Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Beach is the Best

Yesterday we went to the beach. This wasn't any ordinary trip to the beach, it was our almost-annual beach trip with some friends, two of whom are Canadians who make it a priority to visit Oregon's beautiful beaches on every trip out here.

Remy and Kirby haven't been to the beach for a while. Between work on weekdays and the whole process of packing up the final items at our former house and getting it ready to sell, we just haven't been feeling like we could take a day off for a beach trip. That's a shame. Oregon's beaches are so lovely in the summertime. They're also filled with people. So we all picked a Tuesday, hoping it would offer that perfect mix of being able to take a day off and getting the weekend tourists out of the picture.

Great strategy. We left early and when we got to Indian Beach there weren't very many people there and no other dogs. It was mostly us, a handful of intrepid early risers and a bunch of surfers taking advantage of yesterday's big waves.

After making sure there were no major obstacles to us removing the leashes, we let the dogs off. Remy, Kirby and our friends' dog Vito took off in fits of joy, chasing after thrown balls, running through the surf (though Kirby, being the terrier-type he is, wouldn't go in past his knees).

Remy's first definitive act at the beach was to storm a crumbling sand castle and claim it as his own.

Then Remy noticed something...dark, human figures bobbing on the top of the waves a ways from shore. Now THIS was interesting. (We usually go to long beaches without a lot of big waves, so he had never seen surfers before.) Remy had to go investigate. He launched himself into the surf and swam out, braving the breakers, to greet the surfers.

Fortunately, the first surfers he came upon were dog-friendly and they gave him a happy greeting. Satisfied, he decided surfers were OK and he could leave them to their business. He proceeded to body surf his way back through the waves and rejoined our group. He spent the rest of the morning fetching bumpers and balls, approaching friendly people and attempting to climb barnacle-covered rocks (not cool). I think he learned that lesson pretty quickly and amazingly his paws, now sufficiently calloused, didn't seem much worse for the wear.

What was really fun was seeing just how much in common Remy, a young adult Griff, had in common with our friend Emerson, who is a tall, athletic 16-year-old. I swear, those two were like twin brothers of different species. They both had no problem braving the cold Pacific waters and spent most of the day running around, tumbling in the surf and climbing things.

At one point Remy caught sight of some small children walking up the beach with their parents. Putting on his full body wag, he approached them (Remy loves children and becomes gleeful at the sight of them or the sound of children playing.) Unfortunately, the parents were NOT friendly. They grabbed the kids and hid them behind their legs and started shooing Remy away before he even had a chance to approach the cute little child in the pink hoodie and her big brother. Remy had a toy in his mouth that, I'm sure, he intended to show the little girl in the pink hoodie, but instead, recognizing he wasn't wanted (this is progress) he gave a muffled bark and turned away.

Editorial Pause: I'm sure those people had their reasons. Perhaps the parents had had bad encounters with dogs on beaches before. I'm sure a lot of people do. I get that. But there's always a little piece of me that becomes sad when I see parents instilling fear and keeping their children from having any sort of healthy relationship with dogs. Those kids will encounter dogs their entire lives and mommy won't be there to protect them. I just hope they get over their parents some day. There are certainly unfriendly dogs in the world. But when a happy, scruffy Griff comes at you with a full body wag and a big orange toy in his mouth, that should be your cue that this dog's most likely OK. The way I see it, teaching kids that ALL dogs are scary probably isn't a wise thing if you want your children to grow into well-adjusted adults.

In any case, I have to say, I was proud of Remy for recognizing that not all people want wags and sloppy dog kisses and friendly toy-sharing. He's finally old enough to understand that. And I feel a lot better about taking him to the beach now.


I'm focusing on Remy, as Kirby is an experienced beach dog. Kirby was, of course, a little herder the whole time. At one point I had to turn back to go pick up a poopy bag I had set down and, seeing that I was leaving the pack, Kirby had to accompany me and try to guide me back to safety. He succeeded. Job done. It was a good day for Kirby.

Vito, a Lagotto (Italian Water Dog) was in heaven, of course, and he and Remy had a great time playing in the surf, stealing each other's toys and getting as wet and sandy as caninely possible.

Yes, it was a good day all around. And the people had fun too.


Monday, July 28, 2014

On Gluten and Grain Intolerance

Baxter
Back in 2006, after battling with allergies, skin problems and recurrent ear infections for seven years, we took our Griff, Baxter, off of ALL grain. He lived another six happy, healthy years without a single skin allergy problem or ear infection. Not one.

