Category Archives: Dogs

Work and Play

Our family just returned from our annual vacation in Ogunquit, on the southern coast of Maine. Ever since 2007, when I was pregnant with our first child and living in California, my mother’s side of the family – which includes my aunt, two cousins and their husbands, and a growing number of second cousins — has converged upon Ogunquit for a week of beaches, lobster, and family fun. Other family members who live nearby drop in for a day, and we visit my father’s side of the family in New Hampshire on our way home.

My husband and I have missed only three Maine vacations over the past decade: two because we had newborn babies, and one because we had just moved to Vermont (that year, the entire family renounced Maine and came to visit us!) This tradition is so ingrained in the pattern of our daughters’ lives that they think of it much the same way that they think about their birthdays, or Halloween, or Christmas: as something to be planned for and looked forward to all year long.

This year’s week in Maine was much the same as it always is: We walked across the footbridge to get candy in Perkins Cove, jumped waves and built sandcastles on Little Beach, climbed the rocks by Nubble Light after eating mammoth ice cream cones from Dunne’s, held “Family Olympics” and a play produced by the youngest family members, and stayed in the same house where we’ve set up camp for five years.

But tradition can’t stop the march of time, so our Maine vacation this year was also unique. Ogunquit 2017 was marked by the same unseasonal rain and chilly weather that we’ve experienced in Vermont: We had only three good beach days of the seven we spent in Maine, so we spent more time that usual in shops and museums. Because our children are growing up, some were less enthusiastic about dressing up as pirates for this year’s play, but I was able to have more uninterrupted conversations with other grown-ups than I can recall during any previous summer. And our annual lobster dinner was marred somewhat when our second child, a budding vegetarian, realized that her father was about to kill four lobsters on her watch, and all but chained herself to the refrigerator in protest.

Then there was this: As my husband and I walked along the Marginal Way, a gorgeous path winding along the cliff-tops above the crashing ocean waves, he turned to me and said, “You know, I feel like three days of vacation is just about enough for me at this point in life.”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

 

 

The Stars At Night

by Campbell Gong

Drawing by Campbell Gong

The other night, I took the dog for a walk down our driveway.

The job of walking our dog after dinner usually falls to my husband; on these frigid winter nights, he dons hat and gloves, ski goggles and earmuffs, snow pants and winter parka, before disappearing into the snowy, blow-y dark. “Hope you make it to base camp!” I’ve been known to holler (unhelpfully) into the mudroom after him, while our daughters collapse in a pile of giggles.

Those daughters are the primary reason why my husband is the designated evening dog-walker: I’m usually occupied by dinner dishes, bedtime stories, and tuck-ins.

But on this particular night, a few days before Christmas, I needed the fresh air and the quiet. My vision was getting fuzzy from all the gift-wrapping, baking, and holiday logistics. Besides, I had a few last-minute Christmas cards to put in the mailbox.

So, after donning my warmest gear (minus the ski goggles and earmuffs), I set out down the driveway with Gracie, our clinically anxious labradoodle.

Let me set the scene, for those who have a more suburban vision of the word “driveway:” Our driveway is a ¼ mile-long, dirt-and-gravel road. We share its initial length with a neighboring house; about halfway down, the driveway branches in two, with one section leading left towards our neighbors’ house, and the other section winding to its conclusion at our front door. The driveway is unlit, as is the main road where it ends. At night, the only light comes from the single bulb outside our front door, and a handful of lights from neighboring houses – the neighbors with whom we share our driveway, the farm beyond the trees, and one or two homes across the main road.

All this to say: At night, the walk down our driveway is dark – very dark. The journey may take upwards of ten minutes round-trip, because ice and snow on the gravel drive make it necessary to step carefully. Ten minutes in single-digit temperatures can feel like a long time.

The night I walked our dog was cold and dark. It was also a clear night, so when I looked up about halfway through my walk, I gasped aloud.

We don’t see the stars much these days, do we?

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

A Thank-You to Snow (with correct link!)

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Sorry — this post went out to many of you prematurely yesterday, without an active link. Here it is, with a link to the full article. 

For the past several months, I’ve sensed a heaviness in my writing, an unbroken seriousness that leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that it’s time to crack a joke.

My recent columns have reflected what I believe to be the prevailing mood of late. The news, both national and international, has been mostly bad – at least for those who did not vote for Donald Trump at home, or who are distressed by humanitarian disasters abroad. Closer to home, family members have been ill, friends have lost parents, appliances have needed repair, and the pace of life has afforded little time for rest or reflection.

