Sunday, July 31, 2011

Out, Out, Damned Spot?

It has been a busy week around these here parts!


Since Cleo is now spending every night in her crate, I decided that the one she's grown up with was really too small for her.  When she was a tiny puppy, she slept in half of her crate; it was a Lifestages model and we closed off the back half.  As she grew, we moved the barrier farther and farther back until we finally removed it altogether.

This process reminded me of my dad’s technique for teaching me to ride a bike.  I hated training wheels and refused to use them for very long.  My sisters, several years older than I, looked so graceful, tooling around on their two-wheelers, slaloming down the street, effortlessly turning figure eights, riding arcs within arcs like a Busby Berkeley routine.   In contrast, I labored along, training wheels grinding, my bike displaying all the maneuverability of the Queen Mary.  There were times my dad truly understood my yearning to be like my sisters: older, more sophisticated, more learned, more accomplished.  In a way, this is surprising; he was the oldest child in his family.  His youngest sibling was only in third grade when Dad took a hiatus from college after his sophomore year to fight the Nazis.  Yet he was empathetic enough to understand how much I pined for my sisters when they went to overnight camp without me, so that summer, he enlisted me as his apprentice while he created a finished rec room in our basement with his own hands.  I couldn’t have been older than six.  When they entered high school and had no interest in a tag-along tike, he and I built a treehouse in our backyard.

I was always better at
riding a bike than pogo sticking.
So understanding my need to shed the training wheels was a cinch for him.  One summer week, every night when he got home from work in the city, he and I went out to practice two-wheeling.  At first, he held onto the bike seat, running alongside as I pedaled up and down the street.  Then, he held onto my shirt.  Finally, he held onto one piece of my long ponytail.  Of course this did nothing to stabilize me, but it gave me the sense of security I needed to build my confidence.  Saturday rolled around and we went outside to practice.  “Okay,” he said, “when you’re ready to ride on your own, tell me and I’ll let go.”  So off we went down the street.  As we went, I felt the courage build.  I had what it took to ride on my own!  “Okay, Dad, let go!”  He didn’t even acknowledge that I’d said anything!  “Dad!  You can let go now!” Nothing.  I didn’t feel him release me.  I glanced back over my shoulder to see why he wasn’t letting me go. 

Far off down the street, he stood with his hands on his hips, laughing with the pleasure of my accomplishment.  I stopped the bike and looked back at him.  He waved enthusiastically.  He seemed so far away, as if I had ridden miles on my own.  Thinking of it now, I realize the street wasn’t particularly long, maybe five houses on each side.  But I felt such pride in his belief in me.  He knew that I could do it before I did.

Easing Cleo into her Lifestages crate had that same incremental feeling to it.  Once, I moved a little too fast, allowing her the full crate before she was completely ready.  I paid for that with a sterilizing wash of the crate tray.  At least she carefully peed on the plastic tray and not on her bed.  Still, it seems now as though it took no time at all for her to outgrow the training wheels of the insert.  I have a fondness for that crate because it speaks so directly of Cleo’s babyhood, but it seems a little small for her now.  When we were allowing her out of her crate at night, she would often get too warm on the pad and spend some time sacked out on the cooler hardwood of our bedroom floor.  A larger crate would afford her the option of sleeping on the pad or moving it out of the way so she could sleep on the crate tray.  The other consideration is that she likes to sleep on her side with her four legs straight out in front of her (the pose that prompted one of our training classmates to say, “Oh look, your dog got run over by a steamroller”), something her original crate didn’t have the square footage to permit.

She had to duck in the old crate.
On Monday I ordered her a new crate, the next size up.  It arrived yesterday.  I unpacked and unfolded it, then set it up in our bedroom.  I have to admit, I felt a pang of nostalgia as I moved her old crate out of the way.  It’s still set up in my home office ready to be photographed and advertised on Craig’s List.  The end of an era.  My husband calls the new crate Cleo’s condominium.  I washed the pad yesterday and smoothed it over the new floor.   It’s a perfect fit.  At bedtime, because I didn’t want the crate smelling too terribly foreign, I took the shirt I’d been wearing all day and laid it over the pad, then added one of Cleo’s favorite toys.  She climbed sleepily in, spent a few minutes redecorating and nesting, then curled into a ball in the back corner.  She took up about a quarter of the floor space.  But John and I got great pleasure out of watching her stand comfortably in the crate as she prepared it to her liking, and I choose to believe that she slept stretched out at some point in the night.

Our other great adventure of the week has to do with three mysterious bald patches that have appeared along Cleo’s back. 

