June Cleave and the Toothbrush Painting

My mother mentioned yesterday that June Cleave had died.

June — Mrs. Cleave to me — was a grade one teacher at Balaclava Elementary School which I attended for grades 2 and 3. She was never my teacher, but she taught all of my little brothers.

Which is not to say that she didn’t touch my life: I was in Ms. Abrams class in grade 2 and, one day, our art activity was to make “toothbrush paintings”: take an old toothbrush, dip it in paint, and spritz the paint onto paper making an interesting-looking patterns.

Except that, for me, the notion of mixing toothbrushes, clearly intended for brushing your teeth and painting, clearly nothing to do with brushing your teeth was anathema.

I refused.

And refused.

Feet may have been stamped.

And thus I was placed at a desk in the hall as punishment (that’s how schools rolled in the 1970s).

Mrs. Cleave, bless her heart, happened to walk by while I was in toothbrush prison, and she took a moment to ask what was happening, and spoke to me like a real person and acknowledged that yes, perhaps the notion of toothbrush painting might actually be distressing. She wasn’t a rebel, she didn’t try and bust me out nor break ranks with her fellow teacher, but she showed compassion when compassion was needed.

It was one of those seemingly-insignificant little moments that stick with you, and it’s an episode that I return to often in my idle moments: every interaction matters, and when you can extend a hand, you should.


Meet, Ethan, Oliver’s dog guide:


He came into our life pretty much as we were told: we waited in our room in nervous anticipation, there was a knock, we opened the door, and there he was, a lanky, cuddly (yes, I am the kind of guy who uses the word “cuddly” now), super-smart Standard Poodle. Cream, technically, but given his close-cropped cut, a pinky-white when you see him.

Yesterday was taken up exclusively with getting-to-know-each-other activities. We learned how to give commands – including, given his eventual duties with Oliver, the need to “stay” at every door opening and at the top of every staircase and wait until “forward” – and how much and how often to feed him and give him water, and how he should behave when he’s “on duty” (wearing his vest) and “off duty” (at home). And we got to experience the joys of hanging out in the central peeing facility (yes, there is a central peeing facility).

We even got to experience our first bout of “actually, no, you can’t pet him” when my brother Mike, bless him for being the first, dropped Catherine off after her brief sojourn into Burlington to see Oliver and my family.

That, “no, you can’t pet him” (or play with him, or let him sniff your hand, or pat him on the head, or give him commands, or give him treats, or, well, anything) will, I think, be the hardest part of life with Ethan. He is, fundamentally, a working dog: his job is to be an important part of Oliver’s life, a sort of emotional prosthetic device. Catherine and I are his handlers, Oliver is his client, so to speak, and the rest of you, well, you don’t factor into the equation.

On one level this is really a shame, as he really is — you’ll have to take my word for it — a super-affectionate “let me nuzzle my snout into your armpit” dog. And he’s allowed to nuzzle his snout into my armpit because when he’s off duty an inside our house, he’s still, after all, a dog. But this arrangement is the only way that he can be effective with Oliver: if he’s forming bonds with y’all, this isn’t going to work as it’s supposed to.  So, in advance, sorry.

Today is my last day here in Oakville – I’m back to Burlington tonight to pick up Oliver and head into the city tomorrow for our quick vacation. I didn’t anticipate that I would regret this decision. Not the decision to rejoin Oliver, but the one to leave Ethan. Who ever thought I would actually like him. Miss him, even.

Wonders, it seems, will never cease.


Eurostar? Elbo? Endrefalva?

Today was our second day at dog camp (huh?).

I slept a fitful night last night, partly from pre-dog-anxiety, partly because our misunderstanding of the in-room heating unit caused our room temperature to fluctuate between 10ºC and 35ºC. Needless to say, when an opportunity came to cut my losses at 6:00 a.m. I jumped at it, bustled myself out of the room and headed across the long, dark, cold bridge to downtown Oakville to fetch coffee from Starbucks, the only place open at that early hour.

I was back at dog HQ in plenty of time for breakfast, and the formal training sessions started up, on the dot, at 9:00 a.m.

