I wanted to add a little extra information to this week’s podcast – it has a funny background story.
Many years ago, as I was just starting out as a professional dog trainer, I took a year-long course for future trainers. I had selected it based on what I had read about it and the fact that I really wanted something in person (rather than KPA online).
The course turned out to be a disaster:it wasn’t at all what the description had me believe it would be. I knew this after 15 minutes of class, but wasn’t allowed to sell my spot to someone who actually wanted it (instead, that someone else had to purchase their own spot, which put us over the promised max number of students).
The teacher used learning theory terms incorrectly and was just really … insensitive and mean to folks. They were one of those people who love dogs and dislike humans. They were PETA-level-type animal advocates who basically thought dogs should live in large enclosures (like zoo animals), receive enrichment, and not be tortured by hikes, sports or clickers. This was not the trainer I wanted to be, and the course frustrated me over and over again.
The person I was back then was definitely edgier than the person I am today. I was self-righteous, radically queer and angry at the world.
From this class, I have taken no dog training knowledge – but it led me to cross paths with two people I wouldn’t want to miss in my life today. It was over a decade ago, and yet, these two connections persist.
One of them is Kenne who I interview on this podcast. They did not even take the course themselves – their wife did; Kenne and I just connected over random parking lot conversations.
The other one is Chris (who happens to live in Graz as well) and who is to this day one of my closest and most trusted friends. We connected right away over a shared love of Standard Poodles (I had Phoebe, who could be Chris’ vicarious Poodle) and shared queerness, a fondness of biology and intriguing discussions of relationship dynamics. Chris, in case you happen to be reading this – know that love you and that meeting you made up for all the suckiness of this course. I can’t even remember or imagine not having you in my life.
Kenne sometimes showed up during class breaks to visit their wife Sarina, who was taking the course. But there was this one time that, I believe, is what caused me to (quoting Rachel) want to keep an eye on this person and what they were doing in their life. Low-effort to maintain, and yet feeling like it is a meaningful connection with someone I so appreciate having met. The person I am today still appreciates Kenne, even though I have probably chaged a lot (and so have they, I imagine. Change, and be ready to change again!) Even though we don’t talk all the time, I feel like if I needed a place to stay in Graz, I could just ask Kenne and they’d say, “Of course!” And vice versa, of course, wherever I am in the world. Some people are just warm and engaging and wonderful to connect with, and Kenne is certainly one of them.
Anyways, back in the day, Kenne happened to be sitting in on the class I was giving my end-of-class presentation in. The edgy, feisty Jack-Russel-Terrier Chrissi of days gone by used this presentation to drive home two points: one, I wanted to show that teacher how to teach an engaging class. How it was done! How engagingly, interactively and fun one could teach! I made people laugh, moved while I was talking and threw high-value chocolates to (at) everyone asking or answering a question. I believe I had even brought a pineapple (thanks for that one, Kathy Sdao!) to add some extra flavor to my presentation. I used big words I had heard used incorrectly over the course of that class, speaking fast-paced and keeping people on their toes. Nobody was going to fall asleep this time!
It felt satisfying. And yet, afterwards, on the parking lot, I realized that the message I had tried to get across had probably gone over most people’s heads. After all, no one teaching or taking this class was a native English speaker, but since the person teaching it didn’t speak German either, it was conducted in English. It did not go over Kenne’s head though. They approached me in the parking lot and told me I was a sexist genius. To the Chrissi from back in the day (flaming red hair and all), this was a big compliment and I loved it. It let me know that Kenne had both read the organizers and teachers as snake oil salespeople, and had been amused by my retort. And as long as one person got it, I was happy. I felt like I had reached my goal.
To me, that was the beginning of our friendship. From my point of view, had Kenne not made this comment that day, we might have drifted apart.
Before recording this podcast, I asked them why they thought we had stayed in touch. Apart from their wife and me, they aren’t in touch with anyone from back then either. And what Kenne said made me smile. It’s something that still resonates with the Chrissi I am today: Kenne said I was an authentic person and they played with my Poodle, so of course we stayed in touch. (Or that’s what I heard or wanted to hear anyways.) So you, Kenne, are also worth having gone through that ridiculous course for. I feel SO grateful to have met you and get to have conversations like this one! Thank you!
This is episode 6 of our podcast, Our One Wild and Precious Lives (and Our Dogs). I’m really proud of this one – it turned out really well, if I may say so myself! Thank you, Peter and Val, for being vulnerable and brave and brilliant with me!
I’ll be adding the link to the episode below so you can all listen – but before I do, I want to ask you all a favor. If you are reading this (potentially because you’re a subscriber to my blog), and if you’ve been enjoying the podcast episodes I’ve put out so far – every second one is dog geeky, and every other one is about living abroad, being brave, vulnerability, mental health, politics, queer lives etc … So if you’ve been enjoying them, please subscribe to the podcast on one of the podcast platforms as well! We’re on all the major platforms. AND please, if you’ve been REALLY enjoying things, leave us a rating on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and a nice review on Apple Podcasts! I’m not making money podcasting; I’m just having a lot of fun doing it – and seeing the listener numbers increase makes my day. Ratings and reviews will give the podcast greater exposure, and that means positive reinforcement – more listeners! – for me. Thank you so much!
