Sunday, March 24, 2013

Morgan le Fay (5/5/2000 – 3/18/2013)

Prior to receiving this dog into our family, I had named my animal companions after gods and goddesses. My cats had names like Aphrodite, Artemis, Diana and a brother and sister pair we named Electra and Orestes. Before we got her at nine months, the dog’s name was Winnie. (Welsh for a fair one, white and smooth, fair and pure.) It was a good name, but the dog had not been trained and was out-of-control, which was why we needed to “rescue” her. For a new life, she needed a new name. I searched through Bulfinch’s Mythology not finding any Greek or Roman goddesses who seemed quite right. She deserved a powerful name and then I remembered the Arthurian Legend and Arthur’s sister – the enchantress, Morgan le Fay.

She was well named. She never met a person who could resist her magic spells.

Morgan believed her role in the world was to allow people to express their love for her. She gave everyone, whether they knew they needed it or not, the opportunity to heal through petting her. God gave humans two hands, she often said, so one could experience the joy of petting a dog while the other went about its normal business. If you forgot, she would bump your hand with her head or with the tip of her wet nose.

She was the star pupil at her obedience training classes and preferred carrots as reward treats. At her favorite command, “Belly rub,” she would flop onto her back, four legs into the air, thumping her tail on the floor in anticipation. When I gave her a neck rub along with the belly rub she would close her eyes, tilt her head all the way back and moan with pleasure.

It took her several years to train her “masters” on proper daily routines. If they lapsed she would stand in their presence and huff loudly until they figured out what they had forgotten. Dinnertime was precisely at 5:00 pm and, except for a readjustment period twice a year when humans foolishly reset their clocks, she would begin agitating a couple of minutes before the appointed hour.

She was the protector of the house—as long as that meant being outside and barking at the deer, bear, coyotes and wolves. After years of practice attempting to imitate her fellow canines, she came up with a modest version of a howl and did not take kindly to the human laughter it prompted.

She was omega to anyone or anything’s alpha. If ten-pound Electra (our Calico cat who died last year) chose to eat from Morgan’s food bowl, seventy-pound Morgan would whimper—asking her human parents to solve the problem for her.

Morgan loved the Northwoods. She learned to swim in 2001 when she waded into Shank Lake and discovered her feet no longer touched bottom. She never tired of swimming or chasing the Frisbee, and when forced to go back inside because she was shivering from near freezing water, she would protest. As she stood there you could almost hear her say, “I-I-I’m not c-c-c-c-old.” She loved swimming with her people, but if they weren’t willing to join her in the water, she’d bring her Frisbee and retrieve it for hours. She trained her humans to throw it just far enough to allow a full-gallop run down the dock, leap and belly flop into the lake, snaring the Frisbee in a stroke or two.

She knew the route between Savannah and Cincinnati and Michigan. Awakening from a nap she would request the driver to lower the window so she could sniff the country to know where she was. She insisted on a quick sniff of any city we passed through to confirm we were on the right track. Once we hit the dirt roads in Michigan she paced the whole way in, anticipating freedom without collar. While the humans set up camp for her, she would trot down to the dock and impatiently wait. If the wait was too long, we would hear a splash and sometime later the drenched dog would appear.

She was marvelous with small hands, allowing many unintended abuses as children learned to love her. She was the chaperone as grandchildren first explored the woods on their own.

Despite her self-image, she was not perfect. She snored and she farted, sometimes acting like a junior high student who looks around pretending not to be the culprit.

Morgan was without question the smartest of our dogs and always interested in the world around her.

Were she still physically with us she would sense the tears now forming in my eyes and lay her head in my lap, reminding me that everything she taught me is still in my memory. True, I whisper back, but I miss your huffing at my failures and your licks telling me I am forgiven.

~ Jim

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reclaiming an Avocation

In college I wanted to be a math teacher. I majored in math and earned minors in psychology and education. New York State issued me a provisional teaching certificate to allow me to teach grades 7-12.

Fortunately, I graduated in December 1971 in the midst of a recession and couldn’t find a job as a math teacher. I say “fortunately” because I would have been an abysmal high school math teacher. I do not have the patience for teaching people who do not want to learn and let’s face it, most kids in high school are not there because they are math enthusiasts.

I lucked into a career that used my math skills. A few years after I retired, I took up bridge and decided to write a book to help intermediate players. The world’s largest publisher of bridge books liked my writing style and last year One Trick at a Time: How to start winning at bridge was published. To help market the book, I started teaching free mini-lessons at bridge tournaments. I had a good time with those and got some positive feedback. Eventually I was asked to teach a one-session class at the local bridge club.

I was starting from scratch, so the lesson took a long time to prepare. I stood before my twenty-four students and gave it a go. The two hours flew by and that, I figured was that.

Until, over the next few weeks, people asked when I was doing another class.

They said I explained things in a down-to-earth, practical way that made sense to them. They liked the touches of humor I interjected. They enjoyed how they got to think through the practice problems and discovered it was safe to give a wrong answer.

I’m a snowbird and soon left for my six northerly months. When I returned south, I was surprised when people asked if I was going to teach classes again. Because I was spending so much time at bridge tournaments, I didn’t have too much time for teaching. That year I co-taught a few classes with another person, but the lessons were that person’s and while I enjoyed the time, it wasn’t great.

This year, the bridge club owner who had done much of the teaching was unavailable because she had to care for a sick relative. I agreed to teach two of her courses. We’re using bridge books as our textbooks, and I have her teaching notes, but I have a lot of leeway to craft the lesson plans as I choose. On February 1st I taught my first class of twelve newer players.

I had a blast. Again, the two hours flew by. I saw eyes light up as they understood the new concepts we explored. Even more fun was to overhear the “oh, that’s how it works” as they really “got” something they had learned (or mislearned) earlier. They worked the practice deals in groups of four to solve the problems. I moved from table to table to explain, critique and praise and saw how engaged everyone was. I loved it.

Later at home, Jan asked me how the class had gone. I enthused to her as I did in the previous paragraph and that’s when I realized I absolutely loved teaching. Although not my vocation, I think I’ve rediscovered an avocation.

I’m busy working on the next several lessons for my bridge students and also thinking about ways I can work teaching into the library visits I am trying to set up with my upcoming launch of Bad Policy. Those of you who have done or attended library readings, what did you enjoy the most?

~ Jim
(originally posted on Writers Who Kill 2/10/13)