Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Frightened Boy, His Dad, and the Night Sky; Summer, 1982

I just traveled back to a night from about thirty-seven years ago. At least, I can see it projected like a movie onto the dense trees behind my house. The air smells exactly the same as it did that night; it's the kind of wonderfully cool evening air that carries a spectre of fall and floats through the door like an unnoticed arrival to a formal Victorian party; the kind of cool that can only feel the way it does after weeks of intense heat.

As I said, the night was the mirror image of this one. I was about a week away from heading to high school for the first time and I was nervous and very reluctant. I never said anything, because I was that kind of a kid; somehow I always reacted to fears by turning inward, concentrating like someone trying to untangle  twine. And though I had two approachable, caring parents, it never occurred to me to go to them. Maybe it was pride. Maybe it was just my teenage thinking locked onto the rails of some rusty, individualistic instinct.

And while I wouldn't have openly talked about my fears, I would routinely seek out the comfort of company, especially the company of my dad, when I felt troubled. He had a way of making me feel I was standing on solid ground when I felt a quake coming.

This night -- decades ago but still tonight -- found my dad and me lying on the deck of our swimming pool in our suburban neighborhood, hands behind our heads, looking up at the stars. We'd do this from time to time, talking or not talking...just being there. Just feeling the moment. ("Don't think about the next thing you want to do; think of now and take care of business," he would always say to me when I, for instance, rushed through cutting the lawn.)

When we talked, it was usually because he'd throw philosophical puzzles at me (some of them repeats). He was well-aware they were repeats, by the way; he just liked them enough to run them at me again.

One of his favorites: He'd have me look at the moon and he'd say, "You see the moon? It's Truth."

He'd never explain. He'd just let the idea hang there like the great white orb itself: bright against the black of Everything Else. I could almost feel the synapses connecting and creeping like ivy across my brain.

This night, with the lovely chill on me, and the fear of a new experience creeping up my spine, I was hoping for one of the old ones; one of his comfortable, familiar repeats, but he asked me a new question. Just as he asked it, I remember smelling someone's fire -- a marshmallow-toasting pit or a bonfire in the neighborhood.

"What do you think about U.F.Os?" he asked. "You think they are up there?"

"You mean space ships? Flying saucers?" I giggled a little.

"What's U.F.O. stand for?" he asked.

"Unidentified flying objects?" I ventured.

"So, what's not to believe in? Don't you think they see things up there they can't identify? The government has tons of cases of pilots seeing things up there they can't identify."

"So...like, starships?" (If you are a long time reader, you know I grew up on Star Trek.)

"Or...anything unidentified that flies. Bottom line, if you go by the definition, U.F.Os are real. Period. There are things that have been seen flying around up there that are unidentified. Keep looking long enough and you will see something."

Impending, scary newness was obscured for me at that moment. School didn't exist; or, at least, it just didn't matter much in the vast stretches of a lifetime. As we looked at the sky, I was somehow aware of the span from that day to this one, thirty-seven years later. I was aware that some day -- today -- he'd be gone, but that he would always be with me, because of the seeds he planted in the fields of my mind.

But my dad didn't plant trees; he planted beanstalks.

His U.F.O question still resonates with my like a over-wordy koan. Of course he was right, but what it means that he was right is still more of a setting off point for other explorations than an answer to be captured.

They say one forgets the face of his lost loved ones. Sometimes I think it might be true, but, from one musician to another, a voice is never lost. I can still hear my dad's voice; I can hear his tone harmonized by the cars hissing by on the street in front of our house and the leaves moving above the pool. It's a chord of memory. Tonight, I hear my dad again, in my heart, in my ears and in my head, and I look at the stars and I swear I see things moving around up there.

I just can't identify them...I hope I never will.

Goodnight, Dad.




Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Adventures of Snickers and Lorna: Part Two

Some of you will remember a post from a few months ago, in which I introduced our two newest family members: Litter-mate, Goldendoodle pups named Snickerdoodle and Lorndoone. You might also remember that the post was mostly focused on the fact that when we got them home and I started poking around on the Internet for pointers on raising litter-mate puppies, the advice I unearthed ranged from cautionary to downright horrifying; in short, one was a fool to have gotten litter-mate puppies and the results could span eventualities from chaos to (I kid you not) death.

My conclusion was that since we had committed to this we had no choice but to hang in and do our best. These were two little lives in our hands, and, right or wrong, we had purchased them together. You can read the details here, but the main issues the online writers presented was fear of something called "hyper-bonding." Hyper-bonding is when two pets (usually litter-mates) bond to each other and don't really care about their humans, making them, therefore, hard or even impossible to train.

