16 March

Look What Came In The Mail Today….Dog Soap, Literally

by Jon Katz

Today, we got a package in our mailbox from Laura Pakain, who lives in Nyack, N.Y., and makes soap with people’s dogs inside of them.

This is something new for me; she had lovely representations of Zinnia, Fate, and Bud (I guess she couldn’t find a black and white plastic figure for Fate. She came close, though.)

I told Maria I wouldn’t be comfortable soaping myself with my dogs, but she explained that the idea was to use the soap and keep the dog figures.

Anyway, Laura included a letter explaining that she makes these animal soaps every winter and sells them in a local lingerie shop as a fundraiser for local dog and cat rescue groups.

She said she’s been meaning for a while to send some Bedlam Farm dog soaps, and she made this one with us in mind.

Thanks, Laura, that is flattering and humbling.

Laura is a long-time reader of my books and blog, “and I’ve bought some of Maria’s wonderful yarn.”

“Years ago,” she wrote, “I had the same idea as you, to buy a farm for my dogs, but I’m still stuck here in Nyack. You both do beautiful things for people! Thanks, Laura.”

Thanks to you, Laura, reading your letter, I was thinking back to why I bought the farm, and over the years, I’ve learned that I got it for me, the dogs were a kind of excuse.

I learned that I could move all I wanted, but the problem was that I always came with me.

I love the soap, but it’s so appealing and accurate I think I could never use it.

With Maria’s permission, I’ll bring it into my study. Thanks, and good luck with your soap and rescue work. Jon


14 July

At The Mansion, Dogs And Books For Connie, Goodness Everywhere.

by Jon Katz
Dogs And Books

Gus came of age as a therapy dog today, he fell asleep in Connie’s lap.

Some good things happened to Connie today. I mentioned the other day that she was running out of mysteries, and I brought her over my first mystery, “Death By Station Wagon.” I got a call from Battenkill Books that a member of the Army Of Good, Denise from Indiana, had called and ordered five mysteries by Louise Penny, a great choice for Connie.

I took them right over. Connie has some long days to fill in that chair, even when she starts knitting again. It will be easier now.

I know that some other mysteries are on the way, so I think she’s okay for now, and thanks. Soap and shampoo and body wash are still pouring into the Mansion, I think we’re okay there also, and thanks for those things as well. They really matter.

Connie was surprised to learn that I wrote a mystery series once, when I was trying to survive as a writer back when government functioned some of the time.

We also brought Gus and Red into see Connie, she and Red have a beautiful thing, Connie pets and rubs his shoulders and eventually, he just plops down at her feet and goes to sleep. It is his favorite place in the Mansion. Gus lay down on the floor next to Connie, and then she leaned over him and picked him up, and she cradled him in her arms and rocked him to sleep.

He lay in her arms for a long time, until we had to leave, and I could see the pleasure and peace he brought to her, he will, I think, be a fine therapy dog. He loves to be touched, he loves people,  and he seems able to sleep almost anywhere.

I appreciate the way people respond so quickly and lovingly to the Mansion’s needs. I like that we react but not overreact. We can send too little, we can send too much, we are getting it just about right. We give what is needed, no more, no less, and we do it when we can.

I am learning what the residents really need, I am learning what people can and will send. It is working so well. There is no reason to change it for me. My work at the Mansion is a departure, after a decade of therapy work with dogs. I usually came and went quickly, and rarely came to the same place more than two or three times.

I didn’t really get to know people, either they were sick and dying (this was hospice work) or perhaps I was afraid to get to know them because they were sick and dying. I would often show up at someone’s home and find them gone.

At the Mansion, I committed to focusing on this one place, getting to know the people well enough to write about them, learning what they really might need to make their lives better. This age group is  rewarding, they are elderly but still active, still engaged, still interested in life, even if some are frail.

This was a gamble, it is common for people like me to burnout in this work. But at the Mansion, I was welcome from the beginning and felt comfortable and came slowly to know and love the people there. They came to trust me, and I guess I came to trust them. It feels good, I do not ever feel drained by it.

