Category Archives: Misc Essays

The Survivor Tree

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on July 17, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

It’s odd to see a memory under construction, the conscious act of recollection cemented and planted in full view of a curious public. Odder still is the attempt to make that memory sacred in the face of the sacrilege that caused it to come into being. That’s why I wasn’t surprised that my wife and I almost missed the most powerful symbol of the September 11 Memorial & Museum this weekend, lost as it was amid the sheer audacity of the blooming six-acre World Trade Center site.

The memorial was tasked with casting the grief of a nation into permanence, replacing the thousands of handmade epitaphs dotting the city from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to Union Square. Understandably, eyes are drawn upward to One World Trade Center’s “Freedom Tower” as it wills itself into existence on the New York City skyline. A crane atop the structure reaches out a bony finger like Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Man,” each massive steel girder hoisted thousands of feet into the heavens in blasphemous defiance of gravity as life is breathed into the scarred ground.

Below, the gaping maws of two man-made waterfalls marking the footprints of the old towers create a subdued orchestra drowning out the construction crews surrounding the site. The rush of cascading water is eerily reminiscent of the fall of the towers themselves, and teary-eyed visitors scour the bronze plates for the names of loved ones on the parapet walls that line the pools. The unfinished museum, consisting of two trident beams from the original towers, sits lifeless and encased in glass. An aching, painful absence permeates everything.

It’s amid this paralyzing emptiness that the “survivor tree” stands in quiet opposition to the overwhelming feeling of loss. A whisper in a sea of screams, it sends a message that the glass and steel above it cannot, a permanence and hope of which these manmade things are incapable. Hundreds of young swamp oak trees seem to huddle protectively around this last survivor pulled from the wreckage of the fallen towers, but its mere presence suggests a power that renders protection meaningless.

In October of 2001, the trunk of this callery pear tree was uncovered from the smoldering rubble in the plaza of the World Trade Center, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage. Like the citizens of the city, callery pear trees flourish in urban areas because they are tolerant of a variety or soil types, drainage levels, and soil acidity. Originally planted in the 1970’s, the charred and blackened stump was carefully exhumed and sent to a Bronx nursery as it clung to life. Soon, like the nation itself, the tree began to heal. In the process, it became a more fitting memorial than any of the buildings that now rise around it.

Even after the ten-year anniversary of the attacks and the opening of the memorial site, we are still left to make sense of the tragedy. We rush to rebuild because that’s what our country does best, yet we are no closer to ensuring it never happens again. There’s no “good” that will ever come out of this. Therefore, the callery pear tree is an all-too-fitting symbol for this event: like our best intentions, they do not bear much fruit.

Instead, these trees are resilient. The survivor tree, like the World Trade Center site itself, is springing to life even though it still bears the scars of the attacks. One can actually see the timeline of 9/11 on the gnarled bark and dead holes on the trunk that then give way to clean, healthy limbs springing unblemished toward the sky. In the same way, the rebuilt office buildings of the World Trade Center rise above the ever-present orange netting and temporary sidewalk fencing, a testament to hope and a commitment to life.

In essence, the 9/11 memorial site attempts to carve out a place for peaceful contemplation on ground consecrated by horror. This can’t be accomplished by sheer force of will, but rather with the understanding that we we’ll never truly understand anything. The site provided its own memorial in the form of the survivor tree: a living, healing symbol that reminds us that while we cannot sweep away the pain of the past, we can still go on and continue to grow.

An offshoot of this tree was recently planted in Oklahoma City to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the federal building bomb that claimed 168 lives. Three other “clones” have been cultivated with plans for many more, a reflection of our need for tangible connections to this simple sign of hope in the middle of that horrible day’s madness.

Before I saw it for myself, I measured the progress at the site by the number of stories on the Freedom Tower or the date the museum was due to open. Now I realize it’s more accurately gauged by the strength of a pear tree’s root system. There’s an old Appalachian saying: “Rough weather makes for strong timber.” In this way, the tree is stronger than any memorial we might build around it.

