Saturday, July 26, 2008

Good vs. Evil

I am glad I have the dog I do. But sometimes I look at other people's placid labs and shepherds, plodding along next to them as if that human were the only interesting thing on earth, or lying quietly in another room during dinner, and I go, Damn!

I've ended up with a flying monkey out of Wizard of Oz. She is one place one second, an entirely different (and unpredictable) one the next. She launches herself out of the house into cars, out of cars into parking lots, out of windows into whatever is on the other side, and onto picnic tables and you know why. Other people shake their heads at me: This person does not know what she's doing.

May I get a small dispensation for having a "difficult dog"? This would be the kind Kim the Trainer (I'll be back soon, Kim, I hope . . . Phase II of life is to begin soon!) calls "the dog you need." It's mysterious, indeed. Did I need this difficulty? Apparently so, apparently so. You're supposed to think about it for a while, deeply, and then you'll uncover the reason.

Jolanta tells the story of how, when she got her first dog, the incomparable Izzy, she congratulated herself on being an incredibly good trainer: Izzy was so well-mannered! Then Jolanta ended up with Juni, too, and that's when she realized (as she will tell you) she knew absolutely nothing about dog training. Izzy was just one of those easy dogs that make you look good. But Juni burst that smug bubble in a hurry. Jolanta had to educate herself, or else. Now she has a second career as a trainer and behaviorist--as well as accomplished proselytizer for the Way of Kindness: positive reinforcement training. I guess that's why she got Juni.

I'm still puzzling over why I needed Nelly.

Put this under heading of "Nuff Said." After our rail trail walk yesterday, Janet was kind enough to chauffeur Nelly home so I could switch gears and go wrangle children instead of dogs. Nelly jumped right into Janet's car--as why shouldn't she? It's the Dogmobile, with comfy pillows and always a jug of cool, refreshing water. At the end of the trip, at Janet's house, there is often a plate of fresh-cooked chicken livers. This, my friends, is the canine Ritz.

Then Nelly saw I was getting into the other car. She stood up on the arm rest and pressed her distraught face against the glass. Nelly is one of us "I want my cake and eat it too!" kind of beings. I realized that if the window had been open just another inch or two, Nelly would have clambered up somehow, lit the fuse, and shot out in one detonating second. I remembered to later e-mail Janet about the need for caution when transporting the Devil Dog.

Me: >She can squeeze herself, like a mouse, through
incredibly small openings.< Janet: Charles Manson was good at that, also.

Do you know now why I love her so? Not Nelly--I mean Janet. A friend with Saharan wit is a joy indeed.

(Plus, in addition to treating Nelly with kindness and understanding, and having seen me through the worst year of my life, she saves the New York Times for me so I don't have to pay for it. It doesn't matter that I get it a few days late--I'm lucky if I can find the time to read the paper two weeks later. It's all fresh news to me!)

Remember how I mentioned my friends remarking on a vague whiff of good karma they felt was emanating from my new house? Tell me what you make of this, then. The Verizon technician who came to attempt to give me telephone service in that frustrating first week without a phone told me that many years ago, she used to come riding here when they had horses. (My unpacked boxes sit waiting in the unused barn now; I seem to specialize in living on former horse farms, alas.) She told me, yeah, they used to take in farm animals, too, in the winters from a sort of zoo in the city. And apparently did to them what people usually do to farm animals. "You know what your house was?" she asked. "It was the smokehouse."

A thirty-year vegetarian, living in a former smokehouse. Is that karma? Maybe. And, maybe, it's just inexplicable. Woo-woo.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Reading Light

I sit in bed, at night, reading. I should be working. But self-doubt pulls at me. I pick up a friend's book, a memoir about having written a memoir. (Is this the start of a new genre?) I am pulled in. I know the players, the places. I know her. I know her voice. In fact, I long to hear her kind and generous voice, in real life, at this hour, because I am pulled by self-doubt. It's stretching my skin. I know, because a sick sensation in my gut is telling me that nothing I do will ever amount to much.

Or maybe the problem is that I will never allow myself to feel that it's enough. --My mind, you see, is currently saturated with a rereading of Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child, her chilling anatomy of the wages of narcissism.

I first read this book almost twenty years ago. The only thing from it that stuck with me was the unbearably painful description of two adults enjoying ice cream bars in the face of their toddler, who wanted one of his own so badly--and they laughed. "But he's only a child" is the way Miller describes the unempathic grown-up's dismissal of a child's distress. Yes, he's only a child. But ignore his necessarily narcissistic needs, and you are custom-building your very own narcissist, who will grow up and be unable to see or fulfill his own child's needs, because the loss of his must go unmourned, so painful are they. And the cycle begins anew. Is there anything more depressing?
The gruesomeness of that image--two big people, standing like a wall in front of a child's anguish--stayed with me, a burn on the skin. It was like the equally unforgettable image of the dog who submits (because he must) to a beating, then licks the hand of his tormentor (because he must). He says thereby: Please don't hurt me. Later, the hateful person returns, and is greeted with a wagging tail.

I want to puke.

