Apr 29, 2022

A Dog's Life

I began writing this piece on 4/19/2022. I plan to work on it until our close friend, Gypsy dies. It isn’t a journal of those sad days. It is intended to be an obituary of the most amazing non-human life I have ever experienced. Gypsy died on 4/29/2022 at about 12:30PM. In death, as in life, she did her best to be as thoughtful as possible.

This week, as I begin to write this essay, which is very likely to become an obituary, Mrs. Day and I are watching the last days of our 15-year-old best friend, Gypsy, play out. She joined our family, often as the smartest member, a little more than 14 years ago, near Mrs. Day’s birthday in September, 2007. She was a shelter dog and she and a sister had been caged convicts in a puppy mill that the Minneapolis SPCA had raided a few weeks earlier. Gypsy looked like a cross between an Australian Shepherd and a Blue Heeler, so that’s what we described her as her whole life. Her sister appeared to be a classic, black and white spotted Australian Shepherd. Both dogs were being treated well by the adoption agency where Mrs. Day found her and they appeared to be calm, friendly, and intelligent. It could have been a quarter-flip as to which dog we picked, but Mrs. Day really liked the Heeler color and markings. So, we went home with Gypsy (the name Mrs. Day gave her, not the name the shelter had given her). Our previous dog, Puck, who had lived with our daughter’s family for a few years, had died a few days earlier and Mrs. Day was convinced our granddaughter needed a dog to live with. I still hadn’t finished mourning the dog before Puck, a chow mix who had died 5 years earlier. I doubt that I would have ever brought another animal into my life if Mrs. Day weren’t so resolute that we “needed” one.

The ride home was a warning of what the next 15 years would be like. Gypsy whined, shivered, and paced frantically in the back seat of the car all the way home. As soon as the car stopped and she jumped out, she was “normal” again. For at least 15,000 miles of our lives, Gypsy put on that same show every time she was in a moving vehicle of any sort. She was terrible to travel with by vehicle. If we’d have wanted to walk from Minnesota to California, Gypsy would have been all for it.

The first day Gypsy was introduced to our household, she knew she belonged there and did not ever want to leave. We had a cat at the time, Spike. Spike was a neutered male who pretty much thought he owned the house. When we first got him, Puck was already part of our household. Puck accepted that kitten as if they’d known each other their whole lives. Likewise, when Gypsy arrived terrified, shy, and confused. Spike took a good look at her and walked away, back to his usual routine. Until the day Spike took off on us, after about a week living in our camper, they were the closest of animal friends. I am not lying here, but I wouldn’t believe it if you told this story to me: Spike would catch and kill rabbits, squirrels, and other wildlife in our Little Canada backyard and deliver them to Gypsy to devour for the cat’s entertainment. I really wish I’d have taken a picture of that behavior. Spike would just drop the dead animal at Gypsy’s feet and she’d make the prey vanish as if it had never existed. Barely a puff of fur left over, at most. When our most recent cat, Doctor Zogar, came into our family, Gypsy gave that nasty little brat the same kind of generous welcome Spike had given her. Gypsy played with both cats as energetically as if they were all kittens from the same mother, but she was always careful not to hurt them. I can’t say that care was repaid with any sort of kindness by Zogar. (Who I always called “Stinker.”) Zogar regularly spiked Gypsy’s nose and tried for eyes occasionally. I never hit Gypsy in anger, ever, but I batted that damn cat across the room fairly often when he hurt my dog.

Mrs. Day took her for a walk in our Little Canada neighborhood that first afternoon and Gypsy slipped her collar and ran off several blocks from home. Mrs. Day was convinced her $300 “investment” had run off and vanished on the first day, but Gypsy was waiting on the front porch when Mrs. Day came home. For several weeks, Gypsy didn’t want to leave the house and had to be forced out the door into the backyard to relieve herself. If we weren’t quick enough, she had decided the area in front of my office closet was a satisfactory “bathroom.” In a few days, the carpet and floor under the carpet were ruined.

