Kittens and a Year of Blogging

This is my 366th consecutive, daily post.  Since it was leap year, I figured I had to get to 366 to say I’d completed a year of posts.  🙂

Collectively, I’ve written over 250,000 words in the course of blogging for one year.  That’s over 1000 pages worth of words.  If I would have said I wanted to write 1000 pages, I probably would have quit after the first 100 or so.

Here are my lessons from a year of blogging:

  1. In the end, it’s about people.  I didn’t expect to meet people through blogging, but I have.  I keep writing because all of you keep reading.  I look for you, I watch for regulars, I peak at your blogs when I have a few minutes.  You matter to me.  Please come back.
  2. I can only write one day at a time–one word at a time.  Thinking about the collective volume is fun after the fact, but not the goal.
  3. The delete key is my friend.  I went from an average of 1200 words a post to setting a limit of 500 words.  Although it initially took me much longer to write 500 than 1200 words, I think we’re all happier.
  4. Sometimes, you do have to think about more than one day at a time.  Scheduling posts ahead of time when I’m traveling has kept me going.  Had I not figured out how to do this, I would have given up on my goal of one post a day about a month into blogging when we spent 2 weeks in Germany.
  5. Every post can’t be my best post ever.  I started with the expectation that every post would be an improvement over the last.  What’s “best” depends on the subject and what people are interested in.  Sometimes I have the need to think about the meaning of life.  Sometimes I have the need to improve my photography skills.  Which one is better?
  6. Some days, I’m writing right before bed, falling asleep as I write, trying to get the morning post scheduled before I pass out on my keyboard.  Those aren’t going to be my best posts.  For each post to be my best ever, I’d need to quit my day job and do this full time.  I don’t love blogging enough to give up food and shelter, so I’ll just apologize for those posts now.  For me, it’s more about establishing the discipline of meeting my commitment to post about 500 words a day every day.
  7. At some point, I will have to consider the possibility that I’ve said enough in this forum and it’s time to move on to the next.  For now, I’m content to keep posting.
  8. Kittens are irresistible.  And since these kittens are indirectly responsible for Tisen coming into our lives (they are foster kittens–my sister-in-law inspired me to foster dogs), I thought they would be a good photographic subject to celebrate the completion of this milestone.

It’s been a good year–thanks!

Crossing Bridges

I love my dog.  I love him for many reasons, but today, it’s because every day he reminds me that we can learn, we can grow, we can be completely different than we were before.

How many times do we hear people say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?  As someone who strives to learn every day, I know first hand how hard it can be to undo decades of habit to do the thing I will myself to do.  Many days, I feel like it’s an impossibility.  Then, I have days when I do things like fly off a mountain in a hang glider and I know that anything is possible.  But, sometimes I walk away thinking that maybe flying off a mountain in a hang glider doesn’t ultimately change anything at all.

That’s where Tisen comes in.

Tisen has transformed himself from a nearly-dead street dog to a urban-dwelling, middle-class gentleman who likes to hike.  He wants to make me happy.  That’s his bottom line.  While I’m not sure I could handle a person being so into me, in a dog, it’s kind of nice.

When we went to Savage Gulf Natural Area to hike the other day, we encountered something called a suspension bridge.  The dreaded structure was not the kind of suspension bridge you drive over, but rather a flexing, swinging, bouncing rope-and-wood bridge meant for no more than 2 pedestrians at a time.  These bridges make me nervous; I have no idea what they are like for a dog.  For Tisen, it was clearly a gauntlet of terror.

First, he would not step onto the bridge at all.  I walked across first to give him a reason to cross.  Then Pat came behind, encouraging Tisen to come with him.  Tisen considered climbing down a sheer rock cliff to the stream below over walking onto the bridge, but Pat managed to get him up the entrance ramp to the bridge.  But there, he stopped.  It wasn’t until Pat had crossed and Tisen was left standing alone that he decided he’d better cross.

