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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Deputy Dawg and the Mighty Fee

Damn, it's been cold. Cold enough to keep Murphy and I indoors more than usual. I guess we're both getting old. I have an old horse-related hip-thing that's driving me bananas too. I think it's a combination of the cold, inactivity and trying to stay upright on a slippery sidewalk. Who knows. It's funny though, where my mind goes when it has a chance. Okay, sometimes NOT funny, but usually it is. Even stranger are the petty little things that connect and get lumped together in my mind. At one time, I thought that the important stuff pushed all the irrelevant stuff aside, but apparently, my biological operating system doesn't work that way. Hmm.

It started this morning when someone visiting a neighbor asked me about Murphy's prong collar. "Aren't those mean?" "Nope, only if you don't do any training and are a heavy-handed lunk." "You should use a headcollar." "He hates them, so no." "But they're so much more humane." "Um, not to the dogs who hate them." "He must really hate that collar." "He doesn't really feel anything about it. He has no reason to. " "Well, if he hates headcollars he HAS to hate that. Why don't you consider switching?" " Because I care far more about how my dog feels than I do about the latest fads and the opinions of strangers." People make me tired. The snark was going to happen eventually. I don't care for headcollars (Suzanne Clothier does a great job of summing up all the 'whys' here: The Problem With Head Halters), but I learned long ago to be flexible when it comes to living beings. There are no such things as always and never. All animals are different. I feel the same way about training methods. Just because a specific method can train a chicken to perform a simple behavior in a controlled environment, doesn't mean it's appropriate as the exclusive method to train all animals to do all things. I learned that, big time, about 20 years ago when I was working with greyhounds almost exclusively.

The first class I ever took was with my first greyhound, Garth. I had been reading tons of stuff on +R (you have to write it that way so people think you're all educated in the secret ways of positive reinforcement) and the use of clicker training, it's effect on the limbic system, etc. and was all indoctrinated and ready. I was ready to install the software into my dog via this "infallible" method. I took a few psych classes while in college too, and we studied behaviorism (and the various theories) at length. But even so, it still didn't occur to me to question why a training method would employ such a narrow aspect of one type of behavior theory, and employ it exclusively for a broad (read:unlimited) spectrum of animals and behaviors in essentially every situation, and call it science. The things I had read about dog training this way were very compelling, and furthermore disparaged all other methods for one reason or another. Besides, everybody who was anybody was doing it this way, and the only reason it wouldn't work like magic is if you screwed up. Nothing could go wrong there. Nope. (That was sarcasm, btw)

Then I went to class. The instructor was an awesome human being who I've been in touch with on and off ever since. Class one was without our dogs, and we had the chance to try two different teaching methods on each other. The first was clicker training in its purest form: Shaping. We were to train each other via this method, and see how we felt about being both the trainer and trainee. It was pretty eye-opening to be the trainee. I experienced an unbelievable level of frustration (as did several others, some actually giving up) trying to guess what I was supposed to be doing, and only sort-of 'learned' what I was supposed to. The second method we tried was lure-reward. It was quick, positive, and all the trainees were successful. Eye-opening, and the timing couldn't have been better. Trying to train most greyhounds via 'shaping' exclusively would be...interesting. They don't throw a lot of behaviors at you (most throw none) and all of mine would just stare at me until they were bored and then go lay down. They can be a challenging dog to engage and KEEP engaged (but individuality is always a factor). In the end I found that some combination of lure-reward to teach the beginnings of behaviors and clicker training to refine them worked best for my hounds, with some pressure-release-reward for leash work. It depends on the individual animal, and that's the most important lesson I ever learned: The animal in front of you is far more important than adherence to any theory/tool/etc. In the end, it's clarity and your personal sense of fairness above all that matters (compassion, kindness, an understanding of the individual animal's needs/feelings, responsibility in management) that matters far more. To the dog in the front-connect harness that has to jog with his shoulders immobilized and his arm-pits being rubbed raw, that tool is not humane. To the dog damaging his spine throwing himself around and lunging into a body harness or a flat collar, those tools are not humane. To the dog who's being driven crazy by the thing on his face, who's owner misreads his resigned expression as calm and happy, that tool is not humane. (These articles are helpful: Why are Choke or Chafe My Only Options, Not So Gentle Leader?). I know people who have done horrid things to their dogs without ever touching a prong collar, so it seems silly and petty to me to get so worked up about something so irrelevant. When you get obsessed with the tiny, irrelevant stuff, you tend to lose sight of the big picture. Almost any tool has a place. It's a personal philosophy of putting the dog first that is the highest priority for me, and being mindful and educated in the proper use of ANY tool (which isn't the same thing as reading the propaganda) before using it on my dog. Period.

