Life's wiggle room

March 30, 2004 

Not long ago, while visiting my parents in Asheville, we went for a walk and nearly came home with a dog. How nearly? The dog was actually in the car with us, and we had even decided on a name: Arnold. Though he was small, he had a swaggering confidence that reminded us of a certain governor of California. Our walk had taken us to a scenic hill where people often to take their dogs to run. We weren't surprised at first when a wiry Jack Russell terrier came over to play with my mother's golden retriever and then plopped down, panting, on the blanket beside us. But we were disturbed to discover he wasn't wearing a collar and didn't belong to any of the other people also out enjoying the weather with their pets. When we got up to leave, Arnold followed us back to the car.

I was initially very resistant to the idea of taking this animal home. The Jack Russell failed to meet our basic criteria for an acceptable four-legged pet. He weighed less than 35 pounds, our minimum requirement. He was a shedder, though he seemed to be low-dander (he didn't trigger any immediate allergic reactions). He was peppy, intelligent and pugnacious rather than mellow, dignified and dumb enough not to mind spending most of the time inside while we worked. And he was sort of wiry looking, where we prefer dogs that look, in TC's words, "like giant puffballs."

Nonetheless, Arnold's near-entrance to our life occurred at a vulnerable time. We had marked the passing of our long-lived Siamese fighting fish, Earl, with a seven-flush salute several weeks earlier. For years, we've been discussing whether it was time to upgrade to a higher-maintenance version of pet, the kind that you can cuddle with. Earl's demise -- and Arnold's determination to follow us, though we offered no encouragement -- raised the question of whether that time had finally arrived. We went through rapid-fire emotional swings that took us from hesitation to acceptance to celebration: We would be dog owners!

But there was a final concern. He seemed too clean, well fed and socially adept to be a true stray. So we decided to canvass the neighborhood, beginning at the Warren Wilson College campus nearby, where dogs are the accessories of choice. There was a lone student out, and when my mother leaned out the window and asked if she could ID a dog, she gave us a watch-out-for-crazy-people-eyebrow raise. But she looked dutifully. "Oh, yes. I know that dog," she said. "That's Brody. He follows everyone."

So we handed Arnold/Brody over -- along with a brief lecture about how his owner should really put a collar on him -- and again found ourselves petless. The whole process, from dog-free to fledgling dog-owner and back, took less than an hour. But once Arnold was gone, I felt strangely bereft.

With more time to reflect, I'm glad we did not become the owners of a Jack Russell terrier, a breed with needs and desires that don't match very well with our hectic life and unfenced yard. But I'm comforted to know that had circumstances been different -- had he truly been a stray -- we would have made room for him in our lives, would have altered our patterns as much as we could to rub along comfortably together.

That's a change. I used to believe that such accommodations were a slippery slope. Slowly, each insidious compromise, each thing that wasn't exactly right, would eat away at who I was until nothing was left.

But I think I've finally realized that life offers a good bit of wiggle room. A more flexible approach that makes room for the unexpected occurrences of life isn't just a necessity but often an improvement on the original plan.

So when the right pet does come along, I'm prepared to embrace it -- even if it arrives at the wrong time. It's a small step, but I hope it's progress.

Reach Rebecca Morphis at rlmorphi@mindspring.com.

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