Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On notice

"Stand tall. Take a few moments to experience the sensation of simply standing well. Stand barefoot with your feet shoulder-width apart, stomach muscles engaged, and the rest of your body relaxed. Spread your toes widely to feel a sense of connection with the earth. Visualize roots growing downward from your feet. At the same time, imagine there's a fine thread pulling you upward from the crown of your head. Enjoy these opposing but complementary feelings: deep stability and graceful lightness."--Barbara Ann Kipfer, from 1,001 Ways to Live in the Moment

"Dogs live in the moment," Mike observed, as our puppy Carmelita lay on her back, one hind leg stretched toward him, her eyes rolled back, her front paws extended in the air. "Look at her, she's so relaxed."

Lucky her.

I spent this holiday weekend fretting about my to-do list. I had tried setting reasonable goals for myself by just writing down a couple of things each day in a Mini Goals Notepad. I had done this successfully at work when I knew I was leaving for vacation, and it had helped me focus and get some stuff done that I had been putting off for weeks.

But at home I couldn't stop at two to-dos. I wrote down ten things. Some were as simple as "go buy the Sunday paper" which Mike regarded as more of a reward than a task. Others were "send out submissions to magazines" which I could have spent all three days doing. I did go to the gym. Once. Then I went home and ate sponge cake with strawberries and sugar, tortilla chips, a burrito,and drank two IPAs, which basically canceled out the hour on the elliptical.

In between I was defiant (defying whom? The to-do list? The tssking voice in my head?), doing tasks not on the list. I cleared my desk of junk mail. I filled in an offer card for a free issue of More magazine, then ripped it up after considering the articles I'd be reading: "The Reinvention Coach is in!", "Does This Make Her Look Old?" and "500 Years of Cougar History!" Ugh. I could always read my mother's back issues the next time I'm in New Jersey.

What I didn't do very much of was stay focused. I started wondering if I had ADD. I thought about the point of this blog, and glanced at my shelf of mindfulness books. Then I thought about something a personal trainer had said to me at the gym.

"Did you know you lock your knees when you stand," she asked me. I recently re-joined Healthworks and was using one of my two free personal training sessions that comes with a new membership.

"Try just standing," she said, so I got up, facing her, and felt my legs tense and my knees lock into place like the lid of a Tupperware container snapping shut. This was how I always stood. I never thought about it. Sometimes I'm guilty of the tall girl syndrome of slouching, but I didn't think there was anything wrong with the position of my knees.

"Try softening your knees," the personal trainer, Ann, advised. "it will work different muscles in your legs that you've been neglecting. Otherwise you're at risk for arthritis and other joint problems later in life."

Great. Something else I've been neglecting--like answering emails from friends and hand washing that pile of delicate sweaters I haven't been able to wear in a year. Should I be adding "soften knees when standing to avoid early-onset arthritis" to the to-do list?

Since meeting with Ann I've had moments of mindfulness about my stance and have softened my knees. In line at Trader Joe's. Waiting for the "T." It's hard to change something that you automatically do. It's like a mouth breather suddenly breathing through their nose (I've never been able to do that, no matter how cottony my tongue tastes in the morning.)

What do they always say in meditation (#21 on my to-do list: meditate more)? Return to the breath. Return to softening your knees. Return to going to the gym. Return to writing that sentence. Return to the present moment.

And again.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Going over to the dog side

"There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face."--Ben Williams

I once had a dog named Muffin. He was a mutt we adopted from the ASPCA and my first real pet (tadpoles and lizards don't count.) My dad built a wood doghouse for him, with a sign bearing his name and a little red heart. There's a picture of me when I was around 7-8 years old, huddled in a blue cardigan sweater in the Autumn chill, my arms wrapped around Muffin as he sits in his new little house.

I'd like to say that Muffin and I became best buddies, that he slept at the end of my bed every night, that I paraded him around the neighborhood with me, and that he leapt with excitement every time I got home from school or dance lessons. Actually, my parents ended up bearing the burden of training him, cleaning up after him, taking him for walks, and feeding him. I was a terrible pet owner--what I really wanted was an animated stuffed animal or a cartoon dog like Snoopy, who never needed a pooper scooper and who could entertain himself with WWI stories and the Red Baron when I wasn't around. I wasn't prepared for this living, breathing, barking, salivating, needy dog. Meanwhile, my parents struggled to train him, but not knowing much about dogs, they ended up being dragged through the streets at the end of Muffin's leash and they had to keep him outside on a long lead because they hadn't fully house-broken him.

