Sunday, December 25, 2011

"One shadow more!" exclaimed the Ghost

In her column for this morning, Maureen Dowd, the brilliant and often bitingly funny op-ed contributor to the New York Times, wrote about Charles Dickens’ thoughts on Christmas.  She concludes,

In his 1851 short story “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older,” Dickens makes the case that the holiday is the time to “bear witness” to our parallel lives, our “old aspirations,” “old projects” and “old loves.”

“Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly,” he wrote.

Maybe, he suggests, you end up better off without that “priceless pearl” who does not return your love. Maybe you don’t have to suppress the memory of deceased loved ones.

“Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you!” he wrote. “You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”

As I read this, I was reminded of the number of times I heard people say, over the last month or two, “The holidays can be terribly stressful.”  Both our regular dog training instructor and our substitute cautioned the class to be careful when we trained over the holidays because the elevated stress levels can make us impatient with our dogs.  At the supermarket, I watched as the checker greeted one shopper after another with the phrase, “You all set for the holidays?  Finished with your Christmas shopping?”  Each customer would groan with a shake of the head and reel off a litany of all the chores yet to be accomplished.  Others in line chuckled with recognition and sympathy.  At a department store with my husband the other evening, the young woman in line ahead of us thrust a truly hideous nightgown at the cashier, then turned to her companion saying, “Okay, that’ll do for her.  Now I just have mom to get done.”

What is wrong with this picture?

Why does Christmas make so many of us deeply anxious?  Believe me, I get that it can be crazy-making, having hordes of family around, all of whom know each other way too well, some of whom are trying to get revenge for that unanswered dig from Christmas 1972.  And in a tough economy, with unemployment high and salaries not buying what they used to, making sure that everyone on one’s list feels they’ve had enough spent on them can mean dedicating the next four months to paying off credit card debt.  Obviously, this is gonna create some stress.

But isn’t all of this a choice?  When we’re little children, or the parents of little children, the magic creates itself.  Sure, I suppose some of the sparkle in a toddler’s eyes comes from the idea that a magical being is going to bring her presents.  But I’ve seen every bit as much sparkle, and remember feeling it myself—that ineffable frisson of excitement, in the presence of a glittering tree, or at the sound of bells jingling in the distance, or the opening notes of the Frank Sinatra Christmas Album, always the first record played in my childhood home and still the first on the iPod holiday playlists of my sisters and me.  As we grow older, the magic isn’t quite so automatic.  It’s here where we go astray.  We replace excitement with anxiety in some attempt to preserve the feeling of specialness. 

Yet, it is a choice to feel defensive when Mom mentions that she never used store-bought crusts for her pumpkin pies, or hurt when Brother comments that he knew that joker you brought home last year wouldn’t last, or annoyed when Grandma reminds the entire table (including the new beau) about the time you piddled on Santa’s lap.  And is it really our job to keep Uncle Dave and Uncle Marvin from their annual argument over politics?  If it comes to blows, call the police.  In the meantime, the aerobic exercise is probably good for them.

It’s equally a choice whether gift giving becomes a form of fiscal competition and excess or whether it is an expression of love and appreciation.  We each have to decide where the line is for ourselves.  I know mine is drawn way before pepper spraying my fellow shoppers so I can get my hands on an Xbox.  These days, we sisters and our husbands make donations to various charities in each others’ honor.  There were many years, though, when I was a struggling actress, that I wouldn’t have had new clothes were it not for my sisters’ Christmas gifts.  The depth of my gratitude to them makes my heart ache to this day.  But things have changed as we’ve aged.

And that’s where Dickens is on to something (let me be the first to suggest!).  I suspect that the real reason so many of us become anxious as Christmas approaches isn’t because of family or finances, but because of expectations.  We remember what it used to feel like when that magic was palpable, and we’re always trying to get back there, all the while knowing that we can’t.  The first rule of acting is “You cannot recreate.”  There’s always that rehearsal when you feel as though every word that comes out of your mouth, every nuance, every movement is just perfect.  You try to do the same thing the next time around and it’s a total flop.  You’re so busy trying to remember what you did the time before when it felt so right that you are completely out of the moment, out of the here and now.  Maybe sometimes we try so hard to feel the spirit of Christmas, whatever that means to each of us, that we close ourselves off to anything but stress and anxiety.

So today, I have reminded myself to welcome Christmas past, never-was and might-be into the present shelter of my holly.  I have opened my memories to the Christmases my dad set up the Lionel train set and to the Christmas two weeks after he died when my mother gave me the college-girl luggage she and Dad had picked out for me together.  I have warmed to the memories of dinners in my childhood when dozens of adults and scores of children swarmed through my aunt’s house every bit  as much as to the quiet ones when John and I cooked far too much food for two.  I am finding that when I’m brave enough to shut out Nothing, I remember that, even after half a century, I still cry when Linus says, “on Earth, Peace, goodwill toward men” or when Clarence reminds George, “No man is a failure who has friends.”   I crave the season of immortal mercy.  I rejoice in the season of immortal hope.  

