Second Chances

Bindi peed on the floor in the upstairs bedroom. It was totally my fault. She asked me to take her out, but I misinterpreted the request. In my defense it looked suspiciously like many other requests. “Play with me,” “love me,” “make the other dogs be more fun,” “give me something delicious to eat,” “give me anything to eat at all, including nonfood items,” and so on all had been communicated with a tackle that would make a linebacker proud. I don’t mind being jumped on, but a bit like the word “dude,” her jumping has a few dozen meanings and I misunderstood the context on that fateful morning.

I was furious. Not with her, but with myself for failing to heed her clear request. Also at Tom, because pretty much everything annoying is his fault. He wasn’t home, but I managed to spin that in my twisted, hate-filled brain into a further wrong he inflicted upon me.

I mopped urine, which due to my choices about interior home construction, was not only on the floor upstairs, but dripped through the decking to the main floor. Puppy urine splashed my desk, a rocking chair adorned with a gorgeous wool throw, and the floor. I can put up with a lot – but indoor excrement really gets me psychotic. Words were said through gritted teeth. I made absolutely zero effort to correct the pup in any way because she had only done her best. The pee wasn’t personal.

One specific flavor of my fury was the fear that I had royally screwed up the pup’s potty training. Any time she visited the loo indoors, it seemed to me, was reinforcing that doing so was a viable option. I had just handed her a setback on a silver platter. I had just served myself an acid cocktail of failure and backtracking and extra work, or so I believed. I was pissed, but I was also worried and disappointed. Today’s pee was all cleaned up but I felt like I had made an appointment with tomorrow’s or the next day’s by screwing this up.

If nothing else, dogs teach you that you always have another opportunity. If it was worth doing, it will be worth doing again. And if it was a problem, your dog will definitely do it again.

I worried that either Bindi would not bother alerting me to her full bladder next time because I had failed to act upon her alert last time, or that she would alert me again in the same manner and … since I’m a thick-headed human, I’d misread that text again. I watched her like a hawk over the next few days but no missteps occurred. To be honest, again, like the thick-headed human I am, I kind of forgot about it.

This morning, a couple of hours after we returned home from the morning walk, Bindi marched into my study where I was creating a voice memo. The transcription will read “DEC Region 4 updates RRRR-RUFF! RUFF! RUFF!” Oh yes. Bindi decided to leave nothing to chance this time. She planted her wonky paw and it’s three amigos on the studio rug, and squared her skinny shoulders, and barked imperiously at me. I stopped the memo and flew down the stairs praising the ever living fuck out of her, threw my boots on, and got out the door faster than you can say “NO INDOOR EXCREMENT.” We made it and she took care of business like an adult, continent, ladydog.

I have no idea why she upped the ante. I don’t know if that was intentional or a coincidence, but I can tell you she’s never barked at me like that before, and she clearly needed to use the ladies room. I don’t know if she felt the indoor bathroom was inadequate or unappealing, or if she simply prefers to go outside. All I know is we were unsuccessful as a team on round one. Round two came along in due time and we nailed it.

There isn’t a big life lesson or dog training maxim here. Just more of the same old Asking A Lot classics: Pay attention. The screw ups aren’t personal. Listen to your dog. Run fast and praise effusively. And blame your spouse/partner for everything.

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Happy Imperfect New Year!

Recently I posted an ode to imperfection, and the imperative to stop shoulding on ourselves. That nagging guilt of not being or doing enough, the Not Good Enough Wife-Mother-Friend-DogTrainer-RescueVolunteer-Hiker-CompetitiveAthlete… I’m exhausted and I haven’t even finished the sentence. Life is imperfect. My dogs are mega imperfect. My marriage is imperfect. All of this is old hat.

But today is the last day of the year and in honor of New Year’s Eve, I’m vacillating between not giving a fuck about what day it is, studiously ignoring all the focus out there in the world on resolutions and Year In Review posts and … well… reviewing the year. Participating in the ritual of Year End and New Beginnings because … well… I do actually believe in the value and power of rituals, underneath my curmudgeonly great coat. I enjoy many daily rituals and participate in precious few annual ones.

Thus in honor of the spirit of resolutions and the ritual of reviewing the year, I give you the 2019 round up, Red Eft Lodge and BramleyWolf style:

  • First things first: I have been imperfect in many ways in 2019, and while I fully expect that to continue, it won’t be without some kicking and screaming. Acknowledging one’s flaws doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and say “oh well.” It means you double down on them, identifying what you can change and then… CHANGING IT. If you’ve discovered you hold beliefs that are not consonant with the facts, change your beliefs. I know you love your beliefs; I love mine too. Letting go of beliefs or even entire belief systems is challenging. Maybe even wrenching. But if your beliefs are simply without basis in fact, they gotta go. Same deal with behavior. If you do things that makes no sense, or worse, things that are in conflict with your beliefs or ethics… no time like the present to stop it, and adjust your behavior to come into line with facts and beliefs. This is wisdom from my therapist days – behaving in ways that are out of sync with a) reality/facts and b) you beliefs and ethics leads to feeling miserable. Or at least wicked uncomfortable. So I’m jettisoning beliefs and behaviors that don’t make sense. Wish me luck. I’ll still be imperfect, but at least I might be a bit more comfortable.
  • 2019 was a year of changes, especially on the economic homefront. It was the worst year for sales in the jewelry biz. There are probably good reasons for that and I’ll do a bit of an autopsy as I prep for taxes, but that’s an interesting year in review starting point.
  • I worked at Burnett Farms from February through September and what a fabulous experience that was. Among the many gifts I received while in Steve and Kristie’s employ, I gained the confidence to grow my own garden here at home. The hubby busted his ass to get the structure organized and set up for a spring planting. I’m beyond psyched to get back to something that, for you followers of this blog know, started many decades ago.
  • I was thrilled to come out of “retirement” to work with Sarah once again. My fall gig at Coqui Content Marketing was an amazing blast of new skills and new friendships, as well as a wonderful refresher for my connection with Sarah. I have to say… I loved every minute of it, with special mention going to the chats with Deb, Gretchen (Grey), and Sarah. As sad as I was to see that gig end, I was much sadder to lose the daily connection with these strong women I had just met.
  • I finished a first draft of Asking A Lot: Life With Dogs on Bramley Mountain. Hang on, let me say that again. I FINISHED A FIRST DRAFT OF MY BOOK, ASKING A LOT. Hallelujah, praise the lord. I’m editing like a fiend and so grateful to Melissa and Emma for their read throughs and editorial comments. 2020 is going to include a heckuva lot more posts about The Book.
  • My photos were included in a book published by SUNY press, called Doghiker. Bittersweet, as a photo of Mica kicked up memories afresh, but I’m proud as punch to have a few of my photos make the final cut.
  • I have deepened some wonderful friendships in 2019 and am so humbled by the love and connection so many people share with me, both in person and via the magic of the internet. Locally I have bonded with a crew of women affectionately known as the 5 foot 2 club. Small but mighty, we are lucky to have each other as neighbors, friends, and confidantes.
  • Ok, now this might sounds really consumeristic and banal, but stay with me: we got two new cupboards for our kitchen and they have changed my life. Not in a Marie Kondo de-clutter fantasy way, but close. They are beautiful and old, wonky and imperfect (sense the theme here?), and Tom and I refinished them together. Totally outside my comfort zone, I followed Tom’s instructions and learned wholly new skills. Finishing this house is one small project at a time, with a ton of waiting in between, but these cupboards represented a Great Leap Forward.

Bindi doesn’t get a bullet point, she gets her own paragraph. On September 7, 2019, Bindi Bramleywolf (posh name: Große Indien aus der Roten Wassermolch Hütte) arrived at the Red Eft Lodge and transformed the pack and our lives. Technically B’Indi is a contraction of Big Indian, the name of a mountain in the Catskills. We just call her Bindi. She is an easy pup, playful and fun and a pleasure in every way except that she has that godforsaken Labrador retriever quality of eating everything and anything. If I don’t kill her for consuming inedibles, she will grow into being the most beloved and iconic pack member ever, wonky paw and all.

Eat All The Things… ~Bindi

And here we are, a family of seven heading into 2020. Looking back over the decade, all the dogs I owned at the beginning of 2010 are gone. My hair is a lot grayer. My body hurts more. I hike in the forest preserve less, my life circumscribed by this pack and their needs, Tom and his needs, and me and my needs too. I finished my term as president of the Catskill 3500 Club, and can forever rest easy knowing I did my best and left an indelible mark. We moved from within the Blue Line to Bramley Mountain and built this house. It’s been quite a decade.

I don’t make resolutions per se, but I do think about goals. I plan to read more books, and spend less time on social media. No offense, I just know how much is too much for me and I’ve hit that mark a few times this past fall. Time to nip it in the bud.

I plan to work on The Book until it is the very best it can be, ready to be placed at the feet of God. Yep, that much work, that much care and love and patience and editing. That much laboring over sentence structure and punctuation and word choice. That much time. It’s worth it. No regrets.

I plan to keep my mouth shut more. Given that it’s an election year, I am feeling serene with the decision that I will do all I can to further good, and fight evil. And not arguing is a decent part of that, especially not on social media.

I plan to make and sell gorgeous t shirts and other bling to make some cash so I can keep the dogs eating fancy schmancy gourmet meals. Stay tuned. I’m working with a graphic design student who kicks ass. I met her hiking when she was just a tyke and stayed in touch for damn near 10 years… and she is a killer fine and graphic artist. Bramley Wolf Press shirts first but there will also be Wonky Paw merchandise. And who knows what else. Like I said… stay tuned.

And to wrap this up, in post Christmas sales, Tom bought all the ingredients to brew his first batch of beer in six years. Can I get an Amen? It’s been too long for him to flex that creative muscle. I’m so happy for him. I bought myself a bone saw. I am going to cut up the carcasses I have been given. I am delighted and psyched to step it up a notch and get into proper butchering techniques. The old WHAM with a limbing axe days are over. Big thanks to Andersen for the recommendation for which saw… yes it was over a year ago when he told me to buy it. I listen, I just don’t always move all that quickly.

Be safe, have fun, and don’t drink and drive. Happy New Year!

