Monday, July 30, 2012

training myself

I usually try to write something here on Fridays, but this past week I had houseguests and it was my pleasure to spend Friday at the beach with them instead of pecking away at my computer.  Thus, the Monday blog instead of the Friday blog. 

One of the television shows I have watched a few times this summer is Dogs in the City.  The idea is that a dog trainer named Justin roams around New York city offering his help to dog owners who are having problems with their canines.  There are interesting cases like the blind dog, the pampered dog in a pink dress, the barking dog who can't get adopted from a shelter, and lots of aggressive and socially challenged animals.  What I find most fascinating is seeing the dog trainer use a bit of magic and voila!  The dog is changed!  Okay, it's not really magic and the dog doesn't really change as much as become a better version of him or herself, but this guy has an uncanny ability to adjust a dog's behavour as well as the dynamic between pets and their owners.  I have tried to put some of these principles into practice with Jazz (my resident feline) with limited success.  She is not a dog, after all, but there are quite a few things that I have gleaned from watching a master dog whisperer at work.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, I found that many of the same principles can be applied to humans as well!  I mean no offense, but behaviour modification has some basics that are the same for all living creatures.  Here are a few of Justin's practises that strike me as more than just good dog management.

1.  Don't be afraid to lead.  In many cases, dog owners have abdicated their roles as leaders and dogs can react by becoming aggressive (taking on the role of protector).  In other cases, the owner acts as  a passive leader, setting the tone without realising that the motivations she acts out of directly impact the dog.  When the owner is tense, the dog is tense.  When the owner is fearful, the dog reacts by attacking others.  Confusion breeds more confusion.  You get the picture.  In essence, Justin is training owners to be good leaders and to exemplify the type of behaviour they want to see in their dogs: a sense of calmness, security, sociability, and self-control.

2.  You can't teach a negative.  This one has been ringing in my brain for weeks now.  I tend to be a person who sees what is lacking, so I am often quick to point out faults, especially in myself.  However, this is not all that useful when it comes to behaviour modification.  When Justin asks an owner what they want the dog to do, they often say something like, "I don't want him to bark at people."  Justin responds by pointing out that one cannot teach what not to do; one can only teach what to do!  Brilliant!  In many cases, a barking dog is a dog looking for a job, for something to do.  Justin demonstrates that if you give a dog a clear job, the animal can be pretty easily trained.

3.  Practice, practice, practice.  Learning new behaviour does not happen overnight.  If you watch Justin, you see a pattern:  First, he first observes the dogs and humans in action and helps them get honest about what is happening.  Then, he clarifies the dynamic that is reinforcing the bad behaviour and corrects any foundational issues such as inaccurate information or wrong assumptions.   Third, he comes up with a plan to teach desirable behaviour which involves training the owners as much as the dogs.  It always includes putting both of them in the situation which has proved problematic and working it through.  Lastly, he leaves them with the tools for success and reminds them that it will take practice and consistency for it to stick.

4. Don't confuse love with giving gifts or letting somedog (someone) do whatever they want.  Some owners let the dogs have the run of the house, eating off the table, scratching at furniture, and displacing people on couches or beds.  Others feed them more food and treats than needed.  Some dress them up in clothes, carry them everywhere, or push them around in strollers.  A lack of rules or excessive pampering can be confused with love, and it leaves the dog confused about its role.  A well-loved dog is a dog that participates in a balanced regimen when it comes to food, work, and play. A happy dog also relates appropriately to his owners and other animals and exemplifies the best traits of his particular breed and personality.

Now I am not suggesting that we treat others (or ourselves) like dogs that need to be trained, but I do believe there is wisdom to be found here.  How we treat our pets can be an indication of how we interact with our world.  Being a cat owner has most definitely helped me realise that I am a reluctant leader and need to take a more active role in setting the tone in situations for which I am responsible.  Like I mentioned before, I can be prone to pointing out negatives and staying "stop" instead of giving positive direction.  This is not a really effective teaching method, so I need to continue to grow in this area.  I also see how impatient and inconsistent I can be with the process of learning, thereby sometimes sabotaging it.  Finally, I am constantly realising that I need to show love more appropriately and more thoughtfully.

Thanks, Justin the dog whisperer.  You can catch a clip of Justin at work here.

the photo:  Jazz on her chair.

Friday, July 20, 2012

3 funerals and a book

Dean and I attended another funeral this week.  This has been the third one in three months, all of them colleagues of his at work who succumbed to some form of cancer.  At the same time, I have been reading a book by Kathleen Norris and a few days ago, I read the chapter in which she describes the prolonged illness and subsequent death of her husband.  In addition, for the past month or so I have been reading a chapter from Job every morning.  While this may all sound a bit depressing, I don't find it so.  In fact, I find it grounding.

