Ethan Builds Frustration Tolerance

You’re only supposed to say it once, but here I go: “Ethan, come!” * smooching, thigh slapping * “Ethan! Here, bud! Come!”

Every day, several times a day, a high-pitched, friendly beckoning call issues forth from my lips. And every day, a big-eared, brown-eyed, wiry-framed, red/tan, 11-month-old, Vizsla/hound-or-something mixed breed dog stands and stares in the direction of my call. The duration of that standing and staring depends on several dog-driven factors: location within the house, outdoor circumstances, time of day, number and type of distractions, degree of hunger, sound of a rustling kibble bag, how long he’s been awake, mood or degree of playfulness or fear, amount of time I’ve been gone, and others.

My dog doesn’t come when I call him, whether indoors or out. Well, that’s not entirely true. He does maybe one-third of the time, but more often outside than in. What can one do but shake one’s head?

Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve read at least half a dozen dog training and behavior books at this point and watched videos and demonstrations. We’ve worked with a personal dog trainer and taken a group obedience class. We’ve consulted a separation anxiety expert and our veterinarian. We train and condition our dog in obedience, agility, and anxiety-reducing socialization every day. We try our best to follow the rules of training, to ensure the behaviors we intend to instill are the ones taking hold. We set boundaries, rules, and limitations, in the spirit of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan.

Although still young, Ethan’s quirks seem to make him a peculiar case, which adds an extra degree of confusion to many things we try to do with him. And we do a lot. He’s our baby, after all, so we keep trying.

I take Ethan for a walk of at least one mile, on a long lead so he can trot and run a bit, almost every day, including 24-degree Fahrenheit, 18-degree wind chill days. The three of us even took a walk on a day in 10 degrees, until Ethan’s frosty paw pads sent us back home. We exercise him indoors when it’s too cold outside. We’re working on getting him comfortable walking on a moving treadmill.

We feed him gradually and dynamically with treat- and kibble-dispensing toys and puzzles to keep his mind sharp and digestion even. I’ve taken him to half a dozen different metro parks, a few pet stores, and people’s houses, including the neighbor’s with their dog who is a vigorous playmate.

I rub under Ethan’s chin for encouragement as often as he’ll let me, praise him generously nearly every moment of correct, compliant behavior, play with him daily, let him sniff my face frequently and sometimes lick my ears, and then further intensify our bond with belly rubs and traces of human food from this plate or that bowl.

I love affectionate dogs, and I hope mine becomes more comfortable with me one day.

Ethan was introduced to us as a “shy” dog, but the label isn’t a perfect fit anymore. He’s afraid of certain things and people in certain circumstances; he’s a bit unpredictable in fear and trust. There are things and movements that make him “shy” away from us, his owners, but sometimes those things only make him stop or sit and look at us funny.

Trust is first, they say, which means that after seven months together, we still can’t take him anywhere off leash, including our unfenced yard, because he can’t be counted on to obey us more than he obeys his fear. Sure, he’s got a collar with tags, an embedded ID chip, and up-to-date shots. But when your dog doesn’t fully trust you and is easily scared by unanticipated stimuli, he’s easily put in danger.

When I take Ethan for a walk and let him wander ahead a bit on the longer leash, sometimes he responds to his name by turning around, at which point I praise him enthusiastically and reach in my pocket for the kibble reward. He trots slowly back to me, sits readily (he sat well from day one) without being asked, and gobbles up the treat. I release him with an “okay” to continue walking, and we’re back in the groove. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t.

We spent a lot of time teaching him to bound back to us at the sound of his name, excited for the goodies at the end. But if he’s too busy sniffing, which he often is, or he’s found something on the ground more exciting to nibble on, also not infrequent, or, he’s too wary of us to return, then he will not respond to his name or the “come” command, either by returning or even looking up.

