Archive for the ‘Dogs’ category

Peace of the Sunday Morning Stable

March 23, 2009

I spent the weekend at my parents’ home, the place I grew up in. They were out of town, visiting a brother of mine.

Life this time of year can be stressful for everyone, because it seems that everything is due “right now”–taxes, forms, insurance payments, reports, results.

Lately, I’ve gotten so caught up in all the tasks I think I have to do that I’ve let the time for quietness get pushed dangerously low. This, I think to myself, will help me get more done, and then I’ll feel better.

But it only makes me feel more frantic, and then I get less done, and feel worse!

On Sunday morning, I did chores by myself. My younger sister was at home, too–she’s still in high school, but she’s an accomplished horsewoman, and the mantle of caregiver has been passed from me to her.

I grew up among goats–milking, delivering babies, bringing in hay, walking pastures. Someday, I tell myself, I may return to it, because it is a life of hard work, but it is also one of intense peacefulness, deep connection to the land and the animals. There is no escaping the spirituality of seeing a creature born, or of standing beside one as it breathes its last. Among the goats, beneath the open sky, you can’t hide from what’s in your heart and mind.

There was no milking to be done this weekend, and there were three horses where there had once been only one. There were two newish barn cats, Pickles and Pepperoni, who had arrived feral and were now all too anxious to twine themselves between your legs as you walked, demanding to be picked up and petted.

It’s amazing: If an animal knows it is wanted, loved, and cared for, fear gradually subsides and is replaced by an abiding trust.

I saw this firsthand with my dogs, Kiefer and Ecko, who each came to me a bit mistrustful of people, but who are both totally devoted to me. Kiefer, at 15, doesn’t follow me around everywhere anymore. His hearing is failing, so he won’t respond if I just call him. But when he wants me, he wants to be right close by, where he can smell me and feel my presence.

As for Ecko, he’s the follower now, the watcher. Wherever I am, he wants to be, especially if the surroundings are out of the ordinary. And he knows my emotional weather better than anyone. He won’t let me get away with leaving things in my heart unexamined. He’ll lean his head against me, then his whole body, and he’ll demand that I first pay attention to him, and then sort out my own internal ambiguities.

Anyway, there was deep healing and comfort for me in the barn yesterday morning. The goats bleated to me and stood up with their front legs on the fence rail, craning their necks to be petted, nuzzling me for kisses, even though I’d just filled their manger.

The horses whinnied to me and kicked up their heels on the way out to pasture–luckily, I was behind a stall door, well away from their friskiness.

The cats meowed at me until I fed them, ate their fill, and came and meowed some more, just to let me know they were still there.

I stayed out there until my hands were good and frosty and I was certain I’d begin to make the people in the house wonder if I’d gotten into trouble. On my way out, I made sure to pet every four-legged creature and thank them for their attention.

It’s Monday morning, and I can think of a long list of things I really have to do–taxes, bills, reports. None of it thrills me, but all of it is necessary.

But just for a bit longer, I’ll stay here, quiet and still, and savor the peace of the Sunday morning stable.


True Intent

March 22, 2009

I was studying my Chopin recital program this afternoon, minding my own business, savoring the Sarabande from Bach’s English Suite No. 5 as played by Andras Schiff. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful dance in the suite, with plenty of room for expressiveness. I haven’t started to learn notes for it myself yet–I’m still somewhere about halfway through the previous dance, the Courante.

But ever since the first time I listened through this program, I’ve had a special affinity for the Sarabande. It feels very intuitive to me, as if it just floated out of my mind and materialized before me without any interference or effort. I feel as if I’ve already played it, and every harmonic turn holds a feeling of nostalgia.

It’s an easy piece for me to get drawn into, lose myself, and leave all the mundane stuff of life behind. It’s meditative, contemplative music, and I want to savor every moment of it.

I was drifting in that peaceful place, my mind free and open, enjoying every note when–


A voice came blasting into my thoughts, completely shattering the tranquility.

