"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lessons From Dog School

When you want a dog to know he's done the correct thing, say, "Yes!" That word becomes a signal and helps the dog to understand you better. Praise is different. It tells your dog how happy he makes you when he chooses to do the right thing.

Show your dog what the new behavior you want looks like. Help him put his body where you want it and then reward him for being there. 

Use treats to lure your dog into behaviors you want. Once he's doing them, use treats to reward him. Once he's consistently doing the new behavior, give treats intermittently.

If a dog misbehaves, it may be because you're not paying enough attention to him. Positive attention goes a long way toward preventing behaviors that elicit negative attention.

Turning teaching into games makes the whole process easier for everyone.

Dogs send clear signals with their bodies when they are trying to soothe themselves and reduce stress. They use those same behaviors to soothe those around them. Not knowing what those signals are can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication between owner and dog.

Dogs automatically pull against someone pulling against them. 

Their innate curiosity and love of attention and love of treats are the most powerful motivators there are.

Power steering. That's what the teacher calls the gentle leader collar. Gentle. Power.

In a room of twelve dogs, Toby was the most handsome and the best behaved. Really. The helpers who work there said so. Maybe they didn't say most and best exactly, but I'm pretty sure that's what they meant. Because he was more perfect than we could ever have hoped for.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Gentle Leader

I came home from walking Toby just a week ago and resigned as primary dog walker. The final straw was actually a pretty heavy bale of events, made heavier by my aversion to crying uncle under any circumstances.

Although we haven't weighed him in months, Toby is at least 70 pounds, and probably closer to 80. He has always pulled on the leash when we walk, but lately he's been pulling harder and more consistently. No amount of anything I'm capable of makes him not pull. I'm double his weight, but no match for the manic energy that propels him forward like the lead dog at the Iditarod.

On our last walk together we met several people along the trail. I could not make him sit still at my side while I talked, and spent long embarrassed moments with my arms wrapped around his chest trying to keep him from overwhelming and overloving his new friends.

Worse, he would not come to me on that day, no matter what. I always let him off the leash on our walks so he could run and swim and have adventures. He had always come back quickly and willingly - not because he's really well-trained, but because of the liver treat he found in my hand every time he came to me. On our final walk day the distractions of new people, something dead in the bushes and some devilish inner voice won him over completely.

By the time I got him home I was exhausted from physically trying to restrain him, frightened at the awareness that my control over him is more illusion than substance at this point, and deeply upset that I couldn't solve his behavior. He is my fourth Golden Retriever. I trained two of them on my own. I know what to do. It didn't matter with Toby. 

Walt is the primary trainer, as he was with our last dog Riley, a decision we made before we got Toby seven months ago. I am the primary groomer and walking buddy, as I was with Riley. Walt trains. I support by using appropriate language and having similar expectations for behavior.  I have morning duty. Walt has evening duty. I am the inside playmate.  Walt is the outside playmate.

 We intended to enroll Toby in obedience classes last spring, but that didn't happen. Without that accountability,  and without a consistent training schedule, Toby had become unmanageable. For me. Walt was still able to make him behave physically, but even he was struggling.

We had decided this time to not use a choke collar as a training tool. While effective, and considered appropriate  a decade ago when we trained Riley, choking is no longer recommended by most trainers or vets.

As I have been with more and more of my life lately, I decided that the struggle of trying to force Toby to mind was simply not worth it. Working harder was not changing his behavior or my ability to manage it. Walking him is supposed to be fun, and it had become frightening and frustrating instead. 

I shared all of that with his primary trainer as we returned from our walk a week ago. I was mostly calm, completely clear and deeply sad. If I couldn't walk Toby or trust in his training, I couldn't have the relationship with him that I long for.

 After researching online that night, Walt went out the next day and bought a Gentle Leader collar. Unlike choke collars which train by briefly cutting off air flow when you jerk the leash, these collars work by pulling the dog's head down and back - gently. Much like a mother dog correcting a pup or a more dominant dog exerting power.

