The Blue Tarp

Ask a troubleshooter in any profession: what’s the most difficult type of problem to address? Hands down, it’s the intermittent problem, the thing that happens some of the time, unpredictably and with no clear antecedent. Sometimes it seems like X causes it; sometimes X is no problem at all. Whether we’re talking automotive, medical, or dogs, it’s those now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t, non-reproducible glitches that are the toughest nuts to crack.

I left Brody loose in the house today when I went to work. It was a calculated risk. He is fine in the house most of the time, his worst crimes being barking at dog bowls and knocking over the kitchen step ladder to improve access to the dog bowl in the raised feeder… in order to bark at it more thoroughly. However, we have had a nasty round of The Big D in our pack and when there’s a tummy bug going around all bets are off. It’s been 6 days of gentle diet and metronidazole (AKA The Cork) and he has been looking rather stable and handling 8 hours overnight without incident. I thought I could give it a try. Truth be told, I was running late and too tired (i.e. lazy) to crate him when it came time to leave. He was quiet and comfy on a dog bed and I wanted to leave him be, to escape the house with a minimum of fuss and fanfare. So I grabbed my keys and slipped out with a whispered “good dog.”

I came home to a clean, undamaged, poop-free home. We’ve done this successfully before, and we’ve had problems before. Indoor pee, indoor poop, destruction of dustpans, and rearranged furniture to name a few of the misdemeanors. Once, while I was outside collecting firewood, I watched him through the windows. He faced off with a rocking chair and wacked it repeatedly with his paw. Each time it rocked, he barked at it. Wack. Barkbarkbarkbarkbark. Wack. Barkbarkbarkbarkbark. He eventually knocked the chair over. Wouldn’t have been all that bad, except that my husband’s guitar was in the chair. Oops.

Why was the rocking chair a problem one day and no problem at all another day? Some days the raised feeder or the contents of the utility closet are in need of an all out, balls to the wall attack, and some days Brody can sleep peacefully while those inanimate objects plot against us.

This brings us to the blue tarp. Up in the woods, about half a mile from our home, a tumbledown deer stand sports a frayed blue tarp, hanging on by a thread to a big maple a few yards off the main trail. Some days Brody can walk past the blue tarp without a reaction. Some days he can’t. What’s different on those days when he strolls on by? Who knows.

The first time Brody alerted on the blue tarp, he caught me by surprise. I was down the hill when his bark shot through me: not much screams RED ALERT like a sudden dog bark. Barking in the woods is very unusual. Porcupines, bears, and humans engender barking. The first two of those are exciting but problematic; the third is just plain bad. I whirled around to see Brody stiff-legged, erect tail, and full throttle barking… at the blue tarp, 12 feet up in the tree, tattered and pathetic but still flapping.

I try to see it from Brody’s point of view. It doesn’t belong there; he’s right. It’s out of place and weird and it’s moving. I’d like to bark at the jerk who decided to leave it there. But we can’t go through life shrieking like banshees at everything that is out of place (I know, I know, my husband thinks I already do this). Correct him for barking at the weird thing? Praise him for identifying something odd in the environment? I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I started walking uphill. I got close and decided to give a command and see what happens. I called him. He came. I threw a party. Then we hung out, looking at the weird scary thing and I praised him for being quiet while we looked.

These days when we walk past the blue tarp, Brody doesn’t bark. He doesn’t trust the tarp and he’s worried about it, but he isn’t barking at it. I don’t assume we’re out of the woods, tarp-wise, but I think I’m seeing a slow but definite increase in confidence. He let me sweep one half of the floor this morning without any reaction at all. The second half of the floor was a problem. Why? He just watched me operate the broom for minutes without distress. But then I remember, thinking back on it – I had a lid from a jar in my hand for that second half of the room. I don’t know why I picked the lid up and kept sweeping – menopause fries your brain. I was probably going to put it away and forgot, halfway across the room, and just continued sweeping since that was a task I could remember how to complete. I have never swept while holding a lid before.

A friend shared a quote with me last night: “everything is inherently broken. We lose what we love, and any corner of reality is graspable for only a very short time. Maybe things make sense, maybe sometimes they don’t. Contemplative practice helps us endure.” There was more, and it was lovely. Yes. Not much is more inherently broken and lovely and briefly graspable than dogs. Sometimes I believe I have it all sorted and organized and I understand what I need to do… and for that magical moment the universe falls into line and the dogs behave. Often we’re barking at each other, hackles raised and adrenaline flowing. The morning dog walk is contemplative practice. It’s the time spent alone in my own head, silent and present… and not present and screaming. And silent once more. It’s peace, and breath, and pain and rage, and then peace and breath again. It’s bearing witness to life and death on a tiny stage in a scrubby little forest. It is the best I can do and I do my best, every day.

