Danger! Thin Ice!

I headed out for playtime with the four adult dogs, same as ever. Hawkitt loves to fetch and tug, Bindi loves to harass Hawk, Peeka loves to watch and I’m still not sure what Brody loves to do. Willa must wait her turn indoors. Such is the life of a puppy.

It was raining lightly, the first real rain since it started warming up – rain making the ice and snow on the driveway slick before disappearing. I was warm enough with my heavy wool coat on. It had been my father-in-law’s – a firefighter’s winter jacket for wearing around town. It was fire engine red with the white emblem on the back and his name – Hans – embroidered on the front.

I think it was the third throw. The ball took a wicked bounce off a tree root and landed on the remains of the late March ice on the lower pond. The pond is deep and the ice, unstable and melting, is still thick in places, even after several 60 degree days.

What happened next took on that slow motion, surreal quality that has become such a cliché when trying to describe a life and death situation. Hawk set off after the ball. I really thought Hawk wouldn’t set foot on that ice. He is a sensible dog, often more sensible than me. When I saw him out there in the middle of the pond running across the ice, I yelled “no.”

It was too late. He was already breaking through. The ice was about 2 inches thick, maybe 3. He was in a circle of water but couldn’t get purchase and couldn’t break up the remaining ice. I ran to the pond’s edge and shouted encouragement. No good. He was panicked, and thrashing, and then every few thrashes… bobbing underwater. His whole head disappeared twice. I saw the look on his face.

I ran around the pond to the side where the ice was thinnest and implored him. “Come on, buddy, THIS way.” Nope. He was too far gone. He couldn’t take in information and use it. He just kept trying to climb out onto the ice, but he couldn’t pull himself up and the ice wasn’t breaking up to allow him to swim to shore.

I was going to watch him die. I had that thought clear as a bell. If I fail to act, I will watch him die.

So I told Peeka and Bindi to stay (they had joined me at the water’s edge), and I crawled out onto the ice. I was amazed it held me as long as it did. I reached Hawkitt, and shifted my weight to grab his outstretched paw. I saw the ice crack under me. I had one thought. Just one. “I’m going in.”

I hate swimming, by the way. I never actually choose to swim, when given the choice. I dislike being in water. It always makes me vaguely nauseous. But I am a strong, competent swimmer. I have lifeguard training and scuba certification. I can swim just fine. I just hate it.

I was in the water, up to my armpits. I couldn’t stand, but I didn’t sink in any deeper. I beat the ice with my arms and kicked my way back to shore, a human ice breaker so that Hawk could swim behind me. He did. We both got out, dripping and stunned. For once, I didn’t laugh out loud at my folly.

I stripped on the front step, my wool coat now sodden and impressively heavy. I had to pry my Muck boots off, and pour what looked like a quart of water out of each of them. I left both outside in the rain. The rest of my clothes got dumped in the washing machine and I toweled Hawkitt off vigorously. He kept shaking. I kept telling him what a good boy he was. Then I got in the shower and realized I couldn’t feel any of the fingers on my left hand at all. Washing the pond water out of my hair was an adventure.

I got dressed in too warm clothes for the day, and poured myself a beer. A double IPA. Then I talked to Tom on the phone. He said “thank you for saving our boy. And thank you for not dying.”

When I was a little girl, I often ice skated on a pond in the woods. All the neighborhood kids did. And all our parents read us the riot act about thin ice, and threatened and begged us to be careful. To my knowledge none of us ever fell through. I carried a belief, though, that falling through would mean instant death. Our parents, God love them, failed to empower us to handle the “what if I do” scenario. It was pretty normal 1970s parenting: just don’t. That’s an order. I assumed if I fell through I’d instantly freeze, sink, and drown/die of hypothermia. My understanding of icy water wasn’t very sophisticated.

After a few sips of beer, I texted my best friend, a forest ranger with extensive training in rescues of all sorts. I asked her what I should have done; what’s the correct set of steps to such a rescue? She said encouragement and support for a self rescue is the first step. If you don’t panic, you can often pull yourself out or do what I did and swim to shore – depending of course upon all the variables – distance, fitness, mindset, etc. As unpleasant as going for a swim in March in 40 degree rain may be, it’s not instant death.

And Hawkitt? No tool, no gear, no training could have prevented this from happening. Had Hawk been wearing an ecollar, I wouldn’t have had time to even grab the controller, much less push any buttons. I yelled, but I’m not sure that my NO didn’t make matters worse. Perhaps Hawk hesitated when I hollered and that moment of reduced forward motion was what made him fall through. Maybe, maybe not.

No tool, no training, no gear, no method, no planning… nothing short of bubble wrapping Hawk and staying indoors could prevent these sorts of accidents. I know some folks do just that – live their lives attempting to identify and then mitigate against or prevent every bad thing that crosses their awareness from happening. I honor that as one (respectable) way to approach life with dogs.

I train. I use tools. I seek sensible and sane solutions to every challenge and safety issue I identify. I am not cavalier, throwing caution to the wind at every opportunity. The puppy wears a long line despite demonstrating a reliable recall. Why? Because she is a puppy. Puppies can be impulsive. And the tool keeps her safe while increasing her freedom. Win win. But I understand that no tool is a panacea. And that every tool can be involved in a horrible outcome. I remember a dog in my neighborhood growing up that was killed because he was on a leash – he bolted off a deck while tethered and was hung. Any tool can become lethal. Any situation can go horribly, catastrophically sideways. Bad things happen to good dogs and good owners.

I wouldn’t want it any other way. The searing beauty of life is that it is indeed fragile. Shit happens. I don’t want to live fearful and bubble wrapped, avoiding experiences and fetishizing safety. Life is a fucking mess, and I want to celebrate that mess. Not in an irresponsible, “fuck it, let’s just throw up our hands and do whatever” kind of way, but in a reverent “lay it at the feet of God” way. In every decision, every choice, every situation, I weigh the options as best I can. Down at the banks of the pond, I had only a couple of minutes, by the looks of Hawkitt’s face and the frequency with which he was bobbing under the water. I had to decide fast. I took the risk that I too would land in the drink if I tried to save him. But I was pretty sure he was worth it. And pretty sure I’d survive the effort, even if I did end up going for a swim.

Today the ice on the lower pond is completely melted. And I’m looking at Hawkitt a little bit differently than I did yesterday.

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One Week

Sunday: 

It’s coming down steadily now, thick flakes blanketing the mud and ice with snow, its texture and appearance that of confectioner’s sugar. The tired old cliché “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” feels accurate once you’ve lived in a snowy clime. This is March snow. Spring snow is more likely to have that oddly cakey texture, the lumpy confectioner’s sugar appearance. It’s sticking, and the road is impassable at the moment (I heard a truck fail to get up the hill while I was out walking the gang) but in as little as a few minutes that could change. It is March, a month of changes. 

Tom is asleep on the couch; all the dogs are asleep in their respective corners and perches. It’s midday on a Sunday and while we don’t have newsprint scent in our nostrils or ink on our fingers, the feeling is much the same. We’ve read the paper, so to speak. We’re caught up. I gave Tom a haircut, walked the dogs, ate lunch. 

There is no immediate pressing need to address. I’m not so exhausted I also need to sleep, nor so strung out I need to storm off into the woods alone to weep and wonder at all the accumulated frustrations and challenges piled at my feet. It’s quiet. This March snow gives a certain permission to nap on a Sunday afternoon. The peace in the house is palpable.