But then there was Fee. Fee was, hands down, the most dangerous, aggressive and unpredictable dog I ever owned. To me, he was living, breathing (and flying and shrieking) proof that the 'nature' part of the 'nature vs. nurture' argument was very relevant indeed. Fee was the nickname for my greyhound, Kiefer (Anselm Kiefer, actually), and to his friends he was The Mighty Fee. It is exceptionally unusual to have a greyhound like Fee, but the rescue knew his litter would be, well...special. Each of the litter mates were place in experienced homes. Fee was not the worst of them (even so, there is a photo of him on page 93 in the book Dog to Do Communication by Jamie Shaw, in the chapter about aggressive dogs. Seriously). He was the one dog I ever had or worked with that wore a head collar successfully. Given his resistance to just about everything, it was a shocker. Even so, it was what it was and I went with it. He was really wonderful on leash and was very easy and cooperative in training, but having the ability to control his head was of paramount importance. I usually walked him in a basket muzzle to be on the safe side, but it was important to me that he was walked and had the chance to see a lot of new things. Interestingly enough, he had no issues with other greyhounds (Well, usually. He did start trouble with Garth on one very memorable and horrifying occasion. Fifteen hundred dollars worth of vet bills in less than 30 seconds. A new record). I took him to Delaware for the annual Greyhounds Reach the Beach event, and he was a perfect angel. But in every other way his behavior broke all the rules (and a couple of bones. He could hurt himself on himself). One of the biggest challenges was how damned fast he was. I had roomates when Fee was young. Being a dog-person, I was very much in the habit of never leaving food around. Having always had big dogs, that included the kitchen counter. My roomates didn't really think of such things so Fee learned to counter surf. It was a habit he never broke, even after years of never finding food on the counter. He would also snatch food from the unwary. He knew better than to try with my daughter or me, but my half-sister was lifting a burrito to take a bite and suddenly found her hand empty. Fee had it snarfed it down so fast there was no getting it away from him (also, the consequence of trying might be the loss of a few fingers). Fee spent time in his crate when nobody was home and when folks were eating from that point on. He actually really loved his crate. And I loved Fee. In spite of himself, he was a Momma's boy who slept on my head because he just couldn't snuggle close enough.

My roommates had the occasional visitor ( I say occasional, but one visitor actually stayed for several months, living in a blue school bus in my driveway) and I always gave them the rundown on the dogs, especially Fee. I was a boarding kennel at the time too, so the usual policy was pretty much 'don't mess with the dogs'. At the time, I allowed dogs on my furniture, so folks were briefed on how to get them off the furniture safely should they need to. It amounted to pointing at the floor and saying "off", and insisting. The dogs were pretty great about it and jumped down without argument. One of the visitors (a city girl) thought she would do it her way, and she grabbed Fee (of all the dogs, ugh) by the scruff with the idea of pulling him to the floor. He gave her a warning-snap (an EXTREME example of self-control for this particular dog...phew!) and the visitor freaked out. She started yelling "He bit me! I'm filing a report!" (He didn't. She had a red blotch where he smacked her. If this particular dog had really wanted to bite her, we would have been calling an ambulance), so I thought I should help her along. She asked for the phone number to animal control, and I gave it to her. She called, and the line was busy. Of course it was. She was calling my number. I tried really hard not to laugh, but I was only somewhat successful. It was kind of poetic. When she figured it out she looked really bummed that she wouldn't be creating any real drama that day. To be fair, I wasn't actually animal control, merely the answering service for them. I did the triage. If there was a genuine emergency, I would call my friends who actually WERE animal control. If it was a neighbor dispute between two rich flatlanders who were using animal control to harass each other (it happened a lot, unfortunately) then I could just make my friends aware of it when I saw them. Most of the relevant calls involved dogs in need of rescue or at large. Such was the nature of animal control in Huntington.

Eventually, my friends grew tired of the BS and quit animal control. My phone was much quieter, and I was grateful. Then, one day, a knock at my door. I opened the inner door, and through the screen I saw a small man wearing a cowboy hat with a gun on his hip. I thought "Does this guy think it's Halloween?" He identified himself as the new animal control 'officer' (his word) and said he was making the rounds and "making his presence known" to local dog owners. Hmm. I said "So, you're new." "How do you know?" "because I used to answer the phone for animal control. Also, folks don't usually live on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere because they appreciate impromptu visits". "You have a lot of dogs in there. Are they all registered?" "I'm a boarding kennel. Hey, did you talk to Olga (the town clerk) before making your rounds?" "Why would I do that?" "It seems she could answer a lot of questions for you. Save you some steps." "Can I come in and see the dogs?" "Not with that gun, you can't." "Ain't nobody's gonna get this gun off me!" "Then you won't be coming in my house." "But I'm a law enforcement officer..." "No, you're not. And even if you were, it wouldn't give you free access. Have a nice day." My first intro to the new animal control officer. I wondered how many people had met him.

