Monday, February 27, 2006

Dancing on snowshoes, with dog

These are the mornings you dream of when you think of moving to Vermont. About four inches of fresh, fluffy snow, bright sunshine, not too cold, and a puppy who wants to romp in the snow. Yesterday was a morning for snowshoes, and Miss Cassandra and I tramped up the field and back, stopping from time to time to do a little work on her “Come!”

The challenge in training for long recall, the experts tell me, is that you have to be more interesting to the dog than anything else in the area. Roast beef works for us, larded with heavy praise. The technique I was taught is to say “Come” only once, stand still and wait for the dog. It’s okay to talk encouragingly, but you don’t keep saying the command or the dog’s name, which are loaded words. When the dog does come, you give a really good treat and praise for a full thirty seconds, which can seem very long when you actually do it.

It is only one command, but Cassie is doing well with this one, better perhaps in the open field than in the back yard where she wants the freedom to roam the yard outside the fence or to visit next door big dog Jake. We are having our little clashes of will over the back yard, but I intend to win, since the big payoff is knowing that Cassie is safe from traffic and pedestrians and wildlife. The big, wide world is no place for an unattended dog.

Toby and Max got very good at recall, with the result that I could take them anywhere and know how they would react off leash. I want Cassie to have this freedom, too, a freedom earned by good manners. So a few times a week, off we go to work on manners.

Yesterday morning, though, did not feel like work. It was sheer joy to be outdoors. This may be the most ideal snowshoe conditions I have ever experienced. Tramping along, feeling long muscles stretch and sunshine on my face, I was a happy girl. If anyone had seen us out there at the back of my neighbor’s field, they would have seen a figure in black and red, striding in time to the iPod, with a furry streak loping lazy circles around me. They wouldn’t, of course have been able to hear me singing along, “You can’t always get what you want….but by and by, you get what you need.”

We might even have danced a little, snowshoes and all.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Painting with puppies

By this I mean “painting with puppies in the house” and not using the little blighters as brushes. Here is my best practice, honed over several houses and quite a few puppies.

Buy a house with blue carpet (I hate blue carpet), preferably aged blue carpet. As you live through either the puppy housebreaking stage or the incontinent old dog stage, remind yourself that you hate blue carpet.

Plan relentlessly so that wallpaper and paint colors flow nicely through the house. You may redecorate one room, but make sure you love the colors. Don’t worry about stains on the blue carpet. Don’t include the blue carpet in your color scheme—like that would happen!

Generally, I like to have one trim color throughout the house, and I use a lot of nice grayish greens, usually a historical blue-green, sometimes a pink but not too much to the Pepto-Bismol end of the scale. Pale lavender is nice. In this house, I may do a deep red dining room since there is not too much wall space anyway in a room with three windows, two doors and an archway to the kitchen. Or maybe a deep goldenrod.

When you start to paint, have a staging area in a room with a door that latches. I cannot stress how important this is, having learned the hard way. Speak lovingly to your puppy, keeping attention focused on your own sweet self and away from the intriguing equipment. Putting the puppy in the fenced yard is cheating.

Once you have completed all your walls--this will take several long holiday weekends, as evidenced by my Easter bathroom, my Thanksgiving stencilled kitchen floor, and now my President's day upstairs hall and half a bedroom--you are ready to call someone to rip out the blue carpet. Then you can do what you want. This step is best timed for when your are between puppy housebreaking and incontinent old dogs.

Meanwhile, don’t paint for too many hours at a time. When you get tired, you stop talking to the puppy. Tired, you are also more likely to do things like step on the can to close it tight and send it shooting across the floor on its side, still open. Clean up promptly and put brushes—which attract puppies—up high. Higher.

Today this worked. It doesn’t always. In the event it does not work, please remember not to apply turpentine or denatured alcohol to your puppy. And do try to ignore the swirls—so beautiful!—left on the dining room wall by the fluffy tail. I wonder if the people who bought the Chattanooga house ever noticed.

What fun!

Is there anything in the world as appealing as a six-month-old puppy? Despite the rigors of housebreaking and cleaning up wreckage, Cassandra really is a love. She is old enough now to learn, and she is attentive, quick, lively and responsive.

Yesterday we did a long walk in the fields, a pre-launch of the winter challenge I am beginning today. Start with 5,000 steps (two and a half miles) a day and work up to twice that over eight weeks. Simple compounding at ten percent each week will do it. The first, perhaps the biggest challenge is to get back to some meaningful level of activity every day.

I am the Queen of Behavior Modification. If there is something I want to introduce into my daily routine, I know how to do it. Set goals, measure relentlessly. No self bashing, but keep measuring. If you don’t get there, analyze the roadblocks and systematically remove them.

