Where’s My Magic, Dammit?

Sometimes a day hands you a magical moment, the kind that friends tap you to write about in one of those many viral campaigns on Facebook this summer. This is not one of those days. This means that for the third day in a row I will be disappointing my daughter, who has agreed to post her own magic moments on Facebook and three days ago tapped me to do the same.

If you are reading this it means you have not deserted my blog, despite its inexcusably long absence. And here I am on your doorstep — feeling sheepish and apprehensive but hopeful you will show me to my old bedroom in your blogging home once more. Still, I wouldn’t blame you if you had assumed me dead (or worse still, a lightweight) or if you shut the door in my face.

But first let me explain. I have a long list of excuses reasons for not blogging. I got busy professionally. We were traveling. It’s been gardening season and I go into a zen-like, mindless trance while pulling weeds and drowning Japanese beetles with Dead-Bug. For the past few months I have even given up newspapers and most television to spend my limited free time binge-reading all five “Game of Thrones” novels. Most seriously, my mother has come to live with us and we have devoted ourselves to helping her get adjusted…a job we are honestly happy to do for a woman who gave so much to me when I was an angst-ridden 13-year-old. All of these have totally cut into the time I have for the introspection that a blog requires. But part of me still believes in magic, and hopes that by some miracle you have not un-followed me.

Still with me? Good, because I want to tell you the closest thing I had to a magical moment today. I’m sure many of you have been asked on Facebook this summer to sign up for a multi-week marathon of posting your blessings, reasons to be grateful, 25 things people don’t know about you, etc. These have been making the rounds on social media these days, and I frankly have found them tiresome. Usually I just read my friends’ postings while feeling a little smug that I’ve eluded the trap. I’ve even resisted the ever-growing conga line of people who’ve embraced the ALS ice bucket challenge, a group that now includes the New England Patriots, many celebrities, Ethel Kennedy and most surprisingly, even some of my most cynical friends. I think my sister and I have been the only ones who haven’t posted videos of ourselves dumping ice on our heads. We both agreed that writing a nice check to the ALS Foundation was far preferable than getting our naturally curly hair wet and having to spend an hour blowing it out all over again. (I know that many of those who donated also were game enough to ice themselves down, but I have no sense of fun. Just ask my kids.)

But as I mentioned earlier, three days ago my daughter Rachel asked me to look for magic in each day and write about it. I thought about it this morning but once again was too busy to slow down and look for any magic. We have been enjoying a visit from son Ryan and his friend, David, both visiting from England, and it has been wonderful but not magical. We also hosted our son Ben, his friend Tom, and some of my son John’s teenaged friends over the past two days for swimming and watching a wrestling pay-per-view. I’ve been frantically defrosting hotdogs, drying wet towels and blowing up air mattresses. Just as the last teens left today, my husband Bob hosted some business associates at our home, and lunch had to be made. Horror of horrors, for the first time in memory, we had no beer in the house.

And of course, there were our dogs Gus and Rita to attend to, and they have been work recently. We have had a few challenging weeks with Rita, who did not take it well when we left her in a kennel while on vacation (even though she looked happy on the kennel’s streaming video). We arranged for them to be bathed and groomed before we picked them up, and Rita arrived home with gleaming gold fur, a pink bow, an attitude and some bad habits we thought she had outgrown. She started having the occasional accident on the floor, and my olfactory sense developed a raging paranoia, smelling plots everywhere. And I smelled one in the house today, right after I had brought Rita outside to do her business in an “authorized” location, and just as Bob’s business associates were arriving for lunch.

Armed with paper towels and Nature’s Miracle, I went on the hunt. But where was it? I checked all the spots in the house where she had offended before, but could not find anything. I smelled it most strongly in our small laundry area, and crawled along the floor there without any luck. I was equally unlucky in the kitchen, with its dark floor that hid a multitude of dark deeds. I crouched down and eyeballed the surface of the floor like a golfer eyeing his shot at ground level. Luckily, Bob’s business guests had retreated to the open-air porch and its forgiving breezes.

