In the spring of 2009, we had a year-old Labrador puppy. This was a good and a bad thing. London was everything that Labradors are supposed to be at that age – including having seemingly-boundless energy. Kellyann and I found ourselves having difficulty tiring him out.  So we talked about the idea of getting another dog – one who could be a companion and playmate to him, and drain him of the vigor that we couldn’t.  Since I had chosen London’s breed, it was Kellyann’s turn to pick, and she wanted to go to the animal shelter in Columbiana.

I remember a few things about Austen from that trip. The first was that her “shelter name” was Beth. We’d already picked out her family name, though – London comes from Jack London, one of my favorite authors, so Kellyann chose Austen after Jane Austen, one of hers.  The second was that the shelter workers told us that she’d had a litter at some point. And finally, at the time we got her, she was the longest-tenured dog in the shelter – almost four months, I believe. And to this day, knowing what I know now after almost 12 years with her, I wonder how in the world that could have been the case.

We had narrowed our choices down to her and a springer spaniel mix, and she won the tiebreaker in Kellyann’s mind when she showed more interest in other dogs (remember, she was intended as a playmate for a Lab; this was a definite requirement).  A few documents, $90 or so later, and we had a new family member.

Adopting a shelter dog comes with a free mystery. You don’t know what they’ve gone through. You’ll never learn the details of any prior homes. You can’t even know their age (the shelter guessed around 3, but that’s just what it was – a guess), their birthday, or anything. In some ways, for them, I have to imagine that it’s like being born again and starting a new life. You wish they could tell you the stories, but all you can do is make this chapter of their life the best it can be.

Austen, all things considered, was a great complement (and opposite, in many ways) to London. She quickly established herself as the alpha between the two of them, and London treated her kind of like a cross between a mom and a big sister.  He’d try to get away with something – snatching food, climbing all over her – and it was funny to see how quickly she’d put him in his place.  But there was no doubt the two of them loved each other from the very start.

She also proved herself a friend to people as well. I used to joke that God made her back straight as an arrow so that she could lay on it and expose her belly for maximum rub potential.  Once she flipped over on that back, you knew you were in with her. Our veterinary staff told us that while she was staying with them at the clinic, they’d often take her out of the kennel and keep her behind the counter with them, they liked her so much.  She had a herding instinct from one of her breeds that extended to people as well – if everyone was sitting down in a room and someone got up, she’d start barking until they sat back down or left the room. In her own way, she wanted everyone to stay together.

She wasn’t perfect, mind you. We’re pretty sure she taught London about eating poop. That herding instinct I mentioned had her nipping at his heels whenever London ran after a ball, and took away any hope of the Retriever part of London’s breed being applicable to him.  She would come right up to a lawn mower and bark herself hoarse, but was scared to death of vacuum cleaners. How she discerned any difference between the two, I’ll never know. But these were mostly easily overlooked, and in the grand scheme of things, I think the positives far outweighed any drawbacks.

As Austen grew older, we kept realizing just how blessed we were from a health standpoint. The only health scare we ever had with her was a positive heartworm test just after we got her. I guess that she had contracted it just before being picked up by the shelter, and they had not seen it in their tests.  Once we got her past that, other than her annual checkups, it was smooth sailing. We moved her to a “senior adult” type of food when she was 8 or so, and she took a medicine for arthritis starting around 12, but that was it.

Until the limping began.

At first, it was barely noticeable. She was getting around fine, for the most part. But you could tell that she was favoring her front right paw. We thought of different reasons for this: maybe she pulled a muscle racing back and forth alongside the fence with the neighbors’ Chihuahuas. Or maybe it was just her arthritis beginning to manifest itself further. A trip to the vet seemed to point in that direction. They gave us a different medicine to try.  It had no effect – in fact, it seemed to get worse.  Finally, she got to the point where she didn’t want to put any weight on that leg at all, and her right front shoulder ballooned in size.  Walks outside became fewer and fewer. Most of the time she didn’t want to leave the couch. When she did, she started going to the bathroom in places she’d never gone before – to that point she had very much been a creature of habit.  Fearing the worst, we took her back to the vet, and got the diagnosis that we’d been dreading: cancer.

