Monthly Archives: September 2012

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Crossroads

Next week I’ll finish my San Francisco posts. I’m especially excited to share the photos of our visit to the church where my parents were married and began their life together in the tiny apartment under the belfry almost half a century ago.

For now, I’m going to celebrate my birthday by giving you a gift: a link to a poem I recently discovered. Have a wonderful, wonderful weekend.

The Wedding

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The bride and groomImage

My dad gave the benedictory prayer.Image

It was the perfect day for a wedding in beautiful Belvedere. I love how happy the new couple looks in this photo as they leave the church.Image

The cutie-pie ringbearer with his dad, my cousin.Image

It was great to see so many of my dear cousins. Image

That’s my sister in the middle!

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I’ve got a zillion cousins…Image

…and aunts. The aunt to the left of my mother is the mother of the groom. See my mother’s sister on the right? The delicate and distinguished lady in the grey hanbok with the freakishly large camera apparatus? We had knock-down drag-out beat downs all night long for camera angles. (It was no contest. She won every time, of course. Every. Single. Time.).

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The mother of the groom wears a blue hanbok. The mother of the bride wears pink.Image

And now for the “pae baek,” the traditional Korean wedding ceremony…The couple offers tea or wine and chestnuts and dates to their elders. Image

The elders offer their blessings and impart words of wisdom. They also slip them wads of cash in little white envelopes!Image

The elders throw chestnuts and dates and the couple tries to catch as many as they can in a cloth. The chestnuts represent the boys and the dates represent the girls they’ll have. The bride caught 15 chestnuts and 8 dates. I heard a Korean ajumma say, “You better get busy!!!”Image

Another set of elders (the uncles and aunties) take their turn. They receive their bow.Image

My mom tells them, “Don’t fight…And just have two boys and two girls.”(Really? Is that all)?!Image

The couple shares a drink…Image

and a date!Image

The groom gives the bride a piggyback ride around the table. (There’s my auntie with her gigantic camera)! Sometimes the groom will also give a piggyback ride to his mother and maybe even his grandmother as a symbol that he will be responsible for all of them. Image

The wooden ducks on the table represent faithfulness, because ducks mate for life.ImageImage

My little nephews hung out with my cousin’s son during the cocktail hour:

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My niece and my mom…

And then it was time for the reception:

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My nephew “R”:  “Call me!”

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Korean wedding buffet. Kimchi, jap jae, sushi, rice…Image

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It was lovely.

The Palace, the Countess, Seaweed, etc.

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This past weekend we stayed at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco:

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There is always a lush arrangement of roses in the center of the lobby:

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It’s famous for its Garden Court:

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…where we had breakfast every morning:

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The hotel is also famous for this Maxfield Parrish painting “The Pied Piper,” which hangs above the bar in its more casual restaurant:

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We thought the Palace suited the Countess perfectly:

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She did too:

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We had lunch before the wedding at Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Our restaurant overlooked this:Image

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The Countess ordered crab:

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It was fairly large.

Kind of like this one:

We took a walk around the pier:

We saw the famous sea lions of Pier 39:

And finally, in keeping with the ocean theme, I give you…….seaweed:

How can you not love a city where the 7-11 has roasted seaweed snacks right by the cash register?

Tomorrow: pictures of the wedding.

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Coming Home

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Coming home after a beautiful weekend can be such a drag. The line for security at SFO snaked for miles. When I finally got to the front of the line, they made me go to the naked body scanner booth and stand in an undignified position so that some poor, poor TSA officer got an eyeful after my weekend of overindulgence. I was assigned a middle seat because I checked in so late. I hate the middle seat. There was no longer any room for my luggage in the overhead compartment above my seat, so I had to put it in another compartment towards the back of the plane. It was a long, looooong flight. I’d already pored through the SkyMall catalog and airline magazine on the way to California and hadn’t brought anything else to read for the trip back. I’d already watched the movies on my westbound flight. (Aren’t they supposed to show different ones on the eastbound flight)?!  I hadn’t had time to eat or even buy lunch so I was forced to buy the airline’s “Tapas” box, which was mostly crackers and stuff to put on top of them. I was seated between two very suave, svelte young men who looked like they exercised fervently and ate only every other day. They didn’t so much as ask for water when the flight attendants came by. I felt really sheepish eating my very loud, messy crackers and pungent bag of olives squeezed between these two. The whole front of my black sweater got covered in cracker crumbs. Then Suave Man #1 sitting on the aisle inconsiderately fell asleep for HOURS. I was absolutely desperate to go to the bathroom, but had to wait until he woke up so I could go. After that, even though I was parched I had to severely restrict my liquid intake so as to avoid the same issue for the next three hours. Even so, by the time we finally landed at Dulles, I was desperate to go to the bathroom again. As soon as we came to a halt, the pilot announced that because of a bomb threat, the terminal was closed and he had no idea when we’d be allowed to get off the plane. When we were allowed to get off, it was like a vicious rugby scrum. I had to wait for everyone to disembark so I could retrieve my suitcase. Then I had to take the grandiosely named “mobile lounge” to another terminal where I had to continue running both up and down Escher-like escalators to finally get to my gate to catch my connecting flight home on one of those scary rattly toy propeller planes.

