Totally Necessary Things I Never Dreamed of Buying Until I Got a Dog

Before I brought my dog, Mabel, into my home, I tried to prepare as much as possible. I read at least a dozen books, I loitered in dog parks, I pestered pet supply store clerks. I understood that there was no point in buying stuff like collars before I had an actual dog to measure, but I purchased basic items like stainless steel food bowls and poop bags so that my new pal would enjoy some basic comforts after her days in the shelter. As one friend tried to tell me, there was no way to really know what my dog would need until I’d gotten to know her. I had no idea what bizarre stuff I’d wind up buying to meet Mabel’s needs and express my love. Here’s a short rundown of the weirdest things I bought for my dog.

A Bit of Antler
Mabel loves to gnaw the small piece of antler I gave her. Hopefully, it’s keeping her tartar under control. It certainly keeps her out of trouble while she’s grinding away at it. There’s some controversy about the safety of antlers for pets, but Mabel’s bit doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to splintering or shattering.

Freeze-dried Lamb Lung
This domestically grown tasty nasty is one of Mabel’s favorite motivators. In spite if its gruesome origins, it’s a relatively low-mess treat. I can easily carry a few bits in my pocket when I take Mabel for a walk.

Food With Pictures of Wolves on the Label
When I first saw a sample package of a certain brand of dog food, which I will not name, I thought, “Lord, what a load of pretentious crap.” Here’s a quote from packaging:

Modern science proves that your dog shares the DNA of the wolf.

Sure, my dog shares some DNA with the wolf. I share DNA with the marmoset, but that doesn’t mean we should eat the same food. Well, now my dog is eating my words. It turns out that this brand is fine kibble for the price. Mabel’s favorite flavor, salmon, comes in a bag illustrated with a pack of wolves stalking a group of bears by a stream. The thought of my 13-pound terrier mutt tussling in the water with a grizzly is terrifying and laughable. She doesn’t even like to get wet. The closest Mabel comes to the call of the wild is sniffing for squirrels at a nearby college campus–and eating this food.

Dog Boots
I used to think the Iditarod dog sled race was the only legitimate place for dog boots until I had to carry Mabel over icy, salty sidewalks last winter. A decent set of dog boots made wintertime “business” walks less painful.

Dutch Sling
The 4 Lazy Legs dog carrier is sold by a Dutch company. I imagine they were inspired by the a land populated by tall people with short dogs. This company understands my needs. Sure, I feel a bit dorky carrying Mabel in a what looks like a baby sling–as if the boots weren’t silly-looking enough. Perhaps the neighbors think this is part of some motherhood delusion, though I know Mabel is a full grown dog, not a human infant. Most people who even bother to look twice appear to be charmed at the sight of my joy-riding dog. But the sling is more practical than it seems. It lets me take my dog on long walks and hikes without slowing down when her six-inch legs get tuckered out.

So let people smile or smirk. I’m waiting for someone to come right out and say, “Dang, that’s one ugly baby!” Philly, I know you have it in you.

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Mabel takes a load off in her carrier.

A Day Off from Over Thinking

To celebrate my day off, I made every effort to write a blog post without self-editing and over thinking as I write. Here are the results, edited, of course, because I don’t expect people to read total slop.

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You’re supposed to put a picture in your blog posts. Here’s a nice one.
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

As in institutional communications worker, I consider all kinds of implications when I’m composing a newsletter article or announcement. Who are the audiences? How can I get their attention without being obnoxious? (Click here to change your life forever! REALLY!!!) How might they misconstrue the message? How many messages can I cram into this communication and still make it readable? What heinous typos and crimes against grammar have I committed?

I wish this kind of thinking stopped as soon as I left work. But it doesn’t, because when I’m writing for myself, as myself, the stakes seem even higher. What audiences is more important that my friends and family? How might I confuse or offend them?  If I don’t protect my own interest, who will?

So, weighed down by all these considerations, I sink into a silent hole. While it would be foolish to deny that these questions matter, it is disastrous to let them constrict me as much as they have recently. I have a lot to say, but I rarely write about any of the ideas that I’ve been chewing on for years. Fortunately, there are a few people who are already saying stuff I’d like to say. They are saying it much more eloquently and reaching audiences much larger than I ever could. There’s some consolation in that (when it doesn’t make me a bit jealous). But there’s a lot of other stuff that remains unsaid. And this stuff could be important.

