Saturday, December 28, 2013

Does this happen to Martha Stewart?

Last year I hosted a family Christmas gathering and our furnace quit working. This year I hosted a family Christmas gathering and my oven broke. It has been suggested that I stop hosting Christmas gatherings before I manage to blow up the entire house, but since no one else is offering to have them, I'll continue my reign of domestic terror and see what household appliance I can break next.

The oven actually broke before Christmas. It happened at some point while I was baking. I can't pinpoint the exact moment the thermostat or the heating element went whack-a-doodle but it was shortly before I took a sheet of semi-charcoaled cookies out of the oven.

I don't burn cookies. Ever. Period. This is not open for discussion. Cookie baking at our house is a sacred activity and Cookies Do Not Burn. The smoking tray of cranberry/white chocolate cookies was distinctly un-Martha Stewart-esque. Something was amiss.

As it turned out, the thermostat worked. It just didn't work correctly. Reminds me of some dogs I know. A temp setting of 350 degrees yielded anything from 275 degrees to 425 degrees. I got the holiday baking done by constantly monitoring an oven thermometer and juggling, shifting and turning the trays accordingly. My apologies to any friends who received slightly under-baked cookies this year. I prefer to err on the side of caution. Using the smoke alarm as a kitchen timer is frowned upon.

So the Farmer and I hitched up the team, went to town and bought a new oven. Oops. We bought a new range. There's the oven part and the stovetop part and collectively they are known as a range. Like home on the range. Which gives me visions of cooking in a cast iron stove fueled by wood and corn cobs. Which was kinda what I felt like I'd been doing because the old oven couldn't hold a steady temperature setting to save its life.

The good news was they had a model I liked and it was on sale and there was even a rebate. The bad news was that they couldn't deliver it until after Christmas. Which meant I got to cook Christmas dinner for the family with an oven that offered complete unreliability. I planned side dishes that could be fixed in the Crock Pot or microwave, said a prayer for the well being of the ham and promised family members I would not serve them baloney sandwiches. My mother wisely offered to bring the pie. I thanked her for it. Pie is sacred.

Flash forward. Delivery day arrived. The delivery men assured me they would call 30 minutes before getting to our house. Fortunately, I took the entire afternoon off of work and was at home, because they didn't call 30 minutes ahead, they just showed up. And tried to deliver my range to my mother-in-law, who lives down the road. That was just the beginning.

We have a pretty solid coating of snow and ice at our place and once they finally got here, the delivery men were flummoxed regarding how best to park their delivery truck so as not to damage the new appliance, the truck or themselves. There was a great deal of backing up, pulling forward and circling around. Then the hydraulic ramp thingie on the back of the truck refused to cooperate, resulting in a lot of whacking and banging until they got it lowered.

They came in and took the old stove out. The dogs were shut in the bedroom. Really, these guys didn't need any more help. Or maybe they did. There was some dispute about getting the old stove through the door onto the porch. Seriously, I have drug enough over-loaded crate dollies through doors at show sites I could have told them all they needed to do was back up and get a straight approach, then run like you're on Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross. But nobody asked me.

Once they got the old one out, I thought things were going to get better. I hung out in the house and waited. And waited. And waited. The new range is electric. All they needed to do was unload it, plug it in and shove it into place. But nothing was happening.

There were two guys, a big husky guy and a skinny little guy. They were standing at the back of the delivery van, waving their arms. Finally the skinny little guy came in. "We broke the glass in the oven door of the old stove," he said.

This didn't concern me too much but I was starting to have doubts that my new stove was going to ever make into my kitchen in one piece. It was looking like baloney sandwiches for supper for the immediate future.

The big husky guy came in. "I'm going to pick up the glass," he informed me. Well. Yay for you.

In the mean time, the skinny little guy hauled the new range in, plugged it in and after a great deal of grunting and groaning, got it shoved into place. The big husky guy came in when he was done. "I got all the big pieces," he said. "Pretty sure I got most of it."

