Sunday, June 19, 2011

Freedom's Just Another Word


There is a sense of freedom that comes with the summer months.  When I was young, summer seemed to stretch on forever in a delicious amalgam of warm days, humid nights, fireflies, staying up till the wee hours, sleeping late and consuming piles of books as I lay on the back porch or rocked in the hammock. To this day, when I think of A Tale of Two Cities, I can feel vinyl sticking to my sweaty legs and smell the faintly dusty aroma of the cushions on my mother’s patio furniture.  Lord of the Rings evokes the knobbly imprint of hammock knots.  In the days when there were three channels to watch on television, you could count on a good movie late at night.  I don’t know why that’s not the case anymore. I always experienced such a joyous sense of liberation as I walked out of the last exam of the school year and into the embrace of Sherlock Holmes on the late, late show.

I haven’t experienced that feeling of liberation for ages, but I still anticipate it each spring as the school year winds down.  Summer in Monterey, California, of course, is a completely different season than summer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Mark Twain once wrote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”  A hundred miles to the south, Monterey has a climate mighty similar to that of the city of the Golden Gate.  The downside is that a June day is more likely to be 59 degrees with pea soup fog than 85 and sunny.  The upside is that we sleep with a comforter all year ‘round and the fall is three months of Indian Summer. 

But even though I no longer experience the tingling liberation that accompanies the last exam, even though I never leave home without a jacket, summer nonetheless brings a sense of freedom.  This has nothing, I assure you, to do with any teacher clich├ęs.  A friend once told me that when she began student teaching, her teacher-trainer said to her, “There are three great reasons to be a teacher: June, July and August.”  I mean, really!  If that’s the best you can do, you’re just a walking argument for forced retirement.  This is not to say that I’m so noble or above the fray that I don’t celebrate a vacation from grading papers or the daily dose of teenage angst.  I willingly admit that’s part of the freedom.  Periodically, I need a break from listening. 

I love teenagers, though.  Our head of school likes to tell parents that while he would willingly go back to the days when his sons were four or five, the dean of students loves teenagers and has little to no interest in tots.  It’s true; I just don’t get them.  I mean, the concept of Blues Clues is incredibly cool, but a blue paw print can carry a conversation only so far.

The freedom of summer now has more to do with a looseness of time and place.  Maybe I’ll decide, when I wake up in the morning, that I won’t go in to school today.  I don’t, but I could.  Even more important than that, I can stay up late and sleep in.  If it is only possible that I can stay up till 2 AM and get up at 9 AM, I am a contented critter.  Push that to 10 AM and I’m delirious.  The long hours of sunlight give the sense of more time in the day.  Pick up a pleasure book at 6 PM and it feels hedonistic—you could be getting more work done; after all, the sun is still fairly high in the sky.  Want to do some puppy training at midnight?  Why not?!  We’re both awake and full of energy.

Cleo definitely enjoys the summer schedule.  She loves the snuggle potential of the more relaxed mornings.  She has embraced the summer routine: sleep until 7:30 or 8 (there has to be some light coming through the bedroom blinds), climb out of crate, stretch all four limbs thoroughly, shake out (being sure to rattle collar loudly), walk to Mama’s side of the bed and place paws on edge (push mattress if she hasn’t woken up due to rattle—see above), get lifted onto bed, position self at center of bed between Mom and Dad, curl into tight ball, go back to sleep for as long as possible (when Mom and Dad get up, curl tighter and squeeze eyes closed and they will let you sleep longer).  Eventually, she gets up, we walk to a park or the beach, and she comes home finally ready for breakfast.

