The almost dog

Last month, I did a crazy thing.

It all started innocently enough on July 14 when my cousin shared on Facebook her local animal shelter’s post about a Mastiff-mix dog named Matteo. She commented, “Three dogs in a small house would be too much for us…but give this guy a look or a share. Love the gentle giants!”

matteo

Matteo

Look at that face! What’s not to love?!

I see dozens and dozens of posts just like this one every single week on Facebook from all over the country, and this particular dog was located more than 500 miles away from me. Something in his eyes drew me completely in, though, so I took the next baby step. I commented.

comments

If my cousin had made any other reply than the one she did, or made no reply at all, nothing would have come of it and we’d all have just gone on with our lives. But once the thing was set in motion, there was no stopping it.

On the Monday after she posted Matteo, she went to the shelter to meet him, and I followed along with her in my first-ever FaceTime conversation. Matteo was enthusiastic but not unruly, highly interactive with his visitors, and quick to sit for a treat that he took oh-so-gently. He even gave my cousin a quick kiss, which confirmed his considerable charm. I was sold. She was sold. We both so wanted this to be a love match.

On Tuesday, I made the decision to go meet Matteo and, with luck, bring him home with us, so my to-do list kicked into high gear. I had to figure out how to get there, how long it would take, how much it would cost, whether my homeowner’s insurance would allow me to have another dog, and so on. Did I have a collar and leash? A bed? A crate? Enough food to feed him? It was a 12-hour drive to get to him, and I knew he would be adopted quickly so I could not wait.

Fortunately, the shelter is closed on Wednesdays and no adoptions would take place, so I had a little time. There was a scramble trying to communicate with the shelter during their maddeningly limited telephone hours and open hours, but I was able to confirm before I left town that he was still available. So on Wednesday morning, I packed a bag, put the little dogs in the car, and off we went down the long, long road from here to there. I felt I was going on a blind date with every intention of coming home married. But I was ready, and I had the ring in my pocket in the form of Ruby’s old collar, fitted out with a shiny new tag for what I hoped would be my new big dog.

matteo collar

Put a ring on it

Two days of driving across four states later, I pulled up to the shelter half an hour before it opened on Thursday afternoon and waited nervously, very nervously. Matteo is so big, and my dogs are so small. We had no information about how he interacted with small dogs. I can handle a big dog and I already knew I’d love him, but the doggie meet-and-greet could go wrong in any number of ways, and that’s what was going to make or break this match. We all had to love one another or it wasn’t going to work.

The shelter is run by the city, and it is a busy, crowded, noisy place full of dogs and people in constant motion. I had a long wait and some paperwork to fill out before a volunteer finally brought Matteo out and put us together in a small yard. Just as he had with my cousin, he sat nicely for a treat and took it gently and allowed me to pet him without a single hesitation. He was frantic to be out of the kennel and out of the yard, so much so that I could not hold his attention without a treat in my hand. The shelter had named him Matteo at intake so the word meant nothing to him. There was no calling him to me or really, any interacting with him to be done at all except giving treats. I felt a chill.

Getting him together with my dogs seemed to be almost more than the shelter could accommodate. They insisted on having two handlers, one for Matteo and one for the littles, to ensure that no negative interactions occurred and that my dogs would feel no need to protect me from a strange dog. The female volunteer who took Matteo radiated anxiety about the meeting—her face seemed locked in a grimace of dread the entire time. The male volunteer who took my dogs, on the other hand, could not have been more blasé about the whole thing. He continually reassured me that all was just fine, while the female handler balked at each new iteration of interaction between the dogs. They progressed smoothly from walking past each other on leash to circling and sniffing each other on leash to moving around the yard together freely off leash to walking with me all together on leash. “That’s it, that’s as good as it’s gonna get for a first meeting,” the male handler said. “I think they’re good.”

My concern at that point was that Matteo seemed to want to interact only with the female handler and not with me or my dogs. There were no play bows, no nose-sniffs, no false charges or chasing around between the dogs, and Matteo never once initiated interaction with me. The three dogs essentially moved to separate areas of the large yard and ignored one another. I asked the female handler to leave the yard to let me see how Matteo would be with just us. With one last grimace, she walked out and closed the gate behind her. I turned to see Matteo running back and forth along the fence anxiously looking for her, and he would not return to us for the remainder of the visit.

