Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Autumn Leaves are Falling

For many people, the onset of fall is nothing but a reminder of the headlong rush towards winter, but I love this time of year.  Of course, that’s easy for me to say; I live in a part of the world where the temperature rarely goes below 40 degrees and snow is something we see from a distance.  As we drive clear, sun drenched streets, we can look towards the east where there are a couple of isolated mountains of enough elevation that their peaks are occasionally dusted with snow during the winter months.  It’s a cause for great excitement and considerable comment, as well as spontaneous “drives to the snow” to bring back snowballs, carefully preserved in coolers, for a seconds-long snowball fight or the general pranking of one’s friends.  Not for us the rapidly plummeting temperatures, the leafless, rattling tree branches, the desertion by hummingbirds and butterflies, or the retrieval from storage of ice scrapers and snow shovels.. 

In high school, my favorite English teacher once broke my heart when she groaned in an agonized tone, “I hate autumn.  It speaks of nothing but death.”  I had no idea what to say to her.  Even now, words of comfort or understanding would probably desert me.  At seventeen, I could only gaze at her with aching pity.  I wanted to graft my love of the season, whole cloth, into her brain.  Even that word—autumn—is beautiful.  It’s the taste of crisp apples, the smell of quiet earth and the soul-soothing touch of the lengthening angles of sunlight.

Here in Monterey, the season also brings with it our warmest weather of the year.  Many people call this Indian Summer, but that always seems a misnomer to me.  For someone who grew up in Pennsylvania and Vermont, Indian Summer was the warm period that followed a cool period that followed a hot summer.  Here in Central California, it doesn’t seem fair to call the one really hot time of the year anything but October.  When your summer is cold and foggy and your early fall is mild with the promise of sunshine, a week of 70s and 80s doesn’t really deserve to be called Indian Summer.

We are funny here, though.  We pine for warm, sunny weather for months, then two days into our warm spell, we’re all staggering around, sweaty and exhausted, poleaxed by the heat and humidity.  I really feel for Cleo.  I can pare down to shorts and a tank top; she is stuck in a fur coat.  The major part of every day this past week, she has spread herself out on the gel mat I stand on as I work at the computer.  It’s the only cool surface in the room.  Everything else is textile: the carpet, the couch, the cushions on the chairs.  She barely lifts her head as I straddle her, one foot on either side of her prone body, tapping away at the keyboard.  Occasionally, she’ll muster the energy to get up and greet a visitor, giving the hand a peremptory lick before once more flopping onto her side in heat-induced lethargy.  Of course, that means that in the evening, when the sun sets and the thermometer drops to a pleasant sixty-two or –three, she is ready for action, bounding into the backyard, barking a challenge and making the world safe for democracy.

A couple of times this past week, she rallied herself for daytime action.  At 10:18 AM on 10/18, many schools participate in the Great California Shakeout, an earthquake drill.  Cleo and I were in charge of the library, a beautiful, if impractical, open structure with soaring ceilings and outer walls of plate glass.  When the building was constructed, there was no thought for installing safety glass or, indeed, tempered glass of any kind.  Over the years, we’ve had occasion, thanks to chairs being too forcefully pushed out of the way, to replace two or three sheets of glass with the safer variety.  The cost of replacing them all would put us in debt for the foreseeable century.  So one of the things Cleo and I did last Thursday was to go around to the students sitting by the outer walls and quietly ask them, “What would you do if there were an earthquake?” 

“Oh,” responded one young man, looking with doubt at the towering window behind him.  “Huh.”

Huh, indeed.  That’s why we have drills.

We followed our earthquake drill with a fire drill.  Let’s just say, not Cleo’s favorite sound in the world.  With the county fire marshal in attendance, I wanted Cleo to be on her best behavior, so when she started barking at the alarm, I picked her up.  She quieted instantly.  And for an instant.  Then she redoubled her barking and upped the ante with some struggling, kicking and whining.  I put her down and headed for the mustering area, one of our athletic fields.  She strained against the leash the whole way, but once on the field, she got into line and sat politely, if anxiously, by my side.  Having Mom nearby helped her restrain herself, but once we were dismissed, she needed to get rid of that pent up energy.  In spite of the heat, she and I sprinted all over that field, chasing each other, chasing the crows, chasing a soccer drill thingie that flew like a Frisbee.  When she eventually lay down, panting, with her tummy pressed against the cool grass, I figured it was time to go in and get a drink of water.

Her other daytime outing was when Auntie Kim took her across the street to the Wilderness Lab.  I swear, though it’s only across the street, the Lab is always a good ten degrees warmer than the rest of campus.  Hot, dry, and full of prickly stuff, but also redolent of wild animal scat.  Cleo loves going over there.  This outing with Auntie was her first time without me.  When they returned, Kim was full of amazed compliments.  “Cleo was so well behaved!” she reported.  “A couple times she tried to sneak under the razor wire onto the BLM land, but the second I said, ‘No!’ she came right back.  She heeled all the way back to school.  Without a leash! Everyone was so impressed!” 

Well of course she did!  I’d love to say that it was because she is so very well trained, and to some extent, that’s true.  But the real reason she was so obedient was because without Mama there, she was afraid she’d be abandoned to the mountain lions and coyotes.  There was no way she was going to let her Auntie out of her sight. 

This weekend, the weather broke and we’ve had cool days, cooler nights and buckets of rain.  Sodden pine needles clog the gutters and storm drains.  As I write, I can hear cars swishing by on the wet pavement.  Clouds pile up above the Bay in frothy imitations of snow-capped peaks.  I’m snuggled up on the chaise, a blanket covering me, the world’s most perfect puppy warming my feet, her chin flung across my shins.  As I said, I love this time of year.

Dear Faithful Readers,

Thank you for your comments, your readership, your good wishes for Cleo and me!  I wanted you to know that I will be taking the next month off to focus on revising and compiling the first year's worth of blog posts for collection in a book that will be ready in time for the holidays.  Perfect for gift giving!  We'll be back in December.  In the meantime, feel free to be in touch.  We always love hearing from you all.

All the best,
Joyce and Cleo

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Muddy Outcomes

Sometimes it feels like every action we take comes with unintended consequences, whether positive or negative.  In foreign policy circles, this is called blowback, though I guess that term usually has negative connotations.  You probably wouldn’t hear a news anchor say something like, “Middle East peace was achieved today as a result of blowback from the Secretary of State’s most recent round of shuttle diplomacy.” 