I had coffee at the local store the next morning (it's what people did). The topic of conversation was the new animal control 'officer'. He been dubbed Deputy Dawg. I had a feeling nobody would take him seriously, and I was right. We passed the time for awhile, drinking coffee and swapping stories. Deputy Dawg, it seemed, had had a very unfullfilling couple of days. I wondered how he would deal with the rich flatlanders. I chuckled a bit to myself when I thought about it.

And that's how a train of thought really gets rolling. It starts with a comment, and ends with too much time on one's hands and long-forgotten memories about things that weren't really that important. I lost Fee a few years ago to cancer. Losing him changed the way I do a lot of things, and inspired my research into canine-feeding. I loved that dog, so much. He was holy terror, covered in scars of his own creation, but he loved with his whole heart in the way that dogs seem to do. He even let my daughter paint his toenails pink. Well, when he was asleep. I never did have to call an ambulance for anyone on his account, and he taught me a lot. That's the key. I could have handled him a number of ways: I could have given up on him and taken him back to the kennel, I could have had him put down because he was challenging, or I could have "managed" him into an isolated and lonely existence.  I didn't. In fact, I've never done any of those things. Instead, I thought I could try something new, learn something, and accept him for exactly who and what he was, and expand my thinking to encompass what Fee needed to lead a long (though not long enough), happy and fulfilling life. I liked that idea better.







Saturday, January 10, 2015

Poverty and Homelessness

A work in progress
There has been a lot of talk among my friends about poverty and homelessness lately. It has all been really constructive, positive and loving "What can I do to help the cause" sort of talk, and it's all good, but it's brought up a lot of things for me that I still really struggle with. Once upon a time, I thought some time and distance would fix the emotional wounds that are caused by poverty and homelessness, but I suppose it isn't that simple. Yes, I have been on welfare. My daughter and I have been homeless twice. We couch surfed so we were lucky, but luck is relative, I suppose. I grew up thinking, no, believing with my whole heart, that God never gives you more than you can handle, that adversity makes you stronger, that if you are polite and kind and do the right things, then bad things can't touch you, and that family will always be there for you. I believed that our lives are as positive or negative as the choices we make, but that we always had a choice. I know better than all that now. I wish I didn't, and maybe that's why I don't really talk about it, but if I can make just one person understand, or if I can take the self-hatred out of someone else's experience, then this difficult and painful disclosure is worthwhile. Sometimes things do the most harm if they're allowed to fester below the surface and never allowed exposure to the light of day. And it IS a new day, but nothing can erase what we've been through.

Poverty is one of those things that's extremely misunderstood. There's this idea that there is a solid safety net, that a person has to err egregiously to find themselves struggling financially, and boy, if you end up homeless,  then certainly you must have done SOMETHING to deserve that. I'll tell you what I did: I had a child. Even though it was the best, most positive and straight up honorable thing I've ever done with my life, it meant I was automatically living below the poverty line. I didn't get any child support. It happens. I hadn't finished college yet, so the amount of money I could make was negligible. I depended on welfare and the money I could make either working at home (I was a sculptor) or at jobs I could bring my child to. My grandmother helped me out a lot for awhile and we were okay, but then she died. My parents tried to help inasmuch as they could too, but the whole structure of my family had dissolved and my personal safety net was gone. Then, everything changed.

I won't get into all the details because they are tedious. But the reality for the average poor person looks something like trying to pay $800 worth of bills with $600 every month. Month after month. It fluctuates up and down periodicity depending on what you yourself are able to make (Congratulations on your new job. You are now losing your food stamps and have less money to work with.) I had a lot of nice things (I'm so lucky to have had good stuff to start with. I'm so lucky I came from a good family). I had to sell a lot of them at ridiculous prices, but at least I had them to sell. I was even able to start a business boarding dogs, and we did okay for awhile there too. But the thing about limited resources that is the most terrifying is the inability to absorb the impact of other peoples' decisions. You are quite literally at the mercy of people who care more about the bottom line than they care about you, or more about who knows what. I just know that when my basement flooded (the landlord had removed the pump before I moved in. I couldn't afford one of my own), my landlord got married and moved away, leaving her son in charge. He didn't take care of the basement (as promised), he didn't bring back the pump. When holes rotted through the floor and toxic mold grew in the walls, my daughter and I started getting sick (just get a spray bottle with bleachwater) and finally the place was condemned. It's what you can expect when the rent is "affordable", unfortunately. We couldn't find another place.

