Really gone

I’ve been a dog mom for most of the past 23 years. There were about 9 lonely months in 2007-2008 between Ruby and Rudy that I don’t remember much about, but otherwise there has been a dog or two in my house. Until this year.

Letting go of Reggie has been a painful process. It started when I came home from the vet for the last time with her collar in my pocket and her leash draped around my neck. I stepped into the laundry room and the first thing I saw was her water dish.

Reggie's water dish with tiny maple leaf

I’d changed the water that morning, so she must have picked up the leaf in her beard when she was out in the yard and dropped it in the bowl when she took her last drink. It felt as if she had left me a tiny note saying, “remember me.”

I swept up her bowls, along with her food and medications, her harness and collar and leashes, her toys and blankets and crate, and anything else that was hers, and removed it all from the house within the hour. I simply could not bear to look at them. Over the next few weeks, I went through my closet and removed the doodie bag from the right-hand pockets of every coat and jacket. I took the blanket off the back seat of my car. I put a towel down against the threshold of the door to the back yard to block the draft, and have not yet had occasion to remove it because I have no reason to open that door now that there is no dog to let in and out. I’ll get the carpets cleaned soon and remove all the stains Reggie left behind.

Even so, there are still moments when awareness of her absence startles me. I will feel a moment of panic—“where is she?!”—followed by anger—“why isn’t she here?!”—followed by the most crushing sadness when I remember—“she’s never coming back.”

Over the weekend, I printed up our last Christmas cards with photos of us that were taken in July, exactly three months before she passed. We were both a little shaggy with our quarantine hair, and she looks healthier than she actually was. She had been gradually losing weight for several weeks, and even though the vet had not yet confirmed a diagnosis, I knew in my heart that she would not make it to December.

I sent out those cards to friends and family this week, and dropped them off in person to Reggie’s veterinarian and to her groomer. I don’t know when or if I will ever again see those two people—who were both compassionate constants in our lives for more than a decade—in their professional capacity. It felt to me as if, with that last contact with those who cared for Reggie all her life, the door finally closed forever behind her. She is really gone.

Everybody tells me that I will be a dog mom again someday, likely sooner than later, and that is of course what I want and hope for myself as well. But I know there are no guarantees in life. As much as I wish that a beribboned box with a miniature Schnauzer puppy in it could be waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning, that is not how things work for grownups. My next dog probably won’t be a puppy, or a Schnauzer. We will just have to see.

For all that she cost me in treasure and tears, and it was considerable, I count myself lucky to have had Reggie in my life. I will remember her always.

Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don't even know we have.

The last mile

This has been a year of change and loss around every corner, for everybody I know. Loss of health, loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of family members, loss of friends. Everybody has stress, and grief, and an open space somewhere now that was not there when 2020 arrived. Sometimes you see it coming, like a storm on the prairie, and sometimes it arrives in a blink and leaves you stunned and reeling in a life you no longer recognize as your own.

Here in La Casita Bonita, Team von Kraut reached the end of its 12-year run last week, as the liver cancer that had stalked Reggie all summer finally took her after siphoning off fully half her body weight a few grams at a time. She departed peacefully, wrapped in my arms and surrounded by love. She and I walked the half mile to the vet clinic together that last day, and I returned alone. Today I walked over there to bring her ashes home and finish walking our last mile together.

We are all just walking each other home.

I’ve been blessed by dogs in my life, having had only three since 1997. They all lived the full measure of their years and passed painlessly. I’d always hoped to have 15 years with Reggie, but after Rudy died in 2018 and she took it so hard, I had a feeling she would follow him sooner than later. Her health was as good as it could be for a miniature Schnauzer with a delicate pancreas until Easter Sunday of this year, when she somehow tore her ACL running around in the back yard. She had the surgery in early May and recovered from it quite nicely, but by the end of June, she started skipping meals and losing interest in life. She eased away very gradually, giving me time to adjust to the changes in our routines and the loss of her presence. Every day we wrestled with if and how much she could eat, whether she would go out for a walk with me or crawl under the bed and hide, and would she make it through the night without vomiting. There were many vet visits and no good news. Toward the end, all she wanted to do was lie on the couch, and all I wanted to do was sit next to her and maintain contact.

Reggie cuddling up with my shirt that I tossed on the couch after a walk.

