Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Big Furry Toddler

I didn't wait long.  The silent house and the mornings with only the cat to feed and let out were too much for me to think of.  After all, I am on my own every other week, and even my only child's ability to enjoy my own company more than most, even my circle of friends and then the kids' energy when they land in again wasn't going to be enough.  There's independence, and then there is being alone.  With all due respect to Midnight the Gorgeous Feline, the only cure for that is a dog.  Well, for some there are men to live with, but not for me, at least not until The Boy walks across the stage to receive his high school diploma.  That'll be about seven years from now, which is too long for me to contemplate going solo. 

Enter Jack.  Like when you've just gone through a break-up and look on Match.com to make sure there are still living, breathing people out there to have dinner with (okay, haven't done this for a long time, but I had a vague memory) only two days after Gus passed, I found myself on the website for the Humane Society of North Texas.  So many fellow dog-lovers tell me they want to take ten of these mutts home. But I know what I want, or know it when I see it, and like my house hunt a year ago, I narrowed it down quickly but visited with an open mind. The children and I endured the furious noise of the Big Dog House, didn't see any other dog that held any interest, and then we found him. 

"He's...big." The Boy was skeptical.  The Girl allowed this but thought, as I did, that he was terribly handsome and sweet.  So two weeks ago, I picked up Jack, all sixty pounds of him, after his procedure.  Like most men after such a trial, he was diminished, and the first few days were pretty calm.  He did knock out four miles with me the next weekend, although the leash was strained.  An ill-behaved little dog is annoying but manageable, but not everyone finds a large black lab mix charming, and he's stronger than me.  As expected, his personality came out, and needed to be harnessed for the good of the household.

The dog trainer, an odd duck who nevertheless knows what he's doing, gave us some helpful guidelines for letting Jack know who's driving this bus.  After we realized this guy, who looks like a black Irish Setter, could open doors in our house (and then, in fits of anxiety, used the same trick on the deadbolt in the kitchen and locked out each of the children) we also found ways to keep him calm while we are gone.  He is remarkable in many regards but mostly because he can handle almost a whole workday on his own without wreaking havoc or making a mess.

As for the other stuff, it's rather like I live with a very large, furry toddler.  I have some experience with the human sort, and with handling the occasional recalcitrant lawyer.  It's helpful to have this to draw upon. We only go for walks when he has eaten and hasn't had too much stimulation.  I spend a lot of time watching what he's putting in his mouth, and fairly often reaching into his massive jaw to pull out an acorn or leaf or very large stick.  I ignore his bad behavior unless he's hurting himself or others, and try to catch him doing something good.  He gets either/or choices.  Are you going to stop eating grass, or are we done playing in the yard?

And now, six years after my last adoption, I learn from other dog types that Jack needs socialization. I feel alternately like a grandma asking why teenagers need  Facebook accounts and then thrown back into the milky haze of my days of staying home with overly articulate preschoolers, worrying anew. Will my baby get into the right doggie daycare?  What if he gets into trouble?  Falls in with the wrong pack?  Who will watch him when I travel out of town?  Will he misbehave when his routine is disrupted?  Do I miss having someone who actually wants me to fuss over him? Ya think?

Anyway, most nights, so far, he sleeps by my bed and makes all sorts of noises and smells.  He wakes me at six in the morning for attention.  I cannot believe how much he eats. So in this way, he's sort of like a man.  Except he's already pretty obedient and loves me without reserve.  Beat that with a stick.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How to Be an Informed Person

My Dad's generation had it figured out.  Twenty years ago, if you wanted to be the sort of person who know what's going on in the world, you read "the paper"--the actual name of which depended on your town of residence--every day.  You watched the news at ten o'clock (the CBC National news in Canada) or one of your three major American networks at 6:30, and you were on top of things.  Really sophisticated folks skipped church and watched one of the Sunday morning news shows.  What all of these people had in common was that they trusted that what they were fed gave them what they needed to know.

So. For quite a few years now, those Elitists have been buried alive by a bunch of channels.  By which I don't mean cable television, unless you are an old person either in fact or in spirit.  There are other, less politically correct echo chambers where you can agree with all sorts of people who hate what you hate. They are rarely, if one is discussing something other than how you love vintage buttons or Mongolian ice hogs, about positive feelings. Indeed, in the past week--after the horrifying events in Arizona--the lack of decorum in media discourse has been thrown into high relief.  All in all, the vast majority of news, if you can call it that, is crap.

