Perspective (part one)

I had planned on continuing to talk about our vacation – the stories behind Nick’s birthday and my getting hypothermia are tremendously riveting – but something happened over the last couple of weeks that made me realize I need to take a slight detour.

Hang on.

Two days before break, the wonderful little women’s church community I’m a part of delivered dinner to a homeless shelter. We divvied up the cooking and supplies (pulled pork, cornbread, baked beans, coleslaw, and numerous drinks and homemade desserts), took everything to the shelter, and served the meal. We agreed that families would be invited to join in, so I brought Annie and Ella along.

(More accurately, our awesome babysitter, B, brought them because I was teaching piano lessons immediately prior to dinner. They arrived before me and I don’t think I’d ever seen their eyes wider than when I walked into the shelter and they found me.)

As far as homeless shelters go, this one seems to be pretty solid. They have a large, new warehouse space (after having recently made headlines when they were controversially kicked out of their tent city in December) – which, although lacking any cooking facilities or running water (hence the need to bring in prepared food; there are port-a-potties on site and a van takes the residents to other locations with bathing facilities), is almost cozy. Every resident appears to have his or her own tidily-kept sleeping space (with the vast majority on mattresses); donated and purchased winter clothing is handed out; there’s a communal TV and a few couches on which to watch it; employment-location services are provided.

I mean, it’s hardly posh – and I’m sure that all of the residents would rather be in their own homes (if they had them to return to…) – but I imagine that it beats huddling down beneath underpasses or in abandoned subway tunnels, especially in this particularly freezing Rochester winter.

It’s no secret that I’m amazingly fortunate to have grown up white, affluent, loved, and educated. Still, although I haven’t spent time in actual homeless shelters before, I have volunteered at soup kitchens, lived in the projects, worked with poverty-stricken kids, and made my way through Harlem (while in grad school) enough times to not have been shocked or taken aback by the experience at Sanctuary Village. My girls, however, had never seen anything like it – maybe not even on television or online. We’ve donated to disaster relief, watched videos of people displaced by tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes and violence, and discussed how very privileged we are… But, for them, seeing it in person was astounding.

They couldn’t believe that there were only mattresses, not beds (the lack of a bed was somehow very powerful to them). They were taken aback that so many people shared the same space (the shelter is absolutely overflowing beyond its capacity because of the weather). They could not comprehend that the belongings scattered around each person’s living area – most of which could fill a single trash bag – were likely everything that these people possessed.

Ella and Annie were also thrown off-guard by how exceedingly nice everyone was to them, to all of us. Here were these strangers who had seemingly everything in the world to complain about – or, at least, every right to be grumpy – and yet they were so kind. They thanked us up and down for bringing the food. They said “please” and “excuse me” when they lined up for dinner. They engaged us in pleasant, friendly conversation and told the girls they look like twins.

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Our group, post-meal.
Photo from the Sanctuary Village and Sophia Community Facebook pages.

In short, they were… human beings. Not statistics. Not people who had made mistakes or who “should” be doing any number of things to get out of “this situation.” Just regular folks who found themselves unable to keep a home, for one reason or another, and who had no place else to turn. It was humbling and eye-opening and nothing short of incredible. We discussed it long into the night and vowed to better appreciate our own safe, comfortable, warm homes.

And then, our food supply completely depleted, we got in our warm car and drove to the grocery store and spent more money purchasing dinner from the prepared food bar for the three of us than I had procuring baked beans and coleslaw for 60.

We had never been more grateful for a meal.
Nor, I thought, had I ever had a more moving, potentially life-changing (or at least perspective-changing) experience.
Which shows you that I really do have another think coming…

(Part Two to be posted soon.)

 

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Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?

After our stopover in Epcot, we were totally stoked to depart on the cruise. GranMary met us at the hotel and we traveled from Orlando to Port Canaveral together, all set for the adventure to begin.

Annie had decided that she wanted to meet (and get autographs from ) as many characters as possible – and so, knowing that we’d have a slight wait at at the terminal, we took full advantage of the opportunity to get a little personal time with Goofy.