But unintended consequences can be good.  Just a moment ago, in fact, as an unintended consequence of finally getting around to downloading IOS 6 for my iPhone, I discovered one of the coolest apps I’ve ever seen.  I’m keeping it a secret so it won’t get over-used.  Although, given that it’s one of the featured Passbook apps, that’s probably a lost cause.

John and I have been dealing with the unintended consequences of installing a dog door for Cleo.   Before we bought it, we carefully considered the dangers of unwelcome intruders (whether self-propelled or puppy-propelled).  A friend’s graphic story about a student of hers who woke up one hot night to discover a rabid skunk standing on his chest definitely gave us pause.  So far (knock on wood) we’ve been spared the entrance of anything untoward.  Last night, we might have been the closest ever to entertaining an unwelcome guest.  Cleo caught her first rat.  I wasn’t sure whether to be congratulatory or grossed out.  One thing’s for sure: She won’t be licking my face when she comes in from the backyard anymore.  Frankly, it was just a baby, about four inches long, but hey, when it’s in your backyard, a rat is a rat.  When I discovered her, she was a little confused about the whole thing.  I think she was as surprised as I was (let alone the rat) that she had actually succeeded in getting it, and she was trying to figure out what to do with it now.  I can just imagine her deciding that a good, safe place for it would be between the cushions on the chaise in the living room.  I could almost hear the characteristic, sneaky tick-tick-tick of her nails as she tried to tiptoe past me with her contraband.  I brought her in and locked the flap prestissimo.

What hadn’t dawned on us was that things besides the puppy might go out.  Or maybe I should say “in addition to” rather than “besides,” given that they are going out with Cleo.  I first became suspicious when I discovered an unusually dirty pair of John’s socks lying next to the refrigerator.  When I picked them up, I discovered they were damp and curiously earthy smelling.  Now, John would rather be barefoot than shod any day of the week, and even if he were wearing socks, he wouldn’t go tromping around in the mud with them.  Not long after this, his leather gloves (a perennial favorite of Cleo’s) disappeared from the coffee table.  We looked in her usual hiding places, but found nothing.  A quick scan of the backyard likewise turned up zilch, but later that afternoon, I heard Cleo rustling around in the narrow passage between our shed and fence.  Not long after that, she came through the dog door with a single glove in her mouth and a guilty expression on her face.  So I know where her hiding place is, but let me tell you, I am not planning to explore it!  Here there be spiders!  Besides, she usually returns whatever she’s stolen.  Maybe it’s guilt or maybe she’s bragging, I don’t know.  The second glove showed up a couple days later, wet and muddy. 

Sometimes we don’t even realize that something is missing until she brings it back.  It’s always been her penchant to steal socks in pairs; when there isn’t a lone survivor to call attention to its solitude, it’s pretty easy to overlook missing socks.  Luckily, she almost always returns them in pairs, too.  I was a little resentful when she spat my favorite underpants at my feet last week.  At least this time we were home alone rather than having dinner with friends.  Nothing says “Welcome!” like your dog bearing your unmentionables to the dining table.

At the moment, we’re waiting for the return of our bathroom doorstop.  As we brush our teeth at night, the door swings quietly closed, always stopping at just the right angle so that I bang an elbow into it as I reach for the floss.  “Where’s the damn doorstop?” I ask Cleo, who snoozes happily on, stretched out on our bed. 

And really, what’s a little blowback compared to a contented puppy dog?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wishing You a Happy Voyage Home

“I didn’t really know much about military personnel.  I didn’t know much about their lives… I don’t think I appreciated them to the level that they deserved.  And that has changed…. I border on embarrassed at how little thought I gave military service until I got to know service members.”

Wow.  Stephen Colbert and I think alike.  Not the character Stephen Colbert, the real Stephen Colbert.  He said those words to Terry Gross during a recent interview on Fresh Air.  Of course, we came to the same realization from two different angles.  Colbert was talking about what he had learned from doing his show for the last several years.  In 2009, he spent a week in Iraq performing for the troops.  Since then, he and his staff have supported several charities which raise funds to help military personnel and their families.  My awakening was on a much smaller, though possibly more personal, scale.

Last week, John and I left Cleo in the care of friends and flew to Great Lakes, Illinois, to see our son (by blood, his son, by childrearing, ours) Jackson graduate from Recruit Training Command, the Navy’s basic training.

This past year has been a taxing one for our family.  Sometimes adolescents experience a gentle, constantly ascending arc of growth from childhood to adulthood.  At other times, the path can be a little rockier with lots of ups and downs.  And then there are the times when the path is not so much rocky as boulder-strewn, less up and down than veering straight over the cliff into a freefall tumble to the valley floor below.  It can be difficult or impossible to pinpoint any reason why one person’s adolescence is more fraught than another’s.  I’ve known young men far less capable, less socially intelligent and less kind than Jackson who sailed through their teens and twenties with nary a blip on the radar screen of distress.  John and I aren’t perfect parents, but I’ve seen kids fare better with far worse ones.  Suffice it to say that a year ago, we reached crisis point, and after much consultation and deliberation, John and I did the hardest thing we have ever had to do.  We gave Jackson a month to find somewhere else to live.

It’s a tribute to a resourcefulness he didn’t know he possessed, and to his emotional intelligence, that he pretty quickly lined up a couple places with friends.  He also parlayed a part-time job at a failing bike shop into a full-time position as a bike repairman for a thriving string of rental shops for tourists.  And for the first time, he started thinking about his future.   John and I were floored when Jackson called to say he had enlisted in the Navy.  “Why the Navy?!” I whined to John.  “If he had to enlist, why not the Coast Guard?”  When my oldest sister’s college boyfriend drew a number so low that he knew he would be drafted into the war in Vietnam, he enlisted in the Coast Guard as a safer choice.  That made a big impression on my fifteen-year-old mind, though these days, what with the war on drugs and the Coast Guard’s deployment to Iraq in the early days of that war, I don’t know that the “Coast-Guard-is-safe” canard holds water anymore.

Growing up during the Vietnam War, I never thought of the military as a career choice.  Don’t misunderstand: I was never one of those people who shouted epithets at soldiers in uniform or who went to the airport to yell “Baby killer” at returning veterans.  For one thing, I was too young to drive and my parents never would have given me permission to go.  For another, even as a callous teenager, I saw that these protesters were yelling at the wrong people.  So many of the boys returning home were barely older than we, and they would bear scars for the rest of their lives.  Yet even though I have nieces, nephews, students, friends and colleagues who enlisted in one branch of the service or another, I still thought of military service as something one would have to be required to do, rather than something one would chose to do.

