From a Tennessee Ditch to Ann Arbor

I always knew we'd get another dog after Chance died, and Linda and I had talked about it with increasing frequency in the months since we lost him. She was very open to getting an adult shelter dog, while I was much more interested in getting a puppy. We were a bit reluctant to get another pure-bred dog, in part because of the virtual impossibility that any purebred would be free of all the various genetically-determined health problems that most breeds suffer from.

We started going to the local Humane Society of Huron Valley in December to look for another family member, but initially it was for a cat or kitten. As the days went by and Christmas approached, several trips to the shelter yielded nothing of the feline variety. One of the fruitless visits was on Thursday before New Year's, and I was told by a Humane Society staffer that they were scheduled to take delivery of a litter of lab/shepherd mix puppies the next day. Because of the high adoption rate at the Huron Valley shelter, they have an ongoing relationship with smaller shelters down south, and this particular batch of puppies was coming from Tennessee. They had been found abandoned in a drainage ditch—not even in a box—shortly before coming north. They were thought to be just over 8 weeks old.

The shelter announced in a Facebook posting that the puppies would be ready for public visits on Saturday, December 31, and the photos they included only increased our eagerness to see them. We got to the Humane Society 15 minutes before it officially opened, but even so the vestibule was already filled with people with the same goal as ours. We feared that by the time I finished filling out the required paperwork they would all be adopted, so Linda went with the crowd in hopes of forestalling that event. Our fears were groundless; several of the puppies were still available by the time I'd handed in the forms, and we quickly zeroed in on one tan male with a black muzzle. We took him into the private visitation room, and he seemed to respond to us positively, and we certainly did to him. He was inquisitive, bright-eyed, and active without being crazy. We said yes.

He's extremely affectionate, great with all the adults and kids he's met, and friendly and playful with other dogs. He has a tendency to get underfoot, and we have to be careful lest we trod on his toes (which has happened several times) or take a tumble over him. Hence his name: Trip.


Mark di Suvero's Monumental Red Steel 

One of my favorite sculptures on UM's Ann Arbor campus is Orion by Mark di Suvero, and I had perfect sun and weather conditions to photograph it on November 23. Its form and structure make it fascinating to view—and photograph—from any angle.

More on the piece and its creator is available here: http://umma.umich.edu/view/outdoor_sculpture/orion.html



A Hole in Our House and Hearts

Marta holds Chance at the breeder for the first time.In the spring of 2000, we brought home a fat little chocolate labrador retriever puppy that our daughter Marta christened Chance. She chose that name because he was, according to the breeder, the result of an unplanned union, and we were the lucky beneficiaries.

It's impossible to envision a more gentle, tolerant, laid-back, and quiet dog. By quiet, I mean exactly that—he virtually never barked; at most, it was a deep gutteral "woof" or two, and that was it. He would regally lie in our unfenced front yard and survey the activity in the park across the street and on our sidewalks with nary a comment. Only very rarely would he venture down the grass to greet people, and passing pedestrians routinely expressed amazement that we didn't have an invisible fence. If during our neighborhood walks I'd encounter a friend and end up in conversation, he would never strain and tug against the leash; he'd simply plop down at our feet and patiently wait until the humans stopped blabbering, his expressive eyes evincing an attitude of lugubrious resignation at the delay in his walk.

This doesn't mean that he was asocial; he greeted familiar friends and neighbors in the same way: he'd eagerly lean his 80-lb bulk up against their legs, and then flop onto his back at their feet, hoping for a belly rub. Which he generally got, expressing his pleasure in bear-like grunts. His best canine friend was Cody, a black standard poodle owned by our close nearby friends Christin and Myron. Chance and Cody spent many hours together in various parks, and they would have extended jousting matches, standing on their hind legs and going at each other like prizefighters. When Cody was alive, Chance would cast longing gazes across the park to see if he was approaching, and that didn't stop after Cody passed away a few years ago—Chance still looked for signs of his old friend every day.

Family friend Martha gives Chance what he wants.As much as he enjoyed simply hanging out at home, as befits his breed he was happiest when out in nature, whether trotting through the woods, swimming in a nearby river or pond, or bounding up the slopes of a Colorado mountain. He would suffer in the worst heat and humidity of the summer, but seemed completely impervious to winter cold, and would happily lie in sub-zero snow and ice chewing on sticks while we hopped around trying to keep warm. I never saw him shiver from the cold—shivering was reserved for visits to the vet.

He had his quirks. One of them was that his interest in actually retrieving a thrown object was transitory. He never displayed the slightest interest in chasing Frisbees, and thrown tennis balls were of limited attraction. He did love chasing kicked soccer balls in the park on winter nights, but he didn't retrieve the ball to bring it back to me—I was supposed to chase him to get the ball, and so we would run back and forth across the snow and ice like maniacs at midnight, alternately chasing each other, depending on who had possession of the ball. His only consistent retrieving activity was in getting objects out of the pond at the dog park Linda took him to frequently, but even then he would be easily distracted by the numerous frogs in the shallows, forgetting all about the ball floating nearby.

He never once tried to pull food from the counter or dinner table, but once ate an entire bag of Halloween candy bars—wrappers and all—with disastrous digestive consequences. He loved fresh mushrooms and sweet peppers, and I could rely on him positioning himself at the entrance to our kitchen when he heard the sound of my knife on the cutting board. He had no interest whatsoever in nylon or hard plastic bones, preferring instead the endless supply of large sticks and branches in the park. He would strip the bark from them as though he was stripping the fur and skin from a deer's leg, and then cough up wood chips with amazingly loud and bizarre noises.

