Saturday, January 26, 2008


"We're all looking for security," Janet says to me on the phone, a truism that would otherwise be like a brick wall to the progress of the ear. In other words, unhearable because heard too much. But for some reason (some reason? ha! there is only over-determination, kids. Remember that) this time it opened sheaves of understandings to me, the kind that are nestled inside each other like paragraphs within pages inside of chapters between covers. The more you go on, the more there is to go on to. Yes, security is the great goal for most of us. And for the rest, the aim is an insecurity that feels secure because it's familiar: those are the people you know who court chaos and disaster and always have. The drive for security is as hard-wired as the drive for nourishment--and directly related to it.

A couple of days ago I said to my son, "Oh my god. If we get another Republican president, I'm afraid we'll have to leave the country." [Barack, OK; Hillary, please please no.] I was not sure if I was joking or not. He went suddenly quiet, and I looked closer at him: his lower lip trembled, and the water level quickly rose behind the locks of his eyelids. "But I'll miss my friends!" Leaving the people among whom he is learning, at eight, to be a social member of his species, the tools and mirrors with which he is forging the character that he will come to know as "self," would feel as devastating to him as, well, some of the losses he's already sustained. Big.

How we go about attaining security--ah, that is another matter. The routes are many, and sometimes we go west in order to get east, like Columbus. The map is handed to us early on by the particular collection of experiences we have, duplicated for none. One man's security is another man's prison.

Although perhaps in the end it's all a chimera--don't look to another for security, you bloomin' idyot!--putting in the time, and time alone, with someone builds what can sure feel like security. (As I wrote that last word, sitting in the armchair with Nelly next to me, punctuation came in the form of Nelly resting her head on my thigh. A sweeter, warmer, heavier, richer period never ended a sentence. So let me revise that: you may look to a dog for security; it's just the humans you need to watch out for.)

I think with dogs, you need between three and four years to really know them. Bonnie says, of Malcolm and Nora (flat-coated retriever and Leonberger, respectively), who have been with her for many years, "I've finally got them where I want them!" That means she knows them, in minute detail, and what they will do at any given turn; no surprises. Security. Comfort out of security. Water, food, play, sleep, repeated over and over. It will always be like this. Security feels like immortality.

Finally, at four, Nelly, in her unpredictability, is becoming predictable. I know where on a particular trail she is going to do her disappearing act; sometimes I even know where she is likely to reappear, though she is wont to push the envelope a little farther each time. In this, even, I now know her well. There are still surprises left to come--my life lately has been defined by nothing so much as the kind of surprise that knocks you back so far you hear the crack of skull on sidewalk: never think you know someone. Never. But dogs, as I say, are a little different. And now the process of watching Nelly for all these years has revealed a useful secret: she can't bear for me to go into someone's house and leave her outside. So that's where I have to go if I need to get her back and on-leash, something I can't do otherwise even if I give her raw steak every time she performs a recall. That's because to her, in this situation, steak is not the ultimate reward it would be in, say, the kitchen after doing her cutest trick (I think "High Five" qualifies here). Hunting freely is. Nothing I have in my pocket on a walk trumps that.

(And I know what the respectable trainers say is the solution to that--control the resources. If the environment is reinforcing her behavior, then I am not. A reinforcer is what she determines it is, not me. Out loose, she is in thrall to her little rodent-addled brain. So if I persist in allowing her behavior of running around madly an uncomfortable distance from me to be reinforced, how can I not expect it to continue? God, sometimes I hate the logic of behavior.)

Why does the action of going in a house freak Nelly to the point that she will emerge from the brier patch (though not necessarily the rabbit warren, because when only her butt and her tail are underground, she misses seeing the door close) to stand, waf-waf-waffing outside, demanding entrance? And it's quite a demand--akin to having a bamboo skewer poked incessantly into your eardrum, I'd say.

The anthropocentric school of interpreting dog behavior, alas the prevalent one--"He knew I was in danger and was trying to protect me!"--would say she didn't want to be apart from me. Flattering, I admit. I am so highly attractive, aren't I? I'm guessing it has something to do with her belief that there's a good chance there are bowls of cat food inside most unknown houses. And where there's cat food (Hey, this stuff isn't half bad!) there's going to be a cat. (Cue the theme from Bonanza.)

