Saturday, October 29, 2011

Isis Goes to School, Day One

We've had our dog, Isis, for about six weeks now. She's calmed down quite a bit -- about as much as a rat terrier can calm down, I guess -- but still, we figured obedience training couldn't hurt. So, armed with crossed fingers and a pocket full of treats, she and I set out for our first class.

My conclusion: With apologies to David Letterman, here are the top 10 things to keep in mind when taking a dog to obedience class for the first time.

10. If your dog is a little dog and all the other canines in the room make at least two of her, chances are she won't feel terribly relaxed. She may even shake through the entire 60-minute session, and she could also be far too nervous to take the treats that are supposed to be motivating her. And it's difficult for a dog to learn to sit, stay, come, look and all kinds of other interesting things when she leaps into your lap every time another dog barks.(It's also not good to bring Cheerios as treats, even if your dog loves them at home. She'll take one sniff of someone else's Snausage (OK, that might sound dirty, but I promise it's not) and be even less motivated to do cool things for you.)

9. If you're feeling terribly organized and superior for having all your dog's records in one folder and bringing the folder to the meeting, your humility will be restored by the looks of other people in the class when they notice your papers are in a Justin Bieber folder. Yes, I'm serious, and don't ask.

8. If you're paying $109 for a class and there are four dogs in it, your trainer should remember the gender and perhaps even the name of your dog. I'm just saying.

7. If some dogs are known to behave excitably toward strangers or other dogs, it's probably not the best idea to hold the class in a room with one wall that's entirely a window and offers a near-constant flow of others, human and otherwise, walking past.

6. It's almost impossible for the average human to give a dog a treat, pet her, say "Good dog," and click a clicker at the same time. (Or maybe it's possible for the average human and impossible just for me. At any rate...)

5. Don't judge the people in your class. The guy in the cowboy hat -- the one with a mouthful of chew and a homemade tattoo on his forearm -- might be a redneck, but he also might freely offer to share his name-brand treats with your dog. This might actually distract her enough so that she stops shaking.

4. It's OK to feel superior to the classmate whose dog is wearing a sweater.

3. It's also OK to feel superior to the classmates -- two of them -- who obviously named their dogs after "Twilight" characters.

2. It's best to avoid taking it personally when the trainer responds to your comment about a clever trick you've been using with your dog by shaking his head and saying, "Nope, that's not effective. In fact, it's just noise."

And the No. 1 thing to keep in mind when taking your dog to obedience class for the first time:

1. If she chooses to relieve herself by leaving a No. 2 on the way out the door -- even though she never has accidents at home -- you might just end up feeling as though you really, seriously can't blame her.

P.S. The good news -- after I got her home, away from the trainer calling her "he" and the three giant attack dogs, she learned to sit. All it took was a handful of Snausages and, curiously, the absence of a clicker.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Psychic, huh? Find some missing babies.

So as anyone who knows me is aware, I’m a sucker for TLC shows. From “19 Kids and Counting” and “Little People, Big World” to my current fave, “Sister Wives,” I can’t get enough of the “reality” TV offered up by the cable channel.

But try as I might, I can’t get into “Long Island Medium.” And here’s why – I’m pretty darned sure she’s a fake.

Theresa Caputo is a bleached-blond, gum-chomping Long Island mom who just happens to communicate regularly with the dead. As another blogger put it, she’s sort of a UPS delivery person for the deceased, dropping in at homes and businesses to tell people such things as, “Your grandfather visited me and wants me to tell you you’re a great dad.”

Nice sentiment, but I’m calling “foul” all over the place. As a chronic information-gatherer, I can tell you with great certainty that virtually anything Theresa tells anyone can be found online … maybe not specifically, but if you dig a little, it’s there.

Case in point: Theresa and her teenage daughter walk into a bakery to buy some cupcakes. They order, and Theresa says, "I need to do a reading." The cupcake people look at her strangely and she says, "I'm getting a vibe -- is this a family business?"

Prior to the trip, she or a producer or an assistant easily could have Googled the store. "(Store name here) has been in the (name here) family for three generations," the website could have read. There's your "psychic" reading.

The rest of the cupcake visit goes much the same way. The owner, her husband and an employee appear to be in their 50s; "Did an older person in your family recently pass?" Theresa asks. It's a pretty safe bet that in the last few years, someone might have lost a parent or aunt or uncle.

Gasps all around: Amazingly (!), the owner's father had died in the past year. And wouldn't you know it: He's there! At that moment! To talk to the owner, via Theresa the Psychic!

"All I wanted was a cupcake," the teenage daughter tells the camera. Indeed.

Don't get me wrong; I think Theresa probably feels things strongly and may even have some sort of intuition. And she's not doing a bad thing; telling a grieving woman that her dead husband is OK and loves her very much can't be anything but comforting.