Wednesday:

I’m officially over my threshold. My “dog friends” know what this means and it isn’t good. Going over threshold happens when external stimuli overwhelm the dog’s ability to maintain self control. It’s when the shit hits the fan and fur flies… metaphorically or literally, depending upon the situation. No learning can occur when a dog is over threshold – their brain isn’t receptive to taking in and processing information in that way. It’s the definition of reactivity. Not good.

What landed me here, over threshold? Sleep deprivation, due to a pup with an upset tummy. Often she makes is through the night but the past few nights have been a bit bumpy. Life with a puppy is enough to put any normal person over threshold temporarily. Puppies need a lot: I don’t have a lot to give under the best of circumstances. It’s no surprise that I’ve crossed the line and am officially over threshold.

The way I framed it as I hiked with the gang this morning was that I need my life to be easier. My “Life Challenges” barrel got filled and now it’s overflowing. The stressors are cumulative: 

  • menopause, 
  • a puppy, 
  • Peeka’s and Brody’s behavioral issues and pack management, 
  • a rare medical condition (anyone who has ever needed to navigate the American health insurance system to seek treatment “out of network” for an oddball condition knows exactly what I’m talking about), 
  • Peeka’s and Brody’s health issues
  • A puppy with giardia and the emotional rollercoaster that I always ride when any of them are unwell, 
  • sleep deprivation (which may be due to any of the aforementioned issues) 

There are likely more items for this list but the ability to focus, concentrate, and remember are casualties of today’s sleep deprivation, as is my more typical buoyant mood.

It gives “self care” a whole new meaning. I keep ratcheting my expectations ever lower. As Anne Helen Peterson so astutely described, I scroll through social media waiting for something I see, something I read to make me feel better. I keep taking another hit, chasing the elusive high. I’m seeking something to help me feel good again, but it’s not there. It’s not there for me, mostly because I’m not there for me. I’m over threshold and I can’t take in what is there. It’s not whether the number of likes or followers or comments or even an outpouring of support are present… it’s that I’m not present.  

Thursday:

The pup still has a yucky tummy, so I gave a plastic container of her poop a ride to the vet for analysis. She came too, for training purposes. I want less frantic behavior in the car, especially when we stop. A little dignity, a smidge of restraint and self control – that’s all I ask. I brought dried chicken breast for bribes.

She did beautifully at being quiet and sitting when the tech took the poop and my credit card. When the tech returned, Willa expressed the desire to leap into the front seat and lunge (in a friendly malinois puppy way – lots of teeth and enthusiasm, but not a lot of ire) at the tech. I sent her a cease and desist letter in the form of chicken. She remained in the back seat (good), silent (good), and tapped out her greetings with her front paws… on my head. Hashtag malinois problems. I gave her more chicken. Two out of three ain’t bad.

She puked on the way home. Car sickness? Or on-going tummy troubles from the giardia? She has had plenty of both. Or her car queasiness is a symptom of her yucky tummy? Who knows. 

Peeka has a wound that won’t heal despite multiple rounds of antibiotics. She suddenly gained weight despite no changes in diet or activity level.

Brody has regressed a bit post-Adequan. He isn’t as bad as he was pre-Adequan, but progress has halted. He is able to move around… he just doesn’t want to. “Come on, let’s go, come on sweetie, COME ON MOTHERFUCKER” might be what I sound like some days on the morning walk after the 10th time he stops walking and just stands there like a damn speed bump. Why does he stop and stand still and require enormous amounts of encouragement? I am not sure. Is it pain-related? Maybe. Is it brain related (atypical mild seizure activity)? Maybe. Is it just laziness? Maybe. Maybe he’d just plain rather not.

This week Bindi and Hawkitt are looking pretty damn spiffy: weight and condition is spot on for both of them. Bindi is fast becoming the highest drive dog in the house. Her play drive is legendary. I’ve started telling her to cut it out at times, her relentless needling the others to play having destabilizing effects when she tips Hawk over into prey mode. 

I am awaiting word from my doctor’s office that they have processed the out of network referral. The insurance company has 5 days to approve or deny the request. I waited to get the esophagram, then waited to get the scope, then waited for the scope results, then waited for the manometry, and then waited for those results. The waiting gets old. Yesterday, over a beer, I tried to tell Tom what it feels like… I started crying and ended with “I want to have something else to tell you about. I want to be more interesting. I don’t want this to be what we talk about.” 

On Friday I write my F bomb post for Facebook. I’ve written one every Friday for years. It’s a silly ritual but I believe it helps some people… helps them feel empowered to hurl curses at the heavens from the depths of their souls. It’s healthy to rail against injustices even if those injustices are petty and absurd. It’s ok to let loose and say fuck everything and mean it, if just for that second. We all exhale, then pick up the reins and go back to doing the dishes or sweeping the floor. Or in my case, worrying about poop and puke, and wounds that don’t heal.

Friday:

I figured out my next book. I knew after finishing Asking A Lot that I wasn’t finished. The Yoga of Dog Training bubbled to the surface today as a concept. Maybe even the title. And in that moment, the proverbial blink of an eye, I have a project. And all is right with the world. Sure, I can’t swallow and the puppy still has giardia, and the house still isn’t finished and Tom still can’t retire … but whether I’m morbid and depressed or elated by the prospect of the next project, all those things would be the same. Some folks cope by drinking. I cope by writing. 

The Yoga of Dog Training. 

I think it’s catchy. 

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Being and Doing

Today I’m back. It’s like a black cloud has lifted, the heaviness of burn out somehow miraculously replaced by energy, enthusiasm, plans and an attack on the kitchen mess. Feels good. This much change for no apparent reason makes me very suspicious of hormones. Hormones act like magic spells, cast by folks far away from the center of my life. Toying with me, playing around, fucking with my head. “Here, let me give her a few days of everything feels impossible and I just want to weep.” LOL.

March is upon us in all her glory: rotten snow, dog shit, mud and ice, all combined in the driveway to make walking even 10 steps out the front door and adventure in unpleasantness. There is no “being careful.” There is no “watch your step.” There is only falling into an icy puddle that has melting dog shit in it. March is a bitch.

Change is what it’s all about. The air feels different. The days are noticeably longer. What was flat white is now pockmarked and patched with deep red-black earth and rotten logs and wet rocks and running water. Change rules the day.

The puppy is growing and change rules her days as well. It’s a synchronized changing, the earth and my pup are experiencing. I wonder how she feels, how she experiences it. As she grows, each day her physical being feels new and unfamiliar and off kilter, while all that was known yesterday has quite literally changed overnight. That rock wasn’t visible; this bridge wasn’t here. She shows fear at landmarks she bravely conquered yesterday. I get it. She’s different. The world is different. It’s overwhelming.

photo by Velga Kundzins

I think a lot about my role as her owner. Her partner, her guide, her mama. I don’t go in hard for leader-like words. We’re a partnership. She will teach me if I am willing to learn. I will hold the space, enforce the boundaries, and keep the peace. But I’m not worrying about any of that now. Not top of mind anyway.

Today I’m fretting over her distractibility. She is almost distant, disinterested in tug or fetch, obedient but distracted. Sniffing, sniffing, sniffing. Everything the melting snow has laid bare requires a thorough examination. I reach the end of my patience pretty quickly. I take it personally. She doesn’t want to play with me. (I shouldn’t take it personally. She barely wants to play with Bindi either. Distracted and consumed by the changes, she wanders away from bitey face to sniff some more.)

