It's good to be back from a holiday break filled with the usual overindulgence — too much rich food, family drama and cookie sprinkles inhabiting every nook in my kitchen.
More than anything, my life recently has been consumed by concerns over our family's ailing dog, Petey, who for the past two years has swung from near-death to recovery and back again so many times I've lost count.
This time around, we were nearly resigned that he wouldn't make it through New Year's, but as I type this, he's lying beside me, sending occasional fragrant reminders of his presence my way.
According to the Chinese calendar, the next Year of the Dog is 2018. But in my house, it's always the year of the dog.
Like so many of our Newport Beach neighbors, we are dog people. We meticulously monitor our pooch's well-being, take him to the finest veterinarians and prioritize our schedules around his daily walks. Since he's taken sick, I've even adopted the habit of whipping up vet-approved home-cooked meals for him in hopes that the wholesome food will help settle his delicate system.
Yes, we Newporters love our dogs, and I'd challenge any other community in the world to top our devotion.
I recently bought a collection of essays, "The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs"; the forward is by the brilliant Malcolm Gladwell ("Blink," "Outliers"). But despite the wonderful compositions, the book often displays an overtly New York perspective on dog-rearing — pithy, cynical, dripping with satiric wit, yet also somewhat guilty. In Gladwell's introduction, he writes that in buying the book, readers have revealed that they are "as unhealthily involved in the emotional life of dogs as the rest of us are."
I'd like to posit that in Newport Beach, we harbor no such inner conflict about our canine companions. We are sincere, unapologetic dog-lovers who buy doggie strollers, car seats and designer shoulder bags without a shred of irony and absent any soul-searching regarding how we humans selfishly bred dogs to be our trusty sidekicks.
I have no data to back this up, but I'd be willing to bet that Newport Beach also has more gourmet dog-food joints per capita than anywhere else in the world. Our dogs get to live in homes with ocean views, not some dark, shoebox-sized apartment with a potted plant the only sign of greenery. What do we have to feel guilty about?
A good friend who relocated from Newport Beach to Manhattan a couple of years ago is acutely aware that the move wasn't the best for her two black Labs, who now spend most of their time at her in-laws' house in New Jersey. When even New Jersey seems like a more attractive option, you know there's a problem.
Our Petey, a Texan by birth, moved to Orange County with his first owner when he was about a year old. Unable to keep him, the young woman put him up for adoption through a rescue network, and that's where we found him, a lovable lug that's a mix of yellow Lab, golden retriever, and something mysterious, but possibly chow, because he has a big purple tongue. It was love at first lick.
I'll never forget his first day with us. He bounded out of the car and into the house, making himself quite at home. Over the next few months he ate through practically every soft object he could get his teeth into, from sofa cushions to my younger son's favorite stuffed animal, Piggy, which he tried to bury in our backyard.
Petey isn't a jeweled-collar kind of dog, but he's not a super macho type either, and he's certainly no canine Einstein; he never could figure out how to play fetch. But he's a sweet, sensitive soul who shies from more aggressive dogs, thrives on affection, and shakes like a San Andreas aftershock during visits to the vet. Lately he trembles so forcefully his teeth rattle.
Now nearly blind, plagued by what I'll delicately call digestive issues, and hobbled by neurological problems that cause his back end to droop, Petey is physically but a shadow of his younger self. We shove a pharmacy-load of pills down his unwilling throat each day, and have tried a countless number of diets to try to restore some of the 30 pounds he's shed from his peak weight.
But in spirit, he's his old tail-wagging self, always angling for a belly scratching and dancing in excited circles when it's walk time.
As I write this, I'm thinking it's about that time. We take our daily jaunt around the trails near my home, me marveling at the lovely Back Bay while he sniffs at bushes and starts at scurrying squirrels and rabbits. I used to complain about him pulling on the leash; now we both take a more leisurely pace.
For however much time Petey has left, I am grateful. Our dogs might be extensions of our egos, and if I were a New Yorker, I might caustically examine my conflicted relationship with the canine species.
But I reject that kind of reflection. Here in Newport Beach, we are unabashed in our love for our dogs. And in our hearts, we know doggone well that they return the sentiment.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.