And I hope I'm not going to jinx my ace in the hole by mentioning this, in the same way I did last week by proudly telling people how great I suddenly felt, after months in the various rings of hell. I suddenly had a new perspective, powerful, positive, happy outlook, the antidote to feeling worthless. It lasted four days. I talked about it, and then, splash, into the soup again. Next time I start feeling good, I'm keeping my mouth shut.

But I've lately learned that it almost always works, absent a house I can disappear into, to go sit in the car. After five or ten minutes, I'll see Nelly through the windshield, a white mote in the distance, gradually getting bigger (though never that big, wee doggie that she is), running her little heart out. Through experimentation, I have discovered that it does not work to merely stand next to the car. She'll stay away all day. I must get in and shut the door, and the windows too.

What goes on in her little Nelly head? I cannot presume to know. Only that, possibly, she is looking for security. And inasmuch as she gives it to me, I am only too pleased to be considered a source of it for her. Even if it really means primarily that she can rely on me for chicken backs with pureed fresh veg. It doesn't do, in this world, to hope for more than that.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

It Is Now Winter

To everything, there is a season. You've heard that somewhere before? I really like the song, and the sentiment, sad though it ultimately is, reminding us there is an end to all things. Nostalgia (the longing to return home, etymologically speaking) is called up. This is not a dirty word to me, as it is to some: it is merely the most appropriate response sometimes, and if you don't feel it, then there's something a little wrong. Don't you feel nostalgia for seasons past? Literally--those hot summers in childhood at the beach, your feet burning on the boardwalk, the thick air stung with the sharp smell of some unnamed shrub in flower. Figuratively--the age when you had endless time to give to the pursuit of something that felt good to you, as opposed to someone else. (Yes, I am thinking of motorcycling, all right?) Now it is, and apparently must remain--life is finite, after all--in the province of nostalgia, where you can merely visit from time to time.

The current season, in all senses, is winter, something that so many people hate, although that is like saying you hate life. Don't the Buddhists say life is now? It is the time for waking one morning to find the gray world transformed with cleanliness and glitter, white and still, persuading you too to become white and still. Then there is the simple joy of feeling warmth after cold (provided you do not live in a refrigerator box under a bridge overpass). Contrast, which is how we experience everything.

The season of youth is a time to test the limits of one's narcissism, when you are the master of your own ship as it sails alone through the wide sea of your days. Mine was given up to-- Oh, my own nostalgia here bores even me at this point. When I first got a dog, I started to see the pleasures of not serving myself alone. Since the day was finite, and there had to be a certain amount of work in it, what was the rest to be devoted to? Me, and my need to change the oil? The insistent request by the machine that I finally figure out how to calibrate the carburetion? My dog was a puppy when I found the compulsion to ride to the end of the road suddenly not terribly compelling anymore. The roads became shorter. I found myself whispering my private pet names for her aloud, repetitively, behind my helmet, a song of her that was calling me back. The season was turning, and I wanted to be with her. She, too, wanted me to be with her.

The calories I used to burn off battling an October headwind or, not a nostalgia-clogged memory, pushing my 450-pound nonresponsive vehicle along the shoulder, I now disposed of on long walks with her. Uphill was best for this. She needed the walks, and soon I came to too.

The bike was sold. I assume the new owner couldn't find tires that fit the rims, either.

In my life now I have three things, and this is their season: my child, my work, and my dog. All my hours go to them. I wish I could tell you the last time I read a book "for pleasure," not for work; I wish I could tell you the last time I went to a movie. Last Sunday's Times sits still unread as this Sunday is about to dawn; I literally cannot find thirty minutes anywhere to give to it. The idea of spending one hour, much less a day, on myself in the form of that old motorcycle-related madness seems now, well, like madness. This is not to say that all I do is selflessly give. No, I selfishly give as well.

