Monday, June 29, 2009

Goodbye, Old Friend

I may have mentioned my dog before. He is (was) a Basset Hound. We got him when he was "about 4," according to the folks we got him from, which means he could have been anywhere from 2 to 6 at the time. My daughter was almost 4 at the time, and my son wasn't born yet.

My daughter had been asking for a dog since she was eighteen months old. We would pass dogs on the street or at the dog park and she would say, "I want a doggy." I bought her a stuffed doggy, but that just made her annoyed with me. At the time, she didn't know the words for "alive" or "real" so she said, "No! I want a doggy that walks." So a couple months later, I bought her a small battery operated stuffed dog that walked when you turned on the switch. She was not impressed; I could tell by her huffing and sighing. As soon as she learned to express the concept of "real" and "alive," she told me she wanted a "real, alive doggy."

So in 2002, my husband and daughter responded to an ad in the paper seeking a "good home" for a "loving dog." I'm not sure exactly how these folks came to possess our dear Hound, but they didn't know exactly how old he was - they just knew they couldn't keep him because they discovered after they got him that their kid was allergic to him.

He was friendly and sweet and seemed healthy and happy, so my husband and daughter brought him home. He rode happily in the back seat with my daughter. He leaned over her and hung his head out the window, tongue flailing in the wind. She thought that was hilarious, and laughed the entire way home. She named him "Woody," after the cowboy in Toy Story, which was a fairly new and still very popular movie at the time.

He was an exceptionally good-looking Basset Hound. We would buy a calendar each year, with Basset Hound photos for each month, and our wonderful Woody always looked as handsome as the professionally photographed purebred pooches.

Woody adjusted quite well to us and to our home. At first, I wasn't sure whether to trust him with my daughter. Basset Hounds are not small dogs, even though they are only about 15 inches tall at the shoulders; they really are large dogs on very short legs. They have huge strong jaws, and are stocky and heavy for their size, which made me a little nervous given that my daughter was a very small age 4. He outweighed her by at least 15 pounds. I never fully trust animals around young kids anyway. Even a very friendly and patient animal can "snap" if he is hurt or startled. So I watched him carefully, but he was always very patient and gentle, and never snapped.

She had a lot to learn about how to treat animals. I explained many times how to pet him properly and that she should not hurt him. But as soon as I would look away, she would pull on his very long, adorably droopy ears, or hold onto his tail, or poke at him, or climb on him... I think she didn't mean him any harm, but was curious, and somewhat used to stuffed animals that could be poked and prodded at will. He never responded in anger. She could poke and prod and he would just sit there, occasionally nudging her with his nose. If she hurt him, he would simply get up and walk away. Eventually, she learned to treat him kindly so he wouldn't leave.

Woody also learned the particular joys of children. They are messy eaters, so all he had to do to get yummy snacks was hang around under my daughter's chair while she ate dinner. And they also love to give treats to dogs, so all he had to do to get treats between meals was look at her with those soulful brown eyes, and she'd run for the treat jar and give him a snack. I think that was part of the reason why he was so willing to put up with her poking and prodding - he knew she was a great food source!

When my son was born, Woody was immediately fascinated with the little guy. I think he was glad to have me home for maternity leave, too, and he would sleep at my feet as I held my son, or sit in the kitchen with me while I made lunch. And as my son grew, and became mobile, Woody was as gentle with him as he had been with my daughter, putting up with all the pokes, prods, and pulls as my son learned how to properly pet and play with a dog. And he always kept the floor under my son's high chair clean and clear of all crumbs and dropped food.

Woody loved to play - he would chase balls (and sometimes bring them back), play tug of war, and run and chase and run some more. The kids loved to throw the ball for him, then chase him around the yard; he loved outrunning them. He would tease them, too, letting them get almost within range of him, then darting off to run in circles some more.

He loved to walk with us (on the leash of course), anywhere we wanted to go. He'd prance down the street, tail in the air and nose to the ground, seeming to say "It's right this way guys, I can smell it... this way now, let's go!... Yup, here it is, I can smell it now!" And we invariably got comments wherever we went: "What a beautiful dog!" "Wow, is he a Bassett Hound? He's so perfect!!" "Oooh, can I pet him?" "Wow, he's sooo friendly!!" He would wag his tail and lean happily against whoever was petting him while gazing up into their eyes with his beautiful and soulful brown eyes. He loved being out and about.

