Friday, December 25, 2009

A Major Change

"I'm changing my major to art."

Look up these five words and you'll find they roughly translate into "I'm going to make no money."

Just what every parent with a kid in college wants to hear.

"It doesn't matter- just so long as they're happy, healthy, have ten fingers and ten toes..."

Yeah, but couldn't five of those fingers be pushing around numbers on a spread sheet instead of paint on a canvas? Wouldn't six figures bring you closer to health and happiness?

My parents silently accepted my proclamation, although I'm certain these questions, among others, were swirling around in their heads. I had entered Penn State as a pre-veterinary major, and here I was, in the middle of my first term, being lured by the sirens of the art world. You can count on a siren for a romantic notion or two, but you won't see too many of them forking over the rent money. My education, room and board were being completely subsidized at the time so I didn't understand the satisfaction of security, nor was I planning on worrying about it anytime soon. Tomorrow was another day, and frankly, my dear, I didn't give a damn about the details.

As a child, when asked what I wanted to be when I would grow up, I would answer, "A ballerina or a veterinarian." Considering that there are more than six degrees of separation between toe shoes and a terrier's testicles, you could say that I hadn't as yet made up my mind. Careful not to be blatantly discouraging, but doubting my commitment to the veterinary cause, my mother would say, "You know, Joan - you have to do more than love them. You have to clean up after them, too."

You also have to make it through your first term of classes.

Penn State's sprawling campus and enrollment of 40,000 did not intimidate the small town girl, but disappointing test grades and a handful of teeth-baring pre-veterinary majors proved to be more than an annoyance. They were driven and ruthless right out of the gate; I now admire their single-minded passion, but I was not up for the fight at the time. This particular dog-eat-dog world would not work for me.

An elective course in graphic art led me to the dark side. My Darth Vader came in the form of a charismatic printmaking instructor I met while struggling through the land of press type and cut and paste. Looking to increase his own enrollment, he convinced me to take a course in "intaglio" or metal plate printmaking. I took the bait and entered the print shop...

... and left four years later with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in printmaking. Armed with academic idealism and a reasonable amount of artistic knowledge, I landed back at my parents' home. My own collegiate experience had been quite the bipolar ride; I had spent hours laboring over lithographic stones and zinc plates yet managed to shape my social persona as well. It was not all work and no play for Joan, and she did not emerge a dull girl. Who better to light the fires of future students? A position as a printmaking professor at a university my objective, I set about applying to graduate schools in pursuit of a Master's degree. Giving in to immature confidence, I targeted only two schools and was accepted by neither. On to Plan B.

Plan B was intended to be implemented for the short term; I never imagined it could span two decades. I took a job as a hostess in "Wanda's on the Park", a restaurant in the Wilkes-Barre Sheraton Hotel, looking forward to saving some money and reapplying to graduate schools the following year. Waitressing at a favorite lunch spot followed and soon I was up to my neck in dishes and double shifts. By chance, I encountered a Penn State alumnus on her way to New York and in need of a roommate, so off I went to the Big Apple, with my Master's Degree a dot in the rear view mirror.

Sharing a duplex with four other women, I secured a server position at the Plaza Hotel's Palm Court. Although more glamorous than a luncheonette, I'm sure that my parents had doubts about their four year college investment being used to artfully place a piece of cake on a plate. How about that dollop of whipped cream with three strawberries as a garnish? Now, that was worth something.

Twelve years passed in the big city, and I found myself married and looking for a house. Once settled in upstate New York, I began to look for waitressing work. Though kept alive, my creative pursuits had never generated much income. "Good evening. Would you care for something to drink?"

My skills in the hospitality business, though not my vision of a career, have served me well. (Get it?) These days my plate-toting is limited to my own dinner and a few private parties. I have yet to stumble upon my big artistic break or institute the mechanism to make it happen and I'm sorry to say that my parents will never see an artistic economic return on their tuition dollars. House portraits and pet portraits have generated a lot of interest and little cash flow. "She's so talented; if only she could find her niche.", my father would say.

Though Mom and Dad may have had reservations about my choices, they rarely voiced negative opinions. They listened as I ran on about the exquisite nature of lithography limestones quarried from a singular source in France. My ink-stained hands were the color of a mechanic's, yet it was unlikely that they would earn me as much. Keeping quiet, my parents let me find my own unconventional way.

Easter of 2005 was the last time they visited my home; two months later my mother would enter a nursing home with dementia. As I prepared dinner in the kitchen, my father surfed through the televison channels and landed on a religious drama. When the image of a young boy hammering hieroglyphics into a stone appeared, Dad casually remarked, "There's Joan in college."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa Has Left the Building

Two nights ago I made an honest attempt to catch Clint Eastwood's latest film, "Invictus", at the Regal Cinemas in the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall. Running about 15 minutes late (not bad for "Joan Standard Time"), I arrived at the theater to find a long ticket line standing between me and the movie. Deciding that I should see this particular story from the beginning, I aborted my original plan and took a stroll around the mall. After about ten minutes of dodging kiosk salesmen and stray children, I started to head back to my car and towards a glass of wine at one of my favorite restaurants.

Before leaving the mall, I caught sight of a poster that read "Paws and Claus. Pet portraits with Santa. Mondays 6-9". Housebound by the recent cold snap, Ms. Grace was in need of an outing and a trip to the mall seemed just the ticket. I'd bring my Heidi Klum back the next night for her very own photo shoot. Now, back to that cabernet.

We arrived at the mall at about 8:15 on Monday and jogged through the parking lot to the mall entrance. The photos were being taken at the opposite end of the building, so we made our way through the waves of holiday shoppers, only to find that Santa had finished his shift at 8:00. "I'm sorry- there was a typo on the advertisement. You can bring her back tomorrow morning, if you'd like. We could fit her in before it gets too busy with the kids." Thanking the very nice young woman behind the counter, I knew that I would not be back the next day. I had brought my own camera, so I figured I'd grab a few shots of Grace amid the holiday decorations while she socialized with the shoppers. Our mission would be accomplished.

We got about twenty feet away from the photo studio when we were stopped by a baby-faced security guard who informed me that only certified therapy dogs were allowed in the mall. I explained that we had missed the Santa shoot and that we had to walk back through the building to the car. With sheepish authority, he advised me to avoid the food court. "We had an incident today with a small dog-someone had an allergic reaction." I thought to myself that said reaction was more than likely due to MSG infested Chinese takeout, but I held my tongue and politely went on my way.