Then I spied it. Not on the floor, but on the bottom of my shoe. I pulled off the shoe and brought it just close enough to my nose to confirm it. And then I laughed, so hard I was afraid I’d be the next offender. I shared the story with John and he laughed just as hard. And I realized that sometimes a day just hands you magic, but other days you step in it.

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Hurricane Rita Blows In

IMG_3102Don’t let the cuteness fool you. Our second dog, who arrived on Friday, is at eight weeks already an alpha female. The trainer arrives today, and not a moment too soon.

After a delightful 10 months with the very laid-back Gus, our first dog, we made the decision a few months ago to get another dog as a companion for him. Miniature dachshunds are very social creatures and a few people had advised us to get two dogs from the get-go. But as first-time dog owners, we did not want to tax ourselves.

Gus was an easy dog, docile and easily housebroken, loyal and affectionate…all hallmarks of the dachshund breed. In recent months, however, Gus has seemed lonely at times despite getting plenty of love, attention and furtively delivered morsels of people food. He began seeing us as his buddies constantly, often looking up at us with a tennis ball clutched in his jaws and whining sorrowfully. This was starting to happen late at night when Bob and I lay on the couch in our usual “Law and Order”-induced stupor. We felt we were ready for another dog at this point, and luckily the same breeder who gave us Gus had another litter on the way. They were the spawn of Gus’s older brother Kommodore Schutzhund, or “Schutz” for short. The puppies were born on May 5, Cinco de Mayo, and we claimed and named the only girl: Margarita.

From the moment she arrived, her astounding cuteness inspired awe and ahs, and she melted our hearts when she snuggled on our laps, which she loves to do.  However, Rita has another side:  the feisty and combative second child who refuses to play second fiddle. Unlike most females, she has no problem leaning in.

We had been warned that Gus, who has been treated like a prince since we brought him home, might have some trouble sharing his castle with another dog. Their breeder, Tiffany, advised us beforehand to let them share sleeping arrangements and food dishes and work out their conflicts themselves, an essential part of the bonding experience. She assured us that Gus and Rita (who is Gus’s niece) would share a special and playful relationship.

Yet the relationship has been more Punch and Judy than George and Gracie. It has been painful to watch the ritualistic one-upsdogship – which started soon after the initial butt-sniffing ritual, the canine world’s equivalent of a polite handshake. Since Rita arrived she has been hogging the food bowl, chomping down heartily while the more patient Gus waits his turn. If Gus tries to claim a spot at the bowl she nudges him out of the way. Despite being a quarter his size, she has remarkably sharp elbows when it comes to asserting first dibs on the doggie bed. Gus, unused to having to fight for anything, seems to not know what to do.

Rita has also been getting in Gus’s face and picking fights with him. She bares her teeth, assaults Gus’s side with both paws, climbs onto him when he is lying on his back. Her teeth have come dangerously close to Gus’s private parts a few times. Gus, who shows remarkable restraint, tries to turn the tables with a swipe of his stronger paw. Sometimes he just lays on top of Rita, a tired “can’t we get this over with?” look on his face, as she barks like an angered chipmunk.

This is like watching a middle child gleefully taunt the oldest; or a midget wrester trying to take down a Sumo; or the killer bunny attacking the knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Yesterday, while our son John was watching the dogs as I ran errands, he called me to tell me he had to put each of them “in solitary” in their crates. He was concerned enough to take action and keep them separated. But advised to do nothing, I merely watch with the morbid fascination reserved for car wrecks along the highway.

Along the perimeter of our back yard is a fence and a three-foot-wide gravel path, where Gus has always enjoyed walking with us. Gus is visibly peeved when Rita accompanies us now. He runs ahead of her, then turns his long dachshund body perpendicular to the path, as if to block her. He body-slams her to the edge of the path before running ahead again. Then the process repeats.

I thought raising more than one dog would be more laid-back than childrearing, which often requires parents to mediate scuffles between their offspring. I was ready to be the coolheaded dog owner who rolled with their punches. Still, it’s hard to see my adorable new pup go right for Gus’s balls in the attack. I asked Tiffany if this was something to be concerned about.

Her answer: “Not at all…Ladies know where it hurts a man.”

An Angel in Pet Heaven

John and Angel, 2006

John and Angel, 2006

After nearly seven years as our pet, our guinea pig Angel died two days ago.

