Marking Words and Treats

We’re in the midst of puppy camp right now with Sophie, the Westie puppy who joined us in January. We spend an hour a week learning the basics of civilized behavior—sit, stay, down, and how to control yourself when approached by another creature. The class consists of fifteen dogs of various breeds and sizes, and the head instructor has the demeanor of a high school coach working with a team of new recruits. She keeps both the over-stimulated puppies and anxious owners well in line.

 “Ok, people, show me your poop clean-up bags. Hold ‘em high. There is no such thing as the poop fairy around here.”

One of the first things we learn is to use a marking word when our dog exhibits an appropriate and desired behavior. The word is “Yes!” spoken in a firm and exuberant manner. We practice saying it in unison as the instructor tosses a string cheese stick (highly prized treat) in the air and we all shout “Yes!” at the exact moment it hits the floor. Precise timing of the marking word is essential in teaching the puppy a new behavior. As each new command is taught, a correct response from the dog is followed immediately by “Yes!” and a food treat. The idea is for the owners to establish themselves as the leader of the pack but always through positive and encouraging praise, not by angry and punitive words.

I couldn’t help but think how we have all had to learn new commands in the last year. Stay home, mask up, quarantine, social distance, lock down. Behaviors for which we previously had no more understanding or context than a three-month old puppy being told to sit and stay. Maybe we needed a marking word to get us to do what we were supposed to or maybe we needed more high value treats to reward us when we complied, although the reward of not getting sick or dying is pretty high value. It seems like many of us were easily distracted—barking at others, pulling on our leashes, and trying to establish dominance in the pack.

At the end of the six-week session, dogs and their owners must demonstrate a number of basic skills in order for the dog to be designated an “American Kennel Club Star Puppy.” It requires cooperation and practice and working together as a team. Learning to be good human and canine citizens involves constant repetition of the marking word and lots of treats and lots of hugs. We could all take a lesson from the dog trainers.

A Very Special Orchestra

Right now more than a few graduates of a local high school are dusting off long-unused instruments. They’re checking for broken violin strings or dried out cakes of rosin. Brass instruments are being oiled and woodwind reeds purchased. Are those cello pegs going to move and if they do, will the strings stay in tune for longer than a few minutes? And, most importantly, can they remember how to play this thing that was such a huge part of their life so many years ago? I suspect there’s going to be a lot of practicing  in the next month or two, including in my own home. My once respectable flute playing has been dormant for too long, and I’m paying the price now to whip it back into shape.

In early June, all of us will gather together with that high school’s current orchestra and celebrate the life of our teacher, colleague, and friend who left us way too soon. We will play him home to Jesus in the warmth of a June morning the way we couldn’t during a dark pandemic November. Our grief may not be as raw as in those first terrible days, but it still clamors to be expressed, perhaps even more so now that months have passed.

We will sit in front of the young conductor who has taken his place and glance around at those who shared our musical lives. Who got in trouble on the orchestra trip. Who always cut class to hang out in the band room. Whose parents called the principal to complain about how mean this teacher was, and who now understands how that mean-ness changed his or her life for the better. Who played a solo they’ll remember forever because this teacher believed they could. Who started this individual on his musical career by handing him a cello to learn to play because there were no openings for a piano  accompanist in his high school orchestra. Who remembers the frustrations and the laughter and the satisfaction of working with someone whose strengths complemented your weaknesses and vice versa.

Some are traveling a great distance to play in this orchestra again, and there will be joyful reunions and sharing of memories. Several local music educators who were inspired and trained by this man are making it all happen—from organizing Facebook groups, to scanning pages of music to managing the logistics of the event.

The members of this very special orchestra may be a little grayer, a little wiser, and perhaps, a bit more jaded than when they were sixteen. But the music is still there. Muscle memory will bring it all back as fingers wrap around a bow, as a violin is tucked under a chin, as trumpet bells are raised. When we look up for a cue, someone different will be on the podium. But we will see our beloved maestro and play our best for him, one last time.

The Hope Squad

I recently spent a day volunteering at the vaccination center that has opened near my home.  I was assigned to the front door in a sort of Wal-Mart greeter position. I would call out the appointment times in five-minute increments, ask everyone who entered, “Do you have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath?” and distribute information about what to expect after receiving a vaccine. I answered questions as best I could and tried to keep the lines moving.