Hoping For The Best: Cancelling the NBA Season

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on November 17, 2011, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

As a basketball fan, I am the least of anyone’s concern in the NBA. Both the commissioner, David Stern, and the head of the player’s union, Billy Hunter, regard me as little more than the wallet that carries their money. Amid the battle to win over public opinion, however, they’re forced to pretend they care about me. So here goes, fellas: Cancel the season. Please.

While hoping for a restoration to sanity, I’ll settle for a Knicks ticket I can actually afford. I’ll never get it under the current system. The owners and the players are too greedy, counting on fans too stupid to vote with their absence. The owners set this failed system into motion, of course—their inability to work in the long-term interest of the game allowed the wheels to come off long ago. Now they’re taking it out on the people who can least afford it: the fans and the people who make a living off concessions, parking, or merchandising. The lockout is an excuse for the owner’s lawyers to do that which the owners can’t: fix the cash cow. If they’re counting on lawyers to fix basketball, that cow’s a goner.

However, the players are even more deluded—someone forgot to tell them they already won the lottery. They’ve managed to make a living playing a child’s game, revered by millions for doing what we all grew up doing at recess. Now, in a stunning feat of entitlement, they’ve decided the league average of five million dollars a year in salary is not enough to stop them from taking their ball and going home. “Lockout!” they scream, yet some of the players should be locked up for their arrogance

About 21 percent of N.B.A. players had undergraduate degrees in 2009, according to Debbie Rothstein Murman, the director for career development for the NBA union. This means around 80% of NBA players should otherwise be making the national average of $32,900 for their education level, according to the 2011 Condition of Education report from the National Center for Education Statistics. However, even the lowest rookie can’t get paid less than $475,000 under their current contract, and that’s before adding in licensing fees, appearance fees, and the free swag that accompanies these fully guaranteed contracts. I defy any player to find another profession that pays such a fortune to men with so little formal education. The players shouldn’t be knocking Stern, they should be building him a statue.

Instead, they’ve victimized themselves in the same way NHL players did in 2004. Today’s hockey players still skate delicately around the corpse of that lost 2004-2005 season, when owners ground the players into a fine powder by imposing a hard salary cap and forechecking union head Bob Goodenow into irrelevance. The NBA union seems completely oblivious to its impending defeat, demanding no less than 53% of the overall league revenues (numbers that seem to change by the hour) amidst an economy that’s long been on the inactive list.

Making no concession to common sense, the players claim a kind of leverage that defies logic. They stand on the assertion that, as the face of the league, the league owes its success to them. Funny how one of the real faces of the league, Michael Jordan, doesn’t see it that way. As an owner, he realizes there is only one NBA; no one else is stupid enough to match that business model. Only in professional sports do the employees feel they deserve more pay than the owners who built the franchise. Players and owners will lose a lot of money in a cancelled season, but only the owners have a shot to make any of it back. If history holds, most owners will be around to realize the cost savings of a new collective bargaining agreement, and their ability to make money from the NBA will far outlast the players’.

So I’m taking off my Knicks jersey and rooting for the No Team; let the player’s union decertify and watch as time and the courts show them the folly of their ways. Maybe then we can hope the owners are so desperate to regain their fans that they price their tickets accordingly. It ain’t much, but it can’t be any worse than when players got 57% of the revenue. Better yet, the nuclear option would involve replacement players and $10 tickets; toss the players and get the paychecks out to the real folks who work at the stadiums. I can’t afford a ticket to see Lebron or Kobe anyway, and a clean slate for the Knicks would be a dream come true. I’d still be nothing but the wallet that carries their money, but at least it’d be a smaller wallet.

Shadows over Connecticut

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on September 8, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

“Mr. Walsh, someone just bombed the Empire State Building!”

When you’re a middle school teacher, you get used to statements like this as you start your day. “Settle down, Edward, and take out your homework log.” The words tumbled effortlessly from my mouth as students continued to file in from the hallway for first period.

“It was a plane,” added Luwanda, holding her books tightly to her chest. “They are interviewing eyewitnesses on the Morning Zoo. Nobody’s playing music. They’re saying someone flew a plane into the Twin Towers.”

