Sometimes a picture really is worth more than a thousand words.
I have always been a lover of words. As a child, I loved nursery rhymes and limericks, fairy tales and songs, and I lost myself in books. I learned early the power of words, how they could make you feel invincible, or hurt you worse than any other weapon. As I grew older, I loved writing and manipulating words, expressing sorrows, joys, and petty jealousies in long-lost diaries and journals. I went to college and analyzed and argued the classics, and became a teacher to convince children of the power of words.
It’s the unspoken words, however, that are the most powerful and sometimes tell the best stories.
And nothing tells a story better than a great photograph.
My dog, Shasta, is very high energy. Her looks tell all. After Christmas dinner, while everyone else is hooked up to their gadgets and distractions, and all she wants is a little attention.
In the summer, we don’t get much rain, but when it does rain it can be dramatic. Even if it spoils your Saturday afternoon plans of sitting on a restaurant patio, tossing back a few cold ones with your buddies, an unexpected rain storm can be a joyous occasion.
On the flip side, nothing says West Texas like a windmill and cattle next to empty railroad tracks on the Llano Estacado. If you follow 287 into Amarillo, this is pretty much what you’ll see, for miles and miles and miles.
Remember when you were a kid and you thought if you hid behind something, no matter how small, as long as you couldn’t see the other person they couldn’t see you either? And remember looking at the world through a balloon, and how the world suddenly became wrapped in yellow and you almost stopped breathing because it was so familiarly strange?
You don’t have to run a marathon to know they’re not easy. In most races the last mile is always the hardest, and at mile 25, with the end in sight, you sometimes need a little help. All you have to do is look at her face to know how many miles she held on, waiting for that hand to give her the strength to finish.
Photos capture things from the past. We remember the events, but we forget what it felt like to be there. Was it really that beautiful? Did I feel as small and insignificant that day as I look in the photograph? Did I gasp at the grandeur of the vista, or was I too tired to notice? Did I feel joy? Did I appreciate it then as much as I do now looking back at the photograph?
Words are important, whether spoken or unspoken. Words can paint a scene or an emotion, or they can twist and corrupt with their silence. Be careful what you say–or where you point your camera.
Texans love their fences. Big, bodacious, imposing fences. Nothing makes us feel safer, or more private, than having our backyards wrapped in the seeming impenetrability of a tall, wooden fence.
Good fences make good neighbors.
We haven’t had a fence for almost four years. Michael is from Ohio, the land of one big communal backyard, unfenced and shared by all.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
When I went to Ohio for the first time three years ago, I couldn’t believe how neat and tidy everything was. It reminded me of living in Switzerland, where everything runs on time and all signs of imperfection are hidden. The Protestant Ethic is alive and well in Ohio. Must be all that good German stock.
One weekend Michael called over some buddies and tore down our old, dilapidated fence. He even talked the neighbor next door into letting him pull hers down as well.
His reason: we were going to re-landscape the entire yard, front and back. We dug up the entire front and back yard and put in subsurface irrigation. Until it was completed, it looked like a nuclear bomb had hit our property.
Eventually, we planted a beautiful flowerbed in the front yard, added plants along the side of the house, and planted a vegetable garden in the back.
The final piece of the outdoor renovation has been putting in a new fence. Or not.
Being from Ohio, Michael loved not having a fence. I was okay with it until we adopted two dogs–two rather large dogs.
For the past three years, every time the dogs have wanted to go outside we’ve had to attach them to two long ropes that are anchored in the ground. This system has not been perfect.
I planted Canna lilies to make a quasi natural fence. Great in summer, lousy in winter, destroyed by Shasta in spring.
The City of Dallas spent the past year digging up the alley behind our house. In fact, they dug it up multiple times. Each time I felt naked, exposed, vulnerable. There was no barrier between me and our garden from digging machines and men with shovels. The dogs were not happy with these workers behind our house.
I wasn’t either. One of them knocked on my back door one afternoon to tell me I had “beautiful tomatoes.” He asked if he could buy some from our garden. The next time I saw him, while walking the dogs, he asked about our peppers. He couldn’t believe that we grew hot peppers. Yes, Jose, white people eat peppers, too. I refused to sell him any.
A female worker asked me one day what the compost bin was. She thought it was a snake cage.
The owners across the street decided to renovate their rental house. For nine months we eyed each other, finally made introductions, and then became friends. He enjoyed seeing the changes in our garden, and we enjoyed seeing all the work he put into a new deck and driveway, and eventually the house itself. Shasta found someone new to jump on, and I enjoyed listening to him sing along to classic rock.
Then they put up their new fence and we hardly saw them again. Working in the garden suddenly wasn’t as much fun anymore.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
The snoopy neighbor on the other side wondered why we didn’t have a fence and what it would do to his property value. When Shasta ran over to his dog once, off leash, he complained to another neighbor that maybe he should report us to the city.
Good fences make good neighbors.