Though I don't believe we should be fixated on pain, suffering, and death, I do think that acknowledging it as a part of life is necessary for mental and spiritual health.  Our contemporary western culture subtly tries to remove all trace of discomfort from our everyday lives.  Pain can easily be remedied by any number of pain relievers; sickness and death for the most part are relegated to the controlled and sanitized environment of a health care facility.  Funerals are conducted by professionals in subdued, wood-panelled chapels.  All of it tends to distance us from the reality of suffering and in my opinion, we are doing ourselves a great disservice.  When we do actually have to come face to face with pain or look at our own mortality, we are woefully unprepared.  We spend so much of our energy trying to avoid the unavoidable that it always catches us off-guard.

In Norris' book, Acedia & Me, she tells about the slow physical decline of her husband (a cancerous lung removed, a pulmonary edema, repeated episodes of bronchitis and pneumonia, surgery for a broken hip, etc.) and her ensuing role as caregiver and crisis manager over the period of nearly 5 years.  She began to be thankful for small things like waking up to hear her husband breathing, being able to go out for dinner on occasion when he had the strength, or the pleasant view out their hotel window.  In her writing, I don't see ongoing laments about suffering or pain; there is an acceptance that this is part of life, there is gratefulness for another day with her beloved, and most of all, a desire to do the best that she can for him.  She describes his final moments with serenity, humour, and painful realism.  One cannot say that Norris tries to sweep suffering and death under the carpet.  What she does do is try to respond to it with honesty, dignity, hope, and bravery.  I am much inspired by her example.

Here are some of her words which moved me this week:
I watched the monitors as his heart rate slowly declined.  The nurses told me it could take an hour or more for him to die, and asked whether I wanted anyone with me, whether I would be all right.  I told them that I needed  this time with my husband.  I hadn't requested a chaplain, but one appeared at the door and asked if he could pray with us.  I couldn't refuse, and was grateful that the man had a gift for spontaneous prayer.  He asked whether there was a Scripture passage I'd like him to read, and I said Psalm 27.  But, casting a suspicious eye on the Bible in his hands, I asked, "What translation is that?" It was the New International Version.  "That's not acceptable," I told him, and explained that my husband was a poet and needed more beautiful language.  As I did not want to let go of my husband's hand I asked him to dig out the Book of Common Prayer from my purse.  It had been a gift from David (her husband) many years before.  Hospital chaplains must receive many odd requests, but the man proved reluctant to root around in a woman's handbag.  This is becoming quite the spectacle, I told David, but I am only trying to find you a decent translation.  I am certain that he heard me.  I would not let go of his hand, but I did take my eyes off him for a moment as I attempted a one-handed retrieval of the book from the depths of my bag.  While I was thus occupied, the nurse told us, "His heart has stopped."  I could only sigh and say that David was always doing this to me in airports, too.  The minute my back was turned, he'd be off somewhere, and I'd have to go look for him.  "See," the nurse replied, "he was being himself, right up to the end."

I asked the chaplain to read the psalm, and after a brief but moving prayer of blessing on us and our marriage, he and the nurse departed.  I stayed with David to honor the deep silence in the room and say a few final loving words.  When I could let his hand go, I went to the nurses and told them I wanted to help with the body. I  find this an admirable Benedictine practice: in at least one community I know, it is the job of the prioress to wash and dress the corpse of a sister.  The nurses hesitated, but by now they knew that I was not likely to become hysterical.  The body bag they brought was white - the color of mourning in Japan, I thought idly - as I helped them wipe David's body, now heavy with edema, and move it into the bag.  The sound of the zipper was horrid, final.
I did feel fragile and disconnected after David died.  But I found a prayer for myself - also among those intended for the sick - that proved suitable for my  mourning and my continuing struggle with acedia:  "This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  if I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  It I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.  Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen."

Thanks, Kathleen.  Real words for a real world.
Quotes taken from Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books, 2008), 246-247, 251.

the photo:  boats at the Old Port of Montreal this summer.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


I don't throw very well.  In fact, I don't even throw as well as a girl.  When aiming for a target straight ahead, I have been known to toss a projectile straight up, backwards, towards my feet, and in a different direction altogether.  We are attending a charity soft ball tournament tomorrow and for the safety of everyone, I hope I don't have to throw anything.

The path that an object in motion follows is called a trajectory.  It is usually fairly predictable.  If you watch a stream of water flying through the air, you can tell where it is headed.  If a hockey puck is coming at a goalie, he knows where to place his body in order to stop it.  An object in motion stays in motion, unless a force acts upon it, Newton observed.  Our lives are always moving (objects in motion, if you will); we can't stop time or the turning of the earth or the progressions of life in and around us.  In a way, all of life is ripe for transformation, but it depends on my trajectory, on what I am going toward, on what direction I have oriented my life.

If I am heading toward a goal of healthier living, I must avoid the beloved potato chip, exercise several times a week, and get a decent amount of rest.  I have to stay on that trajectory for there to be any lasting effect.  Most times transformation is just staying on course, taking one small step after another in the right direction, even if the progress is so incremental that it seems invisible.  A lot of my writing falls into this category.  It is rarely an easy task fuelled by an inspired burst of energy and a bit of caffeine.  For me, writing is pretty much like doing a long workout, except that sweating is replaced by hair-pulling.  It is just plain hard work and it has to be accomplished one word at a time, one day at a time, week after week, whether I feel like it or not.  This is the only way I can hope to make any progress as a writer.  