He made it all the way across the gulch (which really wasn’t so far below as to be completely terrifying), got to the top of the exit ramp, stared down at me with his longing eyes, then eye-balled the ramp down to me and decided he’d had enough.  He turned around and went all the way back across the gulch.

We managed to coax him back across and all the way to land on the other side.  We completed our hike to Savage Falls and then wondered what was going to happen on the way back across.  When we got to the suspension bridge, I went across first, Pat coaxed Tisen up to the bridge, and Tisen led the way across looking like he’d been crossing suspension bridges most of his life.

In about an hour, Tisen transformed himself from a ‘fraidy cat to a top dog.  He’s my hero.

Play Date

Tisen has made a friend.  Well, at least a playmate.  Let’s start at the beginning of this relationship.

Tisen and Twiggy were introduced at the park several weeks ago.  Tisen isn’t all that fond of other dogs, although he’s definitely getting more tolerant.  So, imagine my surprise when this beautiful lady of a dog starts tussling with Tisen and they end up in a playful wrestling match!  No snarling, no growling, no yelping.  It was great!

This monumental event was followed by a pleasant visit to Twiggy’s patio and, later, another visit at our place during a weekend lunch for the humans.

However, Tisen and Twiggy never re-engaged with one another other than to take each other’s toys when we were in their respective homes.  It was a little disappointing–but perhaps they needed neutral territory to wrestle.

In any case, the other day, Twiggy was invited to spend the morning with us without her parents.  It was Tisen’s first real play date.  I walked Tisen before going to get Twiggy so he could have his usual morning routine.  Then, I picked up Twiggy and took her for a spin around the park before taking her home.

When we got to our place, Twiggy ran for the toy basket and started digging around for what appealed to her.  Fortunately, Twiggy went straight for real chew things like bones.  Tisen never touches bones.  This would have worked well, except for one little complication:  Twiggy started breaking off enormous chunks of bone and swallowing them.  We were worried enough that we substituted first a softer bone, thinking she would chew it up smaller, followed by a dried hoof, but both suffered the same fate.

Robbed of attention-occupying chew toys, Twiggy returned to the basket and started pulling out squeaky toys.  This started a game that was like a combination of capture-the-flag and king-of-the-hill with a touch of tug-o-war thrown in.

Tisen started grabbing his toys two at a time and running behind the couch with them.  Twiggy, in turn, grabbed what she could and started making a pile in the middle of the living room.

I played referee when arguments started over toys mysteriously migrating from one hoard to the other.  It was possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time.  No sooner would Tisen run off with a toy from Twiggy’s pile then Twiggy would find another to replace it with.

I was pretty sure this was going to be an infinite game, but after turning away for a few minutes, when I turned back, they were both snoring next to their respective piles of toys.

Unfortunately, they both woke up when I got out my camera, but Twiggy posed like a pro while Tisen guarded his pile behind the couch.

I think they had fun–they certainly weren’t bored.  Tisen slept more soundly than I’ve seen him sleep in a long time after Twiggy went home.

Learning from Dogs

Having recently restored an old archive of photos, I rediscovered a collection of photos of our mastiffs. I re-lived not only the joys and sorrows of having loved and lost these gentle giants, but also of the things I learned from shooting them.

They were my first high-contrast subjects. Their fawn colored fur and their deep black masks gave me exposure fits. After losing their eyes a thousand times, I learned how the spot meter setting worked. Of course, then I was forever over-exposing their light fur.

They were also the subjects that drove me to want a DSLR instead of my PowerShot G3, which was a pretty awesome point-and-shoot for its time, allowing me to take full manual control of the settings.

But looking at my dogs through the G3 view finder made me miss. The closer they were to me, the bigger the problem. If you couldn’t use the LCD, you were just guessing as to what you were going to get. Since I couldn’t use the LCD during rapid-fire shooting, I often missed.

The photos in this collection were all taken with the PowerShot G3 (except the one of Tisen). During one of these shoots, I did a long series of rapid-fire shots with Katie (the only mastiff I ever heard of who loved to fetch). Going through them rapidly looks like a movie of a giant dog romping on a deck.

