Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Quiet, Happy Life of August the First

The Quiet, Happy Life of August I

The kingdom of August I is dominated by water. The mushroom-shaped swimming pool, though small by pool standards, occupies perhaps two-thirds of the backyard. August I, who is a handsome silver-grey rabbit, does not seem to mind the pool. He prefers the corners of the yard, the low-lying bushes that ring the lawn, and the unkempt side yards, where tools and weeds comingle in an ironic alliance. Mornings and evenings, August I appears in the middle of the lawn, surveying his domain and letting those who care know that all is well. A hutch, stocked with food and water, sits on the concrete patio.

August I may be the lord of his realm, but he is no fancy-pants bunny. He has a large face, with dark, expressive eyes. His ears suggest that his momma or his daddy, but not both, was a lop-eared rabbit. August’s feet are hilariously big, but they are his primary weapons of self-defense against predators or impudent subjects who hold him too long.

August I was born at Phillips Farm in Lodi and was subject to the humiliation of the farm’s petting zoo for the first few weeks of his life. But the bunnies at the farm are for sale, and we happened to be in the market for a rabbit when we met August I. I think I was working in the yard or maybe talking to a neighbor when the girls notified me that a rabbit and a rabbit cage were available for purchase from someone having a yard sale down at the duplexes on the end of our street. Though I was not entirely anti-rabbit (in fact, I’m an old hand with bunnies and rabbits), I refused to buy a used rabbit cage and a used rabbit. For one thing, the cage was really just an extra-large plastic hamster house—no place to raise a proper rabbit. And who wants to start with a full-sized rabbit? So I told the kids that we were not interested in the yard sale rabbit, but we could consider getting a new bunny and a real rabbit cage/hutch.

It’s not every father who knows the wisdom of putting a $5 bunny in a $45 cage. If I remember correctly, we started with the bunny. We knew from previous trips to Philips Farm that bunnies were regularly sold there at reasonable prices. Located in Lodi, Philips Farm, by the way, is home to Michael+David Winery, makers of the well-known Seven Deadly Zins and Seven Heavenly Chards. The farm features a bistro for trendy yet casual dining, a produce market, and a wine tasting bar—all under one roof. Out back, an interested visitor can buy a small bag of feed and then share that feed with various breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. The animals are separated by species into shelters and pens, and many of the smaller ones are for sale.

When the kids decided it was time to add a rabbit to the list of our attempted pets, they and I and cousins, Alyssa and Kristen, piled into my truck and headed north to Lodi and Philips Farm. It was a hot summer day, and the animals at the petting zoo were feeling the heat, but one lucky little bunny got a ride home in an air-conditioned Dodge pickup. On the way home, the conversation centered around two themes: (1) we actually got a bunny (!), and (2) we need to think of a name for our bunny. The pet-naming process is familiar to all parents. We suggest clever, subtle names (Mildred, Bonnie, Saddam, etc.) that will serve the animal well for his or her short or long life, whichever the case may be. And then the kids give the animal a name like Tiger or Angel. In fact, we had a series of ill-fated kittens, hamsters, and fish, named either Tiger or Angel. We tossed around some obvious choices (Bugs, Stu, Thumper), and some unusual ideas like “Summer.” At some point, I received a revelation, and I suggested we name him (I was reasonably sure we were dealing with a he) “August the First.” Why August I? Because that was the date we brought him home from the farm. Besides, we could call him Auggie (which is fun) or Gus (which is just plain cool). So August I was victorious, and we set out to secure a proper dwelling place for our mild hare.

