You Might As Well Love It

Well, having survived the “snowmageddon” of last week, here we are in the midst of yet more snow.  Welcome to February in Canada!  Everywhere I turn, I am greeted by complaints and the sounds of people who are feeling a certain way right about now;  lots of winter behind us, and lots of winter still ahead of us!   One of my friends posted on Facebook this morning, “snow, snow go away, come again another. . . year!”  When I stepped outside the other day and greeted a neighbour with “what a beautiful day!” all she had to say back was, “I hate winter!”  Does everybody feel that way?

Well, Gus doesn’t!  This guy has the right attitude.  He can’t wait to get outside in the snow and run around, even if he’s just been roused from the coziest sleep.  You would think he was let loose in a combined fluffy playground and buffet!  He will run like crazy and dig his face deep into the snow, and then stop and take a great big mouthful of the stuff for a snack.  It’s hilarious to watch.

Sometimes he’ll just sit quietly in the snow on the deck, and it seems like he’s just admiring how beautiful it really is.

I think he’s got the right idea.

Let’s face it, even if the groundhog was right, winter is going to be here for a while.  We might as well find something about it to love.

Like how beautiful the trees look. . .

Or how peaceful it is to walk down the snowy path. . .

Or all the fun things you can do with the snow besides shovelling it. . . (okay, you do need thumbs for this!)

How many times in our lives are we going to be stuck with events or situations that might not be our first choice?  Let’s face it, if I was offered a free trip to some sun-soaked beach destination I’d be out of all this beautiful winter in a flash!  But, here I am for the duration, so I’ve decided to make the best of it.  There is always a way to put a positive spin on wherever you are, and whatever you are dealing with.  Research has proven that people who are optimistic and focus on the positive side of events always fare better, and live longer, healthier lives.  So, pull on those snow pants and lace up those waterproof  boots or skates, and get out there and enjoy this stuff.  You might even find someone out there to play with!

Who needs the gym?

Okay, so it’s the second week of January.  This is the hottest time of year for sales of gym memberships and fitness equipment.  Save your money and get a dog!

If you’re bundled up, the fresh air, sunshine and the crisp snow are more powerful stimulants than anything they’re pumping into the stale air in one of those windowless gyms.  Besides, you don’t have to listen to that droning disco music in the background!

I make a point of running around with Gus – up and down the hills, and across the snowy fields.   I get my leg exercises by kicking up clumps of snow for him to jump for.  To be honest, just tromping through the heavy snow with boots and snowpants often feels like I’m  wearing extra leg weights.

When we’re all done, I feel just as “worked out” as if I’d been at the gym.  The bonus is that it doesn’t cost anything, and I get a wonderful sloppy thank you from my workout buddy!

Don’t Be Afraid To Make The First Tracks

So here we are again.  The fields are covered in snow.  The sun is blazing, despite the -15 degree temperature.  It’s a beautiful day to be outside, as long as you’re dressed for the weather.

I love to stand at the top of the hill and look down onto the sparkling expanse of snow below.  I’m always a bit reluctant to take the plunge and begin tramping ahead with Gus.  Somehow it seems a bit sad to puncture the pristine snow with my clompy boots and his prancing paws.  Never mind.  On we go, and before long, the field is a mess of footprints and pawprints; leaving evidence of everywhere we’ve been.   For the past two mornings we have spent ages outside in the fields; running and playing in the snow, and working up a sweat despite the freezing temperatures.  We’ve had the best time.

It’s a bit like life itself, isn’t it?  When we are about to begin something fresh and new, we stand on the brink, contemplating what we are about to dive into.  It’s often a mix of excitement, wonder and trepidation all rolled together that can keep us perched there; immobilized.  As if we’re afraid of ruining that perfect image before us with our footprints and actions, as we forge ahead into new territory.

You’ll think I’m nuts, but I’m reminded of something silly from my childhood.  When we were little, my siblings and I used to argue over who got to “break the rink” on a new jar of peanut butter, by being the first one to dig a knife into it.  (Boy, were we easy to entertain!)  I guess we knew then that it was less important to gaze at the perfectly smooth surface than to get on with taking the plunge, and enjoying what would come next.

Get going!

A season for miracles and giving thanks

What a wonderful time of year.  Though it really hasn’t been a tough winter, it still always feels so good when spring finally arrives.  Over the past few weeks, Gus and I have marveled at the changes unfolding around us.

The last snowball of the season

Snow seems like a distant memory, and the fields are moving from frozen to muddy, to dry grass crunching under our feet.

First spring crocuses

The first brave flowers are poking their heads up through the hard dry ground.

Gus has been very serious about checking them out.

Snowdrops

Everywhere we walk there are new sights and smells as the earth wakes up and reveals the promise of spring once again.  It’s hard not to smile as we stretch our arms and legs  in the warm sun, without the heavy layers we have been used to wearing outdoors.

It’s no coincidence that the theme of rebirth and renewal turns up in many holidays and celebrations at this time of year.  My family observes the Jewish holiday of Passover.  In addition to commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, the symbols that we incorporate into our celebration also remind us of this wonderful season where everything is new and beginning to grow. We include eggs and fresh greens among the items we eat as part of our special Passover meals.   Eggs and bunnies as symbols of new life are part of the Easter celebrations observed by many this weekend.

It’s not hard to view the bursting forth of bright new flowers and new life as a miracle after the barren and bleak winter season we have just finished.  The theme of miracles also shows up in all of the seasonal festivals that take place at this time.  In our traditional observance, we retell the ancient story and we give thanks for the miracles that have allowed us to reach this festive season once again.

Well, as it often does, life imitates life itself.  Yesterday Gus and I lived through our own little story, complete with a small miracle at the end.

So here’s what happened:

We had a wonderful hour-long walk on the most beautiful day.  We were just heading towards home, when along came a kid sitting on his skateboard, flying towards us along the sidewalk.  He wasn’t doing anything wrong at all – just having fun at top speed.  He would’ve zoomed right by us, but something about the sight of him completely spooked Gus.  Now, let me tell you, when 80-plus pounds of Labradoodle decide to take off in the opposite direction, there really isn’t much you can do to hold onto that leash.  So, off went Gus; back in the direction we had come from -running as fast as he could and dragging his leash behind him.

