Friday, October 26, 2007

In which I play my mother and Jethro plays me.

I got lost at Language Log for about 45 minutes just now, on my way to writing this post.

Alma, a friend from the Caray, Caray! blog, had commented on yesterday's post: "To greatly maim the old saying... you can lead a donkey away from water, but you can't make him think."

Language Log has a thing for snowclones (term coined from this example: "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z") - here's a compendium of posts on the phenomenon.

I figured You can W an X to Y but you can't make him Z was surely a famous snowclone - but I didn't find it because I got distracted by their many learned commentaries on lolcat captions.

Anyway, Alma was right: I could lead my donkey Jethro to his shed but I couldn't make him go into it.

In fact, I X my donkey to Y but can't make him Z many times every day.

It was easier raising my children; they were reasonable individuals. I, however, was a child more like Jethro. Some would say I still am.

My mother used to scream in exasperation: "All I wish for you is that some day your children treat you the way you treat me." It finally happened.

Example: Melinama, maybe seven years old, is a fairly picky eater. A parent has put blueberries on Melinama's cereal. Melinama has noticed the blueberries' slightly softened, wizened condition and concluded that they are past their sell-by date by an unacceptable margin. She refuses to eat them.

The thrifty parent says the blueberries are not to be wasted and must be consumed by Melinama, who refuses. The parent says Melinama will not leave the table until the blueberries are eaten. Melinama holds her ground. The parent hovers - the world is waiting, but at the table time stands still. Melinama is just a kid and doesn't have much of anything better to do than refuse to eat the blueberries. The parent has lots of things to do.

The parent is getting impatient and suggests, "OK, just two bites." No, not even one bite. To cut a very long story short, I remember young Melinama eventually ending up with her back against the wall, parent in front of her with wizened blueberries in a spoon extended towards Melinama's closed mouth. At that moment, this was her (my) revolutionary thought: "Gee, that parent looks stupid standing in front of me with that spoon, and I am winning."

During my own parenting years, the rule I extrapolated from that episode was: "Never issue an ultimatum unless you are very, very sure you can win."

It appears I violate this rule constantly with my donkey.

Yesterday morning Jethro was a paragon. He was affectionate, he happily let me put his haltar and lead rope on him, we walked all the way to the railroad tracks and back and then several times down the driveway to the deerfence, through the deerfence to the road, and back again. He showed off his ability to go right and left and even STOP. He even let me pick up his feet! You're supposed to clean a donkey's feet every day, but you can't do it if you can't pick up his feet.

He was attentive and happy and obedient. I thought, "We're a team! I can do this!" I envisioned happy walks every morning, going farther and farther...

Then it started raining. Donkeys hate rain. He stood in his shed, of his own free will (so, see, he learned!), and stared out discontentedly.

I'm trying to recall how everything then went so wrong... well, it stopped raining and I thought, maybe I'll try using the hoofpick for the first time! I'd seen muddy crud under those hooves when I picked them up and was feeling guilty and worried that he's been here two weeks and nobody's cleaned his feet...

He was still in a bad mood. I wandered after him across the greensward in recommended non-confrontative style, halter casually in my hand. He would have none of it. I wandered and wandered, and he wandered and wandered just out of reach. So he wandered into the round pen and so did I - and I closed the gate behind us.

This was an escalation and he knew it - he got more annoyed and swiveled to present his butt to me, the more readily to kick me should I approach.

(Difference between Melinama as an aggrieved seven-year-old and Jethro as an aggrieved three-year-old - about 500 pounds and four sharp hooves.)

My mother quoted Haim Ginott to me frequently when I was small. Even then I knew she must be twisting his words to fit her agenda. Therefore I won't blame him for the things she did - just now I looked him up and found the following, which certainly makes sense.

I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Between Teacher and Child

So, here we are, Jethro standing with his butt towards me, ready to wait all day, me standing at a respectful distance from his shoulder, holding the halter, wondering what to do next.
  • The "Tough Love" school of donkey training is espoused by Craig, his previous owner. Craig's advice: "He needs to be, not manhandled exactly, but shown who's boss. He's pretty full of himself." The farrier I called said the same thing: "He needs to know you are in charge."

  • However, there is the "Donkeys Have Long Memories And Will Eventually Pay You Back" school too. Using this method, everything is a partnership between donkey and owner. No forcing, no whipping, just calm encouragement and positive reinforcement.
When my mother was raising me, Dr. Spock and Haim Ginott were warning parents to be understanding and patient. (That wasn't going to happen with us, though, because she was a narcissist and an alcoholic.)

My Pennsylvania Dutch father had other ideas. He and his father and forefathers were regularly beaten with sticks and whipped with leather straps to keep them in line.

OK, getting back to Jethro. Tough Love says I shouldn't back down - if I let him out of the pen now without having succeeded with the halter, he'll learn that holding out and turning his back to me is the way to go. Patience and Understanding says I can't muscle him into doing what I want - and the fact is, I couldn't even if I wanted to.

It was getting later and later. I had to go to Yiddish class and it was raining again and his dinner was down in the shed. And he kept swiveling his rump toward me.

I left for class, fuming and wondering what to do. When I got home, I went out with a flashlight and put some hay in his pen. (Like getting a snack later when you've been sent to bed without supper?)

This morning, before it was light and before he'd started braying - yesterday I got an email from next door with subject line "Noisy Neighbor" - I went out with the flashlight and some apple quarters, let him out of the pen, and led him via apples to the shed. He's there now, eating. And I've gone back to bed - it's still raining - to muse over this episode.

Preliminary conclusion: it was wet and he was in a bad mood. I'll try again when it stops raining.

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At 11:30 AM, Blogger Alma said...

Great Story, Malinama!

The quote is very practical. I think I'll keep it in my wallet.

And, hey, on the bright side -- IT'S RAINING! WOOOHOOOO!

At 10:11 PM, Anonymous susanlynn said...

Every teacher should have Ginott's words framed on his/her desk. I will print out copies for my daughter, son-in-law , and myself. Hang in there, Melinama. I'm sure that you and Jethro will reach an understanding. Keep us posted. I look forward to your adventures with livestock.


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