Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cleo's Menagerie

One of the truly wonderful things about living where we do is the abundance of wildlife.  It offers endless entertainment for Cleo. 

Close to home is the squirrel that lives in the eighty foot Monterey Pine that takes up most of our backyard.  Personally, I worry about this squirrel.  The tree, partly because it’s nearing the end of its natural life and partly because we had it aggressively pruned this past fall, rains sap.  Sap drips from it in giant globules, trailing silver icicles and mournful tear drops, making our fence, deck and outdoor furniture look like they were caught in a glazing machine explosion.  Frozen amber rivers have turned the trunk into a future DNA harvester’s mother lode. Though a backyard excursion leaves Cleo smelling like a car air freshener, she returns with sticky paws, dirt clods sap-glued to her tummy, and pine needles dangling like gaudy earrings.  Liberal applications of eye makeup remover dissolve the sap enough for us to comb it out of her hair.  But who does the squirrel have to minister to its sticky paws or gummed up tummy fur?  It runs along the fence and waggles its tail to provoke Cleo to chase it or strolls around the base of the tree faking vulnerability, then scrabbles out of reach in an exuberant spiral around the trunk, leaving paw prints in the oozing sap.  I’m afraid that some day it’s going to make a leap, but stick to the branch, wrenching its little leg right out of the hip socket.  Not that Cleo thinks about any of this.  She simply loves the game of the chase.

In the evening, she is visited by a plodding opossum who grasps the top of the fence with its under-sized paws, occasionally stopping to stare balefully through our bedroom window at the puppy barking her fool head off.  The torture experts are the raccoons who live under our deck.  They will also sometimes use the fence as a thoroughfare, but more often than not, they enter and exit their den through the neighbor’s yard, snickering as Cleo sets up her fiercest alarm and flings herself at the fence boards or digs frantically at the deck.  She can’t see them, but she sure can hear them.  When they’re feeling especially nasty, they stand directly under her spot on our deck and chatter or scratch the underside of the boards.  It works Cleo into a fury.  She loves it when I come out and stamp on the deck to shut the stupid varmints up.  Honestly, it works for all of two seconds.  I’ve heard them laughing at me, too.

At school, my office has floor to ceiling windows on two sides.  One wall of windows overlooks a canyon, the other an expanse of lawn.  Cleo will lie for hours gazing out one window or another.  She is fascinated by the lizards that run along the window frame, pausing to do pushups to impress potential mates.  Sometimes she’ll jump up and follow their progress along the frame, pawing at the glass to get them going again if they stop.  Little birds scratch for bugs in the dirt just outside the windows, but Cleo barely even cocks an ear for them.  She is no longer impressed by them since the turkeys have been making regular visits.  We can hear them gobble-gobble down in the canyon, but we both stop what we’re doing to watch them when they come up over the crest and strut their stuff.  Last week we were treated to the spectacle of two Toms in full display, running at each other in mock battle, swerving or pulling up short at the moment just before collision.  Cleo stood on the arm of the couch, quivering from nose to fully-extended tail; she could barely contain herself.  It had to have taken every ounce of self-control she has to keep quiet—our office is in the library, so learning not to bark there was one of her earliest lessons.

She loves to lie on the back of the couch and watch the crows out on the lawn.  Our school has crows the way the Tower of London has ravens, though I don’t know of a legend promising the return of a fabled head of school should we ever fall into a dark and desperate time.  The crows parade around our campus as if they own the place.  They stand, hips casually cocked, on picnic tables, perch on planters, congregate in congresses around the Quad and hang out on gutters, treetops and any other available surface.  I don’t want you to get the impression that we look like the playground full of crows in The Birds.  Our crows are more peaceful and more spread out: four or five here, two or three there.  But they are smart, I’ll tell you.  Crows really are such cool characters.  Above my desk at home, where I’m sitting right now, in fact, there is a slightly slanted skylight.  From the first days of its existence, crows have used it for skiing practice.  They flutter to the high edge, step gingerly onto the glass and screeeeeiiiitttch down the slope to the low edge, then they run around to the top and do it all over again.  Sometimes I’ll have three or more lined up taking turns.  Cleo’s not fond of the noise they make and feels she has to defend me from them, but at school, she loves to play with the crows.  Whether it’s on the lawn outside our office or across the street when we take our near daily walk up to the fields, the crows will stand around jauntily watching her.  She bounds towards them and just as she gets within nipping distance, they launch, wings straining, legs dangling, tempting her into a last optimistic leap before she veers away to chase down an errant scent.  On our walks around the neighborhood, she dives towards the crows standing on the street as if she’s just seen an old friend.