At this point the kid with the skateboard realized what had happened, and he felt really badly.  So he started skateboarding after Gus, trying to catch him for me.  I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Thank you, but please don’t!  He’s afraid of the skateboard!”  Sure enough, Gus was running away from him even faster.  Nice kid – at this point, he heard me and dropped the skateboard and started running after Gus at top speed.   By this point I was running too, trying to catch the kid.  I finally got him to hear me yelling, “Please just stop!  He thinks you’re chasing him!!”  Finally he did.

By this point Gus was out of sight; presumably running all the way home to get away from this terrible scary creature.  Now, you have to realize that going home is great, except it was about 5 km from where we were, and it involved crossing a very busy major 4-lane road to get there.  I called Jeff on my cell phone and told him to get the car and see if he could catch up with Gus before he got to that road.  In the meantime, I ran as fast as I could, trying to find him.  All I could think of was Gus bolting out into that busy traffic. . . I was terrified.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details, except for the fact that Gus did run across that busy road, and that somehow he made it across in one piece. Jeff found him panting on the other side, in the field we had crossed through a half an hour earlier.

Some miracles are huge, like the parting of the sea to let a whole nation cross safely.  Some are much smaller, involving only a frightened dog safely crossing a very busy street.  Nevertheless, a miracle is a miracle, and it is truly something to feel thankful for.  At this special time of year, I hope you can find a miracle or two in your own life, and that you can give thanks in whatever way is meaningful for you.  I certainly have.

Amen

Home safe and sound

It’s the journey itself that matters most

This morning at the end of our walk, Gus bounded up the front steps and plopped down as he always does to wait for me to toss him his cookie.  There he is in the picture, sitting and waiting for our little ritual that marks our return home.  It suddenly dawned on me that, in the four years we have spent together, Gus and I have been on more than 1200 walks!  When I think about the mileage we have covered, it is truly mind-boggling.  I have worn through several pairs of walking shoes to prove it.  As I pondered this, I was struck by an even more incredible fact.  Despite the distance we have covered together, we always end up in exactly the same place at the end of our walk:  right on our own front porch where we started!  I suppose you could say that, despite all of our walking, we haven’t really gone anywhere at all.

What a concept.  Walking and walking, yet ultimately ending up right back in the same place.  To some, it might seem crazy.  But not to me.

You see, for Gus and for me it’s the walk itself that is the whole point.

Sure, a daily walk is a great source of exercise and fresh air.  I highly recommend it for all the obvious reasons.  But, if you’ve been reading here for a while, you will know that  there is so much more that happens when we are out walking together.  Every day on our journey we meet people and dogs. We make new friends and share experiences.  We are inspired by magical sights right in our own neighbourhood.  In fact, it is while we have been out walking, ultimately going nowhere, that all the important lessons have occurred.

Today is my 49th birthday.  I’ve had a perfectly lovely day.  I got hugs and good wishes from family and friends near and far.  I had lunch with two incredibly special women. I had dinner with my wonderful family.  And I started it off with a very long walk outside with Gus on a beautiful snowy day.

I was thinking this morning that life itself is like these daily walks.  I don’t want to be morbid, but let’s face it, we are all going to end up in the same place we started out eventually.  Dust to dust, and all that stuff.  Each time we mark the passage of another year, it’s as if we are setting out on another walk – one that will end up at our next birthday.  I truly feel that the years themselves aren’t the point at all.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been hung up about revealing my age.   To me, it’s what we’re doing on that journey between the milestones that really matters in the long run.

As I look back on the past year, I am overwhelmed by all that I have seen, done and learned on my journey.  I have met and developed relationships with so many incredible people.  I have marveled at the wonders of the changing seasons and the magical sights that have been right in front of me all the time.  I have learned valuable lessons about myself and what I believe, and I have a clearer sense of who I am and what I value.  There have been high points and low points, but all in all it has been an incredible ride.

Tomorrow is February 11th once again, and I will lace up my shoes and set out off the front porch as always.  I can’t wait to see what I will discover next, as my journey continues. . .

Listen to your heart

“You’re insane!”  The voice of my dearest and most trusted friend rang across the telephone line.  “You’re 45 years old!  Your kids are old enough that you are finally getting some freedom, and you can walk out the door whenever you want to.  You guys are already working so hard, trying to do everything for your family, and you never have time for yourself as it is. IF YOU GET A DOG NOW, YOU’RE CRAZY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There we were, four years ago this month, on the brink of the decision to get a dog.  You already know how the story ended. However, this week I find myself thinking back to that time, and remembering the process we went through in making that life altering decision.  I suppose it was the first lesson that Gus taught me, before he even arrived.

At the wise old age of almost 49, I know for sure that the one constant in life is change.  Just when you think you have settled into your groove, and you have it all figured out, something new will come along and rattle your world.  Perhaps you are deciding to give in to that urge to bring a dog or a child into your family.  Maybe you want to go back to school, to change your life’s direction.  Sometimes a challenging new opportunity presents itself at work.  It’s all part of this fabulous journey called life.

So what do you do?  As humans, our natural instinct is to be thrown off balance by the prospect of change to the status quo.  Even if we have chosen that change ourselves, we are comfortable with things the way they are. Even if it is exciting, the future can look awfully scary.  In weighing all the pros and cons, we tend to focus heavily on all the negatives associated with the change, and how it will impact our lives.

I remember methodically detailing all the ways in which getting a dog would strain our resources:  time, freedom, order and money were all going to be affected as we fit this new creature into our already bustling lives.  We would have to alter our daily routine and schedule to accommodate his needs.  We had to adjust our monthly budget to account for his food, pet insurance, vet bills, and supplies. We had to come to terms with the fact that we would have a whole lot of poop to pick up over the course of his life!

As responsible adults, we tried to create a spreadsheet; weighing both sides of this monumental decision.  We also listed all the positives associated with getting a dog.  From our research, we knew that dog ownership brings more exercise, stress relief, and a chance for the kids to experience the love and responsibility that go along with caring for a living being.  This sounded great, but was it enough to outweigh all the negatives??  As the Mom of the family, the final say in the decision was mine.  After all, it was acknowledged that it was my life that would be affected the most by this change.