The time will come when this column will again regale you with lighthearted stories about how our daughter introduced herself to a stranger by saying “Prepare to meet your doom!” (“I said it in a welcoming way!” she protested later.) Or about how our dog escaped and ran over to the neighbors’ Christmas tree farm to harass their horses – at the exact moment a charter bus full of camera-toting tourists pulled into their driveway. Or about how the very loud smoke detectors that my super-safe husband placed all over our house, keep malfunctioning at late hours.

But this will not be that column; today I’m going to write about snow.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

California Sabbatical: Goodbye To Berkeley

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As we prepare to leave Berkeley, California and return home to Vermont, here are some Berkeley stories from the past five months of our family’s sabbatical:

 

It’s late January. We are a few weeks into our homeschool curriculum, and for science I’ve been taking my daughters on nature walks around our neighborhood to observe West Coast flora and fauna. This particular morning, we’re squatting on the sidewalk sketching a Bird of Paradise plant, when a nearby house’s door opens and a man emerges. I’m concerned that he’s about to chase us away, but he asks what we’re doing in a friendly manner.

Then he says, “My wife sent me out here to offer you some lemons.” He gestures towards the lemon tree in his front yard, laden with lemons bigger than my fist (he tells us they’re Eureka lemons.) He cuts down four lemons, one for each of my daughters. We thank him and take the lemons home; later, we will use a recipe from The World of Little House, a companion book to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of pioneer memoirs, to make delicious lemonade from these lemons.

For more of our Berkeley adventures, click here to continue reading this week’s California edition of “Faith in Vermont” in The Addison Independent. 

California Sabbatical, Day 1: Palm Trees!

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“Wait, people are just allowed to have palm trees in their yards?” my eldest daughter marveled on our first day in California’s Bay Area.

The palm trees have been the undisputed highlight of California thus far, the first thing on my daughters’ list when we ask what they like most about our five-month sabbatical from Vermont. They’ve observed that palm trees come in different heights, with various-shaped fronds, and with trunks both shaggy and smooth.

When I start home schooling my two oldest daughters this week, our science studies will commence with a unit on palm trees.

Our journey from Vermont to California began with a drive to Burlington, where we spent the night at the airport Doubletree in order to sleep in until 3:15 AM so that we could catch our 5:30 AM flight to Detroit. By “we,” I mean the six members of our family, and our 15 bags; yes, that’s our version of traveling lightly.

Click here to continue reading about the start of our California adventure in a special edition “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent. 

Well, The Kids Had Fun….

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Every year I fight to downsize Christmas.

Christmastime is when my soul craves meaning, peace, spiritual focus. Yet I always end up feeling like I’m beating back a crushing tide of too much: too much to do, too many gifts, too many social obligations. By December 26, even if it’s been a “good” Christmas — and it usually is — I’m exhausted and faintly disappointed that I got sucked under by too much. Again.

Who’s with me?

Anyway, this year, taking inspiration from some other families, I suggested to my husband that we drastically curtail our gift giving and use the money we’d save to take our family on a mini vacation.

He looked at me for a long minute before saying, “Yeah, because it’s always so relaxing to travel with our kids.”

He had a point, but I was undeterred. Time spent together sharing experiences as a family seemed much more meaningful than gift-wrapped boxes.  I pictured us all laughing together, cuddling together, making lasting memories. Despite knowing better, I succumbed to the rosy glow of my imagination and booked our family for a two-night stay at the Highland Lodge in Greensboro, Vermont during a long weekend in January.

We’d stayed at the Highland Lodge twice before, but always in summer. In summer we inhabit a small cabin on the Lodge property and spend our days swimming and boating in nearby Caspian Lake.

The cabins are closed during the winter months, and Caspian Lake becomes a frozen expanse dotted with ice fishing shanties, so this winter visit promised to be a very different experience.

***

On Saturday morning we crammed our minivan chock full with the ridiculous amount of gear required to spend two nights away with four young children. Thanks to our portable DVD player, the 2.5-hour drive to Greensboro was mostly peaceful. It seemed like the perfect time to get away: my husband had been particularly stressed lately, which concerned me because usually I’m the stressed one.

We arrived to find that we were sharing the Highland Lodge’s main building with one elderly couple. All weekend long my husband made references to The Shining, but it wasn’t spooky at all: It was nice not to worry about the girls bothering anybody. Willie and David, the innkeepers, kindly gave us two rooms right next to each other, clear across the Lodge from the other guests.