So we started our little dog, Kirby, on grain-free dog food the day we rescued him from the shelter; and our Griff Remy, now 2 months shy of 2 years old, has been grain-free from the day we brought him home as well. Remy has never shown any signs of allergy to anything, and we don't know if the grain-free food has anything to do with it, but we're not taking any chances. He's a healthy pup.

When Dr. Pema (the holistic vet) explained to me that dogs didn't evolve to be able to digest grain effectively, it made perfect sense. I even wrote an article about it for The Polishing Stone, a wonderful (but sadly now out-of-print) magazine. Sure, dogs are omnivores who seem to be able to eat just about anything, but they're primarily meat eaters and historically they got their grain pre-digested in the guts of the animals they ate. Industrially-processed food didn't enter into the equation until fairly recently, and grain makes a great (and cheap) filler.

So, after all this, I'm not sure why I didn't really give much thought to grain's effects on people. That is, not until recently, as more and more of my friends and colleagues started going "gluten free." Yes, I live in Portland, and the gluten-free craze has risen to the level of being a Portlandia send up. I fully admit I was one of those people who believed that a certain percentage of those "gluten-free" people had real problems and the rest were just jumping on the bandwagon. The fad would soon be over and everyone would find some other food to vilify. But the more I read about gluten and grain issues in people, the more I'm realizing there actually is a lot more to it. The thing is, when people get off wheat and other gluten grains, many, if not most, of them feel better. There are multiple reasons for this. But, nonetheless, I thought I'd try it and see what happened.

It DID make a significant difference in a number of ways. I'll spare you the details, but let it suffice to say I feel a lot better. This article by Dr. Mark Hyman explains a lot about why grains -- particularly wheat -- are making many of us unwell and we don't even realize to what extent. Most importantly, the wheat we (and our dogs) are eating today is NOT the wheat of our ancestors.

"This is not the wheat your great-grandmother used to bake her bread.  It is FrankenWheat – a scientifically engineered food product developed in the last 50 years...Not only does this dwarf, FrankenWheat, contain the super starch, but it also contains super gluten which is much more likely to create inflammation in the body. And in addition to a host of inflammatory and chronic diseases caused by gluten, it causes obesity and diabetes."
 I wish I hadn't noticed significant things when I got off gluten. I LOVE bread. I love many, many things that involve flour (which, in our culture, is just about everything). I wish it were all in my head or that I was just on some fad diet. But the truth is, I, like Baxter, seem to have some pretty obvious allergic reactions when I eat gluten-y, wheat-y foods and all of those reactions go away when I stop eating them.

I would cry. But it's hard to get too bummed out when I feel so much better. I will, for a while, lament the loss of wheat and some of my other favorite grains. I may try to have it narrowed down a bit to see if maybe, just maybe, I can eat some rye or barley or other good grains that make those micro-brews I love.

For now, though, I just have one more thing in common with the dogs...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Kirby Likes Gromit

Last night we dug out our DVD of Wallace & Gromit for a little light entertainment. Remy and Kirby were doing their usual evening ritual -- a little wrestling, then settling down with their chew toys. Suddenly, when Gromit (who, in case you aren't familiar with the British claymation-style animated series, is the dog) appeared on the screen, Kirby stopped what he was doing and ran up to the television. He sat in front of the TV and barked whenever Gromit appeared on the screen (this is what he does when he sees real dogs on television -- he totally ignores the people, but the second a dog comes on screen he runs over and starts barking at it).

I think what surprised me about this is that Gromit is a very stylized dog. He doesn't have a lot of the features of a real dog. He doesn't bark. He reads the newspaper and walks on two legs (sometimes) and expresses himself mostly through his eyebrows. Yet Kirby unmistakeably recognized this clay figure as a dog. He didn't bark at the clay people. He didn't bark at any of the other animals. Just Gromit.

This got me to thinking about dog facial recognition. What makes a dog a dog to another dog? I always figured it was a combination of how they look and how they smell and sound. Most dogs we see on television are barking or panting or otherwise making noise. In this case the only clues were the face and ear shape, big humanlike eyes and a round black nose.

Gromit may act like a person, but, according to Kirby, he is most definitely a dog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Happy 8th Birthday, Kirby!



I can't believe our scruffy little guy is eight years old!

He's spent his life around Wirehaired Pointing Griffons and despite being 1/3 the size, I believe he thinks he is one. (He even points.) As a pup he relentlessly pestered our adult Griff, Baxter; was crushed (as we all were) when Bax passed away; then got the other end of the golden rule/dog karma when we introduced our Griff puppy, Remy, to the household a year and a half ago. Despite his diminutive size, he manages to hold his own with the big dogs. We love you, Kirby!