Christmas torpor

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Harmony of History

As a reward for all the hard work of the last semester, my vacation reading is Stephen King’s new book, 11/22/63.  I made the mistake of starting to read it before exams began, which is the reason I didn’t finish grading my exams until five days after I gave them and my comments weren’t written until the day after that.  The job expands to fill the time in which you have to do it, and a good book makes deadlines seem irrelevant.  In the last decade or so, I’ve developed the habit, and I’m not saying whether it’s good or bad, of reading several books at the same time.  The invention of the ebook has made this practice even easier.  At the current moment, I’m reading the Stephen King novel, Edmund Morris’ amazing biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, a dog training book, a dog psychology book, an exploration of adolescent brain development, and two texts on interventions for troubled adolescents and their parents.  My greatest envy is of people who are fast readers and who also seem to have instant recall of every word they’ve ever read.  That’s the gift I want for Christmas.  Of course, maybe if I focused more, I’d retain more. 


This was not actually where I was going.  What I started out to say is that there are no animals in the world Stephen King paints.  Perhaps you’re thinking, given Cujo and Pet Cemetery, that’s a good thing.  It’s not like I expect the time traveler to take a parakeet with him or anything.  By the way, I promise that wasn’t a spoiler—if you didn’t know the novel is about time travel from all of the advance press, you learn it in the first couple pages of the book.  I won’t say anything else about the plot except that, for anyone of my generation, the date November 22, 1963, has a monster truck-load of significance.

So while I wouldn’t expect the time-traveling protagonist to schlep some unsuspecting critter through the worm hole, it seems as though somebody in the past would have a pet.  We meet teachers, families with little kids, pawn brokers, bookies.  Where are the puppies, the kittens, the budgies, or even the hamsters, for crying out loud?  One of my friends in kindergarten had a hamster.  I thought it was smelly and stupid, but she loved that thing.  Really, who am I to judge?  We had a rat that I draped over my head.  It wasn’t our only pet.  My dad loved dogs.  Even in the middle of Belgium during the Second World War, he managed to adopt a puppy, finding it food and keeping it warm during that freezing winter.  Just before the Battle of the Bulge, he realized he couldn’t keep it and gave it to a family with kids.  It broke his young heart, even though he knew it was the right thing to do. 

Shortly before I was born, my parents and sisters moved out of medical student apartments and into their own house.  For the first time, they could have a pet.  By the time I arrived, Gretchen, our miniature Schnauzer, was already well ensconced.  Except for my acting conservatory days, I haven’t been without a pet since.  Some, obviously, were more special than others. 
Fancy, the regal and loyal.
Photo by Jan Lower

In the fall of 1963, I acquired my first cat.  She was half Siamese, half who-left-the-bathroom-window-open? and I adored her.  I named her Fancy.  Lame, I know, but give me a break!  I was five years old.  We’d gotten her at our school carnival, the theme of which was Plain and Fancy.  I wasn’t going to name her Plain, for heaven’s sake.  Barely a month later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and I saw my dad cry for the first time of only two times.  Fancy wanted to be everywhere I was.  She would follow me as I walked to school until she reached the end of the safety of neighbors’ lawns, then she would dart home.  I can picture her sinking up to her elbows in snow as her pointy cat paws broke through the chilly crust.  One January, I returned to college after vacationing at home to discover that the normally fastidious Fancy had expressed her displeasure at the sight of my suitcase by climbing into it and relieving herself.  I could wash all my clothes, but that suitcase was never the same again.

It wasn’t until 1989, and several bepawed and befinned critters later, that I experienced a similar connection.  This was Dakota, a petit flame-point Siamese.  His name delighted my mother no end; it was the same name one of my cousins had chosen for her daughter.  Mom thought that was hysterical.  I found Dakota way out on the windy part of Carmel Valley Road on a cold January evening and drove home with him tucked into my coat.  He spent the whole drive with his eyes fixed on my face, mewing up at me conversationally.   That cat understood way more than he had any right to.  When Dakota was two years old or so, my late husband very suddenly lost the sight in one eye.  We were sitting at the kitchen table when Dakota jumped carefully into his lap, an unusual thing for him to do as he was far more likely to sit with me.  He looked steadily at Taft’s face, then gently, delicately reached out and touched the eyelid of the blind eye.  More than once, Dakota and I woke up with a start, having shared the same dream.  Or so I believe.

I think it’s impossible, maybe even dangerous to try, to manufacture such a connection between animals and their humans.  That connection is there or it’s not, and it is plainly a blessing.  When I started looking for a puppy, knowing I wanted a Bedlington Terrier, yet knowing it would be unlikely that I would be able to meet her before committing to her, I had some serious doubts about how it would all work out.  Every time Cleo curls up against me or leaps up laughingly to share a moment of excitement or checks in with me as she plays with a student, I think how lucky I am.  Somehow, from Texarkana, Texas to Monterey, California, the universe aligned.  I count my blessings every day.

This post is dedicated to all the beloved four-legged companions, both living and no longer with us, who share their lives with us, teach us so many lessons, and simply better our existences with the sheer beauty of their presence.  Our histories are harmonized by animals.

My sister Kathy with her
sweet, but stunningly thick
Irish Setter, Dulcinea
c. 1971

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Move Over, Scarlett O'Hara

My girl was the belle of the ball at our first Intermediate II class.  Three or four of the dogs and parents were ones who had moved from Intermediate I with us, so they knew Cleo.  The others of the eighteen in class were new to us.

