Don’t get a dog: the worst piece of advice my grandma ever gave me

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I’ve traveled a lot of places, and nothing compares to these faces.

It’s common to canonize somebody after they die. When someone we love passes, we often think of them in their most angelic, pure form. At least for a while. It feels awkward and uncouth to recount a recently deceased person’s negative traits. Sometimes it can take months, or even years, before you’re ready to remember them as the flawed, layered person they were in actuality, rather than the holier-than-thou version of themselves you wistfully create as you grieve.

And so, it took me a while to admit to myself that the last piece of advice my grandmother ever gave me was complete and utter bullshit.

It was the Summer of 2013, and grandma had recently been moved into a nursing home. Her husband George had just died, and she was struggling mightily with her Parkinson’s disease. Her spirits were low and she all-but-begged us to help her die, conveniently ignoring the fact that my 59-year-old mother was in a hospital just 15 minutes away, slipping away slowly in palliative care after a massive stroke.

After sitting by my mother’s side for eight or ten hours a day at the hospital, we would go to visit my grandmother in the nursing home (did I mention it was the most depressing summer ever? It was).

“At least grandma will be able to talk back to us!” I said optimistically, on the drive over to visit her with my father. I was exhausted by my mother’s inability to communicate — the stroke took away her language center, meaning she could neither understand or speak to us — so our days dragged on in silence. The prospect of carrying on an actual conversation was a welcome change.

“I wouldn’t count on it. She’s not always lucid,” Dad warned.

As we arrived at the nursing home, my father was intercepted by a nurse wanting to show him a new prospective room for grandma. “You go see your grandmother. I’ll be in shortly,” he told me.

I sat down next to my grandma, who was unusually frail and chatty. Her room had stark white walls, a television, and was outfitted in the same furniture as my college dorm room. I couldn’t help but empathize with her depression. I hated being in this place, and I certainly didn’t have to live here.

“What’s new?!” She asked, chomping at the bit for some news from the outside.

“I am thinking of adopting a dog,” I said. At the time, I was convinced that adopting a dog would help me through my grief, and was the best possible thing I could do.

“Why would you want to do that?!” she asked, appalled.

“Grandma, you know I’ve always wanted a dog.”

“And I’ve never been able to understand why. A dog will chain you. You won’t be able to travel or take off spontaneously or do anything at all. You’ll be stuck with the dog! Don’t tie yourself down with a pet. It’s not a good idea.”

Her words hit me like a gut punch. Was she right? Was I unable to commit to a dog? I’d always wondered if I was really ready; if I should take the plunge or wait for a better, more stable time (note: I did end up waiting for a better time — about 2 more years, and I’m really glad I did). I wanted to say “grandma, you’re one to talk — you already had 3 kids by they time you were my age!” but I didn’t. I couldn’t bear her response and fighting her didn’t seem worth it. Besides, the damage was done.

I said nothing. But I internalized her words, and the hurt that they brought.

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What I should have said: “Grandma, you’re full of shit.” Because LOOK AT THAT FACE!

It’s been nearly two and a half years since that conversation, and only now it strikes me as funny that it was the last lucid talk we ever really had. As I stare down at my puppy Alfie, sleeping peacefully next to me while I work, I am pulled to thoughts of her.

She was right that I used to prize my freedom above all else. In my teens and early twenties, I traveled like I’d never get the chance again. If there was a trip and I could somehow afford it, I went, without thinking much about what I was leaving behind. I stayed gone for as long as I could, often abandoning my apartment for months at a time, soaking in all that the world had to offer me. My wanderlust knew no bounds — I was young and unattached and free.

Sure, coming home to all of my creature comforts was nice, but in truth there wasn’t much there waiting for me; an empty fridge and piling mail.

All of that has changed for me.

Today, my apartment is bursting with love. I have a family to come home to: Dave, our cat Penny and of course, now Alfie. We do almost everything together and being with them fills my heart up to its brim, and makes me feel whole in a way I never imagined before. Leaving them is hard, but not because of logistics or the cost of pet sitters. It’s hard because I love them and I miss them, and frankly, I hate being away from them. They’re my favorites!

Although I have to admit, in many ways, having a dog does bind me. I have to get up each morning at a reasonable time to take him for a walk. I have to plan out my days around his needs: I must make sure he gets his meals, enough exercise and socializing, and that I spend adequate time training and bonding with him. I can’t just pick up and go whenever to wherever. All of that is true.

