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!