Meeting Mara: A Birth Story in Three Parts


Part 1: Before

It all started in Ecuador. Rachael and I took a South American vacation last May, visiting an old friend, climbing a mountain, hiking through the cloud forest, and swimming with penguins in the Galapagos Islands. We originally intended to visit the Amazon, too, but we ran out of time. That meant we didn’t need to take the malaria medicine we’d brought. And that meant we didn’t need to worry about the recommendation that women on malaria medicine not become pregnant. A few weeks later, after three home pregnancy tests to make absolutely sure, we were officially expecting.

Long before learning that I’d be a father in a matter of months, I’d put a lot of thought into what kind of dad I wanted to be. My own father had always made me feel like the most important thing in his life, and I wanted to do the same. I imagined reading my son or daughter books, teaching her how to play hide-and-seek, hosting pretend tea parties, and sharing my love of sports and the outdoors. But one thing I hadn’t considered much at all was labor and delivery—the process by which my child would actually arrive. Rachael, I soon learned, had thought about it quite a bit and had very specific ideas about how she wanted to give birth.

For starters, she wanted to go all natural—no drugs and no medical interventions unless absolutely necessary. Because this was our first child, and we were anxious about the possibility that something might go wrong, we agreed that she should give birth at a hospital with a doctor, rather than at home with a midwife (though we might consider that route for a possible future second child). Then Rachael suggested we look into the Bradley Method of “husband-coached natural childbirth.” My gut reaction was a mix of surprise, fear, and panic. But if I wanted to be a supportive, involved father, I figured I should start now. So I said sure.

Usually, Bradley classes comprise 12 weekly sessions, but that wouldn’t work with our busy schedules. Instead, we hired teacher Jackie Smiley to condense the class into three hours-long one-on-two sessions at our house. We covered topics including exercises Rachael could do to move the baby into the best head-down position and to prepare herself for the stresses of labor (a lot of squats and pelvic rocks); relaxation techniques that I could coach Rachael through during contractions (for some reason a technique in which you think of things that are various colors became a running joke); and how to survive each distinct stage of labor. I took pages of meticulous notes, which eventually became an invaluable resource during Rachael’s delivery.

Meanwhile, at the doctor’s office, we learned through genetic testing at 10 weeks that we were having a girl (and that she probably wouldn’t have any major genetic disorders). Several weeks later, an ultrasound revealed that Rachael was placenta previa, meaning that her placenta was between the baby and the cervix. This is bad because if the placenta comes out before the baby, it leaves the little one scuba diving in the womb without her air tank, so to speak. This threatened all our plans for a natural birth, but Rachael’s aptly named OB, Dr. David Super, reassured her that in 95 percent of cases the placenta moves out of the way on its own. His calmness reduced our panic. Sure enough, after a few more weeks and a couple more ultrasounds, the problem solved itself. That behind us, Super seemed super supportive of the natural plan.

Other than that one minor hiccup, Rachael handled being pregnant extraordinarily well. After a little initial morning sickness, she spent most of her pregnancy eating normally, without any strange aversions or cravings. She stayed active, hiking and going for long walks right up until (and even past) her due date. And she was really in a pretty good mood the whole time. All of this conspired to make the pregnancy seem somehow less real, like the fact that she wasn’t suffering now meant the suffering to come might not be that bad, either. Not true.


Part 2: During

Rachael went into labor at 2 a.m. on Sunday, February 28. At first, she thought it was just the back pain that came with being a week past her due date. But the pain started to pulse, getting worse then better then worse again. At around 4 a.m., she woke me up, and we started to try to time her contractions, even though we weren’t sure whether they were actually contractions at all.

Our Bradley class taught us the 3-1-1 rule, which advises not to go to the hospital until the contractions are three minutes apart, last at least a minute each, and continue that way for at least an hour. But timing this back pain was next to impossible. Sometimes it would last for a full minute, other times a few seconds. Sometimes there were five minutes between waves, other times only one or two. Rachael called the after-hours number for her doctor, and the nurse told her that what she was experiencing was called back labor. Somehow, we went nine months without knowing such a thing existed. We headed for the hospital.

On the way to Mercy, we stopped by my office to print out our birth plan. Between our Bradley class and The Business of Being Born, a documentary produced by Ricki Lake, we’d become somewhat skeptical of hospitals. America’s C-section rate is much higher than other developed countries, and our infant mortality rate is higher, too. The more time you spend in a hospital, the more likely it becomes that your doctors will want to meddle. A little pitocin to speed up the contractions makes the pain worse, which leads to an epidural to numb the pain, which slows the contractions back down and requires more pitocin, a never-ending cycle of ever-escalating interventions. So our birth plan was mostly a list of things Rachael didn’t want: epidural, forceps, vacuum extraction, episiotomy…

With all that in our minds, we arrived at the hospital basically ready to fight for the right to have a natural childbirth. Instead, we found that everyone at Mercy was totally supportive. The nurse who checked us in made sure to put us in one of the rooms with a tub, in case Rachael wanted to labor in the water. And our nurse in the room had four of her own children naturally and talked at length about how much she admired women like Rachael.

