Healing comes from the furry or feathered ones

As I walked down UNR’s tree-lined Quad one recent afternoon, 100 elementary-schoolers rushed up the sidewalk. They stopped and peered into a tree.

A teacher took photos. The kids oohed and aahed. Two great horned owls sat atop a high branch, grooming plumage.

“Wow!” said one boy. “Are they real?”

Hmm. Did the kid think the university stocks its trees with robotic owls, like something in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Maybe the boy imagined he was watching TV or playing a video game: “Malevolent owls seek to destroy our way of life. Shoot ’em and advance to the next level—where you’ll fight the Raptor Lord.”

That wouldn’t be surprising. Fifth-grade boys, according to a recent university survey, play video games for about 19 hours a week. By averaging twice as much gaming time as girls, the boys are better prepared for high-paying tech jobs. If girls played more video games, researchers concluded, they, too, could enjoy high-tech futures.

I’ve spent the winter in front of screens. I write in front of a 13-inch computer screen. I teach using Power-Point presentations and film clips.During my kids’ spring break last week, I wanted to get out of town. I dreamed of hiking, biking, playing Frisbee and watching a sunset. The weather turned cold, windy, bleary and we stayed inside. Went to a movie. Shopped.

We watched the show 24, a prime-time soap that’s taken network TV violence to a new level. We didn’t watch one episode, oh no. Entire seasons—24 episodes each—are available on DVD. The show’s cliffhanger style hooked us for two dozen episodes. That’s a total of 18 commercial-free hours of television.

Yuck, hack, poo. We’d sit for a couple shows at a time, pulling the blinds shut and telling our critter—a 12-week-old mutt puppy named Floyd—to take a nap. No playing. We were too, too busy watching Kiefer Sutherland’s adventures as a counter-terrorist agent. We’d hold our breath when Bad Guys held a gun to the heads of his wife and daughter. We barely winced when minor characters were offed.

By the end of it all, I felt ill. Nasty, grouchy. Wasted.

Our puppy’s psyche seemed undamaged by our temporary neglect. Floyd’s a well-adjusted lab/shepherd/Akita mix. He especially enjoys short people. My teens are all taller than I am, but Floyd sometimes gets to cavort with our 5-year-old neighbor, Amanda. He lets her pick him up and tote him around. He’s endlessly entertained by games of fetch with tennis balls or squeaky toys. No batteries needed.

I’m writing the above when Floyd pounces into my office. He’s got a skein of yarn unwound, coiled around his neck and paws as well as furniture on the other end of the house. Unraveling Floyd gets me out from behind this screen. I’m saved.

No worries, I’m not a tech-hating Luddite. I can’t imagine being without e-mail. I play video games. I laud pharmaceutical advances that make it possible to enjoy spring without itchy gooby eyes and tickly, sneezy, runny nose.

But sometimes you’ve gotta unplug the machines, open the blinds and make time for a game of squeaky-toy fetch.

We drove to the Lockwood landfill Saturday in a van packed full of junk. We inched up the Great Refuse Mountain and then waited in line to toss out a broken dresser, an old screen door and leaky garden hose.

Hundreds of gulls flew in circles over the garbage—furniture, cardboard boxes, tree trimmings, plastic bags, plastic jugs, a blue plastic swimming pool and a broken plastic Little Tikes slide.

Despite the sign banning cathode ray tubes in the landfill, I saw a couple of TVs in the foreground of the trash heap.

Have to admit, they looked right at home.