Today we covered a lot of ground – starting with how dogs think, how our dog will fit into our family and our everyday life, and, in the afternoon, running through the commands that our dog guides have been trained to respond to (stay, forward, down, off, hugs, etc.), and running some practical exercises, first with each other and later with real dogs (stand-in veterans, not ours).

Along the way I fell hard for an espresso-coloured retired service dog, a poodle named Greta, who kept me entertained for a good chunk of the afternoon bringing me an orange ball to throw for her. Any misgivings I had about the poodle kingdom were set aside, as Greta proved to be everything a lab or golden retriever is, but with moxie and a Yoda-like intelligence. It was a good corner-turn at the right moment, given that we’ll become poodle-handlers starting tomorrow.

The “what is our dog’s colour and name” mystery has turned into a fun game between our trainers, who both know, and we handlers-to-be, who don’t. I’m sure there are pedagogical reasons for this — although what they are eludes me. Perhaps it’s simply to keep us focused? In any case, it’s something we don’t learn until tomorrow.

But cracks in the armour have appeared: today one of our number wondered out loud whether at least the genders and first letters of the names might be revealed, and this proposition was accepted, which is how we came to know that the dog that we will meet tomorrow with be a male Standard Poodle with a name starting with the letter ‘E’. Immediate tinder for the imagination: my brother Steve alone came up with (via Twitter) Ephram, Esteban, Excelsior, Evan, Edgar, and Etienne all within a couple of minutes (I later learned that none of these is it).

So we have another night to let visions of a Dog Named Eggroll™ dance in our heads. And then, the story goes, sometime tomorrow we will all be ushered back to our rooms to wait for Ehud, Esmé or Ernie, along with his trainer, to come calling. Introductions will be made, and then we’ll be left to get to know each other for a while before reconvening for some serious heel, stay, down, off, hugs action.

From that point on, our dogs are under our care, 24/7. They sleep in our room. We feed them. We groom them. They come with us to breakfast. Just like real life. Which is the point.

After I cut outta here on Saturday afternoon, Catherine’s got five more days of acclimation left: there will be visits to the mall and to Tim Hortons, discussions of escalators and elevators and international travel, and much opportunity for bonding.

In the meantime, watch this space for the letter E to turn into a fully-fledged name.

Oh, and here’s a picture of Greta, not our dog, but a grand dog nonetheless:

Not Our Dog

Life Inside Dog Camp, Day One

As I type I am sitting in the spacious cafeteria of the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides training centre in the heart of Oakville, Ontario. A blizzard rages outside and, although we’re not to be paired with our dog until Friday, the sounds of dogs resonate through the halls. In the guide dog world, this is Graceland.

My day started at the crack of dawn.

“Peter, Peter?” I heard my Dad saying as I groggily tried to understand why my father was waking me up (and where exactly I was).

Oliver was still asleep on the couch upstairs as I padded my way around my parents’ new house – an odd experience in itself, as it’s the same stage set, but struck and relocated to a new theatre. We flew in last night on the WestJet, beating the weather, and Catherine, by 24 hours.

A quick breakfast, some final goodbyes to Oliver, who’s staying until I pick him up on Saturday, and my mother, and I was off with my Dad to the Burlington GO Train station: memories of when that same trip was part of my daily commute to Toronto, after high school and before college, when I held down several volunteer jobs in the city.

A quick GO train into Toronto, and walk through the underground city and I found my old friend Oliver Baker waiting for me, as scheduled, at Dineen Coffee on Yonge Street. Oliver and I found ourselves converged on Toronto from opposite coasts almost by accident, and quickly arranged to meet up, as we hadn’t seen each other for several years, and there was much to be said.

And much was said. Some coffee drunk. Lunch had. All against the backdrop of the frenetic pace of Toronto’s financial district. Which made me fell like I hail from a different century. Oliver piled me back onto the GO train, aforementioned blizzard now in full force, and after a brief misunderstanding of the compass (Lakeshore East vs. Lakeshore West) that almost ended me up in Oshawa, I was speeding west on the 13:43 to Oakville.

When I arrived in Oakville, blizzard still raging, I set about trying to find a cab. Except that in the place where a cab should have been was a minivan with ‘Dog Guides” on the side. I knocked on the window.