My parents rallied, my boyfriend at the time and his mom did too (Not my boyfriend anymore, but I still love them both). The plan was a house for my daughter and I, and an expanded business plan. I had this. I had people. We were going to be okay. We had it all worked out. And then we didn't. At the last minute, everything fell apart (My own family doesn't believe in me. I must be a terrible person). We scrambled to find something, ANYTHING. But rents are high and sometimes on purpose. Gotta keep the riff raff out, ya know. We lost our home and my business in one fell swoop.

There's something about packing your things when you know everything is going into storage (I can't believe this is happening). There's a disbelief (This can't be real) that goes with it until those final moments (at least my dogs are okay in my friend's kennel). It feels like a train is coming, and you're tied to the tracks. It feels like like screaming for help in a dream where nobody can hear you. And worse, your child's fate is inextricably tied to yours. It's what you think of in that moment when you load up the last of your things on the truck (I'm so lucky to have help moving my stuff), the moments when you are putting everything you own (at least I have stuff and a place to keep it) into a storage locker; your bed, your child's bed, your books and your child's toys. Then that slam of the door sliding shut on your whole world, and the click of the lock.  But the worst moment is that one when you get in your car (at least I have a car) and your child looks at you, and all you can think is "What do we do now?" (Oh God, don't cry. If ever you needed to hold it together it's now. Do it. Be strong. You failed. You failed. You're a failure. You failed your child, so you better HOLD IT TOGETHER YOU LOSER.) It's weird that life just keeps going. I'd bring my daughter to school, fortunate that she had that stability (Thank you, B&T), then go to the kennel to take care of the dogs (I'm so lucky to have a safe place for them), and search day after day for a place to call home. I would go pick up my daughter after school (Act normal. Keep it together. Nobody wants to hear about your embarrassing problems. Failure Failure Failure. Don't forget to smile. All these people get to go home and have dinner. They get to relax and go to bed. I wonder if they know how awesome that is.)

A lot of people have a lot of misunderstandings about poverty and homelessness. There's so much propaganda floating around out there that's very enticing. If you believe the poor are okay, you don't have to do anything. If you think the safety net works, YOU are off the hook.  If you believe that the poor and homeless did it to themselves, it allows you the triple advantage of 1) getting to pass judgement 2) getting to feel 'better than' and 3) you have the opportunity to feel good about turning your back on other human beings. I think very few people would knowingly do that, but the misinformation that's spread around has made poor-bashing acceptable and normal. It's disgusting. If you seriously believe that there is any advantage to being poor, I strongly encourage you to be in touch with local organizations who deal with poverty issues. Or, you know, talk to poor people. Perhaps even more important, set aside your personal bias and LISTEN.

Having said that, some of the LEAST understanding people I have ever met are social workers. Some are amazing, some just want to get through the day, but there are a surprising number of them who just want to talk down to you, talk at you, tell you how to live your life and talk to you about choices. They have the right intentions, but they are coming from their own place and not that of the client. They can't relate at all but they think they understand perfectly. It's a very dangerous combination, and likely the source of the perpetuation of misinformation so prevalent in the media today. They dispense a lot of advice that folks don't want or need and really can't take. To be clear, the REAL choices are: Food or rent, food  or gas, food or electricity, food or cleaning supplies, and when it gets toward the end of the month, food for me OR for my child (obviously a no-brainer). If I had a nickel for every person who wanted to talk at me about my "budgeting issues" or similar subjects (you just have to learn to be POSITIVE!), I would have had no more financial problems. My biggest budgeting issues were that I didn't have enough money, and lacked a magic wand.

So what DO the poor need? The short answer is more money. It takes a shocking amount of time and energy to wake up every day wondering how to feed you family, and to traipse about (if , in fact you are fortunate enough to have the ability to traipse), all over town to access random services, hoping to piece together enough money to keep the light on. It's energy that would be much better spent elsewhere. No matter what Fox "News" and their ilk say, nobody wants to be poor, poverty isn't lucrative, there is no advantage and nobody is doing well on subsidies. NOBODY. Pardon my French, but that is bullshit. I tried to come up with a better word, but there isn't one. On the rare occasion that somebody attempts fraud, they are caught and prosecuted. The second thing people need is opportunity. People who have opportunities take them so for granted that they can't even kinda understand that they aren't available to everyone, or conceive of how different life might be without them. It makes a huge difference when mommy and daddy pay for your education and sign off on all the big purchases so that you can build something positive for yourself right from the get go. It changes everything.