It was a minute past midnight when this tired puppy finally rolled into the driveway.

But here’s what was waiting for me on the other end:

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And it was a beautiful weekend, one that was most definitely “out of all whooping.” I can’t wait to share pictures!

Take Me Back to San Francisco

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I’m on a plane heading to San Francisco for my cousin’s wedding. Actually, while I will be going to the wedding, I’m really going for my parents, who are using this happy pretext to revisit the place where they began their own life together as a married couple.

In February 1963, my father was a student in San Francisco. Against all odds, he had managed to make his way to the U.S. to pursue the education that had cruelly eluded him during a childhood filled with adversity and suffering.

School was a luxury, a beautiful dream that was constantly interrupted, snatched away, and cut short by real nightmares:  air raids, forced labor by the Japanese occupiers, disease…The sudden and premature death of his father was disastrous for his family, already reeling under the privations brought about by the occupation. My father witnessed beloved siblings die from malnutrition – the very thought brings me to my knees. The family was able to scrape together enough money to pay for only one son’s school fees. The others had to help on the farm so that the family could survive.

When my father’s older brother saw how desperate he was to get an education, and though he would sorely miss his help on the farm, he gave him his blessing to leave home at the age of 13 in pursuit of his dream. My father would have to find a way to support himself through school. He still remembers his brother’s sacrifice with deep gratitude.

He walked for days to get to Seoul, where he found a job sweeping glass in a watch factory. He worked during the day, went to night school, and at the end of every long day, he would sweep clean a place on the factory floor where he would sleep. Eventually, he enrolled in a new college that had the lowest tuition he could find.

The school’s president was the scion of a family of Catholic martyrs: three generations of his family were wiped out on one day. His own father had physically survived the massacre, but was a ruined, broken man. The president had gone on to become the leader of a Christian underground resistance movement. He was repeatedly arrested and tortured by the Japanese for his activities and was always on the run. Fearing for her own safety, his wife would dress as a beggar and hide in the busy marketplace all day, returning home to their children only late at night. Eventually, he led a large group of hundreds of refugees to Manchuria, an arduous journey on foot during which his youngest child, an infant, died. When he was finally able to return to Korea, he founded the college.

My father became the president’s star student. He had a fierce hunger and passion for knowledge. He gorged himself on philosophy, history, languages. Emboldened by a degree finally under his belt, and encouraged by American G.I.s he met while doing his compulsory military service, he took and passed a test, which would allow him to continue his studies in the U.S.

Before he was about to graduate, my father went to the president’s office to tell him that he was getting married. The president congratulated him heartily, and it was only then that my dad revealed that he was going to marry his own daughter, my mother. The college was (and is) an institution where skirt hemlines are strictly monitored and relationships between the sexes are discouraged. How my dad worked up the nerve to court and get engaged to the president’s daughter behind his back is unfathomable to me. His placid, gentle demeanor belies steely, ballsy determination that has carried him throughout his life.

So in February 1963, my mother stepped off the plane in San Francisco to meet her soon-to-be husband. Their separation had been long. Her arrival had been delayed by a year when an x-ray revealed that she had had tuberculosis as a child. She spent the year listening to tapes, trying to learn English. She still sometimes mimics the stilted, heavily accented recordings that she would listen to over and over again: “I am a boy.” “I am a girl.”