I myself am super lazy when it comes to reviewing podcasts. I’ve got SO many favorites I haven’t taken the time to review yet. So I’m setting myself the goal to review one independent podcast I love for every review I get, to pay it forward! Thanks, folks!
Alright – on to this episode I really, really like! I’ll embed a link, and you’ll find the episode description below.
In this episode, Chrissi and Peter talk to Valerie Russell. Originally from the US, she has studied forensics in the UK and worked in law enforcement in the New York metropolitan area for many years. After severe depression and a PTSD diagnosis, Valerie started her life from scratch: she moved to Guatemala and opened Due South Travels, a unique and successful travel business. Val is one of the first people I (Chrissi) met in Guatemala, and I admire her on SO many levels. She is brave, courageous, authentic, and simply good people.
In this episode, we talk about mental health, all the things the animals we share our lives with do for us, the broken system of law enforcement and health care in the US, and smuggling cat nip. We hope you enjoy this conversation as the three of us did!
I started a Youtube channel on the free roaming dogs I encounter on my own free meanderings. Every Sunday at 5pm CT, you’ll get a little glimpse in their lives and encounters. Make sure to read the video descriptions for more information and context.
Today, I released the third episode – here are the first three to give you an example of the kind of content I’m going to feature. To stay up to date, subscribe to the channel.Feel free to videos that interest you with your friends! I love sharing “my” free-roamers with you all!
Game chooses to stay close to me so I’ll keep her safe
Game is good with dogs. She’s got excellent social skills, and she’s a confident girl. However, this is the morning after a night of fireworks that made her quite uncomfortable. She’s not up for dealing with other dogs today, and chooses to stay near me. We have a system of communication, and within our shared language, this means that she is asking me to deal with the dogs for her. So I do. All is well.
Game meets a playful free roaming puppy
Before I got the camera out, the puppy approached us, ran towards and play-bowed at Game. By the time I start filming, the roles are reversing and Game is finding out if she, too, will get to be the chaser.
We walk here a lot, but haven’t seen this puppy before. She does not behave like a typical free-roaming homed puppy. That and the fact that there is a busy street nearby is why I joke about her wanting to be my dog – that’s not a thought that usually crosses my mind. If she were either an obviously homed free-roaming puppy or this was a pedestrian area (one or both are the case for almost all – let’s say 98% – of dogs I see in Guanajuato), I would keep my distance. This is not the case for this puppy, which tempts me to interact more with her than I would with a typical free-roamer whose life I feel I shouldn’t interfere in much. I would usually offer neither food nor pets, and keep my distance, just observing.
Passing a shy free-roaming dog on leash
A typical encounter. As it turned out, the dog was in his core area – the little store likely belongs to his folks.
New episode! This is the first time I experimented with recording a conversation in the same room rather than over Zoom. I don’t have professional audio equipment, so we recorded a single audio track, hunched over Andrés’ little table, crumbs of mota and my laptop. The sound quality isn’t perfect – but it worked well enough!
I’ve been living with three Mexicans, and on this episode, I talk to one of my housemates: Andrés Ortega. We chat about the trials and tribulations of living with strangers, cultural differences, the colors and facets of Guanajuato City, and what we have learned from each other. Get ready for laughter, city stories, lots of mutual appreciation, and a rant about pocket-less pants!
I’m really glad I found this house, and the three wonderful people already living in it. You guys are awesome! Game has been enjoying it here as well. She’s loving the leftovers that are being saved for her (especialls the month Ivan used to cook way too much), and every time tortillas go bad, or Andrés buys an entire roast chicken. Game has also received two toys from Moi. One of them, the yellow sheep, is still alive and being well loved. It is her new favorite, and even went on a road trip with us.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Moi opened the door to his room to Game and I when we first moved in. We were invited to take over his bed – even Game! – and hang out, watching movies. We both felt comfortable and at ease right away. I’m thankful for Moi’s intuition and perceptiveness about making me feel at home!
I am grateful to have met my three housemates, having learned new modismos and gotten to know Los Simuladores. I couldn’t have found better people to share a house with. I appreciated sharing my imperfect pizza experiment with you all, having lots of coffee breaks with Andrés, sharing lunch tortas with Moi, lounging on the kitchen furniture with my dog at my feet and new friends by my side. And Ivan! Thank you for lending me your car, and introducing me to your inflables and their casa. (Ivan runs what probably is a not-entirely-legal bouncy house rental business. He also forges data for the government, but the bouncy house business is way cooler and more fun.)
