Friday, March 29, 2013

The paint apocalypse

I took some time off work this week to paint our kitchen. It’s been six years since I painted it the last time. That’s about how long it took to choose a new color.

Painting is fun. I painted a lot when I was a little kid. Watercolor paint. Tempera paint. Those oil paint-by-number kits. Finger paint. From the looks of my clothes this week, I’m still doing a lot of finger painting.

As I got older, graduating to painting actual walls or outdoor structures proved just as much fun as little kid painting. I could apply more paint to more surfaces - myself, the grass, passing animals - with bigger brushes.

I was excited to paint the kitchen. This may be an insight to how typically un-exciting my life is. Or maybe it’s my inner Martha Stewart coming out.

Did I mention picking the color took entirely too long? Martha couldn't make a decision to save her life. People have built entire homes in the amount of time it took me to decided on a color. For much of February and March, paint chips of varying colors were taped to our kitchen walls.

Our kitchen has both a south and west window. It’s typically a very well-lit room and I didn’t want to choose a blindingly bright hue. The weather in late February and March would not cooperate. I got to see what my color choices looked like on the wall when it was cloudy, snowy, foggy, snowy, rainy and snowy. I never did get to see them in the sunshine. I finally gave up and bought the paint anyway.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you painting isn’t hard work. On the surface, it looks pretty simple. Dip brush in paint. Brush back and forth on wall. Repeat 10 million times.

By the end of the second day, my right hand and arm were pretty much dysfunctional. (I had even started painting left-handed in areas with a wide margin of error.)  Ibuprofen relieved the ache but did not restore any muscle tone. I took the dogs out to play in the sunshine that afternoon. I had a toy for them to chase and tug. I offered the toy to Phoenix. He grabbed it with enthusiasm, anticipating a game of tug. He basically fell on his bottom when my right-handed weenie grip offered no resistance. He looked at me like “Really? That’s all you’ve got?”

I tried throwing the toy. I throw like a girl on a good day. This was not a good day. I tried throwing with my left arm. Nobody got hurt.

Painting  really is fun. It’s fun to watch the new color go on the wall and slowly transform a room. Aside from opening the can of paint and having a “This is not the right color!” freak-out moment, the project went smoothly. It was the right color, it just needed stirring. The paint also went on much lighter than it showed on the chip, so what with first and second coats in varying stages of drying, none of the walls actually matched until the following morning.

What’s not fun are all the tasks that go along with painting. Taking everything off the walls. Moving everything off the counters and finding a place to stash it out of the way. (Note to self: do not turn on the oven without looking inside first unless you want to experience that special stench of melting plastic.) Unscrewing all the switch plates and not losing the little screws. How can an old house with so few electrical outlets have so many switch plates? Dusting all the cobwebs that I swear were not there last week.  Taping woodwork. Taping more woodwork. Convincing myself not to paint the woodwork.

On the surface, painting is not a terribly aerobic activity. You basically stand in one place for awhile, then move six inches and stand there for awhile.

A ladder changes all that. Climb up the ladder. Paint. Climb down the ladder. Move the ladder. Climb up the ladder. Paint. Repeat 10 million times.

Ever notice how the first four letters of painting are “pain”?

Yes, there will be pics. I carefully did a "before" series. If the new curtains ever get here, I'll do an "after" series, too.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Confessions of a lazy blogger

I have been a bad blogger lately. Late winter lethargy is taking its toll. Working up one post a week has become a monumental task. I have great respect for bloggers who manage regular brilliant posts, complete with video and lengthy, analytic commentary.

Then there’s me. Rambling about buying luggage, calves in the basement and kitchen paint. Have I written about the kitchen paint yet? Ah, well, let me enlighten you since I’ve driven my co-workers to distraction with this project.

After six years, I’ve decided to paint our kitchen. That’s approximately how long it’s taken to choose a new color since the last paint job. The new color is “Bolt.” Descriptive, huh?

Let’s try again. Amana blue. For folks who live in or near the Amana Colonies in eastern Iowa, this will mean something. It’s pale blue. At one point, the interior of nearly every communal residence, kitchen, church and business in the Colonies was painted Amana blue.

Historians differ on their interpretation of this color choice. Some feel it was meant to represent God and heaven and remind the colonists of their religious foundations. Others just think they got a really, really good deal on cheap blue paint.

