That’s the last time I let Stella pick the trail

She started down the path with such authority that I figured she knew where she was going. Never mind that she was a newly turned one-year-old puppy who’d never been on the trail before. She was so insistent that I, attached at the back of her leash, followed her blindly.

We’d hiked two other trails at the north end of Stringer’s Ridge before, but never the Hill City trail. I didn’t know where it would lead us, but we had water and were fed and ready for a workout. We should’ve taken the trail’s name as a warning, but dogs can’t read and I was foolishly optimistic. As we ascended the mountain ahead of us, my legs started to burn and there were a couple hills that required Stella to get a running start. I used her momentum to propel myself up those hills, too. She pulled me along more often than not, and for once I was appreciative of her energy and tendency to pull on her leash. Going downhill was another story, but her excitement kept me going as my Fitbit ticked off flights of stairs climbed.

A mile and a half in, I started to get nervous. We were both getting worn out from the extreme hills and valleys we’d climbed up and over, and there was no connection point in sight. I wasn’t necessarily worried for myself, but I know Stella and I know she’s not an endurance dog. She’s a sprinter, and she’d blown through all of her puppy energy. I couldn’t pull up a map of the trail system on my phone, so I texted Ian and asked him how long the Hill City trail was.

10 miles total, he texted back. See you in six hours.

I wasn’t concerned about getting myself to the next connection point, even if it was 10 miles away, but the thought of having to carry a 32-lb dog out of the woods made that back part of my mind start to panic a bit.

This beast led me down the most difficult trail at Stringer's Ridge today, where we climbed the equivalent of 38 flights of stairs over 3.25 miles. That's the last time I let her pick the trail.

We moved off to the side of the trail so we wouldn’t meet the business end of any cyclists flying by and had some water. I gave her some of the treats I’d packed and we listened to the wind slowly lilting through the leaves that were falling around us.

We were on a directional trail, so we couldn’t turn around and go back the way we came. I knew that the trail connected with three other trails at some point, but there was no map nearby and the one that Ian consulted didn’t include mileage. We trucked on, and I was glad I packed a liter of water. We passed a blaze and I figured a connection would appear soon.

After walking a while longer, a slow-moving cyclist approached us and I asked him how far to the next trail connection point. My relief was audible as he said “Just up the hill a ways, you’ll see the big parking lot.” We walked another half mile or so and came upon a connection point and a map, where I dejectedly realized the parking lot he was talking about wasn’t the trailhead we’d parked at but some other lot that wasn’t officially part of the park.

We’d started up at the very north end of the park and now were at the very south end. We’d only gone a little more than two miles, but it was the most strenuous two miles in the trail system. A man and three old women, along with their dogs, came out of a clearing and I swallowed my pride and asked them if they knew the fastest and easiest way to get back to the Spears Ave trailhead. They were nice and pointed out a good route on the map, one that had a gradual elevation change and not the thigh-burning ridiculousness we’d just encountered.

What a gorgeous city I live in.

I gave Stella some more water and we headed out, up the Cherokee trail, and then cut over to the Strut, a trail I’ve hiked many times. She perked up when we hit the final passage of the trail, and pulled me down the hill and back to the car. I texted Ian that we made it out, turned the air conditioning on full-blast, and hauled our happy asses back to the house.

In total, we’d climbed the equivalent of 38 flights of stairs over 3.25 miles. That’s really not anything crazy, but I’d prepared to only go about a mile and a half. Luckily I always over-prepare with water, and luckily Stella is always game for a walk. She never once tried to quit. When I’d slow down she’d look behind me and smile, tongue hanging out, urging me on. She pulled me up countless hills. When she’d slow down I’d let her rest, but then encourage her to keep going. We were in sync, marveling at nature, getting our second and third winds at the same time.

And when we got home, we both resolved to do nothing else physical for the rest of the day.

Stella turns one

Last Friday we celebrated Stella’s one-year birthday, since that’s the date listed on her shelter paperwork and we really didn’t have anything else to go on. October 17 seemed like as good a day as any, so that afternoon I went to the dog bakery and got her a bunch of treats and a big cookie that said “Happy Birthday!” on it.