About a week after her last grooming, maybe a little longer, I noticed three odd looking spots in a perfect line along her spine.  Two, the size of a pair of jelly beans, are about an inch apart just at her shoulder blades and the third, slug-sized, is roughly two inches from her tail.  At first it appeared that the hair was shorter in those areas.  This seemed strange because Cleo’s groomer is meticulous and extremely proud of his skill with the Bedlington cut.  Then, the spots turned dark.  Cleo’s skin is black.  What we were seeing wasn’t the hair darkening, it was the hair disappearing.  I called the groomer to see if he had any idea what might be going on.  His response, “Take her to your vet immediately.”  I made an appointment for that very afternoon.

When we walked in, two little dogs were standing together in the waiting room.  Cleo, who has recently discovered a social butterfly streak, eagerly touched noses with both of them, all tails wagging furiously.  I exchanged some pleasantry with the woman on the other end of the pair’s leash, then looked back at Cleo.  She was in a characteristic posture that was, to say the least, ill-timed.  “Are you peeing?!” I asked her.  She stepped away to reveal a sizeable puddle.  May I just add that this was inches from my feet.  It has been a long time since she has just let fly indoors and she has never, never peed right next to my foot. 

“Oh,” exclaimed the other mother, “my dog just peed in exactly the same spot!  He’s twelve and hasn’t had an accident in years.  How funny!”

Not really.

The receptionist, who was carrying a wad of damp paper towels over to the trashcan, stuffed them in,  then picked up the roll and headed back to the foyer.  As she did, she said, “Yeah, a dog peed right there this morning.”  She sopped up Cleo’s pee, swished the paper towels around a bit, stuck the wad in the trashcan and went back to her desk.

Well, no wonder!  Every dog who comes in must be squatting first thing.  I’ll bet she used up that roll of paper towels by the end of the day.  But no matter, the cleaning crew would take the place back to neutral before the next day’s clientele could get involved in the deluge.

Now we confront the Mystery of Cleo’s Spots.  The first thing the vet noticed is that the hair is not falling out, it’s breaking off.  It is interesting, obviously, that the spots are so perfectly lined up along her back, as though someone new to Morse code were practicing on my dog: dot, dot (hesitation), dash.  That’s a “U.”  Unusual?  Unparalleled?  Urgent?  Uh-oh.

“Did something get dripped on her?” the vet asked me.  “Some kind of chemical?”

I have no idea.  It’s possible.  Cleo loves to tag around after our housekeeper who was here a week and a half ago.  It’s very possible that a wet rag with 409 or Ajax or something passed over Cleo’s back: drip, drip, slop.  But if it were chemical, wouldn’t you expect some skin irritation?  There’s absolutely none.

“It might be a fungus,” was the second theory.

Except that the hair is breaking off, not falling out.  Except that there’s no skin irritation (once again).  Except that Cleo shows not the slightest sign of itchiness.  In fact, she doesn’t even seem to be aware that something is amiss with her back at all.

We decided, the vet, the vet tech and I, that the best course of action was to culture for fungus.  To get a result takes two weeks.  We checked for phosphorescence with a black light, but since this is accurate only about 25% of the time, we weren’t surprised not to see anything.  After that, the vet plucked hairs from all three spots and popped them into the vial of medium.  “If there’s fungus there,” she explained to me, “the medium will start to turn red in a little over a week and from there we can determine what kind of fungus it is.”

She began to explain to me what course of action we might take while we waited for the results of the fungus test.  The vet tech reappeared at her side holding the vial in front of her.  “Look,” she said, “It’s turning red.”

“Well, that’s not possible,” said the vet.  Turning to me, she explained, “The medium turns red when it comes into contact with waste product that the fungus produces.  The only way it could be turning red that fast is if the hairs were completely clogged with waste.  If that were the case, she’d be just overrun with fungus and we’d expect to see hair falling out all over Cleo’s body.  She’d be scratching herself raw.”  Her brow furrowed.  “Is there a chemical that would turn the medium like that?”  No one seemed to know.  “Maybe the forceps were contaminated.”

New forceps arrived from the storage room.  A new vial of medium.  Pluck, pluck, pluck all three spots once more.  Into the vial they went.  Within less than a minute, the medium began to turn red.

“I have no idea what’s going on here,” said my unflappable, extremely knowledgeable, highly rated, and now completely flummoxed vet.

To be proactive, I’ve now bathed Cleo in an antifungal shampoo and sprayed her with anti-fungal medication.  Her hair is starting to grow back.  That could be because a fungus was killed, but it could just as easily be because bathing her removed the chemical that was drying her hair to the breaking point.  We might know in another week and a half when the fungus test is completed.