“What the hell was that?” I thought. The phrase was odd, and had absolutely nothing to do with anything. “OK, I must just be tired, and my mind is playing–”


“Oh, come on, concentrate,” I told myself. “This is good practice for distractions during your recitals next year. You never know what–”


It was as if a bright orange splotch had suddenly appeared while I was looking at a delicate watercolor print of fog rising off a lake at dawn. I wasn’t really alarmed–I didn’t think I was “hearing voices” in the clichéd way that people do in movies when they’re losing their minds. I’d received too many messages from the universe, and I figured this was just another one.

“Crap,” I muttered, and started the track on the CD from the beginning again. It was getting harder to ignore whoever was saying this stuff. I was still going over these things in my mind when the voice broke in again.


“I’ll do it later–I’m sure I won’t forget.” I was getting annoyed. I’d had a weekend away from home, hadn’t had time to sit at the piano, and today, at about one, I’d finally had a few moments to listen to my practice disc. And now, the dogs were resting quietly, my husband was reading, and I was–


“Fine,” I said internally, and then, because I figured that part of the message was in the delivery, I shouted:


Ah, that felt better, even if I had no idea what I was talking about. (“I don’t have to understand it–I only work here!”)

“What?” My husband was perhaps just as surprised to have his wife blurt something random while he was trying to read.

“You know your Daitoryu?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Apparently, I’m supposed to tell you that true intent is something that comes a fraction of a second before someone moves. And it’s the key to everything.”

“How do you know that?”

To put it charitably, the only thing I know about martial arts is how to spell “martial arts”. It would be like my husband, a non-musician whose background is in engineering, computers, and, at least lately, shiatsu and Oriental medicine, giving me a twenty-minute dissertation on the evolution and execution of mordents in Baroque music.

“I don’t know anything. But while I was listening to this Bach Sarabande, someone kept saying this and wouldn’t quit until I told you.”

I handed him headphones and the CD player.

“Here,” I said. “This is what I was trying to listen to.”

I waited until I knew the piece had begun, then shouted:


“Stop,” he said, laughing a little.

I waited a few more seconds, then repeated:


I don’t remember what his response to that was, but I didn’t interrupt again. When the music had ended, he handed back the CD player.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That is a really beautiful piece.”

Yes, I know it is. If played right, it can be heartbreakingly tender. It is such a great contrast to the mischievous, light and cheerful Passepied that follows.

“Well, at least the message got to its intended recipient,” I said. After all, that’s all that was happening. My mind was open, and whoever wanted my husband to know about “true intent” knew I was a reliable messenger.

Art and the transmission of art, the craft and knowledge of it being transferred from one person to another, is a deeply mysterious thing. You can read all the books in the world about an art, cram your head with facts and figures, theories on how things are done a certain way and why.

Yet without that person-to-person connection, the knowledge is meaningless and useless.

I’ve discovered that, if you are passionate about your art, you will be given a teacher that can transmit that art in the most perfect way for you to absorb it.

At other times, though, the transmissions come from unlikely directions. Today, I was responsible for transmitting something of an art form totally foreign to me. For me, it will always be a good story. For my husband, whose art is impacted by the message I passed, it is something valuable.

I could have ignored the voice–and believe me, I really wanted to! Couldn’t the universe find some other way to send this information without bothering me?

Maybe not. Often, a message has more import when it’s received and delivered by someone who couldn’t possibly make it up if they tried.

I’ve got at least a day or two of learning before I begin the Sarabande. When I listened to the piece later this afternoon, there were no interruptions. But even if I never hear that voice again, whenever I play the piece, somewhere deep in my mind, the words will ring out along with the notes:


First Snow

October 29, 2008

October is a strange month. You can have bright blue days of seventy degrees and sunshine and nights scented with dry leaves and the neighbors’ woodsmoke. Then, not less than a week later, you can be getting snow.

Yesterday, we got our first snowfall of the season, although I’m not sure purists would call it “snowfall” because for a big part of the day, it was mixed with so much rain that it was coming down in clumps instead of flakes.

My afternoon students made it to their lessons before it got too bad to drive, but the evening crew didn’t.

I love teaching piano. So much of it is figuring out each student’s particular mind and designing the best lessons possible for them. Even two sisters, or two students who started at the same time, or two of the same age, all present differences that I find both fascinating and challenging.

