Tag Archives: trouble

Counterintuitive: PS to “Cone of Shame”

Trouble doesn’t overthink things, which is one of the reasons she’s such good company. So she is not puzzling over the whys and the hows, as Human is — she is just delighted to be free of the cone of shame and to have the regimen of medications reduced to just lubricating drops until her next check with the surgeon.


Photo Credit: Eileen Donahoe

The keratectomy has done its magic: within six days of the procedure the ulcer had shrunk to a pinpoint; on day twelve, it was pronounced fully healed. No stain uptake in any tissue. The vet, the assistant, the office manager, other clients in the waiting room — everyone had a huge smile, and there was a little wine with dinner that night.

Human continues to puzzle over how removing a microscopic layer of tissue can promote healing — it’s counterintuitive that a large raw surface should heal faster than a partially healed ulcer. But that’s what happens, in nine out of ten dogs, the surgeon says, and in the tenth, there’s usually some underlying unsuspected condition which has been interfering with the healing.

But of course, it does make sense. It’s a bit like throwing pots. When you work your clay on the wheel, you shape it to bring it closer and closer to your vision — but there are times when you have to let the whole thing collapse and start afresh. Fiddling with it, like debriding the ulcer, is just not working. Go back to the raw clay.

And throwing pots is like writing (isn’t everything?). Human believes in the power of revision, working with the draft until it becomes, through successive versions, closer and closer to what it should be. But there are also times when you have to put the whole mess aside, and start fresh. Go back to the raw clay. Whatever your chosen technique — blank paper, free writing, writing against the clock, turning off the monitor and writing blind — it somehow frees the clouded vision.

Warm thanks to Trouble’s vets in Halifax and to CullenWeb Animal Eye Specialists in Moncton.



What’s Next?

whats next 2In the end-of-term push, all but the essential duties sometimes get set aside. Writing time gives way to reading, and more reading. Students may dread the end-of-term deadlines for research papers and projects, but their faculty too are sometimes less than enthusiastic about tackling a briefcase full of papers or an inbox full of electronic essays. It’s hard to give each the attention it deserves, when its writer is waiting anxiously for evaluation, and the registrar sends polite reminders about deadlines to submit final grades.

underdesk 2 crop


Trouble doesn’t care. She is happy to curl up in Underdesk  for hours — as long as she still gets her walks.  And she does.  (See “essential duties” above.)



pussywillows 1

April 23rd

As the days lengthen and the temperatures rise (but slowly — it’s a late spring after a hard winter), snowbanks give way to mudholes in Point Pleasant Park, and the ground releases smells that intrigue a canine nose.

Silver grey pussywillows gradually turn to soft green plumes and then to miniatures of what Housman called the flambeaux of chestnut trees.

Meanwhile papers get read, grades are calculated and submitted, graduation day arrives … term is well and truly over, and with it, this experiment in blogging.

pussywillows 2

May 7th

What’s next? Trouble’s enthusiasm for swimming and retrieving is as predictable as the turn of winter to spring, but Troublewriting is going for the unpredictable.

There will, from time to time, be further instalments of this blog as Human continues to reflect on writing, Trouble, and Troublewriting.


There are draft entries on the “cone of shame,”  and on inukshuks. If your curiosity continues, click the follow button (look down the right hand side – it’s not obvious) and supply your email address. And comments are always welcome!

pussywillows 3

May 14th

Meanwhile, may your troubles be nothing that can’t be solved, or at least alleviated, by a walk in the park or a really good scratch.

Troubled Waters

troubled watersFor Annette

I feel the winds of God today

The wind is roaring up the Northwest Arm – not very cold, but strong enough that even in the shelter of the harbour, the pilot boat is tossing in a way that makes landlubbers feel queasy, even from a distance.

Today my sail I lift

We are leaning into the wind as we walk along the shore in the park: Trouble’s ears like Piglet’s streaming backward, Human’s chin sunk deep into her scarf. Waves are crashing onto the rocks, the wind ripping spray from their crests before they break. The air is salt.


Though heavy oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift…

I am going to a funeral this afternoon, to celebrate the life of a woman younger than I, who died from the ravages of cancer.