At the risk of sounding like yet another overly infatuated parent, I can't get over the effect my dog has on people. Whether it was her goofy grin or the showgirl swish of her hindquarters, she captured the attention of countless passers-by. Undoubtedly, a dog out doing her holiday shopping might prompt a second glance, but the hugs and kisses bestowed upon Gracie as she continued along her promenade appeared to be the product of her own brand of magic. I kept my eye out for the next authority figure who would bust us as I allowed Grace her share of the limelight. She was in dog heaven.

We made a quick stop at Petco's treat bar where I filled a bag of mixed biscuits while Gracie cleaned the floor and grabbed a cookie or two out of the bins. A few more petting sessions and a display of tricks for the cashier and we were on our way back home.

Craving a cup of coffee, I turned into Dunkin' Donuts. As I reached onto the floor for my purse, I looked into the store window and saw a familiar character in a red suit. Santa! I hurriedly unzipped my camera case, grabbed Gracie's leash and jumped out of the car just as he was walking out the door. "Santa! May I take a picture of you with my dog?" As calmly as any man capable of delivering millions of presents in one evening while at the helm of eight tiny reindeer, he said, "Why of course."

He handed me his card, which identified him as a "real beard Santa", available for private and corporate parties, holiday parades and Christmas Eve. Apparently a distinction has been made between the St. Nicks who sport their own growth and those who don prosthetic fuzz; this fellow was the jolliest of natural specimens.

After taking some quick shots, Santa asked if I would snap a few on his disposable camera. I obliged as he explained that his stepfather was battling cancer and he was sure that the photo would cheer up his mother. Popping Gracie back in the car, I thanked Santa, wished him well and went inside to grab my coffee. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I smiled as I saw Santa on his cellphone, standing next to his minivan.

Ho, Ho, Ho. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Twisted Sister

A third grader bowed his head in an attempt to hide the tears as they spilled beneath his horn-rimmed glasses. His apparent plight caught the eye of his teacher, who quietly asked him what was causing his distress. She might have expected him to complain about homework, a test score, or a class bully. Instead, he looked up at her and proclaimed with a sigh,


I'm pretty sure he would have preferred the bully.

My mother relayed this story to me, and although it sounds like one of those "cat in the microwave" urban myths, I always thought it would make a great first scene in the independent film of my life. Whether or not this actually took place, the foundation of an eight year old boy was severely shaken the day I was born.

Wayne was a wonderful child who followed all the rules. He did what was asked of him and took exceptional care of his belongings. When walking up the street to visit his grandmother, he could be trusted to safely avoid the dangers of the road by adhering to the grass along the edges. No need to worry about this kid. But look out for number two.

I took it upon myself to cover all the bases Wayne had missed with his good behavior. I whined, I cried and threw fiery tantrums. My father fenced in our entire yard, as I could disappear before the hat dropped. Having yet to learn respect for the possessions of others, I was the terror of the toy box. The human equivalent of an untrained puppy, platoons of my brother's plastic soldiers fell victim to my teething jaws and I was incredibly difficult to housebreak. I preferred the feel of a clean diaper but was resistant to toilet training, so I often took it upon myself to empty out the contents behind the downstairs couch. More often than not, it was my brother who would make a gruesome discovery while playing with his friends. Yep, I was a real princess.

The gap in our ages made it unlikely that we would be the best of friends during our formative years. We travelled in our respective circles and he was simply my older brother while I was his pain-in-the-ass little sister. Passing years brought differing opinions and heated arguments often ending in accusations of favoritism; although neither of us had ever wanted for anything, it was clear that I was "Daddy's little girl".

We managed our aging parents' care with minimal contact. Only the rare special event would find us back home at the same time. Throughout my mother's nursing home tenure and my father's cancer, decisions were questioned and tensions mounted. Dad quietly wished that we would somehow mend our fences, but he wasted no time on fruitless peace-making measures.

As we tag-teamed our visits to watch over Dad in his final weeks, the tide unexpectedly turned. Sweet little singing birds did not pull back the curtains to reveal a pot of golden friendship at the end of a glistening rainbow, but we could clearly see the benefits of compromise. We helped each other through my father's passing and seamlessly joined forces as we faced the aftermath of his life. I never would have imagined a "feel good" Hollywood ending for this independent film and I can't explain how I let it come about. Dad tried to tell me that I would need my brother, but I had so often refused to listen. I guess I'll just assume that the bug up my ass had affected my hearing.

Watch out for those bugs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

"So they sold the house up on the corner, and you'll never guess who bought it."

I shuffled through my list of improbable or fascinating potential inhabitants, and since it was unlikely that either Britney Spears or Bill Clinton would relocate to Trucksville, Pa., I came up blank.

"A gay couple."

Definitely not on my list, I quipped, "Well Dad, their yard will always look nice."

Having learned that an old man's mind should be allowed to open at its own pace, I withheld my views on acceptance and tolerance. With the exception of a few years in an apartment in the nearby town of Forty-Fort and a stint in the war, he had spent his entire life on the same block. He could admit change or quietly live alongside it with benign indifference. I decided to leave it up to him.

Nine years have passed since Wade Shaw and Jim Hawk took up residence on Vonderheid St., causing not even the slightest stir. A close knit community, I was fortunate to have my father surrounded by wonderful friends as I tried to manage his care from 3 hours away. Watchful eyes surveyed the house, monitoring the safety of the lonely old man within. Wade and Jim joined the team, sending down food and paying friendly visits. Sexual orientation was not at the table as my father and Wade would trade car stories and discuss the history of the local yokels. Just two regular guys "shooting the shit", as Dad would so elegantly say.

Firmly believing that no one should be alone on the holidays, Wade and Jim welcomed my father to their table, where he was treated to the warmth of family and the comfort of delicious food. I began a tradition of taking Dad up on Christmas Eve, as he was reticent to go alone after Mom's death. We shared laughs, exchanged presents, and gave new meaning to "Dad's night out with the boys".

My father didn't understand that being gay is not a choice. He was a "man's man" and held on tight to decades-old beliefs. Oftentimes, I would find myself wincing at my father's point of view on certain subjects, but he was remarkably low key in his assessment of his neighbors' lifestyle. As we walked back down to his house after a Christmas Eve visit, he started to speak and I fully expected a long overdue defamation. Instead he said, "Did you notice that those guys wear shorts and barefeet even in the winter? Now, that's pretty weird."