My first reaction was to share the story of the plane that hit the Empire State Building in 1945. “Accidents happen; let’s just hope everyone is all right.” An eerie calm had settled over the room, and I knew it wasn’t the worksheets on conjunctive adverbs I’d assigned them. I had many students whose parents and neighbors worked in that area of New York City. As they settled down to the task in front of them, I tried to sneak a peek at CNN from my computer. The site was down. Not wanting to frighten the students, I resisted the urge to walk across the hall to ask if anyone knew what was really going on.

I was helping a student with a question when Thomas burst into the room with a late pass. “They just bombed another building!” he announced, slumping into his seat. What followed was the longest fifteen minutes of my life as I tried to keep everyone calm. When the period bell rang without any announcement from the principal, I dared to hope that it was nothing serious.

It’s easy to take for granted how far technology has come in ten years; on that day, we had no cable TV in the building, and our internet had already crashed. I rushed to a colleague’s room and found other teachers already huddled around a small radio. “A second plane has just hit the South Tower,” someone said through the static. As one, we realized our world had just snapped its moorings. I’d arrived at school at 6:55 AM, and the big news was the opening day for the United Nations General Assembly; they’d just established September 21 as the International Day of Peace. Now, spared the gruesome images that at that moment were plastered across every TV screen in the country, we quickly assembled a plan to get our students through the day.

We were given the task of trying to maintain normalcy even as Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon; even as our principal quietly took each teacher aside to ask us to pull the blinds and gather the children in the middle of the rooms. I led a discussion on Isaac Asimov while trying not to worry about my wife, a mere half-hour outside the city but unreachable by phone. I had to keep it together in order to distract my students from those same thoughts.

By 10:00 AM, the cars began to line up outside the school. The office began interrupting classes with long lists of students whose parents had come to pick them up, and a sense of panic rippled through the student body despite our best efforts. Students who had family in the towers were asked to go down to the office, where they huddled with the school psychologists and guidance counselors while awaiting news. Soon we were asked to turn off all lights, then our computers, as we waited in ten-minute intervals for the next batch of students to be called home. Those students who remained kept sneaking glances at the cell phones hidden in their pockets against school policy, their ringtones an eerie soundtrack of happy jingles as we struggled to read with what little light streamed around the blinds. The songs Pink Floyd once sung about the World War II bombing raids of London suddenly seemed far too real.

As soon as the buses came to pick up the last of the kids at the end of the day, we scurried to our homes, desperate to touch our loved ones and sort through the rubble of the day. My wife and I ate frozen dinners as Aaron Brown, on his first day anchoring the news, guessed which of the teetering buildings around the crumbled towers would fall next. We stayed up all night as various plots were proposed and everyone grappled with what would happen tomorrow. We waited for the call from school that would tell us whether or not to stay home. It never came.

For many of us, 9/11 was not the day that changed our lives; it was 9/12. As the towers fell on that terrible Tuesday, our heads were swimming with the fear of additional attacks. We were numbed with shock, unable to process the empty spaces where the towers once stood. On Wednesday morning we awoke to the realization that the destruction of the skyline in the economic capital of the world was far too… easy. Suddenly, America was not safe from those who opposed her.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of that horrible day, I still have trouble processing those two empty footprints of the World Trade Center towers. The shadows of those doomed planes remain, casting a pall over Ground Zero that no construction crew will ever repair. However, ten years have shown that we are stronger in the places our attackers tried to break us. They did not divide us from our Muslim American community, but rather forced us to better understand and work with it. They did not tear down our way of life, but instead reminded us of its importance. They did not force us to live in fear; they allowed us to rise above our fears and to do that most American of things: to hope.

I saw that hope in our school bake sales in the weeks and months that followed, in the repainted cafeteria of red, white, and blue, and in the way our students rallied to support those in our community who’d been been directly affected. I’ve never been prouder of my students than I was at this uncertain moment in our national history. As sad as I will be to relive the images of September 11, 2001, I will cling to that hope. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, the hope “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

To hope that, eventually, those shadows will pass.

Retarded Progress of Language

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This piece was picked up by the Special Olympics and used on their website “Spread The Word to End The Word” on March 9, 2011. This meant a great deal to me after years of volunteering for the Special Olympics while in school. Posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on March 10, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

“That is so retarded!”

