Yogurt Pup Down

“Merlin has the brain of an 18-year-old dog,” said the neurologist, pointing to our 18-MONTH-old pup’s MRI image on the screen. He honed in on the large streaks and patches of white in Merlin’s brain, then showed us a healthy dog’s brain, which was mostly blackish-gray with minimal traces of white.

“His brain is shrinking.”

My wife cried. I blurted out, louder than I intended in the small exam room, “What? Really? You’re kidding me? No.” The doctor wasn’t kidding. And though we suspected there might be something wrong with Merlin’s brain, we had expected a tumor or lesions – an ailment that could be treated with radiation or steroids, not one out of a science fiction movie.

Our sensitive gem of a dog that we’d adopted and raised from a pup had a rare central nervous disorder, NCL, seen once a year at the vet hospital. It had no cure or method to slow it down. And no amount of money could extend his life or our time together. Merlin had a month or two left to live.

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My wife had noticed changes in Merlin back in October. A shy dog always, he now seemed more withdrawn at times and fearful. He now shook his head after stressful situations, like a tick. I thought they were hiccups. My wife knew it was more. But Merlin ate his food and everything else seemed fine. Life went on, but my wife watched him closely.

December and the holidays rolled around and I got very sick. So did Merlin, though we didn’t know it. We thought the changes we noticed were behavior related. He wouldn’t go on walks anymore. Every blowing leaf, passing car, barking dog and random sound caused him to park himself on the sidewalk or roll over into the gutter. During one walk, as the sun set, my wife had to pick him up and carry him back to the car. Darkness spooked him.

On a late afternoon in January, with the low winter light glowing gold in those the moments when afternoon flips to evening, I heard Merlin barking and growling in the bedroom. Not normal. Turning the light on, I spotted him backed into a corner beside the nightstand barking and growling at nothing. He snarled and whipped his head from side to side, hitting the wall, as if trying to shake the grasp of a phantom.

I coaxed him out of the bedroom and got him to stop for few minutes when I spoke to him or fed him a treat or dinner. But it continued, on and off, for a couple more hours. Normal behavior and normal dog for a few minutes, followed by the head shaking.

At the vet the next morning, we showed her video of Merlin and explained his behavior over the last month. This isn’t normal, she said bluntly, and yet had no idea what it was. She recommended seeing a behaviorist first, then possibly a neurologist. We should have skipped right to the neurologist.

During our rapid “discovery period” of Merlin’s illness, my wife sensed Merlin was having vision problems. So, with the behaviorist a distant option, I made an appointment with an eye specialist. Across the valley, I drove, through a monsoon and rain-filled freeway cluttered with blowing trash and the shattered remains of Christmas trees someone didn’t secure to their truck, to discover Merlin was going blind.

But not because his eyes were bad, or not reacting to different colored lights and other tests that I never knew existed for a dog, but because the signals from his eyes weren’t reaching his brain. His optic nerve ignored the information, which is a central nervous system disorder, and not the news I expected or wanted.

The vet explained in detail, but my mind traveled somewhere else at that moment – to the realization a tidal wave of grief was rolling my way and there was no running or hiding from it.

The vet’s advice: Get the “first available appointment” with a neurologist.

Several days later, we dropped Merlin off for an MRI and spinal tap and waited for the news. We knew it was bad when they called and said they performed the MRI but not the spinal tap and the doctor needed to see us later that day. We knew what the MRI images would reveal without seeing them – an abrupt change to our lives, a shock to our hearts, and doom and gloom.

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My wife loves dogs. She feeds them, walks them, and gives them more attention than I get from her. Yes, jealousy. And they depend on her and love her in return. It’s something to see, this bond. And my teenage daughter mirrors my wife in her love of the pups.

Now if owning dogs has opened my eyes to anything, it’s why we don’t allow euthanasia for humans in most states. Who wants to make that decision? It’s horrible and gut-wrenching with dogs. I can’t imagine what it would be like with a human. How long do you wait to do it? What’s the best timing? What’s best for you? How much suffering will everyone endure during the process of deciding?

You hope and pray you’re doing the right thing. And then you live with the choice you made and the memory of the last moments. Forever.