I have the bandwidth today to play with you and train you and engage with you, puppy. I finally feel like it and it isn’t a chore. It’s on my to do list, kid. And you are … not really available. What do I do?

I ate lunch, made Tom some pumpkin bread, cleaned the kitchen, washed dog bowls, dumped the compost, and pondered. Do I insist she focus on me? Do I place her in an environment where she has fewer choices? Do I let it go and figure she it just changing with the seasons and this is nothing to fret over?

And it hit me. I focus on doing all the time with her. Doing “interactive play.” Doing training. Doing leash walking. Doing biological fulfillment. So fucking productive with my list of meeting puppy’s developmental needs… I forgot one. Being. Just go be with her. Do nothing. Plan nothing. Expect nothing. Just go be with her.

I went into her safe space and sat down. I didn’t speak or call her or even really look at her. She came over and lay in my lap. We hung out for a while. She did puppy things. I witnessed them. She discovered a pocketful of kibble (lol, I’ve become *that* person), so I made her give eye contact for each handful. We did more being and some nothingness.

I had to get the pumpkin bread out of the oven, so I left her alone in her space and shut the gate. She ambled back to her crate and settled. A few minutes later I heard her dreaming.

Fuck doing. There is always tomorrow for more doing, extra doing, catching up on doing. But being? There is only today for being.

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Stoke The Fire

6 a.m. dogs out for potty break. Dog breakfast. Coffee. Stoke the fire. Morning walk. Potty and play for Willa. Stoke the fire. Do something productive for an hour or two. Often the best I can manage is shopping. I am appalled at how much stuff I “need.” (Although this week I am studiously adhering to the boycott of Amazon and you should too, even though individualizing responsibility isn’t the answer… Unionization is patriotic. It’s as American as apple pie. Have a hot dog and boycott Amazon.) Lunchtime potty breaks for all and stoke the fire. Afternoon training and exercise, solo and in groups. Stoke the fire. Pour a beer and let Willa and Bindi have indoor playtime. (This means crate time for Peeka and Hawk needs to be under control.) Wait for Tom to come home. Plan and execute dinner. Stoke the fire. Watch TV or destroy Tom at scrabble. Potty dogs. Stoke the fire. Bed.

There is a pointlessness I battle these days when I try to write. I read newsletters by Anne Helen Peterson and Heather Cox Richardson, clutching “Letters from an American” like a lifeline each morning. But I can’t read much more than that. I imagine most of us feel this way, at least to some degree. It’s part of the depression, grief, loss, mourning, anger, shock and relentless efforts to come to terms with … all of it. My ability to read is shit, and my acknowledgement of that is to question the relevance of writing. It’s just adding to the discordant cacophony… pretentious discordant cacophony.

Something about the (endless) pandemic mood, and the (endless) dragging on of shutdowns, semi shutdowns, and the tentative opening up (oops, nope, we had better shut down again) nature of the past year that has obliterated any ability to concentrate or focus. And, at least for me, meaning. It all seems pointless. I carry on but underneath the performance of the days’ routines (stoke the fire, exercise the dogs, figure out dinner, scroll through Instagram) I feel numb.

I have been drinking a lot of raspberry leaf tea. I has almost no flavor. It tastes a bit like what I imagine a cup of hot water plus some dust might taste like, but a bit more bitter. It’s perfect. Flavors would mean I need to decide if that’s what I am in the mood for, if that’s what I want. A tea that tastes like nothing is hydration without choice, thought, decisions. Given the level of burn out I feel, it’s the right non choice.

Sure there are blips. Bindi found a dead vole on the upper pond today and left it when I gave the command. A dead vole is a high value item and a prompt “leave it” that included backing up and sitting and giving me eye contact was pretty damn impressive. I think she’s been listening in on my clicker sessions with Willa. It jolted me out of the doldrums for a moment. The obscenely blue sky the other morning, too.

Log on: dry wood, oxygen, and a spark. Kindling, then just log on. Sometimes, on good days, I am in the fire, burning brightly, giving warmth and cheer. Those days are fewer and farther between now. This (endless) winter has been (endlessly) gray. Sunlight has not yet been declared an endangered species, much like the grouse I see on our walks – threatened but not legally protected, it is a welcome sight, greeted joyfully and then gone. Relentless gray continues into March.

A few years ago, Tom and I ran out of wood. We have no furnace, no backup central heating. Tom procured hardwood pallets and chainsawed them up into “logs.” Cleaning the grate involved removing nails and screws. We survived, no frozen pipes and none the worse for wear. I wasn’t sure if I felt more proud of our ingenuity and pluckiness or ashamed of our redneck desperation.

Another year we burned green wood. Being the one home, I battled with the stove, frustrated and chilly. Dry, seasoned wood means more BTUs. And less gunk in the chimney. I think it might have been late in that season a chimney fire started. The roaring sound terrified the dogs. I shut down the air intakes and prayed. It burned itself out. I’ve been a fascist about chimney cleanings and dry wood ever since.

I think it was Annie Dillard who said, “Keep showing up.” We don’t have to do anything well. Just keep showing up. Keep at it. Keep logging on, saying something/anything, sharing truth and life, as honestly as possible. So I do. I keep showing up. I log on every morning and do my best to be a part of something.

Input. I have to put stuff in – logs, words, photos, oxygen – in order to create heat. Warmth. Perhaps connection. I keep creating. I keep logging on. I feed the fire to keep it burning.

Spring is coming. There have been days where I forget, get distracted, and just let the fire burn out. Burn out, until there is nothing left and all that was fuel has been consumed and all that was spark and warmth has been reduced to smoke and ash. Burnt out.

I do something else instead of filling the wood rack and stoking the fire. I pet a dog, make another loaf of pumpkin bread. Try to write. Try to read. Try to be productive. I’m burnt out without ever really burning brightly, without ever having given much warmth this winter. I managed to paint the trim in the studio, after 4 years of not getting to it. Now the closet doors need scraping and painting and I … just … can’t. I can’t get to it. I’m too busy being burnt out and unfocused and distracted and numb.

And, in all fairness, I’m busy caring for five dogs. One puppy, two with medical issues, one high drive and high need… in some ways the puppy is the easiest. Five dogs and the management of the household, such as it is. Cooking, cleaning, scheduling, finances… long term planning, short term planning, gardening and the planning of food storage for next winter. Scan the horizon for opportunities to contribute financially. And pet a dog some more.

There will be days and then weeks and months where we don’t burn. Good lord willing, the earth will be warmed once more by the sun, and our speck of dirt here on the mountain will be not only thawed but fecund and redolent with life – plant, animal, mushroom and whatever other kingdoms have been added since I was in freshman biology class.

The part of me that looks forward to things is on strike, unable to muster the energy to look forward to much of anything, but I know it will be easier. I know warmth that I didn’t create from my own toil will happen, that feeling of sun on skin will buoy me in ways I can’t make the effort to imagine today. I trust. I believe in the sun and the seasons and the inevitability of change.

And I know I’m not alone. Others may be more or less articulate than me in their summation (“I’m fucking sick of everything” kind of works). We are all here together in this numb, gray, shitty space, waiting for the spring to come. Perhaps it is cold comfort, but it is comfort nonetheless. I care about how you’re doing. I care about how you feel. I wish I could ease your burden, whatever it might be. I am consumed by my own, but not so far gone as to no longer know you are there, soldiering on alongside me, in the next town or the next continent. And that matters.