"Yeah," I answered. "That's pretty weird."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Calamity Jen

I've never been to Europe. Except for a few cross-country trips and a couple of island vacations, I wouldn't consider myself much of a world traveler. Hell, I haven't even seen the world's largest ball of string or South Dakota's corn palace. My path seldom varies, yet I have been able to intersect with some genuine characters. As a result, I have in my possession a choice collection of crazy and cool friends.

Jenny Booth moved into our neighborhood when I was in the sixth grade. She lived next door to my best friend Laurie Fry and I soon became the third wheel on a bicycle which clearly needed only two at a time. Since my house was about a block away, I often found myself left out of the loop and pissed off. (Those who remain close to me might cite the beginning of a pattern, but that's subject matter for another cup of coffee.) In spite of occasional tensions, we managed to rack up quite a few wonderful adventures. Having full run of the then undeveloped woodlands above Laurie's house, we hiked, camped and even built a fort that was the envy of the neighborhood boys. Laurie and Jennifer were remarkably tolerant of my moodiness and insistent behavior and had front row seats to watch as the seeds of anal retention sprouted. "Of course we'll buy galvanized nails for the fort, Joan. You're right- we must have galvanized nails." In return, I provided them with plenty of fodder for healthy laughter as I attempted to shed my uptight and prissy skin. You can imagine the response when I showed up for a camping trip with a satin pillowcase. As the other kids chanted, "Harrison's got a satin pillow!" I tried to explain that it was an old one my mother had given me, but the imagined shade of my blood had already turned an ostracizing shade of blue.

Although we moved in and out of each others lives throughout high school, the bonds were never broken. Laurie chose to go to college in Washington state, while I remained closer to home at the main campus of Penn State in State College. Jenny was two years behind us and our relationship strengthened as I came back for breaks and summer vacations. Her family became my "second family"; I loved being with the Booths and their extended clan on holidays and the annual family reunion on Memorial Day. My folks were understandably jealous as I had chosen another family over my own, but the feelings melted away as they were brought into the fold and went on to become good friends with Jenny's parents, John and Donna.

Eventually, Jenny heard the call of the west. Her passion for horses led her to Phoenix, where she landed a job at a racetrack. Not particularly enamoured with the industry, she moved on to Cody, Wyoming where she became a "wrangler" at Valley Ranch, a beautifully rustic lodge on the Shoshone River. Along with the demanding care of the horses, she tended to the equine needs of the guests as she led them through the surrounding countryside on horseback. The abilities of the riders were varied and often a test for the guide's patience, but Jenny rose to the task and performed her duties, with what else, grace.

The following years played out like a series of red dots traversing a map in a spy movie. My address book has pages of crossed-out listings chronicling her whereabouts. After Cody, she touched down in Arizona, doing a brief stint at an Arabian farm. Moving on to Stanley, Idaho, a tiny town nestled in the Sawtooth mountains about an hour from Ketchum and Sun Valley, she led pack trips in the summer and drove teams of draft horses as they pulled sleighs full of guests into the snow-covered mountains. At the end of the ride, they found a wonderful dinner waiting for them, and I suppose it was at this time that Jenny began to hone her culinary skills. Clever and creative, she went beyond franks and beans into the land of homemade croissants and sauteed sweet potatoes. "Now that's French, ain't it? Why that little lady sure can cook up some fancy grub! And she's a hell of a lot easier on the eyes than some old codger in his undershirt and suspenders..." Sorry-guess I was out riding the range for a few sentences. Back to the saga.

After five years in Idaho, she moved on to Telluride, Colorado, where she spent the following five years working as a wrangler at the Skyline guest ranch. Her next stop was Reno, Nevada, where she was able to devote herself to another of her passions-carving. Her designs, mostly equine in nature, were drawn on the face of a moose antler and executed, using a Dremel, with precision and fluidity. Though one might think of antler carvings as somewhat kitschy, these are not your grandmother's crocheted poodle toilet paper holders. The forms pulled out of the antler are detailed and energetic, surrounded by a seemingly in motion negative space. She received commissions for her pieces and continued with her work until, you guessed it, she moved.

Back to Telluride for a few years, and then on to Durango, Colorado ( are you out of breath yet? ), where she stayed put for nearly a decade. She trained cutting horses, willing and athletic animals prized for their ability to separate a cow from its herd, and even went on to excel in competitions. Her days were long, and the work to maintain the barn and grounds, backbreaking. Burnout began to set in and seeking a change of pace, she took a framing job at an online art gallery. She honed her computer skills and enjoyed the camaraderie of her fellow workers. The gallery was sold a few years into her tenure, and she found herself at another crossroad. So...

This past year, she moved back to Cody. She hit the ground running, and took advantage of a myriad of opportunities. She works part time in an art gallery, took a position at a bank, and signed on as cook for several hunting camps. Not surprisingly, the bank job didn't hold her interest, but it wasn't long before she was back in the saddle again. She is now assistant to the performance horse trainer at a privately owned operation which focuses mainly on reined cow horses and cutting disciplines. Back in Cody's arms, she has built a new life filled with satisfying work and wonderful friends. It seems that my cowgirl friend has come full circle.

Welcome home, Jenny.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Leaf Me Alone

Green Acres is the place to be.
Farm living is the life for me.
Land spreading out so far and wide.
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.
New York is where I'd rather stay.
I get allergic smelling hay.
I just adore a penthouse view.
Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue.

The chores! The stores! Fresh air! Times Square!

You are my wife. Goodbye city life!
Green Acres, we are there.

We may not be Oliver and Lisa Douglas, but my husband Brian and I did make our own foray into rural America nearly 15 years ago. Our life in Queens, New York had become cramped and congested. Even the additional storage unit we rented couldn't accommodate the seasonal pile of snow tires under our table. Reaching the "it's time to stop throwing money away on rent" fork in the road, we decided we were ready to stake our claim in the name of home equity. Our search for a house began and ended in upstate New York.

There was never any doubt that our flight from the city would lead us northward. Brian's job near White Plains ruled out a laborious commute from Long Island and we weren't lured westward by the song of New Jersey. The fond memory of day trips to Rhinebeck drew us to the Hudson Valley; it was beautiful, within a reasonable driving range and, at the time, affordable.

