Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Musings

I haven’t mused in a while, but with the New Year here, I thought it an appropriate time to start up again, but oh what to muse about – there are so many things – our trip to Europe and laughter and lost luggage, the puppies that are about to turn one, or the reason why I haven’t been musing?

Basically I’ve been busy. So busy. I took a pottery class and made new friends. I took Ezzie to dog training. I did Physical Therapy way too much trying to get my herniated disc under control. I’ve been doing other kinds of writing. I focused on my classes and my students. I drove carpool and laughed with Ellie. I hung out with Matt more. And I watched Ellie mature at warp speed now that Maggie is away at college.

Oh, that’s right – Maggie’s away. That’s what hit me last night as I said good night to Ellie after we celebrated Maggie’s 19th birthday and tears welled up in Ellie’s eyes as she told me how many friends she’s lost over the past years through our church, neighborhood and family. Way too many family members have died and too many people have moved away, and then Ellie said, “and Maggie left.”

I stood by her door, nodded my head, said I was sorry and walked away. I knew if I listened anymore, I’d start to cry too and I had worked so hard all fall to keep those tears at bay. I wasn’t going to let them in now.

But when I went to sleep later, they found their way to me anyway. With Maggie home, her absence is even more obvious. I know she’s going to leave again. And honestly I’m glad.

She’s so happy. I love telling anyone who asks after her. She loves her school, her classes and field hockey. She’s made friends, and she and her boyfriend have maintained a healthy long-distance relationship. What more could I ask for?

But my family construct is different and it’s going to keep changing.

I heard from so many friends during the holidays that just reinforced how we mothers (and I guess fathers too, but I don’t really talk to them as much) feel the loss of our children forever. One friend emailed me and said, “See that wasn’t so long was it?” about Maggie’s return from college. Then she went on to say that she’s finding it harder now her children are older, out of college, as they’re really developing separate lives. Yahoo, I thought, something to look forward to.

Another friend put her son, freshly out of college, on a plane to visit a friend in the Midwest and emailed how hard it was to let him leave again, “but friends make it easier,” she wrote. Another raved about how her puppy (one of ours) was hopping through the snow like a bunny but her son had to leave right after Christmas because he was working now and her daughter had a boyfriend, all of which were good, but made for less time with her. She was glad for her volunteer work.

The irony is our children are doing what we did. I remember my dorm rooms and my first apartment (in the basement with the mice). I felt so grown up. They were my spaces. I made decisions about when to eat, where to eat, what to do and with whom and didn’t have to check in with anyone. And, our children are doing what we want them to do. It took a lot of work and a lot of time but we did it – they’re independent, self-sufficient. They left us. Yeah us!!

But I miss Maggie. I miss the way our family used to be. So I stay busy to make sure I won’t wallow in self-pity. That’s why I haven’t been musing.

And guess what, I’ve signed up for another pottery class. Ezzie’s nowhere close to being done with dog training. I have curtains and a quilt to finish and my herniated disc is still causing me pain but my insurance is done with PT, so I’m back to my regular health club. Ellie and I will start up carpool again next week, and I have lots of writing projects and two new classes starting up. And I have my friends. I’ll be just fine.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Summer Recap - Beach Walks

I love summer – the sun, the warm weather, the chance to be outside. I love going away to decompress and live a simplified life in my stepfather’s 800- square foot guesthouse. Summer makes me feel invincible. I focus on the day ahead, not the week ahead. I rarely look at a calendar. I’m outside a lot – playing tennis, walking, or going to the beach to swim or lie in the sun.

This summer was different, however. I did think about the year ahead, as I knew Maggie would be leaving us mid August. Neither of my daughters was around as much as I was used to. Ellie was away at camp for two weeks and then worked at the Community Center and hung out with friends. While Maggie was on the Vineyard for most of the summer, she was off with her boyfriend, hanging out at his house, going to parties, and being an independent 18-year-old on her way to college. All very age appropriate. I knew the more I clung, the more she’d pull away, so I kept my mouth shut most of the time and made myself available when she needed or wanted me.

I also couldn’t play tennis or walk a lot because I had injured my back or hip, leaving me in chronic pain and unable to do anything remotely athletic. The pain worsened as the summer progressed, creating many sleepless nights and frustrating days. Perhaps it was a signal for the emotional pain that was coming with letting go.

I had a lot of time on my hands, and I spent most of it with Spray and Ezzie, two of our three dogs. Crazy Splash kept Matt company in Cambridge.

While daily family trips to the beach with tents, umbrellas, picnics and sunscreen were things of the past, I did go to the beach almost every morning with Spray and Ezzie. Getting up early to get to the town beaches before 9am when dogs are banned and before I had to drive Ellie to the Community Center was a challenge. This meant arriving by 7am in most cases.

I am not a morning person. I don’t get up all chipper, looking forward to my cup of tea and a chance to reflect on the day ahead, and summer usually allows me to sleep in until 7:30 or 8. But this summer, I dragged myself out of bed, sometimes threw something in my mouth – a piece of toast – looked over my shoulder at my oh-so-cozy bed and then followed the dogs begrudgingly outside. They were in a rhythm and knew what was up. They wouldn’t let me off the hook jumping on my bed and licking my face.

Once I arrived at the beach, my world shrank to the dogs, sand, ocean, sun, sky and me. Everything else – Maggie leaving home, the book pitch I wasn’t writing, the quilt I was struggling with, Matt’s illness in early August – disappeared.

At Squibnocket, the dogs made friends, meeting and playing with other dogs, including two PWDs, and I made friends, meeting and chatting with other dog owners. It wasn’t what I was used to, but I relished the peace at the beach and the camaraderie among the dogs and their owners.

If I just couldn’t get up and make it to Squibby on time, I took the dogs to another beach with no curfew. We’d arrive just after 8:30 when I dropped Ellie at the Center. I rowed across Chilmark Pond with the dogs following behind me. Ezzie panicked a few times and tried to body surf on Spray, so I usually rowed them back in the boat when they were tired.

Regardless of what beach they were at, they ran and ran. Ezzie’s energy was tested as she lept through beach grass and ran up and down the dunes off the pond, or played with other puppies at Squibby.