But I enjoy “free time” as much as the next person, and there is certainly plenty of things I can fill it with. Yesterday was no exception.

At first, I thought it would be nice to just curl up and read. There’s nothing like a damp, cold day with grey skies to encourage staying tucked in.

But there were groceries to buy, dog blankets to wash, compositions to work on, phone calls to return, writing to do, a calendar to fill in for November, mail to sort and bills to pay.

Before I realized it, I’d filled the time, and it wasn’t “free” anymore.

What do I have, beyond clean dog blankets, an organized datebook, a smaller stack of mail on the table?

This time last year, I was in between trips to Poland and Kansas for piano recitals and lectures. These autumn days always make me look back over what I’ve done and where I’ve gone, remembering the people I met along the way, some of whom are still traveling with me yet, others departed long (or not so long) ago.

Perhaps this is a harbinger of old age, that autumnal season in life, when we are past the majority of years we’ll spend on this earth. If so, what life event coincides with the first snowfall?

Other Voices: Most People Don’t Think

October 12, 2008

Most people don’t think I’m all that smart. They just see a big black dog with a big head and big feet. They all say I must be a good dog, but not smart.

Oh, sorry, I forgot to tell you my name. It’s Ecko. Most people spell it wrong. I know another black dog, a lady dog, and she spells it the usual way, with an H. But my way is more interesting.

I’m a guide dog. Some people call me a seeing eye dog, but I’m really a guide dog. Seeing Eye is a school in New Jersey that trains guide dogs, but I didn’t study there. It’s kind of like when people say they need a Kleenex, when what they really mean is a tissue.

My mistress is a piano teacher. She also gives concerts in lots of different places. Sometimes, the concerts are so far away we have to ride on a kind of car that goes up in the air. I think it’s called a plane, but it seems to interesting and scary to be called a plane. I don’t like being on a plane, especially when it first goes up in the air and when it comes back down to the ground. I lie on the floor when we are on the plane, and it’s really loud and ticklish when I’m there. But since my mistress is with me, I’ll do it.

She’s good at making me try things even if they’re scary. When I was still sort of a puppy, she found out I was afraid of escalators. It seems to me that, since most staircases don’t move when you walk on them and people go up and down those just fine, there’s no reason to put a motor in there and make the whole thing move. But I guess people think it’s better if they can accomplish something standing in one place that they used to do by moving around.

Anyhow, she found out I was scared. The worst part was that she took me all over and made me ride up and down on every escalator she could find. She’d even go up and down the same one lots of times in a row. Once, we almost got in trouble with a security guard at a store because he couldn’t understand why we kept going up and down for twenty minutes. He thought my mistress was lost, and probably thought I was stupid for getting her lost.

That’s the thing: I don’t decide where we go. She does. She tells me which direction to go, and then I make sure to steer her around anything that’s in the path along the way. People think I can tell when to cross the street by watching the light. That’s dumb! Dogs are color-blind! My mistress listens to the cars and tells me when to cross. I just have to make sure she walks in a straight line to the other side.

I have a good memory, though. I remember things I smell for a long time. I love sniffing things. You can find out more about something by sniffing or licking it than by looking at it.

So I use those scents and my memory when I work for my mistress. Even if we’ve only been somewhere once or twice, that’s enough for me. I will try to remember the direction we went the last time we were there. If I do a good enough job remembering, my mistress will always say something about my good memory and about how much I think.

Sometimes, she gets annoyed with me, though. I’m clumsy. Partly, it’s because I’m big. If I’m really excited about going somewhere or doing something, I’ll sometimes forget to pay attention to how big I am and that I have to leave room for my mistress to fit through places. Once, in a line in an airport, I tried to go under a rope to get to the place she wanted to go. I forgot she was taller than me. I got a scolding.

I don’t like being yelled at. It scares me. It makes me afraid to try new things because I don’t want to get yelled at again.

But I love food, and I love getting a treat for something I do.

I like to play with things in my mouth, even if they’re not food. I just like the feeling of them. They’re interesting. The neatest things I ever played with were a rubber band, a frog, and a screw. The screw was most fun. I actually put it in my water dish so I wouldn’t lose it, even with the water in there. But my mistress found it first and took it away.