They told us there wasn’t much that could be done. The cancer was in a place that wasn’t conducive to surgery (and her age made that a risky proposition anyway), and extremely aggressive. While radiation therapy might extend her life a little bit, there was no way they’d be able to get all of it. They gave us more medicine to hopefully manage her pain and make her comfortable.

That was only a couple of weeks ago.

A few days ago, I noticed a tell-tale sign that I couldn’t explain away. I was taking her outside just before going to bed. Slowly, achingly, we made our way to the backyard through the bone-chilling cold, as we’d done hundreds of times before. Except that once she got to the backyard and off the leash, she took an immediate left and lay down under the azaleas. I had a feeling I knew what this meant.  But that selfish person inside me that doesn’t want to let go required more proof. I coaxed her back up and put her back on the leash, and led her toward the middle of the yard. Then I took her off her leash.

Almost immediately, she hopped on her three good legs to another garden bed and lay down there under the awning of the cast-iron plants and nandina. She stared up at me, her eyes cutting into my soul. And I knew it was time.

Today is our last full day. I worked from home today. Most of the time when I wasn’t typing, I had a hand on my little girl, letting her soak up all of the love she could. Tonight, we’re going to get her a cheeseburger and let her go to town. We’ll probably stay down here in the room together all night – maybe the boys will even get their sleeping bags out and stay with us.

And then morning will come. And we’ll make that awful fifteen-minute drive over to the vet. A few more words, a few more hugs, scratches and belly rubs, many more tears, a couple of needles, and after almost twelve years of being part of our family, that will be it.

I’d like to think we gave her a good life – one that was at least better than the one she was experiencing out on her own or waiting in a shelter. But she gave us so much love and joy over that time, that I’m pretty sure we got the better end of the deal.  Dogs are like that. They don’t need much for them to give you everything they have in return. And for almost twelve years, we were the beneficiaries.

Requiescat in pace, Austen.

my favorite time of year for running

I love fall for a lot of reasons, but ever since I became a runner, I have one more great reason – it’s the best time for morning runs. The vast majority of my runs are before work in the morning, and once the morning temperature gets below 55, I find motivation that just wasn’t there in the summer. Of course, the change in fall colors gives a new palette to my old familiar routes, which is always a good thing.

There are other great motivators as well – new gear, the prospect of an upcoming race – but for me, nothing beats the change in seasons. Now, I need to cut this short, and get ready for bed – gotta get up early for my run tomorrow!

Ranking the Years of the Saban Dynasty

Now that the season is done, and Alabama has accomplished what no one else in major college football ever has by winning five national titles in under a decade, a thought went through my mind. If I were to rank the seasons of the past decade, how would they come out? I thought it might be an interesting exercise.

This is just one fan’s humble opinion. I’d never deign to say I know enough about the inner workings of the game to call this an “expert” analysis. That being said, I can run the numbers and remember my impressions of the teams, their players, and games they played, and arrive at a reasonable conclusion of where these 10 teams rank.

And yes, I know that Saban just finished his 11th year at Alabama. I’m starting in 2008 because a) 2007 would obviously be last, even with the vacated wins, b) it was 2008 that made the college football world realize Bama was back and thus began the dynasty as we know it, and c) a ranking from 10 to 1 just seems more natural than 11 to 1.

So, here’s some criteria.

  • Championships matter (a lot), but they don’t necessarily have the final say.
  • Teams with more highly-regarded (i.e., award-winning) players are at an advantage.
  • Potential for greatness doesn’t matter in hindsight; you are what your record says you were.

