Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lithe, Limber and Light of Foot

Cleo and I started agility class a few weeks ago.  I figured this would be a natural for her.  I’ve seen the YouTube videos of Bedlingtons whipping around agility rings, ears flying, tails extended in pure joy.  They are sleek, they are fast, they are, in a word, agile.  Plus, I’ve seen Cleo tearing around the field at school, and she is nothing if not a fine example of her breed.  So it felt like a no-brainer to test out the sport at our local indoor Zoom Room.

I had no idea.  Natural doesn’t even begin to describe the way she has taken to this activity.  As usual, the trainer greeted us with, “You’re my first Bedlington Terrier!  She is so cute!”  The first task we had to learn was to sit in the exact center of a black square painted on a small raised platform.  Cleo gave the little table a thorough examination, hopped onto it and placed her butt, boom, right in the center.  She looked at me as if to say, “That was easy.  Now what?”  And to be perfectly honest, it was easy.

The first real apparatus was the weaving poles, but as we are beginners, they were set wide so all the dogs had to do was run down the center aisle.  Cleo shot through them so fast she took me by surprise and I got the leash tangled on one of the poles. 

“Okay,” said our trainer, “now we’re going to try the A-Frame.  This is really high for some small dogs, so be patient and give lots of coaxing.”

Cleo’s response was an almost audible, “Cool!”  She was up and over that thing as if she’d done it a hundred times.  The trainer and her assistant were giggling as Cleo came down the ramp.  “She’s so good!” they exclaimed, almost in unison.

Shoot through the tunnel.  Shoot through the tunnel combined with a hop over a jump.  I’m running to keep up.  Up and zip across the Dog Walk, a waist high, balance beam-like structure.  Again, she took to it so much faster than anyone expected that I was caught flat-footed and nearly dragged her off of it when the leash went taut as she ran ahead of me.  The trainer is no longer giggling.  She’s open-mouthed.  “She’s really fast!” she exclaims.  Then, “Keep up, keep up,” she yells at me.  Believe me, I will; I don’t want to be the one who lets Cleo down.

There are six or seven dogs in the class, depending on the day.  There is a yellow Lab named Bella.  What is with the sudden bounty of Bellas lately?  Is it the Twilight series?  Cleo and I know three: two in our obedience class and one at the agility class.  Really, I could understand it if any of these dogs was Italian, but all three are Labs.  And fairly stout Labs, at that.  I don’t suppose I should talk, though.  Who am I to criticize Canadian dogs given Italian names?  After all, I’m the one with an English breed named after a Greek queen of Egypt. 

Also in our class is a Boston Terrier named Thor and a Poodle whose name I’ve blocked.  By the way, why is it, and forgive me for this obvious show of prejudice, that Poodle owners seem to think they own the world?  At the end of every class, we get about five minutes to practice on a piece of equipment we need extra work on.  If there is one dog going the wrong way, cutting in line or charging around harassing other dogs, you can bet it will be the Poodle and its oblivious parent.  Anyway, there’s also a very sweet Border Collie named Lucy.  Then there is a lap dog of some variety with long white fur and very short legs.  It’s name is Bronson, I think.  Or Brewer.  Something like that.  You’d think I’d remember it.  We’ve all heard it enough.  Bronson-Brewer is the dog who enters the tunnel, gets half way in and curls up for a nap.  He is the dog who is helping us all to perfect our sit-stays on the tables as we wait for him to totter across the dog walk.  I am not exaggerating when I say that during the last class, Brewer-Bronson’s parents (and both of them eventually came into the ring to try to coax him through) lured him up the A-Frame by placing a treat on each foothold.  They lured him down the same way.  It was one step at a time with lots of waiting in between.  There was lots of “C’mon, Brewer.  Good Brewer.  Good A-Frame!  Yes!  One more step!  Good A-Frame, Brewer!  No, Brewer, not that way, keep going forward!  That’s it!”  I’m not sure if the dog is ancient, dimmer than a doorframe or just not very interested.

