Scary Eye Stuff

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I’m minding my own business, rowing in the double with Geoff on Sunday 11June 2017 when suddenly it looks like somebody has started dripping swirls of ink in front of my vision. Of course this happens on a Sunday, right?

So after some consideration of the lovely designs being painted on my retina I decided to seek professional advice and took myself to the ER and Casey Eye Institute. The people there were very nice, and over the course of the next few hours I got to see quite a few different people who wanted to take my blood pressure, medical history, heart rate, height, weight, and pretty much every other piece of information that I could cough up while gunshot victims were brought through to other treatment rooms. Fun place.

Finally a resident took a look in my eye and said “I think you’ve got a Posterior Vitreous Detatchment” and was thrilled that this was the first time she’d ever actually seen one through the scope. They then pulled out an ultrasound machine and used it to get another view of my eye. For a moment they thought I might have been pregnant when the image of a small child flashed across the screen, but then they realized they were actually watching a YouTube video and switched the display to show what the transducer was measuring. Sure enough they said, looks like a PVD.

Finally the on-call ophthamologist shows up and carefully examines my eyes. He decides that yes, the vitreous has pulled away from the retina but the retina is intact. He tells me that I should “get used to it” in a couple of months and will be able to just ignore the floaters that have appeared. Good news I thought, could be worse!

Unfortunately then it got worse. By Thursday I was starting to have serious issues trying to see through my right eye, seemed like I was looking through a hazy window. Friday morning it got to be too much and I headed back to to Casey Eye Institute. This time they said “unfortunately you now have a retinal tear and you need to go into surgery right now, when did you last eat?”. “Breakfast” says I, to which they respond “OK, you’re going into surgery 8 hours from when you ate breakfast.

Of course I had to choose to do this when Katharine was out of town over in Bend.

So it’s kind of a sucky thing to find out you have a retinal tear and are at serious risk of losing part or all of your vision. However:

  • Fortunately I had been wise enough to take public transit to the institute since I expected them to dilate my eyes and therefore leave me unable to drive.
  • Fortunately we have incredible neighbors who not only offered to handle the transportation end of things, but also started heating up their phone lines to get further advice from a relative who works in the field.
  • Fortunately I was smart enough to go to the eye institute when the vision degraded instead of waiting for it to improve (which it wouldn’t have, it would have gotten worse).
  • Fortunately we have a world class eye institute right here in Portland.
  • Fortunately I took the initiative to go straight there instead of anywhere else.

The surgery went well, however there is a 10 to 20% chance that I will need further surgery if this one doesn’t work. This first surgery involved removing a portion of the vitreous to gain access to the retina, re-attaching the retina, and then putting a gas bubble into my eye (still don’t quite have that one figured out). The gas is SF6 (Sulfer Hexaflouride) and it is apparently used to tamponade the repair. It also totally messes up the index of refraction in my eye, so vision is essentially non-existent in my right eye.

But I gained one amazing super-power! At least on the second day after the surgery I discovered that my right eye has essentially become a microscope. If hold something so close to my eye that it’s nearly touching, I can see amazing detail that is exactly like what I would see under a microscope. Unfortunately the depth of field is essentially zero…if i move the object even a mm it goes out of focus. Wierd!

Devilish Rowing Details, or Sculling For Engineers

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I managed to pick up a used single scull a while back. My son, who had never rowed a single before, essentially got in the thing and rowed it for about 8 kilometers and said “that thing is fun”. That’s it, he gets in the boat and goes. He doesn’t think about it, he just does it.

I, on the other hand, have proven that if I get into that boat on the river I have a statistically significant chance of flipping the boat somewhere during the row. This of course causes the analytic mind to instantly hop into hyper drive and try to figure out what the heck is going on, and it is at this point that the myriad subtleties of sculling start to pop their heads above the surface.

Take the other day for instance. In a prior row I had discovered that I wasn’t pushing down evenly on both feet, and I figured out that this was because I wasn’t getting my heels down properly. Get the heels down and whooosh…the drive phase starts to feel much better. So there I am, happily stomping my heels down on each stroke and what happens? I start to get caught up at the end of the stroke. For some reason I sometimes can’t extract my blade from the water and just to be clear that’s a BAD thing (unless you wanted to go swimming, then it’s just peachy).

