Follow the leader

When I was out with the dogs last night, we passed my neighbor Tony’s house and they both started their usual routine of wildly lunging toward and yapping at him as he stood out in his driveway. I tried to pull them away quickly, but Tony was already heading toward us.

“Oh, now, hold on!” he said with a grin. “That won’t work. Lemme show ya.” And show me he did, taking the dogs’ leashes and snapping them gently to attention, one on either side of him. He strode off down the sidewalk without a word to the dogs or a backward glance to me, with my indefatigable puller and my insistent sniffer both trotting along neatly just off his heels with their ears forward and their heads up. He went about half a block, turned around sharply, and returned them to me in the same fashion. As a family of cyclists approached and the dogs’ heads turned, he again gently snapped their attention back to him and they made not a peep. He even managed to get them to completely ignore a cat walking through his yard with just repeated quick tugs on their leashes.

He didn’t hit them or yell at them or haul them around or do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. He did consistently require them to keep their attention on him, and they seemed remarkably willing to oblige. At one point he squatted down and put Reggie by his side but slightly behind him. She sat down calmly and quietly gazed around her. Then he moved her to slightly in front of him, and she became instantly alert and distracted by activity on the street, completely oblivious to both of us. I was flabbergasted at what a difference 12 inches one way or the other made in her demeanor. He explained that when the dog is in front, she sees herself as the leader and therefore the protector of her pack, and that brings out her guarding and challenging behaviors. When I am in front of her, she no longer feels herself to be “on duty” and can simply relax. This is why it is so essential to walk the dogs at heel and not allow them to run out the length of the leash.

As I stood there watching this display of what Tony repeatedly called “calm, assertive leadership,” I think my jaw fell on the ground. I could not believe that my own two incorrigible little dogs were happily following this man, whom they’ve met only once or twice, and were so quick to do every single thing he directed them to do. Astonishing.

Tony’s dog-training rap is lifted straight from Cesar Millan, of course, and I’ve heard it hundreds of times: you have to be the leader of the pack if you expect your dog(s) to follow you. I understood this perfectly with my Rottweiler and practiced it well, so training her was a breeze. But with the little dogs, especially headstrong and independent Reggie, I’ve given up trying to control them on the walk because I just don’t want to put the time and energy into managing them every step of the way. It’s been easier for me to zone out, let them go where they want to go, stop where they want to stop, and act however they please toward the people and animals they encounter along the way. I know their bad behaviors are my own fault. But I really didn’t know until yesterday how to correct it. Tony not only corrected it completely but also made it look so easy that I felt acutely embarrassed by what I’ve been tolerating for so long.

Rudy has always been an easy dog to live with and to walk, so being a calm, assertive leader with him has always been easy, too. When I tell him to do something, he responds quickly, and he remembers when he’s been corrected. Reggie, on the other hand, has been a challenge from day one, and she has never responded to any of the training tricks I know. After months of trying and failing to curb her pulling on the leash, I just abdicated control of the walk to her. My contributions heretofore have been limited to perfectly useless asking, pleading, whining, admonishing and berating with many curses. Even when I’m telling her for the 50th time to “slow down” or “stop pulling,” I know she doesn’t understand a word I say apart from her own name and I feel stupid for doing it but I don’t know what else to do!


It is useless to ask a dog to do something and inadequate to tell her to do something. One must actually make the dog do it, one way or another. And it’s also high time I admitted that not yelling or swearing or visibly freaking out is not the same thing as being calm, or assertive. They deserve better leadership from me, and I know I can do better for them.

I resolved to be that better leader and put an end to the arm-stretching pulling contest with Reggie on this evening’s walk. I put a leash in each hand and positioned the dogs beside and slightly behind me, and away we went at a brisk clip. Rudy fell right into line, of course, and although I had to gently correct Reggie most of the way, let me tell you: It was a miracle. They didn’t pull my arms off, they didn’t stop to sniff at every tree and fence post, and they didn’t make much more than a cursory yap at any of the people or animals we passed. Astonishing.

This video demonstrates how to walk a dog “the Cesar way,” and covers all the points that Tony made to me about redirecting the dogs’ attention to keep them calmly moving forward.

I am ready and willing to reclaim my position as pack leader so that my dogs can retire from that role and simply enjoy their exercise without having always to be on guard and ready to rumble. Reggie’s shrieking, squealing challenges to all comers are audible for blocks around and we walk nearly every day, so I think every single one of my neighbors will (silently) thank me for finally getting my dogs under control.


Dog day

Today was all about the dogs.