The girls settled in to their room, with all the bossing and bickering that entails. Then we spent a fun afternoon on the Lodge’s excellent sledding hill. I even slipped away for a short run on some of the Lodge’s gorgeous nordic ski trails. The rosy image from my imagination was becoming reality.

The call from our dog sitter came just before dinner.

***

We’ve attempted a variety of care arrangements for Gracie, our two-year-old, overly-anxious Labradoodle. Our next-door neighbors — owners of her canine friend Brinkley — used to watch her for us, which was ideal. Then they moved. We tried boarding her: The first night at the boarding kennel she jumped an 8-foot fence and ran away. (Luckily we were still in town, so I drove out and lured her back, but she’s forever restricted to a crate and leashed walks at that kennel.)

Her second time at the kennel, Gracie came down with an intestinal virus and “kennel cough,” so her first day back at home I followed her around cleaning up phlegm.

“We’re never boarding her again,” I swore.

The next time we went away, we hired a wonderful dog sitter: the son of a friend, an experienced dog watcher, who would stay at our house and care for Gracie. She’d met him only once before, so when he entered our house, she did her usual thing: barked like crazy. When he finally got her out in the yard, Gracie broke through the electric fence and ran away. She spent an entire night outside in snow and sub-freezing temperatures, before returning the next morning.

Nevertheless, the dog sitter was undeterred, and so were we. NO problem! I thought, This time we just won’t let her roam the yard. 

When I answered my cell phone at the Highland Lodge, the dog sitter said: “It’s worse than last time.”

This time, when he’d arrived, Gracie had been so nervous that she’d run around the first floor, peeing. Then she’d bolted up the stairs, jumped the child safety gate, and run down the upstairs hallway, pooping. She’d poop, step in the poop, then try to climb the walls.

When our dog sitter managed — miraculously — to get Gracie outside on the tie-out, she yanked her head through her collar and ran away.

That’s what we had to deal with, hours into our vacation.

We made arrangements: We called in the grandparents. Gracie returned later that night, my parents arrived to let her in the house, and they spent hours scrubbing her bodily fluids off our floors and walls.  How do people manage when there aren’t grandparents nearby?

***

Our daughters were up before dawn the next morning, ready for hot chocolate. If that sounds cozy, consider: one daughter doesn’t like hot chocolate, one won’t drink it with marshmallows, one will only drink it with marshmallows, and the baby wants to sit on my lap and pour her hot chocolate all over me.

We survived breakfast, and the rest of the day included more sledding, cross country skiing, and a walk on the frozen lake.

That evening, daughters successfully tucked into bed, my husband and I settled in the downstairs library to read and munch popcorn. All was peaceful, until I heard what sounded like pounding from upstairs. I mentioned it to my husband, who went to investigate.

“Uh, there’s sort of a situation,” he said when he returned. “Georgia’s in our bedroom, and she’s locked the door.”

Remember: We had two bedrooms right next to each other, and we were virtually the only people staying at this lodge in a tiny town in northeastern Vermont. So, did we lock our doors? No! My husband stashed the keys up on our closet shelf. That’s where they were when Georgia, our three-year-old, entered our room and locked the door behind her.

Georgia is prone to drama; when I arrived upstairs she was yelling and pounding on the door.

I put on my best “Calm Mommy” act. “It’s okay, Georgia,” I said soothingly. “All you have to do is turn the knob. Can you turn the knob?”

“NO!” she sobbed. “I can’t!”

“It’s just like in the Alfie book,” I reasoned [the classic Alfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes, in which Alfie locks himself in his house and the whole neighborhood talks him through unlocking the door.] I had her pull a box of diapers over to the door and stand on it, the better to turn the knob.

“I can’t!” she kept crying from atop the diaper box.

Finally, my husband took the easy route: he called the innkeepers to find where they kept the extra keys. Georgia was released, and to this day maintains that she never locked the door.

“It was my unicorn’s fault,” she insists.

***

Vacation was almost over; in a few short hours, we’d drag our exhausted selves back to whatever horrific scene awaited us at home.

“I’m so sorry!” I moaned to my husband. “This trip was my idea, and I feel like I’m causing you more stress than if we’d stayed home! And the dog was my idea, too! And I had all these kids! All I do is stress you out!”

“Don’t be silly,” he reassured me. “The kids are having a great time.”

It’s true: Our daughters didn’t want to leave. And we returned to a house that — thanks to my parents’ ministrations — was cleaner than we’d left it. (The dog was very happy to see us.)