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Happy Holidays

Well, well, well. 2017 was quite a year.

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Staring down 2018…

But since we’re staring down 2018, I thought I’d share some holiday thoughts and wishes for you all.

I hope you get to enjoy yourselves thoroughly throughout the holiday season. Go ahead — have a ball.

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Have a drink at your favorite watering hole.

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Go a little nuts – get crazy – it’s only once a year!

But remember, above all — stick together!

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Best wishes for a splendid 2018 from all of us here at the Red Eft Lodge on Bramley Mountain.

Peace and love,

Heather, Tom, Lily, Cinder, Hawkitt, Peeka, Brody, Iske and Mica from the other side, Sid Vicious (from his hospital room at the FFF Wildlife Center), Leo (resident porcupine), Grenadine (resident snapping turtle), and about 300,000,000 red efts.

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Going to the Maul

I wrote this several years ago, for an online magazine called Yoga Modern. I wanted to give it a share today, as I sit here stiff and sore from yesterday’s splitting, and discovered it is not to be found. I’m republishing it on my blog for now, but if I can find it on Yoga Modern, I’ll add that link too. Autumn — ’tis the season for splitting and stacking.

 

There are far too few opportunities, I believe, for women to go outside and hit things as hard as they can until they break.  It would not be particularly functional behavior in an urban environment, but I would argue that not many country gals have the stars line up in such a way as to offer this type of activity as a viable option on a regular basis.  But when the opportunity does present itself, we should seize upon it and split with gusto.

 

Tipping my hat in acknowledgement as I dodge the how-truly-environmentally-friendly-is wood-heat-anyway discussion, allow me to own that I am only here to sing the praises of swinging a maul.  The rest is secondary.  It is the physical effort by a 5’2”, 116 pound woman pitted against oaken rounds I can’t lift and can barely roll that move me to meditate upon this topic.  How many times in my life have I had the chance to give some physical task my all, to use every ounce of force I have in my body to bust things up?  Not often.  How many times in your life have you heard someone warn you “don’t force it.”  Be careful.  Be gentle.  Use brains, not brawn.  Work smarter, not harder.  In many contexts, I completely agree.  Finesse and gentleness have their place.

 

Most of what women do all day every day requires relatively little brute force.  This isn’t to insinuate that I think we are living cushy lives.  I know how heavy a car seat with an eleven month old infant in it can be, and how emotionally and physically draining many women’s lives are, juggling the multiple demands and multiple roles that are still all too commonly relegated to “women’s work.”  But it just isn’t the same as hitting something as hard you can until it breaks.  The challenge and the triumph of splitting that knotty old elm branch that’s bigger around than both of your thighs put together is just different.

 

I confess: I love to split wood.  I love the intensity of the effort and the immediate gratification of each successful split.  I love the sharp crack of a split just starting, and I love the roar that comes out of the depths of my being with the next swing.  I love pitting myself against the pile of logs and knowing that I will prevail.  I love hitting things as hard as I can (while I’m confessing, I am rather fond of batting cages too).  It feels like animal gratification, pure and primal.  It is a screaming prayer of ability, a thunderous “I CAN!” howled at the world.  It is pure joy in doing, finding a place where doing and being collide, and the simple experience of being a body is both ecstasy and worship.  The only comparison I can come up with is that when I hike I throw myself at the mountains with a comparable spirit of primitive intensity, and laugh raucous laughter at the summit, intoxicated by the sheer “I-can-ness” of it.

 

Is it necessary to empty oneself out like this in order to find the peace and triumphant joy that comes from doing so?  Are there other routes to such bliss – routes that don’t involve hitting and smashing and roaring?  Asana practice, or running a marathon, for example?  Or creative endeavors that don’t involve breaking a sweat, but certainly do involve plumbing the depths or entering the blackness to emerge with the story, the image, the finished piece that tells of what is there?  My opinion, after decades of many such practices is that for me splitting wood is The Way.

 

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Lost and Found

Even the dogs dislike walking through blackberries. You can’t really walk through them; it’s more of a stumble-and-try-not-to-use-your-hands-to-steady-yourself gait as layers of dead canes crosshatch the ground beneath and tender green daggers grow up in between. Uneven, stabby, treacherous travel… people do this for fun, right?P1210781

 

Peeka bore the brunt of foster Tonshi’s ire. Peeka has forgiven and moved on like a Christian, but the scars show themselves in a limp and a slow pace. I worry about all of them, as mothers do, but I worry about Peeka the most. I poke fun at her relentlessly, cherrypicking her quirks and lampooning her at every turn… but underneath all that ribbing is a bond and a commitment and a fierce love that breaks my heart wide open.

