Remembering Penny


This is one of my favorite photos of Penny. She’s hard at work on one of the three chores she loved best, sniffing. The other two being eating and sleeping, of course. If all of those can be considered a career, then Penny was a seasoned professional.

There’s another picture here with her sister, Casey, when we celebrated Penny’s fifteenth birthday last Summer. That was a very happy day for all of us. Frankly, we never thought Penny would last that long. Every day after that was a gift. And we cherish them all.

Today would have been Penny’s sixteenth birthday.

Sweet sixteen for a Labrador Retriever is more like 99 for you and me. And toward the end, Penny did seem that ancient. But I like to remember when she was still black as a hairy coal, filled with mischief and energy, ready to chase those pesky cats or sneak away to find one of their feline bowel snacks. You dog people know what I mean.

Penny would eat just about anything. One time she chewed into my son’s backpack and swallowed two handfuls of foil-wrapped candies. Stomach-pump time for any other breed, but not Labradors in general nor Penny in particular. As they say, it came out all right in the end. Foil-wrapped, too. Watching her remanufacture those candies the next morning was an inspiration to anyone who’s ever been constipated.

She loved to eat healthy foods as well. Years ago when we worried that she might be putting on a little too much weight, we started feeding her carrots, broccoli and cauliflower as snacks. She loved them as much or more than her kibble or biscuits. But we quickly had to back away from that strategy due to the risk of a methane explosion. The cauliflower was especially dangerous and unpleasant.

But Penny loved the smells she made. Just like she loved all the odors. She didn’t even have to bury her head in the grass or dirt to enjoy them. At times, she would stand in our yard on the hilltop, leaning into the wind, her nose quivering, concentrating, trying to suss out all that lay below her. So focused. I never interrupted her when she was like that. I didn’t want to break her spell.

Another passion of hers was walking. Up the block and down the hill, all around and around. No doubt to get closer to whatever she had smelled from her perch above. Every morning after breakfast she wanted to get out and check her pee-mail. We would go strolling to investigate the neighbors, the deer, fresh lawn clippings, some spilled refuse, perhaps a varmint or two. And she never tired of it. Even treading the same paths every day. It was just as exciting to her as dog food.

Meetings were always fun for Penny. She could get scratched, smell some new humans, and pick up a few sympathy snacks. She never bit anyone nor threatened a child. Although she did lick a few of them pretty thoroughly. She certainly loved my son — they grew up together. But it took her awhile to accept Casey, our other dog. Penny had us all to herself for so long that I think she was a bit miffed at the newcomer. But once Casey was no longer an annoying puppy, they became family. Eventually they would curl up asleep next to each other.

Penny had a rich, double-thick coat of fur with a subtle but stylish wave running down the middle of her back. Beautiful and therapeutic. When I would come home from a long day at work — after she licked me repeatedly in my face — I would place my hands on her hairy head or fuzzy sides, scratching her, tickling her, stroking her back. And soon all the tension would leave my body, and all my worries would dim from my mind. Every time she would give me this gift. Every time.

She was dedicated to sleeping. Even as a puppy, Penny seemed to spend over half the day at it. And she had a snore that would shame an apnea-suffering fat man. Her dreams could be loud too. While not exactly violent, she sometimes moved and shook, twitching her legs, tail and nose. For a long time she slept on the bed at our feet. I always liked her close by, even if she was noisy and in the way. It just seemed right to have her there.

In her later years, when she could no longer leap up safely on the bed, Penny would curl up in the closet. Tucked away like a shadow in the shade. That little room became like a burrow for her, and she sought it out for comfort. And as I moved around during the night, I took comfort too in the gentle buzzing and creaking emanating from the darkness between the clothes and the hangers.

Now, when I get up in the middle of the night, I still pause to check on her in that closet. To make sure she’s okay. To make sure she’s safe. I thought I heard her collar tags jingle. Didn’t I hear it? And every time I’m sad all over again.

She’s gone away forever.

Toward the end of March, Penny couldn’t walk or even stand. Her bowel and bladder episodes were not at all regular. But on her last day she wanted a bit to eat again. So we bought her a bacon burger from Five Guys and fed some of it to her in little pieces. How many of us will have bacon on our last day?

We carried her out to the front lawn and let her lay on the grass so she could sniff the air and feel the breeze. A few of our neighbors came around to hug her and say goodbye. She was a celebrity on our block.

At the end of that day, my wife, son and I took her to the same room where we said goodbye to Casey. We kissed her, we hugged her, we stained her still beautiful coat with tears. And with all of us gathered around, and with her head resting on my knee just like Casey had done, Penny passed away from this world.

