Tag Archives: dogs

Getting carded

If you’re looking for a creative way to drive a wedge between yourself and a family member, may I suggest designing the annual Christmas card together.

This will be the tenth collaboration between dad and myself on our Christmas cards.  In 2000 we turned a tiny little church painting I had done on a whim into a popular card, and we continued the project each year after.  I’m not bragging when I say my cards are collectibles: Everyone in the family saves them and one of my uncles hangs them all up every year, including the new edition.

The year after the little church I scribbled a rough sketch on the back of a neon orange flier in the URI Union building and turned it into the 2001 painting.  In the sketch there was a little log cabin and a deer standing in the front yard.  The deer was ambitious and I am lazy; instead of figuring out how to refine a blob with four sticks and a triangle head into something resembling a graceful animal I changed it into a black Lab in honor of our good dog Skeeter.  We had been without a dog for some time by 2001 and it was nice to add a little life to an otherwise still and quiet image.

The little black dog became the trademark, appearing on the envelopes and inside the cards along with a stand of tiny snowy spruce trees, my other hallmark.  In 2002 I painted two black dogs, one for Skeeter and one for Shadow, and eventually Jack the border collie appeared.  I promised if he was good, he could join the other good dogs on the front of the card.  He wasn’t , but I added him anyway.  There was only one year without dogs, 2007, when I painted an extremely tiny cabin on an extremely tiny piece of board for an art show.  It was purchased within hours of being hanged – by my uncle.

So there are nine Christmas card paintings, as best as I can figure it.  The 2007 original isn’t in my collection, the 2008 is missing (I have a good idea as to where it’s buried), and 2009 was an embarrassment.  There was no 2009 painting.  We did send a card out, but it was a repeat from a previous year.  Last year I Actually Did It – I was feeling too low and miserable to draw, the ultimate failure in our creative venture.

There’s always some sort of “episode” when it comes to putting together the Christmas card.  I don’t think it’s ever gone off completely without a hitch save for that first year – I doubt we would have kept doing it, if we had screwed up the first time around.  The problems range from minor and irritating, such as DickBlick.com running out of the cards we use or the sheer amount of time it takes to print them – outside, inside, and hallmark on the back – to hugely aggravating, as when we feed the cards the wrong way through the printer and either double-print or produce an upside-down image, to nearly catastrophic, like the year dad listened to my propaganda and upgraded to a Mac.  After years of Adobe Photoshop on his PC we were suddenly bereft of editing software and had to go as far as digging out and hooking up the old computer.

The best-worst disaster was the year dad was having a more miserable time than usual getting the justification of the cards right.  After five or six wastes he figured it out and printed the whole damn stack, staying up until 3am just to get them all out of the way.  After he went to bed I sneaked downstairs to check them out, acting on one of those “funny feelings.”  I flipped over the first card in the pile and my heart dropped: Every last one had the message on the inside printed upside down on the top flap.  Standing in the kitchen in that cold, dark preternatural predawn hour I felt a growing chill of horror from the inside out.  This is it, I thought.  This is the last straw.  He is going to burn down the house.

I absconded with the entire pile and when dad went to work the next day I opened up Word (to this day I regret not learning Photoshop) and mashed together a lovely insert.  I printed about fifty and spent the afternoon folding them in half and gluing them into the cards.  At lunchtime dad asked where the cards were – he wanted to start filling his out – and I promised to return them after I had done my own.  If he noticed the new deluxe edition he never said, and I got to say I legitimately saved Christmas.

Part of the problem with that particular situation, and indeed every year, is the vicious cycle of responsibility and procrastination.  It always starts around Thanksgiving.  “What are we going to do about a card this year?”

“Oh, I have some ideas.  Have you ordered the blanks?”

“I will.”

It always starts with the intention of ordering blanks online, and with ideas and an image folder of inspirational and reference pictures on my desktop, and it always ends in a panic to finish the painting before it’s too late for dad to get the printing done.  I usually end up handing out my cards in person, while dad gambles with the post office.  Every year I say I’m going to do better.  Every year I vow to start drawing the day after Thanksgiving.  Every year I’m awake until 2 or 3am two weeks into December, drinking buckets of tea and going through two or three foil-covered paper plates of mixed paints.  I think I need that panic for focus – as a rule I’m critical of my own work, but there has only been one painting that I felt was truly half-assed.  The rest I rather like.