Yesterday, a young man, an invited guest, dropped in on a party to celebrate the end of classes at the University of Calgary, and stabbed five students to death.

Every day, the news from Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic seems worse, the scale of fear and hatred too large to comprehend, or tackle.

And it is Holy Week in my faith, when we walk toward a vile and shameful death with someone who was too good for this world, who wanted passionately to change it, and did so, though not quite in the way anyone expected.

If hope but light the water’s crest, and Love my bark will use…

humblest craftDown at the shore, we are acutely aware of every scrap of shelter, how even scrubby trees can break the wind, how in the lee of the old fortifications, the battering waves are muted. Instead we hear the trees sigh gustily overhead, and notice our own breath and heartbeat.

I’ll seek the seas at Love’s behest, and brave another cruise.

My dog’s name provokes many chuckles, affectionate recollections of puppy mischief. I may bring Trouble with me, but she brings joy. The world’s troubles are not like that. They are deep griefs, deep sufferings, and it is hard not to be troubled, hard to trust that hope does light the water’s crest, that there is a pilot boat – and a pilot – in every harbour, that the wind that knocks us sideways is the wind that lifts the sail.

Tomorrow Trouble and I are going to spend some time with college students who are writing final exams. Love uses even the frailest craft in the humblest ways.

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.


Jessie Adams (1863-1954) wrote “I feel the winds of God today.” It is sung to the traditional tune “Kingsfold.” I have taken some liberties with the original text.

A truly chewed-up squeaky toy



If she likes doing it, Trouble easily finishes what she starts … whether it’s a dish of kibble or the systematic extraction of a squeaker from a toy. If a ball bounces unpredictably and she loses it, she’ll circle in search of it until she’s called away. When she misjudges a stick in the river current, Human is quick to call her back, for fear she will swim too far downstream after it.

If there’s something she doesn’t much like (teethbrushing, say), she can be brought by degrees to tolerate it, with very short periods of exposure and lots of rewards. A crumb of dried liver is very persuasive.

Human, by contrast, finds it easy to leave things unfinished – not a bowl of ice cream, maybe, but a blog post, say, begun last week, and set aside. It’s not just procrastination, because a draft set aside often looks quite different (sometimes even better) when it’s taken out again. If there’s no deadline to bring urgency or desperation to the task, however, it’s hard to pick it up again. Still it’s not very different from brushing Trouble’s teeth. “It’s only for a minute or two.” I don’t have to finish the thing; I only have to read it through and see if there’s a shape in there somewhere. Scribble some notes, jot down an “aha,” and see, that wasn’t so bad after all, was it.



So Human returns to that exercise in revision she’s been working on in several of these posts, promising herself a nice piece of dark chocolate with sea salt when she’s got another draft worked through. Again, she sits on her hands while she reads, resisting the temptation to correct. More important right now to think about how it might reach a reader … and that’s going to take some decisions. Is this meant to be a description or a prescription? Often the rhetorical situation is already given, though it still needs to be thought through a bit: if the purpose is to describe the process of revision, and the reader is, say, a student who is struggling with the whole process, who is the writer in this context? A wise and friendly mentor?
On the other hand, if it were to be prescriptive, choices would be different, even for the same reader. “We” might give way to “you.” The whole thing would be directive.

One of the differences between writing and squeaky toys is that a chewed-over draft eventually produces something better than the original. It may take several revisions, and then finally, we can make the editing changes and corrections that make the text a joy to read. Trouble’s basket of toys, on the other hand, is a sad collection of frayed edges, missing bits, and things that make moist squelchy noises rather than crisp sharp squeaks.

Here are two different results of the revision process – we’ve spared you all the in-between stages and the final editing. You decide if they’re truly chewed up squeaky toys, or something with a bit of life left.

chewed up results

Snowy squint

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trouble conformation

Best Puppy in Show: Trouble with her first owner, Pam Dunn (www.karekennels.com)

The world of the dog show is as fascinating as the ocean floor and the things that live there. Trouble earned her Canadian Championship as a young thing, but last summer she set foot in the ring again as a Veteran Female at the National Specialty. She won an enormous ribbon for placing second. It was really just an excuse for me to catch up with the Toller people I’d met during my brief career as a dog handler, if showing one dog to a championship can be called a career.