What followed, and what I have since distilled as the original Lesson from Gus, was a process that I realize I have gone back to time and time again through my life.  I did my homework, and I thoroughly researched everything I could that would help me with my decision.   I tried to gather as much information as I could to enable me to project what life would be like with a dog in the family.  I visited friends with dogs and asked them about their day-to-day life.  I compared notes about costs and benefits; love and headaches, and I asked everyone I knew what they thought I should do.

I was completely rational and practical as I weighed all this information. I went in circles, and drove everyone around me crazy as I analyzed it all to death, and tried to put it all together.  What if I resented being tied to the house more?  What if we got hit with  a huge vet bill?  What if he chewed up everything in sight?  Would we be able to fit his walks into our daily schedule?  How hard would it be to train him?  It would be good for us all to get outside more.  We would love having a sweet puppy in the house…

In the end, after so much analyzing that my head hurt, I stopped and took a step back from the issue.  I realized what I had to do to make my decision.

I finally understood that the research was critical, and the analysis essential, but that those parts of the process weren’t going to give me everything I needed to reach my conclusion.  I learned that, in making life decisions, there are some elements that you miss if you only look at the data and the balance sheet.  There’s another part of the process that’s just as important.  It hit me then what I had to do.

So, I closed my eyes, and I took a deep breath . . .  and I listened to my heart.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Eat, play, love

I don’t think that Gus has any idea at all that the calendar has just turned over, but for us humans, it’s hard to escape.  There is something about the approach of December 31 that makes us reflect on what has passed, and on what lies ahead.  It can all get a bit overwhelming.

As a result, I’m sure you noticed that I retreated from blogging for much of December.  My apologies, but for some reason I found myself needing to take a break from “putting it out there.”   I have had a wonderful few weeks of non-routine with Gus, my family, and so many special friends.  I’ve also found myself turning inwards.  I’ve  looked back over the events of 2009, and I’ve reflected a lot on what lies ahead for me in 2010.

This past year will always stand out for me as one of great extremes.  I experienced loss, sadness and grief, but also the incredible gifts of love, support, and inspiration from so many incredible souls around me.  I suppose those two sides of the coin often come to us together.

I have also had the incredible experience of acting on something I am passionate about, and I have been overwhelmed by the positive results and far-reaching ripple effects that have come back to me as a result.  I have felt excited, terrified, overwhelmed and incredibly fulfilled, all at the same time.

As I try to sum it all up and step bravely forward, out into the -20 degree January morning, I find that, as usual, I am drawing another lesson from Gus.  In his world, right now is what truly matters.  Introspection and reflection are great, but he just gets on with it and deals with what’s right in front of him; right here and right now.  And he keeps it pretty simple.

As the title above suggests, life for Gus revolves around three basic things.  In fact, I realized that the last few weeks have been all about those same three pillars for me as well.  I have eaten so much wonderful food (and I have the tight waistband to show for it!).  I have kicked back and enjoyed down time and fun with those who are dear to me.  And, I have been truly blessed with an abundance of love in my life.  Maybe that’s why I’m feeling so good now, as I head into this new year.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions.  To me, they only set us up for disappointment and frustration, as we try to measure up against unrealistic and unattainable goals.  This year, I’m going to try to keep it simple, the way Gus does.  I’m going to do my best to focus on the here and now, just as it unfolds before me.

My plan for 2010 is to eat well, play often, and love with all my heart.  I think that if I manage to do that, the rest will take care of itself.

Happy New Year!

Love, Janet

First snow

The first snow

So there we were yesterday.  So excited to finally see snow on the ground when we were out for our morning walk!  Gus kept putting his nose in it and sniffing – as if remembering a long lost friend from last winter.  True, there wasn’t much.  But given how late it is in the season, we were happy just the same to finally see the white stuff on the grass.  We thought it was a really big deal.

Then. . . we woke up this morning, and WOW!!

Now that's really snow!

Gus couldn’t have been happier.  As soon as I opened the door, he took off like a shot into the park.  He was bounding and racing around like crazy; stopping every so often to take a huge mouthful of snow into his mouth.  It’s as though he couldn’t decide if it was for playing in, or eating!  We stayed outside for quite a while, playing frisbee and sloshing around in it.  When it was time to go in, Gus actually jumped up and put his paws on my shoulders, as if pleading with me “Mom! – can’t we stay outside a bit longer!”

There’s something about the first real snowfall of the season that brings out the same excitement in me.  That feeling of winter finally being here; of welcoming back an old friend.  I’m sure you also have wonderful childhood memories of bundling up and running out in the newly fallen snow. Everything looks so beautiful and magical, transformed by a white cloak.  The possibilities seem endless.

As adults, we tend to look at the snow in terms of negatives.  Traffic snarls, driveways to shovel, and boots to locate can dominate our thoughts as we gaze upon the first white blanket of the season.  For just a minute, put all those grown up thoughts aside and remember the childlike (or dog-like) excitement that really should accompany this magical moment.  Now, go outside and play!

It’s beginning to look a lot like. . .

Pretty cool huh!

Well, the weather is mild, and the grass is green, and there are still some hardy flowers peeking about in the gardens.  But never mind, it is November 23 and everywhere we look it is starting to look like . . . Christmas!!

As one who has never had the chance to celebrate Christmas, I have always loved all the festivities that go along with this time of year.  I particularly enjoy all the ways that people decorate their houses for the holiday season.   With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few shots I took of Gus today as we walked around the neighbourhood.  There are some very creative people out there.  Gus thought so too!

(although he wasn’t too sure about this guy in the red suit!)

Sorry, but we didn’t see any elves.

Up the down staircase

The other day as I was on my way upstairs, I came upon Gus as he was on his way downstairs.  He looked at me, and then he stopped in his tracks.  He paused for a bit, as if to consider his options.  Then he watched me go past him.  After an awkward minute or so, half-sitting on the stairs, he maneuvered himself somehow, turned around, and then proceeded to follow me where I was going.

I captured this shot of him in that moment where he frozen halfway; neither up nor down.  I think you can see the awkward look on his face, as if he isn’t quite sure which way he should be going.

In a funny coincidence, I happened to be speaking to my Mom later that afternoon.  When I asked her how her day was going she said, “to be honest, I feel like I’m going up the down staircase.”  I laughed and told her of my experience with Gus.  I said that she wasn’t alone;  and that he was having the same kind of day.