Looking back, that’s the moment I realized Matteo was not going home with us, although it took me the whole rest of the evening to clarify that in my mind because I had invested so much time and treasure and emotion in getting there and meeting him and wanting this to work. But the fact was, no matter how I felt about him, he obviously felt no sense of connection whatsoever to me or to my dogs. He was not interested in joining our pack.

matteo

What a handsome boy

Despite all the effort expended, I chose to leave him there and drive home the next day, completing a journey of a thousand miles in 72 hours for what at first appeared to be, essentially, nothing.

It wasn’t for nothing, though.

I learned how big my heart is, and how much strength I have to do a very big, very scary thing for the right reasons. I also learned that my cousin and I make a formidable team and that I can count on her support 100%. I could not have done the thing without her.

When I got home, several people had just one question for me: “What were you thinking?!”

What I was thinking is, it’s been 9 years since I had a big dog that I felt could protect me and allow us to go places that I don’t feel safe going alone or with the little dogs. I was thinking, that absolutely beautiful boy got a raw deal by being dumped at that shelter, and I had the power to punch his ticket out to the sweet life. I was thinking, I can’t save them all, but I could save this one. I was thinking, I wanted to make a difference. And I almost did. If he had loved us back, even just a little bit, just for a moment, in that shelter yard, he’d be here with us now—probably snoring on the couch with the littles rolled up on either side to share body heat.

He was almost our dog. We were almost his family.

Matteo was adopted out the day after I got home, and I hope he now has the best life a dog could ever dream of—even better than the one I could provide. I hope he knows his name, and that he is loved, and that he is safe and happy wherever he is.

 

Kokatat

When I was a young newspaper reporter who needed to fill some time in between covering car crashes and jury trials, my editor would send me around to local businesses to do profiles on their products. One of those businesses was Kokatat, a manufacturer of paddle sports apparel and gear in Arcata, California. I toured the factory and spoke with the owner, who told me that Kokatat is a Yurok Indian word that means “into the water.” I don’t remember anything else I learned that day, but I’ve never forgotten that.

The word is on my mind tonight as I remember a day in 2007 when my mother and I took her Golden Retriever puppy Sunny to the river for the first time. We were staying at a small resort on the McKenzie River soon after Labor Day, and had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. My big dog, Ruby, had passed a few weeks prior and I was in mourning. Spending time with a boisterous 6-month-old puppy was bittersweet—so much life ahead of her, but she was not my dog.

Sunny was my parents’ second lifetime dog. They waited nearly four years after their first lifetime dog passed to get another puppy, and she was their darling baby from the day they laid eyes on her.

The second morning of our stay, I let my mother sleep in while I slipped out of the cabin and down to the beach with Sunny. It was deserted at that early hour, except for a flock of four or five ducks that were poking around at the waterline. Sunny had been down to the river the day before and had shown no interest in going in the water, so I let her off the leash. She nosed around and false-charged the ducks a few times, while they just ignored her advances. But when she wouldn’t leave them alone, they decided as a group to set sail downriver. Seeing them all swimming away from her before she’d had time to really even get to know them was too much for Sunny. She didn’t hesitate before splashing into the water after them. They kept going. And she kept going after them. And before I knew it, she was out in the middle of the McKenzie and heading downstream fast. She was just a puppy who had never even been in the water before.

My mother was too far away to hear me when I yelled, and yelled, and yelled for Sunny to come back. Nobody was anywhere on the grounds of our resort. There was a fence that ran all the way down to the waterline at the edge of the property, which Sunny had just sailed past. I clambered over that fence and I ran as hard as I could to keep pace with her as she shot downstream. I shouted and whistled and begged her to come back until I was hoarse, unable to bear the thought of losing another dog so soon, let alone this dog.

I don’t know how far I ran before she finally swam to the shore and plunged into my arms, but she made her way out of the water that day. I walked her back to our cabin and came in to find my mother just waking up. She’d had no idea what had just happened. Our relief was gigantic.