Even with the comparative luxury of nearly four months of anticipatory grieving, the actual loss of this dog hit me like a freight train. I knew she was the dog of my heart, and I knew it was going to hurt, but man, oh man. The grief manifested as nearly incapacitating physical pain. I simply surrendered to it and didn’t make myself move off that couch until the worst of it subsided. And then, mercifully, came the peace. I can talk about her without crying. I can imagine another dog lying on that couch beside me. She has left for me an open space that can be filled again. Our contract was always that she had to go on ahead and I had to send her. Our love will always be.

“I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives and I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time?”

Sir Walter Scott

But right now I have no dogs to comfort or to care for. My house is too quiet, it smells different already (not in a good or bad way, just different), and I am still improvising from day to day without the comfort of my dog-mom routines. Reggie was the sun around which I orbited for 11 years. Who am I without her? Without my von Krauts?

I trust time will tell me, and that the next chapter of my life has already begun. I just have no idea where I’m headed from here.

(This is the first video of this type I have ever made; the photos are not strictly in chronological order and the music runs out before the photos do and I don’t know why. But it gave me some comfort to curate these images and share my beautiful girl with you all.)

The family man

My cousin Leo was a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a businessman, a musician, a friend, and many other things to all the people in his life.

To me, he was kind, and that is what I will always remember first and best about him.

He was my mother’s elder brother’s eldest son. We were born 200 days apart … I am the elder, in this case … and we met when we were both still in diapers.

cousins-in-wagon

My big brother Joe pulls the wagon with (L-R) Leo, me, and youngest cousin Mike in Leo and Mike’s back yard, summer of 1970.

He was a happy, round-faced kid who chose his flags early in life and never retreated from them: kindness, compassion, integrity, service, industry, generosity. He was smart and funny and self-deprecating, a delight to talk to and a powerful ally to have in one’s corner.

We spent some time in the summers together when we were little kids, then lost track of each other for the most part until the fire in Paradise, when I called him to see how he and the rest of the family there were doing. After that, we texted and talked on the phone from time to time, sharing updates on our lives and commiserating about getting older. We were beginning to be friends again, in that easy way that cousins can be because there is so much they never have to explain to each other. He told me to call him any time I needed an ear to bend, because “I would like to care for you in any way I can.” I was so touched by his kindness and concern, but also reluctant to take him up on the offer, to be honest, because I was afraid I would get too attached to him. It’s hard on the heart to get attached to somebody you never see. 😦 I thought we had time to gradually build that trust.

He texted me in April to ask whether my ongoing digestive issues were resolving and to say that he’d been having some stomach problems of his own. He’d been tested for several things but no abnormalities were found and his doctors were puzzled. No formal diagnosis was ever made. He was frustrated and in terrible pain. At the end of our chat that day, he complimented me on my weight loss and said “keep up the good work.”

Some time in the small hours this past Friday morning, Leo took his own life.

Maybe it was the severity of the pain he was in, maybe it was the unknown condition that caused the pain, maybe it was a reaction to the medication he was prescribed for it, or maybe it was something else that led him to that final moment. We will never know. Suicide was 100% out of character for a tank of a man who worked tirelessly and lived his life in service to others. He was happily married to his one and only wife, and a proud and loving papa to their six children. He had a thriving business, a beautiful home, and a deep relationship with his god. Everything that is good in a man, Leo was. I am fortunate to have known him, and proud to call him family.

leo-gunther_dec2019

What is the measure of a man? How he treats those who can do nothing for him? How he comports himself on the field of sport? What he earns? What he gives away?

If you ask me …

a-mans-success

Leo’s wife Christy and their children—Ryan, Austin, Holly, Lilly, Mattie and Clara—are heartbroken now, as they always will be, but they are also strong together. Leo was a husband and a father in the best senses of the words, and he and Christy built an unshakable foundation on which their family remains firmly grounded. His brother Mike told me today that “so many men don’t get it” that their single most important work and legacy is their family, and that nothing they ever accomplish will prove to be of greater value than happiness in their own homes. Leo and Mike both understood that completely and dedicated their lives to creating it. That not only accrued what Mike called incalculable blessings to them and their families, but also will have positive repercussions in the world for generations to come.

you-think-you-have-time

One of the greatest illusions in life is that there will always be more time. The day after Leo died, before I had heard the news, I was thinking I need to go to California and see “Leo and them,” as my mother would say. Before it’s too late. But damn the pandemic, no services will be held for Leo before late summer, if then, and I worry that by the time we are free to travel and gather again, more of us will be missing.

