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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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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I am not myself

I am not myself.

For many of us, struggling with how lockdown has changed our social lives, our public lives and our private lives, this has been the toughest aspect of it all. I suspect I am not alone in this feeling.

For me, this loss – this specific and oddly unique loss of a sense of familiarity with myself – has been the hardest to articulate and absorb. 2020 has been marked by a collection of losses: I lost a cousin on my father’s side to Covid in the spring, then a dog to a horrible accident in May, then Tom lost his dad last week. Alongside everyone else, I lost a sense of normalcy in the social sphere, limiting all contact and learning to reach for a mask every time I got out of my car.

But 2020’s losses coincided with a trifecta of ailments and maladies that added up to this: I have lost my identity as a healthy person. This is not the version of me I trust and rely upon. I am not myself.

Menopause is an inevitability and a pain in the ass, but it ends. It isn’t pathological, just uncomfortable AF and annoying. The physical symptoms are pervasive and can blindside me. But the emotional ones include feeling intense rage and despair in equal measure over the most ridiculous offenses. I admit it: I have covered my ears to get through a meal because if I hear the sounds Tom makes when he eats, I will say something I may regret for the rest of my life. I’m not rational, but I’m also not sleeping much and everyone knows sleep deprivation can make you psychotic. I have my days. I try to warn Tom in advance: “It’s a throw chocolate, duck and cover day.” We keep a sense of humor. We give space and use text messages to apologize. I know this too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.

Having a frozen shoulder is just shit luck. For the past 14 months, I’ve struggled to shower, dress, and undress, and hold a leash or pick up a bag of dog food. I can’t do most of the exercises I used to do to maintain strength and flexibility. It has been a massive inconvenience, and on especially emo days, a source of self pity. But it too shall pass.

But the finale in this “organ recital” is the inability to swallow normally. I look fine. And I feel fine until I try to eat or drink anything. Multiple times a day every day I am reminded that I am not fine. It’s hard to have a chronic illness that is so invisible and yet so pervasive. I still get hungry and I still love how certain foods taste, but the act of eating is quite frankly exhausting and depressing. And it takes forever. Meals aren’t fun. They are embarrassing, painful, bizarre and, at times, scary events that I survive.

I don’t know how to be a person with this disorder. I don’t know whether I should fight or accept. I have no ammunition if fighting is the best option, and no battle plan. But acceptance is fucking hard. The doctors seem to be encouraging “lifestyle changes” – small bites. Chew thoroughly. Don’t lie down after you eat. No shit, Sherlock. It’s not really helpful but I understand it’s all they’ve got. It’s not their fault my esophagus doesn’t work. It’s not my fault either.

I circle back to the word “and.” I can be healthy AND struggle to eat. I can go hiking AND have a chronic illness. I can experience pain AND throw the frisbee for Hawkitt. It’s not either/or. I don’t have to stop being me in order to accommodate these new experiences and sensations. I can maintain my identity AND integrate new aspects of me. Living this “and” existence is a goal. I’m not there yet. But when I struggle, it’s where my mind goes. You can do this. You can keep going. You can feel whatever it is you’re feeling AND still do Heather things. It’s unfamiliar ground but that’s what makes it an adventure, right?

I get frustrated and I’ll admit it – I do get really freaking bummed out sometimes. But I try to also zoom out a bit. Having a body that works in a fucked up or idiosyncratic way is part of being embodied – being the owner/handler of a physical body. Being embodied sucks: things hurt, they break down, and eventually you die. The human body is a flawed design. But being embodied also means you get to experience every amazing, beautiful, uplifting, and transcendent sensation too. Everything from sunrises to orgasms require a physical body to experience. Senses and emotions… all part of the package. Feeling overcome with love at the softness of Peeka’s fur, or being reduced to tears at Hawkitt’s latest act of sheer genius… all require a body to experience.

This body is kinda starting to suck. Shit keeps breaking. Maybe it’s a lemon. But it’s the one vehicle I have to get me through this life so I may as well focus on the parts that work, do what I can to get the broken shit repaired or replaced, and let go of the hope or expectation that it will run well, or the pride in what I drive. It’s time to focus my efforts on other things, like writing the Great American Novel, or at least finishing the 5 or so projects that are open tabs on my desktop.

I think maybe this is what aging is – learning to use the word AND more often and more philosophically. We learn to take that extra moment to appreciate the bittersweet quality of joy or love or even rage, knowing that it’s part and parcel of being embodied. One day I’ll no longer be embodied and (according to my beliefs) I’ll go back to being pure energy. For now, the best I got is to be a decent owner-handler of this body, and get as much accomplished as I can before the body has to get junked. I hope it’s as thoroughly used up as possible, every molecule of potential love being expressed, every ounce of creativity being wrought, and every shred of wisdom being shared.

How was your 2020?

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Follow The Leader

Leadership. It’s a big word in the dog world, occupying both noun and verb status. We all navigate what it means to be a leader, whether we make that journey conscious and intentional or not. Leadership is defined as being in charge, in control, or at the top of the hierarchy. Terms like “dominance” and “alpha” are out of favor, but the idea of a ladder with the human at the top is not. Getting clear on what leadership is, what it isn’t, and how to take this all-too-often nebulous notion and operationalize it is important. And you all know what I’m going to say next: I think a lot of folks are getting confused, receiving bad advice, and making it way too complex.

I bristle at trends, and this “be a leader; don’t be a buddy” edict smacks of a social media trend. I want to know EXACTLY what that means, in theory and in practice before I change my behavior with my dogs. Why? Because here’s the flip side to leadership – your dog needs to connect with you. That affiliative drive needs to be built, developed, nurtured, and celebrated. Your dog might learn commands and execute them perfectly based on training theory and methods – operant and classical conditioning and all that. But when the chips are down, your dog needs to choose to team up with you. Your dog needs to want to work with you. Dare I say it? Your dog needs to be able to love you and that means you jolly well better be lovable. A few trainers do a nice job of moving the conversation away from “leadership” and into partnership, but the hierarchy perspective still seems dominant.

Depending upon how you define and embody leadership, I might be enthusiastically on board. However, I might also wholeheartedly disagree – the devil is in the details. When I ask trainers about this concept, I get a lot of vague and general definitions and admonitions. “Be consistent” is one theme, but I’m not sure I agree that consistency equals leadership. I think consistency is required, but being consistent is a low bar for a leader in my opinion. For some, being a leader means denying affection, and essentially acting like a drill sergeant. Be as unemotional and rigid as possible? Well, that’s one leadership style, but not mine.

For me, being a leader means I make the rules, I enforce the rules, and I set up the structure. I get to decide exactly how rigidly we adhere to that structure. I believe most dogs need structure (as do most humans) and thrive on rules. Rules and structure decrease anxiety – they promote trust. Without a human making these decisions and insisting upon controlling things like where bathrooming happens and what canine teeth may touch, everyone suffers. If leadership means I make and enforce rules that keep the household functioning safely and happily, I’m all in.