His mind is intelligent and stubborn. However ill-founded, when dogs learn them young, preconceived notions of danger and survival die very, very hard, if at all. Whatever happened to him, he’s having trouble “forgetting” what it taught him. Or, and this is also likely a factor, fear is in his genes.

Even the walk itself is not a foregone conclusion. Before we can get him out the door, we have to corral him. We’ve had Ethan since mid-July 2017, but a few months ago, into his adolescence, when new behaviors sometimes form, he developed a mistrust of the harness, the leash, and us with either tool in our hands. You’d think a dog so eager and apparently happy during the walk would be rushing to go out the door rather than bolting to hide from us in the other room. Not so with this one.

As far as we know, we created no negative association with the harness or the leash. It’s possible he could dislike the feel of the harness or being led as a condition of being allowed to walk, being pulled on, etc. It seems more likely, though, that he just doesn’t like being reached for with a tool he knows will control him in some way, or just being reached for, full stop. He’s up and down on that one, too.

Many hours have passed—days, at this point—hours of coaxing, treat luring, patient waiting, sitting in a chair, standing, sitting on the floor, following slowly, approaching laterally, backpedaling encouragingly, exiting the doorway to the deck, corralling him in the bedroom, switching leashes, collar grab desensitization practice (incomplete, I admit), trapping, cornering, tricking, switching directly from tie-out to leash, and rearranging our order of steps so we get dressed last of all before the walk.

We’ve eliminated sudden movement and surprise grabbing from behind. It’s all slow and steady now. After a few tries of our offering food, letting him have some, using yummier food, and trying to reach for him, he decides he prefers not to eat after all. And this is one extremely food-driven dog; we use his kibble as his most common treat. He knows us, he knows we won’t harm him (I hope), and he’s been on dozens upon dozens of walks with us before. Still, and more than before, Ethan’s intractable mind dislikes something about getting ready for a walk.

His extreme skittishness can be quite maddening. He’ll dodge the leash very skillfully for half an hour, and avoid crossing certain thresholds because he knows I can corner him there. I’ll stop trying and ignore him, and then, not five minutes later, he’ll hit the chimes to go outside. Other times, the leash or harness avoidance episode will last so long, and so mentally tax us both, that he’ll take a nap afterwards. Sometimes I join him. That’s one confused puppy—and owner.

To desensitize him to the fear and counter-condition him with a happier response, it’s our job to pinpoint the exact what, how, where, when, with whom, and why of his fear. We must identify the trigger, every trigger, of his anxiety, eliminate it, and replace it with bliss and passionate joy.

We’ve found sample procedures to follow, broken out step by step into daily and weekly schedules. We just have to choose, commit and see it through. Some anxieties will take weeks to treat; others, we hope, will go more quickly. I’m not looking forward to this work, which we’ve already started doing informally, and which is looking more and more compulsory the more I read about it and study my dog.

That crazy feeling increases with his next moves before an attempted excursion–whether a walk or a car ride. Like a light switch flicking on, once he’s captured, Ethan submits, albeit sheepishly, and waits patiently by the door to be led outside. Even better, once we are outside, he quickly falls into walking as if he’s fallen out of bed—exploring, scent tracking, surveying, and exercising along the sidewalks, yards, devil strips, clearings, and playground of our neighborhood. He enjoys car rides just fine, too, though he can get a little car sick with excess hills or turns.

These days, Ethan’s fears are overpowering his desires. Ethan has taken the same Intro to Agility course twice. He loved it the first time and seemed to love it the second time, though he also seemed a bit more confused about what to do, even though we did practice in between course runs. However, when we were practicing focus forward today for agility, even when I upped the ante with a higher value food reward—chunks of dried beef roll—he still wasn’t sure he could trust me enough to grab his harness without killing and roasting him on a spit.

After a few successful runs, his suspicion began to outweigh his interest in the exercise, so I called it quits. I preferred not to find myself chasing an unleashed, untethered, unfenced-in chicken of a puppy across the neighborhood—no matter how delicious he’d be.