We had a fenced yard, but she was unhappy inside that fence. So, I bought a “wireless fence containment system”: essentially a transmitter with a shock collar. I sent the collar to the lowest shock setting and walked her around the wireless fence perimeter, which I’d marked with flags. She freaked out at the first shock and we only stayed near the border long enough for the collar to beep after that. We did the same routine the next day, without the shock and she had it figured out. From then on, she was the smartest animal any of us had ever known. She marked out exactly the boundaries of her electronic “fence” and patrolled that area like a military guard. She did discover, much later, if she ran through the border and kept running down to the lake shore she’d either escape the shock or it would be brief enough not to be a problem. She rarely did that, though.

In December of 2011, I had a full hip replacement. I was determined to be mobile again in time for the 2012 motorcycle safety training season, which would start in mid-May for me. I had even loftier, less realistic goals for before that deadline and I was slowly failing to meet any of those targets thanks to pain and Minnesota winter. By then, Gypsy was a spectacular frisbee dog along with several dozen other amazing tricks and behaviors; including being able to jump into my outstretched arms on command, leap head-high (to me) to snag any object out of my hands in a running, flying leap, and jump on to any reasonable object around 5’ high from a standing start. One of my favorites was called “go ‘round.” On that command, Gypsy would run the perimeter of our yard full blast, which was as fast as I have ever seen any animal run. I’d seen something like that in the sheep dog demonstrations at the fair and Renaissance Fairs. My grandson helped teach her the trick by running ahead of her until she figured out the routine. Then, no one alive could have kept up with her let alone lead her. She was the dog I’d dreamed about when I didn’t even know I liked dogs. (I delivered newspapers as a kid and read water meters for the City of Dallas for 3 years. At the end of those experiences, dogs were never high on my list of interests.)

So, as I was struggling with maintaining my rehab discipline I kept up our afternoon walks and tried tossing her the frisbee. The problem with the frisbee was that I had initially trained Gypsy to drop the frisbees at my feet. We would sometimes do a kind of relay toss where I’d flip her a frisbee 15’-20’ out and she’d return it on the run, drop it at my feet, and keep running in the same direction where I’d toss her another frisbee. (I wish someone had video recorded us doing those things, but I’m the only person in my family who knows how to use a damn camera.) After the hip surgery, bending over to pickup a frisbee from the ground was close to impossible. Gypsy figured that out on her own and started handing me the frisbees about waist-high. That became a huge, incredibly distracting and enjoyable part of my daily physical therapy and, thanks to my dog, I was back walking 11 miles a day and teaching a full schedule of motorcycle classes in early May of 2012. My dog was my best, most dedicated, most sympathetic physical therapist and I can only hope I never need that kind of help again because she won’t be there to take care of me.

If you are one of those unperceptive, species-centric goobers who believes that animals do not have a sense of humor, Gypsy would have laughed in your face and you would have to be a complete fool not to know it. She had a wonderful laugh and a smile that was, literally, ear-to-ear. Her joy in running, jumping, wrestling, and performing her many tricks/behaviors was undeniable. On my worst, darkest depressed moments, Gypsy could make me smile and laugh. As happy as she often made me, I don’t think I ever realized how sad I would be at the end of our life together. As I write this, I feel like my head is overfilling with tears and sorrow. It physically hurts as badly as the worst headache I have ever experienced. I can’t imagine being willing to go through this ever again.