At my house, meals happen at certain times. Play happens in a certain way with a certain regularity. Bathrooming is handled outdoors, and ample opportunities to take care of that are offered. But I’m the one who opens the door to go out, and sets the bowl of food on the floor. Good things come from me, and things like impulse control, obeying commands, and general civility are expected in return. No, you dogs cannot bite humans or each other. That’s a rule and it isn’t flexible. No, you cannot eat what’s on the counter when my back is turned, nor can you raid the trash or the compost (but what you find under the apple tree is fair game). No, you cannot shred my cashmere sweater, or my shoelaces or my new business cards, regardless of what they smell like. No, you cannot bay like the Hound of the Baskervilles when we’re out in public and you see another dog. You cannot thrash at the end of the leash like a marlin on a hook, whether we’re at home in the driveway and Bambi strolls by, or we’re at the farmer’s market and 101 Dalmatians is being filmed in the village square. I get to decide what’s a toy, what’s food, and what’s appropriate behavior, and what’s going to happen if you commit an offense against these regulations. I’m a cast iron bitch on these matters. And I have well behaved dogs.

But am I a leader? Maybe. I might also be a pal, a buddy, a friend, etc. I am approachable, fun, and constantly inviting connection. Well, except when I want space, and then “go away” is a command that must be understood and respected.

But my dogs go through doorways first. They hop up on the couch uninvited. They nose flip me for affection and I often respond with both verbal praise and a quick scritch. I give unsolicited affection frequently and enthusiastically. I praise decisions the dogs make, and also offer praise or affection as a reward for independent actions.

You see, I believe that much more important than the performance of some elusive set of rules a trainer may set out as “leadership,” being real, honest, present, and authentic is more important than who goes through a door first. I believe that you can’t fake leadership. The dogs see right through that. You can’t “do” leadership things as a performance. Leadership isn’t a set of actions that can be performed correctly.

It has to emanate from the core of your being. It must be genuine. It is who you are, not a bunch of things you remember to do. If you want the dogs to respect you as their leader, you have to BE leadership material, not do leadership things. That’s why I think so many people struggle to articulate leadership cogently. It is ineffable, and innate. That might sound like bullshit or new age gobbledy gook, but having watched a lot of people wrestle with this, I think I’m right.

Some dogs are deferential by nature. They are ready and eager to offer respect to all humans. They don’t mind the hierarchy at all; in fact, they relish it. It feels safe and cozy. Some dogs do not offer respect to humans automatically. It’s just not in their DNA. They feel themselves to be equal to humans, or perhaps superior. (sometimes they’re correct.) If one of these dogs graces you with his or her respect, you’ve earned something precious and valuable. Hawkitt is a sweet, friendly, relaxed and confident boy. But he isn’t respectful of humans by default. He assesses people. He knows he is superior. And he chooses who he respects, based on the human’s worthiness. You have to earn his respect. Cinder was that way too. She would beg for affection from anyone, but she would bond only after a very thorough vetting process. Peeka… well, Peeka is the poster child for selective respect.  

If you believe you’re struggling with leadership, or if you’ve been criticized for being your dog’s friend-buddy-pal, I suggest taking a long hard look at your beliefs about leadership (and your trainer’s beliefs). I think one of the big challenges many owners face is that they, and their trainers (your trainer should be your leader) are really vague, nebulous, and unclear about what leadership is. No wonder it’s a problem – it’s the blind leading the blind.

To start with, my best suggestion is to stop performing what you’ve been told leadership is. Stop with the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. Be real. Be yourself. Be authentic and honest. Because those are true leadership qualities. Be unreservedly, and unrepentantly, yourself. Let your actions flow from an organic place of authentic self (how’s that for some super Woodstocky language?). That’s what dogs (and other humans) respect most. Then, if you need to figure out what to do… at least you’ll be starting from a solid foundation. As long as you keep trying to do and be “a leader” without that being clearly defined or well understood, you’re swimming in the soup of self doubt. “Am I doing it right?” will be your tagline.

You’ll know when you’re doing it right because you’ll be happy. Your dog will be happy. Your life with your dog will be filled with challenges and the meeting of those challenges, hope, disappointments, addressing issues, satisfaction, but most of all, the deep peacefulness of living in a well-functioning partnership. Your home life with your dog will be fundamentally peaceful (yes, even with a malinois) because everyone will be getting what they need. You’ll still face challenges, but you’ll face them together. Your bond with your dog will be the rock, the one safe and sacred place that you both can come back to when you need to refigure out how to surmount what used to feel insurmountable. You will trust each other. Your dog will teach you and you will learn willingly. You won’t always need to fuss over who’s in charge. It won’t matter. In my opinion, that’s what real leadership feels like.

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Hunting Season

“Eating is an agricultural act,” says Wendell Berry in his 1990 essay “The Pleasures of Eating.” In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan expands upon Berry’s assertion, adding “It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too.” I would add thus it becomes an ethical act.

I walk in the woods every day, all year long, except for one weekend in November. On that weekend – opening weekend of big game firearms season — I do not leave my property. Friends and strangers often make assumptions about my feelings about hunting, given that I’m an outspoken wildlife enthusiast, amateur wildlife photographer (ok, mostly I take photos of things like fungus and leaves… I’m better with stuff that doesn’t move. I famously failed to get a nice crisp image of a slug because… I am not kidding… it was moving too fast.) and a hiker-naturalist-tracker-woodswoman that spends enormous amounts of time in the woods. I get asked over and over again: “Aren’t you against hunting?” This post is probably long overdue. Buckle up – there is a lot to unpack.

First, let’s talk about killing, and being responsible for the death of other living organisms. If you eat, you are responsible for the killing of other living organisms – plants, animals, algae, fungi, bacteria… etc. Unless you are an autotroph (got some chloroplasts hidden under your sweater?), you must eat to survive. If you eat, you are directly or indirectly responsible for killing. If you don’t kill animals and/or plants yourself (and the vast majority of Americans don’t – as my hubby says “I prefer my protein a bit more anonymous”), you are no less responsible for their death. Their death is a necessity for our life. Period. So this isn’t about killing or not killing. We are all involved and complicit in killing, even if it happens “off screen,” so to speak, or only to plants. To claim to be “against” hunting because of the killing is, in my opinion, short-sighted and hypocritical. We all support killing plants and/or animals for food, directly or indirectly, as we must. It’s survival, pure and simple.

Given that the taking of life is necessary, how do I decide which lives, and under what circumstances? I start here: the taking of a life, whether it’s an individual black bear’s life or the lives of thousands of hogs in a feed lot (or thousands of mass-produced carrots), is a big deal. It’s a big enough deal to require an ethical decision be made. That means notions of right and wrong or good and bad must be considered at a level beyond me and my individual wants, needs, and preferences. It’s got to be a bigger good than simply “It’s good for me.” The taking of life must, at some level, make the world a better place.

