Thursday, November 29, 2007

Turkey Reverie

Baxter has been my kitchen shadow ever since Thanksgiving. Somehow the preparation of the bird and all the trimmings provided the kind of sensory overload that makes a dog think the best place to be is between me and whatever I'm trying to work it at the sink, the stove, whatever.

I'm not certain how much of this is brilliant strategy (if I trip her, she might drop the turkey) vs. just wanting to be as close to what smells good as possible. Either way, the outcome is the same. I turn around with a hot pan in my hands and there he is. I take a step back from the refrigerator and voila, there he is again.

This has continued all the way through leftovers and turkey noodle soup and on to plain old daily cooking. My shadow. I think we need to lay some kitchen ground rules...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Frost Catchers and Navigating Through Art

I am continually amazed at how our dogs have adapted to life with an artist in the house. My husband, a painter and sculptor, is always collecting little bits of this and that, found objects which sometimes end up sitting on the bench next to the door before they are deployed in a variety of sculptural compositions. The dogs may sniff, but they don't touch them, no matter how interesting they are. We have paintings, pottery, art books and delicate sculptures all within easy dog reach and none are ever disturbed. We don't even see signs of nose prints.

When Baxter was a puppy, my husband used to paint on large canvasses on our back patio. Baxter would place himself between the paint and the canvas, without touching either, and lay down for a nap. Needless to say, for much of his puppyhood he had little specks of paint in his hair. It gave him a rather avant-garde appeal.

In the house, where we have always had a lot of art around, we watched puppy Baxter like a hawk. Each time he approached an art piece, we let him sniff but never touch. He learned fast, and, apparently, he has taught this reverence for objects d'art to Kirby. Other than a couple of teething puppy bites on the blinds by the sliding door, Kirby hasn't chewed up any household items, artistic or otherwise.

This holds true for objects in the yard as well. Lately my husband has been taking his invention of the "frost catcher" to new levels... He's watching the weather, noting the temperature and humidity and, on the most promising nights, placing his works of environmental art in the yard, in the garden, on the windshield, any place that might catch the remarkably elusive crystals. His latest experiment involves creating frost heaves in a bottle and it has moved from the garden to our freezer. Finding bottles of dirt in the freezer really didn't surprise or alarm me as much as it probably should have...I guess I've been married to an artist for too long to be surprised by such things.

In any case, the dogs are doing a pretty good job of staying away from the frost catchers. Unfortunately, Baxter learned this the hard way. While the dogs have become used to navigating around sculptures on our back patio, last winter the frost catchers began showing up in the lawn (which was, as far as Baxter was concerned, dog territory). The first of these frost catchers was attached to a shovel handle and placed in the middle of the back yard. Not anticipating such an anomaly, Baxter discovered the standing shovel handle by collision while taking a night time spin through the yard. (Dogs may have good night vision, but that doesn't necessarily mean they watch where they're going...)

The other night, when the mysterious shovel-handle frost catcher made its first appearance in our new yard, Baxter eyed it with suspicion and gave it a wide berth.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Baxter's Retreat

Last week Baxter started doing something new. One evening, after returning from a trip to the back yard, I went over to the coat closet to hang up my jacket. When I opened the closet door, Baxter walked right in, as if it were something entirely normal to do. I parted the coats and peered into the semi-darkness. Bax was just sitting in there. I left the door open.

Now this is quite a large closet (it goes back and around under the stairway) and, unlike the rest of the living room, it is carpeted. At first I figured this was one of those "just checking things out" explorations, but when he did it again last evening and curled up for a snooze, I realized this is Baxter's getaway.

For some reason, Kirby doesn't go into that closet, so Bax has it all to himself...a quiet, carpeted retreat. Hey, Kirby has his crate, so I guess it's only fair that Baxter has a cave of his own.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Reason Dogs Make Us Feel Better

We've all seen the reports of studies that show how having a dog can help you live a longer, healthier life. Of course, this is probably due to many factors, from having to get out and walk once in a while to just having a companion to care for and be loved by.

I'd have to say that one of my favorite aspects of dog companionship -- one that inevitably brings a smile to my face no matter what mood I'm in -- is the wholeheartedly enthusiastic greeting.