Gypsy had so many tricks (“behaviors” for the politically correct crowd) and she’d taught herself most of them. Speaking of the sense of humor, one of the first things she did was when someone would say “cute face,” she’d cover her face with both paws and act shy. That unmistakable guffaw would often follow that if someone would pet her and talk baby talk at her. She had the most gregarious hand-shake of any animal on the planet. She would raise her right paw even with the top of her head and swing it into your hand to shake. It looked like she was someone almost impossibly happy to meet you. The usual “roll over,” “sit,” “lay down,” “stay,” “speak,” and dozens of other words and actions were almost naturally in her vocabulary. We had to spell words like “walk,” “hike,” “go out,” “outside,” and anything else that might imply going for a walk or she would be whining at the door, looking up at her leash, waiting to go for a walk. Like most dogs of her breed, “heel” was a tough command to obey. She could do it, but she’d much rather take off to the end of her leash and nose about. Early on, she was a plow horse but she learned that obeying “don’t pull” got her a lot more freedom. She also understood “right” and “left” even off of the leash.

While Gypsy might have been the worst traveling companion possible, whining in spectacularly irritating and painful ways non-stop for whatever the length of the car ride, she was the best camp dog imaginable. She was fearlessly protective of Mrs. Day (as seen at left worrying about Mrs. Day on the back of a horse) and kept us aware of everything and everyone who came near our campsites 24-hours/day. She slept at the foot of our camper bed, every night, and always seemed to have one eye open for threats. Once, when she was tried to the bumper of our camper, a coyote had the gall to try and cross the outside edge of our campsite and Gypsy nearly pulled the camper uphill to get at the coyote. The coyote ran away with the knowledge that he’d have been in a fight to the death if Gypsy had gotten loose. People, however, were automatically given a pass unless Mrs. Day seemed nervous. And she was always ready to go for a walk, on a leash or not, and delighted to do it.

She liked everyone and loved many. For most of her life, she was free to roam our backyard and when delivery people came into the yard to drop off packages, she was always quiet and friendly. Many of them came to like leaving packages at our home because they got to visit with Gypsy. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels, not so much. One of my favorite indoor activities was, when I would spot a squirrel attempting to mangle one of my bird feeders, I’d let Gypsy out into the yard and say “squirrel!” She’d dash into the yard, looking for squirrels, and chasing any who were dumb enough to ignore her into the trees, over the fence, or up the hill into the woods. She loved terrorizing squirrels and rabbits and would not tolerate deer or other large wildlife in her yard. Mrs. Day’s hostas will likely be substantially less lush without their guardian.

Her will to live is inspiring. As of today, April 25th, she can’t eat or drink anything without throwing it back up. Her energy is a microscopic fraction of what it was a week ago and she was a shadow of herself then. Every morning, she drags herself out of bed and walks to the back door to be let out. (Yes, she has always been smart enough to know where her home is and did not need a fenced yard or tether until the last couple of weeks.) She is mostly operating on habit, since she isn’t ingesting anything she rarely expels anything. It is very much like she doesn’t want to inconvenience us with the process of her dying. If you are one of those who believe dogs are incapable of love, I can’t imagine what I could say to you. Even when she is on her last legs, she would rather sleep on the floor near Mrs. Day than in a comfortable bed in the living room. She has a bed in the bedroom, too, but in these final days she wasn’t to be closer.

Gypsy died today, 4/29/2022, at about 12:30PM. She had a rough night, mostly waking up and thinking she was alone. She didn’t seem to be in pain. For the 2nd time in the life we’ve known her, she soiled herself last night and when I carried her outside to lie on the deck bench she was still responsive but had no strength at all. She couldn’t even hold her head up and I had to carry her like a baby, supporting her head when I laid her down. We went for our last walk 10 days ago, it that one didn’t last long due to her strength. The day before, we walked almost a mile and she was slow but still moving well at the end of that walk.

Her will to live throughout all of this miserable week was inspiring and humbling. She did not want to give up and we did not feel that we had the right to make that decision for her. She was struggling out of her bed and staggering to the back door to be let out up to Tuesday evening. Wednesday, I carried her out after she was able to get up but couldn’t walk without falling down. We stood in the backyard for a while, listening to birds and night sounds, but she needed to lean on his leg to stay upright. Thursday, she soiled herself and wet the bed overnight. She was conscious most of yesterday and responded to being touched and our voices, but we think she was in a coma most of the day.