Rudy went to the groomer this morning for a close shave because his coat had gone all to mats and because I don’t want to worry about it while he’s convalescing from his foot surgery, which is scheduled for next week.


The doctor and I are both thinking it’s likely that left outside toe is going to have to come off.

While Rudy was out, Reggie and I took advantage of the glorious spring sunshine to take a long walk out by the horse pastures not too far from our house. As we passed the horses, I noticed for the second time on our walks along that road the sound of several dogs yipping and squealing in an obvious attempt to get somebody’s attention. The first time I heard it, I saw people and a car near where the sound was coming from, so I didn’t pay it much mind. But today there was no one to be seen, so we went to investigate.

We found two adult border collies frantically throwing themselves against the walls of a large aluminum horse trailer sitting in direct sun. I peeked through the holes and saw a lot of feces on the floor around a chewed-up and bone-dry plastic dish. The trailer didn’t appear to be locked, but I was not going to let the dogs out onto an unfenced lot. They seemed friendly enough and were certainly energetic and healthy looking, but I know that dark trailer was heating up fast even with a cool breeze blowing.

A few dozen yards from the trailer was a good-sized shed where I found two younger, smaller border collies throwing themselves against a chain-link gate with equal vigor, and with a similar lack of amenities in their pen. Unlike the last time an animal’s distress calls disturbed my peace, I did not hesitate to pull out my phone and call animal control. I left a long message, got cut off by the voicemail demon, called back and left a second message, got cut off again, and felt completely helpless. So I tied Reggie to a nearby fence post and went across the street to knock on doors. Couldn’t find anybody at home, so we finally had to go on our way.

After we picked up Rudy from the groomer in the afternoon, I drove back to the pasture and checked on the dogs in the trailer again. They seemed fine in spite of the rising heat. I knocked on a different door, and this time found a lady who not only knew the owner of the dogs, but explained to me that he was a breeder (!) who was keeping them there only until they could be sold (!!) and that he had been there today to check on them (whew!). She said she also kept an eye on them and that they were being cared for. I told her I was very concerned about the dogs in the trailer as the weather gets warmer. She was very nice and said she would tell the dogs’ owner that somebody had inquired and was concerned. I went away feeling that I had done all I could and that they were going to be okay.


Walking the dogs separately was my treat for the day. When they are together, Reggie always has to be out front pulling hard to be ahead of Rudy, which is a near-constant strain on my arm and back. She’s also a fierce little street fighter who challenges any person or animal in sight in the most embarrassing fashion. Her aggression triggers Rudy’s aggression as well and they become a rather formidable bundle of belligerence.


When the dogs see little kids, they both get so yappy and jittery that I’m afraid their energy will scare the kids, who will make jerky motions with their little hands, and then there could be trouble, so when kids ask to pet them, I just have to say “sorry, thanks for asking, but they’re not really very friendly.” Walking them together, in fact, is and has always been a tremendous pain in my ass—Reggie constantly pulling, Rudy constantly stopping to sniff and pee, both of them acting like idiots at the mere sight of a cat or a kid or another dog or anything at all unusual that sets off their alarms. So having them one at a time today was delightful. Reggie got to be far out ahead of me on the retractable lead in her robustly independent fashion, and we both walked faster than usual. She was perfectly behaved, so not a harsh word was spoken.

When I took Rudy out by himself later in day, we walked much slower than usual so that he could take all the time he wanted to sniff and pee without Reggie hauling us along. He ignored all stimulus from other animals and people, and when a little girl stopped us and asked to pet him, I didn’t hesitate to let her because he was perfectly calm and polite. Reggie would have been the same way had she been by herself. There’s something about being in a pack that makes them act so unpleasantly together, and I haven’t been able to remedy it in nearly five years of walking with them. I realize the fault is in my failure to train them, and if I knew what to do to correct their behavior, I would do it.

So, why don’t I walk them separately every day? Time and energy constraints, mostly. Also, because the one who gets left at home takes it really, really hard, especially Reggie. When I take Rudy out, I can hear her squealing and crying at the door all the way down the block. I just can’t bear being the cause of those distress calls.


Things that go bump

I was combing out the boy dog after his bath on Sunday when I noticed a big pink bump on his front paw.


Because he’s 11 years old, the chances of this being something benign are small. So I took him to the vet this morning for an exam with Reggie along for moral support.