We had six months to get used to the idea.  Recruitment was so high when Jackson enlisted that the Navy had no room for him until August.  And so it was that last week, John and I turned our faces towards Lake Michigan.  The graduation hall opened at 6:30 AM for a ceremony that started at 9:00.  We couldn’t imagine why we would need to be there so early, so we slept in till 5:30, had breakfast, hopped in the car and made the hour drive to the base.  Traffic was fairly heavy the whole way, but when we turned the corner onto the street leading to the main gate, with a mile and a half to go, it seemed to get even worse.  Avoiding the badly backed up right lane, we pulled over into the left where the going was a bit clearer.  “Man, that is just bumper-to-bumper over there,” I commented.  “They are not even moving.”

Silence.  We looked at each other.  Uh-oh.  “Naw!” I waved my hand to dismiss the idea.  We scanned the line of cars.  “Every one of those cars,” John stated ominously, “has what looks like a family in it.”  I tried to peer into the car next to us.  Dad, Mom, Grandpa, Sister?  By now we were a quarter mile farther along the road.  Clearly we were not the only ones taken by surprise.  Cars ahead of us were slowing and merging with the right hand lane.  John put on his signal and eased into the long line of graduation-goers, waving a thank you to the car behind us.  We sat, not moving.  Five minutes passed.  We sat.  Cars flashed past us on the left.  We sat.  In ten minutes, we had not moved a single car length.  Up ahead, every time some space opened up, a car from the left lane merged into it.  It was almost 8:00; the Navy had been very clear that the doors to the graduation hall would close at 8:45.  “We’re never going to get through this line in time,” I fretted.

“There is no way we’re going to miss this,” John vowed in his best Dirty Harry style.  He peeled out of the line and into the left lane. 

“What are we going to do?” I asked, a little quavery.

“Think outside the box.”  He gave me a grin.  “How are those shoes for walking?”

About a half mile from the gate, we dove into a residential side street, found a perfect parking place, stretched out the kinks in our legs and started a very pleasant trek.  We were the only pedestrians, and the two sailors detailed to check IDs at the walk-in gate looked thrilled to have something to do.  By 8:25, we were crammed onto the bleachers with the majority of what would ultimately become a crowd of over five thousand.  It turns out that Jackson was one of 1001 graduating Sailor Recruits, the second largest class of the year.

Flag corps
The Navy puts on one of these graduation ceremonies just about every Friday of the year, and it is quite the show.  There are videos (“We know in just a little while, your recruit will have plenty of stories to tell you from the last eight weeks.  Before that happens, we want to show you our side of the story!”), speeches, special awards and honors, a totally hip drum corps, several tunes from the marching band, a chorus, and lots of impressive marching (the Navy has such a relaxed style of marching—very chill and self-possessed).  At the outset of the ceremony, before the divisions of recruits arrive, a flag corps displays each of the fifty state flags arranged in order of entry into the union.  As the state’s name is announced, the corps member dips the flag and the attendees from that state cheer and applaud.  “Delaware!”  One lone voice from the far left of the audience lets out a whoop.  A similarly small contingent from Rhode Island.  Giant cheers from Illinois, Texas, California.  Some states may have had more recruits than others, but in this graduating class, every state in the union was represented.

Honestly, I don’t know if I would necessarily call myself patriotic.  I’m not sure I know exactly what that word is intended to mean anymore, not as it’s commonly used, anyway.  I do know that I love my country.  Despite its flaws, I believe it affords more opportunities than any other country currently on Earth.  I love Americans.  We are an ornery bunch, but we are also resilient, brave, inventive, imaginative and caring.  I also love our national anthem.  Yes, some people object to it because they claim it’s war-mongering.  It’s not; it’s about surviving.  One night, when Jackson was five or six, John and I were getting ready to read him to sleep.  Jackson sat between us, his warm little head leaning against my arm.  For some reason, I started telling him the story of our national anthem.  An exhausted soldier, embattled and besieged by enemy attacks that have gone on all night, looks up to the ramparts.  In the light of exploding shells, he sees his country’s flag, tattered and smoke-stained, but still flying, still in place.  From that sight, he gathers the strength to press on to the end, to survive.  I’ve never been able to hear that part of the song without tearing up a little.

“And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof, through the night
That our flag was still there.”

As we sang the national anthem at Jackson’s graduation, I pretended it was the stratospherically high range of the melody that kept me from singing those lines, but the truth is, I was too choked up to get the words out. 

By the time the ceremony was over and the newly hatched sailors were granted liberty, we had about five hours with Jackson before he had to be back to stand watch.  Plus, he was leaving for his “A” school in South Carolina at 1:00 the next morning.  We decided to drive down to Chicago so that he could see the city he’d been an hour away from for the last two months.  As we walked across the base and back to the car, as we drove, as we walked the streets of Chicago, as we ate lunch, as we explored the Skydeck at Sears Tower, this formerly monosyllabic young man talked.  He told us stories, he described his division-mates, he explained terms and drills and the lessons he had learned.  These things mattered to him.  He had an adult perspective on why he was expected to set his cap just so, why it was regulation to take ladders one rung at a time, why it was important that he had learned to fold his clothes precisely: Attention to detail could save his life, and the lives of everyone around him, one day.   He understood why recruits are not permitted to say thank you, why this reflex instilled in kids every day by their parents is actively discouraged.  Thoughtless words, wasted words, can, quite literally, get you sunk.  You better mean everything you say.

It was a fascinating thing to see, everywhere we went, people openly gazing at him.  Granted he is a good-lookin’ boy (I can say that; my genes aren’t involved).  And he is impressive-looking at six-two clad in his sailor’s whites, carrying himself with an ease and a confidence we’d never seen from him before.   There was a lovely, sweet humility about him as he returned their looks with a quiet smile.

On our way into Chicago, we stopped off at a Starbucks to caffeine up.  We each ordered a cup of one kind or another.  At the last moment, I grabbed a little tube of trail mix.  “That’ll be a buck seventy-nine,” said the bepaunched man behind the counter.

John looked confused.  “For the nuts.  What about the rest of it?”

“Whaddabat the rest of it?” returned the cashier, somewhat defensively.  “Lemme tell you a story,” he went on.  “When I was a kid, a recruit, I went into a bar.  The bartender hands me and my buddies a drink and says, ‘The guy at the end of the bar bought you this.’  So I look at the guy and I say, ‘How come you bought us a drink?’  And the guy says to me, ‘When I was a recruit, some guy bought me a drink.  I’m returning the favor.  I’m only goin’ to ask you this: When you’re in your fifties, buy some recruit a drink.’  So here I am.  I’m in my fifties and I’m buyin’ you a drink.  I’m just gonna ask you one thing.  When you’re in your fifties, buy some recruit a drink.”

