Me, the Mountains and the Stick

The mountains are my sanctuary, my think tank and my personal fitness center. I’m so comfortable up there that even my sense of direction is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE That’s not saying a lot. Sometimes we pee on trees to make sure we can find our way back.

Okay, I may be pushing it but I figured I’d better justify this post because I’ll probably get some static from my daughter/mothers. They think I have a little streak of crazy but I prefer to call it a streak of adventure.

Awhile ago, I found a stick that gives me a certain sense of security. I started carrying it whenever I’m hiking alone. I use it for balance and for checking under rocks but figure I can use it as a weapon if I ever have to. I would share a picture of the stick but I don’t want anyone questioning my sanity or laughing at me. And no, I don’t think it has magic powers.

ELBEE Let me put it in perspective. If I fetched, which I don’t, the stick would almost be too ridiculous for me to bring back.

I was walking on dirt Mulholland when I decided to take the stick and head up a ridge trail that only the “regulars” use. For the record,  I’ve done it countless times. I was enjoying the climb, watching at least twenty ravens soaring over the canyon, putting on a spectacular air show.

Then there it was, right in front of me, a big rattlesnake. As you may know I’m not a huge fan of snakes but I do respect them and try not to bother them. This one, however, started getting on my nerves. It wouldn’t budge so that I could go by. Finally, I gave it a gentle nudge with the stick and it took off.

Snake on the Ridge
Relative of the Snake on the Ridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started climbing again, using the stick to make sure that none of the snake’s relatives were hiding in the rocks or bushes. Unfortunately, as I got near the top, I missed one little turn and instead of arriving back on the main trail, ended up looking down a mini cliff.

ELBEE She was probably “rattled ” after meeting the snake.

GUS Good one Elbee!

Since I had absolutely no desire to back track, I decided it was “doable” and slowly slid my way down. FYI: I’m writing this post from my house and not from a hospital bed.

Seriously, I am truly appreciative of my ability to climb these beautiful trails, especially with the wild fires that have been ravaging California. I also have such gratitude for my health and for my sense of adventure, which I admit has grown stronger as I’ve gotten older. I think that challenging yourself is a way to feel vibrant and alive, no matter your age.

It’s like the grandpa in the commercial who tells his wife he’s going fishing and then goes surfing with his grandson. I totally get it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How’d Ya Do That?!

Recently I was waiting in the lobby of a hospital while one of the daughters was having surgery. A woman with a Golden Retriever approached and quietly asked if I’d like to meet a therapy dog. Since I have never really had a visit from a therapy dog other than the Doods, who we all know are my live in therapists, I was fascinated. It was so interesting to be on the receiving end of the visit.

The interaction was lovely, not a term I use loosely, and one that has probably never been used to describe me. If I’m being honest, the Doods and I are more of a circus act. Although I will never go as far as the handler I saw who dresses like a clown. I’m terrified of clowns. Anyhow, the woman and I chatted as her very sweet dog rested its head in my lap. It made me realize that the style of visit is probably unique to each team.                                                                  

Speaking of style, take a look at this photo. It really has absolutely nothing to do with this post but I had to share. And if you want to know who’s responsible for this look, check out the middle daughter hiding her head.

 

 

 

ELBEE For the record, notice that I’m also hiding my head even though I’m torn. I’m not sure if this is sad or fabulous. I will admit that I’m strangely jealous.

Seriously, some interactions are determined by the personalities of the dog and the handler and others are determined by the situation. The common thread is that the dogs bring about results that can’t be easily explained. The young boy who hasn’t smiled in a week grinning from ear to ear. The man who awakens from a coma and remembers the presence of the dogs in his bed. The aggressive teen who ends up hugging a visiting dog. There is no simple answer.

Maybe it’s the time of year with Yom Kippur as a day of remembrance, but my thoughts turned to my brother Stan, who as I’ve shared in earlier posts, passed away from cancer when he was in his forties. Stan was a tv director who did magic as a hobby. He was so often asked, “How’d ya do that?”(and by the way, he would never tell me) that he used the phrase on a business card. A laminated version of that card has been hanging on a hook in my garage for the twenty years or so that he’s been gone.

As I glanced at it the other day, it dawned on me that what all of our amazing therapy dogs do is actually magic. Sometimes it’s close up magic as they cuddle with a sick child or help a patient forget her pain. Other times it’s stage magic as they entertain a group in the neuropsych units, charm a class of school students or distract an anxious family waiting to hear about a loved one in surgery. We may not put it into words, but as you watch the dogs in action, you have to wonder, “How’d ya do that?”

