Sunday, July 29, 2012

Familiarity Breeds Love

The other day I read an entertaining article in the New York Times that compared pet ownership (or animal companion guardianship, depending on your outlook) to playing a video game.  Not being a gamer, I couldn’t relate to most of the article.  Photorealistic graphics, level attainment, joystick usage and the like might not go over my head, but they don’t resonate with my heart.  One point that the writer made, though, did strike home: Taking care of a dog involves a lot of repetitive tasks, and the very nature of that repetition builds intimacy and love.

You might walk a dog today, but she still needs to walk tomorrow.  And the next day.  And the next.  As you stroll your accustomed routes, a familiarity develops that lets you know exactly how each of you will respond to this old scene or that new sight.  A dog, especially a Bedlington Terrier with its Velcro hair, needs to be brushed regularly.  The warmth of companionship and the murmur of conversation as you poke into pads, sniff ears, examine teeth, separate burrs from tassels and seeds from everywhere else builds mutual love.

And, of course, there are the less seemly routine activities.  I went walking on the beach with a friend yesterday.  As we approached the sand, Cleo went into her indicative stance (the old-fashioned water-pump position, John and I call it).  In the midst of a story, I went on talking.  Without thinking, I pulled the plastic bag from my pocket and stood waiting for Cleo to finish.  She gave one last crank of her tail and stepped daintily away from the warm deposit.  I bent down, but, at a climactic moment of my story, paused in mid stoop, gesticulating with the bagged hand.  I made my point and looked to my friend to see her reaction.  It wasn’t exactly what I had expected; a look of horror faded into one of disgust.  “Ew,” she said succinctly.  I looked down.  A malodorous series of dashes was an arm’s length from my face.  I efficiently scooped it up, reversed the bag and tied a knot, an action that I had done so many times it was habitual.  And obviously without thought.  Cleo, in the meantime, had been happily occupied with sniffing a patch of ice plant.  In that moment, there was something so familiar to us, so foreign to my friend, that I felt even more united with Cleo.  A love born of understanding and responsibility, of expectation and fulfillment, of guardianship and dependency took ever greater root.  

Cleo embraces repetition and consistency, yet she is remarkably flexible.  She has settled into the summer routine of spending her days at home, but come next week, she will make the shift to ten months of office hours, students, and constant activity.  Her bedtime and waking time mesh seamlessly with ours, and we are nothing but inconsistent there.  One weekend this summer she spent in a cabin in Guerneville surrounded by (doting) strangers, the next week she spent on her own with a sitter.  She flourished in both settings.

There have been a couple of things this summer that threw her for a loop, though.  On our vacation in Ashland, Oregon, John and I went shopping at a local mall.  Not terribly characteristic of us, but we’d forgotten things like swim trunks.  As we strolled the polished granite expanse, we happened on a Sleep Number Bed showroom.  If you live in Central or Northern California and have ever tuned into KGO Radio, you have heard dozens, hundreds, thousands of commercials for Sleep Number Beds. 

“Want to check them out?” John asked me. 

Well, of course!  On a lark, we sallied into the store.  Two hours later, we left with a receipt and the promise of delivery within a week.

The delivery of the new bed was filled with great fascination for Cleo.  Bustle!  Admirers!  New smells!  At bedtime, when she sleepily jumped up to join us for a pre-crate snuggle, she was clearly surprised that this bed was a good deal lower than our previous, raised mattress.  But the real trouble began when the bed started to move.  Up she sprang as the head of our bed loomed over her!  A strange growling rose from under the mattress!  A Bedlington is nothing if not brave when confronted with a threat to her people.  She launched herself off the mattress, whirled in mid-air and turned to face the monster.  Barking at full roar, she peered under the bed.  Okay, nothing there that looked terribly dangerous, but the bed was still moving.  “Bark!  Bark bark!” she said, now looking at us.  Once the bed had reached its preset position,  and after a good bit of reassuring, she stopped barking and cautiously jumped back onto the bed to curl up between us.  By a couple days later, she was an old hand, completely unflappable, riding the moving bed from raised to flat, flat to upright with nary an ear twitch.

