Thursday, November 27, 2008

Upsides and Downsides

After The Incident on Saturday afternoon that had Toby growling under the kitchen table most of Saturday night, I expected it would take weeks for canine relations at our house to improve. But the fragile peace of Sunday turned into the relaxed detente of Monday and Tuesday.

By Wednesday, Toby and Callie were chasing and romping, play-bowing and mock-growling. They mouthed at each other's necks as they pranced up and down our long, narrow hallway. And when they got tired, they adopted matching poses on the one bit of carpet we have in the sitting room.



The playful relationship that is blossoming between them has been a lot of fun to watch. But it does introduce two new elements of possible difficulty into our lives.

The first is the in-house rough-housing. Watching 200 pounds of hyper dog tumble and jump about a room with three laptop computers and a video projector is nerve-wracking. And once they hit a certain play critical mass, no amount of shouting or scolding can slow them down.

Another downside of this exuberant activity is when it occurs. This morning, Toby tried to initiate a play session right after breakfast. My trusty handbook on Irish Wolfhounds warns that it is important to keep the hound quiet for an hour before and two hours after meals. This is to reduce the risks of gastic torsion, a horrifying condition in which the stomach fills with air, seals on both ends, and then flops over. Because of their big barrel chests, wolfhounds and other large breeds like Great Danes, can develop this condition, which is nearly always fatal.

Peter thinks I worry too much, but here's the problem - I've totally fallen in love with this dog. (Peter also says I'm easy - that any giant dog with soulful eyes and a Kodiak-like personality would have run off with my heart.) If anything happened to her, I would be devastated. I worry about her getting the bloat, running out of the yard and getting hit by a car, or having a some other sort of random health crisis.

(It's times like this that I start to suspect I am not cut out for parenting human children. That the random vagaries of fate and the universe of outcomes outside my control would turn me into one of those half-crazed mothers who wrap their offspring in cotton wool and never lets them out of sight.)

The second potential area of difficulty is that I'm noticing the concept of monkey-see, monkey-do playing out in the canine world. Sometimes, it's a good thing. For example, Toby has an infuriating habit of saving up his urine like it's gold and he's living in a high-inflation gold standard economy. When he finally goes, the result is a urination session that would put Austin Powers to shame.

Callie is different. She will go every time you take her out, even if it hasn't been that long between outings and she doesn't have much to empty. I've noticed that Toby is peeing way more than he used to, and I can only attribute the change in behaviour to his observation of Callie.

But you have to take the rough with the smooth, and this copy-dog behaviour has some downsides. Callie loves to eat grass. The Wolfhound handbook says that as long as it's clean grass, this can be considered normal behaviour. But I still worry, especially since she seems to delight in eating grass on the run, like she's frolicking through a salad bar.

In the nearly two years that Toby was a single dog residing in our household, I could count the number of times Toby has eaten grass on my thumbs. But I've caught Toby eating grass four times today. I know that some dogs like grass and for some dogs, it has no emetic effect on them, but still, something about grass-eating weirds me out.

I suppose if a bit of roughhousing and grass-eating are my biggest complaints, I'm living a charmed life. The upside of two dogs far outweighs the downside. And sometimes, even the downsides can provide moments of entertainment.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Breed All About It

Middle Brother recently asked me what Irish wolfhounds were bred to hunt. When I told him wolves, he groaned and called himself stupid. This is a regular thing with MB - he's not stupid at all, but school was tough for him and I think it gave him a complex.
Besides, only dog freaks like me can tell you the purpose of any dog.

I asked him if he knew what Great Danes were bred to hunt. I could practically hear his smile over the phone as he said "Danes." As I laughed, he continued in his droll, dead-pan manner. "What did they do? Send a whole pack of them up to Denmark and give the 'go fuck up their shit' command?"

When I'd recovered from my laughing jag, I warned him that this was going on my blog at my earliest opportunity. He replied, "That's okay, I'm willing to burn my bridges with the entire country of Denmark."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The State of Irish Alsatian Relations

For the long car ride back to our house, we made the conscious decision to keep Toby and Callie separated. With Peter's Nissan Patrol, this was a simple matter of putting Callie in the way-back and Toby in the backseat. She often sat with her head hanging over the back seat, but Toby tolerated her well. I can only imagine that his little doggy brain was telling him that if he ignored her, maybe she would go away.

After we got home, our first order of business was to take them to the field next door for a romp. Toby tore around the field in giant circles, racing with wild and ecstatic abandon. Callie hung close to us, tentative and unsure. Her sister was gone, replaced by this smaller, furrier, faster stranger.

Back inside the house, the first several hours were chaos. Four house guests. One additional dinner guest. One slightly confused and put-out existing dog. One very confused and uncertain new dog. One exhausted and frazzled Ann. One exhausted Peter.

Toby and Callie were getting on okay. They'd sniff each other and would often bump into each other as they made their way around the house, jockeying for the attention of our many guests. I had some doubts about bringing a new dog into the house when we were entertaining guests, but I think it made it easier in many ways. We had a village to help us introduce Callie to the house rules and to make sure Toby didn't fall victim to the Shiny New Toy Syndrome.

Peter decided that the best way to deal with the introduction of Callie was to let the dogs work things out themselves. When I heard a growl or snarl, my inclination was to scold; but Peter thought it better to let things play themselves out.

