Perry leads the way: Lessons from my Guide Dog

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What can be gleamed from a guide dog?  It turns out, a lot!

Guide dogs are screened from an early age to see if the temperament of the puppy lends appropriately to guide dog requirements.  Biological creatures, each dog has unique characteristics that makes the matching process, between guide dog and handler,  to be necessarily thorough.
 
Certain characteristics must be present for a dog to be appropriate for guide dog training.  A mix of teachability, gentle nature, and willingness to be a service dog are essentials.  Each dog will have specific qualities that will blend with the physical abilities and personality of the dog handler.  Perry pulls ferociously.  At 70 pounds, Perry would topple those who lack the strength and the mental agility to redirect Perry’s proclivities.  
 
The Buddha has been quoted, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear…”  Who would have thought the one wearing the harness would be the teacher?
 
In whatever one does, be fiercely determined:
Whether it is crossing a busy intersection or wrestling Guinness (our other Black Lab), Perry will not give in without using patience, tenacity, and precision.
 
As we navigate intersections, traffic can be unpredictably predictable.  Commuters and parents speed shift to be the first at the Stop sign.  Ninety-nine percent of the time the drivers are in a rush and assume “the guy walking the dog” knows when it is safe to walk.  Perry can be exhausted from our daily 5k, but Perry waits for it to be safe to cross.  Back & forth, Perry will patiently scour the streets for the wannabe drag racers to barrel through while texting, adjusting the A/C, and restarting Frozen for the little ones strapped into five point harnesses.  His patience has taught me to be on our own timeline.  Things happen, plans change, and we can only control our own reactions.
 
As we began to explore our neighborhood, we went for short routes that drained us both of energy and breath.  Once we recovered, Perry barked, nudged, or pounced on me  until I succumbed to his insistence for another route.  With an inherent intensity, Perry charges hard through the obstacle course thaIMG_1668t is our neighborhood, relishes putting on his harness to “work”, or demands Jennifer’s full attention.  There is nothing subdued about Perry including his handsome gaze.
 
As Perry guides me through a series of parked cars or blocked driveways, Perry meticulously maneuvers both of us to avoid car mirrors, parking blocks, and trailer hitches.  On the sidewalks, Perry uses his weight to tug me to the side if I did not notice his signal to adjust my trajectory.  His steps, full body leans, and halts have the hallmarks of surgical precision.
 
Optimism grows exponentially when one becomes a positive reinforcer:
Always praising what Perry does correctly allows me to envision the strengths of others.  If one ease drops on our route, I constantly say, “You’re doing great, Buddy!”  It, also, benefits me to hear those words as an affirmation to myself. 
 
As a Licensed Master of Social Work, I have a daily reminder to be Strengths based and strive towards solutions rather then get mired in the problems.  Some individuals only experience negativity which chisels away at self esteem and worth.  I find bonafide inner resources that may lay dormant from the absence of nurturance.
 
Obstacles will always be there and I prefer to encourage Perry to keep up his “Perrycision”.  Focused on the opportunities, potentials, and challenges, I avoid negative thinking, lose-lose situations, and refuse to stay down when I get knocked on my keister.
 
Each sunrise provides another chance for one to choose happiness:
For more than two years, each morning before 6:30am, PearBear wakes me up to thunderous thumps of his tail, moaning at me because there is a toy or shoe wedged in his mouth, and he dances around, over, and under me.  
 
Due to the logistics and requirements at Leader Dog, Perry had to remain on leash at all times.  Tethered to the wall, those limitations lead to our left oriented celebrations.
 
Perry will thrust himself under my left arm as he stretches to get a solid rubbing.  Followed by summersaults in front of me, Perry presses his shoulder down to the carpet with his tail in the air.  He paws at his face.  Lastly, he wiggles on his back as he launches a barrage of Jack Wabbit kicks from his back legs.  Every moment a celebration to the new day and the possibilities that await us.
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The jingling of Perry’s tags on his collar might as well be the ringing of a school bell because each day Perry has taught me more about how to handle life’s challenges.  Every day I am reminded to sharpen my determination, punctuate my positivity, and multiply the happiness in my life.  Being open to new experiences and unconventional teachers only makes me stronger!  

Food for thought…

80…

 
If you scored this on a test, you could be thrilled or disappointed.  If 80 is your fasting blood sugar, it is a good thing.
 
On my Facebook feed, some people have made condescending  remarks about the gastric bypass. Well, that’s not exactly true. They put down the PEOPLE who get the gastric bypass. “Those” type of people.
 