We made the decision to euthanize Merlin. We didn’t want to see him suffer the long seizures, or swing his head into another wall or piece of furniture. Or growl at us, or bite unintentionally. He’d already started not to recognize us. And we didn’t want to him to live in our memories that way.

I remember each dog I’ve taken to the vet for the their last visit. Mocha, our chocolate lab, age 14. It took two shots to end her life. She retrieved anything you threw, was a strong hunting dog, and slept next to my wife’s pregnant stomach at night. Harley, age 15, an all-black, low-key chow mix who was there when we brought our daughter home from the hospital after she was born, and who shared many of her childhood years. Then there was Luna, our magical yellow lab, age 8, cancer, who could read my wife’s mind and who was the most balanced and lovable of our dogs.

I live with the memories of these endings.

With Merlin, I held it together pretty well and compartmentalized the grief while I could. My daughter and wife, well, reality crushed them. Grief and love for Merlin teeter-tottered their emotions while I watched from a distance waiting to carry out my duty at the vet.

Merlin lived like an alpha wolf his last week. We fed him every great food we could think of. My wife cooked him a steak and gave him piles of chicken chunks in his dinner. He enjoyed peanut butter bones several times a day. And he snacked on his favorite jerky treats whenever he liked. A king’s life, one might say. I surprised him with a full yogurt, not just the remains of mine. One night he hopped up and ate scrambled eggs from a plate on the kitchen table. Manners no longer required, my friend. Go to town.

Life was good, life was fun in those last moments together. But they went fast.

It’s a strange feeling not to be able to swallow. It happened on the way to the vet and I thought I was going to have a panic attack, the emotions of the situation bubbling over. Our sweet little dog. The coolest looking dog we’ve ever had. His end coming way too soon.

I don’t feel like going through the details of the last hour of Merlin’s life at the vet. They were caring and gave us time to say goodbye. The moment I’ll never forget is when they gave Merlin a sedative to make him drowsy and he jumped and placed his front paws on my lap and I helped him up. I spent about 15 minutes with him curled up there, sleeping, as a petted him in the silence of the darkened room, saying goodbye, wondering what it was about this dog and the moments we shared that touched me so deeply. I’ll never know or understand. He just did. And that’s enough for me.

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While I was on IVs and asleep, Merlin found a comfortable spot next to me.

 

 

 

 

 

Revenge of the nasty, stinky rug

Readers of my previous post know that one of our labs puked on three rugs this week. The alien substance smelled so bad, and permeated a 3×5 rug in my office so deeply, that I had to throw the rug away.

I rolled it up and stuck it in the trash.

Who is that hiding in the trash can? It's the unknown jack-in-the-box.

Who is that hiding in the trash can? It’s the unknown jack-in-the-box.

Now here in Los Angeles we have nighttime trash raiders. I don’t mind them as long as they’re not trying to steal identities. But my other neighbors get really upset because technically it’s illegal.

I do, however, fantasize about hiding in the trash can, then jumping out like a jack-in-the-box when one of the “Jawas” opens the lid. Nothing like a practical joke that gives a poor person a heart attack while they’re stealing plastic bottles to put food on their table to make you feel better about your life.

Back to reality.

My wife was walking the dogs this morning when she saw a trash raider with a pick-up stop and take the rolled-up rug out of the trash and back to his truck.

Now, when I threw away the rug, it wasn’t a casual decision. If I threw away a rug each time one of our dogs barfed on it, well, we’d be rug-free and poor. But I suspect our poop eating black lab did just that – ate poop – and it created a toxic smell worthy of a government weapon.

No cleaning product was going to bring that rug back to life.

The trash raider, back at his truck, let the rug unroll. Big mistake. My wife said he immediately recoiled in horror, like he got hit by something. I’m sure after five days in the plastic bin and hot sun the stain was nice and ripe.

Even worse, she said, he must have gotten some on his hands because he was frantically trying to wipe them off on a section of the rug, while trying not to get too close to it.

Finally, he folded the rug and placed it back in our trash. Then he looked around in his truck for some water to wash his hands, but not finding any wiped his hands on his truck, got in, and drove off.

My only regret is not taking a picture of that rug for this post. Oh, well, that’s life.

