Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lucas Is Naked! That's So Inappropriate!

Our piano tuner came this morning.  I guess the boys have been at school all the other times the piano has been tuned, because they were fascinated when the piano technician opened up the piano and started working on it.  Both boys crowded around the piano, peppering the man with questions as he worked.  Anders exclaimed, "Lucas is naked!  That's so inappropriate!"  To which Lars responded, "He only has his shirt off.  If he took his pants off, that would really be inappropriate!!"

Of course the piano technician is looking totally confused and a little uncomfortable at this point, probably wondering if Lucas is one of the kids or if Lucas is someone else who might come streaking through the living room at any moment...

Lucas is our piano (named after Lucas Films -- it's a Star Wars thing).
Sorry, Joe!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Puppies at Rest & Puppies at Play

Good Morning!  It's a busy day today, with a meeting at 10, cleaning service coming late morning, and design renderings for clients that need to be worked on this afternoon.  Lars and Anders are at a nearby day camp this week playing laser tag, bumper cars, bowling, and arcade games, so I'm looking forward to a productive week in a clean, quiet house.

Otto & Lulu Relaxing in Mommy's Office
I'm trying to remember to take frequent pictures of the puppies since they're growing so fast and soon it will be hard to remember what they even looked like at this age.  They'll be seven months old on August 5th; can you believe it?!  I took the above photo of the pups in my office a few minutes ago.  They look so expectant because I just asked them to lay down, and they are waiting for the dog cookies that they know I have in my desk drawer.  Everydoggy loves a treat fairy! 

Otto Snoozing in the Foyer

This one I took a few days ago, after the dogs got back from a walk.  When they're not playing, they're usually resting or sleeping, but they get up and follow me as I move throughout the house.  I love how Otto's face smooshes up onto the floor, but he'll have one eye open so he can watch everything that's going on around him.

These pictures are terrible; I need to get Bernie's big Nikon beast out to get some decent shots of the pups in motion.  Still, had to share how Bernie has been playing soccer with the puppies in our back yard.  They tear around and chase after the ball, hitting it with their nose or feet, and Bernie has trained Otto to jump up in the air to "spike" the ball.

Too bad the picture is so blurry!  Can you see how much fun Otto is having?  He loves playing soccer with Bernie.

Pretty Miss Lulu

Here's a great picture of our Pretty Girl, Miss Lulu.  Do you like her pink and green argyle collar?  That's what all the lady athletes wear on the golf course...  I know; I'm a piece of work.  Lulu is our little instigator.  She'll choose a chew toy, then walk over and plop down within a few inches of Otto and start taunting him, chewing her bone like it's the most amazing treat in the world until Otto starts barking and whining.  She loves to play keep-away with toys, chase, and one of her favorites, charge at your brother, leap into the air, and land on his face. 

Okay, enough puppy love!  Back to work!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Learning to Love the iPad: My Favorite Educational Apps for iPhone and iPad

I can't believe I hesitated so long before jumping on the Apple cart, so to speak.  You know, iPhone, iPad, iCan'tBelieveIt'sNotButter (sorry; that just slipped in!).  I was worried that the iPad was just another flashy gadget that I'd end up not using at all, but I've had one since the beginning of the year and I keep finding more uses for it every day.
Yes, Dear Accountant, if you happen to be reading this -- I am using my iPad and iPhone primarily for business.  Ahem.  I've got my design portfolio on my iPad, plus thousands of other photos that I constantly refer to in client meetings when I need a visual to explain an idea or a concept, and I put design renderings for clients on my iPad as well.  I use my iPhone and iPad to check fabric and trim stock and pricing on the fly, or to monitor backorder status, as well as emailing with clients, my workroom, vendors, etc.  Whereas my old laptop computer was so cumbersome that I rarely brought it with me on appointments, the portability and simplicity of my iPhone and iPad means that I can work from wherever I happen to be.