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GranMary defined the term “good sport” for the entirety of the trip.

We’d elected to get a room with a balcony (actually, by the time we booked this cruise, all rooms except those with balconies were sold out, so it wasn’t much of an “election” but still…). While it’s hardly an essential, we did enjoy being able to hear the ocean and feel the temperature (something that came in quite handy by the end of our trip).

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Not quire sure why, but I love this photo.

Nick turned 40 on the second day of the cruise and, as part of the celebration, he requested that we do the meet-the dolphin excursion at the Blue Lagoon while in Nassau, Bahamas. It was, hands down, one of the most incredible experiences any of us has ever had (more on that soon…).

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It looks as though we’re shrugging in response to a question, but really, the water was just freakin’ cold. 

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Thumb war battles on the ferry back from Blue Lagoon.
Why was GranMary the one who got roped into declaring thumb wars? See: GOOD SPORT.

For the remainder of the trip, we simply enjoyed what Disney had to offer – and it was a lot. (I won’t go into everything [you’re welcome], although you can feel free to read a bit more about it here and here.)

We shuffleboarded (is that a verb? If not, it is now)…
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GranMary and I lost, but we put up a good fight, I assure you.

We took in numerous ship-board activities…
disney164Cheering babies on during the fastest crawler race.
I’m not kidding.
It was an absolute hoot.

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Watching movies while swimming? Yes, please.

We – um, Annie – met characters. And characters. And more characters.
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Captain Jack Sparrow took his role very seriously.

It was pretty damn great.

When we returned from last year’s cruise, we said that it was the best vacation ever. And it was. Hence, as excitement mounted for our cruise this year, Nick and I were careful to remind Ella and Annie (and ourselves) that this would be different. Not bad, not at all – but different. It was basically going to be impossible to top, or even match, last year’s experience.

Turns out? We were right.
And you know that? That’s okay.

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Something that was way better on this ship: the AquaDuck water slide, which encircles the entire upper decks of the ship. Seriously awesome.disney120 disney128
Doing their best princess waves as they passed by…

See, last year, we neeeeeeded that vacation. We’d lost Bill the previous summer and were still emotionally exhausted; I’d started a new job; the girls both took on additional activities which made it hard to find our legs beneath us as our schedules became absolutely nutty; and our winter had started off with ridiculously cold temperatures, meaning that even I – who adore snow and chilly days – was desperate to get warm.

This year, it’s different. We still miss Bill very much, of course – and talk about him often, with tears coming at unexpected times – but the pain is not quite so raw, the roller coaster a little more rounded and not quite so exhausting. My job has remained steady and Nick’s has changed for the better. We’ve grown accustomed to swimming and soccer and after-school craziness – which doesn’t make it less crazy, but makes it unsurprising, so we’re steadier on our feet (although our white boards are used just as often, thank you very much).

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The mixology class did not necessarily make us steadier on our feet, but it was absolutely delicious.

And the weather… well. January started off just fine, even nicely. We Rochesterians commented to one another that this was a good winter — not frigid like last year, no huge snowstorms, just a good, even, steady, sunnier-than-usual winter. At least we’re not Boston, hahaha, amIright??

AND THEN CAME FEBRUARY. February, with piles and piles and FREAKING PILES of snow. February, which is already the second-coldest on record (and which, with single-digit temperatures forecasted this week, might become the coldest on record). February, which may be the shortest month of the year but OMG IT SEEMS LIKE IT WILL NEVER END.

If February had come before January, I would have been dragging my frozen butt on that airplane just as maniacally as I’d done last year. But because it hadn’t – because our winter had started off nicely and evenly – none of us was absolutely out of our minds to get someplace warm. (After being home with historically low temperatures, however, we might just storm the airport and try to stow away.)

Which, as luck would have it, was a good thing because this delightful cold front slid right down the eastern coast of the USA, meaning Florida and The Bahamas? Not so warm. Record setting cold in Orlando, as a matter of fact! I even got mild hypothermia while at Castaway Cay!! (There are two exclamation points there which makes it seem like I’m jesting or laughing, but in all seriousness… hypothermia. But that’s another story…)

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In addition to being chilly, it was also more than a little overcast and stormy on the day we landed at Castaway Cay…

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… which basically meant that we had the snorkeling area to ourselves.