It’s a phrase I hear all too often in my position as a middle school teacher, but much more worrisome is the frequency with which I hear it said by adults. The Black Eyed Peas scored a hit a few years ago with their song, “Let’s Get Retarded.” I hear colleagues and friends refer to the “retarded” actions of others or themselves. “I was such a retard last night,” I overheard one woman say while waiting in line at Stop and Shop.

Most of us realize that cursing and racial epithets comprise the language of the ignorant and fearful. We are all familiar with the words we are supposed to avoid: few hear the “n-word” without a twinge, and the use of “beaner,” “dago,” “jap,” or “mick” have mostly been purged from decent vocabulary. Somehow, though, the misuse of the word “retarded” often manages to slip past the filter of acceptable society.

The irony is lost on those who use it. Gradually, the word “retarded” has developed a new connotation, often used a synonym for “stupid.” More intelligent people realize that the actual definition of the word “retarded” is that which occurred or developed later than expected. Since the turn of the twentieth century, it’s referred to the state of being mentally underdeveloped, medically defined as having an IQ below 70. However, the term has been turned into an offensive slur by those too dim to realize that its use accomplishes the opposite of what they intend.

In the process of someone trying to say that forgetting to take his briefcase off the hood of his car was a dumb thing to do, calling the action “retarded” implies that he was mentally underdeveloped for the task; in fact, he is unwittingly implying it wasn’t his fault because it was beyond his capacity to begin with! Rather than declaring his neighbors made a poor decision when failing to warn him before he drove off, he instead lets them off the hook by calling them “retards.”

Why not just call both actions “stupid”? More importantly, why do so many continue to turn a medical condition into a pejorative term? Do we still call those in wheelchairs “cripples”?  Would we so easily dismiss it when someone referred to “wetbacks” or “guineas”? The shame that one would expect at the mention of such words is conspicuously absent when using the word “retarded.” Sadly, sometimes it takes a while for the American lexicon to catch up with American ideals. In some cases, organizations see the need to escape these terms completely; in 2004, the Special Olympics International Board of Directors officially stopped using the term “mental retardation,” replacing it with “intellectual disabilities.” On October 5, 2010, President Obama signed bill S. 2781, which removes the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy, into federal law.

More importantly, anybody who interacts with the mentally challenged knows that the mental designation of “retarded” should never be associated with negativity. Imagine that you were challenged with the following characteristics of mental retardation: delays in oral language development so that you couldn’t communicate effectively with others; deficits in memory skills that caused you to forget important information to operate in your world; difficulty in learning social rules that cause you to struggle to fit in; delays in the development of adaptive behaviors so you could learn to take care of yourself; lack of social inhibitors that would allow you to sense when your actions are inappropriate; and finally a pronounced difficulty with problem solving skills that prevent you from being able to overcome all these obstacles. Now imagine that these same difficulties will not only challenge you to find your purpose in this world but also be seen as a joke to others. Can anyone find the logic in this?

On the other hand, those of us who have been lucky enough to have these special people in our lives know how truly generous and courageous they are. Free of the petty motivations and masks most of use engage in daily, those with intellectual disabilities are often incredibly inspiring in their work ethic and earnestness. One need only volunteer at the Special Olympics Games or visit the Kennedy Center to see this firsthand.

In short, the only thing “retarded” to which we should refer is the sluggishness with which we eliminate the hurtful and senseless misuse of this word. To be blunt, it makes us sound “stupid.”

The Cost of Closing Our Eyes

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on January 13, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

We have failed.

If we don’t acknowledge our failure, if we choose to ignore reality and maintain the low standards we currently encourage, then we are complicit in the violence and bigotry in which we sometimes find ourselves surrounded.

As I write this, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition after a gunman shot her in the head at a political event in Tucson, Arizona. The gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, went on to kill six people and wound 14 others. Christina Taylor Greene, a nine-year-old killed in the shooting, had just been elected to the student council at her elementary school. This hit me particularly hard as I am a middle school English teacher, a part of a group of educators charged with molding the minds of tomorrow’s leaders. We are part of a pact that includes not only the students and their parents, but also every adult in their community.