I also did a rapid-fire series of Bogart. In his series, he turns his head about 45 degrees and then turns it back. That’s pretty representative of their personalities. Bogart was a mastiff through and through–excellent judge of character, laid back, gentle with children, subtly protective, and excellent at the “down” command. Just don’t ask him to get back up.

Katie was more of a lab trapped in an over-sized body with droopy jowls. She wanted to play ball all the time. She wanted your undivided attention all the time. She was as hyper as hyper can get in a mastiff. Unfortunately, her body betrayed her personality (or maybe it was the other way around) and her knees and elbows could not handle her desire to chase, spin, and retrieve her ball. She spent a depressing amount of time restricted from playing at all.

Tisen often reminds me of both our mastiffs. He has the laid back but protective temperament of Bogart. But he also has the fierce neediness of Katie. I sometimes call him Bogart by accident when he does something Bogart-like. I often tell Tisen he’s the best boy in the whole wide world–something I used to tell Bogart as well. One day, I spontaneously completed what I used to say to Bogart and Katie: “And we’re the luckiest people in the whole wide world because we have you.” I started to tear up. We are the luckiest people to have had three such amazing dogs in our lives.

Big Dog in a Flash

Today, a mysterious brown box showed up outside our door.  I hadn’t ordered anything and yet a package arrived.  The address was hand written like maybe it came from someone we knew.  It was addressed to both my husband and me.  When Pat came home, we opened it together.  It turned out, it was a gift for Tisen!

Tisen’s very thoughtful grandma sent him his own dog friend!  This is not just a little squeaky toy to add to his collection.  No, this is a life-sized stuffed dog that’s so incredibly soft, I tried it out as a pillow.  It makes a great pillow.

Since Tisen was at puppy daycare when we opened the package, we set Big Dog up on the couch with Lion.  When Tisen came home, he ran to the couch, grabbed Big Dog and threw him on the floor, snagging Lion in the process.  I guess he thought Big Dog had no business playing with Lion.

After a while, Tisen started carrying Big Dog around, which was pretty amusing because Big Dog is about the same size as Tisen.  Eventually, he settled down on the couch with Big Dog and discovered just how comfy a pillow Big Dog makes.

This gave me an opportunity to get a little portrait practice in.  Having just gotten my new flash before leaving for Columbus last week, I hadn’t tried it at home yet.  Interestingly, when I use my monolights (which can only be turned down to 1/8 power), Tisen gets up and leaves.  With my flash on an umbrella stand and turned down to 1/64 power, he seems to actually pose for me instead.  I could be onto something.

One of the challenges of properly exposing Tisen is that he is black and white.  As you can see from the last photo (taken with my iPhone), the whites tend to blow out and/or the blacks get clipped.  This is fine for an iPhone photo, but not really what I’m shooting for (a pun!).  I started with the umbrella on the white side of his face first because the black side of his face was in lots of ambient light.  Then, I tried speeding up the shutter to exclude the ambient light and moving the flash to the black side of his face.

One discovery from this experiment:  pleather makes a very bad background for shooting with a flash–the glare makes it pretty obvious that a flash is in use.  That said, you should now be able to tell which of the photos were taken with ambient light only and which of the photos used the flash on the umbrella stand.

Tisen was not too concerned about the glare.  He was just happy to have something soft and cushy to snuggle with.  He decided he liked Big Dog so much that when we went out to pick up a pizza, Tisen grabbed Big Dog for the ride.  Here’s a video of Tisen with Big Dog for your enjoyment.

The End of Foster Care

We’ve decided.  Tisen stays.

We took him hang gliding on Saturday.  Tisen ran over and start licking my face in the middle of a hang check and then follow my glider all the way down the big hill and back up again.  When I told the instructor he was a foster dog, she said, “That’s your dog.  He has claimed you.”  She’s right.  He is my dog.

It’s funny how this happens.  I wonder how a dog decides you are theirs?  And you cannot resist.  You find yourself committed until death do you part.  Except you’re committed to a well-behaved 3 year old with fur who will never be able to use the toilet.

