Friday, October 24, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me

Happy (Belated) Birthday to Me

Charlene Kingston, an old friend from college days in Ohio reconnected with me via Facebook and Twitter. She sent me a very thoughtful note for my 44th on the 21st that seemed worthy of a post:

The process of living daily life has a changing pace. The rhythms of working life and family provide a baseline of activity that influences our perception of the passing of time. Short-term projects, seasonal activities, and rituals make increasing demands on our schedules temporarily and then fade away. We adjust to the changes, bracing for greater demands, and relaxing when the demands subside. We may have a sense of the fullness of our calendars, but it can be tough to really assess how richly we are living each moment.

Birthdays are a great milestone to measure life. Like a punctuation mark, they break the routine flow of our days. And like reaching the top of a Ferris wheel, they give us a pause, a chance to catch our breath and to see our lives laid out like the geography below us.

For your birthday, I wish for you the clarity of a mountain top, the joys of being surrounded by the people you love, and the contentment that comes from your heart in knowing you are living your life with integrity and deep personal meaning.
Thanks, Charlene... It is good to take a breath at the top of the wheel, take stock, and be thankful.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Venus in Repose

Venus in Repose

Earlier this evening, Kym, Taylor and I said a long, tearful goodbye to a member of our family – our 1-1/2-year-old miniature schnauzer named Venus. She didn’t die; we gave her to a wonderful couple who we know will take very good care of her. Venus is, without question, the best dog I’ve ever known – not that I’ve been close to many. But experienced dog people have remarked about what a smart, well-behaved and good natured dog she is. Whether or not she is the best dog ever, I can’t say, but she is the best dog we could have ever hoped to own – if only for a season.

You might be wondering why in the world, if she’s such a wonderful animal, we would ever get rid of Venus. I’m wondering that a bit myself as there’s not exactly a black-and-white reason for our decision. It was ultimately Kym’s decision and one I felt was important to respect and agree with. If I try and pin it down to one unifying reason as to why we gave Venus away, I’d say it is this: we really fell in love with her.

That probably doesn’t sound like much of an answer at all, so I suppose I’ll start from the beginning. Maybe it will make more sense in context.

Kym had owned a rescue Chiquaqua-mix named Bambi when she was 5 years old.
The dog became sick after couple of months and needed to be put to sleep. I owned one briefly when I was about 12 or 13 – a sheltie named Robbie. I begged my parents for a dog, having no idea what it meant to take care of anything, let alone myself. My sister begged too and eventually they relented. Robbie was pretty hyper, nearly full grown, but still very much a puppy. He hadn’t been housetrained yet and we certainly weren’t disciplined enough to train him ourselves. My parents had made it clear that he was to be Melissa’s and my responsibility, not theirs. When it became obvious that we had neither the inclination nor the temperament to care for a high-maintenance dog like Robbie, my folks stayed true to their word and found a new home for him. Within days he was housetrained and, as far as I know, lived a happy life.

So it’s pretty safe to say that we’re not dog people. It’s not that I don’t like dogs. I actually like them a lot – especially the ones I’m not allergic to – but I understand that they have real needs that shouldn’t be neglected. I take that seriously enough to know that I wouldn’t want me for an owner if I were a dog. I’m too busy, travel too much and just don’t place enough of a priority on caring for a domestic animal to be a dog owner.

When Taylor turned five or so, he started asking for a brother or sister. We watched him with other children – babies especially – and saw how loving, gentle and attentive he was. T would make a great big brother but we knew a little sib wasn’t in the works.

So we talked about getting a dog. Actually, Kym talked about it and I demurred. Taylor was in no way ready for a dog. All the care responsibilities would fall on us and I was not going to devote the time required. Both Kym and Taylor were persistent and assured me that I wouldn’t be a primary caretaker. Whether that would turn out to be true or not, I argued that we are not dog people and we have no true appreciation of what it means to care for a dog.

I held out for as long as I could, wanting to wait forever – or at least until Taylor was eight and more capable of caring for a pet. But I knew that resistance was futile and I finally relented.

Kym had done her homework (as she does with most everything) and figured out that the best breed for us would be a miniature schnauzer. A small dog (about 12 pounds fully grown) but not a wimpy dog – one that would be a good and devoted companion and not destroy the house or the yard. She found a wonderful breeder in northern Maryland who bred and showed only miniature schnauzers. We put down a deposit and promised T a puppy for his next birthday.

Venus was born on March 10, 2007, just seven days shy of T’s sixth birthday. A purebred with a fine pedigree, we picked her up when she was 14 weeks old – already housetrained and ready to be loved. Within days, we knew she was a good fit. As advertised, she was smart, playful, and sweet. She barked only rarely – really only once a month or so and always for a reason – usually squirrels. All she ever wanted from us was to be nearby. She was always at our feet – ready to lick our hands or pick up a morsel that fell off the kitchen counter. Her pepper gray and white coat was soft as cashmere – especially in the summer when she lost her coarser winter coat. We kept her groomed short, which showed off her lean but muscular figure. She reminded us of one of those Mighty Dog dogs in the commercials when she leapt up the porch stairs from the yard.

