Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Dear Spike:

Wow. That was a lot of vomit.



Dear Spike:

It's flu season — and you, your mother and I all came down with the ugly bug over the weekend.

Here's a few good ways to know that you're really sick:

1) You rush into the bathroom, but can't decide which way to approach the toilet.
2) The taste of water makes you gag.
3) After a few days away, you're actually looking forward to getting back to work. 
4) You look at yourself in them mirror and think, "who is that corpse?" 

We're all recovering now, but I'm seriously considering moving somewhere where there aren't so many viruses.

Like Antarctica.



Thursday, September 25, 2008


Dear Spike:

I'm still not exactly sure how it happened, but something — likely a raccoon — got into the chicken coop last night.

Bubba and The Colonel are dead. Wanda is hurt pretty bad, and we'll have to put her down today.

I'll spare you the details. Life's just unfair sometimes. Sometimes, that's all you need to say. And sometimes that's all you can say. 

You're mother's pretty upset. About the birds we've lost and about the daughter who, when she wakes up later this morning, is going to be asking to go feed the chickens — "chick-ahn, chick-ahn" – like she always does.

You won't understand. Heck, I'm 30 years your senior and sometimes I don't understand. That's life. And death.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Dear Spike:

You've learned a song.

It goes: "Tick tock, tick tock, I'm a little cuckoo clock."

For now, all you know is the "tick tock" part, but it's nonetheless certifiably adorable, particularly when you rock back and forth as you sing.



Sunday, September 21, 2008


Dear Spike:

You took a big step toward being a big kid today.

Two steps, actually — first the right one and then the left one...

... into a pair of skivvies.

Sure, someday you're going to score the championship-winning goal in the World Cup, win the Nobel Prize for peace and science (in the same year,) and solve the Rubik's cube in under 7.08 seconds.

But today, I can't imagine ever being prouder.


Thursday, September 18, 2008


Dear Spike:

For a while now, we've been letting you watch "Bob the Builder" videos, usually in the early afternoons when you're getting restless, I'm trying to get some work done, and your mother is not quite home from school.

But it seems that in addition to your little milk problem,  you've developed a significant case of Bobaholism.

As in: 

Spike's Dad: "What's your name?"
Spike: "Bob."    
Spike's Dad: "No, your name is not Bob."
Spike: "Bob."
Spike's Dad: "I'll give you a hint, your name starts with a..."
Spike: "Bob."
Spike's Dad: "That's not even a letter."
Spike: "Bob. Bob. Bob."
Spike's Dad: "If I let you watch Bob, will you stop saying Bob?"
Spike: (Nods solemnly.)
Spike's Dad: "You promise?"
Spike: (Eyes wide. Continues to nod solemnly.)
Spike's Dad: "OK. But just one episode."
Spike: (chin trembling.)
Spike's Dad: "Don't do that."
Spike: (chin trembling.)
Spike's Dad: "Oh please don't do that."
Spike: "Bob Bob?"
Spike's Dad: "No, just one Bob."
Spike: "Bob. Bob. Bob?"
Spike's Dad: "No. No. No." 
Spike: "Bob. Bob. Bob, Bob, Bob!"
Spike's Dad: "OK. Forget it. No Bob."
Spike: (chin trembling) "No Bob?"
Spike's Dad: "Don't do that."
Spike: "Love-oo daddy?"
Spike's Dad: "That's not fair."
Spike: "Love-oo! Love-oo daddy!"
Spike's Dad: "That's SO not fair."
Spike: "Love-oo daddy... ... ... ... Bob?"

This afternoon your Auntie Sue came over to watch you while your mother was in a night class. I showed her where your food was, where your toys were and, finally, where the computer was hidden...

Spike's Dad: Here's the computer. If she get crabby and there's just nothing else that works, feel free to put on a B--O--B video.
Spike: Bob!?
Auntie Sue: She can spell?
Spike's Dad: (sighs) Um, apparently so.
Spike: (proudly) Bob! Bob! Bob, Bob, Bob!


