Be Like Bessie!

 


Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”―Ralph Waldo Emerson

A few days each week during the winter I work in a giant laboratory studying the behavior of vast numbers of people.  My specific areas of interest are the characteristics of patience and kindness while in pursuit of happiness and outdoor adventure.  More specifically, I am a Greeter at a New England ski area.  From this vantage point I have face-to-face contact with hundreds of men, women and children of all ages.  The stories my colleagues and I collect could fill a book. (Hey, that’s an idea!)

One of a Greeter’s responsibilities, beyond welcoming guests and answering basic questions, is to be sure each visitor’s wait in the line to purchase lift tickets is as short as possible, hopefully no more that 7-15 minutes on the most crowded days.  This is no mean feat in the age of data collection required for the issuance of a reusable RFID card that can be detected by a scanner in the pocket of even the most high tech parka.  We also draw the short straw sometimes and have to facilitate traffic flow in the “drop off” area.  If the entire ski area is the laboratory, then this particular area is the active Petri dish.  Maybe we should put up a sign that says, “Remember! Children are watching and listening.”

If I was looking to hire people to build a team for a task that required intense, cooperative effort in a stressful situation, I’d insist on seeing videos of how these job candidates handled their cars, friends, family and Greeters in the “drop off” area.  Surely I’d learn more than any resume or interview could reveal.

Since we Greeters spend most of our time managing ticket lines, that’s where the best stories come from.  Just the other day a person was in such a hurry to get his ticket that instead of walking through the short, simple, ten-foot, back and forth maze to the ticket window, this “gentleman” ducked under the ropes to take a more direct route, knocking over several stanchions in the process, which he did not replace.  He may have saved a full three seconds getting to the ticket window.  I just nodded my head and smiled at him sympathetically. You know, one of those smiles that says, “I hope you get better soon.”

We greeters pick up a wonderful assortment of sound bites or snippets from the hundreds of conversations that swirl around us.  My all-time favorite came from two brothers, strolling past with their arms on each other’s shoulders.  The older brother looked at his younger sibling and said, “Hey, your wife’s happy and your girlfriend’s happy.  I think everything is going to be fine.” Then they disappeared into the crowd leaving me with a number of questions that will forever go unanswered. 

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I’ve been thinking of asking management to position a large video screen in the ticket line waiting area showing highlights of good and bad behavior of guests collected over the course of the winter season.  We would obscure the faces, of course, to prevent lawsuits, but the instructional value would be powerful…and highly entertaining.

Most people waiting in line to purchase tickets fall into one of three categories:

Group A.  “I am too important to have to wait in line with all of these other people.  Can’t you do something?”   

Group B.  “It’s too bad the wait is so long.  Have you considered ways that might make things move more efficiently?”

Group C.  “I’m not at work, I’m in a beautiful place and eventually we are going to have a great day on the slopes.”

The hybrid of groups B and C is my personal favorite.  By the way, guests can purchase their tickets online at a reduced price and eliminate or greatly shorten their wait in line.  It’s a reward for those thoughtful people who plan ahead.  Let’s label these folks Group S for smart. 

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So how does this all tie in with BESSIE’S STORY?  It’s simple.  Bessie is the model of patience.  She’ll stand with her nose to a door calmly and peacefully if she wants to go outside.  When it’s time for breakfast or dinner Bessie sits like an angel without barking, whining or grumbling.  In her dark, fragrant world she somehow just knows that we’re going to do the best we can to take care of her needs.  When we are going somewhere in the car she’ll hop in and sit calmly as long as necessary.  Very few people can follow her example of poise and good manners.  The only time Bessie ever acts or behaves as if she is the most important piece of the puzzle is when someone is playing retrieving games with her.  She can be a little antsy during these times, but we understand.

I’ve said it before.  The best way to make friends and influence people is to BE LIKE BESSIE.  It’s not as easy as it sounds.

 

 

Making New Friends

 

A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.
– Walter Winchell

Since launching BESSIE’S STORY – Watching the Lights Go Out we have enjoyed book readings at a wide range of venues.  Ashley and I feel a little bit like we are the crew on a road tour with Bessie being the featured star. When it’s time to leave for an event she hops in the back seat of our car, lies down and falls asleep. Meanwhile we are loading up books, computers, her leash, cookies (Bessie’s dog cookies and Ashley’s homemade chocolate chip cookies) and all of the paraphernalia required to prepare for any possible chain of events.  Bessie’s aplomb in these situations is counterbalanced by Ashley’s anxiety. The nervous mother syndrome, I guess.

