Pet Therapy

When I mention that I am a pet therapist, people imagine cats and dogs reclined on my couch while I listen to their problems. While that sounds like an appealing way to spend my days, I am actually referring to a different type of pet therapy.

My golden retriever, Casper, and I are a certified pet therapy team. We were licensed by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs after completing a six-week training program, followed by several supervised hands-on visits. As a dog team, we visit nursing homes, special needs programs, veteran’s organizations, college campuses, hospitals, schools and libraries. Our mission is to share Casper’s unconditional love with those in need, thereby brightening their lives.fullsizeoutput_4711

Clinical studies have proven that animals help people heal. Therapy dogs provide comfort to those who are ill, anxious and disabled. Simply petting, touching or talking to animals can improve physical health and emotional well-being. Interacting with a friendly pet can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also accelerate the release of endorphins which produces a calming effect and literally soothes the brain, resulting in an increased ability to learn and interact with others.

Pet therapy can also help children with learning difficulties. For such children, it can be extremely stressful to try to read, write or participate in an intellectual activity that does not come naturally. Often a child who is unsure of him/herself will relax and read to a dog, who is non-judgmental. This enables the child to gain the necessary self-confidence to keep practicing their reading. Our handlers act as the catalyst between the dog and child.

Likewise, therapy dogs can help children and adults with special needs to engage in social interactions. Casper & I regularly visit a daycare facility for adults with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. The facility offers programs to help patients live fuller lives with “opportunities for learning, working and loving,” with pet therapy being one of the patients’ favorite activities. Each time we visit, I am awed by Casper’s impact on the patients. Just minutes after petting or snuggling Casper, fearful and confused faces light up with smiles and peaceful serenity. At one point during last week’s visit, two patients grinned broadly as they sandwiched Casper, simultaneously kissing his head and rubbing his chest.

Another important benefit of pet therapy involves stress relief. Each semester, we visit college campuses during exam weeks for “de-stress days.” Students stop by in between studying and exams to pet and snuggle the dogs, which helps students relax and recharge their batteries. Despite the rigors of exam week, many look forward to their campus de-stress days all year long! We run similar programs for employees in corporate offices.

 

In preparation for a pet therapy visit, I tie a special Red Cross bandana around Casper’s neck and pack his bag with treats and water. Casper instinctively knows that when he’s wearing his red bandana it is ‘time to go to work.’ And he is always up for the task! Being a good pet therapy team requires that I remain calm and focused (as Casper takes his cue from my demeanor,) so we can save our energy and empathy for those we are serving. The work is physically and emotionally challenging– and sometimes exhausting (see post-therapy nap photo below)– yet equally rewarding and fulfilling.

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Post-therapy nap time

 

It is empowering to know that Casper and I can positively impact the human spirit. And, it is especially poignant that Casper– a rescue dog who came to us off the streets of Istanbul, Turkey and who, himself, was given a new lease on life– is now ‘paying it forward’ and helping others to live a fuller, happier life. 

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Road Trip– Part Deux

Just in time for Mother’s Day, I was given the best gift any mom could hope for– quality time with her children. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to take a long road trip with my young adult son, I jumped at the chance. (Note: The last time I wrote about a long road trip was four years ago, when my daughter and I drove 15 hours from New York to Nashville.)

Not the most glamorous of travel routes, to be certain, this latest road trip would take us from Mooresville, North Carolina to Armonk, New York, span approximately 663 miles and pass through seven states.

Fortunately, my son inherited his dad’s packing skills (earning him the nickname “Packman Jr,”) and had expertly filled every crevice of our Honda CRV with clothing, bedding, work files, printers and assorted household items he had amassed during a year in the Tar Heel state.

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Packman Jr. expertly filled the car

Our 6:30 a.m. departure was typical “action” time for me, but not so much for my son. As could be anticipated, the trip began with some disagreement over music selection. Much to my surprise– and delight– we settled upon Tom Petty and actually listened to most of the Full Moon Fever album before my son fell asleep.