But when I think about how much I’ve gained — a sweet, loyal companion, a furbaby who loves me no matter what is going on in my life; an unrelenting best friend — I realize that ultimately, “freedom” is not the most important thing to me anymore.

If I could talk to my grandma again, or if I could go back to that conversation, I would kindly tell her what I know now: I could keep my life set up forever so that I am unattached and free. That would mean I could do whatever I want, and I wouldn’t have anyone to answer to. But having a partner and a cat and a dog to love and to love me is worth more than all of that to me now. They give me something to come home to; something to miss, something to work towards. I’m more patient, more giving, more loving and more myself.

I don’t feel tied down or imprisoned; I feel complete. I feel whole. I’m no longer trying to escape my life. I’m right here living and loving it.

I gave up my “freedom,” and I found something that’s worth a lot more: the beautiful feeling of home.

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I’d choose him all over again. 🙂


Observations from my First 10 Days of Dog Guardianship

Our first day together!

Our first day together!

I apologize for the radio silence in the past few weeks. Dave and I added a new furry family member to our household — Alfie, a black terrier/lab (we think?!) mutt who has completely taken over our lives and our hearts. So far, rescuing a dog isn’t exactly like I thought it would be. As much as I furiously researched and read everything I could get my hands on, nothing really could have prepared me for the overwhelming gravity and responsibility of taking on his guardianship. I guess, in some small part, this is what new parenthood feels like. You think you know, but you have no idea until you’re knee-deep in it. It’s a process of doing and learning and growing together with your pup; all with patience, the virtue I have the least of, and which I’m still learning every day.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted a dog of my own. I spent years biding my time, knowing I was not ready for the responsibility; that my freewheeling lifestyle could not support the stability and attention a dog needs. But a huge piece of my heart, a piece that only a canine companion could fill, called out to me every time a dog would walk by. For the past year, Dave has dragged me away from the dog beach and Yappy Hour (a daily event at a local bar where dogs run around a fenced-in area while their owners drink) more times than I can count.

So when our day finally came, I was filled with anxiety, excitement, anticipation and the weight of what this decision would mean for me; for us.

Oh boy am I in trouble with this cutie!

Oh boy am I in trouble with this cutie!

Here are my observations on dog guardianship so far:

1. My lifestyle is already improving. Beginning my morning with a walk rather than scrolling my phone is a much more efficient and healthy start to the day. Also, it just plain feels better. And I am still able to get to my desk by the same time each morning. Even our short potty breaks are a nice way to get me away from my desk and moving every few hours. I’m taking more steps and feeling better than I have in months. Each evening, Dave and I leave our phones at home and take Alfie to the beach, where we play fetch while the waves crash. Not a bad life!

I mean... how could you not love this nutter?! MY LIFE.

I mean… how could you not love this nutter?! MY LIFE.

2. Just because your puppy listens to you and takes commands today does not mean he will listen and take commands tomorrow. Puppies are unpredictable. One day, they’re walking perfectly on a leash, coming when called, and sitting on command, and the next day, they’re overwhelmed with energy. Adjusting and training are ongoing processes with no short cuts. “Patience, consistency and positivity” is basically my new life mantra with Alfie-boy.

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“You said I was a good boy yesterday, and I assume that carries over to all days, right?!”

3. I’ve met more people in my town in the last 10 days than I did in my entire first year here. Having a dog in my tiny, canine-obsessed town has completely legitimized me. I’m amazed to find myself yukking it up with other dog-parents while our “kids” play. I still sometimes feel out-of-place or like a fraud, but I assume this will lessen over time.

4. Sometimes, it still doesn’t feel real and Alfie doesn’t feel like my dog. Sometimes this whole adjustment is just really hard. Sometimes I feel depressed and trapped, followed by guilt for feeling depressed and trapped. I know these “puppy blues” are normal, and that they will lessen with time, but every now and then I think, “OMG WHY IS MY PUPPY PUPPY-ING SO HARD?! I AM GONNA FREAK OUT. PS: I CAN’T DO THIS!” Instead of freaking out, I gather myself, because puppies need calm leadership and stability. I remind myself to remain kind and patient, which brings me to my next point…