After dinner, we retired to the sitting room. I was sitting on a desk chair with wheels, which was brought out because we had more people than seats. I put it on the only bit of carpet we have in the house, a throw-rug in front of the fireplace. Callie laid down on one side of me and Toby laid down on the other. When Callie stretched out and got comfortable, her head ended up on Toby's paw.

He looked at it quizzically and then looked a way. His paw was stretched out in front of him, so his head was a good foot away from her head. After about fifteen minutes, his curiosity about this new creature got the best of him. He leaned forward and began sniffing Callie's head, which was not a well-received move.

Callie showed her teeth first, then added a growl, then snapped, then jumped up and lunged at Toby. The resultant scuffle caused people to grab their wineglasses and try to safeguard the items on the coffee table. It was over in seconds and both dogs were fine, although Toby was rather rattled.

The problem with Toby is that we suspect he wasn't very well socialised with other dogs when he was a pup. As a result, he's pretty much a social retard when it comes to dealing with dogs. He doesn't know how to read their body language or predict what's going to happen. He doesn't know when to back off.

Toby spent the rest of the evening avoiding Callie. The morning was a new day and the dogs were back to tolerating each other. Two incidents in the late afternoon broke the fragile peace. There was a scuffle in the doorway, when both dogs tried to go through at the same time. The small row knocked over mops and brooms in the laundry room and even put a crack in our dustpan.

The second was worse, a full-fledged fight. Each dog was given an apple core. Toby gobbled his down and moved on to Callie's, because she was still sniffing it and deciding what to do. (She is the most deliberate, slow dog I've ever seen.) I didn't see exactly what happened to start the fight, but I gather that Callie took offense to Toby moving in on her food and went for him. It was a tumble of dog bodies. At one point, Callie seemed to rear up on her back legs, then take Toby down like a WWF wrestler. We intervened and got the fight broken up.

Toby was fine - no blood or injuries. He was seriously freaked out by Callie though, probably because she had him pinned to the floor in about two seconds. He spent most of the rest of the evening hiding under the kitchen table or behind the legs of a person and growling at her if she came close. I took him into the living room for some quiet time alone on the couch.

Sunday was a new day again, as was Monday and today. It seems that a detente has descended. The dogs tolerate each other. We're feeding them in separate rooms, so fighting over food has not been an issue. They can walk down the hall next to each other without growling or snarling.

When I got home from work yesterday, Peter was out with our guests, so I was alone with the dogs. I hadn't yet tried walking both of them on leashes by myself, but I really wanted to get them into the field for a romp before it got dark. I feared there might be some aggro, since walking on leads would require them to be in very close proximity to each other. They got on fine, though. The trickiest part of the whole endeavour was getting the field's gate opened with two excited dogs in hand.

Watching them in the field is quite interesting, but perhaps that's a post for another day as this one is already way too long.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

And the Verdict Is...

Thank you for all the excellent name suggestions for the dog. It was a difficult process, but in the end, Peter came up with something that suits her, has meaning to us, and is practical.

The new dog reminds us a lot of Kodiak, both in size and some aspects of personality and appearance. They both share the same laid-back nature, the soulful eyes, floppy ears, and a general ability to elicit empathetic responses from people. It's nearly a sadness, but not quite.

In honour of Kodiak, Peter went in search of bear-related names. The pickings were slim, but he read about the myth involving Callisto, a nymph who was a companion of the goddess Artemis. Because of some hanky-panky involving Zeus and an unplanned pregnancy, Callisto got turned into a bear, and then, eventually sent up into the heavens in the bear-form of Ursa Major.

So her name is Callisto, or Callie for short. She seems to like it.

The Kid Pauses to Think

The quest for a name for RND continues. We've gotten loads of great suggestions - names that look great but then a funny thing happens between the brain and the mouth. The word just feels funny. Milly, Molly, Maddie....all lovely names, but it feels funny and sounds wrong. (Which is exactly what happened with Sarah, even before the whole unfortunate Palin business started.)

As luck would have it, yesterday was the weekly phone call with my family and it's The Kid's weekend with Middle Brother. The Kid has given such great advice in the past, that I thought he would be ideally qualified to help out with our latest dilemma.

Me: Hey, The Kid, I was hoping you could help me out with something really important.

The Kid: Sure I can!

Me: OK, well, do you know about my new dog?

The Kid: Yes. I saw a picture on the Internet.

Me: We need a name for the new dog. Can you help us think of one?

I waited for more than a minute. The Kid was thinking really hard, but it was unusual for it to take so much time for him to come up with an answer. Is it possible I finally found a way to stump The Kid?

The Kid: I got it! You could name her The Kid!

Me: But that's your name.

The Kid: So? It would still work for the dog. It's a VERY good name. In fact, I think it's a great name.

Me: I agree, it's definitely a great name, but wouldn't you feel weird knowing that a dog had your name.

The Kid: No.

I wish I was there, I can picture how he'd shrug his shoulders and open his eyes wide when he said that.

Me: OK, well, I'll put that on the list to tell Uncle Peter.

The Kid: Oh, I've got the perfect name for a girl...Butterfly.