When asked how we wound up in Stanfordville, I laughingly reply, "By mistake." We had come to the conclusion that the village of Rhinebeck itself might be a bit pricey, so we began to look at the surrounding areas. Off the beaten path and just south of Rhinebeck, the hamlet of Staatsburg emerged as the strongest contender. It was quaint, quiet, and within striking distance of the Hudson River, which appealed to me as I had hoped to reacquaint myself with my passion for landscape painting. A listing in a local paper caught Brian's eye, and soon we were off and running towards our new life in the country.

As we followed the realtor, I was struck by the absence of a river. We had begun to head east off the Taconic Parkway, and even I, in all my directionally dysfunctional glory, was doubting the promise of a sunset over the Hudson. Sure enough, the property was listed as being in Staatsburg, instead of its actual location in Stanfordville, 16 miles northeast of Poughkeepsie, in the heart of "Hunt Country".

Keeping an open mind, we looked at only two listings before we decided that this mistake was the happiest of accidents. The second property included a well-maintained, yet simple ranch on a potentially lovely setting of 5 acres. Hidden by trees, a small stream traveled through the back yard; we were certain we would be able to clear the land to secure a view of the water from our picture window. Although the house was conceptually stuck in the seventies, we were not frightened off by the burnt orange wall to wall carpeting and the amber plastic inset into cutouts in the wall between the hallway and living room. On his first visit, my brother-in-law dubbed the kitchen's wrought-iron enclosed orb of a light fixture a fine example of "Mediterranean Sci-Fi". I think you get the idea.

Curiously, these dated decorations added to the appeal of the house, as did its owners. I might as well have been visiting my parents-she was sweet and personable, he was straightforward with a touch of cranky practicality. Unfortunately, this comparison may have lessened our clout at the bargaining table; we were ineffective hagglers who let sentimentality get in the way of a great deal. No matter, we had our first home.

Fifteen years, four dogs, and two cats later, we are still here. The transition from the urban center of the universe to the middle of nowhere was not as difficult as we had imagined. Brian's 1 1/2 hour commute is a straight shot down the Taconic Parkway; far less stressful than the same trip on the Long Island Expressway would have been. Initially, I worked at a succession of restaurants and odd jobs, but have dodged the full time employment bullet for some time now. My days are spent maintaining my home, my creative pursuits, and until recently, the care and feeding of elderly parents. Although I can be heard bitching about my indentured servitude as a "yard slave", I have inherited my father's pride in a well-maintained property. I suppose I can thank him for the energy I can summon up to haul 30+ tarps of leaves into the surrounding woods. I suppose I can thank him later.

My folks loved to come and visit, but would admit that our location was too rural for their tastes. There is a compromise of distance and convenience; Mom would have found it difficult to indulge in her shopping obsession with a 40 minute drive standing in the way. The closeness of neighbors comforted them, while I prefer to hide my quirks behind a tree line.

When someone would ask my father where I lived, he would tell them "Hooterville". I rarely corrected him and had my own chuckle as I saw the irony in such a jab coming from a man who had lived nearly his entire life in a town called "Trucksville".

Back at ya, Dad.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Seven Year Bitch

Dateline- Brewster, N.Y. November 17, 2002... An expectant Golden Retriever paces and paws in a classic nesting fashion, and when the moment is right, she settles down for the blessed event. Hours of exhaustion, elation, and suspense bring a healthy and beautiful litter of pups. Mom kicks back while the kids begin to nurse; it's been quite a day.

Happy Birthday, Gracie.

Seven years old, the canine equivalent of my fifty, she remains svelte and sassy. This is in no part due to the practice of moderation, mind you. Ms. G. is the ultimate party girl and has no concept of when to stop. There are never too many tennis balls, no frisbee game is long enough, and petting sessions should last until the cows come home and go back out again. She does her time on the couch until the rustling of a coat or the turn of a knob promise a new adventure and propels her toward the front door. The destination has no bearing on her level of excitement- the Vanderbilt mansion, Petco, the front yard. She is the ultimate optimist. Or her closeted marijuana habit has taken its toll on her judgement and short term memory; I'll let you know if we catch her in the act.

I look at Gracie and I see a timeline of years that have passed so quickly. She has helped me through the mundane and the monumental. At times her sense of humor makes it possible to hold on to my own. Few things can bring you out of a funk like a dog parading through your father's kitchen with a thong in her mouth. Or a bra. Or a box of tampons. Her inappropriateness has no boundaries- she accompanied me to meet with the pastor scheduled to speak at Dad's funeral, and managed to steal a donut off the desk of one of the women in the office. My embarrassment was momentary, as the ladies, all dog lovers, burst into laughter and invited her to drop by anytime for another donut. She may not have been an obedience school valedictorian, but she was, and is, the class clown with honors.

My first Golden Retriever, Emma, was not yet five when I lost her to liver cancer. Within two days of her passing, I had an eight week old Gracie in my arms. My parents, saddened by Emma's death, had helped me pay for her medical expenses. Feeling a little guilty that I had turned around and spent more money on another dog, I didn't tell them right away- a fine example of a middle-aged woman resorting to teenage white lies.

About a week passed before I decided to take Gracie home to Pennsylvania to meet the grandparents. Bonnie, the notorious Scotty/Jack Russell mix still lived with me, so I told them I was bringing her along for a visit. I turned onto my folks' street and imagined my father telling me what an idiot I was to take on a puppy and the subsequent bills. Instead, when I walked into the dining room where Dad sat in his lazy boy, he took one look and my golden ball of fluff and yelled to my mom, "Rose, take a look at this."

With respect to the wall-to wall carpet in the rest of the house , we barricaded Gracie in the kitchen, and laughed out loud as she went through her repertoire of puppy antics. As I smiled and let go of any concern for my parents' assessment of my sanity, my father turned to me and said, "Honey, it was the best thing you could have done."

Thanks, Dad.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hanging Up His Hat

One week ago today I buried my father. We said our goodbyes on a windy hillside, warmed by the the possibility of his reunion with my mother. Although he battled with pain and ultimately, sickness, for some time, the actual end came surprisingly fast. His suffering finally over, I am surprised at how I am unable to share his relief. I guess no amount of preparation readies you for the stunning reality of loss and the emptiness that follows.

For nearly five years, my father has been the object of my steady, if not constant surveillance. From the moment my mother entered the nursing home with dementia, I telephoned Dad twice a day. I returned home more frequently, bringing chocolate chip, sugar and peanut butter cookies and a variety of dinners I had prepared and frozen in single-serving containers. I washed his dog, mowed his grass and carted his leaves to the dump. He was my project, my pet old man.