But today I want to tell you about some of the cool educational iPhone and iPad apps I've been playing with this summer.  Although all of the apps I'm sharing with you are available for both the iPhone and the iPad, I'll be showing you the iPad version throughout this post.

Anders Works on a Timed Multiplication Test with the Math Drills App for iPhone and iPad
Anders' second grade teacher suggested that he would benefit from memorizing his math facts over the summer.  Yes, we have flash cards for this, but the kids hate them.  Yes, I know all about web sites like Math Facts Cafe where I can print out all sorts of math skills worksheets -- kids are tired of those, too.  However, give a kid a timed math test on a snazzy iPad that tells them how they did in "miles per hour," and encourages them to beat their highest speed to get into the Hall of Fame like a (gasp!) video game, and the kids are hooked.  The Math Drills app pictured above lets kids test separately on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts, or you can choose mixed tests.  I especially like that I can customize which facts appear in the test, so that Anders has been able to test on only the multiplication facts he has learned so far.  Math Drills Lite is the free version of this app, but it's worth upgrading to the paid version for $1.99 to be able to save students' progress, save multiple student profiles, etc. 

Mean Mommy that I am, I've been requiring each of the boys to do one Math Drills test per day in order to earn PlayStation time.  The only thing they fight over is who gets to take the test on the iPad (big screen, big buttons) and who has to use the iPhone instead.  Their speed and accuracy has steadily increased, and they love seeing "New Personal Record" when they finish a test. 

Anders demonstrates the Sight Read Music app on the iPad

This next one is an app that I've been using myself to help my rusty sight reading now that I'm taking piano lessons (yay!).  I'm pretty good with the treble clef from singing, but until a couple of weeks ago I would have to count up the lines or spaces of the bass clef while silently thinking All Cars Eat Gas or Great Big Dinosaurs Fart Alot (Lars and Anders came up with that one).  The Sight Read Music app shows and plays the sound of the note, and the student touches the corresponding piano key on the iPad or iPhone screen.  The app keeps track of how many you have done correctly.  Sight Read Lite is the free version of this app, with additional features available in the full version for $1.99.  This has helped me SO much, and my kids can do this one, too.  You can set the app to test you on just bass or just treble, or a combination of the two, and you can turn off sharps and flats in the settings to make it easier for beginning music students.

Anders Demonstrates Note Tutor App on the iPad

Another complementary app to Sight Read Music is Note Tutor, pictured above.  Whereas with Sight Read Music the student identifies the correct piano key for each note, with Note Tutor the student must identify each note by letter name.  As with Sight Read Music, Note Tutor allows you to choose whether you want to work on Treble Clef and Bass Clef together or separately, and you can turn sharps and flats on or off to suit the student.  Again, there's a free version of this app that you can download just to try it out, but it's worth paying $2.99 for the full version that keeps track of students' progress. 

Anders Demos the French Audio FlashCards App for iPad

Since I was discouraged by how rusty my French had become when I was in Paris last January, I splurged on the $14.99 French Audio FlashCards app from Declan Software to brush up in preparation for my September Paris trip.  I am in love with this app!!  There are 4,400 French words grouped in manageable word files of 10 around topics such as Days of the Week, Food: Seafood, Slang, etc.  At the beginning of each word file you get to go through and review each word, with an audio recording of the word of phrase spoken by a native speaker.  There are three multiple choice tests for each word group, as well as a spelling test, and the user can easily add words to a "sticky" list if they feel they need more practice.  I love this app so much that I just downloaded the Declan Spanish Audio FlashCards app and the Declan Chinese Audio FlashCards app, since those are the languages Lars and Anders will be studying at school.  More hurdles for little boys to jump on the way to PlayStation! 