I love water, too, especially the pools people have in their yards. Whenever I go anywhere with my mistress, I look for those pools. She doesn’t like me to swim in them, but when she’s not paying attention, I go in anyway. She tries to be angry with me, but usually, she’s laughing and can’t do it. I know I should listen to her, but the water is just too much fun to jump around in and bury my head in.

Another dog lives with us. He’s really old, though, and doesn’t like to play. He bit me once when I tried to play with him. Every so often, if he’s in a really good mood, he’ll play for about five minutes as long as I’m not too rough. He has trouble standing and walking now, so I have to be careful not to knock him down. But after that five minutes, he won’t play anymore, and I’ve learned not to push my luck.

Well, I’d better go back upstairs and lie down. Thanks for listening to me. At least there’s one person now besides my mistress who knows I’m big and smart.

Other Voices: My Name is Kiefer

October 9, 2008

Hi, my name is Kiefer. I used to be a guide dog. Now, I’m retired. I live with my mistress and her new guide, Ecko. She also has another person. She calls him her husband, but he’s really my petting machine and treat dispenser.

I will be fifteen years old just after the shortest day of the year. Sometimes, my mistress says that, if I were a person, I’d be 105 years old. I think she’s crazy. She doesn’t know how to think like a dog.

She also thinks I can’t hear too well anymore. Actually, I just don’t always choose to acknowledge what she says. When I was her guide dog, this was important. If I didn’t listen to her, we could get in some trouble, like if I went right instead of left, or just kept going when she told me to stop.

But she doesn’t listen to me all the time, either, and I know she’s not old and there’s nothing wrong with her hearing. She plays piano, so she can’t have hearing problems.

Anyway, about her not listening … She thought that I was just being stubborn sometimes if I disobeyed her. It’s true, I am stubborn. I want to do a good job, and once I’ve been taught what I’m supposed to do, I’ll keep doing it until I can’t. (That’s why I had to retire–I wanted to keep working, but I had really bad arthritis, and climbing stairs and wearing my harness just got too painful.)

Sorry, I got distracted again. Getting back to her not listening … I remember once, I stopped to let my mistress know that there was something in front of her that she shoudln’t walk over. That’s what I was taught to do, especially at the top of stairs, at curbs, and whenever there was something I thought she needed to know about.

Well, she scolded me! She tried to make me move, but I wouldn’t. She said a bad word, too. I don’t know what it meant, but it sounded bad, and she only uses it when she’s angry. Anyway, she walked forward even though I tried to tell her it was a bad idea … and fell into a fountain! Like I said, she doesn’t think like a dog.

About water: I don’t like it. I hate having to go outside in the rain. Once, my mistress and I took a long airplane trip and went to live in a big house in this place that was really hot. (Did I tell you I hate plane rides?)

Well, there was a big pool with a waterfall. I thought it was just decoration, but she thought it was for swimming. She took off all her regular clothes and put on this skimpy little thing so that made the scent of her go all over the room. Then, she went out by that pool and told me to stay, and she jumped in!

I’m no dummy. I knew this was a dangerous thing for her to do. No one else was around, so I jumped in to pull her out.

But, oh, I really don’t like water, and this water stank like chemicals and I couldn’t touch the ground. So I jumped back out and started running around in circles and barking.

With my mistress, you can’t stare at her to beg for treats. You have to stick your nose right up in her face, or nudge her arm, because most of the time, she doesn’t even look in my direction. Even when she does, I know she can’t see what I’m doing.

So I knew I had to do something to get her attention. I started running around and barking as loud as I could. She told me to be quiet, but I wouldn’t. (I’m stubborn, remember?) Finally, she came out of the pool and we went inside the house. Ah, she was safe!

When her new guide dog, Ecko, came, I got really depressed. I felt like I’d done something so bad that my mistress didn’t want me anymore. I tried to ignore Ecko, especially since he had a lot of energy and was really big and had no manners. All he wanted to do was play, but I was too sore most of the time, and I’ve never been really foolish and goofy, anyway.

What I discovered, though, is that, even though I don’t have to get in harness every day and go with my mistress all over–and I’m really glad Ecko has to go on planes now instead of me–she still feeds me, loves me, pets me, and even takes care of me when I’m sick or really hurting.