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Dear Dog Trainers

Dear Dog Trainers,

First and foremost, thank you. Your efforts to educate, inspire, and support dogs and their owners are so deeply appreciated. This past year, perhaps in an unprecedented way, you helped people feel less isolated and more hopeful and empowered by your generous sharing on social media. Feeling the hope that improvement is possible is a huge gift that professional trainers bestow upon the rest of us. You lend us your competency. It means a lot.

While I’m no expert on trainers and training approaches, I am an “educated consumer” of dog training on social media. I enjoy the good, the bad, and the ugly of it, because I learn from all of it – even if what I’m learning is what NOT to do.

In the spirit of sharing learning, I offer this open letter to you, dog trainers. Here are a few things I believe you could try doing more of that would make your work with humans more effective and efficient. It’s not that these things aren’t happening – they are. It’s just that these messages are getting drowned out by other, less helpful messages, and I believe we could all do with a bit more of this, a bit less of that. 

My list of things I wish I heard dog trainers say more often:

  1. “I don’t think training can address that problem. You need to talk to a fill-in-the-blank (veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, canine nutritionist, exorcist).” Yes, this is a rare situation and the vast majority of problems most clients will come to you with will be fixable with training, but every now and then the problem will be something else. Say so, honestly, humbly, and frankly. And provide a referral if you can.
  2. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. That’s not my area of expertise. I don’t have experience working with that problem.” This is obviously related to #1. The problem CAN be solved with training, but not by this particular trainer. Think about what would happen if the local puppy kindergarten teacher at the big box store took on a bitework client. 
  3. Along these lines, consider the phrase “stay in your lane.” If your client needs help dealing with wildlife, for example, don’t guess. Stick with the dog training component of the issue. If your client reveals that they are struggling with their own mental health (which is sadly common) don’t cross that line and “help” them with their anxiety or depression. That’s not only ill-advised and potentially dangerous, but could be considered practicing without a license. Stay with what you know and do well. 
  4. Show your work. Remember back in middle school when you started to do more complex math problems? You needed to show your work, not just the answer. Similarly, it really helps when you want to explain a concept or method if you show it, beginning, middle and end. Tell us the why – we love theory and philosophy. But also show us the how. Let us see the nitty gritty. Show us how to operationalize your approach in our living room or backyard. Make it real for us by showing us real dogs starting at ground zero. Show us when it isn’t working well. Show us the mess ups and how you improve upon them. Some of you are giving away a ton of this type of information on social media and it’s so deeply appreciated and so inspiring (and so generous of you). The memes and infographics are great too, but try to balance all the whys and whats with some hows. We need to be able to DO it, not just explain and understand why we SHOULD do it.
  5. “It’s ok to NOT pursue competition. IT’s ok to NOT do agility with your aussie, herd sheep with your border collie, or compete in a bitework sport with your malinois. It’s ok to NOT do any sport or formal activity at all, if that’s what works for you. As long as you meet your dog’s needs (which can be challenging and time consuming) you do not need to get involved in any sport, competition, club, or even formal training once you’ve covered the basics.” I have to admit, I don’t hear this often enough at all. Meeting a dog’s needs can be a full time job, regardless of breed. Dog sports can be a great way to do that. But if the owner is not interested in competition, that doesn’t mean they are a lazy or crappy owner. There are many roads to Rome. The dog can get its needs met in any number of other activities. Will it be a lot of work for the owner? Yes, most likely it will. So will training for competition. There are no short cuts. 
  6. Appeal to the best in us. Appeal to our aspirations. Step away from using fear, guilt, and/or shame as motivators. I see this all too often, even used by some of my favorite trainers. Guilt and shame will provide some motivation, sure, but typically if you use guilt and shame to make people do things, at their first opportunity they will bail. Same with fear: don’t tell us all the ways we will kill our dogs by not working with you. We know. We know the world is dangerous. We know our dog’s life is in our hands. Scare tactics might be effective with some clients, but “joy tactics” are longer lasting and provide a deeper and more stable foundation. 
  7. Be clear and be specific. Work on the clarity of your own communication. If you are vague (“the dog needs a job,” for example, is a very vague statement), you run the risk of being misunderstood. All you have to sell is your ability to communicate. Prioritize it. One of the most heartening posts I saw recently was a dog trainer seeking to hire a writer/editor/proofreader for their written materials. I felt like jumping up and down and high fiving them. These folks are TRAINERS, not writers, and while their materials were a solid good, they saw the need to level up and were ready to invest in it. I was thrilled for them. And I spent money with them for an online thing they offered… see? Their smart decision about investing in the quality of their communication made me become a paying client. 
  8. Listen to our tales of woe, but don’t share your own. What? Isn’t it helpful to share how the trainer is imperfect and has also struggled? Yes, to a point, but the problem is, we need you to focus on us. I’ll say it again because it’s important: We need you, Mr. or Ms. Trainer, to focus on us. We came to you for a professional service, not a friendly conversation or a sharing of experiences between equals. When you start telling us about your experience, you’ve taken the focus off us and placed it upon yourself. We might be relieved, or bored or all of a sudden now we’re deeply interested in you and your journey. But what we’re not doing as we listen to you is focus on how we’re helping our dog. Stay focused on us, our dog, and our issues. Keep the personal sharing to a minimum. It’s not that your personal experience isn’t relevant – it might be critical information. But it’s emotionally distracting and we need to stay focused in order to train our dog. Everything else is secondary.
  9. “There are so many ways to do it well. There are so many ways to be right. If you prefer not to use a specific tool, method or approach, I’m sure there’s another way to reach your goal. I’ll share with you the best advice I can offer, but if you aren’t comfortable with some aspect of this approach we can adjust.” Or, in simple terms: don’t be rigid. Humans have been training dogs for millenia. Most of today’s tools didn’t exist 100 years ago. There are always other ways to try to teach or train. Stay flexible. Stay relaxed. Don’t fetishize the tools. Sure, an e collar might get the client there faster, but if they are deeply conflicted about using it will they be consistent? And is your time and effort best spent debating or convincing a human about the use of a tool, or in being creative, finding another way to achieve the goals?

I spend a lot of time reading/watching dog trainers on social media. Despite this lengthy and perhaps overly critical list, I want to restate my thanks. Many skilled and experienced trainers provide an enormous amount of valuable information on social media for free. It’s generous and truly altruistic and so appreciated. Helping people grow as owners is God’s work; I’m not exaggerating. You turn people on and make them happy, and happy people make better owners. There are a number of trainers out there who have taken their time to chat with me, and have been wonderful ambassadors for your profession – professional, kind, generous, and courteous. The community is blessed by your participation. 

I’m sure readers have their own list. Please feel free to comment your wish list. And trainers – I’m sure you have a long and detailed list of things you wish you heard owners say. I’d love to read it. I’d learn from it and be grateful. 

And one last thing: One thing I will say loudly and repeatedly to dog owners is this: don’t expect anyone to give away their professional services for free. If you need personal attention, be ready to pay for it. Compensate people for their time. And always say thank you. 

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Productivity

This blog post is brought to you by beef neckbones. 

This morning I got up at 4 a.m. to take Willa out. Neither of us fell back asleep. It’s been a long day. A good day, but a long day filled with puppy care, training, stimulation, more puppy care, dog care, laundry, dishes, and deep thoughts. Not necessarily in that order. 