* * *

Modesto Feeds is located out on McHenry Avenue, north of town and Kiernan Avenue, in a building that hasn’t changed much since I was kid. I had not been in the feed store for many, many years, but I was confident we would find what we needed for our new bunny, Gus. I admit that when you enter the feed store you breathe in a bit of dust and notice the fowl odor coming from the back where chicks and ducklings live until they are purchased. But you also smell leather and alfalfa, corn, and other grains. At the front of the store there are display racks full of large sacks (40-50 lbs) of dog and cat food. A large tabby cat usually can be found lying among these sacks, and she will come to you if you talk to her. Beyond the racks, an ancient counter and office area extend from the right-hand wall past the middle of the floor, leaving a generous aisle on the left to provide access to the back of the store. Back there, the chicks and ducklings are on the right. Larger birds live in cages, while the chicks live in a galvanized livestock water trough on the floor. Bulk feeds (rabbit, chicken, pig, lamb) are kept in wooden bins built on to the left wall. These feeds take many shapes, colors, and textures, and they contribute greatly to the complex aroma that greets customers when they enter the building. The rabbit feed happens to be shaped into pellets, and because they are made up of alfalfa (primarily) the pellets are a deep green color. When you want feed, you just tell the owner, Tom, what you need, say ten pounds of rabbit pellets (I don’t actually know that his name is Tom. He seems like a Tom.) He scoops the pellets onto an old-fashioned hanging scale, measures out the right amount, pours the pellets into a bag, tapes it up, and charges me $3.50. I always choose to make the five-mile drive to Modesto Feeds to get Gus his food, rather than go to the Target or Pet Smart around the block from our house. I could say that the reason is that ten pounds of rabbit food at those other stores would cost about $20, but mostly it’s because I love going to the feed store.

On the day we brought Gus home from the farm, I took the kids to the feed store, and we found that Tom offered a number of wire cages, built locally by a local guy, in a variety of sizes. These cages were stacked on the top of shelves around the store, and we soon found one that was suitable for a single grey rabbit. When my brother and I raised rabbits, we built the cages ourselves. We could make a line of connected wire cages, using materials purchased from a fencing supply outfit and special tool that crimped a connecting joint around the corners. Our cages, unlike the one we bought for Gus, didn’t have an attached but detachable tray beneath the floor of the cage. We let the waste fall to the cement floor of our old barn. The waste tray is the key difference between a real rabbit cage and the things they sell at the pet store. I could go into even more detail, but just trust me.

We can assume that the first few days, weeks, and maybe even months of August’s life with the Schmidt family were filled with excitement, as he met the neighbors, the relatives, and our other pets. Gus was held often, in the house and in the backyard. And he was frequently allowed to run around the backyard, though our concern for his whereabouts and his safety led us to buy a silly rabbit harness and leash set up from the pet store. In those early days, Gus proved to be about as amiable as anyone could expect a rabbit to be. When we brought him into the house, he typically sat on a lap, with an old towel between him and the lap. Sometimes we put him on the floor to run around freely, and he rarely made any unwanted deposits on the carpet. Mostly, he just hung out in a tight corner, though occasionally he might interact with one of the other pets (two cats, one dog).

* * * *

As Gus grew into a rabbit and the family got used to having him around, the giddy days of our bunny honeymoon dissipated into our typical pet dynamic: Dad takes care of the animal. I fill the water bottle and the feeder that hang on opposite sides of the wire cage, and I clean out the poop tray. Occasionally, I can get the girls, or one of them, to do the dirty work, which really isn’t so dirty, but for several years now it’s been just Gus and me. When I take care of his needs, I try to talk to him and pet him because I don’t want him to become anti-social. During the nicer months, Gus’s place is on the back patio, in his cage. Then I move him to the garage when it gets cold and foggy outside. In the 100-degree heat of summer, Gus often gets moved inside to the air-conditioned comfort of the house. And to his credit, Gus has never uttered a word of complaint about his solitary life in solitary confinement.

I have often worried, though, that Gus might decide that he has had enough of his lonely life and go on a killing spree. Then the television cameras would be pointed at me, provided I survive the carnage, and I would have no choice but to say, “Well, he was real quiet, always kept to hisself. And he never give nobody no trouble a’tall.” So I talked nicely to him and tried to get the rest of the family to pay a little attention to Gus. Our course of inaction continued for little awhile, perhaps three years. My wife, Paula, was less concerned about what I would describe as Gus’s looming or imminent rabbit rage. Nonetheless, she was the strongest advocate for a radical new approach to our rabbit keeping. Often, when I suggested that someone take Gus out of his cage and give him some attention, Paula would say “why don’t you turn him loose. Let him run free awhile.” And sometimes I would. But a crafty rabbit like Gus is not all that easy to catch in open territory, especially after he’s been out for a few hours. I blocked the side yards, so Gus couldn’t find a tight spot where I couldn’t get him when it was time to go back in the cage. I also tried to keep track of his whereabouts, in case he might try to find an open spot in the fence. I’m sure Gus enjoyed these temporary excursions into the great wide yard, but they didn’t happen that often. And they really didn’t prepare him for the change that Mrs. Schmidt had in store for him.

