Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Letter to My Father

Dear Dad,

I wanted to write you because it's been a long time since I had, and because you like getting letters, and because I like writing them. You've been on my mind lately, more than usual.

I'd like to start with a few simple "thank yous," if that's OK. These are in no particular order.

Thank you for pursuing Mom. In today's world it would be stalking, no doubt about it. But she admits she didn't mind it (except maybe when you followed her to Europe when she went on that trip with her cousin; she said that was a bit weird). And you were 16 years her senior, and, well, her boss.

Yeah, creepy. But it ultimately brought me into the world, and I'm enjoying myself here.

Thank you for buying a house where you did. It was a stroke of genius, which I know you didn't know then. But the location is perfect, and the neighborhood that was great to grow up in, where I rode my bike and played football and threw frisbees and lost myself in the woods behind the house for hours on end really just keeps getting better. I am so glad that my brothers didn't have interest in this place when it was going to be sold. I love it here, and I always have, and it is because of you. The tree in the front yard is beyond magnificent.

Thank you for agreeing to the divorce. I know that sounds weird to say, but it really was the best thing that could have happened. While you may have had happy times for a while, by the time I left 8th grade it was all shot to hell. We all knew it. I know it wasn't easy for you to admit defeat, and I'm sure it didn't make much sense to you at the time, or afterwards. Unknowingly, you gave up your own happiness for mine and Mom's. It's what a good father does.

Because you were much older than my friend's fathers, I didn't really connect with you until I was an adult. As a child I found you stodgy, but as I grew I matured, and I paid attention.

Thank you for imbuing me with your love of literature and music. I admit that I didn't like your Big Band sound, and I thought the tapes you made for your friends where you DJ'd were dumb at the time (though they loved them). I did grow weary of hearing Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Glenn Miller, and Anita O'Day (and I still don't enjoy that sound), but, and you might not know this, I was listening to you love it.

And in between the sounds I disliked were some serious gems. I remember being in my room studying and hearing, for the first time, the throaty awesomeness of Nina Simone. I didn't think much of it until I watched the Bridget Fonda/Gabriel Byrne remake of "Le Femme Nikita" called "Point of No Return." When the first Nina song came on, I started. I recognized it! It gave me chills.

And though I had become interested in classical music really for the first time my freshman year in college (thank you, Music Appreciation 101, J.B. Golden, and Paula Williams), I recall lying in the bathtub at home, long after that class, and hearing the strains of Ennio Morricone's spectacular score for "The Mission" coming out of the speakers in the living room, and thinking, "Wow." You were thrilled when I asked you about it, and thereafter you'd call me excitedly whenever you had other scores (or symphonies) you thought I'd like.

Thank you for not pushing me to major in something I hated just so I would be more employable; I'm convinced my English degree and Education M.Ed. have helped me way more than an MBA would have. I know you were just happy I was going to college, and later I know you were proud that I am the only one of your children to finish college at all.

Thank you for giving me a good economic sense. It has been a huge asset, and I am grateful. My brothers did not get it, and they have still not learned from their mistakes.

Speaking of that, thank you for allowing me to make mistakes, though I never made huge ones. I was conservative enough with money to make good decisions early on. I'm not rich by any monetary means, but I support myself just fine, thanks to your wisdom.

Thank you for letting us have dogs. They all taught me so much, and shaped my life immeasurably.

Your "hands-off" discipline style meant that Mom was the one wielding the switch when I needed it. Some of my friends told stories of the spankings their dads gave them, but I could say, "my dad has never laid a hand on me." I'm not angry at Mom, mind you--I am so thankful she helped me understand that behaviors had consequences, and I learned quickly. Just the thought of disappointing either of you meant that I didn't get spanked much.

Of course, the validity of spanking is now a hot topic, and I'm glad I have no children of my own causing me to have to deal with it. I was not abused. I was disciplined as necessary. There is a difference.

My childhood was a good one, Dad. It wasn't all sunshine and ponies, but it was sturdy and caring compared to the childhoods of some people I am friends with now. Knowing what I now know about how much one's childhood affects the rest of one's life, I am eternally thankful for both you and Mom. I am who I am today because of how I was raised.