Last night, we left her in a bed we’d made for her in the living room but about midnight just as I was going to bed she started whining for the first time in a week (Gypsy whined a lot, that was her “voice” for communication, so the silence over this past week has been weird.) and we laid down beside her. That was what she wanted. I carried her into the bedroom where she had a “bed” and she was fine most of the night, but she woke up twice afraid and I comforted her until she was quiet. I honestly think Mrs. Day’s snoring helped keep her calm for most of the night. Me, not so much.

She seemed to be comfortable on the outside bench and she was there for about 4 hours before I discovered she had kicked off one of the blankets and died. She had been alone for about 5 minutes. I guess she was being considerate to the end.

Life is short, precious, and painful. And if you are as special as our dog, when you go your loved ones will miss you desperately.


Apr 24, 2022

Good Ole' American Quality?

 Mrs. Day watches a lot of streaming television. Today was no exception. We're on a sad death watch for our 15-year-old Aussy dog and that means we're shackled to the house for an undetermined period and that Mrs. Day has a great excuse to spend the day doing art work in front of the television. Being the helpful guy I am, I drop in occasionally to suffer with her. We're both suffering the odor of an old dog on her last legs and I am suffering television. One of the painful moments today was a binge on Seinfeld's "Comedians Getting Coffee" (or something like that). I am not one of "Jerry's Kids" and I usually think he is about as funny as a favorite pet on death's door. His visit with Bill Burr was no exception. 

Jerry is one of those goobers who thinks incompetent engineering that makes a lot of pointless noise is "soulful." That particular program was in a 70s Mustang, which was a particularly pitiful excuse for a machine. While Jerry and Burr were carrying on about subjects they know nothing about, like engineering, I fiddled with one of my dumb retirement hobbies: model vehicles. Mostly, I assemble Tamiya motorcycles, but I've had this damn Revell VW kit in my pile of models-to-be-built for decades and I decided to mess with it this past week.

If you ever wanted to closely examine a good example of why manufacturing in the USA disappeared almost overnight, this kit would be a good place to start. It is, to put it mildly, a piece of shit. The pieces are poorly formed, the extrusion frames are huge compared to the part sizes and often there is more flashing on the parts than there are parts, and the detail is just embarrassingly mediocre. A few weeks ago, I spent a really fun few days assembling a Tamiya RZ350 Kenny Roberts Replica, so my standard of comparison is very recent. After I finish assembling this model, I'll probably just leave it in the box for some poor relative of mine to find after I'm dead. It will not be something I'll ever be proud to show off. 

While I've worked on this model kit, I have been constantly reminded of David Halberstam's book, The Reckoning, a mid-1980s book about the fall of Ford and rise of Nissan. In describing the state of the US auto industry at that time, Halberstam listed the collection of lowered expectations American car buyers had to accept if they were going to "buy American." Things like patterned seat covers that were installed with not interest at all in maintaining some kind of consistency in the pattern direction or plumb line, missing fasteners in visually obvious places, paint jobs that looked as if they'd been applied with a half-empty spray can, and plastic parts like radio knobs and windshield cranks that fall apart on first use. This model reflects all of that kind of lack of concern that 70s American labor was famous for. It is a painful reminder of how quickly power can become weakness. This model was sold in the mid-80s about the same time Halberstam was examining the American auto manufacturing. Revell, of course, is no longer an American company; it's currently based in Bünde, Germany. Like pretty much every manufactured product that requires assembly skill, those skills are found elsewhere today. I bought mine in a model shop's going out of business sale in Colorado in the 90s.

In the 60s and 70s, tech writers like myself often made fun of Japanese translated manuals. Even Robert Pirsig did it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  We were wrong. It's hard to tell from the picture at right, but this is the assembly document from the Revell model. You might wonder what's wrong with it, until you tried to assemble the model. Steps 1-6 are about putting together body and suspension parts. Step 7 is about installing the front suspension and the footwell cowling to the "chassis." That suspension piece you see at the fat left of the chassis just appears there like magic, then it disappears in 8-10, and magically reappears in step 20. That is the kind of crap that would make a kid migrate to Japanese models. like the dozens of Tamiya models I have built and never buy another Revell product as long as he lived. Not only was Revell incapable of building a quality model, they couldn't layout a competent assembly manual.

