Agility Spaz

Friday, January 19, 2007

Raising the Bar

A funny thing happened when I reported to my sweetheart on the latest exploits of Team Viva today. Mentioning that we had dropped a bar in an otherwise lovely run, I noticed my brain pausing at the end of the sentence to turn that thought over once or twice. We. Technically speaking, I did not drop the bar. Though the day may come when I will run smack into a jump standard, or lose my balance, stick a hand out, and pull a bar down myself, in this particular run I was nowhere near the jump in question. Some part of canine, not human, anatomy persuaded the top bar of Jump #2 to pay special and sudden attention to the Earth's gravitational pull this evening, and the bar fell. If I were joking around, I'd blame it on Viva's double dew claws.

Those double dew claws did not drop the bar. They're pretty good at staying out of the way. I however can be complicit even when a good ten feet away from the bar in question. As a handler, I dropped the bar as much as Viva did, hence the voice of my subconscious ascribing responsibility to both canine and human team members when asked. We got off to a fast start on a course with a sharp opening turn, and I gave Viva more of a forward cue than was appropriate, and when she checked in with me while negotiating Jump #2 I wasn't where she expected and voila: bar down.

It has happened to all of us, the crash of a bar early in a run. For most venues, this ends a team's qualifying hopes, and can deflate both dog and handler. I find the experience puzzling, as years of training as a performing artist focus (in part) on what to do when things go wrong in order to salvage the performance. Even the greatest artists are occasionally imperfect. Their recoveries, however, are usually beautiful and often marvelous. Seasoned performers either carry on so gracefully that only the professionals in the audience are aware of an error, or, as one world-class pianist did when confronting a serious "you can't get there from here" situation in a performance with an equally world-class orchestra, acknowledge the flaw with some combination of humor, nonchalance, and humility, let go, and move on. When an error has been adroitly managed, it is almost inevitably forgotten by the end of the performance, at least by the audience and, I would argue, at least temporarily by the performer.

For some handlers, the agility performance can in some sense be similarly salvaged. There will be no "Q" of course, but with the loss of the perfect run can come the freedom to risk, to play, to lift the spirits of one's teammate. I remember a piano lesson with my major teacher in grad school, in which he observed that my best playing often followed on the heels of a memory slip, as though the crisis focused my artistic attention in a way that run-of-the-mill success did not. I find myself thinking back to today's Jumpers with Weaves run, in which my handling after the dropped bar was rather decent, and wonder whether I am becoming the same as an agility handler as I am as a pianist -- more focused during and after a crisis than I am when a crisis has not occurred. Or perhaps it is the sum of those long years as a pianist that enables me now to let go of the dropped bar, to quickly and easily find my way back to my handling groove.

And Viva? Dropped bars tell her that for an instant life did not go according to plan (though she may have already realized this, and barked her realization at me, by the time the bar is accelerating toward the ground). Wrong courses I can hide from her, by choosing a new path that gives her a flowing line. Refusals? I'm not sure what goes on in her doggy mind at those moments when I (or we!) make a minor adjustment. I don't want Viva thinking that bar-knocking is a good thing, but I wonder what I can do to get her back in her groove as quickly as I can get back into mine. My colleagues in the physics department have not managed to perfect an anti-gravity ray for me yet, so I'll be stuck pondering this for a while -- at least until I get my handling down to the extent that the bars lose their affinity for the ground. It takes two of us to bring a bar down. It'll take two of us to keep them all up.


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