Some of my friends were upset to hear that I’m struggling to make ends meet in my 4th year of graduate school. I know my previous post sounded dire, because I had just taken a good look at my finances and was feeling scared. But here I want to say that while it definitely makes life more challenging, being poor is not the worst thing in the world. As long as you have a roof over your head and enough to keep going, not having a lot of money is actually a very good teacher.
It has taught me that I can make do without things I used to expect daily: a glass of wine at dinner, cream for my coffee (if we can’t afford coffee--well that’s a different story).
It has taught me to say yes to things I don't normally say yes to, like pet-sitting for cash. A pet-sitter in Fairbanks can get by looking after sled dogs, house dogs, and new litters of puppies. For mushers to be able to take a vacation away from their numerous dogs is out of the question, unless they can hire a trustworthy individual to stay at their house for a few days or weeks. l have no dog-yard experience, and I was honest about that with a potential employer, who wanted me to look after 37 sled dogs for two weeks. She found someone with mushing experience (thankfully!) and it turned out to be a stroke of luck for Simon, who was able to hire me to stay at Kiwi Kastle for a few days and look after his six puppies while he was caribou hunting in the Kuparuk watershed with a friend. He took all his dogs and two sleds and drove all day on the Dalton to get a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, where they brought down three bulls and hauled them eight miles on sleds from the open tundra back to their truck parked off the haul road.
While he was doing all that, I was soaking puppy kibble in hot water three times a day, mucking out their kennel, and alternating my time between writing my first chapter manuscript draft and keeping the puppies amused with walks and safe, non-toxic chew toys.
I have learned more about dogs in the seven years I’ve been in Alaska than in a lifetime growing up with dogs in Chicago. I learned that the happiest dogs in the world are dogs that have jobs. Dogs are natural optimists, and since you can’t make a dog do a job he doesn’t love, giving them something to focus on allows them to take their natural talent at being optimists a step further. Sled dogs are bred to run; pulling the sled keeps their bodies and brains focused, it works off excess energy, and it allows them to gratify the primal urge to run with the pack. Others are bred to hunt or herd, and a good long walk through a field or forest is their news, weather and sports rolled into one.
The funny thing is, if you spend enough time surrounded by optimists, it begins to rub off.
In the world of dog people vs cat people, I have always identified as a cat person. Cat people are not optimists, and are sensitive to the three things dogs are really good at: noise, chaos, and foul odors—thus I’ve largely avoided their company (no hard feelings, guys). I have not been alone. Many cultures have shunned dogs as unclean because they consume carrion and carry pestilent fleas. Anti-canine cultures must wonder at modern people who let these ancient scavengers into their homes where they are hand-fed table scraps and allowed to snuggle in fluffy beds with their human companions.
Dogs don’t care about any of that. If you’re rich, of course they will happily accept steak and a velvet pillow. But if all you have is Alpo and straw, they won't stop wagging their tails at the sight of you, magnificent bringer of Alpo and straw, coming through the door each day. They won’t resent you if you don’t have new clothes or state-of-the-art matching doggy gear. If you fall down and hurt yourself they'll do everything in their power to comfort you. All they want is someone to love. And when you come home to open the door, they jump on you and shower you with kisses as though they haven’t seen you for ten years—and once they are sure that it's really, really you and not a dream, off they go into the forest scenting a squirrel or rabbit, chasing each other through the bushes, ears flapping, tail up, prancing like mad four-legged ballerinas. Is there anything so happy, so carefree? Your dog could be a purebred with a diamond-studded collar or a rescue with a plain cloth collar—what does she care? She’s out in nature doing what she loves—and she’s with you--the person she loves in all the world! If that doesn’t make you feel like a million bucks, I don’t know what does.