P.S. — You mother just now...
Spike's Mom: (reading over Spike's Dad's shoulder) "She did not say 'Love-oo Daddy,' did she?" 
Spike's Dad: (unhappily) "Yes. As a matter of fact she did."
Spike's Mom: (laughing) "She said that just to get her way?"
Spike's Dad: "Yes. And I'm adding a new word to label the blog posts..."
Spike's Mom: "What?"
Spike's Dad: "Manipulation." 
Spike's Mom: (smiling broadly) "She's SOOOOOO my child!"

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Dear Spike: 

Your godmother gave birth to a beautiful baby boy last night.

At least, we're pretty sure he's beautiful. We haven't seen his photo yet, but I talked to his grandpa on the phone, and he assured me that the little lad was a handsome youth indeed (and, of course, who could possibly be a more credible source?)

Since you're more than a year older than the little tadpole, we'll expect you to set a good example. 

For instance, when it's time to attend his first protest rally, perhaps you could show him how to properly pump his fist in the air with righteous indignation. And when he needs someone to talk to about his plan to quit school, join a band, and tour the country in a VW van singing songs about the heartland, I'm certain that you'll assure him that this is a very good plan. 

And when the revolution begins, I know you'll be right there, holding his hand. 


P.S. — Welcome to the world, Tadpole.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Dear Spike:

It's close to harvest time in our small backyard vineyard. Soon you'll be knee-deep in bright purple grapes, stomping and sloshing away, adding a bit of your soul to our wine.

Most of our wine finds its way to those we love, often in the form of a birthday, wedding or anniversary gift. This week we delivered a bottle of last year's vintage to our friends, Chris and Ashley, to celebrate their wedding.

Here's what I wrote in the card that we slipped into the bag with the bottle...

Love, like wine,
Is best between friends.
Shared in full reminiscence 
Of the sun,
And the dirt,
And the rain,
From which it was born.

You're going to learn a lot from your mother and me. And you're going to learn a lot from your teachers in school. And from your grandparents and from your aunts and uncles and from your friends and from your neighbors. 
But some of life's best lessons come in unexpected places. 

Never underestimate what you can learn from a bottle of wine. Or from taking apart a car engine. Or from a sunrise hike in the mountains.

Never underestimate life's capacity for unexpected joy.


Saturday, September 13, 2008


Dear Spike:

I'm not fond of quoting scripture — I prefer Marx to Mark, Twain to Timothy and Einstein to Ephesians — but there are two Bible passages I remember from Sunday School that kept popping into my head this week.

Both are from the Book of Matthew — and both are purportedly the words of Jesus Christ.

He said: "Aren't two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's permission." And: "Whatever you failed to do for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you failed to do for me."

So what's got your father going all Gospel this week?


Misha's Sad Journey
By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune

She was born 27 years ago in the wilds of Africa.

By the time she was a year old, she had been ripped from her family.

Penned, chained and shipped to a noisy new world, her California keepers allowed her to roam only a few paces this way and a few paces that. She was bullied and dominated. She lost a baby. She was poked, prodded, cut and left in pain.

Misha the elephant died Tuesday on the concrete floor of a cinderblock building in a lot behind her most recent home at Utah's Hogle Zoo, some 10,000 miles from where she was born.

No one is yet is certain of what caused her death, at what could be described as "middle age" for an elephant. But one of Misha's former trainers has a strong suspicion: "She lost her will."

Out of Africa
It was the early 1980s in South Africa. Apartheid was law. Nelson Mandela was in prison. And the nation's population of elephants, which had fallen to less than 200 earlier in the century, had steadily climbed to more than 8,000, pushing against the capacity of the country's wildlife reserves.

Between 1981 and 1983, the South African government approved the killing of more than 3,200 elephants. The government also permitted the capture some of the animals - mostly juveniles, whose size and temperament made their integration into captivity easier - for transport overseas.

"The only way you could do it was to kill the mother first," said Les Schobert, a retired California zoo curator who procured a number of elephant calves in the early 1980s before growing disenchanted with the industry. "You couldn't get a baby elephant away from its mom in any other way. You had to shoot the mom and then collect the babies."