The doctor immediately frowned at this bump, saying “I don’t like the look of that.” A tech swept Rudy away to the back for a needle aspiration, while I held Reggie on my lap in the exam room and listened to Rudy squeal and cry while they did it. As we waited for the doctor to read the microscope slide and tell us what kind of tumor it is, I felt like a ski jumper who has just left the end of the jump, arcing through the air in free fall with no way to know where I would land. Could be nothing, could be a mast cell tumor, could be … well, it’s a good thing I always carry a tissue in my pocket.

After 12 long minutes, the doctor came back and said it’s not a mast cell tumor, but it is a fast-growing mass (i.e., not an infection or a bug bite or anything temporary like that) and needs to come off as soon as possible. The only question is how aggressively he should go after it. The options are essentially surface removal or amputation of the toe because there’s so little tissue margin around the mass. If he does a surface removal and doesn’t get it all, Rudy would have to have a second surgery to remove the toe. If he takes the toe off and cytology shows little risk from the mass, Rudy will have had an unnecessary major surgery.

Tomorrow the doctor will get Rudy’s blood work results from today and have a chance to consult with his colleagues on the best course of action, and then we will schedule the surgery. The bill for today’s diagnosis, blood draw and exam: $200. The estimate for the surgery made me weak in the knees.


I practically ran out the clinic’s door and sat on the curb in the parking lot with the dogs for several minutes before I could pull myself together long enough to dry my eyes, go back inside and sign the form authorizing the procedure. I apologized to the tech at the desk for my hasty departure, telling her “I had to go get my big girl panties on.” She was very understanding.


My only care is my dog’s good health. We will do what we have to do, as we always have. This is what emergency funds are for, after all.


Cheap therapy

One of the blogs I follow, All Seasons Cyclist, noted in a post today that “cleaning supplies are cheaper than therapy,” and I enthusiastically agree with that statement. He was talking about bicycle maintenance, but I’m going to talk about home maintenance.


Those who know me best know that house cleaning is my preferred therapy, in fact, and if I’m on a serious binge that has me vacuuming out the air ducts, tossing the closets from top to bottom, and swabbing the window tracks with Q-tips, I’m working something out in my head. My dad called once and I answered the phone slightly out of breath from vigorous cleaning. When I told him what I was doing, he gently inquired, “is everything okay?” He knows me so well.

Aside from keeping me occupied in a productive way when I might otherwise be plotting someone’s demise or committing other destructive acts, house cleaning offers many other tangible and intangible rewards. Not too long ago, I pinned a post from the blog Living Well Spending Less called “Why I Make My Bed {10 Reasons I Keep My House Clean}.” Abbreviated, her reasons are:

  1. It just looks better.
  2. I get more done when my house is clean.
  3. I’m not embarrassed to have people over.
  4. I can find things.
  5. My kids play better.
  6. It makes my husband happy.
  7. It saves money.
  8. I am more creative.
  9. It helps me get a good night’s sleep.
  10. It’s my job [as the stay-at-home parent].

My own list would be similar, but without the kids and husband part. Here are my top 5 reasons for keeping my house clean.

  1. I feel better about myself. Coming into the kitchen in the morning to a sink full of dirty dishes, or opening the closet and not finding any clean clothes to wear, or tripping over some bit of junk left on the floor when I get up in the night … these things do not happen in my house because I can imagine how I would feel if they did, and I can’t let them happen. Cleaning makes me feel productive and in control of my immediate environment, sure, but it also creates order that makes the activities of my days flow smoothly.
  2. I have less to think about when my house is clean. When my house is dirty, it’s like a hornet’s nest—it feels noisy and threatening, and I can’t relax or concentrate on anything. When all is in order, I feel peaceful. I can either stay in and enjoy it or go out without guilt about messes awaiting my return.
  3. I’m not embarrassed to have people over. This almost goes without saying! I ran a business from my home for many years that required me to be prepared to receive clients at any time during the regular workday. I generally saw clients by appointment, but sometimes people would just show up at my door with a job, so I always kept the public areas neat as a pin. This habit has never left me. I don’t have to worry about a neighbor dropping by and finding the place a wreck, nor do I have to spend more than 15 minutes getting ready to receive company. Usually I just have to straighten the pillows on the couch and toss all the dogs’ toys into a basket and it’s done.
  4. I can find things. When there’s a place for everything and everything’s in its place, I don’t have to spend a minute looking for or wondering where I keep the extra batteries or the light bulbs or the holiday wrapping paper or the number for the pizza place or last year’s tax return. I don’t have a random junk drawer that I have to rummage through when I need a rubber band. Everything is where it should be and easily accessed.
  5. It’s my job as a homeowner. This is my home, my refuge, my nest. If I don’t take care of it, nobody will. I worked really hard to buy this house, and I love living in it. Keeping it clean, organized, and well maintained inside and out is my way of respecting and honoring the spirit of my home.

We’ve all seen the cutesy signs in shops that say things like “Dull women have immaculate homes” and “A clean house is a sure sign of a wasted life,” and “Please excuse the mess, we actually live here.”

If I were going to hang a cutesy sign in my home, it might be one of these quotations instead:

Your home is one of your greatest reflections. It should make you happy. Live well.
~ Nate Berkus

The home should be the treasure chest of living.
~ Le Corbusier

There’s nothing like staying at home for real comfort.
~ Jane Austen

To be a queen of a household is a powerful thing.
~ Jill Scott


The change of life

Recent evidence suggests that my on-board egg factory either already has ceased or will soon cease production after dropping more than 400 payloads down the hatch. Which means that, among other things, all symptoms of unstable hormonal activity in my body will soon cease as well (I hope—Gott im Himmel, I hope!).


Knowhuttahmean, girls?

I am finally passing through the gates of the change of life, leaving my procreative potential behind forever. The maiden who never became a mother has now become a … crone.


Well, shoot, that’s neither a pretty word nor a pretty idea. But it beats the alternative:


Heh. Not yet.

I read all the time in the women’s magazines how single women of reproductive age who haven’t taken that option are pestered constantly by friends, family and strangers to explain why they haven’t. Funnily enough, almost nobody has ever put that inquiry to me. If they have, my answer is this: I would want any child of mine to be born in wedlock to his or her two biological parents who love each other and who can together provide a stable, loving home for that child. Because I have never been able to provide that, I have not had children. (Note: I don’t care what reproductive choices other women make, which are none of my business.)

The biggest deal breaker, of course, was not having the partner and fellow bioparent, otherwise known as the father, with whom to create and rear that child. There was a young man, once, back in high school, whom I envisioned in this role, but he was never interested in playing the part. I haven’t met anyone since who might have replaced him. I’ve had relationships, of course, but no permanent romantic partner. I have no excuses, apologies or complaints to offer for this state of affairs (or lack thereof). It is what it is. This is the life I’ve made and the path I’ve chosen. A partner and child(ren) were simply not part of the plan this time around.

The other deal breaker, entirely apart from circumstances, was always knowing that I don’t have the energy to play the short game of raising children to get through the days nor the patience and foresight to play the long game to get through the years, so I am not mourning the passing of my fertility and my potential to send forth my own little arrows into the future. My sister has two children, and I see them as my arrows almost as much as hers. They are the entire next generation of our immediate family, in fact. I know I could not have raised them one tiny fraction as well as my sister has, so I’m glad they are her kids in that respect. I think I’m a  good auntie, though, and they know I love them just slightly less than their mother does.

When my grandmother was my age, she had two adult children who had graduated college and married, two children in college, a second-grader at home, and her first grandchild (my brother). When my mother was my age, she had one adult child, one college student, and one teenager at home. I think our family represents a larger trend in more ways than one. My grandmother had a high-school education and five living children out of seven or eight pregnancies. My mother had a nursing degree and three children. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and no children. They say the more education a woman has, the less likely she is to reproduce. I never made a conscious choice to pursue my education or my career over partnership and family; it just happened that way.

Then, too, I always suspected it would. When that first early love of mine came to nothing, I really couldn’t see a partner in my future ever again. It always seemed to me that no matter how much I wanted it or how hard I looked for it or how hard I tried to make it happen with this person or that person, I just knew that no, this was not going to happen for me. They say there’s a lid for every pot, but I have seen that this is not true and I have finally stopped expecting it for myself.

I struggled against that realization for a long time because human beings are not made to be alone and not meant to be lonely. But some time in the past decade, without my noticing when it left, the intensity of my desire to be coupled has faded away to nearly nothing. I am still sometimes lonely in my heart, I will admit, but I am rarely lonely in the daily rounds of my life. I’m good at living alone and I enjoy it. I like having my own space my own way and making my own rules. Being single is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Being with the wrong person might be, though.

So instead of waiting for or dreaming about or feeling abandoned by love, I try to love myself and my life and everything and everyone in it with courage and commitment and integrity, just as I would a partner and child(ren), not holding back on living while I wait for The One to show up and flip my “on” switch so as to finally allow me to be the best potential version of myself.

When you’re younger, you have time to play that game, and perhaps a biological clock spurring you on as well. But once you pass through the gate, you start to realize that all you are is all you have and that all you are is enough.



Friends of the heart

A couple of years ago, I parted ways with a friend who meant rather a lot to me over what you might call irreconcilable differences. We’re not in touch anymore, but now and then I check her Facebook page to see that she’s doing okay.

Recently, she posted the following video of two old circus elephants who were finally reunited at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee after more than 20 years, with the message, “If only we knew love like this….”

These two animals obviously recognize each other, value each other, and want to be together. Clearly, they are not and cannot be mates. But just as clearly, they are the very closest of friends and companions. It might not even be going too far to say that they love each other, although with animals, who really knows what they feel?

Human beings do feel love for one another, though, and we can know love like this. But like these elephants, first we have to be set free to do so—free from the chains we lash around our hearts and our minds about what “love” is, how much of it we deserve, and who is “acceptable” to love, as well as who is not. I tend to think that the only limits on love are the ones we impose on it and on ourselves in an attempt to manage our own small fears: fear of connecting, fear of loss, fear of getting hurt, fear of change, fear of ourselves, fear of others. Everyone’s afraid of something, and nothing calls out the really deep, dark fears quite so strongly as emotional intimacy with another person.


They say, “an elephant never forgets.” I am not an elephant, obviously, but I am a Taurus, and that’s practically the same thing in terms of never forgetting. I can’t let go of every old hurt and hard time and bad scene I’ve ever known, but I also never forget anyone I’ve ever loved. I always tried to give my best to each of them. Whether I succeeded or failed in this endeavor, I cannot say. I know only that I tried.


I know that I gave the very best of myself to that friend I no longer have, and I regret the way things went between us because for about a minute out of our whole lives, we did have a love like that—not mates, but true friends of the heart.

Maybe 20 years from now, or someday, when we’ve both slipped our chains of convention and conditioning, we’ll meet and recognize each other as friends again.


Beyond the recipe

My mother sent me a cooking course on DVD for Valentine’s Day (thanks, mom!), and I’ve now watched all 24 lessons and learned about everything from how to properly handle a chef’s knife to how to pair food and wine—there’s actually a method to that madness; who knew? I will have to watch the series again and reread the accompanying book before I am ready to actually make some of the featured meals, but already I have taken up a few tricks that are making my kitchen a happier place.

The first thing I’ve made from the lessons is tomato concassé, which is just a fancy name for peeled, seeded, diced tomatoes. So simple, right? I now keep a bowl of those all ready to go in the fridge to put on scrambled eggs, into soups and sauces, on top of salads, or into any number of other recipes. That’s an easy, delicious way to get more veggies.

Another is roasting vegetables, specifically red peppers. I roasted a batch of those tonight, along with a couple of jalapeños, a poblano, and some garlic cloves.


These go very well with the tomatoes in soups and sauces, and are also good on sandwiches. If you haven’t roasted peppers before, learn how to do it here. It’s a little bit time-consuming, but the results are so worth it. There’s no better way to add flavor to veggies without adding fat than by roasting.

Watching this cooking course, I notice that the chef never measures anything beyond “add a little” or “add a lot.” The recipes in the book provide a shopping list and detailed preparation instructions, but not a single measurement anywhere, just “proportions to taste.” Apparently the goal of the course is to get you to think beyond the recipe and understand not only your ingredients and what they bring to the dish, but also taste and flavor and seasoning and how to add and adjust those to balance them to satisfy your own palate.

I’ve always been a recipe follower (okay, most of the time), and am a little uneasy not knowing how much basil or chicken stock or pepper I “should” add to a dish. But what I’m learning is that my nose and my palate can tell me better than a recipe can how much is enough and what is good. After all, the dish only works if I like it, right? Besides, it’s very freeing to be able to choose what the dish will be this time, and maybe make it the same way or completely differently next time depending on how well (or badly) it turns out. Cooking is a bit of an art, but mostly it is a craft that entails mastering tools, from ingredients to gadgets, as well as techniques.

Watching this chef season every dish and sauce with, literally, fistfuls of course salt has been more than a little nauseating for me; his palate and mine would, I’m sure, have very different definitions of “properly seasoned.” When I was a real tiny kid, a teenage babysitter talked me into playing the “open your mouth and close your eyes” game. Trusting her as only a 3-year-old can, I expected something sweet, but instead she filled my mouth with table salt and would not allow me to spit it out. I guess I have her to thank for my preference for comparatively bland food to this day. :-P

At any rate, I look forward to trying the techniques shown in the course and finding my own way to cook using what I know about food and flavor to make terrific meals. Maybe I’ll even start writing my own recipes.

The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking, by Chef Bill Briwa of the Culinary Institute of America.