Stop #1 was about three hours into the drive at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Roanoke, Virginia. Coffee recharge for mom, accompanied by some surprisingly delicious egg white & turkey sausage breakfast sandwiches on multigrain flatbread. Unfortunately, the meals would go downhill from there.

The other big excitement in Roanoke, VA was son instructing mom in how to operate Cruise Control.  It now seems unfathomable that I’ve been driving for over four decades and had never before used this amazing car feature. After a brief tutorial, I was ready to roll and discovered cruise control to be a game-changer for a long drive on the open road!

After breakfast, my son went back to sleep. As the miles rolled on, I glanced over to find him curled up, fully enveloped in a “pillow fort” with his baseball cap pulled halfway down over his head. I felt a pang of  nostalgia, recalling the days when my sweet, innocent, little boy regularly conked out in cars, at dinners out, at the beach, or anytime and anywhere he felt tired. Just then, Crosby Still Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children came on the radio, and I smiled at the irony of the perfect song playing at this moment. How had this small boy suddenly become a full-grown adult man? Where had the years gone? fullsizeoutput_4b36

 

Stop #2 was for a gas fill-up and an eagerly-anticipated lunch at Chick-Fil-A in Winchester, Virginia. I had fond memories of eating at this establishment about 10 years prior during our daughter’s soccer tournament in Virginia Beach. What I neglected to factor in was that, during my prior visit to Chick-Fil-A, I was still eating fried foods and gluten. Nowadays, both mom and son are very healthy eaters, so instead of ordering the restaurant’s famed chicken nuggets & waffle fries, we opted instead for market salads, which basically consisted of wilted greens covered with ice cold chicken strips and a few overripe berries. A huge disappointment, to be sure. Fortunately, we had a large bag of Terra chips to supplement the meal.

At this point, my son (whom I thankfully discovered is an excellent driver!) took over the wheel and I settled into the cozy pillow fort to relax. I was torn between wanting to maximize our mother-son bonding time with needing to catch up on my sleep. I opted for a brief nap. We then talked, listened to music and rode in peaceful silence. I realized that the best part about traveling with my son across all these miles was just being  in the moment, feeling his comforting presence beside me.

I knew it would be a long while before we would have another opportunity to spend 12 straight hours together, so I wanted to relish this time. We continued through the remainder of Virginia, then West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, making a final pit stop in the town of Hamburg. Then it was on to conquer New Jersey and New York.

We entered the last leg of our road trip. Despite being tired and sweaty, with aching backs and legs, I wasn’t quite ready to get out of the car, knowing that our ride together would soon be coming to a close. If life is about the journey– and not the destination– then I would have to say that we successfully mastered this chapter…. although I think both mother and son were happy to arrive at home in time for dinner– and the NBA playoff games!

fullsizeoutput_4b33Our road trip in a nutshell:

1 mom, 1 son, 1 jam-packed Honda CRV, 663 miles, 1-1/2 tanks of gas, 2 coffees for mom, 1 tasty meal & 1 crappy meal, good tunes, cruise control, 7 states, 12 hours travel time in car together… priceless.

A Happy Mother’s Day, indeed.

 

 

Happy Light– Happy Winter

There’s a reason animals hibernate. Bears generally enter their dens in September or October and emerge around April. As we battle the polar vortex, a bear’s life sounds quite appealing. But, for those who remain awake during the harsh northern winters, the days are often bitingly cold, dark and bleak. fullsizeoutput_4892

Some people enjoy the winter cold and are unfazed by frigid temperatures. These hardy souls relish outdoor sports like skiing, ice skating and snow-shoeing. My friend, Vivien, actually gets a thrill from shoveling snow and finds it to be a great workout. I, on the other hand, prefer to avoid the cold, grey weather and mostly remain indoors in the winter. I am one of millions of people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly nicknamed “SAD,”) a type of depression that is thought to be caused by lack of sufficient daylight. Symptoms of SAD begin in the fall and run through the winter, and range from mild irritability or feeling ‘out of sorts,’ to more severe depression. The affliction can sap your energy, cause you to lose interest in activities you usually enjoy, generate mood swings, affect your appetite and mess with your sleep patterns.

