Sunday, February 24, 2013

And I Think to Myself...

So February continues in the same manner I moaned about last week.  Weather crisp, for here.  Daylight short.  Tempers shorter.  On Friday, when I was trying to get a million things done before the weekend, one of my colleagues stopped by my office no less than six times.  Four of the six drop-ins he just wanted to chat.  The seventh time he appeared at my door, for the first time ever I failed to hide my exasperation and he saw it.  He threw his hand up as if warding off a knife attack, exclaimed, “Got it!” and headed back to his own office.  “Sorry!” I called after him.  His voice fading as he rounded the corner, he called back, “No problem!  I understand!”  Thank heavens for forgiving teammates. 

Somewhat in my defense, I have spent way too much time this last week dealing with a rare discipline incident.  It doesn’t matter that they happen astonishingly infrequently at our school, when they happen they are a huge time suck.  Even though the miscreants confessed first thing Tuesday morning, we still have to track down witnesses, corroborate stories, fit all the puzzle pieces into place, coordinate all communications with the Head of School, involved faculty and with parents, set up a discipline committee hearing, and calculate potential outcomes.  Hours.  And we’re not quite done yet.

February.  Sheesh!

Of course, having something extra to pay attention to doesn’t mean that all of the other daily and weekly events cease to manifest.  This is admission season and I get to sit on the admissions committee, interviewing bright-eyed, eager young hopefuls.  Whenever he catches me coming out of an interview session, our Head grins and asks, “Cute as buttons?  Sweet as pie?”  (Being from Georgia, he pronounces it “pah.”)  And they are!  Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for next school year so I can get to know these interesting folks.  If you ever despair and think our society is coming to a crashing end, let me tell you, as long as there are teenagers like this in the pipeline, there is hope.

This is not to say the week’s been all about sleuthing and chatting.  One night this past week, I climbed into bed so exhausted that John leaned over to me and said, “Are you sure you still love being Dean of Students?”  To be sure, this could have been because for three nights in a row I had “hit the wall.”  This is our phrase to indicate the moment that sometimes comes at the end of a day when I go from merely tired to running on empty.  I take everything personally.  I cry and/or erupt at the gentlest drop of a hat.  It is not a pretty sight.  But I do, of course.  Still love being Dean of Students, that is.  Whether it’s talking to my colleagues, working with students who are sad or frustrated or worse, listening to the parent who desperately needs a sounding board because she’s raising her son alone since her husband died unexpectedly last year, whatever the situation, even when I suspect that I don’t know the right thing to say or do, there is a joy in this work.  Plus, as John knows very well, I’m not really the Dean of Students.  I’m the Assistant Dean.

Every morning, as John carries Cleo out to the car (ostensibly to help me out, but I know it’s because he wants a last snuggle with Cleo), he says to her, “Ready to go be Dean of Students?”   In fact, we’ve even written a picture book titled Cleo the Bedlington: Dean of Students.  Cleo is the one with the endless compassion, energy and zest for life.  Just compare her reaction to the long day on Friday with mine.

8 AM: Arrive at school
8:10 AM: Troubled mom comes in.  Cleo bounds to her, snots on her bare calf, then offers a series of toys to play with.  Exuberance incarnate.
9:20 AM: Aunt Kim takes Cleo across the street to the outdoor lab.  Auntie claims she’s giving Cleo exercise, but we know she really needs Cleo’s protection from the wild critters over there.  Cleo chases sticks, tears around like a Tasmanian Devil and covers two miles for every one of Auntie’s.
10:25 AM: I come back from class to find Cleo sound asleep on the couch.  Cleo’s friend Betsy stops by for a quick visit and catch-up.  She’s playing lacrosse in the afternoons, so we rarely get to see her anymore.  Cleo and Betsy roughhouse and chase each other around the office.
10:35 AM: A stream of visitors.  Cleo flings herself on every one as if she has nothing but energy to burn.  Anyone who sits in the chair instead of the couch is treated to full frontal dog.  Cleo stands on their laps, her arms around their necks, and covers as much as they will allow her of their faces, necks and ears with puppy spit.
12:10 PM: Drizzling student arrives at my office door.  She makes the mistake of sitting in the chair.  Drizzle turns to giggles.
2 PM: Miscreants arrive for final chat.  They sit on the couch, but are both pounced on, licked, presented with toys.  Finally, Cleo settles down between them, gnawing loudly on her antler.
3:30 PM: A friend drops by for a chat.  She and Cleo wrestle and bound around the office with Cleo’s otter.  Cleo wins two out of three rounds.
4:30 PM: Head home.  Cleo announces our arrival with rambunctious barking as we come through the front door, then dashes into the backyard to inspect the perimeter and reclaim her territory.  The neighbors are undoubtedly glad to know she’s back.  Certainly she is greeted with yaps, woofs and ar-roofs from every corner of a three block area.  She comes back inside, grabs her ball and nudges John’s legs until he looks down at her.  She backs up, play bows, shakes the ball and says, “Growf!”  They are off, chasing each other around the house, leaping over furniture, toppling Zuni fetishes in the display cabinet and generally celebrating the beauty of life.

