Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Parallel Universe

OK, maybe you can't see it in these pictures, but there is a calm, consistent evenness in the two with light eyes, and a devilish, resistant streak in the two little dark-eyed cuties. I have come to refer to the boys and the dogs as siblings, but only lately have I really seen the parallel of their relationships with each other.

When the boys come home, the first thing I do is get them a snack and sit them down to do homework. The first thing Ben does is complain. He avoids, distracts, wanders off and generally resists what he is supposed to be doing. If I tell him to clean his room, he heads down the hall, only to be discovered a half hour later playing with some toy I haven't seen in months. He remains surrounded by clean and dirty clothes, LEGOs and books on the floor and beams up at me from his unmade bed. It's as if my every request is a chance for him to do the opposite of what I want.

At first, I thought I was just being too sensitive, taking his actions too personally. But the next time I walked the dogs, I found Bailey responding to my every request, and Flash "digging in" and pulling in the direction opposite of the one we were trying to go. The more I pulled, the more he resisted. But when I let the leash go slack, and stood to watch him, he stared back at me with those dark-chocolate eyes, and then proceeded to join Bailey and me in our original direction, bouncing along happily as if he'd made his point and would now let it drop.

Call me crazy, but I really think this is universal behavior for second children. Or in the case of the dogs, the pooch who has been relegated (demoted?) to second-dog status. Someone was here before you, someone smart, sweet, cooperative, potty trained and easy to be around. He's a tough act to follow, so you'd better carve out your own little niche, showing everyone in every way that you are nothing like that guy who was here first.

Flash is a jumper, a barker, a hoverer. He does not like to be told what to do, and will give 110% to accomplish whatever you told him not to do. He follows Bailey around when he wants to wrestle or play with him, nudging and throwing himself under Bailey's nose to get noticed. If Bailey isn't in the mood and tries to wander away, Flash follows hot on his tail, barking relentlessly, as if to say, "Play with me! Play with me! Play with me!" You would think that Bailey would finally give in, just to get the little bugger off his back. I mean, it's not like he can go into his own room and close the door.

Finally, though we have taken pains to make sure both dogs receive all things equally--food, treats, beds, toys, walks and lovin'--Flash still wants what's not his. He curls up in Bailey's bed. He chews on Bailey's rawhide. He drinks from Bailey's water dish. And the look on poor Bailey's face seems to say, "My life was perfect! Why did you have to give me a little brother!?"

Alas, such things are always a good idea on paper, especially since we never consult with those who will feel the change most keenly. But I also know that, if either of my second "children" were suddenly the only one in the house (if Jacob were to go off to college, say, or Bailey got drafted), the younger one would be lost. They both define themselves by who they are in relation to their older "brothers." And as much as they all seem to annoy each other, the truth is they all love each other very much.

Though they'd never admit it, in this or any other universe.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Tell Me What You REALLY Think

If there's one thing you have to appreciate about Ben, it's his honesty. I should be more specific: his honesty when giving his opinion. If you ask him how the almost new body wash bottle got down to empty in the space of four days, he'll swear he has no idea. The toothpaste all over the faucet? Shoulder shrug. His brother's hairbrush in the garbage? Must have been the dog. But ask his opinion, and he doesn't hold back.

Sure, sometimes his opinions come unsolicited. And while his honesty can feel pretty brutal (Mom, you have a double chin; Dad, there's a booger in your nose), it's almost always funny when directed at someone else. In tonight's case, the unwitting recipient was the restaurant/dining hall where we ate dinner while visiting my mother-in-law's residence.

"Mom, what's that card?" Ben asked, pointing to the comment card on the table.

"Oh, it looks like a survey card, so you can tell the restaurant how they did. Let's see. Question 1) I received the correct food order. Question 2) My food was delivered timely. Do you know what 'timely' means?"


"That means it came in a reasonable amount of time after you ordered it. Question 3) My food temperature was acceptable...."

I read the rest of the questions with him, and showed him how it worked.

"See, after the meal, you read each question, and then select from Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair or Poor and check the box next to the answer that fits your opinion."

"Oh, cool," Ben said, and placed the card and tiny pencil next to his plate before starting a game of "In My Backpack."

After about two go-rounds of the game, our food had yet to arrive, but I figured that since we were playing, the boys were distracted from this fact. I was wrong. When it was Ben's turn again, he leaned over to me and said in a stage whisper, "Well, timely is now at 'Good'".

