Dig It

Max is a pretty weird dog in that he doesn’t like swimming in water, won’t play fetch, prefers human attention over other dogs, and does not dig in the yard. At least (for that last one) until recently.

Last month, Max started digging little holes in the backyard. It came out of nowhere and I honestly thought he didn’t even know how to dig or that digging is a thing dogs tend to do.

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It really took me by surprise, and then I got mad and told him to stop. Since then, I have not seen any new holes, but that also could be because the weather is ridiculously hot now and Max does not want to be outside any more than he has to be.

Still, Max’s short foray into digging has made me really consider how well I do or do not know him. I don’t question that we have a bond and I recognize that I can typically predict his behavior, just as I am sure he can predict mine. But Max taught me that there is still some mystery hiding just below his surface.

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And often that mystery is frustrating, because I really want to know what’s going on with him (both in a good, helpful way and a not-so-good, prying, unnecessarily curious way). I too am tempted to dig. I want to find some way to uncover Max’s motivations and know without any shadow of doubt what makes him feel and behave the way he does.

I recognize my fear of uncertainty in that desire. Maybe it comes from wanting to control things or maybe it comes from discomfort with change, especially sudden unexplained change. Regardless, it is a gut reaction through which I seek to uncover something that is not really my business, or even worse it is a reaction through which I seek to impose my own desire on the matter.

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Then I remember scolding Max for digging and wonder if I should heed that advice myself. Max may confuse, frustrate, or even baffle me sometimes, but in doing so he reminds me that relationships are not equations to be solved or experiments to be dissected or forces to be controlled. Rather, Max has taught me that relationships are mysteries to be appreciated and explored.

To be sure, I am all about honesty and authenticity in even the most superficial of relationships, and Max consistently teaches me how to be and express myself openly and fully. He reminds me not to conceal or deceive by being transparently present in all he does. But it this moment of digging, he also taught me that I can’t claw my way into understanding someone completely. There are certainly layers to people which can be wonderful to uncover and explore, but a frantic disturbance only leaves fatigue and a dirty mess.

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Maybe that exploration is less like digging for information or certainty, and more like appreciating the deeper and deeper layers of connection we can share and develop as we live life together.

Maybe that exploration is less like exerting my control or insecurity on another, and more like embracing the reality that we are not simplistic and can consistently expand the ways we value one another.

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In that sense, I certainly dig Max and the many other important people in my life. I may not completely understand everyone or the things they do, but I dig the mysterious fullness of who we all are, and the way we can learn more and more about one another every day, even without unnecessarily digging into things.

So, thank you Max for teaching me the real value of exploring and appreciating the complex nature of our relationships with others. Please don’t dig any more holes in the yard, and know that I dig you even when I don’t understand you.

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The Rules of the Game

Max likes games, but since I never really took the time to teach him how to play, he doesn’t know how any typical dog games are supposed to go.

Or maybe he does know and he just insists on playing by his own rules.

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Every now and then I get the urge to try to play fetch with him. It usually goes something like this: I walk out into the yard wherever he last left the ball. He gets really excited because I’m doing something he could potentially be involved in. (It’s important to note that this is the same level of excitement he shows when I sit on the couch -not something he can really be involved in-, or when I start making dinner -again, not something he can be involved in. So, his level of excitement is not a good indicator of actual involvement…)

After I pick up the ball, he focuses solely on it. I think, “Cool, we are doing this.” And I throw the ball. Max runs after it, but instead of bringing it back to me as a RETRIEVER probably should, he takes it away to a different part of the yard and lays down with it.

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Max clearly does not understand how the game fetch works and how fun it is to keep up the cycle of chasing and retrieving. What I’ve begun to suspect Max does understand is how fun keep away is.

Either Max is really clueless (and I might answer that differently depending on the day) or Max thinks that fetch is “keep away.”

I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Max is legitimately playing a different game than I am.