Baby FlashCards Mandarin Chinese app from Dream Cortex

I had downloaded the Dream Cortex Mandarin Chinese Baby FlashCards app a couple of months ago for Anders, but it's more of a memory game for preschoolers than a tool to supplement formal language classes.  There aren't many flash cards, and other than the counting cards, most of them are pretty random.  Seriously, do Chinese people even need to know how to say "accordian" in Chinese?!
There are a couple more educational iPhone/iPad apps that I've downloaded, such as the National Geographic Jigsaw Puzzle app, The Oregon Trail (remember that from grade school?  It's so much better in color!), the National Geographic GeoBee app, Sudoku2HDPro, National Geographic Kids Magazine, and a cool NASA app, but we don't use these as often -- they come in handy while waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant, however.

It wasn't too long ago I was investing in Leap Pads and Leapsters for the boys, and then having to pay between $15-20 for each cartridge and book set.  I can't get over how inexpensive these truly superior learning tools are, and the fact that I can carry all of this around with me in my purse, ready to whip out in the grocery store checkout line, in the waiting room at the doctor's office, or whenever we have a little down time.  With the ability to read electronic books on the iPad and iPhone with the Nook and Kindle apps, or watch full-length films on the iPad through the Netflix app, this iPad contraption is more valuable than I ever imagined it could be.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mommy is Taking Piano Lessons!

So, did I mention I started taking piano lessons?  Come on, surely you suspected that I wanted to play piano myself back when I was obsessing over piano research prior to the purchase of Lucas (our boys' pet name for our Kawai full size upright piano.  It's a Star Wars thing). 

I believe I took less than a year of piano lessons as a child, around the same time I was struggling to stop biting my fingernails.  As my nails started to grow, I became very interested in having LONG, elegant fingernails, painting them different colors, sometimes with little flowers painted on...  When my piano teacher complained that my nails were too long and said they needed to be cut shorter, I quit piano and decided to devote more time to my manicures instead.  Yeah, whatever -- I'll bet you didn't have your priorities neatly in order as a twelve-year-old, either!

Sure, I would have learned faster if I had continued piano lessons as a child.  If ever I had it in me to play Chopin or Rachmaninoff, that window of potential talent may have closed for good decades ago.  I'll bet I lost a ton of classical piano brain cells in childbirth (along with the formula for determining the circumference of a circle, the Periodic Table, and certain arithmetic facts).  Resuming piano lessons in the, um, twilight of my thirties, I'm probably never going to be very good at it anyway, right?  So, why am I bothering? 

First of all, as an adult who regrets not learning to play piano as a child, I am more motivated to practice regularly than my kids are because I know what I'm missing out on if I don't follow through, and I really want to learn.  No one has to stand over me and alternate bribes with threats in order to get me to play.  See this article dispelling "kids learn faster than adults" and other common Piano Lesson Myths.  Secondly, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tony Cicoria became obsessed with learning piano after being struck by lightning at age 42, with no previous musical experience or interest whatsoever, and he was able to become an accomplished pianist.  I'm no surgeon, but I'm not brain damaged by lightning strikes, either.  Surely there is hope for me as well!

I am a closet vocalist, singing for the thrill of making music in the shower, the garage, random empty stairwells in parking garages, and in certain little boys' bedrooms after story time.  When my voice is compromised by a sore throat and I can't get notes out the way I want to, I feel like the Little Mermaid who lost her voice.  The human voice is an instrument that deteriorates with age.  If you don't believe me, just listen to the original soundtrack recording of The Sound of Music and then listen to a more recent recording of Julie Andrews.  Learning piano gives me a backup instrument so I won't ever lose music, even if I lose my voice.  Also, when I'm singing, I'm limited by my vocal range, but with a piano I have the same 88 keys as everybody else and I can play any kind of music I want.  Or rather, I hopefully will be able to play any kind of music I want, as long as I keep up with my lessons and with practicing.