The other thing to remember is that homelessness isn't the problem, it's the symptom. If ever there was proof that the poor weren't getting what they need to help themselves and stop being poor, it's the alarming rate of homelessness. Homelessness happens when you have done everything you can do and it doesn't work, and have asked for help that doesn't come. It's a point of utter helplessness and hopelessness. I can't speak for everyone, but for me it was that moment when I realized that everything I believed in was bullshit. It was the moment when I knew to whom I mattered, and to whom I didn't. I realized that God most definitely gives you more than you can handle, and when it happened something broke so profoundly inside me that I've never been the same. Over the years I've worked hard at gluing all the little pieces together, but I don't think I'll ever be the same. I'm seriously agoraphobic. I mean, seriously. The panic attacks are so embarrassing, but it is what it is. I get nosebleeds whenever I get correspondence from my landlord, even though it's always benign. So no, adversity doesn't always make you stronger. Sometimes it fucks you up irrevocably. But I'm working on it. Even so, I can't help but believe it happened for a reason. I have yet to discover what that reason might be, but I'll know it when I see it.

It's over for us now, the 'living it' part. My daughter is an adult and we share household expenses. But every time I hear somebody trash the poor I get angry, because they are trashing me. Every time somebody disrespects and dehumanizes the homeless, they are dehumanizing me, and worse, my daughter. Those families are us, those children are my child. Anybody can end up there. It took me years of scraping and clawing to forgive myself for the sins that I was held accountable for but never actually committed, but I did do that much. I believe in myself, but very few others. My cynicism was well-earned. I wish I smiled more, that I was calmer and less emotional. I'll get there. In the meantime, I will always defend and advocate for those who can't do it for themselves, because I know they can't. I won't judge because nobody can be harder on a person than they are on themselves. But mostly because I understand that sometimes, people don't need a lecture or a pep-talk; what they need is real, tangible help.




Friday, December 26, 2014

The Time In Between

Photo: christmasstockimages.com
The time between Christmas and New Year's Eve has always felt a bit awkward. There's that melancholy sadness of another Christmas come and gone, and yet another celebration in the works. I usually toast the New Year with my daughter, pouring sparkling grape juice into obscenely expensive German crystal wine glasses to make it extra special. Then, she is off with her friends, and I usually find something interesting on the telly to keep me awake until midnight, at which point I say "Happy New Year" to my dog, and go to bed. As routines go, it's a simple one.

I don't like crowds. I find large, social gatherings exhausting, so though I love to wear sequins, I rarely find myself in a position to do so. It's all good. I value the quiet, the ability to complete a thought and the relative predictability of not-a-party. As I get older, I appreciate that quiet even more.

It's funny though; this year is absent the anxiety I usually feel about another year going by. As much as I like predictability, I like to feel that I'm making progress, that there is hope and that I'm moving toward something meaningful. It's not hard to understand why a person would feel a bit out of sorts in the post-Christmas-hype state of overeating and undersleeping. For somebody like me, just messing with the routine can send me a bit off the rails. But this year, I realized that my best years AREN'T behind me. There are things to work on (always), but the time period I'm in right now is filled with sparkly goodness, and the kind of joy that makes me laugh until my cheeks AND stomach hurt. I am doing things. I am learning things. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but to someone who has become accustomed to having to focus on coping with the way the Universe acts upon her in unpredictable ways, it has been very nice to be the one doing the 'acting upon".

And it works. I act, things change. It hasn't always been the case. Sometimes I've felt like negotiating my life was something akin to driving with the parking brake on. Sometimes it's still like that. But it's changing. My personal impatience makes me want it all and right now. But I think things happen the way they do for a reason. I have time. Interestingly enough, that used to be my horse-training mantra, and then it became my dog-training mantra. Now, it's just a mantra. I'm okay to be in the moment. Even the challenges only serve to reinforce my commitment to the things that are meaningful and important. The Universe says "How bad do you want it?" My answer has to be an unwavering "THIS bad!".

So, on to the new year. I have a new book to finish, and so plenty of work to do. I'll "do my best and surrender the rest" (thank you, Nadiya!). I'll do so knowing that what's for me will not pass me by, that I don't need to control (and in fact can't) every element of everything, and I'll look forward to learning and moving through the lessons of the year to come. I have rarely had such a decent attutude about anything. Progress!

I hope you all have a safe, joyful and magical New Year's Eve, and a very blessed and wonderful year to come!

Monday, December 15, 2014

What I want for Christmas

It's funny how my Christmas list changes and doesn't change yearly.  What a crazy-awesome year it's been for me. I can't say that all my problems are solved by any means, but the gratitude I feel is immense. I feel a little funny writing a Christmas list. I mean, the season really shouldn't be about this giant greed-fest that it's become. I saw Chris Rock on SNL talking about this very subject; he said (and I'm paraphrasing) that Christmas is supposed to be the celebration of Jesus' birthday, and Jesus was one of the LEAST materialistic people to ever walk the Earth. So HOW did it get to be the season of mad materialism? A HELL of a good question.