I take a nap.

Monday, February 18, 2013

These Cold Days of February

As I reviewed dozens of archived blog posts in preparation for publication of the book of The Educated Dog, I found myself laughing at how often I wrote, “I love this time of year.” 

Spring: I love this time of year with its promise of renewal and the smell of…. 

Fall: I love this time of year with its welcome of introspection and the warm, sunny days we get here on the…. 

January: I love this time of year with its counterpoint of reflection on the past and dreams of the….

Now and then, I’m accused of being a Pollyanna, and it’s at moments like this that I wonder if my accusers are right.  But I’ll tell you something, right here and now.  There’s a time of year I emphatically do not love.  February.

I don’t know what it is, but February is a challenging month.  Popes may not be my favorite people in history, but old Gregory XIII wasn’t as dumb as he looked.  Now that I’ve offended somewhere in the neighborhood of half my reading audience, let me hurry on to make a point.  Designating February as the shortest month of the year has probably saved untold lives, preserved marriages, protected billions from crippling despair.  Imagine if February were regularly thirty days long!  Those two extra days (three in leap years!) of the grueling slog that is the second month would bring strong men to their knees, make women weep and cause children to grow old before our eyes.

Maybe February just carries some bad juju.  Depending on who you read, the name comes from the Etruscan and Roman god Februus, associated with purification and death, or Febris, the Roman goddess of fever.  Either way, it doesn’t feel like the month got off to a good start.  Maybe it’s challenging because it’s such a long stretch from winter vacation to spring break.  First quarter, everything’s new.  Second quarter, you’re settling in and beginning to feel comfortable.  Fourth quarter is the roller-coaster on the downward rush to the end of the year.  But during third quarter, you put your head down and push on.  Or maybe the month is tough because we’re getting sick of the short days, the long hours of darkness.  We’re suffering from communal seasonal affective disorder.  Around here, it’s certainly not the snow or cold weather.  Last week we had highs in the 70s with glorious sun, perfectly blue skies and gentle breezes.  That didn’t stop the student meltdowns from happening.

One poor fellow has been sick and out of school since mid-December.  He made a triumphant return on Wednesday only to suffer a setback and be out again on Thursday and Friday.  Seniors, especially those who have received college acceptances already, are digging deep to find the motivation to write that paper or study for that Stats test.  Even the reminder that they have to pass their courses in order to graduate in order to actually matriculate at the college of their choice doesn’t always provide the inspiration they need. 

My office sees a constant flow of teenagers coming in to talk about depression or frustration.  One, speaking barely above a whisper, seems surprised when I suggest that her afternoon headache may have been triggered by low blood sugar given that she hasn’t eaten all day.  A snack of fruit, nuts and water miraculously restores her.  Another flops into a chair and downloads a list of grievances against his parents, led chiefly by their unreasonable insistence that he not only do his assigned homework, but also turn it in. 

It’s not only students who are on their last frayed nerve.  “I don’t understand why she’s not getting this,” an exasperated father sighed the other day with a weary shake of his head.  “I keep helping her every time it comes up.”

“How do you help her?” I ask him, dreading the answer I’m betting I’ll get.

“I show her how to do it.”

“You show her?  How?”

“I do it for her.”

I try, as diplomatically as I can, to tell him that when he does the assignment for his daughter, she doesn’t have the chance to fully absorb the lesson.  “Maybe you could let her do it on her own, even if she gets it wrong.  Don’t we learn best from our own mistakes?  After all, the teacher will let her make corrections for extra credit.”