It was a difficult first year for my mother. She cried every day because she was homesick and so far away from home. The birth of my oldest sister, and my second sister soon after, brought comfort and joy. As their family grew and they settled into their new country, my parents began to build a happy life together. Painful memories of the past receded as they made new memories: outings to the zoo with their daughters, the taste of sourdough bread, eating watermelon in their little apartment under the belfry of the Hamilton Square Baptist Church.

My mom and dad want to go visit the church that was their first home again. In fact, they’re dragging us all to the service there this Sunday. Because that’s what you do when you fly across a vast continent to spend a weekend in one of the coolest cities in the world. That’s right. You go to church…It’s going to be awesome!

Congratulations to my cousin and his soon-to-be wife. I hope you have a long, happy, and beautiful life together.

Congratulations and happy homecoming to my mom and dad, whose 50th wedding anniversary we’ll celebrate next year. I am so happy to be taking this journey with you.

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Junks I Collect No. 1: Stone Seals

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In East Asia seals (sometimes called chops) are used to sign official documents and for art. Seals can be carved out of stone, wood, bamboo, and ivory. They may sometimes be made out of metal , porcelain, or plastic. A thick, bright red paste made of crushed cinnabar mixed with castor oil is used to make the impression.

Artists use name seals to sign their work, and will also use “mood “ or “leisure” seals to add a sentiment  to a work of calligraphy or a painting. These might range from poetic words or lines (“Tranquility,” “True Meaning Comes from Within,” “Cloudy Mountain in an Ocean of Mist”) to an expression of satisfaction. My favorite stamp is the first one I got as a present my dad brought me back from Korea when I was a little girl:

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It says, “The tiger came and laughed.” When stamped on a painting, a seal such as this one would indicate that the artist is pleased with his/her work. Artists, intellectuals, and literati had “studios” or libraries in which they worked and socialized. Studio seals are added to art as another kind of personal signature, or also as marks of a collector’s appreciation and ownership. A piece of art might acquire multiple studio seals as it passes from one collector to another.

I’ve got most of my seal collection in my own studio  office:

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Here they are up close:

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Pets, Part 1

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(Written four years ago).

The world is hurtling precipitously to hell.  Life savings and pensions are disappearing overnight into a merciless super-massive black hole of economic disaster.  The number of people being laid off is staggering.  The figures being tossed about in discussions of bailouts, deficits, and stimulus packages are even more unfathomable.  Our own personal debt keeps growing like a malignant tumor, despite my best efforts to make it go away…And I just spent 800 dollars on dental care for a rabbit I’m allergic to, and frankly:  not particularly fond of.

We’ve always been terrible pet owners and our pets were all, without exception, problematic. The trend started before I was even born with a couple of birds my sisters had.  Besides being shockingly messy, they were coolly disloyal and abandoned my sisters without so much as a backwards glance the minute they spotted a cracked window.  My sisters’ consolation prize was a turtle whose shell my mom assiduously scrubbed daily with a toothbrush in a fruitless bid to mitigate the unwholesome stench it emitted.

When my parents moved back to Korea from San Francisco for a few years with three children in tow, they were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get enough protein in our diet.  In America we had been raised with plenty of milk, cheese, chicken, and beef, all of which were almost impossible to find, and/or prohibitively expensive in Korea at the time.  My father acquired a pair of rabbits to remedy the situation.  We have photographs of ourselves feeding carrots to Veronica and Brownie through the bars of their hutch, our eyes wide with childish wonder and delight.  One morning my dad called us outside.  “Kids, look!  The rabbits are having a wedding!”  We ran out expecting to see Veronica dressed in a long white gown and veil and Brownie in cutaway tails and an ascot.  We were confused and disappointed to see that Brownie had merely mounted Veronica and was jerking furtively with one beady eye trained on the growing crowd of spectators witnessing the consummation of his marriage bed.  Soon there was a hutch full of Brownies and Veronicas.

Me and “Dinner”

I think it was Brownie Sr. who was first served up for dinner one night.  When it was discovered that we had just eaten one of our pet bunnies, bloodcurdling keening alternating with howling recriminations sent sonic shockwaves reverberating around the whole neighborhood.  My father quietly gave away the rest of the rabbits to a delighted neighbor that very night and that was the end of that.  My dad had learned an important lesson:  you don’t give names to your food.