Having said that, topping my wish-list this year (as always it seems) is a pony (a horse, actually!). Horses and dogs are the two areas of my life where I can get happily spendy, and I'm largely okay with it. I seem to lack the materialism gene in every other way, so I forgive myself this indiscretion. I was raised by depression-era grandparents, so my philosophy is very much one of "buy the best you can and take care of it". I recently replaced my 30 year old washer/dryer set because I could no longer find parts to repair them. Seriously. As you can imagine, this time of constant 'upgrading' seems like an uber-waste of resources to me, but I digress.

So, aside from the prerequisite pony, what would I like for Christmas? If I could have anything I want (and this IS my list, after all), I would wish that my family could be together for the holidays. It was the one time of the year (and sometimes two) that I was overjoyed to be ensconced in noise and chaos, because it was the loving noise and chaos of my family. I'm so grateful to have had those memories. On the upside, Christmas with my friends (the family I chose) is pretty great too, and I do have that to look forward to.

On a grander scale, I wish we could better see the humanity in each other. I think it begins by eliminating the sponsored-brainwashing of the media, and coming from a heart-centered place. Yeah, the individual is important, but without the support of each other it's a pretty lonely place to be. Together we can make HUGE things happen. We're starting to see that, and as the light begins to shine on ugly things once hidden, we can collectively make things better for ourselves and each other.

I wish that when I tuck myself into my warm bed at night, I could do so knowing that everyone has a warm bed. That I didn't have to know that, on a cold night, someone is sleeping in a tent because they have nowhere else to go. I wish that when I sat down to a good meal, I could do so knowing that nobody else is going hungry. We have been both homeless AND hungry. The lie is that people do it to themselves. The truth is that sometimes, people need help. Do you want to believe the lie, or show compassion? I wish I had the voice and the resources to do something tangible for those who can't do for themselves. I'll get there.

I wish that all domestic animals would be in the hands of competent and knowledgeable caregivers.  I wish that none of them would be given as Christmas gifts, nothing more than a trinket among many other trinkets. They deserve a special homecoming all their own.

I wish that children could become human beings before they 'plugged in', that school was an enriching experience, that the education of the soul was at least as relevant as the education of the mind. I wish that children could be grounded in the world, with dirty hands and pink cheeks from playing in the fresh air. We are beings of the earth, and as such the value of of fresh air and the outdoors will never be obsolete.

So, I guess I don't want anything outrageous or unreasonable then ;-) And if you can't give me one of those things, I'd also really like an L.L. Bean gift card :-) In any case, I wish you all a wonderful, magical holiday, whatever you celebrate this time of year. I wish you good health, happiness, fulfillment of dreams, ambitions and wishes. Thank you all for being a part of my journey!

I leave you with my favorite Christmas song:


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reasons for Giving

It's that time of year again. As mentioned at length in my previous post, I LOVE the holiday season. I'm super stoked this year because I love the plans I have lined up: A large turkey-day with family and friends at my cousin's house (there will be an OBSCENE amount of food there) and an expanded 'orphan's' Christmas with lots of friends who are like family. There may even be a cameo appearance by my Mom in there somewhere (which would be awesome!!!!!). I have so much gratitude this year it's coming out of my ears. Even so, I can't help but think of the less fortunate and wish there was something more I could do.

Whenever I've envisioned my ideal future, it involves me miraculously coming into money (via a book/movie/work deal) and having enough land to grow food with plenty to share. I fantasize about setting my life up in such a way that money has less importance (living frugally, making a lot of things myself, going solar, growing a lot of my own food, etc.) and thereby having enough money to do something tangible about the things I see that hurt my heart (especially the homeless problem). I'm not a people-person at all (and in fact am quite agoraphobic) so the hands-on approach isn't something I can do, but it doesn't mean I don't care and don't see the need. I'm so fortunate, especially this year, but it wasn't always so.

I am so lucky to have had my grandparents to set an example for me. They always emphasized that helping another person should be about that person. It should be done in a way that allows that person their dignity. It's why, on the rare occasion that I can help financially, I give money. I do it quietly, and move on. I can almost hear the collective groan from my readers: "What if they spend it on drugs/beer/whatever?" What if they do? But what if it's the first opportunity they've had to do laundry in a long while? Or the first chance to get a hot meal? The point is to give without strings or expectation. Another person's life and choices are none of my damned business. My choices are to help or not. If they spend it on beer, they do. I recently discovered that my daughter does exactly the same thing for the same reasons. Have I mentioned that she's an awesome human being?