We decided to spoil her for the day (like she’s not spoiled every other day of her life), so all afternoon I gave her treats and then that night after she ate her dinner (I can’t believe she still ate “real” food after all the bakery treats) we went outside and gave her the gigantic cookie.

Stella is having the best night ever.

She LOVED it.

She took it over into the grass where we couldn’t steal it from her and ate the whole damn thing in about five minutes. She was so excited.

She had a pretty big Saturday, too—some friends of ours were in town and they brought their Shih Tzu, Chloe. She’s eight and wasn’t a big fan of crazy Stella jumping all over her, but eventually they played a bit and Stella was just glad to have another dog around in this house full of cats. Even if it was just for a day.

We used to call her a shark because it seemed like she thought if she stopped moving for more than 30 seconds she would die, but she has been calming down some lately and there are many nights she’ll just chill on the couch with us. Luckily, Sunday was one of those times and she hung out pretty much all day either on the floor or on the couch. I was sick with a stupid cold that won’t go away, and Ian and I were both pretty hungover, so it was the best possible time for Stella to start acting like an older dog instead of the crazy puppy she’s been for the past six months.

Don’t get me wrong—she still has a ton of energy and zooms around the yard (and the house) on a regular basis. We’re enrolling her in a once-a-week day camp program this week to try to help her expend some of that energy and to continue her socialization since we don’t have too many local friends with dogs she can play with regularly. Her spunky personality is one of the things I love most about her, and I don’t want it to go to waste sitting around all day with a bunch of lazy cats and me while I work.

But seriously, you guys. The fact that she’s starting to calm down a bit has me almost as excited as I was when she finally stopped peeing in the house.

Stella totally pwned the first night of her new obedience class

Stella is back in obedience class, this time taking one for dogs 10-24 months old called Manners Matter. It builds on the skills we learned in STAR Puppy and teaches different ways to get our dogs to focus on us and to stop pulling on their leashes, barking, jumping, etc.

The first class was Tuesday, and after the introduction we were told to make a large circle with our dogs and get ready to practice having them focus only on us for 10 seconds. I immediately got nervous and expected Stella to make a fool out of me, since in past classes most of the other dogs completed their tasks effortlessly while Stella’s tried to run around the room like a crazy asshole.

But I’ll be damned, I got her attention and said “Watch me!” and that little turd looked me dead in the eyes for 10 seconds! So I gave her the treat, and we did it again. I was afraid the first time was a fluke, but no—she focused on me again! We tried a few more times and occasionally another dog would bark and break her gaze, but for the most part she focused on me for as long as I’d ask her to (as long as it wasn’t more than 10 seconds or so).

The second skill we practiced was teaching our dogs that patience rewards you and demanding what you want means you get nothing (so basically the opposite of real life). I had to hold a treat in my hand and let her smell it, but she couldn’t have it until she moved her head back away from my hand and the treat. She could nudge and lick my hand, but as soon as she tried to use her teeth or if she touched my hand with her paw I had to put my hand behind my back and say “Nope!”

Knowing how impatient Stella is I figured she would not be on board with this patience exercise, but she surprised me again. She put her paw on my hand twice, but that’s it—the third time, and every subsequent time, she moved her head back after only a few seconds and waited for me to give her the treat.

I was so excited I yelled “Holy shit, Stella, you are so smart!” and the couple with two young kids and a German Shepherd glared at me. Their dog was whining and barking the whole time and had to have a barrier between it and the other dogs so I think they were already in a bad mood. Sorry guys, I was just celebrating how smart my shelter dog is.

No joke, after nine weeks of classes where Stella was always one of the worst-behaved dogs, this time she was the best. She got a little restless in the last five minutes of class, but otherwise she was completely on-point. If I could have high-fived her furry little paw and yelled “SUCK IT HATERS!” I totally would have. Actually, that might be a trick I try to teach her.

Things are getting better all the time

Stella has been calming down some, at least during the day, which means that she isn’t having to be crated all day long while I’m working. (For those not familiar with my situation: I work from home, but I had been crating her because it is impossible to work and monitor a puppy’s every move.)

