Sunday, September 19, 2010

Eight years of lessons

Today my dog turns eight years old. Today I find myself wondering how eight years have passed since I saw the ad in the Spokesman-Review and called and reserved a puppy for my then fairly new boyfriend. I couldn’t really afford one, but Russ wanted a boxer and by God, he was going to have one. And one Sunday in late October, we made the trip up to Post Falls and came home with Dexter (and some Krispy Kremes).

We had no idea how to handle a puppy. We were puppies ourselves. Boxer puppies are exceptionally cute and I believe this is because they are exceptionally emotionally devastating. In his younger days, Dexter destroyed more property than Hurricane Earl and made us aware that we were not to keep him in a kennel, outside, or go anywhere without him. Apparently boxers have more separation anxiety than most breeds and this one had more than most boxers. Dexter did not live with me until after I married his daddy and I was perfectly fine with that. Once we did become roommates, he tore up my important papers and dove into the garbage and generally let me know who the boss was. The joke was on him, though, when I gleefully made the appointment to have him neutered.

Eventually, Russ and I figured out that we didn’t have a bad dog… we just had a very smart, stubborn dog who was trying to communicate with us. Once we figured him out, we were able to successfully train him and compromise with him (yes, we compromised with our dog) and eventually we were left with a very pleasant animal who gave us minimal trouble. It only took about four years, hundreds of tears, thousands of dollars in damages, about a dozen marital rifts, two training books, millions of treats and a plethora of patience. There was also one incident where we underestimated his strength that resulted in an empty tray where Christmas cookies had once been. But even then, as my parents pointed out (it was their tray of cookies) he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone… he simply saw an opportunity and took it in the form of a dozen peanut butter balls and two dozen sugar cookies with the little Hershey’s kisses in them.

I never thought I’d say this, especially after he tore up my $400 Love Sack bean bag chair, but I wouldn’t change one bit of it. I was strictly a cat person before Dexter and he has changed me to a dog person for life. There is nothing like dog ownership. We really are his love, his life, his family, the ones he would do anything to protect. When I walk through the door, he acts as if he hasn’t seen me in decades, as if he really believed I’d left him and wouldn’t return. He takes such pleasure in eating, sleeping, getting pats on the head, and walks, I can’t help but be inspired to take joy in the simple things myself. We walk the same path nearly every day but he always acts as if he’s seeing it for the first time. And oh, my God, the way he acts when he learns he gets to ride in the car… it’s like he’s won an Oscar. He follows me from room to room without asking for anything, just to be near me. I haven’t owned anything more valuable than that.

Dexter has grown with us throughout practically our entire relationship. When Russ left him at his parents’ house for nine months to go to school in Wyoming, Dexter slept faithfully on Russ’s old shirt the entire time. The night I got the call that brain cancer had claimed my grandmother; Dexter was so anxious to comfort me that he spilled a glass of wine on his own head (and tried to lick it off). Whenever I return from a trip, I know he’ll be at the top of the stairs when I open the door, shaking as he waits for me to lug my big pink suitcase through the door before barreling downstairs to greet me.

Today we’re celebrating him like we’ve done every possible September 19 prior: extra love, extra walks, and a cupcake (vanilla… he survived 36 chocolate Christmas cookies, no need to push our luck). But this birthday is hard. Though he still acts like a puppy, eight isn’t young for dogs. Eight is especially not young for big dogs. I can’t help but think of the heartbreak that lies ahead of us. I know when you get a pet you’re just biding your time until the heartbreak and it’s a pain I know all too well. The loss is the result of having pets who aren’t just pets, but part of the family. I’m trying not to dwell on it, but it’s like the year when people’s birthdays stop being funny… his birthdays are no longer funny.

Still, I wouldn’t trade the impending heartache for the experiences with Dexter and the lessons he’s taught me. The stories of his life will live on long after he does, from the day he ate the dryer lint to the evening we tormented him with the sound of the buzzer from our “Taboo” game only to find it mangled and chewed up the next morning. He has taught me lessons in responsibility, selflessness, patience and understanding while giving me more unconditional love that I could possibly deserve. I’m so grateful we’ve had him for eight healthy years and will do my best to greet each of his remaining days with the same enthusiasm that he does.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The proud flexitarian: how I made my peace with meat

Oh, you people who refuse to learn anything about nutrition and live your lives in a state of blissful food ignorance, eating fast food burgers like champions… you have it so good. Sure, you’re probably consuming unknown levels of chemicals, hormones and possibly enough sugar, sodium and saturated fat to give you numerous health problems or kill you. But you just don’t give a damn, do you? Because stuff tastes good and by God, you’re going to eat that stuff. I’ll never be like you, but believe me, part of me is envious.