So I spend the rest of the row trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing wrong at the finish while simultaneously amusing the other rowers out on the river. That part is actually true, the cox of another boat came by after one such extraction issue and said in a very loud voice “I SAW that” while laughing at me. And here I thought that by going out in a single I would be immune from cox taunts, no such luck.

I finally gave up trying to figure it out and decided to just survive the trip back to the dock. As I was headed that way I accidentally allowed my thumbs to slightly change position on the grip. We’re probably talking less than half an inch here. Suddenly the blades are popping right out of the water. Clean extraction…no problem. All the thinking in the world wasn’t going to get me there, but once I stopped trying so darned hard it just happened.

Not wanting to leave well enough alone I of course analyzed what was going on, and in fact it make sense (trust me, I’ve got it figured out), but that’s not the point. The point is that sometimes we analytic types need to find a way to let go of all of that and somehow find a way to channel that 17 year old who just got in the boat and rowed it for fun without trying to figure it out.

Dexter Lake Regatta 12-13 April 2014

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So the 12th of April rolls around, which just happens to be my son’s 17th birthday. How does a good father celebrate? Well of course the obvious answer is to desert the family and drive 2.5 hours away to camp at Dexter Lake and compete in the Covered Bridge Regatta.

I had simple goals for this regatta, and anybody who’s read my descriptions of prior regattas will hopefully understand. The goals were:

  1. Finish the race with no drama.
  2. See goal #1.

This time there were no excuses. There was no biblical weather (in fact it was darn near perfect). There were no clothing malfunctions. We’d managed to practice together as a complete crew (in the 4+) once before the race. We were actually set to perform well. The only limitations in this race were going to be self imposed.

Rowing races come in a couple basic varieties. There are long distance races called “head races” where, despite the name, you do not row head-to-head against your competitors. Rather, the starts are staggered and each boat is timed. The eventual winner is determined by overall time and (in the case of masters competitions) an age handicap. My prior two races had been head races.

Then there are sprints. Several lanes of boats lined up together racing in close proximity down the course. It’s a different beast. Short distance (1 to 2 kilometers) which means it’s over in something between 3 and 4 minutes (for a 1k course). Now how hard could that possibly be? 4 minutes? You can’t make a decent cup of coffee in 4 minutes. “Hey barista…you start grinding the beans now, we’ll see you at the other end of the course and try not to make us wait too long for our lattes OK?”

Really…4 minutes. You can’t even call it a walk in the park because you couldn’t get TO the park in that time. It’s less than half of a normal snooze-button cycle on an alarm clock. If I keep writing and don’t bore you to sleep, it’s hardly longer than it will take you to read this thing.

In other words, 4 minutes is for-freaking-ever. It’s the longest time you can possibly imagine.

You see, rowing is non causal. The laws of physics, space, time, and pretty much any other law you can think of simply don’t apply. This is doubly true when you’ve never done a sprint before and have absolutely no concept whatsoever of how to properly pace yourself through the race. Rowers have catchy little phrases for this like “fly and die” or “one and done” or some other such pithy offerings.

We epitomized all of the catch phrases. We came off the line in a flurry of uncontrolled enthusiasm and managed to prove that our cox was actually sugar coating it when she had predicted that our start would be “ugly”. Ugly doesn’t describe our start.  I suspect that we may have done something that will cause both Roget and Webster to go huddling back to their word laboratories in search of a new adjective.

Be that as it may, we did manage to actually make the boat start moving. Now here’s the thing: the way you’re supposed to start is that you take some short quick strokes called fractionals to get the boat going. Then you do some very high rate strokes to continue the acceleration. Finally you do this massive settle thing where you drop the rate down significantly to something you can sustain.

So there we were, 15 strokes into our high rate with our cox saying in a very demanding tone “SETTLE” and what do we do? We keep rowing of course…stupid cox, telling us to slow down when we’re just starting the race? Hey, sorry to break it to you cox but we’ve got boats right next to us and we need to beat those guys for some reason, and why should we listen to you?

