Month: August 2019

The Brave and Heroic One

I’m sitting on a bench in my backyard, soaking up sunlight on a Sunday morning.  At my feet is my dog, McGee, his black fur absorbing even more rays. I love McGee.  The ways I love him or the things about him that I love are innumerable; the why is  mysterious.  He makes me imagine.

I didn’t grow up with a dog, and it’s possible that stunted my empathy, because I now have a theory that dogs (and I guess I’ll reluctantly admit, cats) invite empathy. It has to do with language, or their lack of it.  Dogs don’t “tell” what’s on their mind or how they feel. They show, and we must infer. We have to stop and observe behaviors, and then journey into their fuzzy head. McGee’s feet bounce up and down, left, then right as he stands at the top of the stairs, like one of those show horses prancing in place.  His body vibrates. It doesn’t take an empathy wizard to infer that the impending feast (dry kibble) stands as one of the highlights of McGee’s day.  

It takes a little closer observation to note that when my wife and I are in different rooms of the house, McGee  generally finds his way to the midpoint between our two locations. Nancy is downstairs watching Chef’s Table.  I’m in the dining room procrastinating in front of a computer. McGee has done his triangulation and reclines at his post at the top of the stairs. He’s resting, but also alert. He seems to keep one eye on each of us. At those moments we infer his deep sense of responsibility.  He must keep tabs on his herd.

At other times, though, our empathy is mostly imagination.  It’s a mind (or heart) playing with the mystery of what might run through another creature’s mind.   My wife has a Master’s degree in that field. Perhaps this is because she grew up with ducks, rabbits, dogs, cats, chickens, and an imaginary friend or two.  She takes what she observes in McGee, his loyalty, and his urgent barking when something needs to happen immediately (He barks to inform us when Boo, our elderly dog, needs to be let out.  He barks at 5:00 p.m. when he desperately needs his next meal. He barks when we put his leash on him, as though we might, without his reminders, forget that our next step is to leave the house).  She also observes McGee’s boundless self-esteem, which grows daily despite some evidence that his body was designed by a committee charged with using up assorted leftover dog parts. Still, he prances through the house or the neighborhood, tail raised, head high. These behaviors and attributes have led her to imagine a full character, who, if that design committee had gifted him with language, might actually speak the words that Nancy utters for him.  

When he was hiking with us and accidentally stepped off  a log bridge, finding himself neck deep in muddy waters, it seems perfectly believable that after extracting himself, sneezing, and shaking water all over us, our faithful and overly confident dog’s first barked comments might include these slightly delusional words:  “Wow! I repeat, wow! Did you guys see how I just saved you from that tsunami? I leaped into the wave. I smashed it back into the large, and nearly overwhelming puddle over there. That was a brave and heroic act, dontcha think? You are very fortunate to have such a brave and heroic leader.”

Logically, I know that McGee has a simpler brain than this.  His schema does not include tsunamis or the concept of heroism.  Still, I think the character traits are real: the sense of duty, the need to give orders, the inflated and unwarranted sense of grandeur.  And, with practice, I am learning to throw my mind, and my voice, into that wordless fuzzy head. It’s empathy training 101, and just one more reason to love my dog.

Can you guess what I’m thinking right now?

Type 2 Fun

My daughter introduced me to the term “Type 2 Fun” this past week. Our family was on vacation, hiking in the Adirondacks, but she was recalling a different kind of fun.

“It’s like, a thing that you experience that is really not fun at all in the moment…or even right after, but then, when you look back on it, you see that it was really somehow satisfying,” she explained.

“Oh, wouldn’t hiking sort of fall into that category?” I asked, not fully grasping the concept yet.

“No, I know what you mean, though.  The trudging uphill sort of feels like a chore, and then the view from the top makes it seem worthwhile.  But that’s not quite it. Any kind of exercise feels a little like work, but it’s still something you like, or you wouldn’t have chosen to do it, right?  So that’s not really Type 2 Fun.”