My ethical framework is both intuitive and “organic” (as in – it just kind of evolved from the life I have been living) but is also formalized in Buddhism and the practice of yoga. Don’t panic – I’m not a Buddhist – I just happened to find that the Buddhist framework for ethics works really well for me. This framework is codified in the yamas and niyamas and they are the “ten commandments” if you will – the ten basic practices that form the groundwork for ethical actions. The Christian ten commandments also work as a framework and there’s plenty of overlap. There are probably lots of other ethical frameworks; this one just happens to be the one that I resonate with most deeply.

One of these ten practices is ahimsa, which can be translated as non-violence, non-harming, or not killing. Both Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought the notion of ahimsa to the forefront of national politics in their efforts to force political changes though nonviolent protest (in case you were wondering where you heard that word before, this might be it). Much more generally, ahimsa is the effort to do no harm. In everything I do (for instance, eat food or buy shoes or adopt a dog), the effort is made to do no harm. In all my actions, all the time, I try to weigh the potential harm and choose the path that minimizes harm to all, including both me and the planet itself. So yes, I do eat food, despite the fact that whatever it is I’m eating has been killed, because NOT eating is harmful to me. To try to always do the least harm is complex and multi-layered, but self-harm is included in the concept.

Given that eating means killing, and that’s harmful for the animal or plant whose life ended, I have to look past individual life and death. I do that by asking “what greater good is served by making this choice versus that choice?” For example – if I want to eat a hamburger, should I go to McDonald’s? Or should I order a burger at the local pub? Or should I eat a vegan burger made with soy? To answer that question, I’d need to look at greatest good/greatest harm, in terms of economic impact, human health, and the environmental impact (global warming, water pollution, etc.). Suddenly a stupid burger becomes a huge calculation. But in order to practice an ethical approach to eating, I can’t wiggle out of this. I have to educate myself about McDonald’s ranching practices in the Amazon, and ask the server at the local pub where they buy their beef (which makes me think of that fabulous episode of Portlandia with the chicken… if you haven’t seen it, you must.). Think being vegan gets you a gold star? Well, it’s not that simple. Large scale soy farming is not exactly environmentally friendly. Almonds are an environmental nightmare.

Weighing these pros and cons led me to eat meat again after many decades of vegetarianism. It was a local sheepfarmer, Joe Evans of Evans and Evans farm, that educated me regarding the carbon footprint of locally raised grass-fed lamb. It turned my head around as I had always believed that meat (all meat being essentially the same) was Bad. When Joe explained that grass-fed lamb was a net carbon sink, not source, I was sold. Supporting local, small scale farms has an obvious positive impact on local economies, but I didn’t realize that it also has a positive environmental impact.

What does all this have to do with hunting? I am making the connection between hunting and eating, but in truth such a connection isn’t required. It’s possible to divorce hunting from eating, and some hunters do just this. Some humans are predators and want to kill. Some humans are pacifists and want to NOT kill. And many lie somewhere in between those two extremes on a continuum of hypothetical scenarios (yes to self-defense but no to everything else; yes to what I need to feed my family but no to anything else; and then folks like my buddy who said “I’ll shoot anything. If it’s in season, I’ll shoot it.”). Is killing animals just to kill them “doing no harm?” I would argue no. Killing as a hobby, tradition, sport, or past-time does not pass the ahimsa test for me. In particular, killing predators (bobcats, foxes, coyotes, fisher) increases ecosystem imbalance and thus does significant harm, in addition to being wasteful as these animals are not eaten.

To get even more granular, in New York State this fall you can hunt:

  • White tailed deer,
  • black bear,
  • bobcat,
  • coyote,
  • fox,
  • squirrel,
  • raccoon,
  • cottontail rabbit,
  • wild turkey,
  • waterfowl (including a number of different species of ducks, and geese),
  • woodcock,
  • crow,
  • grouse,
  • varying (snowshoe) hare,
  • opossum and
  • weasel

I might have missed a few. Separate from hunting, trapping is also legal and a number of the above species may also be trapped.

Keeping the Do No Harm criteria front and center, the questions I ask with every different species include: Is a greater good being served by killing the animal? What is that species’ role in the ecosystem and is it in balance? Does killing this animal make the world a better place? The focus is on a greater good that is beyond individual gratification. Filling your belly or filling your freezer could be seen as a “good” but remember all the complex considerations involved in choosing what we eat? We are blessed and lucky to have these choices, and with that good fortune comes responsibility to make the best decision for a truly greater (societal and environmental/global) good.

Regarding white-tailed deer, overpopulation and the lack of apex predators means an effective case could be made that killing deer serves a greater good. Looking at the impact in terms of damage to crops, landscaping, and vehicular accidents, as well as their role in the spread of Lyme disease and other tick borne illnesses, the evidence mounts. I haven’t heard a convincing argument to the contrary (although I would certainly listen to one). Thus, I am “pro” deer hunting. Black bear hunting is argued for similarly, and again, much as I might not like the idea of killing Bambi or a bear (the cute factor), I can assess the animal’s role in the ecosystem and say… this isn’t ethically wrong.  I can see the greater good in it.

On the other end of the spectrum, let’s take a peek at woodcock or grouse hunting. These species are in decline due to habitat destruction. While their numbers have not dipped so low as to earn them a spot on the endangered species list, their populations are not robust and their status is of some concern. They cannot be described as “nuisance” animals. They don’t really do anything unpleasant or unwanted, and do serve as a food source for wild canids, raptors, and other predators. Plentiful small game can help make livestock less attractive. For these species I am a pretty thoroughly “anti” hunting because I can’t see a greater good being served by reducing their numbers even further. 

Pheasant farming presents a fascinating ethical conundrum. Most of these released birds do not survive, and there is no wild pheasant population in New York State. The birds hunted in New York are raised on a farm in Ithaca, then released at specific locations throughout the state for the sole purpose of hunting. In terms of ecosystem impact – these birds are added to, then subtracted from the ecosystem. While they are there they have some impact, as they eat and get eaten. I don’t know if the equation would land at zero sum. But a deeper question nags at me: Is it ethical to raise and release birds for hunting? What impact does releasing tens of thousands of non-native birds into any ecosystem have – on insects, predators, competition? Is it ethical to know in advance where farmed birds are being released, and then hunt in that location? Should hunting be “fair?” Interesting questions; I don’t know the answers.

For each species on that list (and the others I missed – check out the DEC’s website for a full list of all the different huntables), the same questions would be relevant: What role does that species play in its ecosystem? Is it currently in balance, or have other factors (like habitat destruction, killing contests, or lead poisoning) impacted that species’ population? Does it serve a greater good or make the world a better place to kill that animal?

What about intangible values of beauty, wonder, or awe? For many people witnessing wildlife is a truly uplifting experience – one of joy, reverence, and delight. Somehow this must factor into the equation as well.

For me, it’s not a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on hunting. It’s a detailed and nuanced line of ethical reasoning, and it’s based on the best information I have at the moment. This set of decisions and choices is based on a practice of ahimsa, which is only one of those guidelines. The yamas and niyamas include svadhyaya – self study or the effort to develop self awareness, and satya — telling the truth. That’s why I took the time and effort to parse it all out in gory detail here – to clarify my own position and perhaps help others do the same. Engaging in a little self study and truthfulness is always worth the time and effort.

