Sunday, June 30, 2013

There and Back Again

We have this cat, Marvin.  He is—how shall I put this— big boned.  Rotund.  A portly gentleman.  Frequent readers may remember that my colleague uses him as an example when she teaches the word “corpulent” to her ninth grade English class.  “Mrs. Sherry’s cat,” she tells them to their wonder and disbelief, “is so corpulent that from time to time he gets wedged in the cat door.”  This is a slight exaggeration.  He doesn’t really get wedged.  He just has to struggle a little on his way through.

I assure you, this is not our preference.  The fact is, Marvin works the street.  He is the official Taylor Street greeting committee, and he fulfills his job diligently.  Between the extremely popular deli on the corner and the Defense Language Institute up the way, we get a lot of foot traffic.  Marvin has his regulars who stop to pat him and exchange a word or two on their way to and from work.  They’re used to him.  Then there are those passing for the first time.  They’re the ones who, as Marvin waddl—uh, struts out to greet them, exclaim, “Wow!  Look at that cat!  That’s a big cat!”

Let me hasten to add here, before I go on with the story, that Marvin is a big cat, or a large one anyway.   He’s tall and long, not only round.  He has the hint of tufts on his ears, and it’s very possible there is some Maine Coon in his distant ancestry. 

So anyway, he works the street.  He will walk into any house with an open door, he will help himself to any pet food left unguarded.  Unfortunately, our across-the-street neighbor prefers to feed her cats in her carport.  That wouldn’t be my choice—I’m not fond of raccoons—but I’d have nothing to say about it if she didn’t complain to us that Marvin steals her cats’ food.  Hello!  Then don’t leave it out where anyone can get to it!  He doesn’t go only for the easy pickin’s, though.  He likes his food just as much on the paw as in the bowl.  I think he’s uniquely responsible for controlling the wood rat and gopher population of our block.  And he’s not selfish with his catches; he generously leaves tidbits for us on a fairly regular basis.  A couple weeks ago, he made the mistake of leaving one present on the side stoop rather than at the edge of the driveway as usual.  I went outside right around dusk to recycle the junk mail and spotted Cleo looking furtive with what I initially took to be a pair of socks in her mouth.  She loves to nab John’s unguarded socks and bury them in the backyard for ripening.  Imagine my surprise when the “Ptui!” that followed my “Drop it!” resulted in a stiff gopher corpse an inch from my bare toes.

Now, Marvin may work the street and he may have his fans near and far, but he is definitely our cat.  When he’s in trouble—like the time someone decided he needed a bath—he turns to us for solace and sanctuary.  When we come home from work or an outing, he runs from wherever he’s been lounging to welcome us back.  Most distinctively, when we take Cleo for a neighborhood walk, Marvin likes to come along.  He follows behind, forty feet or so, and narrates with rhythmic yowls.  If we head right at the end of our block, he’ll continue on with us for another block or so, then sit by the stop sign, yowling plaintively until we’re out of sight.  He’s always back at the house by the time we return and trots out to touch noses with Cleo.  If we turn left, he will frequently accompany us the full three-and-a-half blocks to the neighborhood park, then sit and watch as Cleo tears at full speed around the lawn, his ears akimbo with a look of mild disapproval on his normally bland face.

This morning, we set out on our post-breakfast leg-stretch, planning a walk of twenty minutes or so, just to get the blood moving.  Our new neighbors were out mowing their postage stamp of a yard, so we crossed the street to introduce ourselves.  Marvin emerged from wherever he had been camping to join the general greeting and introductions.  He sat aloof as Cleo licked hands and liberally fawned.  As we said goodbye and continued down the street, I heard Penny say, “Better hurry!  You’ll miss your walk.”  Glancing over my shoulder, I spotted Marvin just breaking into a trot.  We rounded the corner, going right, walked a block and stopped at Cleo’s usual pooping spot.  “Meow!  Meow!  Meow!” came from behind us.  Surprise!  Marvin hadn’t stopped at the stop sign, but was midway through the cross-street.  John went back to meet him, picked him up, carried him back to the stop sign, set him down and gave him a nudge toward home.  Nice try.  Marvin trotted back to us as fast as his legs could move, his tummy swaying back and forth.  Okay, well, there have been times he’s followed us another half block or so.  No pooping from Cleo, so we moved on.  Half a block later, she changed her mind and dove for the side of the road (she’s very good about curbing herself).  Marvin sat five feet away and waited patiently.  He was farther than he’d ever come before, and we figured he’d turn around as soon as we were on the move again.  “Don’t look at him,” John whispered.  But Cleo either didn’t hear or couldn’t help herself.  She kept craning her neck to see if he was still there.