“Oh, my gawd!” said a well-heeled woman with two elaborately coiffed poodles in tow.  “I haven’t seen a Bedlington in ten ye-ahs!”  I almost replied that I hadn’t heard a Brooklyn accent that thick in decades, but my native politeness won out and I just smiled.  “Dawling, look!” she continued, turning to her grumpy-looking husband and waggling a pointy, red lacquered nail in our direction.  “It’s a Bedlington!”   Her husband glowered down at Cleo and grunted.   Unsquelched, the woman continued, “How old is she?  Oh, she’s just dawling!  Fourteen months?  She’s just a baby!”  She leaned closer to me, engulfing me in a cloud of expensive but still overwhelming perfume, and lowered her voice conspiratorially.  “Mine are almost ten.  I nevah have time to work with them, so we’re here for a refresher.  I used to show them, but who would know now?  They’ah brutes.”  One of the brutes was gazing around, showing considerably more interest in everything than its father had, while the other was delicately performing a muzzle sniff with Cleo.

The excitement of meeting new dogs always makes the first week of classes something of a challenge.  By the second or third week, the dogs in class have scoped each other out and from then on most of them are a good deal more focused.  Now and then, Cleo will become fascinated by one dog—in the beginner’s class it was a Collie—and she’ll gaze at it, transfixed.  This time, it’s a large, longhaired brown dog, possibly a Bouvier de Flandres, which clearly doesn’t even know she’s alive.  At one point as we walked around the ring this dog was directly behind us.  Cleo was so thrilled, she tried to trot backwards in the heel position for about ten feet.  A good snap of her collar got her going in the right direction, but she kept craning her neck to catch a glimpse like a teenaged girl at a Justin Bieber concert.  In some of our stationary moments, I tried to see what the fascination might be, but I was stumped.

As we stood in a row with our dogs in the sit-stay, the woman two down (Golden Retriever) leaned over to me.  “What kind of car do you drive?”

I struggled to process the non sequitur.  “Pardon?”

“What kind of car do you drive?”

“Um, a green Prius.”

She shook her head.  “No, that’s not it.”

“Sorry?” I asked, more than a little perplexed.  I’m willing to entertain that I might not be as informed as some people, but I’m pretty sure I know what kind of car I drive.

“I saw a Bedlington in a car the other day.  They’re not all that common, so I thought maybe it was Cleo.  She is just darling!”

Wow, she’d learned her name already.  Unless the name is unusual, I rarely learn our classmate’s names.  I know Bling the Vizsla.  I know Chance the English Sheepdog because our trainer pronounces it “Chahnce.”  I know Joyce the Irish Setter because that is just confusing (though a great name for any Irish dog).

Anyway, I thought maybe she’d spotted the puppy on a day when John was ferrying Cleo around, but this dog was in the back of a car amid a bunch of packages, so that was definitely not him (“Oooo,” said the Poodle woman, “maybe he was Christmas shopping!”).  The idea of a local Bedlington is exciting.  We might run into him sometime.

A few minutes later, our trainer, who has a tendency to wander around the building and chat with people while we’re in prolonged stays, was over at the coffee urn.  It’s always odd when she chats because her lapel microphone broadcasts her side of the conversation all over the room while the other person’s words are lost to the space.  It’s kind of like listening in on a telephone conversation.  Anyway, we’re innocently standing around (Well, Cleo’s lying down) when I hear Pluis say, “It’s a Bedlington that’s been trimmed in a lamb cut.”  I glance over my shoulder to see her talking with a tiny elderly man.  She nods and says, “I know.”  She knows what?!  What did he say??

I’ve decided that he simply observed the obvious: Cleo is the most beautiful, smartest, most exceptional dog on the planet.  There is no response to such an observation other than, “I know.”

The bottom line is that our girl did just fine in the new class.  She wasn’t the best in the class and she wasn’t the most clueless.  We are right where we need to be.  Thank you to all of you who sent us your good luck wishes and your words of confidence in Cleo’s success in the new class. 

Lately, I have realized that I’ve been dragging my heels needlessly.  She is more than ready to take the test which marks the first stage toward therapy dog certification, the Canine Good Citizen test.  I’m looking forward to showing her off.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Educating Cleo

We have been kicked upstairs!

Last week, a new session of training classes began.  Partly because the timing of the Intermediate Level 1 classes works better for me and partly because I didn’t feel confident about moving up to Intermediate Level 2, I decided that we would stay in the easier class for another round.  Several dogs and handlers with whom we’ve been going to classes for months also stayed in Level 1.  Between the holdovers and the new arrivals from the Beginners Class, there was barely room to move in class last Monday.  So when I overheard the woman taking enrollments saying to our trainer that the class was way oversubscribed, I took a deep breath and said, “Cleo and I can move to the later class, if that would help.”  The treasurer looked at me doubtfully, then turned to the trainer.

“Are they ready to move up?”

“Of course they are,” snapped Pluis.

“I mean,” I added hastily, “we’re comfortable here, so—“

“It’s time to get you out of your comfort zone,” she cut in.  “Come to Intermediate 2 next week.”

Although I’m nervous about the idea of moving to the next level, with off-leash work and other exotic tasks, it’s also very exciting.  Cleo has grown up so much in the last months.  Colleagues continually remark on the progress she has made, staying charmingly sweet, but understanding more and more what it is to be a truly well-behaved dog.  And to be honest, we were both pretty bored last Monday, repeating the lessons we already knew.