Me: Butterfly's a pretty name, but she's pretty big to be called butterfly. She's nearly as big as me.

The Kid: Really? Then how about Big Heart?

Me: I kind of like that, but maybe we'd translate it into Irish. I could ask Uncle Peter what that would be in Irish.

The Kid: How about Molly?

Me: Molly keeps coming up alright.

The Kid: I gotta go.

Me: OK, have your dad email me if you think up any more names. Thanks for your help.

Now I understand the enormity and difficulty of this task, since not even The Kid could magic up the perfect name without thinking about it.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blame It on Barack Obama

It all started when I got caught up in the swirl of speculation surrounding the Obama puppy. A few days after reading Laurie's post about it, I got to wondering how hard would it be to find a so-called hypoallergenic dog in a shelter. (To find out why I say 'so-called', check out this NPR piece.)

So I toddled off to PetFinder.com to have a look-see. On the front page, they had a Happy Tail for Charlie, a 10-year old, blind, huge dog who bore at least a passing resemblance to my beloved Kodiak. That got me thinking about older dogs and special needs dogs, so I did a search for older special needs dogs and came across Reno, a 6 year old Great Dane in Findlay, Ohio.

My parents have been without a dog for about a year now. I know they both miss Kodiak terribly but I suspect they're relieved to no longer have the responsibility of his care. A big dog, especially a big old dog, is a lot of work. Even so, a tiny part of me has believed that if a Kodiak-esque dog found them, they'd open their hearts and home to him. I'd never push a dog on them, but I think Kodiak and they had a nice symbiotic relationship - they provided care and love, Kodiak provided company and a reason to go for long walks.

I sent my dad the link for Reno as a trial balloon. He agreed that it was a lovely dog, but gently made it clear that he was not in the market for a dog. Fair enough. But now my dog-seeking gene was activated and I began to idly troll the various rescue sites in Ireland. I didn't really expect to find anything of interest. Peter and I love big dogs, giant knock-over-the-postman-steal-food-off-the-counter-shock-passersby sorts of dogs. (Well, better behaved then to knock people over or steal food off the counter, but physically capable of it.)

As a rule, Irish dogs just aren't that big. Even the labradors over here are smaller and more barrel-like than US labradors. So I didn't expect to find a dog that would fit the size criteria. And even if I did, most rescue places here (even the SPCAs) require home visits, which Peter and I both find a bit intrusive. Sure, I understand why they do it, but I still find it unnecessarily intrusive.

But then I happened across Molly, whose owner's best guess was that she was a Wolfhound-Alsatian mix. Intriguing. When I got home, I showed the link to Peter, fully expecting him to say 'no'. That's how things work around here. I come up with wild, crazy, half-baked ideas and Peter has to be the grown-up and put the kibbosh on them.

This time, Peter said 'yeah, looks good to me, give him a call'. Now wait just a minute, I was counting on him to say no. Now that this second dog lark might become reality, I was overcome with apprehension. (Even when I initiate change, I still get a little freaked out and don't like it.) But I rang the guy, who was all the way on the opposite side of County Kerry, so logistics were going to be an issue. We made arrangements to meet half-way last Sunday, just for an introductory meeting between Toby and Molly.

For several days, my mind was a tumble dryer full of images of us with Molly. I was so excited to meet her. I loved the name Molly - there's so much you can do with it. Molly Malone. Good Golly Miss Molly. Mollified. Mollycoddle. How fast would Mollycoddle become Mollycuddle with all of the doggy-goodness that implies?

I'm the sort of person who likes to think things out, to picture the potential outcomes of a situation. I was thinking about meeting Molly, about what it would be like, about how we would know if she was the right dog for us. I asked Peter what he was looking for in a new dog. He turned the question back on me, claiming that I'd asked it in such a way that made clear I'd already given the matter a good bit of thought. I took a deep breath and answered with my heart. 'I'm looking for the reincarnation of Kodiak.' He nodded and said 'At least you're honest about it.'

After what felt like an eternity (but was only four or five days), Sunday rolled around. About an hour before we were meant to leave (and while I was at my football club's All-Ireland semi-final match), I found out that Molly had been hit by a car. She was okay but her paw was injured and she was having some discomfort moving around, so her owner wanted to see how she healed up before proceeding.

Disappointed doesn't begin to describe it, but it's a good starting point. I also began to have some doubts about Molly. Would her injury cause undo long-term trouble? She was already heading into middle-aged for a giant breed. How exactly did she get hit by a car? Was she a runner-offer?

Peter found the contact information for the Irish Wolfhound Club and sent them an email explaining that we were looking to adopt an adult dog. I was not convinced that this would come to anything because about a year ago, I emailed the Bernese Mountain Dog Club and got no response. (Which was frustrating because they post their website address in the classified section of newspapers, warning people to contact them first to learn about the breed and breeding lest you get taken by an unscrupulous breeder.)

But Peter was put in contact with a woman who does Irish Wolfhound rescue and she just happened to have a pair of two-year old, spayed females. (Everyone here quite happily calls girl dogs 'bitches', which I suppose is their proper name but it makes me as uncomfortable as when the blue tits visit our garden and I want to tell Peter about it.)

We drove two-and-half hours out to the far fringe of County Tipperary to meet PND, Potential New Dog. We were met at the gate by the woman's husband, who briefly showed us the two wolfhounds for rehoming.