Early on in our relationship, I wondered if he was showing aggression, but he’s more nervous in his warnings. He seldom barks, unless frustrated, bored, or playful. He has never barked at other people or dogs outside, only at us and our dog sitters in the house when he wants something or doesn’t like what we’re doing or not doing. Usually, it’s when I’m gone, and others are left to fend for themselves with him.

After making some headway in our first few months together, between teaching him to trust and teaching him to obey, now we’re not getting far with either. Some results have plateaued while others seem to have eroded from the hill of progress.

I think he knows what many words mean, even if he doesn’t follow basic commands consistently. He understands “no” and “ah-ah-ah” as deterrents, and he shows respect when we’re eating after we tell him to “go lay down,” sometimes with a follow-up gesture, eye contact, or saying his name low and warningly. His powerful nose makes him rude while we cook, too, but with repetition, I can get him to lie down and stay put–for a while.

Ethan reluctantly gets that “all done” means no more food. He knows to go into his crate when I say “in your bed” in the bedroom. He has been exposed to “sit,” “come,” “stay,” “down,” “up,” “look,” “place,” “yes,” “wait,” and “okay,” but his understanding of these is unclear because his reactions are inconsistent. He may realize that “stairs” means we’re going to throw treats up and down them so he can run and eat at the same time. He has learned to nose the chimes on the sliding glass door handle when he wants to go outside—even when he doesn’t have to relieve himself. Sometimes he just does it out of boredom.

He’s clever and sensitive enough to learn what he wants to learn, in his own way.

Although rather mellow when not afraid, Ethan is definitely an athlete. When he does make it out the door, he climbs on boulders and flat rocks around the neighborhood, jumping up onto higher ones and down off them again. Sometimes, while playing the mountain goat, he looks for a treat right away. Other times, he just moves on to the next thing, needing no more reward than the climb itself.

He walks the ledge perimeter of raised flower beds at the playground and allotment entrance. He ascends and descends hills, crosses streets, and trudges through snow happily. He even has the athletic build of a deep-chested, sleek-legged racing hound. He’s pretty fast when he can stretch those legs.

He is more curious than nervous around people and dogs on the walk. He likes to crunch on acorns, despite our protests, and he prefers eating rabbit and deer scat to sniffing it. Thankfully, we can prevent his ingestion of dog poop . . . most of the time.

As good, brave and adventurous as he can be, Ethan has had to learn to tolerate boredom because his indoor fears often prevent us from doing things. He has mastered destroying toys, for one.

Gradually, we got him used to a more flexible schedule than he started with, but maybe he still needs old routine more than we think. He naps for good portions of both day and evening, though, and he doesn’t freak out when we don’t go for a walk first thing. His acceptance of the new patterns actually seems pretty strong.

He has been learning frustration tolerance gradually, learning that he can’t always get what he wants, at least when he’s not too afraid to want. When he is afraid, all he wants is to be left alone, to flee, to hide, to run away, to duck and cover.

I think it’s fair to say he’s teaching us more frustration tolerance than he’ll ever have to know. It’s deeper than being incorrigible. Ultimately, it’s his tolerance of fear that we really have to counter-condition. Only in our dreams can we afford to believe it’s just a phase.

As I’ve said, Ethan does have his moments. He loves to play, he’s learning not to bite during play, and, once guided, he’ll stop playing and settle down. He greets known guests happily now, he falls asleep readily day or night, and stays asleep all night, entering his crate without hesitation or verbal command.

He hasn’t peed or pooped in the house even once since the very few times last summer during his adjustment to his new home. He chews on nothing but his toys, and he chews a lot. He’s not so high energy as to be a constant barker or annoying jumper, humper, or counter surfer. He’s pretty chill, he can be totally hilarious, and he is, of course, the handsomest dog on Earth. These are not small victories. We’re grateful that the rescue organization, who gave him his name, chose us to care for Ethan.