I recognize that one of the things I’m learning (and there have been so many this first year with Cleo that I’ve lost count) is to balance my natural caution with my natural impatience.  I can’t wait for Cleo to be fully certified as a therapy dog, but I don’t want to rush her, to push her into the testing before she’s ready.  Yet I also recognize that I can far too easily hold back because of a fear of failure.  But tomorrow at 7:15 PM, we’ll embark on our first Intermediate 2 class and let the chips fall where they may!

For some reason since last week’s class, I have been thinking back to the stories last March about Monty, the dog who was in circulation for a time at the Yale Law Library.  Monty belongs to one of the librarians there.  As a certified therapy dog, he was allowed to be checked out for half hour periods so that students could hang out with him in a back office of the library.  Supposedly, he mostly sat on the couch while students pet him, or sometimes he sat in their laps.  Every student interviewed for the many stories on Monty, from the New York Times to NPR, reported really enjoying both being with the dog and the opportunity to think about and focus on something besides classes, exams or trying to find a job.  Yale isn’t the only university to offer this service.  Harvard Law School, Tufts, and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, among others, are equally enlightened enough to provide therapy dogs to their students during stressful periods, like exam weeks.

Cleo has her group of regulars who visit at least once a day, one several times a day.  Then she has her periodic visitors who drop by every few weeks.  Of course, there are the students who come in when they are upset or concerned and she happily greets them.  The majority of the students don’t interact with her at all, which is perfectly fine.  They know she’s around; when we head up to the field for our daily romp, there are always several students who call out to greet her, even though they’ve never stopped by for a one-on-one.  Sometimes it’s enough just to know she’s there, even if they don’t “check her out.”  Cleo makes her presence known in many ways.

Our school has short meetings for the whole school community several times a week.  Faculty, staff, students and visitors come together for a quarter hour of announcements.  These “Breaks” are led by the student government and are completely uncensored by any adult.  We trust the students so completely that we often encourage people interested in finding out more about our school to visit on a day when we have Break.  Over the years I’ve been with the school, Breaks have evolved from purely information-passing gatherings to performance events.  At least one Sophomore Speech, a required element of sophomore English class, delights us at each Break.  The Punmeister, a student-appointed office, periodically shares original (and sometimes not-so-original) pun filled stories.  A student announcement might involve a guitar, ukulele or piano accompaniment to a song.  A faculty announcement may take the form of a haiku or sonnet.

As part of her training, I periodically take Cleo to Break.  I want her getting used to being calm in large groups of people, staying mellow amid clapping.  She has gradually gotten more comfortable, no longer hopping up and down or trying to climb up my leg as students swarm into the room.  Now she often sits or even lies down during announcements, gazing out the window at rabbits and quail on the lawn.  Now and then, we are both surprised, she by something that happens, me by her reaction to it.

The other day, the Hip Hop Dance Club announced an upcoming meeting.  They usually do this by first performing one of the routines they’ve been working on.  So all at once from an unseen boombox there came a “Ching-ching-ching” followed by the rhythmic thumping of bass and drums, and the insistent beat of something electronic.  I didn’t hear much more because as soon as the chings started, Cleo did, too.  From lying down, head on paws staring out the window, she transformed to the roaring defender of hearth and home.  BARK-BARK-BARKA-BARK-BARK!!! 

The whole audience erupted into laughter.  As I tried to settle her down, the Head of School leaned over to me and said, “I agree with Cleo.  I hate Hip Hop music, too.”  As much as I would love to credit Cleo with a refined musical sensibility (her daddy is a master guitarist, after all), she wasn’t being a music critic.  In fact, at the moment the music started, I’m pretty sure she and I had the same thought because we both reacted at the same time, I was just a little more contained.  I had been watching her, but when I heard the first sounds from the boombox, I whipped my head up and started looking around.  Those ching-ching-chings sounded exactly like the rattling of tags on a dog’s collar.  Cleo and I both wanted to know: Where’s the other dog?

There’s plenty of work to be done.  And patience is a virtue for dog and human alike.  Intermediate Level 2, here we come!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cur de Lion

This has been a week of learning new facts about Cleo.  Maybe by now you’d think I know her pretty well, and I do, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of daily surprises. 

According to our trainer, for instance, Bedlingtons have the largest teeth in the terrier group.  Since she judges shows all over the world, I believe her.  In our class, there are a couple of other terriers, though most of the dogs are big guys.  We even have an English sheepdog which, I have to admit, I think is a bit of a lump.   I cannot imagine this dog having the sense to herd a flock of sheep if his life depended on it.  Thank heavens our trainer talked its owner into trimming the hair around its eyes.  It has suddenly started obeying visual commands.  Who knew that being able to see might help with that?