They happen to all of us.  Those days where we just can’t seem to get it all together.  I’m sure you can relate, and can think of a day, perhaps even recently, when nothing seemed to go according to plan.  On those kind of days you often feel as though you’re spinning your wheels, or, like Gus, sitting halfway up the middle of the stairs trying to figure out if you should be going up or down.  They are often days that leave me feeling as though I haven’t accomplished much of anything, even if I’ve seemed to be busy all day.

The good news is that these days usually pass quite innocently. If we don’t get too stressed about them, we can usually get back into our regular mode pretty quickly.  I’ve learned to accept that sometimes there will just be days like these, for whatever reason.  Maybe we have too much on our minds, or maybe we’re just plain tired out.  Whatever the cause, the best thing to do is to just give in and cut yourself a little slack.

When I find myself feeling this way, I usually try to keep a low profile, and I try not to take on anything too demanding.  These are often great days to just treat yourself to a little indulgence – even if it’s only a cup of tea and a half  hour with a really good book.  With a little TLC, everything ends up going in the right direction!

Just move

We always joke that Gus only came with two speed settings:  flat out and flaked out.

Flat out

It’s hard to say which one he actually spends more time in over the course of the day.  If you were to ask him which speed he prefers, I’d put my money on flat out.  Gus is truly happiest when he is in motion.  To see him running full tilt across the field, with his ears flapping wildly, is to witness pure joy.

I think the reason that Gus is so calm when he’s in the house has something to do with the fact that he gets so much exercise outside every day.  We figure that, on an average day, he spends over 2 hours outside; walking, running and playing ball or frisbee.  The interesting thing is that, if he’s outside, so are we!

There is no question that we are more active as a family since Gus came into our lives.  One of the commitments we made when we decided to get a big dog was to ensure that he was properly exercised.  It has certainly paid off, both in terms of his health and ours.

There are volumes of research on the benefits of physical activity at any age.  Just today, I heard a radio announcer discussing a new study in which the evidence seemed to indicate that older people with stronger muscles are at reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  That’s great news, and it can be added to the enormous list of benefits already attributed to being active.  They include: improving your mood; reducing the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis; helping with weight management; boosting your energy level; improving your sleep; and even improving your sex life!  Wow, if someone said they had a pill that could do all that, people would be lining up for it.

A lot of people complain that they don’t have the time to exercise, or that they can’t afford to join a fancy gym.  That’s crazy.  In the end, you don’t need a swanky place or elaborate equipment to get active.  As far as I’m concerned, anything at all that gets you moving is better than sitting on the sofa!  Just put on your shoes and walk around the block – it’s beautiful out there!  As a bonus, you might just see something inspiring while you’re at it.

This point was brought to life beautifully for me this morning.  It was a cool and clear day, and the sun was sparkling as we strode through the neighbourhood.  At one house we passed, a grey-haired couple were out in front on the driveway. The man was wearing roller blades and a helmet, and he was helping his wife pump up the tires of her bicycle.  We passed them, and then I stopped and doubled back to say hello.  I wanted to take their picture, because it was such an inspirational scene, but they were a little camera shy.  Instead, we chatted for a bit, and I told them that I planned to write about seeing them today.  The woman piped up, “make sure to tell them that we’re seniors – 68 and 69!”  So now you know.  A few minutes later, once we were well down the street, they whizzed passed us with a smile and a hearty wave; she pedaling rapidly on the bike and he striding gracefully behind on his rollerblades.  It was a beautiful sight!

Smells like home

Sarah and Gus smells like home

I’ve mentioned before how all the members of our family use Gus like a sort of living stuffed animal.  He is so sweet and gentle, and he loves to be cuddled.  He’s so big that he’s like a full-body pillow.  He’s the perfect size to snuggle up to and wrap your arms around, if you’re feeling sad or happy, or simply just in need of a hug.  Of course, we all love to bury our faces deep in his fur while we do this.

The other day, Sarah was snuggling up to Gus, when she suddenly looked up at me and exclaimed, “He smells like home!”    She’s right.

We started talking, trying to find a way to express what we knew to be true, but were struggling with putting into words.  What we agreed on was the feeling that we get when we bury our faces in Gus’s fur.  It is a comforting, settled, familiar feeling that just seems to say “home.”  You might think I’m crazy, but I spent a while trying to analyze it, and the truth is that he really doesn’t smell much at all. (Apparently we are doing something right!).  However, I took a deep sniff and tried to concentrate really hard.   When I did, I was able to detect the fresh scent of the outside air, a hint of the garden, the grass and fall leaves lingering on his fur.  I guess that’s what evokes those calm and settled feelings for us.

What scent says “home” to you?    Is it a pot of aromatic soup simmering on a crisp fall day?  Is it the familiar fragrance of a loved one’s cologne or perfume?  Is it fresh cut flowers?  Perhaps, it is the unforgettable soft sweet smell of a tiny new baby.    I’ve written before about the power of scent to evoke strong memories.  I also believe that we form powerful associations with certain smells, and that these tell a lot about who we are, and what has meaning for us.

Don’t be afraid to harness the power of scent to perk yourself up or to calm yourself down when you need it.  This is what the field of aromatherapy is all about.  We always said that we wanted Gus to be trained as a therapy dog.  I guess we didn’t realize that he already is!

It’s great to reconnect with old friends

Gus & the animals

This morning, Gus and I stayed local for our walk.  As we made our way across the familiar fields behind the high school, I heard the distinct hum of machinery in the distance.  Sure enough, it was the giant lawn machine from the Town, doing maintenance work on the soccer fields.   As we came into view, I noticed that the driver actually turned his rig in our direction and began to move closer.  He then lifted his hand in a hearty wave.

I realized then that the driver was a man that we had met when Gus was much younger; probably two years ago.  At that time, we used to see him frequently on our jaunts through the fields.  He would often stop and chat with us, and he really loved Gus.  I’m not sure why our paths haven’t crossed much since then, but here he was again, after so much time.

He pulled up and climbed down from his seat.  He was really happy to see us, and he told me that he had thought that we might have moved, since he hadn’t seen us for quite some time.  Gus greeted him like a long lost friend, and went into full puppy mode; jumping and running around madly in circles.  He finally settled down and dropped his ball at the man’s feet.  Our friend picked it up and played fetch with Gus for a while, as I chatted with him.  After ten minutes or so, we said a warm goodbye, and we each went on our separate ways, with a promise to look out for each other in the months ahead.