Jackson and the cashier looked at each other, sharing a moment of reflection that John and I were not, never could be, a part of.  Then Jackson reached out a hand and with grave sincerity said, “Thank you, sir.”

But that wasn’t my favorite moment.  My favorite moment was in the parking lot when we had taken Jackson back to the base and it was time to say goodbye.  I reached out to him and he folded me into a hug, wrapping his arms tightly around me, and held on.  And he did not let go first.

In his interview with Terry Gross, Stephen Colbert said, “I work hard to keep [a consideration of military personnel] in mind without fetishizing military service.  I think there are great ways to serve the country that are not military service.  It’s not the only thing you can do.”  The path that Jackson has chosen is not right for everyone, but for him, it’s something that he is committed to and believes in.  The transformation in him didn’t all happen in an eight week period.  It was taking place over the last year, a year when all three of us had time to reflect, learn about ourselves and grow.  I know there will still be ups and downs as the years go by.  There are in every life and in every relationship.  But when the ties are strong, we can weather a few rough seas.

Jackson on the Skydeck

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wild Blue...Yonder!

It’s good to know that the spirit of exploration is still alive and well in the United States.  This desire to know what lies over the next ridge has always been one of our most attractive traits, whether the “ridge” in question is the Blue Ridge Mountains, gravity, the human genome or our own neuroses.

On Friday, my book group got together to discuss our latest read, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the book.  I found myself constantly torn between impatience on the one hand and admiration on the other.  The impatience sprang initially from a mild disgust at the complete mess Strayed makes of her life after her mother dies.  Maybe the sting was envy.  I mean, I’ve experienced many deaths, but I was never allowed to fall apart as completely as she did.  There was always someone depending on me to hold things together.  Yet Strayed’s response is to launch herself on a solo trek of the Pacific Crest Trail, the west coast’s sister of the Appalachian Trail, only longer and more arduous.  Of course she was stupidly, dangerously ignorant about trekking and unprepared for the rigors of the PCT, but she stuck with it.  She had the guts not only to think about such a journey, a woman alone in the wilderness for hundreds of miles, but to actually take it on.  That is something I could never do, and not only because I hate camping.

When I was a girl, ten or eleven, I had a dream of riding a horse across the country.  Like many adolescent girls, I was horse-mad.  I would regularly attach a “bridle” to the newel post of our banister and take off on mad gallops through the countryside or long slogs up the sides of mountains.  Since I grew up in Pennsylvania, the mountains I was familiar with had been tamed somewhat by the effects of time and erosion.  Still, my imaginary rides were full of excitement and horse-girl companionship, but never any serious danger.  As the youngest child of a mother who was seriously ill during my toddler-hood, I got a lot of attention from my sisters and father, but no one ever had the time to drive me to riding lessons.  Horse-mad I might be, but horse-poor I would remain.  I did get a cat I adored.  And the full set of Doctor Doolittle books one Christmas.  No movie version, whether Rex Harrison or Eddie Murphy, can hold a candle to the original books.

Despite my boldness on the banister, the reality of my personality is that the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done is move to New York City by myself to go to acting conservatory.  But that doesn’t mean I’m a complete coward. 

A friend in my book group commented that she related to Strayed’s impulse to get out into the wild and get away.  When she was facing a difficult time in her life, she said, that was all she wanted to do—turn away from the trouble and start to walk and walk and walk.  But she didn’t.  She stayed and did the harder thing; she examined herself.  I will tell you, my friend learned more about herself in three weeks time than Strayed has ever learned (at least according to what my book group reports about the end of Wild).  There are plenty of folks who can set off without a qualm to explore the most remote of territories, but who quail from the territory of the mind.

Coincidentally, also on Friday, the Space Shuttle flew over Monterey as it made its final trip to an aeronautical museum in Los Angeles.  Although I openly scoffed at people who said they planned to watch it pass (including my own husband), when I heard that we’d be able to have a good view of it from the deck of the school’s science building, I made my way over there, then across the street to a high ridge in our outdoor lab.  A cluster of twenty or so students and teachers stood in the sunshine looking out over Monterey Bay.  As one of our tech-savvy teachers followed his Twitter feed to determine how close the Shuttle was (“It’s circling San Francisco!”), I found myself (“It’s still circling San Francisco!”) getting more and more (“Oh, come on!  It’s still circling San Francisco?”) excited and (“It’s over Palo Alto!”) anticipatory.  Even so, (“It’s over San Jose!  It’ll be here in minutes!”) I was surprised how emotional I became when we heard the distant rumble of the low-flying 747 with its fighter jet escort.  Then it came into view.  Of course, I’ve seen any number of pictures of the Shuttle atop its transport, but somehow seeing it in person brought home just how tiny it is compared to its more earth-bound assistant.  It was breathtakingly white, gleaming and majestic as it coasted, only twelve hundred feet above sea level, over the Monterey Bay Aquarium, then south into its future.  It had carried explorers into space and safely back home, how many times?  Because of its development and engineering, humanity has been immeasurably enriched, from the small digital cameras that our faculty and students were using to snap photos as the Shuttle passed to memory foam mattresses and LED lights.  I realized I was foolish not to recognize that this was a moment that needed to be honored.  The Space Shuttle is the embodiment of the spirit of American exploration.  Truly, the Endeavor is aptly named.

At the same time that I was watching from a hilltop at school, a former band mate of John’s, now an arborist, was high in our hundred foot pine tree trimming dead branches.  Since our house is one mile directly uphill from the Aquarium, he had one of the best Shuttle views of anyone in town.  I hope it helped make up for the fact that his chipping crew failed to materialize, so he had to spend hours stacking large branches in our side yard to get them out of the way until Monday.  It has, I will tell you, created one of the most wonderful adventures for Cleo. 

Late Saturday evening, I realized that I hadn’t seen the puppy for an unusual length of time. I searched the house.  Nothing.  Beginning to get worried, I went outside and checked the gate to the street.  Safely shut tight.  Where the heck was she?  Nowhere in the backyard.  I stood on the back deck, peering down the length of the side yard.  No telltale blue Bedlington glow.  Suddenly, I heard a rustling from deep within the head-high pile of branches.  Oh, yuck, a rat?!  Cleo burst forth from one end of the pile and shook herself from the tip of the nose to the end of her tufted tail.  She saw me and leapt onto the deck, paws reaching high.  Her mouth agape in an exhilarated grin, her fur sticky with pine sap, her entire face stained a vivid green from the boughs, she was every inch the great explorer, returning home with newfound knowledge.

