Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Power of Positive Puppy

When my beloved and I first got together in early 1997, he was living in Dallas. I lived in Sacramento. He had recently lost his job in a layoff due to a company downsizing. He was single—never married. He lived on a little manmade lake in the suburbs where his only pets were the ducks and other wildlife, except for his next-door neighbor, a Jack Russell Terrier.

It didn’t take more than a couple visits for us both to agree where our relationship was headed—a merger. That’s why I almost died when he called and told me that he missed me so much between visits, he just had to get a puppy.

What was he thinking? I had two cats! How would this ever work?

Even though I was raised with dogs, primarily boxers and one pansy poodle, I had converted to cats in early adulthood and never looked back. It wasn’t that I didn’t like dogs. I just found cats and their independent qualities and easy care fit my lifestyle better than being tied down to a needy dog. Especially as puppies, they were hard work and demanded constant attention.

However, once I saw a picture of that cute little Yellow Lab, I knew I’d just have to work it out. I was sucked right into the puppy vortex. (Look at this picture and tell me, could you have resisted Baby Bear?) Besides, how could I deny Tim companionship when I was over 1700 miles away and could only see him every couple of months. We had agreed to let our relationship develop in its own natural timing. Tim knew I wasn’t interested in an extended long-distance relationship, but I wasn’t pushing to move in together tomorrow, either. Tons of decisions had to precede that, including the toughest one of all: Which one of us would uproot and relocate?

The merger happened much sooner than we expected while sipping a tropical drink at a riverside restaurant in Sacramento. Tim had just come out for my father’s funeral, only three months after we had first gotten together in Dallas.

“I think I’m ready to move out here to be with you,” he said. “I can look for a job here just as easily as there. Besides, I don’t think you’d be happy in the Bible Belt.”

I was stunned. Later, he told me he was as surprised as I was. He had no idea that he felt that way—that he had already decided—until the words came tumbling out of his mouth.

Once that happy bomb was dropped on both of us, our lives were afire with more frequent calls and constant efforts to figure out the logistics of the move. He’d arrange to have a friend watch his house till he was ready to put it on the market. I’d take vacation and fly to Dallas the week before Memorial Day. We’d transport clothes and anything else we could fit into his car besides the puppy, then make our way to Sacramento in 500-600 mile increments—not pushing it—stopping frequently for puppy pit stops, staying overnight at the end of each of the three days it would take for the trek at that pace.

I’d like to say our trip was unremarkable, but we’ll never forget how miserable we were pushed all the way forward in our tight quarters in the front seat of Tim’s sporty Toyota Celica. Bear lounged in the back, seats down, in his huge crate, inverted to resemble a laundry basket and upsized for his ultimate growth. He took up a lot of space, a life-long quality. This scene also spoke volumes about who would be the center of attention in our family.

Bear’s happy, wagtail personality gave us all kinds of laughs along the way, especially his candid customer feedback at the Holiday Inn, where he entered the room, took one look, and pooped in the hallway. I had painstakingly researched dog-friendly accommodations. We’d tie him to a tree or fence near the pool while we’d try to work out our body cramps with a swim. People pushing 50 aren’t made for long drives with or without exuberant puppies. The worst part was eating fast food all day. Since we couldn’t leave Bear in the car alone in the hot weather, the drive-through was a must. The last night we actually got to visit a park and let him run around a little, and we felt comfortable to leave him in our room long enough to duck out for some real food before blimping out into something from Supersize Me.

Once settled in Sac and recovered from freaked-out cats, the real fun began. (Darrin hid for two days, making me question my new life decision seriously.) Bear developed an unholy love for his new mother, barked and got all agitated if Tim and I even so much as embraced. Our poochie pervert was wont to dig my underwear out of the laundry basket. One day he started tossing around a pair of panties then catching them in his mouth. After one of the tosses, the undies landed on his head over one eye. He looked just like a lecherous pirate. We laughed at that sight for years.

Bear redesigned my Birkenstocks with a scalloped edge I did not appreciate. Although it was already broken down and desperately needed replacement, he chewed through the fence and infuriated my landlord. But these were tiny, minor puppy indiscretions. He was wired, a dog that seemed to be bouncing on pogo sticks instead of paws. People with Labs would look at us with pity and announce that they rarely settle down till they’re five or six. We would lock eyes and telegraph a silent scream to each other. We were sure we’d never last that long.