Writing about some of these unsaid things might help other people like me. What if someone had managed to convey this stuff to me when I was young? If it’s possible for me to share what I know with some whippersnapper, surely I should give her the encouragement that might get her through the formative years of weirdness and spare her much unnecessary pain and confusion.

I used to spend a lot of energy thinking about how people unlike me would interpret what I had to say. Now I am much more interested in writing for others who face the same situations I face. Everyone else seems to have plenty of entertainment and information produced for them anyway. Writing for people like you can devolve into preaching to the choir, but it can also be a revelation. So often have I heard someone describe their relationship with a breakthrough artist by saying, “The first time I read/heard/saw _________, I was so excited. Finally, someone like me was talking about experiences I knew.” Everyone loves to see themselves reflected in the expressive work of others. If fulfills our desire for belonging. Even when I see honest works by and about people who aren’t the least bit like me—works rich with specific details and acknowledged perspective— I find them easier to relate to than universal stuff made for some imaginary average audience.

So who is like me? Damn few, as they say. (I’ll probably wind up saying that again very soon, since it’s a theme that comes to my mind frequently.) I won’t bother listing the demographic categories I fit into now. Instead, I’ll focus on writing about what I see and what I care about. Maybe that will reveal who I am and attract readers who are like me in a way that no label can. (Although some labels wouldn’t hurt. This is the internet here.)

Making People Feel Bad for Making People Feel Bad

As I watched TB Silent Killer, a documentary about an outbreak of virulent tuberculosis in Swaziland, I was struck by the patients’ willingness to talk freely about their despair. If anyone had just cause to despair, 12-year-old Nokubegha does. This orphaned child was quarantined for months in a TB hospital in the developing world, far away from her only sibling. Yet, as she spoke frankly about pain and isolation, I had to beat down a peculiar sense of unease that perhaps only an American would feel. I was afraid that someone would call these people downers or whiners. It was as if a chipper person would pop up from behind a bed pan to the TB patients that “pity party time was over.” Or worse, that someone would accuse them of trying to make others “feel bad.” Heaven forbid!

I don’t believe that it’s impossible to make someone else feel bad anymore than I believe someone can will tuberculosis from their body. Still, in most cases, we have a lot more control over our bad feelings than many people realize. More importantly, when we witness someone’s genuine pain or hear them describe it, it seems strange to assume that they are intentionally suffering to make us feel bad or to hurt us in any way–as if your emotional state did much for them all by itself. Yes, I’ve met a few people who seem to harm themselves out of spite, but most of us do not seek misfortunes in order to play out some drama for an audience. Regardless of the suffering person’s intentions or awareness of our response, unless we are a true psychopaths, we will feel along with him or her. These emotions may push us toward action, but they can’t force us to do anything and neither can the person who is suffering.

Feeling empathy, understanding, and outrage at injustice can move a person to actually help others, but feeling bad is mercy strained. We feel bad when we think there’s nothing we can do to help. (Listening is doing something, and it’s hard work.) We feel bad when we believe that we are to blame for the other person’s misfortunes, and worse when we sense how easily we could wind up like them. This feeling bad fog of impotence, guilt, shame, and pity is pretty useless. Left unchecked, it can actually make the situation worse for those who are suffering.

When people feel bad, they usually want to make it stop. And the easiest way to make it stop is to avoid the source of bad feeling. Even I–a fan of Frontline, which isn’t exactly feel good TV–was tempted to look away from TB Silent Killer. And I just couldn’t deal with Mothers of Bedford, a program about incarcerated moms.  So if you want people to stick around and listen to a difficult story, it’s wise to avoid saying anything that might make others feel guilty or resentful. It’s not easy, especially if you live in the land of “compassion fatigue” where there’s usually a comforting rerun of Modern Family to turn to.

Then there are the people who don’t want to stop feeling bad for others. They gravitate to it, like a creature driven to return to a spawning ground that is now polluted. They may offer help  in exchange for other people’s dignity. That is too often the price of charity.