When the nurse checked, Rachael was only two centimeters dilated (the baby wouldn’t come until she reached 10). This was somewhat disappointing news, because it meant that we probably could have stayed home longer and that we might be in for a long day. We worked out a schedule with the nurse where Rachael would be in bed on the fetal monitor for an hour, then we’d have an hour or two where she could move around.

We turned all the lights down low, and I started up the Spotify playlist I’d made for the occasion, full of relaxing tunes. In between monitoring, Rachael would bounce on the birth ball or we’d walk up and down the hall, pausing whenever she had a contraction. We’d hug and sway side to side, a sort of birthing slow dance, until the pain passed. I did my best to help her relax, mostly by reminding her to breathe and reiterating that each passing contraction was one less contraction between us and meeting our daughter.

After three more hours or so, Rachael was up to three centimeters. We ordered lunch. We walked the halls a few more times. She tried out the tub, though ultimately she preferred the shower, since the jets hit her back right where it hurt. The nurse said the back pain was likely because the baby’s head was facing the wrong direction, so Rachael spent some time on all fours in hopes of letting gravity pull the head down.

The monitor showed that her contractions were becoming longer, bigger, and more regular. But progress was slow. Another three hours passed, and she only moved another inch. By the time she reached five, we’d walked approximately 50 laps of the hallways (perhaps overdoing it just a bit), ordered and eaten dinner, and survived what felt like 100,000 contractions, each one representing one less till the end, even if it didn’t feel that way.

Because it was the weekend, Dr. Super was off duty and another doctor from his practice, Dr. Renee Stein, was on call. She remained steadfast in her support of continuing with natural childbirth, as long as the baby’s heartbeat looked good on the monitor, even as we approached 18 hours of labor. She did suggest breaking Rachael’s water to speed the process up, which the nurses had previously suggested. Speaking of the nurses, a brief aside: They were spectacular. Every time we wanted an extra pillow or another gown or some ice or some whatever, they went running. I realize that’s their job, but I would imagine that if I were trained as a healthcare professional, I’d eventually get a little sick of acting as a gofer. But the nurses at Mercy were consistently pleasant, accommodating, and supportive.

As the clock neared 11 p.m., with both Rachael and I (but mostly Rachael, of course) feeling completely exhausted, we discussed the pros and cons of breaking the water. It would make labor go faster, but it would also be more intense. If things didn’t progress after the water broke, Rachael would be put on the clock, and after 12 to 24 hours, they’d have to induce her. But at this point, she was so tired, having not slept at all the night before, that we weren’t sure she could make it another 12 hours anyway. Over what we imagined were the objections of Dr. Bradley, we decided to go ahead with breaking the water. At that point, Rachael was a six. We were both so tired, we promptly passed out, Rachael sleeping for a minute or two between contractions while I took a 30-minute nap.


I woke maybe a little after midnight to Rachael screaming in pain. Suddenly, her contractions were much, much worse. And there was practically no time between them. She was ready to quit. But this is when my Bradley training actually came in handy. I remembered that in the stages of labor, what Rachael was experiencing was called transition. It was the worst part, but also the shortest. Best of all, it came right before pushing. I told Rachael if she could survive another 15 minutes, the baby would be ready to come.

When the nurse returned to check, Rachael was a full 10 centimeters dilated. It was time to call the doctor (or really more like past time to call the doctor). The nurses advised to hold off on pushing for a few minutes, while the doctor rushed to the hospital. It was about 2 a.m., 24 hours since this ordeal had started. The nurses all told Rachael she was handling the pain much better than most women. I hope they say that to everyone.

When Rachael first went past her due date, we started to think about the possibility that our daughter might be born on February 29, Leap Day. We were initially opposed, thinking it would stink to have a birthday only once every four years. But Rachael’s mom pointed out that it’s the least common birthday, something special and unique. At this point in the night (morning?), we were ready for her to be born, and we didn’t care what day it was.

