HelenHayward

life writing

Month: April, 2015

my husband as a dog

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‘Your dog doesn’t do things because he loves you’, the trainer in yellow is explaining to twenty dog owners, of which I am one, standing lead in hand next to their dogs. ‘Sorry to disappoint you’, he says, not looking a bit sorry. ‘But your dog is totally selfish’.

He pauses, letting his news sink in. ‘Sure your dog loves you. But he doesn’t do what you want out of love for you. If he behaves well, sitting on the pavement before crossing the road or coming on recall at the park, it’s because good things happen when he does. Pats’, he says, leaning down to ruffle his black lab’s head. ‘Treats!’ he adds, smiling and holding up a pellet between thumb and forefinger.

‘You may think’, he says, getting into his stride, ‘that by coming to these classes you will train your dog and that will be it.’ He snaps his fingers in the air. ‘But I have to inform you that it’s not like that with dog training. It’s just not like that at all. Training your dog is more like going to the gym. Which means you will be training your dog until the day he dies!’

Even the yappy dogs have quietened down by now. ‘The old way of training,’ the trainer continues, ‘with the owner, the top dog, teaching his dog behaviours that stay with that dog permanently, this way of thinking is well and truly is over. Sorry folks, I have to tell you that we trainers had it all wrong!’ He turns on his heel, throws his hand into the air, lets go of the chalk and neatly catches it. ‘You see your dog has no deductive reasoning. He lives entirely in the present. He has no concept of language. All he can follow is a chain of sounds, but not the words or reasoning behind it. You may as well say ‘Ketchup!’ to him, rather than ‘Sit!’, when you want him to put his bum on the ground’.

‘Most of the dogs here have been through our puppy class where, if you remember, we talked a lot about conditional reinforcement.’ And he writes CR on the blackboard, pressing hard on the chalk as he circles the letters. ‘Although we still talk about training a dog, what we are really doing is shaping, or reinforcing, his behaviour.’

‘The reality is that when you have a dog, you spend as much time unshaping as shaping his behaviour – detraining rather than training. You can’t make your dog do anything. All you can do is reinforce desired behaviours and turn a blind eye to any undesired behaviours, just as you might with a child. That was when it came to me. ‘Or, I thought to myself, ‘with my husband’.

Having come to dog training classes begrudgingly, feeling I’d been lumped with a task that my family had wormed their way out of, I found myself hanging on the trainer’s every word. In the cool light of the dog training shed I realised that my husband didn’t do what I wanted him to do because he loved me. Standing on one and then the other foot, it took a few seconds to take the analogy one step further. My whole marriage was on par with the dog training that I was doing with my kelpie-collie cross.

I’d done my best to be the top dog, to change my husband’s behaviour for the better. And the outcome? Dismal failure. If anything I’d reinforced the behaviour I didn’t like. And no doubt he’d say the same of me. Both of us were expending huge amounts of energy trying to train each other out of undesired behaviours. In the cool light of the dog training shed it was embarrassingly clear.

This wasn’t how we’d set out together over twenty years ago. At that time we were both involved in psychoanalysis, and it was in these lofty terms that we made sense of our relationship. Our future, we were confident, would be based on enlightenment and sympathy. We were intelligent. We had good jobs. It didn’t seem hubristic to assume that our relationship would sidestep the compromises that we’d witnessed in our parents’ marriages. Except, of course, for one thing. Our confidence failed to allow for the pressure our relationship would come under once we had a family.

‘How many of you have dogs who will sit on command?’asked the trainer. All twenty of us shot up our hands, pleased to be modestly competent even in just one area. ‘How many of you have dogs who will sit, and stay sitting, until you release them on command?’ No-one put up their hand. ‘Right’, said the trainer. ‘This lesson is all about how to get your dog into a reliable sit every time you tell him to’.

‘This’, he explained, ‘involves going back to square one. We want your dog to be able to generalise the command “Sit!” wherever he is and whatever he is doing. I’ll show you now, with my dog. I can bounce a ball in front of my dog when he’s in a sit. I can ride a bike around him. I can throw food treats at him. And he won’t get out of his sit until I release him with the word ‘Free’ – which I stay in a high-up girly tone that can’t be mistaken for any other word. And then, straightaway, I’ll follow it up with ‘Yesss’ and a treat.’

I don’t give my husband treats. And as far as I know he doesn’t sit on command. Nor do we have a generalised ‘Sit!’ in our communication with each other. And yet there is still a weird similarity between dog training and marriage, I think to myself, fumbling for a small cube of cheese and going back to square one to get my dog into a reliable sit.

‘Be kind’, my husband will say to me, now and then, as he comes into the kitchen. ‘Be sweet,’ he’ll continue. My teenage daughter can be relied on to explode disdainfully at my husband’s request for his family to be nice to him. And I admit it doesn’t go down that well with me either. However standing in dog training class, breaking a cube of cheese into tiny pieces behind my back, I begin to see what the trainer – and my husband – is getting at. What if, instead of starting the day with a vague directive to my husband, I begin it with a compliment – with a high value treat?

