Friday, June 27, 2014

Country Dog/City Dog

For all her posh breeding--Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were favorites of Charles II of England--Bisou is a country dog, accustomed to a daily ramble through the landscape.

In our previous house, the minute I let her out she would disappear into the woods, which in fall were her exact color, or into the tall grass of the field.  When--certain that coyotes and catamounts were salivating after her--I shrieked "Bisou, come!" she would streak back to me, her feathers encrusted with burrs and her back crawling with ticks when the weather was warm, or soaked to the skin and with baseball-sized ice balls clinging to her coat when it wasn't.

What never changed was the speed of her short legs, the way her ear curls streamed behind her head, and the ecstatic smile on her face.

In her childhood I took her to obedience classes, where we were introduced to "walking on a loose leash"--a kinder, gentler version of the strict heeling that my earlier dogs and I had been taught.  While she was not the star of the class, she wasn't a disaster, either--at least not on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., when we gathered in the same building with the same dogs and people and smells.

But whenever I took her to new surroundings, her training went out the window.  The solution was, of course, to take her to a different place every day and practice walking on a loose leash--meaning that the instant she began to pull I would stop, and resume walking only when she released tension on the leash.  This stopping and going was to be done over and over and over, day after day, until it dawned on her that, if she wanted to get anywhere, she had better make sure she wasn't pulling.

You can guess what happened.  The training was so mind-numbingly repetitive and frustrating that I wasn't very disciplined about it, especially since Bisou needed a lot of exercise and she could get it in fifteen minutes running full tilt out in the field or in ten minutes retrieving balls.  The stop-and-go walks may have exercised her patience--they certainly did mine--but they provided neither of us with physical exercise.  So when the classes ended, though I continued perfecting her recalls and her stays, I hardly ever leashed her again.

Although we're not actually in a city--it's nothing but verdant woods and meadows around here--the rules for dogs are city rules, and dogs must be leashed at all times.  I agree with and observe this rule, but oh, I wish I'd persevered when Bisou was a pup.

She only weighs eighteen pounds, but she has the heart of an Iditarod champion, and she would gladly pull me all up and down the hilly Wake Robin paths.  So I'm teaching her to walk on a loose leash all over again.

I had taught my previous dogs to heel the way everybody did back then:  by the "jerk and release" method.  And because they were big dogs, I was advised to use a prong collar, which the dogs didn't seem to mind much and which saved my arm from being wrenched out of its socket.  But Bisou is a sweet- and innocent-looking dog, and people would call the SPCA if they saw me using a prong collar on her.

So instead I use positive reinforcement, which is about as challenging to my physical coordination as playing the violin.  Here is how it works:  with Bisou on my left, I hold the leash in my right hand.  My left hand holds both a clicker and a tiny piece of mozzarella.  As we set out the door, I carol "with me!" and the minute Bisou lurches ahead, which happens right away, I halt.

I stand there like a statue while she, her nose in the air and her front legs practically off the ground, pants "I see a bird!  I smell a mouse!  I feel the grass!  Let me go!"  After many minutes, she eventually turns her head towards me; the leash loosens a tiny bit;  and I spring into action.  I click the clicker and deliver the mozzarella in a single, instantaneous, fluid motion, thus giving Bisou  immediate reinforcement for loosening the leash.

This happens maybe ten percent of the time.  The rest of the time, I forget to click, or I drop the treat, or I treat first and then click.  The thing is, Bisou knows exactly what I want her to do, and what she will get if she does it.  But even for a devoted cheese lover the scent of cat or bird or squirrel sometimes takes precedence.

We've been practicing with this technique for three weeks now.  Is she getting better?  Maybe a little bit.  A tiny little bit.  There are miles of trails around here--every inch meticulously maintained by the residents themselves--and Bisou and I have years of potentially pleasant walking ahead of us.  It is important that we work this out, and I'm not ready to give up yet.  But sometimes, in the dark of night, I despair.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Dog of Thresholds

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a class of gods, called liminal deities, who specialized in thresholds.  These gods kept watch over people as they went in and out of rooms, moved house, or set off on ships into the unknown.

In our cottage, instead of a god of thresholds, we have a dog of thresholds.  Whenever I go from the den into the living room, from the living room into the porch, or from the dining area into the kitchen, my black German Shepherd Wolfie is there, sprawled across the threshold, protecting it. 