While Spray is dignified and not emotionally invested in water – she can take or leave it, Ezzie is a nut for it. She will follow me into the ocean and dive into the crashing surf. She’ll even ride the waves back into shore. She also perfected the art of the dog somersault, by planting her head sideways in the wet sand, wiggling around and then flipping over on her back and wiggling some more.

The dogs grounded me by living in the here and now; they don’t think about the future or worry about the past. They also knew that getting to the beach was worth the effort. Most things are.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Another Good-Bye

After saying good-bye to nine puppies last spring, I thought I had good-bye down, that it wouldn’t be so hard to say good-bye to my oldest daughter as she left for college this fall.

I was wrong. I should’ve known raising puppies for 2-3 months had nothing on raising a child for 18 years.

She’s been gone three weeks, but it seems a lot longer. I don’t think much about her when I’m busy preparing my fall classes, cleaning out the basement or sorting hand-me-downs for the cousins.

But her absence is felt when I sit down to dinner with one less person at the kitchen counter or wake up to silence because she’s not playing music as she gets ready for school. When my husband leaned over at the theater last weekend and said, “Maggie would love this movie,” I knew he felt it too.

Before she left, I assumed I’d be the prototypical mother, hanging out in her room, sleeping in her bed, and gazing at the mess she left behind, but I haven’t. If I go in there, I just feel the urge to clean and I don’t have the energy.

I was lucky, sort of, because when I left her at school for her field hockey pre-season, I knew I’d be back a week later for freshman orientation. But saying good-bye multiple times is like pulling the bandage off - really, really slowly. The pain is still there and lingers longer.

When we – my husband, younger daughter and I - dropped her off, the campus was deserted – only the athletes and student government kids were there. The dorm halls were eerily quiet. Her roommate had yet to arrive, leaving half her room bare. There wasn’t a lot of hoopla over the freshmen moving in, although I did make a small-world connection with her student fellow – I play tennis with her aunt – which made me more comfortable and excited.

As I hugged Maggie good-bye, she said to her dad and sister, “I can hear the warble in her voice.” I fled so she wouldn’t see what I’m sure she knew I’d do – cry in the car.

The following week, the three of us, and her boyfriend, returned for the first day of Freshman Orientation to meet her roommate and finish setting up her room. The rest of her class arrived with boxes, bags and parents to be greeted by all sorts of screaming upperclassmen. We raised both beds so dressers and mini-frigs could be stored more easily. Maggie’s side of the room is ocean blues and greens and her roommate’s side is flower pinks and reds, quite cheerful.

Maggie’s energy was flagging when we saw her, but she was looking forward to classes and field hockey. I cried harder this time – silently in the back seat so her boyfriend wouldn’t see or hear – because this was the real good-bye. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t see her again – we have field hockey games as an excuse to visit, but I know when she comes home from now on, it’s to visit, not live. She’s doing what she’s supposed to – stepping out on her own. But I feel left behind, stuck in the same old-same old.

When my husband reached around from the driver’s seat to pat my leg in the car, Maggie’s boyfriend asked, “Are you crying?” I told him I’d kill him if he told Maggie. I want her to focus on getting to know new people, work on her classes, deal with her own anxieties. She shouldn’t worry about me.

I hadn’t counted on a call from her two days later saying she was on her way to the ER for chest xrays because the college infirmary suspected she had pneumonia. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent, and I had said my big good-bye. She was on her own. I didn’t want to embarrass her by rushing to her side.

But, after much debate, she texted me, “Um, if you want to come, that would be ok”, and I got in the car.

For three nights, she slept with me at the college inn to ensure a good night’s sleep away from the revelry on campus, rested in the infirmary during the day and had mini breaks when she hung out in her dorm room to see new friends from her hall. She missed going to a tropical theme party, but loaned her coconut bra to a boy, who wore it with post-its testifying he was doing this for Maggie.

While it was nice to mother her for those days, it was brutal saying good-bye Sunday afternoon. She had classes on Monday and, just as I had to let the new owners take care of our puppies, it was time for the college, and she herself, to take care of Maggie. My job was to leave.

Leaving her when she didn’t feel well and was upset with missing freshman orientation and field hockey practice wasn’t easy. I couldn’t help but text and Facebook her to make sure she was checking in with the infirmary and resting as much as possible. It’s impossible not to worry – even from a distance.

Within a few days, her voice changed. Her spirit was returning even if her energy wasn’t. She was pacing herself carefully focusing on homework and not socializing. A few days later she even cleaned her room.

She’s already learning life lessons and so am I.

I remember how excited I was to live on my own, and how grown-up I felt realizing I didn’t always need or want my family around. She’s in the early stages of that realization and while I am honestly thrilled for her, it sucks being me.

While she’s investing time and energy in her future and her dad and I are investing money, lots of it, in that same future, I’m also trying to invest in my future. I’m teaching and writing more, and I’m registered for a pottery class and dog training for the puppy we kept.

Maybe when she does come home, she’ll be as excited to see me as the puppies are when they visit – jumping, wagging and playing chase. I just hope she doesn't pee on the floor.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The New Normal

My family’s life is back to normal, if having three dogs in the city is normal. I still feel like the neighborhood Crazy Dog Lady.

Even though our house doesn’t look like a kennel anymore, when the wind blows in a certain direction or it’s rained a lot, a distinct odor of puppy pee permeates the air. Our backyard, however, has been transformed permanently from a yard for people into a packed dirt yard perfect for dogs to roll around on.

We no longer wake up and have to feed ten puppies or clean up after ten puppies or entertain ten puppies or worry about where they’re going to end up or say good-bye to each of them.

When the ten puppies lived with us, there was a purpose and excitement to our day, despite how tired and dirty we were. We had to take care of the puppies; we needed to raise them well so they would make great pets for other people. With them gone we have returned to regular folk with a new puppy who needs to be trained because she chews chairs and shoes, and jumps up on us, and I no longer have a viable excuse for why my house is messy. I’ve had to start spending a little part of each day cleaning it.

But keeping on top of the mess with just three dogs isn’t easy. Cranky, Calm and Cute bring in a lot of dirt and take up a lot of space in our house with their barking and roughhousing.

