Friday, October 30, 2009

Whips and Chains

It's not what you think. (Is it ever, with me?)

This weekend I was back at Katie's cabin, helping her move some things; she's thinking of selling the cabin, and even if she keeps it there are some things that can be moved back to her house. Even this year, with its long hot summer and leisurely fall, winter will eventually come, and it's not likely that she'll need her canoe and her volleyball net for a while.

Up at the cabin it is colder - it usually is, the deeper you go into the Interior - and there is ice on some stretches of the road. We drive through any number of frozen-over puddles, crunching through inch-thick ice overlying 6 inches of water. In places the ice is muddy brown, but in others it's as clear and sparkling as chandelier crystal, rock-candying the margins of the puddles where others have gone through before us. The stream, in motion, has no ice at all yet, and even a fish lingering there in the chill current. There are deep red cranberries and rose hips still adorning the denuded and skeletal thickets, and a late lupin with purple blooms still clinging to the flower spike. Here and there in a protected lee, a deciduous plant still bears some green and gold.

At the cabin the view is glorious. The Mountain is out in all her glory, sharp against a blue sky. Off her right flank rises the sheer cliff of Moose's Tooth, catching the morning light across her face. The autumn sun shines silver at that hour, and the cliff face beckons, a smoky lavender-blue in the light, declivities and seams picked out clear, yet somehow still speaking of mystery. I turn away from this enticement with difficulty; we've had coffee on the way up, and more prosaic concerns intrude. It's time for a last memorial pee in the legendary Necessary House at Katie's cabin, and then on to practical matters.

Katie has her canoe stored keel-side-up on a little ridge. This allows it to drain and keeps it from filling up with rain water. It also, however, allows water to run down the hull and puddle under the gunwales, with the result that when we flip the canoe right side up, there are several 6-inch-wide platforms of frozen mud perched along the gunwales like little tabletops. Katie begins tugging at these, but they seem welded to the canoe, clinging stubbornly.

I tug at one myself, finding it hard as steel and unwilling to budge. Hmm. I glance around, looking for a tool of some kind. Ah, perfect: an oar.

"Hold her steady for a sec," I invite Katie, and I slide the blade of the oar under the ledge of ice across from me, seating it against the gunwale. Holding the oar shaft at the balance point with my left hand, I thump my right fist down sharply on my end of the oar. The oar blade pops up just as sharply, neatly levering the entire ice table off the gunwale.

"There. Just the tool for the job," I say with satisfaction, moving to the next ice table.

"Gimme that other oar!" says Katie with a gleam in her eye, and in a matter of seconds we have de-iced the canoe. We give each other a grin and slide the canoe into the bed of her truck, where Katie straps it in.

Here I will freely admit that I didn't magically develop the knack of MacGuyvering useful jury-rigged tools out of ordinary objects all by myself. No, the credit for this, I feel, must go to my friend Judi. Way back in the day, before my stints as racehorse groom and barn manager, Judi and I rode together at the barn that I eventually would manage. One day we were at the barn and I realized I'd locked my keys in my Karmann Ghia. It was a hot, muggy eastern day and I'd left the window cracked about 2 inches to prevent myself from being instantly parboiled on opening the car door. I tried reaching my arm through this gap to try to grab the door lock; it was a vintage car and had the little mushroom-capped lock stems that you never see any more, and I thought if I could juuuust get my arm far enough in.... But no such luck.

Judi exited the barn and sauntered over with her long-legged stride, eyeing my dilemma.

"I locked my keys in the car by accident," I said - rather unnecessarily, because who does it on purpose? - and withdrew my arm from the window, frowning at the car.

"Hm," she said, and without a moment's hesitation she stepped to the side of the car, slid her riding crop through the gapped window, hooked the little mushroom top of the lock stem with the loop at the end of the crop, and popped the lock.

"There," she said, with satisfaction. "Done."

My eyes sprang open wide for a moment, and then I laughed. "Man, are you a tool-user," I said with some admiration, shaking my head and retrieving my keys from the floorboard, where they had apparently fallen, unnoticed, when I'd gotten out of the car. "I'm pretty sure I've never even heard of anyone using a whip to jimmy a car door before, let alone seen it." Judi gave me a grin and a shrug, and sloped off leisurely to her own car.