But here's one more reason why I'm taking piano lessons, and why I encourage other parents to pursue any dreams they may still have on the back burner, whether it's learning an instrument, or ballroom dancing, or sewing, or anything else: Our children are watching.  We guide them through childhood, encouraging them along the right path as much as possible, hoping they will find their way, but so many people come to a point in their lives where they have hit a dead end personally or professionally and they have to start over.  I want my sons to see that learning is a lifelong endeavor, not something that comes to an abrupt end after graduation.  I want them to know that it is never too late to start over, to choose a new direction, to nurture a new passion.  I'm not going to tell my kids that I'm too old to learn to play piano, because I don't want them to ever feel "too old" to learn something new.  Vive la musique!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rebecca and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I don't believe in horoscopes -- but if I did, I'll bet mine would have said "Do not get out of bed!  Not even to pee!  Hide under the covers and bide your time until this lousy day has passed!" 

I know what you're thinking, especially those of you who are parents.  "Every day is a gift from God, each day is a blessing."  "We can't control the things that happen to us, only the way we react -- nothing has to ruin your day unless you allow it to."  I could go on and on -- we moms have a million different ways of expressing this sentiment, and on most days I actually believe all of this Positive Attitude stuff.  Not today.

It all began shortly after 7:30 when I was almost home from my morning walk with the dogs.  Our hard work with training is paying off, and they are amazingly good loose leash walkers 90% of the time, constantly "checking in" with me, sitting at every curb and waiting until I give them permission to proceed, etc.  I am SO proud of how well they both behave when I walk them together on the tandem lead.  The only area we still need improvement on is that they go a little nuts when they see certain other dogs.  You know, they get all excited, pulling and straining and hopping up and down, like some grown women I know might do if they saw someone like, oh, Bono from U2 strolling down the opposite sidewalk, naked...  ;-)  It's not every dog, not all the time, and not always the dogs you would expect.  For instance, there is this one little Yorkie dog who looks deceptively innocent and sweet to us humans, even while projecting silent doggy insults and blasphemy toward other dogs.  The Yorkie pulls and strains on his leash, too -- very Scrappy Doo, "Lemmee at'em!"  However, the Yorkie probably weighs a couple of ounces, so his owner just smiles and waves and makes no attempt to get her dog to behave.  Whereas Otto and Lulu each probably weigh a good sixty pounds by now, and I have to dig in my heels and lean backward if the two of them start lunging and pulling and going nuts.  I've been working on getting my dogs to sit and obey some commands for treats while other dogs walk by, to keep their focus on me and condition them to ignore the other dogs we see.  They had been getting better and better at this, until today.  I'm telling you, something is UP with this particular Yorkie!  We passed him twice on our walk this morning, and the first time my distractions worked and Otto and Lulu behaved liked the amazing, obedient superpups I know and love.  I admit it; I was feeling smug.  Pride cometh before the fall...  So, when we were headed back down our street and I saw the same Yorkie and his human strolling down to our cul-de-sac ahead of us, sauntering toward my own house, I weighed my options.  There wasn't another way I could go to get home, and the Yorkie was going to pass us on the way back no matter what because the cul-de-sac is a dead-end.  I had get home to wake up the boys and get them ready for camp, and it was getting late.  I gave the Yorkie what I thought was enough of a head start, and led my dogs back towards my house.  Well, when we passed the Yorkie, who was headed back out of the cul-de-sac on the opposite side of the street from us by now, my pups went cuckoo crazy, I lost my balance and pitched forward and got pulled A COUPLE OF INCHES into the road.  That's a really important detail -- my dogs stopped pulling as soon as they realized I had fallen; they did NOT drag me across the street, and if they were wild and uncontrollable and just took off, I would have been hurt much worse.  As it was, I skinned both knees and scraped my right arm pretty badly because I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and I crash-landed at the curb.  Mostly I just hurt my pride and felt foolish.  The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day had begun.
After bandaging my knees and elbow and taking the boys to camp, I returned home to meet the Stanley Steemer crew that I'd scheduled to clean the master bedroom carpet as well as the upstairs hall and both staircases.  The carpets weren't really dirty, per se; I knew there had been some coffee dribbles on the stairs and in the hall and there was one puppy accident in the master bedroom.  I let the carpet cleaner guy talk me into also having him clean a large wool area rug in my kitchen as well as the wall-to-wall wool carpeting in my formal living room.  Oh, and he suggested adding deodorizing as well, "since I have pets."  [NOTE: If I was technically savvy, I'd rig this blog post so that Chopin's Funeral March started to play when you got to this part of my day.]

