Every morning, I leash up my dog Riley and head out the back door for a walk around our suburban Cincinnati neighborhood. We go early enough that the woods are still quiet, the skies a soft blue-gray. I usually bring a book and flip to the page where I left off the day before, while Riley sniffs the grass. Together we meander our way down the street.

We’re kind of famous among our neighbors. They get a kick out of Riley’s unique markings – big black patches around both eyes – as well as my ability to read and walk at the same time. There are a few regulars who Riley and I run into frequently. Sometimes we walk in a group, chatting about books or the weather. Meanwhile the dogs take turns marking the trees and gobbling up every naughty thing they can find.

Dogs aren’t the only mischievous creatures running about. Our neighborhood is a popular thruway for deer. I often see them through our big back window, frolicking over the hillside or nibbling on the greenery. My favorites are the little spotted fawns, all long-limbed and uncoordinated. The young bucks are handsome too, standing tall to show off their regal antlers.

At night, teams of raccoons peep out of the drainage system to explore. Their favorite spot is the community dumpster, where they forage for discarded treasures like chicken bones and fruit peels. They’re shy guys, though. I might catch one flash of those bandit-masked eyes, or one swish of those black and gray bulls-eye tails, then they’re gone, disappearing back into the safety of darkness.

My neighborhood is full of small charms like this. We also have a community clubhouse, where the neighborhood association hosts monthly gatherings like Chocolate Fondue Night or Book Swap. There’s an exercise room available year-round, and a swimming pool that’s open during the warm months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Street lamps line the long driveway that separates our complex from the busier streets nearby. And behind us is an elite Catholic high school for boys, who we often see running through the neighborhood during track and field season.

A lot of my friends – young, hip professionals without kids – have moved downtown and keep trying to convince me and my husband to join them. I have to admit, there’s a certain appeal. My husband could walk to and from work every day. At night we would be right down the street from most of our favorite restaurants. We could meet up with other couples on a whim, maybe even enjoy a drink and some music at one of the city’s rooftop bars.

But how can we give up our little oasis?

As I sit here writing this, it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else. But I also know that we can’t stay here forever. Someday my husband and I will have kids, and our family will outgrow this space. Maybe his job will take us to another part of the country, or even another part of the world. For one reason or another, we will eventually have to leave this beloved neighborhood behind.

And that’s okay. Home is where the heart is – and fortunately, hearts are mobile. For now, mine is here, in this neighborhood, with the sunshine streaming through my window, the joyful shouting of boys playing football in our shared backyard, and Riley curled up with me on the sofa, his furry head on my lap, just happily taking it all in.


Meet Savanna, the 6.5 month old, 38 pound cheetah that I hung out with tonight. (Took everything in me not to snuggle and/or steal her.)

With the spots of a Dalmatian, the build of a Greyhound, and the paws of a Great Dane, Savanna is clumsily put together but unbelievably cute. She’s also entirely feline — a cheetah cub, about 7 months old and 38 pounds. (Full grown, she could weigh double that.) I met her at the zoo, but not with bars or glass or a moat between us. No, she stood less than an arm’s length away at times, restrained by a simple leash.

This happened at an event for Andy’s work, hosted at the Cincinnati Zoo. As part of their “Ambassador” program, Savanna has been acclimated to a variety of human sights and sounds so that she can attend functions such as our party that night, or more importantly classrooms, to help teach people about wildlife studies and conservation efforts. Savanna stayed with us for nearly an hour, during which time she calmly sat for pictures, climbed on a table to monitor the room, and even nuzzled her 3 handlers like a house cat. With such affectionate gestures, and some of her baby fuzz still visible, it was easy to forget Savanna’s true nature.

Despite her training, Savanna is still a wild animal, ruled mostly by instinct. She was one of two cubs born to the zoo, but her brother didn’t survive. Apparently cheetah mothers won’t raise just one cub, because after 18 months cubs are left to fend for themselves, which would be hard to do on their own without siblings. Thus Savanna’s mother abandoned her, and Savanna became an orphan.

That’s when the zoo stepped in. They hand-raised her, secured her a spot in the Ambassador program, and even partnered her with a puppy of similar age and size to be an adoptive playmate and brother. The two will be best friends until she matures, at which point instinct will kick in again, because female cheetahs live alone. Fortunately one of the handlers is already eager to adopt the black lab, Max, when Savanna outgrows him.