In most cases, Schobert said, the calves were still drinking their mother's milk and had to be trained to use a bottle. Many couldn't make the transition. From a quarter to a third of the calves died within four months of arriving in the United States, Schobert said. "That was the risk you ran by importing them."

Hundreds of elephants made their way to the United States in this way. Among them was Misha.

Under California Stars
At about two years old, when many elephant calves are just beginning to be weaned, Misha arrived at Marine World, Africa, U.S.A., in Redwood City, Calif., an aging theme park with animal attractions, a few low-tech rides and a popular water-skiing show.

In the summer of 1986, the park's menagerie - including performing pachyderms, tropical birds, wild cats, dolphins and killer whales - was moved to a larger campus, 60 miles north in Vallejo.

That's where elephant trainer Barbara Anderson met Misha, in 1990.

"We had 12 elephants at that time," Anderson recalled, ticking off the animals' names like a proud mother. "In particular, Tika, Tava, Misha and Malaika were all pretty tight. They were good friends."

Misha was always nervous, Anderson said, "and she was never going to be the dominant one in the herd." But Anderson said Misha also didn't let herself get picked on. It's unclear when that all changed - but park veterinary records make it clear that it did.

Anderson left the park in 1996, upset that the organization was not making better efforts to modernize its elephant training methods and habitats. "Of course," she said. "They were losing a lot of money."

Indeed, dwindling attendance had left the non-profit Marine World Foundation millions in the red. In the fall of 1997 it defaulted on its loans, which had been guaranteed by the city.

When Vallejo couldn't find a buyer for the park, it assumed ownership of the campus, buildings and more than 3,000 animals - including Misha's herd of elephants, which by that time was down to 10 animals. Promptly, the city turned control of the park over to the for-profit Premier Parks, Inc.

Living Out Loud
Premier had a plan: It would break from the park's traditional focus on animal education in order to offer its visitors more thrills. And if successful, it would exercise an option to buy the park.

At the time, Premier president Gary Story told The San Francisco Chronicle that his company had been "sensitive to add attractions which will not disturb or disrupt the animals."

Less than two years later, Premier began construction on the tallest, fastest and longest wooden roller coaster in Northern California. It's name belied another distinction - they called it "The Roar" and park advertisements enticed guests to "hear it!"

Today, the park now known as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is chock full of rides and exhibits. And its elephant habitat lies within a peanut's throw of a half-dozen thrill rides, including three super-fast, steel-track roller coasters.

Four years in a row, the California-based non-profit In Defense of Animals has placed Discovery Kingdom on its list of "10 Worst Zoos for Elephants," noting that "nine elephants have died at the amusement park since 1995." That's a rate of one death every 16 months among animals that, in most cases, were no more than middle-aged.

Suzanne Roy, the association's program director, said it's no surprise that so many of the park's elephants died early.

"They're living there in the midst of a noisy, crowded amusement park, in the shadow of several roller coasters, housed in this tiny zoo lot...just crammed in there," Roy said. "It's a completely unnatural environment."

Nowhere To Run
When Anderson left Misha's side in 1996, she said, she left an animal that, while often timid, could hold her own within the herd. But by 1999, that had changed.

Veterinary records obtained by In Defense, under California's Public Records Act, show that Misha - then 18 years old and more than 7,400 pounds - was known to be the frequent victim of other elephant's attacks. One her most frequent assailants was Liz, an older female of nearly 10,000 pounds.

Over several years, the records show, Misha was attacked by Liz and others, resulting in a number of deep lacerations, abrasions and some internal injuries which left her with weeks of bloody stool.

Hogle Zoo spokeswomen Holly Braithwaite said that, in Utah, animals that are bullied by their peers in a dangerous way are separated.

"The Association of Zoos and Aquariums stressed the ability to separate the animals if they are not getting along," Braithwaite said. "We don't want to have our animals hurt ... we're not going to put animals in together if they are not getting along."