Lately she’s been putting herself in her crate after our morning walks, but since she puts herself in there I leave the door open and she mostly just naps until around lunchtime. In the afternoon she gets a bit restless, but I only put her back in her crate now if she does the whole inside/outside/inside/outside thing too frequently. She doesn’t quite understand yet that mama has to work and can’t be interrupted every five minutes to let her out or in.

But while she had been crated the whole time I was working with a break every couple hours, she’s now only being crated maybe half the day, if even that. She loves her crate, though, which makes me feel like we’ve done the crate-training thing right.

Last weekend my mom came to visit, and as soon as she left (like, within hours) we noticed BK hanging out on the dining room table while Stella was out in the living room. And then later she sat on the coffee table in the living room and the two of them touched noses.

This doesn’t sound like much, but ever since we adopted Stella, BK has confined herself to her 7-foot-tall cat tree or one of the spare bedrooms upstairs. Up until last weekend she made sure that the only time she was on the main floor of the house and out of her cat tree was when Stella was safely contained in her crate.

BK and Stella

But ever since last weekend, BK has been spending more and more time out and about while Stella’s roamed free. There have been several instances where BK has been sitting on the coffee table in the living room and Stella has walked up, smelled her face and then walked away without incident. Every once in a while BK will meow when she sees Stella walking near her, but Stella hasn’t chased or provoked her and BK hasn’t swatted at her. And that actually surprises me, since Gordo punches her in the face every time she’s within arm’s reach of him.

I have no idea what changed. It’s like all of a sudden BK remembered she’s this giant, majestic cat who rules the house. And without any fanfare, she returned to us.

I’m not going to question it, though I do continue to marvel at how each cat interacts differently with Stella.

Joy

There’s this thing Stella does when she gets really excited. She jumps in the air, all four paws coming off the ground, and spins. She runs in front of me to do it, and looks back to make sure I’m watching. To make sure I see how happy she is.

When we first got her she used to do this at mealtime. But I guess now she’s figured out that she’s going to get fed twice a day no matter what, so it’s not that exciting anymore. At least not enough to warrant a goat jump.

But she does it for walks. She knows now in the morning that when I walk past her crate to grab my glasses, it’s almost time. She knows when I’ve put my glasses on and let her out of her crate we’re about to go for a walk. She’ll wiggle her butt when I ask her to sit before leaving the crate; it’s almost too much for her to handle. And then she’ll goat-hop out of the bedroom in front of me, looking back and smiling, making sure I see how excited and happy she is.

She’ll lead me to her leash, in case I forget where it is, and if I walk past it into the kitchen she’ll follow me, hopping some more. She smiles so much that we’ve started calling her Smiley Cyrus. With her tongue hanging out of the side of her mouth, the nickname fits. I hope the butt-wiggling isn’t her version of twerking, though.

She’s such a happy dog. I ask Ian a lot if he thinks that she loves me, since I’m always the one enforcing the rules and laying down the law. But every morning when it’s time for a walk and she looks at me with pure joy in her eyes, hopping and spinning and smiling at me, I’m pretty sure she does.

I fell in love with New York City

A couple weeks ago I took my first trip to New York City. I was going for a work conference in the middle of the week, but since I’d never been before I decided to take some time to explore the city on my own before I had to get down to business. Despite having grown up in a big city, I was nervous about going alone. New York sounded daunting, and while I like spending time by myself I wasn’t sure how comfortable I’d feel spending three days alone in a city I’d never visited before.

NYC

As it turns out, I was fine. I was better than fine. The thing that struck me most about New York was that it’s an amazingly large city, but it was so easy to be and feel anonymous there. Every day I was surrounded by a sea of people, but I felt more invisible than I’d felt in years.

I loved that.

Once I figured out the subway system, I felt like I could do anything. Unfortunately, I only had a few days to myself, so I hit some highlights. I went to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum; had brunch on Bleecker Street; walked the High Line; had some drinks at a cool bar called Brass Monkey where a guy bought me a drink because I was “nice” (and didn’t try to harass me!); visited Grand Central Station—specifically for the Apple Store but I also had a Magnolia cupcake while I was there; almost had a panic attack walking through the throngs of people in Times Square; visited the American Museum of Natural History; walked miles and miles through Central Park; and did a ton of walking around the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village and SoHo. I ate some great pizza, awesome bagels and one really amazing corned beef sandwich.