The feeding part is one of my favorites. My mistress isn’t a big treat-giver, but my petting machine (I mean, her husband) gives me treats for doing just about anything. It’s true, stairs are hard, especially now that my back legs are getting pretty weak. My mistress will sometimes give me a treat if I come upstairs, but sometimes she doesn’t.

But it’s funny. Even if her husband is doing something else, or sitting in another room, and I’ve already gotten my treat for coming upstairs from my mistress, if I go over and make it really obvious that I just came upstairs, he’ll stop whatever he’s doing and go get me a treat.

He even keeps them in his pants, because he gives them to Ecko, too. The other day, he left a pair of pants on the floor. I smelled a treat in there, so I decided to check it out.

It was in one of the pockets, and I could feel the lump of it. I worked and worked and chewed until I got into the pocket.

But the lump was a rock! I ate it anyway, just in case. Then I left the pants and ignored them.

The best part was that he thought it was Ecko who had done it! (That’s another benefit of having another dog in the house–you can get away with more mischief by looking more innocent than the other one when your people ask “Who did that?”.

I love lying wherever my mistress is. She’s typing on the computer right now, and a funny little man’s voice comes off her desk when she does it. I can wander into the piano room and drink water whenever I want to (which is a lot lately), and I can let her know if I have to go outside.

Ecko doesn’t always stay with her. I might be retired, but I’m still better at this than he is. He likes the car more, though, and I’m sure that makes it easier for my mistress to travel. I always hated traveling.

It’s been fun teaching Ecko how to be a good dog. He didn’t want much petting when he first came, and he never wagged his tail. Now, we have to push each other out of the way if we both want someone’s petting and attention. He’s also figured out that it’s fun to lie on the rug outside the shower because the whole bathroom gets filled with the scent of our mistress, and that’s one of the most wonderful things in the world. It makes you feel safe knowing she’s around.

It’s kind of hard still when she leaves with Ecko. I know she’ll be back, but I don’t know when, and it always seems like she’s away too long. If I’m not too sore, I’ll lie in the hall by the garage door and wait until she comes home, or I’ll curl up under the big black piano. I like it under there, even when she’s practicing (maybe that’s why my hearing isn’t as good as it used to be). Or I’ll go upstairs to the bedroom and wait in my bed.

It’s getting chilly outside now, and pretty soon, the dry leaves I like to sniff will be gone and there will be snow instead. I love the first good batch of it–not just the dusting, but the kind that’s deep enough that I can bury my nose in it. It’s really cold and makes me sneeze, but it’s fun. It makes Ecko run and jump like an idiot. I never understood how he could just go around the yard like that, sometimes with a stick in his mouth. It seems kind of undignified.

Oh, well. He’s gotten a lot better at being a guide dog, and I’m proud of him.

And now, my petting machine is here and I’m going outside. (Hmmmm, I wonder if there’s a treat in it somewhere for me …)

The Magic of Chambord

September 21, 2008

It’s funny how a little liquor can dramatically change your perceptions.

I have a recipe for chocolate chip cake that I’ve been making for years. It’s made in a Bundt pan, and is pretty much fail-proof. It’s one of those recipes I fall back on when I need to bring something to a gathering and don’t have the time or inclination to make a big fuss or try something new and adventurous. Every time I bring it, it gets warm reviews.

But I’ve noticed something. If you’ve made the same recipe for years, you realize that, gradually, the sizes of boxes, cans, jars and other containers change. The original recipe for this cake calls for a “4.5-ounce box” of pudding.

The first time I decided to bake it, I dutifully went to the grocery store with my husband and searched high and low for a 4.5-ounce box of pudding. There is, alas, no such thing anymore, at least not in our grocery store. There was 3.8-ounce, and 4.9-ounce, but no 4.5-ounce.

So “The Conversions” began. I tried, in my super-scientific way, to guestimate how much to leave out when adding the 4.9-ounce box, or how much of a second box to add if I’d come home with two 3.8-ounce boxes.

And that didn’t even touch the subject of the recipe’s request for a “2-layer size package chocolate cake mix”. Maybe it’s in the fine print somewhere, but we couldn’t find one of these, either.