Here we go…

Continue reading

Morning Coffee – Quantum Blend

This past weekend, I decided to give myself a little coding project. With the release of their Quantum project, Mozilla Firefox has migrated away from its old extension format, and as a result, one of my favorite plugins, Morning Coffee, was broken. I wasn’t the only one sad about this, as the comments on could confim.

Well, I could just be unhappy about it…or I could do something. I am a programmer, after all, if not necessarily a Javascript developer by trade. It’s been a while since I had a non-work coding project, so that would be a fun itch to scratch. And hey, it fills a need that at least a few other people have…so why not, right?

So fast-forward past a lot of time spent reading the Mozilla WebExtension documentation and some remedial Javascript education, and the end result is Morning Coffee Quantum! I’m pretty pleased with it. It does most of what the original plugin did (due to the way the new extensions work, it’s not exactly the same), and I even added a feature that I’d always wanted to have in the original. If no one else ever downloads it and uses it, at least I’ve got a working version again, and that’s good enough for me. But if someone else gets some use out of it, even better!

Here’s the extension’s permanent link on this site, if you’re interested.

the best laid plans…

Tomorrow is the Mercedes Marathon. For the second time, I will be running the full marathon (I have run either the half or the full every year since 2012). The first time, if you may recall, did not go as planned. This time, I have approached the race a little differently. I am going with a modified run-walk plan, where I will break the running into roughly five-mile blocks, with 1/4-mile walk breaks. In this, I hope to avoid the dreaded leg cramps that seem to plague me during long races.

I was going into the race hoping that if conditions were favorable, I could come in somewhere around 3:55 or so. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t seem like it’s going to cooperate. It’s currently unseasonably warm (the high today was over 70 degrees), and tomorrow it’s supposed to rain almost all day, including during the time of the race, while remaining roughly the same temperature. Needless to say, this isn’t optimal for running a marathon.  So I’ve had to check my expectations a little bit.

Given this, here’s my goal list for the race, in order of easiest to most difficult to accomplish:

  1. Finish; have fun; don’t get hurt. This is always my first goal, but it’s even more appropriate for the marathon. The last time I did this, I was so disappointed by the result that I didn’t even think about doing another one until now. I’m hoping for this to be a much better experience.
  2. PR. My personal record for the race, of course, would be my first marathon’s finish time. I don’t remember it down to the second, but I know that it was 4 hours, 23 minutes, and change. So anything under 4:23 is a PR in my book.
  3. Sub-4:10. Even with the higher temperatures and rain, I think that this is certainly doable, provided I don’t cramp too early in the race. Speaking of which…
  4. Run 25+ miles. An optimal race would be four blocks of five miles, four quarter-mile walks, and the fifth block being mile 21 to the finish. That would put me over 25 miles, and assuming a reasonable pace, within striking distance of my A goal…
  5. Sub-4:00. Yes, I’m still holding out hope. If we don’t get pouring rain, and maybe the wind’s not too bad, and it doesn’t get up to 70 but more like 65 instead, I might just be able to sneak in under four hours. That’s asking an awful lot, though.

We’ll see how it all turns out tomorrow! In the meantime, I’m off to try to get some sleep!

National Championship guess

Once more into the breach.

Clemson comes off of the most eye-opening win of the year: a 31-0 demolition of Ohio State that could have been worse. Clemson absolutely throttled the Buckeye offense, and Watson & co. did their usual thing.

Meanwhile, Alabama looked vulnerable on offense against Washington. Despite a 24-7 win, the defense accounted for one of the touchdowns, and the offense couldn’t take advantage of several short fields. Some of that had to do with the Huskies’ defense; some of it had to do with Lane Kiffin’s seeming inability to multitask. Now everyone’s worried that Jalen Hurts can’t throw and Alabama is limited to a playbook consisting of “give it to Bo Scarborough and hope”.