I never envisioned anything like the Army Of Good, I couldn’t have even imagined it. I believe the November election began to connect the dots for me. Everyone around me was anxious or angry, the poisons of the left and the right began to fill the air and enter our consciousness. I didn’t want to do that or be a part of that, and so I thought of this idea of doing good rather than arguing about what was good.

It was a selfish impulse, I wanted to feel better, I wanted to feel grounded and meaningful in the middle of sometimes frightening change.

I never imagined Red would be such an intuitive dog for this work, or that a little puppy like Gus could slide right into it.

I did not know so many other people were looking for the same thing, and in some small measure, we are finding it with the Mansion residents and the refugee children, we are touching lives and bringing light to darkness. Yes, it is noble and good to do this everywhere, but there is powerful mojo behind this and I am sticking with it.

Know that this weekend people will be clean and refreshed and regain their dignity because of the simple things you rushed to send them. That is grass-roots conviction and activism at its finest and most productive.

The residents have their soap and shampoo, Connie has mysteries to read, Jane is drawing in her coloring books, Art will be getting letters from people of faith, the residents and is getting a table to write on in their wheelchairs, two people will have good clothes to wear.

The Mansion staffers struggled to find the clothes they want for two of the residents at Wal-Mart yesterday, so the shopping will continue. On to thrift stores.

They did buy a shirt and pants, they’ll get the rest over the weekend.

The drawing and reading table for wheel chairs is coming on Monday, I thought of Jane the artist at first but I realize half of the Mansion residents will be able to use it, so I’m turning it over to Julie Smith, the Activities Director when it comes, she can give it Jane, but also share it with others.

Thanks for your donations towards the table.

I think this overbed table is a fairly new product – the Mansion staffers have never seen one – and those of you with friends or family members in wheelchairs who like to read or paint or use puzzles, or who are using wheelchairs yourselves, might want to know about it. See it here.

Connie got some more letters today and she read them to us. It seems many people who are coming to the Open House in October hope to meet Connie there. We will certainly invite her.

So I think we’re good for the moment, if you can keep the cards and letters and photos coming, that would be wonderful. Connie proposed to Maria and I today that she collect the photos she is getting and put them up on a big board to show at the Open House. It’s a good idea.

4 January

Zinnia: Labs And The Lure Of The Dead Deer. Vet Appointment At Noon

by Jon Katz

Zinnia is improving; she gobbled up a hamburger/rice meal I cooked this morning. She’ll be okay by tomorrow if I know my dog. We are seeing the vet at noon.

She isn’t quite herself but is getting peppier. I’ve had Labs for much of my life, several since moving to the country. Every December, when deer season ends, the Labs come across some dead deer body parts in the woods and eat them. It’s like dark chocolate to them.

Then they get sick. (Zinnia never misses this Christmas rite, not once in her young life). If I rushed them to the vet every time one of my Labs threw up for a day or so, I’d be stone broke. To me, a Lab that eats something gross is not a drama or a crisis; I call it Living With Labs In The Country.

There are no signs of anything being caught in her stomach ( some Labs love to eat rocks, rubber balls, socks, and wood) – tenderness, blood in the stool, blood in the vomit, loss of appetite. Things are often getting stuck in a dog’s belly, but there are almost always visible symptoms from continuous vomiting to crouching over to tenderness in the stomach and abdomen.

At some point, the vet asks to see the dog. I’m waiting for the call.

A few days ago, Zinnia joined Maria and Fate for a walk in the woods. Zinnia rounded a bend, and when Maria caught up, Zinnia was chowing down on a deer carcass that was rotting away. Lab owners know that there are few things Labs won’t eat if they smell bad.

Zinnia ate quite a bit of the decaying leg before Maria stopped her and threw much of it up immediately; the rest came out of my study and once more in the bedroom.

This isn’t my first time at the circus. I called the vet, and we both agreed to see what happens. Vets are insanely busy these days, but they will almost always make time if there’s trouble.

