Resolve for the New Year

Every Christmas we send an annual newsletter that features photos of us and our dogs–a bit of a wink to the camera (because we know family photos are supposed to feature kids), but also just an accurate reflection of our life. Like this photo meme that has been circulating the interwebs:

(credit: http://www.thepoke.co.uk/2013/12/01/22-inspirational-homemade-christmas-card-ideas/)

I would like to believe the guy in this photo thinks he’s hilarious. I believe he staged it, picked out the perfect knitwear from Goodwill, and found the only photographer in the rural midwest still using this late 70s−early 90s “ghost” photography technique, and then gleefully sent it to friends and family as his Christmas card. I believe he  wanted to turn the Christmas card trope on its head. But the Internet, the cruel, cold Internet, has laughed at him, poked fun at him, warned everyone against the danger of becoming “this guy,” because what could be sadder than a Christmas card of a man in a handknit sweater, holding his cat (in a hat)?

This year, for the first time, I wondered if our friends thought us sad. Did they see a kid-shaped hole in our Christmas photos? We’re in our 30s. The major “adult” achievements have already passed:

  • Started on career path, check.
  • Bought first house: check.
  • Repaired first house: ongoing and no longer exciting, check.
  • Started a backyard flock of chickens, check.

When our cat joined our family 7 years ago, that was very exciting news, especially since our friends hadn’t started having babies yet, and same story when our first dog joined the family the following year. But by the time we added a second dog, the birth announcements (for children, not puppies) were beginning to show up on Facebook almost daily, and we didn’t gleefully announce the addition of our new puppy to the same mailing list we had before. Compared to the birth of a first child (or second child, or third or fourth) a new dog isn’t a big deal. When friends generously tried to share my new puppy enthusiasm, I brushed them off, feeling a little embarrassed that a new fur kid was the highlight of my year.

Last year we traveled home for Christmas, “home” being where our families live in the Midwest. We really do consider our house in Bellingham home as well, but when you’re talking about going home for Christmas, everyone knows what you mean: it’s where your parents are, or your nieces and nephews, or your siblings.

We spent time getting to know our three nephews, who are in that magical stage of awe and enthusiasm. The holiday was very much about our nephews, and we were glad for it to be. But it was also a huge shift. In past years, family gatherings had been about our parents’ post-retirement travels, our brothers, our jobs, our families’ adult hobbies and interests. The presence of kids changed everything. Without my own anecdotes about kids to share, I felt suddenly that I had little to contribute. I was embarrassed to talk about my chickens, or dogs, or job. They sounded very insignificant next to  tow-headed toddlers, who were, rightfully, the center of their parents’ world.

The problem is me, of course, not them. When someone asks me “How are your puppies?” or “How’s your job going?” I’ve gotten in the habit of answering with the deflective “fine.” It’s a conversation stopper, when the asker is really just looking for an avenue into more meaningful conversation. But I’m afraid of being that person who corners someone with a 10 minute story about her Aussiedoodle’s health dramas. (Last week Ursula helped herself to an entire beef bone and spent the next day vomiting blood. She appears to be fine now.)

I struggle to assert that my life has value without children, that I can still be interesting without stories about the crazy things toddlers say and do.  So that’s my 2014 challenge. I will ignore the niggling voice that says I’m uninteresting. I will corner you at a party with stories about chasing chickens out of my neighbor’s yard (they DO cross the road, who knows why) and home ownership mishaps. And I will be unapologetic about making my animals pose for glamour shots.

Here’s to 2014!

Blessing of the Animals

Dusky gets blessed.

St. Francis of Assisi lived from 1182-1226. He called animals “brother” and “sister,” and he famously preached to birds. The Catholic church tells a story about St. Francis taming a dangerous wolf, making a pact with it not to harm humans, who are made in the image of God. He sounds kind of nuts. If St. Francis stood in a park today and preached to the birds and rabbits, I suspect most of us would keep a wide distance. But those early believers must have seen something genuine in him, because he is now canonized as one of the most famous saints.

The Feast of St. Francis is celebrated on Oct. 4. In Bellingham it’s accompanied by several Blessing of the Animals services, associated with various churches around town. Since our naughty dogs are always in need of a blessing, we showed up at the local park and found two dozen other dogs and their people in attendance, mostly strangers to one another, all gathered together for the love of our dogs. After a short 10 minute service—which included, of course, the Prayer of St. Francis, and a lovely poem called Blessing the Animals by Jan Richardson—the dogs and their people all lined up to receive a blessing from the pastor.