They started with the wool living room carpet.  I went upstairs to make beds and straighten up.  When I came downstairs, I immediately smelled a nasty odor that reminded me of the rank, stinking Diaper Genie we used to have in the nursery when the boys were babies.  I mentioned this to the carpet cleaner dude, and he reassured me that this was the normal smell of wet wool, nothing to worry about, it will go away when it dries.  And I know that wet wool has a certain funky smell, but my olfactory memory was fuzzy and although my brain was taking me straight back to the Diaper Genie era, I was not positive at this point that it wasn't just wet wool that I was smelling.  I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, and went into my office and attempted to work.  The stench intensified, and blossomed like an evil perfume with notes of mildew, sour milk, and Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder.  I stepped outside to the mailbox, and when I came back in the house I was overpowered by the sensation that I had entered a wet basement full of moldy upholstery, forgotten sweaty athletic socks, and a broken sump pump.  And still that sicky-sweet, brain-squishing, cloyingly overpowering stench of baby powder sticking to my lungs with every breath.  Well, by this time they're done cleaning, and I object again -- with urgency! -- about the smell.  That's when Carpet Cleaner Guy goes into his quasi-scientific spiel about how the cleaning process "activates bacteria when it's wet" and this creates the unpleasant odor that will go away when the carpet dries.  He tells me that the deodorizer he used contains a baby powder fragrance to "help with the smell from the bacteria" -- AFTER he's pumped this deodorizer all over the house, he tells me about the fragrance!  And, on top of that, he proudly tells me that HE MIXED THE DEODORIZER/PERFUME IN AN EXTRA STRENGTH CONCENTRATION for my home since he knows some people don't like the smell of wool carpets when they are cleaned.  As Charlie Brown would say, "AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGHH!!!!"  My eyes bulged out of my head, steam came out of my nostrils and ears, and my reddened face began to spin wildly like that girl in The Exorcist.  I am very sensitive to fragrances, and there is NO WAY I would have agreed to the deodorizer if I knew it was basically a baby powder fragrance that just masks other odors temporarily.  I was livid, but what was done was done, I had kids to pick up from camp, and the dude who thinks he can scare me with big words like "bacteria" claimed the stink would dissipate in a couple of hours, anyway.

I picked up my kids, and took them to my parents' house to go swimming with their cousins while I finished up some work in my office.  Alas, when I walked into my house, the stench hit me like a ton of football players slamming into the other guy who has the ball (I'm branching out into sports metaphors; do you like it?).  Dissipate, my ass!  I stormed around, which didn't help.  I lit some Bamboo Teakwood scented candles, which also didn't help, so I blew them out.  I went upstairs and was horrified to see that the wall-to-wall carpeting in the hallway and master bedroom was all stretched out and wrinkled like a belly that just had a baby, with several bulges and wrinkles big enough to trip over.  If I was any angrier, my head would have exploded.  I staggered downstairs to in search of emergency chocolate and to pet my dogs, and then once my blood pressure came down somewhat, I called the manager of the Stanley Steemer franchise.  I told him how my carpet, which is only a few years old and looked -- and smelled! -- pristine and lovely yesterday, is now stretched out, stinky, and foul; that my once-lovely home now smells as though it was a recently flooded daycare centere awash with sewage, and how profoundly unhappy I am about all of these developments.  This gentleman informed me that they use the baby powder fragrance because it doesn't bother anyone (??!!!), that the smell should go away in a few days, and since there was nothing else he could do about it now, he didn't feel like talking to me anymore.  Have I entered some parallel universe today?! 