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The Book or the Movie?

Asking A Lot exists as a manuscript, a full-length nonfiction work that explores my life here with dogs. Truth be told, I’m still writing and rewriting, revising and editing, and then writing some more. “Work in progress” is the clichéd phrase we trot out when we’re knee deep in swampy muck and wading in deeper, no sign of being finished on the horizon. But at least as a complete draft, it exists.

The morning walks are the centerpiece. That’s where the action is most days. The morning walks are where I meditate, think, write in my head, train the dogs, and observe. Every day, come hell or high water, we go, and every day I shoot photos, watch the dogs, and sink a little deeper into this life. One morning it’s about 18 degrees and snowing like a motherfucker. The next morning it’s subzero is brilliantly sunny. Either way, I don’t hurry. In some ways it’s the best part of the day so I savor it, even if it’s only an hour. I dress for the weather and piss and moan about it afterwards. It’s all part of the fun.

The thing is, so much of what is best about the morning walk is wordless. I can throw one thousand adjectives at a page but still feel like I’ve missed the boat when it comes to conveying the texture of Peeka’s fur. Or the golden light of angled sun through the rime ice. So much of what makes me go weak at the knees, or spurs me on to wander for another mile or so despite the fill-in-the-blank weather defies description. The day I heard the ravens chasing off the bald eagle and both sounded like grumpy old men, hollering at each other to get off their lawns – what listening to that did to me was physical and emotional and spiritual. Wrapping it up is words is intellectual: the one thing the experience wasn’t. The dogs share these moments with me. They stop and cock their heads and I follow their gaze to see the acrobatics of a red squirrel or the distant formation of Canada geese, and, well, the fact that we’re watching together just knocks my socks off.

Most days there is no drama, no high stakes wildlife encounter or dog fight. Most days the mountain and I are like an old couple sharing a morning cup of coffee together. The mountain shoves a stunning vista across the breakfast table at me and I nod appreciatively. We both continue to enjoy our morning ritual with the dogs. The other day I took photos of urine in snow. Fox, coyote, and deer piss stains in snow. They aren’t especially beautiful or even very visually arresting… but they were there, so I took note. The mountain showed them to me and I glanced over the offering before moving on, a bit like me showing Tom a particularly incisive meme or breathtaking dog photo. His eyes flick over the image, he grunts in appreciation, and then continues arguing about politics with some meatheads on Facebook.

I don’t argue when I’m on the morning walk but tell that to the neighbors who hear me shouting. Brody eats poop. Not just deer or bunny or porcupine, but carnivore poop. That’ll get me bellowing like a stag in rut every time. This week, it seems, Bindi has decided to give this filthy habit a try. After tackling her, hollering terrifying epithets designed to make the inhabitants of the next county over blush, and removing the frozen logs from her maw, she smooches me. Enthusiastically. In the eye, or if I’m not careful, French smooching. Oh yes, poop tongue in the mouth. It’s a wonder I’m not dead.

Some days I think a film would have been better. Gorgeous lighting and long patient shots of fur with snowflakes, ripples on the pond, juncos and chickadees in the trees. Some days I am at a loss, the majesty caught in my throat. The mountain and I are a lot alike: average. Bramley is a crappy little uninteresting foothill, one of many in this area. No old growth, no thrilling cliffs or ledges, no drama. I’m just a human with some dogs, trying to take it all in. It’s not the Galapagos; it’s not Everest. It’s not the Sargasso Sea or the Grand Canyon. It’s just where I live. Perhaps a film could elevate it, make it pop and sparkle. Perhaps on film I could communicate the awe. It the very least, the blooper reel would be hilarious – getting mugged by a dog or two is a regular event. The Otterbox on my phone isn’t for looks.

But for all my photos and “home movie” quality videos, I know that words are my superpower. I’m not visual. I’m wordy. Very wordy at times. And I am one of those “the book is always better than the movie” folks. I can’t make a film about my life with dogs because I have too much to say, and a compelling need to blabber. I might be living the film version, but I’m writing the internal experience, the part the film cannot access no matter how many lingering shots of my furrowed brow or some other metaphor we try to capture.

Being faintly dissatisfied and wishing I could nail it… these emotions are my constant companions. They act as muses, spurring me to revise again, reread, slice and dice. They are welcome guests in my head, and I trust that they will help me make it better.

Thanks for witnessing the process and coming along for the ride.

Posted in Catskilliana, the woof pack, writer's life | 1 Comment

It Snows Every Day

It Snows Every Day 

We’ve shifted into the season that stretches from Thanksgiving to Easter on the mountain. Weather is no longer a matter of a forecast, but a comparison in the past tense: “how much did you get?” It snows every day here, November through March and often beyond. Snow is never unexpected, even when the skies are cloudless blue and the forecast, such as it is, is clear. Call it a microclimate or a high hollow snow pocket or anything else you like: just wear boots and expect precipitation.

The first year we lived here, I lived alone in the yellow house with the dogs all week, while Tom attended FIOS school downstate. He came home on the weekends. I loved those days, the silence and solitude, the sense of exploration. Everything was new. Every dog walk was to a new destination and followed a new route. Each day we went a little farther, pushing the limits of our newfound freedom. The 2800 foot mountain behind us seemed huge to us back then; in those early days it felt almost boundless.