We placed her ashes in a little oak box on the mantle next to where Casey also rests. Together. They’ll always be my little girls. But I miss them so very, very much.

We love, you Penny. And we’ll never forget you. Find Casey and be at peace. Be at peace.

What I’ve been doing lately

A few words of explanation to those who are asking where I’ve gone and what I’ve been doing the last few months.

Sometime in March, shortly after I recorded my first “Debug” podcast, our dog Penny took a turn for the worse. My family and I struggled with her illness for long days and longer nights. And then we made a very hard decision. She passed away just before the month was over.

I won’t write her eulogy now. She deserves better than this haphazard post. But I hope to publish something in a few days, on what would have been her sixteenth birthday.

We were devasted by her loss. More so than I realized at the time. I unplugged myself from the Internet and most everything else I was doing then. I don’t even remember much of what happened the following week.

And then I realized I had to prepare my speech for the Úll conference starting on April 12. I’m thankful for the pressure of that deadline and my own natural tendency to procrastinate. It got my mind off grief and straight on to panic.

Now, public speaking doesn’t bother me much. Years ago I trained as a minister — a whole other story. But when you’re twenty years old, in the pulpit, and telling people four times your age that you have the absolute Word of God for their lives today — well, everything else is downhill from there in terms of pressure.

But I never want to do any kind of presentation without being prepared. The audience deserves better than that. So that had me worried. And blessedly focused.

What did me in was the way I wrote the speech. I scribbled down a 4,000-word outline — just an outline, mind you — and then proceeded to record myself trying it out. When I hit the 90-minute mark I knew I was screwed because we were limited to only 25 minutes at Úll. I figured I might get away with a half hour, but they would march me offstage if I went twice that long.

So it was cut, cut, cut and cut some more. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Again and again.

I was still working on that speech the day before my wife and I got on the plane to Dublin. All the constraints, especially the time limit, actually improved it.

But the process of completing it burned me out on writing.

And then suddenly there was Úll — The Conference. I capitalize it because it’s simply the best event I’ve ever attended.

Not only are Paul Campbell and Dermot Daly crazed saints for hosting such a celebration, but how they attracted all these wonderful people to operate it, speak at it, and attend it — that’s a stunning accomplishment. You need to attend next year. Trust me.

And the venue? Perfect. Dublin is now one of my favorite cities. Some say you can’t swing a cat in that town without hitting a church or a pub. But it’s not just religion and relaxing there. Ireland is thick with history and gorgeous to behold. And after you’ve worn yourself out absorbing it? My advice is too absorb a Guinness and some pub food.

Every Guinness I’ve drank in America tastes like piss compared to the brew — like some magical beer milkshake — that they serve with such expertise and pride there. You have to try it.

But it was the people in Dublin that impressed me the most. Not only did my wife and I make wonderful new friends at Úll, but everyone else we met in Ireland were just so… nice. Even the cab drivers.

So Úll and Dublin were great. And then we got back from that 15-hour flight to find that Penny’s ashes had just been delivered to our home. It was like a punch in the gut. All those feelings were back.

Now, it’s not wrong to mourn and miss someone — and she was a some-one, not a some-thing. If you don’t, did they really matter? But you can’t dwell on just the loss.

That’s when I decided to throw myself into a new project. If I wasn’t so burned out, it would’ve been a writing project and you could’ve already read that here.

I say on this website that I’m a recovering programmer. Well, I’ve really fallen off the wagon this time.

Suddenly, I got a wild hair up my ass about MPlayer, the command line-based, cross-platform media player that geeks and other encoding freaks like myself use incessantly.

Even though it’s a command line program, it still presents a Cocoa UI when displaying video on OS X. But the various quirks and bugs in that UI had been getting on my nerves for a long time.

So I wrote a whole new front end for it. Not by patching it. But by running it as a background process, capturing its output and then dynamically presenting a new UI from yet another command line tool.

Stupid, I know. But it was a wonderful distraction. And the damn thing works just fine.

I call it “MPlayerShell.” The source code is available on Github and, thanks to Valerii Hiora, it’s installable via Homebrew too. You can read all about it here.

This is the project I talked about, but didn’t name, on my second “Debug” podcast with Guy English and Rene Ritchie. Props to Rene for leading off the show with one of my “F” bombs — the man never buries a good lede.

Anyway, the whole process of writing MPlayerShell took me nearly three weeks. Yes, I’m the world’s slowest software engineer. But part of that process was 1) Figuring out MPlayer’s peculiar APIs and behaviors, and 2) Learning to write in Objective-C on OS X again. Seriously, I hadn’t done that in years.

Now I’m on a mission. I must do more coding. That monkey is not crawling off my back anytime soon.

And I know exactly what I’m going to write.