After my mother's death, he tearfully expressed his desire to join her. "I wish I could lie next to her. It would be so much easier for everyone if I could just 'pop off'." His pleas were heartfelt, but not easy to take over the long haul. My attempts to redirect his sadness were not always successful and exhausted me from time to time. A "spoonful of sugar" may work for the general public, but not the Harrisons. We can be a moody, dramatic troupe, with a hint of the martyr. When we find a funk, we tend to stay there until we're good and ready to come out. Makes you want to stop over for a spot of tea, doesn't it?

So now he's gone and the whirlwind of funeral planning has passed. The flowers have been donated or given away and I'm left with just a few thank you notes to write. While I am grateful for the opportunity to take a breath and get my own house in order, I will miss my care taking years. I complained about the running back and forth, the ramping up before each visit and my father's weeping on a dime. Wouldn't you know it, I'd do it all over again. I used to think people were crazy when they said that, so I guess you can consider me certifiable.

Goodbye, Dad. I love you.

Thomas J. Harrison April 17th, 1926 - November 3, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Little Bad Bonnie

"Want a puppy? She's awfully cute." I heard these words fourteen years ago while working at a local restaurant. Common sense must have been on sabbatical; the next day my husband and I found ourselves at a hunt club checking out our third dog. She was adorable in spite of her questionable pedigree. Her mother, a Scottish Terrier named Cora, belonged to the daughter of the woman who took care of the club's army of hounds. Unsupervised while in heat, Cora had an encounter with a Jack Russell Terrier named, of all things, "Chance". The coupling resulted in two pups, one of which was about to become the next monkey wrench in our lives.

Bonnie barrelled into our home and straight to the food dish without a hint of respect for the canine hierarchy already in place. Sheila, our Australian Shepard, and Wednesday, the raggedy old man we rescued from the streets of New York City, saw their worlds rocked that day. Seniority had no meaning for the swaggering combination of Napoleon and James T. Kirk-she came, she saw, and she most definitely conquered.

The "Scotch Terrier" had a limited tolerance for other dogs, especially females. Since he was old enough to have maybe one or two of his senses in working order, Wednesday couldn't care less. Sheila, however, often found herself at odds with Bonnie and fights would end up with a trip to the vet's office. Our newest addition was an incendiary bomb, going off in a succession of squeals and howls at the sight of a strange dog. I soon concluded that she was not fit for public consumption.

Bonnie made the assimilation of new dogs an absolute nightmare. Our first golden retriever, Emma, was quarantined to the kitchen for months before we were comfortable enough with their relationship. We had it a little easier with Gracie, but it was still no picnic. Blood was drawn as the two dogs watched me eat an order of buffalo wings in the kitchen. After a flurry of snarls, poor Gracie broke into a pathetic puppy yowl. I picked up the sweet ball of fluff, only to have her sneeze a spattering of red spots all over the kitchen counter. Minutes later, my husband arrived home to what looked like a crime scene. We were held hostage by a canine goon.

Eventually we reached a state of compromise, thanks to Gracie's inability to hold a grudge and her willingness to submit to the little one's tyranny. However, Bonnie remained the sheriff of the household and would reprimand our benign golden at a moment's notice. She had the teeth of a Great White Shark and was not afraid to use them. As you can imagine, we were always a little on edge.

In the fall of 2005, my father's Macular Degeneration took a turn for the worse and he found himself no longer able to drive. My mother had been in a nursing home with dementia for about 6 months, so he was incredibly alone. His need for companionship triggered a light bulb- how would he like to have Bonnie come live with him? "I was thinking the same thing." he said. What is it they say about great minds?

They spent the next four years together, two crotchety seniors on the same page. Bonnie stepped into the role of my father's second wife in the same way she entered our home. No questions asked, my way or the highway. She nagged him to go to bed, woke him up for a midnight snack and demanded attention worthy of a princess. He doted on her and acquiesced to her every whim. In return, she did what the best of dogs do-she made him feel needed. "You see that?", he would say as she lay at his feet. "That's as far as she ever gets away from me." Lucky for you Dad, I thought, and lucky for me. I had killed two birds with one dog. Dad had a companion and my home was considerably quieter. But all good things do have an end.

Bonnie came back to live with us over a week ago. Both she and I are doing our best to adjust to the new arrangements. My father's cancer is advancing and as he lies in bed in a Hospice ward, he can no longer take care of "his girl". His goodbye to her will always bring me to tears, but I try to console myself by remembering the time they spent together and the incredibly great work Bonnie did. As my friend Betsy said, "Who ever thought that such a miserable little cur would have such a noble purpose?" Somehow I think Bonnie knew.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Not So Just Desserts

How many times have you relished course after course of a fabulous meal, only to have it go downhill with a not so fabulous dessert? This particular culinary faux pas has the power to forever mar the evening simply by virtue of its placement in the meal. No matter how many talk shows extol the virtues of "new beginnings" or "fresh starts", we have a tendency to remember most clearly the ending of an event. It ain't over until the fat lady sings, so let's hope she delivers on key or we'll be stuck with a dissonant memory.

With this in mind, it might be better to start out at the end of our life and work backwards. Our recollections would be colored with youthful optimism rather than the melancholy of age. But then, moviegoers saw how it worked out for Benjamin Button; I guess either direction brings with it the possibility of winding up in diapers.

As I witness my father's decline, I am trying to view his life as a whole. Rather than focusing on these final images of exhaustion, I search my mind for the man who fixed my bike, drove me to college with a U-Haul trailer full of way too much stuff, and made me check my suitcase for cockroaches whenever I came home from New York City. No kidding- he'd insist I go through my bags out on the picnic table. I may have grumbled at the time, but now it brings a smile to my face and reminds me what a wonderful pain-in-the-ass he was.

Friends attempt to help with the "He lived a long, full life" bit. Yeah, 83 is not a bad run, but let's see how we feel when we get there. How many of us will truly be ready to cash it in? Dad's later years have been assaulted by my mother's dementia, his own macular degeneration and a laundry list of painful and debilitating maladies. Sure, he's told me many times that it would be better if he just "popped off" and how he wished he were laying next to my mother. Loneliness and depression plagued him daily, but he has persevered. Cancer is, however, bringing down the curtain and we are moving him into an assisted living facility for his final months. I will do my best to look past the disease and spend my time with the man and the memories within the tired shell. This final course may not be particularly sweet, but I'll try not to let it ruin the whole meal.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Return of Florence Nightingale

Last Thursday I got a call from John Roushey, my father's neighbor. He had stopped over to help Dad get his garbage ready for the next day's pick up and found him suffering terribly. "I've called Hospice and told them that your father probably should be hospitalized. I think you should come home."