It is our failure, one of many, that has deprived Christina and many more like her the opportunity to grow up and help us in spite of ourselves. Democrats are to blame. As are Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Party activists, and every other political party that has muddied the waters for short term gains at the cost of long term viability. Even as Representative Giffords fights for her life, factions are lining up on both sides of the political fence to use the tragedy to further their political agendas.

In an age where even our elected leaders act like children, why can’t we see the effect this has on our youth? Would you tell a child like Christina to draw gun targets over the heads of classmates to indicate those on the student council with whom she disagrees, or would you have her talk it out with them to avoid needless fights in the future? Would you teach her to shout down her opponents during council debate, or would you teach her to use the allotted time to discuss her points in healthy discussion in the hope that a mutually agreeable compromise might be met?  Would you teach her to divide her world into people who agree with her and those who do not, or would you teach her to appreciate the diversity of opinion that has made this country great?

Sadly, it’s too easy to answer these questions by pointing out how our society has lowered the bar. We’ve answered these questions with television ratings for Keith Olbermann or Glen Beck at the cost of shows that actually present unbiased views. We’ve answered them with Lady Gaga and Eminem over musicians whose purpose is to help us better understand the human condition. We’ve answered them with books deals for Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Justin Bieber and reality televisions shows for Paris Hilton and Flavor Flav.

No, there is something far more dangerous afoot. While the shooting was as senseless as the rhetoric that preceded it, we’ve chosen to ignore that, regardless of which side of the political fence it comes, this violent rhetoric affects the unformed and unbalanced more deeply than those in full possession of their faculties. To dismiss the individuals behind these attacks as “whackos” allows those who incite them in the first place to distance themselves from their part in creating the environment that allowed for their existence. Even as liberal talk show host Keith Olbermann apologized for any past comments he used that might have incited violence, he laced into his conservative peers like Beck and Bill O’Reilly and demanded they do the same. Conservative commentator George Will said that while the short term effects of this tragedy might resort in hands reaching across the aisle during the upcoming congressional debates, this temporary mood it will fade quickly as the emotions of the upcoming legislation comes to a vote. In other words, like New Year’s resolutions, the intent to improve is unlikely to survive the month of January.

Our failure is that while we all agree on the importance of basic civility when raising our children, we choose to ignore it in the course of our political discourse. The “whackos” seemed to have learned to “listen” to what we do, not what we say. The unformed minds that we are currently developing are not oblivious to the choices their parents are making. Whether we’re talking about the Board of Education’s decision to deny the expulsion for a student accused of sexual assault, the Town Council’s decision to raise the mill rate, or the controversy over the recent plea bargain in the memo leak case regarding Christian Miron, the way in which we choose to express our views not only defines us but serves as the model for our children to follow.

In light of our failure to live up to our own ideals, the surprising part of this most recent shooting is not that it happened, but that it hasn’t happened more often. As a teacher, I constantly refer to the hidden gifts of failure; properly addressed, it is an impetus to change for the better. For Christina’s sake, I hope we all open our eyes and become better students.

“Twitter Disappointment”

(Originally published on August 9, 2010, on RobertFWalsh.net)

What started as a whim has turned into a crusade: I’ve spent the last six days mud wrestling with Twitter as I tried to change my background image on the home page. I never imagined I would use this social networking service, consisting as it does of “updates” from friends in less than 140 characters per post. While not quite a technologic knuckle-dragger, I didn’t see the use of a medium that puts a premium on tedium.

To my utter surprise, I’ve grown to love it. I’ve assembled an eclectic group of talented people whom I can scroll through on my cell phone and entertain me while I wait in line at the theatre to be… well, entertained. The difference is that each person has mere seconds to keep my attention before a flick of my thumb brings up someone else; if Joel Stein doesn’t make me laugh then I’m thumbing over to CNN or the Stratford Star for news.

The downside is that it’s one more thing for me to get worked up about; when I discovered I could customize the background image on my page, I went right to work. Unfortunately, every time I hit that little Save Changes button I am faced with the ubiquitous “Fail Whale,” the cutesy-pie graphic that greets users whenever Twitter is over capacity and unable to work properly. The cute birds that are gleefully pulling the whale out of the waters below are meant to cushion the blow that my latest nugget of wisdom will go unposted. However, for the amount of time that Twitter has been over capacity in recent weeks, that whale died long ago of dehydration.