So, the weather was a definite bummer. While we were tremendously grateful to be, you know, on vacation – I won’t go whining about it or anything – it was still a bit of a letdown to miss out on the activities we’d planned (plus, being cold in the Bahamas just feels wrong, yo!). Additionally, high seas and choppy conditions caused most of us, but Ella and me in particular, to become quite seasick – something we hadn’t experienced at all on our previous cruise.

And you know those storied kids clubs that I raved about last year and that the girls couldn’t wait to visit again?? The ones where Ella spent nearly all of her time using the computer bays to write elaborate stories and create digital cartoon thingies? Well, it seems that not all Disney kids clubs are created equal; the ones on this ship didn’t offer the same computer programs (apparently, because our other ship – the Disney Magic – had recently been retrofitted and revamped, they updated their kids club technology). Which meant that Ella didn’t really want to spend time in the clubs. Which… was not awesome.

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Also not awesome? The line to meet Elsa and Anna.
I do love how Anna has her hands on her hips, though. Very method.

As such – with the weather, the seasickness, and the change in the clubs – this trip had some hiccups, whereas last year’s had none. (We didn’t help ourselves by going to Epcot for a day this year and not Universal; when you’ve walked a mile in Harry Potter‘s shoes, almost nothing else can live up to that hype.) It’s difficult – impossible, really – to compete with perfection.

Thankfully, we didn’t need to enter that competition because we didn’t need this vacation in the same way we did a year ago. It could just be exactly what it was – fantastic.

If anything, the bumps in the road (the waves on the sea? How far can I stretch this metaphor?) showed us that last year wasn’t just a fluke: we really do love Disney cruises, even when things don’t always go as planned. It was particularly neat to be able to share this year’s experience with GranMary – to laugh with her while we watched the girls zoom in and out of the pools, to stifle groans as we waited in line to meet the princesses (GranMary helps the time pass by much more quickly!), to see her come waaaay out of her comfort zone time and time again (let’s just say that dressing as a pirate and kissing a dolphin on the lips are not usually part of GranMary’s routine), to watch as she and Ella and Annie sang and hugged and took in every moment of vacation and joy and fun.IMG_2305
Although she is very convincing here, I can assure you that Mary does not typically “arrr!” like a pirate.

As I sit here listening to the dripping of the icicles inside our front door (no, for real, inside the door; when all of this begins its meltdown [because, for the love of all things holy, IT MUST MELT AT SOME POINT, right??] it’s not going to be pretty), squinting as the sunlight reflects off the feet of snow in the backyard (but at least it’s sunny!!), the memories of our trip seem that much sweeter.

Even without this doozy of a winter, however, the trip would stand on its own. How fantastically lucky we were to have taken it!

 

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Pirate night, me hearties!

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We Soared; aka Epcot in a Day

So, hi there! Long time no see!

I could try to make excuses about not writing, but really we were simply out of town, so there was no writing during that time, and before that I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting ready to go out of town.

Woe is me. I know. I’ll just stop there.

Like last year, we went to Florida and on a Disney Cruise… and, like last year, it was fantastic.

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That time, it was the Magic – this time, we sailed on the Dream.

Before we got there, however, we made a detour to Epcot in Walt Disney World (Nick’s and my favorite Disney park – and, we figured, a relatively easy one to “do” in only one day without running ourselves ragged). YOU KNOW YOU ARE EXCITED FOR A PLAY BY PLAY OF OUR VACATION. Get ready, folks.

Because I’m a bit of a Disney freak fanatic, I knew that we’d need to arrive early if we wanted to do our very favorite ride, Soarin’, without waiting in a ridiculously long line (we already had FastPasses for TestTrack but couldn’t double-book two “top tier” attractions, so Soarin’ had to be a walk-on). Good sports that they are (and not wanting to wait in an interminably long line; their mama didn’t raise no dummies), the rest of the fam agreed – and so we greeted the Epcot gates prior to the park even opening.

