The Prisoner

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I suppose we are all prisoners to some degree. We are confined to a life of not fully realizing everything what the world has to offer. In other words, while we want to know everything, we can’t know everything. Sure we try. But the bottom line is that we can only know so much and accepting this allows us to deal with our limitations. To be a prisoner is to be confined; to have our liberty stripped away to the point of not being allowed to fully participate in everything we would like to participate in.

 

A dog’s life – while surprisingly easy and, at times, enviable – is characterized by this prisoner motif. For the purpose of this discussion, Reilly is the prisoner. Sharon and I, along with our son’s Adam and Liam, are the prison guards. Actually, I would probably be the warden since Reilly sees me as his master.

 

Each morning the prisoner wakes up when I wake up. He gets to go into the yard when I let him out. He gets exercise when I decide to take him for a walk – and, even then, the leash maintains my control over him. He eats when I decide to feed him. He sleeps when the family goes to their bedrooms. Sure he can walk around the house if he wants, but he can’t leave to go see his other dog friends or to pop out to the nearest fast food joint for a burger.

 

Actually a burger would be a bad idea for Reilly. He has a very bad stomach. We discovered this when he as a puppy. He would eat table scraps and the methane gas attack that followed was quite sobering. I remember hosting a Christmas party with some work colleagues and someone fed him bread or cheese or crackers and the fallout was too much to bear. He almost cleared the room. Fortunately people were so engrossed in the novelty gift exchange – and the fact that Reilly was ripping apart a gyrating robotic dog (didn’t like the gyrations or competition I guess) – that people held their positions until the gift exchange was finished.  

 

Because of his sensitive stomach we have to feed Reilly a special dog food. We also put a spoonful or two of yogurt on his kibble. This keeps the gas in check and prevents the super-loud gurgles from taking over his intestines. This isn’t another digression because I am still talking about “Reilly the prisoner.”

 

At his evening feeding, the warden (remember: that’s me) puts the fancy food with the yogurt topping down on the floor. Reilly approaches the food slowly and respectfully and then starts chompin’. The steel bowl rattles against the steel frame that keeps the bowl from slipping. If my wife and I are talking nearby we have to stop because the prisoner is making so much noise. This goes on for a few minutes everyday and Sharon and I compare it to one of those prison movies where a riots breaks out in the cafeteria and all you can here is the clattering of the steal plates and cups as the prisoners go wild.

 

While prison life is, by its very nature, a life of limitations, there are also a few perks. Reilly doesn’t have to think too much – he just has to be cute and a little bit obedient. His prison guards and warden love him and treat him with respect. He gets to sleep pretty much wherever and whenever he wants.

 

I also know I’m a good warden because when I take him off leash either out front of our house or in the valley on our walks, he never takes off. He accepts the limitations of prison life and appreciates the upscale prison we provide for him.

 

I suppose I could learn a lesson from Reilly. For example, sometimes I feel imprisoned by my job. I am locked into a schedule and only get so much money for the work I do. If I compare my salary to others, I am making way more than some and way less that others. I envy the hell out of those making a lot more than me because of the liberty and opportunity those few extra loonies brings them.

 

More than anything, I feel imprisoned by the amount of time my job occupies. In reality, I have much more time off than most. But I still feel imprisoned by the clock and I resent the fact that I don’t have more freedom to do what I want.

 

Then I remember that little white prisoner, back at the detention centre, living his limited life and accepting his lot. My job affords me the opportunity to do things I might not otherwise do and share experiences with people that serve to enrich my life.

 It also gives me a second, more enjoyable job: Warden of a prison with a population of one. He’s a model prisoner who will never get released for good behaviour. 