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

You’re Doing it Wrong (Warning: Deep Thoughts and the G Word)

I’ve got a wicked case of the social media blues. The symptoms are repetitive eye-rolling, while compulsively murmuring the phrase “what the fuck” as I scroll. I let it make me cranky and that pisses me off even more. I feel like I should have perfected the “scroll on by” and let it go attitude by now. Misinformation and ignorance get applauded and all comments that aren’t lockstep cheerleading get castigated. Echo chambers are the rule. And I keep getting irritated.

Things I’ve learned on social media this month:

  • You can’t just walk your dog. You have to announce that you’re working on “loose leash walking.”
  • You can’t just play with your dog. You have to “open a play window.”
  • You can’t simply say I like my dog’s looks. You have to describe them using breed-specific jargon such that only the initiated know what you’re talking about.
  • You can’t safely and intuitively play with your dog. You need to hire a trainer to teach you how.
  • You can’t let your dog sniff the ground without announcing that you’re doing so and then listing the benefits of sniffing.
  • Feeding your dog involves understanding the nutrient differences between blue and green mussels, and posting a “story” in which your dog’s food bowl ingredients are identified with detailed information about each ingredient summarized (there had better be at least 6 different items in there or are you even trying to get it right?), and your supplier is tagged… then that account has to reshare your story and your bowl photo… like a hall of mirrors.

I’m sure there’s dogma in every community, online and off. I just happen to bump up against it the most in the dog world. Of course, we all are worrying about how others see us. Image-stagram would be a better name, and we all want the cool kids to like and follow us. Look, me included. I totally admit it: I’ve tried mimicking some of these stilted trends to see what happens. We are all self-critical and feel like the cool kids and the popular crowd are doing something right. We want to do it right too – to exude that confidence and charm.

The thing is, what I’m seeing isn’t confidence and charm. It’s a frenetic defensiveness. Every post is a production chock full of posturing – like a few dozen amped-up dogs of every breed all straining at the end of their leashes at the dog park, barking their fool heads off at each other. E-collars are the devil! Prong collars save lives! Tools are the greatest! Relationships are everything! Feed raw! Petco drama! Someone bullied me/my team/my point of view! (Look out because now I’m going to post 654239874579697346 stories about why my POV is the best!) Snuggle your fur baby! For the love of god, never snuggle and never refer to your dog as a furbaby! And so on…

I keep wondering “where the normal people at?” Where can I find simple dog-loving folk who don’t buy into fads, pseudoscience, or scare tactics? Who don’t have anything to prove? Who aren’t posturing and hollering, and don’t have an axe to grind? And once again I will offer it up: I’ve done it too. I’ve posted about my dissatisfaction with this or that (rather like I am right now), my beloved point of view on some issue, my own unique and clearly valuable take on some current fad or position.

Underneath it all, I think it’s fear of death that’s motivating this panicked vibe. All this posturing and labeling and elaborate jargon and the concomitant adherence to perceived tribal rules and mores? It’s disciple-speak – adopting a language and with it a framework to have a connection to a team or tribe, to feel a sense of belonging, of home and safety. If I adopt the same terms, framework, priorities, and values, maybe I can be one of the cool kids. Engaging in hungry discipleship sure looks like a great entry point. Belonging is powerful; it eases existential angst.

Joining the club offers up that sense of belonging and safety. In the club, you get to feel in control. The belief system isn’t conscious at all, but if it were, it would go like this: If I can feed my dog the right thing and use the right words and play (or train) with them the right way – if I can do it right, and talk about it in the right language, it’s all a fending off of death and loss. If I do it right enough, I won’t experience the pain of loss.

More experienced folks have suffered enough loss to know that none of this matters. It doesn’t matter how you describe your dog’s conformation or your dog’s play activity or your training methodology. It doesn’t even matter that much what you feed your dog (having fostered multiple starved and malnourished dogs brought me to that conclusion. Good food is great, but inadequate quality food is way superior to inadequate quantity. Mica beat cancer at age 12 and lived to 14 or so after a lifetime of shitty kibble. Berlin (a purebred GSD) made it 15 eating nothing but chicken backs her entire life. Talk about unbalanced, but 15 is amazing for a GSD. Fussing over what to feed is a uniquely human enterprise. My dogs eat shit every chance they get, quite literally… deer shit, coyote shit, each other’s shit… hell, Cinder was a connoisseur of human shit when we hiked in places where filthy humans failed to bury their shit. Worrying about what dogs eat is fine. Have at it. It isn’t bad and it isn’t wrong. But it doesn’t really matter that much. I’m sorry. I wish it did.).

The only thing that matters is being in the moment and being as connected and present as possible in the moment with the dog. Dogs don’t give a flying rats patootie about your training methodology, or how well you explained it in that IGTV video you posted. They just want a fulfilling relationship with you.

It’s all bargaining with the inevitable. It’s not until you’ve experienced enough loss and seen enough death and had enough bad things happen to good dogs (or people) that you can grasp in a flesh and blood and bone way that none of it matters that much. You need to experience that cycle of throwing every available intervention at a dog (herbs, supplements, acupuncture, cold laser, etc) and watching it die anyway, and then do that again, and then again, to understand that nothing is a panacea. No food, no supplement, no approach to care or nutrition… none of it is effective in any kind of profound or ultimate way. Sometimes you can buy some relief or some time. But all of this rigorous adherence to the dogma of whatever it is: the training, the food, the lifestyle, the tools, all of it is bargaining with death, and you’re doomed. That’s reality. That’s honest.

Once I was able to firm that up in my mind, I felt a lot freer. I’m a lot more relaxed and present now that I no longer try to get it right. And being more present allows for much more joy and much more experience of the good. I remember a big ah-ha moment was when someone told me the Dalai Lama eats hot dogs. And not Tofu pups or some all natural, organic, lovingly-raised, massaged with goat milk, pastured heritage pork. Nope. Nasty chemical-laced snouts and udders. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s literalness doesn’t matter. It was a metaphor, an invitation to deep acceptance that we’re all going to die and it’s ok. I found it really freeing.

I try to be forgiving towards those who are so afraid of death they create a dogmatic death grip on life. I suck at it, but I keep trying. I believe that how you are with your dog is how god will be with you. I ask myself who and how do I want to be with my dogs? What do I want to hear? If I were the observer, what would I want to see? Because deep down, god (however you understand and use that concept) is watching. My being with my dogs is a natural extension of my “faith.” I make my choices and try to walk the path that I can place at the feet of god. Because ultimately despite having a meager Instagram presence, mediocre book sales, and wanting all the normal things folks on social media want (fame! Followers! Money!), I can’t quite sell my soul to get there. I refuse to be beholden to a dogma about how things must be done. I hold firm to an ideology of something a whole lot more gentle, calm, committed to intimacy, joy, and a good shared life. If that firmly places me in an uncool camp, at the lunch table all alone, or worse, so be it. The dogs don’t care about that either.

photo by Cheryl Yasumura Marshall-Petricoff (Summit of Hook Mountain, 1978 or so)
Posted in the woof pack | Leave a comment

Claims, Studies, and Nonsense: Teasing it all Apart

Imagine for a moment that I want to convince you of something. I’m going to do my best. You have the obvious advantage of knowing walking into this post that it’s nonsense: ridiculous and silly.  The point isn’t the specifics; the purpose is to practice picking apart the process and the logic (or lack thereof).