He also loved to go to the dog park and play with the other dogs. He was always friendly and never got into fights or even growled at the others. He would sometimes get frustrated when he couldn't keep up with the other dogs running around because his little legs were so short. Then, he'd run behind them barking, "woof! ... woof! ... woof!" Very cute.

He also loved to play at the park with the kids. Sometimes he'd follow them up the stairs to the slide, then slide down after them. Other times, he'd just sit or lie in the sand and watch them climb and swing and run around.

When I left my job and opened my own law firm, I began working mostly from home. Woody loved that. He would sleep on his blanket near my feet most of the day, and bark to alert me when the mailman came by or when anyone knocked at the door. I loved his "big-dog" bark - it made me feel somewhat safer while I was home alone. Sometimes we'd go for walks in the morning before it got too hot; other days, when the weather was nice, I'd sit out back for a while and read cases and drink my coffee while Woody chased the birds in the yard or slept in the sun. Mostly, I worked at my computer and Woody slept on his blanket on the floor.

Woody was not a perfect dog. One of his favorite activities was knocking over the garbage can to get to the "treats" inside. He could also stand with his paws on the edge of the kitchen counter (he was quite tall when standing on his short back legs - he had quite a long body) and reach nearly to the back of the counter with his tongue, so you could not leave any food on the counter. We always had to leave him outside when we were away because he couldn't be trusted inside by himself. Once, my husband and I made the mistake of leaving a half-eaten pizza on the coffee table in the living room while we went to the kitchen to get beverages. The pizza was gone when we returned. And he knew he wasn't supposed to sleep on the couch or on our bed, but if I walked into the living room or bedroom after being in the kitchen for a while, I often would find a warm indentation in exactly the shape of a curled-up doggy on the couch or bed... while Woody appeared to be asleep, innocently, on the floor several feet away. Yes, he could be rather sly...

But he was always a faithful friend. He always greeted us when we came home, happy to see us. If you were sad, he was there to comfort you. If you were happy, his tail was wagging too.

Last summer, he started getting a little... slower. He stopped knocking over the garbage, and completely stopped climbing on the bed and on the couch. We took him to the vet, and it turned out his spleen was severely enlarged. Over $1000 later, he was our spleen-less wonder-dog. He took several weeks recovering from the surgery, but he did perk up a bit. He still did not climb on the bed (can't say I was too disappointed about that one), but he enjoyed his walks again and followed us happily around the house. He seemed happy for the holidays, anyway.

But the hair didn't grow back on his pudgy pink belly where they had shaved it for the surgery. And after an initial few months of seeming better, he slowed down again. So this spring, it was back to the vet, who said he seemed to be having troubles with his liver function and thyroid, plus he had high blood pressure. She said we could try additional x-rays and surgery if we were so inclined, to determine if cancer was the problem, but she didn't really recommend it, because if it were cancer, the surgery and chemotherapy would be very expensive and likely would not substantially extend or improve the quality of his life. She prescribed several different medicines and supplements, which were supposed to help if it was not cancer, as well as an antibiotic and some pain killers.

Woody loved the treats he got with his morning and evening pills. Four treats every morning and four treats every evening. But again, after an initial couple of months in which the pills seemed to help, he just seemed to be slowing down again. And over the past couple of months, he slept more and more, ate less and less, and seemed less and less happy. Another trip to the vet, more prescription pain medicine -- but there was no way to cure him, no way to make him young again. He continued to lose weight. And in the last couple of weeks, his face just looked gaunt; his ribs appeared and felt prominent despite his puffed-out belly.

So last Monday, my husband and I had to face reality. Woody was not going to get well again. He did not look happy. Over the weekend, he had just seemed to be in pain, despite the pain medicine we were giving him twice a day. And on Monday, his breathing was labored and irregular. My husband and I talked about it and made what has to be one of the hardest decisions one can make: time to euthanize our beloved friend.

My daughter is out of town, camping with some relatives in Virginia. Sadly, she did not get a chance to say goodbye to her faithful friend. I hope she will forgive me. My son cried a lot, and said his goodbyes, and then we took him to his grandmother's house, and then we took Woody to the vet one final time.