I’m the lucky one. I don’t believe in God, but if I did, I would thank them for my time here, and for the freedom I rediscovered. And for something I thought everyone did, but am realizing may not be as common as I used to think: I see beauty around me all the time. I meet amazing people. (I, too, see the shadows, but also: so much good stuff!)
There’s something else I learned from Moisés that I didn’t mention on this podcast, but have to share with you because it’s brilliant! If you have raw eggs that aren’t fresh, and you aren’t sure they are still good, there’s an easy way to find out: fill a pot with water. Put the egg into it. If it sinks to the bottom of the pot, it’s still good. If it floats, it’s bad.
The other trick I learned: if you’re making coffee in a drip coffee machine (we are making a lot of coffee!), you don’t have to put entirely new coffee into the machine for every new can of coffee! You can just add a spoon or two of coffee to the used coffee already in the filter, add water, and you’ll end up with coffee just as tasty as the previous round … And you’ll be using up less coffee overall! (This is going to save me a lot of money going forwards, since I drink LOADS of coffee.) Up until now, I used to empty out and refill my filter every single time!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
You all, whether you’re reading this or not – I’m going to tell you in person again anyway: thank you for the conversations, the movie nights, water-refill and bouncy-house-recovering trips. Thank you for cotorrear-ing about dogs and the world, girlfriends and human beings, and anything from our personal challenges to family history.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I’ll be leaving because I want to live in the middle of nowhere again, not in a place surrounded by highways. But if I could bring Moisés, Andrés and Ivan (just pack up the entire house), I totally would.
I’ve been writing this post for about three months. WordPress tells me I’ve revised it 59 times. I’m still trying to figure out what losing Puzzle means. It feels like a metaphor for … something. But as my life continues, that meaning constantly changes. So for now, I will just write about Puzzle. Not about Puzzle, the metaphor of loss – about Puzzle, the puppy I loved.
~ ~ ~
In reality, the Puzzle Week lasted longer than just a week. Puzzle stayed 8 or 9 days with me. And after that, I kept going back almost every day. I’d walk past her, her mom and her littermates’ house, call “Pupupupupup!”, which would bring them all out into the alley. Puzzle would walk with Game and I while the others stayed back. Sometimes, I’d pick her up and let her hang out at my house for a few hours, and then drop her off again. She’d sleep on my lap while I worked, or chew up flip flops on the living room floor.
All in all, our relationship lasted about five weeks, and we saw each other, I suspect, every day except for about 3 or 4 of these days.
When I entered the part-time-puppy-relationship – that is, when I asked her people to let her stay with me for a week – I already knew our time together had an expiration date. It wasn’t the right time for me to add another dog. Her family might place her with someone else at any point.
I knew that I could share 24-7 hours of quality time and then return a puppy because I’ve fostered dogs in the past, and I’ve rehomed my own dogs when it was the right choice for us. I usually do so calmly and pragmatically, and with little or no tears. I trust my gut. Sometimes, you need to let someone go.
~ ~ ~
It took me two or three days to love her. I don’t use that word lightly in general. I do not love all dogs who stay with me. I haven’t even loved all of the dogs I have owned, or shared a house with. Yes, I’ve been fond of all my dogs. I’ve even “loved” all my dogs in that throwaway comment sense of “Love you, see you later” as you walk out the door, your mind somewhere else. But I have not loved all of them in the way I’m using the word here. In the words of Mark Dotey: “this way to the mountain”:
Maybe I loved Puzzle because of the way she curled up with her back pressed against my neck every night, ever since the moment she convinced me she was not going to sleep on the balcony. She slept through the night, always making contact. Her body was warm, and I could feel her breathing. It was easy for me to fall asleep next to her. (Usually, with a new animal – human or otherwise – in my bed, it takes a while until I sleep peacefully next to them. The smell of someone other than myself – their coat, their soap, their sweat, their skin – these details keep me up at night until they become familiar. It takes a conscious decision to let them become so, and several nights to adjust.
When I let Puzzle sleep in my lap while working on my laptop, she did the same thing: she’d curl up, and I’d feel her rise and fall slowly, breathing, sleeping, snoothing, trusting. Sometimes, she snored a little. Ever so gently. The warmth of her little body. The not-entirely-but-still-quite softness of her short brindle fur. The nose, always a little drier than Game’s. The floppy ears between my fingers. And just like that, I loved her. It was easy. It was this way to the mountain. And I let myself love her. Just like that.
~ ~ ~
Love’s always also cerebral. All emotions are, to a certain point. My prefrontal cortex is pretty good at monitoring what’s going on. As long as it’s in charge, love isn’t scary either. It only gets scary when other parts of the brain take the driver’s seat. Early on, I can still take an exit if I want to. Eventually, there are no more exits – but until that moment – and I see that moment coming for a long time; it’s like a warning sign I’m approaching: “Last gas station.” Until then, I can take an exit pretty much anytime. Knowing that gives me confidence and it makes me brave, and able to open up to people.