Having thought dog training classes might be trying, even boring, I now feel the opposite. Within fifteen minutes of being in the dog shed, and of starting the class, training our dog has become quietly rivetting.

But how can you go back to square one in a complicated marriage relationship? What would that look like? Will it involve cubes of squishy cheese in a treat pouch? Might my husband and I really be able to stop pushing each other’s buttons – invisible to a third party but electrically alive to both of us? And could this really take no more than two minutes of training, morning and evening, with a high value treat? Stay tuned.

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@ home

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Over the last three months I have asked various women how they feel about their home life. On opening our conversation, usually over coffee, I often feel sheepish, sometimes nervous. Why, I’ll ask myself, should someone who I don’t know very well be frank about an area of her life that is rarely aired socially? I am no university researcher in sociology. I am a fellow traveller, on a journey to understand why domestic life has, for me and so many others, proven such a real and personal challenge.
Heeding my nervousness, I scaled my project down. I would not set out to ask men and women, young and old, as I’d set out to do at New Year. I would focus on women who were currently in the thick of their domestic lives, and find out as much as I could about that. And instead of fronting up with a list twenty questions, with smaller ones hanging off them, I whittled the list down to a manageable eight that I could ask in an hour’s relaxed chat.

I open my conversations about domestic life with an easy icebreaker. Is your home expressive of who you are? Most women answer this straight off with a breezy yes. In many ways their homes do reflect what they care about most. But one woman frowned when I asked this, tears appearing in her eyes. Her home life isn’t, she explained, the way she’d fantasied it would be when she was younger. She still has the fantasy of how she would like things to be, but the reality of what she goes home to each nights is quite different.

My next question is more pointed. How did you first learn about housekeeping? ‘I just picked it up’, said one. ‘I watched my mother clean the cupboard door handles every day with disinfectant and vowed never to be like that’, said another. ‘My first flatmate sorted me out after a couple of weeks’, said a third. A number were humbled by the realisation of how much their own mothers must have done, largely unnoticed.

How, I ask, do you keep on top of housekeeping these days? Some women laughed at this. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, their expression told me. ‘Keep on top of my home life? Are you serious?’ Others answered straightaway. ‘I’m very organised’, said one. ‘I keep a lot of lists’, others said, smiling. ‘I use every spare minute as if it’s gold’. Still others have lopsided arrangements with more or less willing members of their family. A few have cleaners. A few have house-proud partners who like nothing better than cleaning the kitchen after a busy day at work.

And have you, I ask, found ways to be creative at home? Cooking tops this list. ‘How can you spend a whole hour chopping vegetables?’ one woman’s husband will ask her, disbelieving. ‘But I just love to chop’, she explains, ‘I find it quite meditative after a day at work. And I make a magnificent ratatouille’. Another woman has found herself a quiet corner of the house in which to make lino-cuts, despite living with a successful artist girlfriend. Another prides herself on growing from heritage seeds.

My next question is perhaps the most pointed. ‘Do you like being in the kitchen?’ One woman loves it so much that in her ideal home, in which she doesn’t live, she would have a day bed in the kitchen so that she could be there to lift the cake from the oven. Another woman never relaxes when she’s cooking, sensing the critical eye of her husband, an adventurous and demanding cook. Another is so disgusted by her son’s eating habits that she has given up family meals, despite cooking from scratch with organic ingredients.

What about when you are on your own at home, I ask, do you enjoy this? Every woman I’ve asked so far has said yes to this. ‘I think it’s because I’m in control of my surroundings’, said one, ‘and I love the quiet’. ‘I get into a rhythm’, said another, ‘getting things done and putting aside all the other things that I’m meant to be doing’.

And when you unwind at home, I ask, what do you like to do? Most women pause before answering this, as if it requires a moment to unwind. Knit, said one. Roll pastry, said another. Take a long bath, said a few. Clean the house, said more than one.

And lastly, I’d say, looking at my watch, and sensing that my subject needed to get back to her day, where and when do you feel most at home? One woman said that she felt most at home when she’s out walking solo, arms swinging and her destination far off. One woman was brave enough to say that, in her shared flat, she hardly ever feels at home, yet longs to. ‘Drinking tea and reading’, said another. ‘Chatting over a glass of wine with my partner and discussing what we’ll cook’, said another.

And so you see what I have discovered, which I could have guessed but needed to find out, is that none of us experience our home lives in the same way. Like me you may be curious to know how others manage theirs, what fires them and what turns them off, but until you actually sit down and have the conversation you are really just guessing. ‘Know me, come to my home’, may not compel as a feminist statement, but it still holds true for many of us.