It was a hodgepodge group that showed up for the Blessing of the Animals. There was a middle aged woman with her border collie; an old man with two Labradoodles that were mirror images of each other; a man and his chow chow, both of whom preferred to stay on the fringes; a whole family wearing Sunday best clothes, surrounding their Golden Retriever like a family bearing joyful witness to a baptism. There was a whole convention of blond poodle mixes. Is there a collective noun for a group of Labradoodles? An oodle of doodles, perhaps?

An oodle of doodles.

An oodle of doodles.

The Blessing of the Animals was advertised in the church’s e-newsletter, and in some posters and flyers around town. Most people who came didn’t know what to expect, how many animals would be there, or even what denomination or type of church was hosting the event. But they came anyway.

How different would this have been if the event was a public “blessing of the people?” What if, instead of an animal blessing, the poster advertised “Public Blessing at Cornwall Park! Come as you are and get blessed!” Without knowledge about the type of church, the length of the event (no one likes a long sermon), the creed and beliefs of the host church, would anyone come? Would anyone take time out of a beautiful Saturday to walk to a local park and receive a personal blessing from an unknown person of unknown faith? It seems unlikely, and definitely uncomfortable. And yet dozens of people eagerly stood in line for the pastor to lay her hands on their dog’s furry head.

What would it be like, to be such an open vessel as a dog? To eagerly receive every blessing, never questioning self worth, making disclaimers, asking “why me”, or looking for strings attached?

My dog needs a savings account

If you read to the bottom of this post, there’s an adorable photo of a puppy to reward you.

When cornered and asked to justify my choice not to have children, I have a list of prepared responses. Top among them is that kids are expensive, and I don’t make that kind of money. You need a car seat, stroller, changing table, crib, clothes, diapers, daycare (because you both have to work to afford children), interactive learning games, a Baby Bjorn, diaper bag, toys, and a bigger house. And that will just get you through the first year. College is mind-blowingly expensive, and worse every year. I’m amazed that anyone can be financially prepared for all this.

Instead, we choose dogs. They eat a predictable amount of food, they don’t need clothes, they are endlessly occupied by tennis balls and frisbees, and we don’t have to worry about the expense of college (although Ursula is Ivy League material).

But here’s where the balance tips in favor of kids: children are covered by health insurance. Dogs are not.

Ursula came down with something over two weeks ago. Here’s the short version: diarrhea, vomiting, icky inflamed skin infection on her forearms, listlessness, decreased appetite, ear yeast infection. After waiting it out for a few days (during which time the little trooper climbed a few mountains) and seeing her get worse, we took her to the vet.

The hard thing about taking a dog to the vet is that they can’t talk. The vet has to rely on what he can see, and what the dog’s human companion can relate about changes in behavior. It’s a tough job. I often feel like my own medical problems are guesswork by my doctor; it’s even more so with dogs. His first theory was a staff infection, possibly from a trip to the groomer 3 weeks before the symptoms started. Second theory was a food allergy, which was corroborated by the presence of the yeast infection in her ears.

Do you know what you have to do for a dog with an unknown food allergy? An elimination diet, just like for people. Except that dog kibble contains like a thousand ingredients, so you’d never know which one was causing the problem, so you have to put your dog on something really stringent with very limited and unusual ingredients, like frozen raw wild kangaroo and quinoa. I’m not kidding. Kangaroo dog food is a thing. It takes 10 weeks to clear a dog’s system of the allergy. If symptoms subside, congratulations! Your dog isn’t allergic to kangaroo! Then you can try adding  one normal ingredient at a time, like chicken, or rice, or lamb. Then wait 2-3 weeks to see if there’s a reaction. This process can take YEARS to identify the allergens. A balanced raw food dog food diet costs approximately $30-$45 a week. If we had to do this for a whole year, I’d need a second job.

We were really, really hopeful that it was a nasty creepy crawly parasite and not a food allergy.

After a 5-day trial of antibiotics failed to make any difference, the vet recommended a skin biopsy, which involved punching out a plug of skin from the inflamed area on both forearms. The lab would be able to culture any existing bacteria, identify parasites, do a pathology report, detect any autoimmune problems, and identify if the problem was an allergic dermatitis. Given the alternative trial-and-error method of treating the unknown problem, we gulped and handed over our credit card. Ursula was obviously sick, and had been for nearly two weeks. We were worried.

The up side of the skin biopsy (in addition to a definitive diagnosis) was that she got to wear a little T-shirt for 10 days while the stitches healed (Joshua would never allow this under normal circumstances), which also prevented her from licking the wound. And she looked adorable.

Does this shirt match my eyes?

Does this shirt match my eyes?

Many hundreds of dollars later, the results were in: a mildly resistant staff infection. With the right medications, she rebounded quickly and is back to stalking the cat and barking at the neighbors.

But dogs are way easier than kids, right? RIGHT?