For some of us, it’s the call of the stars.  For others, joy is here on earth.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Choice of the Whole Frontier

Because our school contains a hundred plus acres of wilderness land which flows seamlessly into thousands more undeveloped acres of the former Fort Ord military facility, we have the great good fortune of regular wild animal sightings.  As we attend our periodic assemblies, we can look out through a wall of glass to a canyon where hawks and buzzards circle on the updrafts, and quail scratch and skitter, their top-knots waggling as they zig-zag in search of juicy morsels.  Tiny bunnies venture cautiously from the underbrush to nibble at the grass.  During my final approach to school last week, I had to slow the car as a turkey hen and her brood crossed the road in front of me.  It gave me a chance to reflect on the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin who recommended the turkey as our national symbol rather than the bald eagle.  It is, after all, indigenous to North America.  It is also beautiful in a subtle, understated, non-braggy kind of way.  As the hurrying group filed in front of me, I tried to get a good look at each of the mid-sized poults.  I wanted to help bear witness to their presence in the world, however brief.  Humans aren’t the only carnivores that like the taste of turkey meat.  Though there were six or seven last week, the hen will be lucky if she raises two to adulthood.

In the last month, our environmental science teacher has started one of the best projects ever at our school.  She and the tech team have installed two critter cams in the area we’ve come to call the Outdoor Lab.  The very first twenty-four hour period returned gold.

Handsome Bob

This bobcat apparently regards the Outdoor Lab as his personal territory because we have regular sightings of him, both by day and night.  The critter cams have also caught a coyote, multiple deer and a mystery animal which may have been a running mountain lion.  The image is too blurry to say for certain, but cougar sightings (the four-legged variety) are not uncommon around Monterey.  My personal favorite critter cam catch appeared on the school’s blog under the heading “Some wildlife is more wild than others.”

Wildlife in the Outdoor Lab

That shot was taken on a day when Cleo and I were helping the envi sci teacher collect the photo cards from the cameras.  Cleo is in her typical outdoor stance: nose aiming towards the ground scenting something while her back leg is held in the characteristic “Ow, there’s something stuck between my pads” position.  Whenever we walk in the “wilderness,” by which I mean anywhere that’s not paved, Cleo adopts this stance almost instantly.  It’s accompanied by a pathetic little hop that has John and me calling her Chester.  That’s a Gunsmoke reference for you under-50 crowd.  Um, Gunsmoke was a television show back in the day when we had only three channels to watch.  I know.  Hard to get your mind around, huh?

Not all the wildlife is over in the Outdoor Lab, though.  Years ago, the school adopted two desert tortoises which were first named Fred and Rosie.  Now, before I tell you this next part, you need to understand that it can be something of a challenge to determine gender where desert tortoises are concerned.  A couple of years ago, certain, shall we say, behaviors on Rosie’s part led us to believe that we’d gotten their names reversed.  We decided that to try to remember to call them by each other’s names, perhaps more gender-appropriate, would be so confusing that it just wasn’t worth it.  It’s not like they come when they’re called, anyway.  Turns out it’s just as well.  An art teacher joined us this year who happens to be a desert tortoise specialist.  Fred and Rosie, it seems, are brothers.  Somewhere in their thirties, they’re about the size of dinner plates.  I can confidently tell you, they are not afraid of Bedlington Terriers.

I don’t know how it is that Cleo never noticed them before a couple of weeks ago.  Indoors, they live in a kiddie pool in the prep area of the science building.  She has walked by that kiddie pool several dozen times in the last two years.  On warm days, they move to their outdoor enclosure, a large dog pen on a stretch of dirt between the science building and the parking lot.  Cleo and I were on a mission a couple weeks ago when I spotted Fred and Rosie outside and thought she might like to meet them.  Not one of my better ideas.  From the first sniff, she has been tortoise-obsessed.  She is the poster-child for the joke, “What’s the difference between a terrier and a terrorist?”  Answer: “You can negotiate with a terrorist.” 

The first thing that happened was that Rosie yanked his head into his shell while Fred charged Cleo.  It might seem funny to think of a tortoise “charging,” but I’ll tell you, I was glad the wire mesh of the pen was there to keep them apart.  I had images of that tortoise beak clamping down on Cleo’s nose and doing some serious damage, especially because Cleo wasn’t daunted at all.  She danced around the enclosure, trying to look at Fred and Rosie from every possible angle.  I was finally able to drag her away from them, but every chance she gets, she’s back up at that tortoise pen.  In fact, the next day, she actually ran out of the library, something she’d never done before, and made a beeline for the tortoises.  Over the next few days, I made a point of showing her that the pen was empty every time we went by.  I was hoping that she’d come to understand it wasn’t worth running over there because nine times out of ten, they wouldn’t be outside.  I know, I know.  I give her too much credit for logic.

So last Wednesday, Cleo and I were taking our afternoon leg-stretch, and I saw that Fred and Rosie were, indeed, outside.  Okay, I thought, maybe what I need to do is get Cleo so used to seeing them that she doesn’t care anymore.  Go ahead, laugh.  I’ll wait till you’re done. 

Ready?  Okay, so over to the pen we go.  Fred and Rosie were eating, so chose to ignore Cleo completely.  For Cleo, it was like seeing a squirrel scampering around a tree, a possum standing on the backyard fence, and an alien invasion all at once.  Barking furiously, she started alternately trying to dig her way under or hop her way over the metal barrier.  She pawed at the pen, slammed it with her shoulder, raced from one side to the other.  Fred, standing closer to the edge, turned a baleful stare on her and continued chewing.  I’m not sure which of us was most startled when Cleo shoved her face through one of the square gaps and closed her teeth on Fred’s shell.  She didn’t have enough of a purchase to hold on, but there was an audible clacking noise and a telltale damp semi-circle on one edge of his shell.