I’ll tell you one thing, though.  There isn’t a single hint of impatience in that class.  We all applaud his success when he toddles off whatever apparatus he’s just torturously navigated.  There is a chorus of “Yay!  Good dog!” that is both heartfelt and sincere.  I’d like to say it’s because being dog owners has made us all so much better human beings.  And while that’s probably true, I think the real reason we are so patient with Brewer-Bronson and his parents is because we know that at any moment, that could be us.  At any moment, our own dog might have a bad day or get bored, say.  At any moment, our own dog may become distracted by the puppy out in the waiting room jingling his collar as he dashes back and forth after a Frisbee so that she barks her fool head off through half the class and insists on slamming her feet against the wall in an effort to see if the stupid puppy is still there, then is too excited to even want a treat or to focus on the mini teeter-totters, and before you know it, someone else could be in the embarrassing position of trying to deal with an uncooperative dog that is holding up the whole class.  I’m not going to mention any names.  Plus, I plead the fifth.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Puppy, the Rain Must Fall

The rain has been coming down in sheets in these here parts.  It started as a sprinkle on Friday morning, then rose to howling winds and driving rain by Friday night.  The nearly hundred year old, eighty foot Monterey Pine in our backyard shed a branch or two and multiple pine cones, all of which crashed onto the roof and the deck with dramatic percussion.  By Saturday, it was a curtain that rose or fell throughout the day so quietly that it was easy to miss until one opened the door and took a step outside.  Today, the only time it has rained is when we took our walk.

Central California isn’t like the southlands.  Nor, for that matter, like Northern California.  The stereotypical image of our state comes from all the attention paid to LA and its environs: sunny and warm all year ‘round.  That’s almost true.  The Central Coast is entirely a different story.  Though our winters tend to be mild (some would say milder than our summers, but that’s just expectations talking), we regularly dip into the 30s at night.  In Salinas, our close neighbor to the east, the temperature went down to 29 last week.  Believe me, I’m not crying “poor me” here.  For those of you who live in truly cold climes, as I have done, temperatures in the 30s seem like welcome relief of balmy weather.  I remember my days in college in Vermont.  Every year, we celebrated the January thaw, when the thermometer briefly rose above 32 degrees, by donning our bikinis and snow boots for a stroll around campus.  This wasn’t grandstanding; when you’ve acclimated to 20 below, breaking the freezing mark feels toasty warm.

Anyway, the point is that Monterey isn’t LA (in more ways than one, but we’re talking weather for the moment).  But then, neither is it Northern California whose lush greenness speaks to its regular snow and rain.  Except for this year.  There is real question whether the annual school skiing expedition will happen this February.  There was minimal snow at the resorts until this weekend.   We haven’t had a significant rainstorm since last winter.

How come that other puppy
is in my house?
This hadn’t particularly registered on me until I witnessed Cleo’s reaction to the wet weather.  Last winter, when she was just a little puppy, she took the downpours in stride, going out to do her business or playing in the yard and coming back a grinning mass of sodden hair.  Hey, it was nothing a vigorous shake and a warming towel-rub couldn’t fix!  When she and I took our walk before school Friday morning—both of us in our water repellant outerwear, hers natural, mine applied—the rain didn’t seem to faze her at all.  A periodic head to tail shake set everything right.  It was when we got home from school that I noticed her reactions to the changes that precipitation works on the world.

We were reclining quietly on the chaise in the living room, Cleo stretched so that the full length of her side was pressed against my legs and her chin was resting on my ankles.  I was talking on the phone with John who was at the NAMM convention, the musicians’ hajj.  In a flash, Cleo was off the chaise and at the door, stiff-legged and barking in the Bedlington’s surprising baritone cry.  Had someone come up onto the front deck?  Had people been talking loudly on the street?  I’d heard nothing, or at least, nothing that registered as warranting such a fierce reaction.  I thanked her and told her that was enough.  She regarded me with a small degree of wonder, as if to say, “Really?  You’re not going to do anything about that?” then gave her version of the canine shrug and settled back down at my legs.