In the last couple of weeks, Cleo has gotten a full look at the baby bunnies that populate the small lawns at the entrance to the Quad.  The first time, she literally did a double take.  She stood transfixed as if she were unable to believe her eyes.  Then she lunged.  Luckily for the bunny, she was on leash.  Now, every time we pass by that area, which we do at least twice a day on our way to and from class or on our daily walk, Cleo refuses to move on until she’s had a chance to look for bunnies.  Given that she’s regularly rewarded with a sighting, there’s little chance I’ll ever be able to walk that part of campus without some delay.

I’m not sure what she’d do if she were allowed to get close to a bunny. When I was a Tween, there was a Peanuts strip that I just loved.  In it, Sally (I think) was trying to teach Snoopy how to hunt rabbits because she thought he was lazy.  She says to Snoopy, “Say you see a rabbit, what would you do?”  Without hesitation, Snoopy stands up on his back feet, smiles broadly and extends his hand for a warm and welcoming handshake.  Maybe that’s what Cleo would do.  My fear, of course, is that instinct would take over and she’d go in for the kill.  Then she’d be upset and sad, or at the very least confused, as she was when she caught a baby rat. 

I was going to say that I would rather keep that from happening in order to preserve her innocence.   After a few minutes of snuggling with her warm and fuzzy, pine-scented body, I realize: It’s my own innocence I want to preserve. 

As always, visit for a podcast of this post.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cleo Capone

With Tax Day rapidly approaching, I’ve been wrapping up the preparations for our annual meeting with our accountant.  The first step, of course, is printing out a report from our banking software of all transactions from 2012.  And there are those figures in black and white, inescapable.  The bottom line on every expense category.  How much did we spend on eating out?  Oh, very reasonable this year!  Go us!  And on clothes?  Hm.  Maybe I could shop at Kohl’s a little more and at J. Crew a little less.  The expense line that sort of took my breath away was the one that begins with a capital C and ends with an o.  Four letters. 

I remember Cleo’s grandmother Jan telling a story about taking one of her Bedlingtons, Sterling, to visit at a retirement community.  As she walked down the hallway, she heard one of the residents say to another, “Oh, look.  That’s one of those dogs that rich people own.”  Funny story.  We laughed.  My response was, “We are rich!  Rich in the love of our Bedlingtons.”  Okay, pretty corny, I know.

It’s not that Cleo, in and of herself, is expensive, even though John always greets our return from the vet with the line, “How much did our little hothouse flower cost this time?”  I recognize that I am the one who insists on taking her to the vet at the slightest provocation.  In fact, I’ll be taking her in the next couple minutes so that the doctor can have a look at a little lump on Cleo’s lip.  I pulled a tick off of her the other day and a swelling at the site hasn’t gone away.  Neither John nor I can bear the idea that she might be uncomfortable.  She’s so stoic that she doesn’t let on unless she’s beside herself with pain.  So off to the vet we go.  She’s our little girl.

And I’m the one who insists on buying her the fancy food.  Truly, we joke that it looks and smells so good, it’s what we’ll buy for ourselves when our retirement money starts to run out.  If we can afford it. 

So the food and the vet bills, the groomer, the toys, the treats, and the training classes all add up.  Here’s what I want to know: How come we can’t deduct our pets as dependents?  They definitely are—I mean, they depend on us for so much.  A fifteen-year-old dog is far more helpless at earning a living than a fifteen-year-old human. 

