Thursday, October 16, 2014

Say Less

     Agility class on a cool April morning.  Ruby, a smart and focused Jack Russell Terrier, hears her person say, "Walk," trots up the Dog Walk and starts carefully across, a tiny canine gymnast on a balance beam.  Her human jogs beside her saying encouraging little things in a sweet Texas accent, Ruby glancing her way each time she speaks.
     "You don't need to talk to her as she goes across," the teacher comments when Ruby is safely down.
     "Really?" Ruby's person says, adding a few syllables to what you may think of as "really."
     "Every time you say something Ruby's looking at you and thinking 'Is this important?'  You gave the command and she was carrying it out, so any new conversation is causing her to kind of recalibrate and it can be very distracting.  In general we need to say less to our dogs."
     This same teacher has to remind me almost every class that I should say Ivy's name less, that I'm sucking the meaning from it by over-use.  I try but often fail to resist spewing sweet nothings to Ivy Ivy Ivy as she climbs the teeter or races up the A-frame.  Slow learner, me.
     Say less.
     Is this important?
     If I edit the non-important stuff out of my general conversation, here's roughly what's left:
     I love you.
     I love you, too.
     Dinner's ready, guys!
     Could one of you go let the chickens out?
     Thank you.
     Ivy, stay.
     Good girl.
     Are you hungry?
     Where's your other shoe?
     I miss you.
     Good boy!
     Leave it.
     Are you thirsty?
     Great game, kid.
     It's raining.
     Want me to read to you?
     Let's sit on the porch.
     Good night; have sweet dreams.
     You're a good dog.  You're a good dog, too.
        P.S. Want to laugh and cry and feel more literate while never leaving your laptop?  Read some blogs over at yeah write and vote for your faves on Thursday.

Throw the Ball

     One September morning in 2008, my friend Lou called to tell me that David Foster Wallace, my favorite living writer, had hanged himself.  Everything slowed, then stilled: tiny hexagons of porch screen filmed with dust, thirsty plants everywhere I looked.  Our garden emerging from a valiant August struggle, not pretty but still cranking out tomatoes.
     It took only an instant to understand that I would never again settle down with a new Wallace short story or novel opened before me like a feast.  It took longer to understand that his old work would now be read through the blurry, irritating filter of his suicide.
     Still two years away from getting my first dog, I understood this: when I had my first baby, I forfeited the right to climb Mt. Everest, skydive, and commit suicide.  I had signed up to keep myself alive and healthy for as long as possible, no matter how miserable I might be.
    He didn't have children.  But he had two dogs: Warner and Bella.  He had spoken about how he didn't like to leave them alone, even for a couple of hours.  He considered quitting writing and opening a dog shelter.
     I bounced from anger (Guess what, Mr. Wallace: you don't get to be my favorite dead writer!) to compassion: I can't imagine pain so great that you volunteer to leave this beautiful world one minute sooner than necessary.  It's a step beyond what we call "crippling pain" or "debilitating pain."  It's deadly pain.
     Now I have Ivy and Revel, whose needs are simple: give us some food and don't ever go away!  Unlike my children, they're never going to fire me.  So that contract I signed when my babies were born is more binding than ever.  Eat good food and drink lots of water. No extreme sports or texting while driving.  When I feel sad, get off my butt and do something for someone else.  Keep planting tomatoes, even though the hammer of August awaits.  Boys: I'll be here whenever you need me.  Dogs: I'll be here until you're not.  I'll throw the ball until I can't, and cheer when you bring it back.

P.S. Happy to be linking up with yeah write this week. 

Wanna Get High?

     On a warm spring night the parking lot of our baseball field is crowded with people walking down to the pool; with no tattoos and at least forty percent of my body covered in clothing, I feel dowdy and old, a ragged billboard flashing Spill Milk on Me!  Tell Me You're Hungry!  Give Me Something to Wash!  I've dropped off my boys and their baseball gear, have parked a few acres south and am making my way back to the field with my chair, my sewing bag full of small blue jeans with blown-out knees, my two panting Australian Shepherds, my insulated cooler bag full of snacks and water for my kids and extra water in case any of their teammates forgot to bring water, which someone always does.  Sherpa for Hire!  Responds Well to Employers Under Twelve! 
     "Hey," I hear from a bearded young guy sitting in the deep shade of a live oak.  "Wanna get high?" 
     A weird little vibe runs from his shade to my sunlight and I don't have to think at all about whether he's talking to me or someone else.  I don't say, "No thanks," nor do I say, "I'm on the Board of this Little League and I suggest you and your drugs move along before I call the cops!"  Nor do I sic my Aussies on him, "sic" meaning they would tear over to the dude, cover him in dog spit and so many colors of fur that there is no clothing combination on the planet immune from the ravages of said fur.  Instead I elevate my Dallas-bred nose just a bit and keep walking with a quicker, happier step.
     Because I'm already high. 
     I don't feel like a dowdy tattoo-less Sherpa any more.  I feel the sense of purpose that having a family gives.  I feel the glory of being the food-provider, the one who makes little people half-close their eyes and say, "That was sooooo good," the one who makes the man of the house say, "Mmmmmm."  I feel the high of a forever marriage.  I feel the buzz of a garden crammed with green tomatoes on the fast-track to red.  I remember that I love baseball, that I admire the way those ten-year-olds zip the ball around the field.  I feel the buoyant joy of good health.  And this: I have a lot of things to do.  I don't want to do some of them, but I'll take the most tedious one on the list over sitting on the ground in a city park chasing a flimsy buzz.
     Thanks for asking, Mister.  I needed that.

Old Yeller Lives

    We have a hen named Bob who is able to fly out of the chicken yard into the dangerous world beyond.  Bob feels terribly superior upon landing on the exotic side of the fence; she scratches vigorously, lording it over her penned-in sisters.
    About thirty seconds later, she is consumed with remorse.  She races up and down on her side of the fence, clucking frantically for the paradise of water, kitchen scraps and pricey organic chicken feed in which her buddies are happily wallowing.
    The more upset she gets, the less she is able to remember the way back in.  Mr. Coyote: please stay busy elsewhere until Bob calms down and flies back over!
    Yesterday Bob was still out doing her dance of regret when the dogs and I had to leave the ol' homestead to go pick up the boys from school and take the younger one to baseball practice.  At the field the older boy sat on the open tailgate of my truck and tried to be polite whenever someone spoke to him, that is, distracted him from his book.  The first to do this was Juree, the homeless man who often shares with us his particular mix of common sense, delusion and old-time religion. "Son, you know the definition of integrity?" he asked my boy.  "The Webster Dictionary definition?"
     "It means being your real self, not your fake self," the kid said after a moment of thought.
     "Pretty close!" Juree crowed.  "Integrity means you keep your dignities," he said.
     "Yes sir," the boy said, his eyes turning stealthily back to the page.
     The dogs lounged against us and I scratched behind their ears, silently thanking them for not trying to rush out to the field to herd ballplayers.  I realized that my dogs live a cushier life than Juree does; they'd soon be heading home with us to sleep on beds, breakfast a sure thing, plenty of love in between.  My chickens also live a more luxurious life, with steady food, water and shelter, as long as they stay around to enjoy it.
     On the field, the helmeted boys were lining up to hit.  "Be a hitter, you're a hitter," their coach said quietly but firmly to each kid.
    "It's like them animals on the ark," Juree was saying.  (Now there's a story to make you love your own bed: forty nights on a boat while your old world drowns outside, a sample of every part of your new world crammed in the boat with you.)  "The goose," he said, "the gander, the doe, the buck, the sheep and the ram, the mare, the stallion, and Old Yeller of course."
     I suddenly found something very interesting to look at behind Ivy's ear and thought of our impending taxes to calm the laugh forming like a tiny tsunami, unbidden, right behind my breastbone.  Strange, because I cried my young heart out over poor Old Yeller, years ago.  
     "Yes," I said, bald tax guy, hope we don't owe too much.  "Yes."  Was he referring to my dogs, or to the microcosm of life there at the ballpark: young and old, privileged and lacking, agile and broken-down, dignities intact and not?  I don't know.  One of the worst players on the team slammed a ball into left field.  The next struck out, sprinted stoically to the back of the line.      
    My own life is very certain; the biggest chance I take is making a new recipe for dinner, and I'm filled with regret and dread as I do it, sure my family won't like it, wishing I had made an old favorite instead.  Racing senselessly up and down on the wrong side of the fence, wondering why I ever flew out.
     When do we stop crying our eyes out over films and books?  When did I?  I miss the pure, untroubled sorrow of sobbing over a character I've known for a few hundred pages, or a couple of hours.  Too much to cry over in real life: there's my answer.  Of course Old Yeller was on the ark, because everything was.  Why didn't I think of that?   

P.S. Check out the great collection of blogs at this week's yeah write;  I'm happy to be among them.

The Power-Lick

     A certain determined young boy in my family likes to make charts of Ivy's and Revel's preferences, the main point of which is to prove that Ivy loves him best.
     "See, I'm up here," he begins. . .and then he digs his heels in and prepares to defend his claim at all costs.  The other two males in the family cannot help but refute him.  I keep right on cooking, Ivy at my feet (ahem); this is not the hill I'm going to die on.
     "Ivy definitely loves Bear best," the other boy says.
     "No, she loves me best," says Mr. Determination, "then Bear next.  Bear, doesn't Ivy love me best?"
     I roll out my sweet, neutral, possibly-maddening mama answer: "She loves us all dearly."
     Ivy is with me all the time, looks to me for instruction, and keeps very close tabs on me.  She sleeps next to me, is sad when I go and ecstatic when I return.  Her ideal situation is for the four of us to be in the same general area so she can keep tabs on all of us.  But if we split off in different directions, she chooses to go with me.  Is that love?  It's priceless, whatever name it goes by.  That said, she gets different things from each of us and she knows it.  The chart-making boy is the most generous belly-rubber, and Ivy will often flop down and offer her belly at the sight of him.  Both boys do things I will never do, like get down on Ivy's dog bed with her and roll around, or play hide-and-seek with yucky hiding places such as under the dog bed, the mere thought of which makes me sneeze.  They're much sweatier and tastier than I am.  They don't care if the dogs are filthy or if clouds of fur are floating off of them.  They bring a playfulness to both dogs that a forty-four year old woman cannot match.  They will also stretch out on the floor and let Revel do his "power lick" (intense and prolonged licking of the same spot, probably sweaty spot, on your body), which personally makes me itchy.  Both dogs love us all and regret the absence of any one of us.
     Love doesn't fit into a chart anyway, my dear; it's too big and beautiful and 3-D.  We're all loved passionately; life is practically power-licking us!  Let's enjoy it together, okay?

The Wave

     Just when the "Extreme Fire Danger" signs were starting to pop up again, three blessed inches of rain fell on Austin Tuesday night.  A real storm, complete with thunder and lightning and the magnificent sound of water slamming onto our metal roof; we caught about four thousand gallons in our rainwater collection system, and I'd rather have that water than any thing from any store in the whole wide world.  Ivy protected us from the storm by pacing back and forth across the bed, standing at alert and growling at the windows.  Revel slept straight through the whole thing like the good peaceful boy he is.
     Yesterday the yard was too muddy for the dogs to play in, so I took them on extra walks to make up for it.  At noon my neighborhood seemed absolutely deserted, of people that is. Almost every place we passed had a dog or two, left in the yard while the people worked, I suppose.  Almost all barked with a combination of joy (Something to do!) and menace (You're on my turf!).  Each time I told Ivy and Revel to "leave it" and kept them moving forward, and when they looked at me wonderingly I told them to be glad they were out on a walk, their third walk of the day, instead of left in a yard.  They seemed to sense their good fortune and they walked along regally, sniffing the rain-washed air and occasionally touching noses in a way that makes this mother's heart sing.
     I thought about all the ways in which my Aussies resemble human toddlers (nap a lot, bad at sharing, find value in a toy only when the other guy has it, don't like to be alone) and all the ways in which they don't (extremely fast, in Ivy's case, and strong in Revel's).  I thought about a house that used to be on my Meals on Wheels route, if the word "house" is even appropriate.  It was more like a junkyard, fenced in sagging chain link topped with barbed wire, with a structure at the back in which people lived.  The sheet I'd been given with notes on each client read, "Do NOT approach the house!  Dog will bite!  Client will come out to receive the meal.  Honk if necessary."  This was a year or two shy of my falling in love with Ivy, and at that point I was still terrified of most dogs.  But this dog was legitimately terrifying, almost a caricature of a junkyard dog, lunging and barking and hurling himself at the chain-link gate, in part because he had nothing else to do.  All I thought at the time was that I didn't like going to that particular house and looked forward to moving on to my next client, sweet Mr. Flores (R.I.P.) who was always delighted to see me and loved to talk baseball.  But walking through our lovely neighborhood with my
Lucky us.
spoiled dogs yesterday, I suddenly thought of that poor creature who had not a blade of grass to roll on, no toys, no training except perhaps to kill, no companionship and probably no love.  He was a living alarm system, bless his heart.  Then for two weeks in a row no one came out no matter how I honked and how the dog barked, in which case we're allowed to give the meal to a homeless person, and then the house got taken off my route.  I wonder what became of him.
     And now let's end with a dog at the opposite end of the spectrum, my parents' year-and-a-half-old Micajah.  He has had great training from a lady named Stacey who comes to my parents' house, patrols a deer-filled property but is protected from the road by an underground electric fence, entertains and is doted on by the residents at my grandma's nursing home and goes everywhere with my mother.  Here he is doing his "wave," tongue out in anticipation of his treat.  Life should be so delicious for every dog.

Mama Always Comes Back

      We were talking about the words Revel understands, apart from Sit and Down and other cues that go along with hand signals.  He clearly knows "breaklast," which we purposely mis-pronounce in honor of a certain little girl who used to say she wanted her breaklast, and "lunch" and "mush."  He also knows "treat" and "vitamins" and "let's go see the chickens."  He should know "handsome" and "such a sweet boy" because he's heard those words more often than breaklast, lunch and mush.  And who knows what he has learned from the confused jumble of my clumsy body language.  Just sit back and wait for the mush.
     I make a point to say "Let's go for a walk," when I put their harnesses on and get the leashes, and I wish Revel could somehow tell me right then that he would prefer not to go for a walk.  He acts enthusiastic about it as far as the trash—he loves to go down to the trash—but when we turn the corner and he realizes that he's in for more than a trash run, he sometimes plants himself and refuses to go any farther.  Oh, Ivy and I are annoyed; we desperately need exercise to stave off the anxiety (Ivy), fat and grumpiness (me).  When Revel decides he's not moving, he is unmovable.  He is a seventy-pound Aussie statue.  Unless we turn back in the direction of home, in which case he picks up the pace.  Put him in the yard, start over on what is now a girls' walk.  He waits for us happily, unfettered by our feminine needs.
     Since I read that dogs think in "thought pictures" I sometimes try to communicate with mine in a visual flash, usually when I'm leaving them behind.  I picture my truck leaving the driveway, then returning a little bit later, just as I used to tell my children, "Mama always comes back."  I haven't been leaving them much lately, because the weather is cool enough for them to wait in the car for a bit if necessary.  But now I am faced with the horror, oh the agony, of actually getting on an airplane and leaving my home from this Friday to Monday.  Without my Aussies.  Should I try to tell them somehow?  Should I expand my thought picture to demonstrate that they will be here with my husband, getting lots of affection and contraband snacks and getting to jump up and nip and be bad bad bad?  That I will come back, just a lot later than I usually do?
     I know I should try to be calm and happy and not let my anxiety free-float around the house, because Ivy is anxious enough without my help.  I know it will be a good trip.  The boys and I are going to Mississippi to my parents' beautiful, comfortable house where I will not be in charge of the cooking or the cleaning.  Woo-hoo!  I hope I'll get some good pictures of Micajah, my parents' Westie.  And I hope Ivy and Revel will forgive me.

S.O.S. from Austin!

     When I moved to Austin in 2003, everyone told me I had a five-year grace period before the cedar pollen would come lookin' for me.  Oh not me, I thought.  I've never had allergies.  Allergies are for the weak and whining!  I watched my fellow Austinites suffer each January, wondered at the bumper stickers that read "The Only Good Cedar is a Stump" and felt superior.  My blunt-force determination helped me last eight years.  Now I, too, am weak and whining, living in a fog of I.Q.-destroying pollen.  This blog is on the verge of devolving into stick figures and monosyllables.
     Ivy and Revel are mystified by this development and, worse, are on a constant quest to get hold of my used tissues.  Please!  I continue to walk them, throw the ball for them, work on Revel's "stay" and take them places, but it hurts to talk, I sneeze all the time, and the joy is gone.  And they know it.
     Meanwhile, I am more amazed than ever by the perfection of their health.  They are either deeply asleep or awake and bursting with joyous life.  They are never partly asleep with things aching, or awake but functioning only via will power and caffeine.  They run, make sudden stops and turns that would rip a poor human knee to shreds, they jump and roll and bark and sleep deeply and do it all over again.  Yesterday I dragged myself out to the big field to throw the purple ball for them, and they were so happy and so good.  I think they knew I couldn't call them loudly, or perhaps that I needed them, and they never went out of my sight.  It was as if they knew I was doing my best for them, and they gave it right back.
     Not one shred of the common advice for dealing with cedar works with my lifestyle.  Check it out: avoid going outside (very funny), don't have pets because they bring in the pollen (ha ha), if you do have pets bathe them frequently (Ivy and Revel are calling their lawyers), and if you must go outside, strip off your clothes before you enter the house and go straight to the shower (Don't worry—my servant will bring in the groceries, put them away and start cooking while I luxuriate in the shower).
     January will pass.  I think.  There's a sixty percent chance of rain this Monday, rain that would knock the killer pollen down some, maybe even wash it off my house and pets!  And when I'm feeling better, my perfect young dogs will be ready to play with me, I know it.

Party On, Revel

     My family is steeped in Elvis-lore.  Elvis's father worked for my grandfather, my mom has for almost sixty years maintained a crush on the King which was not lessened by his death, and my youngest son was almost born on Elvis's birthday.  My friend Jessica and I wanted soooooo badly for the baby to come on January 8th.  We were both sooooooo disappointed on the morning of the 9th when I was still pregnant.  But it turns out that True needed his own birthday; he has too big a presence to celebrate in Elvis's shadow.
     Revel was almost born on Valentine's Day, a holiday I adore and celebrate to the max, but he came on the 13th instead.  He is the lovingest puppy in the whole world, innocent and sweet and babyish, and he would have been a perfect Valentine's baby.  But we'll give him a big send-up on his day, and Valentine's can be reserved for me to woo my family with some chocolate delight.  True chose lemon cake for his birthday this year.  It was not easy to make and crazy-good, a heady cake for a ten-year-old boy.
     I don't know what Revel would choose if he could, because he seems to enjoy all food equally, and he also seems to inhale it without tasting.  Whatever I make for him, I can count on him to accept it with massive enthusiasm.
     And in breaking news, Mr. Chill has demonstrated this week that he is no pushover, never mind that Ivy runs him over like a tractor on a regular basis.  Oliver the chocolate Lab is staying with us for a few days, and Revel has challenged him or, one could say, informed him of the facts, a couple of times, even though Oliver is gigantic and could certainly take Revel down if he decided to.  Last night Oliver walked over to Revel's dog bed and started to curl his gigantic shedding self into a comfortable napping package, and Revel went over and growled a long, low, that's MY bed growl.  Oliver got up and loped away to find himself another napping spot.
     "Sorry, Oliver," one of the boys said.  "Revel's king of the dog bed."  It may be the only thing Revel's king of, but the dog bed is definitely his domain.  He goes straight to it from his crate in the morning and naps for a bit before he can be bothered to go outside.  He spends a lot of time sculpting it to his liking.  And when I dare to wash it, he takes seriously his job of getting it back to the proper shape and filth.
     Today would have been my mother-in-law's birthday, had she not died two years ago.  She was an awesome mother-in-law, and I loved telling her how crazy I am about her son.  I was lucky to have her.  I'm lucky to have him.  When I say the words, "Bruce is home," Ivy and Revel go crazy with joy, reminding me to put down my dishcloth or pot-holder and do the same.
     So much to celebrate, and my little fur-baby's birthday has moved to the top of the list.
Ivy takes a swimming lesson from Oliver.


     Ivy and I went to our first flyball class yesterday and it was FUN.  I took my ten-year-old assistant with me and it would have been difficult to manage without him, especially because we had to bring a crate and I couldn't have carried the crate, a motherload of treats, Ivy's squeaky doughnut that doesn't squeak anymore because she ripped the squeaker out, her portable water-drinking gadget and held on to the girl herself.  Thank you, True, for helping our first class go well.
     I was a little worried about the crate.  As in agility trials, in flyball the dogs are crated on the sidelines when it's not their turn.  But my agility teacher doesn't bother having us crate our dogs as it's a class, not a trial, and Ivy stopped sleeping in her crate some months ago.  But we did some practicing with her beforehand, which means I tossed pieces of bacon into the crate, said "Crate!" and clicked as she went in.  It turned out not to be an issue at all, thanks to the wonders of pig fat and the rigors of flyball; when it wasn't her turn, she seemed happy to have a break in her little den, as did the other dogs.  (The two small dogs in the class, "Chiquita" who looks like a dachshund but with long legs and "Kyle," a Yorkie, have crates that are decked out like palaces, or like the cribs of treasured infants, with many colorful fleecy items.  Ivy's crate looked rather Spartan in comparison, but more dignified for sure.)
    We worked on three things in the action-packed hour.  First, asking Ivy to go get a stationary ball and bring it back, the purpose of which is to see if she is "right-handed" or "left-handed."  This is determined by the direction she turns to come back to me, and will determine how we train her to do the swimmer's turn off the flyball box.  We couldn't figure out her handedness, however; she turned both ways an equal number of times, so my homework this week is to find out if she turns one way more than the other.
    Second, we worked on having each dog go over a series of jumps, placing the jumps close enough together so they could do them with only a single step in between.  No double-stepping!  Ivy was able to single-step with the jumps seven feet apart, but she'll have to work up to ten feet to be a true flyball Queen. One of the teachers of the class told me he had an Aussie mix who worked up to 9 feet and six inches but never could do ten, and he eventually had to give up.  "She's a good dog, though," he added.
     And third, we took each dog to a wall and asked them to target a chuck-it stick (touch it with their noses, no mouthing), moving it higher until the dogs had to jump some to touch it, front paws also touching the wall.  Next step to this will be having a toy in my other hand and swooping that hand down so Ivy turns towards it after the "touch," forming the basis for her swimmer's turn.  Ivy did great with the wall thing, and even got some applause.  But we've spent a lot of time working on targeting; when I hold out two fingers or hold out something else and say, "Touch," she will faithfully touch it with her nose and doesn't seem to ever think about not touching it.  I love it when time spent on something pays off!  It doesn't always happen that way.
     When Kathy, the head honcho, said, "Work on this at home," I started thinking about which wall in my house I want to sacrifice to Ivy's paws, and I'm still thinking.
     We went home, Ivy took a massive nap and I gave Revel a massive belly rub to make up for leaving him behind.  Next week I'm going to take my twelve-year-old assistant, because I can't have too many assistants; we can't wait.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Party at Ivy's House

     Lots of exciting things coming up: for example, Ivy's first birthday is a week from tomorrow.  I already know what I'm going to wear (my slinky black dress and my beloved John Fluevog black heels).  I'm going to make a stinky carnivorous treat for the two dogs, and a four-layer lemon cake for the four humans.  A certain cherished member of my family who is twelve years old and whose name begins with B no longer likes chocolate, so I am branching out in my dessert-making. (If you own stock in Ghiradelli, sell now!)  I'm going to waste tons of time this week making a slideshow of my year's worth of photos of Ivy, and we're going to generally toast the fabulousness of our girl.  She may not know why we're celebrating, but she's always, always up for some fun.
     The other much-anticipated event in our lives is this Thursday, when the temperature is going to plummet all the way down to a high of ninety-five.  We are super-excited about this arctic blast, because ninety-five is a full fifteen degrees below the highs we've been having.  Last night at the 110-degree baseball practice, that's all we talked about: Thursday, Thursday, wonderful Thursday.  Only two more baseball practices between now and then. Only two more dinners to cook in my hot kitchen.  Only a day and a half more of listening to my dogs pant while they sit still and do nothing.  I guess they might still pant, but it won't be as bad.  Can't wait.
     Back to Ivy's birthday!  Why celebrate a dog's birthday, especially when every day is a big party as far as she's concerned?  Because she and I have worked hard the last year to get her to where she is now.  Because she has brought me some new and wonderful friendships.  Because she helps me see the world as happier, more interesting and more fragrant than I ever thought it was.  Because after recently watching my friends Michelle and Rachel suffer the deaths of their dogs Violet and Ethan, I am more grateful than ever for each moment I have with Ivy.  Because she has survived this brutal summer with me, and has done so with an Aussie smile on her face.   Come on, Thursday; maybe we'll start the party then.

Aussie Party at Our House

     Early this morning a cold front blew through the Texas hill country, although it would be more accurate to call it a "not quite so hot front."  But we'll take it!  First day in forever with a high under ninety, and I discovered some startling news about my Aussies.  All these months I thought they were following me around the house because they love me so dearly, but turns out it was because the temperature in the house was more comfortable than outside.  Way more comfortable.  This morning, finally, the Texan outdoors felt cool and fresh and the house seemed stuffy and hot in comparison.  Out the dogs went, and out they stayed.  They tore around the yard, barking and dive-bombing each other, taunting each other with filthy toys and things they've stolen from the recycling, and didn't come in at all.  Didn't look for me.  Didn't check to see where I was.  Didn't follow me when I walked past them to feed the chickens.  I was crushed!

     But happy for them.  It's nice to see them so frisky, so engaged with each other, nice to see them sniffing the air joyously instead of plastering themselves to the cool tile floor of the kitchen and declining to budge.  I finished the breakfast dishes, started some stock for soup (Yay for soup weather!), started a bread sponge (Yay for baking bread without incinerating my kitchen!) and went outside to throw the purple ball for them.  They were waaaaaay too fired up to bring it back to me consistently; Ivy grabbed it and continued sprinting around the yard with the ball in her mouth, darting up to me for another throw every so often.  I sat and watched them, thinking about how fun it will be to wear long sleeves, to cuddle up with my husband, to eat Honeycrisp apples when the fall crop comes in, and to be able to walk my dogs at times other than 5:00 AM.  Yes, the drought continues.  We've just finished the driest twelve months in our state's history.  Am I partying while Rome burns?  Kind of.  But my dogs' joy is contagious.  I felt unreasonably happy sitting outside with them, throwing that spit-covered ball.  Now, hours later, the bread is cooling on my kitchen table, the stock has turned into minestrone, and the temperature begins with an "8."  Not a 9, not a 1 followed by two other numbers.  I'm going to live it up while I can.

Do Bad Dogs Have More Fun?

     Ever since passing her Canine Good Citizen test a couple of weeks ago, Ivy has been on a tear of bad behavior.  She's been whiny, begging at the table, and viciously scolding people who don't comply with her grand plan as Queen.  For example, when my husband comes home from work, my younger son and Ivy compete to see who can reach him first.  The kid almost always wins, because he closes the gate to get a head start and then I feel sorry for Ivy and go open the gate.  She races out like her Aussie butt is on fire and scolds and fusses and complains because the human boy has reached the human man before she did.  My husband then opens the tailgate of his pickup and she flies up and receives more high-quality lovin' in five minutes than some dogs get in a lifetime.  Revel doesn't dare try to greet the incoming human, lest he lose an ear or something.  He waits patiently, panting and blinking and looking cute.  He knows there's a great store of love in the household, that a fat percentage is heading his way.
     When people have recently congratulated me on Ivy's passing the test, I've been forced to say, "I don't know that she really deserves it."  In general.  At the actual test she was amazing.  Passed with flying colors, in Petco, with no treats.  Then comes home and acts increasingly goofy with lots of treats and no Petco smells.  But I have decided (with the help of some dear readers who know Aussies better than I do) to take it as a good sign that at least she recognized that the testing situation was an important occasion to which she needed to rise.  Unfortunately she also recognizes that hanging out at home with the family is not a nerve-wracking occasion which demands exemplary behavior, and no doubt that perception is due to some failing on my part.  I saw a Border Collie-themed bumper sticker the other day that read, "Great dog! Shame about the handler!" and my initial thought was, "Oh no!  That's me!"  But I had some better thoughts after that, such as: Ivy and Revel love me, Ivy and Revel love me.  Ivy and Revel are awfully cute, Ivy and Revel are awfully cute.  Ivy is my darling girl, Revel is my baby boy.  Just put that on an endless loop, and I can rise to any occasion.

Baby Love

      We keep a small dock on the kitchen counter for playing Pandora radio through an iPod, and my younger son begs to hit the "thumbs down" feature that means you'll never, ever hear that particular song again.  There I am cooking away when on comes Sam Cooke singing some shot-to-the-heart.
     The kid: "This is the worst song ever!  Can I hit thumbs-down?"
     The cook: "No!  This is Sam Cooke!  He was one of our greatest singers!"
     Sam Cooke: "If I had someone to love me true, then I know I wouldn't be so blue. . ."
     The kid: "This is terrible."
     The cook: "Would you set the table?"
     Ivy bursts through the dog door, Revel on her heels, both panting and expressive, seeking eye contact, trying to tell me what an exciting thing they've seen outside.
     The cook: "Hi baby loves!  Did you see a deer?  Or was it a squirrel?"
     The kid, immersed in table-setting: "There's no such thing as a baby love!  Why do you call them that?"  He is familiar with the Supremes singing this classic because it's one he'd very much like to thumbs-down.  I have the perfect answer: "I call them that because they are my baby loves."  Take that!
     Now that the weather is cooling off some, Ivy and Revel are choosing to be outside more, rather than going out only when following me (and they would follow me through molten lava, which is precisely why they are my baby loves).  Since we have a dog door and since they love to fly through it at warp speed, I try to make sure human-door-opening moments are handled with some manners.  "Wait," which to me means dogs wait for human to go through first and then go through themselves when released to do so, is one of the more useful things they know and was also the easiest to teach.  Obviously they could do a sit-and-stay while I go through, but "wait" is a little less formal; they can stand or sit or down, as long as they aren't jostling for position or barrelling ahead of me.  It can be taught to even a very young pup, because it's so clear, and here's how you do it:  first get some treats or be prepared to deliver lavish praise or both.  Approach the door with your furry baby love, who will automatically be waiting for you to open the door since she can't open it herself.  Whatever her position, look down and imagine the dog absolutely glued to it.  Open the door a crack and if she stays put or looks to you to see what will happen next, say softly, "That's right," and let a feeling of warm encouragement go from you to her.  If she makes even a micro-move toward the door (and the move is not as micro to her as it is to us), close the door.  You don't need to say "No," or anything else.  The door opens when she waits and it closes when she moves.  Do it fifteen times if you have to, but keep a very happy, matter-of-fact attitude.  There's no good or bad; there is simply the fact that the door is going to open for a waiting dog, and the door is not going to open for a not-waiting dog.  Revel, who is a very visual learner and does far better with hand signals than spoken commands, understood this quickly; three or four door-closings and he sat and waited to see what would happen if he didn't move toward the door, because he already knew what would happen if he did move.  The first time, you might stop at this point.  The next time, go a little farther and see if the dog can wait until the door is opened wider, then make a big deal of releasing her to go through.  If you have a release word like "Free," great, but if not. . .it's not difficult to communicate release to a puppy who is intently waiting for it.  "Yay!  Go ahead!  Good girl!"  Don't even go through yourself.  Next time, if she seems to know that you are Master of Door Opening, go ahead and add the word, "Wait."  And don't underestimate the power of speaking dramatically and picturing the dog doing exactly what you ask of her.  It's fun!  And it might someday save you from tripping over an Aussie butt.
     Ivy and Revel have no idea what it's like to be without someone to love them true.  Their biggest problems right now are that the squirrels are faster than they are and the deer don't want to play with them.  I think they enjoy being asked to wait at the door and then doing it well.  They seem to feel comfort in knowing how to act in a given situation, and pride in their knowledge.  And of course they looooove that big thumbs-up from their cook.

Dancing With a Dog

     Ivy learned a cute thing this week called "back," which can be either flashy or useful.  The flashy version means I take a step forward and she moves with me, then I take a step back and she backs up in tandem.  I always wanted to dance with a dog!  The useful part kicks in when she follows me into the laundry room and spies a sweaty sock encrusted with ballpark dirt and I say "back" and she gracefully backs out of the narrow door to seek disgusting prizes elsewhere.  There are plenty to be found around this place, I'm sorry to say.
     When my boys are not busy asking me what animal I'd like to be (mother bear all the way), they sometimes ask if I'd like to be a kid again, or be a certain age again.  They often say, "What would you be doing right now if you could do anything you wanted?"  I usually say, "I'd be right here with you," which is the truth; there's no going back to the time before I knew these boys, dogs, husband, the time when I could have done exotic, far-away things with my heart intact.
     "Back" is a piece of cake to teach, although I never would have figured it out myself (Thank you, Ginny Stover!).  For me (right-handed and right side of my body very dominant), I put Ivy on my left with something blocking her movements to her left.  Picture a grocery store aisle, or a bank of cabinets, with the dog between you and that.  If the dog sits, move forward a little so she'll stand, encourage her without too much verbiage, then make a slight but clear pivot toward her with your right hip and right leg.  Let your left leg remain still.  Be quiet!  This motion—and cramping of the dog's personal space— should cause the dog to back up a step or two, in which case you deliver a well-timed click or "Yes!"
     When she has backed up reliably several times, you can start to add the verbal cue.  Ivy learned "back" in record speed, for reasons mysterious to me.  We do it every day, and we both get a kick out of it, and occasionally it's exactly what the situation calls for.
     Yesterday we hit a hundred degrees here.  Again.  October, come to me!  September has not been pleasing to the Dog Queen, her Jester, or the Mother Bear.  We very much want to go forward, not back.

Sweet Darling Baby Boy

      Someone wrote in to complain that this blog contains way too many words.  Well. . .I love words,  and you're lucky I'm restricting myself to English!  For example, yesterday I learned a great Spanish phrase used to express the idea that you may not be fluent but can speak well enough to understand and to answer back, even though your answer may sound like that of a four-year-old: "Me defiendo bastante bien."  It literally translates to "I defend myself well enough," but in Spanish it sounds cooler and more casual.  What it pretty much means is : I get by.
     And I do.  A year ago I was frantically preparing to bring Ivy home, reading dog books like mad, buying crates and leashes and collars and searching for a vet who wasn't a shot salesman disguised as a vet.  Long road, that one.  I turned forty-three, flew from Austin to Albuquerque to pick up my sweet girl, suffered the nightmare flight home and embarked on the life I'm in now, the best life I have ever lived.  I'm glad I never had a dog before Ivy, but that's a story for another day.
     I didn't know that a sweet funny dear boy Aussie would join us six months later, but what do I know?  My dogs don't need words.  They need clear body language, a happy spirit flowing out of me, a warning look now and then, and an expression on my face that is the equivalent of an embrace.  In honor of them, I'll stop now.

The Sweet Spot

     I spent all day yesterday baking for my kids' school bake sale, as in baking until my feet and hips throbbed from standing in the kitchen so long and my neglected dogs put their heads down on their paws and made sad noises.
     The older boy had volunteered me to make two things he personally likes: chocolate chip peppermint cookies and cranberry-orange bread, but in huge quantities and it took forever.  The younger boy had stated that he was going to take some of his own money to the bake sale so he could buy all my cookies.  I suggested he save his money and eat some cookies at home for free.  He is not one to be deterred, however.  I refer you to any previous post that mentions him.
     While I sliced cranberries and sifted cocoa, I tried to figure out how much money my cookies and bread could possibly bring in, not even attempting to calculate the cost of the ingredients and of course not attempting to calculate the cost of my time.  I truly enjoy baking, but. . .wouldn't it make more sense to just write a check?  What if the school sent home a note that read, "Please send a check in the amount of the ingredients you would purchase to make two or three baked goods plus fifty percent markup plus the cost of your time if you are gainfully employed and not a housewife whose husband must slave away to support her Aussie habit"?  I would have written that check in a heartbeat, and Ivy, Revel and I could have spent those many hours working on stuff like "give me a kiss," "spin" and, in Ivy's case, COME.
Messy recipe = yummy recipe.
     Ivy's first agility class starts this Thursday.  I am beyond excited, but also worried that we will get kicked out and/or be completely humiliated in some way.  I am still irrationally attached to the idea of being a good student.  I'd love to run out and buy a new notebook, or sharpen some #2 pencils, but what I actually need to focus on in the next few days is having Ivy come when called with major distractions present.  Most agility work is done off-leash, making recall paramount.  She is very strong in her understanding of what she is supposed to do.  She's crazy loyal to me, generally wants to be near me, and we have practiced recall her whole life in many situations.  But she's still a teen, and teens like to test.  She also prefers working on flashy tricks, not basic, save-your-life stuff.  I'm hoping, perhaps irrationally, that it will all be okay.
     At the bake sale I bought a piece of homemade baklava and then went searching, after a while, for my older son (twelve, into hanging out with his friends and no need to keep tabs on his mama).  I found him quietly munching a big fat piece of what looked like cranberry-orange bread.
     "Did you buy a piece of my bread?" I asked.
     Mouth too full to speak coherently, he nodded and gave me a happy "Mmmm hmmm."
     Whether I've helped the school or not, my boy fan club made the day of baking worthwhile.  The dogs might disagree, but this time, that's okay.


Places I like to check out when I'm confused about dog training or need to quickly find a dog-friendly coffee shop:

Roman Reign
Wonderful list of dog-friendly places in Austin.  This is where I discovered that my favorite bookstore (Half Price Books) allows dogs; had never noticed the small sign at the store, had never thought to bring Ivy and Revel, literate though they are.

Lots of great info on dog training from certified trainer Julee Samuli.  Unlike me, she actually knows what she's talking about!  She does phone consultations and gives a discount to Desert Willow/Boyd Ranch Aussie humans; yet another reason to buy from the best.  Julee has written a particularly helpful article on crate training for you new puppy parents; I wish I had read it before I ever met my dogs!

Desert Willow Aussies
The mother ship.  This is where I found Theresa Gorduyn, the breeder who changed my life.  She breeds healthy and fabulous-in-every-way Australian Shepherds, and one can waste vast amounts of time looking at puppy pictures on her website.

While you're wasting time, why not get sucked into checking out the Puppy of the Day?

Boyd Ranch Aussies
Birthplace of my darling Ivy.  Boyd Ranch produces scary-smart working dogs and partners up with Desert Willow to place them well.
Patricia is the author of The Other End of the Leash and she maintains a dynamic site with beautiful photos of her Border Collies herding sheep plus ongoing observations of life with her dogs.  Loved the book, and it's great to have the chance to continue learning from this thoughtful dog person.

Rain, sweet rain
A two-fer: this is my husband's website, designed by my dad.  My husband builds beautiful metal rainwater collection tanks, and goodness knows we all need to be collecting rainwater here in drought-hammered Texas. 

Happy New Year from Ivy and Revel

     I never go out on New Year's because I'm terrified of the drunk drivers; I usually just wait for it to pass and am glad when it's over.  But yesterday was wonderful, my best New Year's so far.  Another perfect day, weather-wise, as you can see from the blue sky and my husband's short sleeves above.  One boy had a friend over and they jumped on the trampoline so long I wondered if their brains might be sloshing around in their little skulls.  I helped the other boy hang some model airplanes from his ceiling and we admired the air battle occurring in his room.  My husband worked on a long-awaited tree house for the boys.

     The dogs were being so helpful with the tree house that I decided to take them around to the back of the house for a while, where they almost never get to go because it's a deer hangout.  I figured the racket from the trampoline jumpers and Bruce's power tools had probably cleared the deer out for the moment.  Ivy and Revel had a good time sniffing and peeing everywhere in an attempt to reassert their right to that part of the property.  Ivy was tremendously pleased with herself.

     So was Revel.

     The back of the house also gave the dogs a new-and-improved view of the chickens, who despise the sight of my darling Aussies.  I don't think they will ever be friends.

     Our big plan for the evening involved lighting a fire in our fire pit and roasting marshmallows.  Our county recently lifted the burn ban that has been in place since we moved to this county a year ago, so we were all genuinely excited about burning some stuff.  Just before dark the twelve-year-old built a beautiful fire, the nine-year-old said goodbye to his friend, my husband put his tools away and we all sat down with our roasters and began to debate important things like golden vs. blackened.  Golden all the way for me, but it's important to take enough time to golden-ize, otherwise the inside won't be sufficiently melty.  The night darkened and cooled enough to justify a heat source, the stars looked crisp and bright and very close, and the dogs seemed mesmerized by the fire.  The twelve-year-old had said this to me earlier, as we were going around together: "I love that our celebrations are so small.  Like it's just us and we're staying home and roasting marshmallows."
     Life is big and good, and the best parts of it are the small within the big: a dog warming your feet, a shriek of happiness from the direction of the trampoline, a hen enjoying the sun.  My family showed me how to have the perfect New Year's, and I thank them for it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Challenge

     Just when I'm all happy about my photography skills, comfortable with my Nikon D3000 and delighted with my new tripod, just when my children, husband and dogs have become inured to seeing me with a camera smashed to my face. . .my friend Michelle has come up with a wacky photography assignment that may be beyond me.  It's a good idea, truly, and the brainchild of our friend Jennifer: make a calendar of Desert Willow/Boyd Ranch Aussies wearing things on their heads and stash the proceeds for the next one of us who needs help.  Michelle has long been obsessed with putting things on her Aussies' heads and Jennifer is a financial whiz, so there you go.
     Michelle probably has albums of photos to choose from, and several others have risen to the challenge.  But the photo that really has me envious is this one:

     That's Emmy, looking like a movie star attempting an incognito outing to the pool.  I vant to be alone!  Emmy's father Gus is Revel's uncle, so Emmy and Revel are related in some way that would hurt my brain to figure out.  They have different mothers; typical Hollywood brats.
     I got a lovely picture of Ivy's profile yesterday, featuring her beautiful new collar embroidered with our phone number (thank you, Mom and Dad!):

     I also like this one of Ivy because all four of her feet are off the ground.  Her love for the famous purple ball is helping her levitate:

     And I took a bunch of Ivy and Revel joined in an effort to dig to China.  I don't know what they were after, and they never found anything that I could see, but they made a big mess and I loved seeing them work together so sweetly and with such purpose:

     This is as close as I've come to getting something on Ivy's head:

     I will keep trying, because I'm a sucker for a good cause and because I'm competitive.  But if Ivy bites my hand off the next time I try to put something on her beautiful head, I might be that next person who needs help!  Don't forget to come visit me in the hospital, and bring chocolate.  Stay tuned!