I have been in a bit of a funk, on and off, for a while. Menopause is the most likely culprit, but as a long time sufferer of PMS, I have learned that hormones don’t create issues. Hormones act like lighthouses, shining the high beams on the issues for a brief period of time, but then they pass on by and the craggy emotional shoreline is in darkness once again. The issues lie in wait, and the unsuspecting seafarer (or husband) should beware. 

So that beam of light has illuminated my rocky moods a few times this year. Being home with the puppy, I struggle with productivity. I can’t get anything done, I whine. I can’t think a single thought through to completion without having to attend to some other living being’s needs. As I’ve complained before – I feel like a stay-at-home mother of toddlers. Five toddlers all with big sharp teeth and self-control issues. I miss being creative, intellectual, productive, or just plain cogent for more than 3 sentences in a row. 

It came to a head the other day when I pushed the gang to try integration too quickly. I had a scuffle. A five dog deep scuffle with the puppy in the middle. I was able to reassert law and order and separate the worst offenders quickly, and without any broken skin or lasting injuries to pride. Scuffles happen. Sharp words, in Belgian or in humanspeak, happen. We all got through it. 

But it sparked a day of funk, of morose deep thoughts about why the fuck I am where I am and what the fuck am I doing with my life anyway? Because even on the good days, the beautiful days, the days where Peeka wears her muzzle and Bindi recalls off a fox, and Willa does a sit AND a down and Brody jumps up for the frisbee… even on those days, I am not “productive.” I am not doing enough to reverse global warming, or actively engage in anti racist efforts. And while that might sound ridiculous, it’s not. I fucking care. And I want to address all the shit that needs addressing, especially since I have the ability (aka privilege) to do so. 

But I’m fried. “No bandwidth” is my rallying cry. I refuse to set goals, because I refuse to keep track of them. It’s not that I am afraid to fail to achieve my objectives, it’s that I’m too fucking tired to care enough to even keep track. The list of shoulds grow ever longer: I should drink enough water, I should walk 10,000 steps every day, I should do more to help finish the house, I should cook more interesting dinners, I should write another book, I should sell more books, ad nauseum. The sad truth is that with an esophageal motility disorder, drinking one glass of water a day is an accomplishment worth cheering. Back when I lived in India, I used to say “don’t attempt to go to the bank and the post office on the same day.” That was setting the bar way too high. Now it’s “don’t try to drink a cup of tea AND a glass of seltzer.” It will take all day.

While I was out walking, thinking about all this stuff, the thought hit me: I don’t know who I am any more. Someone asked me what I would do with more freedom once I have fewer dogs. I kind of shrugged and said “I don’t know. Go to cafes?” Between dogs and trying to swallow, my world has gotten kind of small. I’m not sure what I can do or what I’d like to try to accomplish. I want “it” to be both easier and more meaningful and productive but I no longer know what it is. 

It sounds rather bleak and mid life crisis-y but don’t panic. There’s light at the end of the blog post. You see, then I had to exercise the dogs. It’s been snowing on and off all day, insane blizzard conditions with blue sky and sun interspersed. I went out when it was sunny but found myself throwing the frisbee in a whiteout. I’m working on tidying up Hawkitt’s “front” position and figured we can do a few more reps of commands while the wind is strong, in between throws. He got a few really nice “fronts” completed. While we did that, Brody fetched and tugged with his frisbee. He dropped the frisbee for me, but when I picked it up, he jumped up and grabbed it from my hand. That’s not allowed under normal conditions, since it’s dangerous. But nothing about Brody is “normal conditions” and a few months ago he couldn’t stand up by himself. He is not only given that latitude but his efforts are celebrated. And while all this went on, Peeka and Bindi engaged in an epic mock battle, replete with chasing, paw wacking, and face biting. 

I laughed. I mean, it’s completely ridiculous and crazy, standing outside in the thickly swirling snow, getting utterly dumped on, throwing three frisbees (Hawk, Brody and Bindi) and taking turns tugging with each dog, wearing thrift store pajamas and my husband’s 30 year old LLBean down parka. I’m getting soaked. My hands are freezing — my fleece gloves soaked from saliva and melting snow. And I’m delaying going inside, delaying because the dogs are playing. Peeka is bouncing around like a marionette puppy, all stiffness and awkward parts of her body that don’t bend. But she’s happy. She’s trying. She’s crossed that line from disconnected and checked out to engaged and playing. I won’t end this. I will wait. And Hawk and I do a few more creative fun things with frisbees and tugs and commands. He looks at me with that look when he gets it right. He knows. We’re both elated.

And it hit me: I am giving 5 living creatures a decent life. For at least two (maybe 2.5) of them, this is no mean feat. It’s fucking monumental. Sure, compared to global climate change or habitat destruction, it’s small potatoes, but it’s something. It’s kind. It’s selfless. It’s beautiful. It won’t last forever but for now, it is what I have to offer, and it’s good enough. I can lay this life at the feet of god.

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The Trouble With Getting What You Want

I’m a champion at hunger. I live comfortably in the discomfort of lust, desire, want and craving. Striving for the next thing comes naturally. Each acquisition – be it of skill, knowledge, or stuff – is rapidly followed by the next pangs of desire. I got X but I still need Y.

In some circles, such striving is celebrated. Never stop reaching, set those goals, then work to achieve… right? Whether it’s personal fitness or dog training, learning a language or becoming a silversmith, the work ethic of ever moremoremore is definitely one way of approaching it.

I sit squarely on the fence about whether or not I can join in wholeheartedly. Sure, some striving is great. Inherent in striving is the identification of lack – stuff you don’t have. Noticing and articulating where you are short on skills, or equipment, or knowledge – that’s not exactly a bad thing, but nor is it exactly a good thing. Setting goals and achieving them is incredibly satisfying… as long as you stop long enough to experience the satisfaction. I fear for some folks (including me) that it becomes a treadmill of sorts – to be perpetually dissatisfied and chronically striving is … well… a) exhausting, b) boring, and c) buy in to a culture that I am not at all convinced is healthy. But I think it’s also seductive and addictive.

What’s the alternative?

I warn you, it’s gonna sound saccharin: Gratitude. Acknowledgement of all you have, and enjoyment of that counteracts the obsessive striving. Ew, gross, right? Going overboard with the gratitude attitude is also exhausting, boring, and probably disingenuous. No one is that stinking satisfied and happy all the time. Life is most likely a mix of striving and resting, lusting after more stuff (not necessarily literal stuff, but that too), setting goals, working hard to reach those goals, and then … well, shouldn’t the next step be enjoying the arrival?

*

After Cinder’s death, I wanted another malinois. Bad. I missed Cinder’s presence, and in that missing I missed all my previous dogs: Iske, Mica, and Lily. I missed the damn near regal bearing a good adult malinois has. I missed Cinder’s powerful presence and her “corporate lawyer” approach to life. There’s nothing like a good malinois and – apologies to Brody – I no longer had a good one. Hawkitt is a giant man-child of a dog. Bindi is a fabulous dog, perfect for our pack, but not a malinois by any stretch of the imagination. Then there’s Brody and Peeka. I am a malinois owner and I was without a malinois. Commence yearning.

During the summer and fall of 2020, multiple foster opportunities popped up. Each time I said yes, the situation changed and the opportunity fell through. I looked at several dogs for adoption, and tossed my hat in the ring for a couple. None worked out.