To the end of his days, he enthusiastically chased squirrels, on two occasions managing to bowl his prey over upon contact. Fortunately, Linda or I were always present to call him off before he could do anything to the momentarily stunned squirrel. We don't know if he would have actually killed or eaten one, but we never wanted to find out. Oddly, he never displayed any interest in the numerous rabbits around our house.

Neighbor Sayre happily leans on a contented Chance.Regrettably, he never seemed to get the hang of what skunks were, and was bombed on five occasions by the skunks that infest our neighborhood. In each case, it was late at night, necessitating long de-skunking sessions in the bathtub that invariably didn't finish until 2am. Eventually we took to walking him in the middle of the streets at night just to stay clear of the skunks that lurk in the shadows of shrubs and bushes.

Just like people, his last years were increasingly accompanied by a variety of physical ailments, some mostly aggravating and some much more serious in nature. He developed constant digestive "issues" during the warm months, and we took many trips to the vet to try to figure out the cause. Eventually, our vet determined that plant and mold allergies were responsible, and antihistamines brought the problem under control for the most part.

In early 2010, he underwent surgery and radiation treatments for a particularly aggressive form of cancer on his leg. The radiation was administered several times per week for over a month, and at the end of each treatment he was so loopy from the anesthetic that I had to completely upholster the interior of my truck with blankets and quilts to prevent him from hurting himself when he tried to stand up inside. But in spite of the discomfort associated with each visit, he never wigged out in the waiting room or refused to get out of the car when we arrived at the cancer center, instead greeting the clinicians there with his customarily wagging tail.

He came through the treatments in remarkably good shape, and by late spring was showing no noticeable ill effects from either the surgery or the radiation. Then, in August, during one of our weekly jaunts to a wooded area adjacent to UM's North Campus, he blew out the ACL in his left rear knee. This required reconstructive surgery to correct, and he never entirely shed the limp he acquired because of the injury.

Then, shortly before Christmas, he developed an intermittent and strange-sounding cough, and I took him to our local vet to make sure that there wasn't something lodged deep in his esophagus. X-rays didn't reveal any obstruction, but they also revealed something far more serious: a suspicious-looking mass in his lung. A visit in January to the cancer center confirmed our worst fears. Not only was the mass in his lung a tumor, he had also developed a painful lump in his left armpit, which the oncologist determined was likely to be another tumor, and given its location, meant that the cancer was likely already in his lymph system. On top of that, the cancer center vets also concluded that the strange coughing sounds that had prompted the pre-Christmas trip to the vet in the first place were symptomatic of the early stages of Canine Laryngeal Paralysis, which is especially prevalent in Labs.

Given his advanced age, the extent of the cancer, and the low probability for truly eliminating it, we reluctantly and tearfully concluded that subjecting him to the twin assaults of the required chemotherapy and surgery would mean that a good portion of his final weeks and months would be spent shuttling back and forth between home and cancer center, followed by an extended and confining convalescence away from the grass and the trees and yes, the squirrels that sustained him. This seemed to us to be a very poor bargain for him, for so little chance of true success.

During the spring he gradually but visibly became less mobile, eventually finding it a struggle to get over low obstacles and steps that only a short time ago had posed no problem. He had great difficulty in getting down the stairs from our bedroom where he's always slept, and while laying down was restless and distracted, and would issue forth with long, drawn out sighs or groans that we could only imagine as signs of pain and discomfort.

We had many conversations about when the inevitable had to take place. We knew that there were only two things that could happen: either we would feel that we had ended things too soon, with a few "good" days still left on Chance's calendar, or we would conclude that we'd waited too long and by doing so had subjected him to needless suffering. The latter was unacceptable, and in late April we decided we could wait no longer. On April 29, with his entire family around him at home, he departed us quietly and peacefully.

When I think of Chance's soulful eyes looking up at me, hoping for a scratch, Mark Twain comes to mind: "Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in."

See Chance's soulful eyes here.


Interactive Infographics

The development of powerful software and programming languages such as Flash, Java, and HTML5 has enabled designers to convey highly complex information in dynamic ways that allow the user to explore the information interactively. This can make the experience of learning about even normally dry information—such as how recipients of grant money benefited from their award—unusually interesting.

London-based designer and data journalist David McCandless specializes in information design, and his website Information is Beautiful http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/ is a compendium of his own information design work and those of other designers. He links to an interactive display created for the Roostein Hopkins Foundation, a UK organization that distributes grants to artists, art students, art galleries, and colleges of art and design to further their studies and creative ambitions. http://www.rhfoundation.org.uk/



The Book Surgeon

I freely and unashamedly admit that I hate being without internet access; when Comcast is having technical difficulties and my service is interrupted, I feel cut off from the world in a way that the idiot box in our living room cannot remedy. My wife has a Kindle, and I'm a huge fan of what the iPad can offer. That doesn't mean, however, that I've lost my much older love for physical books, especially large, older volumes with significant graphic or illustrational components. I can as easily lose time in a used bookshop as I can on the internet, and both experiences offer something similar: the ever-present possibility of discovering something truly unique and fascinating.

Thanks to the internet, I recently discovered the amazing creations of artist Brian Dettmer, using old books as his raw material. This is truly surgery of a most original kind. http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/the-book-surgeon-15-pieces