People have this idea of the poor as dysfunctional, uneducated, mentally ill addicts who were teen parents and probably ex-cons who did something grievous to bring it all on themselves. First of all, poverty is about nothing more complicated than not having enough money to sustain oneself. Being a single parent, in and of itself, can be all it takes to get there, unfortunately. It's true that some of the aforementioned issues can run concurrently with poverty or even be a primary cause, but they are all separate issues, and issues that folks who don't have money-problems can have too. We need to stop vilifying the poor and making them 'other'. We are all human beings on this planet. I know there are folks who are all about the individual and me-ism, thinking they can just set some kind of example. I'm familiar with the erroneous belief-system that assumes that all people need is a little motivation. In that vein, I'm certain that a man with no legs is not likely to be inspired by how fast YOU run, literally or figuratively. No man is an island. Nobody has omnipotent control over even their own circumstances. It is absolute ignorance to believe otherwise.

Think about it: Person A and person B are born into similar circumstances. Person A's parents pay for their education and sign off on all the big purchases. Hell, person A might even have a credit card in their name that mommy and daddy pay for. Person A starts life in pretty great shape: No educational debt, a house (equity), and even a little good credit courtesy of Mom and Dad. Person B has to work their way through school, but even so, has a mountain of debt dogging them for life. Person B also has to rent (nobody to sign off on the big purchases+school loans=rent) and is pretty much stuck. Both can do okay, but if something unforeseen happens (like cancer), person A is in much better shape to absorb the financial repercussions, but person B is screwed. Unfair, but true. And many, many folks start life with far less than even person B.

I think of my grandparents again. My grandmother especially was full of little verbal gems :-) She loathed greed and always emphasized people over money, especially family. She used to say things like "It's nice to be seen in church in your nice clothes putting money in the basket, but if members of your own family are going without it's not piety, it's hypocrisy".  Another favorite: "If you have to take credit for it, you're doing it for yourself". I miss "Nana-isms". I miss the straightforward (and occasionally relentless) wisdom that my grandparents possessed. They didn't just say it, they believed it and lived it.

Maybe that's why I get a little crazy when I see folks on TV talking about how they are helping the poor, the poor inevitably milling about in the background. Maybe people don't want to be on TV for being poor. Why has that not occurred to anyone? Why do we have toy drives instead of just quietly giving needy parents the cash to buy toys? What is the harm in letting the parents be the heroes?  Or in letting the children choose the toys they want instead of being surprised with 'whatever' on Christmas morning? Why has none of this ever occurred to anyone? It's as though the assumption is that a lack of money somehow makes a person instantly stupid or unable to make any of their own choices, and it's not fair. And it starts with teaching children that they should feel lucky to get anything at all. What most people don't (and don't want to) understand is that needing and asking for help is humiliating.

I'm more about empowerment. You don't empower people by taking their choices away and throwing them crumbs. You don't empower people by using them and their suffering to lift yourself up and talk about what a great person you are. You don't empower people by telling them that if they don't have money, there must be something wrong with them. What IS that? Nobody wants handouts or crumbs. what people want are opportunities, real ones. Not the opportunity to struggle and be treated like disposable crap at a low-paying job, but REAL opportunity. I would have given anything for the opportunity to save myself. But I'm person B, and a single parent. I fully understand the shock of discovering that daycare costs more per hour than I can make and all the fun little shenanigans that follow that discovery. I feel that my perspective is unique because I fell from one world straight into another, and it was one I was completely unprepared for. The difference in the way I was suddenly treated was shocking and frankly, unacceptable. It was my fortunate upbringing that helped me to survive and pull myself out, but I didn't forget a thing. But how are people supposed to have any hope?

So clearly, this post got away from me. Even so, I hope that what I've written here gives you something to think about. I'm not saying don't donate to the food shelf and don't buy toys for the toy drives (in fact PLEASE DO! They are really in need!!). Right now, that's what there is and it's preferable by FAR to doing nothing. But please keep in mind that the folks who are struggling do so all year round, that they are not struggling because they want to. Many of them work and have children, many are veterans, are disabled, are elderly. All are human beings, each one a soul with value and purpose. Please don't let the media lie to you or the few who abuse the system convince you that the poor are somehow undeserving of your love and respect. While it's true we are all responsible for our own lives, we are here for each other too. We all need help sometimes, and I'll value human beings over cash any day.

On that note, I hope you have  an awesome turkey day!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

I'm Part of the Problem

I've come to a startling revelation. When folks gripe about the season of scarymerrythankmas, it's people like me they are griping about. Okay, I admit it. I LOVE the holiday season. LOVE it. Halloween is the best, I love all things spooky! But I have to suppress the urge to run out and buy myself an ugly Christmas sweater the morning after Halloween is over. No kidding. I think there is a place for such garishness, and that it can even add to the festivities :-) One ugly Christmas sweater, please! Oh...my friends are going to hate me...