Upon deciding that Tisen must stay, we immediately went to PetsMart to celebrate.  Since we are working on crate training, we, of course, needed a cozy matt to put in the crate, special chews to keep him busy while we’re gone, and a new squeaky toy since I’ve discovered he’ll do about anything for a squeaky toy.  He picks a bear for his squeaky toy, but then is so enamored with a ridiculous long, red dog that I cannot resist getting it for him, too.  It’s a good thing I don’t have children.

When we get home, he picks up the red dog and carries it in from the car, trotting along with his head held high like he’s won some sort of award.  The joy I experience watching him is well worth the extra $8.  When he gets to the living room, he plops his new toy in the middle of the floor and then pulls his stuffed squirrel out of the crate, laying them out on the floor side-by-side.  It’s hard to know what goes through a dog’s mind sometimes, but I have to wonder if he really just wanted squirrel to have a friend.

I pick up the dog and give it a squeeze.  Tisen starts poking at the dog with his nose trying to make it squeak.  Pat joins in and starts squeezing, too.  I grab my iPhone and try to get a shot (not having time to change lenses on my camera).  Tisen gets irritated with the flash, picks up red dog, and hides out in his crate.  I take this as a sign that crate training is going well.

Tisen’s obsession with squeaky toys reminds me of a story my mom used to tell about me.  When I was about 2, I was given a doll who would cry if you squeezed her.  Except, I wasn’t strong enough to get her to cry.  But, I figured out my own method.  I horrified a nice lady at the bank one day when she complimented me on my cute baby and I responded by throwing it on the floor and stomping on it.  My mother smiled weakly and said, “It’s the only way she can get it to cry.”  It’s really a good thing I don’t have children.

Faster than a Foster Cat

My sister-in-law likes cats.  However, she and my brother, like us, are at a place in their lives where they don’t want to tie themselves to an animal for the next 15-20 years.  My brother often jokes about looking for animals with a short life expectancy for this reason.

My sister-in-law, Megan, being more practical, has come up with an ingenious solution to the problem of how to have pets without having a long term commitment.  She provides foster care for a local cat shelter.

Megan has fostered numerous pregnant cats who gave birth under her watchful eye as well as taken in young litters with no mother.  Keeping kittens with no mom fed, emptied, and cleaned up is a big chore that has to be performed diligently and regularly.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

Megan nurtures these kitties through the tough part of their early lives or supports their mom in doing so.  When they are weaned, healthy, and confident, they are returned to the shelter until they find permanent homes.  Megan takes a break from fostering if she has a heavy travel schedule or needs a break and then takes on another set when she can.

Other than the heartache of getting emotionally attached to animals that you will eventually hand off to someone else, it’s the perfect way to have pets without taking on permanent ownership.

Chibs and Clay, named by the shelter (perhaps by a fan of Sons of Anarchy?), are the current kittens staying with my sister-in-law (see photos).  Chibs needs to see Clay do something before he is willing to give it a try.  Even when he finally joined Clay in my lap and laid there purring, when something moved, he would dart off again to hide.

Getting even these few pictures was quite a chore.  First of all, they were doing something cute and my 100mm prime lens was on my camera.  While I really like this lens, I could have used the 400mm of my telephoto zoom given Chibs’s skittishness.  But, I started shooting and gradually crept forward, crawling across the floor slowly and shooting every few seconds so I didn’t lose out on a decent shot because I was holding out for a better one.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Rapid fire shooting mode is a must.  The faster the better.
  2. Focus, focus, focus.  Rapidly moving critters in low light make this difficult.  I often end up with out of focus faces and sharply focused feet or rear ends or backgrounds.
  3. A little more depth of field is better–otherwise, I end up with just the eyes in focus and then the surrounding face is too soft (see the second photo).
  4. When flash is not an option, the animal is fearful of cameras, and the light is low, I just have to live with a shallow depth of field.
  5. Most animals will not pose.  Bribing domestic animals with treats and toys can be helpful, but requires an assistant.