I was reminded of the power of that greeting just this morning, after having slept in a bit. My husband got up earlier, took the dogs out and shut the bedroom door so I could continue to sleep uninterrupted. When I finally dragged myself out of bed about a half hour later, I opened the bedroom door and received one of those bouncy, tail-wagging, joyful greetings that tells you just how much you are appreciated. You'd think I'd been gone for hours. I guess, to a dog, sleep is going away to another place. They spend a lot of time there, so they know it well.

My first experiences of the day tend to forecast the kind of day I'm going to have. It's the "right/wrong side of the bed" phenomenon. Being reminded, first thing, that I have two canine beings who are absolutely thrilled to see me is not only a stroke to my groggy morning ego, but also a deep, heartfelt reminder that no matter what happens for the rest of the day, I have warm-hearted beings who care about me.

Of course, I know this about my husband too, even without the enthusiastic morning greeting (he's not enthusiastic about anything until he's had his morning coffee). But with the dogs it's much more immediate. Dogs wake up demonstrating how much they appreciate you, no matter what side of the bed you (or they) got up on.

This morning's enthusiastic greeting made my day. No matter what happens for the rest of the day, I will have that first memory of looking down at those shiny brown eyes and wagging tails saying "welcome to the waking world, we've been waiting for you!"

If that's not enough to help me live longer, it's certainly enough to make living every day worthwhile.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Chasing Leaves

The sun decided to peek out for a bit today so I seized the moment to go for a walk with the dogs. Much like the wind that was blowing all the beautiful fall leaves off the trees, Baxter and Kirby were a swirl of wild activity. Despite the use of the "Gentle Leader" on Bax and the "No Pull Harness" on Kirby, I found myself being pulled down the street by two completely gonzo dogs that would appear not to have any training whatsoever. "Whoa!" "Easy!" "Heel!" "Just a dang minute here!"

Nothing seemed to have any effect. Baxter had his nose in the wind and Kirby was bouncing and pouncing and chasing every leaf that whipped by on the wind. While my common sense (and my shoulder) were suggesting that I might want to get better control over the situation, my spirit understood. After a couple of days spent mostly inside due to rainy weather, a bit of sunshine and the swirl of fall leaves on the wind was almost whipping me into a frenzy.

Of course, I was missing most of the interesting smells that Baxter was eagerly tracking on the wind (I'm sure a couple of them would have led us directly to the doorsteps of neighborhood cats). But I sort of understood Kirby's fascination with the leaves. I've always loved autumn leaves. As a child I collected them and pressed them between the pages of our old dictionary, trying to save a bit of that glorious color to discover during the gray winter months. My friends and I would rake leaves into big piles and jump into them, scattering them all over the yard to be raked up again.

For Kirby, leaves on the wind are perfect for terrier pouncing practice, and one could only describe the gusto with which he jumped and scurried and pounced as pure glee.

So I let the boys pull me a bit today. Sometimes you just can't hold back your enthusiasm, and I have to admit I was pretty excited to feel that sunshine on face and watch the swirling orange, red and gold.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Refreshing Idea for Holiday Gifts

The Polishing Stone Magazine Brings Low-tech Balance to High-tech Holiday Gifts

Ok, this is a rather shameless plug, but this is a great magazine. If you are looking for that "something different" to give as a gift this year, I highly recommend it. Because it's not glossy, it's tempting to initially think it's a lightweight magazine -- that couldn't be farther from the truth. Without advertising (how nice!) it really is packed with wonderful content. Yes, I do write for them occasionally, and I consider it an honor. I was a fan before I was a writer for them.

So check out their website, view some articles and give it a try. I gave it as holiday gifts to friends and family last year and have received a lot of wonderful comments back. Some of them are now giving subscriptions as gifts to others. I love to see that kind of groundswell of growth, especially for a non-profit magazine that's run by people who really have a sincere desire to make the world a better place.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Good Habits, Bad Habits and Just Because He Can

I read once that you need to do something at least 21 times to make it a habit. I have no idea if this is true, but the converse sure seems to be true. If I go more than three weeks without writing in my blog, it seems to take me a long time to get back into the daily (or at least weekly) habit.