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Coming Home

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 You wanna know how lucky I am? Last weekend I was in Whistler, British Columbia, skiing – shredding the mountain as the ski bums like to say. Well it really wasn’t all that glamorous. I was supervising 17 teenagers from the high school I teach at. And I hardly shred anything because my ski skills are not the greatest. But I digress…

When you visit British Columbia you cannot help but marvel at the province’s beauty. The mountains and trees and sea – the combination makes you wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere other than this majestic setting. There were a couple of moments while skiing at Whistler when I came to a graceful stop on the mountain and, dressed in the battle armour of the weekend ski warrior, looked out through my goggles and soaked in the beauty. Breathtaking. Stunning. Awesome (I am using that word the way it is supposed to be used – not like when people see Lady Gaga in a big egg and say, ‘Dude, that’s awesome.’).

The ‘why would anyone want to live anywhere else’ thought echoed through my mind for the four days I was in B.C. But there was a competing thought that brought me back home. My wife Sharon asked me to text her at the end of each day to confirm that I was still alive. I obliged and was able to report that all muscles were in a manageable state of discomfort and my bones were fracture free. In one of her return texts she wrote, “Glad you’re OK. Just got back from walking his lordship.” In that moment – in so few words – my heart went zooming back home.

While picturing Sharon and ‘his lordship’ Reilly roaming our neighbourhood, my heart and mind would remind me of the majesty of my own luck. I’d see the beauty of my relationships: with my wife, my sons, my family, and my friends. And, of course, I’d remember my faithful dog, Reilly.

So when the day came for me to return home, I marveled at the descent from Whistler to Squamish. I looked for hidden images on the rock-face of “the Chief” as we turned onto the Sea to Sky highway. I watched the inlets turn to ocean as we approached Vancouver. I even allowed the rocky mountain backdrop of Vancouver’s cityscape to take my breath away. By the time I got on the plane, I had lived a lot of memorable moments.

 But there is more to life than memorable moments. Life is about connections. This little piece of writing is inspired by the connections I have made with my wife, my sons and even my dog. Memorable experiences serve their purpose but they don’t bring fulfillment. Connections are what bring fulfillment.

Reilly has taught me this valuable lesson time and again. As a pack animal, Reilly’s priority is to keep the pack together and, where possible, to bring newcomers into the pack. Whenever I leave the house, he mopes before slipping into a deep sleep. Before I come home, he moves on top of a small couch that looks out an upstairs window so that he can watch me drive up our driveway. And when I come in that door, he greets me with an enthusiasm that I don’t really deserve.

When I arrived back in Toronto, I was welcomed home by Sharon with a tender kiss and some warm words. A relieved reunion for both of us. And when I got to our house, Reilly greeted me with a frenetic tail wag and a gentle mauling of my hands. He missed me and he showed it by bringing me back into the pack.

The great finish to my homecoming early the next morning. I sleepily responded to the call of nature and, when I crawled back into bed, I curled into my wife. She let out a happy, heavy sigh. A few seconds later there was an elegant thump on our bed. It was Reilly. He doesn’t normally jump up on the bed but I guess he wanted to make sure I was still home. I petted him for a minute or two and then he settled down. There I was – sandwiched between the love of my life on one side and the dog of my life on the other. We were all connected.

Why would I want to live anywhere else?

 

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Always Finish What You Start

Reilly came into our lives when my wife Sharon conspired with our sons Adam and Liam to give me a puppy. They knew that I100_0501.jpg missed our old dog, Spurr, who died a few years earlier. Spurr had been sick for a long time and her constant shedding had been enough of a disincentive for us to forgo getting another dog. However, Sharon knew that I missed having a dog and reluctantly agreed to give me a puppy for my birthday. Sharon is a very sensible woman: she didn’t go to the pound, grab a dog and bring it home; instead she gave me a bag full of dog toys and told me to pick a puppy that “isn’t going to be too big” and “doesn’t shed.” These were conditions I could live with.

 

I surfed the net looking for a breed that met the criteria. There were plenty of candidates to choose from but, after a lot of internal debate, I eventually settled on the idea of a West Highland White Terrier. Actually, the decision was a bit of an epiphany. I had actually been leaning toward a Brittany Spaniel or a Golden Doodle but I wasn’t really sold on these breeds. I was sitting at my desk, looking at dog pictures, when I noticed a little Westie statue that the boys had given me years before. They knew I had a Westie growing up so they thought the cute little icon would help bring back some fond memories. Suddenly it was clear: I needed to look for a Westie. It was a breed that fit our family’s criteria perfectly.

