A Picture Worth a Thousand Springs

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From Jane's World

In one corner of the living room, three cats are lounging on separate high-rise pads of a monstrous cat tower that blocks the door leading to the deck. A fourth cat is stretched out in one of the condos, his head hanging out one side and tail out the other.

In the middle of the room sits an old-fashioned wooden crib that contains a black heavy-duty plastic tub. Above the screens placed on top of this contraption hangs a red heat lamp. Inside the tub six ducklings are making a mess of their water, scrambling back and forth, and talking in rapid, high-pitched mini-quacks.

Two sluggish dogs sprawl on the couch next to the ducklings' home. I’m in my office because there is simply nowhere else to sit.

Outside, robins and juncos eagerly pick at the seed I threw out for them. Little Bitty, my only flying duck, stands in slush, dining on more seeds. The wind is whipping, blowing shingles across the yard. The donkeys' heads peek timidly out of their three-sided shelter. The goats and pig aren’t visible, telling me that they are snuggled down inside the goat palace. But the rest of the adult ducks are splashing around in the swollen creek, oblivious to the horrid weather, having a ball.

Beyond the creek is snow, and if you look carefully you’ll see the purple buds of skunk cabbage desperately trying to heat the ground around themselves, ready to pop up and see some sun.

Springtime.

The snake shed is down from a hundred bales of hay to eight. The woodshed is bare except for a few stray logs too hard to split, and a handful of misshapen ones that I can’t fit into my wood stove. The LP tank reads 15 percent.

My rubber boots lying by the door, next to my snow boots, are covered in dry mud. On the wall nearest the door hangs an assortment of jackets for rain and snow, and a lighter-weight springtime jacket. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've worn the latter one this year.

Conversations these days range from the current weather to previous weather to tomorrow's weather. People are ornery, anxious to move on from one season to the next.

Wisconsin.

Trying to get an early start on spring cleaning, I rented a dumpster last week and quickly filled it to its brim with junk from my basement. I took a load of old tires, appliances, and computer parts to the recycling center. I picked up sticks strewn about by the winter snow and winds, and gathered all the containers that Téte, the plastic-loving hound, had carried all over the yard and abandoned. Then I collected the stems from my pet pig Louisa’s autumn pumpkin-eating frenzy and took them to the compost pile along with wheelbarrows full of soiled animal bedding.

Indoors, my kitchen cabinets and drawers have been cleaned, rugs all washed, and walls sponged free of the dust from burning wood. And the hordes of Asian beetles that were overtaking my home throughout the winter and anytime the sun decided to shine have been vacuumed up, for now.

Life.

Many springs have sprung before this one of 2018 that we are all impatiently awaiting. My photographs of years past show pictures of spring beauties, bluebells, and Dutchman's breeches, none of which I would find in the woods today if I were to brave the freezing winds or dig down through the snow. It’s the time of year when we should be smelling the dampness of the earth after a light rain that will make the morels pop, but instead we are nestled in our homes, stranded due to snow-covered roads.

I’ve resigned myself to reading, writing, playing with the ducklings, and working. Today I’m doing a lot of sitting, looking out the windows, wondering if spring will ever come.

I’m trying to imagine the flowers, straining through the hard dirt; the mushrooms’ vast networks beneath the ground, calling out to each other with hope. I’m envisioning the woodpeckers tat-a-tat-tatting on my feeder and the last of the snow and ice melting. I’m convincing myself that all the baby calves, lambs, and foals are being kept warm by their mamas.

Springtime in Wisconsin is all about life. But this year it feels like we're waiting a lifetime for spring to arrive.

Originally Published April 19th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Date Night

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From Jane's World

All day Friday I was excited about my upcoming date night with Dane. He was taking me to a concert in Viroqua and I had devised a plan. Nothing outrageous or weird—I was simply going to get all dolled up and knock his socks off.

I don’t have a knack for matching jewelry, or even matching socks, but I was going to do my best to look my best. I’ve been diligently counting my calories and taking the dogs for long hikes after my long days of work, and I felt I was looking better. 

My plan was to finish work early, take care of all the animals, treat myself to a luxurious bath with a moisturizing mask on my face, and then proceed with the dolling up.

Once home, I got busy. I scooped two cups of Epsom salt out of my 50-pound bag, threw it into the tub and added my favorite oil until the surface looked like a Gulf oil spill. I pulled on my aqua-colored terrycloth headband and smoothed the blue moisturizing mask all over my face. But I slid too quickly into the tub, causing me to come up spitting out blue gunk. The mask had gotten into both of my eyes, making them itch and burn. I jumped from the tub, grabbed a towel and wiped my eyes until the stinging subsided. Back in the tub I placed a warm washcloth on my chest, took one long deep breath, and exhaled slowly as I carefully sank back into the water up to my shoulders and closed my eyes.