What happened today was some more slight vomiting,  which seems to have stopped, and her appetite is undiminished. She inhaled breakfast. She does look a bit funky to me. I’m concerned, as I always am, when my dogs don’t feel good. I’m sorry, but we are not yet in a crisis in my mind.

This is a familiar ritual in my life. I always call the vet immediately when my Labs do something stupid like this,  which they always do, and go over the details and the dog’s behavior, eating and otherwise. I capture stool and urine samples. I scrutinize the vomit for clues and use up another can of odor off. One of my Labs – I think it was Lenore – loved to drink engine oil.

A visit to the vet usually costs hundreds of dollars these days, and I have three dogs and no more royalty checks, and lots of dead deer in the woods after hunting season. There is not nearly enough money in my bank account to rush a Lab to the emergency clinic every time they at something awful.

I always try to deal with it myself and always have if I can. If the vet wants to see the dog, we go right in. From that point, I do exactly what she tells me to do and come home with medicine, two or three bags of antibiotics, stomach-settling pills, and a hefty bill. My guess is that will be the story this time.

Isn’t it always the story for you too?

I love my vet and trust her. She has always come through for us, and we have been through enough dog dramas, even for Oprah.

Last night, I got four or five messages from alarmed dog lovers demanding that I rush Zinnia to the emergency room; they said her life might be in danger. I am allergic to drama at this point in my life, and as I have said a thousand times,  there’s more drama on social media with dogs at any given moment than in all the plays on Broadway.

My policy is simple: I get dog medical advice from professionals, not strangers, on social media.

The latest alarm came in this morning on my blog posts: “Jon, I realize you hate getting advice from strangers online but look at Zinnias face from today’s post compared to your post of 12/22. Her face was so full just two weeks ago, and today it is thin, gaunt, wayworn. Unfortunately that you are waiting until Thursday to seek help. Just my opinion. Sorry if it angers you.”

Part of the sick animal ritual is that people who know me know I don’t like unwanted advice, and so they can’t wait to give it. They will confidently diagnose my dogs online without ever laying eyes on them and, without the slightest doubt or hesitation, tell me what is wrong with the dog and what I should do as if I could not possibly know.

I told Sheila that I was not in the least angry with her; I have given up on the battle over unwanted advice, nobody cares what I think or pays much attention to it. Time to let it go.

Thank you, Sheila, for caring, I appreciate your concern, honestly, you seem like a sweet person,  but I’m afraid your assumptions are inaccurate, which is the problem with taking advice from strangers online. It is so often bad advice, but how can I know?

Isn’t it better for a trained professional to look at the dog and make a sound, reasoned judgment right in front of me? Vets are accountable for their diagnoses, are people on social media?

And do you believe that looking at two photographs on my blog gives you a greater understanding of my dog than I have? What kind of a clod do you think I am?

Not only was I not angry at Sheila, but I loved her message. I smiled more than once. According to Merriam-Webster, “wayworn” was first recorded in 1758 but is rarely used today. It means “wearied by traveling.” It’s the first time I ever heard it.

Zinnia is, as we speak, snoring with her head on my food; she just had a good chew on an old marrow bone. I don’t see a dog that is “thin, gaunt, wayworn, and very sad.”  Before coming into my office, she dragged Bud all over the yard and pulled his collar right off of his neck.

Like me, she could lose a few pounds without worry.

Sheila might think of writing a dog story for a soap opera.

As the vet suggested, Zinnia has lost some weight, perhaps two or three pounds. We cut back a bit on her kibble. Her face is not gaunt in any way thin or gaunt, and happily, she’s lost some weight around her neck, as we wanted her to do. We weigh her at the vet regularly, even when we don’t have an appointment. She’s due for another weigh-in soon.

I told Sheila the truth.

I am not in any way angry with her for caring about Zinnia. I know some people think I’m a nasty raging bull when it comes to advice, but honestly, I rarely get angry, and never for long. It’s folly to diagnose me online, also.

Sheila’s assumption saddens me in that she thinks I needed her prompting to notice that my dog is falling apart or to take good care of her. It’s evident to most people, including my wife, that I’m over the moon about Zinna. I don’t deserve that.