I have to say I was rather impressed with that quickness of thought, the ability to see a solution to a problem - instantly, in this case - by applying novel uses to familiar objects. She didn't stop to think about it: It was immediately clear to her that she had in hand a tool that could be adapted from its original purpose to solve the problem at hand. That kind of stuck with me. And, following Judi's example, I've done a little MacGuyvering of my own, here and there, in the years since.

Once I was picking my mother up at Anchorage International. My mother suffers a bit from hypoglycemia, and knowing that airline food was unlikely to be much help with that, I'd come prepared with a bomber-sized bottle of Alaskan Amber. I knew from experience that beer was, for her, a quick fix for the hypoglycemia, and would hold her til we could get some real food into her. The problem was that I didn't have a bottle opener, nor was one available at the liquor store where I stopped to get the beer. I felt certain that at least one of the airport gift shops would have a bottle opener, but in that I was sorely mistaken. So there I am at my truck, with my hypoglycemic mother (looking a little pale around the edges), her luggage and a bottle of beer, and no way to get the beer into my mom.

But not for nothing did I know Judi. I set the crimped edge of the beer cap against the bumper of my truck, struck the top of the cap smartly with the heel of my hand, and popped the cap off the bottle.

"There," I said, in tribute to Judi. "Done." My mom laughed, but I think she just figured this was an Alaska thing: We ALL open our beers with our truck bumpers and repair our airplanes with duct tape, right?

The MacGuyver thing isn't just for Alaska, though. Back when I was in grad school, I was once taking care of a fellow grad student's dog while she went into the field. Nickie had an old collie with arthritic wrists and a ceaseless, cheerful grin. He needed fed and medicated twice daily, so I stayed at Nickie's house, driving her little VW Rabbit to and from school. Nickie, doing a little MacGuyvering herself, informed me that the screen door latch was broken, but she'd discovered that it could be opened from the inside by means of a spoon.

"Don't let it latch when you leave, though," she warned me. "You can only open it from INSIDE with a spoon. You can't open it from the outside at all."

"Okay," I said, and I was careful to pull the screen door to when I left, but to not allow it to latch.

Things went along swimmingly for a while, and then one day I returned from school to find that the door was latched tight. Crap. I was sure I'd been careful not to latch the screen door, but maybe the wind blew it shut or something. I could hear Nickie's dog inside, doing his "Welcome-home, I-really-need-out" bark. Poor dog. He needed his pain meds too, and his food supplements, and a good scritch. I looked around. Nickie had one half of a duplex, and the neighbor's back yard was divided from hers by a four-foot chain link... but the whole of both yards was surrounded by six and a half feet of solid cedar privacy fence.

I knocked on the neighbor's door, thinking they could let me into their back yard and I could hop the dividing fence and go in via Nickie's back door. Unhelpfully, the neighbors were not home. Crap. I went around to the side of the fence, where there was a gate. This had a latch on the inside, but it was padlocked shut. Even though I had a key, it had to be unlocked from the inside. I grasped the top of the fence, gave a little hop and tried to walk up the fence face, using the iron gate hinges as steps. Nope: Not enough purchase for my toes, and I was getting splinters in my hands. I gave that up and eyed the terrain. Maybe I could drive the Rabbit up the curb and get it near the fence, then stand on top of it... nope. There were two ornamental shrubs in the way, and I was fairly certain the property owner would not be happy to have his tenants - or their house-sitters - expensively destroying his landscaping. Not to mention what it might do to Nickie's car.

I looked at the hinges again. Maybe Nickie had something in her car that I could use to lever the pegs out of the hinges so I could just take the gate off. No such luck: she had no tool box in the back of her car. All she had was a thick wool blanket, a set of tire chains and a gallon jug of water -

A set of tire chains.

Suddenly I'm having a Judi moment.