Dr. Stein arrived, and suddenly the room sprung to action. Instead of one nurse, there were now three or four, plus a resident. Stein, a mother herself, was the best pushing coach imaginable. She climbed in bed with Rachael to show her the best position, explaining in detail the difference between a productive and unproductive push. (You’re supposed to hold your breath and bear down, not do that stupid shallow breathing from the stereotypical TV birth.) About 30 minutes later, I saw the top of our baby’s head poking through. As an infant, Rachael was bald, clear up to age three. So when Dr. Stein told her the head was covered in hair, Rachael paused for a second to celebrate. A few hard pushes later, and suddenly our baby came whoosing out, much bigger than I would have imagined could possibly fit inside my wife.

Mara Elizabeth Powell was born at 2:59 a.m. on February 29. She weighed 7 pounds, 15 ounces, and was 21.5 inches long. She was purple and had a cone head. And she was beautiful.


Part 3: After

The best moment of my life came about 30 minutes after Mara was born. Part of our birth plan was that rather than the nurses taking her away to wash and weigh her, she would be left with Rachael for some quality skin-to-skin time and for a first breastfeeding. Unfortunately, that first meeting was cut short because our girl’s entrance into the world was rough. Our efforts to turn her during labor only half worked, so she came out sideways. She swallowed a bunch of fluid, and the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. This meant her lungs needed to be suctioned out by the nurses, at their station on the other side of the room. When they brought her back, Rachael was still being stitched up, so I jumped at the chance to hold Mara. I figured that if skin-to-skin helped form a bond for moms, it would work for dads, too, so I ripped off my shirt and pressed my daughter to my chest. Shortly after, she went back to mom and breastfed for the first time, just for a few seconds.


At that point, we were told that her breathing was a little heavy, so the nurses would need to take her for a few extra tests. When a nurse took Mara out of Rachael’s arms, she promised to bring her right back. Little did any of us know, Rachael wouldn’t get to hold her again for another two days. The tests showed that not only was her breathing way too fast (150 breaths per minute instead of 50), but her blood sugar was way too low (a score of 15 instead of 80). She’d need to be taken to the neonatal intensive care unit for oxygen and an IV.

The worst moment of my life came about 30 minutes after the best one. Because Rachael wasn’t ready to get out of bed, I went with Mara to the NICU. She was placed in a bassinet and hooked to a bunch of monitors. The nurse who tried to put in her IV struggled, sticking her once, twice, three times with a needle before finally getting it to stick. They pricked her heel several times to take blood samples. An oxygen mask was strapped to her face. Her troubling respiration rate flashed on the monitor overhead in yellow numbers.

I hadn’t slept in nearly three days, and watching my brand new daughter get poked and prodded felt like being stabbed in the heart. I turned my face to stone, too ashamed to burst into tears. I just stared at the monitor, hoping her breathing would slow. It didn’t.

Eventually, Rachael arrived in a wheelchair, and I went to her postpartum room to take a nap. I didn’t sleep. I wept.


Over the next few days, we sat by Mara’s side as she slowly, steadily improved. (Well, Monday night we were both so exhausted, we crashed in Rachael’s room while nurses tended to our little girl. But thereafter, we mostly stayed with her in the NICU.) She was weaned off the flow of oxygen bit by bit as her breathing slowed. Getting her off the IV proved more difficult. They wanted her to eat as they reduced the flow, but she wasn’t hungry because of the IV, a sort of catch-22. A happy moment came when they let us hold her, so long as we were careful not to pull out any of her many cords.

We were told from the start that it’s much easier to enter the NICU than to exit it. That’s because every NICU baby has to pass the same bevy of tests before being discharged, no matter how severe or how minor their condition (and we were constantly reassured that Mara’s condition, which had a name I don’t remember, was minor and would have no lasting effects). I’m fairly convinced that we’d still be in the NICU to this day if not for a wonderful overnight nurse named Karen, who was so kind and helpful, she might have been a real angel. On Tuesday night, she helped us give Mara her first ever bath, instructing us on the proper order in which to wash her tiny body parts. (Even now, Mara is happiest when we’re washing her hair.)

On Wednesday night, Karen made it her personal mission to have Mara discharged. She weaned her off the IV, dropping it a bit every hour, so long as her blood sugar stayed high. She ran our car seat test, for which Mara had to be strapped in for an hour without her blood oxygen dropping below 90. And she scheduled a hearing test for the morning. By the middle of Thursday afternoon, we were finally loading up the car and heading for home. After three days in the NICU, it was amazing that they let us just take Mara home without any supervision by medical experts.


Looking back now, it seems silly that we were ever so worried. Mara is doing just fine. She breastfeeds like a champ and has been growing like a weed. She’s four months old and is growing out of six-month clothes. At her most recent doctor’s appointment, she was above the 9oth percentile for both height and weight. She loves to read books (or at least look at the pictures while we read them) and stare at faces and hold this little green ball (a present from the wonderful Kevin Roberts) and chew on stuff (teeth coming soon) and roll over and go for walks and watch Slider and I could go on and on.

