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.

Capturing the moments, and living there

 

There’s a very common saying in working dogs: Train the dog in front of you. Not the one you wish you had.

Everyone knows it. Every new handler hear it constantly from their training directors, from their fellow handlers.

It’s a real temptation, this “next dog.” The mystery K9 you will pluck from the pound, or drop $2,000 on from a well-known working line breeder, the dog that will achieve certification in like two months, never have a bad day, never take a dump in the middle of a search problem, and probably won’t even shed.

We dream of this dog. We see this dog elsewhere on our teams, handled by those who clearly don’t appreciate these magnificent animals as well as we would if we had them. We know that the next dog will be amazing.

Meanwhile, our hardworking K9 sits dutifully at our side, waiting for whatever command we are going to give them, hoping we get the timing better on this next reward and that we don’t miss their cues and leave them out there too long by our misdirection.

There’s another problem new handlers face, and that is that they are new handlers. This is also news to us, er, them. So as new handlers, our timing is always off. We don’t understand enough to really get the training done we need. We know this, deep down inside. And it makes us grumpy. We are anxious. We are angry. We misplace our frustration and put it where it doesn’t belong: our partners.

The only thing harder than taking a pet dog and turning it into a working K9 is taking an inexperienced pet dog owner and turning her into a working K9 handler, a person with confidence, patience, wisdom, strength and humility.

It’s hard to be that inexperienced pet dog owner. It’s harder to make the journey.

My first few years as a SAR K9 handler have been unbelievably difficult, a Sisyphean exercise on the hill of my own ego. We have failed more than we’ve succeeded, and much of our struggle has been because I am very, very slow on the uptake. Did you know that you have to let go of control to work a SAR dog? Yes. It’s true.

Ugh.

SAR and training a dog for SAR works for my salvation. I say this a lot, because it is true. All those things that make good handlers good handlers are good traits for humans, godly traits even.

I’m hopeful that we are getting there. I think the photos below are proof.

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We’re not quite sure…

The above photograph was taken on a cold day in March. I was really distracted and angry at where we found ourselves, progress-wise. Helo knew it. Even though he found what we were looking for, the look on his face tells me that he does not trust me, he does not know how I will react and he’s really not sure he wants to be there right now.

When I first saw this photograph, I was embarrassed. There it was, in living color, for me to see: my strained relationship with my partner, my ego in the way of our work, my desire to work another dog, any other dog, was clearly felt by him on this day.

It broke my heart.

So for the past couple months, I stopped worrying about Helo and nagging him about the work he was doing. All of our training sessions were spent working on me, my attitude, my focus, putting my heart in the right place. I needed to control my emotions, my passions, in order to give him the space to succeed.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. Same place in the search problem, right before the final indication.

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I’ve got it!

Different dog. Different team. This picture brought tears to my eyes for completely different reasons.

For the past two years, I’ve been looking past the dog I had, and yet at the same time depending on his performance to validate me as a handler. How unfair is that to such a loyal, attentive and gifted creature!?

It has taken a lot of work. And like all journeys and trips worth taking, it’s going to take a lot more to get to where we need to be.

I share this tonight, a departure from my usual musings on the human condition, to share this bit of my condition. I ask for your continued prayers, your support as I work to be the handler Helo needs me to be, the wife my husband needs me to be, the human being that the world needs me to be.

For just like you shouldn’t look past your dog to the next one, we can’t look past the life we have right now to live the one we don’t have. This is our day. These are our choices, our moments. Live in them, fully.

Remembering

Some Saturday mornings, you really should be packing for your SAR overnight training, but you find yourself at your husband’s volunteer fire department, wiping wax off the rescue truck.

And when a 9/11 Memorial truck pulls into the bay, you stop what you’re doing and you struggle to hold back tears, right alongside the husband-who wouldn’t cry if you dropped a Halligan bar on his toe.

So you stand there, surprised by all the emotions you feel as you read the names on the doors, the men who knew they could die that day, as they knew everyday, but probably didn’t think they would. The FDNY baseball hat the lieutenant tossed onto the seat as he geared up and left the cab is now encased in glass, a monument to a moment long ago.