I pull the chains out of the Rabbit and flip them over my shoulder, a little grin forming on my face as I carry them to the fence. This first set of chains I hang over the top of the fence, snugging them tight into the notches between the tops of the cedar boards and draping the chains down the fence. The second set I loop over the upper gate hinge, wedging a link into the crevice around the hinge as securely as I can make it go. I fold my jacket into a rectangle and flip it over the top of the fence to defeat the splinters. I put my toe into the stirrup of my lower tire chain, test it for slippage (none), and mount it like I'm mounting a horse. I grab the top of the fence - much nicer with the jacket over it - and, peering down between my knees for aim, step my right foot into the other tire chain. I step up onto that one, swing my left leg over the fence, toe it onto the latch so I can get my right leg over, and hop down into the yard.


I hurry to let Nickie's cheerful old collie out into the yard, then go around to the front door. There is a book between the door and the screen; evidently the postman put it there, as it was too big to fit in the mailbox, and shut the screen door tight to hold it in place. I open the screen door with a spoon, go around to the side yard, and deconstruct my improvised ladder, stashing the chains back in the Rabbit.

When Nickie gets back I tell her that the postman shut a book in her door, locking me out of the house. Her eyes go a little round.

"How did you get in?" she asks.

"Made a ladder out of your tire chains," I say, describing the method in case SHE ever gets locked out in a similar fashion. And what do you know, Nickie is as impressed with my improvisational tool-making skills as I was with Judi's.

It's a nice little legacy Judi left me: the knowledge that when something brings you up short, with no evident solution to hand, looking at things a little slantwise will often deliver you a solution with no more than you have to hand. Even if it looks like you're stuck, you can always bail yourself out... as long as you have whips and chains.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Slow Fall Into Winter

Author's note: Writing time is being consumed a little by editing time. Sorry about that. Things may be a bit slower on the "posting" aspect for a while, as I work on editing for the book. I hope you can all bear with me for a bit....

It's been a beautiful fall here.

We deserve it, after last year. Last year we came out of winter into a late, chill spring, and endured a cold summer, a raw overcast fall and an early, bitterly frigid winter. By the time we got to this spring, we were getting a bit cranky - well, I was anyway - and it didn't help that this spring was late and unseasonably cold as well. It was quite a pain lambing in it, not least of the reasons being the incessant worry - til things warmed up - that the lambs would be suffering or at risk.

This summer, though - glorious. It was hot. I mean ACTUAL hot, not just Alaska hot. We had temps over 90 this summer in the valley - the first time that's happened since I moved here. We had a whole week where it was in the upper 80's when I went home at night, every evening, consecutively. I actually used the air conditioning in my truck. I know! Amazing!

Normally, I am not especially heat-tolerant, most particularly when it's combined with humidity; that heavy, muggy weather blankets me in oppression and saps my energy and my will to do anything. (I realise the irony of this, given that I used to make my living grooming racehorses on the east coast - in the summer. I think it was the horses that made that tolerable... they make everything more enjoyable, don't they?) But this summer - wonder of wonders - I actually revelled in hot, humid weather. Revelled. Just a little, mind you, but actual revelling occurred. I kid you not.

Maybe because we'd just recovered, by dint of our beautiful hot summer, from what seemed like 19 months of winter - winter-winter, spring-winter, summer-winter and then winter-winter again - most of us were a little reluctant, maybe even a little apprehensive, to see fall coming this year. Because warm and glorious and restorative as this summer was, maybe we weren't quiiiiite ready for winter to come back again. I admit I was disquieted when I had yellow leaves falling in my driveway - just a few, mind , you but there they were- in July. Could that mean an early, cold winter coming? No, I told myself. That's just heat stress. La la la la la, I can't hear you!

Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

Still, you face what you have to face. So I braced myself for a cold, hard fall and a colder, harder winter. After all, I did it last year, I can do it again, right?

As it turns out, so far I haven't had to.

It's the 28th of October today. The leaves finally all came down about 2 weeks ago; there were actual green leaves - GREEN, I'm telling you - still on some of the last hold-out trees until about 3 weeks ago. So far, my lake has yet to freeze. We've had one day where there was a thin scrim of ice on the surface, but it melted off by afternoon. There have been four days when the neighboring marsh - shallower and faster to freeze - has had that same thin, clear crust of ice on it, just for the day. The swans only left my lake 10 days ago. There are still ducks flying around my house, swift and sturdy as they launch themselves through the air on fast-beating wings. Last night it rained. I'll grant you there was about an hour during the middle of the day when there was a sleety look to it, when there was a faint scurf of white on the grass in the lees of the hedges, but that didn't last. By nightfall it was gone, melted by rain. In late October. In Alaska.