Monday, July 07, 2014

People and Pedigree


We have a purebred dog...Remy, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon of excellent pedigree. We also have Kirby, a little shelter dog of much less fancy and much more diverse lineage. Is one dog better than the other? No. They're just different. We mostly knew what we were in for when we brought Remy into our home. He is intelligent, athletic, obsessed with birds and is an absolute clown. He has wiry hair that doesn't shed much, never requires combing and repels burrs like teflon. He is devoted and affectionate and doesn't want to be far from his poeple. He has his own unique personality that is certainly different from our first Griff, Baxter, but he still has these characteristics that are just part of how Griffs are.

With Kirby it has been an ever-unfolding mystery. He pounces on his toys and gives them the "terrier death shake" with aplomb. He is little, but he defends our house with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. He also herds us down the beach as well as any collie and he points at birds (granted, he might have learned the latter from living with a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon most of his life). Kirby is a sort of Renaissance dog with a little Napoleon thrown in.

When it comes to genetics, I am a bit of a mutt within the broad category of Western Europeans. When my ancestors came to seek their fortunes in America (most in the 1600s and 1700s), they had unique cultural and ethnic identities. For a few generations they stayed within their cultures. But by the time my great-grandparents came along, it must have been a lot more accepted to marry outside one's community. An Irishman married a Pennsylvania Dutch German. An Englishman married a French-Canadienne. That's my mom's side. My dad's side stuck a little closer to the "British" ethnic home with marriages among English, Welsh and Scots-Irish. Mind you, my older relatives on the Scots-Irish side were certain to emphasize the "Scots" portion of Scots-Irish -- they were fierce Protestants with a disdain for Catholics. I'm not sure they even knew why, at that point, having lived in Illinois and Iowa for generations, but somehow the old rivalries managed to get carried on along with the stubborn Scottish DNA.

I don't look like I have a pedigree of any certain origin. In North Iowa I grew up with a lot of people who were pure-blood Norwegians and Swedes (think "A Prairie Home Companion: South of the Border Edition"). Many of my friends had blue eyes, blonde hair and names that ended in -son and -sen. I was fascinated by their family traditions and foods like krumkake and lefse. The closest thing we had to a family food tradition was my mother's use of herbs and garlic (French) and my father's British range of food preferences (from brown to white).

So when I got my DNA test back from Ancestry.com, I was a little surprised to learn that despite having no known heritage suggesting Nordic ancestry, my DNA tells another story. It says I'm 12% Scandinavian. At first I thought the DNA test must be wrong. Then I got to thinking about where the Vikings landed and my Scottish and English ancestors...(and probably a few Norman ancestors as well). Somehow, that Viking blood managed to make its way through so many generations it landed in me with absolutely no discernible Scandinavian family names as far back as I can trace my family history. How many of those fierce Campbells of Scotland (my tribe of human terriers) got some of that ferocity from the Vikings who landed there? Probably more than a few.

But does DNA matter, really?  Not unless you have some sort of family gene that indicates a susceptibility to a certain disease, and even then, as the science of epigenetics is revealing, even that is not a blueprint, as you can turn on and turn off genes through your environment, your lifestyle and the food you eat, among other things. And those genes can be passed down as well. What your father or grandfather had to eat during his lifetime might have as much or more influence on whether you get diabetes or cancer than the presence of a particular gene would indicate.

In any case, the search for DNA markers that indicate ethnic heritage is an interesting line of study, I think. It's fascinating to me that someone might have, say, an Italian last name, but no measurable amount of DNA markers associated with Italian people. The family name was carried down through the fathers, but the "Italian genes" that went with it got diluted or simply not passed along somewhere in the process of marrying out to a few non-Italians down the line.

This happened with me. Another puzzle in my DNA results was the lack of Irish DNA. My great-grandfather on my mother's side came to the US from Tipperary, Ireland. This we know. We have the records. He is my most recent connection to an old country of any kind. So you'd expect that DNA to be pretty significant in me. We had my mother's DNA tested and she came out 28% Irish. According to the DNA test results, Irish people have a pretty strong set of DNA markers -- a native Irish person has a score of 95% (some others, like English, are more admixed with other ethnicities that have overrun the country at various times...(Vikings, Normans, Romans, etc.) But Irish is one of the most pure ones in terms of recognizable DNA markers. For Mom, whose grandfather came from Ireland, a DNA match of 28% seems pretty expected.

You'd think mine would then be at least 12 to 14%, right?  Nope. 3% Irish. I have more "Iberian Peninsula" (5%) and Italian (4%) than I do Irish, and I have no known heritage from either of those regions. Apparently those Scots-Irish Campbells were so stubborn, even their DNA kicked out the Irishman in my inheritance.