You back up and watch the guys, and girls, of the Albion Fire Department, all volunteers, wash and wax that dented truck with greater care than you could imagine. You watch a young guy, who was probably about 5 when the towers came down, climb underneath it with a brush, and hand-scrub the road grime from the mudflaps, covering himself with it. You swallow the lump in your throat as you watch your husband, who spent last Sunday on a roof at a house fire, go over the chrome and the steel with a soft cloth. You can’t imagine what is inside his head.

But you know what’s inside yours, as your search dog lays obediently in an empty bay next to the truck. You know that this rescue truck, FDNY Rescue 4, was put back together with pieces and parts from other trucks, like Rescue 3 from Harlem, which also didn’t make it back that day.  You know that this is not just your legacy as an American, as a human, but as a search professional.

And you know that you are on holy ground, so you pray the Orthodox prayer for the departed, you make the sign of the cross and you venerate the shield on the door.

You pray too, that we could one day understand that we are all the same, we bleed when we die, we cry for our dead and our souls live forever.

When you go home to pack for your overnight, gathering your SAR ready pack and your kits, your ropes and your PFDs, you take a little more care than normal.

Because everything matters.

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Picking up rocks

 

 

Confession last week, just me, my priest and the icons. And all the things I drag with me.

This time, the lesson of this year’s Great Lent, it was resentment. It really wasn’t pretty.

I really should ask Fr. Andrew if Helo can come to confession with me. I guarantee he knows EXACTLY what I need to tell him, because whatever it is about that little dog and our SAR journey together, it reveals my character: constantly, in all its ugly glory.

(Aa could probably chip in too, but he comes to church, so if he’s really fed up, I guess he could corner the priest.)

Over the past few months, as frustration continued to build in my professional life, and training Helo in this new task of human remains detection did not take off as easily as I thought it might (read: felt entitled to), I found myself struggling with a creeping resentment.

Here’s the funny thing about that: resentment undoes any good you might have done, it adds fuel to anger, and just really makes you feel miserable. It is as emotionally untenable as picking up a good-size pebble and sticking it in your boot, then going on a lengthy hike.

As I drove away, back to TJTP which is nowhere near as fun as I wish it was, I thought about where resentment came from, for me.

I resented a whole bunch of things, and what they were will remain between me, God, Fr. Andrew and the saints who were listening in.

In general, though it was disappointment + entitlement – motivation. Whatever I thought I earned (read: entitled to have) and didn’t get, minus the motivation to either go reclaim it, get better or move on…

It was a mess. It made me nag my dog, badgering him to fix problems that were really mine, over-correcting him for mistakes he made because I sent him bad information. It made me sleep in too late, stay up too late, grumble too much and generally just not give a shit.

And I never would have noticed, or would have noticed much later, had it not been for Helo and his special nature, the way he tried to fill the void of the absence of leadership in our team. He did this by making decisions (incorrectly) or just flat ignoring me and my wasteful words and negative energy.

Saturday, a few days after this all occurred to me, I sent him out to find some of the stuff we find, this time on a longer training problem. I worked on handling me, more than him. As the heat rose on the gravel pit where we had placed the source, Helo chased it into the cool spots and up around the ridges, doing exactly what I asked him to do pretty much most of the time.

I worked on realizing that this is where we are. If we were supposed to be someplace else, that’s where we’d be. This was, as a friend told me the week before, the place where the universe wanted me for the higher purpose.

It’s where I’m supposed to be to be saved, to cook off the ego and the entitlement, shake free the rocks of resentment.

A few hours later, I was back in the gravel pit again, this time watching the boss work the same problem with her K-9. The problem had become much more complicated by time. The sun was higher in the sky, the scent more diffuse and harder to chase, but they got there. She remained calm, never nagged, listening and watching the dog communicate with her in the way they do–with flicks of tails or ears, changes in body language, a glance up, a nose down.

As she worked, I found a small white rock, worn smooth by the sand and the water and the years. I worried it with my fingers as we walked back to our trucks to finish the day. I carried it home in my pocket.

I will, however, be sure to keep it out of my shoe.

(Gratuitous photograph of Helo taken by my sister-in-law on a day when my character was particularly revealed. Sigh)_DSC0221