Together the dogs and I grew an intimacy with the land itself. Each rock and tree became familiar. We created named landmarks: the coyote rendez-vous spot, the hairpin turn. When you walk the same chunk of earth every day for years on end, you come to know it the way you know your own body or your spouse’s foibles. That’s the porcupine den I had to pull Mica out of by her tail. That’s the split rock that I can never capture in a photograph. That’s the boulder that looks like it’s smiling. And so on.

But it’s also deeper than that. Wordless. I feel woven in and rooted, like one of the trees I’ve come to know so well. It’s home. Not the building or the address or the community, although all of those hold meaning. The woods. This parcel of weedy trees and prickers and mud and endless snow and more snow and then muddy ice and snow and mud all mixed together – it is infiltrating my bones and my psyche and my very breath.

When I took the dogs for a walk on a public trail this afternoon, that meant pants, a car ride, a friend, and getting stuck behind the plow on the way home. I noticed the truck was salting the road. That tells me more than the forecast ever could. Ice. I should be thinking about dropping temperatures and ice.

I used to want to be something known, something I could purchase. I saw images in catalogs or television shows or random people on the street and thought “yes.” I want that. I want that level of proficiency in my career, that confidence, that pair of pants or shoes. I want to feel the way I imagine that feels. But instead I stumbled into feeling like a rock and a tree and mud and daily snow flurries. I see my hairdo not in a catalog but in a tumble of tangled dry weeds. My arms ache not from a workout at the gym but from battling the dogs (tug… great exercise for arms, shoulders, core, back… for both of us. But oh my aching shoulders.) or splitting wood. I avoid getting dressed in street clothes and aim to not use my car most days. Nothing in my life is ever clean for more than about ten seconds.

My uniform consists of secondhand fleece pajamas pants and Tom’s decades-old LL Bean down coat. Both are stained and torn, on their last legs. I just can’t see any point in replacing them… they work. They are right for the job they’re asked to do. I realize I look a bit like a cartoon character, a caricature of “crazy dog lady.” I look suspiciously intentional… but I swear it all just evolved. It’s authentic “bag lady,” not “pretentious artsy faux creative bag lady.” But the line between might be kind of thin, I admit it.

I grew up in the first development in a nascent suburban community.  The last remaining farm had a horse and some sheep across the road. The horse bit me when I was about three years old… I had a lollipop in my back pocket and … crunch. We bought the model home on a street with 13 one-acre plots with your choice – split level or raised ranch. We had natural gas and central air conditioning and annual tornado alerts every sultry August evening, and after my father died, one dog. Now I live in a place where seasoned firewood means more than central air, and studded snow tires are normal. Power outages don’t scare me, but the thought of all that thawed meat does: I have a deer carcass in one freezer and lots of chicken heads and feet in another.

I can proudly proclaim the honor of having been a kid that other kids were forbidden to play with because they came home too dirty. As a seven year-old, I was bewildered. As a 53 year-old, I’m proud. I was in it, for real, up to my knees and never looking over my shoulder. Frogs’ eggs and “witchy roots” (the fleshy and mucosal roots of the jewelweed plant) and hiking before I even realized what I was doing had a name, I was the kid that knew where and how to catch crayfish … and how to put out the street lights. We had a ping pong table set up in my garage and I could beat all the local boys at ping pong. No chivalry, no efforts at acquiescence, I won fair and square.

The writing of this chapter is interrupted by the daily chores, my own and the needs of other living being. Mostly the dogs. Stoke the fire, remember to thaw food for both humans and dogs, exercise dogs, give the dogs bathroom breaks.  If it weren’t for the attending to those needs… if it weren’t for the dogs and Tom, I think I’d go completely feral. I’d drink beer at 10 a.m. and write or sleep whenever I felt like it. I’d eat chocolate for breakfast and toast and butter for every other meal. I’m not sure I’d be any happier or any more productive but I’d be more fully and wildly me.

I don’t mind that they reel me in: I’m grateful. They are family. A ragtag, broken, screwed up family of misfits and Tom. I always wanted a family. It is one of the only goals I’ve ever had. I sacrificed romance and adventure for home and family on purpose with clear intent… and when I made a mess of it the first time around, I was undeterred. I accepted my error and moved on to try again, even more determined to create a home and family. I failed even more spectacularly but blessedly briefly the second time around. Third time’s a charm. If only I’d known a bevy of dogs was key.

Tom is the island of sanity and the anchor that moors us to terra firma. He is the most normal of all of us. He grew up in a blue collar, immigrant family, with clear rules and limits and ways that everything must be done. Germans. Not a lot of nuance or vaguery. He must find us mystifying, the dogs and me… but I guess that just helps to keep love alive all these years. I’m grateful to him for leaving the mountain every day. I’m grateful to him for slaying the dragons and bringing home the spoils each week.

We both live a life that our parents would neither understand nor fully support. No, that’s not true: both our moms would enthusiastically support happiness. Both would equally enthusiastically NOT support living with 5 dogs. Living in what sure looks like an unfinished barn would stretch their ability to remain understanding. My mom has asked a few times “when will the house be done?” She has stopped asking.