Peeka took off with Hawkitt and Cinder, the mountainside steep and their quarry anything but obvious. If it’s a bear, porcupine or human, they bark. If it’s a deer, they whine. If it’s a coyote, only Hawk goes. If it’s anything else, they are back at my side before I can yell Hawk-HAWK a second time. Sometimes I think they just go to go, to feel the exhilaration of speed. To be away from me and feel that separation as well as the rush of wind in their fur, the onslaught of scent in their brains is a thrill for them. It must be; they certainly indulge in that particular behavior often enough.

We reconnected at the coyote junction, the rendez-vous spot where coyote family groups reconvene when the young are old enough to hunt independently but young enough to need those check-ins with Mama. My dogs read their pee-mail and roll in the long wet grass. Once we all but stepped on a porcupine passing through this open meadow. Good brakes, even better obedience, and a lot of nervous laughter but no quills shed. The dogs know we’re almost home when we get to this spot. They linger, panting, while I pick berries or take photos. It’s a good spot.

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We have Brody now. Peeka’s littermate, I finally relented and took him from his beloved foster mom. The move upset his apple cart and he is responding by baring his teeth all too often – at me, Tom, and all the dogs. We all ignore as much as we can and gently rebuke the rest. He backs down, apologizes, but remains tense. We go slowly with him. We have faith that he will relax. We see glimmers – he grumbled but snuggled with the dog pile last night, Hawk’s feet  resting upon his back legs. He is having a bad morning this morning, and after the third attempt to bully Hawkitt (who has not so much as raised his head in response), Peeka came in and herded him onto the rug, then lay down next to him. He softened. She slept.

P1210736It’s blackberry season. I have made jam, crumbles, and stains on my fingers and t shirts. I see seed-filled scat in the woods – from my dogs and other wild creatures feasting on these lemony-when-underripe, appley-when-overripe treats. I remember my first summer here, weighing the bags and stacking them in the freezer: 2 pounds per day for weeks. This year it was the golden chanterelles that blessed me with abundance. My freezer is full of neatly stacked Ziploc bags looking nasty, but promising mushroom sauces and soups all winter long.

I take photos, pick berries, and yell for errant and absent dogs. They are lost; they are found. A colleague from another life stopped in during Open Studio Day, and the memories hit me like a hard shove off that particular cliff. Once upon a time I had a profession and a full time job. Now I play hide and seek with five dogs on a pricker-filled mountainside. Lost and found, but not always where you expected to wind up. It’s ok. I’d rather be lost or found here with them than anywhere else.

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Vocabulary, Commands and the Difference Between Hawkitt and Peeka

Hawkitt is a 4 year old Dutch Shepherd I adopted back in 2014. He is high drive, meaning he is [expletive deleted] relentless. One day he thought he had a shot at getting someone to play with him, so he asked over and over again, dropping the stick at the feet of about 6 different men — for 8 hours straight. No one ever threw it. He never stopped asking. That’s high drive.

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Hawkie can reliably respond to the following commands:

sit

down

hop up (AKA “place”)

up (jump on me)

come

stay

leave it

around (walk around me in a circle)

down at a distance

paw or touch (wack it with your paw)

speak

quiet

wait (different from stay. This means just hang on a second.)

go (this is when he is begging me to play and I want to continue to walk)

tug

SH! or the one hand raised hand signal — this means silence and hold perfectly still. No panting. This is for those moments when I think I hear something in the woods that we all need to know about.

Play with the baby. This means do something to stop Peeka from acting weird. He usually just jumps on her and chews on various body parts.

Find it.

Settle down; go lie down; go away. Synonyms. All result in Hawkie crashing to the floor at my feet with a big sigh.

Back up.

Peeka can sit.

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maybe down.

Sometimes she can come, although if I really want a nice response from her to a recall command I need to call Hawkitt. She will follow.

 

Same breed. Same trainer. Different dogs.

Very different dogs.

 

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Whitewater Dog Walking

Some people enjoy dog walks. I survive them. Each day when we arrive back home – INSIDE the house with all the dogs (because until we are inside with the door closed, all bets are off) – I breathe a sigh of relief and feel a surge of triumph. We all survived; me, the local flora and fauna, and the dogs. Nothing bad happened.

When Tom gets home from work and asked how my day was, that’s what he wants to know – how did the dog walk go? “Nothing bad happened” is the norm and the background from which the porcupine-bear-coyote-deer-human misadventures stand out in high relief. Nothing bad happened is what we all want and need, and yet…

Dogs are my adrenaline rush. They are my class five rapids, my free climbing. They are my arena in which I test myself and where I learn my hardest lessons. They are where I explore the edge of what’s possible for me in terms of personal power. Most people don’t have five extra-adrenaline dogs and of those that do, most don’t walk them off leash in wild places filled with enticing creatures like bears and porcupines. As a 50+ year old woman, personal power tends to be a bit elusive. Yeah yeah yeah – Tom will claim I’m not lacking in personal power — often when I meet people for the first time, they are astonished at how physically small I am. On Facebook you seem much bigger, they often say. But the truth is a) female, b) over 50, and c) physically petite add up to a deficit in the personal power department.  I make up for that by having large dogs (literally and figuratively) and bossing them around.

