Cruising to fifty, part six: The Parthenon, pooches and protective birds

This is the sixth part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October. You can read the others here:
part one | part two | part three | part four | part five

A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.


Yugo to Slavia
Half past Armenia
Down and towards the Med
Left side of Turkey
Nowhere near Fiji
You will find Greece

You may Athena
Handed on Plato
Hole in my Socrates
I came Acropolis
On Monty Pythagoras
Ulysses Greece

Greece – George Harrison

October 10

Today we visit Athens, a city that’s over 6000 years old. Stop and think about that for a second, six thousand years old. Incredible. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, with about four million people living there, and it’s named after Athena, the goddess of education and wisdom.

Unfortunately, while parts of the day were among the best of the trip, overall, I found myself incredibly disappointed with the current state of this historic city. Granted, this is an outsider’s opinion based on very few hours in the city, but it struck me as very poor and very crowded. Most larger cities have a rough area of town, but it seemed that the rough area of Athens was…well, all of Athens.Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 1077

Of course, Greece is going through a terrible time economically, and that likely is where much of this comes from, but it was heartbreaking to see such beautiful buildings and monuments covered with abandoned scaffolding from failed reconstructions, and graffiti, and overall, a patina of dirt and disrepair.

This is a crappy shot, but it gives you a sense of the prevalence of the graffiti

This is a crappy shot, but it gives you a sense of the prevalence of the graffiti

The graffiti was the most disconcerting. Apparently the day before, there had been a massive demonstration in the streets, so much of the graffiti was fresh, and much of it was in the native Greek language, but what I saw was unsettling. “Wake up!” and “Capitalism is killing you. Fascism is not the answer”, and, perhaps most disturbing, “Devil will come.”

Devil will come

Devil will come

However, if you looked past all that, you still saw smiling faces and beauty underneath the dirty, despoiled facades.

The other thing that becomes immediately apparent is the insanity of the drivers. I swear, they were either the most skilled drivers in the world, or the most crazy, though, to be honest, I’m leaning toward the latter. And this includes the bus driver that took us where we needed to go. And I don’t think there are any parking laws that are actually enforced. We saw No Parking signs everywhere, but we also saw cars parked under every one of them, in the most inconvenient of places. In one case, we saw a narrow street lined both with No Parking signs, and parked cars up and down both sides. Then, because all the (non)parking spots were taken, two or three more cars simply parked right in the middle of the street, rendering it virtually impassable from either direction. We could only shake our heads in wonder.

Greek parking at its finest. Note the No Parking sign at the left of the picture.

Greek parking at its finest. Note the No Parking sign at the left of the picture.

Right in the middle of Athens, high on a hill, was our destination. The Acropolis, literally Akro, the highest place, and Polis, the place of rule. When the bus offloaded us and we were preparing to climb to the top, I can’t tell you how excited I was. I was bubbling, I was vibrating. This was a once in a lifetime thrill for me. I’m not sure if Karen was more excited to see the Parthenon, or to see my reactions as we climbed.

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It was hard to get a good shot of this, but it's an outdoor theatre. Apparently Sting played there.

It was hard to get a good shot of this, but it’s an outdoor theatre. Apparently Sting played there.

The path to the top was all rough-hewn stone, very uneven, yet very smooth from the thousands of years and millions of feet that crossed them. I can’t stress how uneven the stone was. We literally had to watch each step along the way, and hold each others’ hands to prevent a fall. We saw one man step sideways, hit a calf-high wall, and tumble over it. The worst part was the area that he fell to was at least three feet lower. He hit hard. I can’t believe he didn’t break a bone or two, but he got up, brushed himself off and kept on going.

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All of it was incredible, all the way up, but I can say with all honestly, the first close-up viewing of the Parthenon, as we got to the top, was absolutely, literally breath-taking. I felt the air leave my lungs and it was like I forgot to breathe again. It was that powerful. No picture will ever do it justice. This was the first time I’d ever stood in a spot of historical significance and felt its weight and power. It was a living thing, and it was something I could only stop and allow to pass through me.