I signed the delivery form and they left. I  looked at the kitchen floor. It was covered with mud and melted snow.

I went outside to look at the place where the glass had broken. I wondered what constituted a "big piece." The ground sparkled with thousands of tiny bits of shattered glass, mingled with snow and gravel. I got a scoop shovel and shoved up about a six-foot square section of the driveway.

Since the back porch door had been propped open the whole time the kittens had come inside and made themselves at home. They were sprawled atop the grooming table in the sunshine, batting at the leashes that hung from nearby pegs. One of them had drug all 40 feet of a tracking line off its peg and wrestled it into submission, creating a delightfully snarled mess. Weezel was happily chewing a leather leash in half. Seriously. He chews like a dog. This whole litter of kittens has some very canine characteristics, not the least of which is they run in a pack.

I rescued the leash, untangled the tracking line, shooed the kittens outdoors, mopped the floor and turned the dogs out of the bedroom. Does Martha Stewart have days like this?

Monday, December 23, 2013

A weather-induced rant

In the last five days, the National Weather Service has issued four separate watches, warnings and advisories for the area where I live: a freezing rain advisory, a winter storm watch, a winter storm warning and a windchill advisory.

Some were issued concurrently and the winter storm watch came out last Friday, before winter even officially started. So special. The irony of that was not lost on anyone who calls the Midwest home.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am descended from freaking crazy people. That’s the only explanation for why my ancestors chose to settle here. Or maybe I am descended from perfectly normal people who arrived in this part of the world on a day that was cloaked in deceptively mild weather.

When my Cameron, Mills, Andersen and Hanson ancestors immigrated from Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, respectively, they must have arrived in the Midwest on a lovely day when the sun was shining and the rolling hills were ripe with the promise of fertile farm land and soft breezes. It looked like the ideal place to start a new life.

If they’d arrived in the dead of winter they would have taken one look at the glacial wasteland that is Iowa in December, gotten right back on the train and kept going. Then I could be living somewhere sensible like southern California, where Mother Nature only occasionally tries to kill people with earthquakes. But no. They liked what they saw, built farmsteads and planted crops and raised livestock and managed not to freeze to death long enough to produce the next generation of crazy people, who chose to continue living here.

The Swedes and the Danes, after all, came from lands that spent a good part of the year locked in ice and snow. They probably felt right at home. Crazy Vikings. I would like to think my Celtic ancestors had better sense, although Scotland has been called “the land that invented weather,” so maybe not.

Depending on which account of history you choose to believe, Clan Cameron was at the forefront of the Highland charge against British troops in the Battle of Culloden in Scotland in 1745. That didn’t end well for the Scottish Highlanders in general and Charles Stewart in particular. I have no idea if I can claim a direct ancestry to Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel but if I could, it would be great to blame some of my questionable decision-making skills on genetics.

But I digress. The Farmer is a German whose ancestors apparently didn’t have any better sense than mine so here we are - lifelong residents of Iowa for better or worse.

Winter in Iowa generally qualifies as worse. During the summer when it’s so hatefully hot, I swear I won’t complain about winter. Then when it gets here, I’m the first one to complain. It’s a God-given Midwestern right. If you live through it, you get to bitch about it. We recently had a string of days here in Iowa when it was warmer in Anchorage, Alaska. That. Is. Just. Wrong.

The problem with winter here is that it rarely presents itself as the Currier and Ives print of happy people skating happily on frozen ponds and riding happily in sleighs pulled by happy horses. In Iowa, we don’t get happy ski resort winter. We get freezing rain that turns highways to greased skating rinks. Then we get snow on top of it and spend the next four months falling on our butts and crashing our cars into ditches, deer and each other. The ice is happily insulated by the snow, ensuring that it lasts until March. We get winds that scream straight down out of Canada until the mercury drains out of the thermometer. There’s nothing between Iowa and Canada to stop them. Minnesota is clearly not up to the task.