Finally, after three years of harping, Michael decided to build me a fence. He rallied his friends together again the week I was away in Portland and started digging post holes. He came up with the idea of a fence/flower box, with a trellis-like top portion that would allow us to not feel so closed in.
We’ve just completed one length. Filling up a four-foot tall, 40 foot long flower box with dirt was a massive amount of work. Next we need to stain it, build the other side (without the flower box), and add gates.
And our next door neighbor, the one who Michael talked into pulling hers down as well? Not happy with us. I thought we were going to leave it open? she said.
Blame it on me. And the dogs.
With thanks to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall.
Nevada was named after a long road trip out West. Her colors match the desert, hence her name.
We adopted her two weeks after adopting our Ridgeback, Shasta, from the SPCA, thinking two dogs wouldn’t be any more difficult to take care of than one. For the most part this has been true, but having two larger sized dogs, both of whom are sight hounds and love to chase anything that moves, has not always been easy.
Nevada’s ancestry is a mystery, other than the ubiquitous “shepherd mix.” We think she must be some type of herding breed because of her extreme need to always have the pack together, especially on walks or runs. Of our two dogs, she is the quieter, gentler one, though she is also the more neurotic. She was eight months old when we rescued her. She has taught us a lot of life lessons that are very different from Shasta’s.
NEVADA’S LIFE LESSONS:
1. Be subtle. When Nevada wants something she will usually do one of two things: she will very gently walk up and softly nudge you with her nose, or she will stand facing you about two feet away and stare you down. Unlike her in-your-face sister, she knows that subtlety is just as effective, if not more so, than pushiness.
2. Give frequent gifts to the ones you love. When we come home, when we get up in the mornings, and sometimes when she wakes up from a nap, Nevada will always present you with some small trinket of love. Usually it’s one of her bones or dog toys, but it can be anything. Once I lost my shopping list before I even made it to the store, but when I came home it was the small gift Nevada presented me with at the door.
3. Do things together. In Nevada’s perfect world the pack would always be together, 24/7. She is visibly unhappy when Michael goes to work each morning, and it’s like the end of the world if the dogs are ever separated from each other. In her world, families stick together. Always.
4. You might have to work at it, but don’t fear the small stuff. Nevada was a very fearful dog when we brought her home from the shelter, and her biggest fear was drain ditches. Yes, those gaping black holes in the sides of curbs where water rushes in on rainy days. I discovered this the first time I took her for a run and she nearly yanked my arm off when she came to a screeching halt before a drain ditch. This happened over and over, at every single drain. We have since worked with her in getting over this fear, but every once in awhile it still inexplicably stops her in her tracks.
5. Run for the sheer joy of it, and don’t stop till you drop! Nevada is a sprinter. She loves to run all out for about two or three miles, then she’s done. We have to keep her leashed at all times because she loves the freedom of running as fast as she can and has been known to go on long joy rides with Shasta.
6. Speak softly, and be humble. Nevada has no desire to the be pack leader. She is more than contented to stay in the background and let others make the major decisions. She is a follower and is more than happy to be led. She accepts her place within the hierarchy of the pack and is appreciative of everything that’s done for her. She’s no pushover, but she allows others who are less sensitive to take the lead.
7. Pay attention to the signals, and give things a little time, before you let someone get too close. Nevada has a cautious nature, and that extends to the way she greets humans. In general, she tends to trust women much quicker than she trusts men, and she’s leery of small children and their high levels of energy. She has to know you awhile before she’ll let you get too close to her, and it has to be on her terms.
8. Routines and schedules can be a good thing. Nevada doesn’t take change well at all. She doesn’t like having her routines messed with. She is the queen of daily sameness.
9. Let the rest of the family know when someone strays too far. Nevada wants everyone together. She’s happiest when we all take a walk, but doesn’t like it when anyone gets too far ahead or too far behind everyone else. If we run, we have to stay closely together, like a military contingent, and she’s happiest right up front. If someone lags behind, she’ll whine and nervously look behind until they catch back up. If you should decide to completely break away from the group, she’ll yelp and whine to call you back.
10. There’s no place like home. She’s a total homebody. It’s her favorite place to be. While she likes her walks and the dog park, there’s nothing like the safety and comfort of her own house, dog crate, dog mat, dog toys, and cool, hardwood floors. Because home is her castle, and because of her hyper-sensitivity, she’s a great watchdog, alerting us to the slightest noises outside. Home is where the heart and her family are.
Shasta and Nevada couldn’t be more different, but they strangely complement each other. With Shasta I’ve had to learn to be assertive and confident. Nevada has taught me to stand up to fear. I was never much of a “dog person” before we got the dogs two summers ago. Now I can’t imagine life without them.
Two summers ago we got a dog. Two weeks after that we got another dog. This story is about our first dog, Shasta, and the life lessons she’s taught us.