Cleo checks out the Chico art scene. 
It’s funny how much dogs and their owners grow to resemble each other.  I’ve always loved that scene from the animated 101 Dalmatians that pans across New York showing dogs and their people walking down the street or through the park.  The sleek, laid back, stylish Afghan with her sleek, laid back, stylish mistress.  The top-heavy matron mincing down the street with her Pekingese.  The gallomphing, down-at-heel artist with his large-pawed, jowly hound dog.  In class, it’s the same thing.  The man with the Jack Russell is good natured, but misses a lot of the instructions because his ADD has him gazing at the setter across the room.  The woman with the Australian shepherd can be counted on to tell her neighbors if their dogs are out of position.  The Vizsla’s owner gives commands with such intensity that every dog within ten feet of her jumps to obey.  And the woman with the English sheepdog…well, enough said about that subject.

This isn’t to imply that I have large teeth.   But Cleo and I are truly starting to work as a team.  I had no idea how much fun training would turn out to be.  It is very much a mommy-and-me kind of experience.  It is an active, engaging time for both of us that is one hundred percent about Cleo.  I think we both have enjoyed getting compliments lately.  We’re about to embark on our fourth 8-week session, so it’s about time, honestly.  When Cleo gets a “Good job!” from our trainer Pluis, or I hear “Nice follow through, Cleo’s mom!” it really does count for something.  Pluis doesn’t praise unless she means it.  And yes, she does call me “Cleo’s mom.”  She was very honest the first day of class to tell us all that she would learn the dogs’ names before the hour was up (she did), but that she would never learn our names (she hasn’t).  I have no quarrel with that whatsoever.  As I say, class is Cleo-time.

Pluis has started picking us to go first in an exercise.  Last Monday, she borrowed Cleo to demonstrate a new technique.  I felt like we had really arrived.  Cleo admires Pluis, so she was ecstatic when Pluis came over and took the leash from me.  She trotted with her to the center of the room.  But then, they turned around and Cleo realized that I hadn’t come along.  The laughing look fell from her face and she stared at me.  She went through the motions of the exercise, glancing once or twice up to Pluis, but for the most part, her eyes never left mine.  I kept smiling at her to reassure her.  When the demonstration was over, Cleo ran back to me and sat on my feet.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, this is not an anxious dog.  She adores people and will snuggle up to or play with any student who comes into the room.  She just feels best when someone she loves is very close by.

As we chatted about Bedlington traits (our dogs were all in prolonged down-stays at the time), Pluis mentioned that the lamb dogs have a reputation for bravery.  “That’s what they say,” I replied.  “They have the hearts of lions.”  Okay, well, that is, indeed, what they say, but I was pretty much just being loyal to Cleo.  I didn’t want to embarrass her; it’s a toss up sometimes how brave she will be.

As our daughter took us on a tour of the science building at Chico State last Wednesday, we passed by a glass case with a stuffed and posed mountain lion.  We stood in front of it for several minutes, commenting on the odd disjointed quality of its aggressive pose, springing after quarry, and the sleepy gaze of its glass eyes.  Cleo sniffed at a spot on the floor, oblivious.  We walked down the hallway.  While John and Sisarie used the restrooms, Cleo and I read the notice boards on the wall.  She turned—and stiffened.  A low growl started deep inside her.  It broke off, then started again.  “Rrrr-rowf,” she said.  I looked where her quivering nose was pointed.  From right up next to the case, the shape of the lion hadn’t registered.  But from her new vantage point of the end of the hall, she knew what she was seeing.  She let out a roar and surged toward the case.  We ran down the hallway and up to the mountain lion.  Cleo was flummoxed.  Again, from below the case, she couldn’t see the form.  Even more perplexing, there was no scent.  I picked her up and held her at face height with the lion.  “Grrrr.  Grrrrowr.”  Back on the floor again, she put her feet up on the glass.  Now she could see it, and told it, “Arr, arr, bar!”  If you’ve never heard a Bedlington’s bark, they are surprisingly big and deep.  There wasn’t an ounce of fear in her as she gave the lion what for.  She was completely ready to take it on, should it ever finish its leap.

After our tour of the campus, Sisarie took us home to see her apartment.  We were greeted at the door by her roommate’s small black cat.  Both Cleo and Faithful were mildly surprised to see each other, but Cleo has learned to speak some Cat from Rufus and Marvin, so she politely touched noses and backed away.  Faithful stalked into the kitchen.  Behind her, Cleo tiptoed into the living room and sat down in the middle of the floor, watching the cat.  The cat wound around Sisarie’s leg, then sat down, watching the dog.  In a sudden flurry, the cat charged Cleo who, tail tucked as tightly as it would go, flung herself up onto the couch.  Three humans told the cat to “Knock it off!”  The cat retreated a step or two.  Then, with a look of glee, it launched itself at Cleo again.  Cleo apparently forgot that the couch was pushed up against a wall, because she tried to escape the cat by going over the back of the couch.  If this had been a Roadrunner cartoon, there would have been a Wile E. Coyote shaped hole in the wall, but since this was real life, there was a thunk and a trembling dog stood on the back of the couch, pressed tightly against the immoveable wall, blinking at a hissing cat.

Sure, she has the heart of a lion.  It’s just that it’s Frank Baum’s lion.  What was I saying about dogs and their people?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Travels With Cleo

On Tuesday, Cleo is going to experience her first long car trip.  I’m really excited by the prospect.

Regular readers may remember that at nearly nine weeks old (exactly a year ago today, November 19th), Cleo weathered two plane trips, several car rides to and from airports, a stint in a hotel room, and a long wait at the airport with a brand new mom.  Her resiliency and courage throughout the whole ordeal left me in awe.  And, of course, jump started my love of our little girl.  The longest car ride she’s ever had with us has been about twenty minutes out to Garland Ranch.  On Tuesday, we’re driving up to Chico.