“But she’ll crash and burn!” he exclaims.

I want so much to tell him it’s one assignment in freshman history, for heaven’s sake!  It’s not the make-or-break moment of her life.  But I don’t, of course.  It’s so much more complicated than that.  This is his little girl, after all.  And there’s no small amount of his own self-concept wrapped up in her success, either.

Moments like this remind me of my mother.  When she was in her late forties and we daughters were pretty much self-sufficient, she decided she wanted to finally earn the college degree her father believed belonged only to boys.  She enrolled at a local community college and nervously dipped her toe in the waters of English 1A.  Her long-term goal was a Bachelor’s in Anthropology, but that was a secret she didn’t voice to many people.  She liked to read, but never had much time, so she figured starting with an English class would be a good way to get back into the school mindset; it had been thirty years since she’d been a student.  The time came for her to write her first essay and she was unsure how to get started, so she went to my father to ask his advice.  He wrote psychiatric papers by the ream every year, presenting them at conferences in the US and Europe.  Surely he could set her on the right road.  In his zeal to help and to show her how it was done, he wrote the paper himself.  It earned an A and the respect of the professor.  What it said to my mother was that her husband didn’t have faith in her ability to do it on her own.  Mom struggled through the mid-term exam, but didn’t go back to the class, or the college, after that. 

There are times when what we really need from the people we love the most is to know that they trust us to fail with grace, and that we will learn from that failure.  I have no doubt that it’s one of the toughest things a parent ever does for a child.  The anxious lament I hear most often is, “How will I know when letting him fail will be more destructive than educational?”  My unsatisfying response always contains some variation of “Trust yourself; you’ll know.”

Oh, how cavalier I can be!  Although I truly believe that a parent will know and that the really dire situations are extremely rare, I’m also the one who gets teary when I have to leave an anxious Cleo with the groomer for a couple hours.  And talk about avoiding the educational experience!  I’d rather go completely out of my way rather than have her face the challenge of walking past an exuberant dog.  And aren't I the one who, in class, will sneakily adjust my own position so that Cleo looks like she's done the command correctly?  

So here we are in February when my own self-doubt runs at a high ebb.  The cushion of patience between faculty members is wearing kinda thin, and when they come in to talk about student problems, parent problems, or their own problems, I'm not as sure as I am at other times of the year that I'll have an answer that will help.  I find myself stealing moments to bury my face in Cleo's piney smelling hair or to gaze into her understanding eyes as I dodge that ever-licking tongue and the application of copious amounts of puppy spit all over my face.

Even she, enthusiasm incarnate, has been affected by the February gloom.  She spends most of each day curled up on the couch sleeping.  When visitors come in, she’ll rouse herself long enough to get up and tag their calves with her damp nose.  If they’re interested in playing, she’ll indulge them, but if not, she’s perfectly content to amble back to the couch, curl up with her nose tucked under her paw and sleep the offending month away.

Come to think of it, it’s a pretty good plan.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Feed Them on Your Dreams

Last week in dog class, Cleo and I, along with the five other dog-handler teams, worked on Okay-Sit.  Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  It’s not.  In this exercise, the “Okay!” gives the dog the go-ahead to break free and play.  The “Sit!” calls her immediately back to business.  It’s reinforcement of a dog’s self-control and a reminder that no matter what else is going on, when the handler gives a command, the dog needs to respond.  It can save a dog’s life.

Cleo found the whole thing very confusing.  The first time I gave her the “Okay!” she responded as she always does; she leapt up and tagged my thighs with her front paws, using the momentum to spin her around so that she could see what all of the other dogs were up to.  She even sat instantly on command.  The confusion set in when she saw that the other dogs weren’t quite as responsive as she.  They kept playing.  How come?  So when we repeated the process, she figured she’d anticipate me: The “Okay!” led without pause to leap, tag, spin, sit.  The third time, her moment of play took on a terrier-minded intensity.  A manic look crept into her eyes, like Jack Nicholson peering through the bathroom door in The Shining, axe in hand.  This time she didn’t sit until I popped her collar.  The fourth time, a weary resignation began to set in.  That’s when I decided to call it an evening.  Class was almost over, anyway, and I figured it was time to go home and get some dinner.