As I said in the last post, my wife and I have had dogs all our lives. We are good with them. So, despite having been shaken by the shock of my research, we went right into the loving and the training, times two.

Anyone with dogs knows that pups, like children, are not rolls of the dice. One must guide them into proper behavior. The advice we took (from the reasonable online writers, one of whom we know from having read a book she wrote) was this: (if you have made the mistake of adopting litter-mates) feed, walk and have them sleep separately. The goal is to teach the pups that it is okay for them to be separated and to allow them to develop their separate identities. We have done this for two months. Not with stentorian rigidity, by the way. Mostly, we walk them separately, but my philosophy is that they need to learn that all configurations are okay: alone, together, both mom and dad; just mom or dad; one or both of our sons...etc. Still, we lean toward separate walks. They eat at the same time and in the same room, but we watch them and keep them separate.

The results (in progress):

Individual personalities? Check. Lorna (the light-colored one) is a sweet, playful scamp with springs for legs who responds immediately when we call her. Snickers (the darker one) is a sassy little thing, who is also playful and is very much into lovingly cuddling with her humans, but who has to sometimes be carried in out of the yard because she'd rather chew grass than respond. They are very much their own dogs.

Bonding with humans? Check. They simply adore us. (And most other humans.) Each morning, after they go out and before they have breakfast, we spend some floor-time, during which they climb into our laps and collapse under the joyful warmth of belly-rubs. They frolic with glee when my sons are around and they remember and love all of their "grandparents." Both pups will regularly, when out in the yard, look around and check for our presence, often running over to get few ear-scratches before going back out to play. On walks, they each look up at us regularly for approval/reassurance.

Obedience? A work in progress, but good progress made. They are both (knock-on-wood) housebroken already and they both sit, lie down (mostly) and come when called, for the most part. We're working on "wait" with them, but they do okay with it. They both obey when told to leave something alone (the "leave it" command). They walk well on their leads, most of the time with slack on the lines.

Other dogs? They have puppy class once per week now and they love to play with the other dogs; no fighting. When they are out on walks, they love to meet other dogs, and, outside of driving those dogs occasionally crazy with their puppy energy, they do pretty well.

Being alone? They have spent as long as six hours in their crates when we have had to go out and seem to be just fine with it. Each night, as I said, they sleep in their own crates with no complaint (other than not wanting very much to get in at first).

They get along great together, playing a lot, sleeping a lot, and grooming each other from time to time, but they have no qualms about going their own way, either when required to or voluntarily.

Is this a conclusion? No. We have a way to go, of course. But I feel more confident now.

One might ask how this fits into the Hats and Rabbits milieu. Well, I recently wrote about the panic that we can develop when we look through small "windows" like TV and the Internet. Each thing that the doomsayers pointed out makes some sense, but it is all theoretical or anecdotal. Nothing was empirical, yet one "expert" was comfortable calling someone who asked him about litter-mate pups a "jerko--" for having adopted them.

The best of the writers went only so far as to say that she has a feeling that litter-mate pups would see their humans as kill-joys and while they might well like their humans, they probably would not listen to them. Well, here we are: so far, so good.

(Some, by the way, write about "litter-mate syndrome." That is not a documented condition, so, it you are here only for the dog advice, bear that in mind. Some of the people online use it as if it is a clinically evidenced thing. It is not. It's a theory.)

When we made our first visit to the vet, he never batted an eye about Snickers and Lorna being sisters. (I'd read stories of people being lambasted by their vets for bringing in litter-mate pups.) I even asked him his view on the idea. He simply said to train them to the degree we want them trained. That's it. Their being sisters seemed irrelevant to him. They are dogs, he said; they are food and affection-driven. And he said something very well; something I have said for years, but not so succinctly: "Remember, you have dogs. Dogs don't have you." (For the record, by the way, this vet is also an author and TV/radio personality who had appeared on Oprah. Not that appearing on Oprah is a guarantee of credentials -- I mean, Trump did it -- but the point is, this guy has thought deeply about this stuff.)

For me, this all just comes back to the idea that one must trust one's reasoning and instincts. It's tempting, with Google sitting there, to want to reach out for every answer. We need to look in, more. As a dog dad, I have things that make me suited for the job: love, patience, observation, empathy and the strength of will it takes to properly discipline creatures whom I love.