The second time she went through the same rigmarole, I was off the phone and could perform a mental playback of the outside sounds.  A car had driven by on the street, making a high swishing noise as its tires encountered the now-very-wet pavement. I reassured her and got the same doubtful glare.  One more repetition of the whole ritual and she finally accepted that the unfamiliar noise didn’t demand full-throated defense.

The rising wind, banshee cry of the wind chimes and thunking of dislodged pine cones onto the roof provoked the occasional opening of the eyes or, when very loud, a raised eyebrow and a glance in my direction, usually without troubling to lift her chin from my ankles.

Our going-to-bed ceremonies involve multiple trips back and forth between kitchen and bathroom for the humans and two outdoor excursions for Cleo.  I don’t know why this is, but for reasons known only to herself, Cleo insists on one trip outside through the kitchen door while we get water, heat up bed warmers, coax the cats in and give them a late night snack, check doors, and turn off lights.  At some point during all of this, she comes back in and follows us around.  Then, as we brush teeth and get ready for bed, she has to take a second trip outside, which we’ve taken to calling her “last hurrah,” through the bedroom door.   It’s not like we live on an estate; the doors open onto virtually the same territory.  But try to deny her that last hurrah, and you are likely to witness a hissy fit of magnificent proportions.

So Friday night, we began as always.  As soon as I walked into the kitchen, she was at the door waiting for her first pre-bed outing.  The rain was coming down so hard that it sounded as if I’d opened the door onto a rushing river.  Cleo flew out as usual, took two bounds into the side yard, spun around and dashed back inside.  After giving herself a hard shake, she turned a deeply offended look in my direction.  “It’s not my fault it’s raining,” I told her.  “Besides, you used to go out in weather like that all the time last winter.  It never bothered you then.”  She contented herself with shadowing me as I made the bedtime preparations, only getting excited when I opened the front door to call in the feline holdout.  One cat was clever enough to already be asleep on the guestroom bed.  The other obviously decided that wherever he had hunkered down was far better than a trot through the downpour.  But Cleo and I stood at the front door for several minutes, looking out at the raindrops bouncing off the pavement shining with the reflected glow of the streetlights.  She gave it all a thorough sniffing from the shelter of the doorway, seemingly curious about the fact that, yes, it was raining here, too, not just in the side yard.

Back in the bedroom, I had just started the tooth brushing process when I heard Cleo scratching at the glass door.  “Really?” I asked her.  “Are you sure?”  Honestly, it was a relief to think that she wanted out.  I wasn’t looking forward to being woken up in an hour or two by a dog with an unbearably full bladder.  She pawed the door with frantic earnestness.  Before I had it fully open, she forced her way out and dashed into the backyard.  Where she froze in disbelief.  Even here it’s raining?!  She turned around and sped back to the door which I was holding closed.  “Go pee!” I called through the glass.  She smacked the door with her front paws.  “You know you have to,” I reasoned.  Then she did what she always does.  She sat down politely at the door and locked eyes with me like the devotedly attentive creature she can sometimes be.  I have never had the heart to deny her when she does that.  So in she came, tracking mud onto the rug.  As I turned the light off, she was sleeping, as she always does when John is out of town, pressed tightly against me.

About four o’clock in the morning, I knew the rain had stopped because pointy puppy feet were stomping all over my lower legs.  As I surveyed a backyard carpeted in pine needles, shattered tree branches and Spanish moss, Cleo took a wee of impressive duration.  The air smelled clean and crisp, freshly washed and thoroughly renewed.  It was good to climb back between warm sheets and feel the touch of a cold, damp nose on my cheek, then Cleo curling up, back against my chest, chin resting on my arm.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Notes From the Infirmary

