Strong Medicine

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Last week was a long and stressy week. I’m anxious about everything right now. Last week more than some other weeks, each additional thing just added another layer with no time to level out or come down from the last thing. I probably should have realized it would be an anxious week when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday because I hadn’t taken the trash down to the road the night before and I might miss the trash pickup. Mind you, the trash pick up has been happening between 10 a.m. and noon for the last twenty years, and also I don’t actually care if we get the trash picked up every week.

I was anxious about work meetings, whether I had prepared enough, whether my presentations were good enough (hint: I don’t care about powerpoint presentations even more than I don’t care about trash pick up), whether after the next board meeting I might find my job had been deemed unnecessary.

I was anxious about Tabby’s leg wound, whether it was not healing well, whether I was bandaging it too loose or too tight, whether it was getting too wet in the five minutes of rain we had one night, whether the bandage would somehow come unwound and scare both Tabby and Niño into running through the fence and I would find them hogtied together somewhere in the back woods in the morning.

As I said, a stressy week, with periods of escalating craziness.

My most relaxing activity, always (except for when they fight), is to hang out with the dogs. So we spent a lot of time outside in the dog yard, generally with two dogs in one yard and the third dog in the other to avoid any possible fights. As always, I spent a lot of that time taking pictures of them. Also as always, sometimes the pictures were good and because even the worst ones – especially the worst ones – made me laugh. Laughter has been in short supply this year. It’s fair to say that one of the things I miss the most about people – about being around people at all during the pandemic restrictions, and also about specific people I haven’t seen in a long time, and people I will never see again – is laughing with them.

Ask me for a memory of most of my family members who are gone and the first one I think of will involve laughing. The kind of laughing at nothing that you can explain in a way that sounds funny, but in the middle of it you can’t stop and the harder you try the more you laugh. Laughing with my sister over the letters we wrote to our grandmother when we were really little and barely knew how to write. Laughing with my mother in a Thai restaurant over a silly poem until we genuinely thought they were going to ask us to leave. Laughing with my aunt over actually funny movies (the first time I saw Young Frankenstein was with her) and over movies that were so terrible we couldn’t stop laughing (The Abyss). Laughing at my father laughing so hard at his own joke that he could barely get the punchline out.

It’s hard to make clear why those moments were so funny. It’s probably just as hard to make clear why the photo of Boo at the top of this post made me laugh that hard, even if I zoom in closer.

Let me try to illustrate with a little story.

Last summer, which now feels like ten years ago, we were in Colorado and I had the chance to meet our son’s girlfriend for the first time. We planned a dinner for an evening after the kids got off work. Rose and I had bought some edibles the first day we were in town, because, hey, Colorado! And we were on vacation! And going to a music festival later in the week! We had the genius idea to try them out the very same afternoon of the dinner.

They were gummies, and we decided to each have one instead of splitting one, which sounded reasonable because they are really tiny. It turns out that even in the case of tiny gummies it’s really important to understand a) potency, b) your own personal (lack of) tolerance, and c) that some things have changed a lot since you were in college.

Also it turns out when you consume edibles it takes a lot longer than when you smoke for the effects to kick in, but oh joy, they also last a lot longer. Rose’s reaction to this was to get comprehensively ill and lock herself in the bathroom for either 30 minutes or 6 hours, it’s hard for me to say because I maybe lost my sense of time altogether.

In the middle of all this – Rose locked in the downstairs bathroom, me frantically googling “How do I counteract too much THC,” the girlfriend arrived. Now remember, we were supposed to go out to dinner. Dinner was very much out of the question, but saying this and explaining why was beyond my powers of reasoning or speech just then. I spent some time making getting-to-know-you conversation (I think) in the kitchen while Rose (who had already met the girlfriend) remained in the bathroom, with me periodically going downstairs to check on her and then going back to the kitchen and trying to act normal. Finally, Rose and I had a panicked conference through the bathroom door and decided we had to come clean. “We” being me because she was not coming out of the bathroom any time soon.

I went back upstairs and said something like “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this but we can’t go out to dinner tonight because we made a rookie Colorado mistake” and our son said “Oh no, altitude sickness?” and I thought – yes! Altitude sickness! It’s a total out, plus they will feel sorry for us! But what came out of my mouth instead was “Um, no. We had an error in judgement with some edibles.” Fortunately, the girlfriend thought this was really funny, and showed me a hilarious video called “What to Do if You’re Too High on Weed” which made me laugh in that laughing entirely too hard way. I can say that I’ve watched it again since then, and it really is funny. Probably more funny if you’ve ever had the experience, which I can’t actually recommend.

Now that I think of it, there’s some pretty good advice in that video for anxious times in general, starting with “You may feel like you’ve gone permanently insane, or like you’re dead. Here’s the good news: you’re alive, and your sanity is probably intact.” Some practical actions include breathing fresh air, staying hydrated, watching silly tv, and calling a trusted friend (“Talking things through can do wonders, and remind you that you’re a person, and not just a cloud of terrifying thoughts”).