The change was immediate and nearly miraculous. Toby has stopped pulling completely. He's almost stopped rolling on the ground to try to rub the collar off as well. One finger in the loop of the leash is all that's needed to manage him.

I'm staying resigned as head walker for now. There is still the issue of Toby's choosing when to obey and the danger that places him in. There is still the issue of who's the primary parent and what happens when parenting is inconsistent. There is still the issue of what my role really is in the raising of this willful, headstrong, atomically energized puppy.

I think about the amazing effectiveness of gentle where hard didn't work at all. It's a message I've been hearing for a while - one that I've wanted to believe but have had a really hard time grasping. If it works this powerfully with a dog, why not with my life?

Oh, and we start obedience classes tomorrow night. The three of us will go together. Walt as primary trainer. Toby as student. Me as cheerleader, photographer, and haver of fun.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Third Shimmer

I went to the monthly  meeting of my favorite book group last Sunday, eager to see the three women who are my sisters-in-reading, my sisters-in-seeking, my sisters-in-adventure. We've been a group for almost twelve years and have been through some stuff together. This is the group I went to the LA Times-UCLA Book Fest with over a year ago, the group I'm going to Croatia with next summer. This is the group I tried to quit once because I was so frustrated about people not reading the books we agreed to read. This is the group that would not let me quit - although they did give me some space and time to cool my jets.

We are me, Deb; Patty, a fellow teacher and someone I look to as a role model for courage and living life with the volume and gusto of an Italian tenor; Lou, an attorney and the one who organizes our outings with detailed, tightly packed and unbelievably fun itineraries; and another Deb, a school secretary who in real life is a gifted writer of children's books searching for just the right agent to help bring her work into the world.

Deb and I have formed a lovely and special bond in the last couple of years as fellow writers and bloggers. We read each other's blogs. We commiserate about the lack of time and energy our work life leaves us for writing. We are the two in the group who have always read all of the books - or tried to - and she's one of my favorite sources for new reading material.

When I walked into Lou's house on Sunday, the last to arrive, everyone was gathered in the kitchen. They were helping get food together for us to take out to our clubhouse - Lou's newly covered, screened and furnished patio - in the backyard. I was in the middle of a conversation with Patty when I became aware of Deb standing at my side with a blue folder in her hand. She mentioned my Shimmer post as she pulled out two pieces of paper. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing, even as Deb was explaining. Goose bumps exploded down my arms. Tears pooled and were blinked away. 

She had taken my Shimmer post, copied it into a site called wordle.net, and produced the word cloud you see at the top of this post. She gave me two clouds. One was black and white. The other vividly colorful. The size of the words is determined by how many times they are used in the piece being clouded. The site is free. The choices endless.

For the last few days I've been pondering the message in this third Shimmer. It seems that, like the word itself, the message is gentle and uncomplicated. A friend and fellow writer took the time to give me a gift of my own words. I'm trying really hard not to big-deal this. Deb is not one to big-deal; in fact she downplays a lot and is one of the most humble people I know. But my heart is bursting with the big-dealness of her thoughtful gift.

The story didn't end on Sunday.

I knew instantly that I had to blog Deb's gift. I knew I needed to show my Shimmer Cloud. I didn't know how to get the hard copy into  my computer. I was so proud of myself when I figured out how to scan the image (I know how simple it is, but I'm still pretty impressed with myself!). But it scanned vertically and I could not get the damn cloud to rotate and stay rotated. I finally asked Walt for help today (three days later), and less than five minutes later I'm ready to go.

As I always do at the beginning of a posting, I check my comments from the previous one. Today I found an additional comment from Deb, informing me that she had presented me with an award. I thought that was nice, but was not overly impressed. Until I went to her site and read what she wrote about me.

I've been stuck trying to start the rewrite of my book for days. This next draft requires me to get even closer to my story than I have before, in areas that I have so far managed to avoid. I have written an entire book about a search for a family to replace the one I was given when I came to this life, without ever really talking about my relationship with the parents who raised me. 