Leo is the first person in three generations on both sides of my family to die of anything other than old age and natural causes. I daresay he was the best of us, and he will be—he is—deeply missed.

Back in the saddle

I went out for a bike ride a few weeks ago, the first on the Cannondale in several years. The night before, I was chatting with my cousin about how it is a hard ride on those 125 psi skinny tires, not like my cushy old mountain bike. She asked why I didn’t opt for the more comfortable ride, and the best explanation I could offer is that “it’s time.” Time to get back on my “real bike.”

How is the mountain bike not a real bike, she asked. Although I could not articulate it at that time, the answer is that pretty much anybody can ride a comfy mid-grade hardtail with knobby tires and fenders and grip shifters. I could ride it wearing a hoodie and sweatpants and sneakers, and look like any other granny putzing a few miles around the neighborhood. To ride the Cannondale, since those tires are so firm, necessitates wearing chamois shorts—heck, the whole coordinated Pearl Izumi kit, why not?—as well as the “Dutch boy” shoes for the clip-in pedals, the shields and the gel gloves and, most importantly, the confidence to roll out into the world looking like an athlete and not just a Sunday pedaler. One does not ride a road bike to the corner and back. One sets out to cover ground with it. A lot of ground. A road bike demands more from its rider.

It took me a long time to feel ready, again, to not only give more to the bike, but also to ride out as a “real” cyclist. I was content for many years to appear to be nothing more than a Sunday pedaler.

That early-May ride was supposed to be a quickie, just to get the feel again for the frame and the saddle, the geometry of the gears, the wind and the road over a handful of miles. I ended up getting kind of swept away on a 13-mile loop, which is a lot for the first time back. I had a hard time getting into the riding rhythm, and I struggled with my shallow, tense breathing well past the halfway point. Eventually I relaxed, and finished the ride exhausted but pleased with my showing. All my work in the gym over the winter and working out at home during the quarantine this spring actually paid off in both strength and stamina.

Yesterday I decided to do the same loop again, since I’ve been walking long distances lately and my legs are getting fatigued from that. It was easier this time… so much easier. I crested the one hill on the route without dropping into granny gear or standing up in the pedals, which was a significant improvement. When I got to the 11-mile point on the route where I was going to turn toward home, I kept going … and going, and going. After 20 miles, I finally rolled back into my own driveway, pleased with myself again and not even exhausted (but … that came later).

That day, exercise felt like not only a celebration, but also a time machine. Somewhere in the universe, an odometer rolled backward. For a couple of hours, I felt like I was 35 again.

Over the past several years, I have endured all the usual forms of slow-motion physical degradation: injuries, back problems, weight gain, surgery, and—of course—ordinary aging. Some days I was brought to a full stop, and spent many other days painfully gimping through short walks and light workouts, just trying to keep moving in whatever limited way I could. Until a year ago, I figured the rest of my life was just going to be one long downhill slide into permanent disability.

But it hasn’t been. Things turned around for me, starting with a change of eating habits, which led to effortless weight loss, which led to a gym membership, which led to home workouts, and now has led me back to my bicycle at last.

What riding reminds me is to head out without fear (and if I am afraid, to head out anyway because the wind and the road will be there regardless). That where I start from and where I am headed are less important than where I am at any given moment. That putting my head down and watching my feet circle around in the pedals is to miss the entire point of riding. And that I am a whole lot stronger than I think I am.

Everything’s different now

There’s a yellow Cannondale bicycle in my garage that belongs to the athlete that I used to be, about 20 years ago. When I was on the young side of middle age, I rode that bicycle from Oregon to New Hampshire. Now I am on the far side of middle age, and I struggle to remember what it felt like to be that fit, that strong, and that thin.

I’ve been challenged with some health problems for the past three years, in particular, that have sometimes had me on my knees and unable to do much of anything more physically taxing than walk my dog and do a little bit of gentle yoga—and not even that on many days. One of my greatest struggles has been with a startling variety of abdominal pains. Every day, something different. No physical cause has ever been identified by the myriad tests my doctors have ordered. So one day last spring, tired of hurting no matter what I ate or how much or when, I just stopped eating, for a full 48 hours. And to my astonishment, not only did my gut pains disappear, but so did all the other body pains that had nagged me for many months. I could not believe it was all gone, without medications or intervention of any kind except not eating.