The second event was a more dramatic change.  After years of living with a backyard which I had taken to calling “the blasted heath,” I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.  Land in Monterey is so precious that lots for building are measured in feet, not acres.  In addition to that, residents may not remove trees from their properties without permission of the City.   I tell you this to explain why it is that our tiny backyard is dominated by a sixty foot pine tree whose trunk is some twenty feet around, whose shallow roots snake through every part of the soil, and whose spreading limbs create a dim and clammy microclimate that has killed off every plant I’ve ever tried to grow there.  In the South, polite people would have termed this desert a “swept dirt yard.”  Anywhere else, it would just be called “hideous.”  And this is what the lovely French doors of our bedroom open onto.  It is the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing at night.  Can you say “depressing”?  I thought you could.

This past spring I realized that it was time to accept that we would never have a lush, green yard.  I was ready to pave it over.  After some reflection, design time and consultation with a friend who is a Master Gardener, I modified my vision.  Two days restaining the fence, two days moving and placing a ton of flagstones, two days filling the gaps with fresh soil and planting wooly thyme and ferns, and two hours of hanging Talavera animals and sticking decorative lights into the ground and the place is transformed.  Sometimes, John and I just stand there looking at it.  It has been a bit hard on Cleo, though.

When she sensed the presence of the hated neighbor dog in the blasted heath days, she would pile out the kitchen door, tear along the narrow walk, vault over the wooden deck and come to a skidding halt by the fence, sending a spray of fine dirt and dust sparkling into the air.  She would bounce up and down, barking at the fence, digging frantically, until the whole yard was hazy with lung choking grit.  This summer, she was a great help to me as I worked on the transformation, supervising placement of the flagstones, carefully and thoroughly inspecting every bag of topsoil until her face was a mask of loamy earth.  Even so, she seemed to forget that the yard was evolving.  One evening after we had hauled a half ton of stone from the front of the house to the back, Cleo and I were relaxing with our feet up.  Suddenly, she heard the neighbor dog!  She charged to the kitchen door, demanding to be let out.  As I slid it open, she leapt out, flew down the side walkway, sprang over the deck—and stopped dead, staring at the ground. What were these rocks doing in the middle of her dirt patch?  Where was she supposed to bounce and dig and bark now?  She turned to me with a “What the--?” look on her face.  Tail and ears drooped, and she walked back and sat on my foot, turning to look wistfully at the fence.  I’m glad to say that she has made peace with the change.  She has chosen a different part of the fence through which to argue with the neighbor dog, and she has become fond of the feeling of warm stone on her tummy.

Routine, consistency, knowing what to expect can be reassuring.  It can build a relationship and the love that follows.  But change makes our minds grow.  It tests our resilience and asks us to reach inside ourselves to be the best creatures that we can be.  When we look to each other to see us through the rough patches of change, our love has a chance to deepen and mature.  We are interconnected, interdependent, and that makes an unpredictable world feel like a much safer place.

Warm flagstones

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Tears and Fears and Feeling Proud"

It’s been a rough weekend, hasn’t it?  At the same time that historians, psychologists and pundits tell us that we are more divided as a nation than we have been in a hundred years, though our dialogue has coarsened and our treatment of each other can sometimes lack a recognition of each other’s basic humanity,  an event like the Aurora movie theater shooting unites us instantly.  The immediacy of the internet has brought us all so close to each other.  I’m not talking about the ability to get news updates every few minutes, but rather the fact that our friends and “neighbors” might live not the next street over, as they did when I was growing up, but in another state or another country thousands of miles away.  When I woke to the news on Friday morning, my first thought was for my sister and her family who all live in the Denver area.  Following a split second after that was concern for the Bedlington Terrier parents I’ve come to know, though never met.  Judging by the emails and posts of support and condolence that came in through the social media networks, many of us were thinking the same way.

