Adventures in Obedience

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From Jane's World

My two dogs run, leap, and chase each other through the snow as Dane and I labor to keep up. It’s a gorgeous, sunshine-filled winter day. I’ve been telling my pups about the obedience classes they’ll be taking for the next six weeks. I’ve read that if you tell your animals in advance what they’ll be doing and what’s expected of them, they’ll experience less anxiety.

“You’re going to learn new tricks, you’ll get tons of treats, and you’ll make lots of new friends!” Téte’s sideways glance oozes skepticism—been there, done that, not fun—but Finn, who has never attended an obedience class, looks interested. His little head cocks to one side, and his eyes widen at the mention of treats. Later that day the fun begins.

Lesson 1: I’m standing in a large gymnasium behind Téte, a jet-black mixed-breed dog with shiny fur and a brown Zorro mask. She’s stretched her leash to its limit, pulling my arm straight out from my shoulder socket to gain a few extra inches. My white-knuckled hand clenches the handle.

Téte is gazing across the room at Finnegan, who is also straining at his leash, held in check by Dane, whose arm is stretched as taut as mine. The two dogs reach toward each other like long-lost lovers, Téte’s large chocolate eyes looking almost teary.

Around the gym, dogs of all breeds sit calmly, eyes fixed on their owners, who appear to be holding their leashes loosely, arms relaxed by their sides.

Téte pulls harder and lets out something between a long, low howl and a deep, dark whine. Sinking to her haunches, she starts to crawl across the hard gymnasium floor like a woman dying of thirst toward a river. Her strength jerks me forward and my body lurches in a Frankenstein stride behind her.

My heart breaks for Téte but my face flushes in embarrassment as I’m dragged across the gym to Finn and Dane. Dane gives me a lopsided told-you-so smile. I half smile back as Harry, our instructor, grabs Téte’s leash from me. He marches her to the middle of the gym floor, where she turns and gives me an accusatory look that says as clearly as words, “Traitor!”

“This dog has separation anxiety,” Harry bellows. I meekly hold out my hand to reclaim her leash, thinking, Let’s not put a label on my dog, though I know darn well Harry’s right.

As class resumes, Téte sits and lies down when asked to, and I give her pieces of cheese to reward her good work. But she seems to keep one eye out for Harry and the other for Finn and Dane.

Meanwhile Finnegan, a rat terrier mix with hardly any fur and a perpetually pink belly, is growling and snapping his tiny razor-sharp teeth at every dog—all much larger—that comes within a few feet of him. Harry cautions Dane not to scold Finn for protecting his space: “This dog is saying ‘You’re too close,’ and that’s okay. That’s how other dogs know to stay away.”

It works. All the dogs and their owners stay far, far away from Finn, Téte, and Dane and me. So much for making new friends.

Lesson 2: Téte bounds out of the car, pulling me behind her. Finnegan is already “protecting his space,” yipping at the other dogs that are arriving. Inside, we take off our coats and head for opposite sides of the gym.

Once again, Téte obeys basic commands, but Finnegan isn’t doing nearly as well. When asked to sit, he squats, keeping his rear end an inch or two above the floor. Harry's young assistant takes an interest in Finn and gently places her hand on his hindquarters, says “Sit!” and gives a firm push toward the floor. In response, Finn stops squatting and stands instead. He wants the treat and listens to the endlessly patient gal, but despite all her attempts, his bottom keeps hovering when it should land.

Our next task is get our dogs to sit, stand, lie down, walk, and so on before giving them their treat. The idea is to master a series of commands instead of just one. Téte is doing great until another teen helper decides to intervene. After the hundredth “Sit, lie down, stand” without getting the piece of cheese that’s being held a quarter inch from her nose, Téte gives up and decides to find Finn and Dane again. She makes her belly-rubbing, haunches-up, Jane-dragging way across the floor to check in with our partners.

Harry spies us and advises me, “Don’t get mad at her. You’re not here to work on her separation anxiety. Let her check in and then take her back and work on her exercises.” Easier said than done, Mr. Harry, I think. Thankfully the class ends just then. Spared by the bell.

Lesson Three: Finn bounces out of the car with Dane holding his leash. As we walk to the door, greeting fellow classmates and their dogs, Finn starts gagging like a ham actor pretending to have swallowed poison. He’s so impatient to get inside, he’s choking himself on his leash. No doubt he has visions of cheese sticks dancing in his head. Téte, however, has planted her four paws into the sidewalk and wants no part of this fun I speak of.

Our first task today is to teach our dogs to come by calling their name once, then running backward with a beef jerky treat. This is a breeze for Téte, who snatches the treat as she zooms past while I fall on my buttocks. I scramble to my feet, worried that Master Harry will use me or Téte as an example again. Across the room, Dane is rewarding Finn, who has this exercise down pat.

We were told to bring a rug today, and now we’re instructed to lay it down near our dog. Finnegan is quick to learn that every time he obeys the command “Rug” he gets a treat. Téte is the only dog in the room that completely avoids touching her rug. Treat or no treat, she acts like it’s a land mine that I’m trying to get her to step on.

As the class ends Téte makes a beeline to the gymnasium door, eager to regain her freedom. Finnegan is still ready to sit, stand, walk, come, lie on the rug—anything for more cheese. On the drive home both dogs sprawl in the back seat, exhausted.

Graduation day can’t come soon enough for Dane and me. We come home pooped from the lessons too. Learning to obey is hard work for all of us!

Originally Published February 15th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Finding Sanctuary

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From Jane's World

Often while I’m hiking in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, I find myself remembering a place I used to call “The New World.”

