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.

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (ver. 2)

Back at Christmas, Max got a new lightsaber toy. Although he was very excited about it, he clearly did not know how to use it. You’re going to cut your tongue out if you don’t hold it by the handle, you crazy dog!

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Well, either he did not know how to use it, or he has some impressive, impenetrable force chew skills that he was showing off.

He continued not to know how to actually use the toy, forcing me to take it from him and show him the right way to hold it. I did this over and over again and even when he would get it right for a little bit, it did not last long.

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I soon realized that not only did he not understand how to properly use this toy as an entertaining prop, but also he had a much more sinister ploy in mind.

Max became completely consumed by the dark side. Maybe he was already far gone, but he demonstrated his sith tendencies as he began to shred the amazing toy. At first I tried to stop the destruction, but as it went on day after day, I resigned myself to sadness. I convinced myself that Max would never have the patience to learn a choreographed lightsaber fight with me, but also that he did not really appreciate the toy as he should.

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The unraveling started out fairly slow, and then it eventually went beyond hope.

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And yet, while I mourned the loss of this cool toy, Max taught me something important about having such “nice things.”

Max taught me that while I may have really good, cool ideas about how something should go – like a lightsaber toting dog, I by no means have the only good idea. In fact, my idea may completely miss the mark. Whereas I wanted the lightsaber to be a funny, entertaining prop, Max realized it for what it really is – a dog toy. And Max used this dog toy as he saw fit.

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Max taught me that sometimes I need to let go of my ideas so that things can happen the way they should. If I had insisted on the lightsaber being a pristine prop, Max would not have enjoyed it nearly as much and it would have failed as a dog toy (though, I also wouldn’t have to pick up as many little blue strings every week). He taught me that maybe a dog knows how to use a dog toy better than a human does.

And he’s taught me to be more aware of this concept in other areas of my life. I so often want to step in and make things go a certain way in work and other parts of life. And sometimes that is my role or responsibility. But sometimes I’m just trying to make nice things out of dog toys. Sometimes I am exerting undue influence on something completely outside of my expertise or interest (aka white male syndrome).

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Max is a dog who knows best how to enjoy his own toys, and life is better when I celebrate that instead of trying to continually force him to adhere to certain expectations. Max taught me that maybe we can’t have nice things, but maybe we can have more trust and freedom and joy.

So thank you Max for teaching me that sometimes we can’t have nice things, and maybe that’s ok. Thank you for teaching me that my way and understanding of things is not the only way and is often not the best. And of course, may the force be with you, even on the fifth!

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.

Stinky Stink

Max is smelly. Granted, I have a lot to do with that since he cannot exactly bathe himself, but he is even stinky mere days after he has a bath.

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I don’t know what he does to get stinky so fast, because he spends so much of the day inside. And when he is inside, he mostly just sleeps. When we go outside, he is usually on leash, so I know he is not rolling around in smelly waste or anything like that.

But Max is a dog, and I suppose his stinkyness just happens. Though he may prefer different odors than I do, he is not allowed to get in situations where he could choose to be extra stinky. His stinkyness is just a natural part of his being a dog.

He is very lucky that he looks so cute and that people are more distracted by how he looks than how he smells. It is actually somewhat surprising to me that more often people don’t back away after coming up to pet him because of his stench. But…he is really cute.

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Nevertheless, Max’s stinkyness got me thinking about how I too often judge someone before getting to know him or her. If I get any sense of “stinkyness” after meeting someone, I too often retreat from the encounter. I am quick to judge with eyes and nose, rather than brain and heart.

But Max has taught me that stinkyness does not define a person, and often a person’s stinkyness is not his or her own fault. Sometimes stinkyness just happens. And stinky people are people too.

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In fact, I have often been a stinky person too. Both literally, when I just haven’t put much time or thought into my hygiene, but also when I have a tough, stressful week and my attitude is not as pleasant as I might otherwise wish it to be.

In those moments of my own stinkyness, Max has taught me how to be more accepting, because he is eager and happy to be around me no matter how I look or what my mood is. I can only hope that other people offer that kind of grace to me when I am stressed and grumpy and stinky. And I hope that I too can offer that kind of grace to others whom I encounter in their own stinky situations.