Around the corner the are challenges to come. I'll be back to tell you how we faced them and what the results were. But I can say this: this is clearly not a lost cause or a no-win. This can be done, if one has the qualities listed above. I would not recommend adoption of litter-mate pups to first time pet owners, but to those with experience, it is clearly not as dire as the Interwebs depict.

Will these two be trained as well as out last solo dog? We shall see. If they are not, will that have been the result of their being litter-mates? We shall (maybe) see. But I'd rather take responsibility for the outcome than blame it on that.

Part three of this series, to come.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

On Leaving Children to Die in Hot Cars

A long time ago a friend called me, excited. He'd finally found a reason why he couldn't learn to play guitar. He had schmigglie proclastic stiglination. I made that up. I have no memory of the term he used, but he claimed he had found a "condition" that made him unable to learn the guitar or to sing in tune.

I responded: "Yeah. It used to be called: 'no talent'." He got angry for a moment, but worse insults pass between on a regular basis, so life went on.

I have kind of a love/hate relationship with psychology. First off, I don't like its inherent paradoxes. For instance, things like this hypothetical: if you hyper-discipline your kids, they will be rule-following, well-adjusted adults or they could become violent criminals. (That helps me, how?)

The second thing I dislike, which is the focus of today's ramblings, is a mixture of psychologists and the general public: the confusion of behavior explanation and condoning said behavior.

We had a humdinger of a kerfuffle over on my personal Facebook page last week. Another case occurred, very near my home, of a parent locking his or her child in a hot car all day. The poor baby died and I had the audacity to post this:

A baby died in a hot car — it seems; no autopsy yet — at Lindenwold station. Here come the people to explain how we shouldn’t judge parents who “make a mistake” and how “it could happen to anyone.” Not to me. Ever. And I can be plenty absent-minded. If you do that, it means one thing: there are things in this world that are more important to you than your own child. That is all it means. This makes you the exact opposite of a good parent. If we are going to bring back standards, this is a good place to start.

(I found out today, she was two. Not a baby. That's even harder to do. Updated info on this case says it was not the father -- he is a convicted criminal without parental custody -- who did this. But, many a parent has done this, so the principle remains the same.)

The overwhelming majority of people reacted as I did, with anger, "likes," and agreement. Some people who wrote on my thread were pretty...energetic (more than I was comfortable with) in their condemnation of such a heinous mistake. Some made fun of recommendations about leaving one's cellphone in the backseat so as not to forget one's child; others of cars with warnings about checking the back seat...

This prompted an exceedingly intelligent and deeply valued friend of mine to more or less come in with guns blazing against the idea that some (including myself) were saying it "could never happen" to us. He shared a video in which a newscaster said, "If you think it couldn't happen to you, you're wrong" and in which a neuroscientist talked about the conditions under which it "could happen to anyone." My friend said that making fun of tactics and warnings is foolish and saying that "it could never happen to me" is "hubristic". His arguments were not without merit.

That said, I maintained there and will state here: It could never happen to me. (People all over the globe just cringed... "But...the saying...") I could never, under any circumstances, have left on of my babies or toddlers in a car. Never.

Those who love platitudes will roll their eyes. (I always think of Frost's "He will not go behind his father's saying/And he likes having thought of it so well/He says again, "Good fences make goodneighbors.") But people do love platitudes, even if they become irrelevant or questionable.

While "never say never" applies perfectly to saying "I can smoke...lung cancer will never happen to me," it does not apply as neatly to "I will never eat liver." Or, indeed, to: "I would never forget my kid in a hot car."

My friend argues that a certain set of circumstances could lead anyone to lock his or her child in a hot car all day and forget. (So, too, it seems, does the neuroscientist.) But my question for psychology is this: Why is it that behavior modification therapy exists? Don't some overcome their natural psychological tendencies through therapy? So, doesn't that mean that these mental "glitches" are surmountable? If so, why do we talk as if they are not? Maybe because it is safer that way. I get that.

For me, though, strength of will and priorities are powerful things. I stand by my post.

But just as we have to avoid seeing diagnoses and psychological theories as excuses for failures (and what else but a failure is leaving one's child in a car to die?) we have to avoid condemning people as people because of these failures.

Yes, I think someone who locks his kid a car is the very definition of a bad parent. That does not, however, mean the person is a bad human being. Skewed priorities don't make one evil; stupidity does not make one evil; being easily distracted doesn't make one evil; not having a strong parental connection to one's child doesn't make one evil. But all of these, sure as anything, can make one a bad parent. (Hat tip: Jesus. He said it way before this. This is what He meant by not judging others. He didn't mean we shouldn't have standards.)