I’m always concerned when my dogs get sick in any way. Still, I have also learned not to panic or jump on the drama train or declare an emergency over something that does not appear to me (or so far, our vet) to be severe or life-threatening, given the symptoms, eating habits, and behavior.

I know my dog a lot better than Sheila or the other people messaging me do, and I don’t need anyone to get me moving if that’s necessary.

And here’s the ironic part of the story. As I started writing this paragraph, my phone rang, and it was the competent and experienced Cassandra calling from the vet’s office. This morning, she read my blog and saw that Zinnia wasn’t 100 percent and asked me to bring her in at 12:30. I’m going and will return with my plastic bag full of pills and a receipt and an ever-smaller bank account.

It was a command, not a request.  Cassandra misses nothing and it is very foolish to disregard her opinions, as I’ve learned more than one. My vet’s office is thorough and vigilant.

I know the rest of the script.

The pills will settle Zinnia’s stomach, and I’ll do my part by cooking up more rice and perhaps chicken this time. By tomorrow, she will be racing around the pasture, chasing balls and lying on my feet while I write.

Next January, we’ll do it all again unless Zinnia encounters some other gross carcass in the meantime. The odds are good.

Sheila, it is never wrong to love a dog. I’ll keep you posted.

10 September

Pain: Drawing The Line Between Mine And Others. Turning Pain Into Wisdom And Salve

by Jon Katz

It’s hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to recall sweetness and hope. We have no scars to show for happiness. And we seem to learn so little from peace and love.

For most of my life, I have been aware of having pain in my heart. But it was only a few years ago; I realized that every human being has pain in their heart.

In our world, people share their pain openly and continuously with others and seek both comfort and soothing. At times, I think new messaging technology brings people in pain together. Other times I think this new messaging culture enables pain and prolongs it.

On the medium we call social media, pain is passed back and forth like trading cards in an old candy store. It’s sometimes hard for me to know what’s mine and what’s someone else’s.

I want to keep my pain; I don’t care to give it away.

I’m afraid I disagree with the idea that time heals all wounds; I think time teaches us how to live with the pain that is a part of being human. I don’t want to forget the pain. I want to remember it, understand it, learn from it.

It is a powerful teacher.

Pain is a crop that I harvest and flip over. Pain, seen honestly, is a path to glory for me.

What I have learned is that pain is not unique to me or anyone else.

I’ve learned that pain is not a license for self-pity or self-hatred. I have no right to speak poorly of my life.

I have learned that everyone has it worse than me. I have learned to cherish the boundaries around pain. I won’t take in the pain of others. I don’t give my pain away to anyone else.

I’ve learned that not all pain is real. There is false pain and true pain.

Pain for me is a personal thing and a private thing,  not something to be put on Facebook or Twitter as bait for sympathy and attention. Speaking only for myself, pain is something I have to work out for myself. Otherwise, it just keeps hurting and growing.

At first, I thought my pain and my heartbreak were unprecedented in the history of the world. But then, I looked, listened, cried, read, and came to understand pain is one of the most common things and feelings. Everyone knows it and has met pain.

I don’t know a human being who doesn’t know pain, most of it far deeper and more scarring than mine.

If one breathes, they have known pain.

I’ve chosen to turn my pain into wisdom and transfer it to good. That’s what mean by “harvesting” pain.

If I feel pain, I can use it to help others feel less pain. In a way, that’s what the Army Of Good is all about.

A new resident of the Mansion took me aside the other day; he was embarrassed and hesitant. He asked me for help in buying a shaving brush. His was so old he could barely shave without cutting himself and leaving stubble.

He was uncomfortable; he felt dirty and unkempt. He was mortified at not being able to shave in the way he always had. He said he felt like a bum. I asked him if he had shaving soap, and he didn’t. I am getting him both.

In my mind, this turns my own hurt into a salve; it makes another person’s pain less. My pain melts away when I am helping someone else.