Chico, California is the pretty little town where our daughter is going to college.  To be perfectly honest, she is my step-daughter, but I enjoy laying claim to her and she lets me get away with it.  A little over five hours northeast of us, Chico is a fascinating combination of agricultural community and university town.  It’s the most populous city of Butte County which sits at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, one of the prime agricultural areas of the entire world.  Of the many crops Butte County is known for, almonds are probably at the very top.  If you want to sound like a real Chico resident, pronounce the nuts “eh-monds.”  See, the farmers shake the trees to harvest almonds, and if they really know what they’re doing, they shake them so hard that they shake the ‘ell out of them.  Insert rim shot here.

Upper Bidwell Park, Chico
Anyway, Chico is smack at the western foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  In fact, the city limits go well up into the foothills.  It was founded by a fellow who was a member of one of the very first wagon trains along what would come to be called the Oregon Trail.  I imagine him staggering out of the mountains after a brutal crossing and simply flopping to the ground, refusing to go a step further.  He could have chosen worse places to stop.  Several waterways feed Chico, most notably, Little Chico Creek.  And residents of the city thought highly enough of their founder that they named the massive park that divides the city in two, one of the largest municipal parks in the US, after him.  I cannot wait until Cleo gets to experience Bidwell park.

Of course, neither Chico nor Bidwell Park is the reason for our trip.  We’re going to see Sisarie.  She is almost at the end of her first semester at Chico State.  She already completed multiple courses at Butte College, the junior college close to Chico.  Butte is probably one of the best kept educational secrets in California.  They’ve got a terrific faculty, an intensive student support system, but coolest of all, they’ve won several national awards for sustainability, including the grand prize in the 2008 National Wildlife Federation’s Chill Out Contest: Campus Solutions to Global Warming and the 2009 National Campus Sustainability Leadership Award.  Sisarie loved this school and discovered a passion for biology and chemistry while she was there, including working on a project to create fuel from algae.   Now she is majoring in both sciences at Chico State (and doing very well, if I may brag for just a moment).  I see her being a role model for young women everywhere she goes.  She is strong, smart, hard-working and nobody’s fool.  She proves that the Sciences are very much a woman’s domain.

So on Tuesday we will begin our first great road trip with Cleo.  We’ll hit the road about 7 PM, after John finishes work, and head off for the Sierras—it sounds so romantic.  We’ll check into the pet friendly Holiday Inn, get a little sleep, then spend Wednesday with our favorite tour guide and our four-legged co-adventurer.  Wednesday evening it’s back in the car for the return trip to Monterey. 

Doorway at Chico State
I’m ridiculously excited about this thirty hour whirlwind, even more excited than I was to go to New Orleans.  I think it’s because I am so eager to share the adventure with Cleo.  I’m an anxious traveler by nature, but ninety-five percent of that has to do with leaving someone behind.  When I travel by myself, I’m confident that Cleo will be fine because John is there to take care of her.  But who will look after John?  Yes, yes, he’s a grown man who is perfectly capable of taking care of himself.  Don’t try to use logic to reason me out of my anxieties; they weren’t reasoned into me.  On the other hand, when I travel with John, even though I love every minute of it, I worry about Cleo.  Finding Jane, who puppy-sat Cleo while we were in New Orleans, has made a huge difference.  Cleo adores her.  After our return, Jane continued to sit for our neighbor’s dog for a couple of weeks.  Every time we ran into her on the street, Cleo practically strangled herself with her own collar.  The leaping and tail wagging and generally exuberant greetings were enough to tell the whole story of the level of care and love Cleo got while we were exploring the Big Easy.  Chico will be a whole different experience: I’ll have John and Cleo right there with me.  The boys, Rufus and Marvin, will be perfectly fine on their own for a day.  They have each other, and honestly, as long as they have a warm place to sleep, food and a litter box, they’re happy as clams.

So two more days of school before Thanksgiving break and our 560 mile roundtrip junket.  I remember last year’s break as if it were last month.  The day after Thanksgiving, I wrote in my journal:
“I’m sitting uncomfortably at the kitchen counter, a typing position that’s hard on my shoulders and elbows because I don’t want to leave Cleo, sleeping quietly in her crate with her head hanging out the open door, all by herself.  As my sweetheart headed downstairs to ‘be a musician,’ I had the sort of panicky recognition that I had no idea what to do with myself.  The last few weeks I have been completely dog-obsessed.  First researching the breed, then finding the right puppy, researching supplies, procuring supplies, reading Cesar Millan and the Monks of New Skete, watching dog training videos on YouTube and National Geographic Channel online, and finally, this week, playing with her, caring for her, working with her, and quite honestly just staring at her.   I was just looking through my Sent Items folder on my email and two-thirds of the sixty-seven messages were puppy related. 
November 19, 2010
“Yesterday, Thanksgiving, seemed to mark the first day that she was our dog.  It was the second morning I got up at 4-something to take her out, so John got up at 7:15 to feed her.  He came back to wake me with a cup of tea about an hour later.  He was both excited and, I could tell, a little shaken.  After waking Cleo up, taking her outside to pee and poop, and feeding her breakfast, he took her for a walk.  ‘It was a full walk, a real walk,  She kept up with me the whole way.  I didn’t slow down for her at all,’ he told me.  He had walked nearly a half hour, zig-zagging through the streets of the neighborhood.  ‘And she’s still completely full of energy.  She’s tearing all around the kitchen.’  He looked at me with something almost like dread and said, ‘If she’s like this as a little puppy, what’s she going to be like as an adult?’  
“Well, I’ve been wanting to get into shape.”
It has been such a quick year, full of the unfolding of life with Cleo.  She is sweet beyond measure, she makes us smile and laugh so many times a day, she is clever and quick.  And, oh my, yes!  She certainly does help keep us in shape. 

