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My Airbnb Catastrophe: A Cautionary Tale

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Who’s the asshole, me or the guy I’ll call Pooper? You tell me.

I’d never done Airbnb before; the process was new to me. I’d been looking for a place to stay since early December. Following the death of my dog, Gus, I’d decided to have my place remodeled. I needed to move out for three weeks in February, while they did the work. At first, I thought about the Palm Springs area. I’d never been there, and it seemed like a good alternative just as Northern California is entering its coldest, wettest months. 

But then, in mid-December, the pandemic took a violent turn for the worse in California, and it no longer made sense to travel. I certainly didn’t want to fly: too risky. Besides, all the restaurants and bars would be closed, even for outdoors. I’d have to eat in my room, in front of the T.V. Hell, I thought, I can do that in Oakland; what’s the point of going to Palm Springs?

I decided to stay someplace closer to home. I’ve always liked the Berkeley Hills: Strawberry Canyon, Tilden Regional Park, those beautiful places. I could rent a car and be able to drive down the hill to Berkeley, where at least I could have coffee, buy food in the supermarket to prepare in my rented home, browse bookstores and take long walks. I’d prepared a list of things I wanted in a rental: TV, wifi, a full kitchen, a quiet neighborhood, parking, cell phone coverage, and plenty of hot water for long showers. At Airbnb I found a place that seemed pretty good. It listed the amenities, but not in detail. I wanted to talk directly to the owner, to ask some questions. For example, it said “parking” was available, but what did that mean? Off-street? On-street? If the latter, was it subject to two-hour restrictions? Would I be circling the neighborhood, looking for a spot? Was the place quiet, or on a noisy street, with noisy neighbors? I didn’t want to rent blind, only to find out, when I moved in, it wasn’t working for me.

So I contacted the owner through the Airbnb app and asked her to call or email me. But then I got an email from Airbnb: they’d sent my email to the owner, but deleted my phone number and email address. That was weird: how was I supposed to talk to the owner? She got back to me through the app and explained the situation. Airbnb doesn’t want people to be able to communicate outside their app. Evidently, that prevents people from striking separate deals, cutting Airbnb out of the equation. I replied that I wanted to be able to talk to her directly, not go back and forth endlessly through emails. As an old reporter, I know how important it is to be able to ask followup questions as they occur to me.

The lady emailed me back and spelled out her phone number in code, something like “Five 1 oh niner 4 sicks seven hundred 2.” It was right out of a spy story. Airbnb’s AI apparently wouldn’t be able to figure that out. So I called the lady, and based on our conversation I ascertained that her place wasn’t right for me. I went to look for someplace else.

That’s when I found Pooper’s cottage. It was way up in the hills, with a beautiful view. The price–$74 a night—was right. It had all the amenities I wanted, except for T.V. (Look, I spend a lot of time watching T.V. and won’t apologize for it. I did before the pandemic; I do even more now.) So I emailed Pooper, again through Airbnb’s app, and spelled out my phone number in the same weird code as the lady had used. I explained how much easier it would be if we could chat live on the phone, where I could get my questions answered.

Pooper never called me. But he did respond to my email through the app. He said he didn’t have a T.V. in the cottage, but he did have a flat-screen T.V. he wasn’t using, and if I could access T.V. on my MacBook Air, he could probably connect the two. That sounded great. I told him it was a deal if he could do the T.V. thing.

Yesterday morning, Pooper emailed me and said he’d figured out how to do it. He told me to rebook. I emailed him back, and told him that I’d decided to rent his cottage for only one week, not three: I wanted to see if it was working out before committing myself to a lengthy stay. I added that I fully understood if this was a deal-breaker.

Pooper replied that renting for one week was fine with him. So I went back to the Airbnb website, pulled up the ad for his cottage, and attempted to rebook. That’s what I got two shocks. First, the price had risen to $105 a night, far in excess of the $74 we’d agreed to for weeks. Second, when I plugged in the dates—Feb. 1 through Feb. 7—the Airbnb app told me I had to rent the cottage for a minimum of two weeks. Surprised, and by this time a little frustrated, I emailed Pooper and asked if he could clarify the situation.

Pooper made it sound like there had been some kind of technical error. But all of a sudden, I got an email from Airbnb. Pooper had rejected my offer! He would no longer rent his cottage to me. No explanation why. Just a big “NO.”