The walks I give to Nelly are not for her alone. They are a significant portion of my social life, without which I would become as dried up as a piece of white bread tossed on the hard February ground. (Strange simile, you say? Yes, it is. But I've seen it, old bread curved like a warped board, stiff, become the antithesis of itself: cannot be eaten; repellent.) On these dog walks, I multitask. I give Nelly the exercise and socializing she needs--actually, she socializes for one to two minutes, screaming all the while, as she gleefully greets her packmates, then shoots for the hills to search for some game either currently dead, or alive and soon to be dead. I'm lucky if I catch sight of her once or twice during the hour, darting through the distant bracken. But I get the exercise and socializing I need, too. Isn't it nice when life provides perfect solutions like this? I just don't know which came first, my belief that there is no sadder creature on the planet than the dog who lives his life attached by rope to a lumbering human, or my discovery that there's nothing like walking through the woods with a couple of dear, kind, funny, and smart friends who are willing to hash out problems while we cheerfully march on, oblivious of and helpless to prevent the mayhem our dogs are causing. Still, we're all having fun.

The centrality to my life now of my dog's needs and the fulfillment of her biological urges may be the cause of my over-identification with her. When she gets ill, I suffer hypochondria on her behalf. It feels just like my own.

Last Saturday, I noticed her drinking water. A lot of water. Far, far more than normal. I let her out at 10 p.m., and when she returned, she went straight to her bowl and lapped and lapped. This meant that she had to go out again at 11:30, whereupon she drank more and more. And so at 1 a.m., and 3. I fell back into a willed and fitful sleep, as is my wont anyway these days, but twenty minutes later I was suddenly awake again, a dreadful realization on me. I felt hot as it washed over me in a wave: kidney failure. That's what was happening, and I had done it. I had killed my dog, through my negligence in not having given her the antibiotics against anaplasmosis that the vet had prescribed a month earlier. I won't give all the excuses now that I gave myself for not doing so. I just never gave her the pills, is all. Now I was lying there in a sweat, the vet's words coming back to me: " . . . can result, if untreated, in kidney failure." Now it was happening, and as always with terrible events, it was the middle of the night on a Saturday. Sort of like the furnace breaking only on the Friday of a holiday weekend with record-breaking lows predicted.

I got up to look for the two pet health books I had, which both confirmed that excessive thirst and urination signaled kidney trouble. Then I got the phone book and dialed the emergency hospital. I guess not many other dogs were in crisis at this particular moment, though there was the sound of miserable whining and crying in the background at the other end, because a vet tech spent twenty minutes talking me down from the heights. We had to ascertain whether it was really Nelly or me dying, since a minimum charge of $300 not to mention a full night of lost sleep hung in the balance.

Freud's concept of hysteria was a gender-related displacement mechanism. I just want you to be aware of this.

By forcible suppression, I decided I would not rush to the hospital, but I would watch Nelly carefully through the next day. By Sunday evening, she was back to normal again. And then I remembered how on Saturday we had laughed, Bonnie and the fellow who joined us on the walk in Woodstock with his exuberant rubber ball of a Rhodesian ridgeback puppy, at how consummately Nelly had vanished almost immediately, to stay gone but barking audibly to us her "I found something and if I bark at it long enough, maybe it will jump into my mouth" alarm call. She was gone for at least twenty minutes, quite long enough to consume something either fetid or salty or both.

My vet was quietly chastising and ordered us in for a blood test on Monday. Ninety dollars was the price I paid for the merging of my mortality worries with the health of my dog. Still too much.

Nelly's on the antibiotics now.

Someday a new season will come. Perhaps I will one day become engrossed in the knitting circle at the library or something, and give it all the time I once gave to the hedonistic pursuit of two wheels and alluring maps of twisty two-lanes. But for now, I like what I have. The winter suits me. Oh, and to be truthful, I do go to yoga once a week, and take neither my child nor my dog. Work either, come to think of it.

And well, yeah, we went skiing yesterday. But I'll try not to let it happen again.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Good, Dog

And I say unto you: Yea, verily, there is no god!