There’s something about connecting with an old friend you haven’t seen for a while that just makes you feel good.  One of the positive things that I was able to draw from the tragedy of my father’s death was the chance to reconnect with many special people from my past, as they called or came to visit me.  Marriage, careers, life events, and even simple geography often cause us to drift away from people who were significant in our lives during earlier times.  It’s not that we stop wanting to be friends.  It just happens that our paths start to head in different directions, and before we know it, months and then years have passed since we’ve been in touch.

This might seem silly, but to me, an old friend is like a favourite sweater.  Slipping back into those friendships has made me feel wrapped in a familiar feeling of cozy warmth and comfort.  I’ve had the chance to laugh and remember times from high school and university and beyond, and I’ve got caught up on the recent events in the lives of my friends and their families.  Most importantly, many of my friends and I have made promises to each other that we will make the effort to stay in touch.  We have all agreed that it is well worth it.

I’m reminded of a rhyme that the mother of one of my earliest chilhood friends wrote in my autograph book when I was six or seven years old.  It read:   “Make new friends but keep the old.  The new are silver, but the old are gold”    Good advice!

Going on a vacation is easier than you think

Oakbank pond in the morning sun

Wow!

This morning, like every Sunday morning, I drove my kids to work.  It’s a short drive; only about 15 minutes from our house.  I always bring Gus along for the ride, and then we usually come back home and head out for our walk.  Today as we drove along the street, I was looking at the familiar scenery.  It suddenly occurred to me that Gus and I didn’t have to come home first; we could go walking in this other neighbourhood for a change.  I definitely wasn’t prepared for the experience that we ended up having.

Morning shot of the pond with ducks

As you can see, I was snapping pictures the whole time we were out, because I was awestruck by the beautiful scenery.  I have driven by this pond and the surrounding neighbourhood for years, and yet rarely ventured out of my car to walk around.  How foolish of me.  I can’t believe what I’ve been missing.  I only had my Blackberry for a camera, but I hope you can get a taste of some of the spectacular scenes we encountered during our 90 minute walk.

Berries growing by the pond

Berries growing by the pond

Ducks on the pond

Ducks on the pond

These are some of the images we came across this morning.

Gus was quite mesmerized by the whole experience as well.  At first, he was wary of the new environment, because there were so many different sights, sounds and smells.  Then he relaxed and began to explore along with me.  He was particularly intrigued with all the ducks that swam over to check him out.

Gus checking out the ducks

Gus checking out the ducks

After a while we left the pond and began to explore the rest of the neighbourhood.  It amazed me that I have driven through these streets so many times, and yet I’ve never really taken the time to get out and go walking around.  It is really beautiful.  There is a historic area, and a beautiful path that leads through the woods to a restored house from an early settler.

The path leading to the historic house

The path leading to the historic house

We peeked in the windows of the old house, and then we continued through the woods until we came to a clearing.

The clearing

The clearing

Gus had a great run through the open space, and then we found ourselves in a residential area.  We had a lovely walk through the streets, and said “good morning” to so many new people and dogs we encountered out walking.  After a while, we turned back to the area near where we had started.  There is an old church there, and people were starting to arrive for morning mass.  Just at that point, the church bells started to ring.  I remember hearing that they have a professional bellringer there, and that the music on a Sunday morning is quite remarkable.  I have to agree.  As we walked by, the bells began to play “Danny Boy” – it made me feel like we were in a movie, or in some foreign country.  It was truly magical.

The old church

The old church

We continued on our way, past the area where they always re-enact battles during the Thornhill Village Festival.  We paused by the wall to admire the view.

By the old stone wall

By the old stone wall

Then we turned back towards where we had left the car.  I remembered that there was a big park in the other direction, and it was such a beautiful morning that I was in no hurry to head home.  So off we went.  I’ve been in that park before, but it somehow looked different in the morning sun.  Gus had a great time tearing through the trees, and he found the best stick ever!

Gus running with huge stickRows of tall trees behind Thornhill Pool

Gus with his big stick in the sun

Eventually I decided that it was time to head for home.  We made our way back to the car and, only 15 minutes later, we were back in our own driveway.  I couldn’t believe it.  I really felt as though we had been away on a holiday, in some place far from home.

Is it possible that, right under your nose, there are incredible places that you pass by all the time without noticing?  We always yearn for a break or a vacation away from home, and yet that isn’t always an easy thing to arrange.  After my experience this morning, I have promised myself to really open up my eyes to everything that’s right in my own backyard, and to go exploring like this at least once every week.  I’m pretty sure that Gus will be happy to come along with me for the adventure!

The day can be whatever you choose it to be

Gus happy on a windy fall day

I’m always amazed to see it.  Over the last few weeks, the fall mornings have become darker, colder, windier, and wetter.  At six o’clock, when I stagger downstairs to make my morning coffee, it takes so much effort  just to shake myself awake and think about the day ahead.  As I look outside into the dark and drizzly yard, I have been feeling an overwhelming urge to crawl back upstairs and snuggle under the covers, where it is still warm and cozy.  Then I look over at Gus.

At this point, he has also made his way downstairs after slowly rousing from his own cozy bed.  He always takes his time, and stretches and yawns before gradually getting up.  Here is where the difference between us ends. While I am still fumbling with the coffee, Gus always goes and stands by the back door.  He will wait there patiently until I let him out.  When the door is finally opened, he explodes out into the yard, like a shot from a cannon.  He lets out a yelp of joy, and then he proceeds to tear around the yard at top speed.  If he finds a toy he’s left lying there, he will pick it up and shake it back and forth for a bit.  Then he will drop it and run wildly again, until he has checked out every corner of his space.  The whole time he is doing this, his tail is wagging like crazy, and you can see by his behaviour that he is just so completely happy! This routine is the same every day, no matter what the weather is like. When he eventually comes into the house after his morning ritual, he is always in such a great mood, and it inevitably rubs off on the rest of us.