The fact my emotions make me want to beat the stuffing out of a parent who does this cannot affect my reasoning.

If I cared enough -- if it were enough of a real priority -- I would keep my weight down to 195 pounds (my fightin' weight). I do okay, but I don't work hard enough for 195. I have a psychological and conditional (I get busy) tendency to eat lots of food. Sure, it adds to the challenge and explains my issue. But guess what: Fate will take me earlier if I stay where I am. He's not going to give me a pass on, say, diabetes because I had a "condition" or because my life was so busy I simply kept forgetting to watch what I ate and to exercise.

My kids? Nothing has ever come before them, not in my head and not in my actions. (Between you and me, it's why I am 51 and just launching a viable career in music composition. Next to my family, music is the most important thing in my life. Next to my family.) So don't tell me never to say never, please.

(And in case you are wondering, my track record -- in terms of my "watch" -- with my kids in terms of serious injury or allowing them into potentially life-threatening situations is exactly zero. They are teenagers now. Now it is becoming their responsibility; but I still remain focused.)

Should we have warning bells and strategies for not forgetting kids? Yes, we should. Most of us parents don't need them -- and I do believe it's an overwhelming majority of us -- but some do, and saving kids needs to come first. It's sad but true.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Active Shooter in Philadelphia and Our Rear Window Minds

Jimmy Stewart from Rear Window, 1954
Recently, there was an incident, in Philadelphia, in which there was an active shooter in a house surrounded by police. You can read about the details readily enough, elsewhere. But what was most disturbing (oddly) was that the civilian crowd in North Philly (a predominantly African American area) was taunting and cursing and posturing at the police (who are mostly white in the video) even as those police were trying to remove the threat. 

This is outrageous to me, too, but as my friends are arguing either about "blue lives" mattering and about what "animals" the crowd are; and, as others are arguing that the police are "getting what they deserve" for being an intrinsically racist institution, something more in the core of our national (international?) problems worries me.

What I thought, as I watched and re-watched a video of the crowd taunting the police, is that we live in a society (and this has always been so) in which we allow the occasional or the rare or the sensational to dictate our advice and evaluations in all common situations.

For example, when I was a kid, there was an urban legend that kids who played Dungeons and Dragons were, in an attempt to imitate the game, were going into sewers ("dungeons") and dying or getting bitten by rats. The conclusion D&D was a source of evil; something one shouldn't allow one's kids to play. Maybe it did happen once...maybe not; but this was enough for some parents to ban the game, completely. 

We let the rare and sensational incident shape our thinking about the bigger picture in this country and we always have. It's driven by fear, which we know we can't eliminate, but we can always reason through it.

Imagine, now, how much worse this fear-driven problem is with lightning-fast communication like the Internet. If a woman gets raped by her Uber driver, Uber is either determined to be unsafe and a thing to be avoided or we get bombarded by a paralyzing list of conditions for those using Uber. But should one awful incident really shape policy and procedure? It all depends whether we lead with our emotions or our reasoning.

Still, we are affected.

Back to the crowd at the standoff: As I watched the video, several times, I realized that this was a similar situation of seeing the bigger picture in the rare; the sensational. Yes, there are a ton of people gathered around the police, but most of them are video-recording it; still more are watching nervously, with the involuntary smiles and shifting feet of children who find themselves in a naughty situation they can't quite evaluate. A key few are really taunting the police and jumping at them and cursing at them. But those few are not "the crowd."

This is not to say that I don't think the whole bunch of them oughtn't to have been chased off or arrested for impeding upon the police who were there to stop a threat; but I do believe that majority of those people were not "animals" or "the problem." (But they sure as heck made the problem look bigger.)

What happens now is that the takeaway is a bonanza for racists and even non-racists who are staunch police supporters. "Look at these animals," they can say. Inevitably, though, what happens in the minds of the weak, is that the bad ones become, for them, the whole reality and they conclude that black people and not just the aggressors, are bad people.

Again, the smaller is seen to represent the larger picture.

We need to get a handle on this, in all areas. It makes us, at least, cowards and, at worst, a nation of prejudiced thinkers. If Internet reports say that four out of a million dogs wind up in the pet ER with wood in their stomachs, that doesn't mean you should keep your dogs inside twenty four hours a day. If a kid in Toledo got tetanus from a sliding board and died, that is not a reason to avoid playgrounds with your kids. The awful reality of sex-traffickers doesn't mean young girls should never travel.