Immediately Money Butt, my sleek, black, water-loving cat, hopped up onto the tub’s edge and started pawing the water and meowing. Before I could open my eyes fully, Monkey took a leap and landed on the washcloth on my chest. Uff da! This was not relaxing. I shooed Monkey away, got out of the tub, shut the bathroom door, turned off the light and slid carefully back into the oily water, catching myself before I started spewing blue again.

I awoke with my mouth hanging open, drool slipping down my chin, mixing with the blue stuff. Worried about how long I’d slept I got out of the tub, taking care not to slip on all that oil, and began to towel off.

“Hello, hello!?” Darn, Dane was already here, yelling for me. I pushed open the door a crack and answered in my fake non-crabby voice, “I’m in here. I’ll be ready in a minute.” Now the race was on. I rinsed and patted my face dry, rubbed in a mountain of face cream, combed my hair and began to blow-dry it with my head hanging down, because I once saw in a magazine at the laundromat that doing so would give my hair lift and body. 

When I finished, I needed to re-wet my hair because it was standing straight up like a troll doll’s. I applied my go-to favorite makeup—mascara—and tried out my newly learned technique of making my eyebrows great again. Then I slathered my legs, stomach, and arms with coconut oil while Finn, my rat terrier mix, tried to lick it off. 

Almost done, I put on a clean pair of evening blue underwear, my new Darn Tough hiking socks, a fresh pair of blue jeans straight from the dryer, and my one and only good top. I finished off with my boots, a pair of silver hoop earrings, and a touch of color on my lips, and exited the bathroom.

Dane was sound asleep on the couch with Téte, my black nothing-but-a-hound dog at his feet, and Finn on his chest in a coconut oil induced coma. 

“How do I look? Can you tell I’m losing weight?” 

Dane struggled to wake up, then looked at me, looked again, and looked at me some more. “No.” 

With the animals all taken care of, wood in the stove, and Dane wide awake, we headed for the car. Dane looked over at me and said, “You look nice tonight.” I smiled an honest-to-goodness smile and we headed to town.

Standing in line waiting for the doors to open, I was thrilled to see a new gal from one of my classes behind me, and another gal who works out with me behind her. After introductions, my left hand brushed my leg and felt something big and hard there. Sweet mother of pearl, a growth?! “Feel this,” I said to my workout buddy. She looked confused but I grabbed her hand and ran it over the mass on my leg. Next I grabbed Dane’s hand and gave him a feel. 

I hurried to the door with Dane following and we marched across the street to his car. I opened the car door and, standing just inside it while Dane covered for me, I unzipped my pants and pulled them down far enough to see the growth. Out popped a couple pairs of wadded up underwear. 

Back inside the theater, I showed my workout friend the undies that moments ago were a malignant growth and said loudly, “I told Dane we shouldn’t have stopped to make out on the way here!” 

Later, as we drove home after the concert, I reached for Dane’s hand and held it all the way home. I love date nights and Dane, but getting dolled up is just a little too stressful for me.

Originally Published April 12th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Finnegan’s Springtime Guide by Jane Schmidt

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Jane Schmidt’s newest children’s book, Finnegan’s Springtime Guide, once again features her rat-terrier-mix buddy Finnegan as narrator. He invites the children on a search for spring and helps them discover bluebells, morels, spring beauties, turkey vultures, sandhill cranes, and more. Finn encourages the children to use their senses—look for bloodroots, smell skunk cabbage, and listen for spring peepers. The book includes a “Now You Know” section of interesting facts about each discovery, a glossary, and some pages on which children can write their own field notes.

Finnegan’s Springtime Guide is a full-color book with photographs taken locally by the author in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. “It’s an interactive book,” says Schmidt, “that inspires children to get outside and explore nature.”

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Schmidt, owner-operator of Fitness Choices, has touched many people, both participants in her workouts and readers of her award-winning newspaper column, “Jane’s World,” with her gift for telling a good story. Following on the success of her 2016 book, Not a Perfect Fit: Stories from Jane’s World, published by She Writes Press, Jane published a delightful book for children in 2017, Finnegan’s Superior Adventure, in which Finnegan recounts a trip on the Superior Hiking Trail with his Grandma Riley (aka Jane). Schmidt plans to complete a series of six children’s books that encourage children to enjoy the great outdoors—although she mentioned that her other dog, Téte, is longing to be featured in a book!

For more information about Finnegan’s Springtime Guide please contact Jane Schmidt at 608-625-6230 or jane@janesfitnesschoices.com.

Locally books can be purchased at the Viroqua Food coop and at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

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He’s Not a Rat, He’s My Brother

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From Jane's World

“Finnegan! Finn-egan! FINN-AGAIN!” That annoying dinky rat, Finnegan. If I hear another word about that mutt of a brother, who’s not even as big as my head, I’m gonna run away and never come home.

Today I was out sitting on my wicker chair on the front porch, protecting our homestead from six in the morning till Ma got home at three this afternoon, while that lazy dog was inside sleeping away the day on Ma’s couch. Her new couch!