At this point, I decided it would be a good move to leash her and attempt to get her to exercise some self-control.  For a couple of minutes, she continued to bark, lunge and try to bite through the fence.  Eventually, I got her to sit, quivering, and just look at them.  But by this time, she was so agitated and over-heated that as she sat staring at them, she started listing to one side.  She caught herself, then began to slide the other way, slumping against my leg.  Fighting down a little panic of my own, I stepped away from the tortoise enclosure.  Cleo readily followed me, but hadn’t gone two steps when she staggered and sat down again.  All I knew was that I had to get her out of the sun and away from the tortoises.  I scooped her up and all but ran back to my office, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth for much of the way.  But even before we were back in the library she was asking to be put down.  Once in the office, I set her in front of her water bowl and opened the windows for a good cross breeze.  She tanked up, then stood extra-patiently as I picked grass and twigs out of her tassels and paws.  By the time I’d finished grooming her, she seemed perfectly fine and was ready to play again.

Cleo was a good reminder: It’s not the life we encounter that challenges us, but how we react to it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Weekend in the Country

Over the long weekend of Labor Day, John and I piled two suitcases, an amp, numerous guitar pedals, two guitars, a travel crate and, of course, Cleo into the back of his RAV-4 and headed, once again, into the middle of nowhere.  Specifically, we were on our way to Downieville, a tiny gold rush town in the Tahoe National Forest, so that he could jam with a group of people he had met once, several years ago, and I had never met.

Frequent readers of this blog might remember that I am a self-described shy person.  The idea of hanging out all weekend with twenty plus strangers, all of whom have known each other since high school and before, doesn’t just make me uneasy, it causes cold sweat to trickle down my brow and back.  The draws were the mountain air, a rushing river, and a long weekend away from all forms of 21st century technology.  Plus the possibility of a bear sighting.  My plan was to hole up in the hotel room with Cleo where I could write and read to my heart’s content while John spent his time at the cabin playing music.

We set out for the six hour drive on Saturday morning at 1:30.  Yes, AM.  John had a gig Friday night that got him home at 12:30.  By the time he’d unloaded, packed and reloaded, an hour had sped by.  Let’s just say that traffic around Sacramento, normally highly congested, was not a problem.  We didn’t catch much scenery as we headed north, but the nearly full moon was stunning and we loved listening to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for the third time.  Cleo, the normally anxious, panting traveler, eventually curled up and went to sleep; that D.A.P pheromone spray is a god-send.  I’m not going to lie, the last hour-and-a-half of winding mountain roads between Nevada City and Downieville was a tough stretch, even with the sun rising over the mountains and the majestic pine trees. 

Our Inn, on the right
It was a huge relief to tumble out of the car into the crisp, cold morning air, to grab a couple bites of homemade zucchini bread from the inn’s continental breakfast bar, struggle up the narrow Victorian staircase, fall into the bed with the cast iron headboard, and pull the double-wedding ring quilt up to our chins.  It would have been even more blissful if our room hadn’t faced the town square where a Labor Day Weekend reenactment of a gold rush shootout was taking place, every hour on the half hour, and where a street fair went rapidly into full swing, complete with recorded barroom piano plinking out favorites from every decade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  At first, we couldn’t figure out why anyone would be shooting off fireworks in the middle of the day.  The announcer describing the events over a very loud loudspeaker eventually tipped us off—not fireworks, blanks.  I can now reliably tell you that Cleo does not care for gunfire.  Not that she’s frightened by it.  No, she just has to tell everyone how much she dislikes it, loudly and at length.

We gave up on sleeping after a couple of hours pretending that it was even possible and staggered groggily along the street until we came to a Mexican restaurant with veggie burritos and dark, aromatic coffee.  We ate at a picnic table on a warm deck overlooking the Downie River, and John managed to talk me into driving out to the cabin with him.  I don’t know, maybe it was sleep deprivation. 

Oddly enough, even though I’d been stressing about nearly every aspect of the trip, not once did it occur to me that Cleo might be an unexpected addition to the party.  I am always appalled and judgmental about people who show up to friends’ houses with their pets in tow, just expecting that everyone likes dogs, cats, goats, whatever as much as they do.  Literally, it was not until we were letting Cleo out of her crate that I realized with horror that we’d never asked if it was okay for her to be there.  It was the sight of an Australian Shepherd bearing down on us that shocked me into common courtesy.

There have been so many times in my life that I have regretted wasting energy on worrying.  You’d think I’d have learned the lesson by now. 

I’ve written many times before of Cleo’s shyness with other dogs.  Whatever the reason—the warmth and welcome from every individual in the world’s most beautiful riverside cabin, the adventure of wading through a chilly river to sit on warm rocks and talk with engaged, funny people, the gentle kindness of two mellow and adoring Aussies—Cleo was relaxed and at home in less than an hour.  She followed the other dogs around like a doting little sister, even taking a long walk with them and their mom and discovering (and fully inspecting) a large pile of bear scat. 

Anyone who lives with a Bedlington knows that the tail is the emotional barometer.  It is a clear indicator of a wide range of moods and emotional states.  The angle of each vertebra in a Bedlington tail communicates an array of subtle information.  Sure, you have the standard set: tucked=scared, straight out and rigid=aggressive, gently curved and waving=greeting.  When Cleo is relaxed and happy, her tail extends on a plane with her spine, then just about midway, it curves up into a spritely crescent.  It was the evening of our first day at the cabin that John turned to me and said quietly, “Look at that tail.”  As Cleo followed first one dog, then the other through the kitchen and out onto the veranda, her tail clearly expressed her happiness.  It was the next night that really amazed us, though.  We sat at one of the tables eating dinner with several folks, laughing, chatting, telling stories.  As I moved to recross my legs, my foot thumped against something.  I peered under the table.  The fifteen-year-old Australian Shepherd was curled up less than six inches from my toes.  Penetrating the shadows, I made out another bulk.  It was the other Aussie not six inches from her.  And making the third point in the under-the-table triangle, curled up in a much smaller ball, head on paws, lightly sleeping, was Cleo.

We felt easy all weekend, she and I.  We were warm and welcome, enjoying our new friends, listening to music, lounging and playing and finding it enough just to be ourselves.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Watching the Seedling Grow

A few times in this space, I have written about my father’s letters home during World War II.  My sisters and I are lucky enough to have hundreds of letters beginning with the night before our father left college to report for duty and ending with the day, over two years later, that he surprised his family by walking into the house during Sunday dinner.  In that time, the boy from a small town in Pennsylvania traveled to the American South, to Texas, to England, France, Belgium, and Germany.  He met everyone from hicks to English country gentlemen, exotic and beautiful women of Brussels, bereft mothers of Austria.  His mind broadened, his perspectives changed, he settled on a career.  In short, he grew up.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s an extraordinary thing to be able to watch your father develop from boyhood to manhood.  There’s a flavor of time travel in the experience.