He was.  The next stage of our walk was a block long easement, a wooded and bushy natural area of a couple acres.  Cleo loves it because it’s full of smells:  raccoons, deer, dozens of bird species, the occasional skunk.  Surely Marvin wouldn’t follow us through that!  He was way beyond his territory and his comfort level at this point.  On he came.   By now, we were beginning to worry.  If he decided not to follow us further, would he be safe getting back home?  We’d crossed three streets as well as the easement.  Yes, they weren’t busy streets, but they still could be dangerous.  Okay, we figured we’d go one more block over, then a steep uphill block that ended at the main thoroughfare of our neighborhood.  We couldn’t cross that with Marvin.  By this time, he was no longer meowing.  I hypothesized that he didn’t want to call attention to himself in the territory of other cats.  By our turn-around spot, he was a half mile from home.

Our goal for the return trip was not to lose him.  Back down the steep hill, turn left and a steady march up to the easement.  “Come on, Marvin!  Keep up!” we called encouragingly.  Cleo checked back regularly.  As we got to the easement, Cleo and I stopped so she could mark her usual spot as John continued on through.  Marvin trotted past us.  We followed.  John turned around to check on us.  “What’s he doing?” he asked.  Marvin had stopped and as Cleo and I passed him, I looked down.  His mouth was open as if he were hissing, but no sound was coming out.  Thinking of the extra scent receptors cats have on their upper palates, I said, “Maybe he’s smelling something.”  We walked on and Marvin followed along.  Through the easement (ending in a steep uphill) and up, up, up along the next block.  We were back in familiar territory, back to the place where Marvin usually stops to wait.  We looked back.  He was walking now, no longer trotting, and his mouth was open again.  “He’s panting!” I realized.  Back in the easement, he’d been stopping to catch his breath.

Think about it!  Seventy-plus degrees, a portly cat in a heavy fur coat trots nearly a mile.  That’s more exercise than he’s gotten in the last six months combined.  It’s a miracle he didn’t have a heart attack.

Back at the house, we stood in the driveway waiting for him.  He stalked up the street, ignored a pedestrian walking toward him, turned sharply at our fence, brushed by Cleo without a look, and collapsed in the shade of John’s car.  He’s been there since.  One large cat’s incredible journey.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ready to Eat

I’m a month away from engaging in an exercise in profound humility.  I’ve signed Cleo and me up for the obedience trials at the Del Monte Kennel Club show on July 13th and 14th.  Yes, yes, go ahead and remind me how many times I’ve bragged in this space about how brilliant and intuitive Cleo is.  Let me remind you that she is still a terrier. 

Most people are familiar with the OCD aspect of the terrier’s nature, if only from the Eddie Murphy Dr. Doolittle movies.  Think of the Parson Russell Terrier who leaps repeatedly into the shot saying over and over again, “Throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball.”  Bedlingtons, or at least Cleo, aren’t quite so disturbingly fixated.  Nonetheless, there is still the element of distraction to be considered.  Many’s the time that Cleo has failed to respond to a command as we’ve been working, and when I pop her collar, she turns to look at me with an expression that says, “I’m sorry, were you saying something?  I couldn’t hear you because I was staring at that beetle over there.”  Put her into a ring with a bunch of new dogs, spectators and other events going on all around her?  My heart quails.

I’m going to lobby Pluis, our trainer, to hold some of our classes outside over the next few weeks.  The event in July will be on grass.  It seems a little unfair: Dogs who relieve themselves during the event are immediately disqualified.  That’s not what concerns me for Cleo.  I’m pretty sure that as long as she pees before we start, she’ll be okay;  she’s not big into marking.  But she does associate grass with playtime.  Okay, she associates most things with playtime.  Yet, she can be contained at our indoor classes. 

