Monday, February 23, 2009

Adopting Electra (part one)

My life has been punctuated with pets. Except for the college years, when I lived in New York, I have always had a pet. I am, hands down, a dog person, but that's not to say that I don't like cats. I would argue that Baby Gray was the coolest cat that ever lived.

He broke absolutely every cat stereotype--we managed to move him six times during the sixteen years that we owned him; he would come to you every time you called him; and he absolutely loved people, all people, without reservation. I loved the way his purr sounded like an idling diesel engine, and the way his stump of a tail (the result of getting hit by a car one summer while we were on vacation) would twitch wildly whenever he got excited chasing a piece of string across the floor.

But there really are two distinct classifications--cat people and dog people--and while a dog person, like me, might love and appreciate the occasional cat, dogs will always hold very special places in our hearts.

I love the way dogs always seem so uncoordinated, the veritable Bull in the China Closet Syndrome, when they get excited. I love a dog's unbridled passion whenever I walk in the door, whether I have been gone for five minutes, or five hours. I love the way a dog will follow me from room to room in a house for no other reason than to be close to me. I love the way that something as simple as tossing a toy across the room can turn into an unending game. Toss a toy across the room for a cat, and he'll just look at you, thinking, "You moron. You threw it. You go pick it up."

After living, petless, in New York for nine years, it was time to get a dog. My husband, Steven, who has never had a pet, argued adamantly against it. He just couldn't understand why anyone would want one. They were messy, required lots of attention, had accidents on the rug, needed to be walked, fed, bathed, and taken to the vet at regular intervals, and they had a much shorter lifespan than humans. He had seen what my parents and I went through in the summer of 2008 in my shih tzu Angel's final days, agonizing over the decision to put my 15-year-old dog to sleep. When Mom and Dad delivered Angel's cremated remains to me in an urn, which I promptly placed on one of the bookshelves in the living room, Steven just shook his head and chalked up as yet another reason not to get a pet on his internal scorecard.

But my persistence finally paid off, and Steven relented to adopt a dog, under two very strict conditions:

"First of all, I don't want no wussy dog!" he stated firmly. "No little fluffy thing that you carry around in your purse. Nope. No way."

"But, honey, I don't even carry a purse," I reminded him. He just held up his hand for my silence.

"And second, let's just remember this was your idea, which makes it your dog. You get to do all that crazy dog stuff that dog people do. Don't expect me to go out picking up poop. Nope. Not happening."

I just smiled and kissed him. "Whatever you say, honey," I agreed, then retreated to the office to start looking for our new dog.

Over the next few weeks/months, I scoured the internet for local shelters and rescues. We agreed right away that we wanted a rescue dog. Why perpetuate the cycle of overpopulation when there are millions of wonderful dogs who have been abandoned and are just waiting for a family?

We discussed breeds, temperaments, size, and decided that our house and yard would be best for a medium-sized dog, one that would adhere to Steven's No Wussy Dog Rule, but would be small enough that it wouldn't take over the house and feel crowded.

When Steven off-handedly remarked that he always thought a beagle would be a pretty cool dog, I jumped at the suggestion. I'd gotten so used to him just shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Eh, whatever you want," when I would show him photos of cute adoptable puppies, that I'd begun to suspect that he really was going to leave the decision entirely up to me. Now that he was actually expressing an interest in a beagle, I finally had something to set my sights on. With a few clicks of the mouse, I was on Arizona Beagle Rescue's website, oohing and aahing over photos of the happiest little dogs I had ever seen. It didn't take much to convince me.

I'd never had any beagle experience. My dad and Grandpa Felker had several hunting dogs growing up, but they were all labs or lab/retriever mixes. I'd gotten my shih tzu, Angel, as a Christmas present in 8th grade. According to everything that I was reading, owning a beagle was a whole different ballgame. Driven mostly by their insatiable appetites and their keen sense of smell, beagles can be a handful for people who are not prepared, scouring the countertops and tables for food left unattended, knocking over garbage cans and eating the contents. But, overall, a beagle seemed to be just the dog that Steven and I were looking for--medium size, loving, playful, energetic, extremely loyal and intelligent. We were a little concerned that most experts recommend never letting beagles off-leash, as they have a tendency to run off if they catch a scent to follow, but the positive aspects of the breed far outweighed the negative.

Thus began the adoption process.

To be continued...

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Mis-Education of America

Like all children, I went through periods when I hated school, and made up excuses and potentially life-threatening illnesses in order to convince Mom to let me stay home for the day. But, in general, those days were rare, as I always enjoyed learning. My occasional hiatus usually had more to do with being tired or fighting with my friends than it had to do with school.

Most of the classrooms of my youth ran like well-oiled machines. My teachers were knowledgeable, and enforced discipline and order in ways that were both fair and effective. Talking during class was taboo, and disrespect was simply not tolerated.

It was rare for a student to even try to bend the rules or show disrespect. When they did, they were sent straight to the Principal's office and punished, mostly through detentions, suspensions, or expulsions. Sometimes they were even sentenced to manual labor, reporting for duty early on a Saturday morning to spend the day scraping gum off the bottom of the desks or scrubbing the black scuff marks from the gymnasium floor. Parents were always called immediately, and the punishment at home often far outweighed any the school administrators could dream up. We were a generation of kids who were grounded, given additional chores, and spanked when necessary.

Disrespect was simply not tolerated.