I did not care about exits with Puzzle. For the time she was here, I was all in, and that was clear from the moment she first curled up with her back against my neck.
~ ~ ~
Loving a dog is paradoxical. When you choose to not take any of the exits, you already know it will end in sadness. It’s part of the reality of loving a being with a lower life expectancy than your own. The moment you allow that puppy to tumble into your arms, you are saying, “I accept that I will lose you. I know I am going to grieve you, and I will love you anyways.”
I’m finding this pretty remarkable, mostly because I have never allowed myself to feel this way about any animal (human or otherwise) this quickly. I’ve definitely got that foreboding joy thing going on that stops me in my tracks when I approach the last gas station sign: this far, but no further. You’re allowed to “love,” but not to love. You get some of the joy, but not all of the joy, because all of the joy isn’t worth the sadness. You’ll grieve more deeply if you love more deeply, Chrissi, and if you don’t want to grieve deeply, it’s better not to love deeply. You know deep grief. You know it’s an abyss that is f*cking hard to not jump into once you’re at its edge, so you better stay away from the edge altogether. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s how you survive.
I’m not saying I haven’t let myself love people in that way – I have. But never this quickly. It usually takes months for me to get to that sign, and by that point, I’ll know if it will be worth it. (At least by now, at 36 years of age, I hope that I know, at least some of the time.)
I’m almost always aware of the landscape I am traveling through (and how far I’ve gotten on that road; the abundance or lack of exits and gas stations) on a meta level as I let new people or other animals into my life. It’s a trade-off: do you want the safety of not fully loving and never fully grieving, or do you want the joy of fully loving and the devastation of fully grieving? I simply didn’t care when it came to Puzzle. I didn’t analyze, get scared, run away, or keep her at arm’s length. I just loved her without giving it a second thought, and it was easy, and it was good.
I’m not even sure there ever was a time I loved a dog in that way and this fast – but if there was, it was when I was 8 or 10, and that dog’s name was Waldi. Maybe the moment something in my brain decided to protect myself from loving dogs that way again – maybe, actually, from loving anyone in that way – was when I eavesdropped on my grandmother telling my mother that Waldi had died. They were not going to tell me, and that was the biggest betrayal I had experienced in my young life. Maybe I never loved Waldi in that way to begin with. Maybe at that age, you’re not capable of loving in that way yet. Maybe I just used him as something to project my feelings onto (I wrote him letters every day). I don’t know – I don’t trust childhood memories, including my own.
The first time I loved a person like that was MANY years (and two relationships) later. It was E, and the reason I loved her like that was that I didn’t see it coming. I missed the last gas station sign because I didn’t realize I was on that kind of road. E was a woman, and I didn’t yet know I could fall in love with women as well. E came with an abyss, and I didn’t let her go gracefully or remember her fondly.
~ ~ ~
I gave Puzzle back, as promised. More than a week had passed. I had taken all the videos I was planning to take for my CU instructor certification and for my puppy leash skills blog post. It was time. I thanked her people, and got permission to visit from the friendly Señor with the mustache who looked like he was someone’s favorite uncle.
I knew I would miss her, but it was okay. She’d be nearby. I’d visit. Indeed, I ended up visiting her every day. It’s the thing (I thought, smiling to myself on my way up her callejón) that I do. It’s the wanting-to-see-the-animal-or-human-you-love every day. It’s who I am. Loyalty. Stability. Trust. I’ll be there. Always. I’ll be your person, and I want you to be mine. That’s what love means to me. I had thought our relationship would pretty much end when I returned Puzzle (that was before I loved her). It didn’t. And the reason it didn’t was because I loved her this way to the mountain.
Days passed. I kept visiting. I was talking with someone about a home for her – one that she’d be a great fit for. Nothing was sure yet, but life was good. Puzzle wasn’t living with me, but she was in my life, and she was bringing me joy every day. I was her person.
~ ~ ~
One day, she was gone. I came back the next day, and the day after. She never did. I talked to her people – they hadn’t seen her, and they hadn’t placed her. I kept going back for more than two weeks, hoping, against all reason, she’d come tumbling down the stairs.
I’ll never know what happened to her. If I took an educated guess, she is most likely dead. I’m familiar with the mortality rate of free-roaming puppies: it’s 81% before they reach reproductive age.1 There were 5 puppies to begin with, which means that 4.05 of them would die before they were, say, about 6 months old. They’re a couple months old now, and there’s one left.
I’m familiar with the causes of the disappearance of puppies, too. 63% are being directly or indirectly influenced by humans. I know the numbers because I researched them for my presentation at the 2022 Lemonade Conference.
