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.

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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

Boo Jump 2

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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Dog Fight

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A few months ago I watched two of my dogs get into the world’s most avoidable fight.

Dog fights are always terrifying, in my limited experience. There is a lot of noise and drama, and it’s hard to tell how serious it is, and it’s even harder to get the dogs apart once they are in it.

I watched the fight in question unfold in the moment, and if I really think about it, I watched it unfold over two years. Our old medium-sized dog had been “training” our young extra-large dog in his rules of the house, which mostly (but not entirely) line up with our rules of the house. This was our first experience with this kind of age difference (9 years) and our first experience with a puppy, and we were torn between putting a stop to it and trusting that Old Dog knew more that we did about dog behavior.

So there were warning signs. And in the moment, the fight went something like this: both dogs showed up at the gate at the same time. Old Dog said “back off” and Young Dog did – immediately. Old Dog followed after him and said “And STAY there!” Young Dog said “Stop talking to me about it.” Old Dog said “No back talk from you.” Young Dog paused for a few seconds and then said “I don’t have to take this from you ANY MORE!” and then he lunged.

Fight lite

An almost silent dog fight, in which one extra-large Young Dog has his jaws clamped around the neck of one medium-sized Old Dog who is on his back crying, is even more terrifying than a sound and fury dog fight, it turns out. There are any number of ways not to break up a dog fight and I tried most of them. By the time I remembered to grab the back legs of Young Dog, Old Dog was in need of a good few staples, a drainage tube, and a couple weeks of antibiotics.

Everyone is fine now. I have a PhD in “now we know how not to do that,” and we now manage our dogs differently in many ways.

It’s the unfolding of the world’s most avoidable fight that I keep coming back to. And what I come back to most is that I have not only watched that fight, I have been in it. I’ve never actually throttled anyone with my teeth, or been throttled, but verbally, I have been in that fight.

You know those times you feel your blood pressure rising, and you can hear the thing you are about to say, and you know you shouldn’t say it, and you pause – but then you say it anyway? That fight. The one if you could stand outside of you could see where one of you just can’t let it go and the other one of you just can’t turn around and walk away, and next thing you know, you’re trying to figure out how to put the pieces back together? That fight.

Sometimes I am Old Dog: “Don’t you walk away when I am talking to you!”

Sometimes I am Young Dog: “I do NOT have to take this from YOU!”

What do we do with the dogs? Separate them when they obviously aren’t in the mood for each other. Pay a lot more attention to their body language and distract or deflect or remove them from the situation. Give them time alone to do things they like to do. Recognize that they don’t like to do the same things all the time. Notice (and act on) that they like to have one on one snuggle time with their people.

It’s like all those things that people tell you to do to find balance in your relationships work on people too. Damn it. I HATE that.

Friends

Like most lessons in life, I hate the way I learned this one. I wish it had been easier on me, and on the dogs. I realize that the dogs probably forgot about it as soon as it was over, and that how to shake things off and walk away would not be the worst thing for me to learn from them.

Luckily I have them to remind me, every day, that if you get to hang out with your favorite buddy and can play together and work together, it doesn’t matter if you fight sometimes. The fact that you are together is enough.

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The Artful Codger

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A month and a day ahead of my 50th birthday, my creativity is starting to show the way my grey hair did in my early 20’s.

I was never one to cover it up but I was really good at ignoring it. I had a lot of explanations  – I was a towheaded child turned mousy brown adolescent, so maybe they were blond and not grey hairs. There weren’t many at first. I got them from my mother. It was the stress of college. My last boyfriend. Moving to New England. It wasn’t really me.

I am still surprised when I get my hair cut and my black salon cape is all covered with white hairs. Whose are those? When I look in the mirror I still see multiple colors. Enough people ask me if I dye my hair (why would I dye it grey?) or talk about how much they hate their grey hair that I can believe that they also don’t see mine as grey. Until they turn to me and say “Oh, no – I mean, it looks great on YOU.”

I have never been the artistic type. Can’t draw or paint, can’t sing, can dance a little, but my oldest sister was the ballerina in the family. I have had pockets of things I enjoy and can do well but they are things like calligraphy and pottery – things with a pre-defined form. They seem too much like paint by numbers to qualify as artistic pursuits. It’s not creative if you are following a pre-set form, right? Surely I can just pluck out that one grey hair.

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Writing is more my game, but not creative writing, so again: form. Who can’t string a sentence or two together? My parents were writers, and my aunt and uncle. Published in real newspapers and magazines. I’m not a real writer. I just play around with it. Post a funny caption on facebook now and then with my dog photos. And the photographs? Everyone has a smart phone now. Who doesn’t take photos? Apps and filters can make anything look good. A decent haircut with good layering helps disguise the increasing numbers of grey hairs, right?