There is so much of this crap flying at us that we don't really know what to trust.  So even the most thoughtful among us retreat to instyle.com or, that ever-trusty conversational refuge in Texas, football.  Hockey in Canada.  Football---the other kind--in most other places. (Cricket, I don't get. Sorry to fans of the sticky wicket.) 

Although I love the cybersphere as much as the next person, I've reached the conclusion that the best way to learn about the world, the real one, is not to try and digest the sticky globs the modern media are trying to feed us. The path to understanding is interaction. With real human beings.  Call me old-fashioned, but try these:

  1. The next time you meet someone new, ask them all about their work.  Even if they have what seems to be an uninteresting job, ask them what they like about it.  Even better, find out what they hate.  You'll get an idea what runs their life. Or maybe how fortunate you are.
  2. If that doesn't work, ask about their families. You'll either make a new friend or decide you're incredibly well-adjusted.
  3. I once read a quote in Vogue where an impossibly beautiful, sophisticated older woman said if she wanted to have a great conversation she asked the person beside her at a dinner party to tell her about the last time he or she fell in love.  If you're brave or drunk enough to do it, you'll likely get a good story.  It might not be happy, but it will be interesting.
  4. Travel.  Hate to write such a truism, but whether you go to another part of town or overseas, go.  And talk to everyone, even if you sound like an idiot trying to speak the local language. 
  5. Turn off the television, at least sometimes. It's all about selling something to you, and even reality shows are edited. Your real life is much more interesting, if you choose to make it so.
  6. Read. A memoir or a novel is best and generally superior to the latest business book, which is just a bland, watered-down version of the essential truth found in good literature. Business books, aside from the great ones about greed or innovation, are written for people with an inability to apprehend metaphor.
  7. Leave your desk.  Go meet a friend for lunch, walk around the block, or visit a museum for an hour. If nothing else, you'll be a more charming dinner companion.  And then you can ask someone about his last love affair. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Good Dog

Seven years ago this spring, I was on the verge of turmoil.  I knew, somewhere in my brain, that my marriage was ending.  My daughter had to leave her private school, which seemed like the end of the world at the time. All the wise people who said she'd shoot the lights out anywhere ended up being right, but no parent has a crystal ball to know how our actions will affect our kids.  Somebody really needs to invent that.

So, in a fit of guilt, I decided to get a dog.  Our previous adopted Schnauzer, Annie, had been a runner.  The first time, she was gone for three months and turned up wearing a new collar bearing the name Misty.  With that moniker, we had no choice but to rescue her again.  But a year and a half later, she bolted again, collar off (my ex-husband needed a nap and her tags kept waking him up) for good. 

I went back to the Humane Society of North Texas, bracing myself for the onslaught of barking.  The little dog room (meaning the room for little dogs) was full of annoying yaps, but one fellow, who looked sort of like a grumpy but lovable old man, a bit like Toto from the Wizard of Oz, grabbed me.  I opened the little cage, and he put his paws on my shoulders.  You picked me, I thought.  And there we were.  His name was Gus, and the first night after he came home, I slept with him on the couch, and from then on he was completely devoted to me.  My tires in the drive, my key in the lock, my footfall first thing out of bed: all were enough to get him jumping. 

We moved to our little rent house, and the picture window at the front was either his thrill or torment, though as with all of us it's hard to tell.  He was terrified of other dogs, and got belligerent as a result. (We all know people like this.) He had a problem with his left hind leg--a little limp--which was the result of an early injury, though we never knew what his history was or for that matter how old he really was. Our street was busy with traffic of all sorts, and Gus would exhaust himself by barking convulsively at other dogs.  "He'll someday drop dead right there," I said more than once. 

Our new house, though more comfortable, offered no thrills for Gus.  He slept more, and besides taking the cat's bait and doing his convulsive thing a couple times a day, he seemed pretty bored.  And his check-up several months ago went well and he bore the cat's inroads into the house pretty well, it seemed.  And then the cold weather came this year, and he seemed arthritic.  He lost energy, but did go out for walks and did lots of business.  But I knew he was in decline.  There was no distress, but somehow I knew, despite his relatively young age of approximately nine, that his time was near.