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And it is not just in fetch/keep away. Every now and then I get the urge to play tug of war with Max. It usually goes something like this. I see a toy where Max has left it on the living room floor. I pick it up. Max gets really excited because I’m doing something he could potentially be involved in…

After I pick up the toy, he focuses on it and I think, “Cool, let’s do this.” I extend the toy to him, he latches on and we do start tugging for a while. It is clear that Max knows he is not supposed to let go. Things are going a little better than fetch at this point.

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Max is pretty rough with the toy, and I’ve noticed that he usually readjusts his grip to catch the weakest part. It’s a weird strategy.

Then, if I let go (to make him think he has a chance, of course), he runs off with the toy and starts chewing on it to try to rip it to shreds. That is not tug of war.

Max clearly does not understand how the game tug of war works and how fun it is to have whole, not chewed up toys, to play it with.

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I’ve begun to suspect that Max thinks that tug of war is actually “tear stuff up.” And he legitimately likes to play the game tear stuff up with me – allowing me to hold in place what he wants to tear up.

Max and I are simply not playing the same games.

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Now this could be a nice lesson in which I learn how valuable it is to take someone else’s point of view and see how the world is fundamentally different for them than it is for me. I would otherwise have no clue why Max is such a weirdo when it comes to normal dog games. But in stepping into his paws for a second, I can begin to see this other possibility.

But I’m just competitive enough, that the first lesson I actually learned from all this is that playing different games means that we each think the other person is losing really badly. Max is owning me in keep away because I just keep throwing the ball away, and I think he stinks at fetch. Max is destroying it in tear stuff up (literally), and I’m just frustrated that he has ripped up another toy. If we are not playing by the same rules, no one really wins…if winning is even really the point of such interactions.

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I have found this to be an important lesson. And I can’t help but think that different segments of society understand each other less and less because we don’t even agree on the rules of the game. Of course, the issues that lead to the division we see are by no means games, but still it is easy to think we are winning if we are investing in values fundamentally different from each other.

I’m going to be more direct than normal here. I think President Trump is losing when he fundamentally misunderstands a peaceful protest about real racial injustice in our country or when he tramples on the civil rights of lgbtq persons, etc. And I have come to understand that he and many of his supporters think me and others who hold similar opinions are losing when we don’t support what he apparently sees as American values.

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Now, Max has not taught me a solution to this divisiveness…at least not yet. I think it goes beyond merely trying to understand one another, because this stuff isn’t a game. And even if we agree on the rules, I don’t see how competing to win will help those among us who really need help.

I look forward to that lesson with the solution, hopefully sooner than later. But for now, Max has taught me why he and I seem so disconnected sometimes. And he has taught me that both of us will always lose if we aren’t playing by the same rules.

So, thank you Max for teaching me that sometimes you really are playing by different rules of the game. Thank you for helping me understand some elements of the disconnect I see around me, and I hope that you will soon teach me how to address that division.

Sympathy

The first day of summer is just around the corner, and it is already quite hot. I know it will only get worse and worse over the next several months; yet, Max still has to be walked outside.

I prefer the warmth over the cold, but I dread being out in the hot Texas sun, even for a little while and even when I am able to dress as cooly as possible. Then I look down at poor Max who is excited to be outside, but is beat and exhausted from the suffocating heat.

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Max has so much hair, even after shedding gobs of it, and he looks pretty miserable in the heat under that thick coat.

As we walk, I find myself starting to sweat profusely, and I look down at him to see how he is holding up. I am amazed at how differently his body is built to handle the heat. Max’s body is not built to sweat like mine is, so he pants to cool down. Our skin and how our bodies respond to the heat are fundamentally different from each other.

I am more and more amazed at this simple fact the more I think about it. Max can’t feel the light cool breeze that gives me such relief outside (at least not in the way I feel it). And even indoors, Max can’t feel the reassuring warmth of a light touch (at least not the way I feel it). I have to rub or scratch him pretty forcefully for him to feel that comfort.

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Through this difference, Max has taught me that though we can experience similar circumstances and feelings, I will never fully understand what it’s like to be him.