So here we are, aaaalll the way into November (the 4th, actually) and I'm already thinking about updating my Christmas card list, and making patterns for all the homemade Christmas things I'm going to make this year. I feel like I'm so far behind! I didn't get ANYTHING done last year because both my daughter and I had the flu. But this year I am all over those crafting projects.

I think part of the excitement is my updated point of view. I've historically had a tough time during the holidays. It's a time of year that emphasizes the loved ones I've lost and the ones I always miss. It's a time when I'm reminded of everything I've lost. But this year, this amazing year, I've had a chance to look around and see my friends in a whole new way. Friends are the family you choose, and mine don't ever seem to let me down. In fact, they regularly seem to go above and beyond. Yes, I've lost loved ones, but I've got a lot of new ones (or "new-ish") in my life. That realization alone is cause for celebration!

Nothing is the same. Nothing will ever be the same. I get that now, more than ever. And yeah, there will always be sadness attached to that and there will always be holes. But I'm not alone, not at all. I AM supported and loved. I don't need to go looking for that where it isn't on offer because it is offered in SO MANY places. I'm looking forward to making plans for our 'Orphan's Christmas' with friends (and hey guys, if you're reading this, let's wear ugly Christmas sweaters. Like for real. And take LOTS of pictures), I'm excited about getting gifts done, about sending out my cards. I can't wait for the cheerful lights, the fresh smell of pine, and the sound of Christmas music. Yup, I've become THAT person. And why not? What's wrong with a whole season of joy and gratitude and cheer? I have so much to celebrate this year, and so many people to celebrate with. Let's get this show on the road!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Stop the Bus

When life would get to a point somewhere past ridiculous, my friend Dawn (AKA "Donna") used to say "Stop the bus, I want to get off".  It was silly, but somehow, nothing was quite able to sum up that particular state of mind quite so well as that statement. It just fit. I am currently experiencing one of those days. I wish there was a bus to stop. Figuratively, anyway, the bus I'm currently riding feels like it's careening down some random embankment, driven by a zombie, and I'm its hapless, helpless passenger just trying to hang on until it comes to a stop. My greatest hope is that when it does, it's still upright. Ahh...there are few things I like better than getting overly dramatic about bad days, so if you don't have the stomach for that sort of thing, you may want to get off this particular bus now.

I don't know where my car is. My daughter took it to work last night, and both the car and kid are still AWOL. Some days, I don't even feel like I actually own a car, unless it's time to pay one of the many car-related expenses. I said "You can use my car for work" She heard "You may take over my car, and my need for it will always be secondary to whatever you have going on". This is totally my fault. I hate playing taxi SO MUCH that it was a relief. But it has now reached the point of sublime ridiculousness. I don't like bringing the thunder, but if I don't I'm going to explode. Badness. I just have to keep reminding myself that yes, I actually DO own a car. MY car. MINE.

Don't get me wrong, my daughter has been in touch. This morning, at 4:00 AM. Then again at 6:00 AM. Then again at 9:00 AM. Ask me how fabulously I get on when I haven't slept. To say I feel prickly today is an understatement (and what an adorable little euphemism prickly is). I have decided to remain in my apartment for the safety of others. Well, except when I have to take my dog out, which happens. I will do my level best to NOT unleash the tides of doom on whichever unfortunate neighbor I happen to encounter en route. No promises though.

Did I mention that today was also 'sprinkler-test' day? That means the the sprinkler company is here all morning, setting off the alarms over and over again at random intervals. If that noise isn't enough to do in that last nerve that I hope I have, my screaming Doberman might just do it. When the alarms go off, the dog screams. AWESOME. Dobermans are a big dog and most people will tell you that they have a big, booming bark to go with their large size. But, (and all Doberman owners are very aware of this) they also have what I call 'tea-kettle' mode. They have a high-pitched, piercing shriek in their arsenal of sounds that is simply not to be believed until you experience it personally. It almost has a paralyzing effect on the nervous system in some odd, apparently supernatural way. My preference would be to get in my car and maybe take the dog somewhere until they are done, but ya know, I don't know where my car is.

Today is also one of those days when the folks I need to hear from are not getting back to me, and the folks I DON'T need to hear from won't leave me alone (and somebody keeps leaving voicemail messages on my cell phone, which is kind of new, and I don't know how to retrieve the messages). It's not a super day for chit chat. Trust me, you are SUPER psyched that I'm not answering the phone ;-)


Okay, so here's the game-plan: I'm going to hole-up until the storm passes. I can do this. I know that with a little bit of something chocolate and maybe a mocha latte, this day need not be an utter crisis. I promise I will not call you today, and I will not call my Mom. Her nerves and my nerves have a similar intolerance for utter madness. And yes, you may laugh as I am sure to do myself in a day or two. Until next time!