What this story doesn’t have is suspense.  After all, we knew he’d been to Germany and back.  We had the souvenir collection of shrapnel chunks, German army helmet, bayonet and sundry other items to prove it.  We knew he’d survived physically unscathed; he lived to go to medical school, marry our mother, father us girls, send us to school, take us on vacations, laugh, argue, and finally die much too young at the age of fifty-two.  Knowing how the story ends in no way detracts from the pleasure of the journey that his letters describe.

This has all been keenly brought home to me in the last few weeks. 

 On August 1st, my step-son Jackson flew to Great Lakes, Illinois to report for basic training.  He is a Sailor Recruit in the United States Navy.  Every Sunday, he is allowed six hours of “holiday” time to write letters which will be sent via snail mail.  He had to leave his computer, his iPod, even his cell phone behind as he gave his body and mind over to the military.  During holiday time, he writes to us (this I know for sure), to his girlfriend (he remarks as much and she confirms it), to his mother (I imagine) and to his sister (I hope).  His letters home are uncannily like the ones sent by another young man in 1943.  “I’m still liking the Army,” writes one from Fort Eustis.  “I’m having fun here,” writes the other from Great Lakes.  There are the same chatty details about physical training, inspections, tests taken that show intellectual prowess, hopes for future possibilities.  The chow is detailed and praised, though for both it falls short of home cooking.  Each chafes under the leadership of nincompoops and incompetents.  Both exclaim over the truth of the “hurry up and wait” cliché.  The boy from Pennsylvania remarks on the hillbillies and the mountain talk that he is trying to get used to.  The boy from California celebrates, “It’s wild how diverse the people are here,” but adds, “Our weapons PO is from Louisiana and I can’t understand a word he says.”

When I first read my father’s letters, there was a precious sense of getting to know the young man he had been, of being able to trace the arc of becoming as he developed into the man we knew.  Now as I read Jackson’s letters, I can’t help thinking of my grandparents, waiting hungrily for the next installment, worrying and wondering about how their child was faring, aware that he would hate to be called a child, knowing that, in fact, he wasn’t a child any longer.  When we read our father’s letters, we have the advantage of knowing how it all turned out.  His parents didn’t have the eyes of history with which to read his words of frustration, sadness, willful optimism.  I think of them when John and I worry about our boy, ache for his unspoken loneliness, revel in his new experiences, celebrate his successes, and ponder the possibilities of the unknown future.  We share with them the balance of anxiety and indescribable pride in our son.

Needless to say we are saving Jackson’s letters.  When he wrote to his parents, my father frequently reiterated his request that they keep his letters, asserting that he knew he would want to read them after he got back.  He never did.  His experiences were not ones he wanted to relive.  Whether Jackson chooses to read his letters or not, we are saving them.  His children will want them.  And they deserve a chance to know the boy who became the grown man they loved. 

My father, the animal lover, often made reference to missing the pets back home.  My son, the animal lover, ends his most recent letter with the P.S., “Pat the animals for me!”  The road with Jackson has not always been smooth, and god knows it hasn’t been easy.  But a heart and a mind are being forged in this experience, and a heart and a mind that can give a shout out to two scrappy cats and a loving dog are some fine materials to be setting out with.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Perchance to Dream

Years ago, I read an article written by a behavioral scientist who, after considerable research, had determined that dogs don’t dream.  I couldn’t imagine how anyone who had spent any time at all with a dog could have come to such a ridiculous conclusion.  One needn’t be around dogs for long to witness the twitching paws, wagging tail, clacking teeth, smacking lips or half-whimpers of a sound asleep dog in the REM stage.  Obviously, dogs don’t dream in the same way that humans do.  Being non-verbal creatures, it’s unlikely that there are many conversations in their dreams.  Would Freud, Jung or Adler, given the opportunity, have been able to find unconscious or symbolic meaning in canine dreams?  Probably not.  I bet that there’s a lot less talk and a lot more action in doggie night-pictures, though.  And the sensaround must be awesome!

Of course, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the exact form of dog dreams, but we can imagine.  Am I projecting to think that dogs have a sense of “I,” “you” and “we”?  I don’t believe so.  Cleo, seeing her reflection for the first several times, reacted pretty strongly to the other puppy who insisted on doing everything she was doing.  Before long, not only did she come to recognize herself, but she began to use the reflective properties of surfaces at her eye-level to watch me without having to go to the trouble of turning around.  In the PDD (pre-dog-door) days, she would sit in front of the sliding glass door and stare meaningfully at my reflection until I got the message and opened it up for her.  Right there that seems to indicate an “I”-“you” awareness.  “If I do this action, you will do that action.”  The canine connection to the “we,” to family, has long been established. 

When I watch Cleo dreaming, I imagine a lot of playing with kids, chasing of ground squirrels, occasionally some running away from other dogs.  Most of the time she’s happy in her dreams, her tail wagging drumbeats against the couch or bed.

And there’s an essential concept: This behaviorist argued that dogs do not dream because they cannot imagine.  Are you kidding me?  Okay, maybe not all dogs have imaginations, but I know Cleo does.  My great uncle Harold was a game inventor, and he was good at it.  Compared to Cleo, he was an amateur.  In the case of her favorite game, Keep-Away, it’s not so much the game itself but the variations on her escape routes that show her imagination.  Up onto the couch, leap to the chaise, down onto the floor, a lap around the coffee table, back up onto the couch, leap to the chaise, vault over the back of the chaise and slide under the piano, around the leg, along the side then it’s a dash to the kitchen for a turn around the island, slip between the island and the counter stools, then tear back into the living room to start the combination again.  Win or lose, it doesn’t matter to her.  If she gets away and keeps the toy, she’s happy she has made you chase her all over the place.  If you get the ball, or the moose, or the antler, she’s just as happy in the expectation that you will do something exciting with it, like throw it or hide it so she has to search it out.

It’s when she plays by herself that her imagination is exercised the most.  She’ll perch her ball on the very edge of a high spot, a step or a chair, and wait until it rolls off, then fling herself after it.  Doesn’t it take not only imagination but intelligence to conceive of a way to “throw” a ball so it can be chased?  My favorite moments, though, are when she positions a toy a few feet from herself, then backs away and stares at it intently.  Her tail extends straight out and her rear end wiggles as she waits for the toy to effect its escape.  Suddenly, she pounces on it, grabs it in her jaws, gives it a shake to break its back and prances in a joyful, laughing victory lap, ready to start the routine all over again.