Within the Reserve’s 8,000 tranquil acres I can sprawl on my belly in open-mouthed awe, admiring a purple or fluorescent orange mushroom. As I saunter alongside the winding Kickapoo River, the red-tailed hawks, eagles, and sandhill cranes keep me company. With my dogs beside me, I meander many soothing miles of trails, up and down, over ridges, through valleys, across hogbacks and marshes. Nature and her critters provide perfect companionship.

Years ago, The New World was a safe haven from the storms of life that swept through my childhood. The worst of them usually arose around dinnertime.

The dinner table is set. It’s after six o’clock. My heart is thumping and my throat is tight.

 Please be on your way home, Dad. I beg of you, please be turning into the driveway soon. I love you so much. Come home, Dad.

I know my dad’s office number by heart. I want to call it to find out if he left work, but we have only one phone. It hangs in the wallpapered kitchen where my mom is pacing.

Tonight’s meatloaf is drying out in the oven. The potatoes in a yellow Pyrex bowl on the table are cold.  The air is thick with smoke; the glass ashtray on the Formica counter is full of stubbed-out cigarettes. My older sister and brother are out with their high school friends.

I stay out of my mom’s way. Now it’s after 7 p.m. My head feels like it might split in two and I have a dull ache in my stomach.

The gravel groans as a car turns into the driveway. I fly to my brother’s bedroom to look out the window. It’s my dad! But another car is following him. I watch the driver of the second car get out and walk to the passenger door of my dad’s car. The man driving my father’s car also goes around to the passenger door. He opens it and my dad spills out. The two men half-carry, half-drag him to our door and ring the bell.

I’m hiding in the hallway when my mom opens the door and my dad falls into the entryway.

We lived on the corner of 121st and Godsell Avenue. If I cut across our manicured lawn to Godsell, I could walk straight uphill to a road that ended in a row of skinny trees standing like guards protecting a secret. Between the trees was a dirt path, flanked by two massive rocks. This was my portal into what I called The New World.

As my parents’ marriage unraveled, the never-ending fighting weighed heavily on me. I no longer had the neighborhood kids over to play. “What’s that noise? Is that your mom yelling? Is your dad drunk?” My self-appointed job was to watch and listen, to be ready to intervene if needed. If I was there to witness, no one would get hurt and the world would continue to turn.

In The New World I could set all that responsibility down for a while. The dirt path led to a road that, if I went to the left, took me past broken-down outbuildings leaning over so far they looked ready to topple. Rusty wire wove around old fence posts and was nailed to trees for no apparent purpose. This road dead-ended at a mass of trees I could slip through, leading me to a field, beyond which were more woods and, finally, a lake.

If I went straight instead of turning left, the potholed road went downhill and wound around to another long road where a few houses stood like enormous cabins among mostly modest-sized, comfortable-looking homes. Dogs that seemed too old to be alive wandered around freely. Boats were stored haphazardly in overgrown yards, or next to garages that had windows so filthy I couldn’t see inside. I rarely saw adults moving about, and certainly no children playing. The only noises I’d hear were a chicken clucking, a dog barking, or, near the lake, frogs croaking.

My cookie-cutter neighborhood was defined by squares of property with little room for a young girl’s imagination. The New World seemed infinite, wild, and full of possibilities!

There, I was an explorer. A voyager. A scientist. I was anything other than a child filled with worry and dread.

Immersed in The New World, I watched brightly colored butterflies land on flowers, chased toads, and captured garter snakes to admire. After spending an hour sitting on a log observing ants carrying food back and forth, I stood and noticed a small stick clinging to my pants leg. I tried brushing it off and was surprised to discover it was a walking stick! A friend, a confidant, for the short time it took the stick to discover that I too was alive and moving.

Being at home let me pretend I had some control over my family’s daily dysfunction, but being outside gave me back my sanity. Entering The New World on foot, by bike, or on horseback, I came into the peace of sanctuary.

A few days after the millennium, and many years after those childhood storms, I traded city life for a life in the country. While I’m no longer a child seeking a safe haven, I will always need the peace and comfort that only nature can bring me. I’m fortunate to have found my new sanctuary in the Reserve, just a few miles from my home.

Originally Published February 8th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Island of Women

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From Jane's World

The ferry glides and dips across the translucent green and crystal blue waters. My breathing slows and deepens. My shoulders drop an inch as my upper back expands. I sit up straighter with less effort.

The people on the ferry deck speak unfamiliar languages. I observe mirrored sunglasses encased in gold, and shoes so worn they seem to have no sole. Some of the passengers’ hats are so floppy the rims bounce with the rhythm of the boat; others wear hats with extra-long brims that could poke out an eye if someone leaned in for an intimate conversation; and some have cowboy hats so aged they appear to be a part of the person’s head.

 I sit on the upper deck of the Ultramar ferry crossing the bay from Cancún to Isla Mujeres, “Island of Women,” for the sixth time. Not far off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, the island is about 4.3 miles long and only 2,130 feet wide at its widest point, making it accessible for walking and bike riding. The main forms of transportation, for locals and tourists alike, are golf cart and scooter.

I ask myself: when there are so many places to travel to in the world, why do I revisit the same one?

I’m surrounded by people from all walks of life in a beautiful range of skin colors, from dark, tanned, or burned, to pale. The expressions on their faces are reflective, curious, joyful. The air is thick with anticipation, memories, and nervous excitement. For some people this will be their first time on the island, and worrying about logistics can be a bit harrowing.

The flurry of activity the minute the ferry is secured to the dock reminds me of a carnival. Everyone is standing, moving, and scrambling for luggage, purses, or their parent’s hand.

