@

Bill Hillmann author photo

So, you’re an author, a journalist and a bull runner. Did reading Ernest Hemingway have anything to do with these life choices?

Hemingway has everything to do with those choices. I hadn’t read a book until I was 19. I took Professor David McGrath’s Hemingway class at College of DuPage and it changed my life. I sat down in the library with The Sun Also Rises and read it in one six-hour sitting. That experience made me want to be a writer and want to go to Pamplona and run bulls. When I want something, it usually happens, eventually.

I’m pro-excess, especially in the arena of vice.   I think you should, at least occasionally, eat too much, smoke too much, drink too much, cheat, carouse, fuck, gamble, sleep, travel, spend, and overexert too much.   Which is why I’m in Las Vegas this week, having done my first half-marathon (speaking of excess) here on Sunday night.  I love Las Vegas.   I love everything about it.  I’ve probably been here fifteen times in the last ten years.  I revel in the mayhem and bask in the excesses.

The Dogs of War

By Slade Ham

Humor

Character is what we are in times of crisis or when no one’s watching or some other strange set of criteria. For the last week I have been plagued by visitors in the night, sent to attack me and me alone, determined, I believe, to watch me in action and see how I respond. It feels like a psychology experiment gone bad, like the Milgram Experiment or that Stanford Prison thing. Maybe not that bad, but I still feel as if I’m being toyed with.

I lay in bed at night and I hear them coming. Whispers and clicks in the dark, the invaders peer through the inky black and wait for exhaustion to drag me into an uneasy sleep. They organize and plot and look for the perfect opening, and then they come for my socks.

These fucking squirrels.

But it’s not just the squirrels. The entire animal kingdom seems out to get me. Whether it’s rabid cats, mercenary mosquitoes, or obnoxious birds, I’m like the opposite of Dr. Doolittle.

I moved in late summer to a garage apartment, a perfect little spot for a constant traveler. It’s big by apartment standards and comfortable. There’s a place for my car and my motorcycle and all of my stuff fits exactly as it should. My bookshelf is full of the volumes I’ve collected in the last year punctuated by a thousand trinkets and memories from my travels. My desk sits on one side of the living room, my dual monitors surrounded by speakers. This is a place I can get stuff done. My bedroom faces south so the sunlight is constant. I opted not put up blackout curtains so that it would jar me out of bed and into productivity on most mornings. My brilliant plan to surface at eight or nine has been preempted though.

My apartment sits isolated from my neighbors in the middle of four intersecting backyards and one of those backyards is home to a rooster. A rooster, a rooster, a ROOSTER, inside the loop in Houston, Texas.

It’s more elusive than one would expect a rooster to be, too. It is borderline ninja and I know this because I’ve tried to kill it. I have a really hard time contemplating hurting an animal. I’ve never been hunting and I’m a total sucker for the animals of any sort. I could cause harm to a human much more easily than I ever could an animal, but it’s not a human standing in the backyard cock-a-doodle-doo-ing at 5:00 am, seven days week.

The woman that owns that house is bat-shit crazy. She won’t answer her door for me or the police. For all I know she could be dead herself. The wooden fence around her yard is painted with bright red hearts and catchy little hippie phrases like Animals Are People Too! and One Planet, One Love. The sign on the door that I have beat on every morning for the last month reads I maintain this house for the comfort of my cats. If you can’t deal with that, you can’t deal with me. She places the welfare of these animals above my own, and for that I hate this woman. She is a hopeless PETA-head, and that is why I bought the slingshot.

I’ve collected a good number of small rocks (ball bearings would look too much like evidence) and from my bathroom window I can see into her backyard. The rooster prances up and down a particular path, hidden almost entirely behind the branches of a low-hanging tree. It knows it is safe, but that hasn’t stopped me from rifling pebble after pebble through the leaves in an attempt to hit him. He of course knows this, and waits until I have shut the window and given up. Then he runs up to the fence and lets out another mad cackle before darting back to the cover of the brush. THWOP, THWOP, THWOP. Three more rocks rip through the air and hit nothing. “Goddamn bird!” I yell. “I’m gonna shoot you in your little rooster face.”

I want to drag its carcass to the hippie’s doorstep and bang away until she’s forced to answer. “Looks like people can be animals, too!” I’ll say, with wild eyes and chicken blood running down my arms. What criminal mind houses a yard full of birds and a house full of cats with such disregard for others? Probably the kind of person that would raise an army of attack squirrels. I bet my invaders are the product of her animal friendly lifestyle as well. She probably hand fed them and took them in, and now that she has sixty-three cats they need a new place to hang out, hence the velvet rope and the bouncer outside the squirrel dance club that my attic has become.