If the mere thought of others’ suffering is too much for you to handle without becoming lost in your own fog of bad feelings and martyrdom, maybe it’s better for you to turn away quietly–at least until you understand what or who is truly making you feel bad. No one profits when your sympathy curdles into blame and disgust. No one has the right to stop you from taking care of yourself, not even someone who is suffering (because we all suffer at some point).

Our motives don’t need to be absolutely pure before we can lend a hand or ear to others, but our impact will be much more beneficial if we set aside feeling bad when we try to do good.

Here’s a list of organizations helping the victims of TB:

True Vision TV’s donation page for the patients and families interviewed in TB Silent Killer

www.doctorswithoutborders.org

www.results.org

Prymaat Was Right: Decluttering Ideas about Housework

Since my office is officially closed today, I had no excuse to avoid cleaning. Time to suck it up and confront the cluttered corners of my home. As I sorted clothes, I could feel my chest tightening. Why was I so stressed out by this simple task that everyone else manages to do so easily? In a way, that question kind of answers itself. I know that even if I could know what everyone else does, I can’t assume that what they do is right for me. This wisdom disappears when I start to clean. It’s as if Prymaat the Conehead and I are the only weirdos who hate housework. In spite of the my very public apathy for cleaning, especially laundry, I feel guilty about mess.  In the cluttered corners of my mind, I still believe that I’m supposed to love neatness for its own sake. In reality, I only value neatness when I’m looking for my keys or a fresh, complete pair of socks.

Jane Curtin in "I hate housework" apron

Alienated by housework

The first idea that I need to throw out is that cleaning is easy and simple for everyone. Cleaning is not quantum physics, but it does require some skills that are not universally known. Some people are better at it than others. By the way, there’s an interesting contradiction between society’s expectations of cleanliness and the status of people who clean for a living. What’s up with that?

The next dirty notion is that I am cleaning “wrong.” No one is watching me clean (as far as I know), so I can dump the fear that my performance is being judged. I’m happy to learn ways to clean faster and better, but I’m not in a competition. I’m not going to get points for style. And as much as I’d like to be speedy, sometimes that’s not going to happen. Let Frederick Winslow Taylor spin in his grave, slowly.

Another junky notion that needs to go is the connection between cleanliness and womanliness. There is nothing inherently female about cleaning. Some of the tidiest people I know are very manly men. Yet the link between womanliness and washing remains powerful, as if we must compensate for being “unclean.”  In a 6th grade health lesson, we girls were shown a pamphlet that said, “Dainty is as dainty does!” Even back then, our teacher said this material was dated. Next time I’m chatting with a group of women who appear to be bonding by wondering what they will ever do with their sloppy guys, I will just tune out. Sorry, but your pamphlets are dated.

Perhaps the foulest belief that I have about cleaning is that I should feel intrinsically motivated to do it. Instead berating myself for not cleaning happily like a cartoon princess or efficiently spit-spotting my way though chores, I would be better off treating myself for getting through the drudgery. And no, a sparkling sink is not its own reward. Being able to pour myself a glass of water without digging through a stack of dirty dishes is what it’s all about.

So hooray for me for cleaning today. An orderly home makes life easier and gives me more time to do things I love. I may hate housework, but I like knowing where my socks are.

Freaky Steeky, I Cut My Dog’s Sweater

The sweater I knit for my dog, Mabel, turned out to be a bit on the tight side. Rather than cast Mabel as a canine “sweater girl,” I decided to experiment with steeking. Steeking involves cutting hand-knit fabric. (For deeper details, see Eunny Jang’s internet classic, Steeking Chronicles. Or check out her video.) Since Mabel is not especially sentimental about her wardrobe, the steek stakes were pretty low. Why not go for it?

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The second reinforcing crochet chain in progress

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Close up of crochet

Mabel’s sweater is knit in an acrylic wool blend– not the ideal fiber combination for steeking. Still, I figured the yarn would be coarse enough to hold together with reinforcement. Because the sweater was too small to maneuver into my sewing machine, I reinforced the steek with two crochet chains.