What’s my point? Acceptance, I guess. Cherishing the beloved and accepting the unwanted. It snows every day. I can revel in the snow or rage at it. Either way, this is my landscape. I may as well wander in it with as much joy as I can muster.

Posted in Catskilliana, writer's life | Leave a comment

The Fisher in the Hollow Tree

or “Things Your Dog Trainer will Never Tell You.”

Five dogs off leash in the woods during hunting season: what could possibly go wrong? As I’ve shared in the past, all my dogs have impeccable recall. It’s the prerequisite to getting your Bramley Mountain off-leash license. All my dogs are obedient as the day is long… but it’s December 1st. Daylight is in its shortest supply this month and apparently so is my dogs’ enthusiasm for snappy responses to imperatives.

We started out this post-Thanksgiving weekend morning, with a bang. I decided that my menopausal Mombelly needs to go. From now on, I’m walking the dogs wearing my full search and rescue backpack. It’s over 20 pounds, which doesn’t sound like much, but try wearing a 22.79 lb pack on your back at 8 a.m. every morning whether you’re in the mood for it or not. There has been some back sliding in the weight maintenance program and a bit of extra delicious (extra quantity) beer and chocolate consumed. I’m rather soft and out of shape. This will not do, so on with the pack and off with the pack.

Of course this particular morning, Bindi decided to forget how to perform a recall command. She looked at me like I was speaking Japanese and continued to wander away, scarfing down deer poop as she ignored me. I all but popped a cork, turning every shade of crimson, scarlet, and vermillion, and became truly unpleasant to approach. As you might well imagine… Bindi continued to not approach me. Somehow I managed to get my attitude in check, shift gears, and become Nice Enough Mama, and we got a couple of decent recalls with waggy tails and slicked back ears… good enough to leave the property and enjoy our walk.

Rotten little shit

There is a catastrophic winter storm in the forecast: 12 – 16 inches of snow in the flatlands and 20+ inches for us mountain folks. The sky is solid gray. I don’t know if we’ll get what’s promised but if yesterday’s fish scale clouds are any indication at all, we stand a decent chance of it.

I saw boot prints on the woods road. They are not mine from yesterday. They are much larger, a man’s, and maybe from this morning as well. Dammit. My fear during hunting season is not that one of my dogs will get shot. They are all well covered in blaze orange and we make a racket (we meaning mostly me). My fear is that one of my less social pack members will surprise a hunter and the feeling will be mutual. I am not at all sure what would happen next. So we practice recall and I keep the dogs close, and I stay vigilant for any/all signs of human activity. If I can avoid a surprise encounter, that’s what I’ll do. I’d rather reroute than apologize and explain.

We do a 2.5 mile loop. I sweat and huff and puff on the uphills. Feels great, I tell myself. That’s my fat crying, or so my exercise app would say. I keep going, head on a swivel, watching and listening.

I’m slow up the last hill and reach the trail junction to see Hawk, Bindi, and Peeka race up a steep slope, heading towards a hollow tree at full tilt. Shit. I know that run. I read the intent in their body language even from this distance. This is not good.

Cinder and Brody stay put. I start scaling the hillside, hanging onto trees as I ascend. It’s bloody steep. I yell. None of the dogs obey. More cursing, more closing the distance, more worry. This is Not Good.

I get close enough to see and hear clearly. Bindi complies with the recall and rockets downhill to me. I hold her in one arm while she sings the song of her people — high pitched and repetitive howl-shrieks of frustration and blood lust. Hawk is now barking into a hole in the hollow tree, his barks muffled but loud enough to make my neck prickle. Peeka is biting the tree. I can hear hissing and growling. Whatever is in there is angry and large enough to garner significant interest from my dogs. Sufficiently significant that they are both drunk on adrenaline and utterly blowing me off. Each time I yell leave it, or come, they pull their heads out of the holes and take a step or two towards me. Then renewed hissing and growling sucks them back in.

This goes on for a very long few minutes.

My throat is getting sore from yelling and I’m totally affirming my own impotence. The dogs are NOT coming. I don’t feel safe approaching. I don’t know what is in that tree, but I do know that I lack any natural defenses against it. And if I go, Bindi goes. Bindi is small, sweet and probably easy to kill. She is a lover, not a fighter. We stay downhill and helpless, while I struggle with my shitty options.

I decide to leave them there and go home.

You read that correctly. Assessing the risks to both dogs and the wildlife (I have decided it’s most likely a fisher, but now that I rethink it, a bobcat is also possible), I have deep misgivings about leaving. It’s not a good option. But staying there being utterly ineffective is also not a good option.

I needed to get Brody, Cinder, and Bindi home. I needed to get my pack off and get leashes and Tom. I had no idea what I would find upon my return, but that was the best course of action as far as I could tell: leave and come back with Tom. Two pairs of hands are better than one. Given Hawkitt’s level of arousal I doubt I could manage him on a leash any way.