And now I am not safe inside.

A few days ago I woke up to the morning crowing and stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. Bleary-eyed and headachey, I poured my first cup. As I started to gain my focus I noticed a sock hanging out from under the counter. “Did something happen last night that I don’t remember?” I think to myself. “Why would I take my socks off in the kitchen? Did I try to put them in the cabinet? How drunk was I? This makes no sense.”

Pulling the sock out from the opening underneath the base board, I noticed that it had several holes in it. “Squirrels,” I growl. I’ve known they were here for a while. It’s an older place and there are plenty of openings that allow them into the attic. I hear them constantly but I’ve remained unconcerned. Once I knew that they weren’t mice or rats – the piles of nuts in the attic and the sight of actual squirrels hopping from the power lines onto my roof cinched that – I just resigned myself to being a winter refuge for the fuzzy little things.

But now they’re taunting me. They’re literally stealing my socks – as if my clothes dryer wasn’t already doing enough of that. They are strategic. To get my socks requires some investigation. While I will occasionally leave a pair lying in the living room (one of the perks of bachelorhood), they usually end up in my bedroom. None of my other clothes are touched, nor are the dish towels or the beanie I left laying on my desk or the bag of Cheetos Puffs on top of my microwave. They’re selective little creatures. I mean, it takes determination to say no to those Cheetos. Cheetos are delicious.

They seem content to only drag the socks as far as the holes under the cabinets too. They don’t take them all the way inside, but leave them hanging out just enough to let me know they were there. It’s a form of counting coup, I’m afraid, and this is why I feel I’m being experimented on. It’s as if they know that I am incapable of simply trapping them or killing them. They want to see how I’ll react.  They know that boredom will entice me to fight back. I have moved anything cloth-like to my bedroom now and I make sure the door is shut when I leave. Then I place one sock strategically in the middle of my dining room floor before I make my exit or turn in for the night. I have to know if they come, and come they do, but never when I can see them.

I sit on my couch and stare like a child waiting for Santa. Unable to stay awake, my eyes finally close, only briefly, and then snap open again to find the sock tucked neatly in its little cubbyhole under the sink. “How the hell did you do that?!?!” I yell. Somewhere a squirrel rolls around on the floor laughing and high-fiving his friends. I rip the sock out from the hole and throw it back on the floor. “I’m going to bed, you bastard!” I yell at nothing whatsoever. “Come get your stupid sock if you want it!” Then I wake up the next morning to find it sitting exactly where I left it. It’s no fun for them if I don’t care, it seems.

So I have to formulate a plan before I go out of town again. I have to get rid of them. I don’t know if I am up against one rogue animal or a hundred. In my mind, my walls and my attic are now one big Squirrel Kingdom. Buttons and thimbles and scores of socks line the halls of a Secret of NIMH world. Will taking one of these creatures out be enough? Should I trap one and leave it bound in the middle of my kitchen floor as a warning to other squirrels? Should I poison a sock? Buy an owl? I don’t know what to do exactly.

I know that the gauntlet has been thrown down though. They started this, this thing with the socks. “Cry Havoc,” I say, “and let slip the dogs of war!” And maybe that’s the answer – actual dogs. Or a fox. A fox would eat the squirrels and the rooster. I want to put on face paint and get a ghillie suit and hide with my slingshot. I want to set up a box and a stick with a string tied to one of my socks. I want a jet pack and some rocket skates and I want to paint a fake tunnel on my wall like Wile E. Coyote. I want to put the squirrels and the rooster and all their little friends in one big bag and toss it into the ocean – and then blow up the ocean.

I want to win.

Maybe I should focus on the flower child in the house behind me, maybe point my slingshot at her instead. Cut off the head and the monster dies, right? Maybe she’s like the Other Mother in Coraline. Who takes their animals that seriously? Seriously. These things are interrupting my lifestyle and her desire to protect them only makes me angrier. Now I want to cook steak with my windows open so she has to smell it. And I want a fur coat. And I want to beat a baby seal to death with an endangered penguin. Her “Save the animals” mission has clearly had the opposite effect on me.

But for now, I will continue to type, stopping every sentence or two to pause my music and glance into the kitchen and try to catch a glimpse of the cocky little rodent as it mocks me. Because right now I am clearly not winning. Right now I am losing.

And badly.

I can hear the squirrels flitting back and forth on the roof even now. I can hear the rooster too, cluck-cluck-clucking just feet outside of my apartment. I cut my eyes across the desk to the slingshot. “I could go outside and kill them all right this second,” I think.

And I would, too, if only I could find a pair of socks.

I nearly choked on my morning oatmeal when I stumbled upon this article from the BBC.