 

 

 

 

Full Circle

Recently I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful young man named Van. He and his mom and dad were the family that took care of Gus before he came into my life. When circumstances forced them to give him up, there was a line of people wanting to adopt him.

Fortunately, recognizing that his temperament was perfect for a therapy dog, and having heard about Charley and Elbee, they chose me. Along with the joy of bringing him home, I felt so much responsibility with the trust they’d placed in me to give him a productive life. The good news is that he has far exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Over the past three years, I’ve kept in touch with the family, kind of an open adoption. I’ve shared Gus’s progress from passing his Pet Partner’s test with a perfect score to his very first day in the hospital. I also let them know about the more challenging situations he worked with Charley like the special needs camp and the anti-bullying group from Compton. I may have trained Gus but Charley was his true teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was surprised when I received an email from Van and his mom asking if he could interview me. He’d been chosen as a finalist in a junior journalism contest and the topic they’d been given was “A Hometown Hero.” Since he knew all about my work with the dogs and even the accident and my bodybuilding past, he thought I’d be a good subject. Needless to say, I was very flattered. We arranged for them to come over to my house.

ELBEE Excuse me. We all know I’m the hometown hero. I just don’t do interviews. I let my accomplishments speak for themselves.

 

Although it had been over three years since Van, now an impressive eleven year old, had seen Gus, their connection was instantaneous. It was if they were long lost friends.

While his parents went for a walk, Van and I sat in the dining room with the Doods at our feet as I answered his very insightful questions. What struck me as we talked was how we’d come full circle. I know it was difficult for Van when they had to find a new home for Gus but he could see how well things had turned out.

I felt such gratitude. I was grateful that Van viewed me as a hero for doing the work that I love. I was grateful they’d entrusted Gus to me. And above all, on that particular morning I was tremendously grateful that, with a little help from Charley, I’d been able to give Gus the life that they’d envisioned for him.

 

Return to the Scene of the “Crime”

During a recent heat wave I decided to head to the beach with the dogs. Since I have no patience for sitting on the sand, I thought that Santa Monica would be perfect. The pier is a tourist attraction with lots of activity. Even better, there’s a pedestrian path that goes down to Venice.

ELBEE That sounded good to me. I like the beach although I’m not much of a surfer. I was, however, a little suspicious when I heard that Venice was on the agenda.

As soon as we walked up the steps to the pier, Gus and Elbee, with all of their hair blowing in the breeze, were surrounded by people. I lost count of how many wanted to take pictures. All that was missing were the “puparazzi.”

ELBEE I knew she couldn’t resist that lame joke. By the way, I’m pretty sure I saw Kendall Jenner and another model type on the pier. They had their own professional camera man with them. Why didn’t I?

Things stayed interesting on the ocean path. An adorable toddler in big sunglasses came over to pet the dogs. Two seemingly drunk men asked if I knew where there was a liquor store. Someone yelled out “Look at those diva dogs.”

ELBEE He was obviously very astute. 

 

 

 

That last remark was our welcome to Venice Beach which is a crazy, fascinating place that has become even messier since the last time I was there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, I couldn’t resist posing the Doods for these touristy photos.

As if!!
Just embarrassing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE As for the one on the right, I don’t know which is worse, that she took the picture or that she’s sharing it here. And take a look at this one below. They’re opening a Muscle Beach History Museum! I think Pack Leader is hoping to secure a place. What is she? Arnold?

To be honest, I’m not sure if Venice Beach is the site of my former glory or of my former crime against “carpool momdom.” I had done a few bodybuilding shows before I competed there but they were sort of under the radar. The first was in Fresno. The other one or two were in places that no one in my daily life except my family would know about. Competing in Venice was like “Woo hoo, here I am.”

GUS “Woo hoo?” I don’t even say that.

To make it even better, Nicole, the middle daughter, was turning eleven and wanted to have her birthday party at the show. She probably wasn’t old enough to be embarrassed. To this day I wonder what the other parents thought about it. At least no one called child protective services.

Nicole had one special request. She asked if everyone could sing Happy Birthday to her if I won. I mentioned it to the emcee who loved the idea and brought Nicole up on stage as soon as I became Ms. Venice Beach.

ELBEE That was subtle.

 

Seeing the microphone in my face is probably disconcerting to anyone who knows about my singing. The good news is that with a thousand people in the crowd, no one could hear me.

 

 

THE DOODS Amen to that. Remember, we’ve heard her in the car.

 

 

The Doods Make the Day

 

For the past few years, I’ve been taking the Doods to an adult health center. Close to 100 people, ranging in age from their 20’s up to their 70’s and a few in their eighties, spend their days at the facility. Many are dealing with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, dementia or depression. Others have severe physical disabilities.