She also loves the greater freedom at school.  With no students on campus, Cleo can be off leash more and can come with me almost everywhere I go.  Usually when we arrive at school, she waits politely in the back seat of the car while I gather my bags and attach the leash before giving her permission to jump out.  The other day, I gave her the “Okay” to get out without putting the leash on first.  She cocked her head and looked at me with an “Are you sure?” kind of expression.  Then she hopped out and trotted beside me to the door of the library.  As I unlocked the door, she began to walk away toward the Quad and the lawn.  There was a twinkle of adolescent rebellion in her eye.  She climbed the steps to the Quad, then looked back over her shoulder at me.  “Go ahead,” I said, and went inside.  I unlocked my office and dropped my bags at the desk, then went back to the library door to see what Cleo was up to.  She was sitting right by the door, gazing anxiously up at the window.  I opened it and she came in on the double. 

After checking that all her toys were where she had left them, she strolled out of the office to roam the library.  Doug was working on the computers upstairs and I heard a surprised, “Well, hi there!” come from his direction. 

“Everything okay up there?” I called out.  “She’s not bothering you, is she?”

“She’s great,” he assured me.  “I was crawling under my desk looking for a cable and she snuck up behind me and started licking my ear.”

There are lots of ways to share your sunshine.

Other folks bring their dogs to campus during the summer, so Cleo has made friends with Cowboy and Georgia (and now makes a beeline for their office whenever we pass it) and has grown less intimidated by Fiona who feels it is her job to herd the wild rabbits and to pee on top of Cleo’s pee whenever she can, even if she has just recently emptied her bladder. 

Cleo keeps a vigilant eye
on outdoor goings on.
One of Cleo’s favorite activities is to race back and forth across the Quad, aiming for at least four laps to each one of mine.  She bounces, ears flapping, from breezeway to lawn and back again, making brief detours to investigate an interesting smell now and then. 

If we’re the only ones in the library, she carries her squeaky monkey (a gift from a parent) just outside the office door and entertains herself happily.  Occasionally, she tours the floor to ceiling windows that comprise the library’s outer walls.  She effects a perimeter check for arriving gardeners, passing colleagues or unruly gophers.  When she’s sleepy, she climbs onto the chair in my office, observing the falcons that fly over the canyon until her eyes close.

It’s a good life, but I’m not envious of her as I answer emails, write new student welcome letters or revise informational materials.  I’m enjoying the freedom summer still brings, but it is only made sweeter by the responsibility that preceded it and that will surely follow.  Is it true that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose?  At the moment, Cleo and I--we miss our students.



To see Cleo in action, click Cleo at the Beach or Cleo Loves Digging.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Travel Expands the Mind, They Say.


It’s been quiet around school these last couple of weeks and Cleo has been a bit lonely.  She’s used to having a couple hundred people on campus.  There are always students on the grass beyond her window or folks passing to and fro outside our office door.  Since Commencement, though, the lawn is empty and the traffic in the library has dwindled to nearly nothing.  On the other hand, she has very much enjoyed having full run of the library, exploring the stacks, unearthing the occasional long forgotten, dried out highlighter, climbing the stairs to the third floor Mac lab to poke her nose through the railing for a bird’s eye view of the librarian’s desk.  No matter where she is, the moment she hears the clack of the library door opening, she rushes to greet the newcomer like a prisoner in a Siberian gulag.  She is especially happy when Carol, our librarian, sorts back issues of magazines or shelves books because she can follow her around from one floor to another and back again.

This past week was particularly difficult for Cleo because I was out of town for three days and her social calendar was reduced even further.  My husband did his best to keep her entertained, taking her to the beach every morning, playing ball in the backyard, giving her extended snuggles before bedtime.  He told me that a friend of ours came over to the house and Cleo practically drowned her in spit, so effusive and unrelenting was her greeting.  It occurred to me that Cleo’s sense of family is unusually large.  Yes, my husband and I are very much at the center, but concentric rings define Cleo’s family with our late-teen son and our cats, our twenty-something daughter and her boyfriend, our favorite neighbors and my husband’s writing partner, the teacher of our obedience class, a few dogs, and a couple dozen individuals at school all comprising members of her extended family.  And it’s clear from the way she relates to all of these folks that she sees them not as friends, which is how she sees just about anyone else she meets regardless of species, but as relatives.
Bradshaw's new book.