Then he invited us into the house, along with two of their eight (yes, EIGHT) wolfhounds. Peter and I greeted the woman, who quickly ushered us onto the couch because she told us that if we didn't sit fast, Liam, their oldest dog, would take over the entire couch. We sat and Liam wasn't long in crawling up onto the couch, making a spot for himself between us, and flopping down to sleep with his head in my lap.

I often said that Kodiak had no idea how big he was. I'm nearly positive that Liam knows exactly how big he is and just doesn't care. It was grand though - very calming and cozy. We talked to the people for a long while about wolfhounds and a trip they had to the US. Then it was time to go outside and introduce Toby to his potential sister.

Given that Toby is sometimes unreliable in his reactions to other dogs, it went swimmingly. The size difference factor intimidated Toby a little bit, but only not necessarily in a bad way. There was a little bit of romping, a lot of butt-sniffing, and a good bit of newspaper reading. (Which is what Peter's sister calls it when dogs sniff certain areas for a long time.)

On the drive there, Peter and I discussed how we would make a decision between the two dogs. With his typical pragmatism, he shrugged and said that we'd just pick one. The dogs looked nearly identical, although one had a white-tipped tail and the other was slightly larger, maybe an inch taller. We watched them frolicking with Toby and I noticed that the larger one was much more outgoing and pushy. She was quite forward with Toby and produced two little scuffles.

When the time came to make our decision, Peter seemed to be leaning toward the larger one, so I quickly pointed and said 'The one with the white-tipped tail.' Right after that, the larger one came over and put her head under my arm, nudging me for pets. I had a moment of doubt, wondering if it was her way of saying 'no, no, I'm the right dog.' But I realised that this was just part of her forwardness and we would be better off with the more laid-back dog.

Two-and-half hours in the car later, we were back home with Real New Dog (RND) and Toby. We also have a houseful of guests, since four of Peter's friends are visiting, so it's going to be a busy and interesting couple of days.

RND does not have a name yet. The name she came with is horrible (Lily Lady) and we haven't happened on the right name yet. We were calling her Sarah last night, because I had a dream a few weeks ago (before I started looking at dogs) about us having a Toby and a giant dog named Sarah. But everyone was calling her Sarah Palin, which will not do, and Peter mentioned late last night that the name feels weird to him to say it, which is how I'd been feeling about it as well.

We've also eliminated Molly, Maeve, Wheaton, Danada, Wrigley, Sky, and Sundance. Aisling and Pluto were both debated and filed under 'Maybe', but I'd say that if you don't love a name straight away, it's not the right one. Any suggestions will be carefully considered.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Other Brother

Reading the stories about Middle Brother and The Kid, it's easy to forget that Middle Brother is called that for a reason. I do have another brother, Youngest Brother. He doesn't feature in my stories as much because I don't get to talk to or see him as much as MB.

I've been meaning to write about YB more, because he's a smart, funny guy who does interesting things, but I often find that I can't get a handle on what I want to say about YB. He's a little bit of a mystery to me. I once told MB that I had the feeling that YB was like a balloon and if we didn't hold onto him tight, he'd just float away.

Family dynamics are endlessly fascinating to me. In that silly pre-marriage class Peter and I had to take, we had to split into groups based on birth order and discuss what it was like to be in our birth order spot and what the other groups were like. I sat with the oldests and it really was like group therapy.

Being the oldest is the toughest - you have to scrap for every right and privilege. Your parents are younger and less well established, so there's not as much money as there is later. You're always the responsible one, always the one who should know better, always the one who has to compromise more.

And the youngest kids? Well they're spoiled and pampered. They're riding their bikes in the street and dating way before we ever were allowed. They have it so easy, it's not even fair.

Of course it's not that simple and your thoughts on it are always going to be influenced by where you are in the birth order. We had to share our group thoughts and the youngests had plenty to say about how it wasn't the cushy life to be in your 20s and still called 'the baby'. About how difficult it was to distinguish yourself when everyone else had already done everything first. About how they sometimes felt like afterthoughts or surprises.

The Brothers, my dad, and I were recently bantering on email. My dad sent a forward of horrible Olan Mills portraits with snarky comments; the subject line was 'You Might Remember Olan Mills'. I did, only because I remembered YB getting photographs there when he was very little. I made a smart remark about how YB got the fancy Olan Mills but MB and I had to make do with Sears.

YB answered back "My baby book is empty. I would gladly give up those bright lights at Olan Mills for a record of existence." I had a chuckle at that (because it's true - I think his name is on his baby book and that's about it while mine is full of extensive documentation of the headlines on my birth date and my first words) and filed the email in my Family folder.

The next day, my father provided YB with a touching and loving record of his existence that made it get a bit dusty in the room for me and MB.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tightrope Walking Without a Net

When we first adopted Toby, the vet talked to us about his nutritional needs. He ended up recommended a sort of mid-priced food, since it would have quality protein without breaking the bank. Since Toby was young, healthy, and the right weight, he didn't need any overly fancy or supplemented food.