Whether the staff heard him or not, I can't say. But about a minute after reciting, "In my backpack, I put: nine chocolate chip cookies, eight bowls of chicken noodle soup, seven lawn clippings, six basketballs, five salads, four biscuits, three buckets of blue cheese dressing, two Golden Retrievers and one glass of wine," the food showed up. Ben immediately picked up his pencil and checked 'Good' next to question two.

When the meal was through, he filled out the rest of the card, and in the space for his apartment number, he wrote, in very neat script, "non-resadint." I didn't correct him, in the hopes that the staff would get a chuckle over his feedback, and recognize that it was written by a child. And that maybe they won't hold his brutal honesty against us next time we visit.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Train the Trainer

Aside from becoming a parent, there's nothing like getting a new pet to teach you what you don't know. Or, in my case, a second pet. Because despite my advanced degrees and experience with children, I am apparently extraordinarily slow on the uptake of such things.

If I sound surprised, it's because I am. If it sounds like I have reason to be surprised, then I'm not being clear. Let me clarify.

When Jacob was born some 11+ years ago, life was bliss. A new parent, I was completely in love with my baby. He was perfect. Beautiful. Soft. Scented, with that new baby smell. He slept all the time. He napped like clockwork. He never cried. Really, the only reason he needed us is because I provided nutrition, and he couldn't buy or change his own diapers.

"Wow," I told David. "This is amazing! We should have, like, five more!"

So when Jacob was almost three, we had Ben.

Those who know me know I only have two children. That's because, when we put in our order for a second baby, we neglected to indicate in the fine print that he should be EXACTLY like Jacob in temperament, sleep habits and ease of use. As we all know, the devil is in the details, and so our second baby was delivered on schedule, with a penis and good looks. And that's pretty much where the similarities ended.

Eight years later, they are still different as night and day. All the things Ben has needed in the way of parenting are all the things we never learned by parenting his older brother. And so we continue to learn as we go, occasionally wondering wistfully what the hell we were thinking when we assumed we'd get a second baby exactly like the first.

Like Jacob, Bailey came preprogrammed to self-govern. He is trained to go to the bathroom in the woods, not on people's property. He does tricks. He eats his kibble, but is always up for some celery ends or bread crusts as a treat. He can fetch, loves to play, is silly and goofy and challenges us to new games all the time.

"Wow," I said to David. "Poor Flash needs a home. Why don't we take him? He's the same age as Bailey, and they know each other so well, it'll be great!"

Since then, I have been learning how to comfort, console, encourage, discourage and train a dog. Yes, I had been a dog owner for the previous four years or so. But Bailey was so easy. Just like Jacob. You think I'd have remembered this and put two and two together, but you'd be wrong.

And so, as with Ben, I'm learning how to be a good parent as I go. What does Flash need, what does he want, how can I help make my life and his easier and better? I'm 44 years old and I'm still growing. I love it.

Sure, I could gripe about the noise (wow, two barking dogs are really loud), the mess (I think my sons are training the dogs how to leave things lying around the house) and the moodiness (Flash is confused by the training; Bailey is so insecure, he's wrapping himself around my shoelaces; the kids are vying even more for my attention than before). It's like living in a frat house: me and five guys. Two are short and needy, and two are hairy and smelly. Thank goodness one of them can hold down a job or we'd have to pay the mortgage by hosting pay-at-the-door kegger parties.

Despite all that, oh my gosh how I laugh my way through every day. And of course, being the only girl makes me the queen of the household. So come for a visit any time. Everyone is friendly and there's always lots going on. Just don't mention the tarnish on my crown. I haven't had time to polish it recently, but it's on my list of things to do. Right after I graduate from my latest parent training course.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Learning the Ropes

We've had Flash, our new addition to the family, living with us for about two weeks now. I have to admit I was worried about him in the beginning, what with all that old dog, new tricks business. Flash is almost 11 years old, and has always been #1 in his home--one with no children or other pets, and parents who adored him--so we knew it would be an adjustment moving in with us. After all, we have kids, noise, carpets, Bailey and rules.

Strangely enough, things seem to be going pretty well, considering all that. In fact, the toughest thing that Flash is being forced to learn is that he is, in fact, a dog.

You laugh, but I truly think that this little guy, indulged practically from birth, really thinks he is just a short person. He even acts sometimes like he's better than the rest of us, what with better hearing, sense of smell and not having to hold a job. If a dog can feel entitled, Flash is truly a fat cat among canines.