November 19, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Breakfast at Tiffany's...or Wait Until Dark

Remember the commercial slogan, “Puppy Chow for a full year, till he’s full grown”?  I have no idea if they still use that jingle; I don’t watch commercials anymore.  I’ve thought about it many times since Cleo turned one, though.  It strikes me that there is just about as much insight into canine development in the slogan as there is nutrition in the food.  In the nearly two months since her birthday, Cleo has grown a little bit, filled out a very little bit, and matured a lot.  But more than anything, it’s in brain power that we see the most development in her lately.

Cleo is what our sitter calls “a reluctant eater.”  Every morning, John and I have to talk her into eating breakfast.  She eats a variety of the Wellness stew flavors, which she clearly enjoys when she deigns to eat them, with a side dish of Wellness kibble for both breakfast and dinner.  She doesn’t like them mixed; if the stew and the kibble overlap too much, she picks the kibble out, sucks the gravy off of it and dots the kitchen floor with the spitty nuggets.  She reminds me of the protagonist of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the young lad with Asperger’s Syndrome who has a meltdown if any of his food touches any other on his plate.  She does appreciate having dry kibble with her stew, just not in it.  And it has to be on a plate, not in a bowl.  This was our sitter’s discovery.  Cleo doesn’t care for the sensation of her nose tapping the edge of the bowl.

So, stew and kibble for breakfast and dinner, kibble soaked in water for lunch and a late night snack.  I know, I know.  People are going to say we over-feed her, but she is so skinny it scares me sometimes.  I see pictures of show Bedlingtons and they are trim, but they have substance.  They’re solid.  Cleo is just a wisp of a girl.  Our vet tells us she’s fine, but I sometimes think I’m more invested in Cleo’s eating than she is herself.  On weekend mornings, we let her eat whenever she gets around to it, usually 2 or 3 PM.  Today, I decided to do a mini training session with her and gave her a couple of liver treats as we worked.  They seemed to jump-start her appetite, because once I broke her loose, she dashed for her food and gobbled it up.  On mornings when we’re on a deadline because we have to go to work, I use the liver treats to lure her to the food.  It works.  Sometimes.

This week, I’m going to see what happens if I allow her to skip breakfast (the most important meal of the day!) and just have lunch when she’s ready for it.  I’m sure she’ll be perfectly fine, but I don’t know how I’ll handle it.  I already obsessively feel her ribs multiple times a day as if she could lose weight from one hour to the next.

I think some of the lack of weight gain has to do with how athletic she is.  She loves to run, jump, climb, bounce, tackle and dig.  If you’ve never seen a Bedlington run, you would never suspect how fast they are.

But that’s not really what I had planned to write about this week.  There has been another change in Cleo since her first birthday.  She has always been beyond cute.  Right after remarking on how much she looks like a lamb, people usually follow up with a comment along the lines of, “She looks like a little stuffed toy dog.”  Now, though, there’s something else.  Ever since picking her up from the groomer last week, I can’t get over how beautiful she is.  It’s like seeing my little tomboy flower into Audrey Hepburn.  The refined face, the contemplative eyes, the glossy and perfectly tassled ears.  Alright, well, maybe the comparison stops with the ears.

Audrey Hepburn.  Or Cleo.  It's hard to tell.
Yet even that is not really what I meant to write about.  It’s the brain development that has been most noticeable lately.  Students who have dropped in to play with Cleo in the last couple weeks have spontaneously exclaimed, “She is so smart!”  Whether it has been the fact that she can find a hidden toy in the blink of an eye or that she has learned to respond to hand signal commands, they are really impressed with her.  In the last few weeks, John and I have enjoyed watching her cogitate.  We can almost see the wheels turning.  When she is faced with something she doesn’t quite understand, she stands very still and ponders.  Eventually she makes up her mind and either curls up for a nap or takes action. 

One of the most awesome moments happened this week as we were watching Jon Stewart on television.  John and I were sitting on the couch with Cleo happily chewing on her toy next to John.  As part of a bit on the show, a photo of a small white dog came up on the screen next to Jon Stewart’s face.  This was a still photo; there was no sound or movement from the dog at all.  In a flash, Cleo leapt up, tail out, legs stiff, and began barking.  She flung herself off the couch and rushed over to the TV, still barking.  She placed her front paws solidly on the screen and stretched her nose towards the dog photo, sniffing and barking alternately.  We hadn’t even realized she was watching the show!  We paused the image while she backed away, staring at it.  “It’s okay!  It’s fake!” we told her.  She stared at the picture for several more seconds, contemplating deeply, then turned her back on it, trotted to the couch, jumped up and snuggled into John, once again happily gnawing away at her chew toy.