I’ve just woken up from a cold-induced nap.  Not the temperature kind, the virus kind.  It was just a matter of time, really.  Almost everyone else in my family has been sick lately.  John has been laid low for the last two weeks with the flu—a cough so nasty that you feel like you should double check for lungs after each bout.  We got a call last weekend from our daughter’s boyfriend.  He responded to our hello with, “She thought I should call you.  But it’s okay now; the paramedics are here.”  Not precisely the phrase one wants to hear in relation to one’s daughter.  Especially when she lives 275 miles away.  She had contracted the nasty Norovirus and had become so dehydrated she ended up spending the night in the hospital, fluids dripping into her veins, while her apartment mates sterilized every surface in their home with a solution of bleach.  Wash your hands, folks!  Frequent application of soap and water is the only defense.  Unless, like her, you get the airborne variety.

Little Cleo came home from the groomer last Thursday (a week ago) flapping her ears a little more vigorously than usual.  It’s not uncommon for her to shake her head for a half hour or so after she comes home.  I can’t imagine that having the hair yanked out of one’s ears is an altogether pleasant experience.  A little itching and tingling seems like a natural aftereffect.  When she was still at it Thursday afternoon, though, I thought she might benefit from a wipe with ear cleaner.  We checked to be sure there was nothing inside her ear, no foxtails or anything, then wiped the visible areas.  The towelette came away clean and Cleo seemed to improve.

At school on Friday, she was a bit listless, but still eager to get up and play whenever a student came in.  I wondered if she was coming down with a cold.  I only started to get scared when we got home and Cleo went straight to the guest room and curled up under the bed, refusing to come out.  By then, of course, our vet was closed for the weekend.  We called the emergency vet who counseled us to take the wait-and-see approach.  At some point, Cleo came out and was scratching her ear.  I put my hand on the outside of her earflap and gently rubbed.  She screamed and jerked away.  We looked inside her ear again; it was neon red. 

Sometimes, lying on the arm of the couch
gives one a new perspective.
She spent the rest of the night under the guest room bed, wedged between a desk and the wall or curled miserably in her crate.  She wouldn’t come into the living room with John and me, she didn’t want to cuddle on the bed before lights out.  Every time she stirred during the night, I was awake and listening for sounds of distress.  It was a long wait for the emergency vet to open in the morning for non-life threatening conditions.

It was, as most of my fellow dog lovers probably suspect by now, a yeast infection.  The outrageous bit is that it had been brewing for some time, but no groomer had thought to mention it.  Okay, yes, I sniff her ears regularly (like any good mother) and hadn’t smelled it, but when the groomers plucked her hair, it’s impossible that gobs of black crud didn’t come out.  They sure did when the vet cleaned her ears.  And, by the way, plucked several chunks of hair that the groomer had missed. That made a very odd ripping sound which hurt me physically, though Cleo didn’t even bat an eyelash.

Normally a very busy dog.
I did learn a variety of interesting and useful things from the visit.  Cleo is in excellent condition, both weight and muscle tone (always good to hear).  The piece of gauze that the vet fed down into her ear canal was a good three inches long.  That’s a lot of ear canal for a small dog (at least from my perspective; the vet wasn’t surprised at all).  What comes out of the ears of a dog who has a yeast infection is really gross.  And perhaps most useful, how to clean Cleo’s ears with an antiseptic wash.

But here’s the most amazing thing: I think about how that puppy has been feeling for several weeks now.  It can’t have been good.  Yet she never let on; she was happy and energetic and full of love for life and everyone in it.  It was only for the day and a half after her ears were irritated beyond endurance that she was in abject misery.  An hour after the vet visit, at the most, she was romping around with her toys and her cats, joy incarnate.  How often do I let little things get me down?  The sniffles or a harsh word or a disappointment? 