I know there's been a lot of these shots, but this is likely my favourite of the entire cruise.

I know there’s been a lot of these shots, but this is likely my favourite of the entire cruise.

Studying the ancient architecture, seeing those massive blocks of stone, so intricately carved, and understanding that this place was designed and carved and built, not by labourers, but by Artists. And I don’t mean artists. I mean Artists.

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I'm on top of the world

I’m on top of the world

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And then it struck me that it was also built on the backs of sheer manpower. No throbbing engines driving cranes. No glass and steel. Men and stone.

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Then, finally, to consider that, more than three thousand years after it was built, surviving all that time, and here were Karen and I, visiting it. They built something thousands of years ago that we could still experience.

It was a humbling experience.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 559 Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 593Now, sections of the Parthenon are being restored and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’m happy with that. Yes, they are taking pains to match it, but still… I understand it’s to save it for future generations, but much of its power comes from what it is, not what it is from restoration.

You can see some of the reconstruction in these shots.

You can see some of the reconstruction in these shots.

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Anyway, there are massive sections of stone that have been carefully removed and set aside to be eventually returned and placed in their original spots. Stone is everywhere. Scaffolding is everywhere. People are everywhere.

And dogs are everywhere.

Apparently Athens looks after its stray dogs, spaying and neutering them as well as feeding them. There’s a lot, and every one of them seems to absolutely crave attention. So, as incredible as the Acropolis was, I couldn’t resist making friends. There was one dog, big, white and fluffy, that just melted my heart. I pet her and made all those stupid noises I make when I converse with canines. Karen looked at me and said, “Seriously? We travel 4000 miles, climb the Acropolis, and you’re playing with a dog?”

I just said, “Well…yeah.”

She was waving me on. By this time, the dog had dropped to the ground and let me scratch her head and back. A crowd of about fifteen Asian tourists had encircled the two of us and were smiling, pointing and taking pictures. Somehow, I had become a tourist attraction at the top of the Acropolis. Me and my adopted dog. “Okay, pooch,” I said. “I gotta go now.” At which point, she broke out the heavy artillery. She promptly flipped over to her back and looked at me with her head upside down on the ground.

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Seriously, how can you not go back and rub that belly?

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Various views of Athens from the Acropolis

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Eventually I tore myself away. We made our way back down the hill and got back on the bus and waited for further driving shenanigans. We were not disappointed. Several times, I knew we were within a few microns of another vehicle, because Karen would reach over, grab my leg, and dig her fingers in  to the meat of my thigh. When I looked over, her eyes would be wide and her mouth would be dragged down in a we ain’t gettin’ out of this alive frown.

At one point, the bus driver decided we were going in the wrong direction (I’m assuming) because he decided to block at least six lanes of traffic by pulling a U-turn on a rush hour-busy street. All we could do was laugh. Nervously.

On the way back to the ship, it again saddened and frustrated me to see the graffiti, even at the base of the Acropolis, but thankfully, none at the top. I guess it’s the disrespect for those who came before and created something that would last. Not something to be spray painted on, a canvas for political messages and dire warnings.

Then again, seeing the city and hearing some of what’s going on, it seems there is a growing and almost disdainful disregard for most of their history. Glass and steel boxes shine while stunning old buildings fall to disrepair, victims for the paint of the youth with their vacuous and impertinent messages. Yes, it’s the job of the youth to question what came before, to push against it, but there’s also a time to respect it.

The tour guide spoke of the new upgrades to the subway system, now in its 17th year because they run into artifacts of archeological importance. Apparently, even with these findings, they’ve decided in the interest of expedience, to ignore the finds and press on. And yet, every stop we made was the city trading on its history. It’s pushing into the future and forgetting its past, turning it into a cheap commodity to be sold to the masses.