Grand Central Station was crazy

I can’t believe I waited so long to visit, and I definitely want to go back. There is something about that city… I can’t put my finger on it, but now I know why everyone is so enamored with it. I was surrounded by so many people, but I was completely in my own world. It was so freeing. I was alone, but I never felt lonely.

This dog, I swear

We’re getting to the point where we have more good days than bad with Stella, but she still tries my patience more often than not. She had been eating both meals a day consistently for a while, but then this morning she decided she didn’t want to eat breakfast. Granted, we got home late last night and it was around 11 p.m. when she ate dinner, so it was probably our fault.

But then she was a complete chore to walk this morning and I had to cut our walk short after only a block and a half. She lept so forcefully after a car driving by that I thought my arm was going to come out of its socket, and she whined and pulled in every direction down the block, so after she did her business I turned around and took her right back home. I tried stopping and saying “No pull,” changing direction, making her sit and calm down each time she pulled really hard, but none of it worked today so I just gave up. Hopefully she’ll be better tonight.

Everyone keeps telling me to enjoy her puppyhood, but I’ll be honest: I can’t wait for her to grow out of it and calm the hell down. I’d love to be able to start reading/playing video games/sitting still again.

Currently

This weekend Ian’s uncle came to visit, and since it rained for almost three days straight we spent much of our time eating and drinking our way around town—indoors, of course.

In what turned out to be a grave a miscalculation of value due to the weather, I had rented two lenses from LensRentals.com to try out on the new 70d I just got last month. Despite all the rain I still needed to get out and see what they could do, but Ian and his uncle were good sports and let me drag them around whenever we had a break in the rain. (Stopping at several bars along the way probably helped my cause, I’m sure.)

Ian’s uncle is a cool dude—a former prison guard at a medium security prison, he’s now retired and stopped here on his way to Cherokee, N.C., where he was going to gamble on the house for a few days. He regaled us with stories of his time in the Air Force and as a lieutenant in a correctional facility, and as a boy growing up in very, very rural West Virginia, and we introduced him to more craft beer than he knew could exist in one town. I figured out early on that in order to not spend the entire next week hung over I needed to act as the designated driver while we were out on the town, and I think that was probably the smartest decision I could have made. Those boys can really drink.

Stella gets some scratchin'

The upside to the rain, though, was that when it cleared for a bit yesterday we had some nice afternoon weather for back porch-sitting. I used the opportunity to conduct a little photoshoot with Stella, who was happy to finally be able to spend some time outdoors without getting soaked.

But now it’s Monday and it’s about to rain again. Last year when we moved to Chattanooga in July, it rained almost every day for a month. Everyone kept telling us that it was so strange for this time of year, but it looks as though the strange might have become the norm and the non-stop July rain is repeating itself.

Our dreams betray our fears

I had a dream last night that I was dying of cancer. I had just been diagnosed and was given a year to live, maybe. There was a 10 percent survival rate for the kind of cancer I had. I stressed that to everyone who said maybe I’d make it through. “Ten percent,” I said. It was inevitable. I was going to die.

I think I remember telling people the cancer was in the back of my mouth and spread to my lungs, like the squamous cell carcinoma my cousin had, but it wasn’t the same thing. She was in the dream, too, along with her husband, kids and my aunt (her mother). They played a part, but I think eventually that morphed into another dream. Can you have two dreams simultaneously?

Most of all, I remember the overwhelming feelings of fear and sadness. I was distraught about knowing that I was going to leave Ian all alone. Alone to deal with the dog, the cats and the house. To deal with the world alone. I hugged him, crying, and told him he should find somebody else after I died so he wouldn’t be alone forever. I was so concerned about him being left alone and I felt the weight of that crushing me. I didn’t know you could feel lonely for someone else, but I did and it was gut-wrenching.

I also remember being scared of the pain that would come with dying. With getting sick from chemo. How my hair would fall out, and I’d be nauseated all the time and lose my strength and my bones would show through my skin. I would waste away to nothing and then disappear.