It turns out, there’s a reason to listen to the cox. The cox has done this a few times before. And despite some of the things that come out of the cox’s mouth, she’s NOT going to personally ensure that we can never bear children, she’s actually trying to get us to perform at our peak. Like I said…stupid cox!

So the boat is flying down the course and the cox is saying something about other boats and making seats, or losing seats, or some other drivel about upholstery. Really? Interior decorating when we’re busy trying to row? What do they teach these people? Meanwhile the little buoys are going by and the glycogen is pouring out of every cell in our bodies at an alarming rate…and we’re not even half way there yet.

Here’s where that whole time thing comes into play. We’re 2 minutes into the race and I’m done. I mean really done. Nothing left, I’ve essentially dumped every bit of stored energy onto the oar handle and we’re a bit over half way down the course. And now the cox calls for a power 10: 10 strokes where we’re going to actually pick up the power. And we do it. Never mind that we don’t have the energy, we do it anyway…and time slows down.

The focus narrows. All that’s left in life is a growing incredible pain and this annoying voice that says “Get your f-ing eyes back in the boat RIGHT NOW” which makes me think “who’s stupid enough to look out of the boat during a race,..thank god I never do that!”

And after an eternity, the buoys turn red signaling 250 meters to go. That’s right, we’re only 75% through the race and now it’s just about time for our final sprint. And time slows down again. People marry and die, children grow and leave the nest, nations rise and fall, and all the time there’s this heartbeat in the background that is the “clunk” of the oars as we complete a stroke and feather the blades.

Meanwhile the cox is telling us to pick it up. And somehow we do…or at least we think we do but at this point merely completing each stroke is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Finally we cross the finish line. Not quite in last place. And the cox looks at us and says “Glen if you ever look out of my boat again I will personally <insert comment involving removal of some rather personal pieces of anatomy>!” What?? I was the one who had looked out of the boat?? I’m going to plead complete lack of brain function due to inadequate supply of oxygen and glucose, but one thing’s for sure…that will NEVER happen again (because I’m rather fond of those parts of my body and trust me, she’ll do it!)

Somehow we manage to turn the boat around, row it back to shore, and then just for fun pick it up and carry it across two state lines to where our trailer is parked. At that point my body says “hey brain…if you don’t mind we’re going to wander over here, cough up a gut, and dry heave for a bit…OK?”

A few Gatorades later everything starts to return to normal. I can phrase complete sentences in my head and come close to getting them out of my mouth (which for me is actually not all that unusual). And then the coach says “OK, it’s time to start getting ready for the next race”.

And it’s just too much fun to put into words. The effort, the pain, the cox’s threats. They’re all part of something that for some unknown reason just works and makes you want to go back, do it again, but do it better.

 

So What’s So Great About Rowing Anyway?

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My wife is very unfortunate. She now lives with not one, but two rowers in the family (our son and me). This means that she has to constantly listen to (and occasionally pretend to slightly care about) the two of us talking about today’s workout, erg times, the set of the boat, which seat we rowed that day, and any number of other topics that are of absolutely no interest to anybody who doesn’t engage in this particular activity.

So what’s the big deal…it’s just a boat and some oars, how hard can it be? And for that matter how much fun can it be to do an aquatic trudge up and down the same stretch of river repeatedly….in the rain…at 5:00 am?

Sorry, no answers here, but I do have something like an analogy: It’s like golf without any of that annoying golf stuff.

I tried golfing a couple of times. Stupid sport. Whack the ball, go find the ball in the trees, throw it back out onto the course, try to whack it again. Repeat until you either

(a) complete the course
(b) get fed up
(c) run out of beer.

Like I said, stupid sport. But every once in a while the stars align and you manage to whack the holy petunias out of that ball. That little sucker just flies straight and true right down the fairway and your brain immediately releases some strange cocktail of chemicals into your blood stream that makes you forget the last 27 hours that you’ve spent on Easter egg hunts out of bounds and instead you bask in the meth-like rush of that one good stroke.

Rowing really isn’t anything like that at all, but it’s not entirely unlike it (hey, I said this was only like an analogy, right?).

Rowing involves getting up while it’s still good and dark. While most people haven’t even hit their snooze button for the first time, the rowers have already carried the boat down to the water, tied in, and are starting the morning workout, rain or shine, except that there’s no shine because it’s dark…remember?

