Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sleeping with dogs

The morning before I left for Paris, I woke up jammed between Sig Other and Hank.  This isn't as kinky as it sounds.  We’re all familiar with the term “family bed.”  And while its true that the children have now outgrown the stage in their periodic interruptions middle of the night visits resulted in Sig Other and I relinquishing romantic privacy for blissful sleep, still there is no rest for the weary (or in this case, the indulgent).  But, ours is no longer a family bed of anxious children.  Ours is a family bed of a different sort. 

Over two years ago my beloved Golden Retriever died.  And after three weeks of enduring my weeping, Sig Other threw me in the car and drove me to Sun Valley, California - mecca for doggy rescue organizations.  For years, Sig Other had been talking about getting a Weimeraner.  He touted their sleekness, their aesthetically pleasing color, their intelligence and the fact that they match the house.  And I resisted.  “They’re not fluffy,” I insisted.  “I need a fluffy dog.  No dog will ever take the place of Cass but if I have to get another dog, it MUST be a Golden Retriever.  I am a Golden Retriever person.” 

And yet there I found myself, in front of the Sun Valley Friends For Pets organization – home for abandoned and wayward Weims.  We were there to meet Coco, a half Weim/half German Short-Haired Pointer that S.O. had seen on the internet.  Coco had two homes before landing at the rescue and, we were told, had been badly treated by a more aggressive dog in her previous home.  Sig Other immediately committed to Coco and pledged to save her from a life of concrete cages.  But in addition to Coco, there were at least thirty other gorgeous creatures, more than half of which appeared to be full-bred Weimeraners.  Sig Other pointed out that it didn’t seem right to leave these homeless dogs behind when we could easily have two dogs in our house.  And, he reasoned, wouldn’t it be best to have a second to keep the first company?  After walking with Coco with three other dogs to see which she got along with best, we settled on Hank – a young male who’d arrived at the rescue only the day before.  Little was known of his background but he seemed sweet and docile, if not a bit fragile.   So we came to “look” at one dog, and suddenly I was test-walking two.  I protested that they weren’t “cuddly” – that they seemed standoffish and that certainly I would never bond with either of them as I had my beloved Cass.  But I liked the idea of walking companions and I did confess to the house feeling terribly empty without canine companionship.  And so home we went with Coco and Hank. 

Weims, it turns out, are a deceptive breed.  We’ve all seen them in the famous photos of William Wegman.  They are posed on roller skates or curled in impossible positions on chairs, wearing hats or funny outfits.  And based on these images, they seem to be dogs of quiet repose – docile creatures willing to bend themselves into any shape for their masters.  And they are.  Sort of.  A well-trained and well-exercised Weim will happily twist himself into a pretzel for his or her beloved owner.  And when I say “well-exercised” what I mean is exhausted.  By reputation, they are “Velcro” dogs – they cling to one person - intensely loyal, incredibly intelligent, excellent guard dogs and (I now know) the cuddliest of creatures.  They are also mischievous, ridiculously energetic and can be maniacally anxious.  They are hunting dogs with a high prey drive and a desire to please which often results in dead rats dropped at my feet or birds snatched out of the air and presented as prizes. 

In my fantasy of owning two dogs, they are both crate-trained and happily retire to their “homes” in the evening where they sleep undisturbed until morning.  And so, upon bringing Hank and Coco home, I rushed to Petco and bought two big fancy crates for my new creatures, which I assembled and installed in our bedroom.  Understanding that Hank and Coco had been subjected to a concrete prison and had suffered untold horrors before coming to live in our lovely home, I felt it necessary that they be close and that their nests be feathered with soft cozy blankets.  Every book I read about Weimeraners (and I bought every one on the market) suggested that the bond to the owner is terribly important.  And so, the first night they spent in their home, I very gently coaxed them into their crates and shut out the lights.  And it was perfect.  For a while.  Coco slept like a champ.  She’s a sweet girl, our Coco, with enormous spurts of joyous energy leading to equally enormous spurts of pure exhaustion.  She has two speeds – on and off – and two emotions – love and kill.  Her simplicity is her great gift.  Hank, on the other hand, is far more complicated.

There are dogs who enjoy their crates and recognize in the confinement a sort of natural nod to their den instinct.  These dogs will go to their crates, unprompted, during the day for rest – the crate providing a safe and comfortable place of respite.  Then there are other dogs – dogs who view the crate as a sort of canine Guantanamo – a prison in which captivity is an anxiety-provoking hell, escape from which must come at any price.  Hank is that sort of dog.      

Hank is a neurotic, anxious canine.  The first time we left him alone in his crate, he caused a ruckus that set off the burglar alarm.  Left alone in his torture chamber, Hank will rip apart any blanket or toy, no matter how rugged.  He will foam at the mouth so aggressively that a lake of saliva forms around the exterior.   He will rub against the metal grate until his nose and gums bleed from friction.  He will howl until the neighbors call with questions about cruelty to animals.  Hank is also the creature that breaks my heart every morning when I leave the house for work and he stares mournfully out the window, making puppy ears and pleading with me not to go.  He is the sweet, sensitive boy who curls into my lap at every opportunity, who follows me around the house, curious about where I’m going and what I’m doing.  His is the soft, warm body that snuggles up against me as I watch tv at night and rests his head on my belly as I read on a weekend afternoon.   And he is the reason I have redefined the family bed.