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Today we reached a point in the dog walk where we have options. It was raining steadily and we had Lily with us. The short route means hanging a left and heading downhill. Going straight involves prickers and bushwacking and most likely coyotes and deer and quite possibly human remains (Ok, not really. It was most likely a pig. That’s the consensus – pig. But for a while there a bunch of smart people were really stumped. I called the police. But you have to realize that for me to have anything to show the police, I had to take the chunk o’ flesh from Hawkitt and carry it home. Meditate upon that for a moment, friends. Super repulsive, and what an amazing dog to hand over a prize like that just because I said so.).

Hawk stopped at the crossroads and gave me a meaningful look. GO THE FUN WAY, he said with his eyes and his seductive low rapid tail wag. Come on, Hawkie, I cajoled. This way. He looked stricken, pained even. He hesitated. Come on, buddy. This way. All the other dogs stopped, waiting. What would it be – cooperation or a merry chase? He looked at me, then swung his enormous head in the direction of mayhem. He looked back at me fetchingly. No, I said. This way.

I stood aside, making room for him, and gestured with my arm. This way. He turned his back on all that was wonderful in the woods, and trotted downhill, heading for home.

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Why? Why give up and do my bidding? He didn’t get anything for his sacrifice – no treat, no reward, barely a “good dog” and only the most cursory pat-stroke as he surged past me on the steep slope. I don’t know why. I have a few guesses but I figure they are likely anthropomorphic assumptions and undereducated fantasies. They include: He is a nice dog. He loves me. He values pack harmony. He respects my authority. He knows “this way” is a command and he must obey commands. Who knows… maybe the last time he ran with the coyotes they were impolite or laughed at him behind their paws and refused to explain their jokes to him. Whatever went on inside his thick skull, it ended up with him choosing to substitute his agenda for mine.

But tomorrow? I take nothing for granted. Tomorrow we will play out this drama again, and the ending may be different. The other dogs may take on his role while he plays the obedient one. Anything might happen. And I admit it: I kind of hope it does.

 

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On Failure

I feel like a failure regularly. While some of you real dog trainers are yelling “that’s because you are!” many of you are nodding your heads in sympathy and camaraderie. Some of the failures are laughable blips – you don’t get what you want but you get something that teaches you that much more about how your dog thinks and acts. Some of the failures are catastrophic and terrifying – lost dogs, serious fights, or a blown off recall that involves roads and cars.

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Thankfully I do not have to admit to many of the catastrophic failures, and so far all my dogs have survived my ownership, living to ripe old age in relative health and safety. But the small to medium failures happen with greater frequency than I’d prefer. My husband and I were talking about this the other morning, and his context for failure was woodworking. He had spent days on a project only to have the finishing go badly awry. Time, effort, and money lost. He had to back up several steps and try again. He quoted a woodworking guru on failure: Christopher Schwartz’s column entitled “Failing since 1993” is all about letting go of the notion that somehow – by putting time, money, effort, practice, and paying your dues in bruises and worse – you no longer fail. Sure it happens less frequently, and good lord willing, less catastrophically, but it never stops. The failures never end. They keep us humble. And they keep us hungry – hungry to learn more, get more curious, dig deeper, and go beyond the obvious.

Hawkitt just nipped me. It was a classic asshole nip – I ended playtime and was walking him into the house. He wanted to take the toy and run away with it. I said no. He twisted his head around like a godforsaken owl or Linda Blair and nailed me in the forearm with his tiny front razorblade teeth. We’ve been at this for three years. He’s been through a million repetitions of ending play time with dignity. And here I am, at repetition number one million and one, with a fresh bruise. I feel like a failure.

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Is there anything I could have done to prevent this? Sure: for starters, don’t adopt dogs like Hawkitt. His doing and his undoing is his intensity and drive. I understand the nip as “overflow” – he did it not because of dominance or because I never trained him to respect me or any other explanation I’m sure half of you formulated in your head as you read the previous paragraph. He nipped me because that’s what dogs like him do. Period. The fact that he *doesn’t* nip me 99.99% of the time makes this noteworthy. But it still hurts and I still feel like a failure because I do not want to get nipped.

Failures are a central part of the process. They force us to learn and they insist we get better at this – whatever this might be. They are the discomfort that prods us into new territory, and our dogs lead the way. There is always new territory. The learning never ends. And the failing never ends.

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