That system worked great until the vet stopped carrying the food. So we upgraded top the next cheapest brand, a more nutritionally fancy food that was three times the cost. Plus, Toby hated the stuff. He ate it reluctantly for awhile and then he just refused to eat it altogether. A healthy dog will eat what it's given eventually, so we'd put down the food and then take it away after 10 or 15 minutes. We did this for a couple of days and although Toby still was in no danger of starving, the exercise was starting to feel a bit cruel.

So we headed to the grocery stores in Macroom and started reading the labels on the dog food. We managed to find one - Baker's Meaty Meals - that had 'animal protein and derivatives' as the first ingredient. Toby loved the stuff and so everything was good. Except that the cost of the food kept creeping up and we could only buy it in 3-kilo bags.

Peter came back from a trip to California last month and was telling me about a visit to one of his sister's friends, who have a very sweet Newfoundland. (How could you not ove a Newfie - they're gigantic furry teddy bears?) Peter said that he remarked to the woman about how nice and shiny the Newfie's coat was and she told him that it was because they fed the dog a raw diet.

This got us talking a bit about the merits and drawbacks of a raw diet. I asked the Internet to tell me all about it. I also emailed Laurie, who wrote up a great series on her blog about her foray into raw feeding. There's a lot of advice and opinions out there and it seems like the whole exercise can be as expensive and complicated or cheap and simple as you make it. But the basic premise boils down to feeding your dog the sorts of food he would eat if he was a wild wolf or coyote: raw, meaty bones; organ meat; and mashed up vegetables. (The idea behind the veggies is that they'd be in the stomachs of prey animals and dogs can't break down cellulose, hence the mashing.)

So yesterday, we started feeding Toby a raw diet. I bought some inexpensive chicken thighs from the Lidl and managed to score a 2-kilo chicken for 7 euro from our butcher, who was also nice enough to give me a couple of chicken carcasses. Because Toby's gnawed on cow femurs and great big joint bones before (obtained from the same butcher - it's not like he was doing this out in a farmer's field on an unwilling subject), we knew that his teeth could handle the bones and the he knew what to do with them. (Laurie's dog Bosco was a bit puzzled by whole chicken wings.)

At home, I divided up the chicken into a week's worth of meals, put each meal into a zip-lock freezer bag, and labeled it with the day and meal time (AM or PM). Then I bundled everything into the fridge, wiped down the work area, and washed my knife and cutting board (even pouring boiling water over them to be sure to be sure - MB got salmonella once and it's not an experience I want to have).

The whole thing took about 20 minutes. Cost wise, it worked out to be about twice as much as kibble, but I think my using more scraps, we can reduce that. (Plus, I think I overshot on portion size this time around. We're going to have to get a weight on him so I can do better calculations.)

The fun part of raw feeding is watching your dog be a dog. It's sort of awesome to watch him crunch bones and devour a whole chicken carcass. (In fact, if you do a search on YouTube for 'raw diet dogs', you will find loads of videos of people's dogs eating things like whole rabbits, whole chickens, and whole fish.) It's also fun to watch your dog handle something new. We gave Toby an egg, just to see what he'd make of it. He licked it for ages and then tried biting it, but it would roll out of his mouth. It took him a good long while to figure out how to brace the egg to get his teeth into it.

But there's also an unsettling part of feeding raw. I feel like I'm tightrope walking without a net. The bag of kibble is so much easier and requires no thought. You just scoop out the right portion and you're done.

Of course, anyone who's researched dog food at all knows that the number one ingredient in most mass-produced dog food is grains, which dogs aren't evolutionarily designed for at all. But there's some sort of security in packaging - like the thinking and tinkering has already been done and you can trust that the food provides the right nutritional balance.

All of the raw food web sites stress that the important thing is to achieve balance over time. When you think about it, it's how we eat. Does each one of your meals have exactly the right proportion of grains, dairy, protein, and veggies/fruit? Of course not, unless you're on some strictly regimented diet like Jenny Craig or something.

So, balance over time, while I'm tightrope walking without a net....that's the goal. (That and a shiny coat.)

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Love the Internet!

Peter and I often ask each other, in tones of disbelief and amazement, 'What did we do before the Internet?' We usually decide that we laid awake nights, trying to place the character actor in a movie or struggling to remember lyrics to songs.

I rely heavily on the Internet for my recipe finding and meal planning. I understand that way back in the day, there were these things called 'cookbooks' that had recipes in them. I also understand that people kept recipe files with hand-written instructions for whipping up their favourite dishes. How primitive.

I swear by such founts of knowledge as Cooking Light and All Recipes. I especially like the search functions in Cooking Light, which can help me find a dairy-free, low-fat, bake-only, Italian side dish in less than twenty seconds. (Not that I've ever had cause to perform that particular search, but it's comforting to know that I could if necessary.)

The problem with Cooking Light is that they often act as though cost were no option and everyone has an ethnic foods specialty market in their vicinity. Irish retailers have come along way since the first time I lived here in 1995 and there was exactly one place to get bagels in all of Dublin, but the options still aren't as diverse as a place like Chicago.

Cost, particularly, has become a giant concern recently. As a four-time loser in the redundancy department, I get a bit edgy any time economic indicators start to take a swim in the toilet. Hearing that unemployment here is nearly at 7% and that the economic forecast is for limited to zero growth for the next year at least tend to result in an automatic stranglehold on my spending habits.