Athens, to me, though beautiful in spots, is a sad place. I can’t see how this city, historically one of the most important in the world, can ever find that balance between past and present and find its way to greatness again.

But I digress. Our bus driver has to be credited. With all the insanity that is Athens, he accomplished nothing short of a miracle: at no point did the metal of our bus contact the metal of any other vehicle. I don’t exactly know how he achieved this, but he did. We made it back to the ship unscathed.

Later, as our ship left Athens, our ship and another Royal Caribbean ship, the Grandeur of the Seas traded foghorn blasts like two otherworldly monsters, perhaps H. G. Wells’ Martian invaders, or one of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoomian beasts.

And I think, this has truly been a day of wonder.

The storm coming on.

The storm coming on.

Later that evening, that sense of wonder continued. I wrote something that I’ll simply recreate word for word here. I had sat out on the balcony, watching a lightning storm a little way off. Then I saw something magical. Anyway, here it is.

The storm birds

It’s night, and it’s raining. Clouds brighten with flashes of lightning, illuminating the shapes and contours normally hidden within their mass.

From the darkness, I slowly become aware of a flitting movement from the corner of my eye. A small, bright arc against the dark sky. I think it’s a shooting star, but it’s far too overcast for one to be visible. Then I see another, but this one changes direction. Then I see more, above the ship, level with it.

They’re birds, dipping and soaring, gliding and diving all around the ship.

Then I see a mass of them heading toward the rear of the ship. I look to that direction and see an even larger mass heading in the opposite direction, directly toward the first. The two groups appear to crash together, but they instead seemingly blend to one great flock and head back to the ship’s bow.

Occasionally, these battalions fly by, like the ship’s honour guard. Others, in singles and small groups of two and three continue to wheel against the light-painted sky.

I see a small, single white shape against the black backdrop. Then the sky brightens to stark white and that small white shape turns black and I actually gasp. For less than a second, the scene was the exact negative of itself, then it popped back to normal, white bird against black velvet sky.

These birds feel like protectors…from the storm, from the rain, the lightning and thunder, the sound and the fury. They hold vigil for us, the protectors against earth and sky and water.

They’re the storm birds.

See part seven here.

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Cruising to fifty, part one: Taking flight

This is the first part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October. A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.

Well I’m leavin’ on a jet planeDon’t know when I’ll be back again.

John Denver

October 5, 2012

Two hours and eighteen minutes before I turn fifty. Shit!

I had a realization on the highway as we headed toward the airport and felt my heart drop to my stomach. We’d ensured the kids were well provided for, kissed and hugged them (probably too much) and left. But, more than a half-hour away from the house, I realized something horrifying and turned to the Wife. “Oh my God, I forgot to say goodbye to Maxx!”

Maxx is my dog. We’ve had him about nine years and I’ve walked him twice a day, picked up his crap, taken him to the vet, fed him, bathed him etc since we got him. You could say I’m his primary caregiver. And, in my excitement to leave, I forgot to say goodbye to him.

The wife smiled broadly. She was actually happy. I didn’t get it. “Finally!” she said. “Finally I come before that damn dog!”

maxx

That’s just hurtful.

We got to the airport, got through the baggage lines and then went to the appropriate gate to wait for the plane. We were ridiculously early, but I’d rather be early than late. However, I had put in a full day of work as the Wife did the final packing and getting us ready for a week away. So, when I basically unplugged from work at about 4:00, we were pretty much good to go and left about 90 minutes later.  For a flight at about 10 pm.  Yeah.

Anyway, we’re sitting waiting for the plane and the Wife jokes about throwing me off the ship’s balcony so she can upgrade to a hot Italian or Greek guy. “It’ll be easy,” she says as she leans over and pats my belly. “You’re top heavy.”

I gave her a look, reached over, patted a boob and said, “You’re not.”

Interestingly, she didn’t seem to find that as uproariously funny as I did, for some reason. Imagine.