If you haven’t guessed by now, that photo of Boo is a near exact replica of my face that evening, I’m sure of it. I’ll take my laughter where I can get it these days, and it’s nice to know the dogs will never mind when I look at pictures of them and laugh so hard I start to wheeze. I may not always remember how to relax, but they do.

Year of the Rat

Pig and Maya

This photo of my first dog and my now sole cat turned up in my facebook memories today. I brought the kitten home from the lab on my last day at work there nine years ago, driving away with the two lives I could save. When I first brought Pigwidgeon home, I put her in a crate in the hay stall in the barn, partly because she had been found in a hay barn and I thought it might feel familiar, and partly to buy myself a little time to break Rose into the idea that I had brought home yet another kitten. Maya disappeared that afternoon and did not come back no matter how much I called her. When I finally tracked her down, she was in the barn lying next to the kitten’s crate, claiming her new charge.

I’ve been thinking all day about animal acquisitions – the various dogs, cats, horses, and rodents that I have had over the years, and how they came into my life. My clearest memory of a pet introduction from my childhood is the rats. In 1972, the Chinese Year of the Rat, some friends of my parents came for dinner one night bearing two young rats for us to keep as pets. In my memory, the wife waited till after dinner and then pulled the rats – surprise! – out of her purse. Of course we had no cage, so that night we put them in a doll house from which they promptly escaped, but were retrieved before they went far. My oldest sister Darcy named them Cindy and Jennifer.

As Cindy and Jennifer grew up, Jennifer developed what we feared was a tumor. My mother called a friend who was a doctor (in retrospect I realize he was a PhD, not an MD, but he did work at the NIH) to ask his advice, and he suggested some brandy on a sugar cube. It didn’t do much to cure the tumor, but after Cindy gave birth to her first litter of babies it dawned on all of us that it was less tumor and more testes that Jennifer had developed. Jennifer remained Jennifer throughout her long life.

Darcy carefully chronicled the Ratti family generations in her perfect script in the back of a book called The Five Little Peppers, much the way I gather some families keep their own lineage in the family bible. According to The Five Little Peppers, Cindy’s formal name was Sindin. The first litter included Brown Sugar and Milky Way Bar. As time went on and rats added up, we had Lemonsadio, and Stale Bread Pudding, and Demitri Capeltiodis. There were rats named Linda and Richard Richard, so named for some married neighbors because when Linda got exasperated with Richard (which was often), she would say “Richard, Richard.”

The Five Little Peppers does not contain the detailed begats, though I’m sure Darcy would have remembered exactly which rat was the mother of which others (the fathers were a less certain thing). Darcy remembered the order and names of the 13 children in our mother’s mother’s family. She could identify who was who in every photo in every photo album, and what relation they were to us. She could recite family stories from our great-grandparents’ generation as if she had been there. She remembered every birthday.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other, seven years after my mother’s death and nearly thirty years after my uncle’s death. I had a conversation with one of my cousins then about how odd it was to suddenly be the oldest generation in our family. At the time it did not occur to me that we would do anything but keep growing older as the older generation. But then last year, Darcy died.

I still have The Five Little Peppers, and when I think about the the Ratti names, I think about Darcy’s particular brand of creativity. She was the inventor of many of our childhood games. There was a game called Ghosties that my cousins and I can’t remember except that it involved being outside in the evening in our pajamas, and something to do with the streetlamp in front of our house. There was a game I remember nothing at all about but it was called Fall in the Toilet Orphanage and possibly that’s all I need to know. There was a game called Grand Championship that must have taken all day. First, the three of us sisters gathered all of our dolls and stuffed animals at the top of the stairs. Then, one by one, we slid them down the banister to the first floor. Anyone who fell off part way down had to come back up until they could make it all the way down on the banister. Since not all the dolls and animals were a convenient size or shape for banister-sliding, this part alone took quite a while. Once all the dolls and animals were gathered in three piles in the living room, two sisters would take one doll or animal each, stand at opposite ends of the living room, and simultaneously toss the dolls or animals to the opposite sister. They would do this back and forth until one of the dolls or animals fell, and that doll or animal would be out of the game. The third sister would come in with a doll or animal and play against the doll or animal who won the previous round. This would go on until there was only one doll or animal who had not been dropped, and that would be the Grand Champion. Not the sister, mind you, but the doll or animal.

