Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 was not so fine. However ...

Does anyone think that this year's been a good one? Everywhere I look, pundits and prognosticators seem united in their agreement that 2009 was The Year That Sucked. Most people I know concur--and I guess I do, too. After all, I dealt with this and this, along with a couple of additional huge disappointments that for now, at least, I won't elaborate on. And that's just this year. No less an authority than Time Magazine has called this decade "the decade from hell." My husband says that instead of calling it the "Aughts" we should call it the "Uh-Oh's."

But even as I type this, some workmen in the room next door to this one are putting the finishing touches on a new gas fireplace that was the solution Stan (my husband) and I came up with to deal with a leaning chimney that was, we feared, jeopardizing the structural integrity of our entire house. The job's taken longer than expected, and our family room has resembled a nuclear wasteland since Monday. Poor Allie hasn't known quite what to make of it all. But when the job is done, we'll have a fireplace that will heat the family room and my office with a tap to a remote control device. A fire while I work: how nice that will be?

And what, you may ask, does this project have to do with The Year That Sucked and the Uh-Oh Decade? Simple. Just as the Chappell-McCullough household has been dealing with crappy conditions within our home, so have many of the rest of us been dealing with crappy conditions in our lives. But, not to sound too glib or Pollyanna-ish, they'll eventually be fixed. And just like a broken bone that heals to become stronger than it was before it was broken, maybe we will emerge from all this being stronger and better than who we were before. Meanwhile, we're still here to cheer each other on. That's something in and of itself: we are still here. And after the events of this year, I no longer take that for granted.

Happy New Year to all, and may you enjoy bidding 2009 a not-so-fond farewell.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Keeping it clean

Normally, I don't think of myself as a pack rat. When it comes to getting clothing ready for the year-end donation to the Salvation Army, I'm ruthless; if I haven't worn it in a year, it goes (wedding dress excepted). Same with books: if I haven't referred to a book for a year or so, it goes to the public library. Magazines and other home-related paraphernalia must pass the same weeding-out criterion. My husband says he looks to me help him sort through all his stuff as we get ready for the next phase of our lives, which will involve leaving this house and moving to a new one.

But when it comes to writing, I may just be a pack rat after all.

I've reached this tenative conclusion after two-plus days of solid cleaning and discarding. Last night I carted 10 garbage bags to our dumpster. Among the items I found as I conducted The Great Purge:
-- Copies of invoices to clients that I printed on a dot-matrix printer in mid-1989;
-- Phone directories from 2002;
-- The official papers that confirm my separation from Federal Government service in 1981 and allow me to re-enter Federal service if I should ever want another job with the Feds (I don't anticipate that, but you never know, right? Uh-huh.);
-- Bank statements from an account I closed a decade ago;
-- An article called "Unrealized Ambitions" that I wrote for The Washington Post in 1998 (I'm keeping that one. After all, it led to a "Quotable Quote" in Reader's Digest. I'm not keeping another piece, "Slumber Party Survival," though).
-- The very first query I sent for a pet article. I'm keeping that one, too, for totally sentimental reasons.
-- Magazines that go back as far as 10 years.

Why did I hold onto all this stuff? In part it's because, in the early years of my freelance writing career, I had to. Those were the days when you had to snail-mail hard copy clips to editors so that they could see you actually had the stuff to write the article you were proposing. And I kept invoices -- back when I still sent them snail mail -- just so that I had an indisputable record of who was supposed to pay me when.

Those days, of course (and thankfully), are long gone. I bless the day that email became the communication method of choice and the day that one could simply link to one's clips on the web and email those links to an editor. The flip side of such convenience, of course, is that the editor I'm pitching may well expect me to allow such online re-publication without paying me any extra money. Writers fought against that practice, but that fight was lost long ago.

But now, my office is clean and clutter-free for the first time in God-knows-how-many years. I'd forgotten how big my desk actually is until I removed the piles of papers and books that covered it. Heck, I'd forgotten how big my entire office is. It's become a haven again, a room of my own, a place where I can dive anew into what I do best: writing.

I just gotta keep it clean.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

An update

A couple of days ago, I posted a link to a Washington Post photo essay about the Caisson Platoon Equine-Assisted Riding Program, in which Arlington Cemetery's caisson horses double as equine therapists for disabled veterans. Today, WaPo reports that one of those veterans, Capt. Mariah Kochavi, died the day before the photo essay ran. The cause of death was complications of the stroke that had prompted her to seek equine therapy in the first place.

Capt. Kocahvi was just 29 years old, and clearly led an active life. Her stroke occurred while she was hiking near Machu Pichu in Peru. She'd joined the army to pay for veterinary school at Tufts University, from which she graduated in 2006. After she finished at Tufts, she worked as a veterinarian at Fort Meade, MD, where she not only cared for a variety of animals (iguanas, anyone?) but also helped to establish an adoption program for animals whose human companions were being deployed overseas.