I guess you could say I was angry. We’d been going back and forth for weeks. I’d based my remodeling plans on renting the cottage. At the last minute, Pooper had not only changed the nightly price, but the minimum stay. I wrote him a rather intemperate email, in which I called him an asshole. He replied and said that he and his wife had decided to cancel me because I was “needy” and an “ungrateful asshole.” He also said he’d been turned off by the fact that I’d sent him my phone number in code. That was against Airbnb’s rules, he said. Well, I’d never used Airbnb before. The rules were strange to me. The woman I’d first contacted had sent me her phone number in code. If she, a lister, had done it, I assumed, perhaps naively, that it was okay.

But that was that. I didn’t get the cottage. And I’ll never use Airbnb again. Hello, Vrbo.

So who was the asshole? Was I “needy” because I “needed” a T.V.? Was I “needy” because I “needed” Pooper to keep the terms of our original agreement: $74 a night for one week? Was I “needy” because I wanted to be able to talk with him on the phone? Or was Pooper an asshole because he behaved in a thoroughly unprofessional manner, stringing me along for most of December, then unceremoniously dumping me at the last minute, throwing a great big monkey wrench into my plans?

You tell me.


A Christmas Dream

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I had my first lucid dream about Gus last night, more than three weeks after his death on Dec. 1. He was in the street in front of my house, leashless, sniffing everything in sight. We didn’t have eye contact. I remember thinking, How amazing! Gus was dead, and now he’s back!

I know people who would explain this by claiming that the real Gus visited me in my dream state, that he was reassuring me everything was okay. They believe in the existence of the soul after death, and that the soul can travel between various dimensions. Gus, these people would say, still loves me so much that he’s now ready to visit me from time to time. The three weeks between his death and last night, they would say, were spent acclimating to his new environment. As Gus himself wrote me on Dec. 3, “I’m still learning my way around here.”

And hadn’t Gus also made a solemn promise? I’ll show up. You’ll know.”

Then there’s the school of thought that says, No, that wasn’t the real Gus. It was your sleeping brain, fabricating the illusion of Gus, dreaming. Dreams aren’t real. Face it, Gus is gone, never to return. You might have beautiful memories of him, you might have beautiful dreams, but they’re not real.

Personally, I don’t know which of these beliefs is true. Maybe neither is; maybe there’s another possibility. The fact is, nobody really knows anything about what happens to the “personality” or “soul” of the person (or the dog) after death. Sure, lots of people claim to know. But they don’t. They want to believe so much that they make themselves believe, and then they surround themselves with like-minded individuals who reinforce their beliefs. But just because a group of people believes something doesn’t make it true. There are plenty of Republicans who think Trump won the election in a landslide. We call that kind of thinking “delusional,” and we shake our heads in sorrow, because there’s no way to prove to those people that they’re living in LaLaLand.

It occurred to me how interesting it is that my vision of a “resurrected” Gus happened on Christmas Day. The holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus is, of course, not Christmas but Easter. Still, was my dream a Christmas “gift”? It made me very happy, even in my sleep. If it was a gift, who gave it to me? If I gave it to myself—if I conjured it—why did I wait for three weeks?

I used to believe in things like the survival of the soul and reincarnation when I was younger. I’d taken a lot of drugs, naturally, and these beliefs, based on vague notions of Eastern philosophies, like Hinduism and Buddhism, sprinkled with American Transcendentalism and Theosophy, were very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. I experienced things that were inexplicable, other than by soul-survival and spiritual communication with the dead. With the coming of the 1980s and the Reagan years, however, that side of myself shrank, replaced by an intensely objective, scientific-materialistic outlook that remains to this day.

But the older I get, the more I know how much I don’t know. Life is so weird that anything is possible. I’m re-reading Susskind’s book on the megaverse, or what he calls The Landscape: a perhaps infinite series of universes so vast that anything you can think of exists somewhere. That’s what quantum theory has brought us to, with all its uncertainty and chaos. Little wonder “people of faith,” as they’re called, cling to their simple credos. Religion explains everything while science merely raises more questions than it can answer. It can be discomfiting for a person who desires firm explanations and cannot tolerate uncertainty.

And yet, I choose to stick with science. There’s no reason why the universe should be explicable, especially through a simplistic Biblical account. A person may wish for life to be explained by simple processes, like the existence of a God who created everything and rules over the universe and hears our prayers. But that person, in principle, has no right to expect his explanation is correct. He certainly has no right to expect others to believe in the same thing, and he is seriously out of order if he expects the laws of his country to be based on his religious beliefs. That’s always been my gripe with extremist Christians in America. I see no difference between them and the Shia regime in Iran, except that the Iranian mullahs have complete power while the Christian preachers here do not. At least, not yet.

