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!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

It is a Far, Far Better Thing

I think it’s one of the nobler aspects of human kind that we, without so much as a begrudging thought, make sacrifices for our pets. 

I know of a couple who hasn’t traveled together for years; they don’t feel they can leave their six cats.  Personally, I have the suspicion that they never really liked traveling together in the first place, and this makes a handy excuse.  (I know I’ll get emails about that comment…)  For John and me, there is no point in traveling without the other unless we absolutely have to for work.  Besides, there are wonderful pet sitters in the world.  I’m even a little jealous of just how much Cleo loves hers. 

My sister gave hours of each day to caring for her aging cat Perdita.  Though shriveled to the weight of a kitten and completely incontinent, Per wasn’t in pain and clearly wanted to hang around with my sister and her family.  She didn’t care much for any other humans, but my sister had bottle fed her and her brother Raoul when they were found abandoned, days old at the most.  Raoul was a hale-fellow-well-met kind of guy, but Per was able to expand her heart only enough to love Jan’s husband and daughter because Jan loved them.  Everyone else was suspect, and one felt lucky to be graced with a rare Per sighting when visiting the family.  Jan helped Perdita to a dignified exit with all the love and patience she had helped her to a hopeful entrance.

A dear friend of ours takes her Labs to a doggie swim-gym several times a week so they can have no-impact exercise for their aging joints.  Finnegan and Merlin may be the best traveled dogs I know, having gone walk-about with Jen and Anth in their converted van, spending four years or so traveling to Alaska, New Orleans, Boston and back to the Central Coast.  I can’t imagine two adult humans and two adult Labs in a van or tiny apartment for all that time, but they couldn’t imagine life without the dogs.  What I thought of as a sacrifice was a no-brainer for them.

John and I detest DIY projects, the converted backyard notwithstanding.  Our watchwords are “Hire the professionals.”  We are full of admiration for all those who can build, carve, tile, pave, install and refinish.  We stand amazed at our brother-in-law who built an entire cabin by himself.  And I use the quaint word “cabin” only because it is located in the mountains.   But John and I have neither the talent nor the inclination to master home improvement skills.  He is fond of paraphrasing Dr. Bones from Star Trek, “Damn it, Jim, I’m just a country guitar player!”  That would be a lowercase country, given that he’s built his city on rock and roll.

So it may come as something of a surprise that our Sunday went to installing a patio pet door in the sliding glass door off our kitchen.  It may not come as a surprise that it took us something in the neighborhood of six and a half hours to complete this home improvement.  Now, Cleo has instant, ready access to the backyard any time she wants it. 

The journey to ending up with a pet door to the outside was fraught with any number of wrong turns.  To begin with, it took us months to settle on just the right one.  We had to compare the permanent installations with the semi-permanent, those with the temporary.  Did we want aluminum or vinyl, double or single-paned.  Should the flap be rigid, flexible, jointed?  Magnetic?  Automatic?  Who knew there were so many options? 

We finally settled on one a couple weekends ago (semi-permanent, vinyl, double-paned, jointed) and placed the order on a Saturday.  On Sunday, our credit card company called to ask if we had magically made simultaneous multi-thousand dollar purchases in southern California, Northern California and South Carolina.  Um, no.  What had initially alerted them to possible fraud was a $3000 plus purchase at a Bose outlet in San Matteo and a $2500 charge at a Macy’s near LA.  At first they were confused by a posting from Walmart in Charleston for $500 in groceries, but quickly decided that it was unlikely that was us.  The upshot was a canceled credit card and an email on Monday morning from the pet door people asking if there was some problem with our credit card.  I now had the choice of giving the new card number out over the phone to a complete stranger or canceling the order and starting over on the secure website.

The nice fraud department adviser counseled me that as long as a payment site was specifically labeled “secure,” chances are nearly infinitesimal that your information will be stolen online.  The real problems, he said, were restaurants.  “The minute you let your card out of your sight, you have no idea what’s being done with it,” he told me.  He described small apparatuses that wait staff can attach to their belts that allow them to swipe a card and obtain all the information necessary to make a perfect duplicate.  “Any time you take your card out of your wallet in a public place, assume that someone nearby is snapping a picture of it with their phone.”

I canceled the order and started over.

So our nice UPS man delivered the door mid-week, and John and I tackled the installation today.  Let me just say, John was great—a creative problem solver, an indefatigable driller, measurer, sawer and screwer (though that sounds a bit wrong).  “Power tools!” he would announce in a tone of deep appreciation every time a screw went into its intended destination (especially the couple of times we had to reverse our steps and do something over again). 

For the first hour or so, Cleo observed from a safe distance.  Eventually, she decided that the whirring noises probably weren’t life-threatening and came over for the up close and personal, occasionally providing help with a paw to the knee or an encouraging lick of the nose.  About 7:30 this evening, we all stood back to admire the finished product.  A little caulking here and there will seal the deal, so to speak, and keep us warmer this winter, but all in all, it looks pretty spiffy.  Cleo thought it was most elegant.  She just had no idea what it was for.

A half dozen times luring her inside to outside, out to in with hotdog slices and she was beginning to get the idea.  It was a moment of triumph for all of us when she magically appeared by our sides as John and I put the tools away in the shed.  The return trip back into the house is still problematic, but she seems to have mastered the in-to-out route.

In fact, just as I typed that last sentence, I heard the swish and smack of the flexible door as she made use of our gift to her.  There is a remarkable sense of joy in hearing that simple sound.  It suddenly seems small, the sacrifice of the last Sunday before school starts.