So now I'm going to have to hire someone else to clean these carpets again, to get rid of the Eau de Baby Powder et Mildew Poo fragrance that apparently offends no one besides me, and then I'm going to have to pay someone else to restretch the carpeting and get rid of the crazy wavy mountain range wrinkles all over my bedroom floor.  There is slight consolation in the fact that I paid Stanley Steemer with my American Express card, however.  I have already initiated a charge dispute on the grounds that the carpets are dirtier than they were prior to the cleaning, they stink to all hell, and they are stretched out and damaged, requiring repairs.  I love the nice people at American Express!  Still, what a headache!  Who has time for this?!

You might be thinking, "Wow, what a lousy day Rebecca has had!  Surely this is enough misfortune, heartache, and house wreckage for one day!"  But you would be wrong. 

The setting: Bed time, Anders' bedroom.  Two little boys, one good book (Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians) and one tired, worn-out Mommy who just wants to enjoy story time with her kids and put an end to this ill-fated day.  Enter two puppy dogs who spent more time than usual in their crates this afternoon, who want nothing more than to play World Wide Wrestling and Bark Like Crazy If You Want My Chew Toy.  It took me a good 10-15 minutes to get them quieted down and settled in with appropriate bones to gnaw on quietly so the boys could hear me reading, and then we got engrossed in our story.  It's suspenseful, zany, and unexpected -- just what I needed to take my mind off the day behind me and enjoy special time with Anders and Lars.  My narrative was accompanied by the reassuring hum of the air conditioning and the soothing, rhythmic scraping sound of puppy dog teeth against dog bones.  Except that it turned out not to have been dog bones, but the wooden leg of Anders' Pottery Barn desk chair that they were chewing.  It was pretty badly damaged by the time I discovered this treachery, and the dogs looked up at me like, "Hi, Mommy, aren't we good dogs to chew the chair so quietly without fighting so you could read?" 

In the famous words of Marie Antoinette, shortly before the revolutionaries chopped off her head: "Mes pauvres enfants, mes yeux n'ont plus delarmes pour pleurer pour vous.  Adieu!"  That is, "My poor children, my eyes have no more tears to cry for you.  Adios!"  I might add, my throat has no more screams to scream for my poor chair, for my carpet, for my knees and elbows that make me look like a child just learning to ride a bicycle (except for being old and everything).  It is time to climb into the safe haven of my bed, hide under the covers, and think happy thoughts until sleep comes to wash the day away and bring me a shiny new tomorrow so I can start all over again.

But first, optimist that I am, I have to take a peek at the slender upside to this Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day:
  1. My loved ones are safe and healthy.  Nothing bad happened today to those who carry pieces of my heart around with them wherever they go.
  2. Other than my scrapes and bruises, I didn't get hurt today.  Considering how hyped up they were about that Yorkie, my furbabies showed amazing self control and obedience by immediately stopping pulling when I fell.  I suffered no car wrecks or heart attacks; I didn't get eaten by hyenas or infected with Anthrax or anything horrible like that.
  3. Carpets can be cleaned and stretched; it's an inconvenience, but not the end of the world.  I'm lucky to live in a nice home that has carpets and blankets to hide beneath at the end of a difficult day.
  4. My puppies, my little boys, my husband, and my parents were all wonderful to me today.  I even had dinner with my two Chicago nephews who are visiting for a week, which was another bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day.
  5. Pottery Barn, Schmottery Barn.  That chair spins on a swivel base; I can just turn the damaged leg to the inside of the desk and no one will see it.  Who are we kidding -- with so many toys, Pokemon cards, and chaos in that boy's bedroom, no one is EVER going to notice the chewed up desk chair leg unless I point it out.  And if they had to chew a chair leg, that one belonged to what is probably the least expensive chair in my entire house.
  6. There are only four minutes left of today, and then tomorrow is coming, all fresh and new and empty like a blank blog post that can be anything I want it to be.  It's going to be a great day!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Happy Half Birthday, Otto & Lulu!