Evaluate the following claim, based on the information I provide: Hearing loss in young adults is caused by brushing your teeth.

In a (pretend) study of 358 young adults who report hearing loss, 100% reported that they brushed their teeth daily. Every single one of the people in our study reported that they brushed their teeth every day, and every single one of them sustained clinically significant hearing loss before the age of 30. See? Brushing your teeth causes hearing loss.

Not convinced? I agree; that’s a very small sample size and thus our results might not be generalizable to a larger population. Let’s repeat the pilot study with a much larger sample of people under age 30 who have documented hearing loss. Let’s say 10,000 people participate in our survey. And … lo and behold, our correlation holds. 100% of these people (all of them under age 30 and have documented hearing loss) report brushing their teeth every day. It’s obvious something is going on here.

Next step – let’s suggest a mechanism. Let’s add a diagram of the ear and mouth, showing the opening of the Eustachian tube – right there in the nether regions of the mouth (well pharynx/nose but close enough)! There’s an obvious link between teeth and hearing if you look at the anatomy.

Now, if I add some science-y language about why brushing teeth creates an inflammation of the proximal end of the tube and that leads to migration of pathological particles into the middle ear and thus hearing loss, we’re looking better and better… right? Have I shoved you from NO WAY to no shit?

Don’t worry. I created a special product to solve this issue: a toothpaste formulated without the pathological particles that cause hearing loss. In a follow-up study, I give this toothpaste to 10,000 people under age 30 who do not have hearing loss and … in 3 months when we check their hearing – none have developed hearing loss at all. Proof positive that my toothpaste prevents hearing loss due to tooth brushing.


Totally ridiculous, right?

But let’s say that you really don’t know what causes hearing loss, which is totally reasonable (anyone who posts the number 1 cause of hearing loss in young people in the comments gets a virtual smooch from Peeka!). My explanation uses multi-syllabic science words and fancy diagrams. How would you know how to separate the wheat from the chaff?

You need to ask the “converse” question. In the original correlation, we stated that of all the folks with hearing loss we surveyed, all of them brushed their teeth. We need to ask “how many people brushed their teeth and did not develop hearing loss?” (Or if you say vaccines cause seizures in dogs and then show that 100% of dogs with seizures in your study were vaccinated, you must also ask – how many vaccinated dogs did NOT have seizures?) You need to looks at ALL the folks involved, not hand pick the ones that support your claim.

To establish causation (and not simply correlation) we need to rule out ALL other possible causes. That’s not easy to do, and that’s why you have to go to school for a lot of years and study like a maniac to become a doctoral level researcher. Could the toothbrushing be correlated but irrelevant? Could something totally different be causing the hearing loss? Since it is unethical to actually cause hearing loss in an experimental setting, you’d have to devise a study that didn’t aim to do that, yet would be able to establish what causes hearing loss. One way to do this would be forensic examination of the medical records of the people under 30 with hearing loss (hint – check out their employment and or hobbies).

Let’s say instead of preventing hearing loss, I claimed that my new product cured the common cold. I made the claim that if you took my new snake oil supplement, your symptoms would be gone in 7 -10 days. You see what I’m getting at: many (but not all) maladies resolve fully on their own in time. No matter what you do for the common cold, it lasts about 7-10 days. You can ease symptoms, and maybe reduce severity but in general, no matter what you do or don’t do, most people will see a complete recovery in that amount of time. If you propose a medication or supplement gets rid of a noxious symptom, you must ask – if I did nothing, would that symptom be gone in the same amount of time? Way too often, the answer is yes.

Same with injuries – remember time is a factor. I destroyed my knee falling on an icy rock about 5 years ago. For a bunch of reasons, I never went to a doctor. I never did anything to address it. And guess what? It eventually resolved completely. I can’t even remember which knee it was, which is impressive because I couldn’t kneel, and I limped for about 18 months. Had I been told some homeopathic remedy would heal it up nicely in 12 – 18 months… well, you see the issue. Time heals.

The time factor underlines the need for a control group. If you want to demonstrate that A causes B, you need to set up a double blind placebo-controlled experiment. You have to show that the same kind of people or dogs with the same ailments do not get better in the same amount of time without the remedy, medication, or other treatment.

Would you take a “drug” (or medication, or pharmaceutical – whatever you want to call it), or give such a substance to your child, or your pet, if there was no evidence that it worked better than doing nothing? No way, right? That seems obvious and silly – there’s no way you would waste the money and effort taking any substance that is not proven to be effective and safe. I use this same yardstick for ALL substances – medications, herbs, all remedies of any kind – they have to be proven (via real science) to be more effective than doing nothing. Any claims made by marketing efforts have to be evaluated. Heck, even food – claims that one way of eating is better than another has to be evaluated as a claim before I’ll make any changes to my diet or my dogs’ diet. Why? Because there’s an enormous amount of junk science and baseless claims out there. Every time I see it, I think “brushing your teeth causes hearing loss.” It might be easy to “prove” using junk science, but that doesn’t make it factual.

Folks working to convince us of these baseless claims might be dishonest and out to separate us from our cash, or they might be innocent and clueless, or simply operating from a place of belief rather than fact. I don’t need to take away anyone’s belief system. For some folks, that’s all they have. But I am short on cash. I only buy (literally and figuratively) stuff that is proven and has some shred of decent science behind it. If you ever want to evaluate a claim with me, I’d be happy to go through my thought process with you. I might not have a clear answer, but I am happy to share how I think about evaluating claims and making these sorts of decisions.

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

My Stomach Hurts

Other people have it worse.

I’m not really sick.

I shouldn’t be “histrionic.”

I shouldn’t focus on it.

When I tried to talk about it, my mom would roll her eyes or say in that tone “here it comes…” and I knew that I had lost credibility. In talking about my experiences, the physical sensations I experienced, I had somehow yet again stumbled into being someone who should not be taken seriously. I stopped bringing it up.

All the medications prescribed did not help. That too led to rolled eyes and knowing glances. My report of “I tried that and I still have the symptoms” was somehow translated into “she wants to have the pain more than she wants to get better.” I had become a “know it all” who insists “nothing works”as a badge of honor, according to people around me. So, I stopped talking about it.