Rowing involves getting blisters on your hands, getting wet (it is a water sport after all), working muscles you didn’t know you had, and once again being the new guy in a sport where it seems like everybody else has been doing it all of their lives while you’re that kid who just moved into the neighborhood, hovering around trying to convince the big kids to let you play.

At first rowing seems like good exercise out on the water. That alone is enough to make it worthwhile. But soon you begin to realize just how complicated the whole mess is. Every little detail makes a big difference. Raw physical power has to be channeled through finesse; an incredibly strong stroke that is ill-timed and poorly executed will actually slow the boat down.

And speaking of the boat, there are generally a few other people that would really appreciate it if you would tailor your efforts to match with theirs. Unless you’re rowing a single (sculling), you can’t make a boat go fast without understanding how to work as a team.

I’ve played a few team sports from time to time. In every case there were a few athletes that stood out as simply better than the rest of us. If you were fortunate enough to have them on your team, well, you could pretty much simply attend and have a good chance of winning the game. Sure there was “team” effort, but there were also stars that were fully capable of making the difference between winning and losing.

Rowing isn’t like that. With rowing the team is the thing. You can do fairly well if everybody is competent, but you’ll never excel unless every single person in the boat works together at an almost atomic level. Each stroke needs to be perfectly synchronized in a dance that starts with every blade engaging at the exact same moment, continues with a smooth burst of synchronized raw power that accelerates the boat, and suddenly transforms into an almost delicate slide back up the track toward the next stroke.

Most of the time it’s darned good fun. But occasionally (and for new guys like me it’s pretty darned rare) it all comes together and suddenly….magic. The boat feels like it’s flying. The surge of power is exhilarating and even the sounds become intoxicating as the hiss of the air bubbles under the boat suddenly becomes audible and eight oars feather together creating a single “thunk”. You actually feel the entire group become a single unit and it hits you what rowers mean when they talk about “swing”.

And then the brain does the chemical release thing, the rush hits, and you forget the weather, the time of day, the muscle pain, and pretty much anything you ever knew about anything and get fully caught up in the moment. The addiction kicks in, and suddenly  you’re no longer just a guy in a boat, you’re a rower.

Race #2: Portland Fall Classic

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Race Report from the Portland Fall Classic, 27 October 2013

Race Summary (abbreviated version): 
We managed to beat the women’s 4+ with a thrilling pass about 20 meters from the finish. Never mind the fact that they were attempting to climb on to their overturned boat, and the fact that outboard of them there was another boat in 2 pieces.
It was supposed to be the Portland Fall Classic. It kind of turned into the Portland Fall Epic.

Race Summary (really really long version):
For me the day started early, parking cars at 6:00 AM. I finished my shift early enough to watch my son’s crew go flying down the 5k course, looking strong and smooth. That was good inspiration despite the fact that it was periodically raining and the temperature was swinging all over the place. I found some carpet scraps, threw them underneath the boat racks in the club, and managed to catch about an hour’s snooze under the boats.

By the time we launched our Masters 4+, it was actually threatening to clear up, but the tailwind that the morning crews enjoyed had switched to a headwind. On our way to the start line we got a hint of what was to come as we worked our way through a fleet of sailboats, and watched them starting to go faster and faster…not good. I was watching puffs come ripping down the channel and thinking “well this ought to be interesting”. Sometimes I hate being right.

With our cox-box not working, we started the race by using the Zen method of rate-setting: “Just row the strokes that feeeeel right…be the boat”. Unfortunately the headwind was not a true headwind, it was fairly constantly from the port side, which put us down to starboard for virtually the whole race. I’ve never had to work so hard on the recovery to get the blade back to the catch. Our stroke seat somehow did an incredible job of setting a consistent pace, but the two starboards (me in 3, and our bow seat) were still hitting our blades on the water,even with our handles gunneled on the recovery.

And that was just the start. Cue the dramatic music from “A Perfect Storm”.