Well, so much for Christmas morning musing. My dream about Gus was like a billiard ball that caused my thoughts to ricochet all over the place. It’s going to be a quiet day here in the Heimoff household. Rain is expected by this afternoon, and I don’t expect to see anyone or talk with anyone all day. Is that sad on Christmas day? If it is, then there are a lot of sad people in America. I wish anyone who reads this Merry Christmas!


Gus is still here

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It is with guilt that I tell you that Gus is still alive. I say “guilt,” because literally hundreds of readers weighed in on my last few blog posts and Facebook posts, expressing the most profound sympathy for the death I told them was impending. For instance, on Thursday night I posted a photo of him with the caption “his last night on Earth.” People were very upset about that, as was I. Some of their comments moved me to tears. But, as I said, he’s still alive.

Let me explain.

On Wednesday, he started bleeding heavily from the mouth, from the gum area where the tumor is (and is getting visibly bigger by the day). I’d been waiting for weeks for “the next shoe to drop”—the symptom that would finally force me to have him euthanized. I had no idea what it would be. Could have been almost anything, given the presence of the tumor in his skull, where it could invade his eyes, nose, throat, tongue, or spread to his lungs. He’d bled a little bit from the beginning—in fact, that was why I first brought him to the vet, who gave us the diagnosis of bone cancer (osteosarcoma). But it was just a little. Wednesday’s bloodletting by contrast was horrifying.

So on Thursday, while on a long walk, I made the painful decision: It was time. I made arrangements for Friday, to bring him to the vet who would euthanize him. But them something happened. You see, about ten days ago, his regular vet had given me two new prescriptions for him: a more powerful painkiller than that one he was already on, and the corticosteroid, Prednisone. She said the more powerful painkiller would make him drowsy, something his existing painkiller wasn’t doing, while the Prednisone was an anti-inflammatory that would keep the swelling down.  

Well, his existing painkiller seemed to be working just fine, without making him drowsy, so it didn’t make sense to give him the more powerful one. The vet also warned me, in no uncertain terms, not to combine the Prednisone with the existing painkiller: there could be extremely serious contraindications. So I stuck the new painkiller and the Prednisone in the fridge and decided I wouldn’t use them until and unless things got very bad.

On Thursday night, with euthanasia scheduled for the next day, I figured, why not give him the more powerful painkiller and the Prednisone? Couldn’t hurt, might help. And that’s what I did. Gus had a very good night sleeping with me Thursday night. Just a few drops of blood. He seemed great on Friday morning. No blood! Pretty much as perky and hungry as ever, curious, happy to go out, responsive, looking for a belly rub. Clearly something, probably the Prednisone, had done something positive.

I did a little Googling on “Prednisone for dogs, cancer” and learned the following: It’s not a cure, but an effective palliative. It’s not intended for longterm use, but over a short period can provide pain relief, and a feeling of well being. Over a longer period—several months—Prednisone can have many serious side effects. But overall, it can be a marvelous drug, even for a dog dying of cancer.

Well, my mind was in a real quandary. I’d thought and thought about Gus for weeks, wondering when the end was here. On Thursday, I had made a decision—one of the hardest of my life—to have him put down the next day. Now, suddenly, it was the next day, and he was so much better. I talked to a few friends who had experience with Prednisone and animals and they told me how miraculous it was, at least for a while. So, late Friday morning, I changed my plans. No euthanasia.

My guilt is because I now feel like I unintentionally misled so many wonderful people, whom I’d told I’d be euthanizing Gus on Friday, people who loved and cared and suffered along with me. And now, I’m telling everyone I didn’t euthanize him. Please forgive me! I mean that with all my heart. Anyone who’s gone through this knows the emotional roller coaster I’ve gone through. You’re up one day, down the next, even further down the next—and then you’re back up. Tears, then hope, then tears, then hope, then…Well, as long as he’s happy and eating and enjoying life, and not bleeding or showing other symptoms of the cancer, how can I put him down now?

I don’t know how long this reprieve will last. Could be a day, or several days. For all I know, it could be a few weeks. It doesn’t seem likely to be longer than that, and as my research showed me, the serious side effects would eventually cancel out the benefits. In the meantime, I still have little Gus. He’s doing okay. I’m so grateful to you all for being there for me. I’ll continue to keep you posted.


Gus: a good dog

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It’s been a month since Gus got sick with bone cancer. The lump on the left side of his face has gotten a lot bigger; it looks like he has half a walnut shell under his jowl. When the vet gave me the diagnosis—we were in a little examining room—she gave him “a few weeks to a few months” to live. It’s been four weeks now. Nothing much has changed; Gus is more or less in a holding pattern. But the vet used the word “aggressive” several times to describe the nature of the cancer, the implication being that when things go south, he’ll deteriorate rapidly.