We knew this day was coming. Angel was at the upper end of the actuarial tables for guinea pigs; we know of many fellow guinea pig owners who had far less time with them. Guinea pigs are in the same temporary-pet class as rats and hamsters, Eastertime baby chicks, most bunnies, and goldfish. It’s no wonder that “small pet care” has such a tiny stretch of shelf space in the local Target.

Even if they live to an old age, Guinea pigs don’t insist on a bond with their humans like dogs and cats do. They don’t climb into your lap and rub up against your leg. They come out of their plastic igloos just long enough to grab a proffered carrot, then scramble back into it to eat in solitary peace. I’ve heard of several people who’ve trained their guinea pigs – including our friend Bernie, whose guinea pig Elwood had as much free range as an indoor cat — but Angel was more private.

Yet we bonded with this little rodent and she became part of our lives, even though we never expected her to share our lives for so long. She was an eighth birthday gift to our son John, now 14, who had fallen in love with his friend Greg’s guinea pig. We found her at the local Petco, where we had a choice of just two guinea pigs since most pet stores now steer people towards adopting small pets. One was a docile brown one who kept to herself in the corner of the shared cage. The other was a calico-patterned, spikey-haired furball who careened around the cage and squealed like a middle-school girl with a crush. Streaks of brown fur around her left eye looked like smudged mascara on Courtney Love.

We brought this punk rocker home, along with $75 worth of guinea pig accessories, and presented her to John the evening before his eighth birthday. What do you want to name her?, Bob and I asked. The answer was immediate: “Angel Happy Face.” A Sandra Dee-type name for a head-banging hunk of fur, but she became Angel.

We had visions of John becoming an ever-loving, responsible pet owner but in truth this did not happen right away. Angel was the focus of much attention at first but in time he had to be reminded to clean her cage, check her bowl and water and do other maintenance. Eventually, after a few years of nagging, it became automatic. Bob and I were equally guilty of less than hands-on treatment; we held her constantly when she was new to our home but less as time went on. Still, she demanded little and gave us so much back. When we held her she’d make a low, slightly rough purring sound as we stroked her fur. Her eyes never blinked, a constant source of amazement.

In the early years we would let Angel run around our screened-in back porch on warm summer days, and often all three of us had to chase her down to put her back into her cage. Our furry fugitive would run away from us, squealing and dodging the whole way, until we chased her into a corner and dropped a small towel on her, stunning her just long enough to bundle her into her cage. Eventually, we discovered to our great delight that we could train her to return to her cage. We would let her run around; then place the cage in the middle of the porch, open the hinged drawbridge-styled door until it touched the floor, create a path with slices of strawberry, then get out of the way and out of sight. Angel would eventually nibble her way back home; we’d shut the door as soon as she let herself in. Eventually the strawberries were not necessary. We’d put the cage in the middle of the porch after letting Angel play for an hour; and our pet would approach her home, mysteriously circle three times around it, then ascend the drawbridge and enter.

After Angel began chewing our wicker porch furniture we had to consider other options. One Father’s Day John, Bob and Bob’s father Gene built a four-by-six-foot outdoor cage from wooden planks and chicken wire. Angel would spend many summer hours there, in the shade, happily nibbling on blades of grass.

Angel did not have a lot of contact with other animals – except for one wild afternoon romp on our back porch with T-Bone, my daughter’s friend’s chinchilla — but we had great friends who cared for her when we were on vacation, some of whom had pets. Our friend Darren, who raised bunnies, would include Angel as part of his menagerie; he and his children would hold Angel while they watched TV. Angel also stayed over Greg’s house and hung out with his guinea pig, Mocho, and his yellow parakeet, Twinkie. We took care of Twinkie recently when his family went on vacation. Angel helped us bond more deeply with our friends.

Several months ago, when we brought our dog Gus home, we introduced them to each other carefully. Gus was curious at first, then recoiled from Angel when she began squealing at him. He eventually started ignoring her. Since dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers, which remotely resemble guinea pigs, we watched them closely when they were together, but for the most part they left each other alone.