For many years that I lived on Staten Island and commuted to work on Wall Street, I had a healthy daily exercise routine. I caught the six o’clock ferry, was in the gym at 6:30, which gave me time for daily aerobic conditioning, weights three times a week, stretching (sheer joy to me), and even a leisurely shower and sauna before I got to my desk at 8:20 or so.

Obstacles that I overcame in designing my workout mornings were many. Here are a few of the solutions.
• Have five sets of workout clothes so that laundry is never an excuse.
• Sleep in them.
• Put your suit on over your workout clothes—nobody on the ferry cares. If you put on your suit, rather than carrying it separately, you are less likely to forget critical items like your blouse.
• Wear your sneakers and keep your dress shoes (black and navy) at work.
• Go to the gym every day. When the clock goes off, get up and get dressed. Don’t even think about the possibility that you might not go. If you think you can’t do it this morning, never mind, go. Once you get there, the odds that you won’t actually do something—even just a little stretching and sauna—are very slim.
This schedule worked for years, until I changed jobs to work on the trading floor where the workday starts at 7:00. I never successfully made the transition to late afternoon workouts.

So I am trying to design a similarly robust exercise schedule that I hope will last me for the rest of my life, now that I know that working on trading floors and in investment banks is dangerous to my health, now that I know I absolutely must manage my daily routine as a matter of life and death.

One approach that is helping me is to think about activity not only in terms of steps but in terms of time. Most people walk at a rate of two miles an hour, so my beginning level can be equated not only to 5,000 steps but also to an hour and fifteen minutes of activity a day. Think of my friend Mary ( ) who walks in her home. She breaks up her ten miles a day into three sessions—so many minutes in the morning, the largest block at lunchtime, and so many in late afternoon. Taking off from her model, I might do forty-five minutes in the morning—lark that I am—, then twenty minutes at lunchtime to learn to take a break in the middle of the day, and then a short stroll to unwind at the end of the day. I put the greatest number of minutes at the time of day I can most control, before other people’s demands have wrought havoc with my schedule and my energy level.

Next week, I will have to add more minutes, miles, and steps to each time of day. This week it is enough to establish a new routine.

My best hope, of course, is that being obligated to go out and play with this wonderful little girl puppy does not feel like obligation at all. As daylight hours lengthen, we will be out in the morning for a long romp across the fields, working on solidifying her recall skills and refreshing brother Toby’s. At lunchtime, I come home to take the puppy out of her kennel for a break, and this enforced schedule has already—over the last several months—pried me out of my office and away from the computer for a healthy mid-day break, to which I can now add a short walk. Evenings will be my new challenge, but maybe not even. As we slink toward spring, it will be no burden to prowl my two acres, picking up sticks and debris scattered by the winter winds, peering this way and that at how the garden might be reshaped, and watching for the first new green shoots.

This is after all why I moved to Vermont. To live closer to the earth. To live a healthy life. To live a happy life.

What dogs really want

We like to think we play an important role in our dogs’ lives, not just a kibble provider and romping companion, but as somehow central. A book I read many years ago put this vain hope into perspective: it turns out that what dogs really want is other dogs.

See Miss Cassandra enjoying the Westminster Dog Show last night. [Sorry, I have a lovely photo, but have lost the cord to my digital camera.] I had to laugh. I don’t think I have ever seen her watch television so attentively in her short six months of life.

Meanwhile, her house-wrecking has escalated. I had a long day Friday, and it was too cold for her to come along, so I came home to an azalea plant flung around the living room—two piles of potting soil ground into the carpet and one pile of thrown-up azalea leaves as evidence—and an almost empty jar of peanut butter. This new assault on items on counter height and above is very alarming, as is the capacity to take lids off peanut butter jars. Pincushion and balls of yarn were easy, expected targets, but the bag of flour and the carton of eggs stolen from the kitchen counter—unexpected and not a good trend.

The new phone ($8 at Big Lots!) still in its armor packaging may have survived its turn as a chew toy, but the old phone did not, its cord wrapped around and around the foot of the guest room bed and chewed to shreds. If you know me outside blogland and you are trying to reach me by phone….leave a message, okay?

For reasons too complex to go into, my internet connection has been moved from one end of my house to the other end—where there is only one outlet. I operate a wireless network at home, so my internet lifeline is unaffected, but it will take some time before I can get an electrician in and have the Vonage phone set up again. It will happen, Mintaining communications in this fast-changing, technological world can be challenging, but it will happen—after all, just as what dog really want is other dogs, what people really want is other people.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tropical vacation

Honestly, having the house really warm for a couple of days is as good as a tropical vacation. I am wearing only one layer, a long fleecey dress that sometime serves as nightgown without even any long undies. I just passed over the heat vent and thought I would swoon with delight.