I have suffered from SAD for many years, without realizing it had a name. I would brush off the negative feelings that crept up in late fall as simply a case of the ‘winter blues,’ or a seasonal funk that I had to tough out on my own. I now realize that there are steps I can take to keep my mood, energy and motivation steady throughout the year.

Aside from escaping to California for a few weeks each winter– which always boosts my psyche, mood and energy level– I have found a new best friend: the HappyLight. The HappyLight, a white light therapy lamp, comes in a variety of styles which range in price from $30 to upwards of $250. The lower-end model I purchased consists of a 7”x9” light box that emits white light to simulate the natural sunlight (without the dangerous UV rays) we normally receive during the spring/summer months.

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Some of these lamps promise to make you feel like “you’re at the beach all winter long.” For a $45 investment, I figured it was worth a try. For the past two weeks, I have been sitting in front of my HappyLight for 30-45 minutes a day as I work or answer emails. So far, I am thrilled to report that sitting in front of this lamp has both stabilized my mood and upped my energy level. And, although I still detest the cold, I am starting to feel more like my spring/summer self.

Even today, as the thermometer hit zero degrees (with wind chills of -16°,) I felt fine. I walked the dog for 20 minutes, then played with him outside in our yard. I am not going to lie: the bitter cold felt extremely harsh. But I bundled up in layers and handled it. And my mood remains upbeat. Perhaps that’s because I leave tomorrow for California. But I like to think it’s due, at least in part, to my HappyLight.

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Happy Light… Happy Winter.

 

Glass Half Full

The glass-half-full person views most situations hopefully or optimistically. There is always a bright side or a silver lining. By contrast, the glass-half-empty person views life pessimistically. I know plenty of people in each of these camps. Neither vantage point paints a complete picture, as real life is a series of ups and downs. Our daily challenge is to relish the ups and manage the downs as best we can.

I am generally a glass-half-full person. I firmly believe that keeping an optimistic outlook begets actions that produce positive results; expecting bad things to happen prevents one from taking actions to mitigate or avoid those negative outcomes. The word “optimism” actually derives from the Latin word “optima,” meaning the best outcome or belief in the greatest good.

However, even optimistic people like me occasionally lapse into negative thinking. It is easy during the holidays, and especially on New Year’s, to fall into the glass-half-empty mode. We may look back on the past year and on what we set out to achieve and realize that we fell short. Instead of focusing on these shortcomings, I find it far more beneficial to look back and take stock of all I’ve done– how I’ve challenged myself and grown. Even though I haven’t accomplished all I had hoped to, I remain grateful for all I have and am proud of my successes. Each small accomplishment or victory feels like a positive and productive step forward.

So, as 2018 draws to a close and we usher in a new year, I challenge everyone to embrace and learn from our disappointments, setbacks and challenges, and to remember the happy times, the positive events and the good we’ve done. A new year is an opportunity to start over, to move forward and put the past where it belongs. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to regenerate and renew our lives.

In closing, I raise a glass-half-full  of cool, crisp Sauvignon Blanc (I am not a champagne person,) and toast my beloved friends and family… I wish each of you a happy and healthy 2019. My inspiration for the new year is credited to Oprah:

“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.”–– Oprah Winfrey

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Full House

Once again, during this season of giving thanks and acknowledging gratitude, I am reminded of what is most important in life. Although my children are now in their 20’s, it is still wonderful when they return to the nest. I forget how much I crave just hanging in our warm, cozy house– with the immediate family intact– until everyone comes home.