Possibly.

When we go to the beach, the park or just for a walk on the street, people still stop to exclaim over her cuteness.  I find myself saying, “Her back isn’t supposed to look like that.”  Cleo, obviously, couldn’t care less.  She is without vanity.  She is simply happy to greet a fellow traveler, to celebrate the joy of living.  She is the quintessential fool—innocent and untroubled herself, while provoking the rest of us to confront the mysteries of existence.


Monday, July 25, 2011

...Till Sunbeams Find You


The night I posted my last blog I received an email from Cleo’s grandmother Jan.  She suggested putting Cleo in her crate for the night.  You know those moments when you hear good advice and you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  I had one of those.

Cleo has always been fond of her crate and sleeps in it regularly.  A couple months ago, we stopped locking her in at night.  That’s when the trouble began.  Somehow, I just got it in my head that locking her in again would be going backwards.  What a terrific thing to realize that sometimes you have to go backwards in order to go forwards.

The next morning, I got another email from a Bedlington fan suggesting the same solution.  Over the next couple days, four or five responded with similar advice and with encouragement not to give up on the shock collar altogether.  It may have its uses, they warned.  I’ve said it before and I know I will say it again, Bedlington owners are generous, helpful people. 

The funny thing is, though, that while Cleo has had wonderful nights sleeping soundly in her crate, I had a dreadful night that first night.  Yes, I know she is comfortable in her crate.  Yes, I know she spent a good part of every night in there even when she wasn’t locked in.  Yes, I have frequently seen her go into her crate to snooze during the day.  I still felt guilty about locking her in.

During the first night of her return to lockdown, I had a horrible dream that I had taken Cleo to school and for some reason had left her in the car.  I’d arrived at 8 AM and it was now almost 4:30 PM.  To make it worse, the day was sweltering and I knew I had not even left the windows down in the car.  I couldn’t understand how I could possibly do that to my baby girl.  I raced from my office to the lot where my car was parked.  In the way of dreams, it was both drastically farther away than in real life, and it took me forever to get there because I felt like I was walking through wet clay that sucked at my feet and wouldn’t let me move. 

When I finally got to the car, the two doors on the passenger side were open and Cleo was lying curled up on the edge of the back seat.  Someone had seen her in the locked car and had broken in to give her air.  I was so relieved to see her!  I picked her up and she wrapped her arms around my neck as she always does when she’s had a traumatic experience—the vet, the groomer.  Of course, I felt so guilty because she was responding in her usual loving fashion after I’d just abandoned and endangered her. 

Then I noticed that she had little mittens on her front paws.  I knew that she had been bandaged because she’d hurt herself trying to claw her way out of the car.  I recognize the origin of this image.  When I was in high school, I read an article in the New Yorker magazine written by a fellow who grew up in India.  He was blind from birth.  When he was four or five, he and some buddies took a kitten, put it in a box and buried it.  Later, they dug it up to see what had happened to it.  The kitten, now dead, had almost obliterated its paws trying to dig itself out.  The horror of that image has stayed with me for decades.  In my dream, this is what I’d done to my Cleo.  Sure, she was alive, but that was because someone had come to open the car doors after my unspeakable carelessness.

At this point in the dream, three girls came riding up on bicycles.  They were all students of mine.  The one in the front looked at me and said, “That was Cleo in there?  Mrs. Sherry, how could you do that to her?” 

How, indeed?


I was trepidatious about writing last week’s post.  It is never easy to admit that one’s life isn’t as orderly as everyone else’s looks.  I was hesitant about locking Cleo in her crate again.  Unconsciously, I was afraid I had let Cleo down spectacularly.  How reaffirming it was to learn that others had been in my shoes and had found solutions that they were willing to share. 

By Wednesday, we’d had two and a half blissful nights of sleep.  The half night was something of an anomaly.  My husband has an over-active startle response.  It can be delightfully funny, especially when a minor surprise (me standing in the doorway of his studio when he didn’t hear the door open, for example) makes him leap a foot in the air with eyes wide open and mouth agape.  Honestly, I’m not exaggerating.  It’s not so funny when he doesn’t realize that I am in the bathroom at 2:30 in the morning and he walks in, sleepy eyes downcast, to discover me.  Luckily, I had already finished what I’d gone in there to do or who knows what might have happened!