I told him I would be there as soon as possible, which meant my arrival would at least be within the same day. I believe I've hinted at my inability to get out of the house quickly in an earlier post. "I have to shred last year's phone bills. I need to clean the hummingbird feeders. Oh, and I can't forget to alphabetize my breakfast cereal." Well, maybe it's not that bad, but you'd have to visit some parallel universe to see me get somewhere on the early side.

Four days later(just kidding), I'm in Trucksville, Pennsylvania, at the family manse. I took care of Dad's dog Bonnie and unloaded my 17 or 18 suitcases. I'm sure just about any circus travels lighter than I do, elephants included. I guess I have more than just a few issues.

Dad had been taken to the Hospice Unit at the Geisinger Hospital in South Wilkes-Barre. It really is quite the place and exactly where Dad should be. His room is spacious and private with a couch and a flat screen TV, a step up from his 13 inch analog with sub-basic cable. I had a hard time leaving the first night to go back to Dad's house where I knew the only channels I could get were standard broadcast, QVC, and a talking nun. It's comforting to know that I could remain shallow enough to be concerned about TV reception; one does not want to lose oneself in a time of crisis.

When I returned the next day, I had Gracie with me, but left her in the car in the parkade. Just for the hell of it, I casually asked the nurse if they allowed dogs on the floor. Actually, my question was pre-meditated, as she and I talked about dogs the night before. She spoke of her daughter's golden retriever with a great deal of fondness. I figured she might be Gracie's ticket to the unit.

Bingo! I got clearance and went downstairs to get my canine Marilyn Monroe.

Gracie entered the building with her best "Can I have fries with that shake?" wiggle and an air of enthusiasm as if she knew she was back on the job. We stepped out of the elevator and onto the fifth floor. Her smile leaped from face to face as we walked down the hall to Dad's room. Bouts of heavy petting ensued.

The bitch was back.

Florence Nightingale

The last two years of my mother's life were spent in the dementia unit of a nursing home. One warm summer day I stopped by for a quick visit with Gracie in the car. When I mentioned to the supervisor of the facility that I was going outside to take water to my dog, she told me to bring her into the building. Within minutes, Gracie's unofficial career as a candy striper had begun.

She sauntered into the building with the confidence of a politician and the smile of a USO show girl. Always the belle of the ball, she quickly won over the staff and the residents and added an element of fun to potentially monotonous visits. Gracie was tailor made for the job; she went through her repertoire of tricks on command and never made notice of the errant senior hand tugging at her tail. I wasn't surprised-she is the ultimate party girl.

Gracie and I joined my father at the nursing home at 9:30 p.m. on May 22, 2007. I drove him home at about midnight and returned with my co-pilot. She sat patiently with me until 4:00 a.m., when she tried to crawl into bed with Mom's roommate. I accepted this as a sign that we should head back to the house. At 6:00 a.m. we got the call.

Although I had every intention of returning to the nursing home with Gracie, I only managed to stop by once or twice. Enduring a loved one's stay in such a place is not easy, but I must say my experience was not entirely unpleasant. Gracie had accompanied me on every visit; sharing her spirit was a gift I gave as well as received.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What A Difference A Year Makes

The passing of a year is a revelation of varying degrees. Sometimes we look back and wonder what the hell we did for 365 days. Sometimes we sit back and marvel at a dizzying list of events and accomplishments. Most years are between the two extremes, allowing us to beat ourselves up while patting ourselves on the back. So you thought you couldn't tap yourself on the head while rubbing your stomach.

I made a bit of a hasty retreat from my Dad's yesterday and am paying for it today through my heart, gut and bowels. Medical research may be up to its eyeballs in diseases to treat, but they really should turn their attention towards guilt. A pill to counteract its effects, while giving the pharmaceutical industry a whopping case of reflux, might eliminate the need for antacids and proton pump inhibitors. Isn't the general idea to feel better and to feel better about ourselves? Guilt may be making me delusional, but I really think I'm on to something.

My father's cancer seems to be sending in more troops to increase his pain. How long the present barrage will continue I have no way of knowing. I do know that he is a far cry from the man raking the leaves of 2008 in his "Go to Hell" hat. ( The origin of that term is my father's own brain; there's more where that came from. ) He spends most of his time dozing in his black leather Lazy-Boy. "I've got to get the oil changed on this chair. I've put a lot of miles on it." In between the bouts of crying and moaning, he can still make me laugh.

He can piss me off too, and when he does, it doesn't take long for guilt to set in. I momentarily forget his condition and sound off like a 13 year old. Where's that puppy when you need to kick one?

Unfortunately, I have to end this post prematurely. My father's neighbor just called and told me I should come back right away. He had come over to put Dad's garbage out and found him in bad enough condition to call hospice and feels that a trip to the hospital might be inevitable.

It's a good thing I hadn't unpacked yet.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Switching Hats

Last night I was a banjo player, this morning a dog walker and homemaker. At the moment I'm blogging away on my home computer and in a matter of hours I'll be in Pennsylvania with Dad. It would appear that I slip in and out of these roles rather easily considering the time factor, but I have way too much overlap between transitions. Were that not the case, I would have been on the road hours ago. Instead, "Road Joan" has to reconcile herself with "Home Joan" and attend to important tasks like cleaning the lime buildup on the kitchen faucet and laundering two pairs of underwear and three pairs of socks. Gotta have that closure, or these things will tug at my brain like a three year old on a shirttail. Have I mentioned that I'm a bit anal?

Punctuality has never been my forte. My mother always said, "You'll be late for your own funeral." She was one to talk. She rarely made it in time to catch the beginning of a movie. The ticket booth attendant, concerned about her blood pressure as she barrelled into the theater, took the pressure off by allowing her to come in and see the start of the next screening. Of course, this allowed for a little mall prowling and dysfunctional purchases, but that's fodder for another blog.

As I wait for my laundry to dry and decide which 15 shirts I will take for a two day trip, I'm afraid I will have to wind up this entry. My visits to my father have been dictated by a very loose schedule (mine) and it's been of no particular consequence if I arrive 7 hours late. This time, however, I need to help him change the Fentanyl patch which delivers a steady narcotic to ease his pain. His macular degeneration makes the simplest tasks monumentally difficult, and believe me, whoever designed the patch and its packaging is a little out of the visual impairment loop.