His next idea was to buy some chicks.  Of course, this time no names would be given.  But we had also by this time acquired a dog, to whom a name most definitely was given.  My grandfather rather grandiosely dubbed him Sodeka, for Socrates, Descartes, and Kant.  Despite his extravagant name, Sodeka was unceremoniously kept in the yard tethered to a chain, just as all Korean dogs are.  Any wisdom Sodeka may have possessed was in realizing he knew nothing.  Perhaps he was even wiser than his partial namesake, because unlike Socrates, he grasped that the pursuit of truth and virtue were pointless.  He wasted no time mulling over the ethical ramifications of eating defenseless baby chicks too stupid to keep far enough away.  Cogito ergo sum?  How about:  My growling stomach tells me I exist, and I therefore deduce that those senseless birds won’t in a minute.  Screw Kant’s categorical imperative, he was hungry, and the chicks were right there!  Sodeka died a few years later when he got into the trash and ate some chicken bones.  In his dying act, he proved the existence of retributive justice in the world.

When we moved back to America we acquired an aquarium, which became home (and hospice) to a rapid succession of fish, fowl, and rodent.  The many, many fish all too quickly succumbed to spectacularly depressing, protracted deaths, despite my fervent prayers and earnest ministrations.  I would admit my patients to the hospital isolation ward:  a pickle jar filled with saltwater and warmed with my rickety old swing arm desk lamp that served as a heat lamp.  It never helped.  They would continue to float on their sides or backs until they finally took their last gasp.  Only once, the fish my little brother named Charlene Tilton seemed to be on the brink of a miraculous, unprecedented recovery.  Every day I could see that her body was slowly righting itself until one glorious day she finally regained her vertical position.  I was Florence Nightingale!  Clara Barton!  Hell, I was Mother Theresa!  The day I planned to present Charlene Tilton with her discharge papers, I rushed home from school to find that the arm of the desk lamp had slipped and the bulb was barely a centimeter over the water.  Charlene Tilton had been poached to death.  Oh, the bitter, bitter tears I shed over each and every one of those fish.

The next ill-fated resident of that glass house of death lasted for only a few days.  Butch was an impossibly adorable, fuzzy little chick, hatched in an incubator in my brother’s second grade classroom as a terribly misguided science project about the life cycle.  The teacher blithely sent Butch and his siblings off to their deaths at the hands of  a dozen or so second graders without so much as instructions on what to feed the poor doomed birds.  Butch chirped piteously all day long and would only quiet down when we took him into our hands, where he’d nestle contentedly and immediately fall asleep.  Every time my Dad caught us in the act, he’d make us put him back in the aquarium.  He said with authority (having grown up on a farm, after all) that our very touch was toxic to the chick and that we would hasten his demise.  Maybe he was right, or maybe Butch just got too cold in the aquarium.  I really don’t know what we would have done with a rooster in the heart of suburban Arlington anyway.

Completely disregarding the growing mountains of evidence pointing to the fact that we were not meant to be the guardians of birds (and the fact that we still lived in suburban Arlington), my Dad ordered some quail eggs and an incubator from an ad he found in Field and Stream magazine.  I can still remember the earthy, organic smell of the eggs.  For a month we nervously tended the tiny eggs, turning them gently twice a day, and anxiously fretting that the little bulb keeping them warm would burn out. The hatching due date came and went.  After a decent interval of grief, and once we got past the denial phase, my dad took the incubator out into the backyard and gently cracked open a few of the eggs. The little birds looked fully formed.  We never figured out what went wrong.

Then there were the two gerbils named Pee Wee and Flea Bag.  Once in awhile, I’d let them loose in the front yard.  They would frolic about in the grass until I called for them.  As soon as they heard their names, they’d come racing back to me.  Maybe those brief interludes when they could feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their little rodent faces put forgiveness in their hearts, so that they returned to me even though I routinely forgot to feed them for days on end.  Or maybe they made the cold, sober calculation that my negligent care was better than being eaten by a neighborhood cat:

“Yo, Flea Bag, that crazy chick’s calling us back.  Come on, man, now’s our chance.  Let’s do it!  Let’s run for it, man!”

“Yeah!  Let’s do this thing!  Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, I’m fr–!”