Why don’t we have a warm house all the time, you ask. It’s not easy to get drafty old farmhouses warm in the first place, and keeping them warm requires an unacceptable financial commitment.

As time goes on, I will get accustomed to my wood furnace. I will learn how to manage the amount of heat I generate, which is controlled partly by the number of times I toddle downcellar to add a log and partly by the thermostat that controls air flow to the fire. Again from T the wisdom, “There is a fine line between keeping the fire going and letting your wood heat go up the chimney.”

Ayuh. Right now I see all that wood downstairs as a free resource, but as I learn to manage it, I will see each log as an hour (or so) of heat and will be able to trade off the cost of wood against the cost of oil in the furnace.

So far I really like burning wood. I am off today to buy an ash bucket. Ask me again next year when I am weary of hauling and stacking wood, doubly weary of hauling ash up the stairs. But I am fortunate that I can burn wood when I want and let the oil come on betweentimes, so I am not as tied to the daily clean and burn routine as many of my neighbors.

For today, I am enjoying having enough warmth to do some sorting and organizing, moving from room to room without having to worry about keeping warm. I am making bread without having to coddle the yeasties in the oven with a pan of hot water. The dogs will likely entice me out for a run later in the day, and when I come home I can luxuriate in warmth all over again. I might even take a bubble bath.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Three degrees above zero, that’s what the weather says it was this morning in my town. When the temperature dives, things start to go wrong at my house. The clothes washer’s drain freezes so water backs up all over the utility room. The dishwasher freezes, and this time it is sending sheets of water cascading into the cellar.


But I have been waiting for a cold weekend to try burning wood in my combination wood-oil furnace. When I first bought the house, I was intrigued by this large metal contraption in the cellar and by the even larger stack of wood down there. But then I saw this episode of This Old House, the one where the plumber’s brother burns his house down, and—to my dismay—he had the same model furnace as mine. Of course, their strategy was to build the fire up high in the morning, then leave the house, returning only after the fire had burned down to nothing and the oil had kicked in. Not a good idea to stuff your firebox full, then leave the house.

Living alone, it takes a long time to get accustomed to new systems in the house. Like what to do when the washer drain and the dishwasher freeze.

So I waited, biding time until I could have the chimney cleaned and the furnace serviced. Each professional who came through counseled me, Be careful! Don’t build the fire too big! But each one encouraged me that burning wood was just fine. Better than fine. It’s the Vermont way. Of course, you want to burn wood.

The man who sold me the house knows wood well. He makes furniture for a living, and left the cellar lined with neatly split logs as well as bags of small stuff from the factory. I always figured I would have to haul it out of there. But then again, why not try burning it? The former owner always said how nice it was on a very cold day to have a wood fire to keep the toes toasty, and being a native Vermonter, he meant a day like this when the temperature drops toward zero and below.

An hour after I started, I was still struggling with newspaper and kindling trying to get them under the big logs that I had thoughtless chunked right in there. I have built fires before, but somehow it is easier in a fireplace, when the whole operation is in front of you rather than deep in a metal firebox…and you have been warned not to build above its doorsill. Hours later, I found the directions, online—honestly, isn’t it amazing?—and another set in my file cabinet, thoughtfully left by the former owner. Oh, yes, perhaps I should read this. And what does a water softener do, anyway?

The wood in the cellar is as nice as you could possibly want. Cut to the proper length for the furnace and split, oh so nicely. Big logs. Piles and piles of them, three layers deep against the cellar wall. Aged for at least two years now, nice and dry, well aged.

It’s five o’clock now, and I have been luxuriating in warmth all day long. This is not the way life is for me when I burn oil. I keep the thermostat at an aerobics-encouraging sixty degrees when I burn oil, but when I burn wood, the thermostat serves only to provide more or less air to the spectacular, intense blaze down there in my furnace.

I had to call my friend, T, and exclaim, “My house is warm!” She understands. She knows far better than I do the cold, clammy, insidious fingers of Vermont winters, creeping in through mousehole and crevice, but in fighting them off, she is a pro. A lifer. She heats her house with wood all the time, or rather with wood and several golden retrievers. It’s generally pretty cold there, because like other native Vermonters, T’s response when the temperature drops is to put on another sweater. Now it is my response, too.

Today, she was ranting about another friend on the end of a telephone line, a friend who was complaining about how cold it was. “Only sixty degrees!” (Yeah, right…) “And last night, it was down to twenty-five degrees! How do you stand it up there?”

At the very instant that T was relaying this lament, I was walking with my trusty cell phone (911 pre-programmed just in case I need the fire department) to the front porch, where I was mightily encouraged to see that the temperature had risen to a bearable twenty-five degrees. I burst out laughing, then had to explain, “I was just thinking. Now it is twenty-five degrees, so it is warm enough to take the dogs out for a run.”

