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LLTMN #6: Why Books Are Better

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“Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me from mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom.” ~William Shakespeare (The Tempest, I, ii)

[This post is the sixth installment in the series I call “Life Letters to My Nephews,” or LLTMN.]

Hi Boys, Ant Kristi here again. How can it be that we’re nearing the end of yet another school year and that you’re all growing up so impossibly fast?  And yes I know how old that makes me sound, so hush.

(Today’s topic was spurred by my annual birthday shopping trip with Hudson, 11 years old already this year!  A few days ago we went to a local bookstore, as we do each year, to get the free Kids Club birthday cookie or cupcake they give away in their cafe.  On the drive over there, I’d asked him what he thought he wanted to get for his birthday gift this year; he rattled off a weird sci-fi sounding name of something I had no idea what was [it was a video game, or a Wii game, or some game of a system I’m not familiar with].

So I was extremely and pleasantly surprised when, after most of a peanut butter cup cookie had been consumed by his 11-year old sweet tooth, Hudson agreed to browse the books for a while to look for a bibliophile birthday gift instead an electronic whatever.  He’d told me about a book he’d read recently from the school library that he really liked (something about a secret underground world that’s always dark and a group of kids that had to rally around a cause to save their people from the bad guys and find more light for their city), and that it was first in a series of four; we found the series (The City of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau) in the kids’ section and I offered to get the remaining three books for him for his birthday gift instead of the game.  I held my breath a little as he looked at the covers of each one and weighed his options; he finally agreed but only after some bargaining – he’d forget about the game but only if I’d also agree to get him a fourth book, a comic book novel.  We struck a deal and we were both very happy about it!

 

Hudson & his birthday books.

Hudson & his birthday books.

Some of the birthday shopping trip gifts Hudson has picked out in the last few years have included: plastic Wolverine claw glove-type contraptions; Lego sets (of course); and model dragons, horses and knights.  All had their appeal, but I was glad he picked something that would encourage a little more brain power this time.

Hudson immediately started reading the comic book novel on the ride home, and as we pulled up to the house, his 9 year old brother ran over to the car, anxiously peering through the window to see what his brother had brought home.  (Before we’d left, Truman had spouted off a few ideas of his own for video games that he thought Hudson should get.)  “What did you get?” he asked as Hudson opened the door; “Books,” said Hudson as he held them up.  “What??  Why?!”  Truman stomped off into the house with a scowl on his face.

Hudson disappeared into the house too and continued to read one of his books for the next half hour or so.  Then little brother Wyatt got home and the first question he asked was “Hudson, what did you get?!” “Books,” said Hudson from his reading perch on the stairs.  Wyatt’s 4-year old eyes got very wide & he threw his hands in the air. “JUST BOOKS?! Nothing else?!”  “Just books, and that’s OK,” I answered since Hudson was lost in his reading.  Wyatt couldn’t take it: “YOU DIDN’T GET ANY TOYS??!  Not even one?  That’s STUPID Hudson!” And he ran upstairs, on the verge of tears because his brother apparently wasted a perfectly good birthday shopping trip by only getting books…)

Ok boys, so now I’m going to tell you why books are better than toys or video games or phone apps.  Books are like Star Trek transporters for the brain – they can beam you to any place in the world, any world, as if by magic.  I’m pretty sure you already know this though – because pretty much each night of your life, starting from the time you were each very little, books at bedtime has been a regular ritual.  (It’s a good one to have, much better than playing a video game or watching an episode of a humdrum sitcom before bed.)  But books can take you anywhere you want to go: deep into space amongst the stars, back into medieval times of knights and round tables, or even into the world of wizards and warlocks.  The sky is not the limit, and you can go there as well.  I know you think games and apps can do this too, but the written word is always more powerful and meaningful than any game you might play.

Books make you smarter, not just by improving your reading and vocabulary skills, but because each time you read a story about another country or a past president or how the West was won, you’re learning about the ways of the world and putting power into your mind that you can use later.  There are many people out there who never learn to read during their life, which is very sad; can you imagine not being able to read your favorite stories and learn about new things all the time?  You’re very lucky that you know how to read and that you’re learning to read better all the time; maybe one day you can go help other people learn to read so you can help them discover all those other worlds too.

It’s sad to me that one day we might not have many more real, actual books to read; it’s very possible that by the time you’re all adults, all books in our society will be online and electronic.  And while progress will march on, I’m glad you’re getting to hold and experience real books right now; there’s just something about being able to hold that adventure in your hands and turn the paper pages yourself, or being able to take that book with you from place to place as a mini-treasure that’s yours and no one else’s.  I have a few books that I’ve held onto for a very long time now that are important to me, and I hope you get to do the same.  Go to libraries every chance you get, because they might not be around when you’re older; it’s fun to look for new books on the shelves that you didn’t even know existed.  It’s like a little library lottery each time you go, because you get to go home with something new and exciting.  It’s a shame they don’t have Bookmobiles anymore (Google it), I always used to get so excited when I’d see that big blue bus pull up to our school.