On the deck with a ball on a rainy morning

Yesterday, as I watched this display, I thought about how Gus perceives the morning.  He doesn’t focus on the darkness, the rain, or the chill in the air.  He is just so happy to be in a place he loves, out in the fresh air and in the freedom of the yard.  He is so full of positive energy, and it often seems to be in defiance of the atmosphere around him.  It made me stop and think.

By 7:30, as I drove through the grey drizzle on my way to work, I had made a decision.  I was on my way to give a three hour lecture on connective tissues on a dreary Friday morning.  It was the end of a long and stressful week for my students.  I knew that things had the potential to be pretty low energy when I walked into the room. It suddenly hit me how I had a the ability to choose the energy that I brought into that classroom. So here’s what I did.

I walked in and said my usual “Good Morning” to the class.  Then I announced that, despite it being a miserable, rainy, grey Friday, we were not going to let it get to us.  I told the students that we were going to shift the energy, and we were going to do so by focusing on what was positive about the day.  We went around the room and, starting with myself, each person took a turn and completed the sentence “I feel good about _____________” by sharing some small thing they were happy about.  The comments ran the gamut, from simply being happy to be there, to looking forward to specific events, or to seeing friends and family on the weekend.  It didn’t really matter.  What happened, though, was quite remarkable.  Within a few short minutes, the room full of students was buzzing and laughing, and almost everyone was smiling, as we all shared our positive comments.  As a group, we had chosen to shift the focus of the day and, along with it, the energy in the room.

That positive energy stayed with us throughout the whole three hour class.  In fact, for one of the most boring lectures I have to teach, it was actually a lot more fun than usual.  I was struck by how differently things had turned out from how they might have been, if I had just walked in and made some comment about the crummy weather, and then started into my lecture.

I guess the lesson for me was that we really do have the power to choose how we want each day to begin, despite what the weather is outside.  Even more striking was the realization of how great the impact of my choice was on so many other people around me.  It was kind of exciting and scary at the same time.    Now all I have to do is remind myself of this each morning, when I’m tired and fumbling about in the dark, trying to get my coffee going.  I’m lucky though, because all I will need to do is look out in the yard and see Gus racing happily about, and it will all come back to me.

Bring home the big stick

Bringing home the big stick

You might have seen us one day.  Very often on our walk, Gus will discover a stick lying by the path, and he’ll decide to carry it home.  Now, this probably doesn’t seem unusual.   Most dogs will pick up sticks.  But most dogs don’t go after the kind of sticks that Gus does.  As you can see from the photo above, the sticks that Gus brings home are often bigger than he is.  Sometimes we even have trouble on the sidewalk because his stick takes up so much space!

It’s not uncommon for people walking or driving by us to honk, laugh, and give Gus the thumbs up sign as he proudly marches home with his trophy.  It’s quite a sight to see.

I’ve always said that I would do well to have the kind of confidence that Gus does.  When he comes upon a giant stick lying there, you can just see him considering it, and sizing it up.  Then, without hesitation, he will pick it up and position it in his mouth for the long walk home.  He never seems to even entertain the notion that he won’t be able to manage it.  Occasionally I have even tried to discourage him, saying “no Gus, that one’s too big!”  But he will always forge ahead; often wrestling with the largest sticks until he can get a good grip on them.  His behaviour shows that he doesn’t even consider the possibility that he won’t be successful.

You probably think that I’m crazy for letting him carry all this wood home.  Take a look below, and you’ll see what he accumulated during a couple of weeks last fall.  I guess I just feel that, since he’s so confident and determined, he’s entitled to have the reward of carrying his treasures home.

Gus's collection of sticks

When you are setting goals for yourself, do you reach high and go after the biggest stick?  If you’re like me, you often hesitate and feel limited by all the reasons why the goal will be challenging to achieve.  Can I really do it?  Am I qualified enough?  Will people listen to me?  This would be like Gus looking at a stick, and hesitating while thinking, “Is it too big?  Will it hurt my mouth?  Will I bump into things on the way home  with it?”  When we focus on the obstacles in our path, then we have a tendency to trip over those obstacles, and allow them to get in the way of achieving our goals.  Or perhaps they make us worry too much, and cause us to drop our standards and set our sights on some easier goal.  It’s like settling for a smaller stick because you feel that it will just be easier to manage.

If, like Gus, we refuse to think that way, and we just know that we can carry home that big stick, then we don’t even see any obstacles, and our actions will surely lead us to be successful.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look on my front porch!

The biggest stick

After I finished posting this, I came upon this quote that I think is quite relevant – I think you’ll agree.

“The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” — Michaelangelo

When it’s over, it’s over; move on

Happy Gus

l wish I could be more like Gus.  No,  don’t want to be able to run on all fours or lift my leg to pee, I just wish that I  was able to handle some situations the way he does.

Take yesterday, for example.  We started out in the field as usual.  It was a beautiful morning, and we were having a great time with some new friends.  Unfortunately, there were two separate incidents when I had to apologize and we had to change course, because Gus wouldn’t give up a ball that belonged to another dog.  I’ve written about this before.  He just gets so worked up and has to run after that ball, no matter who it belongs to.  He even jumped up on a very nice man, who had been throwing the ball for him, when he tried to put the ball away out of sight.  I really felt awful.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish that I could forget all my manners and act crazy from time to time.  What I wish is that I was better at letting things go once they’re over.

We left the field and the balls behind, and Gus trotted along happily, as if nothing had ever happened.  It wasn’t so easy for me to get over how I was feeling.  I kept on walking, as I tried to shake off my frustration with Gus’s behaviour.  The next thing I knew, we had been out for two and a half hours!  It wasn’t a total loss, because it was a gorgeous day, and we both got a ton of exercise.  Gus behaved great for the rest of the walk, and we ended up in a beautiful ravine. We met lots of people who commented on how wonderful he was, but  I still kept thinking about his earlier bratty behaviour. When we finally got home, the first thing I did was to explode in frustration about what had happened.  This was after two and a half hours of trying to walk it off!!

Dogs have this incredible ability to live in the moment.  I’m not sure if it’s a survival skill, but their focus tends to be limited to what’s right in front of them at that particular instant.  I remember when Gus was a puppy and we took him to classes.  We were told that we had to reward his good behaviour immediately after it happened, or else he wouldn’t associate the treat with what he had done.  The same went for correcting problem behaviour.  We learned that if we hesitated for a minute before corrrecting something he had done, it would confuse him because he would have already moved on to something else.  The moment would have passed.

