Sunday, January 27, 2013

Somebody's Crying

“There isn’t an adult who hasn’t experienced heartbreak.”  I was talking with one of my young students as he sat in my office, eyes red-rimmed, mashing Cleo to his chest like a talisman against further pain.  She was being uncharacteristically calm about his too-tight grip.  She lay supine, cradled in his arms, her back legs extended, toes pointing to the window, her neck craning, chin hooked over his upper arm, ears dangling.  From time to time, she bounced up and down as the boy tried to wipe his eyes or nose on his unoccupied shoulder without letting go of the (miraculously) sleeping dog.

“Thanks,” he replied glumly, more as an acknowledgement of my attempt to be kind than with any sense of belief in what I’d said.  Who can tell a fourteen-year-old boy experiencing his first break-up that his exquisite heartache is anything but unique, the worst of all time, one for the ages?  After all, she was the one.  He had planned to travel the world with her, living a blissful existence in her presence every minute of every day.  Now, all he wanted to do was find a way to get her back.  If only he could find the right words, make the right gesture, she would see that they were meant for each other.

And all I wanted to do was find the balm to heal this tender heart, knowing full well that this would be a betrayal of everything I believe about working with adolescents.  Not only can we not take away the pain, it’s disrespectful even to try. 

When I was much younger, going through my divorce, my oldest sister confessed to me that she was pretty sure my marriage wouldn’t last. 

“Why didn’t you stop me?” I wailed across the phone lines. 

“Because that was something you had to find out for yourself,” she replied.  “All I could do was be there to help you pick up the pieces.”   And she was.  Had she tried to stop me from marrying my first husband, a perfectly nice man who was entirely unsuited to my temperament, I would have felt angry and resentful, then gone ahead and done exactly what I wanted.  Later, when divorce became inevitable, I doubt I would have been able to lean on her as I did.

Every heart break, every wrong choice, every right choice that ends badly, teaches us so much about love.  If I hadn’t pursued that dark-eyed and mysterious (read cold and distant) actor in college, would I appreciate the active communication John and I have every day?  If that boy in seventh grade hadn’t rolled his eyes when I confessed to liking him, would I care as much about people’s feelings now?  Okay, probably; he was just a jerk.  Cute, but a jerk.  Then again, he’s probably learned a thing or two in the ensuing forty plus years, too.

Some of the hardest conversations I have are the ones when I try to encourage parents to let their children deal with an upheaval on their own.  Stand in support, yes.  Advise, absolutely.  But don’t try to fix it.  When you let your child work through the challenge, you’re teaching resilience.  Problem solving.  Tenacity.  Self-determination.  And you’re showing that you trust your child to find a way through.

I was reminded of a student the other day.  This guy was one of the nicest kids in the world, hugely popular with his classmates, a bit of a class clown, but not a mean bone in his body.  A sharply honed academic he was not.  He fought for his Cs and occasional C-minuses.  The faculty knew this fellow was going to be one of those people who would never set the world on fire intellectually, but who would be immensely successful because he had so much social intelligence.  He would be the guy who raised millions for the nonprofit he worked for because he could convey his belief in the organization with such charm and conviction that folks would rush to open their checkbooks.  Or he would be the connector who introduced two people who subsequently changed the world with their partnership.  Unfortunately, this student’s father was not as convinced of his son’s potential as we were.  Dad had been number one in his class at an Ivy League school, and that was the only definition of success that he understood.  If his son earned a C on a test, Dad was in the Head’s office, complaining that the teacher obviously didn’t like him.  If the boy’s low grades kept him out of the play, Dad met with the director—oh, the rule was fine for other students, just not for his son. 

Towards the end of his freshman year, I heard that the student was about to complete his Eagle Scout project.  “Wow!” I exclaimed to the teacher who was telling me about it.  “He’s only a freshman and he’s already becoming an Eagle Scout?  That’s really impressive!”

“Not really,” said the teacher, shrugging.  “His dad did it all for him.”

As much as I wanted, and still want, to take away my heartbroken student’s pain, to tell him that his dream girl will see the light and take him back, I know she won’t.  He may always love her, but more likely, he’ll always remember the things about her that made him feel good, and when he meets someone who lightens his heart in the same way, he’ll treasure her. 

In the meantime, the best thing he can do is to hang onto a sleeping puppy and let her soft grey fur soak up some tears.

Don't forget!  The Educated Dog (the book) is available on  If you liked it, feel free to write a review or "like" it on Amazon.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Love and Loyalty

Every year at this time, I teach Romeo and Juliet to my eighth grade English class.  I love teaching this play to this age group.  Most of them enter into reading and discussing it thinking that it’s a touching romantic love story.  They’re very surprised to discover that the whole debacle unfolds over a five day period and leaves six people dead.  Far from a touching romance, it’s a bloodbath born of five varieties of unrestrained love.  My class this year is a really special group of people.  While there is the usual contingent of squirrely adolescents, they’re also wise beyond their years, highly verbal and deeply thoughtful.  As we discussed the five types of love in the play, one of my students said, “When we’re talking about familial love, love of your family’s honor, aren’t we really talking about loyalty?”