By contrast, our canine friends thrive on habit. If we got up every morning and did everything exactly the same way day after day (particularly if it involved a long walk or trip to the dog park), our dogs would be perfectly content.

For dogs, I think it only takes two or three times of doing something to make a good habit. And even less to create a bad one -- one false move (such as Auntie Charlotte slipping Fido a piece of turkey at Thanksgiving) can have Fido begging for food at the table for the rest of his life.

With dogs there is also a third category of habit: "just because I can." I think our dogs crave routine so much, they create little rituals for themselves, just to add another habit to the daily list. Kirby has done this just recently.

Outside of our home there is a small, brick, L-shaped bench. Sometimes, when it's nice outside, I'll go sit on it and soak up the sunshine. Baxter has no trouble jumping up on the bench to sit next to me, but little Kirby could never seem to get up there by himself, despite a lot of coaxing. Suddenly one day, Kirby made it. Of course, I lavished the kudos on him, which only added to the inspiration.

The next time we went out, he tried again. He failed a few times, but finally made it. He was hooked. Now, every single time we pass the bench Kirby has to jump up there, just because he can. He always looks up at me with this "isn't this GREAT?!" expression on his face. Of course, I reinforce it with praise.

This "just because I can" habit has not only inspired Kirby, I think it has helped build up his jumping muscles, because just the other day, much to my surprise, he jumped into the back of the Subaru without any assistance (previously, after several failed attempts, he would just stand there with his little paws up on the car and wait for us to lift him in).

Of course, none of this impresses Baxter one bit. He's now not the only dog who can do these things and I think he's concerned that these are just two more ways Kirby is moving-in on his domain. So I'm taking the opportunity to reward Baxter's other unique, good habits. Such as bringing me my slippers.

I wonder how long it will take for Kirby to figure that one out?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Admiring the Garden at Hosen-in Temple, Ohara, Japan

We're enjoying the beautiful garden with its 700-year-old pine tree, drinking traditional Japanese green matcha tea and eating Kyoto sweets. Ohara is just outside of Kyoto, up in the hills.

A Great Vacation in Japan

As you may have noticed, I took a bit of a breather from the blogosphere, but I'm back. After an insanely busy summer of moving and working and business travel, my husband and I went on a much-needed vacation to Japan. We went with friends, fellow blogger KM-Clear and her husband. We left the dogs in the care of my mom, who did her duty as dog-Grandma. We also hired a dog-walker to come three times a week and take the boys to the dog park or for a brisk walk, just to give Mom a break and ensure Bax and Kirby didn't get the cabin-fever crazies.

Upon our return, Mom informed us that she had thoroughly spoiled the dogs and we'll just have to deal with that. Thanks Mom! Of course, now Bax and Kirby absolutely insist on going out every hour or two. But they're gradually getting back onto a normal schedule and we truly appreciate the dog-sitting. I'm sure they had a much better time hanging out with Mom than in the kennel.
Our vacation was wonderful. We went to Takayama and Kyoto and spent a couple of days in Tokyo.

We had never been to the Japan Alps before, so visiting the little mountain towns of the Hida region around Takayama was a treat. We expected to see some lovely scenery and get a feel for rural Japanese life. What we didn't expect was the truly wonderful food we experienced there, which differs somewhat from the seafood-centric meals from more coastal regions. My favorite was Hoba Miso: Hida beef and vegetables with miso cooked on a hoba (magnolia) leaf over a small clay burner. I'm not a huge beef eater, but the thin slices of extremely tender local beef practically melted in the mouth. The local root vegetables and mushrooms, neither of which I could readily identify at least half the time, were absolutely delicious. And the miso from that region is amazing -- thick and chunky, salty and savory. Every restaurant has their own variation on the recipe and every one of them I tasted was delicious. Soba (buckwheat) noodles are also a specialty of the region, and I enjoyed them hot and cold (zaru soba) on many occasions.