From the article:

Pet Shop Boys reject PETA request

Pop group Pet Shop Boys have revealed they have turned down a request by animal rights group PETA to rename themselves the Rescue Shelter Boys.” PETA Europe has written to Pet Shop Boys with a request they are unable to agree to,” reads a post on the band’s official website. But the band admits the request “raises an issue worth thinking about”.

Now, I’m an amateur semantician at best, but when you first heard who sang West End Girls, did the cognitive assembly of those three words: Pet. Shop. Boys. make you rush right out to the mall and pick up a scrappy pup when you were freshly into your teen years? Did you suddenly think: “I, too, want to be a Pet Shop Boy (or Girl)” and start saving up for your very own Petland franchise? Would it have made a difference if they had been called The (almost certainly career-destroying) Rescue Shelter Boys?

No. More than likely, you spent time scratching your head, trying to figure out if it wasn’t a rip-off of One Night in Bangkok.

(It wasn’t. But it’s a good argument. Chess was released in 1984, West End Girls was first released in 1984, but to little notice. So they re-recorded the tune with a new producer and released it a second time in 1985 to wider acclaim, capturing the Number 1 spot in the UK in 1985 and in the US in 1986. But I digress…)

So with this plea, 25 years after The Pet Shop Boys first burst onto the scene and 29 years after PETA was founded, what, exactly does PETA hope to accomplish now? Shouldn’t they have seized the moment when the band first came out, like the initial outrage over Joy Division? Are they suddenly running to the forefront waving long-lost statistics of the influence of a single British technopop band’s one-hit wonder on the spike in demands for puppy mill puppies? A noticeable decline in animals adopted from the pounds across America circa 1986???

Interestingly enough, Pound Puppies also arrived in the early ’80s, and I don’t know about all you other Gen X girls out there, but didn’t you hum “Pound Puppy, you’re my one and only puppy love” almost as much as you hummed the Monchichi song?

If The Pet Shop Boys drove the angsty ’80s teen-traffic to the puppy mills, I’m certain the ‘tween girl set drove equally as much, if not more, traffic to the ASPCA to have a real, live pound puppy of your very own. Why isn’t PETA, instead, focusing on the positive influence of the Pound Puppies? Or eschewing dogs altogether and instead, touting Cabbage Patch Kids for adoption?  I mean, hell, if you want to adopt something, adopt a child – and one that grew out of a VEGETABLE GARDEN to boot, thus keeping right in line with PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk’s own ‘hippo’-cratic oath: “Therefore [animals] are not ours to use – for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or for any other reason.”

Why does PETA have to be so damn preachy and negative? Ingrid Newkirk lives in Norfolk, Virginia. Didn’t all her time spent living in the South teach her that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? But I suppose that would be inhumane to flies, so nevermind…

Now don’t get me wrong, I love animals and I sympathize with animal advocacy. I do.  I have had four animals adopted from rescue groups. I have worked with rescue groups. Hell, one of my best friends even RAN a rescue group for years and years. And I’ll confess, I like the underlying principles of PETA. I think puppy mills are bad. I think throwing bags filled with litters of kittens into the river is bad.  I think mistreating the animals used for medical advancement is bad. I think we should adopt pets from pounds, rescue shelters and directly from reputable breeders, and I think pet owners should be, above all else,responsible pet owners.

But I also wear my great-grandmother’s mink stole when I go to the Opera and, like Lenore, had a beloved white-rabbit coat when I was a little girl.  I believe that feral and dangerous animals should be humanely euthanized, rather than left to live out their days in a cage. I’m thoroughly enjoying Claire Cameron’s ongoing and highly-entertaining TNB series: A Guide to Thinking About Urban Chickens. I would rather that scientific research be tested on rabbits and chimpanzees than on my nieces. I do.

Oh. And I eat meat. Red meat.  Often. Saignant. I think it’s why we have incisors. And why God made cows and pigs and chickens and fish taste so damn delicious.

Now, I didn’t learn these things from bands’ names. I didn’t learn to eat meatloaf from Meat Loaf, I don’t appreciate fish because of Phish (truth be known, I don’t even like Phish), I don’t love bacon toffee because I also sing along to Pigoletto, and personally speaking, I prefer rotisserie chicken to Electric Chicken.

But it doesn’t mean that, because I’m a meat-eating, fur-wearing, frequent Kittenwar website-visitor and Stupid Pet Tricks-watcher, I’m going to challenge your equal right to be up in arms about leather, orBabe, or lab rats, or Steak tartare.

So give it a rest, Ingrid.  People aren’t so impressionable that we’re going to think anything of a band’s name other than it’s just another stupid band name.

Which most of us had forgotten about.

Until now.

Thanks.