Breaking up with people who probably already broke up with you

Last weekend, on the beach, we met a very nice older couple. Our dogs met first, as their rare breed, 80 pounds, black and white with a patch over one eye, had a crush on our common black lab and couldn’t help but go Hugh Hefner on her every five minutes, until the leash came out and took the spark out of the stud.

Details about the couple: husband with salty gray, wavy, windblown hair, a deep tan, Ray-Bans, quiet; she of proper upbringing, talkative and charming, warm. They live in Santa Monica and have a house up here in Ventura they visit on weekends. They’re intelligent, articulate and the husband worked in Hollywood for a long time, making them successful. They have a son who is an engineer and working with a racing team back east.

Oh, and they’re in a class above us – the one I’ve always wanted to be in.

This is my calming ocean photo. I look at it and relax and forget about people that drive me nuts.

This is my calming ocean photo. I look at it and relax and forget about people that drive me nuts.

So, right off the bat, I’m depressed and jealous, a bad combo.

Why are they speaking to me? What do they want? 

My wife tells the woman, Joan, a name I just gave her, that I know and write about automotive technology and luxury cars. And Joan, it turns out, is in the market for a luxury car I know a lot about. We have a great talk about it on the beach, as I keep one eye on the dogs to make sure Cali doesn’t run up and steal someone’s food, which she likes to do.

And Joan and I continue what I like to call, “rich people speak.” I can’t explain it. The tone of the conversation is unique, and uncomfortable. Name-dropping, lots of questions about what you do. A sizing up of the other person. Networking for one’s personal benefit? (Is there any other kind?)

We hang out with them for about 20 minutes or so, and Joan asks us if we’ll be around next weekend (yes), and if we’d like to come over for a glass of wine (yes). Great, she and her husband will stop by later with their contact info.

Two hours later, they show up. I’m standing on the front patio when they pull up. Joan gets out of the SUV and gives me a piece of paper with their names, phone number and address. Again, they’re super nice, which makes me wonder again why they’d want to hang out with me. My wife, I understand. She’s the nicest person in the world. But me? It’s all about the cars, which I’m okay with, and used to. People love to talk about cars, but it’s usually men.

The week goes by. I ask my wife to send Joan a text on Friday. She does. We don’t hear back, but then Joan and her husband show up at our door later that day. She has information on tomorrow’s Artwalk (Did you know about it? Yes. Are you going? Yes. Would you like to hang out and have fish tacos? Yes.)

We talk for 10 minutes and I probably say a bunch of stupid things (to be discussed later in this post). And she tells me she didn’t see the text from my wife.

The next morning rolls around. I send a text to Joan on my wife’s iPhone because my Blackberry is drying out after its swim. But I don’t hear back.

We arrive at the Artwalk with a couple of our friends and I call Joan. It rings but she doesn’t answer and I leave one of those messages where I didn’t plan on leaving a message and sound like a complete idiot. These calls come easily to me.

We attend the Ventura Artwalk, which is a bit of a disappointment, as it’s more “walk” than “art.” I don’t hear back from Joan. And it drives my OCD mind crazy: Why did they come by twice and then stand us up?

I re-think their second visit to our house and analyze everything I said. What did I say wrong? I was nervous for some reason – stretching to be cool? More name dropping? Was it the point I made of how similar Google employees seem to Hollywood people, that they’re special and in the in-crowd? Arrogant? Did I piss off her husband?

I can’t figure it out and my wife doesn’t understand why I’m concerned. She doesn’t care. And it’s not that I cared, as much as, I was curious what went wrong.

We went to the beach at the end of the day with the dogs, and who do I see down the beach? Joan, her husband, and their horny exotic dog. They’re leaving. (Did they see us and leave?) I have a business card for them. So, I follow them home. (Yes, I’m aware that sounds very stalker like, but it was to give them the card, not peer in their windows.)

I catch up to them at their house, as 50% lung function does not make for moving quickly through deep sand.

Again, they were super nice and offer water, which I thought was for me, but was for my yellow lab, though I did think about getting down on all fours to share it.