After the first few weeks of unsuccessful crating, Sig Other and I relented and allowed Hank to sleep on the sofa in our bedroom (the rather expensive Danish sofa which was formerly in the living room but is now the de facto dog bed).  And still, Hank’s anxiety persisted.  His preference, really, was for the bed – our bed and more specifically, my side of the bed.  Snuggled close to me (or sometimes on top of me or even on top of my head) was the place Hank went for a really good night’s sleep. 

Like any good codependent dog-parents, Sig Other and I believed in those first few months that the dog’s comfort should come first.  After all, he’d only recently been sprung from doggy jail.  If Hank wanted the pillow, Hank got the pillow.  And as it hardly seemed fair that Hank should be the sole beneficiary of our weakness.  Coco was sprung free of her crate and allowed on whatever cozy bed-like surface suited her as well.  If that meant being separated from snuggling with Sig Other, or that I spend my night sweating with one dog in the middle of the bed and one on my head, then so be it.  Those first nights with the new dogs were restless and sweaty.  And while sleepless, they were also cozy and sweet and peaceful.  Cesar Milan would have been so pissed.

Years passed and routines were established and, as happened with the children, the dogs got more comfortable and Hank’s deeply neurotic insecurities were replaced by quirky eccentricities.  He is still, as Child One points out, a dog unique from all others in that he loves conditionally.  But he is now mostly sweet and happy and, when well exercised, less prone to breaking into the pantry or stealing my sweaters for his own nest.  And the family doggy bed has morphed from a nightly contortionist act to one that is limited to a few hours in the early morning.  Every night, Sig Other or I tell the dogs its time for bed, and they trot off to their respective sides of the couch.  And every morning at about 5am, I am awakened by a stare – an intense pleading stare down a long soft nose, begging me to move over and make room.  And so I do.  I scootch toward the middle of the bed to make room for Hank’s morning ritual climb onto the mattress, followed by a triple twirl and a not-so-gentle thud down onto the bed in as tiny a circle as he can make himself, his back pressed firmly against my stomach and chest.  There he’ll remain for an hour or so until the chirping birds wake us both and he rises, insistent that I open the door for him.  When he first started this ritual I leapt from bed, convinced that he was being a good boy and communicating his need to pee.  In fact what he wants is to stand in the open doorway of our bedroom so that he can gaze at his domain.  He doesn’t go for a morning pee.  He doesn’t roam the yard.  He simply sits, nose out, body in, and stares as the yard comes to life in the early morning.  I’m not sure what he’s thinking.  Often he seems burdened by the troubles of the world.  And there is no convincing him to stay in bed.  He must go, every morning, and carry out his ritual.  

And so I rise, eyes half open and open the door for him before stumbling back to bed and wiggling my way back into the resting curve of Sig Other.  And through it all, Coco sleeps sweetly, dreaming about chasing birds and worried about absolutely nothing.  

Friday, May 22, 2009

From the mouths of babes...

The other night, Child One, Child Two and Sig Other were nestled in bed together watching reality television.  Not the “Biggest Loser” or “American Idol” sort of reality tv.  But the sort that features a man with a knife and a compass eating raw grubs and fetal duck eggs.  Child Two’s great quote of the day, “If I was a girl, I’d like me.”   It was a simple statement really – and one that in many ways I hope he carries with him through whatever awkward teenage years lay ahead and continues to feel through the inevitable rejections of adolescence and early manhood.  

I get incredibly excited when I think of Child Two’s future.  I have no idea what it will be.  The boy he is at ten is so spectacularly different from the boy he was at six, at seven, at eight…  Who will he be a year from now?  Five years from now?  I could never have guessed that the wit and intelligence and sensitivity and acutely observed moments that he expresses would characterize a boy who, only a few years ago, barely spoke, was afraid of almost everything and was paralyzed by crippling anxiety.  This is not to say Child Two is not without his neurosis.  Certainly there are moments of real frustration – moments where I feel helpless and confused and certain that I am neither sensitive enough nor well-enough equipped to deal with or understand all the complexity that plagues the boy.   But the wonder of who he is today versus who he was a few years ago is enough to instill great hope in the future (both his and mine).

Child Two has a great, gorgeous, blonde tousle of hair on his head.  It is so spectacular that strangers are often compelled to reach out and touch it – pet it really, as one would a new golden retriever puppy.  This was a particular problem when Child Two was younger and had a severe aversion to being touched by anyone other than his parents.  And it is odd how often a stranger feels not only tempted but somehow entitled to touch the head of a child they’ve never met.  You wouldn’t pet a dog on the street without asking its owner.  And yet someone else’s child seems fair game.  And while Child Two doesn’t bite (or at least not without severe provocation from his older sister), still it seems wrong that he should be subjected to the grabby hands of strangers just because genetics provided him with spectacular hair. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To birth or not to birth...