We both get very hot in the summer, and I can sympathize with his exhaustion, but I will never know what it is really like to bear the heat under his fur. We both get hungry, and I can sympathize with him when I have to wait a little too long for a meal, but I will never know what it is really like not to be able to fix that hunger myself.

Max has taught me that sympathy has limits. I can experience the same thing as other people, and, in good faith, attempt to connect to them through sympathy. But I will not really know what it is like for that other person to go through it.

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This reality seems to me to apply across many differences, such as races, genders, and cultures. For instance, I know what it is like to be insulted and mocked, but I will never know what it is like to experience that as a Black, Asian, Native, or Mexican American. I know what it feels like to nurture and care for another, but I will never know what it is like to experience motherhood.

Given these fundamental differences in experience, I sometimes wonder if attempting to sympathize is unhelpful. But Max has taught me that sympathy is an incredible tool in relating to others. When people seek to share and understand the deep pains and joys of life, something incredible happens to bring them together. Max has taught me that sympathy has its limits, but that just means I have to find appropriate ways to exercise it.

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I can use the openness and attentive understanding of others to be more compassionate and thus be joyful when others are joyful or bring comfort in distressing situations. I can connect with others on more than a superficial level.

But, I cannot say I know what it feels like. Because I don’t. My biology or cultural heritage or society’s response to me is fundamentally different. And it is only when I am fully honest about such differences that I can make the turn to really listen and try to understand what the other person is going through.

Yet, Max has also taught me that these very differences are incredibly valuable and are meant to be celebrated and cherished. I learn things from Max that I would not otherwise think about because he is so different. Moreover, I am pulled out of my own self-centered world in order to sympathize with Max. As I become more open to him, that openness begins to define my connection to many different people.

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It is fascinating and fantastic that Max is different and it is fascinating and fantastic that I can learn from him, establish a relationship with him, and find ways to step outside my own world to walk with him sympathetically – bearing the heat together (even if it means one of us is panting and the other sweating) and exploring the beauty of creation together (even if that means one of us is sniffing all around the ground and one is gazing across the horizon).

Max and I are fundamentally different in many ways, but when we embrace and respect those differences, we can begin the work of open-hearted understanding that is the foundation of our sympathetic bond.

So, thank you Max for teaching me about how limited, yet important, sympathy can be. Thank you for teaching me how to better connect with people who experience the world in vastly different ways compared to me. And thank you for bearing those hot, summer walks with me.

Expertish

Max is not an expert in many things. I’d put the following on his expertise list: sleeping, eating whatever is in front of him, and looking cute.

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He definitely does not have expertise in obeying me, in tracking smells, in chasing down smaller animals, or even in playing in the dog park.

Of course, maybe expertise in the dog park should not be defined by playing with other dogs. Maybe he is an expert of looking super cool and caj, like that guy at the gym who is no expert in actually building muscle or lifting weights, but is definitely an expert at looking impressive and drawing attention to himself.

So, first Max has taught me that expertise is somewhat arbitrary. In some situations, what actually qualifies as the expert expression of something may not be objective.

But Max has taught me many other things about expertise.

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He has also taught me that having a natural inclination to something does not make one an expert. Max clearly has a natural inclination to chasing rabbits. But I don’t let him, so he has no idea how to actually do that with effective results.

And he has taught me that having all the tools or resources necessary does not make one an expert. Max has an acute sense of smell, much better than mine. Though he thinks he can find vague trails where other animals have gone, he is in no way an expert sniffer. I would not trust him to actually retrieve any animal from a hunt, and he does not even come close to having the skills of a drug dog. He simply hasn’t been trained to use the tools he has, and even if he was, there’s no guarantee he’d be an expert just because he has a dog’s nose.

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But, perhaps the most significant lesson Max has taught me about expertise is that it is not nearly as valuable as being expertish.