A chime sounds as we walk in the front door and the dogs are instantly greeted by an excited crowd. There is a core of regulars who know the Doods and wait for their arrival as soon as they see them on the schedule. The appreciative staff members are always there to welcome us.

The center offers a wide range of activities. For instance, there are discussion and anger management groups, as well as light exercise or physical therapy sessions. Between activities, however, some just sit waiting at the long lunch tables or sprawl on couches scattered around the room. A few chat with each other while many keep to themselves.

I never quite know what to expect once we get to the central area. A sad looking man will suddenly get up from the couch, smile and start petting the dogs. An agitated woman will calm down and hug them. The people at the lunch tables will call out for me to bring them over. There is a ripple effect of positivity and happiness. There is more conversation.

Many of the regulars have an established routine with the Doods. Some of their interactions may seem odd but it’s moving to watch them reach out to the dogs. For a few minutes they forget their struggles as Elbee and Gus offer unconditional love and acceptance. There is no judgment.

One man always apologizes for not having dog treats. I slip him a few to feed the ever hungry Elbee. There is an elderly woman who often cries when she holds Gus but I was told that was her way of letting her emotions out. There is another man who runs over as soon as he sees us to tell me what wonderful dogs they are and how much he likes them. He just doesn’t want to touch them because he’s afraid he’ll get fleas.

ELBEE Normally I would be offended but under the circumstances, I understand.

There is one very handsome, physically handicapped young man who truly touches my heart. He is in a motorized wheelchair which he can operate despite extremely crippled hands. He speaks with difficulty but understands everything. He has a smile that lights up his face.

He always stays in one place at a lunch table so I bring the dogs to him. He was able to reach Charley and now Elbee but I pick up Gus so that he can pet him. We’ve even worked out a way for me to fit treats between his fingers so that he can feed them.

Due to life happening, last week was the first time that I’d been there in awhile. I could immediately sense how glad he was to see the dogs but it was something so simple that let me know how much he really cared. Instead of remaining at the table, he made the effort to move his chair to follow us around the room. It was a special morning.

A well deserved rest

 

 

 

 

 

The Hair of the Dog

ELBEE That may be the worst title that Pack Leader has ever come up with and trust me there have been some bad ones. I don’t even think she knows what it means. Being a dog about town, I admit that I’ve indulged in a morning after Bloody Mary or two.

I think that hair can make a huge difference in the way you feel. The right haircut can change your whole outlook. On a good hair day, my attitude is better. I’m more productive, more positive. I could talk my way out of a traffic ticket (that was a long time ago). On a bad hair day, I just stick on a baseball hat and hide from people I know at the market.

ELBEE Excuse me, my baseball hat is a fashion choice.  I rarely have a bad hair day.

Oh wait, this post was supposed to be about Gus, not me, but obviously I have hair issues.

ELBEE She has her hairdresser on speed dial!

I was planning to write about Gus because I’ve let his hair grow and it has totally changed the way people respond to him. I used to keep him cut short because, although he’s non-shedding, he can get a lot of knots. It was just easier. As his coat grew, I realized how much cuter he looked. Other people noticed too. He started to draw more attention, a big plus when you’re a therapy dog.

Old Gus

 

New Gus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE My hair has always been long and fabulous but Pack Leader did the same thing to me with pigtails. To be honest, I used to  hate them but now I’ve come to embrace them. And how about this look? It’s fitting for the diva I am.

At UCLA, someone who knew him well, saw the long haired version and asked if I’d gotten another dog. His new look is a great conversation starter, especially when the weather is humid and his hair sticks out even more. A woman who was petting him commented that his coat was “magical.”

I really noticed a difference when Gus arrived for his visits in the neuropsych units. He’s called a Teddy Bear Doodle (not sure what that is) and the kids began to react to him as if he was a stuffed animal. They wanted to hold him and cuddle with him. One boy offered me $68 dollars to buy him and another told me that he was going to hide Gus in his room.

Along with his popularity, Gus has acquired his share of nicknames. Like Elbee, he’s been called a sheep and poofy dog. Then there was that unfortunate fluff monster reference. When his ears and tail were blue for the Dodger game, someone remarked that he was like a giant blueberry.

ELBEE Don’t forget that another person said he looked like a member of an 80’s hair band. 

Rock on!

Gus I still don’t know what that means.

Last week in the hospital lobby, he was given perhaps his best name ever. Someone took one look at him and christened him, ” Little White Cloud.”

 

 

 

My Dog is My Therapist

Recently I saw a woman wearing this t-shirt: At first I thought it was funny. Then I realized it was absolutely true. I mean who knows more about me than the Doods? They’re with me most of the time. They eavesdrop on all of my conversations. They even follow me into the bathroom.

