The long way around

How Helo makes me a better person, part the infinity.

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A little over a week ago, my fuzzy little partner and I passed our certification test to allow us to be deployable as a human remains detection unit with our SAR team. I’m already a SARTech II, or a certified “ground pounder”, so I have been searching and backing up our other K9 units for a few years. But now, as my nephew put it, someone will do that for me.

Those of you who know me, or follow this space, know this has not been the easiest of journeys. I do not have one of those dogs who is strong enough, or who functions in such high drive that he is immune to my weaknesses as a handler. I have a dog who is in tune with me, always, for good or for bad. As I struggled, he struggled. As I failed, he floundered. As I grew, he grew. When I sorted it out, he settled in. It took a while, much longer than I would have liked or could have dreamed, but we got there.

And I am grateful.

It took me eight years to get through college, for a variety of reasons. I didn’t settle into my career until I was 26. And I didn’t get married until I was almost 40. For whatever reason, it takes me longer. I find the longer, circuitous route and that’s the one I choose to travel, or the one the universe picks for me.

This one could have looked a little different, if we’d gone out and picked up another dog, found a creature so independent of me, my anxieties, my lack of knowledge, my need to control would have been overshadowed by its drives and its gifts. But we didn’t do that. The boss in The Job That Doesn’t Pay didn’t give up on the dog, and didn’t give up on the partnership.

Helo and I remained tethered together for the duration.

He did everything I asked him to do. He learned how to show commitment to the target odor. He barked when he found it. He pushed through heavy brush, stuck his head in thorns, hollow tree trunks and ran his little nose along the thresholds of the doors. He worked.

And he waited for me to change. He waited for me to get myself together. So I did more work on myself. I learned how to study dogs. I learned what his different ear positions meant, what his footsteps looked like when he was in scent. I found ways to manage my anxieties, my cursed need for perfection and control. I got my poop in a group.

I’m not sure why I don’t get to take the easier way. And I know that every single person knows that their ways aren’t easy either. Our journeys are always unique. Their distances and their clocks vary. Sometimes that has nothing to do with us, or any lesson we are to learn. Sometimes it is just difficult. It just sucks.

But this one was about learning and about growth. And it is on me to fight to maintain it, to keep the cobwebs out of our partnership, to keep him engaged and comfortable and safe with me as his handler.

And now we get to go to work.

No job that pays

Tomorrow is the first Monday in forever I won’t have anywhere to go. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do for anyone higher up the pay scale.

Last week I was fired when the non-profit job-that-paid eliminated its entire communications/marketing department. Conveniently, they let me come into work Monday morning (45-minute commute) and work for a couple hours before they did it. My coworker and I were unceremoniously tossed out, putting the contents of our desks in whatever bag or box we could find. I felt like I’d did something wrong, and still do, in spite of the lovely letter swearing to the contrary in my severance packet.

I understand the business decision, and in fact believe it was probably the right one for the organization at this current moment. And I wasn’t in love with the job. After a career, it was just that– a job. I was grateful for it, however it didn’t scratch any itch for creativity or exploration. It is also the height of irony since I left newspapers because of the increasing risk of having my job disappear. Life is hi-lar-eee-ous.

So now I sit here on a Sunday night, not sure what to do with my planner, my to-do-lists and my time. I have at least a few weeks and then whatever or whenever something presents itself that pays the bills. I am fortunate in that we are financially stable because my husband is good at that kind of stuff. And we have health. That makes all the difference and has nothing to do with us.

At 2 a.m. the morning after I got fired, the SAR pager went off. I was out the door in five minutes and a few miles up the road when the disregard came through. But it was enough of a reminder that with The Job That Doesn’t Pay I am beyond blessed for meaning and raison d’être.

I’ll be fine. But it is weird. I expect the house will be cleaner than it has been in years, I’ll plague you a bit more here. Say a prayer for my coworker and dear friend who was marched out of the building with me. She has kids and pre-existing conditions and all of that. Things are scarier always with kids.

All ya’ll going off to punch the time-cards in the a.m., good luck, have a great week and I’ll be thinking of you. 2017-02-20 10.06.01.jpg

I’ll be looking around for a job for a professional badger because that’s what I am to my core.

And I need a new place for this kick-ass mouse pad.

Unpaid. Professional.

When volunteering is more than not being paid…

Last night, I spent about 90 minutes in a crowded town council meeting room, sitting next to my husband and his volunteer fire department. I was there for defense. (Or offense, depending on your perspective.)

Over the course of the past few months, the town’s all-volunteer fire department has been experiencing increasing tension with their town. The tension seems to be traceable to a 20-something town manager who does not appear to understand the difference between a town employee and a volunteer. He does not seem to grasp that the relationship rural communities have with their fire departments (and many police officers if they rely on reserves) is not contractual.

It is relational.

For reasons known but to him, the town manager escalated the situation by taking the matter to the local paper and involving the council after the fact. His statements cast doubt on their character (they have done nothing wrong) and it made a bad situation painful.

It was humbling to sit among these men and a few women, many with tears in their eyes as they spoke of the work they did, as well as the profound cost of that work which cannot be measured in tax dollars or hours.

In fairness to the child town official, I did not understand the difference between the contractual and the relational in public safety until I moved out here, in the middle of nowhere. I understood it even more when I too decided to don a uniform and carry a pager.

There are volunteer opportunities: delivering Meals on Wheels, tutoring children at a school a few hours a week, answering the phones at a social service agency. Those are valuable and those are necessary. They are, as all services, the rent we pay for life on this earth, to quote Muhammad Ali.

The VFD, EMS and SAR service is something entirely different. The level of training it requires is different. The level of commitment it requires is different. And the motivation is often much more complicated. It has to be to sustain it through the constant inconvenience and threat of injury; to get you to respond every time regardless of the weather, the time of day or what you are doing. The hours of training and studying and physical work put it in a different class: unpaid professional.

Much of America, geographically, is protected by volunteer fire departments, or hybrids of volunteer and professional departments. It is a red state thing, to use political language. When I lived in the city, we had fire stations all over the place and I largely viewed it as a service, the price paid by my tax dollars. I respected them for their work and training, but they were “civil servants.”

That is not why these men and women do what they do. (It’s not why the paid professionals do it either, but that is for a different time.)

By the time the meeting ended Thursday, many of the firefighters were struggling to contain their emotions, so fed up with the unnecessary and the ridiculous.

The work emergency services personnel perform, paid or unpaid, is wearing physically and emotionally. Tearing apart a piece of farm equipment to remove an injured man, tromping through cornfields for hours in the heat to look for the body of the missing, or performing chest compressions on an infant: these are not the typical volunteer opportunities of Americans. But they are the experiences of my loved ones and myself.

We were exhausted by the end of this week. I picked up a pizza on the way home and as we slid slices on our plates, his pager went off.

Twenty-four hours after the fight before the council, he found himself in the dark on a country road, cutting a driver out of a vehicle while his chief prepared a landing zone for the helicopter.

He spent over an hour in the cold alongside his crew and members of another department.

When he got home, and reheated his pizza, he had a smile on his face.

He said the timing of the run was perfect. It reminded him of why he did what he did: serving and helping others.

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A’s chair and dinner awaited his return.