With the loss of my sight and stress (and years of unaccountable, bad behavior), I became diabetic. I, then, attempted to lose weight by controlling carbs & calories. It was impossible. Ok, impossible for me. I had to fight through a lot of personal demons to find hope and light.  Diabetes made losing weight incredibly difficult. 
 
Jennifer (my wife) had the gastric bypass and it changed the way she ate. I was attracted to the possibility of no longer being diabetic (type II).
 
I have met those people who were obviously too smart and busy to grasp the life changes one has to make after the surgery. They lost weight and ballooned right back up.  Fortunately, I know more people who had success with the gastric bypass than those who did not. 
 
Food is emotional, celebratory, and a social institution.  As Jennifer & I adjust to our new lives post surgery, we have become more aware how food has interwoven into gatherings, workplace interactions, and after hour get-togethers.  Individually and as a couple, we make healthier choices and support one another.  Jennifer has been an ideal role model and I do a fairly good job of pestering, I mean, providing supportive feedback.
Gastric Bypass is not the easy way out. For some, gastric bypass becomes an opportunity to save their lives.
 
My blood sugar was 80 this morning and I didn’t experience the dramatic “low” of falling blood sugar levels.  In the past, going below 100 caused a panicked response physiologically. Sweats, rapid heart beats, shaky, and emotionally anxious. Unfortunately, a survival instinct is to eat sugary substances.  Aware of better foods, I am able to keep my levels stable and avoid foods that spike my sugars up only to fall quickly down.  My sugars have been below 100 in the mornings yet not too low, either.  
 
From the classes and support groups we had to attend pre & post surgery, gastric bypass was stressed as a tool.  Each of us would need to work with medical professionals, physical therapists, dietitians, and participate in exercise programs.
There are others like Jennifer & I who have excelled after the surgery and gastric bypass was life saving. I firmly believe that I would have died without it.  My A1C blood test score was 5.1 a month ago and will hopefully continue to get lower.  The score of 80 is significant that my levels are within a healthy range.
 
I chose not to listen to Facebook anecdotal posts, investigated what was right for me, and followed through with the medical recommendations.  I feel that I am living healthier now than at any point.  I still have lots of weight to lose, can eat even healthier, and be more active.  I have moved from a human being to a human doing.  By making small changes to eliminating certain foods and unhealthy choices to increasing water intake, fruit & vegetables, and going for walks several days a week.  The journey to becoming healthier takes dedication and willingness to put in the time.    
 
I am now walking daily with Perry (guide dog).  We are walking so often and for several miles that I invested in better walking shoes out of necessity. I have not had soda in almost two years.  My A1C went from a 7.2 down to 5.1 in a little over a year.  Where I could barely walk around the block, PearBear & I have a daily 5k before 8am.    
 
If your attitude is that losing weight is so simple and diet & exercise will fix anyone, it may be true for you. Others may have (emotional, physiological, & financial) barriers.  Drop your stones and join the collective.
 
I fell into a pit of depression years ago.  Admittedly, I dug it deeper.  I had been there so long that I forgot about life could be anything different that what was around me.  When I decided to throw down my shovel for good, I made the choice to get out of the pit and become an agent of change in my own life.  Change is possible one day at a time…one step at a time.  The choice to be a human doing only makes me stronger.  