Around 1:30 p.m. the ducks ran up from the creek, the donkeys started braying, and the geese began honking. I jumped out of my chair and ran full-speed around the house, into the backyard. Sure enough, one of those lone, hefty, lean dogs with the bushy tail, the color of dirt, was out there. Ma calls them coyotes. I call them a nuisance. I barked my deepest, scariest bark and charged straight at it. The darn thing was unfazed, just turned its head and sauntered slowly away. But thanks to me, Wily the Coyote (that’s what Ma calls him) didn’t help himself to a duck dinner.

When Ma came home I met her at the car, eager to tell her all about it. I jumped up on her with my two front paws, wagging my tail like a kid would a sparkler on the 4th of July. But she said, “Down, Téte,” and kept on walking toward the house. I followed her inside, and what was the first thing she did? Bent down as Finnegan, for the first time all day, hopped off the couch and trotted out to greet her. 

“Hey, Finny-winny doogles, how’s my big boy today?”

“Hi Mommy, I missed you. Hug me! Pet me! Oh Mommy, I love it when you come home!”

I swear all that sweetness is going to give me cavities! 

The dang dog is nothing but a half-pint actor with short, stiff, worthless hair. Ma never even has to brush him. His hair is so thin I can see his pink belly through it. “Thin-skinned rat-terror” is what I call him when Ma can’t hear me.

Now, my fur is thick and full, with a layer of insulation underneath that allows me to enjoy winter on even the coldest days. Finn has to wear a stupid jacket! And in summer, after we go swimming, I shake once or twice and I’m good to go. Finnegan shivers like a baby. But still, Prince Finn is all I ever hear about.

And it’s getting worse.

Last summer, while I was busy overseeing our flood-worn property and all of Ma’s other high-maintenance critters, Ma kept asking Finnegan to work with her on a new children’s book. The brat wouldn’t do a thing until she bribed him with his favorite peanut-butter-filled bones. How he finally got it done is beyond me. I think Ma helped a lot, but if I tease him and say so, he starts to sniffle and whine, and Ma tells me to stop because Finn’s “sensitive.” More like senseless! The day before last, when Ma wasn’t looking, I saw him chasing the cats.

His new book is a Guide to Springtime that helps children search for signs of spring in the woods, in their yards, and at parks. As if he was some expert! Last time we went to the woods, I was the one who noticed the garter snake sunning. I’m the one who usually hears the cranes first. And when we spied the bluebell fields, Finn ran right through them, crushing those beautiful flowers. Not too bright, I’d say; even I knew not to do that.

Soon I’ll have to watch Ma and Finn drive away without me almost every week. They’ll go to schools and libraries, and the children will feed him peanut-butter bones and ask for his autograph. I’ll be here working, all alone. 

When they come home again, I’ll lie in my chair on the porch and won’t get up to greet them—in fact, I won’t even lift my head. I’ll be like, “Oh, look what the wind blew in. Big stinking deal.”

But I’ll be the first one laughing my tail off when Ma throws Finnegan into the tub for a bath before each of their trips. Ha ha! Finnegan will come out looking like the undersized wet rat he is. He’ll race all around the house, end up on Ma’s new couch, and roll all over it like he’s having a seizure. And Ma will yell at the little-bitty fool for his craziness.

There’s really nothing I can do but put up with all the attention Finn will be getting. I mean, he is my kid brother, after all, and I do kinda love him. When we go to the woods he follows me all around, and Ma has told me more than once that he adores me. She thinks I should set a good example for him, and tells me that Finn looks up to me and would be lost without me. I guess that means I shouldn’t run away from home like I was planning.

Last night, before Ma went upstairs to bed, she stopped and sat next to me on the couch. She rubbed my ears just the way I like and whispered, “Goodnight, Téte. Mamma loves you very much. Thank you for all you do, sweet girl. I don’t know what we’d do without you.” And just as I started to tear up, Finn stood on his hind legs and licked my eyes with his soft pink tongue, like he always does. I put my head down on my front paws and started drifting off to sleep.

When Ma started walking up the steps, Finn at her heels, I opened one eye and watched, and I whispered back, “I love you, Ma—and you too, Finn-again.” I slept soundly and dreamt of writing my own book, called Téte the Terrific Dog.

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Originally Published March 29th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Life as a Claustrophobe

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From Jane's World

There’s no avoiding it. I have to walk into the church room full of women and take off my jacket. After all, it’s an exercise class, I’m the teacher, and the ladies are waiting for me.

I open the door, struggling with the handle while trying to hang on to three bags containing yellow, green and blue exercise bands. In my other hand are two mesh bags filled with small blue exercise balls.

The wind whips into the room with me, and a few of the ladies jump up to grab the equipment and start handing it out. Now that my arms are empty it’s obvious that my black winter jacket is wide open except for the bottom inch, which remains closed.

Walking to the front of the room, knowing I’m being watched, I slip my arms out of the sleeves and scooch my jacket down my body to the floor. With precision I pick up first one foot and then the other, stepping over and out of the jacket, taking care not to trip. I toss the jacket onto a table and turn to say hello. The ladies are staring at me slack-jawed.