Every single person I’ve shared Puzzle’s disappearance with has told me to imagine someone stole her and gave her a great life. That’s probably the first comforting thought that comes to mind, and my friends want to comfort me. Maybe that’s what happend. Maybe it isn’t. In the former scenario, she’s still alive (which is great). But I’m not liking this scenario. It says something about people that I don’t want to be true. (You don’t just steal someone’s puppy, for fuck’s sake! You go up to the house, and ask if they are selling or giving the puppy away. We’re in Mexico, so the answer will probably be yes. If you were the kind of person who would actually end up giving the puppy a great life, I hope you’d ask first.) So I can’t even say I prefer this scenario to any of the others because it says something terrible about people, and I do not find it comforting.
~ ~ ~
Would I do it again? Sure, with Puzzle. She was special for me because I let her, and that made all the difference. I can live with the fact that I’ll never know what happened to her, and it doesn’t diminish the good times we had. (Which is surprising.) I remember Puzzle fondly, not sadly. I remember her in the way a good thing you needed to let go makes you equal parts sad and happy. It was sad, but okay to let her go. And it was great while it lasted.
The luckiest people in the world are the ones who have something the loss of which will break their heart. The bravest people are the ones who know that joy and loss are two sides of the same coin, and who are willing to dive in anyways. Maybe I’m becoming that person. I’d like to think so.
I’ve decided to split my remaining Puzzle material into a few more posts – they are just getting too long otherwise. Today’s post only has one video, but it is one I truly love, and could watch over and over again. It makes me laugh because it’s cute and goofy – but if I change my point of view, I can also see it as a metaphor.
Social skills: successful communication
An adult free-ranging dog tries to charm Puzzle, and get her to play. Puzzle isn’t afraid – she could walk away or hide behind me. She doesn’t feel the need to hide or flee, but she clearly says, “No!” by turning her head away and NOT engaging. The other dog works hard, but isn’t intruding in her space. He is being gentle, and self-handicapping by making himself small and rolling on his back. He doesn’t get frustrated or impatient – he just works very hard, and keeps respecting Puzzle’s boundaries.
The reason we know this is good communication – even though it doesn’t go anywhere – is the fact that Puzzle is able to stay put. She was sitting on this step before the other dog got here, and she stays in the place she picked for herself throughout the conversation. She doesn’t feel threatened. Yet she clearly knows that he is communicating with her, and she responds politely and clearly: “No.”
These are great communication skills on both parts. Watch this – maybe more than just once. The next time you need to either set a boundary for yourself (see Puzzle) or respect someone else’s boundaries (see the adult dog), remember this video!
Two lessons for humans
Set your own boundaries kindly. You don’t need to yell, and you don’t need to hide from or stonewall the other person.
Accept the boundaries of others gracefully. No need to get frustrated or annoyed. Just do your best. Dogs don’t generally take things personally – for example, this adult dog won’t be unable to sleep tonight because he’ll obsess over what he should have done differently. He will get up (after the video ends), wag, and move on with his life. Don’t take things personally. Be more like this dog.
I love discovering parallels in dog and human behavior.
A few weeks ago, Game cracked a tooth. After an epic Mexican veterinary adventure involving a road trip to Mexico City, a beautiful sunset, a couple dead Moray eels, and two dental surgeries, Game is back home, and on the road to recovery.
Not feeling well – the dog angle
When Game is well, she has the sociability of a Golden Retriever. When she’s not okay, she has the sociability of a Malinois. Post surgery, she was clearly in the latter state. I can tell whether she is or isn’t well by looking at her face. There is a subtle difference in the way the muscles in her forehead are either tense or soft, and in the amount of sleep she needs. Sleep all day? Something isn’t going great, and I need to be careful when I’m out and about with her. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and different mental states track certain behavioral clusters. In Game’s case, not feeling well means that large groups of people (something she generally tolerates extremely well) can cause frustration. This manifests itself, among other things, in a heightened likelihood of barking, lunging, and the temptation to nip at fast-moving strangers. Her threshold for responding to stimuli in the environment plunges.
The human parallel
I sympathize: there’s a parallel in my own behavior. When I am stressed, my threshold for social reactivity (read: lashing out) is lower, too. I have the urge to bite my roommates’ heads off for something minor, feel like yelling at a stranger in the street for looking at my dog too long, want to honk at other drivers, or delete Facebook comments I don’t like, simply because I have the power to, and that’ll show ’em. I explode easily, and knowing that I explode easily stresses me more because I am, at the same time, aware that my stress response is out of proportion to the issue at hand. It’s not about whatever is right in front of me – it’s about trigger stacking on top of a heightened baseline pain level. My self-image is that of someone who is mostly easy to get along with, and always fair. In order to preserve this self-image, I’ll use most of my already depleted energy to focus on self-regulation when I’m around other people whose heads I’d like to bite off. The problem: I can’t focus on self-regulation and recover at the same time – so chances are I’ll be in an equally bad mood the next day, and the day after, and so on.