At the readings there are always a few participants who form a special bond with our girl, and there is no predicting whom she will choose.  At the end of a program at a retirement home Bessie had her head in the lap of a ninety-seven-year-old gentleman who had beautiful, sky-blue eyes that twinkled like stars on an August evening with each charming sentence he spoke. Turns out he was going blind.  Bess must have sensed this and they formed a bond. He bought a book with the plan that his ninety-three-year old girlfriend would read it to him. He winked at me while sharing this bit of information.

A woman in the audience during the reading kept saying, “Yep, yep, that’s exactly how I feel,” while I was reading about Bessie’s adjustment to a changing world.  She seemed to vividly understand what Bessie was going through. I can still see her nodding her head during the reading, her connection with Bessie was on a cosmic level.  

At a reading in the historic Town Hall of a quaint New Hampshire village a sweet, shy, unassuming ten-year-old girl asked me to sign one of Bessie’s postcards.  It wasn’t me she was interested in, but Bessie. “Be like Bessie,” I wrote on the card, and her eyes lit up!  “I will,” she said. And we both knew exactly what she meant. The card is probably tacked on a bulletin board in her bedroom, or taped to a mirror she sees every day.  I hope so.

During an assembly at one school I paused after reading the chapter about talking to dogs and asked the kids to speak to each other in their dog voices. Suddenly the classroom was filled with affection and kindness. Bessie’s ears perked up, too.

One of the most touching moments came while pointing out to a group of fourth graders how important it is to respond to people with handicaps or disabilities the same way they responded to Bessie―be compassionate, curious and helpful.  A nine-year-old described his friendship with a pal who has autism, and how much the relationship blossomed once he understood the condition. Rather than passing judgement, this insightful boy found joy in acceptance.

At a reading in a beautiful old library in a tiny New Hampshire town one gruff guy sat in sullen silence with his arms crossed over his chest for most of the session. Then, at the end, he almost broke down in tears describing how much he missed his old dog who had been a companion through some challenging life transitions. I think if we’d okayed it he would have taken Bessie home.  She’d have gone with him, too.

Dogs bring magic to our lives.  They are relatively brief visitors in our busy day-to-day schedules, but their impact is magnified in moments and they skillfully slow us down.  Dogs are wonderfully, flatteringly loyal, but at the same time can be uncommonly generous with their affection towards strangers. Bessie has become a conduit for the best that we have to offer each other.  A simple message is best: BE LIKE BESSIE!


 

We've Been Busy!

 

Well done is better than well said. Benjamin Franklin

Momentum begins gradually and then accelerates suddenly.  Bessie’s notoriety seems to be progressing that way.  Since the original book signing event at the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT in late October we’ve sold over 800 books and been featured at five book readings with more scheduled in January.  Here is a listing of Bessie’s appearances to date and scheduled events for January 2019:

October 26, Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, CT – Over one hundred people attended the launch event for BESSIE’S STORY – Watching the Lights Go Out.

October 29, Rumsey Hall School, Washington Depot, CT – Students and teachers in grades K-9 were introduced to Bessie through a personal appearance, a sequence of inspiring videos and selected readings. The kids LOVED her, and learned some things, too.

December 9, Acworth Silsby Library, Acworth, NH – Bessie was allowed to participate in this well-attended event in the beautiful reading room of this historic building.

December 13, Disnard Elementary School, Claremont, NH – Bessie visited with the fourth grade students and charmed them with her subtle, powerful spirit.  One little boy was moved to tears by Bessie’s bravery and irrepressible joy.

December 22, The Village Store, South Acworth, NH – This historic general store has been in continuous operation since the 1860s.  Bessie was right at home at this reading/signing gathering, sleeping soundly on the wide board floors in the midst of a group of new best friends.

Upcoming Events 

January 8, Aspen Elementary School, Aspen, CO

January 15, Reading/signing hosted by Woodcrest Village, New London, NH.

TBD, Newport Montessori School, Newport, NH

 

If you would like to schedule a BESSIE EVENT please email  bessiesstory@gmail.com

Thank you.

 

 

Bessie and Boomer Get it Right

 

Why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? They have a common enemy.―Sam Levenson

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When friends and family gather one of the best measures of their collective love and appreciation is the ease with which the group resumes familiar patterns and interactions.  It’s the “pick up where you left off” syndrome and it doesn’t matter if it’s been two weeks or two years, there is instant synergy.  Ashley, Bessie and I enjoyed one of these engagements recently when various members of three families shared a small house for two nights.  Of course dogs were included. 