What an interesting thought.  Loyalty is generally good, isn’t it?  But then, so is love.  Can’t loyalty be taken too far?  If you love your family, or the idea of your family, too much, as Tybalt does, isn’t that just as bad as loving someone so much that your own identity is subsumed in his?  Juliet gives up her name for Romeo when she has known him all of fifteen minutes.  She can imagine no world without him by her side, as he can imagine no world without her.  Is that really healthy?  Tybalt is rude to his uncle and risks bringing social embarrassment on his household because he is so zealous about protecting his family’s “honor” that he is willing to kill Romeo while Romeo is a guest at a Capulet party.  When love for, or loyalty to, a group overwhelms respect for the individuals in that group, doesn’t that presage disaster?  Shakespeare certainly seems to think so.

I grew up at a time when loyalty to country, AKA patriotism, meant that you should never question your government’s actions.  America, love it or leave it.  These days, loyalty to a political party seems to trump loyalty to country.  If the other guy wins the election, that’s tyranny and we gotta secede.  If we win, that proves our ideas are best and the other side is morally bankrupt.  Or is that just what the media feeds us?  Do most of us really live in a grey area of nuance?  The place where loyalty and constructive criticism meet? 

It’s been brought to my attention over the years that my sense of loyalty doesn’t always serve me well.  For years, I’ve gone to the same woman to cut my hair not because she’s particularly good at it (as my husband and certain friends have pointed out on multiple occasions), but because I like her.  We developed a friendship over the years, and I care about her.  She knows about my trials and tribulations raising my step-children and I know about her divorce, her subsequent dating fiascos, her child rearing quandaries.  She’s funny and sassy and opinionated, all of which I love.  But I’d rather see her for a glass of wine than a haircut.  So after years of dithering and hesitation, I’m now going to someone new.  I feel guilty and I don’t like her as much, but my hair looks great. 

Perhaps in a slightly more meaningful context, I felt a decidedly misplaced loyalty to the ophthalmologist who performed my Lasik surgery.  Oh, him I disliked intensely, but I always figured, because he did the surgery, he knew what he was doing.  I finally realized what an arrogant jerk he was when John and I encountered him at a local restaurant.  He was solo, a good three sheets to the wind when he staggered up to us and shook my hand.  Then, turning to John, he said, “Don’t worry, I’m her doctor, not her lover.”  Okay, eww!  I mean, really?  What do you even say to that?  John looked like he wanted to deck the guy.  And, by the way, came up with a pretty good comeback which he chose not to say until the jerk was out of earshot, showing yet again the class that is one of the many reasons I love him.  So after putting off my yearly eye appointment because I didn’t want this slimeball anywhere near me, I finally found a new optometrist who quickly informed me that, although I have been told for years that my eyes are corrected to 20-25, they are nowhere close to that.  Not only that, but it is no big deal to actually correct them to 20-25.  So after over a decade of accepting that when someone said to me, “See that dog over there?” I would have to answer, “No,” it turns out that in a few days, I will.

So that’s why I’ve been questioning the value of loyalty lately.  Then, the other day, a friend sent me an article about a German Shepherd, Tommy, who continues to attend mass every day at his owner’s church even though she died over a year ago.  If you knew my friend, you’d recognize why this story was such a profound example of canine loyalty; she can be polite during a church service when she’s required to go, but she would never attend one voluntarily.  Were she Tommy the German Shepherd, it’s far more likely that you’d find her hoisting one to her owner’s memory at the local sidewalk cafĂ©. 

Pluis, our trainer, often admonishes the class, “Our dogs must find us terrifically boring.”  All we do is stare at a computer screen, sit around reading, leave them alone, worry about the state of the world.  Any sensible being should know that if you are not sleeping or eating, you should be playing, running, chasing, digging, sniffing, tasting, repeat.  Yet here is Cleo on this most boring weekend when I have been laid out by either the flu or the worst cold I’ve had in years (and after reading the site, I’m going for the former), and what is she doing?  Well, right now she’s lying on the chaise in her characteristic Kilroy position, chin hanging over the back edge, so that she can watch me type.  Moments ago when I got up in search of my water glass, she followed me into the bedroom (Are we napping again?), back to the kitchen (What are you gonna do in here?), to the living room (Are we going somewhere?), back to the bedroom (I guess we’re napping), back to the kitchen (What are you doing?) and finally into my office where, with a resigned sigh, she left me at the computer and returned to the chaise.  As I napped earlier, she stood guard (snoozed guard?) over me, springing up at odd sounds, ready to protect and defend if the need arose.  Or at least, that’s how I interpret her sudden leaps to rigid-legged attention and heart-stopping outbursts of alarm-bark.  Dogs are not in relationships with us for what they can get.  They love us in a way that is far too easy to take for granted. 

And that is the true meaning, and the real value, of loyalty.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cleo the Bedlington Returns!