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At one point, I figured I’d go get my last hit of good old Canadian coffee from Tim Horton’s. It was a long walk from our gate, but I figured with the all-night flight, I could use it, and God knows I had the time. So I finally found it, got in line behind three other patrons. The line moved at a glacial pace and it was then that I realized that each of these morons refused to take that fifteen minutes of time standing in line to actually figure out what the fuck they wanted, choosing instead to wait until they walked up to the cashier and only then decide to read the entire menu board in great detail before making their decision. Yes, I became rather vocal and spoke loudly of morons to the person waiting behind me. Yes, I’m that person.

Back at the gate, we finally get the word that the flight will be boarding shortly. The flight time is seven hours and forty-five minutes. Holy crap…we’re going to Europe!

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One the plane, we’re in the middle section of three seats, with me in the middle, the Wife to my right and a nice enough guy to my left. But then there’s the goddamn woman directly in front of me who stows her luggage, sits down and immediately kicks the seat back. The stewardess comes along and tells her to keep it upright until the seatbelt signs go off. As we leave the ground–and I mean literally as the wheels leave the ground, she kicks the goddamn seat back again.

But that isn’t the worst. About every two to three minutes, she reaches up, grabs a wad of her big, curly hair, fluffs it, then tosses it back over the headrest, pretty much into my face. Every. Two. Minutes.

When the meal is served, I’m sorely tempted to forfeit it just to hold it up high enough for her to fluff her hair into it. I wish for some sort of creamy soup. It doesn’t happen, unfortunately.

A side note on the meals. The first one was some sort of chicken and pasta. It tasted all right, but the chicken was as hard as plastic and the cheese at one side had morphed into an impenetrable glob of cold, hardened lava. There was some sort of cake thing that I believe was supposed to be spongey, but it was more coral-like. This meal was brought to you by the word, “hard.”

The Continental (which is code for “half-assed”) breakfast consisted of orange juice, yogurt and a hard danish. This meal was brought to you by the word, “prepackaged.”

Coffee? Yeah, the word here is, “unspeakable.”

Anyway, back to our friends in flight.

There’s the three older women beside the fluffer. One on our side of the aisle, two on the window side. They come on and proceed to cackle like three old witches in a Greek tragedy. As soon as the seatbelt sign goes out, they’re up and pulling bags from the overhead bins. Then they’re down and cackling. Then they’re up again. Down and cackle. Up and grabbing. Goddamn.

This could be a long flight. Ah well, at least they’re showing Men In Black 3. I haven’t seen that one yet.

See part two here.

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The Wife’s looking a little tired. Or, she’s thinking of how much better the pics will look with a hot Italian or Greek guy…

Searching so long

I’ve been searchin’
So long
To find an answer
Now I know my life has meaning

(I’ve Been) Searching So Long – Chicago

I gotta laugh at some of the search terms that ultimately draw people to this blog.  There’s some interesting coincidences, there’s some oddball ones, and then there’s the ones that really get me worrying about who’s out there and what exactly they’re searching for.

One of those interesting coincidences is first up.  There’s be exactly the same number of searches for Tobin Elliott as there has been for throwing up. For anyone that’s counting, the number is 157 searches.  That could be an unplanned commentary on the quality of my blog posts. Either way, you can learn more about me, and maybe throw up here.

There’s a lot of Whitney Houston search terms that bring people to my most popular, and most controversial blog, in which I ask that we don’t canonize the late singer for an early death due to drugs. But the thing that fascinates me is that 106 searches for whitney addict house we have a problem tobin bring people here.

I like that 35 people have found my little blog by searching plox, the sound a turd makes as it hits the water. That’s kinda fun. 29 more have found me by looking for a turd burgler. Hopefully he doesn’t get the evil turd. Same for the dog eating shit. Wanna read more about plox? Or evil turds? Start here.turd

And that’s just one more than those that have landed her while searching for cat throwing up.