Cranky, aka Splash, is old and isn’t amused by the new puppy in the house. He’s content to just lie around without being bothered. Spray and Ezzie, however, find it immensely enjoyable to get up in his face and taunt him. They dart up close enough to annoy him and then run away hoping he’ll chase them. He doesn’t. He just barks at them. Loudly.

Spray and Ezzie, however, have a great relationship, although I think Spray is a little jealous of Ezzie and all the attention she’s getting.

Spray is remarkably gentle with her daughter. When they play tug-of-war, Spray lets Ezzie win, when she could easil whip her around like kids do when they play Crack-the-Whip. She still cleans Ezzie periodically and is protective when we walk them together.

I’ve also found it more difficult to get my kids to help with the three dogs than when we had the ten puppies. Walking and feeding three is more of a chore than an adventure.

I forgot how exhausting and time consuming taking care of one puppy can be, especially when there are two older dogs around. I assumed once nine of the puppies were gone, one would be easy. I was wrong. But I also didn’t anticipate how much fun I’d have watching one puppy – Ezzie – grow and develop.

We took all three dogs to New Hampshire this past weekend, and the two older dogs knew where they were immediately. They romped around with ease and comfort. Ezzie explored. When we took them to the lake to swim, Splash and Spray were ecstatic. They wasted no time running in the water. Ezzie watched and walked out a few feet, but didn’t go in over her head.

Within a few minutes, however, she wandered after them a little too far and instinct took over and she started swimming. She loved it. We can’t get her to jump off a dock yet, but she looks like she’s interested. Splash was our jumper, but in his old age, he stands at the edge looking over remembering but not daring, while Ezzie looks over the edge and is tempted. The torch has been passed.
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Monday, April 26, 2010

No News is Good News?

Pocahontas left on Friday with the new name of Molly. As usual I was sad saying good-bye and even choked up because her new name is the same as my deceased mother’s. My older daughter had to tell me to get a grip. Luckily, she came home from school so I wouldn’t be alone like I was when Nauset left.

Saying good-bye IS hard, but seeing the excitement and joy in the new owners’ eyes is reassuring, and watching the dogs’ tails wag when their owners hold them as they process out to the car is comforting. One new family even took a family picture on our porch before they left.

This is, afterall, why we did this in the first place - not to keep ten dogs, but to share Spray's disposition with others.

I have also been gifted with reports and pictures of the dogs after they have reached their new homes and settled in. Nauset wrote his own letter detailing how he peed on some Italian shoes and likes to eat mulch. He also said his new owner was sleeping next to him as he got used to his new crate.

Recently I received photos of Charlie, one of the first to leave, standing in his position as co-pilot in his new owner’s car as they were getting ready for a business visit. He looked proud and happy.

My husband and I have also friended almost anyone we can find on Facebook who has one of our puppies. We’ve seen Henry in the water and Zazu’s first bath, thanks to Facebook.

I’ve already heard from Molly’s new family that she is doing great, she slept through the night, and they love her tons.

Not one dog looks unhappy in any picture and we haven’t received any panicked emails, even though we know, from the chewed shoes and coffee table in our house, that the pups are teething like crazy.

Sometimes, I have to wait a while between updates, but this is when I remind myself that no news is good news.

When my daughters are away at camp or on a trip, I don’t miss them or worry about them, much. If I don’t hear from them, I know they’re safe, well cared for and are having fun, and I can continue with my own life – whether I’m teaching or playing tennis.

But when a phone call or letter comes that says one of them is hurt or homesick, I miss them terribly. I want to run to them, take care of them, and fix whatever’s wrong. When they are on the opposite side of the country or across the Atlantic, I can’t do that and it kills me. I have to wait out my fear and my loneliness until I hear that the sunburn is better, the allergic reaction has dissipated, and the homesickness has abated.

I know my puppies are doing well and that they have made a lot of families immensely happy, that the new families, regardless of size, are complete with their puppies. My world has also grown because of where the puppies have gone and because of the care we got from our own breeders as they coached us through this adventure.

And so, I will remind myself next year after my daughter moves out that no news is good news and that her new friends and new life will inevitably reach me and enlarge my world as well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Placing Pups

We have only two more puppies to place. Last night Pocahontas found a home with a nice family in Worcester. This Friday, Scar, aka Nauset, leaves for his new home in CT, and Pokey will follow a week after that. Two boys are left.

Placing our pups has turned out to be harder and more labor intensive than we anticipated. Perhaps we were na├»ve about this part of the job, although our breeders had warned us about some of their interactions with the human species. I hadn’t planned on getting so attached to the puppies and caring as much as I do about their future homes. Playing with the puppies, watching them grow and develop their personalities has been more than fun. We’ve learned a lot – about animals and how they behave with each other, humans and how much joy puppies bring them.

But, we’ve also learned how tricky it is placing a puppy with the right family. We’ve learned a lot about human nature and how humans treat humans.

A PWD isn’t an easy dog to own and most people who call or visit know this. They’ve done their research, have a good case to plead, pick the pups up, get down on their hands and knees to play with them and encourage their kids to do so as well.

But not every match is perfect, even if the prospective buyers think it is, just like high school seniors who are convinced they know which colleges should take them, even if the colleges don’t always agree.

Prospective buyers call who tell me they’re interested in the breed because the dogs are cute. Once I ask what they know about the breed and fill in the blanks for them, I often don’t hear from them again. They must realize the dog is more dog than they want. Sometimes a high school senior will realize upon visiting a school or hearing more about the place, that no matter how great the school’s reputation, the fit just isn’t right.

We’ve had a couple of families and individuals visit multiple times to prove they can handle this dog, that they’re ready and committed to the breed, that they understand the puppyhood lasts for three years, that the dogs are mouthy and highly energetic, that they need to work and be exercised multiple times a day. If not, they’ll tear your house apart. If we see the family’s commitment, we are more apt to think about placing a puppy with them.

PWDs cannot be left alone in a crate or in the house for extended time. They need to be with an owner, a dog walker, in doggie daycare, or with another dog to keep them company.