Certainly, if there was one, in all his millions of years of existence, in all his marvelous powers, wouldn't he have slipped at least once and left some concrete evidence somewhere on this planet? I know he's supposed to be omnipotent and all, but it is also said that he made humans in his own image. Draw your own conclusion.

There is biology, behaviorism, and Darwin, and they make miracles enough for me.

So you will be left to wonder why, in the past five months, I have had recourse to the following: various horoscopes; Guatemalan trouble dolls; the 8 Ball; tarot cards; Chinese fortune sticks. If I had a Ouija board, I probably would have used that too: it worked at grade-school slumber parties, where we would scare ourselves into idiocy by levitating one of our companions in her Lanz nightgown using only two fingers. (Well, yes, two fingers each of eighteen hands, but . . . ) I have a milagros for a broken heart taped to my front door. Every night I burn a Lucky Candle ("alleged fast luck 7-11," as the legal counsel puts it). And then there's that business with a phoenix.

I prize logic. I never said I manifested it.

I have also made use of the services of three different psychotherapists (and sleeping pills, antianxiety drugs, and maybe a touch more than a soupcon of pinot noir, but let's not go there, shall we?), which is perhaps just voodoo of another sort. Yet the most useful of all, in helping move me down the road toward something that seems mystical but in fact is as tangible as the wind that comes out of the north in winter and, meeting the cells at the bottom of your lungs, wakes you up to a new truth, the full slap of reality, is talking with friends. Speaking of mystical, there are some people who seem to suddenly appear in your way just to give you the map through the rocky high pass in a blizzard. When you come out the other side, valley blooming before your feet, you marvel that this must be the result of some power in the universe who knew you needed exactly this person at exactly this time, their uncanny ability to cut to the heart and then to the bone. (And save you all that money at the shrink's.) But I know that my sagacious and giving friends, some who newly glimmer in importance to my ability to get through a day or a crisis, whichever comes first, are not the products of the clouds, angelic though they may be (I'm speaking of you, A. And you, J. And you, S. Seraphim all.). They are instead like the new word you learn, then suddenly see everywhere. It was never there before! Ah, but it was: it was simply not seen. So, with the truth. So, with what you have hidden from yourself for many long years, but now, in a flash of internal light, see.

Thus all those divinations are really a format in which to talk to yourself. My first true love and I used to throw the I Ching all the time, and lo and behold if it didn't tell us the most precise, breathtakingly true answers to the puzzles that faced us. (And he was a Yale student of comparative literature; not exactly the kind of vacant moron who believes he will necessarily hit the lottery if he just goes to 7-Eleven often enough; um, like me, maybe, that kind of moron?) What the I Ching told us, those coins on the floor, was how to Read Into. Exegesis. If the answer did not already reside within us, we would not have been able to find it in some words of ancient Chinese first set down three thousand years ago. Yet here it is! The answer to "Should I write my master's thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?"

The I Ching is, after all, subtitled "The Book of Changes." Everything I need to know about living can be rephrased everything I need to know about changing.

I want to be better. I want to be a good person. Oh, gosh, I sound pathetic, don't I? I sound like the chirpy Christian columnist in the Kingston Freeman, which is the most shocking revelation I think I've ever had.

But it can't be helped now. In order to be a good person, one must first and last be a kind person. Of course, you don't go around prattling about this in a public forum; who are you, Christ or someone?

Anyway, the foundation of kindness is to turn the other cheek. Meet anger with kindness. Meet wrongdoing with kindness. Meet hostility with kindness. Meet cruelty with kindness. I'm not at all Jesus-like, but Christ, I want to try.

How did I figure this? Maybe it came to me in a dream. Probably courtesy of those trouble dolls under my pillow.

When Mercy used to jump on the counter and "steal" our food (Look, Dick! See the loaded terminology, Jane!), onlookers would say, "Oh, what a bad dog!" Polly the Original Great Trainer taught me to respond, "She's not bad. In fact, she's quite excellent at what she does. Never misses a crumb." Counter surfing is one of the most difficult behaviors to dislodge, because it is built on an intermittent reinforcement schedule (and delicious reinforcers at that), the most powerful insurance that an installed behavior will continue: Sometimes there's pot roast up there, and sometimes there's nothing; so I gotta keep trying, 'cause I just love pot roast.