The skull is, of course, a bad place to get an aggressive cancer. If it had struck a limb, the limb could have been amputated. Where the tumor goes next is anyone’s guess. His respiratory system is vulnerable. So are his eyes, teeth and olfactory system. (I can’t imagine Gus not being able to sniff anymore.) The hardest thing from a managerial point of view is deciding when to have him euthanized. Although I have bouts of magical thinking in which the tumor miraculously starts shrinking, I know that’s not going to happen. Gus is going to die. But it’s extremely unlikely he’ll die a natural death, “in his sleep,” as it were. His death will be caused by an injection of pentobarbital, and it is I who will give the order to the vet to do the deed.

I’m reconciled to that. The question is “when.” I’ve had advice from literally hundreds of people about this question of timing. Many advise putting Gus down sooner than I’d like to, that is, while he still has a good quality of life, which he does. He’s always hungry, loves to go outside and sniff and pee, is interested in every person whom we pass on the sidewalk, observes squirrels with the canis intensity bred into his genes, greets me when I come home, loves to lick my hands and face, and enjoys finding a nice spot in the sun to nap. In other words, a good life (or should I say, “a dog’s life”?). The sooner-rather-than-later people say that it’s pointless and cruel to wait until he starts to suffer. It’s hard to argue with that.

Then there’s the other side, which includes people very close to me. They take one look at Gus and say, “How could you possibly even consider ending it now? He’s happy.” Instead, they advise waiting until something bad happens—he stops eating, say, or becomes unusually lethargic, or begins to constantly cry. That makes sense to me, too, but there are practical considerations that make me worry. I’ve spoken to a number of vets who could put him down, and they all warn me it’s liable to be two or three days before they can find the time to do it. My worst fear is having Gus be in insufferable pain and having to wait days for a vet appointment.

This is the horn of the dilemma. It consumes me every day, all day, the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing at night. I’m probably getting too much advice. All those opinions churning around in my brain, clashing with each other, don’t make it any easier to have clarity. But it helps me to talk to others, to listen to what they say, and besides, a lot of the people offering me advice have their own pet-euthanasia tales that are touching and often tear-jerking. It’s amazing this bond humans can have with their animals. I’ve never had kids, and I wouldn’t for a minute pretend that losing a dog is worse than losing a child. But even parents who have lost children share with me the inordinate pain of losing a beloved dog or cat. You can love your child but your child will still hurt you plenty over the course of your lives, whereas a good dog will never hurt you. And Gus is (as I tell him all the time) a good dog.

I really lucked out with him. We just hit it off from the first minute we met. He’s not only sweet, he doesn’t even bark. I know that, physically, he’s able to, because he’s barked maybe half a dozen times in our 11 years together. But he doesn’t, for some reason, and that’s a good thing, because I don’t like barky dogs. The other thing that’s on my mind is whether to get another dog when Gus dies. One fear is that no dog could possibly compare to Gus, and I don’t want to resent a new animal in my life because he or she isn’t as sweet, loving and well-behaved as Gus. Along those lines, an old friend told me that he’s had six dogs sequentially over the years, and he always worried about the same thing–the new one wouldn’t live up to the old one–only to find that his fears were groundless. He always found himself loving his new dog as much as the previous one.

But I’m making plans for the post-Gus period, which I guess is a sign of mental health. I’m going to remodel my condo. And I’m going to go someplace while the contractor is doing it—probably Palm Springs, where I’ve never been. I’ve begun researching that desert community, and it sounds like a nice place to stay, even during the pandemic. I think it will be healthy for me to get out of my condo and out of Oakland when Gus is no longer here. I can distract myself with other things during the grieving process. Then I can decide if I want to get another dog.

Anyhow, I’m looking at Gus now, in his little bed beside my desk with the computer I’m writing this on. The day is cool, windless and very foggy, with a ground fog that makes the big trees across the street barely discernible. I think aromas carry further on such a day; maybe the water particles in the air transmit them more efficiently. Gus certainly had a good time sniffing on our walk. One never knows what he’s smelling, of course, but he’s so intense about it. I like that in him, and I like the fact that he stops and looks up at every person who walks by, with his big, brown, trusting eyes; and usually, the people look back at him and smile.


Tears of joy, tears of sorrow

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Oakland went CRAZY on Saturday when news of Biden’s victory was announced. Spontaneous celebrations of joy erupted around the city, as they historically did in so many other American cities. The tens of thousands who turned out here comprised the greatest public demonstration of happiness since the last time the Warriors won the NBA championship. The streets around Lake Merritt were gridlocked with honking cars, flag-wavers, posters, people flashing the “V” sign, cheers, and above all, smiles.