That night, as we were talking of this and other things, I started to cry. Mom asked me why, and it took me a minute to sort it out. Finally I told her, “Ruby would never have done that.” I missed my dog that ran to the sound of my voice. Sunny was not my dog and she never did that; I marvel still that she came back to me at all. But she did come to me the one time when it counted the most, and for that I will always be grateful. My parents’ love for their dog is a mighty force, and they deserved to have her for the full measure of her life.

Sunny

Sunny

When we were at the cabin, Sunny would start each day by running into my bedroom and vaulting onto my bed. She would plant herself flat on top of me and enthusiastically lick my face to wake me up and I have to tell you: I have never experienced a better wake-up call before or since. I told my friends when I returned from the visit that the title of Best Dog In the World and the little tiara that goes with it had officially been passed from Ruby to Sunny.

Some time this summer, when nobody was looking, Sunny stepped to the edge of another river that she had no choice but to enter. A tumor in her spleen that had spread into her lungs was stealing her breath. She slipped silently into the water where the current took her, and she could not make it back to shore this time. My parents said goodbye to her this morning and sent her on her way to the Rainbow Bridge we all hope and dream awaits our pets and, someday, us.

My parents and their dog.

My parents and their dog.

She was a good girl, and much loved. She will live forever in our hearts.

Good dog. Stay.

Good dog. Stay.

Goodbye to a virtual friend

One of the very first (non-family, non-friend) followers of Going Forward, and by far my most prolific commenter ever, is a woman named Ruth Rainwater, a fellow WordPress blogger at A New Beginning. She found me through Freshly Pressed, and ever after was generous about liking and commenting not only on my posts, but also on my business’s Facebook page. We corresponded a few times about blogging and other topics.

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One of Ruth’s posts from September 2014.

Ruth was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2013, and published her last blog post on Christmas Day last year; she fought a hard battle and things turned sharply for the worse around that time. I have been checking her blog every week in hopes that she would write again, but finally confirmed that she has passed. The word “Remembering” now appears over her name on her Facebook page.

time-to-say-good-bye

She and I never met, of course, and I know next to nothing about her except what she blogged about. I don’t even know what she looks like because she never posted photos of herself. But she was a faithful virtual friend to me, to my blog and to my business, and I am grateful to have found a place in the circle of her attention. It’s nice to know that my words reached out and touched a stranger, somebody who was willing to faithfully interact with and tirelessly encourage me. She was a graceful, prolific, good-humored writer. I have been missing her name in my Inbox, and am sorry I won’t ever see it again.

We are who we are

I grew up a tough little tomboy perpetually riding in my older brother’s wake, and often wished I had been born a boy as well so that I could do all the things that he could do. Well into my teens, strangers would ask me, “are you a boy or a girl?” and my answer often surprised them. Even so, I have always known and accepted (at some stages more gracefully than others) that I am a female person in a female body. The longer I live, the more I appreciate the gifts of my gender, even while chafing against the restrictions it also imposes. When I entertain the idea of being male now, I find it distasteful. I won’t get into the details of why.

I will confess, I don’t really understand transgenderism and I know I’m not alone in that. Gender is an enormous component of one’s identity, and having any confusion around that is a ticket to all kinds of struggles: personally, interpersonally and socially. The first distinction we make about any person is “he” or “she.” With few exceptions, human beings are not able to conceptualize or tolerate anything outside of or in between those two poles.

But I do understand and give mad props to unconditional love and clear-eyed acceptance of people as they are even when they are not what we want them to be or wish they were. That’s why I so appreciate the story of Jeff and Hillary Whittington and their son Ryland as told in the CNN Films video “Raising Ryland.” (Sorry, video preview is not available.)

http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/03/17/digital-shorts-parenting-transgender-child-orig.cnn

As soon as he could speak, 3-year-old Ryland began telling his parents that he was a boy and that he wanted to cut his long hair and wear boy’s clothing. They were understandably shocked and incredulous, and they could have shouted him down, mocked him, or isolated and punished him into complying with their understanding of which gender their child was biologically assigned at birth. But they didn’t. They listened to him. They supported him. They defended him. They loved him. And no matter what or who he chooses to be later in his life, he is always going to know that his family has his back, and that he is a person of value. There is no greater gift that parents can give their children.