According to psychologists, human babies are unable to recognize that a two-dimensional photograph represents a three-dimensional object until they are two years old or a little older.  Animal behaviorists suggest that it takes a considerable amount of intelligence in animals to gain that recognition.  To John and me, we feel like we’re seeing our puppy's brain develop right in front of our eyes.  And we can’t wait to see what the next days will hold.

Can we go home now?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

It All Comes Down to This

The world is a staggeringly vast place, and each of us is so tiny and insignificant.

Canyon above school
The rains have come again to Monterey, and with them, late fall weather.  Our glorious October days in the high 70s and low 80s ended overnight last week.  The high 50s are the best we can hope for in November.  I realize that this is nothing to moan about, and I’m really not complaining.  It’s just the reason that Cleo and I were out walking in the middle of the school day this past week.  A pause in the rain was just the excuse we needed for a two mile leg stretch. 

Cleo has recently crossed over into the realm of ├╝ber-athlete.  A two-mile walk for me is more like a three-mile walk for her, what with all the running back and forth, zig-zagging and retracing of steps for a more thorough sniff.  Such an excursion used to tire her out for an hour or two.  Now, it just gets her warmed up.  A couple of months ago, a long walk at Garland Ranch left her in such a state of exhaustion that she didn’t get up from the couch all afternoon.  After that same walk yesterday, she came home to play a game with her kibble, racing up to her plate, grabbing a piece, tearing around the house with it in her mouth, stopping in the living room to wolf it down, then racing back into the kitchen to repeat the process.

The school's new land overlooks Monterey Bay
Anyway, last week we headed out along an unused road for a tour of one edge of the hundred acre plot of land which the school has recently acquired.  During the first Clinton administration, an Army base in our area was closed down and repurposed.  Large chunks of the property went to the surrounding cities, one massive piece was used to build a university, and other, smaller, plots were dedicated to other uses.  One of these went to us.  Over twenty years of bureaucracy later, the school finally received permission to take possession of the land last month.  The Army cut fire roads along the far edge of the land, so our champion cross country team finally has a home course.  The interior of the land has been designated an outdoor lab.  Students and invited guests will conduct observations and experiments on the native animals and plants that cover these one hundred seven acres.  In spots where non-native vegetation has taken root, they will explore the most practical ways of eradicating it and restoring the natives.

As I stood at the crest of a hill looking out over the new land toward Monterey Bay, clouds massing on the horizon, the sheer immensity of the world pressed in on me.  Cleo, sniffing along the fence line, looked so tiny.  She who starts at the rattling of Pampas Grass in the wind, yet who, in the moment I took my eye off her, sneaked under the razor wire fencing into rattlesnake heaven, how could I ever protect her from everything that might do her harm?  She seemed so small and fragile.  Life itself is so small and fragile.  I wanted to scoop her up and hold her tight so that nothing could ever frighten or harm her.  Of course, if I did, she would just kick and squirm and struggle until I put her down.  As far as she is concerned, there’s a wide world out there to explore, full of friends yet to meet.

TIny girl in a big world
I realize that some of this sense of tenuousness is coming from the fact that my nineteen-year-old stepson moved out of the house last week.  Granted, he moved out because we told him it was time for him to make his own way in the world, but we can’t help worrying for his welfare, even knowing that living on his own will be the best thing for his growth and development as a human being. He’s talking about joining the Coast Guard or the Navy.  There’s something unquestionably noble about serving one’s country, but I can’t imagine what seeing war first hand would do to him.  I guess the same things it has done to millions of young men, and now women, throughout history.

As Cleo and I walked down the hill and the horizon pulled in to the playing fields on our right and the tree lined campus on our left, a sense of perspective returned.  In the main office, several colleagues greeted us.

“Oh, you’re back from your walk.  Did you have fun, Cleo?”

“Hi, honey!  Ooo, you’re getting so sweet!  You’re not even mouthing me at all.”

Exploring is more fun with company
Everyone had to touch her and fuss over her, fondle her ears and smile into her eyes.  Small she may be.  Insignificant she is not.  She is loved and she is connected to others.  There are seven billion humans on the planet now.  One in seven billion seems barely worthy of notice.  The more we love, the more we connect with others, the less we are one in seven billion and the more we are a member of a community in which we are cared for as we care for those around us.

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the protagonist Oskar worries about his insignificance.  His father responds, “Well, what would happen if a plane dropped you in the middle of the Sahara Desert and you picked up a single grain of sand with tweezers and moved it one millimeter?...the Sahara is a vast desert. And it has existed for millions of years.  And you changed it!”

Since beginning to write this blog, I have heard from the moms and dads of Bedlington Terriers all over the world.  They reach out to connect in mutual love and admiration of the four-legged fuzzballs.   Wherever we go, school, beach, park, trail or neighborhood, we meet people who want to touch Cleo, exclaim over her, and love her.  Everything pauses and pulls into a point of contact.

The world is such a tiny spot, and each of us, in our connections with each other, is so precious.  Especially those four-leggeds.

Cleo on Halloween: The Leaping Fairy Dog
(photo by Cammy T.)