Friday, December 12, 2008

Pony Up (or is it down? I'm not sure)

Technically, this is not a story about raising boys. It might be considered a story about a mom raising girls, naive in the care and maintenance of certain members of the male species, not necessarily human.

I’m about to throw my mom under the bus and I really really hope I’m not making a mistake doing this so close to Christmas, but the alternative is spending time whacking down my immense shopping list, so here it goes.

Years ago, a mother of three girls, married to a man who would be known as Dr. Dolittle far in the future, received this request: "Mom, I want a pony!" Most mothers have no choice but to deny this kind of request, but this mother was uniquely qualified to grant this most outlandish wish. She had recently moved to “the country” with acreage and zoning for equines. Her daughters each owned, and wore, cowboy boots. She had experienced local experts to call upon for advice. It was a perfect storm of pony-enabling circumstances.

Soon a white pony, with a round stomach and a fierce case of barn sour, appeared in the yard. His name was Winter. He was led by George, a scrawny man of indeterminate old age, wearing a cowboy hat over his bald head, protecting his deeply etched sun-baked wrinkles. He smelled of tobacco, leather, beer and sweat and his thumb was missing. His lower lip was distended, and his speech slurred, by the huge hunk of chew he kept tucked in there.

This was the mother’s local expert. He seemed just a little too eager to help a city-slicker mom and her three little girls learn how to care for a pony.

George taught the mother and daughters how to feed Winter hay and oats. It seemed clear to all involved that Winter had been eating far too much, but they paid careful attention. They learned how to put the bridle on and take it off, how to saddle Winter, and how to ask him to pick up his feet so they could use an evil-looking pick to clean out the underside of his hoofs, inexplicably called his “frog.” They learned how to brush him. They did not learn how to cut and style his forelock and mane, a question they were dying to ask but did not feel brave enough to voice. They did not learn how to ride him. That would be someone else’s job to teach. Ol’George, he lost his thumb in a roping accident when he was bringing down a calf and the rein was wrapped around his thumb. The rein pulled his thumb right off. He finished roping the calf, picked up his thumb, put it in a coffee cup, covered it with whiskey to preserve it, and still keeps it by his bed. Nope, he was not the person to teach the little girls how to ride.

Once the three little girls were sufficiently terrified of George, they went off to feed daisies to the pony and he and the mother went over some of the other tasks involved in keeping Winter clean and happy.

Riding lessons began and the little girls lived happily ever after. The mother, however, discovered that the maintenance of this pony was perhaps more taxing than she had bargained for. She was finding that following George’s instructions to clean Winter’s sheath were a little tricky. She had to have her supplies at the ready, and keep her eye on Winter. When he dropped his sheath, she had to immediately run over to him with her towel and bucket with soap and water and clean it. Her concern soon proved unfounded. As Winter got used to his new home and owners, he would routinely drop his sheath as soon as he saw the mother, and she could easily clean it.

The mother began to notice the country neighbors stopping their trucks along the road to see the cute white pony. They watched admiringly as she groomed and cleaned him, a city mom so knowledgeable and capable in the art of animal husbandry.

Or so she thought.

You see, tricky, crusty ol’George had taught the mother how to pleasure Winter, waited until the routine was well established, and then told all the town to stop by and check it out.

Winter was no longer so cute. There was no chance he would ever get over being barn sour.

The future Dr. Dolittle had a hardy laugh. The mother never forgave ol’George. She told her girls he deserved to have his own thumb as his bedside companion.

Strangely, I don't have any pictures of Winter, and my mom claims she does not either.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Old Dog Teaches Us New Tricks

After a lot of negotiation, debate, and discussion we have recently added a new member to our family. He is a 6 year old Weimaraner named Miko that we adopted from the Northern California Weimaraner Rescue.

Our negotiation went like this:
Boys: We want a dog!
Me: I’m thinking about it.
My husband: No.

Boys: We want a dog!
Me: Let’s do some research and learn about different breeds.
My husband: No.

Boys: We really want a dog!
Me: Yes I think we should start looking into it.
My husband: No. OK maybe.

Boys: When are we getting the dog?!?!
Me: When we find the right dog.
My husband: No. OK fine.

Miko is our first real family pet. My husband was concerned about who would take care of the dog, walk it, feed it, pick up it's poop, watch it if we went out of town. I had some of the same concerns but I’ve had a lot more experience with pets. I grew up with dogs (and cats, angora rabbits, pet rats, several parrots, fish, chickens, geese, a pig, a cow named Nancy, a horse named Blaze and a pony named Winter, goats and even llamas). My parents don’t have nearly as many animals anymore but my husband still calls my dad Doctor f**ing Dolittle. He means this in the nicest possible way, but you see he grew up pet-impaired. Or pet-challenged might be more politically correct. In any case, he did not grow up with a pet. His parents got a small fluffy dog named Tippy once he left home for college. It is not uncommon for parents to get a pet to replace the void left by children leaving home. My parents got two goats when I left for my freshman year of college.