We talked about the Artwalk. Joan forgot her phone, and they too were disappointed in the lack of artwork. I complimented her husband on an amazing career in Hollywood – I looked it up on the Internet. And I told him he should write a book about the experiences on the different movies. At some point, I slipped in a stupid comment about wanting to make sure everything was good, as I’m prone to saying stupid things. It’s a blur how I threw that comment in. (Come on, I’m insane. I’ll never know where the stuff that comes out of my mouth comes from or why.)

(Now here is the “breaking up with people who probably already broke up with you” part of the story.)

So, Joan asks how long we’ll be in town, as if to hook up with us again. (In a Bronx accent in my head: Oh, no you didn’t. Oh, no you didn’t just say that.) I’m having none of it. No way. She’s just being polite. How many unreturned messages will it lead to? I can read the signs, babe.

“That’s okay,” I say. “We don’t want to bother you. I just stopped by to give you my card in case I can answer any questions about the car. That’s it. “

“Well, we know how to get in touch with you then,” she said.

We say goodbye.

Back to the beach, I went, Luna, hydrated, at my side.

Was it the orange Cheetos stain on my shorts? My week-old, bristly beard and the four long hairs sticking out of my left cheek that I was too lazy to shave or pluck? How stupid did I sound? What mistake did I make?

I’m sure they were relived after I left and looked at each other in agreement that meeting strangers on the beach would be something they would never do again.

BUT THEY CAME TO OUR RENTAL HOUSE TWICE! Twice. I don’t get it.

I’ll never know what happened. And that’s the part that will drive me crazy – for frickin’ ever and a day.

ARGGGGGHHHHH. Damn dogs. Next time, I’m getting two pit bulls, not cute, friendly Labradors.

The ocean never disappoints

Our yellow lab loves the water. And she gives her endorsement of this blog post.

Our yellow lab loves the water. And she gives her endorsement of this blog post.

I’m on a work-cation with my family this week. Ventura, 8 houses from the beach, with a clean view of the ocean from the upper deck.

And it’s great, as always. I would live here if I could solve the puzzle of how to make it happen. My lotto-ticket strategy has been a wash-out of an idea.

This was a supposed to be two weeks of vacation for me, but work killed the “cation” part, though I had most of Friday off. At least I’ve been able to work 8 or 9-hour days and get to the beach in the late afternoons. That is the best part because, as I said in the title of this post, the ocean never disappoints.

I’d make a mess trying to explain what that means, but it’s what I think every time I stand there and look at the water. And maybe it comes from my new way of living in the moment – treating it like my last – noticing more, and staying off my Blackberry, which fizzled out yesterday in a Ziploc bag that was supposed to keep the salt water out – but didn’t. Now the phone lives in white rice. Fingers crossed it comes back to life.

The dogs enjoy the beach like my daughter at age 5 enjoyed Disneyland, when Princess-chasing was a sport. The dogs chase the tennis ball until they can’t. I had to check to see if Cali was still alive the other night. I jabbed at her with my feet to move off the end of the bed and she didn’t respond. I put my hand on her chest to check her breathing. Out like a light, but alive.

That’s it for today. A simple post. No faux heart or panic attacks to write about. No stress. Just more good fortune of having everything I need today.

Unwanted house guests – Ben and Willard

Friday morning, with our daughter at school and yellow lab still at the animal hospital, my wife and I started noticing little 3/4-inch, rolled-up mud-like pieces around the house and on the furniture. Now though my wife is much smarter than I am (I only use 2% of my brain on my best days), I was the first to identify what we were seeing.

But it took a process of elimination and overcoming denial to get there.

Cali is a true care-free California Labrador. She is yours for free. Pick up only. Call 555-5555.

Cali is a true care-free California Labrador. She is yours for free. Pick up only. Call 555-5555.

Theory #1: Cali, our crazy black lab, dragged them in. She likes to eat poop. She must have spit them out, or kept them up in her cheeks or something.

My response to my wife: I don’t think so.

Action: We rolled Cali over on her back, checked her paws and fur, and looked in her mouth. Nothing there but a confused dog wondering why were inspecting every inch of her.

Theory #2: They fell off of my wife’s running shoes. It has been raining here for days. She must have stepped in mud and it somehow found its way onto the floor and furniture during the night.

My response to my wife: I don’t think so.

Action: My wife inspected her shoes. No mud. Tread pattern different.