About 2k into the 5k piece we left the shelter of Ross Island and really got hit in the teeth. Our bow man was taking water on his back, and sitting in 3 seat I was seeing water roll over my rigger and into the boat as we went through the waves. By this time the outer layers we had shed were floating to mysterious places in the boat. I think I saw several small salmon swim past my foot stretcher. But that was the easy part of the race.

We crossed under the Hawthorne bridge into the section of the river that is bounded by sea walls. The sea walls had the effect of further channeling the wind, and giving all of the waves some nice hard surfaces to bounce off so that the water could become even more confused. We spent most of the last 2k wondering if we were going to finish above or below the surface of the water. Meanwhile our cox kept grinning and occasionally exclaiming how great this was…and then he’d call for another ten. Ya gotta love a good cox!

About 400 meters before the finish the inevitable finally happened. We were once again down to starboard, I was recovering with my knuckles scraping the gunnel, when out of the corner of my eye (yes, I WAS looking toward the stern dammit!) I saw and felt green water going all the way over the oar shaft. I swear on a stack of Concept 2 manuals that I did NOT catch a crab, rather an entire school of crabs leapt up and latched onto my blade at the same time.

Fortunately we recovered really quickly (amazingly, because I figured we were about to swim), and didn’t even have to come to a stop. We kicked it into gear for the final meters, but suddenly our cox was yelling at us for no pressure on starboard and then called for half slide rowing and to check the speed down. Given that we could practically touch the finish line this was pretty confusing…until we passed just to starboard of our club’s women’s 4. Upside down. Outboard of them was a Willamette Rowing Club boat that appeared to be (and was) in two pieces.

After we finished sightseeing we decided to row the remaining 20 meters to the finish where we contemplated how we were going to turn the boat around, cross the river, and make it back upstream 2k to the dock with the extra 200+ pounds of water we were carrying. Once more our cox gets huge credit here. He got us safely across the river and pointed back home.

Anybody ever go surfing in a coxed 4? It’s loads of fun. We managed to make it back to the dock where we put on our big-boy pants and hefted the boat-full-o-water up and over our heads for our post-race shower (a bit colder than originally planned, but refreshing nonetheless).

Bottom line is that we finished dead last on corrected time, but we finished which was honestly quite a testament to all the boys in the boat. It was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done (seriously) in terms of how my body felt afterward…no energy left in the tank, and muscles all over my body threatening to cramp. My inside shoulder and arm were jello from having to shove the blade forward on the water during the recoveries (for those of you who have never tried rowing, that’s nuts).

And all I could think at that point was “damn that was great…let’s go do it again!”

Row For The Cure, or “Clothing Tips For Rowers”

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After a summer of flailing around in boats I was looking forward to my first regatta. For me it would be the Row For The Cure which was held on September 29th 2013. For somebody with a grand total of 3 months experience, the prospect of a 5K row (somewhere around 20 minutes for a boat full of relatively inexperienced rowers) seemed like it would present quite a physical challenge. This much was true, however I was not prepared for the looming wardrobe malfunction.

Let’s back up a bit. One of the rules (OK, seems to be more of a guideline than a rule) is that everybody in the boat is supposed to be wearing the same colors. For my part, that would be the blue shirt of my team (Station L). I didn’t happen to own such a shirt, however there was a bin at the boathouse with some unsold shirts, so I grabbed the only one that would fit (extra large, and yes this is important to the narrative), tossed my payment in the box, suited up and headed out.

The day was rainy, so I put on a cycling jacket over my new shirt, We loaded up and rowed upstream to the starting area. On arrival we were all decently slicked down by the rain, but in preparation for our no doubt impressive performance to come I dropped the cycling jacket and got ready to go.

Here’s an interesting thing to know: cycling jackets are nice and stretchy and tend to keep all of the lower layers neatly in place.
Here’s another interesting thing: wet t-shirts tend to stretch a bit, particularly if they’re already a size too large (remember the XL bit?)

We now rejoin the narrative, several minutes into the race. At this point my brand new team shirt was good and wet, good and stretched out, and hanging down over my posterior. This was bad news because rowing involves this really cool sliding seat. Back, forth, back, forth…unbeknownst to me with every cycle of the slide that clever t-shirt tail was creeping ever closer to the wheels underneath the seat. Finally the inevitable happened: the shirt actually started to catch under the seat. With every stroke it would snag, pull down, and stretch the shirt even further.