5. My relationship with my puppy will change me. I am changing already. He is giving me more purpose in my life. Let me explain: Before I got Alfie, I read The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete. In the book, the monks talk a lot about the spiritual aspect of the human-canine relationship; how as you raise your puppy, your puppy actually raises you. The monks posit that your dog is a mirror reflecting back on you — showing you the person who you are projecting. As someone who has always struggled with patience, staying present and keeping control of my emotions, I must remain vigilant not to let these characteristics seep into my relationship with Alfie. I must keep a sound mind to be a good guardian.  So Alfie is my ultimate lesson in patience and mindfulness. Yes, I will raise him to be well-socialized, have good manners and to be happy and healthy, but I will also raise myself up to a higher standard. I will be a better, more fulfilled person. I already am, and I have his furry little face to thank.

This is the look on Alfie's face when he senses we're leaving the dog beach.

This is the look on Alfie’s face when he senses we’re leaving the dog beach.

So, that’s what’s been floating through my mind in my first 10 days with Alfie. I’m SO looking forward to seeing more of his personality emerge, and for both of us to start feeling more comfortable with one another. In just a little over a week, he’s already taught me so much, and given me an incredible amount of love and companionship. I can hardly wait for our bond to deepen, and to see the amazing dog he will become.

Sure, there are moments of frustration and anxiety, but the overwhelming sentiment is one of pure, deep love.

Woman’s best friend, indeed!

6 Amazing Things About Living in a Beach Town

Greetings, indeed!

Greetings, indeed!

Just over a year ago, I took a huge leap of faith and moved from New York City to the smallish beach community of Asbury Park, New Jersey. Never in all my life did I think I would move to New Jersey, let alone the Shore of all places. When I first told my city friends I’d be moving here, a lot of them were shocked and/or horrified. A few of them were willing to put money on the fact that I’d be moving back to the city within a year. I’m happy to report that not only did I make it through a full year of #JerseyShoreLife, but I also thoroughly enjoy the lifestyle. I intend to stay, at least for the next couple of years. Here are just a few great things about living at the Jersey Shore (or any beach town, really):

1. It’s so chill: After living in the city for eleven years, I must say the chill factor of living at the beach is a welcome change. That’s not to say I didn’t love the hustle and bustle of city life. At times, it filled me to my brim with inspiration and energy. But after my mother died, I really needed to slow down, and to take time to take care of myself. Amid the screaming, never-sleeping city and hectic schedules that make planning a coffee date with a friend a two-months-in-advance affair, I felt unbalanced and exhausted. The city was moving quickly around me, while I stood still. Many of my friends didn’t have time for my grief, and I couldn’t even blame them. I understood the fast-paced lifestyle well, and had been swept up in it many times before, neglecting friends who were going through something; too stuck in the busy trap to see my way out. I simply needed a change; to live a slower lifestyle. These days, when I feel out of sorts or anxious, I simply walk 4 blocks to the beach, and let the waves calm me. I take long strolls on the boardwalk, exploring my thoughts, and stopping to jot down ideas in my journal. I hike at least twice a week at nearby parks, relishing in the luxury of being alone in the woods. I ride my bike everywhere without worrying about getting mowed down by an overly enthusiastic cab driver. I’ve reached a new state of zen, and it’s helping bring clarity and quiet to my anxious, grieving mind.

2. The local culture: One of the nice things about moving to a vacation town is that there’s usually a defining local culture for you to immerse yourself in. The Jersey Shore is filled with tiny towns that each have their own unique culture. As a newcomer, I am still learning to understand these micro-cultures. But one thing I do know: this setup allows for endless exploration. There are religious towns, artistic towns, hippie towns, health-conscious towns, family-friendly dry towns, bumping hookup culture towns, MTV reality show-worthy towns, and pretty much everything in between.

Here in Asbury Park (home of the world’s largest Zombie Walk), we’ve got hipness with a great cultural mix: Music, nightlife, art, food, diversity. We have art galleries, an art house cinema, a paranormal bookshop, several psychic outposts, the historic Asbury Lanes (a bowling alley/punk music venue hybrid), a pinball museum/arcade, a gigantic rooftop beer garden, the famous Stone Pony, a music academy and recording studio, bars and restaurants for every taste and diet, and some really beautiful and iconic buildings from years passed. We also have Wonder Bar, which hosts a daily “Yappy Hour,” where dogs run around a sandy dog park as their pup-parents enjoy outdoor beverages. This place is essentially an adult theme park.