“Awww sh*t, Flea Bag!  There’s that damn cat, again.  Damn it!!  Come on, man, we gotta go back to the aquarium.”

“Dude, I’m so depressed.”

“Next time, man.  Next time…”

Those gerbils never did make their escape.  They lived to a ripe old age and ended their days in the aquarium.  I sobbed when they died, belatedly regretting all the times I’d forgotten to feed them.  My family tried to console me, assuring me that it was almost unheard of for gerbils to live as long as they did, but to this day I can’t think of them without pangs of guilt.

My dad thrilled us one day by bringing Fritzi home as a surprise.  It was our first experience with having a puppy.  We were completely charmed by the way he would wantonly flop over onto his back and proffer his tight, round, warm, velvety belly to anyone who would reach a hand out to him.   When he was old enough, he too was banished from the house and sent to live in our backyard, where he became a barker and a biter.  I couldn’t sit on our tire swing without him trying to take a chunk out of my side.  I never held it against him.  One day he flopped over onto his back as he had when he was a puppy, but this time a grotesque, pulsating red protuberance emerged from his penis.  As he wallowed on the ground, dirt began to cling to its moist surface.  My brother and I stared in wide-eyed horror and then ran inside the house shrieking:  “Dad!  Dad!  Fritzi’s dying!  Something’s wrong with Fritzi!”  My dad lumbered out to see what we were squawking about.  He took one look at Fritzi, and grunted “He’s fine.”  He stalked back to his room and shut the door behind him, unready and unwilling to give us “the talk” that would explain what was going on with our unneutered dog.  We were stunned and shaken.  We could only look at each other in disbelief at my father’s callousness.

Otto was our next dog.  He was the best worst dog in the world; he was gorgeous and hideous at the same time; the gentlest and most vicious animal I’ve ever encountered.  Otto was a white and brown American Bulldog with a perfect, rakish diamond patch over one eye.  He was an awe-inspiring seventy pound mass of rippling sinew and muscle. If you were ever foolish enough to sit down anywhere in his vicinity, he’d immediately come over and climb onto your lap as he had when he was a puppy, raking your legs with his sharp black talons, and innocently breathing noxious fumes in your face and splattering it with his big warm lolling tongue and the thick ropes of saliva that always dangled from his huge gaping maw.  You’d push him off and he’d nonchalantly fix his gaze somewhere off in the distance as he’d slowly and casually scoot backwards again, until he regained his rightful place on your lap.  Once he’d managed to reseat himself, he’d start lazily slapping your thigh with his big brown tail.  You had to love that dog, horrible as he was.

The biggest problem with Otto was that he was absolutely terrifying and uncontrollable when he encountered other dogs.  This comical, gentle, bumbling dog would instantaneously transform into a snarling, growling, demonic terror when he caught sight of any other dog.  In a frenzy, he would strain at his leash so hard that his eyeballs looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets.  The whites of his eyes would always be bloodshot for days after these episodes.  As he struggled to break loose from the leash, he would start making alarming gasping and choking noises.  Every single member of my family, with the exception of my mother who was too smart to ever try to walk him, experienced the trauma of being pulled to the ground and dragged by Otto, when he was trying to maul another dog.  Only once, did he actually break free. My sister was walking Otto when a stray dog came loping up to them.  Otto broke loose and grabbed the dog by the neck.  My sister frantically tried to pull him off the other dog, screaming and hitting him with the end of his own leash as hard as she could. He was completely insensate when he was in this state, and it was only by accident that he let go of the other dog and my sister was able to regain control of him.  Later that day she insisted that I come with her to look at the blood spatter in the middle of the road, where the fight had taken place.

My own worst Otto experience occurred when I came home from college for summer vacation one year.  He was so difficult to handle, my parents would wait for one of us to arrive back home so that we could deal with his vet appointments.  It was time to take him for his rabies shot.  When I got to the vet’s office I left Otto in the car and went in to explain the situation.  They agreed to open a door leading straight to the exam rooms allowing us to bypass the lobby filled with other dogs and cats.  He was hoisted onto the table, and when the needle went into his muscle, he didn’t flinch, there was not even the briefest pause in his heavy panting.  They let us leave through the backdoor, and as I walked him back to the car, I was congratulating myself for having gotten through the ordeal without incident, when a droopy basset hound dropped heavily from his car onto the pavement.  Otto lunged.  The leash was wrapped around my legs and I was flung onto the asphalt and dragged first on my back and then on my stomach through the parking lot, until I was finally able to stop him.  I drove home bleeding from both sides of my shredded body, and from my sandal-clad feet, where his sharp nails had punctured the flesh when he jumped onto them.  Later, big paw shaped bruises appeared, lining up perfectly with the bloody holes.