Gus is a more interactive pet. He climbs onto our laps, stares up at us appealingly, whines when he wants attention. He is impossible to ignore, unlike Angel, who was content to be by herself and whistled for us only when she was hungry. Angel taught us our limits as pet owners: we needed pets that talked to us more and gave us more love. At times, even before Gus came home, we worried that we were not giving Angel the attention she deserved, even though we lavished her with fresh carrots, parsley and lettuce until she grew so fat she waddled.

A few months ago I noticed gray streaks in her coarsening fur, some caked spots at the roots and more shedding than usual. And over the past year Angel changed from doing her business in one corner of her cage to being more indiscriminate. She developed a skin infection three months ago and we had to take her to a vet for the first time. Sometimes Angel would just peek her head out of her blue igloo long enough to grab the baby carrot we poked through her cage; then quickly retract back inside.

Over the past few days Angel was not herself. We were accustomed to hearing her squeal when we first entered the kitchen; she knew our footsteps meant a carrot was forthcoming. The past few days were silent and we had to remember to bring her something. Three nights ago John tried to pet her and she bit him, something she had never done before.

Two afternoons ago I found her dead. We told John when we picked him up from school. John does not cry that often and we wondered how he would react. His face crumpled in the car and he did not say much. When he got home, he and Bob dug a hole in a wooded area of our back yard, not far from where we stored the outdoor cage they had built for her, and buried our pet in her blue igloo. I moved a bunch of newly blooming crocuses there and we marked the grave with a rock.

Then we cried for the pet who had outlived the actuarial tables and our attention spans for her, who had given us so much and had asked for so little.

Hey, Dog Whisperer: My Dog Begs for Meatballs, and Other Problems

Gus at rest, but not in his crate like he’s supposed to be. Perhaps he is dreaming of meatballs.

Dear Cesar Milan,
OK we bought your book. We know the importance of calm, authoritative attitudes when handling puppies, no matter how cute. We’ve practiced the art of going through the door first and letting the dog follow, of owning our space and of saying “tssst!” to show displeasure when our puppy whines or jumps too much.

So what can we do when the dog isn’t buying it?

We’ve had our new puppy Gus for just two days. It has been an adjustment. On the plus side, he is getting used to the crate. On the minus side, everything we’ve read in the Dog Whisperer book about being a calm and authoritative pack leader has gone out the window. Gus ignores the people who’ve best learned to be authoritative (thanks to your television shows and book) and lavishes all his attention on the weak link: me.

He’s already turning into a picky eater, even though we are using the same puppy chow as his breeder. He has hardly touched his food bowl, despite our cajoling. But he clung to my ankles last night as I stirred a pot of gravy and meatballs, and whimpered and begged while we ate dinner. Could it be that Gus, descended from a prestigious line of German miniature dachshunds, is really Italian?

Perhaps that would explain his attachment to his new “mama.” While my son has projected a more authoritative presence (thanks to you), Gus has me pegged for a softie. He ignores other family members and follows me around from room to room. When I tell him to “stay,” he must interpret it to mean, “within a two-foot radius.” As soon as I sit down he jumps into my lap – even though dachshunds supposedly should limit jumping because they are prone to bad backs — and starts licking my face. He cries pitifully if I put him into his crate so I can get something done. He is a mama’s dog through and through. If this continues, will he turn into Paulie Walnuts?

He certainly is capable of bonding with the guys in the family, at least if I am not around. Last night, ignoring his whimpers, I left to do some food shopping. When I returned Bob and Gus were peacefully curled up on the couch together watching the Red Sox. Gus was nearly asleep, but when he saw me he started wagging his tail furiously and immediately climbed into my lap. I should have told him “tsst” and pushed him away with a clawed hand, like you suggested.

Dog Whisperer, I am making the same mistakes with Gus that I made as a parent of small children. I have a hard time with the tough decisions and the “executive” part of parenting, whether it’s a two-legged or four-legged creature. I let my daughter live on Spaghetti-os for months at a time when it was the only thing she would eat. When my kids had problems going to bed I would sit in the hallway outside their bedrooms with a magazine and reassure them that I wasn’t going away, instead of locking their door as some childhood sleep experts would recommend. Now Gus is sleeping in his crate in our bedroom, something that really should not be happening.