Happy New Year and welcome back to the world of Cleo!  The lamb-girl and I are very glad to be here.  You may recall that the week before Halloween, I wrote to say that I would be taking a month off to get my book in order.  Okay, who knew?!  It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be to ready a book for publication.  So here we are, two and a half months later, but the book is published and available on Amazon. Here’s the link, in case you want to get it: The Educated Dog.  It is being sold only as an ebook, but if you don’t have a Kindle, here is an article on how to read ebooks without one.  If you like the book, I would so appreciate your posting a review on the Amazon site.  Anyway, I’m really excited to have actually accomplished this goal, as well as to be back writing the blog and sharing our stories!

So much has happened since October, both in the wide world and in the tiny sliver of Cleo’s world.  Anyone who was alive and aware in December 2012 will never again hear the words Sandy Hook or Newtown without experiencing a wave of grief.  For our school, exams had ended two days before that dreadful Friday, and our students had scattered to their homes and vacations.  I spent a lot of time that weekend alternately reading news stories and lying on the chaise snuggling Cleo, her head tucked under my chin, her little body warming my chest.  Even she eventually got fed up with being plucked from whatever activity she was engaged in to be wrapped in her mom’s arms and tightly held.  She squirmed to loosen herself, her pointy paws pressing into my neck and sternum, her elbow digging into my ribs, then hopped down to pounce on her moose which she carried back to me to present for a game of chase.  She was right, as always.  Playing with her was a much better palliative than lying around trying to fathom the unfathomable.  Action trumped inaction and eventually led us to join the 26 Acts of Kindness movement.  Building bridges between people by affirming our mutual humanity is the only answer I can think of to an act that so rends the fabric of society.

Once it got underway, we had a wonderful vacation.  John and I made sure that Cleo got to walk on her favorite trail every day, and several times took her to the park for an evening tear around the field or, if the stupid deer had taken over, the tennis court.  Ever since Cleo and I were out walking one day and a young doe ran down the path after us, she has recognized their silhouettes.  When she sees them on the field at night, she stands at attention, pressing forward, nose awiggle, tail ramrod straight and quivering.  She looks like she’s thinking how much she’d like to bite their ankles.  Or maybe I’m just projecting.  She probably wants to play with them.  It’s me that wants to bite their ankles.  Anyway, she enjoys the tennis court almost as much as the grass and was happy to show off for our son Jackson and his girlfriend when he was home on leave from his Navy training.  She raced around the court, easily outrunning and outmaneuvering all four of us, laughing as she taunted us by skimming past, just out of reach.

And now we’re back at school.  I’ve been making a point to take Cleo with me to meetings this year.  Usually, I take her blanket and favorite chew-object, an antler (no, my hostility is not subconscious), so that she has somewhere to be and something to keep her occupied.  Faculty meetings are held in the library, just downstairs from Cleo’s and my office.  The other morning I dropped Cleo off, leaving her to do her daily perimeter check (territory outside office windows free of turkeys, quail or other intruders; couch cushions inspected for left-over crumbs, toys or other objects and scents of interest; toys present and accounted for), grabbed her blanket and headed to the meeting, letting her know she could join me when she was ready.  In a minute or two, I heard little exclamations of greeting rippling through the group of assembled campus adults, then a happy face was grinning up at me.  I arranged Cleo’s blanket and showed her the antler.  She plopped down and started enthusiastically gnawing—crunch, crunch, grind.  Then she stopped, craned her neck and looked at me.  Up she got, a truly uncharacteristic lack of obedience.  The meeting started and I quietly put her back in a down-stay.  It lasted for less than a minute.  What was going on?  I knew she didn’t need to go out; she’d already done all that less than a half hour before.  Back onto the blanket.  A new teacher is welcomed and a returning one greeted, both with applause.  Cleo is up, feet on my lap, looking anxiously into my face.

Call me slow.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  You see, two days before, the boiler in the library had broken.  The repairman had the flu and couldn’t come fix it.  It wasn’t unbearable when we were in our office with a space heater cranked, but in the open library it was cold.  In fact, the California Central Coast is now going through the coldest winter I can remember since I moved here.  Temperatures are dropping into the 30s almost nightly and rarely breaking into the high 50s during the day.  Every human in the room, literally, was bundled up in winter coats, scarves, mittens, hats.  Some were even huddled in extra blankets.  Cleo, her hair clipped unusually short by a new groomer, was literally shivering.  She wasn’t being disobedient; she was succumbing to hypothermia!

I patted my lap and she jumped up, turned around and gratefully lay down, curled into a tight ball.  I lay my gloved hand on her side to help warm her up.  During the break, when she normally would have gotten up to say hello to her favorite people, she managed to open an eye and look around.  She did appreciatively crunch up a few Charlie Bears that one of the art teachers happened to have in her pocket, and happily sniffed the coat sleeves of her Aunt Kim and Aunt Charlotte when they scratched her ears (gloves on).  But she was not about to leave my lap.  As she warmed up, she uncurled a bit from the tight ball, taking more and more of my lap until I had to extend it with my left forearm and hand.  She sighed contentedly and stretched her chin so that it rested fully in my palm.  By the end of the meeting, my knees were stiff, my feet were tingling and my arm muscles ached.  But Cleo and I were both toasty warm.  Several folks stopped on their way out to tell Cleo how good she had been, then we made our way up to the office and dialed the space heater to high.