While we start our warm-up exercises, one of the ladies asks, “That a new way to take your jacket off?” I shrug and reply that the zipper broke earlier in the day. I go on to say I tried everything but the darn zipper won’t budge. The class moves right along, as does a lively conversation about zippers. Seems everyone has a particular way of repairing an unruly one.

After class, as I gather up the balls and bands, I notice a group of gals swarming over my jacket. But this is no time for repairs. My next class is eight miles down the road and I need to skedaddle if I’m going to be on time. The zipper remains stuck and I wriggle my way back into the jacket.

A short while later I’m in another church room full of women, and once again I step out of my jacket, imagining this is how a butterfly breaking free from its cocoon must feel. The women all stare. I explain about my zipper. The workout begins, and sure enough, the conversation centers on Zipper Repair 101 and continues until I share the following story with them.

I was sheep-sitting in Ferryville one winter, and in a phone call with my mom I must have mentioned the early morning chores and the freezing weather. Before Christmas a packaged arrived with a card from her saying, “Stay warm, honey. Love you, Mom.” Inside the box was a red down-filled jacket. It was a little too snug but it kept me warm, and I started wearing it to do chores.

Three mornings later, after completing my chores, I couldn’t get the zipper to unzip. Worse, I had pulled it as high up on my neck as it could go.

I paced from the kitchen to the living room in the jacket’s tight embrace. I tried to remain calm. I forced myself to inhale to the count of four and exhale to a count of six while desperately tugging on the zipper, trying to get it to move even an inch to give my throat more room.

My upper body started breaking out in a rash and sweat began pooling on my forehead and under my arms. My face was flushed, my heart rate accelerating. Meanwhile, none of my fumbling with the zipper was helping.

I felt like I was being buried alive in a too-short coffin that was pressing my nose down into my panic-stricken face. Certain I was close to dying, I grabbed a pair of scissors and, holding the bottom of the jacket taut with my left hand, I starting cutting my new jacket open alongside the zipper.

I cut all the way up to the neck, not stopping until the thin material fell from my body in a heap, releasing a blizzard of tiny, fluffy feathers into the room.

Weeks later, my mom called and asked how I liked the jacket. I told her I loved it. I had, for three full days.

Before the people who owned the farm returned home I vacuumed a thousand times. Still, they probably wondered if I’d butchered ducks in their house that winter.

The class ends and I manage to squirm back into my jacket. To my horror, a gaggle of women approach me and start fussing with the zipper. I keep saying, “Just leave it, I’ll fix it when I get home.” But they all have their hands somewhere on the jacket, pulling and pushing and maneuvering until zzzip! The zipper pull breaks free and beelines up to my chin with one of the ladies’ fingers still holding it.

Panic kicks in and I beg, “Please get it down—please!” They tell me to stop fidgeting, but I’m on the verge of freaking out.

Finally, in the nick of time, the zipper skips down to near the bottom of my jacket. I rush out into the cold, my jacket flaring open, my bags of equipment flopping in the chilly wind, seeking the safety of my car.

Driving home, I’m picturing exactly where I keep my sharpest scissors.

Originally Published March 22nd, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Trapped!

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From Jane's World

Maybe it’s the weather—cold one day, wet the next—that affects the deadbolt on my front door. After all, I’ve heard plenty of people moaning about their throbbing joints. 

On and off all winter that deadbolt has been finicky. Some days it opens easily, other days it takes a lot of fiddling, whining, and swearing before it loosens and opens.

I’m claustrophobic, so getting trapped never appeals to me. Knowing I have the entire house, a telephone on which I can dial 911, and windows I could break to get out if necessary, I am less hysterical than I would be if I were stuck in a dark elevator. But still, the tension is unsettling.

No amount of WD-40, nor kicking the door, has helped. 

You might be thinking, “Just use the back door.” Great idea—but after my recent visit to a pet store in La Crosse, this is easier said than done.

I was there looking at cat towers when a lady sidled up to me, cupped her hand over her mouth, and whispered, “Chewy dot com,” then started walking away. I yelled, “Wait!” 

At first I thought she must work there; then I thought she was just a crazy cat lady who’d had too many whiffs of catnip. Soon I discovered she was simply a customer who didn’t want to see me pay an exorbitant price for something she knew I could get for less.

I hastily made my other animal purchases and headed for home, where I soon went exploring on Chewy.com.

When Dane came over a few days later, I mentioned that devil of a deadbolt. He’d heard me complain about that sticky lock all winter long and decided to have a look at it. While he was messing with the lock he spied a large box on my porch and went outside to investigate. 

Dane bent down, grabbed the box as if to lift it, and pitched forward, exclaiming, “What is in here?” 

“A cat tower!” I replied. As he staggered through the door with the heavy box, I explained my trip to the pet store, the whispering lady, and Chewy.