The ages of the people involved ranged from three years old to sixty eight.  There were grandparents, young parents and young children, along with nine-year-old Bessie and the group’s newest member, Boomer, a ten-week-old black lab who seemed to grow larger by the hour.  One interesting observation was the stark contrast between the way the young and older adults interacted with the children when they were misbehaving.  It was fascinating, a bit like colliding cultures.  Grandparents, the smart ones anyway, have to walk on eggshells in these situations.  

We had some wonderful laugh sessions that brought us to tears discussing useless parental threats we’ve all thrown out there in moments of frustration, such as “If you don’t stop misbehaving Santa won’t visit our house this year”.  Or, “If you don’t calm down and finish your lunch, I’ll put you outside to eat”, delivered when it’s 38 degrees and raining.  Among my favorites, one almost all parents have delivered while driving in a car is, “That’s it.  Keep fussing and you’ll have to get out and walk home”.  Yeah, right, when you’re three miles from the destination?  Of course all parents, or at least most normal, loving parents have offered similar, unenforceable ultimatums.  It goes with the passionate territory where parents of young children live. 

Meanwhile, the canine members of this large assortment of characters established clear, easily understood guidelines in the first few hours they were together.  When cuddly little Boomer pestered or annoyed Bessie the old girl snarled authoritatively, bared her teeth and the message was clear. “I’m the boss here, got it?”  Rather quickly young Boomer, a smart pup, jumped on board and they got along just fine, playing together occasionally and taking side by side naps.  Meanwhile, over on the human side of the fence familiar patterns of testing between the kids and adults continued in the most normal, predictable way.

There are things my mother did to my brothers and me when we were naughty or fresh in supermarkets, in full view of other shoppers, that would probably get someone arrested today.  And my father had no issue offering his brand of discipline, even in the middle of a sandlot baseball game, with dozens of spectators.  I should add that I was never in question about my parent’s deep, devoted love for me, not for a moment.  And I’m sure my grandparents would refer to them as soft, and my great grandparents would have even stronger comments.  On it goes as theories and practices evolve and change depending on the latest research and trends.

There will forever be one topic on which all grandparents can agree.  I’m referring to the “I certainly wouldn’t have handled it that way” phenomena.  This of course is in response to attempts by the younger parents to keep their children in line while trying to impart important life lessons.  As I think back to the dogs in my life, beginning with a cocker spaniel named Zippy when I was three and continuing all the way through Bessie, the old and the young established the rules of engagement exactly the same way Bessie and Boomer have.  Smart animals, these canines.  Perhaps we humans will get it right someday.  In the meantime, behave or your stocking will be filled with coal.

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Bessie on Stage

 

Fame will go by and, so long, I've had you, fame. If it goes by, I've always known it was fickle. It's something I experience, but that's not where I live.―Marilyn Monroe.

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Bessie made her first public appearances since being featured on the cover of our book “BESSIE’S STORY - Watching the Lights Go Out”.  She attended a book signing at the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, Connecticut and starred in a presentation at Rumsey Hall School in the same town.  In the process she picked up lots of new friends and cemented her notoriety.  Bessie must have received a thousand pats and scratches―people just wanted to touch her.  It was amazing.  She now knows what the Beatles felt like in the 1960s.

It was comforting to witness the calm, controlled way Bess handled her temporary celebrity.  During the book signing she came over and nudged my arm. “I’ve had enough of this,” she seemed to be saying.  “Let’s go somewhere fun.”  Three days later she fell sound asleep in an auditorium with 300 people watching from their seats.  There she was, ignoring her fans like some bored Hollywood star, except she wasn’t pretending to be aloof.  It was genuine.  From her perspective the room was empty.  

Two moments stand out from the student assembly.  We showed a video of Bessie carrying a long stick in her mouth which she tried to negotiate over a fallen tree.  There were oohs and ahs from the kids as she struggled to find a way past the obstacle without giving up her treasure.  Finally, when she figured it out after a full minute of trial and error, the crowd erupted in an unexpected, enthusiastic roar of approval.  I’d like to think that the students were resolving to have the same perseverance when they returned to their classes, friendships, families and other interests.

The second thunderclap of applause came at the very end of the assembly.  I woke Bessie from her nap and called her up on stage.  Sitting alertly, she faced the audience as I placed a cookie on her nose and told her to stay.  For Bessie, that cookie was the absolute center of the universe.  When I said, “okay”, she snapped at it and… missed.  Three more times she failed to capture the treat as the groans and encouragement escalated with each attempt, blending like tea and honey.  On the fifth try Bessie caught the cookie in her mouth and the audience exploded.  It sounded like one of those class cheers at the end of a graduation ceremony.  The place went NUTS!  It’s a good thing Bessie can’t sign autographs.