I learned this the hard way – with our first dog who needed more than I could give him. I had a 4-year-old at the time who needed my attention and the dog turned out to be more tightly wound than anticipated. I try to tell people this. Some listen; some don’t.

For those who don’t, we have to do the hardest thing possible and ask them to reconsider the breed. It’s not that we don’t like the families or think they don’t mean well, it’s just the kids are too young or the families haven’t interacted with the puppies or look afraid or don’t really understand what they’re walking into.

No one is happy when they hear this news.

We try to let them down gently – we know we’re disappointing them, just like the high school seniors who got denials from colleges in the last two weeks. It’s not fair. Sometimes there doesn’t appear to be a justified reason and the denial is a burn. Decisions are made on a first impression basis. But when admission committee members sit down to discuss candidates, they, for reasons only they understand, decide some students will be a better fit at their college than others.

So too with our puppies – we, as a family, discuss and agree, that some potential buyers aren’t ready for the breed and others should be encouraged to take a specific dog we think will fit their lifestyle.

Of course, we’re not always right and neither are the colleges, but given the small amount of information we, or the colleges have, we all make the best decision possible.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pride

Every semester, I get two new classes, two new groups of students. I usually switch up what and how I’m teaching to give the classes a fresh twist. Sometimes my changes work well and sometimes they fall flat. The new text I used last semester was a bust, but getting my students to keep blogs this semester has been a huge hit.

During the semester, the classes gel in some way. Each has it’s own dynamic. I get classes where the students talk and talk and talk and I rarely say a word, and I get classes where I coax the students to talk more with leading questions. I get classes where the students bond and feel like they’re part of a club or family and I get classes where, for whatever reason, the students get on with their work but don’t form close relationships.

In all these classes, however, I am at the center of them. I develop relationships with each of my students, even the ones who don’t like me or what I teach, and with the group as a whole. I get to know these young adults well – especially because I teach Creative Nonfiction. I know what makes them laugh, what pushes their buttons, what their strengths and challenges are.

My joy comes when I see students’ work improve, when they stop using the word “that” so much, leave the passive voice for the active, or figure out the reason they’ve written about a particular subject. I’m proud of my work when I see how happy they are with their work.

For a brief semester, I am their leader, the one they go to for guidance and support.

When the end of the semester comes, I’m usually exhausted, sad and relieved. I’ve worked hard to get my students to write better, to delve deeper and I’ve read and corrected too many papers to count. I’m glad the hard work is over for a short breather but am sad to say good-bye to each group of students I’ve had.

The students go off, form bonds with new teachers and classmates and I am, maybe not forgotten, but not as important anymore. If I’m lucky, I hear from them later – when they’re in other classes or after they’ve graduated. I’m proud of their accomplishments and look forward to more reports.

So it is with my puppies. For nine weeks, my daughters, husband and I have been the central figures in their lives. We fed them, cleaned them and cuddled with them. We created tight bonds with each of them. We were greeted by wagging tails and watched with pride as they learned to poop outside. We know their habits and their personalities. Rafiki is independent and often sleeps by himself. Pocahontas likes to be the center of the party. Zazu is big, handsome and mellow. Map is the son I never had – funny with a ton of energy.

As hard as it is to say good-bye, I know we’ve done a good job with the pups when they sit relaxed in their new owners’ arms as they leave the house to start forming new bonds with their new families. Soon someone else will be the center figure to their lives – feeding, cleaning and cuddling with them.

So far, I’ve been lucky and have received reports on how well the pups are doing – that they’re sleeping through the night, pooping outside and bonding with the families – I’m proud of them. I did something right. They’ve moved on – puppies and students. My job is to get them there.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Puppy Therapy

When we decided to breed Spray, I kept the news fairly quiet. I knew my family and some friends would think I had gone around the bend. I didn’t want to hear the criticism and comments I would get about how I didn’t know what I was doing, that my life was busy enough without adding to it.

But I wasn’t prepared for the day a friend laced into me about how irresponsible it was considering how many rescue dogs need homes, so I was surprised one again when she was one of the first people to ask to visit the puppies when they were only a week old.

She still believes in rescuing dogs – she has two - and I agree with her on principal, yet can’t rescue because of family allergies. She now visits regularly. She can’t get enough of them and is almost as sad as I am about them leaving. She appreciates the way we’ve taken care of the puppies. Watching them spend their first weeks in a home where people love them showed her how well adjusted these pups will be.

She’s not the only one who comes over for a puppy fix. There is constant traffic in our house. I didn’t realize when I agreed to breed Spray, that I was opening up a therapy center.

My younger daughter said it best, “Whenever I’m sad, I just pick up a puppy.” I can sit outside and watch the ten pups chase and tackle each other and my worries about classes, unsold puppies, hearing from colleges, go away.

When I took the puppies on the puppy road show – to the vet, my therapist, my daughters’ schools and my husband’s workplace, I was amazed to watch grown men crumble, high school football players lie on the floor begging to have puppies crawl on them, and listen to the squeals. I’ve never heard so many squeals. Squeals are non discriminatory. Adults squeal just as much as children.

I’ve had visitors who just want to play with the puppies and visitors who want to look at them because they might buy one, but in the end, leave with a good puppy fix.

New owners have revisited their pups to bond with them and enjoy our canine circus.

My daughters’ friends have adopted their favorite puppies – one loves Pocahontas, another loves Henry, and another covets Rafiki. They return frequently to visit them and can’t get over how big they grow from visit to visit. I think these friends are going to miss the puppies too.

One of my daughter’s friends sat on the floor with the puppies and said, “This makes me so happy.” Another said being a child or a puppy would be awesome. I think being a puppy is better. Puppies don’t worry about how they’re doing in school, or whether their friends like them. Puppies just play and if raised in a good home, are loved for just being cute and cuddly.

One teen visited and crawled into the puppy playpen with them. A little boy came over with his mother and grandmother and got cornered by the pups as they tried to pull the string of his sweatpants. He raised his hands in the air and sang, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” On a warm day, a 10-year-old arrived in shorts to be attacked by scratching puppies. She just laughed and ran around with them.