Many, many years ago, I knew someone who did claim his pets, two cats and a dog, as dependents.  “My wife and I aren’t going to have kids,” he told me, somewhat defensively.  “As far as we’re concerned, our pets are our kids.” Of course, I wanted to know what the pets’ names were because I could just imagine a Snowball Jones or Rover Smith.  Like many people, they gave their pets human-sounding names: Brian, Eloise and—the biggest reach—Saint.  I have no idea if the IRS ever found out.  I guess it wouldn’t be particularly suspicious if you had a cat who lived to be 21 or so; one might imagine a child developing her independence at that age.  But wouldn’t you wonder if a couple’s children kept disappearing from the Claimed Dependents page at the age of 13 or 14, only to be replaced by newborns?  Maybe the IRS doesn’t follow us closely enough to be aware of something like that.  And before you ask, I had the same question: Yes, this fellow and his wife did get their pets social security numbers.  I don’t even want to think of all the laws they must have broken.

According to the Turbo Tax Blog (who knew, right?), the reason the IRS doesn’t allow pets to qualify as dependents is because they won’t grow up to be tax-paying citizens themselves, as human dependents will.  That seems a bit narrow-minded, frankly.  I’m sure most of us could, off the top of our heads, list any number of humans who didn’t grow up to become tax-paying citizens.  On the other hand, an article in Forbes magazine gives some great tips on what one can claim as deductions vis à vis our pets, including moving expenses (in some cases), business expenses for a guard dog, or service dog expenses. 

In 2009, a US Representative from Michigan, Thaddeus McCotter, introduced the HAPPY Act (Humanity and Pets Partnered through the Years—cute, no?) which would have granted a $3500 yearly deduction to pet owners.  Some people felt it was in acknowledgement of the fact that pet owners pour something like 55 billion dollars into the pet-based economy each year.  Unfortunately, Rep. McCotter’s attention shifted away from the HAPPY Act, first to the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra and then to scandal-mitigation.  It seems the great majority of the names on the petitions his campaign submitted to get him on the Michigan ballot at re-election time were fake.  Then, a TV pilot which he had written was leaked to the press.  In it, he proposed hosting a reality show the description of which combined the words “crude” and “female anatomy” in a career-ending way.  But really, can one think unrelentingly harshly of a politician who tried to get a tax break for U.S. pet owners? 

At our meeting with our accountant last year, I asked if we could deduct some of Cleo’s expenses.  I wasn’t going overboard!  I was only thinking of the expenses accrued towards getting her certified as a therapy dog, a process directly associated with my work, after all.  He regarded me for a moment with a patient, gentle, non-judgmental countenance, then sighed ever so slightly.  “No,” he said, and flipped the page of our tax planner.

Let me just be completely clear to any IRS auditors who might be reading this: I didn’t, I won’t, I wouldn’t.  And Cleo still has no social security number.  Though I’m not ruling out the possibility that she’ll grow up to be a solid, tax-paying citizen some day.

By the way, The Educated Dog (the book) is now available in hard copy as well as ebook form.  Visit to order and to listen to the weekly podcast.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cleo in Class

For a podcast of this blog entry, visit!

Several people have asked lately, “Is Cleo still going to class?”  The short answer is, “You betcha!”  Our Monday night classes are so much more than obedience training, although that is a fabulous and important aspect of it all, too.

Sometimes I think of these sessions as Mommy and Me time.  There is plenty of bonding that goes on as a dog and handler train together.  We exchange more eye contact in that forty-five minute session than in an entire class-free day.  As we heel—fast, slow and normal—about turn, circle left, circle right, down your dog, stand your dog, step away, figure eight, long distance recall, prolonged sit and stay with handler across the room, and then add any exciting new twist that Pluis, our trainer, decides to throw in to liven things up, we spend a lot of time gazing at each other.  When we’re far apart, I adopt a goofy grin that mimics a happy dog (though I keep my tongue in my mouth), just as Pluis taught us humans to do in our first few classes together.  Cleo’s expression ranges from concerned to long-suffering to sleepy, depending on what else has gone on in class that evening.