The win against Ohio State was very good, but let’s not go overboard. This is the same Clemson team that lost to Pittsburgh at home and came within a 33-yard kick of losing to NC State at home as well. Those two games were played after wins in which the aggregate score was Clemson 110, opponents 10 – in other words, supposedly when they were flying high. Clemson didn’t become invincible all of a sudden.  No disrespect to either of these teams, but If the Tigers play on Monday night at the level they did against either Pitt or NC State, Alabama will win the title by three scores.

That being said, if Alabama plays on offense the way that they did against Washington, they might need the defense to score more than once to have a chance. Clemson will dare Alabama to throw the ball, especially downfield. Despite Tide fans’ fond memories of deep shots to Ridley, Stewart, and heck, even OJ Howard in last year’s title game, Alabama just hasn’t done that this year. Instead, they’ve been content to stretch the edges in hopes of catching a corner for a big gain in the short term and setting up to grind opponents into dust in the fourth quarter. I’m not sure if that will work against Clemson. I do know that if Bama gets down a couple of scores, they might be treated to a dose of their own medicine as Clemson pins their ears back and rushes Hurts without impunity – and as Clemson has exactly one fewer sack than Alabama this year, that’s not a good sign. One thing in Alabama’s favor is that Clemson can’t really exploit tendencies due to Sark taking over as OC, but that’s obviously countered by the lack of on-field chemistry between he and the players, particularly Hurts.

On the other side of the ball, it’s a fascinating matchup. Clemson torched the Bama D for 40 last year, and that was without a full complement of skill players. Now they’ve got ’em all: Gallman, Williams, Cain, Leggett, Renfrow – and scariest of all, Watson. Any one of them can be a nightmare for Alabama. However, the Tide D has proven to be the stuff of nightmares for many a team this year, especially as they’ve seen crimson-clad defenders celebrating a touchdown. The front seven for Alabama will again be called upon to neutralize the ability of Watson to get the ball to his playmakers. Thus far, they’ve proven to be up to the challenge, but this will be their biggest test of the year.

Ultimately, I think the Tigers are the more complete team, and they have the better quarterback as well. Usually that’s enough to make the choice obvious. But Alabama has a defense that, when on its game, is one of the best of all time. I think that they also have a advantage in special teams, especially at punter. The question is whether one historically elite defense and one statistically good but struggling offense is enough to beat very good to excellent Clemson units.

I don’t think this will be a runaway for either side. I think that the game will be tight mostly throughout, and it may come down to one play. And this is where two big year-long trends come into focus: Deshaun Watson’s penchant for throwing interceptions, and Alabama’s uncanny ability to score touchdowns on the defensive side of the ball. I’ll go so far as to say that if Bama gets one, they win, and if they don’t, Clemson does. At the beginning of the year, I said that I am generally realistic-to-pessimistic regarding Alabama football. The pessimist in me says, “why should Alabama score a defensive touchdown in this game?” The realist looks at the games this year and says, “why wouldn’t they?” So in the battle between head and heart, I’m going to go with the realist. Alabama 23-20. 15-0.

Peach Bowl guess

Continuing the theme of this season, a quick look at the Peach Bowl against Washington:

I think that this will be a closer game than most think. Chris Petersen with a month to prepare is not to be taken lightly. In addition, Washington is going to play like a team with nothing to lose, as most are expecting them to do so in this game.

To me, the difference is the Bama front 7 against Washington’s offensive line. Washington hasn’t seen a team like Alabama up front, and that consistent pressure will wear on them over time and hopefully take away both the run game and the deep passing attack, as they won’t have time to set up for long throws. This will leave them with the short and intermediate routes, and my guess is that Alabama will be able to hold that in check often enough. I don’t expect Alabama to score a lot on offense; I think Washington’s defense is underrated. But Bama might get one on defense or create short fields for the offense if they can pressure Browning into making mistakes. Ultimately, I think it ends up looking a lot like the Washington-USC game from earlier. Bama 24-13. 14-0.