At this point, I knew what they were. Thousands of years of hunter/gatherer evolution led me to the answer. But now, unlike my cavemen brothers who only had fire, I had a greater tool – the Internet.

So, while my wife tested theories 3 – 50 – asteroid dust – check for a hole in the roof – to Google Images I went. And sure enough I had a perfect match on my first try. Now I just had to tell my wife. Being the communications expert that I am, I let her know in the kindest, gentlest way possible.

“Rat poop.” [See how I softened “shit” to “poop.” Genius, I say.”]

“What?” she said.

“Rat poop. They’re rat poop. And those little wet spots: rat pee.”

“You’re kidding me?”

I wish I were kidding her, like I dreamed up the grossest prank I could to get in her good graces and mom jeans, which she doesn’t actually wear, but they sound funny. But I wasn’t joking. Sometime during the night, while our fierce black lab was sleeping on the floor of our small house, rats entered through the dog door and had a party.

[Please check out Craigslist, Los Angeles today and take home a free 1 year-old black lab with zero rat-hunting skills.]

The exterminator was there by noon, and he set traps inside our house, and promised to return next week with a Rat Death-House: rats go in, but they don’t come out. Two cat paws up for that.

Luna, recovering and wasted on sedatives and pain pills. Black spots courtesy of my daughter using the camera and getting the lens dirty.

Luna, recovering and wasted on sedatives and pain pills. Black spots courtesy of my daughter using the camera and getting the lens dirty.

My favorite exterminator quote: “They usually don’t enter houses with dogs.”

[Craigslist, Los Angeles posting: Free black lab to rat-free home.]

My wife and daughter hung out all day in the bedroom/office. And my daughter wore her boots at all times, lest some human-hunting rat with a taste for a 10-year-old took a run at her.

Then I had another brilliant idea last night, hunter that I am. I slept in the leather chair in the middle of the war zone, Ping 7-iron at my side and black lab on dog bed at my feet.

If you’re a husband, then I’m pretty sure you’ll appreciate this next statement: No one can put a pin in your ego and deflate it quite like a wife can. Especially when we try to do heroic things, like sleep in the middle of rat-infested battleground to protect females sleeping like little princesses in the bedroom next door.

Me: “So, I made it through the night. No rats. All clear.”

Wife: “But you left all the lights on.”

Me: “Yeah. So. What difference does that make? They come out with the lights on. When it’s silent, quiet. They have to go to the bathroom at some point.”

Wife: “They can go where they are. They’re rats.”

Me: “They’d come out to go.”

Wife: “How would you have noticed them?”

Me: “Cali barks, I wake up.”

Wife: “Oh, like you woke up when I came out to feed her this morning and she ran all over the place, whining and barking? I turned off the alarm too, which is pretty loud. But there you were sleeping like a baby, with one slipper hanging off your foot” [acts out what I looked like sleeping on the chair].

Me: “You came out to feed her this morning? Really?”

Hmm, yes, I am a heavy sleeper. And, yes, I didn’t notice any of these events, which made me think how lucky I was that I didn’t wake up thinking my dog was snuggling with me during the night only to discover she was back in the bedroom with my wife and daughter.

Ah, heroic plans dashed, crushed, smashed by the love of my life.

The woolly mammoth I brought back to the cave was undersized and couldn’t feed the clan. And I got a beating for it.

It’s not the thought that counts when you’re a hunter. It’s showing off a blood-covered Ping golf club and a dozen rat carcasses to your wife when she wakes up that matters. It’s scrambled prehistoric vulture eggs with chunks of fresh rat meat that matters. Yep, it’s feeding the clan.

However, later today, when I said to my wife, “I suck at rat-hunting,” she replied, “Were there any rat-poops this morning?”

“No.”

“Then you did your job.”

Ego restored. Just like that. Magic.

Yes, yes, I did my job. I could be a caveman after all.

The bionic dog

This summer was an expensive but fun one for us. Kitchen remodel. Month at the beach. New right knee for our yellow lab.

At the dog beach.

Adios, home equity. It was nice knowing you.

But as I said to my wife the other day, “Money, you can’t eat it when you’re dead.”

She said, “that doesn’t make sense.” And she was correct. It doesn’t. Sometimes, the stuff just comes out of my mouth.