Today, in an effort to find cheap yet nutritious recipes, I stumbled across a site that I'm sure will become another of my go-to sources: the snappily named USDA Food Stamp Nutrition Connection Recipe Finder. This thing offers so many searching options, it boggles the mind (and shows that actual people sat down and thought about what actual users would want and need - which should be the standard MO for web sites, but somehow that important step is often overlooked).

At the top of the page, you can search by ingredient or recipe name. But wait, there's more. At the bottom of the page, you can select a general nutrition category (like high calcium or more fruit and veg), the menu item (like side dish or entree), the audience (like ethnicity or parental status), and the cooking equipment required.

And, here is the best part, you can also place monetary limits on the recipe. Like you want a recipe that is less than $1 per serving or less than $5 for the whole recipe. This is pure, simple genius. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a shopping list to plan.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Zoo Trip

I love going to the zoo. I know these days, that's not a very PC-admission, but I don't care. Zoos play a crucial role in education and conservation. They've undergone great changes in management and design that have resulted in better lives for the animals.

I don't get to go to the zoo that often anymore. Fota Wildlife Park is a bit over an hour's drive from our house and I've been there twice when we've had guests of the child variety.

This summer, I went to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo with Middle Brother and The Kid. They have a family membership, so they go to the zoo quite frequently. It wasn't even our first joint visit to the zoo. But it was the first summer time visit since The Kid was a tadpole.

Our plan of attack was simple - arrive at or before 10am to hotfoot it over to the Australian part of the zoo so we could feed the Rainbow Lorikeets. For the bargain price of $1, you can buy a tiny medicine cup that's about half-full of nectar. Then you go into the Lorikeet house, a mini-jungle where the birds fly free and unfettered.

It's essential to get there early so that the birds are still hungry. Otherwise, you just stand there like a dolt with your little medicine cup of nectar. But when the birds are hungry, it's a riot of green, yellow, and red. If you're very lucky and stand very still, the birds will land on you. I still get crazily excited to have a bird land on my hand.

The first time we took The Kid into the Rainbow Lorikeets, he was a very little guy and got a bit freaked out by the forwardness of the birds. Now, he's a junior scientist and is fascinated by and curious about everything. He listened to a spiel from one of the docents, and then asked how you know if a bird is a boy or a girl.

The docent explained that you would have to look into the cloaca to find out. Middle Brother, in what I thought was a genius move of comic timing, said "Yeah....we're not going to do that today." I later found out that he wasn't trying to be funny, he'd seen the look on The Kid's face and was heading off what he saw as an inevitable request to try it out.

After feeding the birds, we went to explore the rest of Australia land. We took turns going down the giant crazy tree slide and visited the donkeys and sheep in the petting farm. Then we passed the camel rides and it was decided, since it was a special zoo day (given that Auntie Ann was visiting) that a camel ride was in order.

A hand-printed sign in the ticket window read "Maximum weight per camel: 300 pounds." MB told me that he needed to be with The Kid, so I'd have to go alone. When we got to the camel loading zone, the guy told us we could all fit on one camel. I was flattered that the guy thought we were so svelte but MB told me later that he suspected the guys just didn't want to walk around two camels. (I preferred my explanation.)

The guy directed MB to get on first, then me, then The Kid. MB asked me to make sure I held onto The Kid, which I did like we were lost at sea on a flimsy lifeboat. The camel dutifully trod around the dusty track.

Getting on a camel is a lot easier than getting off a camel, but The Kid handled it like a champ. I was a lot less graceful and assured, but managed to haul myself back onto the loading platform.

After a brief stop for soft pretzels and slushies, it was time to feed the sharks and sting rays. Feeding the sting rays is completely unnerving. You take a bit of herring or some other smallish fish and hold it between your first two fingers. You put your hand into the water, palm facing up, so the fish is sticking up out of your hand. Then you wait for the sting ray to glide over your hand and suck up the fish. The sting rays were not as hungry as the Rainbow Lorikeets.

We had lunch at the new zoo food court. (Well, it's new to me, at least.) The Kid and I both ordered Happy Meals. After we were done eating, The Kid spent a lot of time playing with both the Happy Meal toys, identical Bumblebee Transformers. MB and I both found it interesting that the toys earned double the amount of attention and time from The Kid, even though they were exactly the same.

It was a good trip to the zoo. It's nice to remember an adventure on a warm, sunny day when it's currently a dark, cold, wet winter's day.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Homepages, the Book

Thanks to a tip from Primal Sneeze, I recently found out about Homepages: Stories from the Irish Blogosphere. It's a collection of 80 stories from Irish bloggers, with all of the proceeds going to Focus Ireland, a charity that works on behalf of the homeless.

I was happy to have found out about the book, just before the submission deadline. Although Primal suggested some great topics about the position of being an expat and having two homes, I found that too much of my time this week was spent on election-related materials. So I decided instead to rework two of my blog posts about our little house in Wheaton. (Which apparently I can no longer call deep in the heart of Republican DuPage County.)

I'm about to email my submission, but I thought I'd also post it here. I'm calling it "Closing without Closure".