But last we did, through an array of puppy and people problems way too long to list. Tim had health problems that taxed us for years and impacted many areas of our life together until they finally took a turn for the better. Bear had all kinds of challenges—hip dysplasia, which meant rigorous efforts to prevent future arthritis—Vitamin C and more Glucosamine and Chontroitin than we consumed as we approached senior status, then exceeded it. There were the intractable skin rashes and all kinds of salves, shampoos, and daily doses of antihistamines. He’d break out in terrible skin eruptions and his itching drove us all crazy.

He was expensive. (Who knew there was such a thing as a doggy dermatologist?) It was very difficult to find competent pet sitters and go anywhere overnight given his regime. It only got worse when he was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease at age 10. The symptoms were excessive thirst, drinking, and peeing often. His tendency to eat everything in sight worsened.

Cushing’s is a production of excess adrenal hormone. In Bear’s case, it was almost certainly caused by a benign pituitary tumor. The excess cortisol pumped by the adrenals had an upside. It was like giving him steroids for his bad hips. That’s why we decided not to treat him and to let nature take its course. The treatment is drastic—highly monitored doses of a DDT derivative to shrink the tumor. The amount has to be just right and requires five days of watching your dog like a hawk for changes in his appetite that signal he’s had just enough of the “poison” to help and not harm him. The treatment and monitoring cost several thousand of dollars and the maintenance dose of the drug is over $100 per month.

We had just spend nearly $3000 on an operation for Darrin, but I was ready to go for it until Tim reminded me that Bear’s hips were getting worse and the Cushing’s helped alleviate his growing discomfort and difficulty walking to a great extent. He wanted to go for quality, not quantity of life. Because Bear was originally his dog, I felt Tim’s opinion ruled, but it ultimately made sense to me, too. Later, two different vets said they’d probably have done the same thing. One told us she knew people who got all excited that there was a treatment for this disease, primarily of older dogs. They’d put out all that cash and hopefulness, only to have to put down their pooch six months later because of painful arthritis. We had to take into consideration all of Bear’s health issues.

Our boy’s last year was tough on all of us, although he kept his usual good humor nearly to the end. As is often typical in both animals and people, he had a last hurrah. His condition improved so much around his 11th birthday, we wondered if we were being pessimistic about the end being near. Sadly, it was only three days later, and it was not pretty. In a way, that was a blessing, because there was no question about what we had to do and its urgency.

It is difficult to let go of the glue in your family, the dog with a smile, the canine cheerleader whose goofiness brought sunshine to every dark day. He loved when I tucked him into his crate at night. He still slept in it in our bedroom—his one constant, his “blankie” or recreated womb—until his last year or two. Then he finally preferred to sleep near the foot of our bed. He’d run to the bedroom, and wait for his last biscuit (cookie) after his pills, and, of course, a goodnight kiss from Mom. We had this tender ritual we began when he was still a puppy. We borrowed it from the Waltons. We always said, “Nite-nite, Sweet Bear.” Tim and I nite-nite-sweeted each other and all the cats as well. I made up a song that was part of Bear’s routine. I sang it to the tune of Rock-a-bye Baby:

Nite-nite, Sweet Beary
In your soft crate
Mommy will tuck you
She won’t be late.
Gallop to Dreamland
Pills, cookie, kiss.
Isn’t it heaven,
Nite-nite like this?
(Spoken) Nite-nite, Sweet Bear.

I sang his song one last time on January 15, 2008 when the vet on duty sent him to Dreamland and Heaven for good. My heart was breaking to put him down so soon after losing Darrin only two months earlier, but one thing is true. Our four fur sons, including the two we have lost, will always be our family. They are the hub of the home we created together, whether they are with us in body or only in spirit.

No matter how many new four-legged bundles of love join our family in the future, there was only one dog for us in the whole world at a time in our lives riddled with stress and turmoil. His needs brought us out of our self-absorption. Bear was the greatest gift my husband ever gave me—the one I thought I didn’t need.

The power of positive puppy brought us joy every day, no matter what was going on. Just thinking of Bear always will.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Woozie Boozie!

Not woozy boozy (long oo’s)—your state after too much to drink. My birth mother Helen coined this cute expression. It’s pronounced woojee boojee (short oo’s, as in the word wood). Mind you, this is the same mother who told me I did not inherit any of my word fun and pun tendencies from her.

Woozie boozie is sort of an adult kitchy-kitchy-coo. It’s something to say when a friend or loved one does something adorable or needs support. It’s ooey gooey love without the tickle under the chin. It says, “You’re so cute,” or “Let me support you, hug you.”

There is no reason to stop this kind of verbal syrupiness just because a person grows up. It doesn’t matter what you call it or how you do it; adults need motherly little there-there’s and cheek pinches from their friends and families, too. Of course, not everyone can stand that much mushiness, certainly not my cats who run off when I woozie them once too many.