I’ve seen this play out in other circumstances as well.  I’ve learned over the years that the dogs in the field tend to sort out their differences among themselves.  If one dog is annoying another, or takes a ball that belongs to someone else, the ensuing “vocal” behaviour tends to make it clear what the issue is, and the situation usually resolves pretty quickly.  Usually after “speaking his mind” in this way, Gus will go right up to the other dog and begin licking it affectionately; as if to say, “Hey, we’re okay with each other, right?”  No hard feelings, no grudges.  On to the next game of tag.

This is what I really wish I was better at.  I don’t hold grudges, but as you can see from what happened, I tend to hang on to things long after they’re over.  I don’t really know why I’m this way.  I just tend to feel things quite deeply, so it often takes a me a while before I can shake something off and move on.  I have made a personal commitment to work at being more like Gus, and to learn how to let things go, especially if they really aren’t that serious.

This morning on our walk we ran into one of the people from yesterday in the field.  I apologized again, and told her how frustrated I had been with Gus’s behaviour.  She looked at me like I was crazy, and told me that it really wasn’t any big deal.  Gus was right again – it was definitely over.  And on we went. . .

Oh, what a beautiful morning!

Beautiful tree in the parkWith my apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein. . .

This is the first thing that Gus and I saw as we headed into the park beside our house this morning.  I just had to stop and try to capture it.  It is a perfect fall day.  Crisp, clear, and cool, with a stunning blue sky and blazing bright sun.  I know this is really corny, but the words to that song from Oklahoma just jumped into my head!  I really don’t have much to say today, except for this:  GET OUTSIDE AND ENJOY THIS INCREDIBLE DAY!!!!!!!!

There’s something about this time of year that always makes me feel so good.  Gus felt it as well.  He was so happy to be out in the park,  I could hardly get him to sit still for a photo.

Gus in the park beautiful morning

Take my word for it, when there is a day like today, you just have to get out there and enjoy it.  Everyone we met seemed to be in a great mood.  We had the most wonderful, mind-clearing, soul-refreshing walk.  Whatever you have planned for today, make some time to get out there and soak it up!

Enjoy!

Watch out – they can really sneak up on you!

Gus and Lucky sneaking up

Uh oh.  I can’t believe it.  Today on our walk, Gus and I took a route that takes us past our vet’s office.  We often go that way just for a change of scenery, and also because we really love Dr. Sermer and her wonderful team, Amber and Sharon.  There’s always a friendly cuddle and a treat for Gus, and we usually have a little visit if they’re not too busy.  I also tend to take advantage of the opportunity to pop Gus on the scale while we’re there, to check his weight.  Today I did that, and I discovered that Gus had gained almost 4 pounds!!!! He’s actually nudged past the upper limit of where his weight should be.  I was horrified.

I feel like such a terrible mother.  How could I let this happen to my baby?

The truth is, if you’re not careful, it doesn’t take much for a few extra pounds to sneak up when you’re not looking.  I should know – I work with this stuff for a living!  I tell my students and clients that the secret to keeping a healthy weight is ridiculously simple:  You have to balance your energy in, and your energy out.  And, you need to get on the scale to check up on things on a regular basis.

So, what happened with Gus?  Well, because of everything that’s been going on, it has been a few months since I last checked his weight.  I think that we’ve just been getting a bit too casual measuring out his food every day.  We tend to eyeball the amount, and I think that we’ve just been gradually feeding him a bit too much, and that’s become the norm.  We didn’t catch it until he gained this much because it has been a much longer time than usual since I last checked it.

Of course, we’ll have to keep an eye on those bits of food that Gus “focuses” on at the table.  As I wrote, he does get mostly vegetables from us, but everything counts!  I guess that’s the other part of the message.  When you think about the “energy in” side of the equation, then you have to look at all the sources of energy – and be aware of those things that you’re not taking into account.  I remember thinking that the leftover bits of food I finished off my children’s plates didn’t count, and the same for any food eaten quickly, while standing over the sink!  But nope, as far as your body is concerned, it all adds up.

Then there’s the other side of things.  “Energy out” refers to all the energy you burn up, through daily activities and exercise.  If you’re trying to inch the scale down, then you can turbo charge things by simply becoming more active.  Of course, intense sessions at the gym are great, but research does show that multiple, shorter bursts of activity throughout the day are just as effective.  Personally, I look for any chance at all to simply MOVE when I can throughout the day.  Just like the nibbles and snacks, any type of activity counts, and is just plain better than sitting on your rear! It all adds up too, in a positive way.

Gus has no trouble with the energy out part.  He gets close to 2 hours of exercise a day, and he runs at full speed for a lot of that time.  In fact, if we’d let him, he’d run after a ball or frizbee until he dropped.

No, I think what happened was just a combination of getting a bit sloppy with his food and treats, and not monitoring it for a while.  In the past, I’ve caught it if he’s put on a pound here and there, and we’ve known that we have to watch out.  This time, I just let it go too long before checking up.

I’ve maintained a steady weight myself for many years now, and I’m convinced that one of the main reasons is the fact that I hop on the scale regularly.  I do eat really well, but I love food and I love eating!  I’m not obsessed with my weight, but I’ve been amazed at how quickly it can add up, especially as I’m approaching the magic “50.”  I’m always glad to keep an eye on things, and to catch it when it’s just an extra pound or two.  I always say that it’s a lot easier to prevent it than to lose it.

So, what about Gus?  Well, I’m actually not that worried.  I know that if we just pay a bit closer attention to the quantities we feed him, and keep him as active as he is, he’ll drop those few pounds in no time.  We’ll pop by the vet’s more often to make sure things are going in the right direction.  In the meantime, there’s just a bit more of him to love!

What you focus on is what will come to you

Gus tractor beam

We call it the tractor beam.  If you’ve ever seen the old Star Trek series, you’ll know exactly what I mean.  Whenever we are eating, Gus will join us in the kitchen.  He’s very quiet about it, but his strategy is clear and consistent  As you can see from the photos above and below, he will fix his gaze intently on whatever food he is interested in.  His eyes never waver.  They will follow that food from plate to hand or fork, to mouth; without so much as blinking or looking away for a second.  His focus is absolute, and his mission is crystal clear.