Stoicism is valued in my family. When my dad was dying of cancer, my mom developed a stomach ulcer. One night it erupted, and she was taken away by ambulance. I was very young – maybe 3 or 4 at the time. Years later I asked her about it – in part because of my stomach symptoms. Did you have any symptoms before that happened, I asked her. She told me she had been in pain for about a month – kind of like heartburn, without relief. For a month or so solidly. She hadn’t gone to the doctor.

I think stoicism and ignoring our physical ailments is a tricky business. I mean, who wants to get labeled a hypochondriac? Who wants to be seen as sickly? Written off as a complainer? I value fitness and revere robust good health and aspire to project that image in all I do, all the time. I don’t see myself as ill and I understand why that sort of denial is prevalent to the point of being both normal and problematic.

Problematic, because I didn’t stop having symptoms. I just stopped trusting myself that they were serious or worth sharing with family or others close to me. I thought maybe they were right – I was making a big deal about nothing. I went to the doctor. I tried to be a good patient. I did everything that was suggested – every dietary, lifestyle, and medication regime recommended. I didn’t get better.

I tried more and more nontraditional approaches. Acupuncture (a three month course of treatment), chiropractic adjustments (a full year), herbs, supplements, turmeric, melatonin, limonene, and CBD oil. I have spent thousands of dollars – money I would make rather blow on dog food or vet bills – to try to alleviate the symptoms. None of the efforts – traditional, nontraditional, well-studied or utter bullshit – none have helped.

What are these symptoms? Jolted from sleep in pain: chest pain that radiated to my jaw and down my arms. The pain was so severe it would blot out everything else. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be in pain like that for extended periods of time. Some nights it would last 20 minutes or so. Some nights it would last hours. Any description of the pain sounds clichéd and hyperbolic. I don’t want to share what it was like any more than you might want to read what it was like. I don’t want to relive it.

But I believe that there is a value in breaking the silence, again, as cliché as that sounds. You see, experiencing pain like that – that extreme and that traumatic – is … well… a major life event. And I believe if it happened to me, it happened to other people who have been just as overwhelmed and shamed, confused and depressed by dealing with it. It happens like an attack, out of the blue, without warning. I go to bed fine and whammo – it’s 2 am, or 3 am, or midnight, and blasted awake by blinding and terrifying pain. The pain wasn’t always pegged at intolerable, but it often was. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t do anything in those moments except breathe. In an odd way, it was a deeply spiritual experience – to be reduced to nothing. The pain obliterated all sense of “me” – all identity, all my past and future. It anchored me in the present in a way that nothing else ever has. It stripped me of all that I relied upon in daily life, every shred of my identity. It was the only reality, the only sensation, and I can’t explain it any other way. It was all encompassing. It was too intense allow room to feel or think anything else. It would come in waves but the space between waves was brief – usually less than a minute.

I tried all sorts of things to ease the pain. I swallowed lidocaine gel. I took Benadryl in an attempt to knock myself out. I tried sipping water, eating yogurt, and yes, I took pain killers. Opiates. Once, in 15 years, once, the Lortab I “borrowed” from my husband’s post-surgery bottle helped. There was that moment when I was there, in the pain up to my eyeballs, and then like a magic wand, it all just melted away and I was no longer in pain at all. And I thought “this is how people get addicted to opiates.”

The day after being up at night with a bad flare up was brutal. Not only was I exhausted from not sleeping, but I was shell-shocked from the experience of being in pain like that for hours. Depending upon what I’d done to attempt to kill the pain I was also ass-deep in a Benadryl hangover or worse. The echoes of pain and the fear of pain clung to me like a weird aura. I would stumble through the day truly mystified. How can I feel pain like that and not be dead? Something that feels like that and yet leaves no mark… it’s really confusing. I took care of my dog, parented my kid, went to work as a social worker, and did my best to be a cute and funny sex kitten for my boyfriend… all the while wondering what was wrong with me and how I could either predict, prevent, or manage it.

I got scoped. “Nothing worth taking a picture of.” I had my gall bladder checked. Ultrasound was totally clear. Heart was fine. Not having a heart attack, despite the obvious similarities. The barium swallow diagnosed GERD, but none of the typical GERD treatments reduced my symptoms at all.

When I think of people with a chronic illness, I think “that’s not me.” That couldn’t be me – I am young and strong and “fine.” I hike every day. I am functional – I get up at dawn and accomplish all manner of tasks every day. I can do 30 push ups. I can do a full, real, no-cheating pull-up. I hiked the Devil in a Day (25+ grueling miles over the gnarliest terrain in the Catskills). I can play tug with Hawkitt. But yes, I have a chronic illness.

Every time I’ve ever talked openly about my illness on social media, I’ve been offered advice. Kind, well-intentioned friends and acquaintances, ever eager to help, have been wonderful in offering suggestions for how to gain relief. I have tried every single tip or trick everyone has suggested. Trust me, I have. I wish I could say thank you, that was magic. It worked. I no longer experience symptoms. I wish that with all the fervent, passionate humility I can muster. There is nothing good in it for me to say ‘That didn’t help me. I’m so glad it helped you but it has not helped me at all.’ And honestly, I’m really tired – increasingly tired and a touch testy – about the not so subtle insinuation that maybe my lack of relief is somehow my fault, my doctor’s fault, or something else I need to address. It’s life – messy, real, and unapologetically unfair.

What is this illness? I’m still on a journey of finding out the exact topography of this land. I have GERD – gastro esophageal reflux disease. But some of my symptoms – the ones that are getting increasingly worse – are not GERD symptoms. They are not caused by GERD. They are caused by something else. But they look an awful lot like GERD – or so I thought. The way I experience dysphagia (difficulty swallowing, a typical GERD symptom) is totally un-GERD-like. And now I’m on a testing journey to discover what the cause is. My latest doctor (the 6th to treat this illness so far – it’s been 15 years, and spanned 3 counties) believes it’s a neuromuscular issue. In simple terms, it seems like my esophagus needs a pacemaker. Only no such thing exists. It hasn’t been invented yet.

Those episodes of severe pain have all but disappeared. A few years ago I tried using medical marijuana for the pain, thinking that the combination of a sedating strain with good pain relief qualities might help. It did. It was the one bright spot in all the efforts to manage this condition – I no longer feared the flare ups the way I had, because even the truly severe pain was more bearable with marijuana. And the sedation helped immensely – on a wicked bad night I would sleep in between waves of pain, sometimes dozing off for a full 3-4 minutes at a time. It was better than nothing by a long shot.

I went to a new doctor this week. She is the most recent in the parade of doctors I’ve begged for help. I fogged up my glasses, sniffling into my mask, and she gave me a tissue. “Here,” she said. “It’s soft.” I sure looked like a mental health patient, crying because I feel out of control with my own body. I wept like an idiot, telling her how I have carried the shame of feeling not good enough because I don’t understand what’s wrong with me. I’ve felt responsible for my pain, and not good enough because I can’t make it stop. And I’m scared because it’s getting worse. I can’t swallow liquids reliably. I aspirate anything I’ve tried to swallow if I lie down even 30 minutes after taking a sip of water. I’m scared, and sad, and exhausted by the effort of holding it together. The doc listened. She explained things. I asked questions. She explained more things. And I stopped crying and felt hopeful. She even offered me a hug.