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Max has taught me that despite the clichés, I really should look deeper into a person’s being before judging whether or not to spend time with him or her. I should be more understanding that sometimes stinkyness just happens. And I should be more eager to be around all people, even those who are not the most well put together or those who are having rough days.

So, thank you Max for accepting me when I am stinky. And thank you for teaching not to be so quick to judge someone else based on perceived stinkyness, but rather to be open to the value and worth of all people.

Max is not a Wizard

Max cannot read minds. He is not a wizard. He does not have access to that kind of dark side of the force power (please, no one put him in contact with Kylo – also, thank you for indulging me, Star Wars references are done…for now).

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But too often I act like he should. I expect Max to know exactly what I mean when I tell him to do something. What’s even crazier is that, even when I do nothing to express myself to him, I am frustrated when he does not do something I want him to do, or does something I do not want him to do.

And on the flip side, I cannot read his mind. First, he is a dog and I literally cannot know how a dog thinks, because I do not have access to internal dog brain functioning. But I also don’t even understand fellow human minds much of the time.

So, why do I expect Max to perfectly understand my every desire? Why do I expect Max to behave exactly how I think he should behave when he often does not even know what I want him to do?

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Now, I do think Max comprehends a lot of what goes on and can be quite compassionate. I believe that (most) dogs are very smart and intuitive. And I also think it is good to train dogs and teach them ways to behave.

What I am questioning is my expectation that Max behave exactly how I think he should and my frustration when he does not.

I question that expectation, because I realize that I project the same thing onto other people. Too often I expect other people to act or think exactly how I think they should. Too often I get frustrated when people don’t do something I expect or do something I don’t desire; and far too often this happens without me communicating anything beforehand.

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Max has taught me what a silly paradox that kind of thinking is. He has taught me that other dogs and people (as far as I know) cannot read my mind. He has taught me that it makes no sense to get mad at people when they don’t behave the way I think they should.

He has taught me that instead of worrying myself over the way others are not following my grand vision of the way the world should work, I should try my best to see things from their perspective. I should try to walk in their shoes and display compassionate acceptance rather than frustrated judgment. That doesn’t mean I condone everything that happens around me, but it does mean that I don’t get frustrated when the traffic does not work perfectly in my favor. It means that I understand people may just not see things the way I do and that they definitely don’t know what I’m thinking without me saying something.

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And Max has taught me that ultimately I need to communicate more so that I can better convey what is important to me and so that I can better understand what others are doing and why.

So, thank you Max for trying very hard to read my mind, but ultimately teaching me that you cannot. Thank you for helping me curb my expectation of how people around me should act. And thank you for helping me see the value of communicating the things that are important to me.

In Sync

Max and I have been a little out of sync lately. I have been tired when he is ready to play and I’m ready to go outside when he is content to lay around.

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I think this mismatch is in part due to me changing my work schedule and being gone at different times than I have been in the past. This small element of change unknowingly had an impact even on my time with Max, and I learned that getting out of sync could happen very subtly and quickly. The cause went unnoticed for a while as I was just frustrated that Max kept bothering me when I didn’t want to be bothered.

For instance, I would come home very tired and try to lay on my couch for a little bit to rest my head. But Max, already past ready to go out, would have none of it and breathed right in my face and paced and whined and then came back to breathe right in my face and try to play.

And then Max started waking me up earlier in the morning (something he thankfully hasn’t done much before).

I could tell something wasn’t working, and my initial reaction was – Max why are you so bothersome today?

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But I eventually realized it was not Max’s fault. It was the subtle change in circumstance that led us to be out of sync with one another. And I learned that instead of blaming Max, I should focus on how to get us back in sync.

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And Max has taught me that getting in sync with another will probably not just magically happen. No matter how intensely two people adhere to different rhythms, they will always be different until one changes to match the other or both change to a new one.

So, to get back in sync requires some self-sacrifice and intentionality in understanding the other person. It requires a change in my lifestyle and openness to another.

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To get back in sync with Max I have had to endure my tiredness just a little longer so that we can get closer to the same rhythm of activity and rest. And this isn’t necessarily a one-time thing. Being in sync requires consistent attention and readiness to change when we inevitably get out of sync again.

So thank you Max for teaching me to consider why I am really out of sync with others. Thank you for teaching me to be more lovingly adaptable and give of myself to get back in sync rather than expect others to join my rhythm.