There are so many elements to this story that have a visceral impact.  The movies, for all of us, are a place to escape the world.  During the Great Depression and World War II, movies were enormously popular.  For a coin or two, you could leave behind the worries and fears of daily life and immerse yourself in the world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Myrna Loy and William Powell (and Asta), Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson.   It’s true today as well.  Even with hundreds of channels on our televisions and myriad entertainment options on our computers, we still go to the movies in droves.  But I think it’s the timing that we also find so breathtaking.  Who is the audience that usually goes to the midnight showing, opening day, of a summer blockbuster?  Teenagers and twenty-somethings.  My students plan outings weeks in advance of a big opening.  They talk about it non-stop.  The excitement carries them through the slog of a summer job.  It is an unavoidable conclusion that the shooter purposely targeted kids.  At our very deepest human core, aren’t we hard-wired to protect kids?  Whether we are parents or not, I don’t believe there is a single one of us who doesn’t want to grab a couple of nearby children, teenagers, young people, and hold them tight for a minute simply to express thanks that they are alive and unharmed.

When we hear about something like this, we understandably become a bit obsessed with trying to comprehend the perpetrator.  What led him to this action?  What was amiss inside him?  How did no one know that he was planning this?  We wonder if there will be copy-cats, if there are others like him lurking just below the surface of our awareness.  We begin to believe that we live in a time that is somehow broken in which events like this are common or inevitable, and that we will never come out of it.  But the truth is that these events are rare.  In reality, we look around at our friends and neighbors, be they nearby or thousands of miles away, and see fellow human beings who love and worry and care and sometimes feel alone and scared, just like we do.  They, like us, are seeking ways to connect, looking for chances, not to make our lives more difficult, but to ease our burdens, to make our lives happier.  They are training therapy dogs to take into hospitals or nursing homes.  They are making crib caps and baby blankets to give to new parents who can’t afford them.  They are volunteering on suicide hotlines.  They are performing daily small kindnesses like smiling at the grocery store checker, or holding a cab door for the passenger getting in after they’ve gotten out, or exchanging a pleasantry with a stranger while they both wait for their lattes.  Human beings are bridge builders if you give us half a chance.

In this act of violence, there was one deeply shattered psyche.  There were so many others who exemplify real humanity.  What it truly means to be a human being is embodied by Jarell Brooks who was wounded in the thigh because he stopped to help a mother and her two small children to escape from the theater, by Nick Yowler who leapt to protect his sister and eventually pulled her out of the theater, by Matthew McQuinn and Jonathan Blunk who died because they used their bodies to shield their girlfriends from harm.  Reality is that we are far more likely to be heroes than villains.

As we go about our coming weeks, I hope we’ll all take a moment to build a bridge with someone.  I hope we’ll remember to live our lives in ways that make us proud.  I hope the families and friends begin to heal.

In the last few days, I’ve heard a surprising new refrain from people whom Cleo and I meet.  “If she were my dog, I’d never put her down.  I’d want to cuddle with her all the time.”  Well, they don’t know how pointy her paws can become when she is ready to be put down.  A squirming, flailing Bedlington is capable of delivering a very clear message.  But I have found it exceptionally therapeutic to bury my nose in her side and breathe in that distinctive Bedlington smell, to pat the sproingy hair on her head, feel her warmth, and even to be poked in the back by four pointy feet each morning.  I look into her laughing face and I’m reminded of the honest, simple goodness of Cleo, of her love of all humankind.  That eases my heart.

May fortune so smile on all of us.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

...To Say Nothing of the Dog

For many teenagers, and frankly for most of the rest of us, the destination, not the journey, is the primary focus.  Where will they go to college?  How good will their end of term or end of year grades be?  What will they do this summer? This weekend?  This evening?  When I was in acting conservatory, one of the most annoying girls in my class said one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard.  As we sat around the student lounge one morning avidly counting the days till vacation, she suddenly blurted out, “My God, we’re wishing our lives away.”  The statement stunned us all into silence, and it has stayed with me for over thirty years, reminding me to enjoy the moment, to treasure the journey as well as the destination.