I decided on a Rhodesian Ridgeback because of their ability to run long distances. After many episodes of The Dog Whisperer and a return from a long road trip out West, the time was right. I pulled up the SPCA website and saw a photo of a six month old female Ridgeback. I talked Michael into going “just to check it out” and we came home an hour later with Pepsi, whose name we changed to Shasta– after the mountain, not the drink.
She was smart. The first night in her new home I told her to sit, and she did. I pointed to her new dog mat in the corner of the bedroom and told her to go to sleep, and she did. We were amazed. She learned things very quickly and was eager to please.
She was also a very high energy, confident, strong-willed dog. We later learned that Ridgebacks are considered “power breeds,” right up there with Rottweilers and Dobermans. Michael worked with her all summer and she came to respect him. Within the pack, the pecking order quickly became: #1-Michael, #2-Shasta, #3-Me, #4-Nevada. Eventually she gave in and decided to share the #2 spot with me. After two years and another summer at home with the dogs, I think I may finally have won the #2 spot. Sometimes.
Michael and I have certainly learned a lot about ourselves through training Shasta. Michael has learned to be much more assertive. All he has to do is snap his fingers and Shasta straightens right up. I’ve also had to learn to be more self-confident and take the leader position, especially on our walks. I’ve had to learn to assert that I’m in charge and she doesn’t call the shots. She’s walking with me, not the other way around.
We’ve also learned a lot about life through both of our dogs. Even though she’s a dog, Shasta has a certain joy-of-life way of living that translates well into the human world. Our other dog, Nevada, is very different from Shasta and has her own life lessons to teach (those will be in my next post). Here are the top ten life lessons Shasta has to teach us humans.
SHASTA’S RULES TO LIVE BY:
1. Welcome each new day with joy and excitement, and always be ready for an adventure. From the moment she wakes up, Shasta is “on.” She comes over to each side of our bed to give us our good morning licks, wags her tail excitedly, and lets us know that’s she awake and ready to start the day. If we want to walk her, she’s ready. If we want to feed her first, she’s ready for that, too. If a cat or squirrel wants to be chased, she’s more than ready for that!
2. Make your own fun wherever you can. Anytime we let Shasta outside in the backyard she has a little routine she follows: first she has to check to make sure everything is still where it was the last time she was there, then she lets out a few barks just to let the world know hey, I’m here! If there are no squirrels to taunt her and be barked at, she usually throws herself on the ground and rolls around on her back with all four legs in the air, like a wallowing buffalo. Sometimes she pulls a log or a long stick from the woodpile and drags it around, or sometimes she’ll dig a hole, but if we’re not around to play with her Shasta definitely knows how to make her own fun.
3. Enter a new area as if you own the place. Dog park, strange house, Home Depot, wherever. Shasta, Queen of the World, teaches us to always enter strange surroundings with confidence, no fear, and the knowledge that you’re where you need to be.
4. Don’t fear the big stuff. Even though she is generally fearless, she does have a tendency to fear silly things that don’t matter, such as blue pipes, frisbees, toys with bells inside, certain small dogs, and walking through a concrete tube that’s twice your size.
5. Treat everyone as a friend, unless they give you reason not to. Shasta goes out of her way to greet everyone who comes within a half mile radius of her presence. If she likes you, get ready for a Shasta Tongue Bath (and yes, it’s as gross as it sounds). If you have nefarious reasons for getting too close, she will let you know that you’re not welcome and to back off.
6. Be calm, even if you have to fake it. Shasta’s energy level can go from 0 to 100 in seconds. We’ve worked very hard these past two years to train her that there are no rewards for excitability and out of control high energy. If she wants something, she needs to be calm and not pushy. She fakes it–a lot–but that’s okay.
7. No problem or disappointment is so large that a nice long nap won’t fix. Shasta’s had to learn she doesn’t always get her way. That’s life, even in the dog world. She’s learned that long naps are a lovely thing and can facilitate fresh perspectives upon awakening.
8. Get your needs met. Even though we’ve taught her to be calm, Shasta is very good at getting her needs met. She lets us know when she wants to go out, when she wants to go for a walk, when she’s bored, and when she’s hungry, but she’s learned to do so with calm assertiveness that isn’t pushy or too irritating.
9. Never chew on the stuff you’re not supposed to chew on. In other words, don’t worry about things that aren’t worth your time. Shasta pretty much keeps to Nylabones and sticks outside when she wants to chew and has learned that chewing on the wrong things has bad consequences and just isn’t worth it.
10. Love unconditionally. Shasta’s a very loyal dog. Now that I’m home all day she is my constant, daily shadow. At my desk, in the bathroom, watching TV, or in the backyard, she’s always right next to me. She doesn’t ask for anything in return, really, just a little food, a walk around the block, and an occasional belly rub. Over and over, day in, day out, Shasta is happy to be with us.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Shasta? Slow down and just be. There’s nowhere else you need to be, nothing else you need to do, than just be here, now, loving life and the people around you. It really is that simple.