What did happen involved a lot of startled exclaiming that woke Cleo up.  Unbeknownst to us, it also woke up the neighbor dog, Boris, who then demanded to go out.  He must, as always, have charged the fence growling.  We didn’t hear him, but Cleo sure did.  She started to whine desperately and scratch at the crate.  The only other time she has ever whined that desperately to get out of her crate was when she was a tiny little girl.  I ignored her and she piddled all over her crate pad.  Between that memory and the still horribly fresh images of my nightmare, I caved and let her out.  Of course, the fact that she made a beeline for the fence to check for Boris infiltrations let me know that I’d been had!  I’m proud to report, though, that last night she woke up because of late night neighborhood barking, but this time I sat up, fixed her with a stern eye and said, “Cleo, go back to sleep.”  She did!  Absolute bliss!

Until now, I haven’t addressed the other two bad habits which I referred to in my last post: She jumps up and mouths people with such exuberance that it is really an unpleasant greeting.  She never intends to hurt with her teeth, but no one likes a gaping mouth flying at them any more than they like any dangling part of them to be covered with dog spit the moment they walk into the house.  Every now and then, she inadvertently connects a tooth to a finger tip and that hurts! 

The tricky thing is that she now stops with John and me the moment we tell her to.  Tonight at dog training class, she was a little angel with the trainer who praised her for her progress with such warm tones that Cleo and I both blushed a little.  She will not, however, stop with anyone else she encounters, in the house, out on the street, at the dog park.  She leaps and leaps, gently grabbing their hands in her mouth, nipping at the hem of their shirts (this is a new habit, by the way), and is mightily persistent.  I put her in a stand and hold onto her as I’ve been taught, but the minute I let go, she is back at it again.

So here is my plan:

1. Training collar in place (though strength of impulse dialed down a bit), 
2. willing subject at the door, 
3. door bell, 
4. subject enters, 
5. encouragement of canine to cease and desist the jumping and biting, 
6. repeat as necessary.

I’ll let you know how it goes next time.  If I’m as lucky with this one as I was with the last, she should be over it by Wednesday.  And I’ll be recovered from my nightmare by Friday.



Sunday, July 17, 2011

Well Honestly, Nobody's Perfect


And so, dear readers, we come to the nitty gritty.

School starts in less than a month—in 24 days to be exact—and there is a lot of distance still to be covered puppy-behavior-wise.  My perfect puppy is, well, far from perfect.  She barks, she mouths and she insists on jumping up.  Oh, and she rattles the blinds at night.

Poor John has not gotten a decent night’s sleep in over a week.  I am gifted with the ability to will myself to sleep.  It’s a rare occasion that I can’t get back to sleep after having been woken up either by the call of nature or the call of the canine.  John, on the other hand, has only the most tenuous hold on Morpheus.  This becomes a problem when Cleo feels the need to do a perimeter check of the backyard fence at 2 AM, 3:22 AM, and 5:30 AM.  The reasons for her waking are varied.  The first is usually raccoons, the second is her bladder, the third is Boris.

The part of Monterey that we live in is right on the border with the town of Pacific Grove.  You wouldn’t know that you had crossed over between PG and Monterey if there weren’t signs.  Really, the only difference is the housing prices.  Four blocks up from us is the dividing line, Devisadero Street.  One side is Monterey, the other PG.  On one side of the road you can buy a three bedroom, two bath house for $500,000.  On the other side of the road, the same house would be $600,000. 

Pacific Grove doesn’t believe in population control, at least when it comes to raccoons and deer.  It’s a problem.  Wildlife doesn’t recognize city boundaries.  I know, I sound heartless when I say I’d like them to be—uh—dealt with.  Raccoons are those adorable bandits in Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle movies.  It’s the failure to save his raccoon friend that sends Ace Ventura into a monastery.  And deer, well, who could fail to love Bambi?  Deer are so gentle and peaceful with their soft, tender eyes.

Do not be fooled
by their innocent appearance!
Let me just tell you that deer kill more people every year than bears, sharks and mountain lions combined.  While most of these deaths are traffic related, I have heard first person accounts of runners being charged by male deer during rutting season and small leashed dogs being trampled by female deer who don’t like their looks (or their proximity to fawns).  Raccoons, on the other hand, are vicious.  They will attack dogs, cats, and even humans.  Sitting in the vet’s office once, I was told the harrowing story of a man who heard his cat yowling one evening.  He ran outside to see what was going on and discovered a large raccoon pinning the cat with one hand while with the other it calmly drew a sharp claw down the cat’s stomach, eviscerating it.  Throwing stones and even running at the raccoon didn’t persuade it to let the cat go.  The man finally darted up and kicked it in the stomach.  The good news is that he was at the vet’s office to pick his cat up and take him home following weeks of recuperation. 

