Freedom from Fear


We had scattered like cockroaches when someone flips on a light.

Well, okay, that’s a terrible way to describe what happened to all my former news colleagues at the ABC affiliate here in St. Louis when the wrecking ball swung, one round of layoffs at a time, until they finished the old girl off by imploding the local news completely. Sucks when reruns of Frazier pull higher ratings than your early news. Rats from a sinking ship then, maybe that’s the best way to describe the exodus from KDNL. But then again, we weren’t really rats, in fact, we were mighty fine journalists. We were all just trapped in a rat hole. Let’s leave it at that.

I’d lost touch with a fellow survivor, my former 10:00 producer, Michael. I heard he’d gotten a job at a station in Cleveland. Saw Facebook posts from time to time, always pics of him and his dog. Good photos, darling dog, cute guy. It made me like him that much more. Then, last summer, when I was on the road, Michael surfaced in the sweetest way. He began to comment on my blog posts, generous in his reviews, but generous in a broader sense, sharing little bits of his life so far. A journey, which, like mine, has been a bit bumpy from time to time.

I’d wanted to feature Michael in a story last summer, but ran out of road before I ran out of content. I’m glad I waited though, because his story has gotten better since then.

Like so many of us, for a long time, Michael stuck with the safe job, as a television news producer.  I get that, many of us do.  Even now, since I took the plunge (once again…) in May to free myself of the day job in order to finish writing a book, where every day now poses some new challenge for bridging the financial gaps, where those little ol’ lilly pads get further and further apart, so as to dump my twat in the pond….(now that I’ve taken this little metaphor in a completely inappropriate direction) anyhow, I understand letting go of the devil you know for the robot you don’t, who calls you up ten times a day to discuss an important business matter followed by, “this is an attempt to collect a debt.”  I understand risk. We compared notes on this last Friday.

“But the cool thing about risk is, sometimes you win big,” he said.

Michael Baugh

Michael Baugh CPDT-KSA, CDBC
Michael’s Dog, Houston

Michael is a man after my own heart. He is a man who is enlightened in ways that are irreversible, I suspect. Enlightened in ways that you would have preferred not to learn in the manner in which you learned them. But we have no control over such things –things like losing his mother, who suffered a fatal stroke, right after she’d had hip replacement surgery; things like his father getting cancer, with insult blowing in on top of injury when Hurricane Charlie leveled his house; things like his brother John’s philosophical, ultimately prescient comment in the aftermath of their family heartache when he said, “I’m over fifty, so I’ve already had more more birthdays than I’m going to have” and eighteen months later John was gone too — from an aortic aneurism. This is adding cruel insult to injury. It was piled on, man. Piled on, high. Hard to get through.

But all the while Michael was holding down the TV job, tending to all manner of family hardships and a couple of failed relationships to boot, he was also working on something which, increasingly gave him joy. It felt like freedom. It felt like a way out.

The dog training classes which he’d began in the late ’90s, to simply enjoy and to help train his Golden Retriever, Juno, he began to build upon with more intensity once he landed on his feet in Cleveland.

“After I got laid off from the TV station, I had this dramatic Scarlet O’Hara moment,” he said. “And I decided I am never going to be dependent upon a corporation again. I’m going to have a skill.”

He straddled two jobs for a while, dog training during the day, producing the news at night, ended up quitting the TV news business to do full-time dog behavior and training, at times barely making his rent. He was happy, if not living hand-to-mouth at times, gaining additional knowledge, confidence and case studies.

But family responsibilities and the lure of a sweet TV news gig brought him home to Texas. It was a great job, executive producer in a top ten market, that’s nothing to sniff at. I’ve been there and done that too, falling back on the “safe bet,” the steady paycheck. I did that just eight months ago, jumping back into political consulting, after I came home broke from my “Off the Leash” journey. And if somebody pulled up in my driveway this afternoon and offered me a gig back in TV news, with health insurance, hell, I just might take it. But here’s the nugget of wisdom folks: it didn’t last long for him and it wouldn’t last long for me, they’d soon kick my sorry ass out on the street because this is a recipe for misery.

Michael tells the story, of when he was in the newsroom one night, (I’m not telling which market, except to say it wasn’t St. Louis) and he got so pissed off, he left. He left! Walked out! He was the producer of the show and he was so frustrated, he simply walked out the door. He’s driving along, telling himself, “you can’t really do this Michael, this is really a bad idea. You can’t just walk out on your job, there are people back there counting on me….” He turns around, goes back, and nobody had even noticed he was gone. 

Which in a full-circle, odd kind of way mirrors something he thought about in the emergency room one night, years later, facing a critical situation with a carotid artery. Here’s an excerpt from his blog.

“…I had cried over death before, but never before over the threat of my own…It’s hard to scramble for life’s meaning at 3 a.m. in the emergency room. There was no epiphany, only the simplest things. Keep the blood flowing from the heart to the brain; keep the clot in place, because it’s a dangerously short trip to the brain. Don’t flinch in the face of it. Follow my finger; Grin like this; Blink, Squeeze my hands; Hold your hands out and close your eyes. No Stroke. We’ll check again in an hour.

Michael told me, that that night, he found himself thinking, “if I die tonight, who will really care?”  He wanted to do something more important, he wanted to do something that had more meaning. So, with enough time, after telling himself there would never be the perfect time, two months ago,  he took the plunge to pursue what makes him happy. He launched his own dog behavior and training consultancy called Michael’s Dogs.

Michael Baugh's Dogs

Wow. Way to train, ’em, dude.
Michael Baugh, Michael’s Dogs, Houston

He specializes in fearful or aggressive dogs, adding, “that most aggression stems from fear.” He says people really need the help. “Coaching and connecting to the dog people is what really jazzes me. Like today, I talked with some really nice people. I played with a puppy and I got, well it’s a technical term, but it’s called, a conditioned emotional response.”

That’s progress by any other name, one paw print at a time, for a fearful or aggressive dog.

“Teaching dogs not to be afraid teaches us not to be afraid.”

What a simple but profound gift, when we can comfort another creature, sometimes it ends up being ourselves.

I am so grateful to have renewed this friendship with Michael, who is not only great trainer, but a great writer. Be sure to check out his blog.

Now, I just wish he could come to St. Louis and help me with Louie.

Lou and Lib - Dogs

Lou and Lib
St. Louis, June 2011

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. So happy to be the first to leave a reply, Jean. Thank you so much for making me part of your journey. Such an honor.

  2. Oh and Kudos to my friend Robyn Arouty for the cool pics – I am actually a little troll in real life. She makes me look good.

  3. Maureen says:

    Great post…about a great guy!

  4. Hey Jean, I love your writing, and I’m happy for your friend. You know I was lucky to go back to school and I now love what I do;) everyone should!

    • You weren’t lucky, you worked your tail off to go back to school after your own kids where through school (or nearly) to become an art teacher. That’s following your bliss and nobody did that but YOU.

  5. This was exactly what I needed this morning. Though your writing always seems to give me something I didn’t know I needed.

  6. Another wonderful and inspiring story. Best wishes and best of luck to Michael. Bravo to him for doing what he loves – and bravo to you for featuring him here, and, of course, for pursuing your own happiness, too.