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The last time we were all together was in mid-August, so this has been a long stretch, during which our frenetic lives have continued on. Yet, once we’re reunited it seems like no time has passed. Within minutes, the familiar dinner table banter returns. We sprawl across the couch watching Monday night football, NBA basketball and movies laced with sophomoric humor. We play board games, take neighborhood walks and snuggle with the dog. We live in the moment and enjoy life’s simple pleasures that seem so elusive these days.

 

Never mind the multiple trips to the supermarket, health food store, fish market and other local purveyors to ensure that the refrigerator is always filled with healthy foods that meet everyone’s culinary preferences. Never mind my role as a short-order cook, serving up 3-course breakfasts and home-cooked dinners with the dishwasher working overtime. Never mind the piles of clothing and wet towels on the floor and the beds that will remain unmade for days. And never mind the daily loads of laundry. This is but a small price to pay to have the band back together.

When our house is full, I experience a completeness and peaceful comfort that stirs my soul. My sleep is deeper than usual. I am reminded of a TV public service announcement from my childhood: “It’s 10:00 pm. Do you know where your children are?” During four brief nights, the answer is “yes, I do.” They’re home. Right where they’re supposed to be. And everything feels right with the world. My heart is full.

In closing, I am inspired by the lyrics of Homegrown, a song by my favorite musician that also happens to be my cell phone ring tone…

“I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.” –– Zac Brown Band

Full house… full fridge… full heart.

The Running of the Sap

When they reach a certain age, some men buy a fast sports car or motorcycle, trade in their middle-aged spouse for a trophy wife, or quit their job and join a rock band. My husband has opted instead for homespun hobbies that tap into his inner provider. Like his affinity for berry picking in the summer, in late winter/early spring, my hubby is in full-blown maple-sugaring mode. In Pamplona, Spain, they have the Running of the Bulls– here in Armonk, New York, we have The Running of the Sap.

Inspired a few seasons ago by neighbors who had tapped their trees and enjoyed maple syrup for months after, my husband became intrigued– and soon obsessed– with collecting sap daily and turning it into homemade maple syrup. Always a fan of Sunday morning pancakes, this new hobby gave him both a purpose as well as something tangible to show for his efforts. Not to mention the environmental benefits of this sustainable practice (my take, not his.) For those not familiar with maple sugaring, turning sap into syrup is a simple, five-step process.

Step 1– Identify a sugar maple tree

This is easy in summer, as the maple leaf is familiar to all. However, in winter– when we are in syrup mode– maple trees can be identified only by bark. The bark is “furrowed,” characterized by deep asymmetrical grooves that are closely spaced between each plate of bark.

Step 2– Tap your maple tree and collect the sap

Drill a 7/16” hole into the tree. The hole should tilt slightly downward. Then insert a spile (a small wooden or metal peg used to control the flow of liquid) into the hole. Hammer gently on the spile until it is secure. If the weather is warm enough, the sap– which is indistinguishable from water– will begin to flow immediately. The sap drips into a bucket or container that hangs from the spile. My husband uses a sturdy ‘sap bag’ with an airtight closure.

 

Step 3– Transfer sap from buckets to storage containers

A single maple tree will generate as much as 2.5 gallons of sap per day. Pour the sap from the bucket or bag directly into the storage container. Any food-grade container may be used to store the liquid. My husband uses large drink coolers. Store the sap at 38°F or colder. If there is still snow on the ground, keep your containers outside, packed in snow. You can also store them in your refrigerator, or for longer-term storage, in your freezer. Sap will spoil quickly if not kept cold.

 

Step 4– Process sap into maple syrup

When you are ready to make maple syrup, pour the sap into a large pot (a “lobster” pot works well) until it is ¾ full. Boil the sap until it reduces down to ¼ – ½ the depth of the pot, then add more sap. It takes 40 parts sap to make 1 part maple syrup (10 gallons of sap yields 1 quart syrup,) so it can be a long process. Once the sap has boiled down and taken on an amber hue, transfer it to a smaller pot. Continue to boil the sap until it takes on the consistency of syrup. Dip a spoon into the liquid; syrup will “stick” to the spoon as it runs off.