Deadbolt be damned. The cat tower had arrived! The lock could wait.

Dane immediately began assembling the tower. He wasn’t even halfway through screwing all the first-level pieces into the carpeted floorboard when he asked, “How big is this thing?”

“About this big, I think.” I raised my hand to my chest and added, “Seventy-two inches.”

I watched in amazement. Like a time-lapse film of an elm tree growing, the tower grew steadily from the floor to way above my head. My eyes widened as Dane screwed in piece after carpeted piece, with the end result featuring two deluxe clubhouses and three luxurious lounging pads.

The cranky deadbolt now completely forgotten, my biggest worry was where this cat palace would go. In a house that’s only 800 square feet and already full of furniture and whatnots, the choices were limited.

From the moment this Taj Mahal of cat towers was completed, my focus shifted to encouraging Farley, Monkey, Lorca, and Maurice to climb aboard and explore. I even placed Finnegan, my wiggly 15-pound rat terrier mix, in one of the clubhouses, but it wasn’t his thing.

Winter raged on, with snow and ice storms, some frigid below-zero weather, and days that fooled me into thinking it was spring. My cats loved their new tower; often I’d find all four of them sleeping peacefully on it. Finn spent much of his time as close to the wood stove as possible, with Téte nearby on the couch. 

Then suddenly, one Monday morning, I’ve overslept, I’m late for work, and I’m already feeling stressed. The first thing I do is grab Finn and carry him down the steep staircase (he walks up just fine but can’t seem to master coming down). Téte is right behind us, followed by all four cats. Our little parade ends abruptly at the door where the deadbolt halts us and, despite all my attempts, refuses to turn.

I’ve gotta pee, Finn’s gotta pee, and there are 10 other eyes right behind me belonging to critters who also need to get outside. Téte is barking, the cats are meowing, and Finn is doing his best “I’m holding it in” dance, but I can’t get the deadbolt lock to budge.

I look straight behind me to the glass back door that leads out to my deck, but all I can see is that enormous cat castle, standing in the only place it would fit, blocking our escape.

Yep—I’m trapped again!

Originally Published March 15th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Spring Fever or Foolishness

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From Jane's World

Doing chores after our ice storm last week was like walking a frayed tightrope. Every step had to be planned and precise.

Poor Diego and Carlos, my donkeys, couldn’t make it over to the fence where they usually get their morning hay. Carlos, bless his heart, kept trying. He’d place his perfect tiny hoofs delicately on the slick ice, his eyes focused downward. He’d stop to look up at me and make a soft guttural noise, as if to say, “I’m trying, Mom. I just can’t do it.”

My own progress was just as cautious. Step, slide. Step, slide. Stop. Step, slide, slip! Stop. I made it to the gate, carrying a flake of sweet-smelling hay.

Think. Lift one foot, crouch down on the other, seeking a firm stance on the frozen earth. One leg over the bottom wire. Concentrate. Both donkeys watched me, their heads lowered. Success! I made it over the fence, my confidence building.

I skated toward where the donkeys stood in trepidation. As I smiled they both lifted their heads and started pawing the ground, but they made no attempt to get closer.

I couldn’t quite reach them. I would have loved to stroke their soft ears, whispering, “It’s okay. It’s only ice and it will melt. Spring will come. I promise.”

I tossed the hay toward them. It landed on a patch of crusty, dirty snow.

Both donkeys sighed and started eating.

Today, a new morning, only a week later, I’m standing at my bay window watching Diego and Carlos play. At first, I didn’t even see them running, because their long, shaggy winter coats blend in with the dreary background. They’re romping in the back pasture across the creek, which is swollen with spring runoff.

No signs of snow or ice remain from last week’s storm. The sky is pale blue, cloudless, and the sun is brilliant. The trees stand bare, and the earth beneath them is thick with leaves and winter debris. Everything is dressed in shades of brown, gray, and dull green, reminding me of the camouflage that hunters wear.

The donkeys’ carefree antics pull me out of my work funk. Diego runs with his head lowered, repeatedly kicking out with both of his hind legs, as Carlos chases him. The kicks look powerful. Carlos seems to know just how close he can safely get. 

At the fence both donkeys turn, and now Diego chases Carlos. But Carlos does an amazing pivot, despite being winter chubby, and grabs Diego’s furry neck. He bites down and hangs on while they turn in circles. I’m feeling dizzy just watching. Diego tries to break loose, but Carlos won’t let go! Finally, either Diego cries uncle or Carlos gives in.

Diego lowers his ears and gallops away at full speed. His spring fever bray of happiness echoes through the valley. The sound reaches my ears, filling me with joy. Back and forth they go like two Energizer bunnies instead of the miniature Sicilian donkeys they are.

Spring has sprung. I told you so, I whisper, still standing by the window.

Their frolicking over, Diego collapses on the muddy ground. Soon I can almost hear him snoring. Carlos stands protectively over him, swaying gently in a standing snooze. Neither donkey needs to throw his head or switch his tail—it’s too early in the year for pesky flies.