You know who else is on an intermittent reinforcement schedule? All of us, when we sit in front of our e-mail programs, hitting "Receive/Send" like a banana-addled monkey. Sometimes, just often enough, it rewards us with a funny or productive or much-awaited message. Hey, next time I'm going to be even more persistent with that button.

Dogs are good at what they do. Are they therefore good? When Nelly kills a rabbit, which has happened just often enough for her to be extremely persistent ("persistence furthers") when she gets around the brier patch, is she a bad dog, for killing a creature she does not need to kill (although you should ask her biology if she "needs" to kill or not), and one moreover that already has a hard enough life, what with the coyotes and foxes and hawks and SUVs? I have often been amused by an owner's insistence they have such a good dog, because said dog will pass by a coffee table filled with cheese and crackers and not avail himself of the food he presumably knows does not belong to him. (And if you can explain the mechanism whereby that knowledge was gained, you win the Nobel.) This does not strike me as good; this seems rather to indicate the dog is aberrant. Or just hasn't checked the coffee table often enough. Secretly, I wonder if such dogs aren't actually intellectually sub-par; I have a grain of a theory that superior food thievery skills in a dog correlate with extraordinary intelligence.

Nelly, by the way, is polishing her skills in this department, and if she was tall enough to counter-surf, might well be gunning for Mercy's laurels.

As long as I'm admitting unsavory details about myself--and wanting to be like Jesus is as unsavory as they come, don't you think--I will cop to a belief in karma. And sorry, I still snicker impolitely, and unchristianly, at people who believe in multiple lives (though I keep having dreams about being poled down the Nile in this beautiful gilded barge . . .). No, I know I only get this one chance. And that chance happens to be fleeing merrily away. If I'm really lucky I may only have another thirty years--peanuts!--in existence to do all the things I want to do. Do you ever do that, count your remaining years? If you're over fifty, you can give yourself a right good scare and the need to re-up your Prozac. It is justifiably depressing: time already goes like a barn swallow flies, and then to think of it as far fewer years than you've already lived? Because it is only blackness for you once they lower you into the ground, or load you into that furnace--though, hey, now you can look into the option of green burial. (They still won't let me do what I've long wanted, to be tossed deep in the woods as dinner for the coyotes. The good coyotes.)

I mean karma in this life. One who gives, always receives. Always. By offering only kindness, ever kindness, even to those who would hurt you, how can you go wrong? It's the only foolproof way to live. Think about it for a sec. Perseverence furthers. Eh, Nelly? Eh, Dr. Skinner?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Or Else

A book that has become one of the most important foundation resources for a certain set of dog trainers does not even contain the word "dog" in the index. It mentions everything else in our human world--our social structures, religion, law, family life--and this is the basis of its power: it seems to explain everything. It is a Bible for comprehending, and divining, why we do what we do, and the often enormous prices we pay for living such unexamined lives.

The book is Coercion and Its Fallout by Murray Sidman, a behavior analyst who published it in 1989. Have you ever heard of it? Yet it is the kind of work whose stunning truths--in every sentence!--floor you, and then immediately after, when you've picked yourself up and are dusting off your knees, you wonder, Why did I discover this so late? Why is it not on the bookshelf of every household, or better yet, every school, court, church, and therapist's office, in America? Why did I first learn of it from clicker trainers?

Of how many books could it possibly be said that its precepts, if followed, could effectively eradicate a majority of crime, personal woe, war, and even . . . workplace inefficiency? That must be, then, why the ideas in this book must be generally ignored. And don't ask me for further reason why, because I don't have the big answers; I am liable to say something like, "Maybe it's change? We don't like change?" (But of course, Sidman himself gives the answers, and they have to do with the way we are essentially coerced into accepting, and perpetuating, coercion.)