I was returning from the gym when I heard the honks. I really wanted to get home and see how Gus was doing, but I just had to get involved. After taking a few pictures, the fever hit me, and I joined in the street dancing. Jumped up and down, waved my fists “Hell, yeah!”, and yelled my bloody arse off. Everybody was grinning and high-fiving, music was playing from every car stereo, and even the weather gods cooperated: a stunningly clear, blue sky, with mild temperatures and a clean, pure breeze. Biden weather.

Wasn’t it a pleasure to see the news reports from around the country? Millions of ordinary people turned to the streets just to express their sheer joy after the stress and tension of the last few months—no, make that the last four years. “Our long national nightmare is over,” were the words that occurred to me—Gerald Ford’s words–when the networks announced Biden’s victory early Saturday morning. I don’t think Trump was in the White House at the time, but if he had been and looked out the windows, he would have seen massive gatherings of citizens, celebrating his humiliating loss.

I just had to reach out to people. I made phone calls to friends, started conversations with perfect strangers. It occurred to me to buy a bottle of sparkling wine, so I went to Bay Grape, which my friend Josiah Baldivino owns. There was a line at the door. When it was my turn, the front door guy scanned my forehead for my temperature and let me in. I had some questions, so a floor staff guy helped me make my choice: a Cremant de Loire, made not from the traditional Chenin Blanc but from Cabernet Franc. As I was paying for it, I told the guy—he couldn’t have been more than 27—that he was witnessing an important day in American history. He said he knew. I was crying. Honestly, I haven’t cried as much in the last forty years as I have in the last three weeks. Between Gus (tears of grief) and the election (tears of stress), and then, when Biden won (tears of gratefulness and relief), I’m just a soggy old mess.

Which got me thinking. I find myself crying for two completely opposite reasons: Gus and Biden. But the tears feel the same: somehow, they’re both cleansing. Purifying. I don’t really understand it. I Googled “purifying tears” and came across this interesting comment. “The role of tears is to purify the souls of people in critical situations or of happiness. Tears help us to deeply penetrate into our being and to demonstrate [to] ourselves that we are capable of feeling something. The role of tears is well defined, because as there are tears of joy, so there are tears of pain. As a matter of fact, once with us, cry even our soul, which feels every emotion, every feeling. The tear is a symbol of joy and suffering and we must accept it because it represents our purification regardless of circumstances. The role of the tears is like rain, only that it does not wash streets, but souls!”

That’s what crying feels like to me: a washing of my soul. And it’s so strange that, in my life, two profoundly moving things are happening simultaneously: Gus’s impending death, and this miraculous election of Joe Biden. It’s almost too much to wrap my brain around.

Well, Gus isn’t getting any better. Sometimes, I put my lips on his swollen tumor, on the left side of his snout, and draw my breath in, to take the cancer out into myself. I know this is silly, but it can’t do any harm, and besides, Gus seems to like it. He’s always been a needy dog; he likes being with me, in close physical contact. But lately, he’s become even needier. Not in an annoying way. He’s an extraordinarily sweet little dog, with big, soft brown eyes, and his sweetness has been magnified over the last three weeks, like the elemental quality of sweetness in the Universe is coming through his body. I’ll have him euthanized when the time comes, but I find myself struggling with this dilemma: how will I know when the time comes? Marilyn told me she realized, in retrospect, that she’d kept her first dog alive too long, even when it was very sick, not for the dog’s sake, but for hers. “Don’t feel guilty if you put Gus down sooner than you think you have to,” she said. I think that’s a profound insight, but it still begs the question, how will I know? People say, “You’ll just know.” And I suppose I have to assume that’s right. I’ll just know.

But not yet. Maybe in the next few days, maybe a week or two. Then I’ll have to decide whether to get another dog. I can’t imagine coming home and not having Gus there waiting by the door. “Hi Little Baby,” I say, as he hops up with his front paws on my knee and looks at me, his tail wagging. But I’m old; I don’t know how much time I have left, and I don’t want to get a dog only to drop dead the next day. It wouldn’t be fair to the animal.

My wonderful next-door neighbor, Wendy, just got the cutest little puppy, Ish (short for Ishmael). I don’t know the breed. The little thing is so full of energy, a four-pound dervish of playful dogginess. Old Gus doesn’t quite know what to make of Ish. I see them together, and I think, “Gus is life leaving this plane, and Ish is life entering it. The cycle goes on.” Hardly the most profound thought, but it makes me cry. As do so many things these days.


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