Shoulders drooping, I drag myself back to my desk to finish my work. But first, giddy with spring fever, I decide to check the weather.

Snowstorm coming on Tuesday!

I hurry outside.

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Originally Published March 8th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

A Case For Cats

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From Jane's World

In early winter last year Newman, my green-eyed orange-colored cat, died, leaving behind Farley, my sweet-natured tabby. For weeks, Farley paced from room to room, looking for his lost buddy. He no longer wanted to go outside to play and his food dish was left full.

Farley needed a friend, and soon! I didn’t want to introduce an older cat because I’ve learned it’s hard to teach an old cat the trick of not disturbing the parakeets, ducks, geese, and even the dogs. I have one rule at my place: that we all, every species living here, must coexist peacefully. 

Off to the Driftless Humane Society I went with Dane, cat lover extraordinaire. Little did I know that Monkey Butt, a sleek, mostly black kitten who is now best friend to Farley, would bring so much joy to my household.

Farley and Monkey provided perfect entertainment on cold winter days. They would roll together on the living room floor, then jump up and chase each other from room to room, leaving the kitchen rugs in a tangle and braking at the wall, where each of them would hop up and dash in a different direction.

Coming home to find Monkey rushing to the door, asking me to pick him up and cuddle or to fill his bowl with food, made me forget any challenges I’d had navigating slippery roads as I drove home from work. I hadn’t had a new cat in my house for so long I’d forgotten how pleasant it could be. 

By the time my creek was rushing with melting snow from the nearby hills, two more kittens needing homes, Lorca and Maurice, had landed here. I now think of Monkey as a gateway drug to an all-natural kitty high.

A home with four boys roughhousing is often chaotic. My stairwell, going up to an attic bedroom, is a Friday evening drag race when we’re all home together. 

Monkey is in the lead, and here comes Maurice on the outside, but Farley takes a flying leap, knocks Maurice over the side and races back up the steps to win! Good thing Maurice lands on his feet. Lorca, the biggest cat, watches sleepily from the cat tower. I pick Maurice up to comfort him in his defeat and exclaim, “How did I end up with four cats!?”

But it doesn’t matter. I know they’re good for me. 

I read recently that owning a cat reduces my risk of heart attack or stroke by one-third. Imagine how much protection I get with four cats! Studies have also shown that cats can lower your blood pressure, reduce the stress hormone cortisol that acts like a time bomb in our bodies, and keep the doctor away. According to one study cat owners had far fewer doctor visits than non–cat owners. 

What the research fails to take into consideration, in my humble experienced opinion, is how many times cat owners like me have gotten up at night, only to step on their cat, making the critter scream like its tail is being cut off, causing us almost to have a heart attack on the spot. Still, I would agree my cats calm me most of the time. Just stroking their soft fur seems to make me breathe more slowly and deeply. I only wish they’d eat ticks.

Late one evening, when Dane and I were reading in the living room, we heard a commotion out in the kitchen. A rustling noise became louder and louder until a plastic bag with a tail at one end went flying through the living room and up the stairs. 

Dane hurried upstairs and found the bag hiding under my bed with Monkey’s tail still sticking out. It took a lot of sweet talking to get Monkey to come close enough so he could remove the bag. Poor Monkey was shaken up but otherwise unharmed. We had a good hard laugh, and I realized the people who do research on the benefits of owning a cat should add humor to the list. Hardly a day goes by where I’m not smiling or laughing over some cat antic.

As nutty as my cats can get, they also can be so quiet I don’t even know they are here. Half the time I’m walking around calling their names, wondering where they’re hiding—in Finnegan’s dog bed, sound asleep in the laundry basket, or inside the clubhouse on their cat tower. 

Cat haters around the county are probably thinking, Can’t she just say no to having yet another cat? News flash: I can now! Four is enough. If I couldn’t say no I’d be known as the valley’s crazy (but healthy!) cat lady by now. 

But where I live, I have the room, and I can afford to feed them, neuter them, and treat them for fleas and ticks. My house doesn’t smell bad, it’s clean enough, and I have tons of love to give. 

Many people might benefit from adopting a cat from our local shelters, which are full of cats who desperately want a forever home. Many are already neutered or spayed, they all know how to use a litter box, and they’re just waiting to brighten your day. After all, while owning a cat might keep the doctor away, I know it will chase away your winter blues!

I’ve hit my maximum cat limit but maybe there’s room in your home and in your heart for a feline friend. Contact the Humane Society of Crawford County, 608-648-2461, or Vernon County, 608-637-6955.

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Originally Published March 1st, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Mother, Daughter, and Louisa

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From Jane's World

 We were in my backyard on a windy, winter Sunday, nearing the end of our annual mother-daughter weekend. “Stand in the middle, over there,” I said to Jessica. “When I open the gate, Louisa and the goats will come running to you and you’ll get some great pictures.”