Then there’s those that have looked for something to do with a pee dance, which seems somewhat connected to the slightly less popular how do men urinate. I will admit to writing about the Pee Pee Dance, but I’ve never attempted to explain anything about how dudes pee.

I’m going to stick these next three together, because, well, it just seems fitting. Why? Because those searching shit faced may well have been, because why else would you also search bad out of hell. Not bat. Bad. And you know what that is? The last search term…bullshit. But you can read about my encounter with a…well, something that resembled a bat out of hell here.

I’m not sure why you’d want to search women with no eyeball and I’m also not sure why it would bring you here, but maybe it has something to do with the big tit search term. Notice it’s not tits, plural.  And here I thought they usually came in pairs. Apparently not from the one tit girls searches. Silly me.

boob

Though there’s also those looking for titanic tits. Not sure if they’re looking for large breasts on the ship, or breasts that sank due to a collision with an iceberg.

I find it interesting that people land here looking for both cat throwing up and man throwing up but there’s no searches for dogs or women throwing up. I guess they just want the no-eyeball women.

Yet, in a remarkable coincidence, three terms line up nicely to create an almost hidden message: life is…, all work and no play, nude celebrities. There’s a second one as well… work from home is how a door knob works. How about those funny boy and girl conversationsin your pants. Finally the cat that gets flushed in the toilet is likely going nuts. Perhaps because of the other cat flushing toilet.

cat-in-toilet

I’m guessing it’s only idiots who search for idoits. Then again, so is anyone looking for george bush badass. Though the ones looking for bacon strips in underwear and shoulder sniffing worry me a touch. As do the ones looking for a picture of a brain throwing up. I mean, can that even happen? But for a perfect brain, look here.

Scarecrow

The person who searched i like when lady gaga smells my underwear deserves a special place with padded walls. Or a special place in hell. I haven’t decided which yet.

Let’s go get shitfaced. Kidding…that’s a search term, not an end goal. Perhaps the end goal should be to not use foul language. Yeah, probably not gonna happen. Not while cock out of underwear and jerking off anime boys somehow gets you here. Could it be when I jerked someone off…my car? Yeah, check it out here.

Ah well, the most heartening search term, and the one that has brought the most hits to my blog–almost 13000, compared to the next highest at 3600–and the name of my second most popular blog, life is beautiful.

life-is-beautiful

It is, isn’t it? I hope you find what you’re searching for.

Everything I learned, I learned from my dog

Sorry once again for the delay in getting a new blog out.  There’s been a few forces of evil conspiring against me getting any writing (read: NaNoWriMo) done for several days.

But I stumbled across my good friend (and former guest blogger) Pat’s excellent latest Nine Day Wonder blog.  Go read Why My Dog’s Better Than Yours, then come on back.  Go ahead, I can wait.

So as Pat described her life as a new dog owner, I kept flashing back to a presentation I did a couple of years back for a group of Shad Valley students up in Thunder Bay.  The presentation at the time was called Everything I Learned About Leadership, I Got From Maxx and it detailed a few lessons I got reinforced while being a dog owner.

First of all, what is Maxx?  Well, duh, he’s my dog!  But here’s the 411 on my buddy:

  • Part Pug, part Boston Terrier, known as a “Pugston”
  • Supposed to be no more than 20 pounds fully grown
  • Almost 8 years old
  • Currently 46 pounds and counting
  • Likes long walks, slopping water from his dish, chasing the cats, birds, rabbits, squirrels, rain, snow, bugs and anything else that moves
  • Not the sharpest tack in the box, but loveable

The lessons I covered were:

  • Training: Maxx needed house training, potty breaks, and all the fundamentals to get by.
    What I learned:
    • It’s not about the treats, it’s about the challenge.
    • If he isn’t learning, it’s not his fault, it’s mine.

Maxx chomping his own leg

  • Recognition: Every time Maxx did something good, I recognized him with a lot of treats…that means he got a lot of treats.  But he also still did a lot of stuff wrong.
    What I learned:
    • I cut back on the treats and learned to influence good behaviour instead of constantly rewarding.
    • That meant I found alternate ways of rewarding him.