Snow and bitter cold are only fun (translation - "tolerable") during the holidays. I can pretend to enjoy ridiculous amounts of crappy weather by telling myself it adds atmosphere. Santa is coming and everything is a cocoa and pine trees and roaring fires and cookie-baking winter wonderland. How fun. If you needed proof that I can be delusional, this is probably it.

Once Christmas passes, the novelty wears off and shit gets real in a hurry. Or in the case of this year, it got real before Christmas. When the holidays pass, there are still three more months of snow and cold to endure before spring comes and I can start complaining about mud. Mud sounds deliciously attractive right now. No one ever cut their paws open on mud. The jagged ice razors lurking outside our back door guarantee at least one incident of bloody pawprints coming back into the house before spring arrives.

Living in the Midwest provides a skill set that people who live on the West coast or in the South will never experience. Over the years, I’ve become a pro at gauging how much speed I need to bust through the drift at the end of the lane without spinning out of control and doing a Wile E. Coyote on the back of the neighbor’s machine shed with my van. I know exactly where to put the space heater to thaw frozen pipes and am capable of doing it at 1 a.m. in my pajamas without actually waking up. Shoveling sidewalks is a cardio workout and I can maneuver across an ice-glazed parking lot while carrying grocery bags with the delicate balance of an Olympic gymnast.

I could happily spend the winter months ensconced in a sweatshirt and flannel pajamas, stuffing myself with carbs and binge-watching "Game of Thrones," seasons one and two, which were thoughtfully loaned to me by a friend. In fact, I plan to do just that once I am released from the familial obligations of this coming week.

On the bright side, from December through March, all it takes for me to have a perfectly wonderful day is to get up in the morning and A) the furnace is working B) the pipes aren’t frozen C) my van starts D) I can get the garage door open E) there’s no snowdrift in front of my garage door (or if there is, I can blast through it) and F) I can get to the highway without yelling "Yeeeee-haw!" as R2 goes sideways or airborne more than twice and G) I can see at least 50 percent of the pavement markings on the highway on my way to work. That qualifies as a damn fine day, no matter what else might happen.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I've enjoyed this last year of sharing my life, my dogs, the Farmer, the Adorables and Phoenix's and my on-going training and trialing journey with you. I hope you all have warm, safe, wonderful holidays and I wish you all the best in the new year.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Because I don't want to break my dog

In the spring of this year, I made the decision to stop running agility with Phoenix so we could focus on his obedience work. Trying to excel in the upper levels of two demanding sports was not going well. Our training time was constantly in conflict and seemingly governed by whatever trial was coming that weekend. This wasn't a recipe for success in either arena.

Eight months later, I feel I made the right decision. As long as Phoenix was having a delightful time on an agility course (regardless of whether it was the course the judge designed and I attempted to handle or one of his own creation), I could happily ignore the engagement and effort problems that arose when agility obstacles were not present and we were faced with a much less self-rewarding performance venue.

Through the summer and fall, I’ve gone to several agility trials to watch friends run or to work and support the clubs I belong to. The question is always the same: Why aren’t you running? This is followed by a secondary question, usually spoken with a combination of concern and disbelief: But you’ll come back, right?

I don’t know. Honestly. I don’t.

I haven’t undergone a zealot’s transformation and I don’t hate agility, but stepping outside the sport for the better part of a year has allowed me to see some things I did not see before.

The primary reason I backed off training and running agility is that I want to earn an OTCh. with Phoenix worse than I want to earn a MACH. Anyone who has embarked on a journey for either knows this is not a quest for the faint of heart or something you’re likely to achieve without absolute dedication.

The secondary reason I backed off is that I don’t want to break my dog.