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Oh, what a beautiful morning!
That’s Spaceship Earth peeking out behind us…

My evil plan thoughtful preparations worked: we walked right on Soarin’, and Nick and Ella even got to ride it again with hardly any wait at all. Score!

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Truly the most perfect way to start a day…
By 45 minutes after the park opened, the wait for this ride was over an hour. THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM, FOLKS. Or at least two no-wait rides.

When my three housemates had okayed my early morning plan, they’d done so in part because I’d promised that, once we’d finished with Soarin’, we’d be free to just wander the park and take things in at a leisurely pace – something we rarely, if ever, have the time to do when we actually visit WDW for any length of time. But this time, we did – ambling through The Land pavilion (where Soarin’ is housed), riding one of the other rides, spending a looong time at the aquarium tanks there (we’ve never taken that opportunity before; it was refreshing and lovely).

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I love this photo of the girls and the sea turtle.

We rode rides when the mood struck. We had a relaxing breakfast. We shopped (picking up the Mickey ears that Nick thought were merely to surprise GranMary, who would be joining us for the cruise; they were – but the girls and I had a master plan to get him a special, surprise set of ears for his 40th birthday occurring two days later…).

At last, our TestTrack FastPass time arrived, so we headed over and were through with the line and the ride in less than twenty minutes.

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Ready to ride!
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This is really a terrible shot – I snapped it with my phone off of a computer screen after the ride’s end – but I love it for Ella’s absolutely giddy face.

With our Future World dreams fulfilled, we grabbed a bit to eat at a couple of the pavilions in the World Showcase.  Eleanor was beyond thrilled to stand inside the phone booths at the United Kingdom pavilion… JUST LIKE IN HARRY POTTER OMG.

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‘Ello, guv’na!
(Is that really a thing? Did I just offend all of Britain?)

She also insisted on shadowing me as I shopped in the UK pavilion specifically so she could listen to everyone’s accent (“They sound like they’re in the movies!”) and read the names of their hometowns (“That man is from Oxford! THAT’S WHERE EMMA WATSON IS FROM!!”). At last, hot and tired from walking, we walked back to our hotel, which – mercifully – was situated right outside of Epcot.

Truth be told, by late afternoon the pool was a bit chilly, but the girls loved splashing and running in the sand and Nick and I loved sitting idly beside the pool, beverages in hand.

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Adding to our enjoyment was the moment when I checked my phone and discovered that it felt like 75* by the pool… and -21* back home. For those of you bad at The Math (like me), that’s nearly a 100 DEGREE DIFFERENCE, y’all. ONE. HUNDRED. DEGREES. We could not even wrap our brains around that absolute insanity, but we certainly appreciated our breezy, sunny afternoon by the pool, let me tell you.
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That night, as planned, we headed back over to Epcot to take a tour around the world for dinner. This is one of Nick’s and my most cherished rituals – grabbing a bite to eat at the various “countries,” poking through the shops, trying the drinks. As people who have yet to truly travel the world but who would absolutely love to, there’s something wonderfully satisfying about Epcot’s World Showcase; we couldn’t wait to share it with the girls.

Alas, as we’d feared, they’re a bit young yet to really appreciate it (“Do we have to walk all the way to China? What’s so special about Norway? Can’t we just eat caramel corn at home?”), and by that time Ella had developed a killer headache (for which she refused to take any medication, so our sympathies largely went out the window; we are excellent parents), so it wasn’t really the blissful Around The World experience we’d hoped for.

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Still, it was a beautiful night. We ate ourselves silly. The caramel corn really is that good. (And, best of all, Nick had a brilliant idea: to celebrate my 40th birthday this fall, he and I will come back to Epcot for a day to attend the annual Food and Wine festival – HOLLA!!) We went to bed exhausted, slightly cranky, but overall happy and extremely excited for the cruise to come.