I know I’m loved when they greet me in the morning and when I return home from school or errands. They bark and clamber at the gate or pen walls. Their teeth and nails bite and scratch in excitement. They run en masse to the back door when we open it for them to pee and poop on our back porch and they chase their mother as a group.

They can’t help but make me smile and even the most doubting of family and friends are caught off guard when the puppies make them smile and laugh too. For a few minutes all’s right with the world.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Anticipating Good-Bye

My daughter is going away for a week’s vacation tomorrow. In addition to being delirious with excitement, she can’t bear the thought that she’ll be missing the last week all the puppies will be with us. Two are leaving the day after she returns.

“Take lots of pictures and videos for me,” she said.

Friends are calling as they realize the puppy show is almost over. They want one last visit. A family who fell in love with Zazu, but isn’t ready to take a dog into their life right now, wants to know when they can say good bye.

When I’m at school teaching, I’m thinking about the puppies and what they’re doing at home, wondering if someone is taking them outside to play – they love romping in the leaves and chewing on sticks, which as I discovered isn’t so great on their tiny digestive systems.

I’m panicked I haven’t done enough with them, haven’t taken enough photos or videos, haven’t spent enough time cuddling. At least we’re keeping one – Esmeralda.

When my husband asks our daughter for “face time” to watch movies – their favorite pastime, I sense the same panic in him. How many more movie nights do they have before she too is gone?

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that saying good-bye to the puppies brings up the next good-bye coming in our life – sending our oldest off to college. I’m worried I don’t have enough memories stored up.

Just like the puppies, I forget sometimes that she too has an adjustment ahead of her. I can’t bear the thought of the puppies’ first few nights in the new homes adjusting to lives on their own. I see them confused, unsure, crying for their littermates. Just like the puppies will have to adjust to life without each other, I worry about separating my two daughters.

I want to go with them, (and her) hold them in my arms and tell them everything will be okay, that they all have good, new homes with people who love them and want them very much.

But I can’t.

I know from the excited emails I’ve received from future owners, just how welcome these puppies are going to be in their new homes and how well adjusted they’ll become.

When I mention to friends how much I’m going to miss them, many say I’ll be less tired, and I’ll get over it fast. Our breeder and neighborhood friend who helped birth the puppies have assured me that my sadness will ebb when I’m no longer tripping over puppies or picking up poop.

It’s the anticipation of saying good-bye that’s killing me.

But as friends remind me, the anticipation is worse than the inevitability. An old high school friend who reappeared in my life this year via Facebook sent her oldest off and messages me frequently to say I’ll be okay. An email from a friend who had kids at home for 35 years – six of them - didn’t think she’d survive her last one leaving, and she’s fine, she writes.

Maybe I’ll be happy my house is less messy without the puppies and I have more time to devote to my work and sewing projects. Maybe I’ll find I have more time to devote to me next year when my daughter is gone, and her room is clean, but I know I’m going to miss all of them.

In the meantime I’ll play with the puppies for the time I have left with them. I’ll be around for my daughter when she comes home from hanging out with her friends.

The puppies and my daughter will adjust – I have faith they all have good homes waiting for them. And my husband, other daughter and I will adjust – I have faith in us too.

And, we’ll also have Esmeralda to keep us company.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

First Home

Five of our ten puppies have homes. Two others are under serious consideration. Prospective buyers are now puppy owners. Names have been changed. Simba will be forever know as Henry for Henry the Navigator. Scar is moving to Connecticut and will be know as Nauset. Meeko will remain close by in Newton as Charlie. Two of the three girls are staying in Cambridge – one with us; the other with a friend.

As I watched the new owners bond with their puppies, I was both proud of how well the puppies reacted to the new people in their lives, but I also wanted to grab them, and say, “wait, I’m your #1 human”. We’ve been really careful in making sure the right puppy goes to the right home and have even gently turned away people who we didn’t think were right for the breed.

Portuguese Water Dogs are more than energetic. They can tear your house apart in the matter of minutes if left unattended or not trained properly. They are social dogs who want to be busy all the time. They need exercise and jobs to do and want and need to be with either other dogs or people all the time.

Once we establish that a PWD is the right dog for the people looking, then we need to make sure the puppy they think looks cute also has the right temperament for their lifestyles. Calmer puppies often do better with families and in urban environments while frisker puppies would have more fun in rural settings and with people who have more time to train them and maybe even involve them with agility exercises. It’s all about the fit and not so much the look.

Looks can be deceiving. Just as puppies can seduce you with their big eyes and soft hair, colleges and schools with brand names often woo students and parents with their reputations. Sometimes, however, a puppy with smaller eyes or a less well known school with better programming for specific kids might make a better fit.

Learning differences ran rampant in my family and I watched my siblings first struggle in schools where they didn’t fit and then succeed in schools with proper programming.

So I was on the lookout with my own kids. When the time came to move one of them from a more traditional based school, it was easier to do knowing how successful my siblings had been. Separating our daughters – sisters who actually liked going to the same school - was sad. But moving one to a progressive school where within the first two weeks she said in the car one day, “I’m smart Mummy,” showed me that fit trumps looks.

So with my puppies, my husband and I are looking for fit. A veteran breeder told me recently she doesn’t even let her clients choose their puppies. She matches temperament with living situations and if the clients don’t like her selection, they go elsewhere.

I’m surprised by how much I care about the homes our puppies are going to, by how much work I’ve put into the matching and how much I want the puppies to be happy and well taken care of.

So far, I’m confident with the matching we’ve encouraged. I know the puppies will struggle at first as they separate from their 9 siblings, mom and four humans, but they’ll bond well with their new owners and their new homes.

In less than three weeks, they’ll be gone. No more poop to pick up, no more pee to wipe up, no more sticky floors to walk over. I can put my front hall rugs back and throw out the rug in the back room. No more feeding ten puppies three times a day.

No more puppies to watch romp together and nap together. No more puppies to cuddle up with while watching TV. No more watching them drag a shoe across the floor, or bite one of their sibling’s ears.

They’ll be playing in someone else’s home soon, but even when they’re in their new homes where they’ll fit and be loved and cared for, I know their first home will always be my home.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Go-To-House

A few years ago, my stepfather gave my daughters a foozball table for Christmas. We thought it would make our house more fun for their friends; our house would become the go-to place for teens.