When I think about Darcy I will always think about ballet. She was a dancer from at least the time I was born. I don’t even know how old she was when she started putting on annual performances of The Nutcracker in our basement – certainly no older than 11 or 12. Darcy choreographed, directed, cast, made costumes and sets for, and of course starred in, these productions. She was Dr. Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King, which created interesting staging for the big sword fight when only one of them could be on stage at a time, but she made it work. She was always in one or more of the dances in the second act. There was one boy in the neighborhood who she was able to persuade to participate for a couple of years, and he played Fritz in the first act. There were always two Claras – Clara in the first act, and Clara in the second act. I still think of them as two distinct characters. Clara in the first act had a dancing role, and got to wear the pink party dress. This role rotated between my sister Rachel and her friends. In the early ballets I got stuck with Clara in the second act, in which I had to wear a nightgown and sit in a chair and watch the other dancers. Later I got to be a Candy Cane, which is still my favorite music and dance in every version of the ballet I have seen, but I never was Clara in the first act. Somewhere, however, there is a photo of me taken from behind, as I looked into a mirror to adjust my extremely home made aluminum foil crown. I am roughly 4 in this photo. You can see my face in the mirror and the look of delight on my face (I’m a princess! I’m wearing a beautiful crown!) tells all you need to know about the magic Darcy managed to create.

Some days I want to think about the complexities of relationships and families and memories, but today I just want a little magic.

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Dog Days

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My pandemic “don’t feel like it” has been compounded exponentially by weather-related “don’t feel like it.” It is HOT. And dry. I know not that many months ago I was cursing the clouds and the rain, but I would give a lot for a rainy day or three right about now. This morning there were just enough clouds while the sun was rising that I was able to get the horses tended to without also sizzling in the sun, but now the sun is out and making up for lost time.

The list of things I don’t feel like doing is long. I don’t feel like cooking, or working, or writing. I don’t feel like weeding, or picking vegetables. I don’t feel like vacuuming or dusting, though to be fair that was true before the heat and the pandemic. Also true of working out, which it probably goes without saying that I don’t feel like. It’s just as well in some ways that it is dry, because I don’t feel like mowing or weed-eating and if it were wet and this hot I might be living in a jungle by now.

I don’t feel like walking the dogs or even touching the horses. Luckily, the dogs don’t feel like walking either, nor do the horses want to be touched. I offered the horses a nice cool hosing, but all they want is cold water in their trough, the shade of their shed, and to be left alone. I know how they feel.

The dogs and I have been on our own in the house for nearly a month now. We have a routine, because we all like routines, but lately more and more of our routine involves lying on the sofa, or the floor. I think they have the right idea with the cool basement floor, or the kitchen tile by the air conditioning vents. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s only a matter of time till I find myself splayed out on the concrete with the rest of my pack.

When the pandemic stay-at-home orders began, my social media feeds were full of suggestions for what to do with all our free time. I spent the first month being puzzled by this, and much of the time since then being annoyed by it. I’ve been working from home for sixteen years. I am not a social person. I have the same number of animals I had before the pandemic. Basically, nothing has changed in my day to day routine. I have no more or less free time than I had before. I do not have the time or the inclination to take up new hobbies, start a new workout routine, meditate, or begin any other form of self improvement. I almost want to ask who HAS been doing any of these things (outside of talking about it on social media), but really that’s just one more thing I don’t want to spend time paying attention to.

Now, with Rose away, I have one more layer of what-I-could-be-doing-but-I’m-not. If you have been in a house with someone else, or more than one someone else, since the pandemic began, do you think there are things you would do if it was just you in the house? If you had all the alone time you haven’t had for the last several months? I’m not sure where I thought more time might appear in my day, but once again it did not. I do all the same things I was doing before, only now I do all of them by myself. I probably talk to the dogs even more than I did before.

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Most of the time, the dogs tell me to chill out. Occasionally, they tell me to take them outside, but they usually remember why that was a bad idea as soon as they get there. If we are out early enough, Quinn can sometimes talk Boo into a game of zoomies, but not very often. Scout is emphatically not interested, and who can blame him? He and I are in no mood to run as fast as we can. Or at all.

Dogs have no need for self-improvement projects. They think they are just fine as they are, and I have to say I agree. One of the very nicest things about dogs is that they think we are just fine as we are too. We are at our best when we calm down enough from all the human things to just sit on the sofa, with maybe some popcorn we are willing to share. That is enough.

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Ashes

Rays of Cody

I picked up Cody’s ashes from the vet’s office last week. They came in a carved wood box, almost a puzzle box – the bottom slides out to open it, and the top and sides are solid. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure that out. Inside the box is a blue velvet bag, and inside that are the ashes.

We now have two of these boxes. We have five horses and six cats buried here, but when Maya, our first German Shepherd, died it was in the middle of a very cold winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a hole for her. Six years later we still haven’t buried or scattered her ashes. She’s been hanging out in the house with us, sometimes in the room with the other dogs, and currently in the sunroom near where I write and where we have a nice view of the reservoir.

With a precedent of one cremated dog, and with me unable to face digging a hole to bury Cody in (or more to the point, unable to face putting Cody in a hole), we had him cremated also. He is in the kitchen area, right next to where he lived the last few weeks of his life. The room we have always called the random room became both Cody’s special den and the hospice ward. He had two dog beds there, and in March we added a memory foam mattress topper to cover the rug, and a plaid quilt to cover the mattress topper. Depending on his state of health and the state of his intestines, we added a layer of waterproof pads between the quilt and the mattress topper, but when he was feeling better he tended to dig them up.