Of course, the other day, she was a bit resentful that Pluis wasn’t paying enough attention to her.  Usually, Pluis will acknowledge a dog’s longing looks with a gentle, “Yes, I see you.”  This assuages most dogs for the time being.  For whatever reason, Cleo had not gotten her usual reassurance of existence and worth from Pluis. She found her moment when we were practicing long-distance recall.  We were the last in the class of about sixteen to go.  Cleo is always reliable in the stay.  When we go last, though, she can be hesitant to come across the wide floor, especially if any of the dogs have been extra-exuberant in their own recalls.  But I had taken the opportunity of a late start to our class last Monday to practice recalls outside on the grass.  Cleo had been impressive, even to me.  So I confidently told her to stay and strode out onto the floor.  Before I was halfway across, one of the working dog moms looked at me pityingly.  She made an embarrassed gesture behind me.  I turned around.  Cleo was mincing her way toward Pluis.  The closer she got, the more she lowered herself until, about two feet away, she was crawling on her belly like a soldier traversing open ground under fire.  Still about six inches from Pluis’ shoes, she started turning her front-half upside down, paddling closer with her rear feet.  As the top of her head hit Pluis’ toe, Cleo flipped her back feet around and presented her tummy.  I mean really!  It was an embarrassing display of subservience.  Such a show would not go over well at an obedience trial.

Rock climbing girl with Dad
The outdoors is one great jungle gym for Cleo.  Last weekend, John and I took her for our regular walk to the beach.  We frequent a boulder-strewn spot these days where all three of us love to hop from rock to rock until we can stare into the tidepools (or, for some of us, wade in them up to our armpits).  Between two rocky beaches is a cliff covered with iceplant.  The cliff falls away sharply, at about a thirty degree slant, down to a narrow strip of rocks and sand fifteen feet below.  As I picked my way up the slope to the top of the cliff, I heard John, several yards ahead of me, yell, “S***!  Cleo!!”  Running along next to John at the top of the cliff, she had suddenly decided that there was something interesting over the side.  Without a pause, she simply went over the edge, leaping like a mountain goat from one iceplant foothold to the next.  Because she was hugging the cliff, she was quickly out of our sight.  Had she managed to control her descent the whole way?  As John went back in the direction we had come, I ran forward, both of us trying to make our way off the cliff and down to the beach.  “There she is!” John yelled.  Realizing that she could no longer see us, Cleo had decided to return along the rocks to the beach we had just left.  “Cleo, here we are,” John called to her, directing her up the sandy trail that led to the top of the cliff.  With three bounds from rock to rock, Cleo headed up to him, but not along the trail.  She went straight back up the side of the cliff.  The three of us together at the top once more, I leaned down to pat her.  “I have got to get you back into agility class,” I told her.

So I’m actually not all that concerned about being served a breakfast of humble pie come mid-July.  Last year, it was at this same show that Cleo earned her Therapy Dog title.  I was so nervous about that trial that I was nauseated and sleepless the whole night before.  Yet here we are, almost a year later.  My girl is a welcome fixture at school.  The book has been published. And most of all, she is healthy, happy, beautiful.  And oh-so-very loved by her mom and dad.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

In My Puppy's Eyes

It’s no wonder that there is a plethora of books on parenting; it has to be one of the most taxing and mysterious tasks there is.  Dr. Spock famously reassured new parents, “Trust yourself; you know more than you think you do.”  It’s too bad that he didn’t follow that up with, “Now that you’ve relaxed, get coaching.”  I can’t tell you how devoutly I wish that I had spent as much time in parenting classes as I’ve spent in dog training classes.  And dogs are a whole lot more straight-forward than kids.

Pluis, our trainer, frequently tells the class that our dogs show her the mistakes we’ve been making in training.  She only has to watch them.  When you tell your dog to come, does she run to you and rush to sit in the heel position rather than directly in front of you?  Well, you’ve been too consistently following the command to come with the one to heel.  Your dog’s only trying to help you by skipping the intervening step.  Does your dog constantly get up when he’s in the down-stay?  Why, look at you putting your hands all over him every time you go back to put him in place again!  He’s got your number!  He knows that if he gets up, you’ll come over and give him all the contact he could want. 