Yesterday, the movers came and hauled away all of our worldly possessions but I wasn't there. Peter had all the fun of selling our furniture, supervising the movers, selling the car, setting up our bank accounts for wire transfers, shutting down the utilities, tying up all the loose ends and attending the closing. And now Peter, like our computers and clothes, is on his way to Ireland.

For me, it's a weird anticlimax. I've waited seven weeks for the closing on our house. I should be excited, but I feel bereft. I remember when Peter and I started house-hunting, I likened the process to dating. Whenever we came back from another bad outing, I'd console us with the thought that we had to kiss a lot of frogs before we met our prince. The cute house in the bad neighborhood, the enormous 1960's era condo that reeked of liver and onions, the hundred year old farmhouse with the original scary wiring...they were all frogs.

I was confident our prince would come. One gloomy Sunday, we found two princes. The first was a Colonial that was a 10 minute walk from the train. It had hardwood floors and backed onto a school. The neighborhood was quiet, the streets lined with graceful old trees. The kitchen was a bummer, but overall the house was solid, clean, respectable.

The second was the most adorable house in the whole world. It had a rounded door, like a hobbit house. It had a huge kitchen with an island that opened onto a windowed conseveratory. It had a little coach house attached to the garage. The yard had paths that wound their way through flower beds. In a way, it was my dream house: little, cute, cozy. But it was a 20 minute drive away from the last train station on the line.

I told the estate agent that the first house was the clean-cut preppy boy that your parents would love for you to bring home. He's polite, has good table-manners and plays well with others. He has a good-paying job and although he might be a little boring, he's an all-around good guy.

The second house was the artistic boyfriend that you love with all your heart, even though you know you'll have to support him for the rest of your life. He's beautiful but rough around the edges and your parents are skeptical but you don't care because you're in love.

So, who do you chose? The solid, dependable guy or the exciting, attractive, flaky artist? We went with the solid, dependable house and it served us well for three years. I loved that house and I didn't even get to give it a proper send-off.

It feels strange, this closing without closure. I'm picturing walking in the front door, into the airy living room. I'm remembering how I insisted we get "grown up furniture": a matching couch and chair in a deep forest green.

I'm peeking into the kitchen, which was my biggest complaint with the house when we bought it. I'd dreamed of a kitchen with an island and windows. I got a hallway with appliances. But I learned to work with it, and I spent many happy hours baking in there.

I'm stepping down the single step into the family room. I'm remembering playing my arcade game, Operation Wolf, a tremendous birthday surprise from Peter for my 30th. I recall the work we put into the room last year: ripping up the carpet and skirting boards, painting, putting down a new floor, replacing the skirting boards.

Upstairs, I go into the library, a little anteroom off the master bedroom. It was a regular bedroom until previous owners put on the master bedroom addition. Then it became a weird walk-through room. We filled it with bookcases and a futon to create a cozy reading nook, even if the futon mattress was always sliding off the frame.

Another step down into the master bedroom. I remember how it got the richest, warmest sunlight in the autumn. I look out the window at the disaster of a backyard that I created with overly ambitious and under-researched prairie plans.

Back through the library and out into Peter's office. Before it was Peter's office, it was the bedroom of a 13 year old girl and was painted bright purple with a hand-made "hottie" sign on a window.
Peter painted it a nice manly green and filled it with computers, CDs, and games.

I remember Christmas in 2003. I'd just been laid off and had more time than money. My handy brother Patrick helped me construct homemade bookcases in my grandmother's basement in Cleveland. Then we disassembled them and loaded them into my station wagon. (They were very cleverly designed to fit into the car.) I had hoped to put them together myself, but it was obvious I lacked the necessary skills.

In a series of shrewd airline bumping-acceptance moves, Patrick engineered an overnight layover in Chicago and assembled the bookcases for me. I stained the bookcases and organized Peter's office into a brilliant showcase. Peter was very appreciative of the unique gift because it was the office he always wanted but never got around to making for himself.

Next, I look into our tiny guest room. I picked out the color - Van Gogh yellow - and I remember painting the room before we moved in. It was pouring rain out and the gutters hadn't been cleaned, so the rain was spilling over creating a loud yet comforting noise.

We spent three years in our solid, dependable house. It was a good house, despite the small kitchen, ancient wiring that we had to replace, and sewer main that broke just as the buyers made an offer. It was big enough to give us breathing room and escape space, but small enough to be comfy and cozy.

Goodbye, little house. You will be missed.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Rediscovery of Faith and Hope

When The Kid was four, he came out with one of those profundities that have given rise to the expression 'from the mouths of babes'.

Hope is the thing in your body that keeps you alive.

It's been hard for me to hold onto hope during the W years. At times, I've felt completely exhausted and utterly ground down.

Watching the 2004 election and seeing the Republicans successfully employ a strategy of fear-mongering to divide and conquer was a significant low point and drain on my hope resources. I vividly remember sitting home alone on the day after the election, watching Kerry's concession speech, and wondering how it could have come to this. How could reasonable people could look at the same set of facts and come to such radically different conclusions?

When I looked around at the America that George Bush and Dick Cheney had created, it did not look like the America I grew up in.

I did not grow up in a country where people were held for years without charges, trials, or even access to impartial courts.

I did not grow up in a country where a bogus doctrine of pre-emptive defense was enough to start an ill-conceived, improperly planned, and poorly executed war.