Maya was our first dog, and we had her for about two and a half years before we got Cody to keep her company. They were friends in their way, though not a way that involved snuggling or overt closeness. Cody, only a year and a half when he came to us, taught Maya to play, though she tended to do so with a look on her face that said “Is this fun? It feels like it might be fighting. How do I tell?” Her favorite game was to wait till I threw Cody’s tennis ball (his nickname back then was Fetches Twice As Fast) and then she would get into the path of the speeding cattle dog and try to clothesline him. Her second favorite was to stay out where I threw his ball and grab it first, and then destroy it.

Now that Cody and Maya are together again, we will probably bury their ashes together, most likely alongside a tree or two we will plant in the dog yard. It wouldn’t hurt the younger three dogs to keep absorbing lessons from the original duo.

In contrast to the carved boxes that the dog ashes came back in, my parents’ ashes came in brown plastic boxes. There was probably an upgrade available for human ashes that I don’t remember. My father made that choice for my mother. My oldest sister and I made the choice for my father, but all I remember after viewing his body in the funeral home is fighting off giggles as we listened to the funeral director solemnly tell us that after the cremation “your loved one will be returned,” which seemed like a feat beyond what I would expect of a crematorium.

When my father gave me my mother’s ashes, he had augmented her brown plastic box with a blue and white checked Bath & Body Works bag. When I first brought her ashes home, the bag and box sat in the garage for several weeks until Rose said she couldn’t stand to see my mother’s ashes sitting out there like trash. I moved them to a bag I gave my mother that she never got to use – a black cotton backpack embroidered with brightly colored elephants – and placed it next to my desk for several months.

I was uneasy with my mother’s ashes in the house, and when we eventually scattered them in several different places I was squeamish when handling them, though I am not by nature a squeamish person. I don’t feel the same about Cody’s ashes. I sometimes want to run my hands through them, or smell them. I kissed his forehead good night almost every night for fourteen years and I miss him in a very tactile way.

When my grandmother died, she was cremated and we buried her ashes – presumably in an urn, though I don’t think I saw it – alongside her husband in a cemetery. It all happened at what I consider normal funeral speed. She died, and within a few days we all flew into town, had a graveside service, and a burial. “Normal” is the term I use for “rules everyone except my family seems to know,” though over the years I have realized that anyone who thinks they know the rules has what Anne Lamott calls tiny control issues.

For my parents we tried to guess what they would have liked, which is partly how my mother’s ashes wound up in so many places: under a tree we planted for her at our house in Maryland, in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in her sister’s garden in Virginia, and in Squam Lake, in New Hampshire. Eventually my father remembered that she had once said she’d like her ashes to go in Rock Creek Park, but by then they were all in other places she had loved, so in the end it was my father’s ashes that went into Rock Creek.

My aunt is the only person I knew who gave explicit directions about what to do with her ashes. She also gave explicit directions about what music to play at her memorial service, how to disperse her belongings, and was generally the only person I know who completely acknowledged and talked about the fact that she was dying.

Cody gave me no instructions. In life, he believed that as long as there were treats, the thing mattered, and if there no treats, it did not. When I think about scattering or burying his ashes, I can get caught up in human details – the proper ceremony, the meaningful music, the perfect words, the right tree to plant. Maybe a better way is the dog way. If Cody were here, and found something interesting on the ground, I know what he would do. If you see me out in the dog yard, scattering ashes and rolling around in them, you’ll know why. And of course, I’ll make sure there will be treats.

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Graduation Day

Sunset Cody

A good dog died today.
There’s a lot to say
About 15 human years of dog life.
About Uncle Cody, and all the ways
He taught lessons to the other dogs
At Uncle School (not an easy school).

Uncle School had lessons in manners
Lessons in personal space
Lessons in respecting your elders.
Uncle School was hard on Uncle, too
When the students got big enough
To realize they maybe didn’t have to
Take his lessons any longer.

Uncle School is only part of the story.
There is also a simple love story:
Once upon a time, there was a girl,
And this girl met a dog, and she loved him.
She did not, in the immortal words of Robin Williams,
Know shit about fuck
Where dogs were concerned.
This dog, he put up with a lot
Of things she did not know.

This girl, she has a lot of flaws.
Here’s the thing about this girl, though:
She really knows how to love.
Here’s the thing about this dog
(Here’s the thing about dogs):
They really know how to feel love.
Even when you screw up
Pretty much all the details.
And they really know
How to love you back.

Today’s lesson at Uncle School
Was about how to love and let go.
It was about trusting yourself.
It was about listening to someone else
When they can’t tell you anything in words.
It was about how some lessons are simple.
It was about how love is the best teacher
Except for a good dog.
Uncle School, over and out.

Carpe Poopem

Face Close-up

My old dog is getting older. He turned 15 in early December, and just before then I thought we had reached the end. He was struggling to get up off his bed and walk to the door. His hind end didn’t hold him up reliably. He sometimes fell backwards and couldn’t get up without help. Getting old is not for sissies. I gave him some more rugs near his bed for traction. We tweaked his meds, added new pain killers, upped his dosage.