The smells, sounds, and colors of Isla hit you the minute you set foot on dry land. Saltwater, fish, and fried waffle with Nutella. Vendors shout at the tourists, “Everything a dollar today!” “Try the catch of the day!”

 Parents push babies in strollers, mothers carry children on their backs, and toddlers lag behind while long-legged dads shout encouraging words. Old people, brown and leathered, walk so hunched over you can’t see their faces.  There are dreadlocks, Miss Clairol lookalikes, and shiny bald heads; pretzel-thin, robust and round, and bodybuilder physiques; fully covered bodies, shorts and T-shirts, and bare-chested women and men. Newlyweds who see only each other, just beginning their journey, and couples who have been together so long they look like twins.

Years ago, I fell in love with Isla Mujeres. On the second day of that trip, after I had rested and recovered from the traveling, I basked on Playa Norte, one of the world’s top-rated beaches, dined on local cuisine at an outdoor lunchería, and discovered a bounty of sea glass by the water.

 I now consider myself to be in a lifetime relationship with the island. This doesn’t mean I’ll visit every year but it does qualify me as an islaholic, someone who has become hooked on the simple beauty of Isla Mujeres and its inhabitants.

It also means that I have Isla plugged into the weather page on my computer where I can view the temperature daily; that my Isla clothes are stashed in a special storage bin, ready and waiting; and that I’m always thinking of who I can invite or encourage to visit the island.

Revisiting Isla doesn’t take any work. I book a flight into Cancún and that’s it. I don’t need to worry about booking tours or how I will entertain myself. When I wake up, I walk the shore looking for sea glass and shells; I lie on the beach and read, play in the water, and then shower and go out for dinner. The streets and shoreline are lined with restaurants, and locals set up tables or carts to sell their homemade cuisine.

Every morning in the market one block down from the hotel, four or five ladies make fresh tortillas and package them to sell to restaurant owners, locals, and tourists. I like to be there when they scrape the leftover dough off the machine and take it outside to throw it to the pigeons. Those pigeons know the timing of this grand event and are always punctual.

A vacant lot across from the market is home to dozens of iguanas, some tiny green chameleons, some huge and almost dragon-like, some shedding their skin, some with spikes, others with stripes. I never tire of feeding them bananas.

The cemetery is a favorite place. There are cement blocks of various colors and sizes, the largest ones as big as a Volkswagen bug, and the tiniest about the size of a motor scooter. Many artifacts adorn them: rosaries, colored glass, fake flowers, and stone cupids and angels. Among all the statues of La Virgen de Guadalupe, you can find candles in small glass cases carefully tended and lit daily.

Every day there are street performers playing music, or dancing with a hoop, ball, or drum. Clusters of children walk down the main road, Hidalgo Street, stopping to take their best shot with a wooden stick at a piñata swinging from a rope strung between balconies above the crowded street, while the parents and other children sing and clap.

And the food—oh my! The ceviche is to die for: fresh fish and shrimp mixed with spices, tomatoes, and onions; guacamole so fresh you wonder if there is an avocado tree out back; and red snapper that melts in your mouth.

Why do I continue to revisit Isla Mujeres? It’s a stress-free vacation filled with spicy flavors and fresh seafood, fine white sand that I can sink into for the whole day,  and nightly entertainment if I so desire. It’s as comfortable to me as being home, but with the addition of water—lots of water and sunshine!

Originally Published February 1st, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Good Intentions

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From Jane's World

 I’ve been reflecting on my New Year’s resolutions, past and present. Some people never make any, others think it’s insane to wait for the beginning of a year to make them, and then there are people like me who adore the wide-open calendar with all the possibilities a new year could bring.

In 2001 I found myself at a hippy-dippy New Year’s gathering where a group of gals sat in a circle around a candle. We held hands as, one by one, each shared her resolution. The ones who went before me said things like, “to manifest peace and love during my daily meditation”; “to hug more people each day with good intentions”; “to breathe in love and exhale gratitude for twenty minutes daily”—all worthy aspirations. When it was my turn I blurted out my resolution loud and clear: “To get lucky. I mean, I’d just like to have sex once more before I die.”

No one laughed. I wasn’t invited the next year.

The following year I resolved to talk less and drink more. I had been reading about the positive benefits of drinking a daily glass of wine, and had internalized the saying about how God gave us two ears and only one mouth. That resolution was a bust. Though I had a good-sized collection of wine stashed under my kitchen sink, all gifts from clients, I was always so tired after work I’d forget to pull out a bottle. As for talking less, it didn’t happen. I have to talk to make a living. If I’m leading a fitness class and I barely speak, people become uncomfortable.

In recent years I’ve made resolutions to write in my journal nightly, make friends with a crow, say two nice things to Dane each day, and take more tub baths.

This will be my fourth year of keeping a nightly journal. Each evening before I turn out the light for bedtime I write a list of things I am grateful for. Even if I’m traveling I adhere to this practice. This year I bought a five-year journal. There are enough lines on each day to write a few sentences, and on every page are five years of that particular date.

I haven’t missed any days but I’m missing my journals that provided a full page for each day. The limit on how many lines I can use is cramping my style.

I failed at making friends with a crow, despite attaching a bright yellow crow tray filled with peanuts to my back deck, taping a plastic mobile feeding tray to my car roof with more peanuts, and sending out all the positive crow friendship vibes I could muster. I believe it had something to do with my four cats and three dogs. Crows are smart.

I lied about the resolution to say two nice things daily to Dane. I just wanted to see if he reads my columns.