Thank you for living your values, and for teaching them to me, and not hiding behind fundamentalist religion to do it. I know you couldn't afford to send me to Catholic school for 9 years, and now I know why you sacrificed and did it anyway: it wasn't because you honestly believed it was a superior education. It was because of your sister, and I can forgive you for that. You loved her in spite of her "crazy" immersion into belief.

I know now that you were agnostic, but "going with the flow" and raising your children in the church of your youth was expected of you. Trust me when I say that knowledge buoys me on a consistent basis. I wondered about it for years, until one day I got it. I had long left the church by then, but never really understood why you had believed it in the first place. You were too intellectual for it, Dad. (Yeah, I hate it when the obvious hits you right smack in the face.)

You worked hard at a job you grew to hate to provide for us. You retired, then started working again because you needed the money. You took care of the things that needed to be taken care of at the expense of doing things you wanted to do. You did the best you could, always.

None of this was lost on me. As I age, I see so much of you in me, where before I thought we had little in common. In your own quiet way, you loved me no matter what. That is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.

Thank you for the sacrifices you made, including the sacrifices to our country during the war, and the stories that came from them. Do you remember that interview I did of you for my Journalism class, the one where I told your story of bailing out of a plane and ending up in a POW camp (with a really wild twist of fate), and I didn't reveal until the end that you were my dad? I got an "A" on it, and I still have it.

Not a day goes by that I don't think of how you have affected my life and helped me along the way. (Mom did, too; she deserves a ton of credit that I will get to later.) You showed me it was good to love learning, and reading, and reciting poetry; the pleasures of a good hammock, a good fire, and a good mixed drink; the way a musical piece can lift you into another world. I had loved the beauty of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" as a symphonic/choral piece for years, and disliked ballet, but when you took me to the ballet performance, I was dumbstruck. I'll never forget it. I still do not care for ballet, but "Carmina" is one I will see again.

I'll never be able to properly thank you, Dad. There's more, but this is enough for now. It's been a philosophical day for me, as this day has been for 16 years now.

I have one more thing to tell you, Dad, besides the fact that the movie "Meet Joe Black" (and its beautiful score by Thomas Newman) makes me sob uncontrollably because Anthony Hopkins' character is not really like you but makes me think of you; besides the fact that I listen to the 2nd movement of Brahm's "Requiem" on this day every year and end up curled in a crying fetal position the rest of the day; besides the fact that Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" makes me stop the car and weep no matter where I am. As I drove home from the hospital after you quietly left, your body spent and unable to continue, I was remembering the sound of your respirator ceasing, and my aunt, Mom, and brothers crying, and the nurse leaving us to our grief. And that song came on the radio.

I love you, and I miss you more than I ever, ever thought I would. I've got so many more movies and scores and songs and books to share with you.

My life is one of happiness and promise, Dad, in many ways because of you. And I have only one real regret: I'm not sure that I told you how much I loved you before you were gone on July 26th, 1994, at the age of 72. I was 28, and we hadn't been "close" for a while. Three days before you went into the hospital complaining of stomach pains, we all gathered at Lee's and had a Father's day cookout. You gave me my birthday present, which I recall was a pair of shorts and a shirt from Sears that I might have worn when I was 15. I know I thanked you for it, and I knew secretly I'd never wear it, but how could you have known? The thought absolutely counted.

I remember parts of that day in stark detail, and the rest none at all. It was hot, of course. You and Lee probably argued. At some point I'm sure I wanted to be doing anything else. But the thing I cannot remember, and believe me, I've tried: did I tell you "I love you" that day? Did I? If not, why not? I could kick myself for not knowing that.

I'm pretty sure I told you in the hospital before your body started shutting down slowly and you went into the coma. Yes, I'm sure I did. We all thought you'd be coming home; pancreatitis is rarely fatal, the doctors all said. But the days passed, and you didn't get better; you got worse. Surely, at some point before you were no longer lucid, I told you.

I'm trying to make up for it by living my best life, and I think you'd be proud of me, still. For weeks after you died, I dreamt of you, and in every single dream I spent so much time telling you how special you were to me, and how much I appreciated you. I woke up crying every morning for weeks after your funeral.