He did really well for almost two months, but then he had another bad spell. He either fell or had a seizure, and for about 24 hours every time he moved more than ten feet he wheezed and coughed as if he were choking. But after a day, with no changes in meds, he was fine. The turn-around came on a spring-like early February day when instead of holding himself still so as not to fall over or cause any more pain, he dropped to the grass for a good roll. It’s been another month since then, and he’s been going through another bad spell. It’s apparent that they are coming more frequently, and lasting longer. So far, he keeps getting better, but each “better” is not quite as good as the last one.

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This is not my first rodeo. I am a rodeo pro, at this point, with dying loved ones of both the animal and human variety. I have nearly lost count of the rodeos. I know that at a certain point with any aging animal I begin to feel like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride: “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

With the old dog, I keep watching him, wondering if tomorrow will be the day. I am fairly confident it will not.  For most of the last two months he’s been remarkably perky for a 111 year old guy. Barking at the roofers. Bossing the puppy. He still sometimes gets excited when he sees I am going to throw the tennis ball, and he bounces in front of me – “Throw it! Throw it!” – and then I throw it and he watches it go and looks back at me – “Hey, there goes your ball.”

When my father was in his last few years we had similar ups and downs. He fell down the stairs. He fell up the stairs. He wound up in the hospital (oddly, not from falling), completely disoriented and not fully aware of who or where he was, and then he came home to celebrate his 85th birthday with good cheer. He went into hospice, and then he came home yet again, and went to the Adams Morgan Day festival and got up out of his wheelchair and danced. My aunt – my mother’s sister – said “He’s like Whack-A-Mole, isn’t he?” and we laughed and laughed. Because he was.

For every pet I have had to let go, I have wondered if the time was right, was there something else I could have done, did I notice too late, what if, what if, what if? There’s an article kicking around social media recently written by a young vet about giving animals a good death. The crux of it is that waiting too long is much worse that taking action too early. I know that when I state my feelings about this I risk being accused of anthropomorphism, and to that I say two things: one, there are worse things to be accused of (and I’m not sure who ever decided that only humans are capable of certain feelings), and two, I think it’s less me viewing my dog (or horse, or cat) as human as it is me scrutinizing my own humanity.

If we let an animal keep living into old age, where by definition infirmities start to creep in, who is that worse for, them or us? If we euthanize them early enough to avoid or limit their pain, whose pain are we really eliminating? Who are we making it easier for? I wake up every morning (and often multiple times a night) wondering if this is the day I will have to make the decision. Will I sleep better when this dog has died? Yes, I will, because I will not have that decision hanging over my head any longer, and I won’t have to worry about him any more. Is that a reason to make the decision now? Not for me, not today. But maybe one day it will be.

Sweet

I have said before that this old dog reminds me so much of my old father. As they both aged, their tendency to put their heads down and plow forward, keeping up the momentum so they don’t fall down, increased. The old dog has had as many ups and downs and “This is it, the time has come” moments followed by inexplicable improvements as the old man had. Was it easier for me when I got to stop wondering every day if today would be the day my father died? You bet it was. Would I have wanted that to happen sooner because it was easier on me? No. Actually not. A friend of his told me about the last time she saw him, maybe a week or two before he died, as she was leaving he raised a glass to her and said “L’Chaim!” and that was my father in a nutshell. Both the wine and the words – To Life!

Is the old dog enjoying everything about today? I’d venture to say no. But he enjoyed his breakfast, and he enjoyed greeting the crew that came to cut down the dead trees, and he enjoyed his peanut butter and kibble-filled Kong. He clearly likes the fact that we finally separated him from the other dogs today. He gets special treatment AND he doesn’t have to listen to their barking or worry about being jumped on or bumped. The old dog has his own version of toasting this life. Rolling in the grass. Wandering off because I think he is beyond getting into any serious mischief and turning up in the horse pasture eating all the poop he can before I notice. Tomorrow may still be the day. But as for today, Carpe Poopem.

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Down Dog

BooDownDog

I would like to like yoga more than I do.

People talk about intention in yoga and meditation. I am full of intention. I intend to meditate. I intend to do yoga. I don’t actually do either, but I intend to.

I’m very impressed that the dogs do at least downward dog if not also upward dog every time they get off their beds. I tried that recently and wound up in something resembling child’s pose but more painful, face on the floor and unable to move for several minutes. I don’t recommend this as a motivator for beginning a daily practice.

Someone recently asked me if yoga speaks to me, and the truth is that it does not. The other truth is that I don’t know what does. Where exercise is concerned lately I feel like Tigger who says that Tiggers like everything but then with each attempt he finds that Tiggers do not in fact like honey, haycorns, thistles, or pretty much anything in Kanga’s cabinet. I don’t really like yoga, or any kind of group workout, or spin bikes which make me want to stab myself. I agree with Tigger that they may all be for heffalumps and woozles, but not for me.