As I walked him out to the car, he wanted to walk around the yard and mark his territory one last time, so I let him. Poor Woody tried to pee on the fire hydrant in the corner of our yard, but fell over sideways. He's persistent, though. He tried again -- success! -- then walked to the car. I had to help him in. Long gone are the days when he could jump in by himself. No more standing and hanging his head out the window, tongue flapping in the wind. No, this time he just laid on his side, on the back seat of the car, looking sad and withered.

At the vet's office, we petted him and told him what a good dog he had been and how much we loved him. He sat for a while, then lay down on the blanket they had for him, and didn't move again. They gave him the shots, and we comforted him while the drugs put him to sleep and then stopped his heart. It is not easy to watch your beloved doggy die. I wish I could say he seemed peaceful or happy as he died, but the best I can say is that he seemed ready for it, and at least he won't suffer any longer.

I'll never see him again, and I miss my little friend terribly. I miss having an automatic vacuum / floor sweeper to clean up after the kids when they make a mess at dinner time. I miss having a dog to walk. I miss having a dog who barks when someone is at the door. I miss hearing my son shout with joy ("Woody!!") when we come home from running errands. But most of all, I miss Woody's friendly presence and sweet brown eyes watching me while I sit here at my computer doing my work and reading your blogs.

* * * * *

Dear Woody, you were a true friend and a good dog. Thank you for being so patient with my kids, and so loving to all of us. We will all miss you terribly and remember you fondly.

Goodbye old friend, goodbye.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Interesting Factoid

Another busy week. I had to put my dog to sleep on Monday (I'll write about that later). And Wednesday through Friday this week, I'm attending the State Bar Convention, which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

But the seminar on gender issues that I attended yesterday had a faculty member with an interesting perspective on the topic under discussion, as well as a great deal of legal experience. She is the first person in Arizona history to have argued cases before our highest court as both a man (several years ago) and a woman (more recently).


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pulitzer Project Book Announcement: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy (2007 Pulitzer Prize Winner)

I have a book announcement for those of you who are following along with my attempt, inspired by the Pulitzer Project blog, to read and review all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels.

Next up: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy (2007's Pulitzer winner). If you want to join the discussion on that one, get it and read it soon.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Ice Cream Man

Fancy Schmancy's post yesterday reminded me of one of the true joys of my Florida childhood -- the Ice Cream Man.

At least once a week, on those sticky hot Florida summer days, he'd slowly cruise through our little neighborhood, jolly music playing loudly. Every kid on the block would run inside and beg mom and dad for money, or raid his or her piggy bank, or check under the couch cushions, and then chase frantically down the street to catch the truck. The driver was invariably friendly and would stop when he saw the kids running behind him. We never missed the ice cream truck. (Well, maybe once that I can remember, when I had a sprained ankle and couldn't run.)

We'd run up to the truck and stare with wide-eyed awe at the pictures of all the yummy treats plastered all over the side of the truck. Then we'd debate the merits of the bomb pop versus the fudgsicle or the orange cream or the sno cone.... We'd dither and hem and haw and finally make a selection, then turn over our fistful of loose change and wait to hear the magic verdict on whether the money was the right amount -- "Great! Here's your popsicle!" or "One bomb pop, coming up!"

The thing is, we always caught him, and it was always enough money, and the juicy or creamy or icy treat was always awesome. I don't remember ever being disappointed by the ice cream man.

When I first moved to my Arizona neighborhood, I discovered that the ice cream man was a little.... different. First of all, he cruised through the neighborhood at approximately 35 miles per hour.

Keep in mind, the speed limit is 25.

Before we had kids, my husband and I heard him coming and tried, a couple of times, to run inside and get money and catch him, but he was long gone before we got inside -- forget finding money and coming back outside to catch him. Heck, he barely slowed down for stop signs; I don't know why I thought he'd stop if he saw some grown-up chasing after him. For over eight years, I never saw him stopped with kids around the truck selling ice cream. We became convinced it was a front for a bunch of drug dealers, or (less paranoid interpretation), that he was merely driving through our neighborhood on the way home and wasn't actually interested in selling ice cream here.