The Man in the Mansion will be happy when he gets his brush. I will be happy to give one to him.

That is a perfect way to use pain and feelings of failure and loss into something valuable.

I go by this rule:  Everyone has it worse than me.

A close friend fell and broke a leg a month ago and tells me often that it was the worst imaginable experience and she will never get over it or recover from it.

I want to offer sympathy and love, but she has given herself all the comfort one could want. Her pain was real, but there was no room for anyone else’s.

Her Facebook page is a testament to her grieve and struggle.

She has no sympathy left for people whose homes have been burned to the ground, or whose neighbors have been swept away by the flood, or drowned in roadways, people whose grandparents died from heat exposure when their power was lost, or whose cousins died of stroke or Covie- 19.

I am on a spiritual path, which means I fail as much as I succeed. I don’t need to be a saint to be a spiritual being; all I need is to keep thinking and trying – not to quit. usw

I’ve learned not to try to feel the pain of others. It is theirs; it is not mine to take. Eventually, they will hate me for taking it.

I don’t want to be a pain thief, taking in the pain of others so that I can feel sorrier for myself or better about myself. I am learning to empathize with the pain of others but to never take their pain and make it mine.

More and more, I believe we are ultimately responsible for ourselves. Pain is not something to give away lightly.

Every day I call a friend of mine who is dying and tell him stories of the outside world. When I get off the phone, I tell myself that I can feel all the sympathy I want, but his pain is not mine; other people’s pain will paralyze me and prevent me from loving the way I am called to love.

I respect the pain of others, so much so that I will never try to take it from them.

One of my spiritual challenges is learning to distinguish my pain from others attached to me but are not truly mine.

And this was a new and important idea for me; I never thought of making a distinction between my pain and the pain of others.

I thought a good human being was one open to everyone’s pain.

The more pain I took in, the better human I was. This was false.

Hospice was the beginning of my understanding that the truly human thing was almost completely the opposite of what I believed. The truly human thing was to respect the pain of others and to listen, not drink it in. This, I found, made them more comfortable and took the pressure off me and my feelings off of them.

We are not here to absorb the pain of others, to reassure them that life would be successful for them. We are there to stand in the doorway and listen. Nobody can absorb the pain of other people and survive.

The last thing the sick and dying need is to soothe and comfort them.

I give them the pain that is theirs, so I keep the pain that is mine.  I believe there are things to be acknowledged but not share.

I understand I am swimming upstream. I shake my head when I see all the online tributes to dogs that died years ago and how much pain people are still in about it. Perhaps there is no statute of limitations about pain.

Perhaps there is one about suffering.

One of the social media challenges is that so many people use it to put their pain onto me or others. I will never get used to total strangers telling me what I think and feel.

When I feel rejected, a failure, inadequate, or a misfit, I have learned not to let these feelings pierce my heart and enter my consciousness.

I am not a failure; I am not a misfit. I am learning to disown that kind of pain as false and meaningless. It is always a struggle to keep distinguishing the real pain from the false. Those struggles have taught me a profoundly important lesson about separating real pain from imagined or false pain.

If I am faithful to the struggle and keep seeing the truth about myself, I will have my real pain as a path to the spiritual life I seek.

16 July

Eric’s Story: Rescued By Jacob, An Amish Farmer, A Very Happy Ending

by Jon Katz

I am delighted to share a happy ending story for a dog in trouble.

This tale involves a Shepard mix now named Eric (under the carriage in the photo above) rescued by a woman in our town three years ago from a local animal shelter.

Eric (not his name then) was a nightmare, when he was adopted a bad choice for an older woman living alone in a small house with little land.

He was wild in the house and destructive. He ran off every time he could, and pulled the woman to the ground when she tried to walk him.

He ran off whenever he was good, chewed up furniture, and resisted any training. He was, she always said, a sweet dog at heart, and she knew her home was the wrong place for him.

His owner was equally sweet and loving; I happened to know her. She told me about her plight with Eric, and I urged her to find a new home for him.

She was frantic but loved him. I knew it could never work, and human and dog were suffering.