Here is what Bessie and I hope the students (and teachers) took away from our meeting that day:

  • We all have insecurities and flaws that can hold us back if we let them.  Accept your weaknesses, deal with them and move on.

  • Asking for help and giving help are essential to being successful and happy.

  • Being around people with physical or intellectual handicaps or disabilities should bring out the same characteristics Bessie elicits.  Share your genuine interest, offer assistance and show affection.

A final thought:  I am glad Bessie didn’t hear all the positive comments from her performance, though I doubt she’d change one little bit.  That’s what makes her such a star.

 

Wisdom or Fear – Which Comes First?

 

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. ―Marie Curie

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Bessie, Ashley and I visit Nantucket for a few days in September.  This is her third visit to the island which she knows only as a blind dog. Her memories are rooted in the touch, sound and smell of the place; she has no idea what Nantucket looks like.  As we board the ferry the salt air triggers her memory and she seems excited about swimming in the ocean again.  We are on the same page.

Each morning begins with a visit to a nearby beach that is accessed by descending a long flight of steep steps.  Bessie proudly carries her favorite orange toy in her mouth like it’s a prize she’s won, almost as if she is showing off for the people we meet, but of course we know that’s not the case.  There is not an arrogant bone in her body and she has no way of knowing who is watching.  It’s just her confidence and joy in full bloom.

Bessie takes the steps to the beach deliberately and cautiously, about forty of them, one at a time, always with her right front foot touching the next step first.  She has identical rhythm on each wooden plank, like a robot precisely programmed.  But once she feels the sand between her toes she becomes a bit reckless, fueled by the freedom this sensation promises.  We have this in common.

Bessie loves beach walks.  With the sound of small, breaking waves guiding her she knows just where to find the crab claws, scallop shells and dead fish that have washed ashore.  The fussy tourists will be paying top dollar for similar delicacies in fancy, nearby restaurants later in the evening.  Bessie enjoys them for free on her beach walks.

By far her favorite beach activity is retrieving her toy from the salty ocean.  The waves, tides and currents create a different venue than the calm lake she enjoys in New Hampshire.  The challenge seems to peak her interest and enthusiasm, like an athlete in the playoffs.  This is especially evident when the tide is going out and the tossed toy drifts farther and farther away from shore.  Undaunted, she swims in ever-widening circles, searching for the familiar scent. 

Occasionally the orange cylinder gets so far away that I have to dive in and coach her.  There we are, swimming side by side into deeper and deeper water on a mission of recovery.  I find myself wondering just how long the old girl would stay with me on this quest.  I’m pretty sure I’d be the first to turn around.  It sure seems that way.  We get to a sandbar before the question is answered and Bessie’s standing in water just a few inches deep.  I wonder, does she think we’ve crossed a river?  We retrieve her toy and head back toward shore. 

Leaving the beach we encounter a dead horseshoe crab.  Bessie stops in her tracks about three feet in front of this expired, prehistoric arthropod, lowers her ears, crouches low and circles cautiously around the dead animal whose species is 300 million years old.  What is it about its particular odor that frightens her so much?  Did she have a horseshoe crab confrontation earlier in her life that left a deeply embedded mark?  Is there some thread in her DNA that links this encounter to the part of Bessie’s instinct that signals danger?  I have no idea, but I find myself pondering the concept of fear and how sometimes we just know in our bones it’s a good idea to turn and walk away.  This message is made more poignant by our dog who for the most part is afraid of absolutely nothing.

As we climb the steep steps and walk back from the beach, I consider what the horseshoe crabs are in my life, and how to get past them. It’s a good idea to ponder this once and a while. Thanks, Bessie.

 

Have You Seen Bessie?

 

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
―R.H. Tolkien

Bessie is nine years old now.  I often compare the dog she is today with the dog she was before her blindness.  In so many ways there is no difference, at least in terms of her personality.  She seeks affection the same way by nudging in close and batting you with her paw until you stop what you are doing and scratch her somewhere, anywhere.  Her bark is the same, and she still has this funny way of mumbling when she hears or smells something that makes her nervous or excited.  She continues to exhibit an inexhaustible, almost irrational, interest in retrieving.  Bessie’s posture, body language and sleeping habits are identical to when she was a young dog, and food, of course, continues to be a prime motivator.  Perhaps the most durable trait of all is that she still marches to the beat of her own drummer.

Years ago, when she did normal puppy things like chew newspapers into shreds, or gnaw on the leg of a chair, we would scold her in a deep, serious voice.  When our other dogs did something wrong this reaction caused them to pull back their ears and drop their heads and tails in sullen remorse like captured criminals.  Not Bessie.  When we’d say, “Bessie, stop that, no, bad girl,” her ears would pop up, her eyes would open wide and her expression seemed to say, okay, okay, I get it, save your breath.  And just so you know, I’ll do it again when I want to.  And she would.  We may as well have said, “Good girl, Bessie. Nice job making a mess of things.”