My grandmother, my dad’s mom, was a chronic complainer of stomach issues. I can remember going to restaurants with her when I was a child. She would order toast and chicken – plain, no, not chicken roll, just plain roast chicken, no, no mayonnaise or anything. Just plain toasted bread and chicken. White bread. I remember being mystified as a kid, that you could do that – just ask a restaurant to make you what you wanted, without regard to the menu. I remember the look on my grandma’s face – the stress and worry about eating. There was no joy in consuming a meal, only anxiety. I don’t know what was wrong with her or why toast and chicken was the solution. But I know what it’s like to live in fear of “it” happening again. I know what it’s like to have the joy of sharing a meal overshadowed by the fear of pain. I understand how fear of symptoms can lead to severe anxiety and depression. I get it, viscerally, how agoraphobia due to fear of experiencing a flare up could develop.

I have tried really hard to NOT talk or write about this. Many times over the past decade or so I’ve considered and dismissed it. My readers want to be entertained with funny quips about Peeka and insights into nature and wildlife. This part of me is ugly or unimportant. Well, maybe so, but I’m sharing it because chronic illness is part of the picture and I can’t deny it any longer. It’s part of who I am and it’s very much part of life here no this mountain. And I’ve decided there’s no shame in that.

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Love Without Limits; Limits Without Love

This post is also published on my website.

I know, I know – that’s an awfully clickbaity title for a post about life with dogs. Sounds more like the title of a self-help book, right? I apologize. Sometimes I can’t resist.

Over the years a theme in dog training has emerged: the withholding of affection. Don’t pet, don’t smooch, don’t do couch snuggle sessions. I won’t explain or defend or critique this perspective – I’ll let the trainers who espouse this position do that. They make their point far more eloquently than I ever could. But I do think a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of this edict could lead to real problems and real unhappiness for dogs and owners, and more importantly – huge missed opportunities. So I’m here in defense of affection. (In defense of affection would make a great book title too.)

Is all affection good for all dogs and all owners under all circumstances? No, to my way of thinking, it’s not an all or nothing issue. Sometimes withholding affection is perfect and the very best relationship builder for both dog and human. I am not a human Pez dispenser of petting. I do not get begged or harassed or worn down by relentless demands for affection by anyone – dog or human. The running joke in my house is that each time we get a new dog, the first command I teach is “go away.” My affection is MY choice to give – when, where, and how. I have limits and I honor these limits because I know the price if I fail to honor them is that I’ll be angry. I’ll be pissed off at my self for getting irritated at the annoying dog I’ve created.

I am not a particularly demonstrative person. I was not the most sweet snuggly mom of a human. I was attentive and I hope I was fun. I read out loud and played games. I shared skills, learned new skills side by side with my daughter, and empowered her by allowing her to excel at things I knew nothing about – then had her teach me. But I wasn’t the snuggliest, “let’s cocoon up on the couch and watch America’s Next Top Model” Mom. I’m just not that person. I tried to be, for her, and tried to match my level of cuddle to her level of needing cuddles. I did my best to stretch across my default setting of distance to meet her need for closeness.

But I also always insisted that she not be annoying. I know, that sounds awful, but even as a toddler, she was not allowed to be annoying. Legitimate problems could be dealt with by crying and tantrums. Fine. I get it. You’re 22 months old; you get to flip out sometimes, especially in response to real problems, like your pasta sauce not tasting “purple” enough, or your Barbie not talking back to you when you asked her how old she was. But nagging? Whining? General attention-seeking annoying behavior because I’m unavailable? Nope. That just didn’t fly at my house. The kid learned quick.

My dogs learn this too. It’s a schtick for me to say I teach “go away” first. I don’t. Recall is typically first. And with new dogs I am more affectionate in the beginning. More sweet and inviting and approachable. More safe and warm and responsive. I can always cool off, once I have a trusting relationship with a dog. Once we have a rapport, I’m more likely to get compliance with my “not now” or “that’s enough.” If there’s any back talk, I typically add “You’re fine.” And I mean it. Talking to the fussy, demanding dog, my actions say: “You don’t need me. You don’t need to be petted right now. You can go do something else and be perfectly satisfied and fine. Truly. Go try it; you’ll see.”

Limits are not the antithesis of love. Limits are woven into the fabric of love. There are limits to my affection, but that doesn’t mean there are limits to my love. Love is the place where we can touch the infinite, in a heartspace that is no longer emotional but truly spiritual. Other worldly, if you will. I am besotted with my dogs, each in their own unique way. I am emotionally bound up in them and they are a part of me. I love them, but even more than love, I am connected to them in a way that is wordless and profound. We feel together. We share this life. We are knitted together in ways that are beyond emotion, beyond the I and you in I love you. They change me and become part of me. But I have limits when it comes to the nuts and bolts of daily affection.

All of this sounds like I’m advocating for the No Affection policy I opened with, but I’m not. I’m here to tell you that WITH LIMITS and boundaries, affection not only feels nice, but is a key component of bonding and a profoundly healing aspect of life with dogs. Some of this is old news – you all know that petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure and can be an important part of healing from illness, injury, or trauma. You’ve all read the studies about how therapy dogs help people heal. We all know about the release of oxytocin (the “bonding hormone”) that affection stimulates in the dog’s brain. Petting a furry pal is physically health-promoting in humans and most of our furry pals seek it out in spades.

But let’s say you’re on the fence. After all, your trainer told you to withhold affection. Don’t let the dog “get over” on you. No petting. No couch time. No snuggles. Here’s what I say to that: physical affection is also key to keeping a running account balance on your dog’s physical condition. If a problem pops up, you need to know when it started. You need to know what happened and when. Especially if you have a stoic dog (hello, Malinois owners. I see you.), you might not find the gash, insect sting, tick, or tumor without placing your hands on the dog. Petting the dog is part of grooming – your hands are assessing and inspecting as you offer affection. It’s responsible dog ownership 101.

Touch can also be a strong positive reinforcer. When my dogs are physically far away from me, and they choose to return before I holler, they ALWAYS receive touch when they fly past me (usually they are zooming past me to connect with Hawkitt, who also receives them with great physicality). I didn’t utter a command and I might not bother with verbal praise, but they ALWAYS get that gentle light touch – fingertips on fur – to let them know I took note. I received them. This simple, understated, and consistent ritual is a key aspect of our relationship and one facet of why these dogs do return to me, despite the fisher in the hollow tree or the raccoon chattering at them, or the bear who just made a colossally bad decision to shimmy down the tree with 4 or 5 pointy-eared nudniks gathered to receive him at the bottom.