This experience set me on the path of trying to determine what I was eating that could be causing my pains. Fasting is miraculous, and I still do it now and then when I feel like my body needs a rest, but obviously it’s not a long-term dietary strategy. So I worked out an elimination diet plan to remove the usual suspects—wheat, soy, corn, dairy, citrus, etc.—to see whether doing without them made me feel any better. The only unequivocal results from this trial were that gluten and sugar are akin to poison for me, so I eliminated gluten from my diet and limited my sugar intake to 2-3 teaspoons a day (the American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily sugar intake for women of 25g or about 6 teaspoons).

Without my even trying, my weight began to drop. After the first 20 pounds, I felt well enough to join a gym in September and start doing cardio a few days a week. Then I added strength training, and stopped eating meat or other animal proteins. At which point, the weight just started falling off. Last month I plummeted past the 200-lb mark that has always stopped me in the past, and have just kept going. I have no idea where my weight will end up. What I do know is that since I can’t go back to my old way of eating without risking complete debility, I am probably on a one-way trip to somewhere I have never been before as an adult. Another 10 pounds down and I will weigh less than I did the day I dipped the Cannondale’s wheels in the Pacific Ocean and prepared to ride east.

Me with the Cannondale on the beach in Astoria, 2001.

I kept all the riding gear I wore on that trip, folded neatly into a box and schlepped from house to house to house. All the jerseys and shorts and jackets are size medium or small, so very small compared to the clothes I have been wearing for most of the years since. I kept them for sentimental reasons and no other because it has seemed to me since 2001 that I could never hope to regain the body that pedaled across the country. It was the result not only of aggressive dieting but also near-constant daily workouts for months on end. It began to soften and spread essentially as soon as my plane touched down back home at the end of the tour. But since I have shrunk out of all the rest of my clothes, I got out that box of gear this past weekend and tried it all on.

I don’t see that athlete when I look in the mirror anymore. I do see a woman who is comfortably wearing her clothes, though, and I don’t quite know how to reconcile that yet. The clothes have not changed. The fact that they fit on my body at this time means my body has changed. It seems like it happened so fast, and yet, it took almost 20 years for me to get (back) here. I look in the mirror and just shake my head and marvel that this was me, once, and is now again. The impossible has been made manifest. Everything’s different now.

Me wearing the same tights and jacket, today.

In addition to the biking clothes, I have maintained in storage a rotating stock of clothing in several sizes, so I don’t have to go shopping when my weight goes up or down. Several bins in the garage hold whatever does not fit until I can wear it again. This pushing and pulling forward and back without ever making actual progress has been going on for, oh, about 20 years now. The time finally came to step off that track, so I purged my clothing this weekend in Marie Kondo style and removed every oversized, unflattering, and/or unloved garment from my house. There is nothing in my closets or bureau that does not fit me right now.

I don’t have any ambition to become that athlete again—once in a lifetime was plenty enough for me. I don’t know where this journey will take me, or even where I want it to go, really. I am just trying to make good choices day to day in what I eat and what I do, and I hope these choices will continue to create positive changes. Perhaps, at last, the best is yet to come.

 

Reconnecting

As I’ve reported a couple of times now, Reggie and I are still adjusting to being a pack of two since Rudy died. Some days it’s fine. Some days it’s not.

I’ve been thinking for awhile about finding a new dog as a pal for her, and an opportunity came up recently to rehome a dog that, his owner said, needed another dog for companionship. He’s a Bichon Frise mix, a little bigger than Reggie but still fun-sized. After some negotiating with the owner over her stiff “rehoming fee,” we arranged a meeting a few evenings ago at my house.

The dog, Sammy, seemed relaxed and friendly, unlike his uptight and neurotic owner. She brought him in while Reggie stayed out in the yard, and we chatted while he tried to sniff around my living room at the end of a short leash that she held in a white-knuckled grip. She said he’s a wonderful dog that checks all the boxes—neutered, house-trained, crate-trained, affectionate, friendly, healthy, etc.—but that she can’t “give him what he needs” in terms of human or canine affection because she lives alone and travels frequently. He is 15 months old and every bit the rambunctious puppy. She’s been trying to rehome him since February with more than 50 inquiries fielded but no luck because every prospective adopter has somehow fallen short. I knew before the dogs even met that I would also fall short.