Being a parent is difficult. It takes up basically all of your time. Sometimes, Mara screams at me for an hours straight for no reason. But overall, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. That might sound corny, but it’s the truth. Before I had kids, I used to get annoyed when parents would say, “You don’t understand what it’s like until you have kids of you own.” Well, you really don’t know what it’s like until you have kids of your own.


What I Learned in Ecuador: El Lechero


Rachael and I spent 10 days in Ecuador. We learned some things. This was one of those.

El Lechero, the magical healing tree, is neither magical nor easy to find. Also, it’s true, life really is more about the journey than the destination.

A few years ago, when Rachael and I went to Bali, we used a Lonely Planet guide book as our travel bible. We loved everything it recommended. In Ecuador, we had a different experience. The book listed outdated prices, promoted businesses that had since closed, neglected to mention key attractions, and made a big deal of things that turned out to be just meh. El Lechero, for instance.

As I mentioned before, we spent our first full Ecuadorian day in Otavalo at the market. I bought a warm winter hat. Rachael learned Spanish numbers while negotiating the price for some colorful earrings. We ate outstanding street food, including a spicy plate of fried rice and a sweet figs-and-cheese sandwich. In the afternoon, to burn off a few of those calories and stretch our legs, we decided to hike to a tree known as El Lechero. Our book heralded this tree, just outside of town, for its magical healing properties and claimed that the peaceful uphill walk there would provide fresh air and great views. It got the second half right.

We headed out of town on Piedrahita avenue, and as soon as we left the city center, the road went vertical. We followed a series of switchbacks, then some stairs, then more switchbacks, slowly making our way up the hillside (mountainside?). For maybe the first kilometer of the walk, there were regular signs pointing us in the right direction. But soon enough, we found ourselves puffing up narrow rural roads, climbing past meager homes and open fields, with very little idea of where we might find the tree. Whenever a taxi sped past, we wished we had taken one, while also taking it as a good sign, since surely those other travelers were also on the path to the magic tree.

Once, we missed a turn, walked several hundred meters in the wrong direction, and might have kept on going forever, if not for a nice local woman who pointed us back the other way. The hike was difficult, forcing us to take regular breaks to wipe the sweat from our brows and catch our breaths. Luckily, as the book said, the air was fresh, a nice change from the smog in Quito. And while we didn’t have much breath left to lose, the views were, indeed, breathtaking.

Like this one:


And this one:


And this one:


And this one:


And this one:


We kept walking…and walking…and walking, and the only trouble was, we never came to a magical healing tree. I was expecting something old, tall, and strong, with maybe some lights or birds or something. We couldn’t have missed it, could we? The guide book had promised frequent signs pointing us in the right direction, but we’d seen none in quite a while. Our guide book said that the walk to the tree should be 4 kilometers, and that if we continued 1 kilometer farther, we’d arrive at Parque Condor, which, for those of you who are exceptionally bad at Spanish, is a park for condors. Endangered Andean condors are among the world’s largest flying animals. We did see some signs for the bird park, so we followed those.

We walked past a church, a bunch of cows chomping on grass, a few kids drinking beer and screwing around on bikes. We walked past a few scraggly trees that couldn’t possibly be magical. And we even walked past a restaurant with a sign that promoted its proximity to El Lechero. We did not, however, come across El Lechero itself.

Eventually, we arrived at Parque Condor, just in time for its afternoon bird show, which managed to be awesome despite the fact that we understood basically nothing that the guide said. I spent most of the time envying the view from his office (and wondering about how we missed that stupid tree):


The birds were cool, too:

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Afterward, needing to catch a bus back to Quito and not having the time or energy to walk all the way back down the hill, we had someone at the park call us a taxi. When the driver showed up, we asked for a ride back into town. The price would be $5. We asked if on the way, he might be able to drive us past El Lechero. He smiled. He said some things in Spanish that I didn’t understand, but the gist was that the tree was old and wonderful. He would drive us there, but it would cost us an extra buck. We agreed.

It turned out, we had missed an unmarked turn near the aforementioned restaurant. A rutty dirt road led to a cluster of trees, including the great El Lechero, which was not impressively tall, not impressively round, not impressive in any way. (It’s in the center of the first photo above.) The magical healing tree was marked with just a plastic sign strung from a different tree.

In the end, El Lechero was not worth the extra dollar we paid to see it. But I wouldn’t trade the beautiful walk we took to find it for all the money in the world.

What I Learned in Ecuador: Guinea Pigs in a Bag


Rachael and I spent 10 days in Ecuador. We learned some things. This was one of those.