All of the above scenarios give us things to consider; but they shouldn't be off-switches as to how we handle our daily lives. And, similarly, the behavior of one crowd (much less a few individuals in one crowd) should not lead us to conclusions about whole groups.

To be clear about my personal feelings about the incident: I think the particular aggressors were behaving like animals and I would have no problem having seen them tazered or arrested. And I really don't want to hear arguments about "institutional racism;" not as a defense of that behavior at that time.

Protest is a powerful and, to me, nearly sacred right in America, but not during the unfolding of an event in which the public are (or recently were) in grave danger. To do what they did was to show a total disregard for the safety of their neighbors and to display the common theme in our current world: the belief that free speech is the right to say whatever they want, however they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. There was no excuse for it.

At the same time, I am not going to judge the state of humanity or of the Nation or of the City of Philadelphia or of the neighborhood based on the tantrums of a few jerks.

My son, who was very emotional as a young boy, was once depressed on a trip to Cape Cod. He claimed that the source of his mood was they they had started construction across the street from his room. He could see it through the window. I asked him what was on the left of the house. "The woods," he said. Then I asked what was on the right. "The woods and walking paths where we take Krimpet (the dog) for walks." Then I asked what was behind us. "The lake," he said. I pointed out that we were surrounded by beauty but he was letting the only window he had sum up the whole place.

For many of us, the Internet is that window. It's noisy construction sites our only evidence of reality.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

"If I want your help, I'll ask for it!"

Isaac Asimov
I have a 2017 Toyota Highlander. Yesterday, I started it up to run the air conditioner so the interior would cool off. When I walked away, the car beeped at me three times. I'm not sure what it was trying to tell me. But I am sure I don't want it to tell me anything. Cars should not speak unless spoken to.

I despise this car. Here are more reasons why:

After a hot walk in the woods with one of my pups, I started the car again to cool it off while I was giving her a drink. While she was drinking, I thought I'd open the back hatch. But I wasn't allowed. It would not open unless I turned the car off.

Above a certain speed, if I cross a painted line of any type, even on purpose, the car beeps furiously at me. It actually sounds angry.

It's a push-button start. You must have the keys close to the car for the push-button start to work. You must also have your foot on the brake to start the car. (So, no more quickly leaning into a thousand-degree car -- which is in "park," which I assume is not safe enough if your foot is not on the brake -- to turn on the ignition and start the AC without sizzling one's skin on the thigh-griddle that leather seats become in the summer.)

Cruise control? Sure, I like it. Or I used to. Now, my car slows down for me if the cars ahead of me do, which typically results in my thinking I am doing 75 MPH until I look down and realize I am doing 16 because my car thought we should slow down.

Speaking of thoughtfulness, my car's engine shuts off at lights in order to save gas. In the meantime, the sweat beads start to form on the family as the AC gets hotter and hotter because the engine is not running. (Oh, but I can stop this by not pushing quite as hard on the brake pedal... Right.)

I hate this car. I loathe it. But I am not a Luddite. My intimate involvement with all sorts of technology, as a teacher and as a musician, prove this to be so. But my stance on technology is reflective of the old saying, "If I want your help, I'll ask for it." (Which, strange as it may seem, used to be said by one human to another.) I want to determine, for myself, when and how my machines are going to assist me.

Hold it right there, you techie folks. I know exactly what you are going to say. You are going to tell me I can turn all of those things off in my car. (In truth, I assume I can, but haven't checked because I like to spend as little time thinking about that car as possible. If it weren't a lease, I'd go out there right now and start clipping wires.)  But I would argue that I should have to turn them on if I want them on. There is a major difference.

Let's at least make it foundational that we humans must choose the level of our devices' involvement in our lives. Maybe we should add this to Asimov's laws of robotics: "A robot must never determine its actions for itself."

Was I asked if I was okay with sharing the road with driverless cars? Can't recall it. But why would people who are doing their darndest to program machines that can "write music" even think to ask? The goal is, after all, to make ourselves as useless as possible.

Seriously, why did all those sci-fi writers even bother to warn us? We're just rolling out the red carpet for our Robot Overlords.

As far as I'm concerned, Alexa and Siri can cheese off. And I'll do my own parallel parking and if I want slowly to back my Toyota Highlander into a tree, I darn well will. (At least the backup camera will assure me a nice, square impact.)