This morning there is the faintest ice-fractal on the surface of the water dish on my deck, but none on the lake or the marsh. No frost slicks my deck or clings to the trees. It's cool out, certainly - 33 degrees on my thermometer - but that's nothing. Nothing at all.

We had a winter, a few years back, where it never went below zero at my house all winter. To zero, yes, twice - but never below. It snowed, and the snow stayed, but it was mainly in the teens and twenties all winter. None of this 40-below-zero crap for THAT winter.... and certainly none of that never-gets-warmer-than-twenty-below-zero-for-three-weeks-strait nonsense. My lake didn't ice til the tenth of December. Given that I have some congenital abnormality that has me convinced that winter is over as of about February tenth, for me winter was only three months long that year. I enjoyed every minute of it - but springtime in Alaska is so full of vigor and life and burgeoning light that you can't regret the fade of winter, no matter how much you like it.

Hmmmm.... I think I could live with a reprise of that, this year.

This won't last forever, this long, gorgeous slide toward dark and cold. Sooner or later we'll be in short days and snow and ice. But for now... it's been a long, slow fall into winter.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Way Of The Peaceful Vet

Author's note: this started out to be a post about something else entirely, but sometimes you just have to go where the writing takes you. Sorry about that.

Early on in my career as a vet, it was easy to be unsure of myself... or easier, I should say. I still question myself daily - many times daily, in fact - wondering if I'm getting the right diagnosis, am I on the right track, what's best for this patient, how can I best achieve that within the limits of what both the client and the patient can afford, how should I handle that client so as to get the maximum benefit for them and their pet. That can be a tricky balance; some people need so much attention themselves that it distracts from the patent's care, and technically it's the patient I am there to care for. But realistically, no animal walks in and slaps down a gold card and says, "Hey, I have this bump on my neck, can you have a look at it?" The patient always comes with an owner attached - and ideally, this is how it should be. It is a good thing in the world that there are so many people who have the love of an animal - or several - in their lives, and vice-versa. So often I see that some part of the personalities involved - either that of the pet or that of the owner - would never have reached their full expression if not for that relationship. It immeasurably enriches them, and us, and the world; and if in some small way I am party to helping that along, then I am well-content.

To that end, I sometimes have to find ways of dealing with people and animals that I would not naturally feel an affinity for. The vast majority of my clients are wonderful, as are the vast majority of my patients; but I will admit that it is at times difficult to feel a sense of oneness with a dog who is trying to rip my lips off for no greater offense than walking into the room. It's perhaps more difficult to feel companionable with someone who refuses to even hear what I am saying - who declines to view the situation in terms of what is best for the patient, who refuses to listen to my best advice, who sets their own prejudices and judgements above what is, to my eye, clearly obvious and of critical importance - and which I have told them in no uncertain terms is the case.

Still. There are ways for most of this; and I imagine that as I go along I will find more ways, better ways, to handle the difficult ones. It is, after all, my job: to help. And if I learn something along the way, so much the better.

So I check myself constantly, making sure I've provided the information that is needed to make decisions, trying not to make the decision for the owner - that is their right and their responsibility, to make the best choice they can for themselves, their family, their pet. It is not always done well, and I may disagree with them; in their shoes, I might do differently. But I am not in their shoes, so I have to trust that they have chosen rightly for themselves and their pet. I try not to judge their choices - after all, I do not live their life. It's enough work living my own, and I have not the energy nor the wisdom to choose for them.... only to advise, to counsel, to guide and support, and then carry out their will as best I can.

I am often asked "What would you do if this were your pet?" - and I typically answer the same way each time:

"I'll answer that question, but I'll apologize in advance for that because it's a bit unfair of me to do it. This is different for me than it is for you; I can come in at 3 a.m. and Xray my dog if I want, because I have a key to the clinic - so these choices are easier for me than for you, because I can change my mind any time and go a different way, and I'm less intimidated by these procedures than most people, because I do them every day. That said, if this were my pet..." and then I'll tell them what I WOULD do if it were my pet.