And there’s something else.  The other morning, after John had been up all night coughing, I decided to let him sleep while I tried to drip the medicine into her ears by myself.  I wondered how I was going to keep her still, hold her ear open and apply the medicine with only two hands.  I lifted Cleo onto the counter.  She sat down and held her head up high.  As I lifted her ear flap, she tilted her head very slightly to allow me better access.  The drops went down and I rubbed them in.  She squeezed her eyes shut, then tilted her head the other direction.  Second ear done, puppy holding completely still.  I lifted her down to the floor—explosion!  A good, thorough shake followed by a celebratory dance on her hind legs, reaching up to me with her front paws, a huge smile and sparkling eyes.

We should all be so brave, so patient, so understanding, so full of joy.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

"It's Been a Long, Long Time"

I love this time of year.  Maybe in a past-life I was an acolyte of Janus.  While I appreciate the promise of new beginnings, what I treasure more is the opportunity to look backwards, reflect, evaluate and learn, and at the same time, to look forwards, plan, resolve and imagine.  There is no moving forward without looking backwards.

Every now and then, like at the turn of the new year, one has the chance to evaluate how one has grown and changed.  For me, this day provides a more meaningful snapshot even than my birthday.  Last year at this time, it hadn’t yet occurred to me to write a blog about life with Cleo.  My weekly posts are a valued ritual now, and wow, what I’ve learned from writing them and from the emails readers send.

There have been obvious changes in Cleo, many of which I’ve chronicled here, but the one that John and I have noticed in the last couple of days is her need for society.  There have been so many times at school that I’ve worried about the amount of human input she has.  It is a rare day that she doesn’t have a dozen visitors or so, and even when students don’t come into the office, they are passing by the door non-stop.  Many pause to greet her or pat her, but even when they simply walk by, she acknowledges them.  The past two weeks of vacation, though, have narrowed her social circle down to Daddy and Mommy.  When we pass someone on our walks, with or without a dog, Cleo morphs into a biped.  Hopping on her back feet and balancing with her throat against the collar, she paddles her front paws in the air, trying to get the stranger’s attention.  When someone she knows comes over to the house, oh my goodness!  She forgets all the good manners she has learned and flings herself at the guest, paws, body, nose, tongue and teeth.  When we make her stand to greet, she runs off to get a toy, tears back and shoves it against the guest’s shin, then races off for another.  Within moments, the poor guest stands, dripping puppy slobber, surrounded by a pile of dog toys, faced with a grinning, tail wagging Bedlington.  In a year, social variety has gone from something intimidating to a necessity of life.

But when I think about growth and change, my mind most often goes to a certain young man, age nineteen, who left a small town in Pennsylvania to join the Army.  Extremely intelligent, curious and driven, he was, nonetheless, naive and sheltered.  Two and a half years of war had a profound effect on him.

My sisters and I are extraordinarily fortunate to have the letters this young man—our father—wrote to his parents, grandparents, sisters and brother during World War II.  He was a faithful writer; it was rare that a week went by without two or three letters home.  There is something almost mystical about the opportunity to watch your father grow up.  Here we are, all of us older than the age he attained, witnessing the adolescent become the man we knew, or at least, developing the soul of the man we knew.

So for this New Year’s Day, I wanted to share three short segments which I’ve edited from his letters, the first written on the last day of his first year in the Army, the last written one month before he walked in, unannounced, during his family’s Sunday dinner.

Ft. Bliss, Texas
Friday, December 31, 1943

            It hardly seems possible that there are only a few hours left in ’43, for although I guess all years seem to have gone fast when you look back on them, this has been the fastest of them all for me.  I hope it’s been the same for you.  If they go on like this we’ll be home in no time, but I guess it won’t be so easy as that….
            It’s Saturday morning now [New Year’s Day] and I’ve just come back from breakfast at the Service Club.  I had coffee and four doughnuts.  That isn’t much of a breakfast but it was the only thing they had besides eggs, and after the way the Army has been mutilating them for the past seven months I couldn’t even look a scrambled one in the face.  They seem to think we like eggs for we get them about every morning.  Eggs and potatoes or eggs and sausage or just eggs and eggs….
            It seemed funny last night at 11:00 that we still had an hour left in 1943 while ’44 was already an hour old for you.  The only thing I don’t like about the difference in time is that Fred Waring is on when we stand retreat and Harry James follows during chow.  Of course we’re still on duty while Lowell Thomas is on.
A year later, he had been shipped overseas, completed additional training in northern England (he operated radar in an anti-aircraft battery), been to France and was now stationed in Belgium.  What he doesn’t mention in this letter is why he failed to write a letter on Christmas Day.  For that, they had to wait a year.  Let’s just say that missing Fred Waring was no longer a pressing concern.