Anyone can change everything

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On moving to Hobart five years ago I took out a subscription to the New Scientist. My kids were born in London – home of smog, competition and innovation – and I wanted them to know that although we now lived in a beautiful place, urgent issues were being addressed elsewhere. The first time I picked up the New Scientist, with its Rolex advertisement on the back cover, I barely took it in. Cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast, late for school, I threw the magazine face down on the windowsill, on top of a boating magazine, a book about seamanship, a Harry Potter novel and The Guardian Weekly, and thought no more about it. The next time Rolex put its ‘Anyone can change everything’ advertisement on the back of the New Scientist I picked it up and read the small print. Who was this aspiring young reader that Rolex was appealing to? Was it my son who with his recently acquired a mobile phone had no need of a watch, and who anyway equated materialism with the school homework that he refused to submit? Was it my husband who likewise used his phone to check the time, and had his own schemes for changing the world? Clearly it wasn’t my daughter, who wore a fat sailing watch. And it certainly wasn’t me. Then I caught myself out. ‘No they can’t’, I thought to myself, flicking the magazine on to the windowsill before wiping down the breakfast table. ‘I can’t change everything’. But why did I think this? Is it because I live in Hobart, in turns celebrated for its promise and disdained for its mediocrity? Is it because I am the mother of two teenagers who unwittingly keep me in my place, cutting the top off my poppy every other day? Is it because I work freelance and natural modesty stops me from aiming too high? Is it because reaching fifty breeds a humility that I don’t remember feeling in my twenties? That was a year ago, and my life has changed since then. This morning I picked up the Rolex ad on the back of a recent New Scientist, struck by the longevity of such a simple marketing phrase. But this time it was different. I didn’t feel cynical at all. Anyone, I thought to myself, really can do everything. It seemed to me a great feeling to have on waking up in the morning. I would love my kids to feel empowered to change everything. The more of us who feel that we can change everything, I thought to myself as I threw the sponge into the sink and chased my daughter out the door, the better our world will be.

Paint job

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‘And this is my son’s old bedroom’. Walking into the bedroom, I spread my arms around. An old desk, pushed into the bay window, is blanketed with Airfix model kits, some still unfinished. Paint tubes, small screwdrivers, a pair of scissors, three sports medals, opened letters and a couple of certificates fight for attention. A single bed on the side wall, still vaguely smelling of my son. Underfoot, a large pinkish rug that I’d never entirely liked. Bookcases lining the walls filled with cast-off titles. My friend, with grown up children of her own, laughs gently. Just gently enough for me to hear her thoughts.

For a month after my son decamped to our guest room, as far away from his parents as possible without actually moving out of the house, I wondered what to do with this old bedroom. While I didn’t want it to stay my son’s old bedroom for much longer, I felt timid about changing it. But first my son’s stuff had to go.

It took Alex four hours to sort his childhood into three unsentimental piles. Hundreds of model train magazines, hardback transport books, wooden blocks, Meccano, Lego, paints, glues, tools, brushes, unmade plane kits, completed model planes, Arthur Ransome novels, loose photos, bits of boats and bits off bikes, sports ribbons. And then it was done. Years of nagging him to sort out his room was over.

For a week or two the things that he didn’t want enough to take down to his new bedroom sat unloved and unclaimed on the floor of his old bedroom. Any value they might have had was soon lost, although he did insist that the Lego and Meccano be kept ‘for the future’. Then, after a trip to a local recycle shop, the room was all but empty.

I didn’t want it to be a sad room. Originally the master bedroom, I had no desire for a museum of childhood off our upstairs landing. I wanted it to be the lovely room it might always have been, had it not been the incubus for my son’s adolescence. And I certainly didn’t want to be swept with nostalgia every time I vacuumed the big pinkish rug that I’d never really liked. I wanted the room to have a new life of its own.

It was such an easy fantasy to have on the heels of our recent trip to Amsterdam. It was a simple image that I had in mind. I saw a pale painted floor, a subdued but colourful rug, soft enough for sewing and drawing with my daughter, and cream furniture. A day bed for when friends came to stay, a big table near the window, and a cupboard for family overflow. But first I’d have to paint the walls and floor.

Five years ago I painted our house, room by room, wearing dungarees and Dunlop Volley shoes. It was hard work but I was keen and I enjoyed it.  I could see the results of my efforts each day. I didn’t do an incredibly professional job, but I felt proud of what I’d achieved.

So why, five years on, did I wait another month before picking up a painting roller? Why did everything seem more important than tipping paint into a bucket and dipping a brush into it? Until finally, fed up with my excuses, I tricked myself into painting when my husband went to Melbourne at short notice. I started at night with an undercoat that smelled so bad that I felt I was coating my lungs with it. But having put on an undercoat there was no going back. The floors that I once stained dark brown were now a ghostly white. It was after midnight, everyone in the house was asleep, but it was done.

But of course it wasn’t done. There was still the walls, two more coats on the floor, window sills, mantlepiece and skirting boards to do. And, with every coat, I felt myself rebel against putting on my dungarees and getting out the paint brushes.

For a while I couldn’t understand why I resisted painting so much. And then it came to me. It was fear. Fear that my family would hate my colour choices. Fear that they would say that a room decorated entirely to my taste was an indulgence. ‘It looks like a milk factory’, said my son tactfully, as he came in smattered with mud from a bike ride. ‘It’s like being in Sweden in here’, said my daughter, home from school. And my husband, on his return from Melbourne? ‘It looks fine’ he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

And me? I love it. Late at night I sneak into what I now call the big room with a book and a hot drink and listen to the wind in the trees, on my own little ship in the night, and feel completely at one with what I’ve done.