Our neighbor was in the dream, too. I walked to her house with Stella to tell her about what was going to happen to me. At one point, I think she morphed into Red from Orange Is the New Black. We watched the episode last night that dealt with Rosa’s cancer and treatment, so I guess that’s where this all came from.

Everything in the dream felt so rushed. I was visiting people and making plans because I was getting ready to start chemo, but really I was preparing for my death. It was inevitable. The dream was the last of my days before I started chemo. The last of my days before I had to accept that I was dying. Before I really started the dying.

I always thought that my greatest fear was death because of the ceasing to exist. But last night I was more scared of the pain and process of dying and leaving my loved ones behind. I woke up feeling sad, but not crying. I was uncomfortable. I still am.

m4s0n501

Stella celebrates the Fourth of July

On Friday, Ian and I packed up and headed to Murfreesboro to celebrate the Fourth of July with family and friends—and Stella, of course. This was the first time in the three months we’ve had her that I actually felt like I understood why people think having dogs is fun. Wait, that sounds worse than I meant it. It’s just that she’s been so much work and we really haven’t taken her out to do much fun stuff for more than an hour or so.

She was so good at Ian’s mom’s house, though. We grilled out and everyone hung out in the back yard talking, drinking beer and playing badminton and cornhole. We tied Stella’s 30-foot lead around a tree, and she hung out there with us. She got tangled in the chairs and table some, but everyone who was mingling around would just pick up a chair or call her to walk around the other side of the table to get her untangled. For once I actually felt that she was an easy dog. She wasn’t scared of anything or anyone and was happy to just be part of the crowd. Ian’s sister’s dog, Dom (an old Chihuahua), was there and so was our friend Alex’s Shih Tzu, Chloe. Chloe was happy to play with Stella, but Dom didn’t want anything to do with either of them. He’s a cranky old man, though, so he gets a pass.

We weren’t sure how she would react to fireworks that night and had brought along several treats and an unwashed shirt that smelled like me to put in her crate and hopefully keep her calm. It turned out we didn’t need any of that, as she wasn’t scared of the fireworks at all. She was pretty tired after an exciting day, and ended up laying down under my lawn chair to watch with the rest of the crowd. Our last firework was this huge (really awesome) mortar that had about 20 shots in it, and I think that might have made her a little nervous. She got out from the chair and started pacing around a bit, so I took her inside and put her to bed and she didn’t make a peep. Of course, she was ready to go the next morning at 6:30 and didn’t care that we were all hungover and exhausted.

After I took her for a walk around Ian’s mom’s neighborhood, though, she was like a different dog than she is at home. She was content to lay around on the floor or the couch with us and watch TV as we convalesced. I’ve literally never seen her stop moving for more than 30 seconds unless she’s sleeping, so this was an encouraging development. We left her at Ian’s mom’s that night and headed up to his dad’s house in Mt. Juliet (where I ate ribs for the first time in years!), and Sunday when we came back to pick her up she hugged me. Arms on shoulders, licking my face, burrowing her head in my hair. It felt a little like what I imagine picking a real child up from grandma’s house would feel like. Go ahead and barf at the sweetness.

Now that we’re back home, though, it’s been a struggle to get her eating her food again. I don’t know if she’s sick or if she just doesn’t like her food, but it’s starting to worry me a bit. Last week I bought her Natural Balance dry food (Sweet Potato and Bison flavor—a grain-free, limited ingredient food that is regarded as a high-quality dog food) and started transitioning her over last Wednesday. She was doing good, but I think eating scraps on July 4th spoiled her because when we got home she refused to eat. This morning I realized that she just picked out the new food from the mixture and left the old, so I think tonight I’m going to try just giving her the new. There isn’t too much left of the Nutro, and I’m sure I can donate it to a local shelter if she won’t eat the rest of it. I just hope her issue is that she got tired of it and wanted something new, not that she’s sick. Or that she’s going to refuse to eat dry food at all. Canned decent dog food is expensive and really not something I want to have to budget for (we’re talking $120/month minimum, and she’s still growing).