It’s all in your expectations, isn’t it?

Still, being able to take a day to be toasty—and better yet for free—as you burn cheerfully through the wood left in the cellar. That is a day of riches.

I might do it again tomorrow.

“Half your wood and half your hay by Groundhog Day.” T intoned this piece of Vermont lore over the cell phone today. I think I’m okay. Plenty of wood for a few more toasty days. And no hay eaters to put us off, to cause anxiety to intrude in our slow, steady passage to spring.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Night out, damage minimal

“We do this every Friday night,” my friend said. “You just haven’t been since you got the puppy.”


She’s right. I have been tied close to home, checking in for crate escapes every few hours since the end of September.

And all my mental, emotional and psychic energy has been drained away as I kept watch over old Max. Somewhere in the archives of this blog is a piece inspired by a friend who counseled me not to worry so much over old dogs, that their end days would come all too soon without the aid of my anticipation. She was right in that comment, and also right that all the worry ahead may ease the shock of parting, but not the pain.

Love and parting are like light and dark. Experiencing the one makes the other vivid. I, for one, would not give up light for fear of the dark, nor love for fear of parting. Still, there is a time, sad but blessed, when grief recedes, and there is room for a giggle again.

I sat around the bar last night with some old friends and some new ones, having done a hard, good day’s work, and we had a giggle or too. We made bitchy comments, bemoaned our politicians’ labors, allowed as how they (politicians) were probably well intentioned, nattered about local characters, compared Yankees and Southerners, and generally chewed the proverbial. It was a night out.

Driving home under the stars, I considered the price I would have to pay. Since I knew it was a long day, I had left Cassie out of her crate to terrorize Toby and entertain herself.

A sock, a roll of masking tape, and a library book. A roll of paper towels shredded on the stairs. Not bad.

And a mournful puppy who needs a lot of attention today to make up for my night out. But with a little practice, we both might be able to handle mom’s night out again, if only now and then. I’m really not a social creature, you know. But a night out, now and then, is good for me, I think.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Busy, busy

I am looking out the kitchen window watching my six-month-old German Shepherd puppy dig to China. Cassie desperately needs something to do, having spent way too much time in her crate yesterday. Her much older brother, Toby, steadfastly refuses to allow her to chew on his heels. He plays with her more than I have ever seen him play in his nine years with me, but really, enough is enough.

I have been busy, too, trying to organize my office, trying to meet the needs of my clientele as they churn through their resolutions to change their lives and start new business ventures—this is a busy time of year for us—and also trying to re-establish the blessed rhythm of my daily routine.

In a wave of synchronicity, I have been encountering all kinds of advice that people like me need to pay attention to daily rhythms. For people like me, too much difference day to day is dangerous, causing anxiety, stress, binge eating, and flaring temper. My personal daily prescription for happiness consists of seven or eight hours of sleep; a diet rich in high quality, low fat protein, vegetables, and whole grains; an hour’s walk and then some more activity; laughing and talking to someone I love; good productive creative work; and a romp with the pups and some time writing. Now it appears that science supports what I have found to be true for myself, at least for people like me.

Who are people like me? Introverts. People who react badly to too much stress. Women who tend to gain weight around the middle. Middle aged women. That’s about as much self-disclosure as I am up for, but there are many people who are like me, and there are enough who are not like me that my daily prescription is not universal. I have had to learn to be firm about my requirements for my life, even in the face of skepticism and downright disapproval.

So, as much as I loved traveling, it is not for me, or at least not often. And as much as I loved living and working there, New York City became like an addiction to a highly enjoyable, ultimately toxic and fatal drug. My soul craves the peace of rural Vermont. Here I am healing.

Busy times intrude. From time to time, we all have to rise to demands of others. Holidays are a challenge, and loss—however carefully anticipated and prepared—takes a heavy toll. Too much clutter overwhelms me. Meaningless chatter is toxic to me. But the sweet repose of a quiet life beckons, and I am grateful for every day I have it.

Too many days are spent in mindless chatter, and really, why should I bother? There is a reason the puppy is named Cassandra. It is to remind me that people will make their own choices, and that no matter how I rant, they are unlikely to believe what I say. Now I practice saying what I think, then letting people absorb my message. More and more often in this new regimen, they come back to ask my opinion. It is easier on everyone.

The puppy has work to do, but it is not the excavation project that she has undertaken. Her real work is to distract me, to drag me out for walks and romps, to help me live a happy life. Toby’s life work, not assigned but chosen by him, is to love me. They both do their jobs well. I can never repay their joyful industry. A romp or a walk every day is just a start.