I’ve tried every conceivable time slot to update my page. I snuck out from the dinner table to try at six, then again right after the evening SportsCenter. Other unsuccessful attempts followed after the Mets game and the evening news. I felt lucky after I took the dogs for their last walk before bed, but it wasn’t to be. I got out of bed on the third night at 2:30 AM to tip toe to my computer and hope the West Coast had gone to bed early.  Even at 6:30 AM, the time my mom always called the safest time of day because it was either too early or too late for criminals, that stupid whale hovered on my monitor like a raised middle finger.

After trying almost all of the 24 available hours over the course of the past week, I resorted to the Twitter support page. Sure enough, there was a page dedicated to this very problem. For those of us having trouble posting our shiny new graphics, they asked that we leave a comment letting them know who we were—they would be monitoring the page. It was heartening to see that they were working on the problem and would have it fixed… “soon.” It was less heartening to see that there were 77 pages full of people who’d already left comments, and that most were months old. The last “update” from the Twitter techies was posted a month ago.

Still, when you’ve spent six days going Ahab on Twitter’s Great White Whale, you take your shot when it presents itself. I crafted a thoughtful yet pointed note that took pains to point out it was probably nobody’s fault, that these things happen and all, but that this issue had affected enough people to merit a speedier response (and thank you for any help you can give in rectifying this situation, blah blah blah).

When my little message didn’t appear in the comments section after the first attempt, I just assumed I had done something wrong. I wrote it all out again and… poof! Gone again. After the fourth try I realized that they must have stopped letting people post and switched to moderating the comments to weed out the angry folks. A quick look at the previous comments indicated there were a lot of angry folks!

That’s when I realized that the comments section, much like the floating whale, only gives the illusion of support. It’s as if Twitter is saying, “Silly boy. Whales don’t fly, and we don’t have the infrastructure to meet the demands of our users. We also quit caring what you thought after we realized we didn’t like what you thought. Still, it’s a nice idea, isn’t it?”

Although it’s a clear sign that I have completely taken for granted this incredible, free technology that allows strangers from across the globe to interact in real time, I’m still angry. For the first time since I read the Book of Jonah, I hate whales.

“Puppy Parent Scum!”

ZuZu Walsh

At the dog park, it’s inevitable. “Where did you get your dog?” someone will ask as our dogs do a little butt-sniffing. It’s as if I’m driving a Volkswagen through Auschwitz when I say we got her from a breeder. My wife will chime in that we tried to find one in the pound first, but we can see the judgment in their eyes.

As a white male in America, it goes without saying that I’ve had to fight prejudice and discrimination as I’ve clawed my way up to the lower-middle. The latest obstacle the Man has placed in my path is the stigma attached to acquiring a dog through a breeder rather than a shelter. These days, skipping the local pound is akin to gut-punching a nun.

My wife and I have always looked to rescue abandoned dogs; we’ve volunteered at the local shelter, participated in supply drives, and served on the planning committee for a new shelter in town. We loved the feeling that we’d given a second chance to our dogs, and it allowed us to endure the endless airings of Sarah McLaughlin singing “In the arms of the angels…” over the pictures of neglected pets that dominate late night television commercial breaks.

Then we got ZuZu.

ZuZu is a blessing. She is also a veterinary Black Hole. Unsure of her age or her breed (mostly Cocker Spaniel-ish), our vet informed us on our initial visit that she had horrible ear problems. This was followed by a crippling skin rash that necessitated an extensive drug regimen after a blood sample yielded no fewer than three pages of things to which she was deathly allergic. The Cocker in the Plastic Bubble cheated death, and outside of the telltale baboon butt where she’d permanently scratched away her fur, her skin specialist declared her out of the danger zone. However, she could only eat dry venison dog food. Not only did this ruin any chance of her ever becoming a vegetarian like all the fashionable dogs, it also required us to order this special blend through our vet.

At two, she began biting mercilessly at her paws. Over time, despite a wide variety of trimming, nail clipping, and massage, we had to order special booties to keep her from nibbling them into bloody stumps. She goose-stepped around the house for a while, clearly annoyed at this 80s-era velcro fashion statement. The urge to chew on them went away after a few months, and eventually we mothballed the booties.