Raccoons wander freely through people’s backyards around here.  It was only following the tragic death of a two year old boy who ingested raccoon feces while playing in his sandbox that Pacific Grove rounded up all the varmints in the area and transported them to the wilder areas of the state.  That was several years ago and the critters have made a hearty comeback.

You can tell by his eyes--
he's contemplating evil.
So nightly, they use our back fence as a thoroughfare, chatter amongst themselves and generally define the word “nuisance.”  Cleo doesn’t like it.  She doesn’t like it at all.  So she gets out of her bed, goes to the French door in our bedroom and weaves in and out of the floor length, light reducing blinds, making them rattle like castanets.  At this point, I tell her “No!” and “Go back to bed!”  Which she readily does, but John has at least partly woken up. 

The second rising coincides with my own nightly bladder needs.  That works out well.  I let Cleo out, do my thing and let her back in.  The timing is usually perfect.

The third alarm is thanks to Boris.  He is the dog who lives next door.  Boris has a face and a personality only a mother could love.  He and Cleo took an instant dislike to each other.  Good fences may make good neighbors, but no amount of sniffing through the fence, meeting in person or diplomatic summits will keep Boris from charging the fence in full growl every time he goes outside.  Most mornings, he goes outside at 5:30.  Though she has learned not to bark at him when she’s out in the yard, Cleo still hates the idea that he is out there unanswered and unchallenged every morning.  The minute she hears him, she makes a dash for the door.  Rattle, scrape, whine.  “Go back to bed!”  But John is awake.  Once awake, he is composing.  Once composing, he’s got to get up.  As we often don’t go to bed until one or two in the morning, this creates a marked sleep deficit.  Cleo, on the other hand, now curls up into a tight little ball and snoozes until ten.

Realizing that she has trained us better than we have trained her, we have begun limiting her time on our bed.  We used to let her come up once the sun was up, and while that encourages her to sleep peacefully, it makes John claustrophobic.  She wedges herself between us or presses against the back of his knees, tightening the covers until they feel like a mummy’s winding sheet.  She also developed a neat little trick.  Learning that I allowed her on the bed after she went outside to pee, she started asking to go out, but once out the door, she would turn around and immediately want back in and onto the bed.  She is so smart!  This morning she pulled the stunt on me twice.  What can I say?  I was sleepy.  It’s a lame excuse, but the only one I’ve got…

The barking is an entirely different story.  The cause used to be Boris, but as I’ve said, she’s gotten over that pretty much.  Now, it’s every other dog in the neighborhood and anyone passing on the street.  She has two kinds of barks: One says, “I hear you!  Can you hear me?”  The other says: “Someone’s outside!  Alarm!  Alarm!”  It’s possible that I’m wrong about that one.  It could just as easily be, “I hear you passing!  Here I am!  Come admire me!”  She loves (loves) to greet people and be ohed and ahed over. 

Houses in our neighborhood are close together and a dog barking can be extremely annoying.  A couple weeks ago, we were chatting with our favorite neighbor.  He lives two houses over.  As we talked about the goings-on in our lives, he said, “Wow, have you heard that dog barking lately?”  John and I looked at each other and gulped.  “Ah, that could be Cleo,” I said.  “Oh, no, no,” said our neighbor quickly.  “I’m sure it’s not.  I’ve heard Cleo bark and this is a different sound.  Much deeper.”  I think he was just being polite.  I’m told Bedlingtons in general have a deep bark.  I know Cleo’s is surprisingly deep.

We have tried multiple techniques to teach Cleo to stop barking so much.  We have done the Cesar Milan hiss.  We’ve clapped at her.  We have chased her around with a spray bottle.  This worked for a while, then she turned it into a game, bouncing back and forth barking and trying to catch the spray in her teeth.  We tried taking her outside only on a leash, snapping the chain collar when she barked.  That’s fine outside.  How about inside?  Does she live on a leash?

We finally got so desperate that we went to our local Pet Food Express and asked for some suggestions.  The impressively knowledgeable manager ran through many ideas.  He showed us bark collars, but then discouraged their use.  You can’t control them, he said.  You can’t choose when a bark might be appropriate and when it isn’t.  You also can’t train your dog to stop barking on command because the collar reacts every time the dog barks.  Then he took us through the training collars.  He pointed out the citronella collars, the ones that spray a burst of citronella scented liquid into the dog’s face, but told us that the collar he uses on his own two dogs, with great success, was an adjustable strength shock collar.  You can dial the strength of the stimulus or you can use only a tone to warn the dog.  In just a few days, he had trained his dogs not to bark and not to chase his cats.  He swore by the thing.