House training has also been challenging at times, just as potty training was. I’ve brought Gus outside many times and waited, but nothing has happened except for a lot of sniffing, pointing, and digging up tuberous plants. I’ve brought him to a nice tree and encouraged him to take a whiz there, even modeled the correct technique. I prayed that no neighbors saw me when I lifted up one arm and one leg and said, “see Gus, this is how it’s done,” while he stared quizzically at me. Only later did I find out from his breeder that a dachshund’s legs are too short to pee like other dogs do; he just lets everything trickle down. He hasn’t pooped outside either, but that doesn’t surprise me since that the “number-two” part of potty training was challenging for my other boys as well. (My youngest pooped in my shoe once after I refused to let him put a diaper back on.)

So, Dog Whisperer, please help. My weiner dog is on his way to becoming an anal-retentive, meatball-loving, authority-resistant, Italian mama’s boy. Please bring over Blizzard, Mr. President and Junior and tell me what to do. I need to get over this problem before I have grandchildren.

It’s D-Day (for Dog) Today!

Gus, our new miniature dachshund puppy. Isn’t he cute???

In about an hour and a half I will be bringing home Augustus, AKA Gus, a very little, very cute miniature long-haired dachshund — our family’s first dog ever.

Gus is a friendly little guy with a face that melted our hearts. (Take a look and see for yourself). We have visited his breeder twice to play with him and help him become familiar with our scent. In the presence of his mother, father and pack-mates he is happy-go-lucky, playful yet laid-back…the perfect temperament. I know he will miss them and we are determined to make him feel loved and safe.

This morning I am humming that old Jackson Browne song, “Ready or Not,” composed when his girlfriend was expecting a baby. I keep thinking of the line, “take a look in my eyes, and tell me brother if you think that I am ready.”

Part of me thinks that we are ready. We’ve read the Dog Whisperer books and
watched dozens of the TV shows. We’ve learned the importance of having calm, assertive presence. We’ve learned about the proper interplay of love and limits, and how we should mirror the behavior of our pet’s mother for best results. We’ve scoped out the best places in the house for our pet’s new hangout, spent about $300 at the pet store on the right supplies and food; put electrical cords out of reach.

Gus with John (right) and John’s friends Carly and Greg

But yet I worry about not being ready. At age 58, I have never had a dog. My husband had several when he was growing up but hasn’t cared for a dog in decades. Growing up we had aquarium fish, including a red-tailed shark that nipped the tails of other fish. Most of our fish died pretty early, except for Andy, an angelfish that hung around for a few years. While my two grown children were small we had Jessie, our cat, who died in 2003. We now have Angel, a guinea pig, who is very low maintenance and happy staying in her cage and munching carrots.

So, with only our 14-year-old at home with us, we have had several years of things being easy. Our youngest child can dress himself, get his own food, go to bed without any pushing on our part. We haven’t changed a diaper, worried about potty accidents or used a baby gate in 11 years. We’ve spent many years helping our children become independent, to think for themselves and care for themselves. Without anybody else to really fret or fuss over, it’s been incredibly easy to just focus on our own needs. Am I ready to devote a lot of time now to putting our new pet’s needs first? To adjust to a new routine whenever we go outside or on errands?

Yesterday we were on a plane flying back from California when the in-flight entertainment included a documentary called “Why We Love our Cats and Dogs.” They interviewed people who said that their pets made them less focused on themselves. Even if they were tired, depressed or angry, the dog’s needs got them out of bed and into the world. Ultimately, that made them happier, better human beings.

I also re-read my brother-in-law Mike’s wonderful essay about his dog Molly, written just after she passed away. It gave me an appreciation for the joy that dogs can bring to our lives. Like us, Mike did not feel ready to take on a dog; it was something his children wanted before he accepted it. But over time he grew to love that dog like a child.

All of us are looking forward to experiencing that overwhelming love with our new pet, Gus. We are prepared for some adjustment problems, and despite being well-versed in Dog Whisperer techniques we know that we’ll be doing a lot of learning together with Gus while we adjust to each other. Yes, brother, I think that I am ready.