My own adrenaline was pegged in the red. That’s never a good place to be when dealing with dogs. I wasn’t angry at them for blowing me off, just …upset. Worried, sad, heartsick… the last thing I want is for any animal – pet or wildlife – to get injured. Avoiding all contact and injury to all living beings is my first priority… and it sure seemed like failure to do so was underway. I hate that feeling. I’m lucky (a little) and successful (a lot) and it happens infrequently. But it does happen.

Before I reached the house, Hawkitt and Peeka caught up with us. I checked them over for injuries: none. No blood, no holes, no rips or tears. No sign of another animal’s blood on their fur or lips. Bindi shrieked as she greeted Hawk, leaping on top of him and biting Peeka and generally making an overjoyed spectacle of herself. I hustled them all inside, took a long deep breath and examined them all more carefully. No signs of a scuffle at all.

I retooled: fresh batteries in the camera, dumped the backpack on the couch, and checked in with Tom. Then I headed back out, to make sure the fisher (or whatever) was in similarly good shape. I found the hollow tree, no problem. No fur, blood, or other signs of a struggle in the area — the tree was a great spot to wait out the dogs’ tantrum. Success: no injuries. While I’d prefer no harassment and no blowing off recall commands, the bigger, more important issue for me is that the dogs abandoned the wild animal hissing at them to rejoin me and the pack.

This is the heresy of dog training: that sometimes doing nothing and walking away is the most effective intervention you can employ. Most trainers will say I failed, that my dogs are not sufficiently trained, that the command should be obeyed 100% of the time, no matter what the distraction. I say sure. That’s awesome, and that will keep you in business. Because humans and dogs fail. We fail reliably and consistently. And as long as someone promises an end to those failures, folks will gobble that up and keep coming back, paying for more.

The truth is NOTHING will render any dog obedient 100% of the time. No dog is going to be spot on, every time, under every distraction, in all situations. None. If your trainer makes this claim, understand that they must: it’s their livelihood that requires it. But it’s not reality. Reality with dogs is much messier, much more nuanced, sophisticated, and complex. Dogs, not robots. Dogs can be completely amazing 99.99% of the time and still fuck up, blow you off, and demonstrate creative interpretations of your commands. Even military working dogs, law enforcement dogs, SAR dogs… they all are dogs first and they do screw up. They do make mistakes, fail to do their jobs completely or correctly, and get into shenanigans.

Overwhelmingly, well-trained working dogs screw up very rarely. Kind of like my dogs – they have opportunities to blow off their handler multiple times every day faced with a wide range of distractions, and they don’t. They demonstrate spot on obedience… right up until they don’t.

But what happened today with the fisher? What actually happened? I left. I walked away. Deep inside, I knew that was right. Sure I had misgivings, but I also had an inkling of hope and trust. Trust in what? The BOND. Why did Hawk and Peeka finally decide to leave the fisher alone? They chose to be with me. They chose to rejoin the pack, WITHOUT BEING TOLD TO. They did not need to be ordered; in fact, ordering them was utterly useless.

They made a decision that clearly showed the bond they have with me. They traded intoxicating arousal for me. They certainly were not going to trade thrilling wild animal contact for obeying a command. No thanks. But leaving them and walking away was more powerful than any command. Not because it was a calculated training technique, intended to “trick” them into shifting from prey drive to pack drive (although that might be one way to describe what happened), but because they have a deep, complex, and finely attenuated bond with me.

The bond cannot be taught. It’s not a technique or a set of training principles. It’s a relationship. And just like any other relationship, no matter how many therapists you see, or how many couples counseling sessions you endure, or how many online articles you read about how to make love last, the bottom line is that there is only one way to do so: you have to step up, be present, put in the work, and tolerate the hiccups. You can’t learn how to bond with a dog; you have to do it. You have to be vulnerable, confused, loving, stern, structured and chaotic and everything in between. But most of all you have to be present and open. You have to receive the Other, whether it’s your dog or your human partner. You have to love when you’re pissed off and disappointed and not getting what you want. You have to stick around when it sucks. And you have to keep trying.

Sure, after that you can learn techniques and practice drills. In fact, you have to. Remember where this all started (not the Mombelly but the Bindi recall reps). Yes, train, but don’t confuse training for some eventual guarantee of success. And more importantly, don’t believe that mistakes, blown off commands, or getting ignored once every year or two is somehow an indictment of your training or even your bond. It’s not. It’s life with dogs. That life is messy and imperfect. But it’s also real and profoundly beautiful.

It is a life that asks a lot.

Brody and me. Photo by Kristie Burnett
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Enough is Enough

I have five dogs. One is a puppy. All are herding breeds, or predominantly herding breeds (said puppy is 60% German Shepherd, 40% kitchen sink), all high drive breeds, all needy in different ways.

I own my own business, making and selling jewelry. I do some custom work and repairs but mostly try to design and create unique earrings, bracelets and necklaces and sell them online or in person.

I just finished writing a book about my life with dogs, and my opinions about dogs and all tangential aspects of life with dogs. It took me about six years to complete. I write a blog called Yoga Pants Hiking Boots (you are here now; thank you for dropping in and reading!). I have worked as a freelance writer on and off for the past ten years mostly writing web content.