There are bags full of guinea pigs.

On our first full day in Ecuador, we took a bus from Quito to Otavalo for the Saturday market, one of the largest street bazaars in the Andes. Most of the market is devoted to the sale of clothing, artwork, and food produced by the city’s large indigenous population—impossibly warm stocking caps and sweaters made of alpaca fur, bright hammocks and scarves woven in traditional designs, jewelry made from stones in every color of the rainbow. But on the outskirts of town is a sideshow known as the animal market. There, our Lonely Planet guide book promised, we would observe chickens, pigs, and “bags of guinea pigs.” It turns out that in Ecuador, guinea pigs are known as cuy and are something of a regional delicacy. If you have any emotional attachment to guinea pigs, you should definitely not do a Google image search for “cuy.”

To reach the animal market, we got off the bus to Otavalo a stop early, then crossed a few heart-stopping lanes of speeding traffic to a dusty lot dotted with portable toilets and pies of the variety into which one does not want to step. We arrived around noon, too late to see the morning’s big cow and pig sales. But toward the back, merchants were still offering smaller animals. We saw makeshift wire pens crowded with chickens. Customers left carrying hens by their feet like live grocery bags. Boxes held puppies, while older dogs milled about among cages of ducks.


Then, we saw it. A red mesh bag full of furry little lumps—guinea pigs destined to become dinner. Briefly, we considered a rescue mission. We could buy a few of the cute rodents, then set them free around the corner. But as we discussed the details of our plan, holes emerged. For one thing, such an emancipation effort might be a cultural affront to local cuy eaters. For another, Otavalo is full of wild dogs. How long could a newly liberated guinea pig expect to survive on the street? Plus, we were pretty sure that upon returning to the U.S., we’d be asked at customs, “Did you come into contact with any livestock during your trip?” Walking through the market probably wouldn’t qualify. Starting an Underground Railroad for guinea pigs probably would.

In the end, we neither freed any guinea pigs, nor did we sample any cuy. These cuddly-looking guys might have still ended up roasted and on a plate, but it wasn’t going to be ours.

Rachael took the second photo; the first one, I found here.

Dog With a Death Wish, or, A Raisin in the Slider


Slider is a model pet with one tragic character flaw. It’s a shortcoming that he shares with millions of Americans and with his male owner: The dog can’t say no to food. Peanut butter is his kryptonite, chicken his crack cocaine. He’s addicted to counter-surfing. The seductive temptress luring him into a double life is named Little Debbie. In the past, this canine Achilles’ heel has been mostly amusing. We’d clean up the mess, then laugh about the latest misadventure with friends. But two weeks ago, Slider’s ravenous appetite almost killed him.

We had gone to Rachael’s parents’ house in Quincy for the weekend. On Saturday, most of the family went to a charity trivia night, leaving Rachael’s mom home alone with two sick grandchildren and a greyhound, probably not our most considerate move. When Becky went to bed, she brought Slider into the room with her, but she didn’t shut the door. She fell asleep around 10:30, and we came back about an hour later.

I was the first one through the door. As has become my habit when returning home, I walked around the house to see if Slider had caused any mischief. The upstairs living room was clear, but when I started to walk downstairs to where Slider’s bed was, I tripped on a can of Campbell’s Chunky. When I came around the corner and saw Slider’s bed, well, I’d never seen anything quite like it. At first, we thought he’d somehow gotten into the pantry, but the possibility that he’d suddenly learned how to operate door knobs seemed remote.

Then we recognized the real culprit. Rachael’s sister Lydia was traveling for work, which is why her children were staying with Rachael’s mom. Thoughtfully, she’d brought over a large cloth grocery bag full of food that the picky, sick kids might eat. Slider had found the bag on the dining room floor and dragged it downstairs to his bed. There, he’d devoured an entire package of egg noodles, a box of cereal, a sleeve of Ritz crackers, and a box full of fruit granola bars.

For a moment, Rachael, her dad, and I all just stared at the carnage. Then we divided tasks, taking Slider outside for what promised to be an interesting excrement experience and beginning the arduous cleaning process. Once we swept up all the crumbs, Rachael’s parents went to bed. Worried that the pooch looked ill, she asked me to check what was in the granola bars. Slider had mostly shredded the box, but the panel with the ingredient list was intact. In the section about the fruit filling, the first thing listed was raisins. On our fridge at home, we have a poster listing foods that are poisonous for dogs, and I remembered with horror that raisins were on the list.