Either way, my kitchen will transform from light cappuccino to Amana blue next week. I’m taking a few days off as a stay-cation to paint.

Our kitchen is not big. It’s not small. Once you account for cabinets and appliances, when it comes to actual wall space, there’s not really a lot. And there are four doors. Yep - count ‘em, four: back porch door, basement door, bathroom door, dining room door.

It’s going to take me longer to tape off all the woodwork than it will to actually paint the walls.

In the meantime, back at the dog training building: I’ve been re-focussing on the foundation elements with Phoenix. Examples: quick grabs to pick up dumbbell and glove, quick set ups, maintaining heel position through turns and the $#@! return on the moving stand. Ohhhhh (moans dramatically), the moving stand.

Once again I’ve discovered that what I thought I taught my dog was not what he learned. Or actually, he probably learned exactly what I taught him. Therein lies the problem.

In brief: I taught Phoenix an “around” finish from the moving stand. I used a hand signal along with the verbal. The problem was my signal flipped him “out” as well as “around” and since I've conveniently ignored that, he has developed a huge arc on the return.

To be honest, fixing that has not been a high priority during our roller coaster Utility career and I let it go. Whatever. As long as he trotted in and didn’t give me the death march, I didn’t really care how he got there. To be honest, we didn't get marked for it but that didn't mean it was okay.

With many spring trials on the horizon, I’ve finally admitted this needs to be addressed. Yesterday at the building, I put up a broad jump board as a barrier, intending for it to block his arc and encourage him to come in straight. (I’ve had some luck using barriers in training — this was not a shining example.)

He arc’d even wider to go around the board.

Well crap. (I’ve noticed many of my training sessions include this expression lately.)

I’m sure he thought he was right. I set him up several more times, varying the placement of the board and darned if he didn’t push out to go around it every single time.

So we’ve gone back to fundamentals on teaching the return. It’s amazing how easy it is to let the little things slip when you’re focused only on the overall picture. Then they come back and bite you in the butt.

Somebody get the Band-aids.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I do NOT need an intervention

I bought another bag.

Not a training bag this time, a luggage bag. Genuine, real, adult luggage.

Flash back 30 years. My parents bought me a set of luggage when I graduated from high school. That’s the sort of thing you did back then. Do people still do that or is another grad gift more en vogue?

In 1984, it was a set of hard-sided Samsonite Tourister luggage. There were two big suitcases, an “overnight bag” and a garment bag. I think my parents were giving me a hint - it was time to move on down the road. I used it to travel back and forth from Iowa State University for four years, then to my first apartment in 1988. I haven’t used it since, unless you count the time I loaned one of the suitcases to my in-laws when they went to Branson. Let’s face it, the Farmer and I are not big jet-setters.

When I started traveling a lot for obedience and agility weekends, I put my stuff in a duffel bag. Soft and squishy, duffel bags could be jammed between crates, on top of crates, behind crates and quite a few other places where “luggage” would never fit.

Through the years, I had a variety of duffel bags - different sizes, different colors, different pocket configurations. The need for the number and type of bags required for any given trip varied with the nature of the trip. Obedience? Agility? Motel? Friend’s house? Camping? One night? Two nights? Three nights? One dog? Two dogs? Three dogs?

When it comes to travel, I am an obsessive list maker. My packing list for a show weekend would include: people bag (show clothes, dinner clothes, PJs, toiletries. etc.), dog bag (food, treats, bowls, meds, sheet to cover the motel bedspread, toys and chewies for motel room entertainment, etc.), food bag (chips, fruit, cookies, bottled water, plasticware, Ziploc bags for restaurant leftovers, etc.) and a “bonus” bag (raincoat, extra shoes and any other odds and ends, pending the weather and situation).

In addition, there was always the obligate training gear bag and usually at least one set of scent articles in a bag. Camping? Add the tent bag and sleeping bag, plus a bag with pillow, blanket, etc. As the years progressed, I often added a camera bag and now, a laptop bag. I am such a bag lady there is no intervention in the world that will help.

But wait! Perhaps there is hope!

I’ve become a Rick Steves acolyte. Don’t know Rick Steves? Google him. He’s a travel guru who organizes tours through Europe and advocates “less is more” when it comes to packing for a trip. He feels you should spend your travel time enjoying the journey, not grunting and farting and hauling around big, heavy, over-packed luggage (my words, not his).