Back to the canine side of things
At the time of writing, it is 8 days post-surgery, and Game is starting to get back to normal. She’s more active, more likely to pull towards abandoned tortillas (rather than just trotting along with me miserably), and joggers and little children with the audacity to move through public spaces have regained their right to coexist with her.
Today, we went to a store to buy a shower curtain, and on the way back home, we ran into a free-roaming dog. Game was interested in greeting them, and since we were on a big open plaza, I let her off leash. For a few minutes, they ran and chased each other with abandon. I could see Game let loose, her body soften, her goofy self coming out, moving in wide circles, enjoying her laymate’s advances. After a few minutes – shorter than in her perfectly-fine Golden Retriever days – she came back; she was done. I clipped the leash back on, and we continued on home. Already, I could see a change in how she carried herself: loose muscles; a bit of a swagger, less stiffness in her walk.
Now, she’s zonked out, sleeping on the cool tiles in the kitchen – not the sleep of resignation, but the sleep of healthy exhaustion; the sleep of having exercised and having had fun, and having made friends. The sleep that comes with little leg twitches as she’s playing chase in her dream.
Stress-ors and Stre-ss
The fact that she got to play today made a difference for her: today, Game completed the stress cycle started by her toothache and temporarily exacerbated by the surgeries. Amelia and Emily Nagoski explain that we need to not only get over a stress-or (in Game’s case, the cracked tooth, the surgery, and the accompanying pain), but also through the stre-ss (our physiological response) in order to truly leave a stressful event behind us.
There are different ways of completing the stress cycle – one of them is exercise. While I don’t remember this being mentioned in Nagoski’s book, I’d venture another one is play. This would make the combination of the two – play and exercise – a powerful way of completing the stress cycle.
Completing the stress cycle isn’t about the stressor itself (the dental surgery; the pain). Rather, it refers to the physiological release of accumulated stress. (I’m assuming that in this context, “stress” means certain hormones and neurotransmitters and other stuff I wish I knew more about.) My mental image is that of a bucket that has been filled with all kinds of stress-related chemicals over the course of days, weeks, or months – and in order to complete the stress cycle, we need to do more than just turn off the dripping faucets feeding the bucket: we need to dump out the bucket!
Dumping out the bucket
Only when we dump out the bucket does our body realize that the danger has passed; we don’t have to watch our back anymore. Today’s play session emptied out the bucket of accumulated stress for Game, and took her all the way to the other side of the stress tunnel. Earlier the same day, she was already out of physical pain, but she was still in a Malinois state of sociability and tension. Without an opportunity to release the stress, she might have been stuck in the stress tunnel for a long time, her inner Golden Retriever a dog of the past.
How Game’s bucket got filled
Stress has been building up for Game for a while: we’ve been on a road trip, sleeping in different places most days, waiting for me outside new stores, spending long hours in a hot car, and taking leash walks through cities rather than off-leash nature romps. Cracking a tooth, and going to the vet not once, but twice … Lots of changes. Lots of little things that wouldn’t faze a dog like Game as long as they were encountered individually, but which, in combination, build up stress that has no outlet.
Now that the stress is gone, I bet I am going to see other changes in her behavior: I’ll see her return to her usual activity levels, want to meet new people, and cruise through crowded spaces with the swagger of a Golden.
Humans complete stress cycles, too
One of my favorite ways of completing my own stress cycles is playful exercise as well: it’s roughhousing with my dogs. Watching 20-something canine kilos barrell towards you, bracing for the impact, and catching them on a bite sleeve is exhilarating. It requires coordination and concentration. It makes me feel strong. I trust, and I am being trusted. Play-fighting within the rules of the game we established is my perfect stress release: I am completely immersed in this activity. I exist in the current moment in a way I rarely do otherwise. I am moving my body and engaging my muscles in a controlled manner. And I am playing with my dog. Give me a 5-10 minutes of this, and life will be better – at least for the next couple hours. The good thing is that I can go right back for another round if needed!
The good news, and the bad news
The bad news: life is stressful. Empty out your bucket, and it’s starting to fill again right away: navigating maskless crowds in supermarkets in a COVID world, being late, the Internet is down, and you’re out of coffee … It’s the little things as well as the big ones, and they just keep coming. All of these are stressors. They are conspiring to turn on the faucets that will continue spitting stress-related neurochemicals into our buckets (the stre-ss).
But there’s good news, too: once we know how to, we can empty out our buckets anytime – even when the stress-ors are still ongoing. I can pick up a bite sleeve and play with my dog until I’m out of breath, and have forgotten everything about the things that aren’t going my way. I’ll feel better, and will be able to not worry about it – until the chemicals in my stress bucket reach a certain level again, and it’s time to empty out the bucket again.
Be your dog’s advocate
Unlike us, our dog’s can’t always choose when to empty their buckets. More often than not, the activities they get to engage in are up to us rather than up to them.