Books can make you laugh, and cry, and maybe even influence what you end up doing with your life at different times.  A line in a book was what made me decide to go to Africa with the Peace Corps and live there for two years; I read it while standing in a bookstore and I just knew right there and then that I had to go.  Reading books like “Where the Red Fern Grows” when I was a little girl (and “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” as an adult) made me love dogs as much as I do.  In seventh grade a teacher had us read “Rebecca” by Daphne DuMaurier; that may have been the actual moment I began to wonder about and be captivated by England and it’s scenery.  (“Rebecca” is still on my nightstand as I write this.)

Books will make you a better person.  When I was a little girl, books were always what I wanted first and foremost for every birthday and holiday…yes, stuffed animals and model horses also made the list, but it was books that made the best gifts for me.  I was proud to be a bookworm, and I will gladly support you if you want to be one too.

Always.

Love,

Ant Kristi

ant-with-flower

I Miss the Smell of Popcorn Paws

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“Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.” ~ William Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona II, iii)

This is a tough post for me to write, and warning: may be tough to read. There have been some walloping events in the past few years that each made up the individual cogs of my emotional tailspin machine from which I’m now slowly emerging. A painful separation and divorce started it all. Less than a year after that, I lost my rambunctious four year-old dog Teddy too soon. One month later I left the hometown I’d known all my life and moved everything to Austin.

But what really shook me to the core, the final straw, was losing my remaining dog Foxy. A miniature poodle with the official AKC fancy-pants name of “Kristi’s Foxy Sox,” she was my faithful companion for 15 long years. She had one white back foot (hence the Sox part of the name), a white chest, and soft curly light red hair – just like a little fox. She was one of three in her litter, the only female and the only redhead. I picked her out when she was only 3 weeks old, and brought her home two weeks after that, the day before Thanksgiving 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

I’d been divorced for less than a year from my first disastrous marriage when I brought Foxy home to an apartment with green carpet but no yard. I taught her to use a litter box instead, which was weird but effective. For the first few months, I drove home 25 minutes one-way from work each day at lunch to let her out of her crate and play with her for ten minutes before driving back. She became everything to me that I needed: a distraction, a friend, a companion, a shoulder to cry on sometimes…something to love, that loved me back.

And she was so smart! She knew each of her toys by name and could fetch them when called for. She aced her puppy obedience classes with flying colors. She traveled with me on the road when I was recruiting for the university, and knew to be quiet in her crate when I was giving talks to groups of students. I hung a bell from the front door knob and she learned to ring it with her nose when she wanted to go outside.

"I'm posing for you in my snazzy red sweater."

“I’m posing for you in my snazzy red sweater.”

When she was six months old, we moved into a house with (finally) a big yard space for her and a doggy door. She was my impetus for even buying a home in the first place, and I picked the house with her in mind. When, three years later, I left to go to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, leaving her behind was by far the most emotional part of the journey. I’ll always be grateful to my family members for keeping her and taking care of her while I was gone during that time. My Dad told me that in the first few days and weeks after I left, Foxy would sleep upstairs in “my” room on the sweatshirt I’d left for her, and during the day would wait watching at the front window and door for me to come home. (I cried like a baby when I read that in his letters he sent to me in Africa.)

Waiting patiently.

Waiting patiently.

I never had (human) children of my own. And yes, I was one of those pet-owners that doted on their dogs as if they were kids. Time passed, and when Foxy was ten, I decided to get her a companion; I’d read that adding a puppy to a household with an older dog could help prolong their lives. So we got Teddy, a chocolate-brown miniature poodle who was seriously obsessed with tennis balls and pretty much drove poor Foxy crazy with her frenetic energy.

Foxy & Teddy

Foxy & Teddy

But in a cruel twist of fate, Teddy was the first to go; unbeknownst to us, she’d been born with an auto-immune disease that led to eventual kidney failure. I had four great years with her, but much of that time was spent taking care of her illness and watching her go in and out of remission. She was the first dog I ever had to euthanize, and it was incredibly difficult. I found myself hoping that Foxy would just go peacefully one day in her old age, but that didn’t happen either.

Less than a year after moving to Austin, I noticed a weird brown growth in the corner of Foxy’s eye as I was grooming her one day. Her regular vet referred us to a canine ophthalmologist (yes those exist) and after a biopsy result, confirmed that it was a rare type of optic cancer, in the lining of the eye socket. Over the next eight months, she would have four eye surgeries to remove the tumor that kept growing back. She was a trooper through it all, taking it in stride and seeming content to just lay on my lap as much as possible and continue to be my little shadow.