We frantically called a 24-hour vet hotline and were told to induce vomiting. I think we were too worried about Slider’s health to be grossed out by that prospect. I roused Rachael’s dad, Dave, then ran to the store for hydrogen peroxide, since there was none in the house. By the time I returned, they had Slider in the garage, standing on cardboard. Dave got a funnel and put it in Slider’s mouth. I held the dog still, while Rachael poured a few tablespoons down his throat. Then Dave pulled out the funnel and clamped Slider’s mouth shut. Slider thrashed about and hacked, but he swallowed about half of the liquid. We repeated the same process twice more, then waited. Within about five minutes, Slider’s stolen feast made its unwelcome return.

Rachael and I stayed up with him all night, partly out of concern and partly because nobody could have slept through his hours of coughing. The next day, following the vet’s orders, we withheld food, but did give Slider a little water. Twice, when no one was watching, he threw up wrappers on my in-laws’ carpet. Around midday, we decided to get him home, covering the back of my new car in protective blankets. That evening, he seemed to be feeling better, but in the middle of the night, he got up and vomited again.


In the meantime, we’d done quite a bit of reading about how grapes and raisins affect dogs. Some don’t seem to be bothered. But for others, raisins cause kidney failure that is often fatal. Symptoms include lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea. We took Slider to the vet on Monday morning for a blood test that would show how his kidneys were holding up. Our vet gave us even more scary information about raisin poisoning—even a small dose can be fatal if a dog reacts poorly—then reassured us that as best he could tell, Slider appeared fine.

The vet gave Slider a shot to stop the vomiting (our dog always deals with being stabbed by a needle better than Rachael handles watching it). The vet recommended giving Slider a bit of water to see if he could keep it down, but the old saying proved true: No matter how many times we led him to his water bowl, we couldn’t make the greyhound drink. Later, we fed him some ground beef and rice, which I guess is like the canine equivalent of chicken soup and toast.

That night, after hours of nervous waiting, we finally got a call from the vet. He had good news. Slider’s kidneys were in tip-top shape. The test did reveal, however, that our dog’s thyroid number was low. The vet prescribed medication that should improve Slider’s skin and make him more active.

Increasing Slider’s activity level is great and all, but what we really need is a medicine that will help him choose his activities more wisely.

The Art of the Walk

10609593_10102633746827200_2678913566221894458_nIf the worst thing about having Slider is that he often collects and occasionally destroys our things, the single best thing is taking him for a walk.

Slider usually doesn’t wear his collar in the house, so when we pull it out of the closet, he knows it’s walk time. He goes bananas. He sneezes and snorts and runs in circles, his long tail helicoptering wildly and threatening doom to anything within reach. A headlock is sometimes required to calm him down enough to actually slide the collar over his ears and onto his neck. Because greyhounds have small heads that could easily slip out of regular collars, we use a martingale, which has a nifty loop of fabric that constricts when Slider pulls on his leash.

Out on the street, while Slider isn’t much for heeling, he generally lets us set the pace. He does, however, stop at every bush, shrub, and tree to lift his leg, mark his territory. On our street, that means pausing at just about every yard. “Hey, this is a walk, not a sniff,” I like to remind him. “Let’s go.” If it comes to a tug of war, I usually let him win. He takes great joy in discovering the world outside the house, and I feel guilty impeding his thrill of exploration.

Greyhounds are tall, sleek, regal, like the lovechild of a dog and a deer. They don’t look like other dogs, and therefore, they stand out from the crowd. Without ever making a sound, Slider makes an impression.

I’m not the sort of person who usually strikes up conversations with strangers on the street, but Slider has introduced me to dozens of my neighbors. “Oh, is he a greyhound?” they’ll ask. “Did you rescue him from the track?” When we answer both questions affirmatively, these people, especially the ones who object to dog racing, shower us in praise, lauding our good works as if we were the Good Samaritan and Mother Theresa. Just about everybody seems to know somebody who adopted a greyhound from Rescued Racers, and gee, aren’t those dogs just the greatest? Rather than wreck their hopes with tales of crushed Christmas ornaments and crushed dreams, I usually just say, “Yeah!” After all, we’re walking here, and this is Slider’s time to shine.

A relatively smaller, yet still surprisingly large, group of people are afraid of Slider. He’s unceasingly friendly, and he’s scared of almost everything, including cats, babies, and anything that makes noise. (More on his phobias another time.) But based solely on size, he can be intimidating. “Is he a doberman?” they’ll ask. A young child or an old woman or a strapping young man will see him coming. Their eyes will get big. They’ll take a couple of nervous stutter steps. Then they’ll cross to the other side of the street. I know this is terrible, but as someone who is the exact opposite of physically imposing, I feel a little proud when a particularly tough-looking guy runs scared from me and my dog.

