Furball of Mayhem and Destruction

Dear Will:

Ask our kids “What do moms need?” and in dissonant unison they will moan: “Order.” That simple truth has been drilled into them like a catechism. Which is only one of the reasons why it is so hard to understand why in the world we ever agreed to get a dog. Correction: Furball of Mayhem and Destruction.

Excuses abound. The truth is that it is hard to say no to a freckle-faced nine-year-old girl who keeps jumping over every hurdle you place in her way. Bryn was so desperate for a dog that she spent hour upon hour, month after month, online checking out the current canine inventory at each of the local animal shelters. She declared that the fourth Saturday of every month was Visit the Pound Day. She did her homework. She helped her little brother. She even did her chores—no small feat considering how hard it is (now) to get her just to empty the wastebaskets. It’s not so much that she is unwilling, mind you; it’s just that she is so easily distracted. Bryn’s imagination knows no bounds, which means that sometimes when she should be, for example, reviewing the Associative Law of Mathematics, she is instead daydreaming of her debut on a Broadway stage.  Somehow, in spite of these frequent digressions, Bryn still gets excellent grades—so it should be no surprise that she outsmarted us and through conniving charm and unrelenting persistence convinced us that it was time for us to bring home Barnum.

Already we’re wishing she hadn’t been so charming and persistent. For example, it turns out that dogs chew on stuff. Nerf footballs. Briefcases. Dinner. (Note: Keeping Dana’s meal warm until she gets home from ballet: good idea. Leaving it unattended on the table: bad idea.) Dogs also pee when they get in trouble, especially on the carpet, and especially when chastised for climbing up on the dinner table and polishing off most of Dana’s five-spice pork. (And don’t even get us started on what happens to the carpet the morning after the five-spice pork caper. Can you say “Ewwww! Gross!”?)

What’s more, dogs like to nip at things. Things like Luke. And for some strange reason Luke does not enjoy being nibbled. It took Barnum, oh, about a minute and a half to realize that growling could fill Luke with great consternation, and about two minutes to realize that filling Luke with great consternation was fun. For Barnum. Still we wonder why Barnum has chosen to try to separate the large male from the herd. We’re guessing that in addition to being a few servings short of a full ration, Barnum may also be attracted to Luke’s unique couture: mismatched socks (always), green pants (almost always), and a ubiquitous bucket hat. Or perhaps he has mistaken Luke’s fascination for medieval warfare as a sign that Luke is always spoiling for a good skirmish. Whatever the reason, this much is certain: If Luke is watching one of his many Lord of the Rings DVDs, Barnum has almost certainly been ushered (OK—heaved) outside for the duration.

Most perplexed by this newest member of our little society is Seth, who sees Barnum both as playmate and predator. Often you’ll hear him calling Barnum to join him outside while he reenacts the previous weekend’s football game, complete with play-by-play. At some point (usually about the time Barnum recovers a fumble and refuses to give the ball back) Seth is hollering at Barnum with the full range of his four-year-old vocabulary. (Not pretty, especially for those who have armed the four-year-old with said vocabulary.) Barnum also shares Seth’s fascination for dinosaurs, but he expresses it in a slightly different way. Whereas Seth might chew up a chunk of his afternoon reenacting the final hours of the Late Cretaceous, Barnum might simply chew up a chunk of a plastic pterosaur. To each his own, you might say—although if you’re Seth you might express it somewhat less diplomatically.

Thus our life is spinning in disarray, in no small part because there is now a mutt where once there was order. We long now for Bob, the semi-animate albino toad that Luke once kept as a pet. We always considered him the least interesting pet imaginable, but uninteresting is good when order is your goal. It has also occurred to us that plastic pterosaurs make excellent pets as well—provided, that is, that you can find one reasonably intact.

Alas, it’s too late for any of that. And so we return to our catechism and ask anew: What do moms need? Well, for starters moms need some kind of round-the-clock electric vacuum thing to suck up the black dog hair which has now become a central feature of our home’s décor. Some time away couldn’t hurt either. As for dads, what they need most is . . . well . . . order, come to think of it. And if you don’t understand that, then you obviously haven’t spent enough time reviewing the Associative Law of Mathematics.

What any of this has to do with Christmas and New Year’s is anybody’s guess. But it is a little scary to think of our house full of decorations, a tree covered with baubles, and brightly wrapped presents down at ground level, all there to intrigue any curious furball. Did I mention that dogs chew on stuff?