My husband’s stories of Tippy are all about how he used to play catch with him. I don’t mean throwing a ball and Tippy bringing it back. I mean Tippy was the ball, thrown back and forth between friends, as a casual game of football to pass the time. This story horrified me, so long ago I decided that if we ever did get a dog, it would be one that was too big for my husband or anyone else in our house to play catch with. At 84 pounds, Miko qualifies as too big to throw around. In fact, the kids can waterski behind him.

Me at two months old with my babysitter Simba

My first pet growing up used to babysit me. She would sit in my crib and guard me while my parents went to a neighboring apartment for a drink or down the street for dinner. She was a cat named Simba Tai Pan and was apparently trained in First Aid. My parents also had a dog named Vaca, who probably babysat me when Simba was not available. Through the years, I don’t ever remember a time when my family didn’t have at least a few animals around. Often it was more than a few. There was the whippet that could jump straight up and no fence could contain. There was the Great Dane that knocked us down as toddlers any time we tried to run. That Great Dane also chewed up the entire boat trailer my dad built when he was left in the garage all day. There was the dashound named Heidi, then one named Pepper, the border collie named Foxy, the airedales named April and Shelly. There were various cats too, the most memorable being one that would let us dress it in dolls clothes and pull it around in the wagon, and the one that must have been weaned too young and liked to give us hickeys.

I also had a pet rat most of the time I was growing up. I got a new one in 6th grade when I was reading Gone With the Wind, and named it Scarlett. Once I decided I needed some variety and got a little ginger-colored mouse, which I named Pumpkin. I came up with a brilliant idea to breed Pumpkin with another mouse at the pet store so she could have babies. I have no idea why my parents ever agreed to this, but they did take me (and Pumpkin) to the pet store. Pumpkin and her new husband ran around the cage and sniffed at each other, but there was no action, at least that I could tell. I went home disappointed. Much to my surprise, about 20 days later, Pumpkin had about ten teeny tiny pink little babies. I was over the moon with excitement. I watched them nonstop for days as they grew fur and their little eyes eventually opened. I tried to figure out which were males and females. Someone at the pet store showed me how to tell the difference by grabbing the mouse by the tail and rubbing your finger along it’s underside. I gave some of the baby mice away to friends. But not soon enough. More and more babies kept arriving and at ten babies per litter, I was in mouse crisis mode. The pet store didn’t want them. I couldn’t persuade anyone else I knew to take one. Then I saw the look in my dad’s eyes and knew I had to take action quickly or they would all end up in a dumpster. With tears streaming down my face, I let them go in the field across the street, trying to convince myself that like tiny Stuart Littles, they would go on to bigger and better adventures.

Me at the age of seven in that famous field across the street with Heidi and Blue. No mice in sight.

Just about every spot in the large yard at my parents’ house marks a place where one pet or another is buried. For those too large to bury (pretty much anything bigger than a rat), my dad would unceremoniously take the dead animal for “a drive” in the car, searching for a dumpster. For all his bravado, he did not at all enjoy this job. He usually came home from that errand and had a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

When my husband and I first started dating, he was somewhat overwhelmed by all the animals, hence the Dr. Doolittle nickname. Early in our relationship he accidentally ran over one of my parents’ cats. Being allergic to cats and not at all fond of them, he didn’t seem to mind too much cleaning it up off the driveway with a shovel and going on the dumpster drive with my dad.

With all this experience around animals, you would think that getting a dog would be no big deal for me. However, we have been without a pet for a very long time. We did have a Vietnamese Potbellied Pig for a while before we had children. Her name was Harley. She was so very cute as a little piglet but when full grown was not so cute. She started nipping at me, and being pregnant with my first child, I realized she had to go. Not having a field across the street conducive to setting pigs free, I gave Harley to a woman who lived in the mountains and had just lost custody of her own pig through a nasty divorce. It seemed a perfect match.

Trendy is not always the way to go. Here is my husband with our baby potbellied pig in 1993. He was still under the newlywed influence at the time.

I was very realistic about the fact that although my children really wanted a puppy, it was not a good idea for us. And even though we adopted a well-trained adult dog, adding a dog to our family was a big deal, a big change for all of us. Watching a few episodes of the Dog Whisperer did not do enough to prepare us for adding a new member to our family. I was confident this change would be good, but I was unprepared for the emotion I felt in adopting Miko. The responsibility weighed heavily on me and in the first few days I really wondered if it was such a good decision. I was so worried that it wouldn’t work out and I didn’t want to become too attached to him just in case. As we all settled in and got used to each other, I let myself believe that yes, we finally had a dog. The boys absolutely adore him. He follows me everywhere I go, which has made me very conscious of how much I ramble pointlessly around my house. At first I was uncomfortable with the change in my routine and having him follow every move I made. Now, three weeks later I enjoy the companionship, the fact that he doesn’t talk back or give me attitude like my kids, his instant readiness to go on a walk or for a drive in the car.

It’s hard to write about dogs in unsentimental way. I think Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets, does a great job of capturing the essence of the dog without being smarmy.

by Billy Collins

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

I don’t know, I kinda like being the god. Or goddess as the case may be.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Miko Joins the Family

We have adopted a beautiful 6 year old Weimaraner named Miko. These pictures are not the ones I chose for our holiday card but they are some of my favorites. Having a dog adds an unpredictable element to the photoshoot!