I will apologize in advance for the absence of blogs over the next few days; I am about to enter The Land that Technology Forgot and will not have access to a computer. A cordless phone and an answering machine are about the only devices which date Dad's house past 1977. He has been making some noise about getting a flat screen TV to "enjoy whatever time I have left". I'll keep you posted on that saga.

So "Road Joan" is about to give "Packing Joan" a kick in the keister and get the next carnival started. Well, she better do it soon-I feel another hat coming on.

Photo: After mom passed away and I went through the closets and closets of clothing, I began to pay irreverant homage to her by photographing Grace in her outfits. I can imagine Mom looking at this photo and saying, "That hat is a real gasser."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Death of a Salesman

Would you buy a used car from this man? Hard to believe, but at one time a lot of people did. After retiring from his career of 43 years, my father took a part time job at a local used car lot. He had spent the bulk of his adult life at the helm of a company that customized heavy machinery and dealt with the headaches of specialized production. The idea of "it is what it is" had a certain allure for him; if the car wasn't what the customer wanted, they could look at something else or look elsewhere. His no-nonsense regular guy approach had a certain appeal at the lot; many of his customers repeated their business time and again. It also didn't hurt that he really knew what he was talking about.

My dad left high school 3 weeks short of graduation. " A 36 Plymouth was more important." he said when I asked him why. He returned from the war and went to work for a construction empire with a heavy equipment division. Initially a mechanic, his knowledge and work ethic came to the attention of the company's president. The next stop was the sales department and from there he worked his way up to vice-president. A high school dropout taken under the wing of a construction magnate - you don't hear too many stories like that these days.

My brother and I heard "I'm going to throw in the towel" so often that we would chant it at the dinner table. We couldn't possibly understand how hard he worked to deal with the production aspects of the job as well as the revolving door of shiny new talent came and went. He outlasted most of them and had to clean up their inevitable messes when they left. But he stuck it out and provided us with a comfortable life. We weren't rich, but I was spoiled enough to be the only one in the neighborhood with a unicycle, stilts and a pogo stick. Yeah, you're envisioning the kid you hated-and you're pretty much on target.

All his years of hard work did not save my father from the ravages and trials of old age. My mother developed dementia and spent the last two years of her life in a nursing home. Six months after she went into the facility, my dad's macular degeneration took a turn for the worse, making it necessary to take himself off the road. Never a mass transit guy, he figured out the bus schedule and made his way to visit my mother even in the worst of conditions. She passed away over two years ago, when fluid around her heart took her in a mercifully short three day period. He knew she was in a better place, but he's never completely recovered from the loss.
He has since weathered the decline of his eyesight, spinal stenosis and a prostate biopsy revealing the presence of prostate cancer. Several months ago a CT scan and an MRI revealed a mass in his left chest. His physician and a consulted oncologist have diagnosed a malignancy, possibly non-small cell lung cancer. Not wanting to undergo an invasive biopsy and subsequent treatment, my father has opted to let the disease take its course. His pain is at times incredibly intense and he is often overcome with emotion. We have enlisted the help of hospice and I am doing my best to deal with the situation from a distance. My brother and I are tag-teaming in an effort to keep him in his home as long as possible. It's a little tricky, but at least it's only a 3 hour car ride and not a plane ride.
We're doing our best to take it a day at a time. I'm a newbie to this cancer game and I'm finding out how much of a straight line it isn't. Yesterday he was in agony from the pain of a sleepless night. This morning he was talking about making French toast. How many obituaries have you read that mention a "brief battle with cancer" or a "extended illness"? You never know what goes on between those words until you walk the walk. I'm sure I'll have done a lot more walking before this is over. It's a good thing I'm in decent shape.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hair Brain

I may not be Paris Hilton or J-Lo, but I have a team. Okay, so maybe I don't have a stylist to chase after stray hairs or monitor my wardrobe choices, but I do have people. From the crazy endocrinologist to the clerk who checks out my groceries, they all provide a support system for my so-called life and keep me amused in the process.

Today I'd like to shine the spotlight on one of the most important members of my team- my hairdresser. Call me superficial, but we all know the power of a great hairstyle. Donald Trump's infamous pile of dragged wisps come to mind; they haven't affected his financial status, but they have attracted their share of attention. And I've always questioned Martha Stewart's coiffure, although she has been looking better since she did her stint in the pen.

We've all been the victim of a bad haircut at some point in our lives. Nearly fifteen years ago, I moved from New York City to Dutchess County, New York. For several months, I continued to drive two hours to have my hair done by an upper-East side hairdresser I had come to trust. I then sported 23 inch long tresses punctuated by startlingly straight bangs. The overall effect of the cut combined with a too-dark shade of brown was that of a grade school Elvira. Very scary, boys and girls.

There's little room for error when it comes to straight bangs. One misstep can lead to serious questions about your IQ. My hairdresser made one such mistake in the form of a "notch" in the center of my forehead. When I questioned it, he smoothed it down and made some sort of glib comment about it growing back. I drove upstate with my notch, questioning my commitment to this man. The next day I went to work at a local restaurant and provided my co-workers with no shortage of entertainment. By night's end, I had been dubbed "Nell", the wild child portrayed by Jodie Foster in the film of the same name. Unbelievably, I even had a customer ask me what I called my hairdo. It never fails, when something is bothering me, someone is bound to pick up on it. I'm not terribly religious, but it is at these moments that I believe in a higher power. Or some giant freckle-faced bully at the controls of the pinball machine of life. Whatever the case, I am one easy joke butt.

A wisecracking waitress who was having her share of fun at my expense, was momentarily kind enough to suggest that I see her hairdresser. I took her advice, and started a relationship with my hairdresser that has lasted 14 years. I'd change gynecologists before I let someone else touch my hair. Now there's an endorsement for the window of a beauty shop.

Lori Ann Gannon Fracasse is the owner of the Gallery Salon in Poughkeepsie. She is incredibly driven, smart and funny. Just the kind of lunatic you want on your team. When I first encountered Lori, she was working at a well-known day spa. She has since opened her own beautiful salon and staffed it with a wonderful collection of stylists and assistants able to handle any type of hair you can throw at them. The Gallery is polished yet not pretentious. The cast of characters is warm and welcoming and there is always a healthy amount of laughter in the air. Most important are the great haircuts that keep walking out the door.