But it's also sort of a no-brainer. If she's truly a psychic, why isn't she finding missing college students or kidnapped babies?

I don't fault Theresa for taking advantage of a good situation. She's an Italian girl, so of course she's smart! She has two kids to put through college. She's not hurting anybody. So what's the harm?

The harm, I guess, is that people are on TV with their grief laid bare, and other people -- including me -- are tuning in to watch it. Maybe I'll feel differently if Theresa calls me and tells me my late dad is trying to get ahold of me. In the meantime, I don't think I'll watch anymore.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Could it be that age makes us more tolerant?

Does growing older make a person more or less tolerant? I can't decide.

I have a friend I love dearly. This friend actually made me homemade chicken soup last week when I was sick -- left work early, bought the ingredients, brought it to my house and sat with me while I ate the first warm, wonderful bowl. Who does things like that? Not my husband. Not my family. This friend.

So that probably explains why I didn't want to hit her with a club when she began extolling the virtues of a certain presidential candidate. It also probably explains why I went upstairs and grabbed her a recent issue of TIME Magazine that profiled that candidate. And it may even explain why I didn't begin hyperventilating when the conversation swung around to her feelings about Chaz Bono's presence on "Dancing With the Stars." (Hint: She doesn't like it.)

After she left, I began wondering about the nature of relationships as we age, and whether we tend to become more or less tolerant of people, even close friends and family members, whose views differ from ours. On one hand, I'm more resolute in my opinions than I've ever been. But on the other hand, I'm probably a little more inclined to acknowledge that everyone doesn't have to believe the way I do (although, of course, I'd like them to).

Some of my memories of my dad's last few years may bear me out on this hypothesis. I'm thinking specifically of the day Iowa legalized gay marriage. I visited Dad and felt inclined, against my better judgment, to ask him, "So, what do you think about what happened today?"

I half expected a response somewhere to the far right of the most closed-minded Archie Bunker statement, but to my delight, my then-89-year-old father responded: "Here's how I feel about gay people. If they don't bother Charlie Lavia, Charlie Lavia won't bother them."

I laughed, of course, at the notion of random gay people somehow "bothering" Charlie Lavia. But then I thought: Age has mellowed him. There's no other explanation.

As for me, I'm not so sure what's going on. There was a time in my life I tended not to want to rock the boat when it came to politics: My first husband's views were and are in direct opposition to mine, and during the '92 presidential campaign, I allowed the wife of my then-husband's candidate to hold our then-baby for a photo op. I may have even taken pictures. I was more or less willing to try to see the good in everyone who was willing to run for public office, and I didn't pay much attention to the internal voice telling me, "You really, really don't agree with that person."

Twenty years later, I don't think twice about arguing with anyone and everyone about my rather strong convictions. What changed? On the inside, nothing. I think the only reasonable explanation is that I simply care far less about whether people like me. And I think that lack of concern comes (happily) with age.

It makes sense: Now that I'm more secure about my opinions, it's easier to share them. I can sit across the table from Diane, my soup-making friend, and feel fairly sure that our relationship runs deeper than the outcome of the next election. Do I think she's wrong? Heck, yes. Will I keep trying to change her opinions? Of course. But I'll also respect the fact that she has a generous, loving heart.

After all, if I judge, I'm behaving like the groups of people with whom I so vehemently disagree. Being open-minded means more than affirming the opinions of those who think the way I do.

I believe people are intrinsically good, even the ones whose politics don't mirror mine. I believe most of us operate from a deep moral sense of what we believe to be right and just, and that even when I think people are a little "off" -- or even dead wrong -- it's my duty as a human to try to understand where they're coming from.

Diane doesn't disagree with me because she's argumentative or obstinate. She disagrees because she was raised a certain way, is married to someone who believes a certain way, and is influenced by the way she interprets her church's teachings. Similarly, I disagree with her because of the experiences and events that have shaped me. We get that about one another, and the conversations -- even when reaffirming that we're on opposite sides of the fence -- always are good-natured and respectful.

I'm really pretty positive that as I get older, my politics won't change. But I'm also pretty sure that I don't want to be the kind of bitter old lady who is so intolerant of others' beliefs that she turns away the chance at real relationships.

So even if I think you're 101 percent misguided and shouldn't be allowed near a voting booth, you have my word that if you're not harming anyone, I'll respect your right to a conflicting opinion.

And I'll respect you even more, it goes without saying, if there's homemade soup involved.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

So there comes a time...

So there comes a time when you realize they're really grown-ups, and they're really going to be leaving.

Scott is 23 and will graduate from Iowa State in the spring. His four-year plan was derailed with the addition of a second major -- and truly, that was fine with his dad and me. He's a good student, has loved the classes in his major areas, and has gotten as much out of college as I would have hoped. There are worse things than spending five years learning.

