Re-branding my dog ~ a lesson on spin applied to life

MU…our dear Boxer…rebranded and loved 2003 to 2008.

As a companion to my post on bullying, I dug through my archives to find this piece on branding that I wrote several years ago.

I have taught, and worked, individually with over 2000 people, children and adults. I have witnessed the same patterns over and over in human behavior. I am not a scholar of behavior, but I have found one pattern disturbing. People get branded by the society around them and then behave to fulfill the expectation. The society starts with childhood family and moves on through peoples’ lives.

When people are stuck and I have posed options to them, the responses have stunned me…their roots in voices miles, decades away.  I wrote this for the artist in the engineer and the engineer in the artist; the leader in the the group of followers and the follower in the leader; and of course, the hero in the scapegoat. Circa 2011

Imagine you are walking down the streets of New York City and you have not been branded yet. There is no story tagged to you, like a piece of tobacco rolled up in thin white paper without a name, you no longer have a label or a story. Gone is your award for class clown, bully, or friend, along with your tag lines: the family hero, writer, artist, black sheep, and on and on.

You, like the pieces of tobacco rolled in thin white paper have no brand. You are free to create your own brand. You can shake off what defined you and write your own story. Like the Virginia Slim, you can ‘go a long way baby.’ The projections of you can be wiped out like your fb account. This is what happened when I rebranded my dog Mu.

Mu was our first puppy. I fell in love with her from the beginning; failing to tell my husband she was not a pure bred until we were half way home. Five months into our relationship, things went bad. Mu grew powerful and started yanking at my shirt sleeve at the end of our walk. The louder I yelled, the more she tugged.

We went for walks or rather she did, with me almost achieving lift off as she dragged me down the path. What to do with this mutt, we should have bought a pure bred?

I told so many stories about my bad, bad dog, that people who knew me then, often ask now, “what ever happened with your crazy dog?”

Then one day, I picked Mu up from an overnight at the vet. I could hardly believe my eyes; there she stood, straight and still with the vet. I asked how she behaved: “Great, she is a sweetheart.”

On my way home I realized Mu was not crazy after all. I needed owner training. With the help of a kind friend, Cathy, I took control of the leash.

I then changed the story. Mu truly was a sweet dog and I started telling people that. In a few short conversations, my little Mu, became branded as the best little boxer this side of the Atlantic.

Now, back in New York City, as you walk through those streets smelling the car fumes and seeing the lights of possibility, you can take that energy and mold yourself into the creature you want to be ~ the one that lives on your own terms and sits like The Thinker, real or metaphorical, its own divine creation, living just once in a burst of beautiful light.

Like Don Draper of my once favorite show Mad Men, you can write your soul, for better or for worse. And as Don did, and I did for Mu you can take a story that condemns you, rewrite it, start spreading it, and change it.



My Respect Paper ~ from my teaching memoirs

Into my third year as a high school teacher, I was having a heart-to-heart with my college bound senior class on the concept of respect.  They were only about ten years younger than myself but I was clearly the adult in the situation.  In the course of our conversation, one of the students said, “Why should I respect Emma?”

 Emma worked at our school as a teacher’s aide and lunch room monitor.  She was kind to me and we ate lunch every day together.  Emma went through the school of hard knocks and graduated.  I have heard she said some pretty crude things when her back was pushed up against a wall, but I honestly never heard her say anything inappropriate.

I was dismayed by my students response:  how arrogant, how condescending, how had we morphed into this world?  I felt I wanted to do something and so I did.  I assigned them a respect paper.  I asked them to write about the person they respected most and break it down into why, with three or four concrete examples. I hoped that through an anlysis of what constituted respect, they would grow to see the problem in their thinking about my friend Emma. Then they challenged me to do the same, I did.  What follows is the result, My Respect Paper.

I give everyone I come into contact with respect for two reasons.  The first reason is because we are all human beings, flawed and subject to the same vulnerabilities, the biggest being death which humbles and unites us all.  The second reason I give all human beings respect is because if I fail to do this, I may miss something important that they have to show me.  For example, if I did not respect my students despite their young age and inexperience, I would miss all the fresh ideas and hope they have to offer me.  The respect I give all human beings may heighten and intensify with time as I become more involved with them, but for this to occur I have to start with respect for mankind in general.