So we bought one.  The thing is, you have to be willing to use it for it to have any chance of being effective.  When we got home, I unpacked it, charged it, turned it on, put it on Cleo, took it off and left it sitting on a shelf for a couple months.  It was during this time that we tried the other anti-bark techniques.  As the barking ramped up, we decided to give the collar a real try.  We fit it to Cleo and took the plunge: We trimmed the collar to size.  Before putting it on her, I gripped the electrodes with one hand and pushed the Go button.  Have you ever shuffled across a rug in stocking feet then kissed someone?  It’s not pleasant, but it’s not really painful.  That’s what it felt like.

News flash: The collar doesn’t work if it’s too loose.  Go figure; the electrodes actually have to touch the dog.  I can’t stand putting it on her tight enough to work.

Yesterday, Cleo was barking and barking and barking.  Everything set her off.  The neighbor pulls into her driveway.  Bark.  A soldier walks down the street talking on his cell phone.  Bark.  A dog five streets over yaps.  Bark.  In desperation, I put the collar on and tightened it until it signaled that it was on properly.  The thing is, when I had it on too loose, I had to turn the strength of the shock up to 6 before she noticed that something was happening at all.  I didn’t realize that now that it was on right, I needed to turn the impulse down.  She barked.  I said “Hush!”  She continued to bark.  I pushed Go.

Cleo jumped straight up into the air, squeaked in surprise and dashed over to me.  In a second she was on my lap, leaning in to me, her head pressed under my chin. 

It’s likely I’ll never use the collar again.  Let her bark…



Sunday, July 10, 2011

Allowing Ourselves to Reach


Elizabethan Stage @ OSF

Last week, a friend and I spent the week in Ashland, Oregon attending a workshop for teachers put on by the world renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  We spent nearly fifty hours attending classes and performances. It was an extraordinary experience on so many levels.  Both of us came away with a greater appreciation for our school, our colleagues, and the lives that we live.

Besides us, there were eighteen other participants divided between theatre teachers and English teachers.  Two women attended the first day of workshops, then disappeared, reemerging only for the five theatrical performances the group experienced.  On the other end of the spectrum was the first year teacher whose birthday-present request of her parents was half the workshop fee while she paid for the other half out of her own pocket.  A more joyful, committed and engaged classmate would be hard to find, in spite of the fact that she battled a migraine on the last day. 

The workshop facilitators were unfailingly patient and generous, far more patient than I would have been in their shoes.  Their murmured yet enthusiastic encouragements of “Excellent!  Good!” often made me laugh, but I have vowed to adopt both their words and their attitudes.  After all, if they could stay so upbeat in the face of some surprising ignorance from adults who purportedly teach this stuff, then I can certainly remain so with adolescents.  That is definitely not to say that all the participants were uninformed about theatre, Shakespeare or teaching practices.  The majority, in fact, were not only very knowledgeable, they were funny, insightful and deeply inspiring. 

Several told stories of teaching in districts so desperately underfunded that the only way to have the most basic supplies in their classrooms was to purchase them from their personal funds.  They spoke of administrators so rigid that all teachers were required to teach the same subject matter within the same window of time with no room to follow student interest or to explore thoughts or ideas that arose during discussion, and with no acknowledgement of the fact that a class of advanced students would inevitably move at a different pace than a class of English language learners.  They described the non-stop grading that accompanies teaching loads of two hundred forty students.  They talked of reaching out to engage the boy who showed so much promise, but who was being actively courted by a gang; the girl who lived in her car and who wondered what relevance Hamlet could possibly have for her; the kids who arrived at school hungry every day for whom the concept of homework was a joke—how do you do homework when home is not a safe place to be?

The fact is, of course, that Shakespeare has profound relevancy today even, or perhaps especially, for students suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  Hamlet may not live in his car, but he is a very young man who is completely alone in the world.  His father has just died.  His mother has no time for or interest in him; she is too besotted with her new husband.  His girlfriend blabs all his secrets to her father who turns around and reports them to Hamlet’s new stepfather.  And to top it all off, in order to prove that he is a “real man,” he is expected to commit murder.  He might as well live in his car.  At the very least, he would understand that young girl’s sense of isolation, meaninglessness and complete absence of any kind of security.