January 1, 1945
              Another year come and gone.  Little did I think last New Year’s day in El Paso that I’d be spending this one in Belgium.  “Where do we go from here, boys?”  [A popular song from WWI.]  Even if I could know I don’t think I’d want to.  Things happen too fast these days.  But we’ll at least be able to see the end of the war next year at this time, whether we’re in New York or Nanking, and we’ll be a year closer to home.  I wonder how much more of the world I’ll get to see between now and then. …
               Boy do I wish for showers.  These steel helmet baths are alright as far as disguising the smell, but all they do is spread the dirt evenly.  I’d like to stretch out in a good hot tub right now and then crawl in between some sheets.  I wonder if we’ll appreciate luxuries for very long after we get home or if we’ll soon drift back to taking everything for granted.  Now even the most commonplace comforts seem as unattainable as a king’s palace.  But I guess we’ll find as much to gripe about at home as we do here; if there’s only one thing we’ve learned in the Army that’s the art of eloquent griping.  And it’s really an art.
Happy New Year.

This final excerpt is from his second to last letter home.  He spent the months after VE Day demilitarizing different areas of Germany, finding and destroying guns and other weapons.  He also got to know, and care for, many German citizens.

Christmas, 1945

…I couldn’t help thinking last night how quiet this Christmas Eve was compared with last year’s.  Have you read in the papers lately about that secret radar fuse that explodes when it nears the target?  Supposed to be the #2 secret after the atomic bomb.  They used it in the Pacific over water for almost a year before the Bulge but they were afraid a few unexploded shells might fall into enemy territory if we used it here in Europe.  But they must have decided the situation warranted the chance last Christmas Eve…. Remember how I told you we stayed up the whole night on the gun?  … We used some of that new ammo during the night last Christmas Eve.  Intelligence heard that 50 planes were on the way up the river toward Liege to bomb out bridges, a big number for the Luftwaffe, so when only three or four came through we had to hold fire to keep our positions in the dark, and when they dropped flares we stood like a bunch of statues.  Things really look weird under flares.  Anyway, those planes were followed by only a few bombers instead of the 50.  We finally opened up after they got half their bombs away, but no bridges were blown out and they say a few of the planes came down…. 
            That was really a rough night for the people of Liege.  They say 150 buzz bombs, or something like that, fell into Liege that night and Christmas day alone.  They were going overhead all night, sometimes three or four in the sky at once.  The sirens in the nearby towns screamed all night and it seemed as though a buzz bomb hit every five minutes.  We really pitied those people on their Christmas Eve, after they had thought the war for them was over.  They say as many as 25 houses were completely destroyed by one V-bomb hit.  So whatever anxiety you might have experienced was nothing compared to theirs.  And our only discomfort was the cold…. Still we could see artillery fire on three sides so we wondered a little too.
            But now that we’re so close to home that all seems pretty far away.  It’s hard to believe that that was a whole year ago, but with all we’ve been thinking about getting home it seems like something that happened in another army almost.…Anyway the new year will be a lot brighter this year.

There are any number of things that help us each to grow and mature.  For some, it is rising to the challenges of war, for some it is the desire to take care of a beloved, for some it is simply an accumulation of days on Earth.  At the heart of any growth, though, is the chance to look backward and reflect on where we have come from, and to look forward and dream of what’s ahead.

Happy New Year!  

Richard B. Lower, 1948
University of Pennsylvania
Medical School photo