The image on top of this post is my brother’s favorite.  It’s an idealized and composite version of our actual living room – there are about four times as many books on the shelves and three more clocks, but again, I’m lazy and am usually doing this right before dawn on the last possible day (also the fireplace is actually in my mother’s house; ours here is brick).  The bottom picture is my favorite; I love the little cottage and this was the first year I figured out how to paint white pines.  There are elements that appear in almost every card – dogs, marbleized winter skies, snowy spruces, something red – one year it was a highly impressionistic Farmall tractor, before dad went full John Deere.  I expect this year’s card to have at least two of those features, unless I get crazy and try something completely new.

The 2010 process begins tomorrow, I swear – I have some ideas.


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“Where’s the dog?!”

Christmas is probably a weird time for the family animals.  The outdoors comes inside and they’re not allowed to do normal outdoor things to it:  Cats may not climb the tree or hide in the center to startle you.  Cats may not remove foreign objects from the tree.  Cats definitely must not eat tinsel from the tree.  Dogs may not mark the tree as their own or happily chew it to bits.  Consider the confusion of my brother’s 4-month-old puppy tonight at my mother’s house:  Because mom and Bill own an oversized yellow Lab with an enthusiastic tail they always hang unbreakable and mostly soft ornaments from the lower branches in case of tail-activated launch.  Dexter the pup has only recently learned soft toys exist and loves them.  What is the Christmas tree, then, but a wonderful, giant compilation of his favorite thing (sticks) hung with toys?

Christmas is also potentially lethal time for the pets of stressed and distracted owners.  See, for example, Cuddles, a yellow Lab who ate $7000 in Christmas ornament surgery. ‘Tis the season for selecting gifts, wrapping them in festive paper, stowing them in secret hiding places and dosing the family Labrador with ipecac after she burrows into the closet, unwraps and devours a 2-lb box of Russell Stover chocolates.  Oh what a merry Christmas that was!  Grade-school aged me got to learn all about poison and projectile vomiting in dogs AND had to buy dad a new Christmas present.  Thanks a lot, dog.  (Fun Fact the Internet Assures Me is True: According to petinsurance.com, chocolate poisoning is the number 5 reason for visiting an emergency vet on Christmas day.)

We had two black Labs growing up, each motivated nearly entirely by their mouths.  Shadow was the more crafty of the two.  After her taste of living on the edge (and of chocolate) she came to anticipate the annual appearance of the tree in the living room and the piles of potential edibles beneath it.  I remember hearing a strange sound coming from the living room and arrived in time to find a now-elderly Shadow lying on the floor under the tree, lips pulled back as she delicately tore paper in long strips from a popcorn tin.  A tin!  How on earth did she smell that one out?

This is why, for years, we couldn’t put presents under the tree until Christmas eve.  Shadow made an apprentice out of Skeeter, who carried on the tradition after the old girl died at the chocolate-resistant age of 15 and a half.  Not all dogs display such abandon with gifts – my best friends’ old yellow Lab Jake opens his own presents every year on Christmas day but leaves the rest alone.  My mother’s dog Bucky, even mouthier than Shadow or Skeeter ever were, tends to leave presents but gets excited about (apparently) delicious balls of wrapping paper.  It’s made a whole new game out of opening gifts – get the paper in the trash bag before you have to extract it from the dog.

Speaking of dogs and gifts I found myself wondering this week why we buy our pets presents.  They will never write thank you cards.  I suppose they’re bribes, little acknowledgments of good behavior (or not) during a rather trying time.  Consider a dog (or, I suppose, a non-lazy cat, but you cat people will have to just tolerate my bias on this particular piece) will probably spend most of Christmas day being decorated with a festive bandana or ribbon, shoo’d away from satisfyingly crunchy crumples of paper, pushed back inside every time the door opens to admit another unfamiliar and excitingly new-smelling visitor, being ejected from the bevy of wonderful food smells in the kitchen, told to go lie down during the feast itself, and being embarrassingly personified in treacly televsion specials (I’m looking at you, ‘Santa Buddies’ and ‘Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation’).  I suppose a new toy or some special treats are the least we can offer our faithful companions on this potentially lethal human holiday, even if they’re more likely to end up on Santa’s naughty list like my dog Jack (see photograph above).

At least he does seem to appreciate his gifts, not like those other dogs that only play with the paper.


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