So when our daughter was a toddler and saw and heard the truck, we told her it was the "music truck," and that he just drove around the neighborhood playing music for everyone. Being a toddler and trusting her parents as the authority on everything from the Easter Bunny to Santa Claus, she bought that story hook, line, and sinker.

For a couple of years, whenever she heard the ice cream truck, she'd say, "Mommy, listen! It's the music truck!" And I'd say, "Ooh, yes! Isn't that nice?" and smile, and we'd both go on about our business.

And then for a couple of years, he didn't even come through the neighborhood. I had forgotten about the ice cream / music truck.

Then one day when our son was about 3 and our daughter about 8, we were standing outside with the kids, talking to some neighbors, having just returned from the store. I had my bag; my husband had his wallet. We both had cash on us. Our daughter said, "Mommy, listen! It's the music truck!" Our neighbors looked quizzically at each other and, apparently deciding we were the worst parents on earth and that our kids needed to learn the real truth, said, "What?!? Oh, you mean the Ice Cream Man! Ooh, let's stop him and get some ice cream!"

And our deception was revealed. Our daughter was clearly annoyed with us for deceiving her. She looked at me like I had just told her there was no Santa Claus. (Perhaps that was the moment she figured that out?).

And then the truck stopped. The kids saw all the ice cream illustrations on the side of the truck and began squirming with excitement. They hemmed and hawed and then made their decisions: A bomb pop for the little guy; chocolate dipped vanilla ice cream bar for his big sister. (The neighbors, those sneaks, didn't even buy anything at all!)

I have to admit, it was a sweet moment, and brought back good memories of my own childhood and the joys of the ice cream man. (And the man actually sold us some ice cream! Amazing! It's not a front for drug dealers! The truck has real ice cream!! This is good to know!)

...But now every time the kids hear the music, they beg for money.

** sigh **

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pulitzer Project Book Review - Gilead - Marilynne Robinson - 2005 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Please read the spoiler alert before reading this review.

Gilead is written as a letter from an old man, John Ames, a Reverend in a country church, to his young son. The Reverend married a younger woman late in life, and is now afraid he will die before his son matures, so he writes a book-length letter to his son, in a conversational style, talking about current happenings and past events in the history of his family and the town he lives in; his thoughts on life, God, religion, spiritual matters, other people, historical events, and the meaning of things; and about his love for the boy and his mother. The book jumps back and forth between past and present, and can feel a little disjointed at times. This made it seem authentic, in a sense - random stories and thoughts, just as you would write if you were writing a long series of letters, rather than editing a book - but can make it hard to follow if you're not paying close attention.

The book is well-written in the sense that the author describes things with such detail you can really see them there in front of you (and yet the details seem to flow naturally and are beautifully evocative, rather than mind-numbingly thorough). I was entranced by some of the spiritual discussions and by the Reverend's firm insistence that life itself - our human existence on Earth - is a thing of beauty to be treasured despite any difficulties or earthly "ugliness," rather than as a struggle to be endured until we can rush to "heaven" or some other more beautiful / spiritual place after death. This viewpoint certainly differs from that of some other religious leaders and was refreshing in that sense.

I loved the author's beautifully stated observations about American life and religion, human nature, and the beauty of the world. The Reverend's musings and stories are interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking, and the "letter" itself contains enough interesting events and describes interesting persons well enough that you actually get a sense of their character....


maybe it's my fault because when I started out, I tried to read this book an hour at a time while taking my kids to piano class or gymnastics or whatever, sitting and waiting... and with rather constant interruptions, so it was slow going (probably about 15 minutes of actual reading time for each hour I sat with the book). And so I thought the "letter" was ok, but I kept wondering why Reverend Ames seemed to so dislike and distrust his namesake / godson, who is his best friend's son? I kept thinking I missed something along the way, and so I kept turning back the pages and skimming prior chapters, trying to find what I had missed. This led to a very disjointed reading of the book.

Finally, I had to set it aside. I just felt too confused and frustrated by it.

I picked it up again two months later, when I had a chunk of free time, and started from the beginning, determined this time not to miss the critical piece of information about why the Reverend so disliked his godson, and promising myself that if I wasn't enjoying the book this time, I'd just give it up and start a different one.