Jessica crouched with her camera and I swung open the gate. Peepers and Luna charged out and practically knocked her down, but there was no pig. “Louisa, come on!” I called. She always comes when called and would never miss an opportunity for snacks and a belly rub. “Something’s wrong!” I shouted as I rushed into the goat palace.

There was Louisa, lying on her side. I bent down and held a piece of banana in front of her. When she refused it, I knew she was sick—300 pounds of sick. She was shaking and wouldn’t stand up.

I yelled to Jessica, “Can you stay here with Louisa? I need to go call the vet.” Jessica knelt by Louisa’s head and talked to her while I ran to the house and started making phone calls.

I left a message for Dr. Jean, then sent a Facebook message to a veterinary friend. She responded, “Get her into the house immediately.”

I ran back outside, trying to imagine how we’d move this gigantic, lovable pig out of the goat palace, through the gate, up the hill, up four steps, and into my house.

“She’s shaking really hard, Mom,” Jessica whispered. I knelt down and rubbed my pet girl behind her ears, gently asking, “What is it, Louisa? What’s wrong?” Louisa managed a soft low grunt.

“Let’s set up the heat lamp, Jess. She’s shivering so hard, she must be cold or feverish.”

The goats had wandered back in, and while I ran to get the heat lamp Jessica shooed them out again to give Louisa some space. As I hurried back with the lamp a few minutes later I heard a loud commotion in the snake shed. The goats had gone in and buried their heads in the bin full of sweet grain, and Jessica was trying to get them out.

The heat lamp was on when Jessica came back in, her hair messed up and her hat on cattywampus, saying “Geez, those goats are naughty!” Just then a loud bang came from inside the duck hall. “Quick, Jessica, now they’re in the duck feed!"

I covered Louisa with two thick blankets and tucked them in tightly around her. To keep the bitter wind off her, I fetched a large piece of plywood from the duck hall, closing the door behind me so the sneaky goats couldn’t get back in. Once the board was in place, I left Jessica with Louisa and hurried back to the house to see if the vet had called back. This might be the only time I’ve wished for a smartphone and not just a landline.

My vet hadn’t called so I tried three others and finally connected with one. After listening to the whole story he recommended penicillin, specifying the dose, where to administer the shot, how often to give it to her, and what to do if there was no improvement.

I called Dane to tell him the pups and I wouldn’t be picking him up for our dog obedience class, then phoned my neighbors to see if they had any penicillin. I also messaged my vet friend on Facebook, telling her about the heat lamp, the blankets, and the wind block. She replied, “That’s not good enough. If you can’t get her into the house, you’ll need to get blankets under her.”

Under her? I groaned as I headed back outside. I urged Louisa to stand up but she grunted in protest. Her massive body was shivering so hard her blanket was moving back and forth on her. I draped myself over her to help her warm up, lying with my cheek on hers, my chest against her side. I apologized to Jessica, who needed to head home to Milwaukee soon.

Jessica went up to the house to shower and pack. Lying on top of Louisa, I drifted off and woke over an hour later, my feet numb from the cold. I got up to head back towards the house and met Jessica on her way down, just as Dane pulled into the driveway.

I told Dane that we needed to put Louisa on top of the blankets but that I couldn’t get her to budge. I led the way back to the goat palace where Louisa still lay shivering. Dane knelt and removed the blankets, then huffed and puffed as he tried to push her to one side. Finally he grabbed her and pulled her to a standing position as I scrunched the blankets into the spot where she’d been lying.

Louisa’s loud protests turned to indignation! The nerve of us, pushing and pulling and trying to maneuver her large, lardy body while she wasn’t feeling well. She stood and grunted, stomped her hooves, pushed past us, and waddled down the ramp, out into the pen. She was already munching on hay when my neighbors arrived with the penicillin. We stood and watched in amazement. Wasn’t this the pig that needed medicine ASAP?

Thrilled at Louisa’s recovery, my neighbors went home, Jessica left for Milwaukee, and Dane and I stayed to keep an eye on the her.

Later that evening, when Louisa and the goats were tucked into the goat palace with extra straw and the door securely closed, my vet called. I related the whole scene, start to finish, and her best guess was that Louisa had gotten wet and chilled in our recent unseasonable rain. When Dane was pushing and pulling her, she got mad and warmed right up!

Jessica never got the photo she wanted, but we’re glad Louisa is alive and will be here for next year’s mother-daughter weekend. Hopefully it won’t end as stressfully as this year’s did!

Originally Published February 22nd, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Adventures in Obedience

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From Jane's World

My two dogs run, leap, and chase each other through the snow as Dane and I labor to keep up. It’s a gorgeous, sunshine-filled winter day. I’ve been telling my pups about the obedience classes they’ll be taking for the next six weeks. I’ve read that if you tell your animals in advance what they’ll be doing and what’s expected of them, they’ll experience less anxiety.