I had given her my talk about the best way to get a dog, but like most people, she ignored me.

It just was the wrong fit for a dog who needs someplace to run in a house where the elderly human lived alone and gad a bad leg. There was nowhere for him to run.

She had to crate him for much of the day, he was just too wild.

People often get dogs in an impulsive rather than considered way, and the dogs often pay for it. Both of them were paying for this decision.

One day earlier this year,  Eric’s owner read my blog and learned that some Amish families had moved to the area.

The woman read about Jacob, Moise Miller’s brother in law and the former turkey farm he had purchased on the Southern edge of our town. It has nearly 100 acres. She knew the Amish handled animals well.

She brought the dog to Jacob and his family, and it was love at first sight, on both sides. They adopted the dog on the spot and named him Eric.

It was really as good at fit as the other was wrong.

The Amish, who have a reputation for mistreating animals (apparently, sometimes true, but not always), also have a great understanding of dealing with wild creatures like Eric.

They are overly associated with abuse and underappreciated for their knowledge and understanding of animals.

Yet another instance of the dangers of stereotyping.

The Amish flip dogs all the time; they flip horses in the same way. Almost every Amish farm has a dog-like Eric, a mixed breed with great energy and protective instincts, but a solid disposition.

They don’t like having dogs aggressive dogs around. Trust is important to them.

They have been living every day of their lives with dogs and horses for five hundred years. They know a lot about how to handle them.

Their ideas about teaching them are somewhat similar to their ideas about their children – they trust them, leave them alone, give them work to do, and do not shout at them or criticize them or overlove them.

There are no helicopter moms in the Amish world.

Children are given space to figure things out, have problems, and solve them to live in trust and safety. They are not programmed and supervised every minute of their lives.

That’s their idea about dogs. It’s mine also.

Their farm was the perfect place for Eric.

He could run and run and wear himself out, find an outlet for his explosive energy. He seemed to find himself there. I saw him a month ago, and I saw him this morning. The change was striking. Dogs live to serve and be needed, and given the chance, they figure out what is wanted of them and are happy to do it.

Few people take the time or give them the opportunity to just be dogs. They will often do the rest.

Jacob told me that Eric ran off once  at first and came home limping. I can just imagine.

He never ran off again.

At first, Eruc was tied to the barn. As he calmed down, he was given more freedom.

He is free to roam now. He loves the horses and runs alongside them in the pasture. When the sun is out, he sleeps beneath the carriages while the horses wait to go out.

Otherwise, he lives and sleeps in the barn, the temporary home of the family. They will move to a new permanent home early next year; Eric will live with them in the house.

Eric’s work is to greet visitors, alert the family to strangers, be a fire alarm. Jacob hopes to teach him some herding – shepherds are herding dogs.

Because he can run, he has settled down. He can burn off that energy any time he wants.

He loves to be patted and scratched.

When I come, he comes out, sniffs my leg, licks my hand, and then goes back under the carriage or into the barn. He has damaged or destroyed nothing that does not belong to him.

“He just fit right in,” said Jacob, who couldn’t imagine the dog in a crate all day.

He follows the children all over the farm as they pick crops, help with chores, carry wood, sell soaps and baked goods. He is too tired to run off or cause trouble, and he takes his responsibilities seriously.

I think he longer remembers that side of himself.

He is a content animal, grounded and alert. As with most Amish families, the family doesn’t  talk to him a lot; there are no treats, no trips to the vet, no furbaby talk.

People often feel guilty about giving their dogs away for a better life, but that is a mistake. Eric isn’t pining away for his farmer home, he is too happy and too busy.

And his owner, who loved him enough to better his life, is going get herself a small dog to live inside of her small house.

Eric reminds me very much of Tina; a dog permitted to be a dog; who keeps an eye on things.

I asked Jacob and one of his sons how they trained him so quickly and so well.

Jacob looked surprised. “We just let him be a dog,” he said. The world of social media is filled with sad and sorry stories about dogs.

I am pleased to be able to present a happy one.

Bedlam Farm