When I was a teen, we had a ping-pong table and a bumper pool table in our home. While the ping-pong table rarely was used in the freezing cold playroom on the third floor, the bumper pool table was used frequently in the front hall.

But my house is smaller than my parents’ home, so we attempted a foozball table, and a wide screen TV. It didn’t really work. One daughter goes to school in a different town so her friends don’t come over often. The other daughter’s friends hung out for a while after play rehearsals on Saturdays, but rarely used the foozball table.

Had I known all I needed were puppies to make a go-to house, maybe I would have gotten a second dog years earlier and bred her sooner too. Now we are that go-to house, both for my kids’ friends and mine. I’ve never been so popular. We moved the foozball table to my husband’s study where it lies on its side waiting to be resurrected. The centerpiece to the backroom is now the puppies’ playpen.

The best part of this new found popularity is that I don’t have to be super embarrassed about how messy - or smelly - my house is. I have an excuse for why it smells like a kennel and the floor’s sticky. It really hasn’t ever smelled that bad before, but it is usually pretty messy and I’m usually pretty embarrassed by it.

I was raised by a neat freak who somehow made me feel insecure if my house wasn’t up to her standards, which it never was. To avoid feeling embarrassed by my mess, I simply avoided having people over. I was convinced a proper hostess had a clean and proper home. I’m just not a good housekeeper. I don’t care enough. I work. I’m too busy. I have two kids. I have two dogs. Actually I have 12.

She’d freak if she saw the ten puppies living here and the amount of pee and poop my family and I wipe up constantly. The bigger the pups get, the bigger and more frequent the poops.

While I love watching the puppies play and interacting with them, one of my favorite times of day is after they’ve eaten, played themselves out and are napping one on top of the other. I rest when they rest, just like when my daughters were babies. I used to think I’d be so productive during naptime. I’d write the articles I had due, do the laundry, and clean the house. But all I really wanted to do was sleep alongside them.

When friends visit, I also don’t have to worry about entertaining them. They’re over for one thing only – to see the puppies. Sometimes I offer tea or coffee; sometimes I forget, but either way, they don’t seem to mind and I don’t feel too bad, they’re being entertained by puppy antics.

At one point last weekend, we had 11 people and 11 dogs in the back room. It was noisy and fun. There was a puppy in every hand.

The weeks are more quiet, with fewer visitors. My daughters focus – sort of – on their homework and rehearsal schedules. I focus – sort of – on class work for school. My husband relaxes from his long days where he focuses at work. The puppies play around us.

The weekend is here again. We’ll celebrate my younger daughter’s birthday, watch my older daughter in her last high school play and in the midst of the busy weekend, we’ll welcome more prospective buyers and friends in to see the puppies. I won’t have time to clean a lot, but it’s okay, sometimes even go-to-houses are messy.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spray's Lessons on Mothering

I’ve spent the better part of the last 18 years watching my children separate from me, as they played with new friends in playgroups, marched off to kindergarten, spent longer days at school, went to sleep away camps and church trips abroad, shared their confidences with friends, applied to college and developed intimate romantic relationships. Letting go of them, when I’ve put so much time, energy and love into these two creatures hasn’t been easy, nor do I expect it will get easier no matter how proud I am of their accomplishments and adventures.

I should have taken lessons from Spray.

While I cling, she pushes away. Her pups aren’t leaving her the way my children strive for their independence; she’s leaving them. She knows instinctively when they need her and when they don’t.

During the first two weeks of their life, Spray didn’t leave their side. She was with them 24/7, only leaving them to pee and poop in the backyard and even that took a lot of encouraging on our part. She ran out the back door, squatted and ran back in again. Nothing could keep her away from her pups. They were helpless hamster-like creatures, completely dependent on her.

Spray nursed and cleaned them constantly. She lay down when they needed her too. If they cried, she was there.

But four weeks later, she is nursing less. Not only have the puppies graduated from Gerber’s Baby Cereal to mushy puppy kibble, she doesn’t want to nurse. She stands when they come for her teats, making them work for their milk. They have to reach for her. If she doesn’t feel like nursing or gets tired of the little teeth beginning to form, she jumps on a couch where the pups can’t reach her. She walks away and they drop off her. When she comes in the room they scamper after her, but she ignores them much of the time. She is weaning them.

She doesn’t worry if she’s around enough for the puppies, or how well she’s balancing her job and home life. She gives what she wants and then leaves them alone. She knows she’ll have to push them out into the world where they will be on their own.
When the pups were first born, we thought we might have lost Spray. She was no longer our frisky, fun dog. I worried we had changed her for good.

I didn’t have to.

She turns in circles when she’s excited, she naps on the back pillows of our living room couch, she runs to the front door when my husband returns from work, and she grabs Splash’s ear and pulls him out in the backyard for a romp. She’s also back in bed with my husband and me, nestled between us. I was surprised the first night I felt her weight on me, but realized she knew the pups would survive without her. They did. We leave the doors open in the house so she can come and go as she likes, checking on her babies if she needs to. But, she’s tired of her pups in a way I never expected.

I worried about how Spray would react when the puppies left us for their new homes. They may have separation anxiety from their littermates and their mom, but I think Spray will be okay after a brief wave good bye. Her human family will probably have a harder time saying good-bye to the puppies than she does, just as I have a harder time thinking about my oldest leaving my whelping box. With an emptier house, I worry about how I’m going to fill my time and find meaning in my life.

Spray isn’t going to be looking for any new art classes to take or volunteer work to get involved with when her pups leave. She’s going to breathe a deep sigh of relief that the hard work is over. Maybe I should too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Life in One Room

Three weeks have passed since our dog, Spray, gave birth to ten puppies. In that time, we - the ten puppies, Spray, our grumpy older dog Splash, my two teen daughters and my husband and I have basically lived in one room.

The puppies have kept us there. It helps that there is a big wide screen TV and two couches.