BooBallet

Once upon a time I was a gymnast. I was flexible, and strong, and fearless. I was also 12 years old, which may be pertinent. But more recently I was a soccer player. I was fit and strong, if not flexible, and I was fearless enough to get hurt, at which point I became less fearless. The line between fearless and foolhardy has never been all that clear to me, and I’m not sure I like the side of it I’m on now, or the width it has grown to in the past few years.

I’ve ridden horses since I was eight years old and though I have almost always been foolhardy, I have almost never been fearless. I was terrified of horses when I started riding. My older sister remembers it that I was scared and she dragged me into it so she’d have company, and I remember it that I was scared and I did it anyway because I wanted to do what she did and what she wanted me to do. We are both probably right.

After the first time I fell off I lost my most paralyzing fear, and quickly moved into the realm of foolhardy with the help of the barn management. I don’t know what their source of horses was but in retrospect I’d guess they bought most of them out from under the kill buyers. They didn’t seem to know anything about any of the newly arrived horses and they liked to put me and my sister on them to see what would happen. I’m not sure if at 8 and 11 we were supposed to be the bravest, or if as little kids whose parents didn’t hover much we were the most expendable.

I certainly learned to stay on. More importantly, I learned that I COULD stay on. Much later in life I heard someone say that I could ride anything that had hair, and it’s true. I can’t say that I always wanted to, though. And after a while, especially with horses, the fear on the inside and the foolhardiness on the outside start to clash with one another. The horses at least can tell that you are out of integrity, even if the people think (and say) “wow, I wish I could ride like that.”

I haven’t been on a soccer field in four years now, since I tore my ACL in a pointless scrimmage, playing a position I don’t normally play and displaying an uncommon surge of competitiveness and determination to get to the ball first in 95 degree heat. I did, just as the other player’s knee got to the side of my knee. Some things are not worth the effort, I realized as I felt my knee blow apart right before I hit the turf.

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Hiding what’s going on in my insides from myself turns out to not be worth the effort, either, and I suspect some things have blown apart without my realizing it while I’ve been acting brave and feeling afraid. I have been on a horse maybe twice in those same four years. I have four horses standing around in my fields, and while I’m sure they don’t mind having to eat hay and grass for a living instead of working, I miss the connection of having a partnership with them. If I’m honest, I haven’t really had a partnership with any of these horses, not like the one I had with my old mare who died seven years ago now. That’s a long time of not letting anyone in again. Of not letting myself get hurt again. Of being fearful instead of foolhardy.

Maybe it’s ok that Tiggers don’t like haycorns, or yoga. What Tigger found he liked best, as I recall, was Strengthening Medicine. Maybe if I get back out there with the horses I will find me some of that.

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Young Pup

My dogs have come into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine, though mine too, as I have acquired them over the course of many years). My first dog was somewhere between two and three when we got her. Our current old dog was a year and a half. I thought he was quite grown up but he was a year younger then than our youngest dog is now, and I think our youngest dog is still a puppy. The youngest dog was a mere eleven weeks when he arrived.

As I have said before, I am not a dog person. I came to dogs later in life, and I hope I have evolved over time into a better dog owner. I was used to cats and a particular level of self sufficiency and independence. Dogs can be self sufficient and independent too, but it’s pretty irresponsible to let them just roam. I knew that in theory, but when my first dog would disappear from the yard for hours on end I didn’t worry about it nearly as much as I should have – enough to stop it from happening again, for instance.

Her wandering led to some amusing stories. The time, for instance, that she came home and had clearly been swimming in the neighbor’s pool one hot summer day. Or the fish filets she used to bring home and eat in the yard. I never did figure out if she was going through someone’s trash or if she was stealing someone’s dinner they had set out to defrost on the deck rail. And then there was the time I had a feeling she had headed to the road so I was walking down the driveway when a car pulled in, the back door opened, and my dog got out.

All of these are a lot like stories from my own younger days: they are funny to relate now, but as a grown up and as a parent, I am mildly horrified even at my own stories. I know some of my children’s stories, and I’m sure there are others they will tell me at some point in the distant future, and others they will never let me know about.

This week is the two year anniversary of the arrival of the youngest dog. Dogs, at least my dogs, seem to be the opposite of children in photograph quantity. Anyone who is a youngest child is familiar with the albums of photos of their siblings, especially the oldest, and the dearth of photos chronicling their own milestones. I have probably one roll of film (remember rolls of film?) of my current old dog in his first two years with us, and approximately 753,000 digital photos of the youngest one. Part of that is due to available technology, and part of it represents the different level of attention I give my dogs now.

This week is also the week my oldest child is moving away from home. My kids also came into my life at different ages (theirs, not mine – unlike the dogs I got all three kids at once). My youngest is now four years older than I was when I first met them. I suppose at this point saying “I’m not a dog person” is a lot like saying “I’m not a mother.” I may not have started out envisioning a life full of dogs and kids, but sometimes you get what you expect and sometimes you get lucky.