My friend and I kept reflecting on our own students, so eager to learn, so thirsty for the next idea, the next discussion.  How can one fail to appreciate the freedom and flexibility we are afforded to design our own curricula and set our own pace.  Last year during the popular uprisings in the Middle East, the ninth grade history teacher simply dropped his planned curriculum in order to focus on the history being made at the moment.  His students will never forget that.  How could he have done that if he had been required to stay within a fixed timeframe or to teach only what would “be on the test”?

At the end of the week, we drove the seven hours home.  We were literally minutes away from my friend’s apartment when my cell phone rang.  It was a colleague calling to tell me that she had just received a call from one of our students, a young woman in considerable distress.  Her home life had deteriorated rapidly over the weeks since summer vacation began and she felt under attack there.  She was, she said, hiding in some bushes and had to get away.  What should she do?  My colleague was calling to tell me what actions she had taken to help the student feel safe.

Welcome home.  Yes, welcome to the 24/7/365 anxiety over the health and well-being of a couple hundred teenagers.  But far more important, welcome home to a team of loving, dedicated human beings for whom teaching is so much more than imparting knowledge.  Teaching means dedicating oneself to the lives and safety of the children in our care, whether it is July or February.  No one can do that alone; it does take a village.  It takes a global village of every human being, ready to support, guide and care about every child and adolescent in every corner of the world.

My village has the added benefit of containing many remarkable human beings and one extraordinary dog.  My husband, though somewhat anxious about the prospect, was a wonderful daddy to Cleo during the week I was away.  But, oh!  What a thing it is to be greeted by an exuberant Bedlington Terrier.  With her arms wrapped around my neck, Cleo spread liberal amounts of puppy saliva over my face.  Finally, afraid of suffocating (her tongue kept plugging up my nose and I was understandably afraid to breath through my mouth), I peeled her off of me and we chased each other around the house before settling down to some good snuggling.

Just because billions of human beings do it every year doesn’t mean that growing up is an easy thing to do.  Growing up is hard; growing up well is even harder.  Training a dog, spending a week without your mom, being separated from your true love, learning to read and understand Shakespeare—none of these things is easy, but they are all worth doing for the richness they can bring to our lives. 

One morning when we were all bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, one of the workshop facilitators told us about Dr. Jerry Turner, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who transformed the company from semi-professional to  world quality.  She asked him, she told us, why people should still perform and attend Shakespeare’s plays when they can be such a challenge to understand.  This was his reply:  “We need things to reach for.  If we don’t have things to reach for our lives get filled with things that are meaningless—that are momentarily distracting but lack exalting possibilities.”  May we all dare to be exalted.


Maybe Queen Elizabeth wore those collars
because she couldn't help licking her stitches, either.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lessons I Learned From My Dog: Part 2


Even beauty queens
like to dig.

Humans make friendship far more complicated than it really needs to be.

My husband loves another woman.  Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those awful true confessions that you find on the magazine racks near grocery store checkouts.  No, I recognize that I am ridiculously fortunate to be loved, respected and admired by someone for whom I feel all those same emotions even more than I did the day we married.  But he does love his writing partner as a friend, and together they have created a dynamic and compelling series for the small screen which neither of them could have accomplished alone.  Yet periodically they suffer from a failure to communicate and one or the other of them is left with the feeling that their fur was brushed in the wrong direction.  John spends several hours brooding about it all (and so does his partner, most likely), some terse emails or texts are exchanged, and ultimately they talk it out. 

Oftentimes, I think that communication gaps happen when old personal baggage obscures the present moment.  Many years ago, I read that we expect in others the behaviors we exhibit ourselves, whether or not we like or even acknowledge those behaviors.  This is a concept that can be pretty hard to stomach.  It’s uncomfortable to accept that when I anticipate rudeness or dismissiveness from others, it’s because I tend towards rudeness and dismissiveness myself.  Often, though, when I look closely, I see that there is more truth to the adage than one might imagine. On the other hand, you can’t deny that our experiences shape our expectations.

Ram Dass, the wonderful psychologist, teacher and popularizer of Eastern thought, used to talk about the ways in which we filter our observations.  You could walk down a street, he would say, looking for a bookstore.  When you got to the end of the street, a stranger might ask you if there was a donut shop on that street.  You would have no idea whatsoever; you weren’t looking for a donut shop.   Honestly, there might be a baker’s dozen of them for all you know.