In his really wonderful new book Dog Sense, biologist John Bradshaw explains the recent research that proves that dogs aren’t really pack-oriented, but rather family-oriented.   Dogs are descended from the grey wolf, but began their separation about ten thousand years ago.   The wolves who became domesticated were those who could not only bear, but actually enjoy being in the presence and company of humankind.  It is from these that today’s dogs are descended.  Today’s wolves, on the extreme other hand, come from ancestors that were so anti-human, so reclusive and wild, that they were able to survive the concerted eradication efforts of generations upon generations of frightened anti-wolf human beings. 

Wolf research didn’t really come into its own until wolves had become so rare that one of the few places they could be studied was in zoos.  Unfortunately, through a complete lack of understanding of how wolves operate, zoos would gather individuals from many different areas, then throw them together thinking they would form a pack.  As biologists studied the zoo groups, they noted that the wolves constantly fought to maintain a hierarchy.  They dubbed the top wolf or wolves the “Alpha,” the bottom wolf or wolves the “Omega” and theorized that dominant behavior kept the Alphas on top and submissive behavior kept the Omegas alive.

What the zoo biologists failed to understand, however, is that in the wild, packs are actually made up exclusively of a single family and fights for status are completely unheard of.  The so-called Alphas are, in fact, the parents of all of the other wolves in the pack, and so are given deference automatically. The only time wolves actually fight for “dominance” is when one family encounters a member or members of another.

A particularly lovely point Bradshaw makes is that through the thousands of years of human-dog companionship, dogs have shown that they are highly unusual among non-human animals in their ability to form family bonds with a variety of species.  When we humans refer to ourselves as our dog’s mom or dad (or grandmother), we’re not being fanciful, we’re being accurate, certainly as far as our dogs identify us.  As if we needed another reason to love them!

So Cleo does see my husband and me, a few dogs, our two cats, our own kids, some students and adults at school, and a few other folks as her family.  Which got me to thinking this past week.  My puppy’s family is so much larger than my own.

As I mentioned, I was out of town for three days last week.  In fact, I traveled thirty hours round trip in order to be in Bethesda, Maryland for forty hours.  Granted, the way the flights were originally set up, I should have traveled about half that amount of time, but the journey home turned into a twenty-one hour saga thanks to late planes, missed connections and San Francisco fog.  Had I known, before setting out, that my return trip would be so fraught, would I still have gone?  In a heartbeat.

The purpose of my cross-country junket was my only niece’s graduation from middle school.  For months before I went, my husband enjoyed saying to me, with only slightly exaggerated disbelief, “You’re flying three thousand miles for a junior high graduation?!”  Yes.  Yes, that is correct.  Even counting every member of my extended family, it is not as large as Cleo’s, though, granted, that could be because my sense of family is more narrow than hers.  Still, my family of origin now consists of my two sisters and me, so any chance to celebrate a milestone with them is an opportunity not to be missed.

My sisters are less than two years apart in age.  As they were growing up, especially in their tween or early teen years, this led to some friction.  One of my favorite stories about them is The Story of the Note.  My sisters shared a room (which is odd since I, the youngest by several years, had a room to myself).  They slept in matching canopy beds.  This kind of bed has a post at each corner to elevate the canopy, and a newel that fits into each post to hold the canopy in place.  The hollow in the post, into which the newel would fit, provided a perfect “mail box” for my sisters who, when they were refusing to speak to each other, would leave little messages in each other’s bed post.  One day, my middle sister left my oldest sister this note:  “Dear Kathy, I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate you.  Love, Jan.”

My sister, Jan, meets Cleo.
As we grew up, we drifted geographically apart, Kathy moving to Colorado, Jan staying on the East Coast but migrating south from our Pennsylvania hometown to Washington, DC, me ending up in Monterey, California.  Our parents’ deaths left us with no central gathering place for holidays, so the three of us were together at weddings and rare special events.  It was more common to meet by twos at one home or another.  I have always loved my sisters; they’re my sisters, after all.  What a delight to be reminded of how much I like them as well.  The forty hours we were together were filled with lots of talking, laughter, easy enjoyment of each other, passions in common, obsessions in common, neuroses in common (always easier to bear when shared).  We celebrated successes, mourned losses, and comingled kvetchings. 