Which takes us to the second benefit of class: the all-important lessons of adaptability and resilience.  Cleo almost never has the opportunity to interact at length with other dogs.  Once a week she is surrounded by six or eight that she has to co-exist with for an hour.  For the most part, it’s a structured environment, and she knows what’s expected of her and of the others.  But every now and then, something unpredictable happens, and it’s a good opportunity for her to improvise, to see that she will survive the unexpected and uncontained.

There are a handful of dogs that started with us at the beginner’s level, nearly two years ago.  There’s Veronica who is a Norwich Terrier, I’m pretty sure, with a personality far larger than her diminutive stature.  Veronica and Cleo earned their Therapy Dog certifications at the same time.   Then there is Chance the English Sheepdog.  I have cast aspersions on his intelligence in the past, but I want to retract all that now that I’ve gotten to know him better.  He is the embodiment of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  It doesn’t matter what happens in class—a dog gets loose and takes a few victory laps around the barnlike interior, applause crackles from the conformation class, a fracas breaks out among the dogs waiting for the eight o’clock group—he merely turns his massive head and regards the offenders with a placid, not to say vacant, gaze, then swivels it back, owl-like, to stare at his mom.  We have Prix (Prie?) the Border Collie who is very sweet and totally OCD, just as you’d expect a herding dog to be.  As long as he doesn’t lock eyes with another dog, everything is hunky dory.  Cleo knows all of these dogs and exactly what to expect from them.  It’s the newcomers who require her to dig deep.

Oh, she doesn’t mind Teddy the Shetland Sheepdog with an intermittent bark so shrill and piercing that even his mortified mother winces.  I swear, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Teddy had been dognapped by the CIA for use during enhanced interrogation.  Cleo seems to respect the tiny Border Collie whose name I can’t remember, petite and delicate who, at the age of seven months, is already so beautifully trained that she puts the rest of us to shame.  Cleo’s issue is with Luna the black German Shepherd and—Buster?  Oh, why can’t I think of his name?  Bobby?  I think I’ve blocked it.  Anyway, a big galoot of a black Lab who has way more energy than sense. At some point in class, one of them will make a break for it and charge the littler dogs.  When Pluis is there, she can sense that it’s about to happen and most of the time puts a stop to it, but when we have a sub, it’s a different story.  There’s nothing mean about either of these dogs.  It’s just that they both should be named Lennie.  You can almost hear them saying, “But, George.  I was just pettin’ it.  I didn’t mean to break it.  It was too little, George.”  Cleo has been bowled over by each of these dogs at different times.  And let’s just say, once bowled, forever shy. 

But I want her to know that she has what it takes to deal with these boisterous boys.  She really is a tough little dog.  Sometimes when she and John are playing, she skids on the hardwood and smacks her head into the hearth or a kitchen cupboard.  She barely even pauses to shake it off before she’s back into the game.  So it’s not the physical roughhousing that intimidates her; I think it’s the unpredictability and the sheer energy coming her way. 

Two weeks ago, the Lab broke from a sit-stay when Pluis was running class.  He made a dash at Cleo who scrambled away from him.  And where did she scamper?  To Mom?  No, directly to Pluis and huddled against her left leg.  Without moving that leg, Pluis lunged with her right, grabbed the exuberant Lab by the collar, spun him around and handed him to his dad.  She looked down at Cleo.  “Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it?” she asked her, enthusiastically.  Cleo gazed up at her, unsure of how to answer, but trying to be positive.  Then Pluis turned to me.  “Don’t worry, Mom.  I was just the closest port in a storm.”  She wasn’t, actually.  I was marginally closer.  But as Pluis is always fond of asking the dogs, “We all know who the alpha bitch around here is, don’t we?”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

We Are Sailing...

I love texting.  As much as I prefer to save the word “love” for sentient beings, texting is one of those human inventions that deserves the sentiment, like inspiring fiction, life-saving vaccines and chocolate.