Tractor beam 2 with Mom

Okay, I know all you dog people who listened to your trainers are aghast by now, as you’re anticipating what’s coming next.  One of the cardinal rules of dog ownership and good manners is “no table feeding.”  Well, I’m sorry to confess this, but we’re not so good about that one!  Gus’s persistence is usually rewarded with a small bite of whatever he has been staring at.  Hey, as a family, we believe that sharing is a good thing! And don’t worry, we are pretty healthy eaters, so what he gets is mostly fruit and vegetables, or the odd bit of toast with peanut butter or smoked salmon.

Gus has totally figured out that if he concentrates hard enough, whatever he fixes his gaze on will eventually end up right where he wants it – in his mouth.  What a smart guy!

Now, neither Gus nor I can take credit for figuring out the “secret” here.  In fact, some other people have written about this “law of attraction,” and they even made a video that has made millions of dollars.  It all comes down to a very simple rule:  whatever you focus on is what will come to you.

This rule has been given many different names over the years, and it can be applied to everything from table scraps to relationships to finances.  Despite a lot of hype and marketing, it’s really not rocket science.  If there is something you want, focus all of your time and energy on that thing, and eventually you will have it.

I did watch that famous video a few years ago, and, while it has a good message, I feel that it over-dramatized the concept.  It’s not as though things will just magically appear at your door because you conjure them up in your wishes.  What happens is that, by focusing on what you want and making it your priority, you start to act and think differently.

At minimum, by focusing like this, you begin to devote a significant amount of your time and energy towards that goal.  This effort alone tends to go a long way towards helping you reach it.  Just the other day I was saying to Josh that if what he really wants is a high mark in math, then I should see him working on math most of the time, instead of playing the guitar. At the college where I teach, I tell my students all the time that they are actively choosing the mark they want in my course by how much time and effort they are putting into working on it outside of class.

In addition, what I have found is that, when you are really focusing on something, you start to recognize opportunities that are right in front of you; things that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.  If you are in this goal-oriented mindset, you begin to take advantage of these opportunities, and that’s where things really get rolling!  A while back, when I was chatting in the park about my blog and all the inspiration I get when I am out with Gus, one of my friends commented, “you must have more interesting walks than I do!”  I don’t think that’s the case at all.  I just think that, because I am in this mode where I am focusing on what’s going on around me all the time, these ideas jump out at me from my everyday interactions.

So, what do you make of all this?  Whatever you choose to.  But the next time you are moaning about something you want, stop and remember Gus with his eyes on that bagel.  Ask yourself, “how much of my energy am I really focusing on this goal, and what am I actually doing to make it happen?”  You might be surprised at how much power you have to bring it within reach.

Dear Bo

Sweet gus cover shot

Hey!  So, my Mom just read me an article in the paper all about you, and I thought it was time I dropped you a line.  I was a little disappointed when the Obamas chose you instead of a Labradoodle, but it looks like you’re doing a great job over there!  Pretty cool that you even have your own baseball card.  I don’t really know what a baseball card is, but maybe I can get one too if enough people want to know about me one day.  I’ll have to look into it.

I heard about all the stuff you’ve been doing, and you remind me a lot of myself when I was younger.  Don’t worry, you’ll soon learn that there are lots of things that taste better than sneakers and magazines, and I’m sure your family will start to keep things tidier so you don’t get into them as much.  Mine did.  Just make sure you don’t eat anything that’s labelled “top secret” – you’ll probably get heck for that!

I think it’s great that your goal is to make friends with foreign dognitaries.  I bet there are some cool dogs that come to visit you from faraway places.  Sometimes we have to be the ones to remind our people that we all have so much in common, despite what they seem to think.  Some of my best friends are totally different than me, and we all hang out at the park together just fine.  I even get along great with lots of little tiny dogs, even though their owners are sometimes worried because I look so big and powerful.   I’m pretty good at knowing how to run and play nicely without hurting them.  Sometimes I get a little possessive if another dog takes my ball, but my mom has learned that we usually work things out ourselves if our people just stay out of it.  My family has made a ton of new friends because of me, and everyone gets along just great.

I’m glad to hear that you’re helping Barack to deal with all the stress of his job.  Good for you!  I know that my mom has been writing a lot about how I help her to unwind, and how getting outside every day with me helps her to balance out all the other stuff she has to deal with.  Whatever your dad does, it sounds pretty stressful, so he’s lucky to have you around to help out.  He sounds like a cool guy if he can pause to appreciate the magic of the moment late at night with a bag full of poop.  I think he and my mom would get along great.

That’s really neat that your favourite food is tomatoes – me too!  In fact, I’ve discovered that the local ones really are the best, and they’re in season right now.  We have lots in our backyard, and I’ve been helping myself whenever no one is looking.   Have you been able to check out the ones from Michelle’s garden on the lawn?  I’ve heard that her garden is really something, and I’m sure the tomatoes there are great.  Give it a try.  Just be careful you don’t trample all the other stuff – you might get in trouble for that.

I hear you’ve been to charm school.  I did that too when I was little.  I don’t know why, but our people get so excited when we do things like sitting or shaking a paw whenever they ask.  I can even do “high five” and “roll over.”  Truthfully, it all seems kind of dumb to me.  I mean, have you ever seen any of them tell each other to “sit” all of a sudden when they’re just walking along or doing their thing?  Whatever.  All in all it’s no big deal to me, and they get so excited when I do it right on cue, especially if someone important is watching.  Besides, I usually get a cookie anyways.  I love cookies.

It sounds like you’ve got things all figured out over there.  Especially the part about loving your family.  When it comes right down to it, that’s really what matters most.  I’m sure Malia and Sasha are crazy about you the way my family is about me.   It seems like every ten minutes someone is coming over for a hug or a cuddle.  And if my mom and dad are hugging, I usually bark and nose my way into the hug too.  It makes us all feel good.

Well Bo, I just wanted to say hi and touch base.  Keep up the great work.  It sounds like you’re becoming pretty famous and you’re doing a lot to remind people of some simple but important stuff.  Hey, if you’re ever up in Canada; look me up. I know we could have a lot of fun together.   I’m sure your dad has people who can track me down.

In the meantime, all the best,

keep on doing what you’re doing -it’s all good!

Love, Gus