Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dealing with a Train Wreck

Reflections by Brother Luke

Our married community, the Companions of New Skete, back in the 1990s, decided to start a dog biscuit business to help support their monastery. Brother Elias created the recipe for the biscuits. This was truly a cottage industry, since all the work was done in the Companions’ residence. They purchased all the ingredients for the recipe, mixed them together and made the dough, rolled it out, and used dog-biscuit-shaped hand cookie cutters to cut out each individual biscuit and place it on large cookie sheets. But that was not all; they also made an egg white wash that they applied to each biscuit with basting brushes. Of course, they also purchased convection ovens to bake the biscuits. The business grew, but it reached a point where they could not keep up with orders.

At this time the monks had come to the conclusion that we could not keep up with the sausage-making business, so we thought we could replace that with dog biscuit production. We purchased a large convection oven and initially used the hand cookie cutters and a hand roller that the Companions had purchased to improve efficiency. In time we realized that the operation was still slow, so Brother Elias began looking for a machine that would cut the biscuits more quickly. He found one in Cleveland but decided he should go look at it before making a decision to buy it. It was winter, and Brother Elias took the train to Cleveland. Unfortunately, a major snowstorm hit and covered the tracks with snow.  Part of the train went off the track and caused a huge delay. Brother Elias finally reached his destination, checked out the cutter and decided it would work for us, placed the order, and returned. No train wreck on the return trip!

            Many years later we reached the same conclusion as the Companions. We had hit the upper limit of our production and could not expand the business any further without outside help. So Brother Elias searched for a company to take this on. He found one, and for many years they produced the biscuits for us, slightly revising the recipe so that it would work in their baking equipment. However, they ran into the opposite problem. They were not as successful as they had hoped in growing the business, and their minimum production runs were larger than demand, so they finally gave it up. We are now back at the cottage industry level, although having sold all our biscuit-making equipment, including the oven, we have teamed up with another baker who bakes the biscuits for us, using Brother Elias’ original recipe and doing all the work by hand. We handle all the distribution. So we have basically come around full circle to the initial cottage industry created by the Companions.

            Coming full circle happened in another area too.  After our Abbot retired in 2000, many aspects of our life were “on the table,” as it were, open for discussion, including our refectory tables. Virtually from the beginning, the arrangement for the refectory tables had been in a horseshoe shape, with the top of the horseshoe formed by the head table, where the Abbot sat. The rest of the brothers and guests were positioned around the Abbot. Each week the brothers shifted one position to the right in a continuing rotation around the Abbot. We also had cloth napkins and wooden napkin rings with each brother’s initials on his ring. Dinner was delivered to the table and served by the cooks.

Without an Abbot, I as the locum tenens at the time did not have any desire to sit at the “head” of the table. We also decided to switch from the practice of being served to serving ourselves at a buffet table and taking the food to our own seats. But soon, the brothers began to question even the arrangement of the tables. So we decided to try other arrangements. We removed the horseshoe end table and set the tables up in rows. That didn’t seem right, so we put the tables together two by two in separate units. Again that didn’t work. Then we tried putting all the tables together to make one big table. Exasperated, Brother James said it looked like a train wreck! So we then decided to make one large rectangle.

The rectangle arrangement survived for many years. But we noticed that we had a lot of unused space in the middle, and we had lost the space outside the tables where we put our dogs on down stay during meals. So just a few years ago we put the tables back into their original horseshoe arrangement, but without returning to the rigid requirement of the superior at the head and everyone else in assigned seats rotating around the superior. So, we had come full circle. But that was OK. Sometimes it is good to try new things to see what the other possibilities are. If, in the end, the original idea still seems to be best, then you use it without embarrassment, knowing that you had the freedom to try other options. This was just another example of the community working through an issue as a group rather than expecting such changes to be decided by an individual.

A Reflection on the Monk as Rock Star (On the Occasion of our Fifth Dog Seminar)

By Brother David

When a trainer friend of ours, Marc Goldberg, suggested that we could hold a successful dog seminar, well, we didn’t believe him. OK, we laughed at the idea because we didn’t believe him. “Who would come?” we exclaimed. Then he laughed, “You don’t know? In the world of dogs, you guys are rock stars!”

Ummm… rock stars?

Anyway, we had the seminar. And it was a success, with the gracious help of Ida and Karen and Scott and Josh and Michael and Scott and Lisa as well as all the volunteers who helped make our guests feel welcome and kept the train of the seminar running smoothly on the rails. Brother Christopher’s talks on the human–canine relationship and the spirituality of working with dogs, Brother Marc’s session on New Skete’s history, Brother Luke’s presentation on his experience of dogs here at New Skete and what his dogs taught him, as well as my sessions on puppy socialization and the rationale for purebred dogs were all well received. Each of the seminars—and there have been five—have been pretty much filled to capacity, with very little promotion.

     It has not been unusual to have several trainers as well as a few breeders in the seminars. (Sometimes that can be a bit intimidating for me.) We’ve even had one person, Judith, who has attended the seminar once each year we’ve done them and who says that she gets something new each time. But regardless of profession or inclination, all of us in the seminar are dog lovers and want to improve our relationships with our dogs. We are grateful for all the people who have come to these events and are even more grateful for the friendships and relationships that have grown out of the seminars. We are grateful that the message and knowledge that we are able to offer are useful and inspiring, and we are also grateful when the attendees share in our worship.
This year we were able to hold both iterations of the seminar in our new training facility. The conference room is a great size for the approximately 45 people (plus presenter and occasional dog) in attendance. It is also air conditioned—a real plus, given the heat and humidity here in July. And, no, it didn’t help when people from Texas said, “Compared to Texas this is nothing!” It’s still hot and muggy, and the air conditioning is welcome.