Otto & Lulu at Six Months
Our Rottweiler puppies, Otto and Lulu, turned six months old on the 5th, so it seemed like a good time to do another Puppy Update post. 
We finished up our Puppy School one-on-one training sessions with Janine Gauthier of Paws and Order Dog Training a few weeks ago, and Bernie and I both passed our training test on the last day, including the challenge where we had to set a plate of people food in front of the dogs and instruct them to "leave it!"  Otto and Lulu come when called (actually, they come CHARGING AT FULL SPEED when called, since they know there are going to be treats when they get to us), they sit, wait for permission to go in and out the door.  They lay down, they "watch," and will touch our hand on command to get a treat.  Otto has also really taken to soccer, and he and Bernie have a ball (literally) chasing after the soccer ball in the yard almost every day.  The dogs are walking very well on their leash, although Bernie still has not found the elusive Perfect Leash and Perfect Treat/Water/Poop Bag fanny pack contraption.  His search continues.
Miss Lulu in a Rare Moment of Inactivity
Lulu had her spay operation last week, and has been absolutely miserable about having her activities restricted while everything is healing.  The vet said no running, jumping, or climbing stairs for at least seven days post op, but nothing gives Lulu more pleasure than somersaulting into the air.  After a few days of all-around misery, we had to get her some sedatives to prevent her from springing into the air as soon as we open the door to her crate and doing barrel rolls on her leash when we take her out to go potty.
Otto the Snuggle Pup

Otto has not been neutered yet.  He has a pretty mellow personality so far, and I've read a lot about significantly increased bone cancer risk for male Rotties neutered before 2 years.  With Lulu spayed, we have eliminated the possibility of an unintended litter of two-headed inbred pups, so it's not as urgent for Otto to be neutered right away.  I'm not going to permit him to go off roaming on his own in search of lady friends, and of course if his temperament takes a turn for the worse at puberty or if he starts marking all over my house, those would be strong reasons to neuter him sooner rather than later.  We'll see how it goes.  The longer I wait, the more opportunity he has for his bones and muscles to grow and develop under the influence of all those male hormones as nature intended.  
Otto Enjoying a Tasty Kongsicle in My Office

Meanwhile, I'm teaching Otto to help me sing in the shower.  To clarify: I'm in the shower, and the dogs are laying on the bathroom floor with tasty bones to chew on, where I can keep an eye on them.  Otto likes to howl along with the chorus of the Whitney Houston song, "I Will Always Love You."  Apparently when I sing this, I sound like a howling wolf and this awakens Otto's pack instincts.  This may not say much about my pop singing abilities, but it sure is fun.  So far, Otto only joins in with that particular song, and only in the bathroom.  Must be the accoustics or something.  Lulu-belle hasn't joined in with us yet, but I will try to encourage her to sing along as well.

We have a week at the beach planned for next month, and the house we're renting does not allow pets.  I'm currently in the process of vetting potential boarding kennels and/or pet sitters.  The problem with hiring a pet sitter, for us, is that our dogs do not run free in the house when we aren't home, and they are definitely not ready for that much independence.  Even if I hired a pet sitter to take them on two hour-long walks every day, they would still have to be crated up for the other 22 hours, and that's way too long.  If I had a large, tiled utility room or something where the dogs could be confined together without the potential for destructive mischief, I'd consider a pet sitter (and I actually sketched out a fabulous imaginary laundry/dog room addition to the house that would be perfect for this scenario, but my husband looked at me like I was crazy when I suggested building an addition for the dogs).  Most likely, then, we're going to have to board the dogs while we're away.  If you're local to Charlotte and you can recommend a dog boarding facility, please let me know in the comments section.