But Ethan’s got a long way to go to be a happy, comfortable dog most of the time. It will probably take years if he ever gets there. Although he’s a sprinter, this will be a marathon for all of us. It’s not what I was hoping for, I’ll admit. I really didn’t want a special “pet” project this time, which we had with Elyse, our chronically ill first dog. For now, Ethan does have good physical health, but we’re already dosing him with anti-anxiety medication to support his behavior reshaping.

I’m beginning to think my dog trainer’s preference always to look for a good breeder is the right idea. Rescuers, God bless you, she says. The thing is, when you’ve done all your homework and still end up with piles of work beyond the already large amount that comes standard with raising a dog, it’s sometimes, well, intolerably frustrating. Then again, it’s life, not just how one acquires a pet dog, that’s like that proverbial chocolates box.

I just hope we get a chance to see the benefits of what will become substantial investments of focus, time, money, energy, and emotion. Ethan has great potential, after all. I hope it’s true that, if anyone can do it, we can. Meanwhile, we continue enjoying the good stuff and eagerly await the spring.

21 Droughtlander Resolutions for 2018

So here it is, my resolutions list for the new year, something I haven’t done in years. I do set goals for myself periodically and keep a running task list, but like many, I have found that resolutions seem to be made to be broken. I think it helps to imbue the list with a focus on one’s passions, including, in my case, Outlander.

My best advice for both of us, then: When in drought or doubt, fill your life with what matters most, forgive yourself your failings, and strive to be your best version of yourself. And if there is no doubt–or drought–for you, charge ahead with gusto!

21 Droughtlander Resolutions for 2018

1. Keep working regularly on my writing, including novel, memoir, and poetry, along with my blog, and publish something.

2. Read the backlog of Outlander STARZ entertainment news articles, and watch the backlog of Outlander STARZ videos, including panels from Emerald City Comicon and San Diego Comicon.

3. Transition from my current work for pay to a new business arrangement in a fitting niche.

4. Finally sample the bonus features of Outlander STARZ Season 2’s DVD set that I’ve been saving for a Droughtlander such as this, including deleted scenes and Diana Gabaldon’s book excerpt.

5. Spend more time with loved ones: Visit some friends up north I’ve been neglecting, have more lunches with Dad, contact my nieces and nephews more often, and support my husband as we work on our goals together.

6. Wear and enjoy the Outlander- and Scotland-related gear I got for Christmas, including thistle pendant necklace with purple gemstone, triangular Celtic knot dangle earrings, and my Outlander Fraser tartan scarf. Thanks, Hubby!

7. Completely read more books next year than I did this year, focusing on those I want to read most, or release myself from the pressure to. After all, I did read War and Peace, a mighty tome, this year, and dipped into lots more books than I finished. Although I set my 2017 goal for 25, it was looking as if I would finish the year with only 6 under my belt, but I managed to bump it up to 9 before New Year’s.

8. Re-watch Outlander STARZ Season 1, in some ways the best of the three seasons so far.

9. Continue training my anxious dog Ethan to trust and obey, and desensitize and counter-condition his separation anxiety so I can have a life outside the house and so he can be a happier dog.

10. Read Outlander book #5 The Fiery Cross, my next volume in the series to tackle.

11. Train my athletic dog (same one) to walk/run on our treadmill so he can get more exercise in these frigid teens and single-digit temperatures, and start him on agility classes early in 2018.

12. Re-read Outlander book #4 Drums of Autumn in preparation for watching Season 4, hopefully to air by the end of 2018.

13. Stretch several times a day and do modified daily yoga to manage stress, reduce pain and inflammation, and strengthen my body.

14. Continue editing, printing and framing the best pictures from our Scotland trip for gifts and to display at home. Build my next home decorating around those enhancements.

15. Take the time to draw, color, paint, photograph, explore metroparks and urban areas with the dog, and generally enjoy life.