The iconic Convention Hall

The iconic Convention Hall

3. The Hustle is Real: In a town like Asbury Park, there are a good number of city refugees like me, who came here to calm the heck down and enjoy a slower lifestyle. But then there are the hustlers — the folks who are living off of the local tourist economy. Everyone here has a big idea or aspiration, and they’re working their butts off to bring their dreams to life. Businesses are constantly opening and closing around town, and there’s always someone in line who’s finally ready to open that yoga studio or brewery they’ve always talked about. Just in the past few weeks, we’ve had three local openings: a gourmet donut shop, a wellness studio, and a collaborative market for artists, independent shops and designers. Soon to come is a new food truck court next to the boardwalk. There are so many movers, shakers, creatives, entrepreneurs, hustlers, and jack-of-all-trades in a vacation town. These doers bring the energy — they are the pulsing heartbeat of the town. These people inspire me every day, keep me on my toes (lest I let the “chill” take over my brain and stop bothering to move forward!) and make this town an awesome, unique place to live.

4. The natural beauty does not suck. I mean. It’s the beach. It never gets old. Ever. If you think otherwise, you clearly have no soul. Do you hate puppies too?

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Fall 2014, Asbury Park. It’s just hideous, isn’t it?!

5. The off-season is so peaceful: When I decided to move to the Jersey Shore, my NYC friends had a lot of questions. “Won’t the winter be depressing?” “But like, is there anything to DO there once summer ends?” “Do we need to have an intervention with you?” I was a little concerned that the off-peak months would be weird or eerie, but I’m happy to report that the ocean does not, in fact, become hideously ugly or a terrible place to visit once beach badge season has passed. In fact, my favorite time here is what is called “locals’ summer.” After Labor Day, when all of the beach shops are packed up and the restaurants begin operating on off-season schedules, the locals all come out to play. Everyone in town is in a good mood, because 1), they’ve stacked some change for winter hibernation and 2), they’re finally able to enjoy the beach rather than working 24/7 to make sure the tourists are enjoying themselves all summer. Plus, the water’s still warm enough for swimming and you don’t need a beach badge to get on the sand (one thing that IS difficult to adjust to: one day in May, you’re able to go onto the public beach as you please and the next day, there’s suddenly a bouncer there asking for your rather expensive beach badge!). Last fall, I swam in the ocean almost daily until mid-October, because the water was over 70 degrees! All of my Facebook friends were posting pictures of their pumpkin spiced lattes and orchard-visiting adventures, and I was down here at the beach, catching waves on my boogie board, pretending summer would never end. Other great things about the off-season? You can ride your bike on the boardwalk. Dogs are allowed all over the boards and the beach (and trust me when I say, there are SO. MANY. CUTE. DOGS. EVERYWHERE). There are a surprising number of cultural events around town, plus live music always and forever (Asbury Park IS a music town after all). Also, the restaurants calm down a little bit and you no longer need reservations or to plan ahead. Bottom line: the town is your oyster in the off-season!

6. The energy of peak-season is palpable. Now that I’ve lived here through every season, I can officially say that summer is still my favorite. Throughout the Spring, I watched excitedly each week as businesses re-opened their doors, and put up signs reading “BACK FOR SUMMER!” Now that we’ve passed Memorial Day, everything is open (and those aforementioned hustlers are putting the final touches on their new projects/openings for summer 2015!) and the town is absolutely bustling. Sure, the boardwalk can be a little bit crowded, and you may not be able to get into your favorite restaurant at the last minute, but the energy is absolutely contagious. For a few glorious months, I get to live in what feels like a real (albeit tiny) city. The beach is amazingly full-of-life and inviting, and there are outdoor concerts, nighttime movies and bonfires on the beach, food festivals, nighttime bazaars, and so many other events. Besides, I have the entire off-season to have the place to myself; to do as I please, eat where I want, and ride my bike on the boards with impunity. But summer, sweet summer, is about enjoying this amazing gift that we have in our tiny town, and sharing it with everybody else who wants to enjoy it . . . in all its weirdness and beauty.

I can’t say that I’m going to stay here forever, or that it’s all sunshine and rainbows every minute. But I can say that this town has stolen my heart, and I’m not going anywhere any time soon. 🙂