The Blue Tarp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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