Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Guncle Again

I used to be a fabulous gay uncle. 

I’m the oldest of four boys. My brothers all got married in their twenties, and immediately started having children. By the time I thought about having kids myself, I already had eleven nieces and nephews. 

During my guncle years, I was a carefree gay bachelor with a well-paying lawyer job. I could afford to dote. I plied them with gifts. In hindsight – and as a parent myself – I regret certain birthday and Christmas presents. Like “Band in a Box.”

As a guncle I insisted on maintaining healthy boundaries. For example, the first time I ever changed a diaper was in the hospital with my newborn daughter Eleanor. But I was always available for fun with nieces and nephews. My mom’s younger brother is only a few years older than me, so I had my Uncle Dennis as a helpful nongay uncle role model.

Nevertheless, all good things must come to end. Eleanor was born when I was 41. As my nieces and nephews will attest, guncling efforts immediately dropped precipitously. It turned out I don’t have enough bandwidth to be both a great dad and a fabulous uncle.

Pets weren’t part of my life growing up. 

My father was raised on a family farm with lots of animals, including dogs and cats. They were working livestock, with their own specific roles to play in the barn and fields. If any dog had attempted to enter the house, my grandmother would have vigorously repelled it with broom. Likewise, my mother is not a pet person. I remember a couple of occasions in my youth when we insisted on acquiring a puppy or kitten. Each disappeared before long, in what I now recognize as suspiciously convenient circumstances.

As an urban adult I never saw the attraction of any kind of pet. As I jokingly told folks, if I wanted that much responsibility I might as well have kids.

Even from a distance, I can tell I’m not a cat person. However, dogs have their attractions. When I was a young lawyer in Seattle, I moved into a fabulous house on Capitol Hill with a couple of gay friends. Phillip had a friendly chocolate Labrador retriever named Sasha, and we enjoyed going on walks around the neighborhood.

About the same time, my physician referred me to an allergist. It turns out I’m allergic to basically everything – springtime, feathers, dust mites, you name it. I particularly react to lilies, most cats, and dog dander. So I replaced my down bedding with hypoallergenic substitutes, and Sasha was carefully quarantine away from my loft bedroom.

When my children raised the subject of pets decades later, I tried to communicate that I would be open to discussing pet logistics when they were ready to take responsibility themselves.

What they heard was “Papa is deathly allergic to all animals.” Perhaps there was a little overkill. 

In contrast with my upbringing, my ex’s family always had dogs when he was growing up. Before moving to Seattle, he and his previous boyfriend had a couple of large mutts. After we separated, my ex acquired a more compatible husband and eventually a house with a fenced backyard. Unsurprisingly, a couple of years ago “the kids” got a dog.

Bear is an Aussiedoodle – a cross between an Australian shepherd and a poodle, with one blue eye and one brown eye. He's an adorable medium-sized hypoallergenic furball. Bear loves to cuddle, chew things, and herd children. 

Buster arrived a year later. He’s black and white and rambunctious. Buster and Bear keep each other company when they’re alone in the house. 

A second dog means my ex has to buy twice as much food, but otherwise requires only a little additional effort. Apparently dogs are like kids and Doritos – as long as you’re at it, you might as well have one more. 

Buster came as a puppy from the same breeder. Biologically he and Bear are some kind of cousins. But in a house full of adopted kids, it’s reasonable to refer to them as brothers. 

One of the differences between being a dad and being an uncle:  guncles are allowed to have favorites. It’s not supposed to be obvious, but everyone knows. (“If you really wanted the china set, you could have tried harder to suck up to Aunt Ida in the nursing home.”)  

In contrast, having a favorite among your own kids is a major developmental faux pas. As a practical matter, I wouldn’t even know how to identify a favorite. My three kids are all very different from each other, and I have a very individualized relationship with each. They’re like apples, oranges, and bananas. Or rather like sushi, blueberry tarts, and gnocchi alla Sorrentina.  

Fortunately, unlike children with attachment disorders, Bear and Buster are just dogs. Even Buster is doing fine.

By the end of winter, both dogs were rather shaggy. Their recent spring buzz cut reveals that one dog is svelte and the other is a bit zaftig. 

A few weeks ago they switched to a new brand of dogfood. Apparently it tasted better than the prior selection, and they both insisted on wolfing it down. Unfortunately, every couple of days we would discover a pile of vomit. (Yes, of course I made the kids clean it up.) Eventually we figured out Bear was the culprit. 

Perhaps Bear overheard me criticizing Buster’s paunch, and developed an eating disorder. I hope Bear isn’t purging to impress me. He’s already my favorite.

As I recently mentioned in “Roger’s House of Dreams,” I had to move out of my Bellingham rental house over the holidays. Since January, my ex and I have been experimenting with letting the kids stay full time in one place. That means I’ve been spending alternate weeks in a house with two charming Aussiedoodles. I’m loving it.

It turns out the dogs really are hypoallergenic. I wash my hands a lot, and try not to touch my eyes after playing with them. But allergies haven’t been a problem. I’ve even reached the point where I let them climb into bed with me (it’s king sized). 

The dogs and I enjoy our regular walks in the fresh air while the kids are gone. During the day, Bear and Buster keep me company while I read and write. I try out material on them. It’s nice to have someone around the house who actually listens to me.

The other day I observed to my ex that the dogs seem more attached to me than to the kids. Should I avoid being the one to feed them? He laughed, and said it’s because the dogs can tell I’m the “alpha” of the pack.

Frankly the kids are pretty useless as pet-owners. But they provide enough help to keep the dogs from feeling like a burden. My ex and his husband are just down the hill if any real problems arise. I feel like a fabulous gay uncle again for the first time in almost fourteen years. It’s been one of several pleasant surprises to come out of our new housing arrangement.

[SPOILER ALERT:  Weak couples should avoid this last bit]

Do you want to know the dirty little secret of an amicable divorce? Spending alternate weeks with three children is just about the ideal amount of kid time. When they get home from school on Friday afternoon, the dogs and I are waiting. We have a fun weekend together. We go on walks. Everyone indulges in too much screen time. Papa starts nagging about homework and dishes. On Thursdays I try to plan some fun activity together. Still, by the time Friday morning comes around, we’re all a little tired of each other and need a break. 

During my kid-free weeks, I recharge my batteries, get things done, and fumble with a social life. By the next Friday I miss my kids. Sometimes I miss them as early as Thursday morning.

I usually miss the dogs by Tuesday. Or maybe just Bear.

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