I’m also envious of those of you who have committed to either a vegetarian or vegan diet… and actually stick to it. For some reason, people are offended by this type, which is ridiculous because numerous studies have shown that cutting out meat (or cutting back) is extremely good for you. I admire you all, I really do. Even if you don’t like the taste of meat or dairy, it’s in almost everything and requires a real commitment to a lifestyle.

Then there’s me, someone who has spent the last three years falling somewhere in between. I’m blessed and cursed: blessed because I have a real passion for learning about nutrition and health and cursed because I just don’t have the discipline to go all the way. I know about all the horrors of the meat and dairy industry, the grotesque conditions animals are raised in before their diseased remains become our meat, and have read enough information to somewhat agree with the moral opposition to eating animals (don’t jump all over me for the last one, everyone’s body is different and I know some people would literally die without it). I’ve spent the last three years struggling with my personal philosophy on vegetarianism and this summer it became apparent that I was going to have to find a balance between raging carnivore and devout vegan. And yes, I’m aware that healthy isn’t synonymous with veganism and there are healthy meat eaters and unhealthy vegetarians… but for the sake of this post, I’m sticking to one aspect.

Once you learn certain things, you can’t unlearn them. And after I’d done my share of research, I knew I could never eat the way I once did. My balance between veganism (much too strict, I knew I’d cheat) and eating lots of animal products (never again) was a fun little term called the “pescatarian.” I’d have to give up chicken, turkeys, pigs and cows, but I could still eat fish and other seafood. Having been raised on my father’s wild caught Pacific Northwest salmon, I knew I couldn’t give that up. So I was a pescatarian. And then Thanksgiving came along and I ate turkey. Then I was a pescatarian again. Then several months later I went to Vegas and absolutely nothing from Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris would do except their filet mignon. Then I was a pescatarian again until my friend made chicken and I didn’t want to be rude. You get the drift.

I stopped developing a taste for most kinds of meat. When I did eat it, I’d feel sick because my body wasn’t used to it. Yet I never completely kicked it and I felt totally guilty for it. I felt like a gay Catholic… I agreed that it wasn’t right, yet I couldn’t help myself. I kept up the “pescatarian” front until our cross-country road trip this summer. My plan was to go as long as possible without animal flesh. On our first day, we went to my husband’s aunt’s birthday party and the menu consisted of a veggie tray, meatballs, chicken and ribs. I didn’t want to starve or be rude, so I ate two meatballs with my veggies. And I admit, they were good. I made my normal pescatarian choices for much of the road trip, but I also ate my share of meat, especially in the South. By the end of the trip I was thoroughly disgusted with myself, with animal carcass and the whole mental debate. It was time to find a balance.

I am the entire reason the flexitarian diet was created. We’re literally called “the meat eating vegetarians.” A flexitarian is someone who abstains from meat most of the time… but not all of the time. I finally decided to stop fighting my natural urges and just cave in and have meat when I really wanted it. After all, I craved it so rarely that I assumed it meant something when I did want it. Besides, even the most PETA-friendly vegan will admit that just cutting back on the animals we eat is good for our bodies, for the environment and of course, for the animals it saves. Fewer animals in demand means less factory farms and less animal suffering in general. And that was the reason I quit eating the damn things in the first place.

My balance is still eating a mostly vegetarian diet. I limit my dairy to small amounts of cheese and Greek yogurt along with the occasional Ben & Jerry’s binge because I’m human. I eat local, cage free eggs, but not often. I eat lots of the fruits and veggies I do like and avoid the ones I don’t because eating shouldn’t be torture. I eat meat, on average, once a week these days and feel just fine when I do. That’s because I buy the hormone free grass fed stuff instead of the products of animal concentration camps. With very few exceptions (maybe once a year during the worst hangover of all time) I avoid the hell out of pork because I simply know too much. And I can honestly say I’ll never touch another hot dog. Last Thanksgiving, I talked my mom into buying an organic, hormone and antibiotic-free turkey and even my “I don’t care about that crap” family admitted it was the best they’d ever had. Some meat-eaters think I’m an idiot and some vegans think I’m a sellout. I think I finally found a diet I can stick to. And in our obese, food-obsessed, fast food eating, bloated culture, I think that’s pretty great.
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