Looking back, Charley was my therapist for years. It totally explains the way he would sit and stare at me. It’s like the way a therapist sits and doesn’t speak, waiting for you to overshare so they can nod wisely and earn their money. I have absolutely nothing against therapists but Charley did it for free.

Coincidentally, soon after I saw the shirt, I was solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, something that I do daily in ink, and there was a clue that said, “Stereotypical response at a shrink.” The answer was, “I see.”

ELBEE Am I the only one who noticed that she had to drop in that she does the puzzle every day. Personally, I don’t think it’s that’s hard. And newsflash (that was a good one) I’ve heard her looking up answers on line.

With Charley gone, Elbee has taken over as chief therapist. Unfortunately he talks too much and has too many opinions. Gus doesn’t have the life experience but he tries.

ELBEE I will not even comment. I’ll tweet about it later.

That t-shirt reminded me of one that I’d seen at Venice Beach, scene of my bodybuilding glory.

ELBEE Here it comes. Just put up the photo and move on.

GUS What is that?

ELBEE I don’t even know where to start.

The shirt said, “Be the person that your dog thinks you are.” I guess it was supposed to be an inspirational, feel good saying. Obviously it was overlooking the fact that the Doods have heard my driving vocabulary and my singing in the car. Trust me, no one else hears me singing.

GUS That was singing?

I’m sure that Charley thought I needed him as my service dog but could never quite figure out what he was supposed to do for me. Elbee considers me a competing diva. Gus just thinks I’m his mother.

 

The Diva

ELBEE Remember, I’m the Mariah of the dog world. No one competes with me.

 

 

 

 

That shirt made me wonder how the daughters would describe me in a word or two.  It was obviously a moment of insanity because these are the same three women who wanted to sue me for writing “Top 12 Reasons Dogs Are Better than Children.”

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. Danielle, the youngest, said, “individual.” Nicole came up with “extraordinary.” Oh and then there was Jennifer who said “crazy,” with an adjective I can’t print, but “on a good day, eccentric.”

And yes, I will be buying each them a gift certificate to the store of her choice.

 

A Double Dose of Doodle

A few weeks ago I posted about my long time friend Roberta who is waging the most determined fight against brain cancer. Roberta is so tough that if anyone can scare cancer, she’s the one.

She has the rare gift of acknowledging reality, working with it and creating the best possible scenario. In this case she has developed a whole arsenal of medical and emotional support. That includes, as I shared in the other post, the neighborhood dogs who visit when she’s working out in her garage and the Doods. The first time I went to visit I brought Gus. Last week it was the dynamic duo, Gus and Elbee.

As soon as we drove up to her house, the front door flew open and she came out to greet us, hair and makeup done. And you know I consider that a big plus.

ELBEE It’s no secret. I do too.

She was in a great mood, positive, upbeat and welcoming. There was laughter. There was a lovely lunch.

There was also a bit of dog chaos. The minute the Doods pranced though the door they became the center of attention. Roberta was running around with them, applauding all of their tricks, sneaking them treats every time I turned my back. Then as they finally tired out, she sprawled on the floor with both of them for some unconditional dog love and support.

As she was resting with Gus and Elbee, gently petting them, we began talking quietly about how much the time with the dogs means to her. That’s when she urged me to do this follow up because she wanted people to truly understand the impact that dogs, and particularly therapy dogs, can have on someone who is fighting for his or her life.

I asked Roberta if she would send me an email expressing how the dogs are affecting her. I thought it would mean so much more coming directly from someone who is experiencing dog therapy rather than from my observations. It’s difficult to do this with hospital patients because of confidentiality issues.

She wrote some extremely touching things about me that modesty prevents me from sharing. Oh who am I kidding. Showoff that I am, I’ll tell you one. She said the dogs were “unique and amazing” because they take after me.

ELBEE I was so proud that Pack Leader was staying out of it but I guess she couldn’t help herself.

Seriously, Roberta did say that she feels so great when she knows the Doods are coming over. She can hardly wait until they arrive. She absolutely loves to roll around on the floor with my “incredible animals,” and yes, “give them dog biscuits, the best variety,” when I’m not looking.  She also wrote, ” It is a thrill to have them in my house, pet them and gain peace of mind. How bad can the world be when dogs and their leaders exist to help others.” Amen Roberta. I am proud to call you my friend.

 

 

Oddballs in the Mountains

Over the years I’ve seen some unusual hikers. No, I’m not referring to the woman without makeup. That reminds me of the time a man walked over to me carrying a live snake he’d just found. I said, “I’m wearing a cute outfit and lipstick. Do I look like someone who would want to hold a snake?”