Kilroy was here.
Aren’t our filters created by our past experiences?  In my tween years, I ran afoul of my class’s Queen Bee.  Tired of sharing popularity, she embarked on a propaganda campaign designed to turn me into the sixth grade’s be-cootied outcast.  With an efficiency and brutality that would have done justice to the Gestapo, she created a mini-Reich in which no girl felt safe unless she played along with the Fuhrer.  The boys, somehow exempt from the threat, were befuddled by the whole thing.  The girls, subtle in their cruelty, simply acted as if I had ceased to exist.  Aside from occasionally hiding my belongings inside the music teacher’s grand piano, they refused to acknowledge my presence in the world.  One day, for some reason I can no longer recall, one of my former friends and I found ourselves alone on the playground.  We stood facing each other.  I suddenly realized that she looked absolutely miserable.  “Why are you guys being so mean to me?” I asked her.

“We have to be,” she whispered.  “If I’m nice to you, she’ll turn everyone against me, too.”  Suddenly, she looked hopeful.  “I can be your friend away from school, though.  I just can’t talk to you here.”

It’s possible that the years have altered my memory of my response.  Though the words I remember speaking might have been colored by too many movies, I know that the message I recall is the one I delivered at the time: “I can’t have a sometime friend.  You are either my friend, or you are not.”

As unbelievably lame as it sounds, even to me, I still have difficulty trusting groups of women.  I expect to feel abject humiliation as they band together, leaving me on the outside.  For this reason, I tend to lay back when first meeting groups of people.  I keep my thoughts to myself and present a fa├žade of confidence and unflappability.  Of course, what this usually gets read as is snobbishness and judgementalism.  Oy!  And, yes, I realize that shyness, like worry, is an inherited trait and at times I encourage myself to overcome my genes rather than my experiences.  Somehow it makes me feel a bit better to couch it this way—genetics rather than a forty-year-old scar.

When my niece was in sixth grade, she had her own Queen Bee experience.  A new student joined her class and quickly culled a court from the previously harmonious group using the ancient techniques of mockery and meanness.  After months of suffering during which she tried indirectly to counteract the Queen Bee’s effects, my niece reached breaking point on the playground during recess. 

By the way, those of you who think that most learning takes place in the classroom need to do some hard pondering of your own school days.  What are your strongest recollections?  The classroom lessons?  Or the schoolyard interactions?  Don’t you go back to the boy you kissed on the jungle gym?  To the joyous competition of who could climb highest on the peg board?  To the wind on your face as the swing flew you up to the clouds?  For every memory of the classroom, I bet there are five of the playground.  For me, that ratio doesn’t change until I get to graduate school, but that’s a contemplation for another time.

Anyway, so during recess, my niece reached her breaking point as she watched the Queen Bee torture a confused and defenseless boy.  My niece marched up to the girl, pointed her finger in her face and shouted, “You have got to stop being so mean!  You cannot treat people this way!”  Then she spun on her heel and marched away.  Okay, she may have marred the effect a little bit by bursting into tears as she spun (a girl after my own heart).  I’d love to tell you that the class rallied after this showdown and everyone ended up the best of friends, but this blog is intended to be nonfiction.

Naps are SO important.
And what does this have to do with my dog?  We humans make friendship so complicated.  For Cleo, it is all so simple.  Every being in the world is her friend, for now or for a lifetime.  It doesn’t matter how many legs; whether they talk, meow, caw or bark; whether they come bearing gifts or arrive empty handed; whether they be barely within sight or immediately to hand.  This morning on our walk, we noticed two women coming from the other end of the street.  Though she’d never met them before, Cleo was so excited to become friends that I finally had her sit down next to me so that she wouldn’t strangle herself in her eagerness to become acquainted.  At times, she’ll bark at a distant dog as if to say, “Hello!  Here I am!”  On the beach yesterday, her mantra became “Touch noses.  Chase me!  That was fun!”

A couple of weeks ago, Cleo gave me heart failure when she bounded off our front deck and out into the street to greet two passersby.  She cavorted and jumped up on them as they cooed over her.  I ran after her.  “Sorry about that,” I said to the couple.  “She’s never met a stranger!”  The woman laughed, but the man looked at me in horror.  “Really?” he exclaimed.  “What do you do, keep her locked in the house all the time?”  What experiences was he filtering through?

There is such a pureness and simplicity about the way Cleo engages with the world.  Her attitude is unflagging: “I think you are wonderful and I know you will enjoy me, too.”  From time to time she becomes over-exuberant with our cats and they soft paw her on the nose (or sometimes double paw her—left, right, bam, bam).  She is never offended or psychologically scarred—she just gives them a little more room.  She is unselfconsciously who she is, and her delight is in the creatures around her.

There is a profound lesson in that.

Friends come in all
shapes and sizes.