Apr 3, 2022

Love This: Yamana TY-E2.0

Mar 22, 2022

When Looks Beats Works

I just finished reading an entertaining and informative Kevin Cameron Cycle World article about cooling fins, "The Fascination With Fins." [You might be disappointed to discover there is nothing about Finland in the article.] There is some terrific stuff about how practical engineering and ascetics often combine to make some very artistic mechanical systems. Lots of information about how motorcyclists didn’t take to the look of fan-powered air-cooled motorcycles because the look reminded “motorcyclists of the weak putt-putt engines in lawn mowers and golf carts.” The most important byproduct of air-cooled engines is that the limits to moving heat via air requires that what Kevin calls “Ideological Purity” (the look of air-cooling) also requires engineers put a cap on peak output before the heat fries the motor. Shade tree mechanics have fooled with removing those limits and testing the power-limit assumptions for at least 100 years and scrap and junk yards are full of the results. Liquid cooling just works better. Liquid cooling even works better for high efficiency electric motors (and batteries). As much as I hate plumbing, it’s pretty obvious that it is necessary.

Scanning around the reader comments and a couple other new bike articles was an education in how much humans value appearances over function. For instance this guy who “bought a new [Honda] 500x a few months ago. Love the bike. I would however like a second brake disc, I think this will be a good upgrade. Mine brakes just fine, but they could of course be better. I also think a bike just looks better with twin discs.” It would have never occurred to me that someone would like a front wheel laden with an unnecessary 2nd disk and the associated complications just because “it looks better with twin discs.” I absolutely don’t see the overpowering attraction of symmetry and the fact that a large single disc delivers more stopping power than two small discs. For my money, brakes are generally ugly so the less space given to to lookin’ at them the better.

But I’ve long since realized that what I like to look at and what a whole lot of people like are totally different.

Jan 8, 2022

I Shouda Been A Contender

When I was young, still “made out of rubber and magic,” and full of unfounded confidence in my invulnerability I restarted my motorcycling life with a purchase of a 1971 Kawasaki 350 Big Horn. Motorcycles had been a big, then a small, then a non-existent, and back to big part of my life from when I was 15 until a year before my first kid was born in 1971. I didn’t buy the Big Horn new. It had belonged to an old Texas rancher who imagined that he could easily step down from horses to a motorcycle and discovered that he’d be relegated to a pickup instead. Today, I can relate to his dilemma, but back then I just saw his age-related misfortune as an opportunity. I paid a fraction of new price for a barely used bike and immediately went back to my old off-roading habits.

In those days, Hereford, Texas was a slightly prosperous west Texas ranching and cattle-feeding town with a side order of sugar beets and cotton. Today, it is practically a ghost town. Then, we had Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Eurotrash dealers, a hill climbing area, a barely-out-of-town motocross track, and hundreds of miles of poorly maintained farm-to-market roads that, often, were barely more than tractor tracks leading as far away as a rider would want to travel on an off-road motorcycle of the day. One of the guys I worked with, a welder named “Charlie,” was a local “bad influence” motocross phenom who rode a 250 Kawasaki piston-port motocrosser and who had found the Big Horn for me. He and I spent a fair number of evenings and weekends banging tanks at the Hereford track and flipping over backwards showing off at the hill climb area. It was all his fault that I almost missed the birth of my daughter, Holly, because he’d signed us both up for a Sunday race in Dalhart the weekend she decided to venture into the world.