The Post reports that "Kochavi's parents said they would ask Army officials to bury their to bury their daughter at Arlington Cemetery, carried to her resting place by the horses she once rode."

The rest of the story is here.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Now that I've finished the Golden Retriever book (a marathon that had to be run--I mean, written--at the pace of a sprint), I'm keeping a promise I made to myself at the beginning of the project: to clean up my office when the project was done. This office purge would be a daunting enterprise; I wasn't totally kidding when I said on Facebook that the room should be declared a Federal disaster area.

Today, Day #1, I made a lot of progress. I cleared oodles of irrelevant junk from my desktop, above-the-desk shelves, book bins, and desk drawers. But not all of what I cleared was junk. Some was good stuff I'd simply forgotten about, including an article that meant a lot to me at the time I wrote it.

The piece was about a team of rescued Shelties that competed in a team obedience event at the American Shetland Sheepdog Association National Specialty Show in King of Prussia, PA, probably in March 2000. The story was for a magazine that went under before the story could be published, but I was paid for the piece. However, the magazine bought all rights to the story, so I couldn't resell it elsewhere (and still can't).

But oh, how I loved writing that story. I interviewed each of the handlers and learned about the traumatic backgrounds of each dog before being rescued. One had lived in a cage 23 hours a day; another had been tied to a tree and kicked occasionally by her not-so-loving owner. Still another had a facial deformity and had been afraid of anything that moved. The fourth and final member of the team had been found on the street of a Long Island town, near death from malnutrition and pancreatitis. Each handler had adopted one of the dogs, helped each to regain his or her health, and trained them to compete in dog sports such as obedience and agility. Now, these former rejects were competing on a national stage against dogs who had far more experience than they did, not to mention far fewer issues.

I met and interacted with each dog (including the one with the deformed face, who showed no fear of me whatsoever), and I watched, heart in mouth, as they competed. No, they didn't win a blue ribbon. They came in third, just missing second place, among seven or eight teams. But they were winners in the eyes of everyone who saw them.

I just reread the hard copy of that story, and it brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes (judging by my previous post, I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking I've got the weepies lately. What can I say?). I wasn't reacting to my fabulous prose, although that prose wasn't bad at all. I was reacting to the story itself : to the bravery of those dogs, to the commitment of their people, and to the passion with which I wrote that story.

When I realized a decade ago that that story would never see print, I was pretty disappointed. But now, ten years later, I'm wondering whether it will serve a different purpose -- as a reminder that the best writing comes from passion for one's subject. Sometimes, as in the case of this story, the passion just flows from the heart through the fingers to the keyboard to the computer screen. Other times, one has to dig inside to find that intensity and bring it to whatever one is writing. That image of excavation powers one of my favorite poems, which is here (skip the poet's initial introduction and just go to the quote by Jonathan Galassi).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lump in throat. Tears in eyes.

I dare anyone to view this and not have a similar reaction.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What bullies do

It had to happen. I'm just surprised it didn't happen sooner.

Last week, a group of animal behavior organizations issued a statement that criticized the use of aversives in dog training--specifically citing trainer Cesar Millan as a proponent of such use--and invited him to comment on the statement. Mr. Millan's "comment" came the very next day: his representatives demanded immediate retraction of the statement. They also warned the organizations that failure to do so would put those organizations at risk for being sued by Mr. Millan for libel and for threatening his business.

With the money he's earned from his books, magazine, DVD's and other enterprises, Mr. Millan probably has unlimited funds--or at least very deep pockets--with which to wage a legal battle. And because the organizations' statement originated from a United Kingdom website, he's also got the advantage of waging such a battle where the laws heavily favor libel complainants.

As far as I know, none of the organizations has publicly revealed how they will respond. Some, particularly those with healthy treasuries, may choose to call the Dog Whisperer's bluff. Others, especially those who lack such resources, may choose to exit the battlefield. Those in the latter category may feel as though they've been blackmailed into keeping silent, even though they have the expertise and scientific research to clearly demonstrate that they are in the right. They may feel they have no choice to do anything but withdraw, because to do otherwise would jeopardize their very survival.

This is what bullies do. They threaten people or groups in ways that jeopardize the well-being of those people or groups. The fact that those who are threatened--in other words, the defendants--are in the right doesn't matter. Even if those defendants were ultimately exonerated in a court of law, many would understandably decide that bankruptcy is too high a price to pay for such exoneration. And that's not even taking into account the emotional stress involved when a plaintiff with unlimited funds decides to take aim at one or more defendants that lack such resources.