The other day, he was invited to apply for a job that likely will take him far from home if he decides to pursue it. Of the location choices he was given, he's leaning toward relocating to the San Francisco Bay area. And who can blame him? He spent an exchange semester in northern California, and when we went to visit him, I fell in love with it, too. It's in step with his ideologies and personality, and I have no doubt he can do good things there.

But ... I really wish he would express a burning desire to stay in Iowa. If not Iowa, I'd love for him to hang out in the Midwest. As I've mentioned on these pages, my family is not exactly nomadic. When my grandparents arrived from Italy, it was as if the tacit agreement was that we'd all just hang out here.

And that's worked well for us; as I noted while helping to take care of my dying father earlier this year, I was so grateful that we all lived in the same town during that difficult time and didn't have to manage the additional stress of complicated logistics.

But the world is different now. By and large, people aren't blooming where they're planted. Given all our technological options, that's not surprising. We can "travel" with the click of a mouse, and Skype -- talk via picture-phone-type software -- with people across the globe. Gone are the encyclopedias of my youth; in their place is Google. And as an Internet addict, I love it.

You have to admit, though, that chatting via Skype can't compare to being able to drive north on Highway 69 simply because you need to see your child and take him out for a stick-to-the ribs dinner because the last time you saw him, he was looking a little too thin.

The difference Scott wants to make in the world may not be one he can make in Iowa, and I understand that and am proud of him. When it comes Caroline's time to make a job decision, she may not decide to stay here, either. I'll need to get past the tiny but nagging worry that perhaps they're running from me (I can hear them now: "Mom, it's not always about you!") and accept that they're running toward something else.

"That's why we got you a dog," they'll say as they throw parts of their lives into their suitcases. And she's a great little dog, but as any parent in this situation knows, nothing can compare with the knowledge that your child -- your life -- is asleep in a bed not far from home.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Do you want to sell colored water, or do you want to change the world?

I didn't know Steve Jobs, obviously. And if I had known him, chances are we wouldn't have liked each other. I'm not good at math and science, which I imagine he was. And I've read that he wasn't someone who suffered fools gladly, so his bluntness probably would have hurt my feelings.

But to an introvert like me -- at heart, I truly am one -- and to someone who loves words and music and the near-constant intake of information, he was a hero.

I often think of how amazing it would have been had Steve Jobs' inventions been around when I was in high school. Any confidence I had was in the words I put on paper. I can't imagine how many more relationships I would have been encouraged to form had I been given a fluid, easy way to transmit the words from my brain to others' eyes.

Expressing myself in writing made me courageous. Anything I couldn't say in conversation, I communicated easily via a pen or a typewriter. When I started college and worked for the first time on an awkward machine we called a "word processor," a new world opened to me.

Later in college, I was given the opportunity to try out a several-thousand-dollar MacIntosh computer. It was easy to use. My fingers flew over the keys, creating words with a swifter, lighter touch than my IBM Selectric required. I was hooked.

I didn't always use Apple computers; different jobs have required different machines. But I'll never forget holding my first iPod in my hand, when I could finally afford one after buying them for my kids, and hooking it up and downloading "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John. I was amazed that I could slip the device, small as a deck of cards, into my pocket and sing along as I unloaded the dishwasher.

I remember going with my son to buy his first MacBook so he could create the music he loved with an app called Garage Band. I remember my daughter's face when I won a brand-new iPad at her sorority event and handed it over to her.

And I remember receiving my first laptop -- a Mac, of course -- and appreciating the ease it brought to my life as I moved from place to place, desk to desk, meeting to meeting, creating words and sentences and thoughts without being slowed down by my ever-worsening penmanship.

Steve Jobs is also a hero to me for this reason: my nephew. Eighteen and in college now, Aidan is one of the lucky human beings who is destined to earn a paycheck -- likely a sizable one -- doing what he loves. I've never seen anyone who's had to work harder to earn good grades than Aidan does, but when it comes to his beloved computers, the world is his oyster.

He's been teaching others about technology since he was in elementary school, and just as my self-esteem was derived from words so long ago, Aidan's comes from the language he's able to speak when he's diagnosing someone's computer problem or fine-tuning a machine to make it faster. Jobs was Aidan's idol, and whatever amazing things my nephew decides to do will be a direct result of the sense of self that he developed from navigating motherboards and and servers and code.

I'm watching CNN as I type this, and Anderson Cooper just told a story of a man Jobs hired away from another company by asking him, "Do you want to spent the rest of your life selling colored water, or do you want to change the world?"

Alas, I think most of us are selling colored water. But because of people like Steve Jobs, we know that if we're courageous enough, the potential is there to, as he also once said, "make your vocation your vacation."

I'm not a risk-taker by nature, but perhaps tonight, I'll think a little harder about what I need to do -- not to change the whole world, exactly, but to evolve my little corner of it into somewhere I'll truly love to be.