And Anderson noted that the Marine World lot was exceptionally small for the number of animals it held. "You can't just throw them all in there and expect them to get along," she said. "They've got to have the ability to run away from danger."

Breaking Point
In 2001, park officials decided they would attempt to impregnate Misha to add to their herd. The process included an episiotomy - a vaginal incision that later grew infected and stayed that way for more than two months. Records show urine frequently leaked through it.

Meanwhile, the records show Misha was suffering from a large lesion on her lower left jaw, which would grow deeper, more sensitive and more infected over the next four years. At one point in the fall of 2001, vets attempting to clean the site broke off the tip of a knife in Misha's jaw.

"After many attempts at retrieval," the record states, "the blade tip was left in."

Association of Zoos and Aquariums spokesman Steve Feldman said that such medical records can only accurately be understood by a veterinarian. "You need to be qualified to understand," he said. "The care of exotic wildlife is extremely complicated and a difficult world to understand."

In March 2003, after 22 months of pregnancy - full term for an African elephant - Misha gave birth.

Like many other calves born in captivity, Misha's did not survive. Records show the attending veterinarians were able to revive the stillborn calf for only a few minutes before losing it for good.

Not quite a year later, the insemination team tried again - reopening the incision even as they continued to battle the persistent infection in Misha's jaw, which had grown to a hole eight inches deep. The second insemination didn't work.

By that time, the thrill park had added several more roller coasters and attendance was again rising. Critics, including some on Vallejo's city council, pushed the park's owners to use the opportunity to modernize their animal training methods.

In particular, they wanted the park to follow the lead of zoos across the United States that had ended the practice of "free contact," in which trainers move freely about the elephant's exhibits, coercing and disciplining animals with sticks and hooks. But the park continued that technique.

In June 2004, Misha made the news around the world when she knocked down zookeeper Patrick Chapple with her trunk, then gored him through the back and abdomen. Zoo officials said the attack was unprovoked.

Chapple survived. Misha was isolated, and remained so until April 2005, when she was packed into a crate, loaded onto a truck, and driven 700 miles to Utah.

Six Flags spokeswoman Nancy Chan said her facility was "extremely proud" of the care it provided to Misha, who Chan said "was in excellent health when she was transferred to the Hogle Zoo."

Dying Young
On nature reserves in Africa, elephants can live well into their 60s, according to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. By comparison, the oldest African elephant in an American Zoo is 48 years old - her name is Hydari, and she's lived at Utah's Hogle Zoo since 1967.

Given the zoo's success with Hydari and given Misha's relatively young age, Hogle's lead elephant keeper, Doug Tomkinson, said he expected that Misha would be part of the Utah herd for decades to come.

After all, Misha had been given an improved living situation - placed back into contact with other elephants and in a "protected contact" environment, where zookeepers do not go into the creatures' habitats. And though Hogle officials said they were aware of Misha's prior medical complications, she had experienced no significant problems since arriving in Utah.

Her attitude also seemed to have taken a turn for the better. Whatever inner turmoil had caused her to turn on a trainer a year earlier did not appear to be present in Utah.

"Misha was always a happy and playful elephant," said Holly Braithwaite, the Hogle spokeswoman. "Misha quickly became close to her keepers ... she was just a good, hard-working, caring animal."

When Misha's health began to falter last month - she was losing energy, was having trouble sleeping, wasn't eating and seemed to be in great pain - Hogle's animal staff was bewildered and concerned. As her condition grew steadily worse, the zoo's staff worked around the clock to diagnose her ailment, taking tests, consulting with experts from other parks and even using a crane to help her stand when she could not do so alone.

Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, the staff gathered to make a collective decision about whether to continue. "We felt like the only fair thing to do was to put her to sleep," said Dr. Nancy Carpenter, the zoo's lead veterinarian.

Last Goodbye
By the time she was put down, the once 7,400-pound elephant was down to 6,000 pounds. But if there are any guesses as to what caused Misha's sudden downturn, Hogle officials aren't saying.