While Slider occasionally spooks a meathead, he attracts children like he’s an  ice-cream truck. They are always remarkably polite. “Can I pet him?” they ask. Then once they are already petting him: “Does he bite?” Kids ask about his racing career or tell stories about their own dogs’ misdeeds, as parents roll their eyes in the background. Children, being children, are not always the most gentle, but Slider handles them like a pro, graciously submitting himself to all manner of rubbing and prodding, though occasionally he’ll try to hide behind us when he’s had enough.


Walking Slider sounds awesome, right? It is, though every pleasant stroll with our greyhound can be ruined in an instant by the insidious furry scourge known as squirrels. Unlike most other creatures great and small, squirrels do not scare Slider. In fact, he wants to eat them, all of them, to eradicate them from the earth. We’ll be walking along at a leisurely pace, looking this way and that, appreciating nature’s beauty. Then Slider will spot a squirrel out of the corner of his eye and flat-out bolt. For this reason, I usually slide the loop at the end of his leash up around my arm, then grasp the leash farther down with one or both hands. Our dog is strong, and he can go from zero to 40 in just a few steps, which could easily knock a human companion off his feet.

Not helping matters, squirrels are assholes. The cheeky buggers seem to know that because Slider is on a leash, he can’t catch them. Rather than run up the nearest tree, the squirrel will tease us, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, waiting just long enough to make Slider think the prey is within reach, then darting up a tree just as I’m using every muscle in my body to yank him back. Though I would never let Slider off his leash for obvious safety reasons, in that moment, I cannot tell you how badly I want to let him go, just this once, to wipe the stupid grin off that squirrel’s face. He’s faster than you think, rodent.

Once, a squirrel’s bravado almost got it killed. It was dancing around the sidewalk, egging Slider on, then ran up a tree. Only it picked a short tree—a sapling, not a sequoia. Even at the top of the highest branch, the squirrel wasn’t out of reach. I did my best to wrestle Slider away, but he took one big chomp. The squirrel leaped away just in time, and the dog came away with a branch in his teeth.

Once Slider sees a squirrel, it’s all over. He is now in squirrel mode, with his squirrel radar activated, and there is no putting the squirrel genie back in the bottle. And our neighborhood has more squirrels than it does bushes. His ears, once aerodynamically tucked behind his head, are now erect. His eyes dart from left to right, scanning every nook for a bushy tail.

There is one good thing about Slider in squirrel mode, intently jogging down the street after anything that moves, with me getting an arm workout preventing him from killing woodland creatures: You’ve never seen a meathead cross the street so fast.

How the Greyhound Stole Christmas

IMG_4278OK, so the headline is a bit of an exaggeration. Slider didn’t wreck Christmas. If anything ruined the holiday, it was the nasty virus that took out Rachael. Even so, we spent a lovely few days in Quincy with her family, going to church, telling stories, playing cards, laughing a lot. I came away with the Song of Ice and Fire box set (I won’t need to borrow your books anymore, Shannon), a super hip pair of Beats by Dre headphones, and a totally ridiculous Knicks sweater that I’ll wear to all future Christmas parties. I gave some cool gifts, too. That’s where the dog came in.

Every year, we do a gift exchange with a small group of friends. This year, I drew the name of an expectant mother, who said she wanted stuff for the forthcoming child. As a typically clueless dude, I didn’t know what to buy, but I spent more than an hour in Target, judging the cuteness of outfits, comparing prices, pondering the practicality of various gadgets, and trying to decide which toys would be the most fun for a newborn. It’s not easy, trying to put yourself in a baby’s shoes. In the end, I bought three green, yellow, and gray onesies with a frog theme, three matching hats, and one Sophie the Giraffe, which is basically the coolest infant toy ever.

I brought this haul home and stored it in a high place, far from Slider’s reach. Then one evening, Rachael said she was going to wrap all of the presents, so I handed her my gift. Something came up (i.e. Rachael fell asleep), so she ended up just stashing all of the presents and wrapping supplies behind the tree overnight. The next day, while we were at work, Slider went for my gift. I think the plastic Target bag initially drew his attention, and once he noticed Sophie, it was all over. I came home to find him lying on top of the clothes, the onesies covered in hair. Sophie’s box had been destroyed. With her squeaker, the giraffe fit right in with the dog’s other annoying chew toys. A few ornaments had been knocked off the tree.

Upon discovering his misdeeds, I was devastated. All my thoughtful shopping had been wasted. But Rachael came to the rescue, salvaging the clothes with a lint brush and ordering a new Sophie online.