Dad, Mom and Cleo near Bodega Bay
Photo by David Smith
In the last two weeks, John and I have enjoyed two very different vacations, one with Cleo, my two sisters and their husbands, and one for just the two of us.  The first involved one sister and her husband flying into San Francisco from Washington, D.C. just before the Derecho storms hit the east coast, knocking out power and flattening trees in seven states.  My other sister flew in from Denver, leaving raging wild fires and smoke-filled skies for the towering redwoods.  Her husband, already in California for a business trip, met the other three at the airport while John and I had the comparatively easy Monterey to Sonoma County drive with an anxious, panting, drooling puppy dog.  Cleo clearly prefers the destination to the journey.  She was in seventh heaven being doted on by six adults.

John at the Roadhouse
Photo by David Smith
After we had piled our supplies into the rental house and chosen bedrooms for the weekend, we strolled down the narrow lane to the roadhouse we’d spotted as we drove in.  Noticing that there was music there every Saturday night but not on Fridays, my brother-in-law David turned to John.  “Want a gig tonight?” he asked.  Does a duck paddle?  As the four women-folk waited outside (three two-leggeds and one four-legged), the guys popped inside to enter into negotiations.  In less than ten minutes, they were back.  John had a gig.  Between David’s skillful negotiations, Paul’s mention that John was three times voted best musician in Monterey County, and John’s assurance that he wanted to play only for tips, the management was quickly won over.  It was a magical evening of the unplanned and unexpected.

The next day, we decided to go for a hike, but discovered that before we could, John needed to procure some hiking boots.  A quick Yelp indicated a likely spot, so six adults (to say nothing of the dog) climbed into the rented hearse-shaped mini-van and set out for the boot shop.  A quaint spot presented itself for some lunch, light shopping and cattle admiring.  Then we realized that we were unexpectedly near the inn where my sisters and I had stayed last year in celebration of a milestone birthday.  We detoured to show our husbands the beautiful setting.  That led us to remember that the little town where The Birds had been filmed was close by, so we zig-zagged over there to see the famous locations.  From there we made a bee-line to the boot shop, and after navigating three u-turns on a narrow highway because we couldn’t find the road we were supposed to turn on, we noticed that the street sign was handwritten on a ragged piece of cardboard stapled to a stake.  REI this was not.  When we finally found the “boot store,” it turned out to be a tiny outbuilding behind a small house in a postage-stamp-sized beach community perched on a cliff above the ocean.  It was, in fact, the workshop of a woman who designs and hand crafts beautiful, unique sheepskin moccasins and boots.  She admired Cleo (and thankfully made no jokes about lambs making lovely footwear) and we got a detailed tour of the workshop.  We left empty-handed.  But a romp on the beach was an absolute must for a little girl who had been so patient despite the unrelenting anxiety of riding in a car all day, so we climbed down to the sand and took a soul restoring stroll.  On the way back to our house, we dove into a winery for some last minute tasting, where several people stopped to pat and admire Cleo until we were thrown out of the tasting room (she was actually sleeping sprawled out on the carpet when they told us she wasn’t allowed inside).  Such a lovely day of journey with no destination in sight.

The family minus Paul and Cleo
Photo by Paul Berger
The lesson was repeated last week when John and I traveled up to Ashland, Oregon, for the Shakespeare festival, finally opting, by the way, to leave Cleo at home with a new sitter who is a colleague from school.  They got on famously.  It was a far sight better than the chaos of a week with seven dogs.  After the play our first night there, we wandered into a likely sounding bar for a nightcap.  Though deserted when we arrived, ten minutes later it was packed with actors and crew from the festival shows which had just ended.  It turned out we had chanced into the post-show hangout.  We returned there each night, striking up acquaintances with crew members and actors of shows we had seen or were shortly to see, with the bartender and with the owner.  Another unexpected destination arrived at by being open to the journey.