Judged

During my sophomore year at Fountain Valley High School, I had broken away from the rampaging acne and the stigma of being a freshman.  Still in the throws of awkwardness, I had not cemented myself with any one group.  I had a few friends from the previous tour in marching band.  I had begun to plant some roots in the theater and choir classes.
Actually the quiet kid who was uncomfortable in social situations, I made very few friends in my academic classes.  I had little success in core subject matter.
Outside of high school, I was entrenched in community and junior college theater productions.  The efforts of building sets, designing costumes, and character development forged bonds.  There were no cliques as we were one tight unit.
Without the collective, I struggled socially at school.  Mr McNamara’s class had a singular appeal.  Literature.  An older man, Mr McNamara was almost completely bald with a full beard and a mouth that never smiled.  His lectures were dazzling.  The overhead projector sat in the corner that had never needed to  be removed from the dust cover.  I sat on the right side of the class second seat from the front.  The back two rows had various athletes.  The football players were boisterous except for when it came to answering Mr McNamara’s questions.
Perched on a stool at a tall desk, Mr McNamara spent his non-lecture time grading papers or reading ahead.
Chronically late from his previous class, Mr McNamara was a driving instructor in the days that public schools controlled that rite of passage.
A month into the school year, I noticed the football players having conversations about a gay student.  “He is so gay.  So gay!”  This guy had stirred up a hornet’s nest.  I had no dog in this fight.  I was just glad it wasn’t me in their crosshairs.
The next day, this “homo” had set them off, once more, until Mr McNamara entered the class and the football players settled in for their predictable, vegetative state.  Mr McNamara fired up into a dynamic lecture that inspired me to want to read something besides a script.
The following week, Mr McNamara was running late.  The circle of testosterone surged.  A particularly large and broad fore headed fellow looked towards me.  I had not really paid any attention to the football player since I was focused on the doorway.  His eye brows lifted up and his eyes were on fire with rage. As he catapulted his insult directly at me, his canine teeth showed like the fangs of a bear.  His Southern California  blond mullet seem to stand up like the hackles of an arctic wolf.  In disgust.  “F****t!”  Like the Hulk, his physique expanded  and become menacing.
“ME!?!?!” I questioned internally.  The gay student was me?  “I am not gay.  Baffled and shaken, I turned and pretended to read until Mr McNamara arrived.”
Pronounced in my memory was the time I left after school rehearsal to walk to the nearby Taco Bell. Other cast members had dinner or went to other places.  With my extra large coke and Nacho Bell Grande, I headed back on my way to the high school.  Going over my lines and blocking in my head, my gaze cast towards the ground.  In an instant, my concentration was broken by the movement of two linebackers in full stride in my direction.  My heart skipped a beat when I saw it was the blond knuckle dragger from Mr McNamara’s class.  His sidekick was equally as ginormous yet always had an evil grin when he shot daggers at me.
I had never done anything to these guys.  In fact, I had not even spoken a word to either of them.
Both of their faces lit up as they saw I was alone and headed into their domain.  In unison, like it had been planned, they split to both edges of the sidewalk.  Forced to walk between them, I thought I had no option.  Committed to not be intimidated, I carried forward with my fear tucked deep into my pocket.  My eyes cloaked in mirrored shades, I hoped my panic was veiled.
.
In perfect synchronicity, each dude through out their elbows knocking my drink and nachos all over the ground and my pants..  In an act of despair, I screamed at both of them.  The blond neanderthal showed nothing but pure contempt and adulation to have gotten me to react.  His twisted sidekick cackled and puffed out his arms.  “YOU JERKS!”
My heart in my throat, I thought maybe I could…  I didn’t know what I could do.  As I took in their reactions and physical stature, there was no scenario that  would allow for me to save dignity.  I would have ended up face down spread out all over the concrete like my nachos.  The guys stood next to each other like a wall of primal adrenaline.  I turned and walked away.  Careful to listen for any sign of being followed, I was ready to bolt to the high school office building.  The parking lot and property line were a thirty second sprint.  I calculated these guys smashed quarterbacks into the ground for fun.  I would be no challenge but they relished in my fear.  The blond lug nut appeared to take joy.  I got to the safety of the band hall and washed off the liquid cheese that decorated my legs.  I had to scrub my shoes.  While my appearance had no remnants of what happened, my soul would remain stained.
I told no one.  This is the first acknowledgement of the incident in my life.  I have carried this secret for over twenty-seven years.
As an adaptive and subconscious motivation, I avoided any interaction with these football players.  Instead of walking into class by myself, I went to the Driving Instruction classroom and walked with Mr McNamara.  I acted like I had questions about the assignment.  I only walked certain routes and knew of outside doors.  I left classes early or arrived late to keep from going near the gym or public lockers.
I had class with the quarterback.  Jason looked like Val Kilmer in Top Gun.  Like Iceman, Jason was keenly smart, a genuinely nice guy, and a natural leader.  I think I could have confided in him as I saw him as a ally.  He knew me.  He knew I wasn’t gay.  I trusted my instincts that the group of males would not be swayed by the truth.  Reason would do little.  Their minds appeared to be made up.  Of course, their venom tainted my opinion of their capacity to listen or experience compassion for anyone not like them.