I did not grow up in a country where the Constitution was just a piece of paper to be ignored and circumvented according to the whims of the President.

These are not the reasons that I moved to Ireland, but they are part of the factors that made it possible for me to move. The damage done to the country helped unmoor me from my home. (I dug through my friend Dave's archives to come up with a post that he did shortly after the election, which included my thoughts at the time. For me, to read it now is to relive it.)

The last few weeks have been rough. It was hard for me to listen to all of the vitriol, the bald-faced lies, and the blatant attempts at fear-mongering. And as hard as it to listen to the bad stuff, it was sometimes even more difficult to listen to the good stuff: the positive polls, the soaring speeches, the reports that things were going to be different this time. Like a divorcee fresh from a bad marriage, I put up my defenses against the charming suitor at my door.

I knew what I wanted though. I wanted an election free from court challenges and voting issues. I wanted the popular vote and the electoral college vote to both say the same thing. I wanted a big, shiny, clear-cut Obama win.

Even though I had a flicker of hope burning in my heart, I just couldn't let myself believe. Even when the results started coming in, I was fidgety and superstitious. While colouring my electoral college map (a ritual I've done in every election since I was 8), I'd wait until the handy NY Times Election Dashboard showed a majority of media outlets calling the results the same way.

While Peter cheerfully coloured in Pennsylvania, I told him, "My heart is too fragile." The longer Ohio, Florida, and Virginia stayed in play, the edgier I got. It wasn't until they called Ohio that I allowed myself to say it out loud - "He's got a real chance. This is actually happening."

When ABC News called the race for Obama, my first feeling was relief, followed by the rush of excitement I'd kept bottled up for the last few weeks. The feelings just intensified, especially during Obama's acceptance speech, which was the perfect end to a well-run campaign.

One line of the speech stays with me, because it reminded me of something that I forgot. Something essential that I needed to remember:

For that is the true genius of America--that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

Unlike the day after the last election, today I am ready, excited, and hopeful for that next tomorrow.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Getting Ready

Absentee ballot sent in...............................................Check.
Printed electoral college map...................................Check.
Red and blue crayons .................................................Check.
Wednesday requested off as a recovery day...........Check.
Computers ready to stream election results..........Check.
Alarm clock set for 23.30 GMT (18.30 EST)..........Check.
Loving husband to assure me it will all be OK.......Check.
Furry dog to comfort me if it breaks bad................Check.
US Passport and matches safely out of reach.........Check.

Right so, I think I'm ready for tonight. I feel like I do at my football matches: incredibly invested in the team and results, but completely powerless to do anything to help, except cheer and hope and come as close to praying as a lapsed ala-carte Catholic ever gets.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Going in Nature

You want to know the number one skill you must have in order to be the wife of a landscape photographer? It might surprise you.

It's not the ability to wake up early for sunrise, although that helps. You might think it's the ability to read a map properly, but that modern miracle the GPS has filled that gap and probably saved countless marriages. You might think that the wife of the landscape photographer has to be patient, know how to amuse herself, enjoy spending lots of time in the car, and know how to deal with all sorts of weather conditions. And you would be absolutely correct. But you still wouldn't have gotten to the most important skill that the wife of a landscape photographer must have.

It is the ability, as we so delicately call it, to 'go in nature.' If you can't comfortably relieve yourself in any moderately sheltered outdoor area, you are going to be one miserable wife. I'm lucky because we went camping fairly regularly when I was a kid and even if a campgrounds had toilets, you weren't going to want to trudge all the way out to them in the middle of the night.

The only time I understand the concept of penis envy is when I'm looking for a place to go in nature. Peeing in the woods is quite undignified and ever since I started having to pull ticks off Toby on a regular basis, I've become a bit paranoid about picking up a parasitic rider.

The most memorable going-in-nature story occurred recently, when I was out with Peter in the area around Killarney. He'd found one of his favourite types of roads - the tiny little squiggle of a boreen that only shows up on the Ordinance Survey map. It's the type of road that is barely wide enough for his car, has grass growing up the middle, and potholes big enough to swallow a mid-sized dog. It's also the type of road that makes me ask Peter 'Is this a private road?" to which he always responds 'Probably!" and I sink down in my seat and worry about getting driven off by an irate farmer with a pitchfork.

We trundled along this road, which hugged a lake on one side and a steep hill with bits of scrubby forest land on the other side, eventually having to pass through a gate. We had a few stops for photography for Peter and romping for Toby and me, then eventually we came to a gate with a No Trespassing sign. So we turned around and headed back for the main road.

I hopped out to open the gate and told Peter I was going to have a pee. Next to the gate looked like the perfect spot - a dark little warren of trees and bushes. As I was picking my way through the stinging nettles and brambles, I saw a skull a little ways into the thicket. I squinted and checked the shape of it, assuring myself that I could see horns and that it had to just be a sheep.

The next thing I saw, just beyond the skull was a bright yellow rain slicker. I knew my imagination was going to kick into overdrive, so I went in nature as fast as I could and then bounded back into the car.

"There was a skull in there, but it was okay because I saw horns. But then the next thing I saw was a rain slicker. I'm just so glad I didn't see them in reverse order, because there's no way I would have stuck around long enough to look for the horns."