So with all of this, you might think I would finally internalize the lesson.  I am not always quick on the uptake.

We got home from Ashland on Wednesday.  On Friday, Cleo was scheduled to take her Canine Good Citizen and therapy dog tests.  For more than a year, we have been going to obedience classes so that Cleo would be ready for this moment.  I had poured over all of the requirements, feeling confident about some, downright panicky about others.  In fact, I was so wound up about the tests that I suffered intestinal rebellion all of Thursday, not managing to leave the house until late afternoon so that we could do a little training at the venue in which the tests were to be conducted.

On Friday morning, recognizing just how wrought up I was, John resorted to the one technique he knows always calms me down—we clipped Cleo to her leash and set out on a walk. 

“What are you so anxious about?” he asked me.

“She might jump up on someone.  Dogs who jump up will be disqualified.  The rules say so.”


“Or she might start barking at the other dogs.  She’ll sound so vicious.  She won’t show that she ‘can behave politely with another dog.’  That will disqualify her for sure.”

“Would that be so bad?”

“No,” I admitted.  “I guess we could just keep training for another year and try again next summer.  Or test with someone else.  I just really wanted her to be an official therapy dog before another school year started.”

“She’s going to pick up on your anxiety,” he warned.  “How about thinking positively.”

“Well, I really do think she can do this.”  As soon as I said the words aloud, I realized I believed them. I also realized that I didn’t care, deep down.  While I wanted the legitimacy of official certification for the sake of the school, there was and is no doubt in my mind that Cleo is a magnificent therapy dog, kind, sensitive, loving, funny, patient and cuddly.  “Actually,” I said to John, suddenly feeling much calmer, “I really do think she’ll be fine.”

We were the first team to arrive at the venue.  The coordinators were still setting up.  It was a pleasant surprise to see that one of the assistants was a friend from school.  Cleo and I dropped off our chair, blanket, and snacks and took a walk to blow off some steam.  When we got back, other teams had arrived.  There were twenty of us in all.  The tester explained how the day would unfold.  Cleo and I, team number five, would be starting our test with the basic set: Accepting a friendly stranger, sitting politely for petting, allowing the stranger to groom her, walking on a loose leash, sit, stand, down, stay and recall.  By the time we had watched three of the first four dogs pull on their leashes while “heeling,” have to be hauled into a sitting position, and jump up on the tester, I leaned down and whispered to Cleo, “We’ve got this, baby girl.”  My confidence soared when one of the dogs in the other group, testing for supervised separation in which the dog is left with one of the assistants while its handler waits out of sight, began to whine, bark and finally howl.  The test administrator called to his assistant, “Get the handler back and we’ll try it again later.”   I obviously take other people’s rules far more seriously than they do themselves. 

"Reaction to Another Dog"
Photo by Ellen Mitchell
Suffice it to say that of the twenty dogs, nineteen passed.  The one who didn’t was a Pug who refused to lie down.  But I will hasten to add that Cleo was easily one of the five best dogs there.  She did everything beautifully, though she did jump up on people during the “Walking through a crowd” part of the test.  She was just very eager to greet everyone.  But the thing that just amazed me was how calm she was with all of the other dogs.  The only time she barked was when she thought another dog was behaving badly (she is a bit bossy, not uncommon for a terrier).  She dislikes it when other dogs rattle their collar tags, growl at each other, lunge for someone else’s snack, or become too boisterous.  Even then, as soon as I told her to hush, she did. 

And so, the day has come.  After nearly two years of planning, dreaming, training and loving, Cleo is officially a Canine Good Citizen and a certified therapy dog.

The surprise is that the goal, though pleasant, isn’t nearly as satisfying as I expected.  The journey, on the other hand, our weekly obedience classes and, more than anything else, daily life with Cleo, is more inspiring, more fulfilling, more precious than even I imagined it would be.

Official Therapy Dog
Photo by Ellen Mitchell