I was not insulted by the label of gay.  Friends in theater were openly gay and I thought of them no differently.  What had me scared was the increased vitriol  and I would always be vigilant after the physical confrontation.
Like all teenagers, I couldn’t leave well enough alone.
I was not homosexual but I decided to instigate a little.  Ok, instigate flamboyantly.    Mr McNamara assigned students  to present a speech where we taught a skill by demonstrating the task.  Our presentations had to be outlined and scripted.  I had recently performed at a UIL competition.  I had memorized the piece where I was a dog with a big spot around his eye and a little puppy nose.
The day of my presentation, I had everything I needed.  I introduced myself, set up a mirror, and explained the process of putting on stage make up.  I heard the guys in the back gasp as I put on black eye liner.    I knew they would hemorrhage as I put on lip stick.  I explained the types of make up and the strategy to accentuate features to aid in conveying expressions.  I began to apply a grey “pancake” make up and drew a black spot around my right eye.  I stopped applying the make up to describe how I memorize scripts.  I glanced at the back rows and the football players were seething that I flaunted myself in front of them.  I quickly finished up my make up, put on a hoodie with black velvet dog ears tacked to my head and performed a section of the piece.  “Thank you,” I said as I gathered make up sponges and returned to my seat.
As other students presented, I wiped off the make up.  The dark energy from the back rows radiated.  I walked out with Mr McNamara and ducked down a hallway to the theater room.  As I cold creamed off the make up, I weighed the consequences of my decision.  “Did I just embolden those guys to beat the hell out of me?”  I was an office aide so I wrote out excused absence slips for the rest of my classes for the day.  I hid under the tech booth in the theater room. and listened to my Walkman.  I felt like a rabbit that could dart out or around trees to get away from a pack of wolves.
I seem to slip from one protective cover to the next.  To this day, I do not think anyone was aware of the extent I went through to keep from encountering any one of that group.  I had access to the attendance in order to know which guys were in certain buildings.  I never took highly traveled passages.
I dug into theater and choir.  I planted myself into the environment to gain strength.
Senior year, I was the stage manager for the dance production.  At Huntington Beach High School’s theater building, I had been in numerous productions over the past four years.  I knew the layout including the entrances and exits.  All of the girls had learned to trust me.  If they asked for something, I made it happen.  As they got ready, one of them told me some guys tried to get in to the Green Room.  The Stage Manager has to be in control of the production’s success.  I charged through the backstage and Green Room to the outside door.  The door began to open and I grabbed the handle. I stepped partially out.  “There are girls changing.  You cannot come in.” I firmly stated.  My pupils focused upon the figures standing in the shadows.  It was the group of football players from two years ago.  As I shut the door, “Go back to the locker room and watch each other change. You are not coming back here.  I will call the police!”  When I slammed the metal door and locked it,  It was as if I had closed the door on their torment.
It would not have mattered if I had been gay.  I was different than their image of the “norm”.  They were bullies.  I hated them.  I have a friend I made in eighth grade.  He was one of my groom’s men and has never been aware of this facet of my days at Fountain Valley High School.  The choir and theater rooms were safe places.  I worked with the office to make sure I never had classes with any of those dangerous individuals.  I shutter to think of their other victims.
I obviously carried some form of shame over the years.  No matter that I was not homosexual, the fear of ridicule and violence shackled a part of me.  Since I didn’t have someone I could trust to handle this precarious powder keg, I controlled my choices.  From doing a mental inventory of any baggage I carried from days passed, the incidents from Mr McNamara’s class came to the surface recently.  This story doesn’t have a tidy ending.  Even at a twenty year reunion, the theater/choir stayed in their cliques.
I am grateful for the safety I had from my brothers & sisters I made on and back stage.  Being in theater allowed me a safe place to bond with people from different backgrounds, make mistakes to grow into better individuals, and to accept who I am.
Everyone deserves a place to be safe.  Not just feel safe but truly be free from oppression.  It could be a relationship, workplace, or a neighborhood, my experience has shown how the empowerment gained can set a spirit free to soar.  Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we all have the ability for a second or maybe even a seventh chance to get away from those bullies.
Those guys saw me and decided they knew exactly who and what I was because I was quiet.  Judge and jury, I was found guilty of being gay.  I cannot conceive what I would have felt if I was secretly homosexual.  I could go home and not fear my parents, family, or friends.  For that hour a day, five days a week, I was queer in their eye.
Perhaps that influenced my choice to not judge anyone for the labels placed on them.
As I type these words, I feel like I have released a beast of burden.  No longer tearing at my insides, I hope that sharing this intensely private aspect can encourage anyone who works with children to look past what motivates a student’s behavior.  Maybe someone can put the pieces of a puzzle together.  I may have taken the path of silence and escape, I am stronger now.  As a teacher, I did what I could to picture what each student’s life was like at home and school.
I don’t know if there was a realistic intervention that would have stopped the bullying.  I had nothing to prove to the bullies.  I did manifest my own sense of security by trusting my instincts.  Later in life,  I could be the open hand to someone in need.  While I am nervous about the reaction to this post, breaking my silence only makes me stronger.

