Last weekend marked the ten month anniversary of saying goodbye to my beloved dog, Hoshi.
She was everything a dog should be: loyal, loving, sweet-tempered, funny. She got my jokes (I swear that dog laughed) and she was around for all my big milestones – turning the big 3-0, the death of my parents, YEARS of dating, my engagement, my wedding, turning the big 4-0, baby-making attempts/successes/failures and the birth of my daughter, who is almost eleven months old.
There are so many up sides to pet ownership – companionship, exercise, preventative healthcare – but the biggest down side in my opinion is their short life span. They will always go before we do – there’s just no way to get around it. Hoshi lived a stupendously long life for a 90 pound dog; she was fourteen-and-a-half years old when she left to frolic in that Puppy Lake in the Sky.
It’s never easy to say goodbye to a loved one, animal or human. I really think the memories and the lessons you learned from them are what help you get through it. Before we all start crying on our keyboards, I’ll move on to the Top Ten lessons Hoshi taught me, many of which relate to writing.
1) 50 New Smells A Day
It’s said that dogs need to get fifty new smells a day to stay psychologically alert and happy. Those daily walks are your dog’s version of reading the paper. I KNOW they’re sniffing every bush, light pole and dog bootie on the block but in reality what they’re doing is “filling the well.” Writers must do the same thing (though I’d recommend keeping your nose to yourself). Stimulate your mind daily with whatever helps you be creative.
2) Pay Attention
Take notice of the people, places and things in your life that fill your writing well. With the plethora of daily tasks on all our to-do lists, it’s easy to let the small simple gifts in our world pass through unnoticed.
3) Treats Help Everything
One of my dearest friends has seven pets and, according to her, “any one of her dogs would step over her bloody carcass for one bite of kibble.” (If you have dogs like hers, you might want to skip to #4.) I’m not suggesting that you allow either you or your pet to get too fluffy in the backside but the world is better with steady rewards of coffee, chocolate, wine, cake or whatever treat that says, “Well done!” to you. Positive reinforcement works on us writers too – you can bet I’ll keep my butt in the chair until this blog’s finished tonight. My husband is holding the angel food cake hostage in the other room and I want some!
4) Smile and Wag
What happens when your dog bounds across the room with a smile and a wag of his or her tail and slides under your hand? You pet them, and coo over them, AND YOU SMILE. It’s hard to resist your pet when they’re sweet. Try to remember this concept when you’re buried up to your eyebrows in that saggy middle of your first draft. Your family (and your editor) will give you much more leeway if you smile and wag rather than bark and growl. I’m just sayin…
5) Find the best professionals (and trust them)
When Hoshi turned eight, she began to get creaky with arthritis. Akita lifespans average about 10 years so I started getting mentally prepared (though, let’s face it, you never are). My girlfriend, Mary, who’s a dog trainer, heard my concerns and sent me to Dr. Voll. A few visits with this wonderful vet and Hoshi was a whole new girl. Certainly, we did our part, but Dr. Voll took care of Hoshi for almost seven years and went well above the call of duty. Whenever the inevitable ups and downs of a senior dog would occur, I’d worry that it might be time to let my sweet baby dog go. On one of those bad days, Dr. Voll looked me in the eye and said, “Stop crying! I’ll tell you when it’s time.” And she did.
6) Love Without Conditions
I don’t have to explain this one to any pet owners. Dogs don’t see disabilities, disfigurement, neuroses or any of the other things that tend to squeeze the human brain down the narrow path of judgment. Animals manage to see inside your heart and make their decisions from there. Try to do this with yourself – this self-love will only make you a better writer. You’ve heard the saying, “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am,” right? Enough said.
7) Bring Your “A” Game
It’s not in a dog’s nature to give 50%, at least it wasn’t in Hoshi’s. She traveled the entire West Coast, San Diego to Seattle, and explored every dog beach and mountain range with the same focused zeal.
I’m a software trainer by day and, after September 11th the training projects in Southern California dried up. In 2002, if I wanted work, the dog and I had to hit the road. We traveled throughout the state, stopping at every available doggie day care along the way and, whether it was Elaine’s Pet Resorts in Fresno or Fog City Doggie Day Care in San Francisco, that dog brought her A-Game. In turn, these places delighted in her visits and always made room for her even when they were full.
If we bring our A-Game to the page as writers, people (read: publishers) will make time for our work, even when they’re busy. It might just be critique partners or published authors in your writing chapter giving you time at first but, at some point, your writing will be recommended and you will sell.
8) Invest In Training
One of my ex-boyfriends owned Hoshi’s parents – she and her four litter mates were literally born into my hands. Unfortunately, this guy went to the “Well, they mind ME” school of training. This wasn’t so bad with Hoshi’s sire, who had an even temperament, but her mother was a really bad dog and it became a dicey business to have anyone in our house. I began training all five puppies, almost before their eyes opened, in an attempt to counteract the unruly bitchiness of their mother. This kind of rigorous training opened a lot of doors for Hoshi. A well-trained dog is a well-received dog and the same goes for writers. The money and time you put into learning your craft will always be worth it.
9) Service Makes You Feel Good
One of the happiest dogs I know is a Corgi named Boris. His owner, Monique is extremely disabled and gets around mostly by scooter. Mary (the dog trainer from #5 above) has taught Boris to fetch Monique’s keys, her shoes, the paper, and a myriad of other items. Like every pet, Boris thinks his owner is a rock star – he lives to serve Monique and nothing makes him happier than making her happy.
I’m not suggesting that you throw yourself on the altar of someone else’s happiness but I am recommending that you give back. If you are unpublished that might mean guest blogs or judging in a contest. For published authors, it might mean the same or perhaps giving away a chapter critique. You’ll know your service opportunity when you see it if you’re on the lookout.
10) Leave People Smiling
I realized during my second week home after having my daughter that it was Hoshi’s time to go. She’d limped along health-wise through my pregnancy, which was very high risk. I really thought she’d miss the birth but she rallied.
Dr. Voll came when I called her and agreed that it was “time,” though she said I could take a few days. I contacted all of Hoshi’s friends and opened the house for anyone who wanted to visit. We gave her every treat we had, plus people brought her scads of contraband food. Things like McDonald’s cheeseburgers that give a dog pancreatitis were on the menu that week and she was delighted (though I definitely got the “where has this been all my life” look).
On the big day, Dr. Voll came to the door and we sent our daughter out with a friend for a long walk so we could focus on Hoshi. She polished off the rest of a cheeseburger and moved on to the Honeybaked ham, smiling and wagging all the way. When the medicine was administered, she never knew it. I’ve repeatedly thought ‘we should all be so lucky.’
Hoshi was my first “baby girl” and I feel blessed to have learned from her. What lessons have your pets taught you?