ELBEE These comments are from a woman who puts on blush if she gets up to go to the bathroom during the night.

And yes, I’ve been know to dabble in a little eye shadow.

I’ve posted about the hiker who was naked except for a baseball hat and tennis shoes. Then there was the dirty, disheveled young man who unwrapped a blanket he was carrying to show me a drone that he’d found. And let’s not forget the bike rider in the mesh cycling suit. Now that was really disturbing.

GUS And I thought the coyotes were scary. Where is Charley when I need him!

The other morning I found someone else to add to the list. I was about ten minutes up a trail, enjoying the peace and quiet, when suddenly, in the distance, I heard a man shouting, “I am. I am. I am.”

That was followed by a few moments of silence so I was hoping it was a one time shout out and he’d gotten it out of his system. That’s when I heard the same booming voice yelling, “I am beauty. I am love. I am elegant.”

ELBEE I am elegant? Are you kidding me?

He continued, “I am excellent. I surrender to more love and joy than I have ever experienced.”

ELBEE His wife probably kicked him out of the house because all of his positivity was giving her a headache.

By the way, I think my eyes look fabulous.

 

GUS Oy vey!

 

Next time the daughters get on my case about going into the mountains to find myself, I’m going to tell them about this guy. I don’t have an issue with his affirmations but did he really have to share them with everyone within a ten mile radius.

Speaking of affirmations, I tried meditating for a period of time but I kept falling asleep. Someone told me that was avoidance. I told them it was boredom.

When I reached the top of the main trail, with him still over sharing somewhere in the distance, I sprinted up a little side trail. Since running is against my religion that should give you an idea of how uncomfortable I was.

I thought I had made a clean getaway when whom should I hear behind me but Mr. “I am. I am fine.” I turned around expecting to see him in some sort of robes or weird outfit. I admit I was kind of disappointed to see a royal blue hoodie and hiking shorts. Even worse he had a cell phone. To his credit, once he realized I was up there, he stopped chanting.

I have one more addition to the oddball list. This man, unlike the naked jogger, had all of his clothes on but no shoes. I don’t even want to imagine what the bottom of his feet looked like.

ELBEE Don’t quote me but I think Gwyneth Paltrow calls them “earthers.” 

Yentas by Proxy

In my June post A Different Dynamic, I wrote about how much Charley’s passing had changed the rhythm of the pack, especially during our walks. Now there is a new twist. It seems that two fluffy white dogs instead of three are less intimidating. People feel even more comfortable stopping to chat. And yes, I’m a yenta so I probably encourage it.

As soon as anyone approaches, Gus immediately cuddles up to them with tail wagging and a smile on his face. Elbee, as we know, is the canine answer to Mariah Carey. He will still sometimes do his obnoxious bark but he loves being noticed.

ELBEE Excuse me. I have a lot to say. If Pack Leader would pay attention, I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.

People get so comfortable petting the Doods that they talk about all sorts of personal things.

ELBEE Maybe because she brags to everyone we meet that we’re therapy dogs. 

One woman asked if I was a dog walker. When I said no, she looked a little disappointed. Then she explained that she needed help with her own dog because she was having shoulder problems. She was only putting off surgery because she had heart issues. We took off before I heard the rest of her medical history.

Then there was the woman working in the garden in front of her house. As she was petting Gus and Elbee, she went into a diatribe about her crazy neighbor across the street. If it was all true, I’m never walking over that way again.

A man passing by on a busy street suddenly stopped to see the dogs. After a casual conversation, he began sharing or maybe oversharing about his divorce and how it was all his fault. Apparently, he really wanted to win her back. I think he kept petting them so that I would commiserate or offer advice.

ELBEE She takes us for a walk and all of a sudden she’s “Dear Abby” of the street. What concerns me is that I’m becoming a yenta by association. Just look at this picture. And I’m starting to have a lot more opinions.

 

 

 

GUS I’m just a nice, friendly kid…kind of a people pleaser. I don’t know how I keep getting caught up in all of this stuff. I don’t want to be accused of aiding and abetting a yenta. Would I have to get the lawyer daughter to defend me?

Aside from all of the conversations, we get some very interesting commentary. An older man, possibly homeless (yes I’m judging) passed us and said, “Oh it’s the foofy dogs and the lady with the foofy hair.”

ME AND ELBEE Really??

 

Perhaps my favorite was an elderly lady driving an “elderly” Mercedes who pulled up next to us and rolled down her window. As she puffed on a cigarette and coughed, she said, “You and the dogs add a lot of class to the neighborhood.”