Target in Sight

“If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”  By this time last year, I was applying for jobs and aiming my arrow at the Bull’s Eye, metaphorically speaking.
I graduated and passed the licensing exam for Social Work.  The right job was out there.  Optimism is intoxicating.  The future is wide open.  The opportunities are endless.  I could work for a food pantry or a facility for senior citizens.  I could be a school counselor or a hospital discharge planner.  I had plenty of arrows and the strength to keep  plunking away.
The few years before I lost my sight completely, I had grown skilled at my career.  Each new student was a moving target.  With the unique characteristics of the student, the search to find what worked brought a challenge.
 
Nearly a decade ago, I glanced into a class with a young substitute to check how the day progressed.  Her only student was emotionally troubled and had a childhood of abandonment & abuse.  The small child was soulfully sobbing.  I had a rapport with the elementary aged kid so I stepped in with an offer to assist.  I asked the sub to notify the office that I was in with the student.  Without another pair of judgmental ears, the child disclosed a suicide plan which entailed the means, true intent, and eminency.  Knowing the case record in the file, I understood the child’s despair and desire to bring an end to the pain.  I listened and validated the feelings expressed.  I de-escalated the moment’s intensity by guided breathing techniques which worked swimmingly. Bull’s Eye!
 
After distracting the student’s attention on a worksheet, I excused myself to inform the school administrator.  I would make the necessary phone calls home as the administrator stayed with the child.  A guardian confirmed in route, I returned to the class to find three staff crowded around the child.  The student was wailing and slapping a pencil on the desk.  Honing on the pencil’s potential and the need to get the student away from the barrage of well intentioned questions, I hatched a plan on the spot.  “Will you hold my hand and get a drink of water with me please?”  In milliseconds, the Number 2 shank was left behind and we walked hand in hand to the water fountain.  
“My glasses are dirty.  Do you want to clean your glasses, too?” I offered.  Without an audience and diverted attention, we spoke like a couple of old friends washing our faces.  I prepare the student on what to expect for the next couple of hours until a guardian arrived.  I reassured the child I would stay by the student’s side.  We colored pictures and decompressed.    As I buckled the child into the guardian’s back seat, we rehearsed the breathing strategy.  As the child was whisked away to a therapist, I knew I hit the mark dead center.
With the loss of my sight, I lost my “vision”.  The game had changed and every arrow sailed into the vastness of space.
 
As I am currently volunteering for an organization that assists families experiencing violence in the home, confidence and self worth have begun to fill my reservoir.  I am still in the observation phase and preparing to work with clients.
 
Recently I sat in during an appointment with a client.  I could sense the client’s discovery of a personal rubicon.  Since I was observing and not having to attend to paperwork, I noticed the client’s questions had an unarticulated fear.  Like an iceberg, only 10% was visible.  With a controlled amount of breath held back, the client seemed to hold in the pain, too.  I saw the opportunity unnoticed during the paper shuffle.  I took a shot.
 
The pivotal cornerstone of working in human services is to authentically listen to the person.  There was a question behind the question that went unasked.  I answered and addressed what I heard as the underlying conundrum.  I got a bull’s eye.  I detected the larger issue that lurked beneath the surface.  
I have found a place eagerly wanting me to apply my skills.  The organization’s willingness has been so comforting that I feel accepted.  “We will figure it out,” was the gist from meeting with a couple of administrators.  The openness to take on this challenge has my loyalties to this community of  compassionate leaders.
 
I have to figure out the logistics of how to complete the necessary paperwork for referrals and disclosures.  The forms are handwritten and later inputted into a database.  
 
The bow is heavier than I remembered.  The arrows feel foreign.  I will have to plan ahead.  The stakes are higher now, as well.
 
I aim to help the organization integrate the efforts of the staff.  I do not want to change the system for my accessibility needs solely.  A streamline design may reduce unnecessary steps and could dovetail with my need to use accessible computer technology. If I can hit anywhere near the target, the hunt for a solution becomes a  Win-Win.
 
For more than a year, I crudely flung my arrows without an anchor.  While I still have arrows, I will direct my points towards clarity and take my time.  As I center on my target, I know some arrows will stray and others will fail to pierce the target.  I believe the objective is to stay in the game, strengthen my faith in my abilities, and find the center…my center.
 
As I lost my sight, the target moved further away.  I am aware that I will become proficient again.  Maybe I will develop into an expert at locking on the sight where the target lies currently.
 
The goal is to be prepared to grow with success and adapt with the inevitability of change.  Once the center is full of arrows, move the mark.  The journey of learning to set and reset goals only makes me stronger.