Sunday, April 21, 2013

We Are All Boston

I can’t promise how much this post is going to be about Cleo, so I would understand if you decided to stop reading now.  The thing is, there are critical times for our country that I just can’t turn my back on; it feels disrespectful.  I was reading Facebook posts the other evening, and I found myself getting irritated at people who were still commenting on brownies baked, games won or lost, concerts attended.  I didn’t want people to stop doing those things.  In fact, I was glad they were.  I just didn’t want to hear about them. 

I get obsessed.  It’s for people like me that NPR devotes its entire broadcast of All Things Considered to biographies of the Tsarnaevs, that the New York Times has minute by minute updates to their interactive maps of Boston neighborhoods, or that MSNBC replays Rachel Maddow’s amazing geography lesson on the quilt of countries surrounding Chechnya.  I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on Twitter lately; that’s where you go if you want the real moment by moment reporting.  Sadly, you have to weed your way through some tweets from the lunatic fringe, but if you’re willing to take a mental shower every now and then, you can find out more from the guy tweeting from his third floor apartment than you can from Reuters.  After all, they’re getting their news from him, too. 

Speaking of which, wasn’t this week an amazing benchmark of some profound changes in this country?  Within minutes of the explosions, Instagram and YouTube had uploads of photos and videos.  I’d be interested to know, was this the most massively crowd-sourced manhunt in history?  It didn’t take long for some heroes to be recognized, either, welcome bright spots of hope and inspiration.  And, yes, there was a lot of misinformation that got out there, too, but a stunning amount of that was from professional news sources. 

I wanted to hate the perpetrators.  I honestly did.  In fact, I guess I did hate them for awhile.  At least until they were identified.  I can’t even write here what I wanted to happen to them when they were caught.  It smacked more of revenge than of justice.  I watched that loop of Suspect 1 and Suspect 2 walking through the crowd over and over and over.  The thought that accompanied each repetition was, “They’re just kids!”  I don’t know what I expected, or why their youth makes this all so much more painful.  Except I guess I do.  Dzhokhar, the nineteen-year-old, is just a year older than my seniors.  He’s exactly a year younger—they share a birthday—than my step-son.  The life of a nineteen-year-old should be full of hope and optimism, teenage angst coped with through edgy poetry, adulation of Burroughs and Cobain and Plath while all the while knowing that you’ve got a corner on understanding what’s wrong with the world, and you’re going to fix it.  Fix it, not destroy it.

Those bombs weren’t hand-crafted and strategically placed to effect the most property damage.  They were meant to do what they did—tear flesh.  How do we get our minds around what motivated these guys?  How can we ever understand the desire to destroy so many lives?  Strangers’ lives, at that.

I have an ache in the center of my chest, around my heart.  It began with the thought of the families finding out that their daughters and son had been killed.  It grew with the image of the ashen young man clutching his tattered legs as he was rushed down the street in a wheelchair, his face a mask of haunted disbelief and horror.  Scores of people, their lives unutterably changed, waking to months and years of healing and rehabilitation.  A sadness so profound rises from the stories of a mother, father, sister in denial, clutching to the reed-thin belief that this was all a setup and their boys were somehow innocent.  An uncle, overcome with anger.  A wife and her parents retreating into their house and battening down the hatches.  A daughter—a daughter!—how does she grow up knowing what her father has done?

We wait for answers, but they will never be enough. We’ll never have the peace of thinking, “That’s why they did what they did, and this is how we’ll avoid something like this ever happening again.”  We’ll never feel satisfied. 

And so I follow a shared link on Facebook to the video of the catsucking on the vacuum hose and I laugh until that is why I’m crying.  I try extra-hard to really look at people on the street and greet them warmly.  Who knows if they’re feeling sad and alone.  John and I engage the checker at Trader Joe’s in a conversation about her life.  We recognize the humanity in those around us.  We share a moment of tenderness for the old guy crossing the street, bent low over his cane as he walks with his old dog, graying muzzle hoovering the sidewalk for interesting scents.  At critical moments, I tear myself from the computer screen and lie down beside Cleo with my face against her warm chest.  I feel the soft fuzz of her curly hair, the roughness of her pads as they press against my cheek.  There is love and optimism and exquisite comfort in those moments.

So I guess this post was about Cleo after all.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Brains and Beauty

I have a friend who wrote a popular dog-training book called Imagine Life with a Well-Behaved Dog.  This title has stuck with me from the first moment I heard it, I think because the well-behaved dog I imagined always seemed more fiction than reality.  Take Buck from The Call of the Wild who lies around adoringly staring at his master, eschewing the C of the W until his master dies and frees him to explore the tundra.  Or Pilot, the faithful dog who trots around after Mr. Rochester all over Derbyshire and who is the first to recognize Jane Eyre when she returns from her self-imposed exile.  And speaking of recognizing, let’s not forget Argos who, after twenty years, is the only being to spot the disguised Odysseus returning from the Trojan War.  That is one long-lived dog!  And what about Toto who seems to understand (and do) everything Dorothy says to him?