When I first started teaching, I was appalled by the things kids were doing and getting away with in schools these days. At first I thought it was just me--a rookie teacher in a Bronx high school is bound to have some problems, right? But it wasn't just me, and I soon learned that it wasn't just the kids in the Bronx either. As a whole, the educational system in the United States has taken a nosedive and splattered headfirst on the pavement.

Teachers are paid a pittance for the incredibly important job they do, and are being abused with extra duties, activities, committees, and meetings that they are forced to attend outside class. Instead of being able to focus on instruction, teachers these days also take on the role of head disciplinarian (an assignment that used to fall under the Principal or Vice-Principal's job description). Unless a child actually pulls out a weapon and threatens to use it, it is virtually impossible for teachers to get a troubled child removed from class. Not to mention the fact that classrooms are so overcrowded they are literally stuffed with students. There are never enough textbooks or supplies, and many teachers even have to buy their own paper if they want to make photocopies for assignments.

Somewhere along the line, our nation adopted this soft, touchy-feely attitude toward children, and the problems with it are becoming apparent only now that it is literally blowing up in our faces. We are afraid to discipline children, or correct them, because we are afraid we might hurt their feelings. Kids are out of control, in classrooms and at home. They have no sense of right and wrong, no respect for their elders (or anyone else for that matter). They certainly aren't learning anything because, God forbid, we can't make them memorize anything anymore. We can't make them diagram sentences or write long essays or read entire novels, because that would just be too much for them. No, no, no, we need to reward them for jobs half-done. We need to hold their hands and walk them through the watered down curriculum that even a monkey could decipher if properly trained.

In the infinite wisdom of our elected officials and administrators, we have severely cut our art music, and physical education programs--the very programs that give our children creative outlets for their abundance of pent up energy and emotions. I have one friend working in an elementary school without recess. An elementary school without recess!!! The school day stretches from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, with only a 15-minute break for lunch. Is it any surprise that approximately 6 million children are being diagnosed with ADHD in the United States every year? Is it any surprise that our children are beginning to lash out and bite the hands that are trying to feed them?

Our children don't need to be coddled, and they certainly don't need to be medicated. What they need is to be kids. They need to be given adequate time each day to run and play and stretch, not just their bodies, but their imaginations as well. Then, when it's time to get serious and learn, they need rules and discipline and consequences. Children learn by imitation, by trial and error. If we want them to grow into well-rounded, respectable citizens who can really contribute to our society, then we need to stand up and be role models. We need to figure out how to fix ourselves, then do what it takes to fix things for our children.

The burden is all of ours to bear, for we do not live inside individual bubbles where the rules that govern the whole have no effect on us. It's time for all of us to step up and take responsibility for the state of our world. Only then will it possible to roll up our sleeves, dig in, and do what it takes to fix it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

His name is Greed

Sometimes I feel just like a gerbil, running around and around on this rickety wheel. I hate the way it wobbles and sways. I hate the shrill, high-pitched squeak, squeak, squeak of the gears that have been worn ragged by misuse. I want to stop sometimes, yet I am compelled to keep going, driven by a force that I am not sure I truly understand.

Nothing is right anymore. Nothing seems to fit. We are living in a world gone mad, and I find it disturbing how many of us are willing to just sit back and allow it go on this way. The economy is in the toilet. People are broke, losing their jobs, their homes, their hope. And what do we really have left without hope?

America doesn't need a stimulus package. America doesn't need a bunch of monopoly money being mass-produced and distributed as though it might really be worth something. No, what America needs is an exorcist, someone willing to face the ugly demon that is festering, and banish it once and for all.

And what demon might that be? Why, I think that's pretty easy. We all know him. His name is Greed.

We have gotten lazy, so incredibly lazy, and we are raising a generation of young people who have an outrageous sense of entitlement. Young people today think that everything is going to be handed to them on silver platters, and they are never going to have to really work for anything their selfish desire. No one wants to work for anything anymore. Why work, when it's so much easier to pass the buck and let someone else pick up the slack?

Movie stars and professional athletes and crooked politicians are making more money than most of us will ever see in our lives, while the rest of us are barely hanging on. We work ourselves to death so we can raise families and try to catch a glimpse of that "American Dream" we've all heard so much about. Sadly, it's getting harder and harder to recognize it.

We are hitting a point in our American economy that we are faced with the real possibility of another Depression. It's sad, and it's going to hurt a lot of people, but maybe it's the only way to bring balance to our society again. We have gotten wasteful and excessive and completely out of control, and, unfortunately, the only way for the pendulum to swing when it hits one extreme is back the other direction. We are destined to bounce from one extreme to another until we finally find a way to fix what's wrong.

The greatest tragedy of all is that we have lost touch with each other. We have stopped recognizing the fact that we are all connected, that we are all here on this earth for the same reason--to do the best we can with what we have, to help one another, and to learn a little something in the process. This country once claimed that it could be a place where people of all different backgrounds could come together and live in harmony, that people of all races and religions and beliefs could blend together, like a steaming pot of jambalaya, each of our individual flavors made more significant in our combination. Unfortunately, we just can't seem to come together. We live in a nation that is sharply divided, and we are all selfish enough to refuse to accept any of the blame for it ourselves, when the simple truth is that we are all guilty.

So, what can we do? How do we go about fixing such a deeply-rooted problem? Can it be as simple as learning to love each other for who we really are, instead of who we want each other to be? Will we ever be able to look each other in the eyes, and admit that, in spite of everything, in spite of all our difference, we are all wonderfully, beautifully human?