Tollers are relatively easy to show: their coats are to be left natural, though everyone primps before entering the show ring. Those coats must be clean and smooth: waves which might impede a judge’s view of a straight topline may be weighted down with a damp cloth. Very thick fur behind the ears can be thinned, and paws neatly trimmed to reveal their shape. Henna shampoo may bring out the red of a coat. The use of chalk to brighten the required white bits is not unknown, but really, this is nothing in the world of the show ring.

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A rare sight — Trouble on the grooming table

Everyone has seen poodles with their bobbles and cuffs; afghans bagged to protect their comb-out, and yorkies with their ribbonned topknots. Wandering around the grooming tables at a dog show is an eye-filling view of weird and wonderful, and that’s just the handlers. A visiting alien might be forgiven for wondering if Poms and Saint Bernards, Chinese cresteds and Rhodesian ridgebacks are really the same species. All those breeds were developed to serve a purpose, whether to herd, hunt, protect or cuddle. The breed standard spells out the features and qualities that fit the dog for its purpose, and at the dog show, the judge assesses how well the individual dog conforms to the standard in structure and gait and personality.

Unless you actually read the breed standard, it’s not easy to see how all those canine variations are actually functional, but they are. A terrier’s forelegs allow it to dig, often in close quarters. A British bulldog’s face allows it to sink its teeth into a bull’s nose and hang on, while still being able to breathe. A lab’s otter tail and a Toller’s webbed toes obviously assist in swimming, and their double coats are the canine equivalent of a wetsuit. Even some of the apparent excesses of appearance have their origin in function: a poodle’s lion clip keeps the chest and vital organs warm, while leaving the legs free to move.

Genre is to writing as breed is to dog. A particular function is easier to perform if there is a recognizable, even a standard, structure and style, because reader and writer alike know what they’re dealing with. An apprentice writer, or a junior handler, may find some features peculiar, but the more they know about function, the more they come to appreciate the sense behind the standard – and to realize that conformation doesn’t preclude personality. Just watch my vintage bitch, I mean, my veteran female.


Welcome to an experiment

Trouble is a nine-year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, who has retired from hunting, showing, obedience trials, and raising puppies. Her new home has many advantages (not least of which is that there are no puppies anywhere) but it has one real disadvantage. The new Human-In-Charge, though reliable about food and walks and squeaky toys, has to write. And whatever writing is, it is not as easy, apparently, as retrieving ducks or weaving figure eights or keeping a sit-stay.

Why anyone would voluntarily take on more writing than absolutely necessary is more than Trouble can figure out. Nevertheless, Human-In-Charge has decided to try blogging about writing. At this point Trouble sighs deeply and goes to sleep. Perhaps writing is like having a flea: nagging and irritating and irresistible.

Lots of people seem to think that writing is like retrieving – a matter of instinct and inborn gifts. Yes, retrievers have a retrieving instinct, and yes, if you want to hunt with a retriever, you need a dog with a soft mouth that won’t pierce a duck and a dog that is not so temperamentally possessive that she refuses to give it up once she’s brought it to hand. Writers need some instinctive and innate qualities too: an instinct for language (fortunately that comes with being human) and some persistence (again, a trait we all have in the pursuit of pleasure, but which admittedly needs a little work in the face of adversity. Even Trouble sometimes needs encouragement to go after a duck when she’s tired and wet and cold.)

But instinct and innate traits are not the whole story: a well-trained dog with a weaker retrieving drive will outperform an untrained one, no matter how strong its predisposition.

Good dog trainers are good behavioural psychologists: they watch the dog for behaviours to reinforce, behaviours to extinguish, and behaviours to shape into closer and closer approximations of what is required. We start with observing – describing – what the dog’s doing long before we start training – prescribing – what it should be doing.

Trouble’s observations about writing practices show me a lot about what I do, and help me see what practices work and what don’t. The more I know about what I’m doing, the better I can do it. Or at least, I can minimize the difficulties and make the most of the writing capacity I have. This blog is a series of reflections on writing processes and practices, especially academic writing, as prompted by Trouble.