Another surprise was seeing wild monkeys, known as "zaru" (yes, like the cold noodles, not sure what the link is there) -- large, pink-faced Japanese macaques, often called "snow monkeys," who wander freely in the mountains. We got our first glimpse in the park at Kamikochi, in the Japan Alps, as a large male put on a show for the tourists by following along the boardwalk, sitting down on a little hill and eating a large mushroom right in front of us before scampering off into the woods. We saw females and even a little toddler following along behind his mother. It was quite a sight for us. The locals weren't very impressed, but we were just so surprised to see them. I had always thought the snow monkeys lived on Hokkaido, where they hang out in the hot springs. We learned that these monkeys reside all over Japan, mostly in the mountains.

Our second experience with monkeys was in the hills just outside of Kyoto. As we were walking down a small street after visiting a couple of temples, we saw a very large male monkey cross the street, size up a street vendor to see if he might be able to grab something from one of the barrels of food, then scurry around a corner. We followed him up the alley and saw him climb into an upper story window of a house. A ruckus ensued with the house cat and dog and the soon the monkey climbed out of the window and disappeared behind the house. Soon thereafter the owner of the home, who was apparently working in one of the shops along the street, came running and asking if we saw where the "zaru" went. We did our best "he went that-away" in sign language. She was relieved that he wasn't still in the house, but I got the distinct impression she was concerned about what havoc the monkey might have wreaked in the house.

Our next encounters with wildlife in urban settings were the deer in Nara. They pretty much rule the place -- in the Shinto religion, deer are considered messengers from the gods. The Nara deer have been designated a national treasure. However these national treasures seem to spend most of their time wandering around the public plazas head-butting tourists in hopes they'll drop their ice cream cones. I've never seen deer in such large numbers and so assertive with people. I stopped for a second to admire the beauty of the local scenery and before I knew it there was a big, black nose poinking my elbow. I wasn't about to give up my ice cream cone. Too bad a lot of the tourists, most of whom were Japanese school children at the time, freely gave the deer their candy wrappers and other garbage. Those deer ate everything, and they didn't look particularly healthy for it.

We noticed that a few of the bucks had had their antlers removed. Considering it was the time of the rut, that could be dangerous for them. But we also noticed that the bucks who still had their antlers were the ones who stayed away from the tourists, back in the woods. We even saw a couple of those guys sparring. I expect that keeping the particularly tourist-friendly bucks antler-free not only protects the tourists, but has a certain natural selection element to it, if the more tourist-wary guys with the big racks get the mating rights.
Seeing the huge wooden temple, the spectacular and gigantic Buddha statue and the moonrise over the pagoda at Nara made all the deer-dodging more than worthwhile.
Most of our other animal experiences were a tad more domestic. We saw a lot of dogs in Japan, some breeds I recognized and others that were new to me. Many appeared to be related to the spitz-type breeds, such as the Akita or Shiba-Inu -- prick ears, curly tails, highly focused and cool to strangers. Japanese dog lovers also seem quite partial to the dachshund, and the Japanese version is a tad larger than miniature, with slightly longer legs than the dachsunds we usually see over here. Most of the ones I saw have long hair and slightly shorter noses. They were very cute and usually very friendly, and a couple of the black and tan ones looked a lot like Kirby with a close shave. Another cutie we saw a few times was a little dog that looked like a large version of the Papillon -- same coat, ears and shape, but about half again bigger than the Papillons we see here.
One of the best aspects of going on vacation is the escape from the realities of daily life. I didn't have cell phone service and I didn't have my computer with me. I confess that I did check email from the hotels every couple of days (I hired someone to mind my business while I was away, but I still felt the need to check-in). Occasionally we'd look at the newspaper, which was pretty depressing, and a few times we engaged in "can you believe what's going on in the world?" discussions with our friends. KM-Clear pretty much sums it up in her blog (linked above).
But for the most part I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed being blissfully semi-ignorant for a couple of weeks. I tried to live in the moment, enjoy the beauty of Kyoto's gardens, the temples and shrines, the good weather and the exploration of new foods. I managed to catch a cold about a week into the vacation, but other than that, I enjoyed just getting up in the morning and looking forward to the adventures that awaited us. That is the blessing of vacation.

I'll post some Japan pictures one of these days. Now that I'm back in the world of computers and cell phones and English media, I have lots of catch-up work to do...