While John and I were away in Philadelphia last week, the periodic vibration of my phone let me know that Wonderful Jennifer, Cleo’s sitter, had texted an update and a picture of our girl, happy and healthy.  It meant that I could miss her marginally less, knowing she was having a good time without us.  Because Jennifer works at my school, Cleo was surrounded all week by people she knows and trusts.  Her best friend visited daily and her Auntie Kim took her for regular adventures in the outdoor wilderness area.  

We got a picture of her roughhousing in the student center...

snuggling in her temporary office...

and practicing her high-fives...  

We also got a picture of Cleo’s brother, Marvin, guarding the front deck...

and another after someone inexplicably nabbed him and gave him a bath.  

Jennifer, hearing him out on the deck meowing pitifully, opened the door to a desperate, sodden and bodywash-scented cat.  We all had to admit, though, that he certainly was nice and soft after he dried.

As for John and me, we had a great time in the City of Brotherly Love.  While I conferenced, he had hours of guitar time interrupted only by the hotel maids coming to clean the room.  When my sessions were over, we traipsed around the wintery streets in the dark.  I kept looking for something I recognized in this city of my birth.  Okay, sure, City Hall with the statue of William Penn at the top.  And the PSFS sign is still there, always a landmark when we drove from our house in the suburbs into the city for a show at the Walnut Street Theater.  Other than that, I recognized no landmarks.  Zippity.  Nada.  Rien.  I kept seeing street names that were familiar—Race, Arch, Filbert, Chestnut—but nothing around them rang a bell (Liberty or otherwise). 

It was two moments of epiphany and acceptance that allowed me to relax and enjoy being a tourist.  The first happened when John pointed out the taxi window at the Rodin Museum.  Fifteen years ago, during our last trip to Philadelphia, we had toured that museum.  Everything around it was different.  New buildings had sprung up to fill formerly empty spaces.  I leaned forward to the Sikh cab driver.  “This city has really changed in the last fifteen years!” His heavily accented reply: “Oh, my, yes!  It has changed in the last seven, since I started driving this cab.”  Well that made me feel better.  No wonder I didn’t recognize anything.

Then we went to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  Let’s just say, it’s not new, yet I had never been there.  Ever.  My father was an adjunct professor in the U of P Medical School, for crying out loud.  He probably could have gotten in for free.  My mother dreamed of a degree in anthropology.  Why had they never taken me there?  I wondered if my sisters had gone.  After all, they got the ballet and riding lessons that I never got.  As we stood in the stunningly beautiful circular vaulted chamber that holds the museum’s collection of Buddhist statues and artwork, I turned to John.  “What was up with my parents when I was a teenager?  Were they just kind of done with being parents?  Why did they never bring me here?”

On reflection, of course, I know where they were.  They were trying to live their lives, to earn enough of a living to put their daughters through private school and college, to take us on vacations we’d cherish and grow from, to make sense of a rapidly changing world that held in it assassinations, wars, protests and civil unrest.  They were, as we all are, simply trying to do their best.  They were hoping to live their lives in such a way that they would be loved and valued.  And who ever thinks of doing touristy things in their own town? 

It was then, standing in the U of P museum on my fifty-fifth birthday, that I truly recognized that I am not, and really never was, a Philadelphian.  I have to admit that, until my visit fifteen years ago, I didn’t know that Philadelphia is on the Delaware River.  The Schuylkill River, sure.  That one I knew; I saw it every time we drove into the city.  I was raised outside of Philly.  I navigated the Main Line often: Rosemont, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Strafford.  Even these towns I might not recognize anymore.  There is no sense of home there.  I’ve lived in California for more than half my life.  This is where I belong.

All that reflection had to come later, though, because as we stood in the museum, we both had the sudden, visceral (literally) recognition that we were feeling truly awful.  Philadelphia has some outstanding restaurants—El Vez, Cuba Libre!, several in the Reading Terminal Market.  Avoid the King of Tandoor.  Thanks to it, we spent the second half of my birthday in the hotel room, close to the, shall we say, facilities.  John ordered us a scrumptious birthday dinner from room service: a banana and a cold English muffin each.  It didn’t matter—right in that moment, I was sitting beside my best friend and true love, and the next morning we’d be getting up early to fly home.  To California and to our puppy girl.