Max has taught me that life is much more interesting, meaningful, mysterious, and exciting when one approaches it through an expertish perspective rather than thinking one has expertise. Expertise limits, it makes me think I have it all figured out and that I know all there is to know about my field. It leads to mild or intense arrogance and pride and does not leave room for continual learning and exploration.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love knowing a lot about my profession and interests. But I recognize that when I think of my understanding as expertise, I put myself against or over other people who have not spent as much time studying whatever it is. And then I have a much harder time learning the valuable lessons they can teach me from their unique perspective. For instance, over the past three years I have worked with middle and high school students. I think it is safe to say I know more than them – I have a certain level of expertise that they do not. But at my best, I think of my own knowledge as expertish and then I learn incredible things from them.

I am also aware that if I went in for major surgery, I would want an accomplished, expert surgeon. But, I think even there I would want a surgeon with expertish rather than expertise, someone who would be open to what a nurse or assistant could see that the surgeon could not.

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Max has taught me the value of embodying expertish rather than expertise. He has taught me the value of being humble and realizing there is always more I can learn, and there is especially much I can learn from people very different from me. He has taught me that in being expertish, I will position myself to encounter the mystery and wonder of this world more fully, rather than trying to make sure I have it all figured out. Max has taught me that being expertish is not a position of weakness or less adequacy, but rather a position of full potential that is powerful in its openness, flexibility, and creativity.

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Because Max is not an expert at many things, but he has a certain expertish that profoundly connects him to the mystery and wonder of this world.

So, thank you Max for teaching me the value of expertish. Thank you for teaching me the limits of thinking I have it all figured out in expertise, and showing me how to engage the mystery of the world through the openness of expertish.

Max is a Dog

Yes, Max is a dog. He may try to fool me sometimes by acting like a model, but he is definitely a dog.

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This week included national dog day and I got to celebrate Max’s species with many other people by posting and looking through dog pictures online. Maybe not the celebration Max would most prefer, since it didn’t involve any food and he doesn’t understand pictures or the internet, but it gave me a reason to think about Max and why he matters so much to me…

Then he came up and slobbered all over me, because he is a dog. He made some weird noises while licking himself and pestered me until I took him outside to walk, because he is a dog.

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On the walk he tried to sniff everything and pee on most things, because he is a dog. When he saw a rabbit, he forgot everything (including the leash around his neck attached to my arm) and sprinted after it, because he is a dog.

Then he ate something nasty he found on the ground while I wasn’t paying attention, because he is a dog.

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Sometimes it is hard to understand Max’s behavior (and I don’t even have to deal with the bad puppy stuff). I find myself thinking, “Why won’t you just learn not to eat that gross stuff you find outside,” or “Can’t you see I’m tired and don’t want to play,” or “Do you really have to shred that toy and leave all the scraps all over the floor?” I too often try to treat Max like a person and expect him to live just like me.

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Then Max reminds me that he is a dog. He does dog things, which make no sense to me as a human. But I shouldn’t get overly upset about it nor try to change him and make him act like not a dog.

Rather, I should appreciate his doggyness, even when it is hard. It is easy to appreciate his joyful presence, loyal companionship, friendly demeanor, and contagious fun-loving spirit. But his doggyness extends beyond just those positive qualities and I am to love and accept him in all his weird doggy ways, just as I am to love and accept other people in all their weird peopley ways.

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Max innocently expresses himself according to his biological makeup. And it is a complex mixture of all sorts of weird stuff. But that is what makes him interesting and unique and a being worth posting pictures of online. Sometimes it is tough, but embracing him as a big, hairy, bundle of energy is really the only way to embrace him and honor him as the dog he is.

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(apparently I can’t embed this video, but it is still well worth watching)

So, thank you Max for teaching me that we all are complex, complicated beings. And thank you for helping me understand how to love you as the dog you are: smelly, slobbery, curious, energetic, and sometimes downright gross.

Following

Max follows me around a lot.

I have noticed him tailing me from room to room more than normal, and I don’t think it is because we were away from each other for several weeks. Once, earlier in the summer, I even felt his breath on my calves as I walked to another room.

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Often he will be comfortably laying down somewhere and if I walk by to do one little thing in another room, he will get up and follow.