Though I do not believe in the concept of an afterlife, in those dreams, time had reverted back to when you were alive, and you heard me.

Despite my regret, what I did in those dreams has to be enough. I love you, Dad.

"It doesn't matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was."
~Anne Sexton

Monday, July 19, 2010

Should I Get My Dog A Dog?

There is a tongue-in-cheek suggestion often given to Women Who Do Too Much (you know, the ones ferrying the kids everywhere, planning meals, shopping, working, doing laundry, and multiple other tasks while trying not to stress out).

Their friends, co-workers, and even family will jokingly suggest, "You need to get yourself a wife."

For some reason, I thought of that joke as I was writing this. Let's look at this scenario (minus the ferrying, shopping, planning, doing laundry, etc.) from the perspective of the "average" dog owner.

Many people who only have one dog often feel guilty, and worry that they are depriving their pet by not having a playmate for him. I am often asked if they should get a second dog to keep their dog company, and my answer is “it depends.”

Dogs are indeed social animals, and most enjoy the company of other dogs in addition to humans. Their innate sociability is why they make such great companions for us, and why they are relatively easy to train. But are we depriving them if we only have one in our home?

Before you rush out to get Rover a pal, ask yourself the following questions, and consult a qualified trainer if you are not sure.

Is Rover 8-9 months or older? Raising one puppy is hard enough; don’t make it harder by adding another dog before Rover is housebroken, at least somewhat trained, and bonded with you. This is one reason out of many why most canine professionals agree that adopting 2 puppies together is a bad idea. And adding a “non-puppy” may not be much better; any age dog that is new to your home will still need training and time to settle in.

Is Rover obedience trained? If he isn’t, you will have a much harder time training 2 at once. And dogs learn from other dogs, but not usually good habits. So fix Rover first, for best results. Otherwise, you may end up with twice the trouble.

Are you getting Rover a pal because you don’t spend enough time with him? This is a common mistake people make, and what you end up with is two dogs you now do not have time for. Dogs may love each others’ company, but they typically love us more, and dogs don’t raise other dogs—people do. If sociable dogs had their pick between “another dog” and “more quality time with owner,” most would pick option 2. Seriously.

Does Rover really like other dogs? This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people have dogs who really have little interest in other dogs who rush out to get Fido a friend. Does Fido go to the dog park, or to daycare? If so, does he play well with others (as opposed to just tolerating them, or worse)? Maybe he likes certain kinds (and breeds or sizes) of dogs, but not others. Not every dog loves every other dog he meets. We don’t expect that of humans, so why do we expect it of dogs?

Being a social species does not mean that one likes every other member of the species; I'm sure you know this from, like, life (do YOU like everyone you meet? Humans are a social species...if you answered no, then why not?) You might be amazed at how many people are truly troubled that their dogs are simply nonchalant about playing with other dogs. They get very offended when they go somewhere with dogs and their dog prefers to hang out with the owners instead of running around with the other dogs. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why, but the bottom line is that those dogs, as long as they are not aggressive or overly stressed, are perfectly happy that way, and there is nothing wrong with them!

Is Rover "protective" of you? Maybe you've noticed that Rover gets "weird" when other dogs approach you in the dog park. Maybe your friend's dog was visiting once and Rover "didn't like it" when that dog would come over to you for petting or attention. Sometimes this is mild, like
pushing in between you and the other dog, as if to push the dog away from you, or trying to grab treats or toys before the other dog can take them from you. (Both of these are annoying, but if they are the extent of the possessiveness, and do not turn into growling or fighting, you can fix them fairly easily.)

But if Rover's possessiveness is stronger, such as he growls, snaps, or bites when the other dog is close; lunges at or attacks the dog when it moves into your space, or attacks the dog over resources like toys or food, Rover will need some behavioral intervention before you bring another dog home. If you can't get a handle on this problem with professional help, you shouldn't add a dog to your household, and if it is pronounced in public, you should be very cautious when taking him to off-leash spaces where you have less control.