Helen signed all her letters with xo’s and WBs for woozie boozie. It has become an family in-joke. We woozie everything, and when Helen died, I got her closest friend, brother, and my husband and I glass heart ornaments for our Christmas trees engraved Woozie Boozie. A world without Helen was bad enough, but a world without woozies is not a place I want to live

Terms of endearment come naturally to me. I have to restrain myself not to call friends honey, dear, and sweetie. Some don’t mind and do it themselves; other’s react a little like my cats or at least a sour puss when I call them “names.”

Pet names, secret phrases—they are one of the charms of love in all its forms. When I was growing up, my adoptive parents called me Punkin—never Pumpkin with the second P. I think we tend to become what we’re called and constantly affirmed, as I was definitely their pun kin, the way I play with words unmercifully. If you become what you’re called, you’d think my sweetest endearments would be grabbed like the last dollar before payday.

Here’s some homeplay (the opposite of homework). What were your nicknames or favorite love words over the years? For a while my sister called me Jobie. Lots of people call me Joycie. I have a crazy affection for hon. (I still have an urge to name an especially docile dog Attila the Hon.)

How have these names and labels influenced you? And how about your nicknames and love words for others? Flash back and forward again with some cool insights.

Have fun with it!


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Penny Candy: Sweet Memories

When I was nine, my parents bought the cottage across the street from my aunt and uncle’s year-round home on a spring fed lake in southern Michigan. I loved it, even though it was little more than a shack. It underwent a vast remodel as we, slowly but surely, made it our home away from home. Going to the cottage on weekends fed my sweet tooth and gave me a change of scenery from the Chicago suburbs. It also gave me cavities and sometimes a bellyache.

First, there was the sugar fix on the way. I was enchanted and ensalivated by the revolving “trees” of all-day suckers in the oasis restaurants on the Indiana Toll Road. I’d order chicken potpie, like my parents, but only because they’d make me eat something before my big dessert, one of the gigantic and colorful lollipops. I’d never seen anything like them. They were a kid’s dream come true, as spectacular to me as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. They were overpriced and a visual fireworks display in swirled sugar—one of my four basic food groups along with hot dogs, peanut butter, and popcorn.

Then there was the store across the lake. My sisters and I would walk nearly two miles one-way to spend a quarter apiece on brown bags full of penny candy. Nothing was more satisfying after that hot, long walk than biting into Laffy Taffy, chocolate cigarettes, Dum Dum Pops or sassafras drops. A kid could get all the juice she’d need for the walk back from two bits worth of penny candy, a veritable fortune and serious allowance save-up in the ‘50s. Now there are some wonderful boomer candy sites where you can get a sugar blast from the past, too:
Treat Station, Candy Store, the Retro Collection at Groovy Candies—and you can even do a Nextag search and comparative price shop for those bottle cap candies I loved to bite into, buttons of pure colored sugar.

Unfortunately, these were not my only cane-driven indulgences. My school was only a block from a corner store with every kind of snack imaginable, as well as the local custard stand on the other corner. Remember frozen custard? I can still get it at
Culver’s when we visit relatives in Wisconsin. Frozen yogurt doesn’t come close, and “regular” ice cream doesn’t have that soft, instant melt-in-your-mouth texture. For nostalgia nuts who don’t live in the Dairy State (of course, they’d still have it there!), check out this Custard Stand List I found. Looks like Wisconsin has more than any state, a good reason to visit the place. (Tell the tourist bureau. I’ve even got a slogan for ‘em—Custard’s last stand).

While sugar is a serious addiction in my life and the lives of many Americans in general, I have been thinking how much harder I had to seek the white powdery substance as a kid in middle school. We ate far fewer prepared foods, so it wasn’t snuck into every morsel with
aliases like glucose, fructose, and maltose, among others. Sugar fixes were purer—witness my penny candy memories—and they were enough to make you sick to your stomach, if you ate too much—a self-correcting mechanism that we lack today. Now we have such a steady stream of the stuff, we just build up a tolerance and need more and more of it to take the edge off our need for a sugar fix. Substitutes are no answer, as evidence mounts proving them riskier than the sugar they replace with the exception of natural sweeteners like stevia.

But let’s put off a serious sugar fast till after Valentine’s Day. If he or she is the right vintage, give your favorite honey some boomer sweets for an old-fashioned, nostalgic V-Day. Visit an “antique” store and see what boomer object you can find to put it in, like a vintage lunch box. Or wouldn’t it be great to find one of those big red heart candy boxes of yesteryear?