The problem with getting comfortable yearning and striving and searching and wanting is that it’s an unstable place to build your home. Eventually you tip over into having, if not by successful achievement, then by bumbling luck. Having and the pressure to be happy with what you have — especially since you spent so much time longing for it – feels oppressive and confusing.  I mean, yes, I wanted it but … that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it all the time, do I? Getting what you want can leave you backed into the corner – you can no longer fret and complain about what you don’t have because there it is – the thing you so dearly desired, sitting there in the corner with you, peeing on your socks or biting your hair.

I wanted another malinois. I nursed the belief that I had to have a puppy because Peeka would not accept an adult dog. When the opportunity to foster (and hopefully adopt) Willa in landed in my lap, I knew that I was about to shift gears from yearning to having, and that the shift might be emotionally tricky. No matter how much you might want a puppy, bringing a newbie into a pack and getting through the initial crate training and basic routines is rough. Regret and sleep deprivation are expectable and with them, all manner of frayed tempers.

That’s partly why rescue folks live by the “3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months” motto. The first three days tell us almost nothing about life with the new pup. The first three weeks are when you set down the routines and structure that will build that critical foundation of bond and trust and joy. With any luck at all, during those first three weeks the daily struggles get sorted out and it all gets easier. Good lord willing.

Willa’s 3 week anniversary here coincides with Valentines Day, and Peeka’s “Gotcha Day” – she has been here 6 years to the day (almost – Peeks arrived 2/13). Thus it seems fitting this weekend to announce what I think we have all known all along. Tom and I have decided to adopt Willa.

Things are not perfect. Peeka is not safe with her yet. I still have a healthy dollop of stress over baby gates and leashes and muzzles and tethering and TOM DO YOU HAVE A HAND ON PEEKA? WILLA IS OUT!!! But I can’t see putting off this decision. It’s unfair to anyone who might hope Willa could become available, and quite frankly it’s unethical to communicate to the rescue organization as if I am not sure about her future when I know damn well she is going nowhere.

She isn’t much like any of the other malinois we’ve had, not to look at and not her temperament. She doesn’t remind me of Iske, Cinder, or Mica. With each of those dogs, I wished fervently that I had had the opportunity to raise them from a pup, to provide for them all the stability and decent foundation they all so sorely lacked. I laid awake nights wondering what their lives might have been like had they gotten what they needed during that critical first year of life.

So “the universe” has gifted me with a beautiful, healthy, normal malinois puppy. She is a blank slate, a rescue pup without a tale of woe. She was purchased by a wonderful owner and was well cared for, safe, and beloved before she came to me. If she grows up screwy, I have no story behind me to lean on. It will be all me.

So the pressure is on: pressure to be happy, satisfied, and at peace because I got what I wanted. Box checked off. Goal achieved. Also, the pressure is on to not screw it up. Given that Willa lives with Peeka, this is a tall order.

But perhaps the timing is right. I have decades of experience behind me but more importantly, I have a community of dog-loving friends, dozens strong. I have people I can vent to, ask advice from, learn from, get inspired by, and simply enjoy my dog-oriented life with. When I confessed to my border collie owning friend that crate training had not been going well and that sleepless nights and whining-howling-barking were going to make me lose my mind, she simply said “yes, me too. We nearly sent him back to the breeder because we didn’t think we could stand it.” Misery loves company. I assumed everyone else did it better-faster-more easily and with more grace. Just knowing Jackie struggled with Bryn made me feel immensely better.

Feeling better matters because when I feel awful – inept and overwhelmed, angry and sleep deprived – I handle myself poorly. I run out of patience. I make matters worse. I’m committed to doing this well – all of it. Being nice to Tom, training up Willa to be a functional Bramleywolf, and having a peaceful and reasonably obedient pack… these are the goals. This is what I’m striving for. So while I’m high fiving and fist bumping triumphantly because I got what I wanted, I’m already setting the next goal – to live with it well.

I’d say “wish me luck” but it’s not luck I need. It’s patience, willingness to take the long view, and commitment while anticipating and accepting setbacks. And also that flick in the head to remember to enjoy every moment. They grow up so fast.

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Willa

3 a.m.: I popped up like a slice of toast. The soft whine that jerked me out of sleep came from a tiny body sitting only a few inches from me, making her plaintive request known. Foster mama, my bladder is full. Please. Outside. Now.

It’s minus 3 degrees outside. A polarfleece bathrobe, muck boots, a leash, a wiggly pup that required being carried downstairs (suddenly she is not longer tiny but amazingly large and heavy), and our errand is completed with aplomb. Upon return I kick my boots off and the snow on the hem of my bathrobe brushes against my naked legs. Yowza.

I hate puppies. Puppies are work. They are shit factories, all needle sharp teeth and claws, with impure thoughts about furniture and my sanity. I’ve never raised a puppy until now, and even this one, although small, isn’t a real puppy. She isn’t an 8 week old ball of fluff. She is precious and clumsy, and has ears that defy gravity and oversized paws, but she isn’t brand spanking new. She’s 4 months old and second hand. And I am smitten.

Her owner reached out to me after hearing my interview with Jillian Wilson of Yolopup on Instagram (@yolopup.la) – an account that supports folks with high drive dogs seeking tools and education about training and life with these velociraptor geniuses. Her owner was struggling with her own declining health. Meeting the pup’s needs was becoming overwhelming and unsafe. I contacted American Belgian Malinois Rescue folks and in a few days we had worked out a plan: ABMR would take possession of the dog and I would foster her. Her owner made the wrenching, beautiful, selfless decision to surrender her sweet pup. She could not have foreseen her own health issues. I pray for her peace and health and know that as hard and sad as it is to let go of a pup, puppies are exhausting, draining, heaps of work, and can be emotionally intense to deal with… especially at 3 a.m.

Her full name, Willowemoc, is taken from yet another Catskill peak. She is – so far – an easy pup. We figured out the sleeping arrangements so that she can sleep peacefully in a crate, safe from her wicked step sister, Peeka. She is gorgeous, healthy, and a blank slate – all new experiences for me. No bad experiences, no bad vibes, no health issues… I scarcely know what to do with her!

But simply integrating her into our home and life is stressful. Peeka is difficult under the best of circumstances and hates all new things and experiences. She is the poster child for “bite first, explore later.” She is profoundly stressed by having a new pup in the household, and her stress infects all of us. As Tom heads off to work each day, the lion’s share of that stress falls upon me to manage. Add menopause, my stupid frozen shoulder (yeah, I still can’t lift that arm), and all my esophagus-gerd drama of 2020, and … yeah. I’m kinda behind the 8 ball.

Stress does have a way of placing life into a crucible, though. Anything that isn’t positive, healing, nurturing etc., just gets incinerated. If it doesn’t make this situation better, then shields up. I’m jettisoning everything that feels like another rock in my backpack.

Topping that list are all the “shoulds” I heap upon myself. I should train all my dogs a certain amount, in a specific way, for a specific amount of time, with a specific frequency. GONE. I should eat more veggies and drink less beer. GONE. I should limit my time on social media. GONE. I should lose some of this menopause spare tire. GONE. I should write more. I should set goals, both personal and puppywise. I should take a more activist approach to my own health. I should be more engaged and educated in national issues. All fucking gone.

The space I’ve made by deleting all those shoulds is slowly getting filled up with the puppy agenda: 3 a.m. potty trips. Sitting on the floor, tossing kibbles, one by one, into a crate and praising each crunch. Finding my singsong happy voice, yodeling “WILLA!” and celebrating her heavy-pawed gallop in my direction. And managing the required crate-and-rotate lifestyle. My bandwidth is taken up by knowing at every second where Willa is, and where Peeka is. Knowing who is loose, who is crated, and who is in what sort of mood is the background of this new reality. It’s stressful, sure, but so far it’s doable.