Instead, I return to my friend's book, saving Alice Miller for later--I can only digest so much of it at once, since it is ringing bells, causing flashbacks. I can't stop reading, even if the summer childcare schedule has caused serious sleep-deprivation. I can't stop reading, even if the 500-page biography of Shakespeare's mind (yes, people: his mind. The man himself has been done, so many times before) is calling out for my red pencil. We have hidden several typos in these pages. Can you find them all?

I try to tear myself away, only to pick up a magazine--I am a master procrastinator. In an article I come across a reference to something Schopenhauer once wrote, and suddenly I realize it's something that Karen Pryor, grande dame of clicker training, has absconded with and called her own. I remember sitting in a large conference room in a Cleveland hotel, Nelly whining at my feet (she had become afraid of the sound of people clapping), fervently writing in my notebook "her" brilliant quote about the progress of all radically new ideas: from ridicule and hatred, finally to acceptance that even goes so far as to claim ownership. (Maybe Pryor took it literally.) I had been looking for, and here found, an explanation for the bizarre vituperativeness of those who felt threatened by the scientific--and, let's face it, moral--idea that inflicting pain on animals is not necessary to training them. Once this has been proved, as it has, why would you not only countenance the use of fear and aversion in your teaching, but attack those who have shown it to be the wrong choice?

This reminded me that I have to stop reading others and get back to writing my own book, which will seek to answer this question (though I suspect I won't, and will merely repeat the question several different ways).

And then a moth lights on the edge of the page. His wings stop beating, so I can look closely at him. He is a dozen shades of gray, from gleam to pewter. The edges of his wings are ragged; I can see the very warp and woof of him. Then he exerts his great energies once more, beating, throwing himself against all objects. Will I ever have such passion again myself? Or must I now be consigned only to tiredness, and self-doubt?

I should throw myself against all objects.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sisyphus in the Augean Stables

I live in a powderpuff heaven, fragranced by milkweed. It is entirely just, isn't it, that these flowers are not to be possessed by the likes of us: you imagine a fulsome bouquet in your favorite vase, these pink explosions perfuming every molecule within your house, but they won't comply. They don't want to be cut, so they tell you by immediately keeling over. They are wild and wish to stay that way. Also alive.

But that's all right by me, because they fill, even more fulsomely, the field behind my new party cabana (aka bizarre car shed appended to this funny little house which has so quickly felt like home--and also irksome in its minor details: the stove timer that doesn't work; no phone jack in the office, or indeed anywhere downstairs but one place; no woodstove, oh ache in the heart; the shower's downstairs, so my hairbrush is always upstairs and the towel down or vice versa). What I don't like is minor. What I do is major. That I do is major.

Relief--so sweet. After a long, long time of pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure up a steep hill, only to have it roll back to ever more crap to shovel in at the bottom.

I am about to start work again. (I think: I shouldn't say I definitely am, of course, in order to ward off the Great Jinx in the Sky who waits for us to pronounce on our future good luck, and then, as soon as the words leave your lips, swoops down to snatch much-awaited fortune from your grasp. Just because you spoke of it.) That's because I have what appears to be some bad luck but is actually a paradoxical gift--my life specializes in these suddenly--of having to watch children two days a week at the park. The summer schedule is a killer. Not for the kids, but for the moms (especially the single ones) who have to watch their offspring after the three-hour-long camp is over. Ever wonder how long an afternoon can be? But I set up my camp chair, open a can of Diet Dr. Pepper (come on, we all have dirty little secrets best left unveiled), and write. Below me, the children jump off the dock into the water in an endless loop; I glance up from my notebook occasionally to re-enter the past, the dreamy summer days of merging with water, of moving through and in and out and hitting down, wanting never to stop, in a seemingly half-conscious state.

I write this, for example. Last week was the first time I composed directly into the computer, and it showed, and I'll never do that again, and I'm sorry.

I have other things I need to write, am compelled to write, and I hope and trust it won't feel anything like pushing an excrement-laden cart up a hill.

The summer schedule has made me even more efficient with my time, though frankly I thought I was already pushing the envelope there.* I put Nelly, my child, his lunch, and swimming detritus in the car, drop him off at day camp, hit a different portion of the rail trail for a half-hour so Nelly will be set at least until I get home after child-minding duties**, and then I'm able to do as much in two hours at the computer, telephone, sink, and washing machine as anyone can. In the evening, after dinner, we all three take to the woods out back for a postprandial walk, with the added bonus, right now, of wild blueberries.

Memories of cannonballs splashed in another life. The sweet taste of a berry stolen from a bear. Perfume in the night air. My child, with me but also over there, far, in his own world of water. Nelly asleep and dreaming at the top of the stairs. Freedom and the feeling of happiness floating by.

*I think I'll have t-shirts made that bear the legend "Mothers are people who think of everything." On the back it'll say, "Because they have to."