Some dogs are fine with other dogs in public situations like dog parks and daycare, or even in homes that are not yours, but definitely will NOT tolerate another dog living in their space. Technically, it's your decision to whether you will have another dog, not your dog's--but if you are constantly having to correct and separate them, or worse, break up fights, why put yourself and the dogs through that? It's a stressful way to live for both humans and canines, and someone is going to be hurt.

If your dog blatantly tells you that he wants to be the only dog in your home, your responsibility is to him first and foremost. Ignoring his temperament in this aspect could be costly, dangerous, and emotionally devastating. Enjoy him for who he is, and if he likes other dogs in public, give him that outlet if you can do so safely.

Are you really ready for a second dog? You know he won’t be as easy as Rover was, don’t you? The law of averages says that if your first dog (or child) was easy to raise and train, the second one will be just the opposite. Are you prepared to do the work? Whether you get a young puppy or an adolescent or an adult, all dogs need to learn the rules of your home when they come into it. Prepare for a lot of work, and be thankful if it isn’t as hard as you expected.

Adding a second dog also adds costs, from food to travel plans, to how big of a car do you have, and do you have room for another crate?

Ultimately, getting a second dog is a personal decision that must not be made lightly. For most people, after training, having a second dog isn’t much harder than having one (though adding a third definitely ups the stakes). Being left alone is not as lonely for Fido  (once they have both earned the privilege to be loose in the home), and watching 2 dogs who like each other interact can be very enjoyable. Plus, you are helping a dog that needs a home. So, the positives are definitely there.

The best short answer to the titular question is this: don’t get a dog for your dog. Get a second dog for yourself when you are ready (after it has met and gets along with your dog, of course), and chances are the dogs will also benefit from the arrangement.

If you are going to take the plunge, here are some suggestions.

Try to choose a dog of the opposite sex, and if your dog is 2 or older, go younger (it doesn’t have to be a baby, though). Know your dog's personality and try to get a dog that won't clash with it. Ultimately, though, get the dog you want to have--the one you are best suited to raise and train and live with for the next 10-15 years. Consult a trainer to accompany you to the shelter or breeders' place if you are not sure; there are no guarantees, but someone with a good eye for what "getting along" looks like can be immensely helpful in this process.

Take your time and make the right decision; there's no need to rush.

Establish rules and structure right away for the new dog ('cuz your existing dog already has them in place, right?) and be prepared to feed separately for best results. Of course, the new dog needs his own crate.

NOTE: just because your Fido and new Rover got along at the shelter, don't expect pure, unfettered harmony at home--at first. Space is a dog's primary language, and when a new dog comes into an existing dog's territory, there is bound to be a little friction (especially if your house or yard are small). Let them drag leashes at the first meetup, and later in the home until you are sure they understand what's expected of them. Tight leashes promote frustration and reactivity.

In the above photo, what do you see? A happy greeting? Notice the raised tails, the raised hackles on both dogs, and the way the brown dog is hovering above the black dog. Without a dog-savvy adult nearby, this could have turned ugly. The obvious positives of the above situation: outdoors, with plenty of room to move; the dogs are not squared off, but perpendicular; the dog with the most potential for problems is dragging a leash. Just after this was taken, I called the brown dog and he turned towards me, breaking the "stalemate." The black dog was relieved and trotted off. I had a close eye on the brown dog after that; there were other dogs in the yard, and he was wary of all of them, but he was never given a chance to posture that way again due to sharp human intervention. After he calmed down, he even played a bit.

Harmony between dogs in the home is always easier with good, clear leadership. There will be less squabbling if you have made it clear that you will not put up with fighting. If you are having a problem, keep them separated for safety, and consult a trainer who will approach the problem from multiple angles if need be (not with force, and not with only treats).

Initial training is easier with fewest distractions, so any training you do should be one dog at a time for now. Crate the other dog while you work, then switch them. As they get better, use the other dog as a controlled distraction.

Having multiple dogs can be, and more often than not, is, a fantastic experience. Just don't rush into it, as it is a 15-year commitment, and make sure your dog would love the idea.

"Old age means realizing you will never own all the dogs you wanted to." ~~Joe Gores