Willa is growing, learning, changing almost daily. I make no predictions about where we may be in another week or so. In the rescue dog world, the oft repeated phrase is “3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months.” I keep jinxing myself by saying she’s an easy pup, but so far she truly is. I’ll bite my tongue and eat my words in week 3, perhaps, but maybe not. She seems genuinely wired to be sweet and remarkably low key for a malinois. This just might work.

But here’s the flip side: all those shoulds? I really should do all those things because I really do want to. Giving myself total space and time to be mono-focused on the puppy is critical stress management, but it’s been 18 years of being a malinois mom. I have mentioned this before but I feel it ever more so: I miss other aspects of me. I miss the freedom of having one easy dog. I miss space in my brain to think about things that have nothing to do with dogs. I miss having days off. I miss the ability to choose to sleep in, or be out all day long without a thought about who might need me at home. I love my dogful life, but I am more than this and it is a sacrifice. I admit it: I have grown tired of the sacrifice and there is absolutely no end in sight.

Taking on Willa is symbolic for me: she is the last. She represents the end of this way of life, the end of the Bramley Wolf era. In a paradoxical twist of fate, taking in a puppy is the formal beginning of the downsizing. I want to steer this ship in a different direction. I had been desperately aching for one last malinois, cut of the same cloth as Iske, Cinder, and Mica. Willa might be that dog. But even if she isn’t, she is the last.

Maybe because I know this is my soul, I’m going out with a bit of a bang. I am embracing the opportunity with Willa to do things I’ve never done before – to make it new and exciting for me. I’m enrolling in an online puppy class (thank you, Denise Fenzi, for taking the time to talk with me about Willa and my pack and recommending Baby Genius), and seeking a consult to gain insight and feedback regarding managing Peeka and Willa. I’m seizing the opportunity to level up my knowledge and skills, since… well… let’s face it, this is what I’ll be doing for the next 15 years so I may as well not fuck it up at the beginning. Whether Willa stays here or moves on, she deserves to have the very best foundation possible. I’ve never been in the position to provide that for a dog before, but I’ve wished I did many times. What kind of dog would Iske or Mica have been if they had received a decent foundation? I’ve wondered and lamented about that many times. Here’s my chance to do right by their memory.

So off I go, into the structured dog training world of trying to do things the right way according to other people. Wish me and Willa luck. My best guess is that Bramley Wolf style will invade the prescribed “right way” and our end result will be a mash up of my eclectic bumbling and my instructor’s clear directions. I suspect that my logistics and lifestyle will mean I’ll have to approximate some techniques and skip others. We will do our best. I’ll aim high. And I’ll continue to cut myself slack, because if there’s one things I’ve learned along the way, it’s that shoulding on myself never helps. And I’ll keep y’all undated on our progress.

If you want more photos and video of Willa, follow @the_bramleywolves on Instagram.

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The Glass-Topped Coffee Table

My boyfriend, Chris, helped me wrestle the table into the 14 foot UHaul truck parked on that narrow side street in Flatbush. It was winter 1985. My grandfather, Isaac, had died leaving the contents of his apartment to my sister and me. Chris rented the truck, drove the truck, parked the truck (no mean feat in wintry Brooklyn streets), and helped me fill the truck, emptying an apartment that had been home to my dad growing up.

We wrapped the glass tabletop in a moving blanket that Chris had thought to bring, and stood it up vertically. The truck was packed. We drove back to the house we shared with 6 other college students and staff, and loaded the 6 piece bedroom set, armchairs, lamps, artwork, and cabinets into our shared rooms. I was 19 years old and utterly overwhelmed.

Chris and I weren’t ready to be a couple, and we split up a few months after that cold day in Brooklyn. I cannot think of a better person to share this memory with: no one could have helped more, treated me with greater kindness, or seamlessly and gracefully handled all the details that needed handling. He was only about 21 or 22, but he took on that day with the deftness and maturity of a much older man. A kind and strong man I still love and respect.

In the years since, I moved countless times. Married, divorced, evicted, purchased a house, sold it, moved in with Tom, and moved again from the house he owned to the yellow shack. Most of the furniture I moved that day with Chris was lost, some stolen, some just … gone. But miraculously the table and a few other items – an armchair, a clock, a framed print – survived.

Three and a half decades after Grandpa’s death, the table had found its place: beloved and used in the home Tom and I designed and built together here on the mountain. That it survived this long was astonishing. Glass breaks. Glass plus an average of 4.37 large and indelicate dogs for almost 2 decades… it’s uncanny.

Yesterday I dragged a big box marked “Heather’s dresser top items” over to the couch and unpacked it. I was looking for a specific piece of artwork Tom gave me, and suspected it was in this box. It wasn’t. My armadillo collection was. My stuffed animals were. Some candle holders, a turned wooden chalice, a rather dusty collection of bracket fungus, a porcelain rose… but no art. Shaking off the nostalgia, I stood up. A softball-sized rock tumbled out of my lap and hit the table, smashing the glass top.

I froze. Tom leaped to his feet. Peeka freaked out and bit Tom (Just a panicked nip in the ass.). The glass didn’t scatter too badly. We got it cleaned up in good order.

The rock is a memory from another boyfriend, also, coincidentally enough, named Chris. I was with him when I picked up the rock in the early 2000s, a memento from a special place I loved to hike. I should not have taken it. I should have left it there for others to enjoy, for invertebrates to live under, for the cold clear stream to wash clean each day. I should not have listened to this Chris, as he encouraged me to take the rock. I should not have been with this Chris at all, as he was not a good person, not a good man, not strong or kind or honest.

I threw my bracket fungus collection out into the garden. I threw the rock into the pond. I don’t need to hold onto it any longer.

Two Chrisses, two memories, and one broken piece of glass, and one very empty living room.

The thing is, I’ve been living around that coffee table for decades. I’ve been protecting it, preserving it, honoring it, tethered to it, and bearing the weight of its care for decades. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – ever choose to not own it, not use it, not show it off. It is beautiful – the glass sat atop metal brackets over an intricately-carved rosewood base. The party line is that my grandmother “made” it although I am not sure what this means — perhaps selected the components? But even more than being lovely to behold, the longer I had it, the heavier it became. The more amazing its survival, and its story, and the more imperative I continue to honor both.

My first words upon seeing the destruction? “I’m so glad it was me. I’m glad I did it.” And then, after the emergency of cleaning up broken glass faded, I smiled. I sat back and enjoyed the view. The living room is empty. Open space. I love open space. I felt relief. Release. I am released from that burden of care. I am released from a have to. The next thing I said to Tom? “Now you can build us a coffee table. I know you want to.” Of course he wants to. Of course he will. And of course I will love it.

I can get another piece of glass. We could put the room back the way it was, fix the table and continue the legacy. I don’t want to. That would squander this opportunity. The finality of brokenness feels good. Positive. Light, like a weight has been lifted. Almost like a cosmic jest – the worst thing possible, the thing I valiantly strived to prevent has happened… and it’s great. It’s awesome. No no no, I tell Tom. Don’t fix it. Don’t mess with the exquisite finality and the open space where all that history and responsibility sat. Let me feel this for a while.

My role in our family is to fix the broken spirits, hearts, and bodies. I don’t do stuff: tables and phones and automotive are solidly Tom’s department. I do behavior and health – mental and physical – for me and the dogs and to the degree Tom permits it – him too.