Earlier this year, our yellow lab tore her ACL in one knee, and had a partial tear in the other. The vet told us it’s common for the second knee to tear 100 percent after the first surgery. And he was correct. It did. We had hoped it wouldn’t, but last week we noticed Luna limping and keeping it off the ground, a bad sign.

Off to the vet my wife went. Second tear confirmed.

It was less of a decision of whether to do the second surgery – another 5K burned – as it was of when to do the surgery. After a day of discussion, we decided to do it right away. We can’t stand to watch Luna limp around, not to mention that it must hurt. So, in she goes this week for the second bionic knee filled with screws (pretty much what holds my brain together). After that there is a three-month recovery period (the first month is the hardest, because we have to restrict her to the dog bed, except for going out to fertilize the lawn). In four months, she’ll be pulling a sled again. Or should be to earn back the cost of the two surgeries.

To pay for the operation, we’ll be cutting back in 2013. We placed a vase on the dining table and scraps of paper in the mouth of a nutcracker. Each time we save money, we write it down and drop it in. Last night, I lowered our DirecTV subscription. Goodbye, Laker’s games. Hello, $300 saved over the next 12 months.

Oh, that wet dog smell.

My daughter also gave up Little Pony episodes, which she wasn’t thrilled about. She almost got a late-night ass-chewing from my wife when she said: “you aren’t giving up anything, Mama,” not comprehending the money going out the door was also earned by her mother.

We’ll be thinking up other ways to cut out spending in 2013. I gave up Christmas presents from my wife and daughter. And the landline phone may be going – why do we have it and two cell phones?

And, as Luna’s picture made two 2013 dog calendars, we’re thinking of letting people take their pictures with her for 5 bucks a pop. I can tell you exactly how much this plan will make – $15. Five from my wife, my daughter and me.

All of this for the love of a dog we raised from a pup alongside our daughter. What choice did we have?

Mesmerize me

Here are a few things that get my attention and hold it.

Dogs playing. We keep our two dogs in the kitchen during the day because the puppy works for a demolition company and chews the s**t out of everything if we let her loose in the house. I often walk in and find the two of them fighting each other in a playful way that makes me wonder when blood will start spraying like a Monty Python movie.

I hang out, watch them duel, feel thankful they don’t have antlers, and forget why I walked in the kitchen.

M&Ms, Smarties, and/or saltwater taffy, of course.

Go Broncos. Finish 2 and 14 and draft Andrew Luck, please.

Football games. What can I say. Even after all these years, I still like football and the Denver Broncos. And I’m sticking to my guns about Tim Tebow – he has heart but no NFL QB skills. When will the fans start yelling, “Quinn, Quinn”? However, football still has the power to make me plant myself on the couch for three hours.

Victoria’s Secret Commercials. I’m embarrassed to admit this one. Okay, I’m not. I can fast forward through a TV show at top forwarding speed, read on my iPad at the same time while I listen to music and talk to my wife, and still catch the quick flicker of a VS commercial.

And every time I stop, rewind and play it, my wife shakes her head and wonders why she ever decided to go out on a date with complete idiot like me.

I’m not sure, but I love her so much I’m building her a time machine.

Tricky commercials. One of the first lessons I taught my daughter was how commercials don’t tell the truth and deceive us. Beer ads don’t use exotic locales like AA meeting halls and skid row. Banks don’t loan people money because they’re nice. And only one in 100,000 people is going to learn the Chinese alphabet on an iPad (an app used once by my daughter who had to have it). And much to my disappointment no bird ever flew out of a box of Coco Puffs.

But I watch certain commercials like one might watch a magician perform a trick – how did he do that? I know, or at least I think I do.

Would you think less of me if I told you I've seen this movie over 10 times - or parts of it 10 times?

Movies I’ve seen five times or more. If I’m up late on a weekend and a movie I like comes on, one I can recite the dialogue to, I can’t stop watching it. Even with the power of a DVR at my fingertips, I stay up way too late and suffer the next day.

Examples include: Predator, Road House, Ronin, Heat, Bullitt, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and a myriad of others. I can’t explain it but if I record the movie and watch it the next day it’s like eating a day-old bagel my daughter forgot to seal in a bag – stale.

Stay alert.