“Oh, then my writing wouldn’t really qualify, either?  I mean, I often don’t enjoy the actual process of writing, but when I look back on something I’ve written, it sometimes seems like fun.” 

Sigh from Sarah.

Apparently, I still wasn’t really getting it.

“Sort of, I guess.  It’s that ‘I love having written’ thing, right?”  She decided to give me an example to help me better understand.

“Here’s what I mean. Three summers ago I was leading a canoe trip on Bog River.  We were close to the end of our first day on the river, and we were looking for a campsite.  We had gotten a late start, so it was already close to dinner time, like 5 o’clock. The girls on the trip were all seniors, but they were getting a little tired.  The first campsite we came to was really nice, bitt it was already occupied. We were a bit disappointed, but we knew there were more sites up the river. We paddled on

Ohh. That’s Type 2 Fun?

No, Dad, just stick with me, here.

A little later, like after half an hour, we came to the next site, but it was full, too.  We paddled on.

The next, and the next, and the next were also full.  I was getting really stressed. Was it possible that we would never find an open campsite? The girls were getting hangry.  They were whining. They were shooting me looks. I kept looking at the map, and seeing that there were more campsites, but we were having to cover a lot of miles, and it was getting late.  I had to try to keep things positive, but I was pretty nervous myself, so it wasn’t easy.

Then we hit a big stretch of the river that wound through private land.  There were no campsites whatsoever. Some of the campers wanted us to just pull over and set up our tents on the private land.  I have to admit that I was starting to consider that too. It was beginning to get dark. The kids were not just cranky and exhausted. They were beginning to get scared, too. Canoeing in the dark, in the wilderness, is not a great idea.  Setting up a campsite in the dark is not a good idea. Cooking your dinner in the dark, in the wilderness is like inviting hungry animals to join you. Are you getting the picture?

At around 8:30, we thought we might have finally found a site. Rather than have the whole group get out, I decided I would scope it out first. I was very close to the bank when I jumped out, but it’s pretty hard to judge depth In the dark. I stepped out of my canoe and was immediately up to my armpits in the river. This at least gave the kids something to laugh about. I dragged myself up onto the shore, only to discover that the campsite was occupied. We hadn’t heard anything, because…they were already asleep! No one was laughing now.

We paddled on.

Finally, after almost five hours — FIVE HOURS! — of searching, we found an open campsite.  It was 9:30. The kids guessed 2:30. I had never heard of a trip reaching a campsite that late.

I told everyone to get out (after checking the depth of the water).  They were tired and cranky, and definitely not in the mood to do any more work. But we still had work to do. We set up camp in the dark. We cooked in the dark. We cleaned up in the dark, and finally we went to sleep.  Lemme tell you. No one was having fun.

There was some good news.  I let everyone sleep late the next morning, and when we woke up, we realized we had not only covered day 1 of the trip, but in all of our searching, we’d actually paddled all of what we would have done on day 2.  We had almost no river to cover. We also hadn’t eaten that much food the night before, so we had plenty to eat. 

When we headed down river on the last day, not only did we have the current to help us, we also had the wind at our backs.  We put our canoes together like a big catamaran, four canoes across. The kids in the bow of the canoes held up our biggest tarp like a giant sail. We used an extra paddle as a reach pole, and we sailed, literally sailed, the whole way downriver.  People at the campsites we passed actually came to the shore to watch and applaud as we blew by.

Three years later, these same girls who were so cranky, so miserable, so scared at the time, talk about this experience as though it was the most fun trip they ever had at camp.  It’s crazy. They tell people I was the best trip leader ever. I am here to tell you that they did NOT feel that way on that night, and they were definitely not having any fun in the moment.   

That is Type 2 Fun.”

I think I understand now, and here is my conclusion:  Most Type 1 Fun makes for a boring story.  Thank God for the other type.