(No, I won’t go into that part here; this post is long enough, don’t you think?
Besides, who doesn’t enjoy reading several blogs’ worth about someone else’s vacation?? Stay tuned…)

You know you live in a snow belt when…

On Wednesday, I volunteered as a Parent on the Playground at my daughters’ school (which essentially amounts to being a referee for ninety minutes). There was snow up to my knees as far as the eye could see and the students had been prohibited from actually using the playground equipment (too slippery to navigate in bulky snow gear) or throwing snowballs (a byproduct of today’s Safety First! approach to childhood), but that didn’t stop the kids from racing around like maniacs, trudging through snow as deep as their thighs, building forts and snow piles, gleefully throwing themselves to the ground both forward and backward (because neither hurts when there’s enough snow to cushion the blow), burying their friends up to their chins in fluffy white goodness, and challenging one another to see how far they could plunge their heads downward before succumbing to the cold.

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Supposedly, this is fun…

To be sure, these are the types of games that all children would play if sent out for recess when there’s a crap-ton of snow on the ground; these kiddos are not unique in this respect. But, as I watched them traverse the snowbanks, tug their mittens on and off, and zip in and out of their snow gear quickly enough that no class was late for recess or lunch, it occurred to me that these youngsters don’t treat playing in the snow as a novelty; no, they are experts at it.

Living in Western New York, we are part of region that annually sees the most snow of any metropolitan area in the nation. Add to that the fact that we also experience a great deal of lake effect snow (that same stuff that drowned Buffalo in up to SEVEN FEET of snow in November) and, well… we know snow. Admittedly, we rarely get dumped on the way that Boston and the northeast have recently – our snow typically comes bit by bit and adds up over time – but still, we are super tight with Old Man Winter.

Nick and I have lived in Denver, which certainly sees its share of snow, and Nick grew up in Minnesota, which is known for its winters – so we are not strangers to frozen precipitation. But, after being completely flummoxed throughout most of our first couple of winters in Rochester seven years ago (It’s snowing!! It’s snowing!! OMG it’s snowing! Will you be able to get to work? How much will we get? Why are the forecasters so nonchalant? Why is nobody panicking? Why does no one care? People! It’s snowing!), I’ve come to learn that life in a snow belt is just a little different from other places. Snow is a way of being, woven into our culture in ways that just don’t happen when you get snow here and there (even in large amounts) rather than almost daily (24 out of 31 days in January alone).

And so, in thinking about those kids on the playground and how, unlike me, they know nothing else, I began to consider just how living in a snow belt – whether it’s Western New York or Northeastern Pennsylvania or Maine or Alaska or higher elevations in Arizona – is its own, special thing. To wit…

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YOU KNOW YOU LIVE IN A SNOW BELT WHEN
(in no particular order)…

1) It’s considered an annual romantic gesture every Thanksgiving weekend when your spouse makes sure you’ve got an ice scraper/snow brush in the car.

2) You don’t take that snow brush out of your car until mid-May.*

3) You can use a four-wheel-drive vehicle year-round… for the snow and ice in the winter and for the potholes in the summer.*

4) Children learn to put on their own snow gear – including the “tricks” for tucking mittens into coat sleeves and making sure the inner lining of the snow pants properly covers the boots –  before they are potty trained (this does not mean that they actually dress themselves, nor that doing so is anything other than a production… but they know how.)

5) Your neighbors use their snowblower to create a path for your kids to use so that they can more easily walk to school.
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6) You have an opinion on salting versus sanding and a well-honed, definitive shoveling strategy; you will silently eye neighbors who approach their driveways and sidewalks differently than you.

7) You receive a reminder from your child’s elementary school that appropriate snow gear is necessary every day because, unless the temperature is below 13*F, it’s raining, or the wind chill makes it feel like -10, the students will have outdoor recess.

8) You have mastered the art of smooshing snow onto your car’s headlights, license plates, and rear window as a way of wiping off the perma-salt.

9) You buy your daughter a beautiful Easter dress for tradition’s sake but know that it will likely never see the light of day; under that bulky winter coat, she could be wearing a potato sack — only you know the truth!*

10) Your employer – the largest in the region – sends an email to all staff asking that they bring shovels to work with them since they never plan on closing when there is inclement weather and they cannot guarantee you won’t need to shovel yourself out due to snowfall.*

11) You give up fighting the chalky white salt stains that decorate your shoes and jackets.
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It gives them character.