And my lovely niece, full of joy and grace?  One has to guard against the temptation, with an only niece, to overindulge a sense of her perfection.  There is no doubt that she is beautiful, oh-so-smart, hardworking, dedicated, that she is a deeply good person.  But how would I have known that everyone from the head of school to her eighth grade teachers to her kindergarten teacher think she is all those things, too, if I hadn’t flown three thousand miles for a junior high graduation?

Cleo’s extended family is a gift.  But when the family you have is choice, it doesn’t matter if it’s small.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Baby Steps and New Beginnings

Last week saw both Commencement and Graduation: Commencement at my school, Graduation for Cleo and me from beginner’s class.  The last couple months of a school year are always particularly intense and usually culminate for me in an everything’s-done-and-I-finally-have-some-down-time illness of one kind or another.  If I could just remind myself that the end of the school year only opens the door for the press of preparation for the next one, I might remember that I don’t have time to be sick and save myself the boredom of being stuck in bed.  But I’m at least upright now and neither Cleo, quietly chewing on a toy nearby, nor my computer is likely to be disturbed by a little coughing.

Cleo at School
I had never been to a dog training graduation before last Monday.  Honestly, I’ve never done formal dog training before Cleo.  It’s the goal of her becoming a certified therapy dog that prompted me to seek the counsel of a professional.  I had no idea it would be so much fun.  It reminds me a lot of acting—lots of criticism and correction, brief moments of praise.  I spent the first twenty-five plus years of my working life as a professional actor, so I feel right at home in this environment.  Of course, Cleo is so bright and excited about learning that she adores the classes.  She struts around the training track like the blue blood that she is, kicking out her legs like the perfect show dog.  Given the fact that all of her siblings who show, which is most of them, have earned their championship points, strutting around the Del Monte Kennel Club classroom at the Monterey County Fairgrounds should come naturally to her.  I’m the one who has to work at it.

Three weeks ago, at the class the week before graduation, Cleo was amazing.  She is the youngest dog in the class, barely six months old when we started, and she is full of energy and curiosity.  Sometimes this causes an attention span deficit, but at that last class, she embodied the words “concentration” and “focus.”  About three-quarters of the way through the class, we were practicing the down stay.  One of the student teams, an Italian Greyhound and his man, had struggled with “down” for the entire two months of the course.  The IG simply has an aversion to putting his elbows on the floor.  Cleo has no such qualms.  Usually when we are practicing the five minute down stay, she sacks out on her side and takes a nap.  That dog can sleep anywhere.  It’s a gift.  She always lays herself out in the same way: flat on her side, back straight, tail gently curved, all four legs sticking out bolt straight in front of her, a canine model of a rectangle.  One time as we practiced, the fellow next to us, the dad of a Golden Retriever, looked over at Cleo and said, “Oh look.  Your dog got run over by a steam-roller.” 

Anyway, it being the final class before graduation, the teacher wanted to make a last ditch, all-out effort to help the IG get over his phobia and take a load off.  Really, it was a pitiful thing to see him stretched out in a crouch, front legs trembling as he tried to do what his dad wanted, while desperately fighting against elbow contamination.  For at least ten minutes we were in that down stay.  Not once, not once, did Cleo squirm or try to get up.  She didn’t even lie down on her side.  She simply attentively stayed.  Meanwhile, the team next to us, an Australian Shepherd and her woman, quickly became bored.  The woman started chatting with anyone within range.  The Aussie got up to wander around.  A tug on the leash brought the woman’s attention, at least temporarily, back to her dog.  It didn’t last and the Aussie was up again.  Cleo gazed for a time at the wandering dog, then looked back to me with a smug expression.  You’d never catch her wandering around like that.  She all but rolled her eyes.  By this point, the Aussie’s mom was completely turned around with her back to her dog.  The Aussie had decided this was a good time to visit Cleo.  She loomed over the puppy.  Cleo looked up at her calmly.  When the Aussie leaned down to touch noses, Cleo pushed her away as if to say, “You are gonna be in so much trouble!”  Just at that moment, the trainer looked up from the IG and snapped, “Get that dog away from that Bedlington!”  I’m only mildly embarrassed to report that Cleo and I both snickered a little bit.  It’s hard to be gracious when your dog is perfect. 

