the size of a “normal” Miniature Schnauzer. I thought his litter mates looked a little odd, and when we brought him home, he fit in the palm of my hand, but by the time we realized we only got half a Schnauzer, he was too entrenched in our hearts to even ask for half of our money back. Everyone still asks if he’s a puppy, and they say he’s really cute. My response to that is always, “He’s cute alright . . . ’til you get to know him!”

I could go on and on about these two, who listen to me, and never judge me, but if you want to, you can read more about them in my post entitled My Writing Companions.

The strong bond between humans and horses is a recurring theme in the story, An Irish Miracle. As you can see, we Mahans love our animals. If you read this entire post, I know you love yours, too. Please feel free to comment and leave a story about a special animal companion in your life.

Good night, Nippy, Cricket, Gabe, Muffin, Bucky, Daisy, Yankee Joe, and Corky. I love you guys.

All the best,
Rob

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Story Ideas – What’s the Catch?

The Catch

One of the most common questions asked of authors is “Where do you get the ideas for your stories?” If someone would ask me that question, I might risk getting their eyes rolled at me and answer “from my thoughts” or even more briefly “everywhere” . . . but there are a couple of tricks involved.

The first trick is recognizing the thoughts that might make good story ideas. Much like a photographer or a painter that sees what appears to be an everyday scene and recognizes the potential for a beautiful or powerful picture, when I have thoughts (and that’s nearly all the time), I almost subconsciously run them through a “Would that make a good story idea?” filter. The idea for the novel I’m currently working on came from a dream I had a few days after my son moved across the country for the first time. Stories in the news often get caught in that filter. Would a vigilante that got away with abusing animal abusers escalate his behavior? Random thoughts in unlikely situations can get caught in the filter, too. Out for pizza one night, someone at the table across the aisle sneezed. Gross? Yes, but what if I looked around and everyone in the restaurant had started sneezing . . . and then falling out of their booths? Would I run out of the place or start taking notes for the opening of a horror story? Okay, so perhaps a little wild imagination is part of the first trick.

After recognizing a thought that might make a good story, and maybe embellishing it a bit, the second trick is capturing it before it gets away. With a mind like a steel sieve these days, leaving that task to memory isn’t such a good idea. That’s where the catch comes in. Pictured above is my fake-leather bound writing journal. It’s my story idea catch. I try to write down those thoughts that I recognize as potential story ideas in it. Sometimes I jot just a word or two or write several paragraphs. The central idea for my current novel is in there, recorded five years ago. But I don’t always have this fancy journal with me. I jot ideas down on whatever is handy . . . a spiral-bound notebook, a paper napkin (cloth if it’s a really good idea), the notes function on my phone, whatever is at hand. That journal has all kinds of random stuff taped into it. Neatness doesn’t count. What matters is to get all those good story idea in writing before they break their tenuous bonds and escape down Fading Memory Lane.