In my 43rd year, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about motherhood.  43 pushes the outside edge of both the pregnancy and the adoption envelopes.  Whether via natural conception, surrogacy or adoption, babies are not TOTALLY out of the question for a 43 year old.  And yet entertaining the notion of a child means looking forward to sitting at the high school graduation of aforementioned theoretical child at the minimum age of 60, it means worrying for the next 22 years about paying for nannies and private schools and broken bones and therapy.  Yuck. 

And yet I am compelled to explore the inevitability (or prevent it should the idea prove unbearable) of a life without my own children.  To be very clear, I consider myself a person with children.  The "my own" part is where it gets a bit tricky. I have children in my life -- two amazing, gorgeous, talented, brilliant and funny humans who share none of my DNA but every now and then some of my mannerisms.  I did not conceive them, gestate them or birth them, but they are mine.  I didn't diaper them or breastfeed them, never saw them take first steps or say first words.  They will never look at me and say "Mama".  And yet one of them looks a little like me.  I cannot say what they would be like were I not in their lives.  Nor can I say what I would be like were they not in mine.  We are in each others' lives.  And we are woven together, with perhaps more warp and weft than most in the form of too many parents - too many voices chiming in on every decision and too many hands clapping for every achievement and wringing themselves together over ever fretful moment.  Or is it too many?  Is it ok to have three people love you as their own?  Three people who see you in different light, three people who believe, even as divergent as their perceptions, that you are brilliant and amazing in your own right?

What is most shocking is that inevitably, no matter how old we are when we marry, society is compelled to ask about children.  I assumed that getting married at 42 meant fewer questions. Fewer people asking things like "where are you registered" or "where are you honeymooning" and certainly fewer people (or really no people) asking "when are you getting pregnant?".  And in fairness, no one asked when.  But many asked IF.  Are you going to have children together? And of course I would bite my tongue and try to find a polite to say, "don't we already have children together?"  

But it is a natural question.  And children are, at the end of the day, one way in which we define ourselves as having made a mark on the world - one way in which we determine our worth.  So at 43, the other thing I spend most of my free time thinking about is my significance (or lack thereof).  When I say "free time" what I mean is time not obsessing about work or the obligations of my family. Thankfully, this leaves very little time free for thinking. Which is a good thing.  Because at 43 the last thing I want to spend time thinking about is my significance (or lack thereof).  What haven’t I accomplished by now?  Where have I not traveled?  What have I not read?  How could I not have written?  And of course, if I've done none of those things, shouldn't I at least have bred?  

The 43rd Year

I want to write about my 43rd year - a year of complete insignificance.  43 marks exactly nothing, except perhaps the continuing degradation of collagen in my skin, energy in my body and sparkle in my eye.  43 has neither the stigma of 40 nor the dignity of 65.  It is not special.  And that is exactly the point.  We have 1st birthdays and those are special.  And then there is our 13th.  And our 16th, 18th 21st and 30th.  And from there the milestones are fewer and farther between.  The truth is that most of our years are not special.  Most of our years pass one after the other, some smoothly, others less so.  And we fight our insignificance, we fight the passage of time, the aging of our bodies, our children, our parents and friends. 

My significant other isn’t so sure I should be writing about 43.  Sig Other suggests that perhaps it would be better to write an expose about the movie business – the insider’s scoop on all things scandalous and silly in Hollywood.  He offers to set up a blog for me to do just that.  Except the truth is, the business is no longer particularly scandalous or silly.  It is no longer terribly seedy or glamorous or intriguing.  What might have been an interesting insider story twenty years ago when I first started out (long before the era of blogs and e-access) is now just the story of a mid-level executive struggling to remain excited, striving to remain relevant and hoping to remain employed. 

Twenty years ago when I arrived fresh from college with my one good suit (a $300 gray Eli Tahari number with shoulder pads and a coordinating qiana shirt) and my eyes wide open, the hallways were rife with affairs and drug addictions and inappropriate behavior.  I remember being shocked at the number of men cheating on their wives, women cheating on their husbands and single girls willing to be mistresses.  Stories of executives sleeping off an all night binge in their offices were pretty commonplace.  And of course there was the office bigamist (who was also the office sociopath), who provided endless fascination not to mention gossip.  Sadly, those days are long gone.  Studios are nothing more than corporate conglomerates and the days of sordid affairs and cocaine dust on the ladies’ room counter are long gone. 

And so, I tell Sig Other, I want to write about my 43rd year.  Sig Other is, in fact, my Husband. But so many years prior to our recent spectacularly fun and incredibly amazing wedding were spent intertwined in perfect unwed synchronicity that I still refer to Husband often as Sig Other or BLuP (Beloved Life Partner).   

But this is not a blog about Sig Other.  And in spite of Sig Other’s protests of “What about me?” THIS is, in fact, about ME.  And my 43rd year.