Thankfully, I’ve stuck with my tub-bath resolution! In fact, today I took two tubbies. I’m addicted to Epsom salt and lavender oil. Certainly, there are far worse things to be addicted to. For Christmas Dane bought me a 25-pound bag of Epsom salt. Nine days later it was empty. I ordered the 50-pound bag and just looking at it makes me feel joyful and relaxed. I will continue to keep this resolution, but only for about six months of the year. Summer tubbies have no appeal for me.

Certified shoe junkie that I am, I once made a resolution not to buy any shoes for a full year. Other than the pair of hiking boots I ordered in the first week of January (I spaced out) I did fairly well. Near the end of the year I weakened, but I still maintain that slippers are not shoes. However, the slipper slip-up did act like a gateway drug to more shoe buying.

This year I’ve resolved to buy a dress, take better care of my eyebrows, and to work on rewriting and revising all my work until there can be no misunderstandings.

I haven’t yet begun to look for a dress. I know it will be black and have long sleeves that I can push up if need be. It won’t be a fancy Nancy dress but not a plain Jane one either. It will have to be suitable for weddings, funerals, and everything in between.

I’ve already been busy plucking and shaping my eyebrows. I even bought eyebrow stuff. I’ll be adding eyebrow junk to my touch of mascara if I ever need to wear that black dress. The problem is I had no clue what to buy so I ended up with two pencils, each claiming to do something the other did not, and some sort of eye-shadow-like makeup that claims to make eyebrows perfect. I’ll need to spend some time perfecting my technique. My first attempt at eyebrow fixing left me looking shocked.

The toughest resolution is going to be the rewriting and revising of these columns. There are only seven days in a week and I’m feeling stretched thin already. I might need to start with a Jane’s World glossary. If people knew my language maybe they wouldn’t misunderstand me!

Originally Published January 25th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Let the Games Begin!

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From Jane's World

We’re sitting in a room full of tables and people. Dane is sipping scotch and I’m enjoying a ginger Wisco Pop, both on the rocks. A soft glow from the candles on each table adds warmth to the atmosphere. Genial wait staff and friends playing lively old-time music complete the picture.

It’s winter game night at the Old Oak Inn, where everyone seems to know everyone’s name. Cynthia, a friend we found sitting at the bar when we walked in, described it best as a hometown Cheers. Carol and Holly, the owners, enthusiastically greet each person who enters their Victorian wonderland, whether a new face or a regular.

Dane and I rearranged our table when we arrived, removing the festive tablecloth and pushing to one side the candle, salt and pepper shakers, and vase. Now I pull out a blue velvet pouch and empty its tiles onto the table. They clink as we deftly sort through them, turning over any that landed face up. Then, looking like two people working a Ouija board, we move the tiles around to scramble the numbers and colors. We’re about to get serious playing Rummikub, a game that combines elements of mahjong and rummy.

This is the latest in a series of activities designed to get us out and enjoying the winter—a series I recently imposed on us in a moment of inspiration. So far, Rummikub is almost the only winter activity that hasn’t made Dane grumble. He contentedly concentrates on the game; I’m certain the scotch has helped. But several days ago, when I declared the week between Christmas and New Year’s to be holiday activity days, I saw his eyes roll and his left temple start pulsing.

The day after Christmas I greeted him with “Good morning! Today’s holiday activity is bowling!” He wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, but he accompanied me to Nordic Lanes. One of the first things we noticed was the slogan painted on the wall above the pins: “Just some man’s stupid idea of fun.” I spent the first thirty minutes picking up every ball in the place, looking for a good fit. Each one was too heavy, too light (rarely), or had holes that were way too loose or spaced too far apart for my adult-sized fingers and child-sized hands.

We played three games. I never broke 100 but Dane did. He also pulled his hamstring in the fourth frame of the second game.

The following morning I exclaimed, “Today we’ll go ice skating!” to which Dane answered “No!” I decided not to push too hard because I knew he’d visit Saint Francis’s Hermitage with me later, followed by a brisk below-zero hike along the river near the old Gays Mills dam.

I grabbed my dusty skates from the basement and headed alone to the rink, where I discovered I couldn’t get the skates sharpened until much later. Fortunately, there was still one pair of figure skates available to rent. Unfortunately, it was a size 7. I squished my size 8 feet into the skates, laced them, and stood up. Whoa! I was much wobblier than in the old days, when my very first paying job was teaching children to skate. I clung to the wall as pint-sized kids zipped and zigzagged around me. “Holy sh*t, this ice is slippery!” I cried, but a few frowning mothers skating with their children convinced me to keep my comments to myself.

Dane sounded relieved when I called and told him I was back at home with no broken bones. Onward we soldiered to the hermitage and to take that walk

Much to Dane’s horror, after the New Year I didn’t let up on my insistence that we get up, out, and play. When I saw Trivia Night advertised on Saturday evenings at Dave’s Pizza in Viroqua, we bundled up and headed out.

After checking in and getting a brief rundown on the rules, we claimed the name “Team Disaster” and waited for the game to begin. Lots of serious and not so serious folks were scattered about the bar. The first question was about a children’s TV series with a truck. We had no clue! We did know that the bento box originated in Japan. In the end, Team Disaster tied for last place. On the way home we decided we might try it again, and even recruit more team members.

I learned long ago that you need a heavy arsenal of games and activities to get through a Wisconsin winter. Two years ago we went sledding down a hill in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. I screamed all the way down the hill; Dane was silent as a ninja. But it seems we can no longer count on a winter with snow. Nor can we count on weather that’s conducive to long hikes.