Because I have been unemployed, underemployed, or working from home all these years, I also handle all the food procurement for both humans and dogs here, a lot of the cooking of that food (Tom does breakfast every day), all the cleaning of this dog hair infested building, all the bookkeeping and light accounting (which is very simple: “we don’t have money for that.”), and all the tasks that are created in effort to not spend money. These are ever expanding and ever changing: I cut firewood from trees on our property and split that wood myself by hand. I roast coffee because unroasted beans are less than half the price of roasted beans. I make yogurt because a half gallon of milk is $2.25. A quart of yogurt is easily double that. I scrounge for the cheapest option for dog food – which will include roadkill if I feel up to it. Hunting season, while stressful and challenging in some ways, can also offer carcasses and free food… if I can time it right. Farm waste products like chicken heads or feet and other unsaleable parts of local livestock are my mainstay. This means networking and driving, and with deer carcasses, processing some bits of it myself.

Here’s where I’m going with this litany of “I do so damn much:” I often feel like it’s not enough. Almost daily, if I stop to think about it, I feel like I’m letting someone (or a group of someones) down, not giving enough attention, money, or love to someone deserving of more. Social media shows me what other people do, whether it’s how they train their dogs, or how beautifully tidy and decorated their homes are, or how fit and trim they are. I feel inadequate and … lazy. Yep, lazy. I believe I could do more, be more, sell more, buy more, and be more… but I’m just too darned lazy.

Every now and then I step back and acknowledge reality: that belief is insane. That’s irrational and not fact-based at all. But it’s insidious and seeps back in no matter how eloquently I beat it back with facts and common sense. I know if I looked at someone else who had my life, I would not judge them to be lazy at all. I wouldn’t should on them the way I should on myself: I should work out every day. I should drink more water. I should work harder at training the dogs. I should be a nicer person. And so on.

A friend recently reflected upon disengaging from social media – taking a break. Her perspective was that taking that sort of step away was self-denial. She made the analogy to addiction and likened giving up social media to deprivation. It gave me pause. What if it isn’t deprivation at all, but a gift we give ourselves? A gift of time spent doing something – anything – else that isn’t feeding this irrational narrative might be a true gift. A break from social media and a breather spent with my eyes upon the horizon instead of a screen might be a boon, a godsend, not a deprivation or a denial of anything.

Yes, I take those breaks daily. I walk for at least an hour every day without my phone. I take full day breaks, when I am able to scamper off into the forest preserve for a longer day, but those are woefully too few and far between… another thing I feel bad about, and tell myself I’m lazy or Not Good Enough because I don’t do that often enough… because lets face it, if you scroll through my newsfeed – Everyone Else is hiking every single weekend. They are hiking more and better and faster and more ethically or with more betterer gear than me. They are definitely having more fun, with adoring friends — simply the best hiking companions.

I take breaks to work-play-train my dogs every day. But everyone else is training more: more often, more commands, more methods, more complex tasks — training gooder stuff, with gooder dogs than me. I don’t bring the camera or phone (most of the time) and I don’t post photos or videos of what we do (most of the time) because what I do with my five idiotic and ridiculously varied dogs is intimate and beautiful and special. And I don’t need feedback. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. I don’t want or need help or support or criticism. Nor do my dogs. Ok… that’s not entirely true. But they don’t need social media help from strangers with a bazillion opinions and zero experience. The things that are wrong, bad, stupid and ugly about them are intensely beautiful to me… and infuriating and confounding. Working through this shit is why I chose them, and why they are here. We all have our dharma; Peeka and Brody and I are all working it out together. They are not a training exercise; they are my family.

photo by Beth Adams

I take breaks to cook dinner and I try hard to make a truly spectacular gourmet feast for Tom every night. Yes, that’s a rather high bar. He deserves it. He goes out into the world and slays dragons all day long, dressed as a phone guy but we all know he’s really a superhero. I couldn’t do what he does. He comes home to a filthy and disheveled wife, five insane dogs and on rare occasion a hot meal. He is a foodie and deserves a fabulous meal that makes him un-see the dog hair and mud on the floor. He often has to help untangle a dog’s knotted up emotional state before he’s tasted that hot meal or even had a sip of beer. He is always grateful. I have no idea how any human being could contain that much grace.

I’m not bashing social media and I’m not bailing out. There’s no question in my mind that for me at this point in my life, the good outweighs the bad. But I’m admitting the impact it has on me – the Not Good Enough feeling and beliefs it perpetuates. I need social media because for me the networking really works: all my dog food contacts and all my groovy freelance side gigs have come from social media connections. 100% of my income has been generated by connecting with folks on Facebook for a few years in a row now. And 100% of my dog food connections also originated as social media friends. It’s not only the mercenary “what’s in it for me” concrete gains social media has provided, but there are also real friendships that have sprung up with folks all over the country and beyond. Scores of dog people have my back and I have theirs, quite literally.

Some of these folks have grown into an incredible support network, but I am often too … lazy? busy? in denial? to admit that I actually need, appreciate, and could use support. In the aftermath of finishing the book, I’m feeling pretty down on myself, like I’m not doing enough. Not earning money, not earning my keep, not chopping enough wood or carrying enough water, to borrow a phrase from that 1980s spiritual guidebook.