Based on that last class, I was feeling pretty confident going into the graduation ceremonies.  We arrived at class five minutes early.  Everyone else had arrived twenty minutes early.  The testing was already underway.  Everything was different.  Humans and dogs were clustered in chairs on the opposite side of the room from our usual training area.  A small ring had been set up and one team of our classmates was going through the paces: Heal, right turn, about turn, slow, fast, normal pace.  A bolt of nerves shot through me.  I asked a classmate what Cleo and I had missed and she directed me to a registration table.  We signed in and got our number.  We would be going last.  There were fifteen teams ahead of us and Cleo was bouncing out of her skin with the excitement and newness of it all.  I’m sure my discomfort did nothing to help her calm down.  She wanted to greet every dog, jump on every human.  There were kids in the room who had never been present before.  Kids!  Cleo’s favorites!  I debated—should I take her outside to blow off some steam?  But I didn’t know how many teams had already gone.  What if we were called and Cleo missed her chance to graduate?  Every time I thought about going out, it seemed as if it was almost our turn.  At least, I thought, I can walk her around our usual ring so we can practice and calm down a bit.  That used up about twenty minutes.

Cleo sometimes refuses to pee at school.  I realize this seems like something of a digression, but bear with me here.  The peeing thing is not, I promise, because I have made the mistake of taking her out to pee and then dragging her immediately back inside.  We always play after she pees, sometimes for half an hour.  But there will be days she shows no interest in going from the time we leave the house until we get back home.  Then she’ll rush outside and squat like she’s desperate.  Okay, so graduation day was one of those days.  There had been no peeing since 8 AM.  It was now 6:45 PM.  So when Cleo started urgently pacing back and forth on the mat, sniffing the ground, I had a pretty good idea of what was on her mind.  Did I immediately run her outside?  No, I dithered.  And as I stood there dithering, she squatted and peed on the mat.  If you are saying, “Good God, woman, what is the matter with you?” I completely agree with you.  I can only reply, “I have no idea.”  I just don’t know what comes over me in situations like this, when I feel stupid and out of my element.  It’s as if my autonomy and good sense simply desert me.  At school, I make tough decisions left and right.  I have no trouble being assertive.  But put me in a world where I am ignorant of the customs, expectations, mores, and I’m a dithering basket case.  But I’m also a huge believer in Beginner’s Mind.  The humbling moments are good for us.  Like the moment the trainer stopped in mid conversation to shout across the room, “Mom!  I knew she was going to do that!  How come you didn’t?”  Um, I did?  I was just being too stupid to do anything about it?

Our turn finally came.  We were complemented on our healing.  Stand for inspection went about as could be expected—one jump up and several attempts to taste the hand of the judge.  Our finish was lovely, a tidy turn around and perfectly square sit.  We joined five other teams for the group exercises: sit stay and down stay.  We’ve got this one nailed, I thought to myself.  By the third time I had to make Cleo lie down again and the second time I had to stop her from visiting the German Shepherd next to us, I was a tad less confident.  To add insult to injury, the German Shepherd had the same smug look on his face that Cleo had worn just the week before.  I didn’t dare look at the Shepherd’s dad.  We scored 140 out of 160 points.  We didn’t even place in the top four.  What would Cleo’s siblings think about that performance? 