I met Rick on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon while flipping through channels and folding laundry. (I am the undisputed queen of flip and fold.) There he was on public television, making the prophetic announcement that in order to see if you are over-packing, take your loaded suitcase to a nearby town and play tourist for an afternoon, carrying or dragging it with you. Go window shopping, Go to a cafe. Was it a comfortable experience? If not, go home, dump everything out and start over. He’s a great advocate of “don’t pack for the worst case scenario, pack for the best case scenario and if you really need something, just go buy it.”

While this philosophy might not be the best idea when it comes to dog sports travel (Murphy’s Law decrees if you don’t pack the Bendadryl, you or your dog will get stung by a bee within minutes of getting out of  your car), it was worth contemplating. It would be nice to haul around less stuff. (Thank you, Wild Dingo, for pointing out the whole "economy of motion" principle a few weeks ago.)

I don’t need to pack super light — all I have to do is get my stuff into the motel on Friday night and back out on Sunday morning — but a light bulb had gone off. Could I condense the number of smaller bags into a single piece of luggage? Maybe not ALL of them. But maybe two or three? Wouldn’t it be lovely to deal with just ONE larger bag instead of three or four smaller ones? Could it be done?

So I’ve bought a piece of soft-side luggage that is smaller than my hard-as-nails Samsonite and bigger than my most extreme duffel bag. Technically, it's an airplane carry-on. With some practice, I hope to eliminate my bag lady look when checking into motel. (Seriously, a couple of times I swear the only thing missing was a shopping cart.)

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Building up, not tearing down

Phoenix is the dog who has taught me the most about stress as it presents in training and showing. I’m sure stress was present in my previous dogs but it either wasn’t that big of a deal for them or I just plain didn’t recognize it. Every dog is unique - some thrive on stress, others are simply oblivious while others melt into a puddle at the first hint that something might be “different.”

One big mistake many of us (myself included!) make as trainers is not deliberately introducing stress in a controlled environment where we can help our dogs learn how to deal with it successfully before being faced with a multitude of stress-inducing elements at a trial. The problem is that when you start introducing stress (you can call it pressure, distractions, proofing or whatever word you want to use) dogs will start to make errors.

The dog who can perform brilliantly in a sterile (stress free) atmosphere may fall apart when faced with unexpected elements of movement, noise or scent. As a result, trainers may avoid introducing deliberate stress because they don’t want to see their dogs making errors and/or they’re unsure how to deal with it when it does happen.

This was an element of training that I seriously overlooked with Phoenix. Sure, we did some proofing at each level but I did not realize the extent of this type of work he needed in order to ignore environmental factors and remain focused and confident in his work. And I was the poster child for not wanting to see my dog struggle and make mistakes. After some time spent wandering in denial, I’ve started re-addressing this in our training.

Adding deliberate pressure or stress or distractions (again, I am at a loss for a single word that encompasses everything a dog might encounter at an trial environment) is a skill that requires finesse. If you do too much, or do it at the wrong time, you run the risk of overwhelming your dog, who may then think he cannot possibly do anything right. This makes for a dog with a crappy attitude about obedience. If you do too little, you’ve not realistically equipped your dog to learn how to handle stress. You’ll head into the ring unprepared for the proverbial kid with the hot dog sitting on the other side of the gate.

I’m not talking about setting dogs up to fail. That was the commonly accepted type of proofing back in the day (set dog up to fail, correct dog when it fails, repeat) but I’d like to think most of us have moved past that. I will not deliberately ask my dog to do something I think is beyond his skill level but I will make my tests incrementally more difficult as he shows me he understands what to do. My goal is to increase his confidence in his ability to make the right decisions needed to perform his job when other options can interfere. This will be a tremendous help in reducing stress in the show ring.

I’m talking about doing things in training that allow a dog to make decisions beyond simply performing the minimum skill required by an exercise. For example, once a dog has learned to retrieve, he can run across the ring, grab a dumbbell and return. There aren’t any other options - just the dumbbell. What if you put a toy along the edge of the ring? Now the dog has to make a decision. Get the dumbbell or get the toy? What if you put the toy in the dog’s path? What if you put it next to the dumbbell? What if there’s more than one toy?