In real life, though, a dog that would actually listen to me seemed too much to hope for.  And then I met Cleo.  Listen, I’m not going to suggest that this all happened magically.  We’ve put two solid years into obedience classes.  I pretend we continue to go only because the camaraderie is such fun for both of us, but we’re still learning an awful lot each week.  Sometimes on our walks, we meet people whose dogs are pulling and tugging and darting around like out-of-control kites with legs.  “What a well-behaved dog,” they say with wonder and admiration.  John and I let Cleo take all the credit.  She works hard; she deserves it.

But you know, In the last couple of months, it really does seem as if the dominoes are clicking into place for her.  She learns new commands faster, responds to known commands more accurately and is just more tuned in overall.  In class last week, Pluis introduced two new hand signals, one for heel and one for stand.  The first two times we tried them, we combined the signal and the verbal command.  Cleo was initially confused by the gesture for heel because it turns out it’s the same one I’ve been using as a release from heeling.  Oops.  Gotta retrain myself and her on that one.  She got the gesture for stand on the second try.  I was so amazed I said, “Wow!” instead of “Good.”  Cleo was busy checking out the Parson Russell who joined class just last week, so she didn’t seem to notice.

This isn’t the only example of her wondrous brilliance, though.   Over spring vacation, my school provided me with a Dutch door to replace the baby gate I’ve been using for the past two years.  This baby gate was one of the swanky ones with a swinging pass-through for people, but the mechanism to open the little door baffled most visitors.  Parents, students, colleagues would stand staring at the top of the gate in utter befuddlement as I scampered around my desk to let them in, all the while calling out encouraging instructions like “Lift up on the little—no, not that, the other—the grey—never mind.”  On the way out, seven visitors out of ten would catch a toe on the metal railing at the bottom of the gate and nearly go flying into the nearby computer monitor.  So I was pretty excited to hear that the Dutch door had been approved and would be installed in early March.  It really is a thing of wonder.  Students, teachers, visitors have exclaimed over it.  Cleo’s friend Betsy took it as a challenge.  It is she, you may remember, who has been teaching Cleo tricks like High Five, Hop, Army Crawl, Look Pretty, and Close the Door.  A couple of weeks ago, Betsy was visiting Cleo and filling me in on her life of late.  As usual, the bottom half of the Dutch door was closed, the top half was three-quarters open.  Suddenly, Betsy jumped up from the  couch and exclaimed, “I wonder what Cleo will do if I tell her to close the door!”  She ran to the door and called Cleo to come.  The puppy positioned herself in front of Betsy and looked at her expectantly.  “Close the door,” Betsy chirped, standing perfectly still.  Cleo looked at the closed bottom half, then turned back to Betsy.  “Close the door,” she urged again.  Cleo looked up, then leapt, extending her arms towards the top half of the door and giving it a swat with both paws.  It swung about half-way closed.  Before she had fully landed, we were both exclaiming, “Good dog!  You are so brilliant!”  Betsy looked at me, her eyes shining. “That was amazing!” she crowed.  Okay, so maybe she didn’t get the door all the way closed, but sometimes, just the attempt is an awesome accomplishment.

Last weekend, I had a delightful email from Cleo’s Auntie Kim.  All it said was, “Remind me to tell you how brilliant your dog was on Friday.”  Kim had taken Cleo with her to the wilderness area to change batteries in the critter cams that dot the hundred acres.  The two of them often go over there together because it affords Cleo the chance to run around during the school day and they both enjoy the company.  This time, Kim took an unaccustomed route.  Cleo ran ahead, but each time she came to a fork, she stopped and looked back for instructions on which path to take.  Kim (being a scientist both by nature and training) decided to do an experiment.  At the first fork, she simply said, “Left.”  Cleo headed down the left path, turning back for confirmation.  “Yes,” said Kim, nodding.  Off they went.  At each subsequent fork, Kim gave her instructions, including once, where three paths met, “Straight.”  If Cleo took the wrong route, Kim said, “Stop,” then repeated the direction, but this time with an arm extended for clarification.  Once, Cleo was far ahead and Kim called to her, “Wait by the camera.”  Cleo looked around, then trotted to a tree and sat down, directly beside the camera attached to the tree’s trunk.  Kim is not easily impressed, but her tone, as she told me this story last Monday, made it clear just what she thinks of her brilliant and beautiful four-legged niece. 

Cleo caught on one of the critter cams

I want to say a brief but heartfelt thank you to the twenty-three of you who bought the e-book of The Educated Dog in its first two weeks of publication.  Author notification is more than two months behind actual purchases, so I have only just learned that folks from all over the world responded so quickly in that last half of January.  It’s a thrilling feeling!

Sunday, April 7, 2013


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The next time you’re in a conversation, pause for a moment to give your brain kudos.

When I stop to think about how much information we process in every encounter, and by process, I mean both take in and send out, it’s an amazing feat to communicate at all, let alone to communicate profoundly.   I always tell my students that the reason we study vocabulary, writing and public speaking is because life can be awfully lonely if we can’t describe our inner experience, the life of the mind, to someone else in a way that is clear enough that they can share that experience.  Words are slippery things, I tell them.  Then we often launch into a lengthy conversation about whether my “blue” is the same as your “blue.” 