I have chosen to write my paper on Mr. Keating  (played by Robin Williams), a prep school teacher in the film Dead Poets Society  and a personification of what I respect in a human being and a teacher.

Mr. Keating has many admirable qualities and they are exhibited in his teaching style.  As a teacher, his goals were not content oriented but rather, student oriented.  Mr. Keating’s most impressive strength  was his ability to make his students look beyond poetry and into their souls.  This was evident on the first day of class when he led his students to the pictures of previous Welton graduates (Welton was the name of the school where he was teaching).  He instructed his students to look into the eyes of the alums and see the vigor, energy, and hope within those eyes.

“Lean in,” said Mr. Keating, and “peruse some of the faces from the past…invincible, just like you feel, the world is their oyster…their eyes are full of hope, just like you.  Did they wait to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable of?  Because you see Gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. Lean in and hear them whisper their legacy to you:  “Carpei, Carpei Diem.” “Seize the Day.”  “Make your lives extraordinary.'”

The best thing about this strategy was that it worked and his students began to seize the day as they ventured into their school year.

Secondly, I respected Mr. Keating’s dedication to nonconformity in his teaching.  Mr. Keating wanted students to think for themselves and this was clearly evidenced when he instructed them to tear out the first chapter on poetry analysis in their textbook.  “Excrement!” he stated as he told them to “Rip.”  He then went on to explain that poetry can not be measured by others who write about it, and that in his class, these young men would learn to think for themselves.  Although this method would not be possible for most teachers, a belief in independent thinking was illustrated well in this exercise.

Finally, Mr. Keating’s commitment to the individual student and helping him unearth what lies deep within his soul was tempered by his ability to guide, but not force.  He gave his students’ ideas in such a way that they wanted to explore life and poetry for themselves.  This was evidenced when he tempted them with knowledge about the Dead Poets Society, a secret organization where he and his peers found safety to “suck the marrow out of life” as they read and thought about poetry.  Mr. Keating was successful in stimulating his students to go beyond themselves as they too went to the caves around Welton and formed a Dead Poets Society.

In conclusion, Mr. Keating’s great ability as a teacher is admirable.  He took all of his life experiences and provided his students with the ability to experience life for themselves.  If you have not seen the movie, make some popcorn some night this summer and plug-in the VCR , it is well worth it.

I will truly miss you all next year, thanks for a great year, you have been an extraordinary class. “Carpei Diem.”


Words of Wisdom from Jean Ackerson Asher

One year ago Thursday, my friend Jean, passed away at the age of 87, days shy of her 88th birthday.   I hear her voice within me all the time and wanted to share some of her wisdom.

As a little back story, her daughter, Marianne Asher Cain, Ash, and I grew up together and we lived within two blocks of each other.  It was Jean and my friend who I cried to when I was dumped by my boyfriend and when office politics were just over the top for me.  It was Jean who supported our little escapades, whether funding our chocolate chip cookie bake off or giving Ash the car for us to go out at night, always Jean gently threw her head back and laughed, saying, “You Girls,” trusting that in the end Ash and I would be fine.

One summer in my early adult years, we were both off, I as a teacher, Jean as a retiree, and we had many conversations.  I am especially grateful for that time because I can see now that it refreshed the meaning of  all of the conversations we had earlier in my youth.  Jean has popped up in blogs before, but this is dedicated totally to her.

Here is a smattering of Jean Ackerson Asher’s wit and wisdom.

1. Life is coping with your problems.

No matter what we presented to Jean, this is what she told my friend and I. It was such a relief, I didn’t have to solve everything right then and there, all I had to do was cope. It was also a relief because, I grew up in the fairy tale land of the 1960s where people didn’t talk about problems. Jean normalized the concept of problems.

2. Girls, I’m gonna tell you, Monday morning always rolls around.

Jean would tell us this when we needed a pep talk, when we saw people who seemed to be dodging all of life’s bullets and having it “easier.” I can’t remember the specifics, but basically, it is the concept of Monday. Monday is reality, Monday is when you have to go to work because you have to pay your bills and because you have to be responsible. Jean  seemed to me to be saying, no one can escape Monday.