The mother of two terrific young girls, Lori runs her business and home with a fun-loving yet disciplined attitude. She is not afraid to take the bull by the horns (or the hair). She is devoted to her customers and they to her. On my most recent visit, I spoke with a client who told me how her husband suggested a trip to the salon while she was recovering from surgery and the loss of her father. Her eyes teared as she told me how Lori took such incredible care of her and how much better she felt after being pampered. Such is the power of a great haircut. I guess it's not such a superficial thing after all.

Photo: Lori Gannon Fracasse with client Linda Schmidt

Monday, September 21, 2009

Good Medicine

I don't know too many people who look forward to a trip to their veterinarian's office. But then they've never been to see my vet. Barbara is funny, hip, and often irreverant; some folks might consider her an acquired taste. I, however, revel in her humor and marvel at her unflappable nature. She can handle them all- from the craziest of cat ladies to the stalwart backwoods hunter. Sometimes grace shows up in the darndest places.

Don't get me wrong- this woman really cares. When my 5 year-old Golden Retriever Emma became sick, Barbara suspected she had a spleen tumor and wanted to do surgery right away. I agreed, and left my beautiful dog as they inserted the intravenous needle into her leg. About an hour and a half later, I received a phone call from Barbara that Emma's liver was gone. She cried as she told me of the advanced cancer and apologized for her tears, saying that she wasn't prepared to see it in such a young dog. Emma never woke up.

Two days later I had Gracie. Even though I had Bonnie, a terrier mix, I so missed Emma and her golden dispostion. An ad in a local Pennysaver led me to a breeder who had two pups left for sale and I went to "take a look". Well, you know how that worked out.

A few months after her second birthday, Gracie had her first seizure. Barbara was with me every step of the way as we waited to see if another would follow or if it was an isolated incident. Two weeks later, she had three seizures, seven hours apart. Two weeks after that, she had a cluster of five, four hours apart. We decided to put her on phenobarbitol and she has had only one seizure in the last five years. An increase in her medication has kept her seizure-free for the last year or so. We always have our paws crossed, and know that they could start up at any time. To quote Barbara, "You know, medicine is not an exact science... don't you hate that?"

After losing Emma so suddenly, Barbara knew I was a little gun shy and paranoid. She never let me feed into my fears, however. When Gracie's seizures started, Barbara said, "You can handle this. You've been through worse." Simple words, yet I refer to them often these days.

Thanks, Barbara.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Oops- our website is I forgot my .com in the previous post. I have a feeling that won't be the last thing I forget today.

Over and out.

I'm With the Band

Got a late start today. It's the dog's fault. It's always the dog's fault. She was in no hurry to pull herself out of bed this morning and I took my cues from her. I've always been an easy mark for peer pressure.

I had a gig last night with my bluegrass band "Too Blue". Since banjos are mentioned in the subtitle of this blog, I may as well come clean and admit that I do play one. In public. As a matter of fact, it's been just about 14 years since I was introduced to a great flatpicking guitarist and songwriter named Betsy Rome by Ben Freed, a mutual friend and terrific banjo player. He felt we had a lot in common musically and he was right- we've been a musical team since 1995 and along the way added Michael Sassano on mandolin and Jamie Doris on bass. We have a great time playing together and actually enjoy hanging out with each other after the music stops. Believe me, that's not always the case with a band; we're pretty lucky and we know it. After all, none of us are getting rich so if it ain't fun, there's no point in doing it. And you can quote me on that. Or not.

We played at the Westchester Bluegrass Club, a monthly event produced by fellow musician Mike Burns. On the third Saturday of the month, a featured band plays a set at 9:00 while the audience members get to jam at 7:00 and take part in an open mike at 8:00. It's a great way to get everyone involved and it puts a lot of knowledgable and supportive people in the audience. Last night was no exception. Our crowd was enthusiastic and responsive and made it so much fun to play. And you know my stand on having fun.

Of course, there is a price to pay for having said fun and that would be a lazy beginning to this particular Sunday. It's not the dog's fault after all. She wasn't the one out whooping it up with her band. At least not that I know of...

Please visit to see our schedule and to hear soundbites of our music.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Night Owl

I'm tired. Tired of playing the game. Ain't it a fwiggin' shame? I'm so... let's face it. Everything below the waist is... KAPUT! Lily von Schtupp (Madeleine Kahn) in "Blazing Saddles"

I should be tired. It's almost 2 a.m. and a 9:30 Pilates class comes mighty early for us vampires.

Forget about the feet over the head thing on top of a wine buzz. Yep- I gave in to the call of the wine opener as I was editing some photos. No major harm done, but Mary Poppins may not show up at the gym tomorrow morning.

Today pretty much came and went and managed to go down as middle of the road. Walked the dog, took some photographs, worked out and sat down in front of the computer. No records set, but not bad overall.

And so, instead of straining to squeeze some wit out of September 18, I think I'll take Grace out one last time and attempt to get some beauty rest. I have to think of that poor soul on the mat next to me in Pilates after all...


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Doing It With Grace

In an episode of "Seinfeld", Elaine is looking for a new job. During one of the interviews she is told that she has no grace nor has she any chance of acquiring it. You simply have it. Or you don't.

Or you have a dog named Grace.

That would be me.

Gracie and I have been together about seven years now, and are celebrating our fiftieth birthdays together. "A fifty year old dog?", you shriek. Rest assured that she is not a treasured carcass preserved in formaldehyde, guarding the foot of my bed. My absence of a dedicated life leaves me the time to find such useful information as a canine/human age conversion chart on the Internet. Gracie's age (7 in November) and her weight (she is a 65 pound Golden Retriever) put her at 50 in human years. Sure, buy the premise, buy the movie. I do it every time I get on the elliptical trainer and have complete confidence that I've burned 500 calories when the machine says so. I turned 50 a few weeks ago and an internet chart says my dog will do the same in a few months. It may not be gospel, but I love a coincidence.

I will do my best to avoid weepy sentimentality in this blog, although I do get a little verklempt when I imagine life without Grace. She is a butthead, a bonehead and just about any other head that conjures up the image of a fun loving, "in the moment" goofball.

As I begin my second 50 years, I can't promise that my life will always be an incredibly interesting one, but I do keep myself generally amused and will try to do the same in this blog.

Gracie and I welcome you to come along for the ride.