The simple retrieve has suddenly become much more complex. Decision making is required. Since I’m making the exercise harder with the addition of the toy, I want to make other parts of it easier. I’ll have the dog on leash so I can control the situation if my dog chooses to grab the toy and self-reward. I’ll be closer to the dumbbell (not at the opposite end of the ring). I’m not going to throw 10 toys on the floor at first, just one.

The first time I did this with Phoenix, a long time ago, he predictably went after the toy. I reined him in (he’s on leash, remember), unemotionally took the toy away, put it back on the ground, took him to the dumbbell, told him to get it (“Horrors, I repeated a command, surely my dog is ruined for life,” she said) praised and played with him when he took it and we tried it again. He had a few false starts. That was okay. When I do this, I EXPECT my dog to make errors initially. As we do more and more of it, I expect him to make fewer and fewer errors as his ability to make the right decision under pressure improves.

A huge aspect of this type of work is deciding in advance how you are going to respond to the dog’s behavior. Knowing ahead of time that my dog may choose to get the toy instead of the dumbbell allows me to have a plan in place so I’m not caught flat-footed about what to do. Allowing my dog to grab the toy and have a party all by himself while I scratch my chin and think, "Hmmm, what to do?" is not the point of the exercise.

There are probably a dozen things you could do with this scenario: place the toy further away, have a friend stand near the toy and step on it if the dog tries to get it, use a lower value toy, move closer to the dumbbell for a shorter retrieve distance, hold the dumbbell and have the dog take it with the toy lying nearby, have a friend hold the toy and offer it subtly (or blatantly) while the dog retrieves - the possibilities are endless but each one allows the dog to make a decision and successfully overcome any stress induced in the process. Some dogs will find a toy lying 20 feet away very stressful. Others will not become concerned until the toy is on top of the dumbbell. Correct decisions can be rewarded lavishly. Incorrect ones can be stopped before they become self-rewarding. Few dogs will continue to repeat a behavior that offers little or no reward, especially when given an option (get the dumbbell) which IS rewarded.

This is just one example of inducing stress in training. Each exercise offers its own challenges. It’s about building up, not tearing down.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Defiance and Irish Whiskey

It's another snow day here in paradise. Apparently Mother Nature has decided we will get the entire winter's allotment of snow in two weeks. I'm at home, watching the roads drift shut. Joy.

Got up this morning, did my treadmill workout and put three-bean chicken chili in the crockpot for tonight's supper. Then, in total and complete defiance of my vow to cut back on the "non-healthy" aspects of my diet, I made Chocolate Beer Cupcakes with Irish Whiskey Filling and Bailey's Irish Cream Frosting. Take that, Dr. L.

How can you go wrong when the ingredient list includes whipping cream, sour cream, butter, two different kinds of chocolate, two different kinds of sugar and three different kinds of alcohol?

Blend all the dry ingredients together.

Blend the sour cream and eggs, then beat the tar out of them.

Combine the beer and the butter. Bring to a boil.
This seemed like a very odd thing to do with beer.
Then you combine the whole works, bake and you get this: 

One tray of baked cupcakes (the recipe yielded 28). Note the vintage Silver Beauty baking pan.
I think my mom baked my kindergarten birthday cupcakes in this pan.

Ahh . . . the finished product.
Make no mistake.
It's an intense chocolate religious experience.

Okay, here's the recipe, complete with editorial comment.

1 C. Irish stout beer (I used Guinness)
1 C. butter
3/4 C. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 C. flour
2 C. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
2/3 C. sour cream

Preheat oven to 350. Line 24 muffin cups with paper liners.

Bring Irish stout beer and 1 C. butter to a boil in a saucepan, then set aside until butter has melted, stirring occasionally. Mix in cocoa powder until smooth. (Good luck with that, mine never got smooth. Not a problem.)

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda and salt.

Beat eggs and sour cream in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thoroughly combined. Slowly beat in beer mixture, then flour mixture. Beat until batter is smooth. (Smoothness was easily achieved this time.)

Divide batter in prepared cupcake pans, filling each cup about 2/3 full. Bake 17 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool cupcakes completely.

2/3 C. heavy whipping cream
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 T. butter
1 tsp. Irish whiskey, or more to taste

Bring cream to a simmer in a saucepan over low heat. Stir in the bittersweet chocolate until melted. Mix in 2 T. butter and whiskey until butter is melted. Let mixture cool to room temp. Will thicken as it cools.

With a sharp paring knife, cut core out of center of each cupcake. Discard. (Are you kidding? Discard? NO! Eat!)