 

The search did not take long. I found a breeder a few hours from my house that was selling West Highland puppies. I made an appointment and one Saturday morning in late June my son Liam and I made our way to a farm in Grimsby, Ontario. When we arrived, the breeder ushered us into her dining room (!) where about seven Westies were roaming around in a makeshift pen. The puppy was for me so I surveyed the pups and picked the one I thought I wanted. I reached into the pen and lifted one up. He was extremely cute but when I turned him around he (there’s no way to put his delicately) hadn’t finished an important export into the outside world. Do you get my meaning? I actually thought, “Puppy, if you can’t finish a little chore like this, I’m not sure you can live at my house.” I put the dog back in the pen and asked Liam which one he liked. He picked up a pup and handed him to me. I checked the dog’s behind and, seeing a fully functioning export system, knew that we had our pup. I paid the breeder and Reilly, Liam and I made our way home.

 

Reilly came into our lives because he was a strong finisher. I am sure that other dog eventually learned how to finish what he started but Reilly had learned it sooner and entered our lives because of it. He was an instant hit and we’ve never looked back.

 

Except to tell this story.

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The Truly Canadian Dog

Reilly reading the French dictionary

When my wife and I decide to travel, and we need someone to take care of Reilly, our “go-to” couple is Lola and Claude. Both are dog people and they both love Reilly.

 

There’s one problem: Reilly leaves as a well mannered pooch with an Irish name whose ancestors hail from the highlands of Scotland and returns as the puppy of a French pastry chef. I am not even out the door and Claude is already calling Reilly by the name, Pierre. In other words, little Reilly is subject to intense indoctrination (I call it Frenchification) while he stays with Claude. Fortunately Lola tries to keep her husband from taking things too far. I probably have to credit her for keeping Claude from adorning our dog in a beret and giving him mime lessons.

 

It’s hard for me to object too much. Reilly is very comfortable with Lola and Claude and I feel comfortable leaving him with them. Certainly my preference would be that Claude avoid giving French lessons to my puppy (he’s done this, I have pictures to prove it), but I have to guess that Reilly is better for the experience. After all, as a Canadian, it is quite patriotic for me to support the bi-cultural education of my dog. Let me explain.

 

Once the Europeans began staking their claims in the New World, Canada became ripe for the picking. The French got their settlements going first with the likes of Samuel de Champlain sailing up the St. Lawrence River and establishing communities in Quebec in what came to be known as New France. This took place in the early 1600s. Meanwhile, just a little after the French moved in, the British began making headway in Newfoundland, the Maritimes, and the Thirteen Colonies. A number of conflicts pitting the two European rivals against each other back home spilled over into Canada with one of the more pivotal battles in the Seven Years’ War taking place on Abraham Martin’s farm just outside the city walls of Quebec. The British came out on top in the so-called Battle of the Plains of Abraham (I suppose they didn’t want to call it “That Battle on Abraham Martin’s Stretch of Farmland”) with the settlers of New France left to sort things out with their British conquerors. The British faced one significant problem: from the time of the first settlements to the Seven Years’ War, the French had sent a lot of settlers to New France – too many for the British to bring under their control. In the interests of regional stability and peace, they needed to establish a spirit of compromise and cooperation with the people of New France. This spirit has been the hallmark of French-English relations since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham back in 1759. In fact, Canada is probably know internationally for being a nation that goes out of its way to find common ground in order to avoid violent and often unnecessary confrontations.

 

In no way am I implying that the French and the English have always gotten along. After all, Quebec has come perilously close to separating from Canada on two occasions in the modern era thanks in large part to the arrogance of the English majority. However, the effort to cooperate, born out of necessity back in 1759, and pursued sometimes reluctantly ever since, has been a defining feature of Canada’s political and cultural identity.