I can't really blame him, though, since he was always taught to play the part of prince. His mom would take him for a walk, and if he moved too slowly and she had to be somewhere, she would pick him up and carry him all the way home. When dad would grill a steak, plate it and put it on the table on the deck, and then go inside for salt and pepper, he would return to find the plate empty and a very satisfied Flash in his chair looking at him as if asking, "how about a beer, pal?" And because this type of behavior was not nipped in the bud (read: discouraged by any kind of punishment), it stands to reason that Flash spent his first few days in our house looking very confused.

He eschewed his own dog food for Bailey's, and we assumed it was because he liked the flavor of Bailey's better. After a while, though, he wouldn't eat any kind of dog food. Maybe he's depressed, we thought, or just protesting his new situation. Surely he'll get hungry enough to eat the dog food eventually, we reasoned, and so we just kept an eye on him around the dinner table. Then one day, I heard a strange noise and looked over at him. There he was on the floor, chewing on a sock (one of Ben's that he had left lying in the living room). Another day, it was a napkin being shredded, and rather quickly, I might add. Yesterday, I thought he was finally gnawing on one of his toys that I'd brought over from his house--one of a basketfull, in fact--only to discover he was chewing on a pencil. And he wasn't even in the midst of writing an essay.

Yes, it's been a big adjustment, and he's not there yet. He still tries to come into the bedroom at night to sleep with us, still climbs up on the couch occasionally and even jumps up to the sill of the big bay window to bark at passers by. But even with all that, he seems to love the routine, the constant presence of people, or at least Bailey, and all the noisy silliness our pack is capable of at any given moment. There has been no discovery of smelly 'gifts' in the house, no aggression and no shredded property (the napkin notwithstanding).

The poor little guy has been through a lot. But I really think his learning that he is not a person has actually been easier than it would have been to learn he has gone from alpha dog status to the bottom of the pack's chain. David's the boss, Bailey is first dog, and despite all the chaos, we have plenty of love for Flash too, which we willingly shower upon him. As long as we don't make him go out and get a job, I think he's going to be just fine.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pack Rats

While I don't think we would qualify for a pet version of "Hoarders" just yet, our pack has recently grown. After the far-too-early passing of our friend and neighbor, Augie, his 10 year old beagle, Flash, has come to live with us.

One might think, "OK, you already have one dog that you walk, feed, play with and love. What's one more?" To be fair, that is somewhat true. Flash and our Bailey have been taking walks together every day for almost three years, and played together before that. They know each other well, and are close buddies.

But just as with adding a new child to the family, a new life in the house means a shift in roles and dynamic. Our routine is the same; we just incorporated Flash into it. The thing is, at Flash's old house, he didn't really have any rules. In fact, the first time I said the word "No" to him, he looked at me like I had three cat heads.

He is becoming more comfortable here with each passing day. Yet the more relaxed he becomes, the more the rules are tested.

"Flash, get off the couch."

"Flash, get away from the table."

"Flash, come away from the bedrooms."

"No, Flash, that's Bailey's bed. Yours is over here."

And, of course, there is Bailey's insecurity. "Am I being replaced? Do you like him more than you do me? LOVE ME LOVE ME LOVE ME!!!!!!" He has become Velcro dog of late, and I can't say I blame him. After his original owner passed away, Bailey lived with another family before ours, and has been top dog here for some four years now. Suddenly, he's got a little brother touching his stuff and doing things he's never been allowed to do.

Plus, Flash keeps not going home. I mean, one sleepover is fun, and a couple of playdates here are nice. But enough is enough. In doggie speak, Bailey's looking at us going, "what the woof?"

Two nights ago, Ben woke up around 3:30 a.m. and knocked on my door. I got up, put him back to bed and stayed with him a bit, but he was still awake when I left his room. Walking out, I almost stepped on Flash, who I subsequently walked back to the living room, to his own bed. Then I went back to bed. Not long after, Ben knocked again. Once more, I put him back to bed, and then--you guessed it--put Flash back to bed too.

Just last night, David and I were getting ready for bed, and David realized he'd forgotten to do something in the kitchen. When he went back out, not five minutes after he'd turned off the kitchen light, he found Flash in Bailey's bed, and Bailey trying to get downstairs to eat the kibble Flash had left in his bowl.

"They're acting like a couple of kids," he mumbled as he came back into the bedroom.

And it's true. This is our new normal: sibling boys, sibling dogs, lots of noise and lots of laughs. Sure, I have days when I hunger for peace and quiet, no squabbles to break up, and no doggie spats to sort out. But in the end, I know that those days will come soon enough, most likely when I have become quite comfortable and happy with our boisterous pack. Until then, my goal is to feed and enjoy ALL the animals, so that when they do leave us, it will be with memories of joy and having been greatly loved.