There have been a lot of milestones for my kids since the beginning of the dog years. Graduations, engagements, break-ups, marriage, first job, first more-grown-up-than-mine job, house purchases, house sale. They have all moved out of the house. One has moved out of the state. Two have moved back into the house. The oldest is now moving far away.

They get older and they do their own thing and they express themselves and their independence in their own ways. With each new step, I cheer them on and I’m excited for the next chapter in their lives and a part of me thinks “it’s about time” and gives them a little shove out of the nest.

But then there’s this other part. The part that sees the U-Haul my oldest child has rented to move 1,700 miles away sitting in the driveway as he begins to load up his stuff. The part of me that flashes back instantly to the first time I met him, when he was seven years old, telling me in great detail about his math homework, with his bowl haircut and his fashion sense and his extensive vocabulary. It’s the same part of me that spoke at my middle child’s wedding, when all I could remember was him at age three, fearlessly throwing himself at everything life put in his path, but wearing a helmet and knee and elbow pads just in case, because you never know when you might need a little protection. It’s the same part of me that sees my youngest child being more adult than I feel like I will ever be in her job and relationship and living space decisions and yet I hear her deep toddler voice chanting “Hode you mommy hode you mommy hode you mommy” when she wanted to be picked up and carried.

No matter how old or young they are when they take these big steps in their lives, no matter how ready they are, no matter how ready I am, I’m not ready. I still look at the adults they are and see the kids they were and I want to reach out past the U-Haul and snatch them back and make the time I wanted to go faster go just a little more slowly.

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The Pack

 

12987170_10156904329045165_5451335982654072746_nWe have three dogs. I’m sure there are things that can be said about them based on birth order now that they are all in one household. We made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of learning on the oldest. The middle one is precocious and self-activating in the particular way of middle children. The youngest is spoiled but does not take advantage of it (much), and tries harder to please and to be noticed than the other two do. He likes to always be touching one of his dogs or humans, whether for comfort or to make sure we know he’s there, I’m not sure.I am also the youngest of three, so I may relate to him a little more than is good for me.

I have seen no evidence that our dogs fight with each other when we are not with them. I’m sure our kids also get along better when they laugh at us together in our absence then when they are with us and keeping an eye on who gets how much attention. Birth order behaviors and sibling rivalries and alliances aside, there is no getting around the fact that as long as parents are there they have a huge impact on the family dynamic, and for better or worse it changes when they are not.

Our human children are also three in number. They like to say we have replaced them, now that we have three dogs. This is a conversation they have had amongst themselves that at least one has reported back to us. I know the kinds of conversations my sisters and I have had about our parents, and I don’t have a lot of illusions that our kids sit around saying “you know what I love most about our parents?” They tell stories about when we’ve annoyed them, or infuriated them, or, if we are lucky, made them laugh.

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If our animals could talk I’m pretty sure all their stories about us would begin “Remember the time they thought it would be a good idea to…?” Come to think of it, our kids’ stories might start out just like that too. I wonder sometimes which stories they do tell when we are not around, and if those will be the same stories they will tell when we are gone.

The story I tell most often is about Rose’s first Thanksgiving with my family. The guests included my parents, my oldest sister, her husband, their three kids, me, Rose, and my father’s friend Stan. Stan was one of those family friends who has always been around, and since his wife died very young he had spent just about every holiday or birthday celebration with us.

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I don’t know if Stan was born a curmudgeon or if he had curmudgeonliness thrust upon him, but the level of it increased dramatically over the years. He and my father loved to debate loudly on the few points on which they agreed, and and on the many, many points on which they disagreed. They agreed about the state of the world (decaying), the state of politics (deplorable), the state of the newspaper industry (deteriorating). They did not agree on Stan’s feeling that life was generally being ruined by women: his woman boss was making his job miserable, movies were being destroyed by woman directors, and it was only a matter of time before woman politicians would bring about the downfall of society as he knew it.

My mother called me before Thanksgiving to give me a list of things not to talk about in an effort not to set Stanley off. On the list were (it was the early ’90’s) the movie The Piano (woman director), his job (woman boss), John and Lorena Bobbitt (woman run amok), the Bobbitt-inspired New Yorker cartoon where the nice looking elderly lady says to her nice looking elderly husband across the breakfast table “Pass the cream or I’ll cut off your penis,” and presumably (though not explicitly) the fact that I was bringing my girlfriend home for Thanksgiving.

Dinner was uneventful until my oldest sister excused her kids from the table. We had managed to avoid any untoward topics and we all enjoyed the customary combination of traditional Thanksgiving foods and tofu from a local Chinese takeout. My mother sat back and surveyed the table, and then said pleasantly to the room at large “Pass the cranberry sauce or I’ll cut off your penis.”

We all roared. Well, most of us. Stanley turned instantly red and sputtered “I suppose you all think that’s VERY FUNNY!”