This time, I read it in a few hours over the course of two relatively distraction-free days and actually liked it. (This seems to be a trend for me with these Pulitzer winners - I don't quite "get it" the first time through - it takes a second reading for me to pick up on the themes and facts that make the book interesting and/or "prize-worthy." Apparently my "English Lit" skills are a little rusty.)

As it turns out, we don't learn why the Reverend so dislikes his godson until very near the end of the book. I wasn't as frustrated this time, though, since I knew I hadn't missed anything, it just wasn't there yet.

I won't spoil the fun stuff by talking about the amusing stories in the book. I will say I found the end touching, and not in a fairy-tale happy ending sort of way (and the following may spoil the end for those of you who haven't read it).

The book explored the biblical and spiritual themes of the prodigal son, God's love despite human sins, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, pride, and spiritual growth. The book also deals, at a more mundane / earthly level, with stories of abolitionists and racial tension, recognizing that many religious leaders were also leaders in the abolitionist movement and that the abolitionists were, by necessity, a rather unlawful bunch. For example, the Reverend's grandfather, also a Reverend and an abolitionist, is painted as a very fallible and strong-willed character, a very religious man but with quirks and sins and human fallibility. And the book explores the sometimes strained relationship between fathers and sons - including Reverend Ames's relationship with his father, and his father's relationship with his father (the Reverend's abolitionist grandfather).

These themes are brought together in the character of the young John Ames. We eventually learn that he fathered a child when he was young and left town in shame, after refusing to marry the young mother or to support the child. His father, Reverend Ames's best friend (and a Reverend in a church of a different denomination), loves his son unconditionally in spite of this major human failing, and yearns for his son's return. Reverend Ames, the younger Ames's Godfather, does not understand this unconditional love, despite his attempts to apply his biblical understanding of the story of the prodigal son. He tries to understand, but he just doesn't, which is obvious because he so dislikes the younger John Ames and mistrusts him so thoroughly when he returns to visit his father.

Near the end of the book, the younger John Ames tells the old Reverend Ames that he has a son about the same age as the Reverend's son, and tells him about his desire and efforts to marry the mother of his son whom he loves but has been unable to marry (because in the 1950's interracial marriage was not allowed), and Reverend Ames comes to see the beauty, strength, human frailty, honor, and worthiness of his Godson, and comes to accept him despite his past sins and failures. There is a scene in which Reverend Ames formally blesses his Godson before his Godson leaves (probably never to return), and you can almost feel the years of misunderstanding and mistrust and doubts and frustration falling away, replaced by great love and compassion and understanding.

Meanwhile, the young John Ames's own father, who has always loved him despite his sins (the "prodigal son" theme), never learns of the redeeming qualities the senior Ames discovers near the end of the book. There is a suggestion that, if he knew of his son's struggle to marry the woman he loves despite the racial issues and of his mixed-race grandson, he might in fact be less accepting or loving than he has been - an interesting contrast with the Godfather / Godson relationship, and an interesting comment on the concept of "unconditional love" being doled out disproportionately to those who don't "deserve" it.

I was somewhat disappointed that the story of how the Reverend came to marry his much-younger, ethnic wife was not explored or explained further. I would have liked to have seen the racial themes explored more thoroughly, and also would have liked more insight into these characters. Why was the wife so drawn to the Reverend? Why was the Reverend so drawn to her? (We get a little information about this second question, but not much at all about why she insisted that he marry her). And although the Reverend muses some about his son and tosses in a couple of stories about the child, we never get much of a sense of the kid's personality. Perhaps exploring these areas in more detail would have made the book "too long." But I think it would have made the book more interesting and thus would have been worthwhile. As it is, I felt the description of the relationship between the Reverend and his wife was rather "flat," and I kept thinking the kid would have loved to read more about how his father and mother met and fell in love, instead of reading strange stories of abolitionists and this younger "John Ames" that he may never see again.

All in all, this was not my favorite book ever, although I liked it. I won't be telling all my friends they should rush out and read it. But I won't tell them not to, either. If you have the time to read it over the course of a couple of days so you can keep the events and people straight in your head and not feel as if you're missing something, and if you enjoy rather random musings about God, religion, and life; and character studies; and life-vignettes, then by all means, go for it. If you're looking for an action-adventure story or a romance or even a more thoroughly drawn historical fiction type novel, move along down the bookstore aisles and find something else.

If any of you have read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.