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Break Free

20 Aug
Reflection/Perception - Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Reflection/Perception – Photo by Lisa Kolanowski

I had to laugh a little when, this past week, my friend Rachel and I were discussing an exchange I’d had with a guy in St. Louis who was angry with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, and how I’d approached the situation from the standpoint of asking questions and listening to the response rather than jumping to conclusions – and down the guy’s throat.

Rachel commented, “I think you’re able to see things that many others don’t take the time to see …You take the time and you dissect the situation…you don’t jump to any conclusions.”

I laughed, and replied, “Oh, I always jump to conclusions!  It’s just that I’m learning to keep quiet until I know what’s going on!”

Sometimes.

Two week ago, I was ready to call the police on a neighbor who’d left his windows open and allowed his dog to bark non-stop for five hours.

I was absolutely furious that someone would be so rude and insensitive, and as I called the rental company to report the dog for the third time in a week, I wanted to go down and give the guy a piece of my mind.

To their credit, the rental company responded immediately and addressed the issue, but it didn’t stop the problem; it simply cut the barking time from five hours to three.  I grew increasingly more irritated as, in our u-shaped complex, the barking bounced off the brick walls and felt like it was coming from inside my apartment.

Three days ago, I went out for my afternoon walk and as I was exiting the front gate, I was lovingly accosted by a very friendly five-month old Labradoodle named Vanessa.

As I stopped to pet her, I exchanged small talk with her owner; asking how old she was and where he got her.  He confessed that his uncle had pushed him to take her after his dog had had a huge litter of pups, and that she was causing him all kinds of problems with her barking.

Suddenly it dawned on me that this was the barking dog that was driving the neighborhood crazy.

As we talked, her owner told me about how he was afraid of being evicted, but that he didn’t know what to do to stop her. I told him I was one of the people who’d called management — because I was concerned that something was wrong since she’d barked for five hours straight (sometimes a spoon full of sugar helps the message go down).  He apologized, and told me what had been going on.

He said he’d never raised a puppy before, and had been trying to figure out what she was doing by sitting outside the apartment and waiting for her to bark, and then going in and scolding her, but that he was frustrated because it wasn’t helping.

Having spent almost a decade partnered with a veterinary technician who brought home every orphaned animal on the planet, I immediately understood his problem.

As we talked, I slipped suggestions about toys he could buy that would keep her occupied and techniques he could use to stop her barking into the conversation, and warned him that if he didn’t nip the bad behavior in the bud now, he was going to wind up with a very bad adult dog.

He laughed and said she did, indeed, have him wrapped around her paw, but that he didn’t know where to begin to break the bad habits.

I told him that the first thing he had to do was to make sure that he only reinforced the good behavior.  No more going out, waiting for her to bark, and the going back in because it only rewarded her by giving her what she wanted – his presence.

I told him that he needed to ignore her (unless she was doing something that was dangerous) until she behaved the way he wanted her to.  A confused look crossed his face, but as I got up to go on my walk Vanessa, who had been laid out dozing on the walk next to her owner, gave me the perfect “teachable moment.”

She jumped up and put her huge puppy paws on my stomach as she begged for attention.  I took both of her paws in my hands, put them on the ground, and said, “Vanessa, SIT!” as I held up my index finger in the universal sign for sit.  She looked at her owner, and then jumped up on me again.

Again, I put her paws on the ground, but this time her owner held up his finger and firmly said, “Vanessa, sit!”  She looked at him for a moment, and then sat nicely, and I swooped in to kiss her soft fuzzy face as I praised her lavishly for her good behavior.

The third time she jumped up, I pushed her off, folded my arms across my chest and looked away as her owner said, “Vanessa, sit!”

Vanessa immediately sat, and looked up wagging her tail as I bent down and gave her all the attention she wanted.

Her owner looked at me in amazement as I said, “It’s as easy as that!  But it’s the constant reinforcement that’s going to be hard because she’s so adorable!”  He laughed and waved goodbye as I headed out for my walk.

As I walked, I thought about how the conversation had completely changed my perspective on the situation.  My neighbor was no longer “the rude guy with the annoying barking dog;” now he was “Vanessa’s owner” who was trying to figure out how to train her to be quiet.  We had listened to one another and helped each other find solutions to the problem rather than escalate the situation to the point that I became an enraged tenant, and he got evicted.

I’m not saying that all problems can be fixed as simply as this, but I do believe that, for me, half the battle was deciding that being the change is more important than being right, and then changing my behavior to reflect that belief.

In many ways, I do think that Rachel was right when she said, “Really it just comes down to you listening.”

And as I sit here typing – and listening – I am happy to report that I haven’t heard a single bark all week.