 

Step 5– Bottle your syrup and enjoy!

Sterilize your glass bottles and caps in boiling water, then fill them with syrup. Now you can enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Speaking of labor, if you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering why someone would dedicate so much time and effort to a pastime with such a low yield. (Just 1-2 quarts of syrup for two weeks of daily labor.) I posed this question to my husband, and here was his response:

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“I enjoy the feeling of living off the land. I’m taking a natural substance from a tree and making it into something tangible that my family and I can eat. And, when I consider the people who typically make maple syrup, I think of quiet, rural areas in Maine and Vermont. I love the rural countryside. However, we live in a densely populated area. When I make maple syrup– or pick wild raspberries like I do in the summer– I get a taste of authentic, country living.”

In short, maple sugaring has proven to be a fun hobby that provides my husband with a strong sense of pride, accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Plus, our entire family gets to reap the benefits, as his homemade syrup is delicious!

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California Dreamin’ Evermore

I open my eyes to expansive views of the San Francisco Bay, as the sun creeps up behind the lush hills of Angel Island. Pristine sailboats rock in the gently rippling water below our window. The Golden Gate Bridge shimmers in the distance inside a cocoon of fog. I realize with a start that I am not dreaming––this is my current reality, at least for a brief while. I am in love with the Bay Area.

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A peaceful early morning in Belvedere, California

This is our fourth winter trading in the harsh east coast weather for a few weeks in California. We have been especially fortunate this year to have dodged several Nor’easters. While winter in the Bay Area does not promise palm trees and tropical temperatures, we are, nonetheless, immensely grateful for weather in the 50’s and 60’s which suits our active, outdoor lifestyle.

 

Moreover, the appeal of California extends beyond its nice weather and natural beauty. As I articulated three years ago in my initial California Dreamin’ blog post: “To love California is to embrace a lifestyle of openness and friendliness…to achieve an ideal balance between seriousness and fun…to naturally smile and greet those you pass on the street…to strike up conversations with strangers everywhere you go…to feel healthy, fit, relaxed and stress-free…and, to marvel at the selection of fine wines available in the local supermarket!”

Being in California fills me with the purest sense of joy, hope and serenity. Breathing in the fresh morning air is invigorating. Running on a sandy path along the bay, unencumbered by multiple layers of clothing, plus hat and gloves, is liberating. Eating a Dungeness Crab Louie salad on the outdoor deck at Sam’s Anchor Café in February is simply blissful…

 

Even the dogs are happier here than anywhere else. With a daily routine of doggie park play dates, mountain hikes and ocean frolics, the ubiquitous tail wagging is not surprising. I understand how the dogs feel, because my tail never stops wagging when I’m in California!

 

The challenging part of being in California is trying to focus on work with so many wonderful distractions all around. The key is to embrace the Cali lifestyle which incorporates an ideal work-play balance. We have happily discovered that if you work productively and efficiently, you are rewarded with a glorious selection of outdoor play options before the sun sets.

 

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Redwoods & Waterfalls

Choose a seaside walk, a hike among redwoods and waterfalls, a scenic bike ride or a search for colorful sea glass strewn along local beaches. It’s all good.

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While in the Golden State, I am content deep in my soul. I am my best and truest self. My thoughts are crystal clear and my creative juices flow continuously. This is where I am meant to be. I am happy, relaxed and totally at peace. I sleep more soundly than at home––a major feat for a usually fitful sleeper. If only our golden retriever were here, it would be truly perfect.

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Postscript: A week has passed since I wrote this blog post. My three-week reality is now just a beautiful memory… I have returned home to my cold, grey and snowy world… back to California Dreamin’… on such a winter’s day.