Our family ended up giving Muffin away after losing a silly lawsuit having to do with Muffin's incessant barking at night and a neighbor's wife who complained. The sad thing is, I didn't even notice Muffin was gone for at least a day, maybe two. When I finally realized that he was missing, I cried to my mother, who reminded me of my delayed realization of the loss and who assured me he had gone to a loving family who "lived on a farm" (which even to this day they swear is the truth). My father felt bad for me, though, and gave me a Cookie Monster alarm clock as a consolation prize. I remember being more disappointed that my Dad didn't realize that I had long outgrown Sesame Street characters than I was about losing the family dog. I was secretly relieved to have our house back to normal and my parents' attention trained exclusively on me.

For years after I identified myself as more of a cat person. I have a strong affinity for cats because I find them elegant, graceful, independent, and interesting to watch. Basically they have all the traits to which I aspire to have myself.

Mike is also a cat person. He likes to say that he can judge if he's going to be friends with a guy by how that guy feels about cats. When our nephew Matt was going off to West Point, Mike advised him to keep this in mind. Months later when Matt was back home on break, he acknowledged that his Uncle had been right--guys who liked cats were definitely nicer than those who did not.

My husband and I currently have two Tuxedo cats, Audrey and Joey Thumbs. Audrey tends to favor me, while Joey usually chooses Mike's lap when she wants to snooze. I thought two cats was enough--more cats and I'd be perilously close to verging into "Cat Lady" territory. I'm very sensitive to the prospect of anyone calling me a "Cat Lady" since that image is not exactly synonymous with elegance and grace, but of someone who rarely brushes her hair and whose furniture is covered in cat hair and house is packed floor to ceiling with cat-embellished clutter (I would make a crack about people who wear cat sweatshirts, but I know some older women who might take that personally).

Occasionally I thought it might be fun to have a dog. But Mike worried about the responsibility and the end of our free-wheeling lifestyle of partying at the clubs three nights a week (at least). The truth is he was concerned because we both have full-time jobs and it would be mean to subject a dog to life in a modestly-sized apartment with no proper yard and no one home until 7 or 8PM every night.

So it was basically a "Christmas miracle" when, on a Saturday in December when we were out looking for a Christmas tree, we ended up adopting a rescue puppy from a kill shelter in Arkansas. Carmelita was the most excited little thing I had ever held in my two hands, and when she started licking my face I knew I had to have this tiny dog (Was it part Chihuahua? Daschund? No one knew). My husband, who I like to tease for his various eccentricities but who really has a generous heart, asked me if having a puppy would make me happy. I imagined walking Carmelita around our neighborhood, chatting with other dog owners who just minutes ago were strangers standing next to me at the dog run, taking the puppy to one those dog bakeries that have become so popular and buying her a cookie shaped like a bone. Owning a dog opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I was already in love with her warm puppy smell.

We signed the papers and Mike handed over the Christmas money that was originally going to buy a new Lulu Guinness purse for me.

"You know this is your Christmas present, right?" he asked, making sure I understood that there would be no British handbag under the tree this year.

"I know." Who cared? A designer purse can't lick your face and wag it's tail in a frenzy of excitement at your mere existence. It was merely pretty arm candy, not true love.

So has owning a dog for the last three weeks made me a happier person? I think so. I consider this my chance to make up for my absentee-ownership of Muffin. I get to roll around on the couch with a puppy nipping at my face, I'm entertained at the breakfast table by her running back and forth across the kitchen floor, gripping a paper tube three times her size between her tiny teeth. I laugh every time we put her in her little doggie parka to go outside (see pic above). And just today as we were taking her for a walk around the block strangers did in fact stop to interact with her. Dogs have a way of making people smile and even though I know they weren't smiling at me exactly, I still felt a little bit more connected to these former strangers. One woman actually said to us that seeing Carmelita made her 2010, although I find that over the top, and if true, a little sad.

The best moment is when I'm lying on the couch reading, an afghan covering my legs, a cat sleeping on my feet, and Carmelita dozing on my chest. Pure bliss.