Unscheduled Moments of Joy

Dear Will:

I’m doing math with my 9-year-old. I’m seated on her bedroom floor with my laptop while she slogs through several pages worth of multiplication problems. She has this math teacher who seems to believe that the best thing to do with children is to lock them in their rooms after school and only let them out to do chores and to eat an occasional bowl of gruel. Don’t misunderstand; my wife and I expect academic excellence from our children. But more and more these days we’re wondering where all the play time went.

Surely you remember play time. It was when you stopped worrying about lists and appointments and have-tos and simply indulged the moment’s current whim. It was a time in which you ran just for the fun of it, when you pretended to be someone and somewhere you were not. It was a period of exuberance and imagination and sheer joy. And in my case it stopped happening about 30 years ago.

Fortunately my 4-year-old does not have a preschool teacher who assigns homework. While Bryn and I are doing math, he’s in the bathtub surrounded by a menagerie of plastic animals, saving the “nice guys” from the “mean guys.” As is typical of kids his age, he directs the clashes with animated, pyrotechnic play-by-play. With Seth, bath time is almost a spectator sport.

In fact, I confess that I like to listen to his running commentary. I take great joy in his joy. Who doesn’t get a certain sort of primal delight hearing the unselfconsciousness of a small child? And now that I think of it, other experiences with my family can trigger a similar joyful sensation: walking the dog with my daughter, reading scriptures with my eldest son, looking at my wife from across a crowded room.

And perhaps that is ultimately what I should keep in mind as I long for younger, more carefree days. The deep-down feelings of love triggered by each day’s simple moments serve as a good reminder to me that although my days of unfettered fun have long since slipped away, ultimately “fun” is not really what this life is all about. The scripture tells us: “Men are, that they might have joy,” which is to say, fun is nice, but it’s transitory at best. Joy on the other hand has depth and longevity that make it an eternal emotion.

So how exactly do we find joy? I think it’s by filling our days with things that really matter, by getting through our lists and have-tos and still making time for unscheduled moments in which we connect with loved ones, give simple service to others, share a smile—even do a little math with a 9-year-old.

May you find such joyful moments each day—and if you can manage some fun along the way, all the better.


The Safest, Surest Course

Dear Will:

Last month we caved in and finally got our daughter Bryn a dog. She had been working us pretty steadily for nearly a year, a no matter how many obstacles we threw in her way, she still seemed to find a way around them. You might say she was doggedly determined. So as her ninth birthday approached we knew we had little choice: It was time to head to the pound.

We returned home with Barnum, an exuberant little mutt with a propensity to walk on his hind legs, leap up to try to lick your nose, and steal the wiffle ball in the middle of a game of home run derby (Snoopy made a much better shortstop). He is also a submissive pup, inclined to pee on the carpet when he gets in trouble. He is full of energy and prone to mischief, but inasmuch as he adores our daughter (and she him) we have accepted him more or less as one of us.

Not long after we had brought him home, Dana and I were out for the evening while we left Luke, our 13-year-old, in charge of the others. The three kids decided to take Barnum down to Linda Vista School and let him run around. Since they were alone at the school they released the dog from his leash and to let him tear around the grass. They were having a wonderful time when another couple from the neighborhood appeared on the school grounds with a pair of German Shepherds—also off leash. Well, as you might imagine those big dogs spotted Barnum right off and the chase was on. Of course meek little Barnum wanted nothing to do with two dogs three times his size, so he took off at full speed, leaving our children in a panic.

With the help of the extremely apologetic couple, Luke, Bryn, and Seth searched for Barnum for around half an hour. He was nowhere to be found. Worried sick and unsure what to do next, they finally gave up and went home—where they found Barnum lying in the garage, awaiting their return. Needless to say, they were amazed that Barnum knew the way home (he had been with us maybe two weeks at that point) and thrilled that he already recognized our house as his house, a safe haven where he knew he would be taken care of.

As I thought of what had transpired, I was reminded of Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. You will recall that He told of a young man who laid early claim to his inheritance, left home and squandered it on riotous living. Plunged into poverty, he finally decided to return home, beg forgiveness, and ask for a job working as servant to his father. Rather than berate his son for his foolishness, the father instead held a great feast in his honor—for he who had been lost was found.

Jesus told that story to remind us all that no matter how far astray we might wander, when we make the effort to return to our Heavenly Father, He welcomes us with open arms. In that regard, when we find ourselves wandering where we shouldn’t or harried by the evil that surrounds us, it would do us all well to remember what Barnum already knows: that the safest, surest course is the one that leads us home again.