Once I wrapped by brain around crocheting a chain onto knit fabric, it didn’t take long to make the reinforcements.  I cannot wield my sharpest scissors and take photos at the same time, so I’ll try to describe the thrill of cutting into my own handy work. Even though I had to fuss a bit to locate the right cutting points, it was very liberating to slice away at my own stitches.  I wish I had done it at a table with the fabric tacked down to a board so I could concentrate completely on cutting the stitches in the center of their heads.

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Mabel’s former pullover

Nothing has unraveled…yet. I might break out the sewing machine to add extra reinforcement later.

So now Mabel has the makings of a cardigan. The final product may wind up as some sort of Henley.

 

 

 

Mabel in her new cardigan.

Mabel is thrilled.

What Makes a Pattern Worth Paying For

There are free craft patterns and instructions everywhere. Between knitty.com, the wild, wild, web and the backs of yarn labels, it’s possible to avoid paying for knitting and crochet patterns all together. So why do I still pay sometimes?

1. I can’t figure out how they did it (or I just don’t feel like it).
If I see a photo of a cool garment and I can’t figure out how the heck the designer did it, then I’m half way to sold. Even if I could figure out how the item was constructed, it’s nice to let someone else do all the math and make the key choices. I don’t always want to figure out how to modify a so-called one-size-fits-all hat pattern so that the finished project actually fits my big head.

2. Enough searching; I just want to make stuff.
Time is more precious than money. You can never regain the time spent scouring the internet for the right free pattern. Sometimes it’s just more efficient to buy from a trusted source.

2. The pattern makes everything clear.
Nothing frustrates like incomplete, vague, or incorrect directions. A great pattern will give you specific instructions when they matter, such as what kind of cast-on to use, and include schematics and other helpful illustrations.

3. The designer and publisher stand behind their work.
Sometimes I don’t know this if this is true until it’s too late. Certain publishers have better reputations than others when it comes to technical editing and errata. I like knowing that they got my back. The peace of mind that provides is worth a few bucks.

4. I believe in paying people for their work.
I won’t get too highfalutin about this, but if you believe in property or participate in property systems (Do you pay for goods and services or expect them to fall on your lap like manna?), then don’t make an exception for intellectual property. It isn’t different. Designers may chose to give away a pattern, but I respect the fact that it was theirs to give away in the first place. Why should I expect anyone to provide me with all of the services and information listed above without some real compensation? It’s not enough to say “Oh, isn’t that precious?” Individuals might offer free patterns out of generosity, but they may also be doing it to build an audience. Yarn sellers and manufacturers aren’t giving away patterns just to be nice; they do it to sell yarn. 

5. Because art and entertainment.
Some patterns are so beautiful that I just want to buy them to support the designer. The photography and layout are part of the fun. It’s my way of saying, “More, please.”

Lipizzaner Mutt

I recently “trained” my dog, Mabel, to give me high fives. I put the word trained between quotes because there was so little effort involved. It was less training and more theatrics. Mabel, who many neighbors insist must be part Jack Russell Terrier, loves to rear up and jump anyway. All I had to do to get her to perform the high five was to hold up my hands, then reward her for smacking her front paws against them instead of putting her paws on my shins. I used the same method to get her to do a variation of the fist bump. What clever dog wouldn’t want to put her paw on top of a fist full of treats? If I hold my empty fist in front of her, she’ll bump it, and I can reward her with praise or a treat from my other hand.

Teaching Mabel these human greetings was vastly easier than teaching the stay cue. As I saw it, I was basically teaching her to do nothing–a completely unnatural activity for most mammals, especially feisty ones.

It reminds me of Legendary White Stallions, an episode in the PBS Nature series about the Lipizzaner Stallions. The stallions have been trained to perform breath-taking jumps and kicks. But perhaps the most amazing–and useful–thing I learned from the program is that some of the spectacular dance moves are actually natural wild horse behavior performed on cue in front of an audience. Although it takes years for the horse and trainer to become true artists, the essential difference between a crowd-pleasing performance and an common action is all in the timing.

Knowing that some of the most highly skilled animal trainers in the world are just getting their equine partners to do what they might do anyway–only on cue–opens up many fun activities for a dog person. Now I get to praise my dog for jumping instead of always saying “Off!” or “ah ah ah.”

I should also keep the stallions in mind as I continue to shape my own behavior.