Being aware of Game’s stress response is important because it helps me support her: I can set her up for success. For example, the other day, I met a friend in the crowded center, and we were going to walk up a hill. This is the kind of activity I’d usually bring Game on. Not last week: I knew that the stress of being around strangers would outweigh the benefits of moving her body on a leashed walk. I’ve also told a number of people who wanted to be introduced to her “No” over the last couple of days. Game is a dog who generally enjoys meeting new people – but not when she’s already running low on energy. She can’t speak for herself, so it’s up to me to be her advocate.
How about *your* dog?
What clusters of behavior does distress track for your dog? How do you support them when external stressors lower their threshold, and how do you help them complete the stress cycle? Also: how about yourself?
Below: an excerpt of Game’s stress-release fun, and one of our favorite road trip songs: “Lift your / head up …”
PS: Today, as I hit “publish” on this post, it’s more than 5 weeks post surgery. Game is doing great – especially since she’s finally allowed to play tug, and fetch hard balls again!
I saw a woman lying in the middle of the street. She was curled up like you’d do when spooning someone. Only there was no one to spoon.
The street was a freeway. I was on a bus – the first vehicle that stopped after a motorcycle ran her over. Her feet were naked. Her skirt had slipped up, revealing her lower legs and bare feet.
Should I get off the bus and make sure she got to a hospital?
She was facing away from us. “Dios mío,” whispered the woman sitting next to me. The sun was shining.
A friend, a lawyer, once told me, “If you ever hit someone in Guatemala, run.” What if the guy on the motorcycle had received the same advice?
His motorcycle was parked on the side of the road. He was fine. He was making a phone call. He wasn’t going to run. And, just like that, I decided to stay on the bus.
The woman in the street slowly lifted an arm. Just a for a second; then it dropped back down. It was the only movement I had seen since we stopped.
“She’s fine”, said the driver. “She’s moving.”
(I’ve seen the mouth of a sheep open and close a minute after separating the head from the body. Clearly, moving an arm doesn’t prove you are fine.)
And we continued on, the bus leaning into the turns so you had to hold on to your seat with two hands, blasting reggeaton.
Later that day, I asked a friend what would happen to the woman. She had no shoes. She certainly had no insurance.
“They’ll take her to the Hospitál Nacional,” said my friend. “It’s free.”
“Will they do a good job there?”
“They won’t,” he said. “If she gets there alive, and she’s badly injured, she’ll die.”
I thought of Peter Singer. He holds that there is no moral difference between walking past a dying person in the street, and choosing not to think of all the dying people in far away places.
It’s morally outrageous to see footage of someone walk past a dying person in the street. We all believe we would stop. (We can’t know if we would. I’d have said I would stop – but I stayed on that bus.)
The thing is: there was no good reason to stay on the bus. If someone is lying in the middle of a freeway, and no one stops the oncoming traffic … How long until they get run over again, this time for good? I’ve seen cats and dogs on that freeway, flat like sheets of paper. There was no breakdown triangles, no traffic cones, and no one was stopping cars for this woman. I could have stopped cars for her, had I gotten off the bus.
I suppose Peter Singer is right. There is no moral difference: maybe we’re just as bad up close as we are at great distances.
My car broke down today. I went to my neighbor’s workshop to ask for help.
Roberto, the mechanic, is in his 50s. He’s got a bit of a belly, the dirty fingernails of a good mechanic, and a formerly white Toyota that looks older than he is, but is still going strong. We took his Toyota (I miss having windows that can be opened manually) to go to San Cristónbal El Bajo where my car had broken down. A yellow teddy bear with long legs and long arms dangled from his rear-view mirror, and he had one of these little flasks with “new car smell” in his old car; a tiny tank holding a purple liquid attached to the air vent. There was a reassuring amount of dust on his dashboard. We’re in the dry season – la estación del polvo. Open the windows and don’t clean your car for a few days, and there’ll be enough dust on your dashboard to leave visible traces in it with your finger tips.
The first time in someone’s car, you learn something about them. Like the first time in their house. You notice things (like the teddy bear. Like the radio with a screen that came to life when he started the car. There was a USB stick plugged in, but the music was turned off. What someone listens to, and whether they turn on the radio or not – it tells you things about a person that go beyond their use of cars).
Roberto didn’t turn on the radio. I wound down the window, and we exchanged the usual semi-ritualized politenesses: how long had I lived here? Were he and his sons from San Pedro Las Huertas originally; had they always run the workshop? What did I do for a living? These four questions is all it takes to know whether you’ll want to continue the conversation, or get through whatever time you are having to spend together in silence, avoiding further engagement. Whatever result you come to – ideally, it’ll be mutual. Mutual silence? That’s okay. Mutual conversation? That’s okay, too. One person talking and engaging, and the other one decidedly looking out the window, playing with their phone, turning on the radio? Awkward.
