Finished Reading…

It wasn’t exactly a behemoth job, but it was a lot of books. I’m finished now.

As you might expect, there were books dedicated to or written about the pandemic. I generally found that a little odd since we don’t know how it turns out yet, but I understand the urge to write about the experience, to get it out where a person can see it. As today is apparently the anniversary of the day The WHO called it a pandemic, I’ll tell you a little about what I found.

I decided to look at those books as if I were a historian in the future. Any first person rendering of a moment in time can be useful, but a historian needs more than that to understand well. Out of the pandemic books one stood out as useful to a future historian because it comprised many voices, was focused on ONE location and was filled with photographs. It is an anthology of brief reminiscences by “ordinary” people. A journalist who lost his job but is out there taking photos anyway. A woman who, with her husband, is “sheltering in place” in a New Jersey apartment. A woman who works with substance abusers. Another woman with the courage to describe “lucky deaths” — people who were already dying of something worse who ended up dying of Covid. A young woman and her boyfriend who finally get together for dinner, but don’t touch. The stories are simple, every-day and short. They are every historian’s dream. “This is where I was and this is what I saw. This is what I did.” The book is “of the moment” in that very few writers attempt to analyze the experience. They are truly “being there then.”

The book is Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter. Its focus is the first four months of the pandemic in New York City and New Jersey where the death rates were high and the health system struggled to help all those who needed it.

Proceeds from the book go to feeding the hungry in America. If you want a memento of this time, this is a good one.

Someone asked me yesterday about whether I have to read all these books cover-to-cover. No. I have a rubric, a judging sheet, with “points”. In my first pass, I look at each book as a whole, a product. Some books disqualify themselves from winning for various reasons — being submitted in the wrong category, poor grammar, visual appearance, design impeding the message. Some people actually have their books printed in pale gray ink or use tiny fonts or bleed the print into the spine of the book. When I open one of these I ask the writer, “Did you think NO ONE would EVER read this?” It’s easy when you put your own book together to forget someone ELSE might actually READ it. Physical readability is important. My books would be disqualified by me on the basis of rampant typos and, I guess, that’s exactly what happened when I entered this contest a hundred years ago. The books that don’t fail in these areas — and most books don’t fail — I read cover-to-cover.

Then comes the moment of determining the book’s value to its intended audience. This is the most important question. In some categories there is a very wide range of books, from kids’ books to legal guides. The books are all basically in the same category but have widely divergent audiences. I enjoy imagining the audience for each book and thinking of how the book would be used or appreciated by the person for whom the book was written.

I have to contend with my biases, too. I don’t think anyone can fully overcome this, but it’s good to challenge them. I’m not a fan of self-help books or any flavor of spirituality. I know there is an immense audience for these two kinds of books, but that audience is never me. This is a hard thing for me to deal with when I am judging one of these books, and imagining its REAL audience is so helpful.

I love this job. Oddly, I’ve even been trained for it. One of my responsibilities as a writing teacher at a university was reading exit writing proficiency exams. We were a team of maybe a dozen instructors who met for one grueling Saturday from 8 am until whenever every semester to read thousands of tests that would determine whether the students would graduate that semester or be required to come back one more semester for one more writing class. Since a lot of students think of writing classes as something to “get through” another “stupid requirement” they pretty much hated this and many felt betrayed. “I’m going to be an engineer not a writer!” But clear communication matters in every field and we didn’t want employers who came to us for graduates to bitch that our graduates were illiterate.

You can imagine that all of us were a little insane by 3 pm on those Saturdays.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/03/11/rdp-thursday-behemoth/

One Hundred Dogs and Counting by Cara Sue Achterberg: Book Review

FOR SALE EVERYWHERE TOMORROW! JULY 7, 2020! GREAT BOOK WITH AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE!

In 2019 Cara Achterberg set out to learn the reality of animal rescue in parts of America where even people often struggle to make a good life. Her hope in writing her second dog book, One Hundred Dogs and Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and A Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues, is that the stories will stimulate people to foster dogs, volunteer at their local shelters and do whatever is in their power to improve the lives of dogs who, for what ever reason, find themselves without humans of their own. Cara fosters dogs for OPH, Operation Paws for Homes, a foster-based rescue in Chesterfield, Virginia.