This winter I’m keeping a list of things we can do and crossing them out when we’ve done them. Dane doesn’t agree to all of them, but I keep insisting we try new things. So far my list includes spending a day visiting antique stores, going to $5 movie nights, eating at an Indian restaurant, playing ping-pong, visiting the Mustard Museum in Middleton, signing up for a Netflix trial, searching for eagles along the Mississippi River, visiting our friend in Mt. Morris, Illinois, and trying to remember how to play Mexican Train, a dominoes game.

Recently I found a place in Richland Center that offers free line-dancing lessons, and my dogs will begin new obedience classes soon. I’ll order Dane a scotch on the rocks to help him get through those dance lessons, but there’s no bar at the dog training site. I imagine that might be the activity that pushes Dane over the edge!

Originally Published January 18th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

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From Jane's World

Little Bitty is swimming in the creek, squawking for the rest of the flock to join her, but they are hunkered down in a sunny spot near the duck hall. The sun is shining like gold on this brittle, narrow valley but it’s still cold. Damn cold. And it’s after noon.

It was minus 17 degrees when I went out to do chores this morning. I had to use the heel of my boot to crack the layer of ice that had formed overnight in the heated water bucket. My only flying duck, Bitty, a mallard, came out of the duck hall with gusto when I opened their door. The rest of the flock waddled down the ramp and soon lay down in the thin layer of snow in their pen. Bitty flew straight to the creek for her morning dip. 

Louisa, my well-insulated pig, barreled out of the goat palace the minute she heard me sliding the bolt open. She is so quick that she butts her head against the door and starts squealing before I can even get it opened. Down the ramp slid Louisa, making a beeline for the warm mash and banana in her blue feed bowl. 

I peeked inside the goat palace and there were the goats, Luna and Peepers, still snuggled against each other deep in the straw, with no desire to move. Their look said it all: “We’re not crazy. We know it’s damn cold out there. Unless you bring our food in here we’re not getting up.”

The donkeys, Diego and Carlos, were patiently waiting for their hay. As soon as they saw the light come on in my attic bedroom thirty minutes before I set foot out of the house, they began braying their cold heads off, saying, “Hurry! Hurry!” Now they stood near the fence eyeing my every move.

Yesterday the poor dears had ice balls under their hooves from the frigid weather. The farrier made a special trip over to knock the ice off each hoof with a small hammer. I’ve learned to leave that job to the experts. The first time Diego had ice balls I tried that trick with my own hammer—and missed the ice ball. Ever since, if Diego sees me with a hammer in my hand he is off like a thoroughbred racehorse. 

That same day, when the hammer trick failed, I built a huge bonfire in the donkeys’ pen. I gathered the pieces of wood that were too big to fit in my stove, the loose bark and wood chips from the wood shed, empty paper feed bags, and bailing twine from the snake shed, and lit a hundred matches until it caught and a blaze of fire roared. My theory was that the nearby heat would melt the ice balls off their feet.  Diego and Carlos enjoyed the fire, but the ice balls remained.

My next step this morning was to grab a good chunk of hay from the snake shed, keeping my eyes open for the stray opossum that was crawling through my backyard yesterday toward the shed, looking neither warm nor happy.

Every opossum that makes its way to my place ends up in the snake shed, under the loose hay, and doesn’t bother moving until I’m bent over, reaching for a slab of hay. Then out they pop! No matter how many times this has happened I scream and wet my pants. I now refer to this routine—getting feed, screaming, and peeing—as multitasking. Why do they not just play dead when I come close, like they do when the dogs run after them?

After feeding the dogs and cats I ended my morning chores by carrying out buckets of hot water for everyone from the utility sink in the basement, spilling enough on my pajama bottoms to make me crabby.

Preparing to leave for work on cold winter mornings takes time. My headlamp is my helper, my insulated Kinko gloves my best friend ever. I move as quickly as I can, but the cold moves faster, and I’m outside in my barn jacket, winter boots, and pajama bottoms with my thighs and rear end freezing. 

I returned home after morning classes to check on everyone. The temperature had risen nearly to zero. The valley was quiet except for Bitty, who hadn’t given up on trying to coax her fellow ducks to come and wash up in the creek. 

Now, after a midday run through all the pens and making sure everyone got a snack and more fresh water, I’m back inside my house. All four cats and two dogs are with me. Luckily, they—and I—don’t have to live outside for the duration of this cold, cold weather.

Thanks to the crazy cold of 2018, I’ve just ordered my first pair of insulated bib overalls to wear under my barn jacket. I’ll bet once they come it starts to warm up. Maybe I should have considered a wetsuit so I could keep Little Bitty company in the creek!

Originally Published January 11th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

The Perfect New Year's Plan

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From Jane's World

New Year’s Eve is a thorn in my side. I’m a fan of New Year’s resolutions (not that I always abide by them), and I love having New Year’s Day off of work. It’s the crazy hype of hat-wearing, horn-blowing, and dressing-up that tires me out just thinking about the eve of a new year.

Lately, we’ve been ringing in the new year at my daughter’s house, playing wild rounds of Spoons, Catch Phrase, or Pie In the Eye. The best time was when the grandkids were smaller and we all went sledding together. Before that, my all-time favorite was welcoming the New Year cross-country skiing on the frozen Milwaukee River.

I moved to the Driftless area in 2000 after a New Year’s Eve disaster. It had just turned midnight and everyone was kissing and hugging when the man I was enjoying kissing said to me over the noise, “Who are you here with?” “Steve,” I yelled back. “Steve who?”  That should have been my first clue. “Steve whose house this is,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Oh, he's my neighbor!”