On a side note, I heard an amazing piece on NPR—Science Friday, possibly?—on the history of blue.  Did you know it is supposedly the last major color word to enter any language?  The color exists so little in nature that humankind simply didn’t need it.  You’re probably thinking what I thought as I listened: What about the sky?  Isn’t the sky blue?  The answer, according to these researchers, is, No.  It’s grey, it’s white, it’s even yellow sometimes, but it is only very occasionally really blue.  Only last week I was moved to say, “The sky is so blue today.”  But is that a learned response?  The fellow on NPR suggested that it was.  He believes we would never call that clear sky color “blue” unless we had been taught to recognize it as such.  Granted, I came in partway through the broadcast, but I remain unconvinced by the conclusions drawn from the research.

But I digress.  Where I was going, at least at this stage of the game, was that words are delicate, flighty, delicious little things.  They can as easily divide as unite.  (Speaking of which, let’s just give a quick shout out to cleave, clip, overlook, bolt, dust—those lovely contronyms, words that are the antonyms of themselves.)  So just the fact that we can find the right words to express our ideas, then receive those of someone else is miracle enough.

Yet we all know that what we say is so much less important than how we say it.  Any doubt about that, try sending a facetious email.  In the early days of public internet, I shot off a deeply ironic missive to a friend about how obvious it is that animals don’t have feelings.  I thought she knew me well enough to be aware that I would never make such an argument.  Let’s just say I didn’t need to hear her tone in order to interpret her response.

So there we are in conversations, seamlessly (for the most part) interpreting words and registering nuance of meaning as we take in tone of voice.  But that’s just a fraction of what our brains are processing!  We’re simultaneously registering and decoding the meaning of gesture, facial expression, eye contact, angle of the head, body language.  In a nanosecond, we’re subconsciously determining how we feel about it all and what it means for us personally.  Add to this the nuances of scent, taste and touch and we’re taking in thousands of tiny details each second.  Move that conversation from your kitchen table to a cocktail party, a coffee shop, a restaurant, a city park, and suddenly you’re taking in quadrillions of details every second.  So let’s give our brains a round of applause!

This line of reflection takes me inevitably to a number of my students for whom social interaction is a mystery on the scale of the ineffable mind of God.  Some of them simply have no social intelligence.  They don’t know that smiling at someone is an invitation to conversation while a scowl is off-putting.  They don’t recognize that a comment about the weather might lead, eventually, to a substantive conversation; instead, they simply “don’t do small talk.”  They haven’t grasped that when someone flinches away from them, that person probably doesn’t want to be subjected to a rib-crushing hug.  Nuance of tone, body language or expression fails to penetrate their consciousnesses.  I’m not talking about students who are on the Autism Spectrum; that’s even more heartbreaking.  The young man with Asperger’s Syndrome who moves through the world in a bubble of isolation as he stares fixedly at the ground, unaware that a world of connection and communication is whirring away just inches from him.  Or the one who charges up to a classmate, standing too close and speaking too loudly as he asks a question about last night’s English homework, all the while making eye contact with his classmate’s left ear or right shoulder.

I started thinking about all of this as I sat in bed this morning watching Cleo make her rounds of the back yard, tail extended straight out except for the last inch which tipped up at a particularly jaunty angle.  She imparts a world of meaning with that tail.  Canine communication may not be quite as complex as that of humans—no contronyms, for example—but no one can say it lacks nuance.  As we walked into the groomer’s this afternoon, she tucked the first three inches tightly against her butt, leaving the middle and tip in a graceful arc away from her body, like a grappling hook.  “I’m nervous,” it said, “but willing to keep an open mind.”  When we went to pick her up from the groomer, she was still on the table in the last stages of being scissored.  Her tail, by this time, was firmly tucked against her backside, the tip curling down and under her tummy, giving a darned good impression of Cleo with a sex change operation.  This tail suggested, with minimal subtlety, “I have just about had it with this nerve-wracking place—water spraying, dryers blowing, shavers chattering.  Get me out of here.”  At night, when we let her out for her last hurrah, she charges out the back door in full bellow, skidding to a halt at the fence.  It doesn’t matter if there is an animal on the fence or not, this is always how she makes her entrance for that last hurrah.  At this point, her tail is ramrod straight, right out of her spine.  I swear, you could put an eye out with that thing.  “I’m fierce!  Watch out for me, varmints!” this tail declares.

There are also, of course, the meanings of the tail in motion: the gentle side-to-side swish of the upbeat-but-sleepy Cleo responding to our “Good morning, puppy!”  The exuberant wag when she greets John as he comes home from a gig.  The minimalist swing as she trots over to greet a guest who has come into our office. 

My favorite of all tail communications is one she surprised me with when she was just a few months old.  It continues to this day.  The thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of a happy, much-loved girl wagging her tail in her sleep.  That speaks volumes without a single word.