16. Improve my health by finding and implementing an elimination diet to uncover what foods I may be allergic to; then, reduce my intake of any culprits.

17. Plan and accomplish a trip to visit relatives in California, and return to Great Lakes Theater to see Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the spring (saw Hamlet last year).

18. Simplify my life with the help of a house cleaning service, thinning down/updating my wardrobe, and planning weekly meals for the freeze and re-heat approach—using our new pressure cooker and slow cooker in one!

19. Read classic Scottish authors and poets such as Burns, MacDiarmid, Stevenson, and Scott.

20. Expand my sense of what’s possible for myself and move forward boldly with that optimism.

21. Revise, or re-envision, my resolutions as needed to focus on my best, most realistic goals and most beloved activities.


Happy New Year (and Hogmanay!), one and all.

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Helping Dogs That Fear Being Alone

aequo animo – with even mind, calmly (my blog’s motto)

Dog owners, if you have a sensitive, clingy, or anxious dog as I do, and you’re not sure where to begin to tame those wild (or undo those learned) instincts, a good introductory article to help you manage your dog’s separation anxiety can be found at the bottom of this post. If you need further guidance after reading the piece, while I’m not a professional expert on canine separation anxiety, the comments below are based on my experience and accumulation of research over the years.


Note the Petfinder article’s recommended calm, low-key way to depart and return. Be aware of your energy. If you’re anxious about leaving, the dog will sense this and become anxious, too. Stay calm inside and project calm.

This won’t be enough for us to get our new pup Ethan used to time alone, and he’s only just turning 7 months old soon, so that plays a role. We’ve set up a webcam and Foscam to monitor his behavior while we’re out and he’s confined to his crate. Because this testing helps establish a benchmark on the degree of the issue’s severity, I recommend using a similar method of insight if you have concerns about your dog’s nerves before you leave or when you return.

A process of desensitization can be helpful, too, but it requires the owner’s patience and diligence. Leaving and coming back frequently throughout the day can help the dog learn it’s no big deal and you always come back. Also, try making sure you do leave every day–at first, just the building of your home, then in a vehicle the dog can hear running and fading away, or just the garage door opening and closing. I admit I haven’t been great at executing my desensitization plans for Ethan, and that’s likely part of his problem.

If you’re able to increase the amount of time you’re gone very, very gradually, start at only a few minutes and working up to hours over a period of several days. Learn more about desensitization training from a trainer, your vet, or a reputable online source.

Getting the dog to calm down well in advance of your departure and making sure the dog’s energy has been drained through exercise or mental stimulation, such as puzzle solving, are also key considerations when the usual, basic rules don’t apply. Likewise, not overfeeding your pet will give you a leg up on preventing behavior being fueled by excess energy.

Our trainer says to keep in mind that while fussiness is acceptable, panic should be actively minimized. In your video or streaming feed, note your pup’s pace of respiration and signs of panting, constant fidgeting or restlessness, constant alertness (sitting up, ears perked, eyes wide), urination or defecation, attempts to escape his confines, repeated scratching or biting at self, crate or objects, near-constant noise making of whatever kind, or some combination of these.

When you find out what’s actually happening while you’re away, you are better equipped to decide on the proper course of action. If your dog shows any of the above responses, the situation may require professional behavior consultation, training, and/or veterinary intervention. Once the dog gets used to freaking out, which is sufficiently unpleasant the first time, without an altered approach, freaking out will become habit and that habit may intensify over time.

Finally, never punish an anxious canine for losing control of bowels or bladder. By the time you find out and can be in the room to address it, the dog will not only not make the connection between your anger and the mess, but the anxiety will only increase.

Be sure you clean up thoroughly so the dog is not inclined to repeat due to residual odor, and make sure your potty training house is in order. If you’ve crossed these T’s and your puppy dog is still losing continence while you’re away, as Petfinder makes clear, it’s another serious sign for professional intervention.