In the course of defending our various thresholds, Wolfie may well cause an accident.  He is quite a long dog, and there is no way for us to squeeze past his recumbent form, so we have to step over him, which is fine unless we're in a hurry or carrying something or not paying attention.  But he is so devoted to guarding thresholds that I have to believe that he knows what he's doing, and we need to accept the risk of stumbling over him. 

If the Greeks and Romans considered liminal deities essential, why should we assume that we have outgrown our need for them?  Can it be mere coincidence that Wolfie has taken to threshold sprawling just as we have moved to a new house and embarked on a new way of life at Wake Robin?

There is a second deity in the house:  Bisou, the goddess of sofas and cozy chairs, whose function is to keep the spot from which I have just gotten up from getting cold.  True to her Cavalier genes, she is also the goddess of laps, preventing me from floating upwards like a balloon and banging my head against the ceiling.  She is as uncompromising about this as Wolfie is about lying across thresholds, so again I have to believe that Bisou is on a divinely ordained mission to keep me grounded in the most literal sense.

The life change we have just been through--downsizing and embarking on what some call "a cruise on the river Styx"--has been a transition to boggle most minds.  But anchored to my reading chair by a snoozing Bisou, and with Wolfie guarding the nearest threshold, there's little for me to complain about.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How I Survived the Move

From the first conversation about how maybe it was time to leave the house on the hill, it only took us five months to move into our cottage in Wake Robin, near Lake Champlain.  Some people take years to complete the process of choosing and then moving to a retirement community, but we said, "Why prolong the agony?  Let's get it over with."

This was my husband's and my fourteenth move since the Summer of Love of 1967, and you'd think that all that practice would have made us into pros, but this was by far the hardest move of all.  Since we were swapping a 2400 square-foot house with ten closets plus attic, basement, and outbuildings, for a 1400 square-foot cottage with four closets, we had to get rid of most of our stuff.

You will be surprised to hear that during this period I was not my sweet unflappable self.  In fact the combined anxieties about disposing of truckloads of belongings, and getting it all done in time for the move turned me into a sort of emotional porcupine.

And when, weary and guilt-ridden after a day of packing and sorting and flinging quills at my spouse, I tried to take a break, the chaos around me made it hard to relax.  Unclassifiable objects mocked me from half-filled boxes;  the dogs, anxious and bored, followed me panting from room to room;  and there was no comfortable place to sit. At the rate I was going, when we finally arrived in Wake Robin I would have to go not into independent living, but into skilled nursing.

That was when the universe sent me the inspiration to  re-read War and Peace.  For $.99 Tolstoy's masterpiece wafted into my Kindle and wafted me away from my chaotic Vermont homestead and into 19th century Russia.

I quickly realized that, in the decades since I'd first read the book, either Tolstoy had become a much better writer or I had become a better reader.  My jaw fell open at the masterful characterizations--Natasha's childish arms;  Pierre's spectacles;  Princess Mary's timidity.  My preference for the characters had changed as well.  In my twenties I had had eyes only for the intense, handsome Prince Andre, but now it was plump Pierre's soul that captivated me.  And those battle scenes that had bored me almost to death I now found fascinating--in part because they confirmed my suspicion that there is no "art of war," just a lot of noise and confusion and sheer dumb luck, or lack of it.

The day the movers came, I hardly noticed, so immersed was I in the battle of Borodino.  And Napoleon's retreat from Russia got me through the first hectic twenty-four hours at the cottage.  But the best part of this second reading of War and Peace was being able to take refuge in Tolstoy's voice, which remained the same, both powerful and serene, throughout my travails.  For the last week in the old house, that voice was the only constant in my life, and every time I dove into the book I thought, "does Tolstoy know, wherever he is, how grateful I feel?"

Despite my porcupine impersonations--or perhaps because of them--the move went without a hitch.  In fact, when the movers first arrived, the driver went through the house with me--up to the top floor and down to the basement, out to the garage and the old milking room--and as he passed the piles of neatly packed and labeled boxes he whistled and said, "boy, you've really got things under control here!"  It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Here We Are

I finally found my drawing tools, so I made a picture of our cottage:

1.  The Adirondacks
2.  Lake Champlain (visible only in winter)
3.  Weird little gingko
4.  My portable citrus orchard
5.  Grassy knoll mowed weekly by angels in human form

As you can see, my Vermont is still quite green...