  • Performance Improvement: The opposite of the last one.  Whenever Maxx did something wrong, he got a big, fat, “NO!
    What I learned:
    • I had to find out the root cause of why he was doing what he was doing.
    • Then I had to change that path of least resistance to something that worked for both of us.

  • Style Flexing: Maxx can be happy, miserable, playful, tired…How to know what kind of mood he’s in?
    What I learned:
    • I learned that to understand him, I had to get to know him better.  I had to spend time with him and learn his visual clues.
    • Then I had to learn to change my own style to match those visual cues.  Not get him to change for me…I had to change for him.

  • Working within a Team: Besides Maxx, we have two cats, Patch and Noots.  All three are very different and they have different moods, tempers and ideas of what is fun at a particular time.
    What I learned:
    • Sometimes I have to manage the three of them.
    • Sometimes it’s better to get out of the way and let them work it out themselves.  It’s always a better solution if they work it out amongst themselves.

  • Surround yourself with others who are smarter than you: My dog is much smarter than I am.  He knows my schedule better than I do, and he can tell time.  He also knows exactly how to manipulate me to get what he wants.
    What I learned:
    • I realized early on that he was much smarter than me when it came to certain areas of knowledge.
    • Getting out of his way and letting him look smart made me look smarter.  That’s a good deal no matter how you slice it.

  • Relationship building:  We were set in our ways prior to Maxx.  Two cats and a regularly scheduled life.  How do we get to know this new addition?
    What I learned:
    • Never force a relationship.  I needed to let it grow organically.
    • I also had to understand that, as much as we needed to learn about him, he needed to learn about us as well.

  • Networking:  Maxx always wants to meet new dogs and their people.  He’s interested in everyone.  What if someone reacted badly?
    What I learned:
    • Of course some will react badly.  Fine, if they do, walk away.
    • For the rest, there’s always an area of interest and I should be interested in others.  There’s always something to learn from others.

  • Have fun: Maxx isn’t scared of looking stupid.  He doesn’t really care what others are doing, he’s always making sure he’s having fun.
    What I learned:
    • Don’t worry about looking stupid.  If you’re having fun, really, who cares?
    • Sometimes you just have to set aside whatever it is you’re doing and join in…whatever it is, it can wait.
    • If you’re not having fun…why are you doing it?

  • Challenge yourself: After Maxx settled down, what was next?  Could I challenge myself and him?  I’d never taught a dog tricks before.  Could I do it?  Could he learn?
    What I learned:
    • What’s the worst that could happen?  Pretend you can’t fail and give it a shot.

  • Am I a leader?  How do I go about getting Maxx to do what I want?  I don’t want to use negative reinforcement (read: hitting him when he’s bad) and I don’t want him to get fat from too many treats (besides, they make him fart).
    What I learned:
    • If I make what I want him to do attractive enough, he’ll do it.
    • If I praise and recognize him properly, he’ll continue to do it.
    • If I treat him well, he’ll do it because he wants to.

  • How to lead:  Trying to walk Maxx initially was tough, he’d never walk where I wanted him to, he’d pull on the leash and get tangled in it…it wasn’t fun for either of us.
    What I learned:
    • Maxx knew what he was doing.  I was the problem.
    • I learned to get out of the way and give him his space.

  • Your time is limited:  Pets don’t live forever.  How do I make the most of that time…and will I know when to let go?
    What I learned:
    • Enjoy the time you have.
    • Pretend each day could be your last…and act accordingly.
    • Take care of yourself and others to prolong that limited time you do have.
    • When it’s time to say goodbye, don’t hesitate.  If you’ve done the other three, you’ll know the right time.  Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over.  Smile because it happened.”  Seuss was a smart dude.

It’s pretty cool when your animal can teach its human the right way to do things.