I met Jan on Facebook through our friend Betsy, and the three of us planned a dinner together, but then Betsy stood us up.
So we sat there in a cozy booth at Casablanca, a Harvard Square restaurant, exchanging tentative smiles and casting about for conversation.
“This is sort of like a blind date!” Jan said, officially breaking the ice. Soon the words were flowing. By the end of the meal, we were friends.
While our lives are quite different in many ways—I’m single, she’s married with three kids, among other things—we also have much in common, including literary tastes, curiosity, and a dry sense of humor. During the past year or so, we’ve also been fellow travelers in Plan B Nation. Here, Jan shares some thoughts on her journey—and a furry guy who’s helping her through it.
This Valentine’s Day I sent my 23-year-old son a card with a photo of a young man and his dog sitting side-by-side, wearing identical frizzy red wigs: “May you never grow to look like the one you love,” the card teased. With neither a sweetheart nor a pooch, my son is in no imminent danger of this romantic peril. The joke was on me, as it’s certainly no secret that his old lady has been crushing on her puppy lately.
I’ll let you be the judge of whether I’ve yet begun to resemble my dog, physically, but I have begun to recognize, and even embrace, a few emotional parallels. If you’ve ever lived with a dog, I don’t have to tell you that change stresses them out. Dogs thrive with a predictable routine, well-defined expectations and limits, and consistent, positive reinforcement. As dog trainers know only too well, many “problem” dogs are merely reacting to challenging circumstances created by humans.
Fellow citizens of Plan B Nation, is this starting to sound familiar?
The challenge of being between jobs in today’s economy is stressful enough to make us all behave like this dog:
Now, if I actually were a dog, I’d probably be a Border collie. Bright, hard-working and a quick study, I like to be busy and to get things done. A straight-A student straight through graduate school, I was the (admittedly annoying) girl who always did all the assigned reading before class and finished her term papers before the due date. Laser-focused on my studies and too much of a worrywart to procrastinate, I managed to earn two Ivy League diplomas with honors and without ever pulling an all-nighter. I’m still punctual to a fault, the party guest who habitually arrives unfashionably early.
I’ve always worked—being a stay-at-home mother for a few years doesn’t count as “not working” unless you think meeting the 24/7 demands of three young children is a walk in the park. I went back to paid office work when my youngest child, now 17, started preschool. Most nights, I went to bed dog-tired, but I usually awoke excited to tackle whatever the next day might bring.
When I left my most recent job, as director of communications at an independent school, I experienced an initial rush of exhilaration, like a dog unleashed. There were so many avenues I wanted to explore, both professionally and personally, so many paths beckoned that it seemed as if it might even be hard to choose among them! After a few months, however, it gradually dawned on me that, especially in this economy, the choosing was not entirely up to me. Without a job to provide the scaffolding for my days, a clear purpose to guide my actions, and the reward for a job well done, I felt like a dog cut loose from the pack.
Worse, by focusing all my energy on finding the right job, I’d inadvertently created a dynamic that was bound to frustrate a goal-oriented person, at least in the short-term. Picture the Border collie faced with a field full of plastic lawn sheep: I eventually realized I could exhaust myself trying to herd inanimate objects, or I could reframe the problem.
I needed an interim project with a more certain payoff. So, naturally, getting a puppy seemed like the solution! There were plenty of good reasons not to add the distraction of raising a puppy while I was supposed to be figuring out my next act, professionally. But, the fact is, getting Eddie was the one of the smartest decisions I’ve could have made.
Training and bonding with Eddie these past months, I’ve re-discovered the restorative power of friendship, canine and human. Now I organize my day around our walks with friends who have dogs. If you’ve read Gail Caldwell’s poignant memoir of walking with her best friend, the late Caroline Knapp, and their dogs, then you’ll be able to picture us following in their footsteps at Fresh Pond. Its title, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is what one of my friends always says when we reach the point where the path loops around a wildflower meadow. Having a ready excuse to get away from my computer and out in the fresh air has been a lifesaver.
Eddie has also been my inspiration for a new creative project, a blog called Cambridge Canine. I’d been looking for a focus for my writing and found plenty of fresh material right at the other end of the leash. They say, “write what you know” –well, dogs are what I know best right now. The blog may never claim a huge following, but the posts are fun to write, and the occasional encouraging comment or Facebook “like” is reward enough to keep me in the hunt.
A recent health scare underscored that we can never be certain what will happen next; like players in a game of Whac-a-Mole, we slap down one stressor only to see another pop up. Watching my dog cavort with his friends is a daily reminder that life is lived most fully in the moment. My professional future is still in limbo, but when I’m out walking Eddie, I try to stop worrying so much about where I’m heading and focus instead on enjoying the journey as much as he does.
Recently, a friend remarked, “My dog is my sanity.” I couldn’t agree more.
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.