For now, at least part of the solution is to engage in less scrolling and more doing. Even if that doing is just mopping my damn floor, or sitting on my damn floor getting mugged by my damn dogs, it’s time better spent. It’s not social media that’s the problem; it’s the way I let it make me feel. But a little breathing room is a good thing.

I’d love to hear about your love-hate relationship with social media.

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Ahimsa: Thoughts on Being Good

Recently a military working dog made the headlines due to her role in a raid. While I typically avoid writing anything overtly political here, this event and the media coverage and the divergent responses from the malinois community dovetailed with something I’d been thinking about all week. Hell, if I’m honest, it is something I’ve been thinking about for years.

The specific thought: it’s a fine line to walk to celebrate the dog while decrying the act. The dog’s actions were part of an incredibly highly trained team working together for a terrifying purpose. The risks were as high as they get. All involved risked their lives to bring this mission to a successful conclusion and come home alive. No question, all are heroes, the dog and her handler and the entire team.

But more generally: why was this act of violence necessary? Why do we need military working dogs and special forces? And as educated world citizens, don’t we have to understand global conflict in all it’s complexity, including understanding the role of our own country and its actions, policies, economics, and history? How do we make our own personal sense and peace out of a world in which we see dogs used as weapons… and yet we have no leg to stand on in supporting NOT using all means possible to arrest terrorism.

If one is to practice ahimsa, then don’t we have to stand against war? Ok, what the hell am I talking about? What is ahimsa? Sounds suspiciously foreign…

Let me back up. Decades ago, as a young wife, mother, and yoga teacher trying to make money and make a life, I tried hard to be kind to all and make and keep friends. If someone got angry with me or didn’t like me, or took issues with anything I said or did, I tried hard to fix it. I tried to work through every challenge, and to understand and resolve all conflicts. I cared about whether or not people liked me. I worked consistently at being likable… with only moderate success.

I’ve been living the on-going realization that somewhere along the way, I stopped doing all that. I stopped feeling so wounded by conflict. I stopped caring so much about being liked and I stopped trying to be likable. In its place, I started trying to make good decisions and live an ethical life. Fuck being well-liked or getting along with others; let me see if I can just be good and do good. That was my conscious thought.

But how does one be good? What the everliving fuck is good anyway? I mean, ok, some good is pretty clear. Don’t cheat, lie, steal, or kill. Basic. But unless we start photosynthesizing, we have to kill to eat, so right there, the most basic tenet of goodness has an asterisk.

My study as a yoga teacher organized this lurching towards goodness into a commitment to understand and live by the yamas and niyamas. Honestly, I’ve forgotten a bunch of them because there are ten (five of each) and I’m menopausal. But the first one is ahimsa: nonviolence or “do no harm.” The final one is ishwara pranhidana: to lay your actions at the feet of God. Along the way there are a few I do remember: tell the truth, don’t steal, keep it in your pants, stuff like that. But the bottom lines, for me, just circle back over and over these basics: do no harm and do your very best. Whatever it is in the moment that I have to say or do, it has to pass the test of “can I place this action at the feet of God?” Is this the best I have to offer?

So when I see someone doing something that I know will bring harm to them or others, what do I do? What’s “good?” Do I step in and inform them that their actions will lead to harm? Sometimes this is clear: if children and pedophiles are involved, it’s an easy yes. If it involves torture or killing animals for sport or entertainment – again, easy yes. I am clear that these actions are counter to the practice of ahimsa. To me, they are abhorrent and repulsive. But what if I know I will be misperceived, misunderstood, or Tom’s favorite expression: “misunderheard” (which means I wasn’t listening). What if I’m just written off as a know-it-all, or a killjoy? What if I know I will not be respected or acknowledged, and that the folks I try to share information with will simply reject the information and me? Sometimes it’s a maze and a minefield…

Social media is a great stage upon which to act all this out. I’m gifted with a bazillion opportunities every day to choose what to say or do. I used to engage much more. I came to feel like that wasn’t consistent with my practices of ahimsa or ishwara pranhidana. Nor was it great for my blood pressure or my stomach. I’m still tempted to weigh in on all sorts of issues from time to time, but I remind myself… I can let it unfold without me. Not my circus, not my monkeys, as the saying goes.

I get it wrong and make mistakes all the time. I often feel sad and confused. I hide behind my dogs and the mountain lifestyle, curating an exotic and badass image to a degree. That’s probably running counter to one of the yamas or niyamas but sometimes a bad memory is a blessing. At least I’m pretty sure I’m doing no harm. There’s being good, and then there’s being good enough. As far as doing my best… boy, that’s a moving target.

So no, I’m not posting a photo of the malinois that took down the terrorist. No, I’m not gloating over his death. Not because I think terrorism is cool but because I know that another will rise and take his place because all the conditions that created him remain. I mourn a world in which we need to use dogs in this way. And I celebrate that dog and her team, because clearly they are an amazing force to be reckoned with, a true example of what the human-canine bond can be. And I keep trying, fumbling and stumbling, towards some notion of good. It’s the only thing that makes any sense.

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