My lovely wife, despite her many fine attributes, has had no real-world rabbit wrangling experience, so as a rule I try to ignore any rabbit-related input from her. For instance, when she cleans old food out of the refrigerator, Paula likes to ask, “I wonder if Gus would eat it?” In my head (but not aloud), I respond, “Do you think he is a goat?” And I tell Gus he doesn’t have to eat the apples, tomatoes, squash, etc. that gets put in his cage. Earlier this year, Paula began campaigning for the release of Gus. In response to my concern about keeping track of Gus when we let him out into the yard, she argued that he should just be given free reign of the back yard. On her side of the argument, Paula pointed out that Gus would be happy and healthy and would require less upkeep. I, on the other hand, noted that he would be a nice, juicy target for the hawks that frequent the tall evergreen trees in our neighborhood. Paula countered that her sister, Tracy, let their rabbit run freely in their backyard. While I had to concede that the Huberts’ current rabbit, Otis, is a well-adjusted and personable bunny, their pet track record is littered with the carcasses of doomed dogs, cats, hamsters, and even bunnies and haunted by the ghosts of long-lost four-legged family friends. In fact, the Huberts’ previous rabbit, Stu (or maybe it was Stew), enjoyed the wide world so much, he took advantage of an open gate and was seen and heard no more. Oh, sure, there were alleged Stu sightings around town and rumors of a renegade rabbit living on the edge in east Modesto. Frankly, I didn’t want Gus to become an urban legend.

The truth is, given the opportunity, even the mildest bunny can be a wild hare, and then it’s sayonara.

Finally, though, I looked deeply into Gus’s marble-like eyes, and I knew he wanted to taste the glory (to see what it tastes like). August I was set free, within the confines of our back yard, early last summer. And I will be the first to admit that Gus has reigned peacefully and happily and almost incident-free in his domain ever since. In the summer months we saw him mostly in the cool of the morning and evening. Now that winter is upon us, he seems bolder, but maybe it’s just a matter of ambient temperature. He has developed habits: at night, when we sit in the spa (which is located a few feet from is cage), he comes into his cage to eat and drink. And he still uses the cage to answer nature’s call—instead of using the nature around him. Actually, there’s spot on the side yard, where the quad trailer sits, that also serves his needs.

Occasionally, we rein in August’s free reign. During a recent cold snap, I caught Gus and brought him and his cage in the house. Just the other day, the girls saw that he was sitting out in the rain, so they caught him and put him in his little house. If I work in the back yard, I have to be careful not to leave a gate and or the side garage door open. But when I open the big gate to move the trailer in and out, Gus has to be caught and secured because he has already made an attempt to light out for the territory. When Grandpa Ernie visited at Thanksgiving and brought Emily her styling 1994 wagon, he thought he would put the trailer away, so he opened the big side gate. Now, I was not home at the time so no one thought about Gus. But I can guarantee you that when he hopped out into the front yard, everyone was thinking about him and how to get him back to his back yard kingdom. Somehow, Gus was convinced to retreat to a safer place, and Grandpa decided to wait for the rabbit wrangler to return home.

* * * *

Aside from his one sojourn into the front yard flowerbed, August I has conducted his affairs with grace and class. All creatures, human and otherwise, appreciate his regal bearing, and his admirers often refer to him as a rabbit you can depend on (this rabbit is no tiger). And yet August eschews the limelight and resists the label of “role model.” In fact, when I have suggested to August that he’s a hero to his followers, he looks at me like we’re speaking different languages—which leads me to conclude that August I is a rabbit who simply chooses to lead by example.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I dropped off the kids at a Habitat for Humanity project a few streets off MLK drive. Lisa was there with her kids. I decided to drive further south, where MLK reverts back to Sutter, and check Granny and Granddad’s old street, Faustina. Faustina was in the paper the other day. It’s in an unincorporated area, maybe the worst in town. Like everybody always says, the house, the yard, and the driveway seem so much smaller. The squalor is irrelevant, except when I think of how many nice photos were taken in that front yard.

Aunt Vonnell always tells me how proud Granny would be of the things I’ve done. I think she’d be happy for me, certainly, but the proud part wouldn’t depend on any accomplishments. Mostly what I remember about her was how she accepted people. And let them be.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Argument

Today, I saw a gray-bearded man in a dirty plaid red flannel jacket
And old tennis shoes
Having a spirited, heated even, conversation with a telephone pole.