**Thank goodness dogs experience a similar lassitude in the heat; they prefer their walks in the cool of the morning or evening, and spend the rest of the day panting on their sides on a cool wood floor in a breezy hallway. So you don't have to feel guilty about not taking them on grand hikes.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Days of Independence

They were right. My friends were right. It does feel a little like freedom, standing now on the other side of this long bridge. When I was in the middle, it started swaying over the black chasm, and the slats underfoot creaked; some dropped down into space and it was so far down I couldn't hear them hit bottom. I was on the phone to my mother the night before the move, when I was in no way ready, either in detail or essence, for the truck to arrive. I sobbed, "I can't do it. And I don't want to. Mother, I don't want to go on." And I meant it. I have never wanted so badly to go into that good black oblivion. And the next morning, after three hours of sleep, I spent twelve straight hours doing what had to be done. Move. Into the future.

Then started the unpacking. I am so eager to begin again--and to get back to work, after so much time lost I could get lost in the weeping for it--I gave myself four days to completely settle into a new house. And this is a task, when you are the kind of person who has enough linens for six bedrooms, and apparently five tubes of hydrocortisone cream (I guess we packed the medicine chests so full we couldn't find what we needed, so we just went to the store and bought more. And now I have it all, here, enough to fill a house seven times this size. I am never buying anything ever again).

Of course, I've only been here four nights, but I've already had a party of sorts. Impromptu, the idea of some of these beautiful friends who have worked like drayhorses with me, steadily pulling this heavy wagon into a new life. The children dribbled watermelon juice everywhere, played up in the treehouse, waved sparklers, ran like banshees (wet and dirty banshees) through the house and outdoors and back, and at one memorable moment, right through a sliding screen door. The grownups, of course, drank wine and talked; of perfidies and hopes, of plans and stuff. I guess the way I will know I am dead is when I neglect to put out the cocktail napkins.

Nelly was up on the dining table, grazing like a horse from the plates of pizza crusts. She put her front legs on the low table and almost got a whole marbled cheesecake brownie. I couldn't get as lost in the conversation, or the mopping up of messes, as I'd liked, because she now must be watched as a hawk does a mouse. I knew my friends thought she was being bad, but I knew she was being good. Way too good. She seemed everywhere at once, an imp; one who now flies through the air toward whatever she wants, be it open car window, tabletop, lap at unsuspecting times, hapless squirrel. I got blank stares when I excitedly tried to explain how she was at that very moment expressing the basic notion behind the book I will be writing: a behavior that is consistently rewarded will be repeated. And one that is inconsistently rewarded will be repeated and strengthened. So, sometimes it's just yucky limes in empty glasses up on the table; but sometimes it's cheese on bread! Chocolate and cream cheese together!! You never know what's going to be up there!!! So I gotta get up there, I just do!!!!

That's the idea behind the jackpot reward. I love this one. It seems to drop down from heaven above, a whole mess of treats instead of just one. It's what life offers, too, if you're lucky (and I am; see above, reference to friends).

There's a little path cut through the tall grass, to a towering apple tree that should be heaven come fall, as well as relief from the twenty dollars' worth of organic apples my son goes through in a week. (You think I'm kidding; I'm not.) But Nelly, as always, cuts her own path. To the road.

We are now about to see the fruit of the work we invested in the past. (I said her name a certain way, she got a treat. I said it again, she got a treat.) Out in the field, panic in my soul, I said it again. Bless me, and she came running. What relief. And what sorrow, because my pockets were empty of treats. Before I could turn back to the house, she had done it again, and I had called her again, and she had responded. My happiness that she had was colored with dismay that I couldn't reinforce the recall: I must remember to ask Jolanta for the statistics (because everything in behaviorism is statistically backed up) on how long it is before performance drops off when it ceases to be rewarded. Pretty quickly, I think. Then we'll have to start the work all over again. This is the smell of dismay. Countered by the odor of joy: the jackpot, five treats delivered with alacrity to a happily surprised dog who has just turned quickly at the sound of your voice, streaking back to you with ears like pennants, smile wide, as fast as her legs can carry her. That's money in the bank, for future recalls when you need them.

And I needed one this morning. I looked out the window after emptying yet one more cardboard box of its essentially unnecessary contents, to see Nelly heading across the road. There is not much traffic here (am looking very much forward to the end of oil, so there will be none), but at night I hear the sound of gunning engines on the hill--teenagers returning from a party, perhaps--and go cold all over.

I did what I had to do. I called her to come. Not sure if it would work. A prayer in my heart.

She looked. Paused for a second, then ran straight for me.

A minute later, two cars passed. Nelly was already next to me, swallowing her chicken jerky with a smile. I must remember that the down-stay at a distance--Do not come; right now, lie still on the other side of the pavement from me, from the danger--vies with the Really Reliable Recall as a way to save your dog's life.

My friends are right, and I also hope my friends are right. They say this place has good karma. It has a bit of a hippie vibe, and that makes me feel at home: I am mostly, though not entirely, more of a food co-op type than a Balducci's sort. Though they did have awfully good French cheese . . . In this, my reclaimed youth, I'll burn some incense to good karma, for me, for Nelly and the road, for all.

Freedom feels good.

Happy birthday.