See the article Separation Anxiety by Petfinder for more information, and best of luck in preventing or calming your fur baby’s fears!

Keep Calm

and

Calm Your Dog.

For a snippet of my past experience with this issue, check out Dog Blog: Don’t. Move.

The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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My Kind of Vehicular Idiot

Of all the things to miss about visiting Chicago, I can’t deny that driving in the city might seem like a strange, even ludicrous, choice. Drivers found around the Chicago metro area are infamous speeders, arguably reckless. Sometimes a change of “pace” or scenery brings particular delight. Sometimes a new challenge is just what you need.

The typical, experienced downtown driver in a large American city is my kind of idiot: alert, quick, and decisive. The road is one of those few places where I feel that way about myself, as I’m otherwise often hampered by too much contemplation, or “analysis paralysis.”

A greater portion of Ohio drivers in my experience threaten more danger in their tentativeness than through any deliberate recklessness. Along with the sensory impaired, I set aside drunk or high morons and the assumption that any genuine violent intent is less frequent in them than in sober maniacs.

It’s true that all the ways out there are dangerous, and I have a healthy fear of car travel, though I suspect I’m somewhat more asphalt experienced than many peers my age. I’ve driven in larger, powerful, often unreliable used cars since I started driving, and I’ve worn deep ruts over long distances in various settings from college to job commuting to cross-country road trips.

I’m comfortable with highways. You can be hurt or killed just as easily on a street going 25 mph as on the larger arteries going 70. But I’m more comfortable with large urban city streets than more suburban or rural, or even small-city, ones.

My main point is that when it comes to operating a car, it’s advantageous to have a little fender bender experience to learn from (guilty), a lot of mileage experience to draw from (check), and a healthy fear of the road through which to balance offensive and defensive driving (working on it). Extremes in driving, as in anything, tend to get you into trouble. That includes excess caution.

Personally, if I’m going to encounter, or be, a vehicular idiot, I’d rather it be on purpose with someone who knows the vehicle, knows how to evade traffic, and won’t panic in the heat of the moment. I’d rather ride with champion F1 racer Lewis Hamilton (not just because he’s cute) than with any nervous teen, soccer parent, middle-aged bookworm, or elderly citizen at the wheel. While otherwise not the greatest specimen of film making, the plot of the ’80s movie License to Drive, starring Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, clearly illustrates that treacherous driving experience tends to make one a better driver.

(Note that I’m not advocating reckless driving behavior or deliberately creating dangerous situations for the sake of skill development.)

Assuming existing skill, confidence in any venture is far more useful and likely to lead to success than is habitual hesitation. I’m a big believer in the “fake it till you make it” motto: If you don’t feel ready despite due preparation and a teacher’s, coach’s or mentor’s belief in you, pretend you are, play the part (that I can do), don’t over-think it (this I’ve got to work on), and charge ahead until you feel the confidence you instill, even if you never do.

The next time I’m feeling uncertain about my ability in something, I’ll make a point of recalling how thoroughly I enjoyed my drive through downtown Chicago last October. I successfully navigated with some helpful and some not-so-helpful GPS and passenger assistance, kept it clean and crisp among zippy cabs and other aggressive drivers, and avoided causing an accident (as far as I know–you can’t discount possible indirect chains of events far behind you). By luck or grace of God or fate or whatever combination of factors, we avoided becoming victims of a car accident as well.

Even knowing an accident or road rage can happen anywhere at any time, I was less scared of the traffic in that environment than I am of slow highway mergers, hesitating turners, and paralyzed watchers at multi-way stops back home. Such tentative behavior tends to create more danger, not least by spreading fear, than it prevents or avoids.

I prefer to avoid the kind of fear that makes one a stupid driver. I guess I see it as my responsibility as a citizen at the helm of a complex, high-mass, and fallible piece of heavy machinery. Anxiety, phobia, and poor coping in a crisis tend not to mix well with dangerous equipment. Still, more often than not, I’m content to stay at home . . . . Easy civic duty.