At six ZuZu broke her back, apparently as she engaged in the dangerous activity of… lying down. She couldn’t take a step without pain, and after much hand-wringing we agreed with her back surgeon: she needed surgery. She came through like a champ, and we learned how stupid we could feel for passing up pet insurance. At almost five thousand dollars, it was not as expensive as the years of special food or the years of extra vet appointments, but it hurt. At seven, we noticed her having difficulty holding a tennis ball in her mouth. She soon had trouble eating. Another visit to the bone specialist revealed that her jaw was locking up. Our vet revealed that her range of motion was about 30% of what it should be; in his experience, she’d eventually be able to open it less and less until she could no longer eat. He had no idea how this had started, but the prognosis was grim. He could break her jaw and see if this allowed her to eventually open up all the way, but something else happened that ruled this out.

We were scraping together some money for her jaw when she had her first heart attack. We rushed her to the emergency vet on call, put her on an IV, and waited for the cardiologist to give us the results of the tests. The good news was that she would be able to come home with us in a few days. The bad news was that this was due to the fact that she probably had around six months to live. The drugs he’d normally prescribe for her heart would seriously compromise what turned out to be an already damaged liver. In the end we settled on a cocktail of drugs that helped her heart but weakened her kidneys, then switched to drugs that helped her kidneys but failed to address her heart. We went back and forth on this in order to assure she had some quality of life in the time she had left. However, it also meant that she’d never survive a surgical procedure.

We were all surprised when her jaw magically opened wider and wider in the following weeks. The drugs pushed her well past her expiration date, and our vet asked us if he could perform an autopsy after she died to see how this dog tip-toed around Death like Ginger Rogers.

Last year she developed an abscessed tooth, but we all figured the penicillin would clear it up. Of course, it didn’t; she required surgery before the infection reached her brain. Our vet made it clear that she might never wake up from the anesthesia, and the pressure on her heart might be too much to overcome, but she faced certain death if we ignored it. I dropped her off in tears the morning of the surgery, saying my goodbyes and thanking her for all she’d done for us. Sure enough, I was able to pick her up the next day; like Tupac, she’d dodged another bullet. Also like Tupac, there were more in store for her.

Our vet showed me the piece of jawbone he’d removed; it was likely bone cancer, and there was nothing he could do if it was. For once, this allowed us to save the money on lab fees.

Having just passed her tenth birthday in June, ZuZu now waddles around on her ankles and elbows. The ligaments around the joints have completely atrophied—she can bend her paws all the way back to her forelegs in defiance of God and physics. None of her band of specialists can explain how this came about, and we’ve had to remind our vet to let us know when we were keeping ZuZu around more for us than for her.

The fact is that we’ll do anything for our dogs, including almost $200 a month in pills alone. Just like my grandma, ZuZu has a big blue pill box with fourteen compartments, two sets of pills per day. This on top of prescription food, checkups with all her specialists (she has more than we do), and the recently christened ZuMobile, her three-wheeled doggie cart that allows us to include her on our beach walks.

We could put a kid through college on the money we’ve spent on ZuZu, but we wouldn’t change a thing. She’s the best. Still, I’m frustrated that I find myself stumbling over words to justify our selfish decision to protect ourselves from another round of Kevorkian Roulette. Of course I’d rather save a poor dog from the local shelter. However, I also have to refrain from taking on the collective responsibility of all the crappy pet owners out there who neglect their dogs. Couples who arrange for surrogate parents to carry their child aren’t made to feel as if they’re kicking orphans in the nuts, so maybe you could cut us a break?

Ideally, we’d all have to apply for puppies; if you screwed up, you’d never be allowed to have any more. You’d have to pay puppy support if you lost custody. And every scum-sucking maggot who mistreated their pets would automatically be sent to the Karmic Wheel, reincarnated as a dog or cat themselves. Or, even worse, Carrot Top.

Until then, we decided to find some healthy dogs and responsible breeders so we could afford to give our next dog the life it deserves. We’re not evil. Pinky swear.

Now, can we get back to casting aspersions on the training skills of the other dog owners at the park like we used to?