South Canadian River – Las Animas County, CO | San Isabel National ForestSince becoming a father ruined that weekend’s escape, A few weeks late, I signed the two of us up for the end-of-season race, the Canadian River Cross-country. A 120 mile race that started on the west end of Lake Meredith, a pitiful hole that might have been a lake at some time, but was just a big ditch most of the year in the 70s. From there west to New Mexico, the Canadian “River” was a long, wide trench with spotty pools of water, usually surrounded by rocks. I do not remember where exactly the race ended. 1971 was a LONG time ago. I remember my wife was really pissed that, after working a 90 hour week, leaving her home alone with a new baby, I was going to escape all of that bliss for a day and “go racing.” I was probably the least excited-to-be-a-young-father guy on the planet at that moment and her arguments were absolutely valid but unconvincing. Charlie was coming because he had a pickup and a great tool kit, but his interest in Cross-country was so slight that, after the first section, he turned back, loaded up his bike, and drove to the end to wait for me to show up so he could go home and get back to motocross.

I was “determined.” When I lined up with the other open class bikes, maybe 20 of us, it was the first race I’d been in since my rough scramble days on the Harley 250 Sprint. The juices were flowing, I thought i was ready to race and, even, win, and my Big Horn was faster than snot. Heavy as a buffalo, but really powerful for the time. In recent years, I’ve been told that my motorcycles are “unfit for off-road purposes,” and I just laugh at that idea because most of those characters wouldn’t even consider a mess like the Canadian River Cross-Country on a 2022 enduro. My Big Horn was heavy (400+ pounds), barely-suspended with Boge shocks (maybe 3 1/2” of travel) and the stock forks, only made real power (33hp) when the motor was wound up past 4,000 RPM, and ungainly as hell. Every bike I’ve owned from my 125 ISDT to my XT350 to my TDM850 or V-Strom adventure bikes have been far more off-road capable than that Kawasaki so-called “enduro.” In late-1971, I had no idea that there were much better options and if I had been it wouldn’t have mattered because they weren’t available or affordable in West Texas.

The flag fell and off we went. I’d spent some time boning up on the warning flags and less than 10 miles in that education paid off. Just before we entered a tight, blind, hard left in the riverbed, one of those flags fluttered just enough to clue me in that there was a hazard. The hazard turned out to be a substantial pile of rocks that was littered with bikes, bike parts, and riders. I managed to come to a stop before piling into the guy who was in front of me. He didn’t. I paddled through a narrow passage and climb to the other side of the rocks and kept going. From here out, my memories are really clouded.

I know I crashed at least a dozen times in the next 100-some miles. I remember seeing a fair number of bikes and riders stuck in swampy sand, piled into rocks, logs, and each other. I remember, somewhere near the end, smacking my engine case on some rocks, busting the cases, and slowly losing the transmission fluid over the remaining miles. I remember only being able to shift from 1st to 2nd with no neutral or other gears in the last few miles. I remember losing power like crazy and barely motoring past the finish line. Charlie was there waiting for me and we loaded my bike back into his pickup. I remember drinking something, probably beer, on Charlie’s tailgate waiting for the results. I definitely remember a long period of no motorcycle, lots of overtime, and recriminations from my wife, while I reassembled and repaired the damage to my bike from that race.

My big memory, biggest in fact, of that race was discovering that because “only” three open class bikes finished, the organizers decided that they would only trophy to 2nd place, instead of 4th as planned and announced. I guess they wanted to save money on their crappy $5 plastic trophies. I got a fuckin’ ribbon, instead, but my finishing position wasn’t even listed, since I didn’t trophy. I raced motorcycles for another ten years, ending with a series of busted ribs, toes, and fingers. I never again came close to being on the podium. I pointed, in Nebraska, well enough to progress from Novice to Expert in the “Enduro Class,” but that was a quantity-over-quality achievement.

In the 1980s, when my daughter was skateboarding with her soon-to-be-famous boarding friends in Huntington Beach, she used to wear a tee-shirt that said, “I wish I were as fast as my father remembers he was.” I guess that is about as close as I will ever get to a motorcycle trophy.