I’m on the wagon with sugar. I plan to use these candies as art objects in a boomer collage I’m making …

… but just in case I fall off my high horse, pass the Pepto! Or for an even more retro advertising memory, the Alka Seltzer.
(“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is!”).

PS – Let’s hear from the “Peanut Gallery” with some comments about your sugary childhood faves!

Photo by Art Ebsersole

Friday, February 1, 2008

Crooks, Civics, and Poli-Sighs

My mom didn’t think much of politicians. “They’re all crooks” was her blanket assessment—a mantra she repeated often. At first, I took her seriously; I was an impressionable child. I’m sure this dismissal and pronouncement of dishonesty is why I had no interest in Poli-Sci, once I got to college. However, I do credit my first Political Science class with helping me figure out why she felt that way. After all, we lived in Chicago during the heyday of the first Mayor Daley’s political machine. Our city’s gangster legacy didn’t help, either—Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, thugs and Mafiosi. I used to wear this wacky button to the polls every year. I got it when I subscribed to the now defunct Chicagophile newsletter, a nostalgic publication for former residents of the Windy City. It said, “Two ballots for me—I’m from Chicago.”

Despite these seedy influences in the party that ran the show in My Kind of Town, I am a dyed in the wool Democrat. I can barely remember the times I have crossed party lines and voted Republican, Independent, or Green. The first time I voted was in the
1968 Presidential election. The Wikipedia article linked here aptly called it “a wrenching national experience” following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the violence at the Democratic National Convention that year, and demonstrations against the Viet Nam war. As a voter, I was off to quite a start from these slanted beginnings—the influences of parents, my local culture as I grew up, and the volatile times during which I cast my first ballot.

You might say that, for me, politics smacked of violence and unfair influence. My same mom who didn’t mind bad-mouthing her duly elected “crooks” was not beyond wrangling a parking ticket fix or whatever else she could buy for the right “contribution.” I knew this was wrong—she was a hypocrite—but she was my mother and I loved her, warts, inconsistencies and all.

Still, it is hard for me to deal with the simple responsibilities of being an informed voter. This realm of life give me the creeps—sometimes a little too literally. It’s like pulling teeth for me to analyze the issues, I am so acutely aware that there are few unbiased sources of information. I rely heavily on the
League of Women Voters and political satire shows like Real Time with Bill Maher, the Daley Show with Jon Stewart, and the Colbert Report. In case you’re wondering why a politi-phobe watches this stuff, my husband is addicted to these kinds of programs, and I learn more through wit and outrage than any other way. Besides, I can’t resist being nearby and to hear his loud belly laughs.

During each election, including California’s February 5th primary, I labor over my election materials. I take my one small vote seriously, despite all the psych-out of my personal political history. I vote Democratic for the most part, only because this party’s platform and candidates usually reflect my own positions more closely than those of Republicans. Still, I’m open-minded. I voted for Arnold for Governor, and I’d do it again. How bad can a guy be who sleeps with a Democrat and is a part of the Kennedy clan? His bipartisan household makes him a natural bridge builder, a role I admire and take on myself, whenever I can.

I believe our best hope for outstanding leadership—a better country, economy, and a world at peace—is to eliminate the two-party system and vote for candidates on their merits. I’d even settle for a three-party system, if the third party were for real and not a wannabe that can’t get past the resources and influence of the big boys to play seriously. That means finding a way to level the playing field. Let’s hear it for throwing out the Electoral College, too, while we’re at it, or at least rethinking it. In 2008, I’m pleased that when it comes to the Democratic choices, it is not a matter of the usual lesser of two evils; rather, I could live with any of the major contenders as President. That’s a first in my voting lifetime. Things are looking up.

Good citizenship is hard in these laborious decisions of who merits our support and how much to get involved. We are beginning to see the power of the people via the Internet to influence elections and decisions by elected officials. I encourage everyone to list the issues you care about strongly and to decide which ones are important enough for you to take the time for an email, call, or volunteer stint. After all, we boomers aren’t getting any younger, and there’s nothing better we can do with some of our “spare” time after retirement than to help make the world a better place—or at least our little corner of it.

I don’t do enough to make change or influence it, at least in the political arena. This year we were brave enough to wear our stance about a local proposition on a lawn sign in our front yard. At least it’s a start. Meanwhile, I will continue to make the best decisions on my ballot, based on unbiased information—or at least biased information from both sides plus a run through my own intuition (read internal lie detector).

I have the privilege of knowing several recent immigrants. Their pride and honor in becoming citizens of this country is inspiring …

… and they have inspired me to ponder what it means to be a “becoming” citizen.