I felt bad when I started to notice him doing that, because I didn’t mean to disturb his rest. But then I remembered that he literally sleeps all day, so he in no way needs more rest.

We live in a small apartment so this process of passing him to go to a new room and him following happens quite frequently. Because it can get pretty annoying, especially when he stands right in my way trying to figure out how to follow me, I started wondering why he would follow me so much.

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Then, I started wondering if I follow anyone around like that. Not literally of course, that would border on stalking, but who do I turn to for answers or guidance, in what places do I get news and information, and what all influences do I actively seek out that inform me?

Honestly, my list of who and what I follow is not too much longer than Max’s. We are both creatures of habit and I find it all too comfortable to follow sources if I know where they are going and what kind of steps they are taking.

It can be uncomfortable and frustrating sometimes to allow myself to be guided by voices very different from my own, to follow them around a while and really see where they are going instead of turning away immediately.

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Max has taught me that it is important to find people to follow – we need guidance and direction. And he has taught me that it is not bad to follow sources I know and trust and am comfortable with.

But Max also taught me that it is all too easy to get stuck following the exact same kinds of people and things. And that can be problematic, because I don’t get a full picture of things. I need to experience different perspectives in order to grow. It is much less fruitful to follow one person around and around a small apartment than it is to branch out and learn from new sources.

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Max has taught me that seeking guidance by means of following diverse perspectives is humbling. Following in this wholesome way helps me turn outward to listen to others and really attend to where they are coming from and going. And it helps me nuance my own understanding of this complex world so that I can take more confident, informed steps in my own direction.

So thank you Max for trusting me enough to follow me around even when you have no clue where I am going. But more importantly, thank you for teaching me how much more enriching it is to follow diverse voices rather than one person around and around the same place.

In the Way

Max always seems to find the one place where he will be most in the way. He especially employs this practice when I am cooking. My kitchen is pretty small so laying anywhere in there is more or less in the way, but he seems to find the exact spot where I need to stand.

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Similarly, Max often lays down right in front of the sink of my bathroom so that I either have to shoo him away or lean way over him when I need to brush my teeth.

And even when I am trying to let him out on my balcony, he just doesn’t seem to understand that I actually have to get past him to open the door. Instead of letting me through, he shuffles around always stepping right in front of me.

His getting in the way is frustrating and sometimes even dangerous. Yesterday I accidentally kicked him in the head because I did not know he had lain down behind me while I was cooking.

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But he’s not the only one to get in my way. I drive around a lot and there are countless drivers who get in my way. There are people who write things and do things that seem to me to be getting in the way of more important things.

It’s a busy world and everybody is just getting in each other’s way.

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But Max has taught me to take a step back from myself and try to better understand why others are in my way.

In doing so, I realize that Max has some decent reasons for laying and walking where he does. The kitchen and the bathroom both have cool tile, and he gets hot very easily. And I know that he is just very excited to go out and can’t understand the mechanics of opening the door. So, I can’t blame him for finding a cool place to lay or for being excited.

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Max has taught me to be more humble and to put myself in his and other people’s shoes (or paws). He has taught me that my plan and way of understanding the world is not the only one, nor probably the best or most comprehensible one.

He has taught me that maybe others aren’t just out to frustrate and annoy me. Maybe they have a good reason for thinking and acting as they do. And maybe I’m stumbling around in their way unknowingly too.

Max has taught me that sharing this world with others will involved some clashing and some getting in each other’s ways, but that instead of crashing together like two determined, unswerving drivers we can instead clang together like wind chimes, making more harmonious noises.

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I will probably still be frustrated when Max lays right in my way or when drivers keep me from making that turn I need to take, but Max has taught me to take a step out of my own limited perspective and try to understand how others are not necessarily intentionally in my way.

So, thank you Max for opening my eyes to consider why other people seem to be in my way, and for helping me learn that there are often good reasons. Thank you for trying my patience so that I may eventually grow to have a little more. And thank you for keeping me humble and open to the perspectives of others.