LESSONS LEARNED:

-Always maintain control of the hotel room keys.

-Contact the vet about anti-anxiety medication for Gracie.

-Keep grandparents close by.

-When “vacationing” with young children, the expectation should be no higher than that the kids have fun. That’s good enough.

 

Jumping the Fence

Photo by Campbell Gong

Photo by Campbell Gong

Our dog, Gracie, recently turned two years old. Age is not mellowing her. I often think of her as our fifth daughter, because, like the other Gong girls, she’s full of energy and a little tightly wound. Parenting Gracie is a lot like parenting our other daughters, as well; it’s trial and error, making appropriate adjustments for whatever irritating habit she’s developed in a given week.

Also, we love her a lot.

One of the ways that we allow Gracie to be herself and burn off her energy, while also maintaining boundaries to keep her safe, is by using an electric dog fence around our property. Because we live in the woods, this isn’t a fancy-schmancy suburban dog fence underneath our manicured lawn. We have no manicured lawn, so the dog fence is a wire that sits aboveground and runs around the perimeter of our yard (and our neighbor’s yard, since Gracie is best friends with their golden retriever).

When we let Gracie outside, we put a special collar on her. If she gets too close to the fence boundary, the collar beeps a warning. She’s learned that, if she goes through the fence, the collar will give her a brief but strong electric shock. (It’s uncomfortable but not cruel; I can tell you as someone who’s accidentally shocked myself with her collar).

Here’s the thing: Sometimes Gracie breaks through the fence. This is when she’s feeling particularly strong-willed about something, for instance; her dog friend next door breaks through the fence, or our family goes out for a walk without her, or she sees a squirrel, or just wants an adventure. So, she screws up her courage, gets a running start, yelps when she gets the shock, and then she’s free and clear!

Or so she thinks.

Because when Gracie jumps the fence, she may be free, but she’s not safe. There are cars and trucks out there that drive too quickly. There are (really and truly) bears and coyotes around these woods. There are hunters with guns. She has no experience taking care of herself, finding her own food. It’s not good for her to be outside the fence; that’s why we installed the fence to begin with.

But, here’s the funny thing: Often, when I’m actually trying to take Gracie out of our yard — on a walk, or to meet our daughter’s school bus — she refuses to come. She’s afraid she’ll get shocked. Even though she’s not wearing her collar, even though I’m leading her on a leash. She’ll dig in her heels, and I have to tug on the leash while attempting to reason with her: “It’s okay, Gracie. See, your collar isn’t on? No shock, okay?” Sometimes I have to pick her up — all 54 pounds of her — and carry her down the driveway.

We went through this just the other day, and it occurred to me: Oh my gosh, Gracie is JUST LIKE ME! 

I, like Gracie, have a screwed-up idea of what freedom is. I think we all do; my daughters certainly do. We assume that if something’s safe, then it isn’t really free. So we’ll gather up our courage, get a running start, and risk pain and punishment — an electric shock, a time out, a broken relationship — for the “freedom” to go play in traffic.

For the “freedom” to mingle with bears and coyotes and hunters.

For the “freedom” to be the boss of me!

On the other hand, whenever I’m being prompted to do something that I really should do, something that would be fun or soul-expanding — I tend to dig in my heels and fight against it. I’m afraid. Afraid of imagined harm that could befall me, the shock that might zap me.

I have the freedom to do these things, but I don’t trust that freedom. I don’t think I’ll be safe.

Examples of this kind of misguided inertia include: Picking up the phone to invite my child’s friend over to play (I know, I know — it’s completely irrational to be afraid that another parent will refuse to allow their child to play with mine…but it’s true). Writing a book, or even just submitting my writing to new outlets. Leaving my children in order to do something “selfish” like spend an afternoon alone or a night with friends.

The trick is knowing the difference between the safe and the stupid kinds of freedom. For Gracie, it seems simple: When somebody is leading you on a leash, do it; if nobody’s walking you down the driveway, stay in the yard. But when you’re the one wearing the collar, it’s a lot harder to discern whether you’re leading yourself or being led.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this conundrum. But I do suspect — and I might catch some flack for this — that we are smarter than dogs. Most of us, if we take a minute to reflect, can distinguish between playing in traffic and going for a stroll. And most of us, if we’re still and patient, can hear the warning beeps as we approach the safety fence — or feel a gentle tug at the end of the leash.

When we feel that tug, we should go. Because, unlike Gracie, it’s unlikely that someone else will pick us up and carry us over that fence.