12) There’s no reason to bother checking for school closings or delays because they pretty much never happen.*

13) You carefully construct your child’s Halloween costume to make sure that heavy layers can go under it… or you simply assume that it will be completely covered by a coat and maybe snow boots.

14) You have serious doubts about the ability of your softball season to start on time… on May 1st.*

15) In discussions about the likelihood of a snow day, a friend declares – without a hint of irony – that she doubts school will close because, “It’s only supposed to snow 10 inches.”

16) There are debates about how many seasons your region actually has. Two? (Winter and construction/pothole season… Winter and summer…) Four? (Before-winter, winter, after-winter, and July 17th…) Five? (Spring, summer, fall, winter, and mud season…)*

17) Even pre-schoolers know one of the most important questions to ask about a snowfall: Is it packing snow or not??

18) You can’t help but chuckle at the national meteorologists as they warn about the latest “Snowpocalypse” or get blown into a slushy puddle while dramatically demonstrating just how treacherous the conditions are. (Sure, logically you understand that if a region isn’t accustomed to snow and doesn’t have enough equipment to clear things up quickly, it can be a disaster [likewise, everyone you know would positively melt if temperatures soared above 90*F in June – unthinkable!]. And, yeah, two storms that dump a couple of feet of snow at a time… in a one week stretch… would make for a helluva lot of snow no matter where you live…)
But still? You find the hysteria hysterical.*

19) You can sleep in a little bit later from December through March because your morning routine has shortened; why bother fixing your hair when it will just be wet/ icy/ flattened by a hat/ covered with a hood, anyway?

20) Except you can’t actually sleep later. Because shoveling. Because of course your employer will expect you to arrive on time and the school buses will be running on schedule, regardless of the five new inches of new snow on the ground.

21) You can take a break from any kind of yard care, however, because you won’t see the ground for at least four months.
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The dog can’t find his ball, either, but that doesn’t stop him from plunging his head into the snow as though he is looking for it beneath the surface of a pond.
Note: Labs are built for WNY winters. Smaller dogs will require that you shovel before they can do their business.*

22) As soon as the temperatures hit 40*F, virtually every child in the neighborhood can be seen playing outside… in short sleeves.

23) There’s never a run on bread and milk before a storm because no one’s terribly worried that they’ll get snowed in.

24) You can practically determine the date by the size of the snowbanks lining the sidewalks. “Calf-high? Almost time for Christmas!” “Up to my waist? Must be early February.”

25) You think of wading through snow up to your knees on playground duty as your exercise for the day.

26) Large, blackish mounds of snow remain in parking lots well into “spring.”

27) You appreciate spring and summer more than anyone else, anywhere, ever.

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Don’t get me wrong – I love living here, even with its snow insanity. I’m also not trying to diss other wintery areas where people know cold (hi, Twin Cities!). But there’s no denying that living in a super-snowy place has its own… peculiarities.

With that said, if we do manage to have another snow day on Monday and my girls miss five consecutive school Mondays, “peculiarities” may not be the word I’ll choose… But for today, come on over! The snow is fine!

 

 

* taken almost word-for-word off Facebook from my friends HWK, MGD, PCS, MK, SRW, AML, SLR, CB, and MLM, respectively. Thanks, all!

 

Jumping in with four paws

Last week, I was in the checkout line at our local grocery store – with Fenwick in tow – when a good acquaintance got in line behind me. She knew already that we raise service dog puppies and commented about how well he seemed to be doing. After thanking her for her support, I confessed that I was actually so nervous about our visit to the store, my lower back physically hurt from the tension. What followed was a perfectly reasonable question: “What are you so nervous about?”

After considering her question, I listed the reasons, talking nonstop for over a minute. Her eyes widened as she said, “I had no idea there was so much to think about!”