So in this way I carry on my little war, my small fight against the dark. It's not a fight against death, really... I do want to help my patients have the longest, best-quality lives possible, but death comes to all of us in the end; and when it comes for my patients, I try my best to see that it comes with some dignity and some peace for the patient and the client both. In my imaginings, I think that death might not be so bad - it might, in fact, be an amazing good thing. And certainly the end to suffering - which it is my burden and my honor to bring to countless patients, past and future - that is something of value. From the simple view of an animal, suffering is just suffering. It is not ennobling, it is not enlightening. It is not a chance to learn grace and courage, as it might be for a person; animals have this in abundance already and hardly need the lessons of pain to bring it to them. No cat is thinking, "If I can just make it 'til Christmas" and no dog is hoping to live to see his grandson graduate from medical school. They live in the day, and if I cannot provide a reasonable hope that better days lie ahead - if I can only see that worse ones do - then it seems a mercy and a kindness to all of us, though to them most of all, not to let it go there. The hardest part of this being, of course, that while I am ending the animal's suffering, I am starting the owner's. It can be devastating to not only say goodbye to such dear friends as our pets can be, but also to have to be the one to make the choice that this is where that friend's life will end - and God forbid that we ever have to make such a choice for any family member but a pet. But still there is the hope of healing there, the redemption of knowing that you eased the pain of one you loved by the exercise of courage and compassion in making a difficult choice; of knowing that the last thing that animal knew would be the hand of a friend. There is, I hope, some comfort in that, and in knowing that you delivered your good friend into whatever comes after this life, as gently as it was possible to do. Death really is not the enemy here.

So no, my fight is against the dark: The darkness of ignorance, of carelessness, of failure of compassion, of indifference and neglect and cruelty and fear. My fight is to bring the light, maybe just a tiny bit, but to bring it where I can. My fight is not to give in to righteous anger when confronted with ignorance and thoughtless cruelty, but instead to find a way to change that; to stop it from happening next time, maybe. It's hard, sometimes. I have a temper that is slow to rouse, but once roused, is fierce and implacable: Scots to the core, my brother would say. That's a big horse to keep a rein on, and there are times I fail. But failing to rein it in does nothing to help the world. If I let that horse run, it will just run over things and smash them; it is only in harnessing it that it becomes a useful force.

So this is my battle with myself, to find a way to learn from all of this, so that next time I will be better at it, faster, kinder, stronger; so that I will not give in to the demands of ego, so that I never make it about me. It's not about me. It's about those I serve, who are in some ways the most deserving among us: the innocent. So if I must doubt myself in order to do this well, I will doubt. If I must sacrifice the need to be right, I'll sacrifice. If I must resist the temptation to judge, I'll resist. If I must hold tight to the reins of my temper, I'll hold. If I must stand my ground when I am afraid and tired and beset on all sides, I'll stand. If I must gather up all my courage and take the leap of faith, I'll leap. If I must yield my desire to dominate the growling dog or the fractious client, I'll yield. If I must submit myself to the burdens of this path, I'll submit.

One way or another, I still find my way along this path, arduous and gruelling as it may be at times. Because the gifts are great: It seems that the more I give myself to this way, the more I become who I came here to be. And I find my way strewn thick with the gifts of those I serve: Courage, humor, empathy and grace. Forgiveness and gratitude. Patience. Humility. Joy. Love. Mostly I think it is they - my patients, and often my clients as well - who bring me the light that I try to bring to others.

It is a path of irony, because it is composed of opposites: It is my left brain which processed the education, but the right brain that drove me to it. It is my intellect that gathers the information, but my intuition that best applies it. It is a way of fierce kindness and gentle ruthlessness. It is art and science entwined in a passionate embrace. It is where the clarity of knowledge and certain fact reveals the vast unknowable Mystery.

It is a juxtaposition of opposites, all right, and I still have much to learn about how best to stand at that juncture. But I'll keep trying.