Historically, this room is the coldest room in our house, but now it’s the warmest. We have an electric heater and a heat lamp in the whelping box with the puppies. They can’t regulate their own temperatures until they are at least three or four weeks old, so we keep the door to the room closed and the temperature in there has stayed a toasty 75 degrees. We actually have to disrobe in there. We usually pile on the blankets.

We live in a vertical house with the bedrooms on the third floor, so one or two of us sleeps with the pups every night because we can’t hear them upstairs. But we sure can hear them when they wake up in that room. When they’re hungry, their peeps and squeaks turn into squawks and they sound like a flock of seagulls following a ferryboat.

In three weeks, the puppies have morphed from glorified hamsters to real little dogs. They still sleep a lot in a big pile – one on top of the other – but they also spend time investigating the bigger world. We take them out of the whelping box and watch them lurch around the rug in what my husband has dubbed “the dinosaur walk”. We always cover the rug with a fuzzy fleece to catch their poops and pees and I’m back to the baby days of doing laundry multiple times a day as their bedding and their walking mats need repetitive cleanings.

The pups’ eyes have opened, but we don’t think they really see much as they still seem to gravitate by smell. Their hearing also doesn’t seem to have developed yet because when we clap our hands or whistle, only Spray looks at us hopefully.

Spray is tired. Nursing ten pups is exhausting. She constantly looks for food. She eats bowl after bowl of puppy chow – it has more nutrients than dog chow – mixed with yogurt or wet puppy food, or she’ll eat cake off the counter or whatever else she finds lying around. She discovered and left behind those chalk-like Valentine “Sweetheart” candies. Smart girl.

She needs her down time and is happy leaving her puppies alone for bits of time. If I’m upstairs in the kitchen, she’ll visit, plop down on the floor or on her special couch cushion. But when she’s ready, she scratches at the back room door to be let in. She sniffs each of the pups to make sure they’re all there. She either starts licking them, or if they start squawking, she lies down – sometimes on her own, sometimes with our encouragement – to nurse them.

She watches them carefully when they have their playtime and they crawl between our feet, under a stool, stick their heads in slippers or try to walk on the slippery floor, which means they do massive spread eagles. They’ve also found each other and started roughhousing, mouthing each other and knocking each other around, which is highly entertaining to watch.

When I open the door returning from a day of teaching, I never know what I'll find – who will be lying on a couch with a pup on their chest, nestled by their side, or whether all ten pups will be lying curled up inside the box, or nursing outside the box, or cruising around. I don’t know which daughter will be pretending to do homework with the Olympics on as she calls out “look at what Simba is doing.” “Oh, watch out, don’t step on Mushu.” “Get the video camera. Esmeralda and Zazu are playing together.”

I need the video camera to capture my family – all 16 of us – in one room together.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mothering Pups

This past week, I’ve been congratulated on being a new mother and a new grandmother. I’m neither. My dog, Spray, had ten puppies. She is the new mom. I am her owner. But when I watch her nurse her pups, I can almost feel my milk let down. When I hear the pups cry for their mom, I want to climb in the whelping bed and snuggle with them.

Watching Spray labor, deliver and care for her puppies brought me to a place I didn’t expect to revisit. Days before her delivery, Spray was a pup herself, playing with our older grouchy dog, asking for attention from my husband, two daughters and me, and happy to lounge around the house.

As she labored, she didn’t scream in pain, ask for an epidural, punch her husband, throw up on the doctor or wonder how she had gotten herself in this predicament. From 3:30 to 11:11 am, she quietly and without fanfare slid out 10 puppies.

With the birth of her puppies, the mother instinct kicked in big time. Her first puppy confused her but after being reassured she had done nothing wrong, her mothering genes took over. She didn’t need a lesson in how to nurse or bathe her pups – she knew to lick them clean. She didn’t need to be shown how to strap a snuggly on to keep her young close – she smelled them to count them, and she didn’t seem in discomfort with ten puppies sucking on her nine teats.

I wasn’t sure I knew how to be a mother when I came home from the hospital with my first daughter. I lay in bed convinced her real parents were going to show up soon to get her. I listened to our tenant downstairs going out at night, thinking my life as I knew it was officially over and I would no longer have any freedom. I was tied to this child.

While I was right, I didn’t know how delighted I would be – for the most part – to give up what I perceived to be sacrifices – movies, dinners out, late night drinking – in exchange for loving and raising two children.

Spray didn’t leave her pups at all for the first week. She ran outside to do her “business” and came right back in. As the pups begin to mature – and they mature at warp speed – she leaves them and visits us in another room for a few minutes, or goes outside with our older dog for a sibling romp. When my first daughter was a few months old, my husband and I left her with my parents so we could go to a Nanci Griffith concert. I worried the whole time.

If Spray can’t get back in, she scratches wildly at the back door. She’s frantic if she hears her pups cry, returning quickly to lick or nurse them as they peep and squeak in joy.

The puppies are less than two weeks old and they are trying to stand up, just the way my daughters did at a year old, holding on to the rim of the coffee table before letting go and plopping down on their diapered behinds.

Just as my husband and I chronicled our daughters’ births and development with photographs and videos, we’re chronicling the puppies’. We even post updates on Facebook regularly and I talk about them incessantly to my students, to the butcher and basically anyone who will listen. Maybe I am a proud new parent after all.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Puppies Are Coming, The Puppies Are Coming

The big news in our house is our younger dog is about to have puppies. This wasn’t my idea. I’m not known for standing up for myself – I say yes a lot and the word “no” doesn’t pass my lips too frequently, so when my husband suggested we breed our new dog, I practiced saying “no” - a lot.

I think he knew I was just practicing because he didn’t seem to hear me.

I brought him literature on why spaying was the healthy choice. I suggested he read online literature about how much work went into getting a “bitch” ready for breeding and how expensive the whole ordeal is upfront. He never indicated if he clicked any of the links. What I heard from him was how he’d always wanted to breed a dog since he was a little boy.

So doggie never got spayed. She got inseminated.

We have two Portuguese Water Dogs. We had them before Obama and even before Kennedy. Our older one, Splash, is about to turn 11. He’s a huge pain in the old you know what. We love him because he’s ours, but he is a nightmare.