One Hundred Dogs and Counting is filled with heroic characters, hopeless situations, and wonderful dogs, many of whom have no chance at a good life in a loving home. It is a detailed collection of personal experiences derived from Cara’s journeys to visit dog rescues, shelters and, yes, pounds in some of the most economically depressed regions in America. One Hundred Dogs and Countingasks the important, serious question. Do dogs in rural animal shelters suffer and die “…because [people] don’t care or because they don’t know?”

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The most basic question the book seeks to answer is “how do dogs end up in shelters?” There is a variety of reasons, but it’s often just because the dog’s people aren’t up to the job. Not all dogs are “good dogs” right away. Training a dog needs patience, optimism and time — and sometimes a professional. As Cara writes, “So many people want a “turnkey” dog, one that requires very little of them. A dog who is housebroken, crate-trained, good on a leash, loves everyone, listens perfectly, doesn’t chase cats or deer or squirrels, one that, effectively, doesn’t act like a regular dog. Turnkey dogs are rare. And they don’t happen without a lot of work.” 

In One Hundred Dogs and Counting Cara paints a vivid picture of the effect of human poverty on domestic animals. Still, human poverty is not the only driver leading dogs to be abandoned. “Much of [what I was seeing in these shelters] was a culture problem. I was learning that many people in rural, poor areas simply did not value their pets. Dogs were more like livestock…they weren’t as much pets as property. ‘It’s just a dog/cat’ was a phrase we heard again and again.”

Poverty, culture, and something more; gentrification.

Visiting a sad shelter in Shelbyville, Tennessee, Cara asked a deputy sheriff why he thought so many dogs ended up there. 

“He offered an interesting perspective I hadn’t considered. He said that the history of dogs in rural areas was that people owned large pieces of land and the dogs roamed freely, but as development came to Shelbyville, open, unoccupied spaces filled up as neighborhoods and businesses came in. Yet many people continued to allow their dogs to roam free as they always had. More run-ins with people, more contact with other (unsterilized) dogs led to more Animal Control calls, more dogs seized, and more unwanted puppies…there never seemed to be an end or even a slow-down. When would all the dogs be safe?”

One Hundred Dogs and Counting

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As bleak as many of these stories are, One Hundred Dogs and Counting focuses on the success stories and positive steps to change the dark, nearly overwhelming, situation in these shelters — or shelters anywhere — where dogs languish in filth and disease waiting for death.

Cara writes, “…an animal shelter is a service to the community.” Mixed among the many stories of over-crowded shelters where dogs suffer until they’re euthanized or, miraculously, adopted, Cara writes about the magic effected by Kristin Reid, a passionate woman in Tennessee. The Cheatham County Animal Control “…is an open-intake shelter with a tiny budget of only $60,000 a year, yet for all intents and purposes, Kristin [the director] has managed to turn it into a no-kill shelter, even if she doesn’t have that status officially. She works hard to move dogs out through rescues, which allows her to work with some of the harder to place dogs longer.” 

What Cara describes is amazing. 

“After tackling the shelter building, animal care, and staffing, Kristin set her sights on rebuilding the respect and support of her community. Instead of focusing on what she didn’t have—volunteers, money, community support, or a fancy building—she instead looked at what she did have—plenty of land in a beautiful part of the country. The shelter sits on one side of the Cumberland River and most of its community is on the other side. To reach the shelter, you have to drive over one of the bridges and follow the long, winding road that Nancy and I had just traveled. Kristin needed something to draw the people to the shelter. 

Kristin set to work creating trails through their woods and began a rock- painting program. The staff and fledgling volunteer program began painting and placing rocks with positive messages on the trails. Then they invited the public to come and hike, paint a rock and place it, or find a rock and take it home. She enlisted the local high-school students to create storyboards and post them along the trails, giving young families even more incentive to come to the shelter. The only price for using their beautiful, interactive trails? Walking an adorable, adoptable shelter dog! Talk about a win-win. I loved it and was fast becoming a member of the Kristin Reid fan club.”