Like all our dogs, Otto was exiled to the backyard.  We begged my dad harder than we ever had on behalf of any other dog to allow him to stay in the house, although of all of them he was clearly the least fit to be indoors.  My dad was unshakable in his belief that a dog’s place was outside.  Otto had a doghouse and a decent sized pen.  He didn’t seem to mind being outside too much, although he wasn’t crazy about thunderstorms.  From the window we’d watch his silhouetted form lit up again and again with every lightning strike.  He’d leap off the roof of his doghouse, his ears flying out from his head like batwings, his huge mouth wide open as he tried to catch each bolt of lightning.

One day there was a freeze warning.  The newscasters suggested that even outdoor pets should be brought in on this particular night.  We knew it was hopeless to petition my dad to let us bring him in.  Instead, we bought Otto a sweatshirt and wrestled it onto him as he wriggled and writhed away from us.  We put a warm blanket into the doghouse and attached the optional flap that had come with it.  Then my siblings and I tried for a good half hour to coax him into the doghouse.  He stubbornly kept popping out of it as soon as we got him inside.  As it grew dark and the snow began to fall, we started crying out of frustration and worry for our atrocious, yet dearly beloved dog.  My father came out to get us.  He roughly shoved Otto into the doghouse and marched us back into our own house.  The next morning we ran out to check on the dog and were devastated to discover the blanket and sweatshirt lying in a heap outside of the doghouse and the naked Otto lying motionless on his back on a patch of ice, his legs held stiffly in the air.  As we ran to the frozen corpse, he suddenly awoke and leaped up to greet us with his usual graceless joie de vivre.

When my sister and her husband moved to Atlanta, Georgia, they asked my dad if they could take Otto, and he agreed.  Thus began the long arduous process of rehabilitating him.  They flew him to Georgia in a large crate.  At the airport, they were heading to the baggage claim area when they heard a loud commotion.  There was a crowd of panicked baggage handlers shouting and yelling at each other.  Not one of them was willing to touch the crate that was rocking back and forth and emitting a terrifying low rumbling and growling.  My sister and her husband rushed up to Otto’s crate and the rocking immediately stopped.  The growling noise was replaced by whimpering and the sound of Otto’s tail happily slapping the side of his crate.  When they got him back to their house, the first thing he did was to bound up the stairs and make a beeline for their bedroom.  He leaped up onto their bed and released a gallon of piss right in the middle of it.

Clearly, he was going to need some transitioning…They decided to keep him in the garage until they could get him housebroken.  They bought a space heater, a magnificent down vest and a brand new bed and set him up in style in their garage.  When they got back home from work that first evening they discovered that he had ripped his bed to shreds.  He had also managed to get the vest off and had torn it to pieces as well.  Furthermore, he had deposited a gigantic steaming turd right in the middle of it.

At the very first opportunity, they took him to be neutered at last.  The surgery was performed so late, that for the rest of his life, poor Otto had a dark, wrinkly, flaccid sack that flapped pathetically between his hind legs.  Georgia is possibly the state where bulldogs are mostly highly appreciated.  My sister and her husband would routinely be stopped by admiring people who wanted to know what kind of dog Otto was.  One day they were out walking him when they heard the sudden squeal of tires.  A man jumped out of his car and declared that he had to have Otto’s services as a stud.  When my sister told him he was neutered, he stamped his foot in impatience and disgust and said:  “What you do that for?!”

It is a credit to my sister’s vision and saintly patience that Otto finally became a well-mannered house dog. My sister and her husband eventually had four children long after Otto died, but for many years Otto was their only cherished, (if not begotten) son.  They filled albums and albums with photos of him.  I’m hoping that the charity they showed to this seemingly unreformable dog will cancel out the sacrilege they committed in referring to him for all those years as:  “The Baby Otto.”