But meet they did, and Sammy’s opening move was to try to mount Reggie. She instantly turned and snapped at him (no contact) to correct that assumption, and he backed off immediately. He did not attempt to “romp” with her, as his owner insisted that he did with every other dog he’s ever met in his life. Instead, they circled and sniffed each other cautiously and briefly before heading off to explore the yard independently. Reggie was more interested in the human visitor than the dog visitor, and the human was singularly unimpressed with her. She remarked on the stickery weeds on my lawn as a pet hazard, lamented that Sammy’s paws would get muddy if I turned on the hose to give them a drink, and so on. And our dogs failed to interact.

In Reggie’s defense, we have not had an unknown dog in the house for years, certainly not since Rudy died, so this was a novel experience for her. Also, she’s 10 years old this month, and the only dogs she has ever “romped” with are Rudy and that little Chihuahua we were so fond of awhile back. When we go to the dog park, she never plays with the other dogs; she follows me around and greets only the humans. She is a great companion for another dog, but at this stage of her life, perhaps not the best playmate.

reggie3

She’s not a puppy anymore.

When we all came back into the house to chat a bit more, Reggie stood at the door of my bedroom looking at us for a moment, then darted under my bed and would not come out. Sammy’s owner said we should both “think on it overnight” and took her leave. As she drove away, I was seized with sadness for all of us. For that woman who does not seem to enjoy living with the wonderful dog she has. For the pup that is constantly being boxed in and held back and reprimanded for being what he is. For me, knowing that she found neither my home nor my dog good enough for her precious pooch. And for Reggie, who was clearly profoundly put out by the whole experience.

My reasons for wanting another dog are twofold: to give Reggie a companion, and to give me a companion that actually wants to be in the same room with me. Rudy was a “Velcro dog” who followed me around all day long, and every time I looked around me, there he was looking back. Reggie usually went where he went. Now, she spends most of the day under my bed except for meals and walks, so it often feels as if the house is empty. When she comes to find me, I am either at my computer or have my phone in my hand, and I push her away or ignore her because I’m “busy.” She even sometimes attempts to bat the phone out of my hand, and sometimes I let her do that but other times I keep scrolling. We are missing each other even though we live in the same house.

What I realized, after Sammy left and his owner let me know by email the next day (as I knew she would) that she didn’t think they were “a good fit,” is that the dog I want and the dog I miss is the dog I have. I don’t want another dog so much as I want Reggie back with me, beside me, in my sight. I don’t know if she hides because she’s grieving or lonely or bored or tired or just doesn’t like me anymore, and I don’t know how to fix this for her—if it even can be fixed.

When I came in to get ready for bed the night after Sammy left, I found Reggie asleep on my pillow. She has not come up on the bed in weeks; she sleeps in her crate to contain any early-morning vomiting, which was becoming a real problem. As I looked at her there, I wondered, did she think I was trying to replace her with Sammy? Did she feel like her place in our house and my heart was not secure?

I let her sleep on the bed with me that night, and the next, because it seems like we haven’t been spending enough time actually being together. We need to reconnect beyond our daily walk and mealtimes, and do things we both enjoy, like going to the river. She needs to see other dogs once in awhile, so we can go to the dog park even if she doesn’t interact with them. And maybe, in time, we will add a third to our pack, when it feels right for both of us. It will probably have to be a puppy that will accept Reggie’s authority without challenge or resentment because she is, as she has always been, the alpha that runs our lives, and I don’t think either of us has any desire to change that.

reggie1.jpg

Forever the alpha.

Reggie is the dog of my heart, not just the dog that was left behind when Rudy died. I wish I could tell her that.

A small repair

Sorting through my linen closet the other day, I found an old plaid sheet that once covered the end of my bed where Rudy used to sleep at night and hang out during the day.

Rudy trying to keep cool, May 2015.

He had a habit of scraping a particular spot on the sheet with one paw before lying down, every day. Eventually he shredded a large hole in the sheet, which is why it was packed away in the back of the linen closet. As for why it was never discarded, well … let’s just say some of us are sentimental.