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I love my animals. I’m no good at taking photos of people, and I have trouble getting the colors right when I take landscape photos, sunsets, or flower photos. Because my horses won’t leave me alone when I am in their fields, I am forced to take close-ups of horse parts. It’s just something that happens. They make me laugh, so obviously it’s not art, it’s just silliness. What do you mean, when did I start to go grey? Grey? Me?

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I’ve always been afraid to call myself a writer, a photographer, creative, an artist. Those are things that other people are. Those are things you are just good at. If you have to work at it, you aren’t it. But if it slips in around the edges, if you just do it now and then, if it starts to take up more of your time…when does it become who you are? When does the brown haired person become the grey haired person? How many days of practice, what number of grey hairs, causes one to become the other?

I am still in the early stages of seeing the creative bits in the mirror. Just a little one here or there. Maybe more in the back – is that why other people see it when I can’t? Like my hair, I think I will just let it go. I don’t have the personality for hair dye. It’s too hard to maintain. I’d rather just let it take over, let it look how it looks, deal with the sometimes funny comments, and get on with my life. It took probably twenty years for my first grey hairs to become a grey head of hair, and ten more for me to admit it. I hope to allow the creativity to seep in a little faster, and to recognize it when it comes.

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Old Dog

Cody Faces

My old dog likes to help me feed the horses. It something we do alone together, which is his favorite part. He polices the younger dogs, but they make him tired, and if he could speak I think he would yell at them “You kids get off my lawn!” When it is just him and me, he trots along next to me. More so if I have treats in my pockets, when he is so focused on me he sometimes runs into things.

As an old dog, he no longer ducks under the fence and chases the horses, usually in the exact opposite of the direction I want them to move. He doesn’t roll in horse poop, or eat his weight in it. He almost never runs off after the sight or scent of rabbit, fox, neighbor cat. When he does separate from me, he usually comes back when I call him, though it helps if I can get in his line of sight and reach for my pocket. I am not sure if he is losing his hearing or if he just hears selectively. He certainly has no trouble hearing the rustle of the treat bag in the kitchen.

The old dog still loves to chase a tennis ball, and still has no off switch. I have to count throws and put the ball away so he does not run to the point he falls down. He likes to feed with me because it is something he can still do easily, and we are not out too long, and afterwards he can take a nap. If we have to fill the water troughs and it’s a longer trip, he stumps along next to me on the way back to the house muttering under his breath.

I realized this past winter that he is starting to remind me of my father.

My father died five years ago, and last Saturday was his 91st birthday. I’d like to say I miss him, but I more miss the idea of him in the world than I do miss the actual him in my life. I was sad when he died, but I was also relieved, and the relief was bigger than the sad. The last few months before we got him 24 hour home health care, I stayed with him a lot. I was worried that when he was alone he would fall down the stairs – but then when I was there I was worried that I would push him down the stairs.

The things I like to remember about my father, especially in his later years, are all about his love of life. His equivalents of chasing tennis balls and helping feed the horses. He loved to walk long past the point it was safe for him on the uneven city sidewalks around his home. He was horrified at the idea of a wheelchair, but then he loved being squired around in it by his home health aide, who wheeled him to his “office” (Starbucks) every morning to meet with his “colleagues” (his typical mix of everyone from high powered executives on their way to work to homeless people who hung out at the outside tables with a single cup of coffee all morning).

He spent a week at hospice as an in-patient and he came out again the weekend of a big festival in his neighborhood, which his home health aide took him to. I arrived to visit  him before they got home, and when they came in, my father pulling himself up the railing of his many stairs, being balanced from behind by his aide, he looked up at me with a huge smile and said “Guess what I did at the festival?” I had no idea, and said so, and he said “I DANCED!”

While I am sad for my father that he is no longer alive, because he really loved living, I am not really sad for me, most of the time. When I think of losing my old dog, however, I am sad already –  and he is still here and still fine.

My old dog was once my young dog. His nickname was “Runs Twice as Fast,” when compared to our then old dog. He was tireless, and he didn’t listen all that well, and he chased the horses, and he would run off and disappear for hours and come home having rolled in something long dead, stinking to high heaven and so, so pleased with himself.

I am counting on him living forever, and it seems likely I will be disappointed. But we will keep on feeding the horses together, and gently chasing tennis balls, and sitting in the grass in the sun whenever we can.

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