Back Camera

She was 15 now; she walked slower, ate less, slept more. She needed steps to get up on the bed that she once leapt on with ease, and started losing weight. She also went almost completely deaf. After the fourth surgery, the vet said there was no other option left other than to just take the eye completely out, and even that was not a guarantee that the cancer would not return. I waffled, knowing full well I was doing most of this for my selfish benefit; I didn’t want to let her go. At first I agreed to do the eye-removal surgery. Then feeling guilty, I cancelled it.

Two days after my birthday, and in the middle of the Tour de France while I was on a three-week vacation from work, I watched as Foxy no longer could go outside through her doggy door; it was too painful to her sutured and bruised eye to use her head to push the door open. She turned and looked at me with such a sad look on her face as if to say “I’m so sorry,” and it was then that I knew. My heart broke into a million pieces as I picked her up and carried her outside. While she stood there looking at me, I called her vet and somehow formed the words to ask if he’d meet us the next day at his practice. He said yes.

Foxy slept that night as she had for much of the past 15 years – curled up next to me on the bed, in the crook of my arm, under the blanket. She didn’t know it was her last night, but I did, and it was agony. I watched her for most of the night, remembering everything we’d been through over the past decade and a half. I cried an ocean of tears over those next twelve hours. I took a hundred pictures of her. I held her as we lounged on the swing outside, sitting in her favorite swath of sunshine.

IMG_1791

At the vet’s office, I apologized to her and thanked her, and held her tight on my lap as I told her how much I loved her. She looked at me with quiet eyes and leaned into me. Her soft ears were wet with my tears and our faces were touching as she went to sleep for the last time, just me and her together as we’d been for so long. I held my dog child in my arms as she died. It was peaceful for her, and her pain was gone. It was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life.

I slept on the couch for the next month. I dreamed of her, a lot, and she would appear to me so real that I’d reach out to touch her. A few times I woke up swearing I’d heard her collar tags jingling in the hallway. Her dog bowls and daytime sleeping bed remained in their places, empty, but comforting somehow. But how I ached. Physically, emotionally, I was just drained completely of everything. How can that be, one might ask – she was just a dog. She wasn’t human.

And yet it broke me. Losing her felt like losing the rest of everything.

Now, all of a sudden, it’s been two years. Last year on that day, I was in rainy England, and found myself sitting on a park bench outside the church where Shakespeare is buried. I sat under a weeping willow tree and gazed out at the rising river, and remembered Foxy. Leaving the riverbank, I wandered along the deserted wet roads and eventually found myself in a cluttered antique store. As I was looking through a case at a tray of silver charms all jumbled together, something caught my eye. Down in the right hand corner, looking up at me through the glass, sitting just above a heart-shaped charm: a little silver perfect poodle. Yes, of course I bought it. You don’t ignore a sign like that.

My view that day.

My view that day.

I wore that charm on a chain around my neck almost every day for the past year. Until today – when I looked down at my chain and the charm was gone. Inexplicably, sadly, just gone. The other charms are still there, but not that one. Another sign? It’s what prompted me to write this post today. I’d been thinking of writing it for cathartic reasons, but couldn’t bring myself to do it until now.

Many have asked why I haven’t gotten another dog yet. Sometimes I think I am ready, especially now that I have this extra time on my hands and am not away from the house ten or eleven hours at a time. I remember how fun it is to have a dog who loves you no matter what and is so happy to see you when you get home, no matter how long you’ve been gone. I remember the joy of having something to take care of and be responsible for, the comfort and the companionship. It’s definitely one of life’s UNunhappy experiences, when it’s good.

But it’s a lot of responsibility, having a dog. Vet bills, grooming, walks, training – it’s a commitment that takes a lot of work and for me, a lot of worry. And, the memory of the nearly-unbearable pain when you lose something that you love so much is still pretty fresh. Especially when we as owners have to make that choice to humanely take their pain away, it’s an indescribable heartache – and one I’m not sure I want to or can go through again. I don’t know what to do. Is Foxy is giving me a little nudge from wherever she is, saying it’s time for a new start…a new charm?

I just don’t know. I miss Foxy like crazy, including the little things like her prancy walk and the butter popcorn smell of the pads on her feet. She was such a good dog, and no other one could ever take her place. But – I’ll keep you updated if and when any wet noses and furry feet make their way into my life again. I’m starting to think it’s possible. And maybe I’ll look for another charm too, when the time is right.

Thanks for listening and reading. À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Extreme Foxy close-up

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