As predicted, while Taylor clearly enjoyed Venus (mostly when it was past his bedtime and he was looking for an excuse to delay the inevitable), he didn’t take on ownership responsibilities. He’d feed her occasionally, but it was really up to Kym (and on occasion, me) to walk her and make sure she got what she needed. Kym was also completely responsible for the major stuff and I, on the contrary to my initial thoughts, had very little to do with caring for Venus. I did, however, pick up the tab while Kym did all the legwork.

Not that picking up the tab was a small deal. Our $1200 investment in her as a dog was only the beginning of the expenses. Dog insurance, wellness care (an excellent investment it turned out as she got pancreatitis when she was about six months old), invisible fence, spaying, food, medicine, kenneling when we went on vacation… it all added up pretty quickly. Vastly cheaper than a second child, mind you, but certainly not pocket change.

Still, we could afford it and Venus gave us no grief whatsoever, only love. She had a short spell of needing to chew and managed to get hold of a couple of power cords, but that phase quickly passed (maybe the power cords had something to do with it). After that, she was a perfect gentlewoman.

Kym and I both agreed Venus would not have run of the house so she was confined to the kitchen, foyer and Kym's office. Over time I successfully lobbied for her to be allowed in the family room – on our leather couch when we watched TV – as long as she stayed on a little bed we got for her. All she wanted was to be near us.

So far, this isn’t sounding anything like a tragic story and it’s really not. Over time, a couple of things happened that gave us pause. First, Venus got a number of tick bites from the woods behind our house. Lyme Disease is endemic here – as it is most everywhere nowadays. The bites would become infected and require a couple of visits to the vet. After a while it became clear that if we stayed where we live now, this would become a routine issue. The first time one of our frequent tick checks on Taylor proved fruitful – the little bugger on his chest was the size of a small freckle – our concern escalated.

Then a couple of months ago, Venus broke through the Invisible Fence. Taylor was outside at the time – we heard his repeated screams. As I ran out of the house, I thought for sure Venus or someone else had been hit by a car. He was in a complete panic as he watched her run down the sidewalk and disappear.

Though she’s a tiny dog, even at a full sprint, I can’t outrun her when we go for our evening tears around the circle. If she ever wanted to get away from us, she could do it without so much as panting. Turns out that Venus’ jailbreak was purely a crime of passion; her boyfriend, Dusty, a golden lab puppy twice her size, was out for a walk in the neighborhood and she simply couldn’t help herself.

I think that was the trigger for what ultimately followed; Kym saw that, between the ticks and Venus’ ability to break the fence at will, we would need to stop relying on the fence and always walk her. And that process led to bigger questions: Were we really prepared to do this for the next 12 years? Could we provide Venus with the best possible life?

We love Venus, but we also saw that we didn’t give her all the attention she needed. Maybe that’s not right; we gave her all that she needed. We just didn’t give her what she really deserved. We didn’t play with her enough or let her have the run of the house or the yard. She simply deserved more than we were able to give her.

Kym, with her usual care and diligence, eventually found a couple, the grandparents of one of T’s classmates, who were ready for a new member of their family with whom they could share their palatial home in Frederick, MD, just 30 miles north of us. They had owned a miniature schnauzer in the past, were in semi-retirement, and had plenty of grandkids, land and love to share with our little girl.

A couple of visits with them gave us more than enough assurance that Venus would have everything a dog could want – not indulgent love, but the right kind of love and attention – and time.

Kym spent nearly the entire day today preparing for the delivery. She typed up checklists, Venus' daily routine, her wellness schedule – it was amazing to see it all in writing as she documented everything that went into caring for Venus beyond food, water and walks. Her new owners were rightfully impressed as Kym went through every detail. As we left, we asked them to call us first whenever they went out of town so we could take Venus for them. I’m already missing her, but am happy to know she is getting what she deserves.

Many tears were shed, mostly by Kym. She knew she was doing the right thing for Venus, even though it was breaking her heart. T didn’t cry until we got into the car and he finally realized what it meant (in his heart anyway – he has known intellectually what it meant for a few weeks). He was sad that he had lost a playmate – or at least a potential playmate since we often had to ask him to play with her as he rarely thought to do so on his own.

Tonight, Kym apologized for not listening to me in the first place – that I was right, we’re not dog people. But I was wrong. We are dog people. We just know that we shouldn’t own a dog. But we have loved one dog as much as any other dog person. I know because of the tears I am shedding now.