One Hundred Dogs and Counting

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One of the keys to saving dogs, as Cara has written persuasively and demonstrated in her own life, is fostering. Fostering dogs takes them out of shelters leaving room for more dogs to be taken off the streets and placed where they might get some of the help and care they need. 

People who are able to invite dogs into their homes and lives until the dog finds its people are unusually big-hearted and emotionally brave. “…people fostering dogs all over our country [are] connected by an invisible web spun from our shared passion…All these dog-hearted people, working together, [is] the only way it was possible to save so many lives.” 

Maybe every dog owner has a favorite breed, and Cara’s heart goes out to pit bulls, though, she insists, there is no such breed and she’s right. It’s a “look” with a bad reputation. She describes one encounter at a high-kill shelter that marked the kennel cards of dogs who were to be euthanized with a large “X.” 

“I lingered outside the kennel of Sheba, a cute black puppy with a white nose. She was friendly and eager and grateful for the treats I passed through the fence. I looked past the enormous X scrawled across her kennel card and read that she was six months old and picked up as a stray and had no bite history. And then I saw her crime. She was a pit bull mix. …Ultimately, OPH would save Sheba. She would…prove to be a delightful foster dog and get adopted faster than most. But would we have been as convicted to save Sheba if she didn’t have an X on her kennel card?”

One Hundred Dogs and Counting


This is not an easy book to read, and it shouldn’t be. “…Words were my only weapon in this war to save dogs, and what I saw each day of the tour only sharpened my sword.”

~~~

One Hundred Dogs and Counting is dedicated to her beloved blue-eyed pit bull, Frankie, a dog she had rescued, the dog of Cara’s heart. Frankie had to be put down during the interval in which Cara was visiting these shelters and seeing one bully dog after another, good dogs with wide smiles and wagging tails and no chance of adoption. I know that Cara was reluctant even to think of another dog. She found it hard to believe that the sad space in her heart could open again after Frankie, but a little brown dog, covered with excrement, cold and neglected in one of the worst shelters, was waiting for her.

In my experience as an owner of many dogs over the years, almost all of them rescues, adopted after the loss of a beloved friend, the dog who is meant to be ours recognizes us before we recognize them. ❤

“She wiggled her butt and danced around as I led her back to her kennel, as if trying to convince me to take her somewhere else instead. On a whim, I asked Trisha if we could get a video of her with another dog, just in case I could talk somebody at OPH into rescuing her, even though I knew that person would likely be me. Trisha pulled out the blond dog from the back and we introduced them. My little girl, who I was calling Fanny, only wanted to play. We caught it on video, and I hoped it would be enough to convince the powers that be that she was dog-friendly. I didn’t want to put Fanny back in her kennel to die. Why couldn’t I just take her with me? Sensing my hesitation, she glanced up with at me with impossibly sad eyes, even though her tail never wavered. 

“I’m sorry, girl,” I whispered as I opened her kennel gate. She walked slowly inside and then lay down against the fence, watching as Trisha sprayed out another kennel. We moved all the dogs to clean runs, gave them fresh water, and fed them before reluctantly leaving. Later, when I talked to [my husband] Nick on the phone, I told him about the little brown dog. There was something about her that touched my heart, it was as if I knew her already. Her pain was my pain. I would study the pictures Ian [Cara’s son] took of her and those eyes would haunt me for months.”

One Hundred Dogs and Counting

Cara’s broken heart fully opened for that little brown dog, and Fanny now lives with Cara and her husband, Nick, at their home in Pennsylvania. Fanny is a bundle of life and love and is the BEST friend of every foster dog who spends time in their family home.

~~~

The net result of these difficult journeys? 

“If my trips south had taught me anything, it was that this problem was fixable. It will take all of us. Every person can do something. In this country where we love dogs to an extreme, spending millions on grooming and dog walkers and daycare, there is no shortage of people who care about dogs or have money to be spent on dogs. There are solutions, but the first step is awareness.” 