A few days later, we came home to find that Slider had kidnapped and beheaded the plaster Joseph from our nativity set. In the dog’s defense, the set was an antique that was already badly damaged and in need of replacement. Not in the dog’s defense, he ingested at least a few shards of the savior’s father.

On Christmas Eve, we drove the two hours to Slider’s grandmother’s house. He loves nothing more than riding in the back of our Outback, so the trip was a breeze. And for the first few days of the visit, he was on his best behavior, despite constantly being surrounding by large crowds of people, including small children. On Saturday, the Kecks had their big family Christmas celebration, where the mountain of gifts is always so tall, you can hardly see the tree. A couple of hours into the paper tearing, my brother-in-law and I went outside to bring in one final gift, for Rachael’s parents.

At this point, there was a bit of a miscommunication between me and my wife. I assumed that because I was going outdoors, she would watch the dog. She assumed that when Slider followed me out of the family room and up to the kitchen, he was with me. I returned inside just in time to see him making off with a cupcake from the counter. Before I could get it away from him, he’d downed it, wrapper and all.

As a present from her parents, Rachael received a beautiful nativity set to replace the one Slider had decapitated. Her dad even built us a stable.  I suppose now I should return the favor and give my mother-in-law a replacement cupcake.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Slider

IMG_0515Last time, we left off with Slider destroying his cage, bringing an end to any hopes we had of crate training. The next day, when we left for work, we shut him in the guest bedroom, but he tried to dig his way out, leaving scratches and gouges in the door frame and floor.

We were beginning to think that Slider didn’t like being confined. Defeated, we gave him freedom of the house. When we had to leave again the following day, we shut the doors to all of the bedrooms and bathrooms—and prayed.

One of us (can’t remember which) came home at lunchtime to find that Slider had been busy. He’d picked up Rachael’s umbrella and carried it to his bed in the living room. He’d done the same thing with a scarf, some mail, a spatula, some kitchen towels, and a half dozen shoes.

He hadn’t chewed anything up. He was just hoarding it. Apparently, this isn’t all that uncommon. Lots of greyhounds are collectors. Maybe cuddling with our stuff while we were gone gave him a sense of comfort.

For a couple of weeks, it seemed like every time we came home, Slider had some surprise waiting for us. The best case scenario was finding only a few shoes and kitchen utensils in his bed.  Given his height, basically every counter or shelf on the first floor was within his reach. We were at his mercy. It was good motivation to keep the house clean and the dishes washed (though even Slider carrying them around and slobbering on them wasn’t enough to convince Rachael to put her shoes away).

When people would ask me how it was going with our new dog, I didn’t know how to answer. While we were home, Slider was a model pet. He was affectionate, happy, easy-going, playful, very sleepy. But when we were gone, it was like he morphed into a four-legged terrorist bent on wreaking havoc upon our home.

For the first few days, Slider didn’t bother the bananas sitting on the counter. Then one night, Rachael gave him half of a banana for dessert, unwittingly teaching the pooch that there’s food inside those yellow tubes. The next day, we came home from work to find the whole bunch in his bed. He’d chewed up one and smushed a couple of others.

Another day, Rachael arrived home to find that Slider had gotten an entire loaf of bread, a box of English muffins, and a pack of buns. He shredded the plastic packaging and then, in true Hansel and Gretel fashion, left a trail of bread all over the house.


At that point, we learned our lesson and enacted a strict household rule requiring that all food must be either shut in the pantry or stashed atop the fridge. Soon after, with no food to be hand, he knocked the entire knife block off the counter. Somehow, he avoided injury when it came crashing down on top of him. We had to shut the cutlery in a cabinet, too.

The dozens of AAA service guys who have rescued me all the times I’ve locked my keys in my car can testify that I’m an absent-minded person, to put it mildly. This plays right into Slider’s hands. One day, I accidentally left the door open to the laundry room. Slider picked up an industrial-size vat of OxiClean, carried it to the living room, and dumped it out, making an improvised sand box. Eventually, he must have started to feel guilty, so he dragged his bed over to cover up the heap of white powder. When I left the door to the bathroom open, we came home to find toilet paper everywhere. When I left the peanut butter jar out after breakfast, he got it off the high bar and used it as a chew toy. He peeled the label off and bit a hole in the top of the lid, but I got home just in time to stop him from eating any of the gooey goodness inside.

And while much of Slider’s misbehavior can be attributed to me, Rachael is far from blameless. Once, in the middle of baking on a Saturday, she decided to go outside to do some quick yard work. She came back in to discover that in the five minutes she was away, Slider had downed our entire supply of brown sugar. It didn’t upset his stomach as much as you might think.


But all of that was nothing compared to what happened when Slider got his grubby paws on our Christmas presents and decorations. More on that next time.