When my oldest daughter was 4 she said she wanted a dog. My husband and I told her we would discuss it again when she was 7. She didn’t forget. On her 7th birthday, she wanted to know where her dog was.

My husband has terrible allergies to just about everything. He’d married me and my cat and suffered through rounds of shots in order to live with her. He didn’t want to do that for a dog. So we looked at “hypoallergenic” dogs – or dogs with hair, not fur. Thus we ended up with an extremely lively breed – a breed that really needs to be exercised a lot, a lot more than we have ever done.

My daughter got her dog when she was 7 1/2 and my younger daughter was 4. Having an exuberant dog with two young children wasn’t such a great idea.

Long story short, the first dog was not ideal. He was hard to train. He lunged after motorcycles, jumped out the car window when he was four months old and I was driving 35-40 miles an hour. We have spent thousands of dollars on dog psychologists, doggie boot camp, and trainers but nothing seems to have worked. Friends and family have repeatedly suggested we put him down. Maybe we should have, but our two young daughters loved that dog and relied on him for more than anyone could fathom, so my husband and I decided the better solution was to lock him up whenever anyone visits.

Two years ago we got another dog. My younger daughter really wanted a puppy and I wanted a second dog before Splash died and before our oldest daughter left home. Lots of people thought we were crazy. Certifiably insane. But we lucked out. Spray is the sweetest, most docile creature you can image. She comes when she’s called. She drops the food in her mouth when you ask her. She walks on the sidewalk without a leash. She sleeps in our bed, which my husband said he would never allow any dog to do. She sits in an armchair with her paws drooped over the arm and looks like a human.

So my husband’s fantastic idea was born – let’s breed Spray – she’s so cute, so sweet. She’s got such a great temperament. Imagine the puppies. All I could imagine was the work. I knew who would end up doing 90% of it. No matter what anyone else said, I knew. Who walks the dogs more than anyone else? Who feeds them more than anyone else? Who’s home with them more than anyone else and lets them in and out, in and out, in and out all day long while correcting papers or writing.

My husband needed time to think. A year. Eventually I stopped badgering. If you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em? Surprisingly I got excited to see the pups and watch them grow. And my daughters wanted to do it before the oldest one left for college.

Then my husband started to read and realized how much work it really was and how hard it might be on the dog and suggested we back out. Oh no, I said, we’re in this now. Don’t be stupid, he said.

Stupid or not, I’ve taken the dog for multiple vet appointments; my husband accompanied me to the two insemination appointments. Those were interesting, and the puppies are due in ten days or so.

I really am excited. Spray is getting fatter, her nipples are protruding; she is nesting. But I’m also terrified. I have to teach, my husband has to work, the kids have to go to school and we’re going to have at least five puppies to take care of for eight weeks. But they’ll be a great distraction while we wait to hear from colleges, and they’ll keep me busy so I won’t obsess about next year. Even though I wish I knew how to say no so it is heard, my daughters can’t wait and it will be fun to have a family adventure.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Body Beautiful I'm Not

I’m 51 years old, but this week I learned I have the body of a 58-year-old. Sweet! That made my day.

I met with a personal trainer in the hopes I might find the time and inclination to go to the health club more regularly and get in better shape – not great shape, just okay shape. The trainer said I should shoot for the body of a 45-year-old. Right. That’s a lot of years to lose.

When I was younger, each summer I could kick off the few pounds I gained over the course of the year. I played tennis and swam; the five extra pounds fell off easily. Those days are long gone. I’m carrying way more than five extra pounds now and they’re not going to “fall off “ anytime soon.

I don’t play tennis as hard or as regularly as I used to due to a bad back and knee – signs of aging and skiing injuries that finally caught up to me. I’ve gone from being active to sedentary. I sit at a computer or in a classroom all day.

I was feeling better about myself because I’d started to walk our pregnant dog almost two miles a few days a week. The vet told me to and no one else in my family volunteered. She can’t be in her doggie group anymore in case she picks up something from the other dogs and she needs exercise. But when I proudly told the trainer, I discovered that walking a dog really isn’t very aerobic. I need to get my heart rate up somewhere close to 150bpm, and it doesn’t come close to that walking Spray.

So now I have to walk the dog and go to the health club. On evaluation day, I learned I don’t drink enough water, my stretching is fair, which is better than poor, but not as good as good, and I can bike for six minutes before my heart rate gets up to its maximum. I think it should take longer, but I’m not sure. The trainer kept telling me seeing bad numbers was good – it gave me something to work with – I’d have a goal. I felt so good.

The prescription: yoga, bike riding and weights. This all sounds great and even sort of fun, if I didn’t have two teens at home, a husband, a teaching job, two dogs (one of whom is pregnant), a messy house and a writing career I’m trying to keep alive, and I’m embarrassed as all get out to walk into the club among all the fit members.

When I felt better about my body, I didn’t mind going to the gym. Even if I wasn’t the most body beautiful person there, I wasn’t embarrassed. Now, I’m mortified. I’m convinced everyone is staring at me – that they know my secrets: I’m out of shape, I’m old, I don’t know how to use the machines, let alone how to do yoga, and I don’t know what to wear.

I’ve been a member of this particular gym off and on for more than twenty years. My mother bought my first membership when I was single because she thought I’d meet someone there.

I didn’t.

But I did get married and my husband fell in love with the club somewhere after our tenth year of wedded bliss. He stopped drinking and started working out. A lot. So much so that I, in my paranoid state, decided the club belonged to him.

I’ve convinced myself I don’t belong there – I’m sure all the members have body beautiful mini-clubs, and they’re watching me know not what to do. I wore old college sweats and a long sleeve t-shirt for evaluation day and that was not the appropriate attire. I need yoga pants (I’m not wearing shorts) and a baggie short-sleeve t-shirt.

I also don’t understand how all these people have the time to work out. They’re either crazy like a few people I know and go at 6:30 in the morning when I’m getting my daughter up and out the door to school or they have more flexible schedules than I do.

I don’t have high hopes for getting my 45-year-old body back, and who knew I’d even want it back. I’d just like it to match my chronological age…or maybe a few years younger, but with my Facebook friends and a cousin-in-law rooting for me, maybe I’ll find my way back there again.