I got the sheet out and took a look at the hole, which could not feasibly be sewn back together because the center of it was entirely frayed away. It required a patch, something I have no experience or skill in making so I was not eager to try. It took a bit of sensible self-coaching to understand that I was attempting to repair a rag with a rag (an old t-shirt cut apart) and there was no way I could possibly make it any worse or “ruin it.” I have all the necessary tools and enough skill to sew a (mostly) straight line. The worst it could do was suck and I would throw the sheet away.

I admit that my repair was hardly professional looking, but it was solid and it got the job done. The sheet is usable again.

patched sheet

Gets the job done.

When I finished, Reggie came in to say hi and curled up on the floor in the late-winter sun. I quietly covered her with the sheet and snapped a pic. Looking at the image I’d made, I could not actually tell if it was Reggie or Rudy under there, given the way the light caught on her fur. It made me cry.

Is it a black dog or a gray dog?

I was powerfully reminded of another image I made of Rudy in the very same spot at nearly the same time of year.

Rudy in the sunbeams, February 2017.

I reflected on how similar my two Schnauzers are, and yet how different. How much joy they have brought me, each in his or her own way. I am grateful to have had Rudy in my life, and every day more grateful for Reggie as well. Wrapping her in Rudy’s sheet felt like pulling him back to us, just for a moment. It helped shrink, a tiny bit, the gaping hole in our lives he left when he died.

Grief, like growth, is a spiral and not a straight line. We advance and retreat in our recovery, circling back to the pain as many times as it takes to feel it enough to let it go. I am still circling with Rudy, still wrestling with my regrets and trying to make peace with the choices I made with him and for him. I work every day to ensure I will not have those same regrets when Reggie passes.

Fortunately for both of us, she and I are in an exceptionally sweet spot in our lives together right now. We are well synchronized, and our days together are peaceful.

That’s definitely Reggie, the goodest girl ever.

She has her own blanket on my bed now, a lovely green plush throw, but she prefers to cuddle up on my pillow.

Who’s bed is it, anyway, really?

Paradise, lost

Every summer when I was a child, my family would take a car trip from our home in Oregon down to California to visit my parents’ parents and siblings and their families. It was our annual ritual and only family vacation, one that we kids eagerly anticipated all year and which my parents probably dreaded more each year as our bodies grew and our luggage expanded to fill every square inch, it seemed, of our little Chevy Nova. My mother heroically held my sister on her lap for most of that trip when Terry was a baby, but eventually she had to move into the back seat with my brother and me, and oh man, was space tight. We struggled to entertain ourselves and not kill each other over the hours of driving through 100-degree heat with no air conditioning. We all got carsick if we tried to read in the car, so the entertainment options were few. The traveling was no treat. For us, it was all about the destination.

We would make the rounds from one family to the next over the course of a week or two, bedding down on their floors and couches, from San Francisco to Sacramento to Chico to Paradise and many other towns around and in between as our family members moved from year to year. We always saw my grandmothers, and my mother’s older brother on his ranch where we got to know our cousins Leo and Mike. We’d stay a few days and visit, then drive on to see the next family.

When I was born, my mother’s parents lived in Paradise. Heading south on Interstate 5, we’d exit at Red Bluff to head down Hwy 99, then turn left at Chico and take the Skyway out of the central valley through the brush and pines into the Sierra Nevada foothills. We thrilled to see that friendly wooden sign with all the badges of the local churches and civic groups welcoming us. It was then, as now, mostly a retirement community, quiet and safe and friendly. It was a beautiful little town.

“May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.”

My grandfather, a retired farmer, kept a little garden in their backyard that he would let me help him tend with a set of plastic toy gardening tools he bought for me when I was a toddler. I’d follow him around through the tomato plants and squash vines, doing whatever I could. Grandpa’s health did not hold very much longer, unfortunately. He went into care about the time I started grade school and he passed away when I was 10. Grandma moved away from Paradise after he moved to a nursing home, so my sister never knew their house in the pines.

My brother and me (I am the one waving) with our grandparents beneath a pine tree in Paradise, circa 1968.

Paradise was a woodsy town, woven tightly into the natural landscape. Every home and business, it seemed, was surrounded by pine trees. One of my earliest and deepest childhood memories is the smell of those trees, resinous in the summer heat.