My first New Year’s Eve living in this area I talked myself into putting on a touch of mascara and clean jeans. After cranking up my wood stove to make sure the house would be warm when I returned, I drove down the hill on Pa’s Road to attend my first ever dance in Vernon County. It was being held at a high school in a nearby town. Mustering enough courage to get out of my car, I walked into the auditorium and found the band in full swing—and not even one of the three people in attendance was dancing. I snuck out before I was noticed. Later I was told that I was just too early. I wasn’t yet aware of Kickapoo Time!

On the way home I decided to treat myself to dinner at the Old Towne Restaurant, which looked more lit up than normal. Upon entering alone, I realized my mistake. There was a brass band, people in ball gowns, and candles on the tables. It seemed like a long drive home.

I’ve never considered myself a quitter, so after being a New Year’s Eve dropout for a couple of years, I decided to rally for 2003. At the time I was working at the Viroqua Veterinary Clinic. I loved my job there and I couldn’t beat the benefits—a real bathroom with hot water! Because I was living off-grid Dr. Jacobs gifted me with a key and I was allowed (encouraged) to come in before work and take a shower.

A week or two before the new year the gals were talking in the break room about their plans, mostly house parties or dance parties with live music. I was not interested in the least and no amount of begging me would get me to budge. I was planning on staying home with a nice cozy fire blazing in the wood stove and a good book.

When the thirty-first of December rolled around, that is exactly where you would have found me—until I got a brilliant idea, the perfect plan. No need to change clothes or apply make-up. I shoved as much wood as I could into the wood stove, bundled up, grabbed my backpack, and headed out to my car. The ride into town was uneventful and thankfully the winter roads were in good condition. I drove into the dark parking lot at the clinic and used my key to let myself in.

Once inside I brought out my candles, some lavender oil, and an old bag of Epsom salts that had seen better days back when I had running water in my home. It wasn’t a hot shower I was after this time. I went down the hallway to the dog groomer’s room and opened the door, and there it stood: the gigantic ceramic tub that the groomer used for bathing all her four-legged clients. But first I found some bleach, dumped it in, swished it all around, and rinsed like a mad woman.

While the tub filled, I lit my candles, turned off the lights, and threw in the salt and oil. Absolute heaven. The tub was huge—big enough for three Great Danes and me!

I drove home that night feeling relaxed and peaceful. I was a whole new woman and ready for the new year. It wasn’t until after the holiday, when the veterinary clinic reopened, that my New Year’s Eve bath was discovered. Turns out I’d left my candle stubs on the bathtub edge and the groomer freaked out. What did she think—that the dogs had been celebrating?

Best New Year’s Eve tubby ever!

This year I’ll be celebrating New Year’s Eve in my own home, surrounded by an assortment of my furred and feathered family. Maybe I’ll treat myself to a long soak in my own tub while I think of my New Year’s resolutions.

Originally Published January 4th, 2018 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

The Wish

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From Jane's World

My mom’s wish was to go the Milwaukee Art Museum. I was in town for my grandson’s birthday so I arranged the weekend to be able to take her there. Mom is 91 and I want to try to honor her wishes whenever possible.

When I called her the morning of the event, I was excited and said, “Hi, Mom, Are you ready for our big day at the art museum?”

“Who is this?” she answered.

“Mom, it’s me, Jane—your daughter. Today is the day we go to the art museum.”

“No it isn’t. I have someone picking me up to do my grocery shopping today.”

Around and around we went until either I wore her down or she finally remembered and gave in: “Okay, Janie, I’ll cancel my driver for shopping today.”

I wouldn’t have given up. After all, we’d been planning this for months and I had just driven three and a half hours to pick her up. 

Once she and her walker were in my car, I decided to take Wisconsin Avenue to the museum instead of the expressway. I thought she would enjoy the drive, especially near Marquette University where she had worked and taken classes after high school. It was a lovely day and Mom had fun pointing out various landmarks she remembered.

I checked out a wheelchair at the museum and helped Mom into it, then asked her to wait for me while I parked the car and checked our coats. When I came back she was talking with a museum aide, asking where her favorite painting was located. After getting directions we started our tour on the ground floor, knowing her favorite was up on the second floor.

The first section we visited was Pop Art. We paused in front of a floor-to-ceiling canvas painted all one color with a darker line down the middle. After parking the wheelchair behind the yellow guard lines that show you how close you can go, I read Mom the name of the artist and the title of the work, The Cell. 

“They call that art?” she said, loudly enough for the others in the room to hear.

“Well, Mom, everyone has different taste,” I answered and quickly wheeled her to another installation.

Soon we were in front of a work that consisted of a doll lying beneath a tipped-over folding chair. A small floodlight shone on the doll and a tape played words that I couldn’t make out. Mom glanced at the display and said, “Some worker left his stuff.” This caused quite a few heads to turn, and I wheeled her quickly away.

The Pop Art section of the museum wasn’t working for Mom so I decided it was time to move on. Only now I was completely at a loss as to how we’d gotten to where we were. I wheeled her one way and then another, looking for the hallway that would take us to the elevators. 

Finally I took a turn that seemed familiar. I looked down at some tiles on the floor and for a minute I wondered if they were part of an art display. Before moving Mom I looked carefully around but saw no yellow “stay back” lines drawn on the floor like at other exhibits. Feeling more confident, I began rolling the wheelchair over the tiles to get to where I thought the elevators should be. 

Mom started yelling, “You’re pushing me over the art. Stop! You’ve got me on top of the art!”