Last week, my son and I came home in the early evening, and the house was more quiet than usual.  I'd seen a feral cat in our yard earlier and we went to the back door to look out at the deck to see what was up.  Then we turned around, and saw Gus, his little head just outside of his open crate, where he'd been sleeping with the door open on a soft blanket.  We knew right away. 

And despite my love for this little dog, I couldn't move him, couldn't touch him.  My very brave son, all of eleven, gently lifted Gus out and wrapped him up.  Then we went to get my daughter, and as she popped out the door at a school function, she saw my face and knew something was up.  "What's wrong with the dog?" she asked.  I said he was gone.  It was the second-hardest moment of my parental life. When we got home again, my son put him in a cardboard box, and then both of us put him in the shed, where he would be safe but cool.  The next morning, we took his body to the vet to have him cremated. 

Gus saw me, and the kids, through some really tough times and some very happy ones. When I woke on Sunday morning, I felt a huge space inside me: there should have been a dog under my bed, somebody to get me up and going.  I was going to be coming home to an empty house, with no jingle of tags, no wagging tail, to greet me.  I cried hard, again, for the upteenth time in several days.  We loved Gus, but not nearly as well as he loved us.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Should You Stay Home With Your Kids? Maybe Not.

First it was the wedding story about the couple who met while they were each were married to other people.  Unlike some of the stories on the evening news about the sweethearts who discover one another in the nursing home after their spouses have done the proper thing and died before the lovers could hook up, this particular union's story involved sidelong glances across school fundraising events and an eventual admission of love.  Then they had to tell their respective spouses that the jig was up and they wanted out. 

The story, in my favorite Sunday morning read on the Styles page of the Times (the womens' sports page, I've heard it called, rather patronizingly) was written in the same format as those for the kids who meet in the Peace Corps or musicians who get together while starting a collective that benefits an endangered species.  Two overachievers meet and click immediately.  There are busy, busy, important lives to manage. Then there is a moment of enormous, soul-searching doubt before one of them proposes in a clever way that clearly shows their Connection. 

Except this article was more restrained and less celebratory, saying pretty much through the whole thing that, other people being very badly hurt, it wasn't the best start. You never would have known this from the viceral rage directed at them and the media outlet that dared to tell a story we all see, again and again, and not just on TMZ. As the mistress who would later marry the narrator's wife says in what became the title of Isabel Gillies' 2009 memoir: "It happens every day."  You would think, from the reactions--the couple was called selfish, a pair of child abusers, and worse--that they were the first people who ever did such a thing.  Their worst crime appears to be that they actually admitted they are happy, instead of burning with shame forever.

Now there is the Salon article where Katy Read, a recently-divorced freelance writer with two teenaged sons, dares to write that she regrets having stayed home with her kids.  She's broke, she doesn't know how she'll make it through the next year, never mind save for retirement and college.  She wishes she'd stayed in the workforce, as she'd actually be employable now.  She loved her time with them, but now she can't support them, to the extent she must, nor herself. 

The letters--all 244 of them today alone--are assurance that the Mommy Wars are not nearly over.  However people cherish Happily Ever After, apparently a mother who admits some essential facts--that husbands sometimes lose their jobs, die, or leave; that it's in a woman's best financial interests to develop marketable skills to support herself and her family, no matter whether it's nuclear or not--is even worse than people who leave unhappy marriages so that they might be happy. 

Given my personal history on these matters (stuff does happen) I am a little surprised at how so many people have rather violent emotional reactions to both of these stories, and I can't help but wonder why.  Is it just the conflict between American individualism and its deeply moral roots?  Do people really think, when they look around their own school auditoriums on parents' nights, or even around the family dinner table at Thanksgiving, that these ideals really exist, outside of a lucky few? Do they think this sort of thing is contagious, and if they argue with suffiicient zeal against it, it will never happen to them? Or do they wish so fervently for the long-term marriage and the stay-at-home mother (or wish they'd had it in their own childhood) that they must villify anyone who dares challenge the sacred ideals? 

No matter how we look around and see perfection, the truth is that everyone carries burdens, most of which others never see.  As Penelope Trunk in response to letters to her own bracingly honest post this week, "I think lots of marriages have glass on the floor."  We might all be kinder to one another, not to mention make more thoughtful decisions of our own, if we remembered that.