The Whittington family.

The Whittington family.

In an open letter, Hillary Whittington warned all their friends and family that should they choose not to support her and her husband’s decision to accept their child as he is, they can expect that their relationship with the entire Whittingon family will no longer progress because “Our child’s happiness is most important to us.” Amen! Really, what else is there? Maintaining the appearance of “normality” for the sake of keeping society’s approval? Rigidly demanding adherence to a single definition of reality that their child is unable to accept? Living in isolation, shame and fear until somebody breaks down, or dies? All because of a simple quirk of biology? No.

We are who we are, and I hope that someday human beings will learn how to see one another as souls and spirits with infinite potential rather than as mere bodies born to play ancient, predestined roles.

I wish this little boy and his family all the best.

Hustlers and their schemes

I got a text message this afternoon while I was out and about asking if I could photograph an event. My spidey sense immediately started to tingle because 1) who hires anybody by text message? and 2) the text originated from an area code on the other side of the country from me. My first impulse was to reply that I do products and real estate but not event photography, but okay, alright, I have a few minutes free right now, so let’s see what they have in mind. I text back, “If the event is local, possibly.”

The guy says he is hearing impaired, hence the texting (okay). He has a family reunion coming up in two weeks in my town, and he provides an apparently legit local address (okay). He wants a whole package of different sizes of prints (I am not a photo studio) and six hours of my time to photograph 30 to 40 people in attendance (sounds like a long day, but okay, doable). What is my firm price, he wants to know, and then tells me his budget is $1,000 (whoa, big money!). And oh by the way, will I take a credit card? (ding! warning bell!).

After asking him a few questions, I offered 40 to 50 finished digital files, no prints, and 6 hours of my time for $750, and I didn’t mention payment terms. His reply, in all its scrambled message order and garbled syntax, was almost instant.

scammer1

I have learned the hard way that when a client asks for any kind of favor involving money, granting it will not be to my advantage. My internal warning bell rang louder, but I played along.

scammer2

Now I could see exactly what was going on, and he was kind enough to explain it precisely for me.

scammer3

Well, there it is. I could have been out more than $2,000 in no time flat. Does anyone actually fall for this?

I wasn’t even offended that he tried to con me. I get that crap every day by phone and email; only the texting part is new this time.

scammer4

I immediately blocked his number, then Googled it. Both the number and the name he gave me have been reported for scamming. What a surprise. Next time I get a fishy text like this, I’ll go to Google first!

The story of us

We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us. ~ Will Kearney, “On Losing a Dog”

This quote is from a story about a man and his dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer named Dutch. The man is the author’s brother, James. I was moved by this account of love and loss, both for how it mirrors my own and how it doesn’t.

Like Dutch, my big dog Ruby lived with me for the best 10 years of my life before I lost her to hemangiosarcoma in 2007. I’ve said many times, on this blog and elsewhere, that she was the best dog in the world, as is every well-loved dog. Raising her well, giving her a good life, and caring for her to the end are among the best things I have ever done, and I will always be grateful that she was my dog.

Ruby_kiss_2003

Me and my big dog.

Kearney says of his brother, “When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.” On this point, we differ. Ruby changed me profoundly for the better as she, too, gave me all the best parts of herself. And the best parts of me that she drew forth are still vibrantly alive, buoying me up through tough times. She gave me all she had, and I honor her gifts every day. I share them with my little dogs now, as well as with my friends and family and the world in other ways.

The little dogs, too, give me their best, and loving them keeps my heart open and warm and pliable even when it has every reason to shrivel up into a cold, bitter lump of nothing. Hey, I’ve been single for a long damn time, and while that has its advantages, to be sure, it does not foster open-heartedness as a general rule. I know that I cannot survive without an open heart, so in this respect my dogs are my lifeline.

little-dogs

Me and my little dogs.