There’s a handler in our class who can’t understand why his dog wanders confusedly in front of him every time he tells her to come.  “Tell her what you want!” Pluis adjures him as he manhandles the dog this way and that by her neck.  Pluis tries to show him: “Come!” she tells the dog, then “Sit” as she reaches Pluis’ feet.  The dog performs perfectly, a look of intense relief in her liquid brown eyes.  The handler tries.  “Come,” he says sternly, then wordlessly hauls her around by her neck once more.

I haven’t consciously been applying the same thinking to students at school, but I have had several occasions to contemplate falling apples, trees and relative distances.  Years ago, two brothers came to us with tales of appalling bullying in their middle schools.  Their parents were full of stories of how badly they, too, had been treated by the school administration who refused to do anything about the bullying.  The boys were singularly lacking in social skills.  A good bit of the work I did with them focused on how to show that you are open to interacting with others, how to greet people, and how to engage in conversation.  Ordinarily, the absence of this set of skills would lead one to suspect some spectrum disorder, Asperger’s for instance, but neither of the boys showed any other indicators.  It wasn’t until one of the brothers got into a potentially serious situation by misreading a girl’s social cues that I finally learned enough to fill in the missing pieces.  “My wife and I,” the father told me, “have done everything we could to isolate our boys.  We’ve kept them young and innocent.  We haven’t let them be exposed to anything.  They never go to a party or any social event unless one of us can be there, too.  Maybe,” he added in a flash of insight, “that wasn’t such a good idea.”  Unfortunately, the flash flamed out.  When the older son graduated from our school, the parents didn’t feel he was ready to go away to college, so he stayed home.  I asked him how he felt about that.  “I’m really tired of living with my parents,” he confessed.  “They fight a lot.  But I’m not ready to go away.”  He shrugged and looked at me sheepishly.  “The world’s a scary place.”  It’s every parent’s instinct to protect her child, but what impels someone to over-protect to the point of incapacitation?

On the flipside, there’s a young woman who graduated this year and is off to a well-known university back East.  From the moment she arrived, she was a leader.  She wasn’t the valedictorian, but she was a great student because she loves to learn.  She is just as likely to share a joke and a laugh with a teacher as she is with a peer.  And who did she invite to prom?  A former classmate she happened to run into at a political forum because “He was always so nice in eighth grade.”  True to form, they had a marvelous time.  She was in my advisory group and always had uncommon wisdom to share with us all.  Here’s what she told me once:

“As far back as I can remember, kindergarten, maybe, whenever I had a problem with something, my mom would sit down with me and strategize.  At first, she’d suggest possible courses of action, we’d decide what I would do, then I’d do it.  At some point, I don’t really remember when, she stopped suggesting and started asking me what I wanted to do.  Now, she’ll ask questions to help me get my thoughts together, you know.  But mostly, she listens.  Then she tells me she trusts me to work it out.  Oh, it’s not always perfect, what I come up with,” she added, laughing, “but when I make a mistake, we talk about what I’ll do next.”

I believe in the power of mistakes.  As long as it doesn’t kill you, maim you or destroy your future, a mistake has more to teach you than anything else.  So I’m embracing the mistakes I made with my own kids, and dammit, I’m going to learn from them.  I’m convinced that if I pull together the lessons of my mistakes with the lessons I’ve learned from life with Cleo, I can be a better person for my students.  This is what I plan to practice:
  •         Lead with love and enthusiasm (It’s much more fun to heel with someone who’s excited than someone who’s just dragging you by the throat.)
  •         Follow up with humor (Someone is more likely to respond well if you tap them on the calf with your nose than if you growl at them.)
  •         Remember: You cannot control anything or anyone (Even the best dog is gonna bark her fool head off now and then.)
  •         Trust (No one really wants to be bad.)
  •         Have patience (Remember how long it took to learn to stand for a greeting?)