I don't care. I'm still wearing a green shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day, just like Grandpa told me to.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Oh the Oregano!


Last fall, after about 15 years of talking about moving to the country and looking at properties and not finding "the place," we finally purchased a little three-acre farm. We fell in love with the lay of the land and the trees and the sweet view of the Coast Range.

Like all farms around here, our little farm has a history, and part of the fun of buying the place has been piecing together that history from limited information and new discoveries. Some of that history is about the house, which is a work-in-progress that I'll discuss at another time. The real fun for me has been watching the flora and fauna popping up everywhere.

Having first looked at the place in the early fall, we had a pretty good idea of the late-summer plants and we knew there was a grape arbor and an orchard with plums, pears, apples and cherries. The previous owner, we were told, loved to garden and had planted herbs, medicinal plants and perennials around the house and yard, but all had finished their blooms by the time we saw the property and, in many cases, we weren't certain what we were looking at just from the leaves. The place had been vacant for a while, so the deliberately-planted perennials were so overgrown by the grasses, invasive weeds and other native volunteers we weren't sure what all was out there.

As the first shoots started breaking through this spring, we still weren't sure which ones to pull up and which ones to leave in place. So we just left everything in place until it bloomed for easier identification. (Now we have an epic amount of weeding to do, but I digress...)

Just figuring out the array of beautiful flowers here has been a joy. Springtime surprises like the snowball bush and bleeding hearts and late-spring peonies were gifts from nature. We've identified many of the plants now, but we still have a number of green, leafy things we haven't quite put a name on.

We've had some help. Thanks to the Oregon State plant identification folks, we found out the "uncertain" plant growing along the driveway wasn't poison hemlock but, rather, Sweet Cicely, which has delicate white spring flowers and leaves that have a lovely, subtle, fennel-like flavor when added to salads.

Most of the herbs were pretty straightforward, though, as we've grown herbs before. Lemon balm is cropping up everywhere (to the point of being too much...I prefer lemon verbena for flavor). We have a nice patch of spearmint, and I'm looking forward to making my first mojito. But, more than anything else, we have lots of oregano. We lost some of it due to some trenching through the garden that was required for electrical work on the shop/studio, but even after that, we still have lots of oregano.

This oregano is tough stuff. It seems to be the most successful plant in the yard, with the exception of wild grasses. We have deer wandering around our property daily. They browse on just about everything (including my flowers >:-\) , but they don't seem to touch the oregano.

Bugs don't seem to like it either. Other than the occasional spider, I never see little critters on the oregano and the leaves appear untouched by insects. Whereas most of the garden has been taken over by invasive plants, somehow the oregano is managing to effectively choke out the weeds. Even the bindweed vine that has twined itself around a number of oregano plants is having a hard time. It's now riddled with holes from some bug that makes it look like we've had a visit from the retired ticket-taker in Amelie. Bien sûr, Monsieur did not touch the oregano. (I still pull out the bindweed as it tries to choke everything...)

Honestly, the only natural enemies of all this oregano appear to be the dogs, who always try to run over and lift their legs on it. Needless to say, we've been steering them in other directions... (You knew I'd have to work the scruffy dogs in here somewhere, didn't you?)

Anyway... I've been using the oregano occasionally in cooking, but I've found the fresh oregano loses much of its flavor when cooked. On further research, I learned that oregano is best and most flavorful when cut just prior to flowering and air-dried. The oregano-drying experts also say it's best to cut it in the morning, just after the dew has dried and before the heat of the day has a chance to wilt it.

Of course, as if on cue, on my busiest work week, the oregano started putting out flower buds. Must act fast!

So this morning I grabbed my scissors and began my first round of oregano pruning. There is still a lot of oregano and much of it is just going to have to bloom and be decorative unless I want to go into oregano drying as a business. (Not a bad idea, actually...I might have to rethink that...)

I brought an armload of it into the house, lightly rinsed off the dirt and two spiders (yes, only two in a whole armload of oregano), gently spun away some of the water in a salad spinner and placed the stems on a kitchen towel. As I continued rinsing and spinning, my husband rounded up some string and tied the oregano into bunches and hung it from the cupboards and light fixture.

Obviously I'm going to have to find some place else to keep these hanging until they dry, but for now I'm finding the kitchen potpourri to be quite fragrant and lovely!  I suddenly have this urge for Italian food...






Thursday, June 26, 2014

Renaissance Remy


My husband just couldn't resist. Remy does have that Dutch Renaissance painting look about him, doesn't he?