On Dreams: A Reblogged Post and Response to The Belle Jar

Dear Belle Jar,

  1. My favorite funny phrase of the week, if not the month: “Sesame Street witness protection program.”
  2. This was the good dream, eh? Seems like this one might be worth dissecting with a therapist as well.
  3. I’m amazed and impressed by how detailed is your recollection of the dream; are you practiced at recording dream content right after you wake? My dreams are vivid, and increasingly realistic, enough to recall fairly well, but your telling was amazing!
  4. Have you ever tried interpreting your own dreams using guide materials? Typically, some insight can be gleaned, if not absolute enlightenment.
  5. I also love the ideas about what babies might dream. Well done.
  6. It takes a lot of courage to share such personal parts of yourself. Kudos and thank you.
  7. Your imagined explanation to the alien race is spot on and rings true for me.
  8. Your writing is excellent. I love how you shape the piece to come full circle back to birth, in light of death.

I guess at bottom most of us are just babies when it comes to dreaming. Helpless, vulnerable, at the mercy of the subconscious. But we can also make meaning out of it in a much more sophisticated way than the unborn ever can, even if it feels terribly inadequate. I encourage you not to give up on making some additional, positive use of your anxious dreaming. I’m still open to the notion that our dreams are just our subconscious mind’s way of trying to send us an important message, or at least one worth exploring.

All of my dreams are anxiety dreams when they’re not apparently meaningless bits of mundane life that I often mistake for things that really happened. Or did they? Lately, they’ve focused almost entirely on past situations in a way that suggests to me I have some unfinished business to resolve, whether with others or just within myself.

I have family with the ability to predict things through dreams, and a friend who can control the action in lucid dreaming. Is deja vu just the recollection of a predictive dream? Surely the space between waking and sleeping desires, fears, and memories is not such a chasm.

As an aside, this reminds me of my post about synchronicity. What is the relationship between apparent coincidence and the subconscious?

Great work. Keep it up.

The Belle Jar

Every morning I wake up tense, my fists clenched and my arms pressed into my chest. It’s as if I’m braced for impact, like I’m about to crash-land into the day. I tell myself that it’s the dregs of the REM paralysis that’s supposed to keep you from acting out your dreams, but that’s probably not right. I mean, I’m sure there’s some kind of science to explain it, I just don’t know what it is.

Sometimes I picture myself trying to explain dreams to an alien race that has never experienced them. Ok, I imagine saying, so for eight hours every night humans lie unconscious and vulnerable while their minds weave complex stories out of their deepest fears, memories and desires. Most humans have no control over what happens in these stories, and often they learn more about themselves than they want to. These stories feel very real while they’re happening, but…

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The Perfect-Pooch Parade

A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.

I enjoy most of the breeds that perform, especially the leggier, larger, and what I consider to be more elegant specimens in the hound, sporting, working, non-sporting, and herding groups. Many of the terriers also make me smile, but I like very few of the toy breeds. In my curiosity, however, it is hard to look away.

As much as I like watching these beautiful creatures, I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.

Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. Meanwhile, the smallest dogs live tortuously long, high-strung lives under the weight of so many owners’ anthropomorphizing neuroses.

Incidentally, Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan has become my primary guide to wise practices with dogs, but my own dog’s health conditions tend to preclude full execution of Cesar’s Way. The main thing he always says is to project “calm, assertive energy” to establish and maintain a leadership role in your “pack.”

I do try, but I, too, treat my dog more like a fur baby than a dog at times. My husband’s even more guilty of that because the very sight of her usually turns him to absolute mush. She is his first dog and our first together. I had two growing up.