The other day I was petting Bindi when I went to remove a burr from her coat. Nope, not a burr: it was a yellow jacket, fixing to sting her. If I wasn’t petting her, she’d have gotten stung. Unless you have a very short-coated white dog, you will need to pet your dog regularly to know if your tick preventative is effective. Hawk has reached that age where he is developing benign skin growths. He has a couple of lipomas, skin tags, and other lumps and bumps that require monitoring. It is my job to know when/if they grow or change. I must pet him to assess them. It’s as important as any other aspect of pet care. Not petting your dog often and thoroughly is falling down on your duty as a pet owner.

Love without limits looks like codependence. But limits without love looks like tyranny. There is a middle ground. Because yes, too much affection at the wrong time is no good for anyone. Too little affection is a relationship killer. When it’s the right thing, it’s given freely and received joyously. And everyone benefits.

Tom and Tonshi
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The Sounds Of Training

Sound travels. It’s a delightfully odd phenomenon, the way sound bounces around the woods, the mountains, and especially across water. Ever suddenly hear people talking when you’re out canoeing somewhere remote, only to realize they are on the shore a significant distance away? Sound carries in weird and funky ways.

One of the new developments the pandemic has brought us here on Bramley Mountain is additional neighbors. Second homeowners who used to visit occasionally have moved in for the duration. They have a dog and children. I hear them every day – all the sounds of parenting and real life. This morning I thought I heard a different “ribbit” than usual emanating from my pond. I stopped gardening to listen in… only to realize nope, that’s not a frog, that’s a baby crying. While I really enjoyed my relative silence before they were here, I try not to begrudge them the simple pleasures of squealing, barking, yelling, air nailers, chainsaws, and the rest of it. We all bend a little and hopefully none of us break.

But if I can hear them, they can hear me. One fine summer day I sat outside on my balcony and drank a beer and treated them to my very finest rendition of Maura O’Connell’s Western Highway. At top volume. Hopefully the baby wasn’t napping at the time. I’m not a good singer, despite a lot of practice (in the car and in the shower).

Every afternoon, come hell or high water (both of which accurately describe the weather on Bramley Mountain), I take the gang out for a rousing session of play. For each dog this means something unique, something specifically tailored to the dog’s ability, my goals, and our relationship. Our play sessions have earned Hawkitt two trick titles and readied Bindi for her CGC and TKN evaluation. Brody fetches and Peeka naps. It all happens outdoors, and much of it is loud.

I’ve had to think a lot about how I sound because, for the first time, I have an audience. Ever think about that? What do you sound like to the neighbors when you’re outside training and working and playing with your dogs?

The first year or so I had Hawkitt, there was a lot of cursing. There was a lot of irritated and impatient hollering. There was a lot of NO. You see, I think I needed Hawk to comply in a certain way or at a certain rate, because I believed that would reflect upon me. I needed to be a certain type of owner and trainer. My preconceived notion of who I thought I should be was guiding my efforts and my mood. My ego dictated that we work in a particular way. It was work. There was blood, sweat, and tears. And a metric ton of F bombs.

I don’t think Hawk cared and I don’t think it impacted our relationship much because Hawkitt is Hawkitt. He is resilient to the nth degree. Wired to forgive and refocus on the task at hand (making me give him what he wants), he is both flexible and relentless. He is a fantastic role model because truly, nothing fazes him. He never gets irritable, and he never stops trying to make me throw the damn ball.  

But Bindi isn’t like Hawk. Brody isn’t like Hawk. And Peeka isn’t like any dog I’ve ever seen. I can’t only train Hawk; I have to work effectively with everyone here. And, while being demanding and unyielding worked well for Hawkitt, it didn’t make me happy. I would feel tense, frustrated, and uptight way too often, with blips of sheer elation. One day while walking the dogs, the thought became conscious and clear: I wanted to hear myself say Yes! Good dog! more often than no! It wasn’t really about them. It was about me. I didn’t like who I was, or what I sounded like. I wouldn’t want to play obedience games with me. So I rearranged what I did so I could hear myself say the words I wanted to hear and turn into a trainer whose company I enjoy.

It’s hard to describe what I’ve done differently, but I can tell you what it sounds like. If you were sitting on my neighbor’s deck, you’d hear laughter. A lot of laughter. Every now and then you’d hear oh shit! and a splash and then sorry, Hawkie! because I’d thrown a wild pitch and he had to dive into a pond to get the ball. You’d hear a wide array of commands – sit, down, around, heel, back up, cha cha (yes, cha cha, although I think the step we’re doing is more accurately a rumba), walk the plank, hop up, put it in here (the ball into the hole in the center of the snow tire rim), and so on. You’d hear a ton of barking. Hawk has a sassy mouth when he’s excited. You’d hear a loud, joyous, high-pitched YES! echoing off the mountains punctuating the session regularly. And you’d hear a ton of encouragement – more that’s right, come on, good dog, you got it! than no.

Don’t get me wrong – I still say no. I still correct mistakes or wait for what I want. Bindi has to comply even when Hawkitt is present, which seems to be downright painful for her. She races away to smooch and wonky boop her beloved Hawkie (who ignores her completely) and gets called back, the correct performance of the command must happen before she is released. Every time. Being a fun and nice Mama doesn’t stop me from training or insisting upon compliance. It just makes the process enjoyable.

If you’ve read my book you know that I’m not big on techniques and I am much more eclectic and slapdash than systematic or organized. Despite that fundamental eschewing of all methods, there are some things I can share that I do that seem to work.

  1. I monitor my own mood. If I’m getting irritable and short-tempered, I change what we’re doing.
  2. I *try* really really hard to remember that failure to comply is an indication that I haven’t been understood. It means the dog doesn’t know what I’m asking for. My dogs (all dogs) are not vindictive. They don’t fail to comply just to piss me off. It’s never personal.
  3. If I’m not getting what I want after a few reps, I need to back up a step or two. I need to teach it differently, so that the dog can understand. Repeating something that isn’t working over and over again isn’t fun for anyone. After a few repetitions without any lightbulbs lighting up, that means back up, simplify, break it down into a smaller increments, and cantilever it off something the dog is already doing reliably.
  4. Always end on a good note. Always make the last one a good one. I was taught this from a SAR trainer and I like it as a concept. It might mean more to the human than the dog, but that’s ok.

I don’t really enjoy training and I don’t do a lot of it. But I really enjoy spending time with my dogs doing fun things. I take great delight in watching them learn and grow – whether it’s Bindi growing into a confident dog, or Peeka sidle up to me and look knowingly at the balance beam or stack of wooden blocks, asking “Can I play too?” – and I know that as long as I keep offering them new experiences in safe and fun ways, they will keep growing and learning.

The bottom line it I don’t get tense or irritable anymore. It doesn’t have to be a chore and it doesn’t have to be work and it certainly doesn’t have to be serious business. As long as we’re all experiencing joy at playing together, I don’t care much at all about what actually gets accomplished. The dogs don’t have to be or do anything preconceived. Sure, they are specific breeds with specific jobs they were born to do. But their new job here with me is to have fun, build a fabulous relationship that grows ever more deep, rich and intimate, and stay out of the emergency room. The rest is gravy.

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