My inner voices, ever helpful, have been loud. "You're not that good a writer." "You're wasting your time. Who do you think you're fooling?" "Your story isn't that interesting. No one is going to care." "You're too old to be starting this. There's not enough time left."

I've been doing battle with them as best I can, but Deb's kind words are the weapons of light I needed to send those destructive words scurrying back into the darkness. What I'm feeling now is the shimmer of gratitude, the shimmer of hope, the shimmer of happiness. Is it possible that this is my new landscape? The new bottom line from which all else grows and flows? How blessed am I?

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Sometimes a word shows up, apparently out of nowhere, to bring a message. I rarely understand this with the first appearance of the word. It usually takes the magic of three before I start to pay attention. Sometimes the word hangs around for a very long time before I've learned the lesson it has to teach and it becomes a part of me. Sometimes, although much less often, we bond instantly and the new word finds a ready home.

Past words include Acceptance, Trust, Faith. More recent visitors have included Gentle, Be (as opposed to Do), Lighten Up. The words can be more direct and more timely: Call, Ask, Forgive. One thing is certain - these words always persist until I listen. They are not stopped at magic three if I am so thick I miss the initial invitations to learn.

Last weekend my youngest brother used the word Shimmer to describe a certain sound he makes with the cymbals of his drum set when he plays. Geoff is a talented musician and one of the most creative people I know. He is not a word person. So his use of such a magnificent word as Shimmer caught my attention instantly. I'd never heard it used in a musical sense - not being musically gifted myself - and loved the new-to-my-ears  application. Equally satisfying was my ability to know without being told the exact lightly echoing metallic whisper he meant.

Shimmer has always been a water word for me. The play of light on the gently moving surface of a river. The reflection of a sunset on a calm lake at the end of a perfect summer's day. Tears pooled at the edges of eyes just before they cascade down.

The very next day I heard someone use Shimmer to refer to the effect certain words on a page of writing created for them. My response to that use of my new word was one of delight. I have never used Shimmer to describe writing, but I so understand exactly how words can do that.

The thing is, I can't get it out of my mind - this new word Shimmer. I seem to be applying it to everything. What I'm realizing is how easy it is to use, and how incredibly, soul-tickling wonderful that is.

My being shimmers with this new light of freedom I'm wearing for the first time. My heart shimmers at the kind words of friends. My eyes shimmer with tears of joy at an unexpected gift that is exactly what I wanted without knowing I wanted it. Gratitude shimmers within and without for family relationships that heal and grow and fulfill. Laughter shimmers in the air easily and often for good reasons or no reasons at all. 

Light is essential for Shimmer to occur. And movement. And give. Shimmer is gentle and fluid and soft. Shimmer is dynamic, ever-changing, playful. I love this word.

I'm pretty sure Shimmer has not come to me the official third time yet. I think it has to because the rule of three is pretty firm. Which means that I have more to learn from my new friend. It has more to say to me, more to show me. I wait with shimmering anticipation.

Monday, July 14, 2008

No Loch

During the planning stages of the trip to Scotland from which I just returned, I made mental lists of the things I wanted to see and experience. I studied travel books, talked to people who had been there, went on-line. Then I threw all of my wants to the wind, wanting to trust that I would have the biggest and best adventure with the smallest amount of expectation.

I went over the ocean with only one non-negotiable desire. To see Loch Ness. I knew it was a silly thing to want, but it was the want that would not be denied. I had contacted our hosts and been assured that a day trip would get me the glimpse of the home to a monster who has lived happily in my imagination since I was ten.

Our first night in Edinburgh, as we planned the week, I mentioned Loch Ness and how excited I was that we were going to get to see it, even though we wouldn't be traveling its 25 mile length. Toni, who in an earlier e-mail had assured me that we would find a way for me to see this myth-misted lake, blanched and said that I must have misunderstood, or she must have miscommunicated. Loch Ness was too far north for us to do comfortably in a day trip.