Those trees proved to be the town’s ruin, however, when utility lines possibly sparked a brush fire northeast of town early on the morning of November 8. Within a matter of hours, it overran the city and is, as of this writing, uncontained and still burning over more than 100,000 acres.

The Camp Fire as seen from the Landsat 8 satellite on November 8, 2018. Image from Wikipedia.

Nobody in my family remembers where in Paradise my grandparents’ house was located. It is likely gone forever now, along with not only dozens of lives (and counting, sadly), but also the homes and businesses, schools and churches, gas stations and supermarkets, banks and hardware stores, medical clinics and car dealerships, offices and restaurants, parks and road signs, and everything else the people who lived there built and held dear. My uncle’s ranch just south of Chico is not, right now, at risk. My cousin Mike’s house in Magalia is perilously close to the northern edge of the fire; he and his family were forced to evacuate and have not yet been able to return. My other cousin Leo and his family are safely to the west in Orland. Other extended family members in Paradise have lost their homes. I cannot imagine how civic life can or will resume there given the scope of the devastation. Even for those whose houses still stand, what remains that makes a place worth living in?

Knowing I can never return to that place to feel the summer heat and smell the pine sap in the air, and feel like a child again, if only for a moment, is a small loss in the grand scheme of things, I know. But it is one I will feel for the rest of my life.

A design challenge

I’ve taken up a new thing recently … or, more accurately, retaken up an old thing that I have picked up and put down many, many times in my life: art.

I attended art school briefly in my youth, and left after 1.5 semesters because life happened. I had hoped art school would teach me how to draw and paint and design, but found that in fact, I was simply expected to do all those things in a classroom, for a grade, with guidelines and grading criteria provided along with a demo (sometimes), but almost no actual instruction.

Nevertheless, I did gain a bit of knowledge and skill, and amassed at that time a reasonably comprehensive set of art tools that I have been augmenting in fits and starts ever since. I especially enjoyed and excelled in the perspective drawing classes I took because first, they provided step-by-step instruction and second, because I could use my drafting tools—compass, t-square, triangles—to help me get the drawing exactly right. Freehand drawing is a skill to which I still can only aspire.

My latest artistic endeavor is drawing Celtic knot designs, which I can make using those drafting tools. Many of them are built on a grid, with simple combinations of angles and arcs. Easy enough for the novice, yes? I tried my hand at a couple of basic ones, and was pleased with my results.

The triquetra interlaced with a circle.

A stained glass window design incorporating a Celtic shield symbol.

Drafting tools can only take one so far, however. At some point one must have a deeper understanding of the underlying geometry of the design. Which brings me to my titular design challenge. I have been working for more than week to recreate from scratch the design shown on the right below.

On the right, the original design. On the left, a tracing I made of it on which I outlined the concentric squares in different colors.

For reasons I cannot understand, let alone explain, this bit of drafting completely eludes me. I cannot intuit or interpret the proper measurements to make in order to get the correct order of shapes.

The best I’ve been able to do, so far.

As you can see, those five concentric squares are not there, and I don’t know how to construct them. Every time I attempt to draw it again, the same problem stymies me. So I’m throwing this out to my readership to see if you have any suggestions on how to go about constructing this design. Which element should be drawn first? What is the correct order of construction? How should the divisions be measured? It looks as if the diagonal parallel lines are the same distance apart as the horizontal and vertical parallel lines, but somehow that does not seem to translate on graph paper. I am puzzled and perplexed. Any assistance would be appreciated.

The grieving road

As long as I have been blogging, I have been writing about my dogs. My boy, Rudy, and my girl, Reggie. The two of them have always been more than just my pets. They are my pack, my family, my identity. We are Team von Schnauzer Kraut.

Our first family portrait, December 2009.

When Rudy first came to me at the age of 5 in the spring of 2008, he had to have about a dozen teeth extracted that had rotted while he was in the care of his previous owner. I had to give him liquid pain medication from a syringe after the surgery, so I gathered him up in a towel on my lap, cradling him like a baby, and squeezed the medicine down his throat as he grumbled and groaned his displeasure with the whole arrangement. And I knew, even then, that the day would come for us when I would hold him just like that again, for the last time, because there was never a doubt in my mind from the very beginning that Rudy was my forever dog.