But since this book is based on the explorations of B. F. Skinner into the mechanics of how we learn, which is to say, how we live, and because Skinner has been so completely and apparently willfully misunderstood and reviled, something in it clearly scares us. I will also leave the "why" out of this for now, and perhaps forever: I am supposed to be writing a book on this very subject, but for now I will simply avoid crossing the wide ocean in my dinghy and instead stay on the shore, letting the wavelets tickle my feet.

I am, after all, no Sidman: I can't explain it all between two covers. As soon as I say one thing, I see the lines radiating out from it like fractures on struck glass, and I don't know which to follow first. For instance, just above, I was going to launch into a subject that's been dancing around in my head for some time: the equating of the behavior analyst's view of psychology (and with it the solutions to our problems) with, say, the Democrat's. And the Republican's with--what? The tarot card reader? The flat-earther? Opposed in solutions, because opposed in basic understanding.

But rather than pursuing that, I'll let Sidman speak a bit, in his unpoetic, concise manner, on various topics. It's hard to pick. See, I jump up and down at practically every sentence in this book:

* "From both a practical and personal point of view, perhaps the most significant thing to remember
about the first side effect of coercion is that people who use punishment become conditioned punishers
themselves. Others will fear, hate, and avoid them."

* "Acceptance of coercion is so pervasive that some will find it hard to believe they could influence others
effectively with positive reinforcement, without threats of dire consequence. Our own experience with
coercion gets in the way, making us more secure in our ability to punish than to reward. An overworked
and incorrect bit of folk wisdom pronounces the carrot to be of no avail unless backed up by the stick.
But the carrot can do the job all by itself."

* "When used effectively, positive reinforcement is the most powerful tool we have. Many teachers know
this, even though they barely heard it mentioned during their training."

* "Intuitively recognizing separation and divorce as escape, children often blame themselves for a parent's
departure. . . . Escape from the family has a way of perpetuating itself."

* "Verbal warnings have not sufficed to keep up the level of avoidance that the original atomic explosions
generated. Behavior analysis provides good reason for this slippage. It is characteristic of avoidance
that success breeds failure. As we go longer and longer without a shock, avoidance automatically
seems less and less necessary."

Behind every example Sidman gives, and the fundament of all the knowledge contained in this book, is science. That is, quantifiable laboratory results. Laboratory experiments on animals other than humans.

There. There's a big answer for you. The reason for the marginalization of life-changing ideas. We will do anything to differentiate ourselves from other animals, even if it means consigning ourselves to a prison cell of ignorance, unhappiness, and fallout. And Republicanism.

This is at the root of one of the more disturbing bits of news in the paper last week: a report that all the states that carry out the death sentence do so using an antiquated and difficult to administer three-chemical dose that can result in intense pain. And why? Because the single-dose alternative, known to consistently provide a "humane" death, is the one that is used for animal euthanasia. (See, maybe, poem below.) We don't want to treat one another as if we were pet dogs, do we?


This is also the way I feel about my own coerciveness. It causes a wave of revulsion deep in my gut to recognize the ways in which I have sometimes emotionally battered my loved ones because I was overcome with my own sense of frustration or fear. It goes against everything I believe, everything I know, everything contained in this book. I am so deeply sorry for every instance, I could weep.

That is how it was when I saw it this week in a perfect microcosm. As usual, Nelly showed the way. I got on my coat and went to the door, and Nelly went too, as always. She looked worried; there was the possibility that I might leave and not take her too. This happens on occasion, actually. She voiced her discontent (did I mention that Nelly is a screamer?). To convey the news that she was not going this time, I reflexively made that "no" sound deep in my throat. Didn't even have to open my mouth: "un-hnh." She looked at me and stopped. Then her head dropped lower, her tail sunk. She turned and walked away, dejection all over her body.

The sound was a conditioned punisher. And she turned away. She escaped the unpleasantness that long familiarity with that sound--how could I be so little aware of how often I use it?--has taught her will ensue. And the unhappiness of this necessity made me unhappy, for her and for everyone else I have ever punished too.

Seeing that I do this makes me feel lower than . . . an animal.

With Nelly, at least, I can offer a marrow bone. And the promise to do better, to be more conscious. I am hoping that will do the trick. It'll be a new one for me.