While attempting to keep rowing hard for the team, I pondered my options. It seems that the coaches had neglected to cover the proper response to a wardrobe malfunction. Should I politely raise my hand and say “umm, excuse me but I need to adjust my garments for a moment, does anybody mind?” Do I whip out a pirate knife and adroitly cut the shirt off of my back while continuing to row? Or lacking the capacity for original thought do I simply keep going and try to power through the situation hoping that the darned shirt will just rip to shreds on its own?

Since I had neglected to put my trusty pirate knife between my teeth prior to the race, I chose option 3, kept going, and prayed that the guy behind me wouldn’t fall over laughing as he watched me struggling through my clothing-induced hunch-backed stroke.

But wait, the shirt wasn’t done. We rowed through the town, under the bridges, around the turn point, and headed back toward the finish in full view of the 14 people who had turned out in the rain to watch the race. With only 200 meters left to row I was beginning to feel like I would survive the t-shirt from hell’s attempts to kill me, and apparently the shirt thought the same and became desperate. It was at this point that the t-shirt pulled out its last secret move. It grabbed the seat, and possibly the track, and somehow managed to separate the two which left me sitting in the boat with the seat between my knees and no way of sliding fore and aft with the rest of the crew.

Once again, I blame the coaching staff for not covering this contingency. At one end of the stroke the rower in front of me was in my lap, at the other end the rower behind me was trying desperately not to break my back with his oar handle (much appreciated by the way). All that I could do was row with my arms and body only, somehow try to stay out of the other guys’ way, and cover my face as we crossed the finish line to the confused looks of the officials who were wondering what was wrong with the guy in 5 seat.

In the aftermath, everybody claimed that they had never heard of such a thing happening before. The next day my son returned from his rowing practice and said “Dad, you’re a legend! Everybody is still laughing about how your seat came off!”

The t-shirt went into the garbage. I would have burned it but it was too wet to ignite.

So much for my first regatta. I tried to chalk it up as a learning experience, but to be honest I’m not certain the embarrassment will ever completely wear off. I hoped that the next regatta, the Portland Fall Classic would be an opportunity for redemption, but that’s a topic for another posting…

Rowing (you knew it was coming)

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June 24th, 2013 at 5:30 pm. That’s when I started my first “Level 1” class at Station L Rowing Club.

Why, at such an advanced age, would I start rowing? Well it’s a long story, and it will likely be the topic of several postings so don’t expect a quick answer. However the quick answer (you weren’t expecting that were you?) is really simple. Aaron was 16 at the time and had been rowing for over 3 years. I suddenly realized that there were two summers left to do anything with him, after which he would likely be rocketing out into the world and leaving me behind. Since he rowed, I decided to row.

July 4th, 2013. One week and 4 days after I started rowing. That’s when I purchased my first boat. It’s an absolutely beautiful double made by Jurgen Kaschper. Mere words can’t describe this thing, so let’s try this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Over the course of the summer Aaron proved to be far more tolerant than any 16 year old kid should be. He had to put up with a total novice dad making the boat do all sorts of strange and not particularly wonderful things (generally punctuated by expressions of terror from one or both occupants of the boat).

Finally, in our last row of the summer, I was exclaiming to him about what a great row it had been (and to be fair it had been a good row), to which he responded in a rather dry tone: “yeah, this time I don’t want to kill you out of frustration”.

OK, despite that I’m still calling it a good decision. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much this sport was going to take over my life….

Prattling Endlessly

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“If your friend jumped off of a cliff would you do it too?”

“100,000 lemmings can’t be all wrong”

Hey, everybody else is blogging these days. In fact, they’ve been doing it for so long that it’s probably not even blogging anymore, it’s probably something else. Never let it be said that I’m more than 10 years behind the times. I’m going to jump onto this blog bandwagon and send my pearls of wisdom onto the internets so that I can become famous, rich, and perhaps even get my own reality TV series.

 

You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll send sympathy cards to the rest of my family (dogs included). Stay tuned!

 

(and just to set the record straight, yes I’d probably jump off the cliff in the right circumstances…but you knew that already, right?)