The push and pull between the laws of nature and the intervention of mankind has defined Savanna’s life, and in some ways it defines ours too. Do we let things occur as they may, or should we step in and control when we can? That’s what I kept thinking about later that night, long after Savanna had left our party. It’s a pretty philosophical takeaway from a mere hour with a cheetah cub, but then, hanging out with Savanna was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that I both enjoyed and was affected by.

And that, to me, is the mark of a great ambassador.


Your day starts at 6 AM with a dog retching beside your bed. The noise rouses you from dreaming, and you stumble out of the room, urging the dog to follow you to the kitchen and its tiled floor.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite make it.

Still half-asleep, you clean up the carpet and then fall back into bed. The dog lies down next to you, wide-eyed and sad, as if he can’t believe his stomach has betrayed him.

An hour later, the alarm goes off, and it’s much too soon. But what can you do? It’s time for breakfast, emails, and work. Not long after that, it’s time for lunch, errands, and work. And a little later, it’s time for dinner and chores, and maybe some more work. The day rolls on, no relief, layering its stresses upon you one tick of the clock at a time.

Finally, when most of your to-do list has been checked off — the rest will have to wait until tomorrow — you settle on the sofa, curling into the corner and sinking into the cushions. The TV is on but you barely hear it. Your eyes are open, but your mind is in Sleep Mode. You feel… nothing.

Minutes pass. Then something moves in the corner of your vision. A paw.

You turn to see your dog tucked into the opposite corner of the sofa, a furry ball of sleep. You watch him. His little belly rises and falls with each slow, soothing breath. His nose twitches. His ears are askew. His eyes have disappeared into the black spots that surround them. His tail is wrapped around him like punctuation mark, and his head is nestled between his front legs.

You smile.

Peace settles over you like a warm blanket. You feel grateful for this one tiny moment, this perfect picture of serenity. You realize that life is a two-sided coin: everything is balanced. Suddenly you don’t feel so stressed.

When you get up, the dog follows. He stands in your closet while you change into pajamas. He sits at your feet while you brush your teeth. He looks at you hopefully when you open the fridge for a glass of water. He jumps onto the sheets when you turn off the lights and slip into bed.

At 11 PM your day ends with a dog resting his head on your leg. You both sleep soundly.


What looks like a panda, barks like a Beagle, and won’t walk in the rain?

Riley.

Riley is my new puppy. I’ve had him for about three weeks, but let me tell you, it feels more like three years. My boyfriend and I adopted him from a great local shelter, and we have been busy adjusting our lives ever since.

At nine weeks, Riley focuses on eating, drinking, playing, and sleeping—in that order. We, on the other hand, focus on teaching him his name and getting him to potty in the yard instead of the house. The first week was rough, but I think he’s getting the hang of things now. Patience and consistency are the keys.

As much as I’m trying to teach him, I have to admit, I’m learning ten times more. I read books and websites about the stages of puppyhood and various training techniques. I poll other dog-owners to find out what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong, and what I could be doing better. I get the scoop on vets and kennels, on dog food and toys. I live, breathe, and yes, sometimes even dream about Riley. Because he’s my responsibility, and my pleasure.

It’s not really about the dog information, though. What I’m actually learning is how to be a better person. By putting him first and taking all these steps to ensure his proper growth, I am growing too. I am maturing into a (more) responsible, mindful, and unselfish caretaker.

As an added bonus, my relationship is thriving. Before Andy and I got Riley, my cousin told me that adopting a dog was the best thing she and her husband had ever done. At the time I sort of chuckled and said “Sure” in a dubious tone, but now I understand. Since Riley came into our lives, Andy and I have been doing better than ever. We’re learning to work as a team toward a common goal, to depend on each other and do our fair share, and to appreciate each other to the fullest degree.

All of this basically translates to one simple thing: Riley rocks. Sure, he eats up all my time, and patience, and shoes… but he is so worth it! When I hold up a treat and say, “Riley, sit,” and he stares at me with those big brown eyes, I melt. I know he doesn’t get it, but that’s okay. I don’t get him either.

In time, though, we will understand each other, and that will be the real treat for both of us.