On Friday and Saturday night we also had dinner with those who chose that option. It gave us a chance to get up close and personal with some of the attendees—although I’ve been told that it was to give the attendees a chance to get up close and personal with us. Whatever.

And with all this, I keep coming back to that statement, “You guys are rock stars.”

Glitz and glamour. Trashed hotel rooms and smashed guitars. Ray-Bans and Ferraris. Hangovers and overdoses. Roadies and groupies. Fame. Infamy. Rock stars. I am not a rock star, but thanks for the compliment—I think.

But the fact that this statement has stayed with me so strongly told me that this was a word to be pondered. A hard saying that might have come from a desert elder in the fourth or fifth century. So I pondered. I also started listening to a lot of rock and alternative music again: Bruce Springsteen, John Mayer, Snow Patrol, LOTS of Pink Floyd, The Who, Kansas, Metallica, Radiohead, Steeleye Span, Rob Thomas, Matchbox 20, Chemical Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Astral Projection, The Alan Parsons Project, Soul Coughing, Warren Zevon, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton… a lot of rock and alternative music. Don’t get me wrong: I like rock and alternative music; I’ve always liked rock and alternative music. What I mean is that I started listening to rock music the same way that I listen to Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Hovhaness, Busoni, or Ligeti. I started listening to technique and virtuosity. I started listening for unique tonalities and counterpoint. I started listening for the surprises—those moments that catch you all unawares.

One day I heard something in Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” that I’d never noticed before. “Dust in the Wind” is an amazing, albeit short, meditation on Ecclesiastes. After a short string interlude, the lyrics resume with “Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky…” and the “now” is not sung but spoken. Spoken. It catches you, stops you in your tracks: it’s a moment of genius.

Another surprise is a 96-second instrumental piece, “The Great Collapse,” by Shadows Fall. It feels like a haiku in musical form: a simple, beautiful statement with virtually no elaboration.

But performance requires performers. Singers like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith who has an astonishing range and perfect pitch, guitarists like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and drummers like Van Halen’s Alex Van Halen and Rush’s Neil Peart all work hard: they practice, study, observe other musicians, and learn from them.  They are consummate musicians on a par with pianists like Mitsuko Uchida and Evgeny Kissin.

And I started thinking: we’ve been working in some capacity with dogs from our beginnings in 1966 (the Rolling Stones were founded in 1962—isn’t that a scary thought!). We read and study about training, behavior, breeding, and genetics, among other things. We observe our dogs and the dogs entrusted to us to understand them better and to be more effective. We’ve learned a lot and still learn a lot from other trainers and dog professionals. We practice training: how to move with a dog, how to motivate a dog. We have developed expertise and technique. And there are many breeders, trainers, and other dog professionals who do the same. In fact, I’d suggest that to be a successful trainer or breeder, it’s pretty much required that one practice and study, observe and learn.

“You guys are rock stars.”
I remember my first encounters with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Three Dog Night. I remember hearing the Doors for the first time. Each time I listened, I heard something new, something “first time,” something unique to this performer or that group. And I was inspired. My life was made better. Each of these musicians brought me—us—a gift. The thing about this kind of gift is that it’s not something that can be manufactured. Rather, the gift is the gift of the self: an outpouring of what is seen and experienced by this person. The gift is honed and polished and, like a gem stone, may be placed in an ornate setting, but it is not about the setting, the show: without good music, shows are perhaps entertaining but not memorable, not life changing. It’s always about the gift and the sharing of the gift and the reception of the gift.

Perhaps our gift is that we stop and point to the normally unremarked and unremarkable; perhaps it’s that we speak about dogs and training from a perspective of spirituality: God is never far from what we are saying. Perhaps—but not necessarily, because the gift that is offered is not always the gift that is received. Now, I don’t find this, in and of itself, to be remarkable; there are a lot of holy men and women who train and work with dogs and, given that we are monks who work with dogs, you’d expect that God wouldn’t be far from anything that we are doing. But we’ve been doing this for a long time—almost as long as the Rolling Stones have been in existence—and, for some reason, our vision has spoken to many people over the years, so much so that we have inspired some people to become trainers themselves. Perhaps whatever the gift is that we present, that gift is broad enough, multifaceted enough, that many people can draw many things from it—things that we’d never consider contained within what we are able to offer.

And we are famous. I have autographed copies of our books at the BWI airport in Washington and Midway airport in Chicago while waiting for connecting flights when in casual conversation the subject of employment comes up:

“And what do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a monk.”

“Oh, how interesting. Where?”

“A little monastery in upstate New York called New Skete.”

“What? Really? I can’t wait to tell my wife/husband/kids/friends that I actually met one of the Monks of New Skete! Would you sign my book? I love In the Spirit of Happiness/How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend/The Art of Raising a Puppy!”

“You have a copy of our book with you? Wow.”

We are famous enough to have detractors: there are people who don’t like what we do or the amount of influence we have had over the years. There are people who don’t like the Beatles or Shadows Fall or Kurt Cobain, either.

Of course, it still never fails to astonish me when someone at a seminar thanks me for an insight occasioned by some comment that I make on puppy socialization or predatory motor sequences, or for the insight into our mindset occasioned by Brother Marc’s presentation on our history. Even more, I’m still always caught up short by those chance encounters wherein people tell me about how, because of us, they could keep their dog or how their life was changed by our witness and work.  I murmur a sincere “thank you” both to the person and to God, who took all our work and thought and training and brought it to this moment of inspiration and aid for those people. Then I smile, slip on my (metaphorical) Ray-Bans, get in my (imaginary) Ferrari, and head down to the kennel to feed the dogs.

We are rock stars.