The next time I see Vanessa, I’m going to give her a big reward!

 

Pompeii

21 Mar
Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

I can’t stop thinking about L’Wren Scott.

I didn’t exactly run in her social circle. I never met her, wore her fashion designs or even followed her career, other than to take note of her name in fashion magazines.  I didn’t even know that she was Mick Jagger’s partner.

What haunts me is that at 49, for reasons unclear to those closest to her, she chose to end her life, and, according to news reports, she did it in a way that reflected her well-mannered reputation – by asking her assistant to drop by in the morning rather than “bothering” or “inconveniencing” anyone.

By all accounts, Ms. Scott had a happy relationship with Mr. Jagger, and her business, though going through the normal ups and downs of all burgeoning businesses, seemed to be heading for success with the signing of a $250,000 contract to collaborate with Banana Republic.  This week her friend, reporter Cathryn Horyn, wrote in a New York Times tribute entitled “Memories of a Friend, a Teacher, and a Fighter” that Scott was under a great deal of pressure to make her clothing line successful, and that in a tense conversation Horyn told Scott she needed to “give herself a time limit to resolve matters or get out. Putting her health in jeopardy because of stress was not worth it…” Scott did not like – or heed – the advice, and continued to strive for success.

It’s this – and more – that makes me grieve for a woman I don’t know.

There’s no way of knowing what was going through her mind at the moment she decided to end her life, but I understand why she might have felt like it was the only solution, and that deeply disturbs me.

It’s scary to be a strong, intelligent, ambitious, aging woman in this society.  So many people depend on you, and if you are successful, it’s usually because your over-achieving perfectionist tendencies have pushed you past your fears to the point where you jump in and make it work – at all costs.  Whether it’s being successful in your education, your career, your health, your marriage, your child rearing, your athletic achievements, or your hobbies and interests, the drive toward excellence can leave even the strongest of women questioning their abilities.

Age makes it even more difficult because at a certain point you start to question all of your choices – past and present.

I say this because at 47, I find myself very far away from what I was educated to do and facing a number of health issues that never even crossed my mind at 27 or even 37.  My salary is far below the level of what I should be making, given my education level (and student loan debt) and abilities, and I’m paying off debts that I accrued for living expenses and health insurance in my past life.  I’ve managed to put my massive student loans in forbearance as I have tried to land jobs with pay that would allow me to afford to pay the $958.00 a month that the loan company is asking for, but those days are soon coming to an end – even if I haven’t landed a job with an adequate salary.  These new health challenges add a whole new level of stress to the money mix, but there’s no way to avoid them because right now they’re not terribly serious but if I ignore them, they’ll cost me much more in the long run, both financially and physically.

And it all reminds me that I’m not getting any younger

Only my family and a few close friends know what’s weighing on me – until now.

I say this, not because I am looking for sympathy or a handout or an excuse, I say this because even though her life is none of my business, I think I understand what might have been going through L’Wren Scott’s mind that night, and I have to wonder if maybe we should be making these thoughts other people’s business.

I understand how wonderful and scary it feels to be someone who other people look to for support and stability.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  I understand the weight of trying to be a cheerful role model and avoid showing how scared and alone you feel because other people are relying on you to be the strong one.  I understand how humiliating and shameful it feels to wonder how your finances, health, [or fill in the blank] have gotten so out of your control, and to be afraid to ask for help because then everyone will definitely know what a failure you really are.  They’ll know you’re a fraud and that everything you’ve accomplished has been nothing but accidental luck.  And I know many, many other women feel like this, as well.

But here’s where Ms. Scott and I differ.

I hear this message, but I don’t buy into it because I’m fortunate that I have people in my life who I can let down my guard with and show all the ugly unlovable parts of myself to.  I’m fortunate that they love me and offer help even when I’m at my absolute most stubborn (because I’m positive that I am a total failure, that everyone else is doing it “right,” and that if I would stop being so damn lazy and just work a little harder I could overcome all the obstacles and manage everything my own big self),  and I’m so very, very fortunate that they step forward and offer it despite my incredibly high walls and fierce defenses.

It makes me deeply sad and unbelievably angry that the world lost yet another generous, loving, kind, intelligent, creative woman this week because in that one brief moment, she didn’t believe she could ask for help, and because no one was able to reach out and offer in time.

In their recent Top 40 pop hit, Pompeii, the British group Bastille asks, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”

Here’s how…

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to reach out to others and let them know I’m available.  I’m going to pay attention to the people close to me, and I’m going to let them know how much they mean to me on a more regular basis.  I’m going to smile at strangers and offer to help when I can.  In other words, I’m going to try harder to be the change I want to see in the world.

And maybe by helping others, I’ll remind myself that I’m worthy of being helped, too.

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