See, a couple of months ago, I was asked if I would be able to bring Fenwick to a local Girl Scout troop meeting; I quickly agreed. We love to promote CCI whenever and wherever we can. Also, I always appreciate having enough time to answer some of the most commonly asked questions (“How can you give the dogs up??” or “What kinds of things do they need to learn?”) as well as dispel some of the more common misconceptions that we’ve encountered (“Oh, poor thing; he must hate having to wear that cape” and “Don’t they ever get to have any fun??” Answer: NO, NOT EVER.)

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Not Having Fun on Christmas Eve. 
Okay, so maybe they were’t having fun – especially Langston – but they’re definitely not serious working dogs all the time.

Plus? Sharing an adorable dog with a bunch of kids? Yes, please!

Once I agreed to attend the meeting, I promptly forgot all about it. I mean, it was on my calendar and in my to-do book and I’d figured out the logistics (pick up girls from swimming, eat dinner in the car, head over to the meeting place) and all that, but I wasn’t really thinking about it, if you know what I mean. Which kinda makes sense because, in the past, each time I’ve brought one of our CCI pups to a “formal” event, the dog has been totally prepped and ready so there’s been little for me to think about, per se.

Fenwick, however… Not so ready.

CCI is very clear with puppy raisers like us: we need to set a good example by only taking our dogs into public places when they’re up to the task. We work hard training our pups but are told not to take them out and about until we receive their “official” capes/vests (when the pups turn five months old, give or take). By then, it’s assumed that the dogs will be house trained, will have learned some basic commands, will walk appropriately on leash, and will behave in a way that, you know, befits a service dog.

I absolutely understand. We need to represent not only CCI but also the individuals who may eventually receive these dogs. The last thing I want to do is take a crazy, nutty furball into the mall, have it wreak havoc on the place, and put a sour taste regarding service dogs in everyone’s mouth.

Hence, we’ve been very careful about only taking our pups out in public when we feel they’re ready to do so. It’s always a gradual thing – first, dashing into the post office to drop a package in the slot. Next, a five minute, middle-of-the-day run to an uncrowded Starbucks. If those go well, maybe we’ll take the dog to the library while we look at books for fifteen minutes. Eventually, as the pup succeeds at each progressively more advanced/difficult task, we work our way through trips to Target, going to restaurants and movies, navigating the grocery store, and even traveling on planes. By the time we finally bring the dogs into school to meet the girls’ classmates, they’re more than good to go.

Fenwick received his official CCI cape in December and we decided to take him with us to a quick meal at Panera the next day. It did not go well. Turns out our little dude was not ready. At all. Pulling on the leash, refusing to sit, nipping at people’s hands, wriggling out from under the table, darting toward every door. We made it through but vowed that it would be a nice long while until he was ready to go out in public again.

Fast forward to a couple of days before the Girl Scout meeting when it suddenly dawned on me that, despite having not gone out in public even once since our disastrous Panera escapade, I needed to present Fenwick to these girls. Not just “present”… but represent CCI in a positive way. And, um, not look like a total schmuck with an unruly service dog.

So, with only a few days left until the Big Reveal, I did the only thing I felt was fitting: I jumped in with both feet. Or four paws. There was no time to slowly help Fenwick acclimate to public outings; I had to know immediately if he was up to the task of meeting these Scouts (’cause if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t bring him — that wouldn’t be helpful for any of us). Which is why I decided that his first foray into the real world would be a trip to the grocery store. Not just any trip, either… My Official Weekly Grocery Run – the one that would take at least an hour (even if the store was miraculously uncrowded) and which would require me to traverse every single aisle of the store and pile my cart with a gazillion items and bags.

fen's first outing
Learning the safest place to sit while the human pays for the groceries.

This was the kind of outing to which you couldn’t pay me to take my ten year-old — yet there I was, my not-quite-six-month-old puppy beside me as I weighed produce and considered the merits of unsweetened-vanilla versus regular-vanilla almond milk. Every step was so tense, I could feel the spasms building in my back.