3. There is no accounting for people.

This response was uttered by Jean after many a story when Ash, or I, would discuss some blatant misdeeds of our peers or people we knew. Today, one might call it the WTF moment…you are standing there, a scene is set, people interact, and much to your dismay, you are completely dumbstruck by the absurdity of what you are witnessing. Either some ridiculous utterance has just passed a person’s lips or they have done something just unexpected, and outside the range of normal.

We could analyze all we want, pull out Freud and The Ennegram, but in the end, there “is just no accounting for people.”

4. What happened to helping people in your own sphere of influence?

Jean and I talked at length about the cruelties of the world.  We went one summer to a lecture series given by a Russian academic visiting our town, perhaps some of our conversations emanated from the stark reality this academic painted for us between Russia and the US.

Jean believed, I think, that you had to look around you and help your neighbor, literally.  It was the little things we do to help one another that made all the difference.  We weren’t going to Russia anytime soon, but we could help the people we came into contact with on a daily basis.

As evidence of this and to really show what I mean, this was left on Jean’s remembrance page.  I am sure there are many, many more examples of her true kindness, Jean’s sense of giving and reaching out:

David, John, Marianne, & Connie…so sorry for your loss. I have such fond memories of many times spent with your mother many years ago. But most of all, I am so grateful to her for giving me the first book that I actually read from cover to cover. If she hadn’t given that to me, I would not be the avid reader that I am today. My thoughts & prayers…
Joseph Zawko, Bear River, NS

5.  Oh Claire, come on in, but don’t look at this house

First of all Jean’s house was immaculate.  Second of all, it was beautiful. I remember bringing my husband over for a visit in circa 2003 and saying, “Wow everything is just as I remember it.”  There were touches of blue everywhere and it was set among large trees and a beautiful garden.  At Christmas, every window had a candle.  It truly enchanted me and nothing was ever out-of-place.

But the best part of those words were Come on in.  Jean was exuberant with her enthusiasm for seeing people and she always welcomed me, and many others, into her lovely home…it was wonderful.  Every time my husband and I left her company, my husband would say, something “She is really a joyful person, what a great spirit.”

6.  Oh, don’t worry about it, you have just had a cat fight.

One day, I burst into Jean’s house after a fight at work, and she just put it all in perspective.  Cats…lots of snarling, not much damage, usually.

7.  Come on in and let me get you some Tea or something…

When Jean died last year, I felt sucker punched when I got home from her funeral. The funeral was just beautiful and yet I felt so sad.  I put on my pjs and went to bed at 3 in the afternoon.  But, as I drifted off to sleep, I kept seeing her, standing over a bin of Country Living magazines, saying, “Oh, come on, its ok, have a cup of Tea.”  Unlike, other passages I have experienced, I felt so much peace.

8. Well, think about it, I’m 60 plus, my whole life, it was about what is next:  marriage, kids, grand-kids, and now, the next phase, the end.  Think about it!

Jean actually told me this the summer of our many talks, circa 1990.  She had a long time to prepare but when she was 80, she wrote me and said, I am not slowing down and I don’t intend to either.  Well into her 80s, I remember her saying in a phone conversation, “Well I’m so mad, I wanted to make a St. Patty’s Day dinner for Mike and Marianne and I can’t do it!”

9. What about you?

Yes, what about me…I was always worried about everyone…such a girl thing, and I must admit, a Claire thing.  Often, in the center of some long diatribe where I would be going on about one thing or another, and this person’s needs and that person’s feelings, Jean would interrupt and say, “Well, what about you?”

I know I was raised during the Me generation, but honestly, it was a good lesson.  And still is, for any woman who thinks the world just might fall apart without her.

10.  It is very sad and very bad, but, you can not, you must not, let this ruin your life.

This was in response to a break up of sorts, a parting of the ways shall we say.  But words I have chosen to live by and hear more frequently than I can say to anyone.

So here is to you Jean, to the wisdom you passed on to me, and to whatever we can all do to make someone’s life a little brighter.  It may make all the difference!

Jean loved Blue, so here is a photo Jean just for you!