I began to laugh and so did a few other museum goers. Mom chuckled too, and when we stopped she innocently looked up at me, all tiny in her chair, and asked in her sweetest voice, “Why did you push me over that art, Janie?”

At last we reached the second floor. As I wheeled Mom toward the enormous painting she had come to see, The Wood Gatherer, I could feel her body shift and settle more comfortably into the chair. She became quiet, and I stopped back far enough for her to take in the full effect. Mom glanced over at a man and lady standing next to us and informed them, with authority, “The Wood Gatherer, 1881, Le Page.” I felt a little embarrassed, because of course these people knew the painting and the artist. 

When they walked away Mom asked to go closer. I moved her chair forward half the distance to the painting. She seemed content and happy. I was enjoying the painting and the silence. Mom looked so small in this spacious room. The Wood Gatherer appeared to be taking her breath away, and the moment was perfect.

Again Mom asked me to take her closer, and I did. We gazed in silence a while longer.

Once more she asked to go closer, and I pushed the wheelchair forward. By now we were so close there was no way she could take in the full effect of the painting.

But still she said it again: “Closer.” 

I complained, “Mom, I can’t—you’ll be rubbing up against the painting.” Too late—she reached out her thin, tired arm, and her arthritic finger lightly touched the canvas. I gasped.

Mom whispered, “Okay, Janie, we can go now.”

Originally Published December 28th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

The Unburial

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From Jane's World

It was a peaceful autumn drive along the north shore of Lake Superior, with sunshine, blue skies, and a hint of whitecaps on the big lake. Dane and I were on our way to Bayfield, Wisconsin, where we were going to catch the ferry to Stockton Island to spend a few nights camping among the black bears. We made one quick stop in Duluth for gas and snacks before heading to the small town of Cornucopia and a chance to stretch our legs. As Dane pulled the car over, panic ensued when he discovered that he didn’t have his wallet.

I walked away from the car while Dane tossed one bag out after another, looking for his missing wallet. I spent my time in the historic Ehlers General Store, knowing that I would only get in the way of Dane’s process. I learned long ago to keep quiet and out of his way when he misplaces something.

It was remembering this event, and knowing how Dane reacts to losing items, that had me baffled one recent sorrowful Saturday afternoon. The day before, Dane had carefully carried Raime, my 14-year-old border collie, out of the backseat of my car, with Téte trying hard to keep her nose pressed next to Raime’s lifeless body.

Téte, my full-of-life thick-bodied mutt, was clearly as upset as we were. Finnegan, my youngest dog, was also concerned but stayed back until Dane had set Raime down on his favorite white blanket in the backyard. Then Finn was nose to nose with Raime and wondering why he wasn’t getting up.

Eventually Louisa, the pig, came over to say goodbye to Raime, as did the goats, ducks, and geese. It was late in the day when we gave Raime some last strokes, covered his cold body, and slowly walked up to the house. We decided to get up early the next day for his burial.

Digging a hole in Wisconsin in December wasn’t easy, even though the winter had been mild. Dane worked hard, his jacket flung aside, sweat glistening on his forehead. The dirt piled up as Téte and Finn became more and more curious.

Raime was a large dog, about 62 pounds. Dane dug a hole about four feet deep and wide enough to accommodate Raime’s body. We carried him over to it on his white blanket and had to straddle the hole to lower him down; Dane warned me not to drop him. Once the dog was down in the hole, Dane lay down on the ground above and leaned into the grave to maneuver Raime’s legs and head so he fit comfortably.

I yelled, “Wait!” and ran into the house to get Joon from the freezer. Joon was my parakeet who had died two weeks earlier and who had yet to be buried. We took Joon out of the plastic bag that held her and nestled her into the fur on Raime’s shoulder.

Dane worried that Louisa was going to fall into the hole as she peered over at Raime and Joon. Téte had her nose as far into the grave as she could get it. Finn was whining at the surface.

I thanked Raime for all his loyalty over the past 14 years and wished him peace. Dane bowed his head and we both felt the pain of losing a loving and faithful pet. Shoveling the cold earth back into the hole was no easy task.

Dane replaced the sod and stomped it down the best he could. I told Dane I’d take the dogs for their daily walk, to give me some quiet time and let the pups run. He went home.

I was surprised when I pulled into my driveway a few hours later to find Dane sitting on the porch. I jumped out and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“You’re not going to believe this but I think I buried my cell phone with Raime. I’ve looked everywhere and that’s the only place it could be.”

“You have got to be kidding me.” But he wasn’t. Knowing how Dane had reacted to losing his wallet, I knew he’d looked everywhere else, and he assured me he had.

Out came the shovel and the process of unburying Raime began. Téte and Finn were interested. I ran in and got my landline phone and called Dane’s phone but we didn’t hear anything. He shoveled out more dirt and eventually got down to poor Raime. His next shovel of dirt sent Joon flying. Finn grabbed the bird’s body and started to run away with it. “Finnegan!” I yelled. Dane retrieved Joon and secured her under a clump of dirt, then dialed his number on the landline again. There was a faint sound.

The phone was under Raime!

Dane retrieved his phone from the bottom of the grave and was thrilled to find it intact and still working. We both chuckled and said Raime was probably laughing at us, thinking what dummies we were.

Although Dane never did find his wallet when ransacking the car in Cornucopia, he didn’t get as frantic about misplacing the phone. Somehow knowing his phone was buried with Raime seemed to make him feel calmer about losing it. Or maybe he was plain tuckered out from the physical work of moving all that dirt, along with the grief of burying a friend.