Her latest favorite, albeit ephemeral, toy is an ice cube.  At the first hint of a whirr from the refrigerator ice dispenser, Cleo races from any part of the house and stands, legs straight, tail up, ears forward, staring at the little ice chute.  Hum, grind, plop, the ice cube lands in my hand and I bowl it across the kitchen floor and into the living room.  Cleo bounds, like a leaping deer, to catch it, kicks it, sends it flying off in a new direction.  She catches it up in her teeth, then storms around the living room until it is just too cold to hold any longer.  She spits it out and puts a paw on it so that it squirts off crazily across the rug, and the chase can begin all over again.  When it has melted down to about half its original size, she rolls over onto it, biting at it and pretending she can’t quite reach it.  Sometimes she loses track of it and has to jump up and find it before flopping over onto it once more.

I may be projecting.  Goodness knows I’d never deny that I’m biased.  But it seems to me that all of this takes a strong imagination.  Maybe the bottom line is that I don’t believe we can learn all there is to know about an animal by studying it in a lab.  To truly understand someone, even to want to truly understand, we have to love them.  When we love them, their smallest gesture or act takes on significance.  The accumulation of small acts creates a pattern, the pattern takes on meaning, the meaning deepens our love, and we understand a fraction more.  Words are as unnecessary for the flowering of love as they are for the experience of a dream.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Start of Something New

The game’s afoot!  The school year is underway for Cleo and me. 

What a difference just a couple months has made to her maturity level!  It’s very much like seeing last year’s pint-sized, squirrely ninth grader striding across the quad in his new sophomore form, a head taller, mustache sprouting, confidence brimming over.  Cleo, though still ready to wrestle, chase, bound, leap and play at the smallest hint of an invitation, has come to understand that she also serves who only stands and waits.  Or lies down and chews. 

On Tuesday, she came with me to school for a day of faculty meetings.  I had left her home on Monday because I thought she would be too bored and fidgety, but John told me that she moped around the house all day long.  It’s true that when I got home Monday night after several hours of meetings and an orientation for new students and their parents, Cleo greeted me as if I’d just returned from the wars.  A seventeen pound, squeaking projectile with a very wet tongue packs a surprising amount of force.  So I decided the next day that six hours of meetings might be more enjoyable for her than house arrest; at least we’d be together.  It was something of a gamble, though, because if she proved too much of a distraction at the meeting, I’d have to lock her in my office by herself.  Then only I would be distracted, worrying about her being bored and lonely.

All of our colleagues were glad to see her, and she had to greet most of them, giving special attention to her favorites: Jennifer who stayed with her when we were away this summer, Charlotte whose grandmother had Bedlingtons and who always makes a big fuss over her, Kim who roughhouses and wears jangly bracelets, Cammy who is the only playmate fast enough to nab a toy right out of Cleo’s mouth, and Chuck who, as the head of school, often takes a central position which always fascinates and impresses her.  I laid her blanket down at my feet and deposited her favorite chew toy, an antler, on top of it.  I told her “Down” and “Stay,” then sat poised to corral her back into place should she move.  Only a couple of times when speakers changed positions, some returning to their seats while others moved to stand up front, did Cleo jump up, thinking it was break time. 

During lunch, she went on an extended explore of the campus perimeter, never going out of ear shot, but having a marvelous time hunting lizards and ground squirrels.  For the afternoon session, she sacked out contentedly on her blanket, occasionally sitting up for presentations and discussions that caught her interest.  Her favorite was a video of one of our students speaking at a TED-x conference.  Maybe the laughter and clapping coming from the screen reminded her of The Colbert Report.  We know how she feels about him.

It's not easy waking up early
after sleeping in all summer.
So after this good-as-gold performance, I was excited to see what she would do with all the students on campus Wednesday morning.  For a while, she stood and stared at them, but then she saw Betsy, her pal of last year.  The night before, I had gotten an email the complete text of which was, “Will Cleo be at school tomorrow?”  No salutation.  No sign off.  It was good I recognized her email address.  It was obvious from the exuberance of the greeting that they had missed each other.  I made one big mistake by taking Cleo into the opening of school assembly.  I had hoped to introduce her to the new students, but I had forgotten how boisterous the student body always is, letting out a huge cheer and clapping when the head of school says, “Welcome to the new school year!”  We may be only 225 students and 40 adults, but we pack a roar when we want to.  And before you accuse me of indulging in fantasy, it’s really true—the kids cheer about being back at school.  Loudly enough that I made the hasty decision to take Cleo back to my office for that part of the morning.

One great treat about this school year so far has been our experiment.  We have been leaving the baby gate off the office door.  While one of us works at her desk, the other sometimes naps on the couch, plays with a student or occasionally makes a circuit of the library, never going far and never (knock on wood) trying to leave the building.  When I have to leave her behind, she follows me to the outside door, looking after me reproachfully as I tell her to “Hold the fort.”  When I return, she is always back on her blanket on the couch in our office.  It would be so wonderful if we could maintain the gate-free door, so much more inviting for the students to come in and out, so much healthier for Cleo to have the chance to visit—politely—with folks in the library.

I’ve also been taking her to my classes, blanket and antler in hand.  She chews or sleeps or observes and has been a perfect gem.  The first time I walked into class with her, my students actually gasped.  I teach the youngest students in the school, the unique grade eight in a high school.  They are innocent, earnest, curious kids who for the first few days are confused and vulnerable and awestruck.  After a couple of Ohs and Ahs, as Cleo settled down on her blanket to gnaw on her antler, one of the students quaveringly asked, as if it were too good to be true, “Do we get to have Cleo in class?”  By Friday afternoon when I dismissed them, half of them clustered around Cleo to pat her and rub her tummy.  One boy put his forehead against her side, then rubbed his cheek against her.  “She’s so soft!” he exclaimed.  “Let me feel,” said a girl.  She rubbed her cheek in the downy hair.  “Oh, she is!” she agreed.  One after another, six or seven more students knelt down to rub a forehead or cheek on Cleo’s side.  She sprawled contentedly, not the least bit concerned by being completely surrounded, nearly smothered by, half of the eighth grade class.  Up she popped when it was time to go and pranced her way back to our office.

This is her territory.  These are her people.  She doesn’t care about what grade they’ve gotten, their GPA, SAT or AP scores.  She cares about the important qualities, the lasting qualities.  Is this someone who will get down on the floor and rub his cheek in your fur?  Is this someone who will stop on her way across campus to pat your tummy and rub your ears?  Is this someone ready to play with you?

Let the games begin!