The results of a necropsy performed on Wednesday won't likely be made public for several weeks. And lab tests could take even longer.

But Anderson isn't waiting for the results - they can't tell her what she already knows about Misha.

"Here is what you've done," Anderson said. "You've taken this animal and taught her to fear. You've put her in a tiny yard and then disciplined her when she fought back. You've put this totally social animal in isolation, denying her any social experiences and then shipped her off."

Whatever the ultimate answer to Misha's sudden death, Anderson said, to her, the big mystery is no mystery at all. "She lost her will."

If there is a God (and sometimes when I think of the way we treat one another, I'm convinced there simply isn't) I'm saddened to think of how She must feel about the way we treat the rest of Her creations.

Be good to this world. To every sparrow. To every elephant. Because if there is a God (and sometimes when I look into your eyes, I'm persuaded that there must be) I'm certain that is what She wants.


Monday, September 8, 2008


Dear Spike:

I think we've discovered a new species of fauna: Porifera verbum: the word sponge.

You've picked up so many new words in the past two weeks, I'm afraid your little head is going to explode like a volcano full of molten dictionary entires. . .

"What's this Spike?" "Pillow!"
"What's that Spike?" "Tail!"
"What's this Spike?" "Chair!"
"What's that Spike?" "Plum!"
"What's this Spike?" "Hat!"

Because you're so quick on the uptake, you mother and I have taken to spelling out almost everything, lest you get too happy, sad, angry or excited about what you hear us talking about. This does, however, have the potential to create certain problems. . .

Mom: "Is Spike going to go to the B-A-B-Y-S-I-T-T-E-R today?"
Dad: "The what?"
Mom: "The B-A-B-Y-S-I-T-T-E-R."
Dad: "Um, slow down a bit."
Mom: "B---A---B---"
Dad: "D?"
Mom: "No B"
Dad: "OK."
Mom: "Y--S--"
Dad: "Y? S? I thought the word started with a B?"
Mom: "It does, I'm starting from the middle."
Dad: "You've lost me... start from the beginning again..."
Mom: "B---A---B---Y---S---I---"
Dad: "Oh! Babysitter."
Spike: "Sitter! Sitter! No! No! No, bye bye! No!"
Dad: "Shit"
Mom: "Hey! Don't say that!"
Dad: Say what?
Mom: "S-H-I-T"
Dad: "Shit?"
Spike: "Shit?"
Dad: "Uh oh."
Mom: "Well that's wonderful."
Dad: "Um... sit! sit! Sit down Spike! Sit!"
Mom: "She's not a dog!"
Spike: "Shit!"
Dad: "Uh fu..."
Mom: "Matt!"
Dad: "I didn't say it! I stopped before I said it!"
Spike: "It! Shit!"
Dad" "Sit!"
Mom: "It's too late"
Dad: "No it's not! Sit, Spike! Sit!"
Mom: "She is not a dog!"
Dad: "Spit?"
Mom: "Oh yeah, that's much better."
Dad: "Grit?"
Spike: "Shit! Shit! Shit!"
Dad: "Bugger!"
Mom: "Great, now you're teaching her to swear in British?"
Dad: "Who cares? We don't live in England."
Mom: "We could someday"
Spike: "Shit!"
Dad: "Bugger!"
Spike: "Bugga!"
Mom: "Oh great, now she can swear in two languages!"
Dad: "Really, it's just one language."
Mom: "Oh crap!"
Spike: "Crap!"


Saturday, September 6, 2008


Dear Spike:

Ah, the weekend.

It's supposed to be the relaxing part of the week, but we chock it full of visits to the farmer's market, and hikes up the canyon, and visits to the zoo, and trips up to farm country, and visits to the supermarket, and parties with our friends, and house cleaning, and errand-running and everything else that we just can't manage to do during the workweek.

Then, before you know it, it's Monday. And we're not relaxed at all.

I'm making matters worse: working a bit this morning and then most of the day tomorrow. That wasn't really my choice — its just how the cards fell this week — and I'll get a day off sometime next week that we can totally devote to each other.