Brody’s health has declined significantly this year, as the poor guy has been plagued by progressive orthopedic issues and a nagging cough. I’ve been unable to help him, and have failed thus far at relieving his discomfort. Come to think of it, me too. Frozen shoulder limitations are now in year two, and I am slowly coming to terms with being the new owner of a chronic and untreatable illness. Lifestyle changes are shorthand for live with it. I hate the phrase “coming to terms,” but I’m so far from acceptance I can’t even spot it on the horizon.

I fix living beings. I address problems. I find ways to overcome, heal, and move forward. These are my hallmarks, my calling cards. Simply accepting … that’s an alien concept. And yet, despite all my protestations to the contrary, sure seems like that’s what I need to do. Accept what’s broken. Live with it, or without it, as the case may be. Accommodate.

Maybe one day, when we finish the upstairs, the table will find a new home in a reading nook or guest bedroom. We definitely won’t get rid of it. We will wait, and find the next right spot for it and enjoy it all over again… one day. But not now. Now, accepting that it’s broken, and living with the feeling that it’s irreparable feels right. That feels helpful, symbolic, and appropriate. Sometimes the feelings are more important than the facts. I could get another piece of glass, but it will never be the same. Accepting that it’s broken, that I can’t fix it, and that it will never be the same feels like the work I need to do now.

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2021

I’ve been touched only very tangentially by the catastrophic losses of 2020. I struggle to grasp the enormity of it: the loss of loved ones, family members, jobs, businesses, entire ways of life, and some industries… changed forever. The accumulated grief, mourning, and trauma is immense. I could become paralyzed by it all: fear, sadness, anger, outrage, and then deep deep grief. Instead, I choose to focus on dogs. Of course.  

Photo by Beth Adams, Candid Canine Photography

I admit it: I love New Year’s resolutions. I love the intent and energy, and the ritual. To me, resolutions are all about hope. Each January, the taking stock of the prior 12 months and setting intentions for the next feels so hopeful I can’t help but get a little excited. I don’t set a lot of goals; just a few surgical strikes, quantifiable and realistic. Hey, as a psychotherapist I wrote treatment plans with measurable goals and objectives for 16+ years. Goals R Us.

In no particular order, here are my goals for 2021:

  1. Rally Novice titles for Hawkitt and Bindi. Yes, that’s a dog sport. Yes, it’s a bit silly and meaningless in a world wracked with strife to set my sights on dog sport titles, but there it is. Sometimes something silly and light has a metric shit-ton of weight when looked at through a different lens. Understanding all the moving parts involved in earning these titles will be a good exercise for me – I’ll have to enter an arena (virtual arena – I can do this at home and submit a video) in which I’m an utter newbie, and learn every piece of the puzzle. The actual stuff the dog has to do isn’t difficult or complex – it’s basic commands like heeling, sit and down stays, etc. But how to set up the course, manage the video camera, submit the paperwork… it’s all the logistics that tend to make me stumble.
  2. I’m doing a 5 day dog training bootcamp. It started last night. It’s not focused on any one issue but marketed as a reset for the new year. It’s super accessible, 100% online, extremely affordable and likely basic AF. I figured I can’t go wrong, so I clicked the “sign me up” tab and said “what the hell.” I’ll let you all know what I think. Canine Performance out of North Carolina are the hosts and trainers. They also developed an app that seems pretty fun and functional for dog training.  
  3. Trick titles. We ended 2020 with Hawkitt having earned two titles – Trick Dog Novice and Intermediate. Squirming in under the gate, Bindi submitted her paperwork for Trick Dog Novice in 2020 too. I’d like Bindi to earn her Intermediate and Hawkie to earn his Advanced but … that’s not the big news. The big goal for 2021 is I think maybe Peeka could earn her Trick Dog Novice title. Yes, silly and meaningless but… when it’s Peeka, you can see the glimmers of why I think it’s also worth doing.
  4. My own personal goals? I’m doing a Dry January which is also perhaps silly, but as much as I love rituals, I also love shaking things up and pushing myself to do that self study stuff that yoga requires. I want to explore what an alcohol free month feels like and determine if any of my ailments improve in the absence of beer. I’m writing this on January 5th, and initially my acid reflux got a lot worse. Ain’t that a kick in the head. But I’ll soldier on and note any other changes. It’s only been 5 days.
  5. I am going to try to average 10k steps a day. It’s a competition. My daughter is working on 10k steps a day and if she can do it, I can do it. So far I haven’t. She has. I think it might be good for our relationship if she succeeds and I fail. Or at least flounder.

Why set silly goals and then attempt to defend them as monumental? Back when I was a therapist, one of the new and popular movements in our field was “short term therapy.” While there was a ton to criticize about STT, some of the almost AA-like slogans of the approach have stayed with me. One of these slogans was “Do Something Different.” If a client was struggling with depression, for example, the intervention was to inspire that person to try to do something different. It almost didn’t matter what – the idea was to shake things up by DOING. Not insight, not self-reflection, not thoughts or emotions, but action. Do something different.

I’ve interpreted that for myself to mean “step out of my comfort zone.” Push myself a little. My comfort zone is in some ways sufficiently uncomfortable to warrant a different epithet, but I think the sameness I’ve embraced in day to day life can be a crutch. The pandemic allowed me to dig in to sameness in a big way. I’m someone who could ace agoraphobia.

So I’m pushing myself to do something different. The pandemic, Cinder’s death, menopause, an esophageal motility disorder, my father in law’s death – while I have been blessed with a relatively easy go of it, I’m not leaving 2020 unscathed. I’m tired, fatigued in that deep chronic, “I haven’t slept well since the 1990s” way — tired of not feeling well, tired of worrying, tired of feeling like I’m on the edge of my seat regarding world events. When grief and exhaustion and worry feel huge, my response is to get small. Small goals. Small steps toward small triumphs. Small but manageable and incremental learning and growing. Because it sure feels like a grow or die situation to me, in almost every way.

I never wanted to compete in any dog sports and quite honestly most of me still doesn’t. But two things: 1) being open-minded and willing to try is a part of the whole “doing something different” thing. 2) I think Bindi will benefit from this. I’ve spent a lot of years focused on Brody and Peeka. Their limitations, both physical and mental, have dictated my training focus, with Hawkitt as an afterthought. Hawk is so easy to please, and so ready to team up to do almost anything… in a strange way he needs very little. He isn’t a complex conundrum to solve. He just needs suggestions – go climb that tree. Open the freezer. Pick up that sock I dropped. As long as I’m ready to pay him in tug and fetch, he is ready to work all day long on damn near any task I concoct. 

Bindi, however, has issues. They are extremely “mild” and easy to resolve, but they won’t simply go away on their own. She deserves the attention and assistance those issues require. She’s so worth it. I said to Tom the other day “I haven’t seen Peeka play this much since the first year we had her.” Hell, I haven’t seen Peeka move this much since that first year. Bindi is a true Bringer Of Joy, but she is timid. This is not a big challenge or a severe case of fearful dog. She just needs the structure of more formal training to gain the confidence to be a happier pup, able to enjoy more of life’s adventures. So as long as it’s good for her, and helps her grow into a more confident pup, I will step out of my comfort zone and explore more formal ways to enrich her life.

That’s what caring for another living being is all about – growing, changing, and exploring new parts of yourself in order to meet their needs. And doubling down on that seems like a sane and kind way to enter 2021, and solider on during this pandemic.

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