I've seen first hand--and on more than one occasion--how well-heeled bullies get their way with those who are attempting to do the right thing. I've witnessed the anguish that objects of such bullying tactics endure. Where once I'd have urged those defendants to fight, now I know better. If my only weapon were a water pistol and someone aimed a cannon at me, I wouldn't bother firing my water pistol. I'd get off the field of battle pronto. Anyone who says they'd do otherwise either has more weaponry than the bully does, or simply doesn't understand.

It's hard to walk away from a battle when you know you're in the right. Sometimes, though, walking away is a matter of self-preservation. Sometimes it's better to retreat and regroup--and do so with the knowledge that there's always another day, another time and another place.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tomorrow ...

... we are supposed to get at least a foot of snow (rare for NoVA). And while we do, Allie the Snow Lover and I are going to frolic in our backyard and throughout our subdivision.

I hate cold weather, and as I age I am less than thrilled with snow. That said, I love the way a really big snowstorm turns busy streets and the world in general into a wonderful dog-friendly playground. Allie and I intend to make the most of it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A confession

For the past seven years, I've felt like a bit of a hypocrite as Christmas time. Every time I read an article beseeching readers not to get add a pet to the family at this particular time of year, I'm uncomfortably aware that my family and I did get a pet at Christmas. More specifically, Allie joined our family on December 26, 2002.

We didn't plan it that way. Our beloved Sheltie, Cory, had died suddenly two months earlier, and I found it very difficult to write about dogs and their care without having a dog here in the house to care for. So after a mere month of dog-less agony, I started looking for local Golden Retriever litters and breeders (and yes, I worked through the local breed club to find reputable breeders). The day before Thanksgiving, Julie, Stan and I visited a nearby breeder who had a 3-week-old litter of 11 Golden Retriever puppies. Not surprisingly, we fell in love, and put a deposit on a puppy the breeder chose for us. That puppy was Allie, and she was ready to join us the day after Christmas. And although I'd forgotten how time-consuming and challenging raising a puppy can be, none of those time-sucks and challenges Allie posed had anything to do with the holidays.

So what advice would I give to the average pet owner who wants a dog for Christmas? Think carefully about what you're doing and why, and if you have any doubts, wait till after the holidays. But if you don't, and the timing works out for a holiday adoption -- well, what the heck?

And as for average pet owners and experts' sometimes contemptuous attitudes toward them -- well, that's the stuff for another post. Right now I've got a book to finish.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A visit is not an endorsement

I find it really difficult to believe that the ASPCA would endorse Cesar Millan's training methods, even after a visit to The Dog Whisperer set. But hey, you never know. Stranger things have happened.

For that reason, I contacted two individuals at the ASPCA, both of whom acknowledged that representatives from that organization had visited The Dog Whisperer set; one of those spokespersons said the visit occurred last August. However, that visit did not result in any changes in the ASPCA's position regarding Millan or his methods. Specifically, said one spokesperson in an email to me, "the ASPCA does not endorse Mr. Millan's training methods."

That said, the ASPCA has not made any public statement specifically criticizing Cesar Millan. Instead, the organization has a position statement regarding training methods in general. That statement is here.

Still, there's some slipperiness going on here. Not not only was the Dog Whisperer's initial assertion that American Humane had visited the set and reversed its position untrue -- equally untrue was any assertion that the ASPCA had reversed its position. In all fairness, the executive producer of the The Dog Whisperer did not make that claim when he explained to the BBC that Cesar Millan had confused American Humane with the ASPCA. But he didn't go out of his way to clarify the matter, either.

Bottom line: a first-hand look at someone's training methods is not necessarily an endorsement of such methods. Any statements or omissions that fuzz up that distinction are disingenuous, to say the least.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Someone doesn't look good here. The question is who?

A couple of weeks ago, Cesar Millan appeared on a BBC news program and, in response to a question, said that the American Humane Association--which in the past has sharply criticized his training methods--had reversed its position after representatives from the organization visited him during filming of his NatGeo show, The Dog Whisperer. Outraged viewers contacted American Humane, which reportedly indicated that no such visit had taken place and that its position regarding Millan's methods was unchanged. An American Humane spokesperson also indicated that the group would request a correction/retraction from Millan or one of his representatives.

I contacted American Humane yesterday to ask where things stood in that regard. This morning I received an email from the group's public relations manager, Kelley Weir, in which she stated:

"As promised, we did follow through and ask [Millan's] TV production company, MPH Entertainment, to make a correction with the BBC. As you can see from the attached letter, MPH is attempting to set the record straight and correct this unfortunate mischaracterization of American Humane's position. We hope this helps clarify the situation. As you will also notice in the letter, American Humane has indeed accepted a courtesy visit with Mr. Millan's foundation next year in order to discuss why our position differs from his on his training methods, but that certainly does not infer that we are planning to change our position in any way."