The first photograph I ever took of him, when he was still just my house guest, after he got caught in the rain. May 2008.

That day did come this past weekend, after nearly 10 wonderful years, when the vet tech wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in my arms over my heart. The sedative took hold and he slowly relaxed. And then he was gone.

I traveled the grieving road with Rudy for a long time, from the first time he failed to make the jump onto my bed until the last morning I took him out to pee and he could not stand up. He went downhill slowly, then all at once, navigating past one health problem after another and rallying again and again. I nearly lost him a couple summers ago to hemorrhagic gastroenteritis that I did not get him treated for promptly enough. He had chronic compromised liver function, so I gave him Denamarin every day. He had keratoconjunctivitis sicca (dry eye), so I put cyclosporine drops in his eyes before bed every night. In the past year or so, he stopped being able to jump onto the bed or into the car altogether, so I lifted him on and off and in and out every time. He was frail and shaky in his hind end, more so each week, and sometimes peed in the house almost involuntarily. He would restlessly shift and shudder at night, grumbling and coughing and flapping his ears repeatedly. He bumped into things in the dark. He was mostly deaf. He frequently refused to eat his breakfast, or would eat it and then vomit it, always on the carpet. He forgot his routines and had to be reminded what to do next all through the day.

With every one of these challenges and losses, he kept moving forward, as we all must. I would love to tell you that I was compassionate toward and supportive of him every step of the way, continually adapting to whatever came up and giving him whatever he needed. But I was not.

The grieving road begins in denial, of course. It’s a fluke, he’s fine, this is nothing to worry about, it will clear up. 

It progresses, or it did for me, through anger and impatience, and a great deal of frustration that he could never again be the dog he once was. The dog I never had to worry about. The dog that was happy and well. I regret to say, I spent too long there, and did too much yelling.

As I did with Reggie, albeit, to my shame, much too late, I finally came to a place of compassion for Rudy just a few weeks before he died. I was able to fully accept that he was doing the best he could, and that he never had done and never would do anything simply to annoy me.

So when he came in from the yard hitching on three legs last Thursday evening (after being, as far as I could tell, fine all day) and I could find nothing wrong with his paw or leg, I was concerned. He had always had a flair for drama and would gimp sometimes, it seemed to me, just for attention. But I could tell he was not doing that this time.

By Friday morning, he could not stand on his own. I picked him up and carried him to the yard, where he managed to stand up just long enough to do his chores before plopping down in a shaky heap. He then laid down in the yard and refused to get up, so I carried him back inside and called the vet. The diagnosis later that day did not have any specific name, but it was clear that Rudy’s back legs were no longer working, likely because his spine was somehow compromised. Perhaps a slipped disc, or just the degeneration that I had seen progressing for months. The only way to make a definitive diagnosis was an MRI, the vet said, and they would not do one unless I would commit to surgery to repair whatever they found. With or without treatment, recovery was highly unlikely. And that was it. Game over for my boy.

I sat on the couch with him all night on Friday, giving him tramadol when he started shifting and groaning, and squirting syringefuls of water into his mouth every few hours. He would not eat or drink on his own, he could not pee or poop, and he could not stand up long enough even to turn around, let alone walk. His paralysis was not going to kill him, but he was going to be miserable very soon for being unable to tend to his bodily functions. There was no mercy in letting him go on that way another night.

Rudy on the last day of his life, looking fierce. February 3, 2018.

That is how we came to be sitting in that cramped and dreary exam room at the vet clinic, his frail little body curled in a ball in my arms and his head under my chin where I could kiss it again and again and tell him how much I loved him as his heartbeat and breathing slowed, then stopped. The grieving road came, at last, to tears.

Reggie and I are both still adjusting to life without our lodestar, our namesake, our Little Dude, our Mister Man. The organizing forces of Reggie’s life have always been either following or competing with Rudy; she has not known one day in our home that he has not also been here, until now. I always joked that Reggie ran our lives, but now I wonder. Perhaps Rudy ruled by deferring. We both feel lost without him.

Our friends and neighbors have been exceedingly kind to us in our loss, and I am so grateful for all the love we have been shown.

Rudy was, of course, the best. He was one of a kind and loved by all who knew him. Every dog owner says the same, and we are all correct.

Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
(Reposted from my Facebook page.)