Saying Goodbye to the ‘World’s Best Dog’

Molly (left, above) with Guinness, Mike and Erica’s other dog and best friend. Molly was put to sleep a few days ago after an accident that was gradually paralyzing her.

My brother-in-law Mike and his wife Erica lost their beloved chocolate lab, Molly, a few days ago.  Mike posted this very moving essay on his Facebook page, and I had to share.  It is a beautiful tribute to how dogs fill the gap left by children who’ve grown up and moved away — as Mike puts it “with the added bonus of no back talk or allowance.”  He rightfully called her “The World’s Best Dog.” RIP, Molly.

This Saturday was the one of the most sad moments in recent memory for my family. Molly, our twelve year old Chocolate Labrador and loyal friend – broke her back a couple of weeks ago running like a puppy around the yard. She slipped, hyper extended her aging back and, well you get it. She seemed fine for several days and we never knew anything was wrong. Then she slowly started to lose her balance, had trouble walking and then eventually – no amount of money nor the greatest of veterinarians could prevent her from becoming paralyzed.

Molly was the dog I never wanted – we already had a friggin’ dog and I certainly didn’t want another one. I liked dogs, but they were just dogs, nothing more. Besides, they shed and they smell and they don’t have the courtesy of cleaning up after themselves. The nerve . .

But my 14 year old son wanted his own dog, so months of wife and family pressure gave way to a trip to the breeder to find a new friend for my son. He wanted a Labrador. He chose her, he named her, he was supposed to take care of her. Of course, it’s the story you often hear – grumpy man doesn’t want stupid dog, but once dog arrives and takes over the house and all the cars – the fabric of the home begins to change. And that’s what happened, this “dog” became an integral part of our lives – transitioning us from a two-kid household, to one where the kids have left home, graduated college and started careers. They never returned, but dog was still there – now “our dog”. And that’s what happens. The dog replaces the kids with the added bonus of no back talk nor allowance.

Molly went everywhere we went. Endless ski vacations, camping, trips to the beach, swimming, hiking, gardening (helping to uproot newly planted flowers), washing the car (stealing towels and other valuable tools). She accompanied both boys to their respective colleges, helping them settle into their dorms.

And in the blink of an eye, 12 years have passed, and this dog is so entrenched into your lives you cannot imagine waking up without those soulful eyes staring down at you. But the years do pass by, and in one of life’s cruel tricks, your dog has aged so much faster than you.

And so on Saturday morning two weeks after her injury and after agonizing for hours, we called a mobile Vet to come to our home to end her life in the place she most enjoyed, her own home in her own backyard. There was no way Molly was going to die in a clinic on cold stainless steel table. We led her out to the backyard and gave her one of her favorite treats, peanut butter stuffed inside a cow bone. She licked away blissfully on a beautiful sunny morning while lying down next to us as we held her. Fifteen minutes later, she was gone.

There is no greater loyalty in the world, no stronger bond then that between man and dog. Unless you’ve known the love and peace a dog can bring into your life, it’s hard to comprehend the anguish surrounding a decision that will end your dog’s life. “Dog people” will know what I’m talking about, others will roll their eyes. Regardless, no matter how humane the decision to peacefully release your friend from the confines of pain and suffering, you never escape the guilt of “but maybe I could have done more.”

I found this poem on the web any years ago. It moved me then, but now of course it has a very special meaning.

Sweet dreams Molly. Thank you for all the happiness you brought to so many lives.

——————————————————————

If it should be that I grow weak
And pain should keep me from my sleep,
Then you must do what must be done,
For this last battle cannot be won.

You will be sad, I understand.
Don’t let your grief then stay your hand.
For this day, more than all the rest,
Your love for me must stand the test.

We’ve had so many happy years.
What is to come can hold no fears.
You’d not want me to suffer so;
The time has come — please let me go.

Take me where my need they’ll tend,
And please stay with me til the end.
Hold me firm and speak to me,
Until my eyes no longer see.

I know in time that you will see
The kindness that you did for me.
Although my tail its last has waved,
From pain and suffering I’ve been saved.

Please do not grieve–it must be you
Who had this painful thing to do.
We’ve been so close, we two, these years;
Don’t let your heart hold back its tears.