The letter to which Weir refers is from Dog Whisperer Executive Producer Jim Milio to the BBC. In the letter, Milio explains that Millan inadvertently confused American Humane with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) -- which, according to MPH, had visited Cesar on the set. However, the MPH letter said nothing as to whether the ASPCA had subsequently endorsed Millan's training methods. And the only official reference to those methods that I could find on the ASPCA's website in that regard is this transcript from a 2007 online chat with Victoria Wells, ASPCA Manager of Shelter Behavior and Training:

"[Millan and I] have very different methods and philosophies, althouth the ultimate goal is the same. We both want to keep dogs alive. I deal with a very different population of dogs than he does. If I attempted the style of training he practices, the results would not be successful. I work with severely abused animals who need to know they can trust people. I take a lot of different trainers' and behaviorists' methods and apply them to what I do. Two people from whom I have learned tons are Dr. Amy Marder and the ASPCA's Dr. Pam Reid."

Sooooo ... what is truly going on? Did the ASPCA endorse Cesar's methods? Or did Cesar and his team equate an ASPCA visit with an endorsement? Either way, somebody's not looking very good here.

Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to create a link from this post to the PDF file of the Jim Milio letter that Ms. Weir of American Humane forwarded to me. But I'll be happy to forward a copy of the letter to anyone who asks.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Lunch Bunch dines in style

For the past several years, several trainers, one T-Touch practitioner and I have been getting together approximately once a month for lunch to talk dogs and, increasingly more often, unrelated matters. (I'm gonna have to check out The Big Bang Theory, for one thing) Generally we get together at Bertuccio's or some other sit-down-service-on-the-run establishment. But today, to celebrate the holidays and to be just to be a tad decadent, we lunched at Volt, the establishment co-owned by Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio, who's also the chef there.

Oh. my. God.

The food was, to put it mildly, amazing. Here is a link to part of the menu; not included in the link is the prix fixe menu of three courses for the incredibly reasonable price $20.09. (Guess next month it'll go up a penny?).

I went for the ravioli for the first course, chicken for the main course and apple tart for dessert. The ravioli had a tang to it that one wouldn't expect from ravioli, while the chicken had a crispy edge that one would normally associate with duck -- and it was also incredibly juicy and flavorful. The apple tart replaced the peach tart that's featured on the menu I've linked to: the pastry was light as a feather and beautifully absorbed the juices of the warm apple. The tart was paired with basil ice cream (who'd have thought basil could be an ice cream flavor?) that -- much to the amazement of at least one of my dining companions, who know I generally don't eat ice cream -- I scarfed every last bit of. That said, every one of us pretty much cleaned our plates. My daughter was very disappointed that I didn't bring home a doggie bag.

The attention to detail in unexpected places was amazing. Take, for example, the soup spoons. On one side of the bowl part of the spoon was a little divit. The reason, one of our servers explained, was to make it easier for diners to get every last bit of soup or sauce out of the appetizer dishes, which were grooved. That way, a diner could enjoy her entire portion of her appetizer without having to do something uncouth, like licking the bowl.

My only quibble was the noise level. We were seated at a long table, and I found it hard to hear what everyone else was saying (of course, it could be my age catching up with me. But I'd prefer to think not). But that's a small price to pay for what's probably the most memorable, not to mention delicious, dining experience the Lunch Bunch has had to date.

And if Bryan doesn't win next Top Chef next Wednesday (smart money's on this guy, because he's won so many challenges. I do like his simple food credo) -- well, geez, I can't imagine how great the winner's food could be.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Not-so-random ACTS

We're on Day #2 of the Allie Christmas Tree System, a.k.a. ACTS. I devised ACTS in response to Allie's having destroyed my favorite ornament less than 12 hours after we put the tree up on Monday evening.

Julie, Stan and I wondered why Allie would start going after ornaments now, when she's shared seven previous holidays with us. Only yesterday did I realize why: this was the first full year that we didn't put Snappy Trainers (a cross between a ping-pong paddle and a mousetrap that makes a loud noise when touched but does no harm). IOW, I never actually taught Allie to refrain from touching the tree ornaments. I just deterred her from them. Without the deterrence, the ornaments were fair game.

Hence, the institution of ACTS. The elements consist of:
1. Using the clicker and treats to show Allie that she needs to keep her nose, mouth and teeth off the ornaments. I c/t when she approaches the tree, then turns away. She's figured that out pretty quickly: she's now trotting up to the tree, turning around expectantly, and is trotting back as soon as she hears the click.
2. Adding the "off" cue--which I'd already taught Allie with respect to other forbidden items -- once Allie caught on to what was expected of her around the tree.
3. Not allowing her to have access to the tree when we're not around. This means that she's crated when we leave the house, and is with a household member at all other times.

So far, so good ... Allie's ornament take remains at just one.