One of the especially endearing things about Cleo is that as she ages, she is gaining a wonderful self-control while still being able to turn on the play when the time is right.  When she and John chase each other around the house, she is no-holds-barred.  It’s into the living room, bank around the coffee table, up onto the couch, a leap onto the chaise, a single bounce and over the back, assume flying deer position, land, into the kitchen, feet scrambling to gain purchase on the hardwood as she circles the island, but Daddy catches up and nabs her from behind, she drops the ball, Daddy scoops it up, Cleo runs into the living room to get a head start before he throws it again and the whole process repeats itself.

But when it’s work time, like now, Cleo is perfectly content to curl up where she can see at least one of us and doze or meditate or simply watch us.  What this means is that at school, just as I dreamed over two years ago now, it is ever more possible that Cleo can be with me wherever I go.

Of course, she’s always had her run of our office.  But now, I can confidently take her to meetings without fear that she’ll be so distracting we can’t get anything done.  At last week’s faculty meeting, she insisted on curling up in my lap, much to my great pleasure.  At one point, I had to excuse myself from the meeting to open up a couple of classrooms for students.  I slipped Cleo off my lap and onto the chair, telling her to stay.  I glanced back once to see her sitting fully upright, ears cocked forward,  watching after me with a little crease between her brows.  When I returned, some five minutes later, she was in the exact same position.  I was nearly overcome with pride.  The chair on which she sat was positioned at a slight angle to the table.  Next to Cleo sat the Head of School, across from her the Latin teacher, and next to him the Academic Dean.  They looked like they were just wrapping up a colloquy on the future of the school.  The only thing that marred the air of earnestness was the goofy grin Cleo broke into when she saw me coming back.

In the classroom, when I’m teaching, she curls up on the floor by the desk where she happily (and noisily) gnaws on her antler.  If students are up acting out scenes or engaging in other exercises, she watches with great interest and attention.  At the end of class, she accepts their pats, kisses and, in the case of one exuberant eighth grader, full face immersions in her fuzzy hair.  In the last week, she has begun to develop an appreciation for being up high where she can follow class discussions better.  As we came into class on Friday, she trotted directly to the teacher’s swivel chair, jumped up, turned around a couple of times, just to get her bearings, and lay down, front paws dangling nonchalantly over the edge.  As class started, I was a little concerned because, in my rush to get to class on time, I had forgotten her antler.  I needn’t have worried.  “Deny thy father and refuse thy name!”  As one student after another responded to the Balcony Scene, Cleo tracked the conversation with interest.

“They’ve known each other for, like, fifteen minutes,” cried one student, “and she’s telling him to abandon his family for her!”

“Yeah,” retorted the class feminist, “but she’s ready to give up her name for him, too.”

“They don’t care about the stupid feud,” rejoined the surfer dude.  “They just want to be together.”

“Yes,” said the shy, quiet girl, “but how?  He’s suggesting she give up her virginity to him.  They just met!”

“Oh,” exclaimed the realist, with a dismissive wave of her hand, “that’s a typical teenage boy!”  Shouts of laughter, protest and agreement. 

Cleo put her head on her paws and sighed.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Afoot and Light-Hearted

We have discovered Charlee Bears!  Suddenly, my non-food-motivated beauty is rushing to do whatever I ask of her so that I’ll pop a treat into her mouth.  She crunches it up with lip-smacking zest and an avaricious gleam in her eye, then gazes at me in rapt fascination, waiting for the next command.  As Betsy, Cleo’s favorite student and frequent trick-trainer, says, “I used to never  be sure if she knew what I wanted and just didn’t feel like doing it, or if she really didn’t understand what I was asking her for.  Now I know!”  Since the Charlee Bear find, Cleo has perfected the high five, a trick we’ve been working on for, oh, two years and the back leg hop, something which she’s now taken to doing spontaneously when she’s excited.

We’re probably coming late to the party here, but until last month, I’d never heard of Charlee Bears.  It’s all thanks to our art teacher, just returned from sabbatical, who came over to say hi to us during the first faculty meeting.  As she was patting Cleo and making a fuss over her, she exclaimed, “Oh!  I have a couple of Charlee Bears in my pocket.  Is it okay for Cleo to have them?”  Knowing that Cleo never, ever eats dry treats, I said doubtfully, “You can see if she’ll eat them if you....”  Before I’d finished the sentence, Cleo was making a gigantic deal out of chewing up the offering.  Swallowing, she turned in slow motion to stare at her benefactress as if she were the second coming.  I could almost hear the soundtrack swelling as Cleo discovered the meaning of life.