Spoon cooled filling into cupcakes. (Major editorial comment: I really didn't care for the filling. I thought it was too bitter and didn't add anything beneficial to the whole experience. I would skip this step next time. If you use the filling, cut out generous cores. I must have cut my cores too small because I had a lot of filling left.)

1/2 C. butter, softened
3 C. powdered sugar
3 T. Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur, or more to taste

Mix all frosting ingredients until smooth and spread on filled cupcakes.

The next time I make this recipe, I'll probably reincarnate it as a frosted sheetcake - much faster and less fussy, with the same great taste.

I was able to buy a single bottle of Guinness and tiny bottles of whiskey and Bailey's at a liquor store, so no major investment in buying big bottles of stuff I'd probably never drink. In spite of Scottish and Irish heritage, I'm not a fan of whiskey. The Guinness was intriguing though. Never had it before. May have to go back for another bottle.

It was a fun project for a snowy day. I don't know whether my kitchen smells like a bakery or a pub.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My cardiologist is a sadist

“We need to talk about your cholesterol,” Dr. L. said at a recent visit. He was smiling. He looked happy.

Ha, I thought smiling back, THIS will be a short conversation. I’d seen the results from the fasting cholesterol panel I had drawn earlier in the month. All the numbers were comfortably within the normal ranges.

“Your LDL is borderline high,” Dr. L. informed me. “We need to take some steps to lower it.”

What?! I was really glad the nurse had already taken my blood pressure because it wasn’t headed anywhere good.

“But the sheet I got from the lab said everything was within normal ranges,” I protested.

“They would be if you were a normal person,” Dr. L. informed me.


I have a wicked heart arrhythmia. Left to its own devices, my heart will beat too fast and/or out of rhythym and/or occasionally not at all. Not normal. A cocktail of meds keeps it on-line for the most part. Better living through chemistry.

The Farmer was going to love this. He’s been waiting years for someone to confirm that I’m not normal. He’d probably even pay my co-pay for this appointment just to hear the doctor say it again.

The first thing that popped into my mind was Sheldon’s line from The Big Bang Theory, “I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.” That didn’t seem like an appropriate thing to say, however. Apparently not being crazy does not automatically make you normal.

“But you have a heart condition and I’d like to see your LDL lower than it is now. Your current level puts you at an elevated risk. Let’s make some dietary changes and test again in six months.” Dr. L. seemed entirely too happy about telling me to change my eating habits.

It was one of those WTF moments. I’ve always thought I ate a reasonably healthy diet. I like fruits and vegetables and eat them daily, both fresh and cooked. I actually like broccoli. I love whole grain bread and pasta and am adamant about low-fat cooking. I cook chicken without the skin and have elevated the commandment “trim visible fat” to a new art form. I make egg white omelettes and read nutrition labels . I’m the freaking poster child for high fiber breakfast cereal.

I also love bacon cheeseburgers, ribeye steak, baked potatoes with sour cream AND butter, every bakery product known to man and pretty much anything that can be handed out a drive-through window.

The fact that I wasn’t “normal” meant my eating habits were being held to a higher standard. Maybe my diet wasn’t as good as I thought it was. I was the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of healthy eating.

Dr. L. said he usually counsels patients with cholesterol issues to stop smoking, loose weight and start an exercise program. Since I don’t smoke, am not overweight and already exercise, he didn’t know what to do with me. The only thing left for him to go after was my diet. My friends know food is very important to me - talking about it, shopping for it, preparing it, anticipating it, eating it and reminiscing about it. To suddenly have the proverbial tablecloth jerked out from under me was a bit unsettling.

If the diet thing doesn’t work, it’s hello, Lipitor.

Fine. Just fine. Maybe I’ll take the popular option, eschew all personal responsibility and blame genetics.

My dad (non smoker, not overweight, lifetime of physical labor as a farmer) had high cholesterol, too, which lead to an eventual heart attack. They didn’t find out about the cholesterol until after the heart attack. I’m happy not to have followed that family tradition.

My next cholesterol test is in August. Until then, I’ve put the smack down on fast food. I’m making better decisions when the Farmer and I go out to eat. I’m all about anything grilled. I’ve amped up my oatmeal intake. I actually bought salmon yesterday. Wait. Let me amend that - I bought salmon for ME, not the dogs.

Good times.