One of my colleagues, Pam, is a very experienced dog trainer.  She attends the advanced class with the same teacher, and the next day she asked how we had done.  I told her the whole gory story.  She laughed and said, “Let me tell you about my weekend.”  On Saturday, she and her Corgi Lizzie (whose name has been changed to protect the four-legged) had gone somewhere near Fresno to compete in a dog trial.  Her Corgi, she reminded me, actually holds a title in these trials.  They entered the ring with style and Lizzie sat attentively at her mom’s heels.  They got the go ahead, and Pam said brightly, “Lizzie, heel!”  Pam stepped out smartly only to realize, three steps later, that she was on her own.  She looked back.  Lizzie gazed up at her.  “You’re allowed one extra command,” Pam told me, “so I said firmly, ‘Lizzie, heel!’”  Pam ended up walking the entire course by herself, her Corgi obstinately watching her the entire way.  “I think it was just too hot for her,” Pam said, shrugging.  I felt a lot better.

And so, Graduation week culminated in Commencement.  As I’ve said, the last couple months of the school year are intense in my position.  This year, for many reasons, was particularly challenging.  One of those reasons was the down-to-the-wire nail biter question of whether one of our seniors would be able to graduate or not.  Emily is the last person a casual observer would peg for depression.  She is beautiful, talented, unfailingly cheerful and wittier than a person her age has any right to be. She took up residence in my heart the first month of her freshman year and has had squatters’ rights there ever since.  Last November, everything started to fall apart.  For no reason that she can pinpoint, she spiraled into depression and couldn’t find her way out.  She tried to keep her misery hidden, but finally the mask slipped, fell and shattered.  She could barely get out of bed let alone focus on homework or completing projects for her classes. 

The compassion of my colleagues can’t be overstated.  They supported Emily, extended deadlines, waited, extended the deadlines again.  Emily’s family rallied around her.  She plunged herself into counseling, accepted the idea of medication with a willingness I don’t often see.  She forthrightly said, “If it has even a chance of helping me feel better, I’ll try it.”  Over and over I told her that the school would give her time, that she could walk through Commencement with her class, but finish her requirements over the summer, receiving her diploma once she had gotten everything in, no harm, no foul.  And each time she told me, “No, I want to graduate on time.  I’m kinda done with high school.” 

When you are deeply depressed, it’s far easier to think about working than to actually get the work done.  It’s hard to concentrate, heck, it’s hard to get out of bed some days.  And motivation?  Never heard of it.  Emily’s teachers finally gave her until 1 PM the day before Commencement; they had to have time to read and evaluate the work she handed in.  She submitted the last piece of the last project with three minutes to spare. 

Our Commencement is held outside in the Quad formed by classrooms, the library and the theatre.  It overlooks wooded hills and a canyon through which peregrine falcons and vultures glide daily.  Late in the afternoon before Commencement, I was putting name labels on the audience seats so families would know which seats were theirs.  The Academic Dean sauntered from his office to find me.  “Emily’s cleared.  She can graduate,” he told me.  “Then I’ll go ahead and release her diploma,” I said, turning to tape a nametag to the seatback in front of me so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.  At that moment, a gust of wind whipped through Quad and one nametag, way on the opposite side of the Quad, ripped from its seatback and fluttered to the ground.  I ran over to pick it up before it could blow away.  Even before I turned it over, I knew what it would say.  It bore Emily’s last name.  I held it up for my colleague to see.  “Our little butterfly,” he said, “has flown away.”

And so she has.  She was radiant on Commencement day in the cap and gown she’d been too busy to pick up and iron because she’d been writing papers.  She hasn’t found her way completely out of the hole of depression, but she is getting better.  And whatever happens next, there is time for exploration and learning about life.  There is time for college later, when she’s ready.  She didn’t graduate at the top of her class, but that doesn’t make her any less special and it certainly doesn’t shake her place in my heart.

As for Cleo and me, we graduated, too.  And on Monday, we start the Intermediate Class.