It wasn’t until my friendly acquaintance in the checkout line asked me why I’d been so nervous that I stopped to consider all that was required for a successful visit to the store – but when I did, I was actually a little astounded at how complex a simple trip to Wegmans turns out to be. To wit:

* Fenwick could have an accident. Obviously, I stopped to have him do his business before we went into the store, but even that’s easier said than done – it can be difficult convincing a dog to pee or poop on concrete or asphalt (Fen’s actually pretty good at this, but you still never know if they’re going to have problems in-store, a la Jambi with the apples, omg…).

* He’d never even seen, much less had to walk quietly and calmly beside, a grocery cart and I had no idea if it would freak him out or not (it didn’t). I also didn’t know if he’d figure out how to walk beside a cart and not pull away or get his paws run over or step right in front of me and entangle me with his leash (he didn’t).

* He – like several of our other CCI dogs – might have wigged out when the automatic doors opened as we entered the store and the warm air whooshed past us and refused to even move (he didn’t particularly like the doors, but he kept walking).

* He might not have liked the smooth floor and decided not to take another step. (Good thing it’s not at all embarrassing when this happens and you find yourself literally dragging your dog across the store as her claws scrape against the tiles. Thankfully, Fenwick didn’t mind.)

* He’d never had food in such close proximity (we keep it away from him at the house), and certainly not fresh, unpackaged food right at his level (helloooo, tantalizing apples and oranges and tomatoes and bananas and every single item in the produce section) and I had no idea if he’d lunge for it or lick it (he did neither).

IMG_9597
Enjoying the attention of the kids at a local ice cream shop following Ella’s chorus concert. He was a big hit AND he didn’t try to eat any of the ice cream. Bonus!

* The number of people at the store, especially in the more crowded areas, could have made him nervous and he might pull on his leash, cower, become hyper, or anything else that demonstrated anxiety (he did seem a little uncertain about the busyness of the setting, but he handled it quite well).

* When people come up to pet him (because they always do, even though he’s wearing his WORKING DOG vest), he might not have greeted them properly; he’s supposed to sit or stand still and calmly allow people to pet him. This can take a lot of getting used to because many of our dogs get excited when people pay them attention. (His furry rump left the ground a few times when people approached him, but a reminder from me got his butt back in gear.)

* He’s mouthy. I don’t mean that he bites or that he’s aggressive, but just that he likes to explore things – and people – with his mouth, licking and prodding with his nose, walking right up to someone and nudging their hand, sometimes gently using his teeth. It’s something that we’re actively working on with him – teaching him appropriate interactions – but it’s definitely a work in progress and I didn’t really want to test his resolve by tempting him with the hands of 392 customers. (He did lick a little but otherwise kept to himself.)

* He might have “forgotten” all of his commands and refused to listen to me, making an ass out of both of us and also potentially getting himself into trouble or danger (thankfully, to paraphrase my girls’ preschool teachers, he used his listening ears superbly).

In short, going out in public with a service animal – especially to large and crowded and sensory-overloading places like the grocery store – requires a heckuva lot of coordination, patience, and thinking. Because Fen is our fourth CCI pup, we’ve got the mental checklist fairly well memorized and we are alert to potential bumps in the road, which certainly helps… but dogs – like toddlers and teenagers – are unpredictable.

In the end, Fenwick did a bang-up job. There are definitely a few things we need to work on, but given that he’s only six months old, that’s more than okay. I knew that he could handle meeting the Girl Scouts and that he’d represent CCI nicely; our visit went off without a hitch!

I don’t recommend that you choose your weekly grocery run for your service pup-in-training’s first big outing, but if you do, I hope your dog does as well as Fenwick and that your back holds out better than mine. And if you happen to see someone out and about with a service animal, maybe take a moment to remember that there’s a lot going on for both the animal and the person with it. If they don’t stop to chat with you or only smile politely when you acknowledge their animal, don’t take it personally; their minds might be occupied making sure that the outing is as successful as possible for everyone involved.

Or maybe they’re just rude, in which case you probably didn’t want to have a conversation with them anyway. No worries; Fenwick and I would be happy to hang out any day.

annie and fenwick
Fenwick and Annie would probably hang out with you, too. When they’re not too busy working, that is…