“You’re going to learn new tricks, you’ll get tons of treats, and you’ll make lots of new friends!” Téte’s sideways glance oozes skepticism—been there, done that, not fun—but Finn, who has never attended an obedience class, looks interested. His little head cocks to one side, and his eyes widen at the mention of treats. Later that day the fun begins.

Lesson 1: I’m standing in a large gymnasium behind Téte, a jet-black mixed-breed dog with shiny fur and a brown Zorro mask. She’s stretched her leash to its limit, pulling my arm straight out from my shoulder socket to gain a few extra inches. My white-knuckled hand clenches the handle.

Téte is gazing across the room at Finnegan, who is also straining at his leash, held in check by Dane, whose arm is stretched as taut as mine. The two dogs reach toward each other like long-lost lovers, Téte’s large chocolate eyes looking almost teary.

Around the gym, dogs of all breeds sit calmly, eyes fixed on their owners, who appear to be holding their leashes loosely, arms relaxed by their sides.

Téte pulls harder and lets out something between a long, low howl and a deep, dark whine. Sinking to her haunches, she starts to crawl across the hard gymnasium floor like a woman dying of thirst toward a river. Her strength jerks me forward and my body lurches in a Frankenstein stride behind her.

My heart breaks for Téte but my face flushes in embarrassment as I’m dragged across the gym to Finn and Dane. Dane gives me a lopsided told-you-so smile. I half smile back as Harry, our instructor, grabs Téte’s leash from me. He marches her to the middle of the gym floor, where she turns and gives me an accusatory look that says as clearly as words, “Traitor!”

“This dog has separation anxiety,” Harry bellows. I meekly hold out my hand to reclaim her leash, thinking, Let’s not put a label on my dog, though I know darn well Harry’s right.

As class resumes, Téte sits and lies down when asked to, and I give her pieces of cheese to reward her good work. But she seems to keep one eye out for Harry and the other for Finn and Dane.

Meanwhile Finnegan, a rat terrier mix with hardly any fur and a perpetually pink belly, is growling and snapping his tiny razor-sharp teeth at every dog—all much larger—that comes within a few feet of him. Harry cautions Dane not to scold Finn for protecting his space: “This dog is saying ‘You’re too close,’ and that’s okay. That’s how other dogs know to stay away.”

It works. All the dogs and their owners stay far, far away from Finn, Téte, and Dane and me. So much for making new friends.

Lesson 2: Téte bounds out of the car, pulling me behind her. Finnegan is already “protecting his space,” yipping at the other dogs that are arriving. Inside, we take off our coats and head for opposite sides of the gym.

Once again, Téte obeys basic commands, but Finnegan isn’t doing nearly as well. When asked to sit, he squats, keeping his rear end an inch or two above the floor. Harry's young assistant takes an interest in Finn and gently places her hand on his hindquarters, says “Sit!” and gives a firm push toward the floor. In response, Finn stops squatting and stands instead. He wants the treat and listens to the endlessly patient gal, but despite all her attempts, his bottom keeps hovering when it should land.

Our next task is get our dogs to sit, stand, lie down, walk, and so on before giving them their treat. The idea is to master a series of commands instead of just one. Téte is doing great until another teen helper decides to intervene. After the hundredth “Sit, lie down, stand” without getting the piece of cheese that’s being held a quarter inch from her nose, Téte gives up and decides to find Finn and Dane again. She makes her belly-rubbing, haunches-up, Jane-dragging way across the floor to check in with our partners.

Harry spies us and advises me, “Don’t get mad at her. You’re not here to work on her separation anxiety. Let her check in and then take her back and work on her exercises.” Easier said than done, Mr. Harry, I think. Thankfully the class ends just then. Spared by the bell.

Lesson Three: Finn bounces out of the car with Dane holding his leash. As we walk to the door, greeting fellow classmates and their dogs, Finn starts gagging like a ham actor pretending to have swallowed poison. He’s so impatient to get inside, he’s choking himself on his leash. No doubt he has visions of cheese sticks dancing in his head. Téte, however, has planted her four paws into the sidewalk and wants no part of this fun I speak of.

Our first task today is to teach our dogs to come by calling their name once, then running backward with a beef jerky treat. This is a breeze for Téte, who snatches the treat as she zooms past while I fall on my buttocks. I scramble to my feet, worried that Master Harry will use me or Téte as an example again. Across the room, Dane is rewarding Finn, who has this exercise down pat.

We were told to bring a rug today, and now we’re instructed to lay it down near our dog. Finnegan is quick to learn that every time he obeys the command “Rug” he gets a treat. Téte is the only dog in the room that completely avoids touching her rug. Treat or no treat, she acts like it’s a land mine that I’m trying to get her to step on.

As the class ends Téte makes a beeline to the gymnasium door, eager to regain her freedom. Finnegan is still ready to sit, stand, walk, come, lie on the rug—anything for more cheese. On the drive home both dogs sprawl in the back seat, exhausted.

Graduation day can’t come soon enough for Dane and me. We come home pooped from the lessons too. Learning to obey is hard work for all of us!

Originally Published February 15th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout