Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tough Love For Wolfie, Part The Second

Things really went to hell in a hand basket when Bisou joined the household.  Just as big dogs want to greet you by putting their paws on your shoulders, little dogs want to greet you by putting their paws on your knees.  The difference is, that a big dog with his paws on your shoulders is way more offensive than a little dog with her paws on your knees, so nobody looks askance if you correct the big dog by a yank on the collar or a knee on the breast.  But it is physically impossible to knee a little dog on the breast, and as to yanking by the the time you've got your hands on it the entering guest is squealing sweet nothings at the miscreant, which makes the little dog jump even higher.

Plus, I now had three dogs to contend with:  an old and formerly well-trained but clever one who was ever on the lookout for chinks in my armor (Lexi);  an in-his-prime lover of all mankind who couldn't tell the difference between appropriate behavior in the sheep pasture from appropriate behavior in the house (Wolfie);  and a relative innocent whose purpose in life was to leap into people's arms or, at any rate, at their knees (Bisou).

I knew I was in trouble when I found myself wishing that people would just stay away from our house.

But I was reluctant to give up all intercourse with the human race in favor of my dogs, so I analyzed the problem.  And when I was done, the finger of blame pointed at Wolfie.  Lexi was too old and slow in her greetings to upset anyone.  Bisou was more annoyance than threat, and I could always pick her up in my arms and spare the guest.  But I absolutely had to get Wolfie under control.

Hence my tough love, boot-camp initiative, which I put into practice last week.  I reread a couple of books, among them one by an errant former monk of New Skete, and thought back to some of the stuff I had seen and heard in my years of obedience classes with various dogs.  I put Wolfie on a diet--not a food diet, but a psychological one.

I began with down-stays--one in the morning while we ate breakfast;  one in the evening as we watched TV.  These take effort on the part of the trainer as well as the dog, since one absolutely must get up and put the dog back in its place every time it gets up.  Also, every time he wanted to be let out I would make him sit and I would wait by the open door, letting the cold rush into the house, for as long as it took him to stop sniffing the great outdoors and look at me, whereupon I would release him.  Every single time.

In addition--and this seemed a bit mean to me, but I did it because the errant monk recommends it--I stopped stepping over him when he was lying in my way, and instead made him get up, every single time.  According to the monk, stepping over a dog is not a big deal to us, but it is full of significance to the dog:  it tells him that we consider him superior.  I would not have adopted this so readily had it not been that every German Shepherd we have ever owned has adored my husband, who has neither fed nor played with nor trained them, but who has always made them get up when they were in his way.

And I cut way back on the petting and the treat-giving.  A breeder who lives in harmony with a houseful of German Shepherds says, "I never give my dogs too much food, or too much love."  I thought that, at least temporarily, this was something I could do.  Finally, even though Wolfie is good about coming when called outdoors, I made him walk on the leash instead of letting him run free.

To my amazement, his response was immediate.  He paid attention.  He curried favor.  He followed me around the house.  It touched me, but I didn't let him know it.

For reasons that I will write about some day, recently groups of guys have been tromping through our house.  Guys whose boots and jeans are redolent of their own Labs and Shepherds and Pit Bulls.  Guys--the most dangerous kind, for training purposes--who like dogs.  Before they arrive, I put Wolfie's collar and leash on him.  When the guys knock on the door, I tell him "Down!  Stay!"  And when they walk in I say, "I'm the dog trainer."  They understand.  I tell Wolfie  "O.k." and let him greet for about ten seconds, then put him back on stay, and there he lies, as the guys wander through every inch of the house, often stepping over him to peer at some window or wall.

Triumph!  Success!  And, as if this weren't enough, Bisou--whose training I'd decided to postpone until I had Wolfie in hand--put herself in boot camp on her own.  I noticed that, when I would give the down-stay commands to Wolfie, she--who had never gone down unless enticed with a treat--would get a serious look on her face and lie down like a little statue until I released them both.  Now, when the guys in boots come tromping through, she holds her stays like a champ.  And she has done this while getting as much petting as ever--I cannot keep my hands from this dog--and without having to wait at the door until she makes eye contact, because she always makes eye contact.  But then, she is a Cavalier.

I hope that, as the good behaviors become automatic with Wolfie, I will be able gradually to ease up and then dispense with boot camp.  In the meantime, however, it's working well for us and, if he's as attuned to auras and energies and subtle things as I think he is, he must be happier, knowing how much better I like him when he's like this.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tough Love For Wolfie, Part The First

In my dog-training heyday, you could walk into our house and see, several feet away from the door, Lexi and the now long-departed Mojo lying like statues on the rug, holding down-stays.  If you stayed for dinner, I might move the dogs to a spot from which they could watch the festivities, and they would lie there until the evening was over.

I had trained Mojo and Lexi in the old no-nonsense way, in which commands were clear, immediate compliance was expected, and the administration of food treats was viewed as morally suspect.  The method was especially appropriate for Lexi, who had lots of drive and would have taken over the household and organized it according to her principles, if we had let her.  But it also worked for eleven-pound Mojo, who seemed to enjoy showing off his world-record stays before our guests.

When we got Wolfie, I trained him the same way.  I remember having a pot-luck dinner for ten people when he was nine months old, and he held his stay next to Lexi like a champ.  Soon after that, however, things began to fall apart.  The winds of revolution were blowing through the dog-training world, but they were the benign breezes of positive reinforcement.  In the classes I faithfully attended with Wolfie, talk was of getting your dog to enjoy his work, getting him to want to please you, and helping you to develop a quality relationship with him.  And the treat bag was as important a piece of equipment as the leash.

I was told that a dog like Wolfie has a natural instinct to check out the people who enter his house, and that he should be allowed to greet guests at the door.  This marked the first step on the slippery slope.  It was easier for Wolfie to hold a down-stay when people came over than to moderate his enthusiasm if he was allowed to go up to them.  It's not that he jumped up on people or, heaven knows, was aggressive.  But he's a powerful dog with an extra-long tail that becomes a kind of bull whip when he gets excited, and his welcomes could be--well, overwhelming.

We hit the bottom of the slippery slope when, in an attempt to provide him with intellectual stimulation, I signed Wolfie up for herding lessons.  Herding is its own separate universe of dog training.  Although a herding dog needs to be under control, "you don't want blind obedience from him.  He has to be able to think for himself in order to do the job," the instructor explained.  So when Wolfie got up on his own initiative from his down-stay in the sheep pen, it might be because he had seen one of the sheep do something she shouldn't have, something that I in my ignorance might have missed, and I wasn't to correct him for it.

In a word, Wolfie was expected to hold down-stays no matter what when he was in the house, but was allowed to break them in the sheep pasture.  As that fundamental precept of parenting as well as of dog training, consistency, went out the window, I abandoned all attempts to make Wolfie stay when someone knocked at the door.

The entrance of guests into the house, formerly a scene of grace and serenity, now became a frenzied struggle as I tried to get Wolfie to say hello calmly and to withdraw politely.  And it didn't take Lexi long to realize that the regime under which she had lived all her life was finally teetering, and could be toppled.  Soon my friends were greeted by not one, but two German Shepherds hurtling towards them, jaws agape, tails wagging madly, exclaiming "Oh, hel-lo!  We thought you'd never get here!  My, what is that delicious smell?  How about a kiss?  We hope you'll take us home with you.  But meanwhile, may we sit on your lap?"

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Up A Tree

As I related here a couple of months ago, last summer a neighbor who lives a mile away came across  a mountain lion batting around a woodchuck it had caught in her yard.  There is a trout stream and some woods between her house and mine, and the tracks of an enormous cat have recently been photographed in the mud beside the stream.  Fresh, clean water;  woodchucks and rabbits galore;  and woods for shade and shelter--for hungry mountain lions trekking to New England from the arid West, this is the promised land.

An invisible fence encircles our back yard and part of the woods.  It keeps the dogs in, but anything not wearing the right kind of collar can wander in at will.  A woman in a neighboring village found this out when she let her four Cavalier King Charles Spaniels out into her invisibly-fenced yard one night.  Three of them came streaking back.  The fourth eventually returned, covered in blood.  From the placement of the wounds, the vet guessed a coyote had tried to eat it. 

Every night when I let the dogs out into the dark, I think, how much bigger than a woodchuck is Bisou?

I was comforted this morning to hear that in California a German Shepherd had scared a mountain lion up a tree.  According to NPR, mountain lions are preyed on by wolves, and they seem to fear dogs that look like wolves.  So I am pinning my hopes on Wolfie, who really looks the part.  I know I can rely on him to scare anything away, chipmunk, fisher or bear, that hasn't been invited in.  But I'm not so sure about Bisou, who is right at his heels on his night patrols and who, if she encountered a mountain lion, might just think, in her scent-driven spaniel way, that he smelled awfully interesting, and should be investigated.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Where Are The Snows Of Yesteryear?*

I've had enough of this sad, brown, gray, muddy winter.  This is not what I came to Vermont for.  I came to Vermont for bright snow and bracing cold, and for contrast--between white and green, cold and warmth, winter and spring.

People around here look at each other and say "We sure got a break this year!"  and  "We're being spoiled!"  In the woods all around, maple trees are being tapped, and steam is rising from the sugaring sheds behind farmhouses.  A dull yellow haze is already visible at the tips of willow branches.  Gardeners are actually out weeding their flower beds.  In the middle of February, we're experiencing early April.

And it feels wrong, wrong, wrong.  My lavender and rose bushes are sweating under the heavy hay mulch I tucked around them in October.  The balls I throw for the dogs, instead of bouncing smartly off the frozen ground, roll dispiritedly on the mud.  And my zonal geraniums, which, stimulated by the sun's reflection on snow, used to bloom profusely by my kitchen windows, are boringly green instead of full of red blooms.  In the woods, I am sure, the ticks are stirring, ready to pounce.

Right this minute, it is snowing.  It brings tears to my eyes, how theatrical the woods behind the house look.  The ground is momentarily pure white, and every single tree branch is outlined as if by a calligraphy pen.  The snow pours down like lace.  How I have missed this!

But I must not attach.  According to the weather gurus, this is no storm, but just a snow shower.  We're going up to the high 30s tomorrow, and all the glory will be gone by mid-morning.  Yesterday, I saw an unmistakable yellow stripe on the back of a male goldfinch at the feeder.  The fields are covered in deer droppings--our herd of five has not felt the need to hibernate deep in the secret "deer beds" as in other years.  They come placidly out of the woods in the late afternoon, like cows, and graze. 

I don't want the gardening season to start any earlier.  I want to hibernate.  I want to wake up to see signs on the snow of the goings on of the preceding night, to see who-all--deer, fox, rabbit, porcupine, domestic shorthair--wandered into our front yard.  I want empty winter time during which to gather my inner resources, gird my loins for the season of growth. 

Please,  mall-bound drivers of larger-than-needed vehicles, heat- and air-conditioning abusers, and you who leave the lights blazing in the room you have just exited, don't take away our winter!

*  This is the refrain of Ballade des dames du temps jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Yesteryear), by Francois Villon, a 15th century French poet.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Better Than Roses

Celebrated St. Valentine's Day by washing the curtains in the master bedroom, which is the only room in the house to have them.  Since the view out of our windows constitutes a major part of the entertainment around here--the storms coming in, the mountains changing colors, the deer in the meadow, the turkeys in the driveway--we like to keep it unobstructed.  Besides, we don't care if the deer and the turkeys can see into the house.  We do have window shades, which we pull down on really hot summer days, and I've noticed that our guests from the city tend to keep them closed at night.

We have curtains in our bedroom because I don't much like its proportions, and I thought that, short of tearing down the walls, curtains might make it look and feel better.  The curtains are yellow-and-white-striped toile, to go with the yellow, white, and blue duvet cover, which has medallions featuring a shepherdess and her lute-playing mate--all of which I made myself.  (Don't be too impressed:  these are the first curtains I have sewed since 1967, although I have in the interim sometimes made curtains out of bedsheets by poking holes in the hems and running the rods through them.)

I hadn't touched the bedroom curtains since the day I hung them three or four years ago.  They didn't look particularly dirty, but I thought they must be, so into the laundry they went.  I thought about ironing them after they dried, but I've never ironed curtains, and I don't intend to start now.  I know that Ma, in Little House In The Prairie was always hanging "freshly washed and ironed curtains" on the windows of their various cabins, and it seemed to cheer everybody up, but I gave up trying to imitate Ma a long time ago--autres temps, autres moeurs.

My Valentine helped me take the curtains down and put them back up, and did not get upset when I tugged too hard at one curtain and pulled the rod bracket out of the window frame, but went quietly to get a hammer and fixed it.  That's something we've gotten quite good at, he and I:  when one of us spills red wine or wrecks the car, we figure he/she already feels bad enough, and does not need additional scolding.

Then he took the car to have snow tires put on (don't ask) and I followed in the truck so he wouldn't have to wait in the shop.  Before all this, at breakfast, we exchanged little gifts, and it's always a good thing when neither of us forgets. 

But if he had forgotten, I think (I hope!) I would have had the sense to pay attention instead to the help freely given, the mistakes calmly tolerated--and known that these gifts, given seven days a week, all year long, nourish the heart better than dozens of roses, armfuls of chocolates, or even a diamond tennis bracelet.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Still Trying To Like Tea

For years now, I've been trying to develop a taste for tea.  Tea has so much to recommend it:  tons of antioxidants;  a strong aesthetic tradition and a world of adorable pots and cups--not to mention cozies-- to go with it;  not enough caffeine to keep me awake at night, and so on.

So why am I not drinking as much tea as I think I should?  Because I'm drinking coffee.

Compared to coffee, tea, whether green or black, lapsang-souchong, darjeeling, orange pekoe, Irish breakfast, or gunmetal, seems to me anemic, namby-pamby.  Even when sweetened, it never tastes like much more than slightly bitter H2O.  Whereas a good cup of coffee can take the place of dessert, can be almost as satisfying (if memory serves) as smoking a cigarette, can revive the flagging animus.  It tastes of chocolate, of red wine, and best of all, it tastes and smells strongly and unmistakably of what it is:  coffee.

During my recent years' immersion in British literature, I have read thousands of accounts of tea made, served, and drunk in every possible circumstance, from the sordid to the exalted.  And I am no closer to understanding its hold on the British, just as I do not--and never hope to--share their taste for marmite.

Perhaps there is nothing I can do about it.  Perhaps there are coffee people and tea people, just as there are dog people and cat people.  But I have loved and lived with both dogs (the coffee equivalent) and cats (more of a tea kind of pet), so I see no reason I shouldn't bridge the coffee world and the world of tea as well.

For years, believing that coffee was not good for me, I gave it up in favor of tea--usually green tea, never in a bag, made with water at the recommended temperature.  Every time I drank a cup, I wished it were coffee. Then this year, hearing that women who drank two or more cups of coffee a day were significantly less likely to be depressed than those who drank less or none, I threw myself back into the arms of coffee.  Black, strong and full of attitude, it leaves me, after each encounter, satisfied, exhilarated and a little shaky.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Raising Elizabeth Von Arnim From The Dead

She was a British writer who died in 1941, and I want to resurrect her.  I don't mean bring her work back into vogue.  BBC/Miramax did a good enough job with Enchanted April, and almost all the books she wrote are available on Kindle, free.  Even though I adore her writing, it is not as a writer that I want to bring her back, but as a gardener.  As my gardener.

She has one of those belle epoque biographies:  married two counts--one German, one English;  had a passel of children who were tutored by E.M. Forster;  built her own villa in Switzerland;  took a lover 30 years her junior who eventually married and named his daughter after her.  And she loved gardens and had many big ones which feature prominently in her autobiographical novels.

To be in a novel, even a garden has to have a problem.  And Elizabeth's garden problem was not slugs or Japanese beetles,  but gardeners.  These gardeners were afflicted by all-too-human vicissitudes.  One went mad and had to be carted off to the asylum;  another was in love with the cook and ran away with her when she became frightened by a ghost in the pantry;  and others had their own ideas, which were mainly that flowers should be planted in orderly rows rather than massed helter-skelter in a Romantic way.

Those gardeners were a trial to Elizabeth.  She stood on the stone terrace, her mind full of ideas, her body girdled by corsets and her life by conventions, watching as the gardener and his assistants trundled their wheelbarrows back and forth and got things wrong, wrong, wrong.  "Ah, what I would not give to be a man!" she says (I'm quoting from memory here).  "I should seize a spade and dig the holes just where I wanted them!  Put the fertilizer where it would do the most good!  Prune the lilacs as they should be pruned!"

To which, having just last week cleaned the shed of hen poop for the 2013 garden, I say:  Come back, Elizabeth!  Leave your snow-covered European grave and manifest yourself in my piece of balmy Vermont!  It's not for writing that I want you--you did well enough at that in your eighty-some years the first time around.  But here is dirt.  Here is compost.  Here, especially this year, is mud!  There are lilacs and apple trees and an ornamental plum to be pruned--here are the pruners!  Irises, lupines and rhubarb need to be divided--here is the digging fork!  Leave your corset and your class distinctions in the grave.  You'll love this place--everybody gardens here, even the far-descendants of earls.

And while you're out there slogging away, enjoying a freedom that neither noble husbands, nor money, nor all your talent could ever give you, I'll be indoors, writing.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Houseplant Season

This is the time of year when my houseplants reign supreme.  Deprived of outdoor gardening, I focus my considerable nurturing energies on the plants that live inside, with me.  I spritz them with tepid water once a day;  I whisk away the least dry leaf before it can fall to the floor;  and I have to hold myself back from over watering and over fertilizing.

As a result of all this attention, the scented geraniums look more lush now than they do in summer, which they spend on the patio.  The rosemary is surviving its indoor imprisonment, a considerable achievement for a captive rosemary bush.  But it's the orchids that provide the extravagance and the splendor of the Mardi Gras season.  Remember when orchids were strictly the province of wealthy connoisseurs?  Now every supermarket, every Home Depot, every Walmart has entire jungles of them, in all colors and sizes, for $19.99 plus tax.  I'm afraid that in a couple of seasons orchids will go the way of African violets, which once made us gasp with their profuse, colorful blooms and now, alas, barely elicit a yawn.

But in my house, where there are only two, the orchids still amaze me every time I look at them.  One reason that they seem so extraordinary is that the flowers, instead of growing at the tip of a vertical stem like daisies and geraniums, bend the long upright stem at a right angle and bloom along that portion of it, as if to make it easier for us to admire their magnificence. 

My favorite orchid lives in the bathroom, where it is continually bathed in humidity from the shower and from the spritzes I give it every time I go by.  It is rewarding me by putting out a remarkable row of large blooms, white except for the magenta bit in the center, whatever that is called.  The white parts, of course, are anything but white, and have suggestions in them of the entire spectrum, enhanced by a multitude of tiny diamond points that sparkle in the light.  Our bathroom is not large, and the orchid takes up a good bit of the counter, so that we bump into it as we use the sink.  But I can think of worse things than bumping into an orchid in full bloom when I go to wash my face.

I have always liked to live cheek by jowl with other life forms.  During my city-dwelling years, when the view out the window was more of cars and asphalt than of green things, I had plants on every sill.  For a time at work I shared a large office with a colleague, and I made myself a privacy screen out of palms and ficuses and ferns that I lugged one by one from my house to the middle of DC on the metro.  When I finished arranging the plants, I was practically invisible behind my green wall, and to find me visitors had to make their way, like tropical explorers, through waving, dripping fronds and bracts and leaves (I kept a spritzer on my desk).

One of the things I like best about houseplants is how manageable they are.  They stay in their pots.  They don't overrun other plants, and other plants don't overrun them.  They are not attacked by cutworms or Japanese beetles.  All the watering and spritzing and trimming can be done in a matter of minutes, in one's pajamas.  They never need weeding.  Best of all, like indoor cats, they are right there, in the most intimate spaces of the house, pieces of God's own wilderness tamed and contained for my comfort and delight.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Calling Lexi

It's 8:30 in the evening, and Bisou, who knows that she will get a treat when she comes in from her last outing of the day, starts agitating to go outside.  She jumps off my lap, plants herself at my feet and gives me a meaningful stare.  She wags her tail.  She gives her signature sound--half moan, half whine--which is next to impossible to ignore.  But I'm familiar with her tricks, and do.  So she goes over to my spouse and repeats the  sit, the stare, the wag, the imperious moan/whine.

"I think she really needs to go out," he says.

"No she doesn't.  She just wants to get a you-know-what," I respond.

Sit, stare, wiggle.  She adds a tremolo to the moan/whine.  The spouse caves, "I don't think we should ignore her signals," he says.

By now it's ten til nine, so I take a breath preparatory to standing up and the three dogs go out of their minds, as if they hadn't been out in a month.  In his excitement, Wolfie bumps Lexi, whose hind legs buckle, but she recovers and they're off!  into the outer darkness where I hope no bear or coyote has wandered inside the confines of the electric fence or, if so, that Wolfie will defend Bisou, who is right at his heels.  Lexi, meanwhile, has disappeared into the woods.

I go into the kitchen to get three treats out of the treat jar by the stove.  Bisou is already at the back door, putting nose prints on the glass.  I let her in, throw her a treat.  Wolfie comes careening around the raised beds, gets his treat.  But the third treat is still in my hand.

"Lexi co-ome!" I carol into the dark.

"Lexi, treat!" enticingly.

"Lexi, komm!" in my lowest growl.

 I put the treat between my teeth and clap.  I replace the treat with the dog whistle and blow.  Then I click the  yard light on and off, on and off (the spouse swears that this never fails).

But it fails with me.  I hear Lexi behind the trees, barking her wheezy, half-hearted, old-dog bark: woof...woof.  Does she know I'm calling her?  Does she care?

I close the door, replace the treat in the jar.  I return to the spouse, shrug my shoulders, sit down.  Bisou, at peace now, curls into my lap with a final moan.  But Wolfie is still at the back door, ears straight up, eyes piercing the outer darkness, waiting for Lexi.

"Woof, woof," she barks in the woods.  "Could you try to get her in?" I say to the man who never wanted a dog in the first place.  He goes to the door, claps his hands.  Lexi comes inside.

At close to fourteen years, she has become an enigma.  Can she hear?  Sometimes.  Can she see?  Not well.  Has her enfeebled brain forgotten what "come" means?  Possibly.  Or is she, sensing our reluctance to discipline her now that she's old and pathetic, making up for all those years when she thought she had to obey?

She's a good dog, but also a clever one.  I wouldn't put it past her to take full advantage of this chink in our armor.

I will not pretend that I don't find her failure to come when called extremely irritating.  It is a real pain to have all those years of patient training washed away by age, or by an old dog's wiliness.  But my irritation is tinged with sadness, because I know that before too long there will be no need at all for me to stand at the back door, shouting "Lexi, come!"