Well, about a month ago, I had finally had enough. I was sick of trying to guess how much 4.5 ounces of pudding was. And while I was at it, I really didn’t feel like measuring 1-3/4 cups of milk anymore.

So, I got the 5.8-ounce “family-size” package of pudding. Figuring “more pudding needs more milk,” I added two cups, TWO WHOLE CUPS, of milk and put the cake in the oven to bake. It was fail-proof anyway, right? So what did I have to worry about?

The first afternoon I made it this way, I checked it at 45 minutes (because the recipe says to bake one hour, but that it’s better at 45 minutes). But my cake tester only came out sort of clean, and the whole thing just felt a little squishy to me. So I left it in, thinking I’d be back for it in five minutes.

In the mean time, the dogs needed a walk. So out I went into the backyard. Ecko did his business right away (what a good boy). But Kiefer had to investigate the whole yard twice, sniffing long and hard in all sorts of nooks and crannies before finally selecting just the right bush to water. With each minute that passed, I kept thinking, “My dog is going to make me burn this cake!”

When I came inside, I took a deep breath. Was that singed chocolate I smelled?

When I took the cake out of the oven, the top was very crusty. I resigned myself to the reality of having to show up for a picnic the next day bearing a “burnt-bottom chocolate chip cake”. At least the name sounded interesting.

But it wasn’t burnt. In fact, it was better than any of the cake’s previous reincarnations, with a pudding and chocolate throughout. It tasted like a $6 dessert at a restaurant.

Later that week, we went to a liquor store for something and happened to buy a small bottle of Chambord that the owner recommended. Chambord is beautiful red and intensely raspberry. Even the bottle is fancy.

We drank it first and liked it. Then I said, “Hey, that would be really good over chocolate cake!”.

There were a few pieces of my unburnt cake left, so we drizzled them with Chambord.

The $6 dessert suddenly became an $11 dessert, and all because of a few drops of raspberry liqeur.

So if you decide to make this cake, do yourself and your companions a favor. Go get a little bottle of Chambord, and sprinkle a few drops on each slice before serving. It looks elegant and tastes even better!


1 box devil’s food cake mix (currently, I’m using Betty Crocker Triple Chocolate Fudge with wonderful results)

1 large package instant chocolate pudding (right now, the “family size” is 5.8 ounces)

2 cups milk

2 eggs (three if they’re small)

1 12-ounces package semisweet chocolate chips

Mix the first 4 ingredients, then stir in chips. Bake in a well-greased Bundt pan at 350 degrees for an hour or until done.

September Song

September 11, 2008

I feel the slow turn of the seasons as the nights become cooler and more still. Our house, though it sits along a busy road that is used by many people as a convenient shortcut between two cities, is surrounded by woods, so in spring and summer, we are serenaded by tree frogs, crickets and cicadas, not to mention many birds.

These days, the katydid chorus is diminishing. Soon enough, I will be hearing the first lonely callings of geese winging their way wherever it is they go. The wind will carry sharp hints of woodsmoke and the rustle of dry leaves.

These days, I, like the wild geese, feel the pull of elsewhere deep within myself, even as my home becomes a warm refuge after walks with the dogs. I look back over my life and its memories and lessons, thankful for the bittersweet tapestry they have become.

But I also look forward, yearning to add to my experiences. I find myself savoring the connections I have forged among family and friends, looking for ways to store up their treasure and even increase it before the long winter months of darkness and cold.

These days, I find myself turning over other kinds of leaves, the kinds that are in my journals. I don’t always reread passages, but I do take comfort in the substance of the books in my hands. Of course, I understand how ephemeral they are, nothing more than Braille dots on heavy paper. But they have the power to remind me of times past, rekindle emotions and reawaken the certainty that indeed, the events of my life didn’t pass me by unnoticed and unremarked.

Soon enough, the earth will be bound by snow and ice. Mornings will steal into my house under cover of darkness, the sun a fugitive low on the horizon. Every evening, it will dip back into darkness with little of the fanfare and trumpeting of summer sunsets.

I dream of journeys and discoveries, new songs and old stories passed from one voice to another.

How will it begin?