My father turned just as red and yelled back “What, do you think we’re all assholes, Stan? There are seven people at the table! Six of them are laughing! WHO’S THE ASSHOLE, STAN?”

My mother looked at us all, a pleased smile on her lips.

I can only hope to provide stories to my own kids that get half the longevity that one has had for me. If I had only one story to tell about my family for the rest of my life, that would be the one I would tell. I told it to my sister who was not there that night, twelve years later as we sat around the same dining room table in my parents’ apartment. When I went to see my mother in the hospital bed in her bedroom, she wanted to know what had made us all laugh so hard, so I told it to her as well, and we laughed all over again.

The next morning she went into hospice. She died four days later, the windows open to the night air and the scent of cherry blossoms from the garden planted by other people’s children in memory of their parents who died there too.

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New Tricks

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My youngest dog loves to learn new tricks. He goes at everything he does with everything he has, and he happily offers every trick he knows if he thinks you might want something from him. Sit? Down? Roll over? I can do it! I can do it all! We have some agility obstacles set up in the yard and he may fly off to jump through the hoop and then run back to sit in front of me looking very pleased with himself. He also incorporates the obstacles into his zoomies, jumping the pole or zipping through the tunnel as he runs in crazy circles around the yard.

The older young dog is more targeted in his activities. He particulary loves to jump. He jumps the horse cavaletti. He jumps the agility bar. He jumps the hoop – he doesn’t jump THROUGH the hoop; he jumps the whole hoop. He jumps the tunnel. If you tell him “jump,” he just jumps. Into the air. With no obstacles anywhere nearby. He will obey other commands in slow motion. He has an excellent eventual sit, and a very good gradual down. But he will use what he knows for his own purposes: when he wants me to take him out, or when we are out and he wants to go somewhere else, he will run to my left hip and heel me.

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The old dog has never had any interest in leaving the ground, even when he was a young dog. If you try to lift him up he somehow makes himself three times as heavy. Jumping requires a lot of treats (and a very low jump), and climbing on anything is out of the question. One of the reasons his first owners gave him to us when he was a year and a half was that he was a “failed” agility dog. He is very obedient at sit, down, heel, stay – as long as you have treats and there is nothing more compelling in sight, hearing or sound. He is also the best tennis ball retriever I have ever known.

I went back to school as an old person. At 41 I had not thought of myself as old, but as soon as I sat in a classroom surrounded by kids half my age, the age of my youngest child, I felt a hundred and ten years old. I simultaneously felt twelve, in a new school, and very unsure of my welcome. My professors at least had the decency to be my age or older.

I was never much of a student, at any level. Like my middle dog, if something caught my interest I would do it very well and would work hard at it. Otherwise it was something of a crapshoot as to whether the teacher would grade me on my tests and papers, or on if I did the homework (or later, in college the first time, if I showed up to class). I might find that I got A’s on all the tests but wound up with a C or a D in the class due to lack of effort.

As an old person, I expected this to change. It did not. Part of why I left college the first time without finishing was my lack of interest in jumping through hoops. Now I was back and still being required to round out my education by taking the history and social science classes I never took the first time, and retaking classes that I had taken twenty years before. Biology they felt I needed to take again, but they assumed I would remember inorganic chemistry. They were mistaken.

By about my third semester I was really struggling with how I could be so sure that I wanted to be there, and that I wanted to be studying the field I was studying, and yet I had to take so many classes – even classes in my field of study – that I had no interest in.

At 19 I had begun college as a biology major. I tried a little of everything: in 3 years I majored in biology, political science, Russian, and philosophy. By the time I quit I was double majoring in biology and philosophy. Twenty years later, I went back to get a degree in animal science. My original thought was to take only the classes I needed for vet school, but then it became important to me to actually get a degree, and then I realized that if I was 110 now I would be about 217 by the time I finished vet school, which I realized I didn’t really want to do anyway. Clearly all those intervening years had done wonders for my abililty to make up my mind.

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Fortunately there were a few options in the animal science department, and I was able to find one that was more animaly and less sciencey. In my 40’s I found that either my brain could no longer retain information the same way it used to, or it had developed a filter that went something like “Nope, don’t need to memorize THAT just to prove that I can.” I was able to avoid taking physics again, and took what I can only call organic chemistry for dummies, which I somehow actually enjoyed.

I did graduate, and I even spoke at my graduation, and got to tell everyone else that if their parents ever gave them any grief about taking an extra year or two to get through school, they could say “Well, at least it took me less than TWENTY FIVE years!” I’m sure the parents loved me for that.

When I went back to school I envisioned that I would somehow become like my youngest dog, full of enthusiasm and desire to achieve. My youngest dog is now a year older than my oldest dog was when he came to us, and I can only conclude that some things really are just part of who we are. I may always be cranky about doing things I am required to do, I may only want practice the things I like to do, but I’m glad that even if it takes me approxomately forever to finish the things that are important to me, I do get around to it in the end.

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