As we walked up to the house arm in arm I looked at Dane gratefully and said, “Good lord, that has got to be the craziest critter burial and unburial we’ve ever had.”

Originally Published December 21st, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Thunderstorms of Life

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I never used to be frightened during thunderstorms but I’m deathly afraid of them now. This seems odd because my hearing isn’t all that good, nor is my eyesight. But I can sense when a storm is coming, and lately that’s been in the evening when everyone is tucked in for the night. Everyone except me, that is.

I just about fall out of bed from the loud BOOM! of thunder. The house shakes and my ears and eyes go on high alert. Flashes of lightning illuminate my bedroom as rain pelts loudly on the skylight above my head. I’m sitting up now, listening as hard as I can to hear him above the noises of the storm

I try to stand up but my back legs aren’t working well, and what’s worse, my front legs are also starting to give out. It takes me two tries but I painfully push myself up and limp over to the bottom of the staircase. My eyes, clouded over with cataracts, gaze frantically toward the top of the stairs, willing her to wake up. My whole body is trembling with fear.

I throw my legs over the side of the bed and reach down for my pajama top as another clap of thunder rings through the thin walls of my attic bedroom. I pull the shirt over my head, feeling dizzy from the flickers of lightning that keep flashing throughout the dark room, making it look like an ’80s dance floor. I stand up, slip my PJ bottoms on, and do a quick head count. One dog is snoring under the covers. Another is squished under the clothes in my makeshift closet—she is panting but doing okay. I turn on the lights over the stairwell and creep down one step at a time, holding the railing tightly so as not to slip. 

There she is! I knew she’d come. I hobble to my mom’s side as she reaches the bottom step. My legs fail and I lean too hard against her, nearly causing her to topple over. With one hand she presses my head snug against her leg, and guides us over to the couch, where she sits down. Shamelessly I stick my head between her legs while she rubs my head and my ears and says, “Shhhh, it’ll be okay. I’m here. I’ll sleep with you.”

I arrange my pillow and blankets on the couch while the storm rages on. If I time my movements just right I don’t need to turn on a light—the lightning shows me everything I need to see. The living room has two walls with windows. I decided long ago that I didn’t want or need drapes, since no one lives near me. But tonight, for Raime’s sake, I wish I had them. The storm outside is scaring him. And the storm of aging that has begun to play havoc with his body and his senses is scaring me.

She has her blanket and pillow with her! That means she’ll sleep on the couch and keep one hand on me. She’ll pet me and talk softly to me until I collapse from exhaustion, lying on the floor next to her. I want to stop trembling but I can’t seem to control my body nowadays. Sometimes I even have an accident in the house. It’s so embarrassing. She never seems to get mad, just says, “Oops, something dropped,” and goes to get a Kleenex. It’s awful getting old and feeble. As a border collie I’ve hardly had a single day where I wasn’t working from sunup to sundown. But that’s been changing for a while now.

Every time my eyes start to close and I think Raime is beginning to relax, another round of booms and bangs makes him push his head further into my side, seeking comfort. I think of all the nights I’ve spent sleeping near him on the couch—when he first came to live with me fourteen years ago, whenever he’s been sick, and since he started to be afraid of storms. I eventually lose count and thankfully drift off to sleep.

I’m outside running! I can run fast and jump over the creek in a single bound. I’m Raime, superdog, and Mom teases me about tying a Superman cape around my neck. I feel invincible! I can keep my eyes on the donkeys so they don’t get out of the pasture while I’m watching the ducks and geese to make sure they don’t go too far down the creek. I can even take two minutes, when one of those darn cats comes sashaying over near me, to chase it back up toward the house. I’m Busy with a capital B and I love it!

I feel horrible waking him up. He’s sleeping so peacefully. I sit watching his legs twitch and I could swear he’s smiling. I’m glad to see that the storm outside has ended. But I know the storm inside his body rages on. I can see how hard it is for him to stand, and it breaks my heart. Raime, the dog who never stops working, the dog who is always busy. The dog who loves to be petted, who comes when he’s called, and never needs to be on a leash.

I startle when my mom’s leg touches me as she pushes herself off the couch. I must have finally fallen asleep and was dreaming. For a second I thought I was young and carefree again. The living room is light and that means morning. It also means breakfast—not that I’m hungry. Before trying to get up I glance behind me, hoping I haven’t left any surprises for Mom this morning. She’s smiling and petting my head, but she still looks tired. It takes everything I’ve got to stand up when she does and follow her to the door. I trip twice and I can hear my mom catch her breath. She worries about me and I know it hurts her to see me hurting. I put on my bravest face and soldier on, so as not to worry her any more than I already have.

Oh no, he can barely get up off the floor. He’s walking like he’s drunk...listing first to one side and then the other. 

I go outside and I see Mom watching from the door. She wants to see if I’ll use the ramp they built for me. I look at the ramp but instead take a flying leap off the steps. My front legs give out and I nearly fall flat on my face, but I’m able to maneuver my weak back legs to steady myself. I glance over my shoulder and my eyes lock into Mom’s. She knows I’m hurting—I can’t hide it from her. In fact, I know my body isn’t fit for this world anymore—but I haven’t told her yet. I will when I’m ready. I’m not ready to let go yet.

His body just isn’t fit for this world anymore. He’s in pain all the time now. I can tell. I don’t know what to do. I can’t bear to see him suffer. I will wait and watch. I will trust that he will tell me when he’s ready to let go. 

I never used to be afraid of thunderstorms, or of life, but I am now. I’d better talk to Mom soon. I’m so tired. I need to let go.

 

 

12/1/17 Raime let go at 3: 00 p.m. May he run free.