“What are those things called, again?” I asked.

“All natural healthy dog treats!”  “Savory taste of real liver!”  “All USA ingredients!”  “Only 3 calories per treat!”  And, to top it all off, they’re “Pocket Perfect.”  In fact, they look so much like oyster crackers that I’ve been tempted to try one on more than a few occasions.  That actually smell pretty good.  It’s the beef liver that stops me, though it certainly doesn’t stop Cleo.  I figure if I keep working on Betsy, she’ll eventually break down and give one a taste.  I almost had her last Monday, but she chickened out. 

By now, Cleo knows she’s going to get them when we’re training.  As we walk into class on Monday nights, she gets even more excited than she used to and there’s an added spring in her step.  One of the benefits of being able to carry several in my pocket is that I can surprise her with them, too.  I love the look of disbelief that crosses her face when I casually reach into my pocket and pull one out.  I imagine that it reinforces her impression of my magical abilities and beneficence.  For me, it just gives me pleasure to surprise and delight her.

I’ve mentioned before that as often as we can, and certainly every weekend, we take Cleo for a trail walk along the site of an old, long-ago-dismantled railway line.  It’s a beautiful place to go, open and green, full of intoxicating smells for the canine nose and blissfully leash-free, allowing for lagging behind and running to catch up, zig-zagging, crow chasing and all kinds of other exhilarating experiences.  In the last couple of weeks, we found a path leading off the trail that takes us all the way down to the ocean.

This morning, Cleo got her ritual pooping out of the way as soon as we arrived at the trail.  As John bagged the evidence and ran off to dispose of it, Cleo and I did some refresher work on come, finish and stand.  It’s always helpful to train in a variety of settings because dogs are very location-specific, as our trainer, Pluis, was reminding the class last week.  The Saturday before, she had been working at a lake with a retriever and his owner.  The goal was for the dog to swim out to a float, grab it, bring it directly back to the handler, then wait for the handler to step back and give a command before shaking the water out of his fur.  They worked and worked until the dog had it down, then walked forty yards around the lake to try it in a new location.  Same lake, same handler, same trainer, same float, same commands.  The dog had absolutely no idea what they were asking him to do. 

So I like to practice with Cleo wherever we might be.  And, of course, I happened to have some Charlee Bears in my pocket this morning, much to Cleo’s ecstatic delight.  Although it was a concern for her to see Daddy jogging off without us, when she heard me say “Come!” and saw me reach into my pocket, she happily galloped over and sat at my feet.  Chomp, chomp, chomp!  Hand signal to heel.  Chomp, chomp!  Stand.  Mmm, mmm!  Daddy came back and we set off.  Now and then, I called Cleo back, rewarding her with a treat.  We walked to the ocean and stood in a small gazebo overlooking the rocks and the spectacular, roaring winter waves as they folded over themselves in violent curls, frothing as they skirted along the polished stones at the edge of the continent.  Cleo jumped up onto a bench and rested her front paws on the banister, ears blowing in the fresh breeze.  She gazed out to sea, following the flight of a passing cormorant. 

When the time came, she was happy to head back up the path.  As we turned onto the main trail, she was all alertness and quivering attention.  John and I could see nothing ahead, but she was fixated.  “Okay!” I told her, giving the release command and allowing her to run ahead.  She bounded off, but then slowed, making sure we were nearby.  Once again, she stared ahead, shifting the angle of her body now and then to gain a new perspective.  In true terrier fashion, she was obsessed with whatever was ahead, though all we saw was an empty trail.  As we neared the road that bisects the trail, I called Cleo back to me and told her to heel, which she did perfectly, though with all her attention directed ahead of us.  She stayed with me as we crossed the road, she sat at my feet the instant I stopped.  This was perfection that deserved a reward.  I reached into my pocket for the favored treats and held one in front of her mouth.  Without a glance at my hand, she snatched the treat away from me and spat it on the ground.  John and I laughed and I gave Cleo the Okay.  She leapt ahead, trotting jauntily ahead of us, tail extended at a free and confident angle. 

Charlee Bears may be manna from heaven, but they ain’t nothin’ compared to the joy of the open trail.