“You’re not here for me, but if you’re going my way, I’ll hitch a ride!”,  I exclaimed.

The driver was game, and after a couple of others — the intended riders — showed up, we made our way to the training centre.

Catherine, meanwhile, having flown in from the Island this morning, was making her way in another dog guides van from Pearson Airport. We arrived within 30 minutes of each other.

The facility here is frighteningly well-organized and appointed: it’s basically a college campus, with hotel-like rooms, a cafeteria, classrooms, a lounge, and lots and lots (and lots) of dogs. All set in leafy neighbourhood in the centre of Oakville.

We are one of 8 families here to be outfitted with autism assistance dogs. I’m the only father in the bunch.

As you might imagine, a lot of the ice-breaking getting-to-know-you talk concerned our kids, and the ups and downs and sideways of raising kids on the autism spectrum. For us this is novel, as we’re not really members of a greater community of parents like this in PEI; partly it’s really great — lots of “wow, your kid does that too!” revelations and the like. And partly it’s a little exhausting as, hey, who wants to talk about autism all the time anyway.

Fortunately I expect the talk will turn more to the ins and outs of dogs when formal classes start tomorrow morning and with luck we will all emerge as complete well-rounded people.

The only formal activity today, other than check-in and room assignment, was signing all the disclaimers and waivers, reviewing the rules (no alcohol, no noise after 10, sign in and sign out when you leave and come back, don’t swear) and sharing a first meal with our group and our trainer.

If you can imagine a summer camp. But in the winter. With dogs. And where everyone has a kid on the autism spectrum. Then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what we’re starting off on.

Just now an errant black lab escaped from its brief furlough in the snow and ran around the cafeteria. Dog was called, dog ran back, calm returned.

Tomorrow morning our alarm is set for 7:00 a.m., breakfast is at 8:00 a.m. (don’t be late, says the guide), and at 9:00 a.m. we convene in the board room and the adventure begins.

Dog Bowls

PEI2014: The Island Web at 20

In addition to the other hullabaloo, 2014 almost marks the 20th anniversary of the first Prince Edward Island website, one I was happy to midwife during my tenure at the PEI Crafts Council from 1993 to 1994.

The site – www.crafts-council.pe.ca – isn’t around any longer (although its descendant is) and it’s old enough that’s it’s not even archives in the Wayback Machine. It went live on July 7, 1994, announced with a press release sent out, among other destinations, to Usenet, where it remains archived for posterity. My favourite part of that press release is “For additional information on the World Wide Web, contact Tim Berners-Lee at the European Labratory for Particle Physics.”

The site itself was running on an IBM-PC sitting on my desk at 156 Richmond Street in Charlottetown. It was running Linux, and was connected to the Internet via two 14.4 kbps modems, one on eash end of a leased Island Tel copper circuit, with the other end at PEINet on Kent Street across from the fire hall. That’s about 1500 times less bandwidth than I have running into my office now, but it did the job. And people visited: as I related in a speech in Newfoundland later that year:

And then I took our old MS-DOS database files, massaged them a bit, wrote some programs under UNIX to allow them to be searched, and plugged our Gopher and World Wide Web servers in.

I put notices up in the various crafts related newsgroups and got us listed in the InterNIC and Gopher jewels directories, wrote a short FAQ file about how to get to us, and opened the door.

Since we went “live” on July 11, we’ve averaged about 300 Gopher hits a day, with about half as many Web hits. Roughly 1500 people have searched our database which, if your extrapolate out over a year at the same level of usage, would mean 9000 searches a year and a cost to us of just over $2 a search.

While the Crafts Council website didn’t last much longer than my time with the organization, the investment in that project – from the provincial and federal governments and from CANARIE – paid off: I took the skills I developed there and applied them to creating a website for the Province of PEI, a project that I remained with for 8 years, and they are, fundamentally, the skills I use in my job every day.

While this PEI2014 doesn’t have a logo nor a Shania Twain concert to its name, I think it’s worthy of marking nonetheless: come July maybe I’ll track down Kevin O’Brien and Jim Hancock and Dave Cairns and Bob Horobin and Earlene Gallant and Scott Fletcher and Irene Renaud and everyone else who helped make it happen and we’ll toast the memory of the little website that did.