The vacation had barely begun, and the denial of this one thing I had been promised had the potential to render it stillborn. How many times in my life has disappointment dashed expectations, not only for vacations but also for relationships? How many times have I lost what was on the other side of that darkness because I could not release what I held in my head and heart and hands? This was not going to be one of those times.

I swallowed, hard. I smiled, a small polite reassurance. I released - Toni from her promise and myself from the prison of disappointment.

Here is what waited for me on the other side of No Loch.

Toni and Dave, the thirty-something couple we stayed with, are Americans choosing to live overseas. They love Scotland and its simplicity and the warmth of its people. They've been there for over six years and have made it their mission to explore their new home fully. They are writers, artists, dreamers. Toni has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. Dave has a degree in furniture making and has won awards with his craft. 

Toni answered every question I had about the language, the people, the history of Scotland. Our comfort and enjoyment were her primary concern for the whole week. She has an infectious laugh, a huge and generous heart and the energy of a hyperactive adolescent. She drives Scotland like she's lived there forever. Dave is quietly kind, gently funny and was an amazingly good sport about having his life and his wife hijacked by three rambunctious women. 

Leora, a beautiful and talented artist from L.A. who was staying with Toni and Dave before we arrived, accompanied Toni and Pam and I for most of our adventures. Not yet thirty, she brought a sense of wide-eyed wonder and unrestrained fun as well as a dagger-sharp wit to every outing and conversation.

Those three, along with my traveling companion Pam - a gifted musician and songwriter - were a small artists' colony any time they gathered together. A colony that I got to be an active member of.

I didn't get Loch Ness, but I did get three new friends who happen to be fellow seekers and deeply creative spirits.

Our days were packed with sight-seeing and fun. I was well and energized and absorbed every moment of every adventure. We saw sheep and cathedral ruins. We saw Highland "Coos" and centuries-old watchtowers in the middles of fields. We watched a Border Collie herd sheep, helped by a farmer on an ATV  - then tickled ourselves with the realization that Border Collies are named for the Borders region of Scotland. 

We walked cobbled streets, delighted in cobbled homes with Hobbit doors, and hummed along to the music of English spoken in brogue. We walked a bridge built by the Romans and toured a castle where my childhood hero, Mary Queen of Scots, lived. We walked the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace where the current Queen was in residence. 

We watched a Japanese woman who went to school in Portland work on a tapestry reproduced from a 15th Century French weaving now owned by the Rockefeller Foundation in NYC. The finished tapestry will hang in Stirling Castle in Scotland.

We sat in a hotel lobby having drinks and watched a wedding party in full formal Scottish attire. Kilts of every style. The mother of the bride in a hat that would have made the Queen weep with envy. Babes in arms in kilts. The conversations floating on the air made magical by the lilt of the brogues embroidering each word.

We wandered Sir Walter Scott's home, explored ancient graveyards, stood at the birthplace of golf. 

The food was an adventure as well. Toni introduced me to Millionaire's Shortbread, a decadent combination of shortbread, caramel and chocolate. I ate haggis, neeps and tatties - the national dish that has gotten a bad wrap. Spicy sausage, mashed potatoes and turnips in a brown gravy. The turnips I could have done without. The rest I devoured happily. Fish and chips. Amazing cheeses. Heather honey and ginger ice cream, eaten while strolling through a postcard perfect beach town on a rare sunlit day. 

We saw the North Sea, the Firth of Forth, the Tweed River. No Lochs.

 If I had gotten Loch Ness, I would not have known without a doubt, for the first time fully, the unutterable joy of embracing adventure without control. I would have missed all of the connection and love that filled the place where I might have held disappointment and resentment. I would not have discovered that whatever space in the world I occupy - as long as my heart is there with me - I belong. 

No Loch. Freedom instead. Brilliant trade.