There are other forces which can act upon trajectories such as sudden starts (when a golfer hits a ball), obstacles (when a ball bounces on the ground) and other, often volatile forces (a gust of wind which lands a kite in a tree).  Major life changes are like these forces and they can impact the trajectories of our lives.  However, after a relatively brief period of adjustment, we find ourselves once again embarking on a predictable trajectory, even though it may be in a different direction or at a different speed.  It is my theory that transformation does not happen primarily in these sudden or dramatic events, but in the long road leading up to them (the proverbial overnight success that usually takes many years) or the long road we have to walk after something dramatic happens.  The encounters are not the transformation itself, but they do provide the opportunities for transformation.   

The stories of biblical characters seem to bear this out.  While many of the people we meet in the scriptures had dramatic encounters with God, these only became transformative if they were followed up by commitment to the new trajectory (the ways of God). The two Sauls (Saul the king and Saul who became Paul) are excellent examples of how dramatic encounters do not guarantee transformation.  King Saul was given a great opportunity when he was appointed king, but he failed to remain on course and chose his own way over God's way.  Saul's dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus was a turning point for him, but he had to follow it up by renewing his commitment to Jesus every day, no matter how much opposition he encountered.  

Let me translate this talk about the trajectory of transformation into today's language: winning the lottery does not automatically make me a wise investor and a generous person.  Being healed won't necessarily eradicate a victim mentality.  And having someone acknowledge they did me wrong does not guarantee that I will be at peace with them.  Becoming a generous person means that I am generous today.  Part of being healed means that I stop feeling sorry for myself today.  Being at peace means that I forgive today.  Being a writer means that I write today.  What I do today matters because it sets my trajectory.  And that is good news, because it means that transformation starts today.

the photo: a fountain in downtown Montreal: water in several trajectories. 

Friday, July 06, 2012

it's for a good cause...

As I was walking down the street in downtown Montreal this week, I was approached by quite a few people who wanted my support for some cause or another.  The Red Cross guy was friendly and direct, giving us a pleasant "Have a good day!" even though we didn't stop to talk to him.  The Animal Rights girl was a little more aggressive in her questions and implied that because we didn't stop and sign her petition, we were in favour of animal cruelty.  Getting behind a cause is a trendy thing to do and charity is tacked onto any number of activities these days: everything from wearing ribbons to running 5 kilometers to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to buying a piece of art at an auction to going to a gala.   And this trend makes me a bit sad. 

When I look at what is done in the name of charity, it seems odd to me that the actions are often very far removed from the cause they are supposedly supporting.  In fact, events are usually organised in such a way as to draw people in by making them feel good, inspiring them, and providing them with a sense of adventure or accomplishment.  And the goal is usually to raise as much money as possible (as if money were the answer to most of our problems). 

But what about really, truly getting involved with something we say we care about?  In a way that puts us in direct contact with the people or problems we are trying to help? 

It really is very simple to do something charitable, but it is also costly.  Buying some new running shoes, running 5 kilometers in a public event, getting some of my friends and family to sponsor me, and feeling really good about that accomplishment is not a particularly effective way to show that I care about those suffering from cancer (in my opinion).  If I really care, why don't I volunteer at a palliative care centre?  Or take the time to visit someone who is battling for their life and cook them a meal or clean their house?  Or why don't I go back to school and get training to work in the medical field?  Instead of being part of a mountain-climbing expedition for African aid and having the adventure of a life-time, why don't I adopt a child from an African orphanage and give them a new life?  Why don't I help recent immigrants and refugees as they struggle to establish a new home in my country?

Sadly, charity too often becomes more about us feeling empowered and inspired than about actually helping.  Real charity is not a big, loud rally, it does not clang pots and pans to draw attention to itself, it does not need to organize a fundraising event which will include influential people, it does not have a budget or monetary goal, and it does not usually offer an adrenaline rush.  Love shows itself by getting up close to another person, by sharing in someone's struggle, by listening to a painful story and not flinching at ragged scars, by cleaning up after those who can't clean up after themselves, by spending our own resources on someone whose resources are depleted and not advertising our generosity.  Acts of charitable service are costly, tiring, and often emotionally and physically draining.  But they are worth it. 

Let us get back to real charity - charity where the rubber meets the road, where we get our hands dirty, and where we are privileged to actually see and touch the people we are trying to help. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a great feat, but a greater accomplishment would be to scale the challenging slopes of unselfishness and humility and charity by serving those around us.  I greatly admire the passion that many people display by getting involved in different causes, but let our activism not become self-serving and irrelevant.  Love cares more for others than for self.

Here is the trailer from a documentary that asks the question:  what is the pink ribbon campaign (breast cancer) really tied to?  Pink Ribbons   It is worth a look.

the photo:  window and greenery at College de Montreal.