People have always said that the greatest thing about dogs is that they love us unconditionally. I don’t think that’s true, actually, because I don’t know that animals actually feel what we call love. But I know that people do. And I think the greatest thing about dogs, and all pets, is that they allow us to love them unconditionally. The best human-animal bonds allow us to be who we were born to be: open-hearted, loving, understanding, trusting, patient, kind, and most of all, fully present. Most of us are too afraid to love other people that way, but we can love our animals that way because they place no barriers between themselves and our affections for them. Imagine how the world might change if everyone allowed themselves to love and be loved this way, sharing with one another “the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name.”

“My dog does this amazing thing where he just exists and makes my whole life better because of it.” ~ Found on various internet sites without attribution

I’ve had separate conversations recently with a very dear friend and with my mother, both lovely women, to the effect that their greatest contribution to the world is simply to show up and be themselves because that, in and of itself, is a gift that the world needs. My mother, in particular, feels on some days that because she has such limited mobility since her stroke that she doesn’t have much to offer the world anymore. But in fact, her mere presence is a tangible thing, strongly felt by family, friends and strangers alike—in exactly the same way that her Golden Retriever’s presence is felt by and influences everyone with whom the dog comes in contact.

My mom and her dog, Sunny.

Mom and her dog, Sunny, who makes her laugh.

Sunny has no agenda in her interactions with the world; she takes people just as she finds them and loves them all the same. All she has to offer in any interaction is only herself, and nearly everyone she meets finds that to be not only sufficient, but actually quite delightful. My mother, too, is finding that all she has to offer now is herself, and well into her seventh decade of life she is learning, I hope, that this is and has always been enough.

Whether your pet of choice is a dog, a cat, a hamster, a rabbit, a horse, a python, or any other sentient creature, this is the simplest and yet the most profound lesson that our animals can teach us: Be present. Be yourself. Be.

New year, same old me

I’ve been living with myself long enough now to know at least one thing for sure: I suck at keeping resolutions. Especially those that involve weight loss and/or dieting and/or exercise. So let’s just dispense with the “new year, new me” nonsense forthwith because that is not happening.

new-year-new-me

However.

I do have some plans for 2015, a few modest ambitions that may redound to my greater good if executed properly. A little determination, a little luck, a lot of persistence, and possibly by this time next year I’ll be able to pat myself on the back for all I’ve accomplished.

On the professional front, my single goal for the year is to grow my existing revenue streams and develop new ones. Business Management 101, in other words. I figure I need between 6 and 10 new steady clients to keep me in the black. I know that doesn’t sound like very many, but real estate photography is kind of a big-ticket item. The key word here is steady; I need clients who can consistently give me three or four jobs a month. I have some ideas about how to find them. We’ll see how it goes.

On the personal front, I am leaning toward leaving Weight Watchers soon because it makes no sense for me to pay $42 a month and not follow their plan. I don’t have a backup plan, though, and I don’t like what I’m seeing in the mirror lately.

watching-my-figure

On the domestic front, I gave myself a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated for Christmas and my plans mostly involve cooking: using my new KitchenAid stand mixer, developing my knife skills to the point that I can make a decent tournée, learning how to make the five “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine (Béchamel, Espagnole, Hollandaise, tomate and velouté), and perhaps figuring out how to make decent beef and chicken stock (I’m not interested in ever making veal or fish stock). I would also like to try making bread, although for some reason the whole yeast thing kind of intimidates me. I definitely plan to keep getting my CSA box every week and sharing it with my neighbors because the only thing I enjoy more than eating is feeding other people—which is really saying something, considering how much I do love to eat. 😉

If I were going to make a resolution, it might be to figure out how to balance my passion for cooking with my desire to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. I’ve heard rumors that such a thing is possible, but I remain skeptical.

never_trust_a_skinny_cook

And finally, on the spiritual front, I plan to appreciate my life, exactly as it is right now, and remember that every day is a gift. As my boy dog ages into his teens and my parents pass the midpoint of their 70s, I realize that we don’t have all the time in the world ahead of us anymore. No one does, of course. This world and this life deserve my attention and my appreciation minute by minute and day by day. That’s the only way to make the passing years mean anything at all.