I was utterly blown away by how quickly a former craft store was transformed into a pop-up medical facility, structured down to the last detail to ensure patient safety and comfort. Volunteers took temperatures, registered patients, and provided assistance wherever needed. Clinical volunteers, many doing this in addition to their paid jobs, vaccinated patients and oversaw the post-vaccination waiting area. A young woman interpreter accompanied Spanish-speaking patients throughout the entire process, offering explanations and reassurance.

During this past year, I have been holed up in my house, watching the pandemic unfold on a screen. But getting just a tiny glimpse of how we have come together to fix this nightmare was a revelation. I mean, who figured all this out in such a short time? Transforming empty stores, installing wi-fi networks and computers, providing security for vaccine transport, creating appointment websites, organizing hundreds of volunteers, making sure all of the paperwork is correct– the list is endless. And this is happening in communities all across the country.  A year ago, even six months ago, we had no idea that we’d be vaccinating the entire population, let alone developing a plan about how to do it.

What I saw on my first day as a Hope Squad volunteer was nothing short of a miracle, and I will admit, I struggle with those who whine and criticize the efforts being made by our government, flawed as it may be. There are hundreds of thousands of dedicated people–from the brilliant researchers who developed the vaccines to the lovely gentleman providing wheelchair assistance at the local center who are helping to save lives every single day. I think in this world of “if-it’s-not-my-political-party-it-has-to-be-wrong” attitude, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re actually accomplishing together as a country.

The Hope Squad is great branding and a catchy name to encourage volunteerism. But it also describes what I saw taking place in a former AC Moore store a few miles from where I live. It didn’t matter who you were or what the hat you were wearing said—if you had an appointment, you were warmly welcomed and received a life-saving vaccination. If you didn’t have an appointment, information was provided to help you get one. Everyone who entered was treated with kindness, respect, and understanding. The faces I saw coming through those doors reflected anxiety and apprehension but also relief and gratitude. Having the opportunity to experience this first-hand gave me hope in a year that’s felt bleak and depressing in so many ways.    

The Gift of the Ordinary

I recently received an invitation to a bridal shower for my best friend’s future daughter-in-law, and it dawned on me that for the first time in a year, I could say yes to a social event. That there was even a social event occurring was cause for celebration. I was excited to write something on my calendar that was not a zoom meeting or vet appointment, and I immediately ran out to Target to buy a gift from the bride’s registry. I now have a reason to wear clothing other than jeans and go somewhere. The fact that, thanks to the timing of my vaccinations, I can safely be in a room with other people, albeit still masked and socially-distanced, leaves me humbled and grateful beyond words.

It’s been a long year of no’s. No family gatherings, no churches, no singing, no movies, no restaurants, no concerts, no travel, no sports. And when we do venture outside our homes, it’s with fear and trepidation. Do we have our masks and sanitizers? How close is that person I hear coughing in the grocery store? Is that a fever or am I just too warm? The high-tension wire of anxiety pulses through every interaction.

We have become acclimated to hiding. As much as we anticipate getting back to the things we love, I sometimes wonder if we’ll return to all those pre-pandemic in-person meetings and events. Has being plopped in front of the TV or computer screen each evening become just a little too comfortable and when those activities resume, will we say, “Nah, I’m not sure I need to do that anymore.”? This year has been an eternal snow day, which I used to revel in, but now I’ve had enough of the hermit life.

The weddings and graduations and packed stadiums and theaters will come back. But it’s the mundane stuff of our daily lives that shapes us and provides a structure so subtle we’re unaware of it until it’s suddenly taken away. Two months back into normalcy I’ll probably be whining about long choir rehearsals or some pointless meeting. But I’ll never again take those things for granted.

This weekend, for the first time in months, my husband and I ate inside a restaurant. Nothing fancy—just comfort food in a hometown place with plastic menus and cozy booths, now separated by plexiglass dividers. But the food was hot and fresh from the kitchen instead of lukewarm from a Styrofoam go-box. We’ve been living lukewarm from a plastic box for way longer than any of us expected. These tiny sparks of normal life—a simple restaurant meal served by another human being, a chance to celebrate a young bride in the company of others—are precious gifts of the ordinary, meant to be savored and appreciated as never before.