And so, here's my vow: We're going to do just that.

We might take a hike. Or we might go to the zoo. Or we might hit up the market. But we're not going to do all of that. We're going to move at a slow and leisurely pace — baby steps, if you will — and enjoy each step as it comes. We're not going to think about what we're doing an hour later, or even a minute later.

We're just going to be. You and me.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Dear Spike:

You raged against the sandman this evening, but ultimately he won the night. He always does, after all. But sometimes it's a KO in the first. And sometimes it's a judge's decision after 15 hard-fought rounds. Sometimes there's a rematch. And occasionally, there are two rematches.

We've approached the task of getting you to sleep at night in a dozen different ways. We've put you down early (you wake up in the middle of the night ready to play.) We've put you down late ("10 p.m.?" you say, "How about 1 a.m.? No, how about 2 a.m.? Or maybe 3 a.m.?") We've tried to overfeed you, (you wake up sick,) to over-milk you (you wake up wet,) to let you run yourself into exhaustion (you're a bit like a perpetual motion machine, sometimes once you get started you just can't stop.)

We've tried letting you cry yourself to sleep. We've tried letting you go to bed between us. We've tried soft music. We've tried utter silence.

You're just not big on sleeping through the night. And you're really not all that hot on going to bed in the first place, either.

So far, the best plan for getting you to slumber at a reasonable hour seems to be this:
1) regular naps throughout the day but none after 4 p.m.,
2) dinner followed by a bit of playtime
3) a warm bath followed by a course of oatmeal or rice cereal
4) warm pajamas
5) a big bottle of milk
6) a nice long rock and a lullaby

Problem is, it's a delicate balance. Once thing goes wrong and we're back to square one. And no matter what we do, nothing but nothing guarantees you'll sleep through the night — sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. And heaven forbid that one of us gets up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, because one flush of the toilet is all it takes to wake you from your deepest dreams.

Ultimately, I'm sure, we'll be able to count on a full night's sleep. But right now it seems as though that might not be until you go away to college.

And then again, it might not be so easy to sleep then, either.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Dear Spike:

Your mother came home from work today smiling.

This is not altogether unusual, except for one thing: Today was the first day of school — and your mom always comes home from the first day of school in tears.

You see, she cares — deeply, passionately, obsessively — about her students. And on the first day of the year she gets to know them all — the homeless, the war refugees, the undocumented immigrants, the ones that can't speak a lick of English, the ones whose parents have never bothered to read to them, the ones who don't know red from blue, the ones who can't write their first name and don't even know their last name.

Of course, even when she was teaching in the suburbs, she'd come home in tears. She would see road ahead (no matter where you teach, it's long and bumpy and has more than a few dangerous curves) and simply feel overwhelmed at the impending journey.

Something changed this year, though. All of those challenges are still there, but something about your mom is different. She's more confident. She's less afraid.

I'm sure that, in part, it is because last year was such a challenging year — a new school in the inner-city, with a class seemingly hand-picked to drive her out of the business. Despite the challenges, she succeeded. No, she thrived.

And in part, I think it's you. She still cares — deeply, passionately, obsessively. But she also knows that at the end of the day — even the first day — you'll be waiting at home to give her a hug and to tell her that you love her.

And who wouldn't smile about that?



Dear Spike:

Since you are a wee bit of a wee bit, I suppose it's not a bad thing that you're such a fan of whole milk.

If I chugged that stuff the way you do, I wouldn't be able to fit in our front door. But so long as you keep putting on the pounds (OK — the ounces) you can have all you want.

I do wish you were not quite so obsessive about it. Honestly, I think you might be a milkaholic. It's the first thing you ask for in the morning, the thing you beg for before every nap and the thing you can't go to sleep without first having at night.

Milk. Milk. Milk-milkity-milk-milk-milk.

Not water. Not juice. Not even that buck-a-bottle drinkable yogurt stuff.

As obsessions go, it could be worse. And since you're doing your part to keep the hard-working dairy farmers of America in business, we won't be sending you to any 12-step programs just yet.