 

Which brings me back to Claude, Lola and Reilly. Sure my dog has to endure Claude’s French lessons and the French cooking shows Lola watches on The Food Channel. He also has to learn to answer by the name of Pierre (no wonder he comes back to me so confused). However, wouldn’t it be un-Canadian of me to demand that my friends refrain from sharing a bit of French culture with Reilly? Shouldn’t I, in the Canadian spirit of compromise and cooperation, accept the fact that Reilly may be richer for the experience? In a sense, I believe my dog’s visits to Lola and Claude’s chateau (that’s a fancy name for the bungalow they live in) make him a truly Canadian dog. As a patriot, I must remain silent and embrace the opportunity my dog has been afforded.

 

That said: I refuse to call him Pierre.

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Take a look at the picture from my

Westie calendar the weekend after I posted this entry.

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Upcoming Blogs

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Three blogs in and I already have a bunch of other blog ideas. I guess that’s what friends are for. Here’s what’s comin!

THE TRUE CANADIAN DOG – Reilly stays with friends and is renamed Pierre.

FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED -picking Reilly from a litter of puppies.

THE LIFE OF REILLY – how Reilly got his name.

SUPERIORITY COMPLEX – LIFE ON THE PERCH – Reilly’s common position is high above everyone else – either on the back of a couch or staring down on you from an upstairs window.

BEST FRIENDS – Reilly’s best friend was a cat named Mouse.

THE GREETING – there’s nothing like a dog’s greeting.

THE SENTINEL – Reilly radar: he knows when you’re comin’.

SECURITY BLANKET – Reilly hates beds but he loves his blankets.

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Why I Can’t Swear

One of the more cathartic moments in my everyday life comes when, in a moment of utter frustration, I string together a plethora of profanities and vent my anger. I love all the bad words; the f-word and the s-word in particular have both figured prominently in my vocabulary – at least until recently. I especially love the tone and feel that swear words possess. I like the shock profanity still manages to muster in those hearing the words even though most swearing has become part of the vernacular.

img_0275.jpgUnfortunately for me, my swearing days are numbered. Just a second ago, while I was working on this very column, the computer did something that I didn’t like. I responded with a very common question: “What the f—?” To be fair, it was a kind of rhetorical question. I didn’t really expect my computer to find a voice and say, “Oh, sorry about that. That little glitch wasn’t supposed to happen.”

 

While my computer maintained its silence, Reilly didn’t. He roused from his sleep, stared at me in utter disbelief, and left the room in disgust. While I feel blessed to have such a great dog, I kind of resent the fact that he is forcing me to abandon the profane and become a puritan. If I am splitting wood for the fireplace and decide to chastise an uncooperative piece of wood with a perfectly annunciated f-bomb, is it fair that Reilly lowers his ears and abandons me? Similarly, when I’m cooking our traditional Thornbury-Sunday-morning-flapjack-breakfast and I spill some of the pancake mix, uttering a harmless little “Ah, s—!”, should my little dog have the right to demonstrate his repugnance by slowly slithering down the hallway and out of sight? Of course, in this case, he would probably lick up the spilled pancake mix before his highfalutin’ exit.

 

I suppose that all pet owners love their animals because they manage, at some level, to make them better people. Reilly is no exception to this ideal. This curious and independent little dog takes me for a couple of walks a day. I credit him with keeping me relatively fit because his exact knowledge of when his walks are supposed to take place during the day keep me putting one foot in front of the other instead of just flopping on my couch. He is affectionate but not annoyingly so. He is playful but knows when to keep the toys away from me. Most of all, he is just so damn loveable. Sometimes I get shocked at how attached our entire family is to this adorable little dog. We are all better people for the affection that Reilly draws out of us.

 

But he is taking away my right to swear – and I don’t f—ing like it. Can’t I just get frustrated once in a while without that little white canine judging me? The answer is an emphatic “NO!”