Without a doubt, Phoenix loved agility. He loves anything he can do at high speed with reckless abandon. In spite of being trained and handled by a middle-aged woman who admittedly does not like to push the envelope, he happily compensates for my cautionary tendencies. As a trainer, I have worked hard to master timely cues, set realistic lines on a course and give him safe approaches to all obstacles - all in the name of keeping him from getting hurt.

Phoenix will turn 7 at the end of this month. He’s been running agility since he was 2. In those 5 years, fueled by the adrenaline high that comes from running at trials, he has leaped off the top off A-frames, flown off sides of dog walks and launched himself from teeters. He has gone through muscle-wrenching contortions to accommodate courses with complex twists and turns. He has crashed through jumps and face-planted on turns. He has hit weave entries with so much speed I swear I could hear his ribs crack. The dog who runs with controlled elegance in the back yard becomes a crazed speed addict when put on the start line at a trial. He apparently has no pain threshold and the word "caution" is not in his vocabulary. He is the most physically and environmentally sound dog I’ve ever owned, a natural athlete with a love of the game and no fear. Some trainers might consider him the ideal agility dog. For me, running him was becoming a nightmare.

I was seriously afraid he was going to break himself.

My two previous agility dogs never ran fast enough to get hurt. They took courses at a canter and didn’t slip, crash or do fly-offs. In a sport where handlers work to shave fractions of seconds off course times, this casual approach was not looked upon as a desirable quality.

I thought getting a dog who ran balls to the wall would be a wonderful thing. It wasn’t.

Maybe my ears are just more open to it now, but there is quiet litany that hums under the surface conversation at every agility trial. Listen closely and you can hear it: my dog is limping, my dog is lame and the vet doesn’t know why, my dog pulled (insert muscle group here), my dog has a soft tissue injury, my dog needs a month of crate rest, my dog has to be leash walked for six weeks, my dog tore his ACL, my dog needs surgery, my dog needs six months of rehab, the vet doesn’t know what is wrong with my dog, I’m taking my dog to (insert name of veterinary college or rehab facility here) for an evaluation, my dog is retired from running agility.

You can’t swaddle your dog in bubble wrap to insulate him from every potentially injurious situation, no matter what games you play. Phoenix could (and has) hurt himself chasing a cat. He ended up with a neat line of stitches across his ribs a few years back when he smashed himself into a piece of farm machinery. Case in point. That had nothing to do with any training venue. But I’d like to think I can control the odds to some extent and that means not giving him repeated opportunities to fly off dog walks and crash through spread jumps every weekend.

Agility is marketed as a sport for everyone and their dog, yet looking at the spectrum of dogs who are running, there are undoubtedly some that should not be on the course due to structural or conditioning issues. The impact of repeated jumping and negotiating contact pieces at speed is not doing their bodies any favors, and this repeated stress may or may not eventually catch up with them in the form of injury.

Yet other dogs are truly natural athletes who perform weekend after weekend without showing any ill effects. I often wonder if their love for the game simply overcomes minor degrees of pain until an injury becomes debilitating. Then there are middle-of-the-road dogs who appear fine for years, then suddenly come up with a lameness that defies diagnosis. Maybe it’s an agility injury. Maybe it’s not.

I’m not saying agility is dangerous and I’m not saying every dog who runs agility is going to get hurt. I’m just calling it like I see it in respect to my own dog.

When Phoenix is 10 or older, I’d like to still be showing him - maybe in veterans classes, maybe tracking or doing nosework or exploring some venue we haven’t tried yet. Most of all, I’d like him to be fit and strong and not plagued by chronic pain from an injury that perhaps I could have prevented.

It’s a choice every handler has to make, based on their priorities and goals for their dog.

Can I guarantee that by not running him in agility he will avoid all injuries? Of course not. Will I return to agility at some point? I don’t know. It’s a fun sport and I’d like to think I could get a grip on my wonderfully insane dog to allow him to participate in a safe manner. I’m not sure how realistic that is. For the immediate future, our focus remains on obedience.