One Hundred Dogs and Counting

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One Hundred Dogs and Counting is available on Amazon or contact the author at any of the links below.

You can learn more about Cara’s journey on her website, Who Will Let the Dogs Out. Some of the proceeds of the book go to Operation Paws for Homes (OPH). The book is also beautifully illustrated with photos from the journey and the dogs Cara met. ❤

In her first dog book, Another Good DogCara tells about her experiences with the first fifty dogs she fostered. To learn more about Cara’s fostering and rescue efforts, enjoy her stories and lovely writing — Cara also writes fiction! — visit her blog, Another Good Dog  

Nothing Pedestrian About It

I am a pedestrian. I walk. I’m not the first and, god-wiling, not the last of the species to make this claim, even to make this one. I love to walk. Love. Yep.

My dad had Multiple Sclerosis and had problems walking that got worse with time. Watching him struggle and persist probably contributed to my early sense that being able to walk is not to be taken for granted. That knowledge has been affirmed many times by my own mobility problems, two hips that went south and various injuries. My mom didn’t like walking, but she HAD walked to school in 40 below degrees with newspapers in her hand-me-down shoes, her feet in hand knit socks. It wasn’t “uphill both ways,” it was legit, but I did hear a lot about it. I never had to walk to school in 40 below, but 10 below is no picnic. But you do walk fast.

Some of my sweetest memories from childhood involve walking home from school with my brother over a little mesa where the wind blew like a, like a, oh well, like it does here. My mom knitted us short scarves she pinned around our heads, kind of like a Buff, and we often arrived home with icicles hanging from the place above out mouths, but, in the meantime, we’d fought through a barrage of space aliens; snow flakes — coming at us head on.

I still go out in that and like it.

Walking has often provided the transition, the liminal moment, between one life and another — between work and home, school and home. It was transportation (literally, TRANSPORT-ation) for much of my life. I didn’t drive if I could walk. Simply.

Walking to work and back from my Denver apartment in my late 20s was so important for me. My walk was 3/4 of a mile to and from, just long enough to prepare myself for whatever the day would hold in the morning and to clear the spiders of law from my mind in the evening. There were no electronic devices back then to pump music into my ears on my walks. There was only the sound of the streets, cars passing, snippets of music, vroom, the fragrance of dinners cooking.

I was a paralegal in an immense 17th street (Wall Street of the West) law firm. I was having my first experience with the kind of squishy integrity inherent in “billable hours.” My law firm had some huge clients — the City of Lakewood, for example — for which my boss was the city attorney. I was deep in municipal law, public improvement agreements and and and … I did well, but for me there was no governing philosophy to anything we did other than the bottom line. I liked my job OK. It was challenging, changing, fast-moving, but it wasn’t “me.” Invariably, somewhere on the walk home, I shed the paralegal and encountered my”self” and we went home together. It wasn’t much of a walk, but every day I saw something new and apparently I wrote convincing rhapsodies about it because the man in my life at the time, a man who’d trekked all over and been on the support team for a climb up Annapurna II, wanted to make the walk with me when he came to Denver. “I want to see what you see.”

I wasn’t aware of it then, but I was learning the lesson that if you go out, you will see something. Simple, huh? One day as I headed down the hill to the State Capital building I saw a hot air balloon preparing to rise. The design on the balloon was an immense blue Columbine, the Colorado state flower. There was no one to witness this but the denizens of the balloon and me.

I learned that you don’t have to walk in some “grand place.” All places are grand places.

If you would like to read some beautiful and inspiring words about walking, I turn your attention to Walking by Henry David Thoreau and “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. There are other writers, such as John Muir, who have extolled the quiet wonders of a pedestrian life, but those written Thoreau and Emerson are still my favorites.

This, from Thoreau’s Walking sums up my feelings and experience — and did the first time I read it in Robert D. Richardson’s graduate American Lit survey. Life — just like walking — comes down to putting one foot in front of the other.

“…We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.” Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The best book about walking I’ve read recently is A Walk to the Water by Daniel Graham. Definitely a good choice for a time like this one (“like” this one?)

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/03/31/rdp-tuesday-pedestrian/