 

I guess the real question is this: Am I a better person if I don’t swear? On an intellectual level I hardly think that refraining from swearing would make me a more or less virtuous person. However, my mind keeps playing tricks on me as I continue to see the disapproving look of my long dead grandmother who, without ever having to say it, held the assertion that swearing is unnecessary and, in most circumstances, inappropriate. Why swear when there’s a million other words that you can use to say pretty much the same thing?

 

So here I am: a dog owner who is judged for his foul language, haunted by his dead grandmother’s look of reprimand, forced into a puritanical vocabulary. I am being slowly forced to adapt to a life in which no swear words can be uttered aloud.

 

Now that’s frickin’ frustrating.

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I Nearly Didn’t Love Thornbury

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You should know that I came perilously close to turning sour on Thornbury. No, it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford anything at the diamond store. Instead it was the result of a traumatic incident – the details of which I will reveal to you presently (that’s about all the Charles Dickens I have in me so the rest of the story should read relatively normally).

 

My wife and I took possession of our condo in August. We moved in on the hottest weekend of the summer (lots of sweating; no air conditioning). The evening after we moved in I decided to explore the neighbourhood with Reilly. I ventured down a street by the Beaver Valley Community Centre. This proved to be a bad move. I noticed a couple of kids playing on their porch. Their dog was with them and he was tied up. We passed on the far side of the road and I had a feeling that the dog – a 90 pound boxer – was not horribly impressed with Reilly.

 

Maybe it was the heat or maybe the dog was just nuts but he charged full tilt off the porch, snapping his choker collar off his neck, and ran straight at Reilly. Both of us froze. I guess I hoped that the dog would just take a sniff and run back home. Instead the boxer dove teeth first into Reilly’s shoulder and a scuffle ensued. I got tossed around like a rag-doll as I clung to the leash and simultaneously lunged at the attacking boxer. The boys ran from the porch and, within a few seconds, were ushering their dog home. I went straight to Reilly. Other than a gash on his shoulder, and a bit of a freaked out look on his face, he was in decent shape.

 

Meanwhile I was a mess. My futile attempts to wrestle the boxer off Reilly took place on pavement. I had scraped my knee, elbow, and hand pretty badly. However, priority number one was to see if Reilly had sustained any damage that I wasn’t able to spot on my own.

 

I rushed Reilly home and we called the Blue Mountain Veterinary Hospital. They just happened to have staff on hand because they had hosted their open house that evening. They told me to bring the dog over. They spotted some additional bruising and tended to the gash on Reilly’s shoulder. To be honest, the vet seemed more concerned about the scrapes on my knee, elbow and hand than she was about the dog. My wife shared the same sentiment. Both insisted I go to the hospital, which I did, only to be turned away because the emergency doctor said he had seen way worse scrapes than the ones I had. In fact, I didn’t get past the admitting desk. The doctor and intake nurse looked at me from across the counter and told me to put some polysporin on the wounds with the look on the doctor’s face suggesting, “You are a pathetic wimp!”

 

Nothing says ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ like a good old-fashioned dog attack followed by a doctor’s wholesale dismissal of my health concerns. Two days into our weekender adventure and both Reilly and I were traumatized. 

 

However, wounds healed and lessons were learned. I never went down that street again. And Reilly became a lot more cautious when larger dogs came toward him. In a sense he lost his innocence that day. He learned that you can’t trust everybody you meet. It’s probably a lesson he needed to learn and a lesson that I should probably pay attention to as well. Sometimes it’s important to be extra cautious before you get too close to some people.

 

While I could have claimed the attack was a ‘bad omen,’ I decided to use the situation as an opportunity to ponder how truly unpredictable life can be. One wrong turn down a certain street can introduce you to an unwelcomed encounter. However, there’s bound to be another encounter, with a much different outcome, when you take a different turn onto another street.

 

And so the two of us stoically survived our brush with the dark side of Thornbury. Fortunately more walks and many friendly encounters kept us from turning sour on the town.

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