Roberto and I unspokenly agreed that we were going to have a conversation while the wind was blowing late morning heat through the car. Noon was in the air, and dust – always dust.
“I’ve heard San Pedro used to be controlled by a gang. This whole concept of gangs … it’s foreign to me. It doesn’t really exist where I come from. Can you tell me about it?”
And he did. “It wasn’t really a gang,” Roberto said. “People like to exaggerate. It was a bunch of boys. Ladrones del pueblo. They’d steal stuff – chickens, for example. Anything they could get their hands on, really. They’d threaten people and take things from them, or break into houses.”
“That’s interesting … It seems like San Pedro Las Huertas isn’t full of super rich people. Who’d they steal from?”
“Oh, everyone. It didn’t matter if you had little or a lot for them to take it.
We didn’t have problems with them for a long time. My dad … he was the kind of man who doesn’t get involved in the lives of others. You know, the kind of man who doesn’t get upset as long as the ladrones harass someone else.”
“But we did have issues with them at some point …”
“My brother was walking … right here, in this street. Walkmen had just gotten popular, and he had his walkman and headphones. They took it …”
“They stopped him and threatened him … with weapons?”
“With knives, yes.
We knew who they were, of course. We knew where they lived.
And then they took my brother’s bike, too, the next time they saw him.”
“Yeah. So my dad, who usually didn’t get involved, went to their house, and he knocked on their door …
He said, ‘Why did you take my son’s things?’
They denied it, but my dad just took the boy’s machete from him … And he told him to return my brother’s stuff.”
I could imagine Roberto’s dad – probably looking much like Roberto did now – threatening that young man at his door. The mechanic would speak calmly, and look directly into his eyes, exuding power by his mere presence. I pictured him wearing an oil-stained red polo shirt, like Roberto was wearing one today.
“They gave it all back, and they didn’t steal from us again”, said Roberto. “Some people let others take their stuff. So they will keep taking stuff from them. Others confront the ladrones; they stand up to them – and they’ll be left in peace.”
“What happened to the ladrones? They are gone now, aren’t they?”
“Yeah … one of them went to prison. One was murdered. One left … None of them are here anymore.”
“… until another group just like them takes their place?”
“Yeah. There was another group already. They tried to do the same thing. But people stood up to them, and the group didn’t last.”
We got to the place I had left Bergziege, my car. Roberto unloaded a rusty yellow toolbox and a large piece of cardboard, and his upper body disappeared under the chassis. There’s something reassuring about a person’s legs sticking out from under a car, for some reason. I sat down on a concrete step and told him to let me know if I could assist him in anything.”De acuerdo,” he said, “Okay.” He wasn’t a douchebag kind of guy who believes women can’t hold a hammer.
The problem, he said, was the transmisión. Bergziege had lost a few screws. He took something off the undercarriage: a long metal tube with a joint in the middle.
“You can drive like this, without the transmisión. Just not up very steep hills; you’ve only got front drive now. It’ll take a few days till I get the screws, but then we’ll put it back on.”
“Okay. I’m supposed to drive up a hill today though … That’s actually what I was going to do when the car broke down. I need to take three bags of cement up there. You think I’d better not …?”
“Nah, better not until you’ve got the 4WD back. You may not make it up with the cement.”
I asked him if he’d help me. Could we take the cement up the hill in his car?
“Sure; I’ve got time.”
We loaded the cement out of Bergziege and into the Toyota, and then it was my turn to tell a story. His daughter, now 27, used to really, really want to see the snow when she was little (he said).They got a Christmas tree, and covered it in styrofoam crumbs to give her a glimpse of the experience.
My story, then, needed to be a story about snow. I told him about a particularly snowy winter a few years ago, when I lived on a hill in Austria. I seem to always end up on hills of some kind. We’d walk up the hill, through the forest, in the snow – they only cleared the street once a day, and if it kept snowing, cars would be useless. (The way it feels to walk uphill in fresh snow; how it gets exhausting, but is also its own kind of beautiful? What it’s like to walk at night, taking a shortcut through the forest, when the air is crystal clear and cold and dark, and if there were no highway close by, it would be completely silent except for the sound of your feet? The way the snow makes time slow down, and your thoughts too? Also, being in warm houses when it’s snowing outside; the beauty and the relentless cold and all the things that fit in between.)
We had delivered the cement, and he stopped on the bottom of the hill to let me out where Bergziege was waiting. “Thank you, really,” I said. “What do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it. Come by on Tuesday and see if I already got the screws we need for your transmisión.”
I closed the car door, and the sun spit his Toyota back out into the dusty street.
What can we learn from this? At least five things. In chronological order: people tend to exaggerate when talking about crime. Quiet people are more powerful than loud ones. Cars come with large metal parts that aren’t essential for them to work. I’ve got lovely neighbors.
(Also, something about human nature and the fact that standing up to ladrones pays off, but I’m not sure about the details of that lesson.)