As a young dog Bessie would sometimes disappear into thin air.  One minute she’d be right next to us following our every move while we were gardening, washing the car or working on some outdoor project, and then―poof―gone without a sound, silent as smoke. 

Often times we’d find her at the farm across the street, meandering among the cows and searching for a snack of some sort.  I’d berate her, tell her how dangerous it was to cross the road, grab her collar, pull her home and put her in the house.  A week or so later she’d vanish the same way.  When Bessie wanted to be somewhere else, that’s where she’d go.  We might find her in a neighbor’s yard or somewhere on the school campus with a group of kids.  I guess when she caught a whiff of freedom she liked the way it smelled and followed it.

Before launching a search party after she disappeared, Ashley and I would call her with our own personal whistle noises.  Mine is a loud, high pitched whistle, made by placing my fingers in my mouth just so and blowing hard.  Ashley’s whistle is more conventional, a lilting, up and down melody that is more beckoning and gentler.  We’d whistle and wait, whistle and wait, turning in circles, speculating from which direction Bessie might appear.  When she did return it was never at a trot or a gallop.  Rather, she’d come around a bend or from behind a nearby house or out of the woods in a slow stroll.  It was a, take it easy, I’m coming, I’m coming, sort of saunter.

I simultaneously loved this behavior in Bessie and was disturbed by it.  I loved it because she just seemed so confident and adventurous; curious about what’s out there, willing to track it down and check it out.  Of course the disturbing aspect of Bessie’s wanderings was that my imagination would spiral up until I was sure we’d never see our girl again―she’d fallen through the ice, been hit by a car,  jumped in a stranger’s truck.  It was similar to the way I felt when Tyler and Trevor were younger and missed curfew.  Minutes feel like hours at these times.

Bessie still disappears now and then.  We have a small, open meadow behind our house and from an upstairs window I sometimes watch our aging adventurer on the prowl.  She’ll sniff tufts of grass, chew on a stick, paw some deer droppings and slowly, ever so slowly, work her way toward the edge of the grass area and then surreptitiously duck into the woods.  It’s a big world out there and Bessie still wants to explore it.  I call her while she’s still in sight and she turns reluctantly back toward the house

We have some neighbors whose daughter wants to be a veterinarian.  She is fascinated by Bessie and likes to observe her.  This family stops by to check out the old girl and sure enough, we can’t find her.  “Have you seen Bessie?” I ask Ashley.  “Nope.”  We check both cars, call around the house, nothing.  We tell our friends not to worry, but of course they do.  We are all concerned.  Once they leave, promising to search nearby roads, Ashley and I head off in separate directions calling and whistling with ever increasing levels of anxiety.  No matter how much we remind ourselves that this is just Bessie being Bessie, our worry intensifies, just as it always does in these situations.  This can’t be the way our time with Bessie ends, I think to myself. 

An hour later, as I’m sitting on the front steps, she walks slowly around the corner of the house, completely at ease and wearing a look of deep satisfaction and contentment.  She also has several of those round, spikey burrs embedded in her fur, postcards from her journey.  This puzzles me because the bushes that produce these things don’t grow anywhere near our house.  Ashley checks Bessie’s breath to see if she ingested scraps from an abandoned deer carcass or some other found treasure, but is doesn’t appear so―there are no mysterious odors on her breath and no telltale indigestion.  I give her a hug, ask her if she enjoyed her adventure and let it go at that.  It’s late summer, after all, and don’t we all feel a little more free-spirited when the leaves begin to turn color?

Earlier this summer, during a thunderstorm, Bessie disappeared for three hours until she turned up on neighbor’s front porch a mile away.  Before we found our wanderer Ashley posted a notice on the town’s Facebook page and two-hundred-and-fifty people shared the alert.  The community seemed to be worried about our dog and was looking for her.  Their concern was inspiring.  Turns out Bessie’s blindness has turned her into somewhat of a local folk hero.  But the important part of this story is that she still enjoys and exercises her independence.   

How wonderful that Bessie retains a youthful approach to life. I’m glad she is willing to break curfew now and then in order to make a good time last just a little bit longer. And how inspiring that she’s not afraid to get lost in a world she can’t see, knowing that as long as she doesn’t panic and trusts herself, she’ll eventually find her way home or to a safe place, incrementally richer in spirit and wiser from the experience. She teaches by her example.