He and I both are more likely to laugh at poodle and Puli hairstyles than to appreciate the perfection of their fitness for outdated utilitarian or aesthetic functions. The Pomerian and Old English sheepdog are groomed to appear as if they each stuck a paw in an electrical outlet. The Shih Tzu and Maltese look as if they were, in fact, high-end antique mops or decorative dusters rather than living canine beings.

Pekingese breed, show ready

Pekingese breed, show ready. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Worst of all, though, in my opinion, the Pekingese seems to be a combination of a terribly course, low-end mop and an elongated tribble, without discernible limbs, tail or neck. As I am writing this, the Shih Tzu takes top spot in the toy group. At least it wasn’t the Pekingese again. I don’t get the craze.

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“Captain Kirk in a pile of tribbles,” photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The tiny sizes of the toy breeds alone make them look like rats instead of rat terriers or Chihuahua dogs. The poor Chihuahua–target of so much misguided, everyday owner popularity that generations of them have lived in endless, rudderless anxiety due to excess coddling, lack of discipline, and the resulting inability just to be a dog.

The tugs on the wire-thin leashes, the prodding, poking, and positioning of limbs and tails, and the back-and-forth and circling trajectories dictated by the judges–all these televised rituals of their handling in the show, while employing these ideal examples of the purity of their breeds with a sense of purpose, nonetheless degrade, belittle, and add insult to the injuries of the often disabling special skills of their breeding.

Aside from the opportunity of learning and of viewing the sheer beauty of the canines, when it comes down to it, I’d rather re-visit the mockumentary film Best in Show starring director Christopher Guest and company, which parodies how seriously dog show people take these things. As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.

The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.

These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.

I think the aspect that most bothers me about dog show competitions is how they epitomize the pursuit of perfection. As a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist,” I feel ironic (hypocritical?) pride at having learned the sacred truth that perfection is overrated and quite subjective.

Here is a Best in Show montage of the yuppy couple taking perfectionism and performance anxiety to counterproductive extremes with their Weimaraner’s “busy bee” toy. It also illustrates beautifully how these shows are more about the showers than the shown.

Nothing has taught me how overrated perfection is better than the love I have learned from owning and caring for a rescued “pure-breed” American Brittany. Our dog Elyse is hampered by multiple heart conditions, arthritis, blocked tear ducts, abnormally worn teeth, and excessively long toenails from too much time in a kennel which made the quicks very close to the tips and prone to bleeding during a trim.

She sports a shorter, more rounded face than the breed’s square-jaw standard, a sub-standard mini-model size, persistent hints of alopecia (hair loss) from heart worm treatment chemical reactions, and overused lady parts from being forced to produce litter after litter (we surmise, for her history is largely unknown). Together, she and I are saddled with her round-the-clock heart and pain pill popping, along with persistent, room-to-room separation anxiety.

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Elyse, our Brittany rescue

Elyse is far, far from dog show or dock diving or agility competition material (the poor thing has no social life, in fact), yet she is sweet and beautiful and quirky and mine, so that makes her perfectly imperfect to me.

At the same time, clearly I have my own set of particular standards for how a dog should look and be, and for me, there is no better pet and companion than the puppy dog.

Still, next time, give me an under-appreciated mixed breed, a.k.a. mutt. They are in many ways better for society, in both the personal and public spheres. They suffer from fewer genetic diseases, and we are less likely to (mis)judge them by breed traits. In my case, I would mainly seek an animal that is healthier upon adoption than Elyse was, regardless of pedigree.

Despite my dog-show misgivings, I will continue to record the events so I can be sure to see the pooches in action. If it has to be in a perfection parade of sorts, so be it. The strange affair pulls me into a state of somewhat disturbed fascination with a spectacle at once too questionable to embrace fully and yet too magnetic to resist.

I suppose in this way it is like a domesticated, gentrified version of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Increasingly, I watch. I just prefer the view from the beach to the one from the water. Whether resisting the physical peril of nature or its elitist manipulation, I am compelled to keep my distance.