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Interviewing the Seniors

 

I’m taking a break from writing my monthly column for my synagogue newsletter, mostly because the newsletter is being discontinued. I was given the option of continuing the column as a monthly email blast, but I turned it down, for now, because school is kicking my butt extra hard this year.

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I could use a duckie to nap with too, right about now.

What I loved about writing the articles was the feeling that I was doing something meaningful for my community, not just for my own ego (though that too). I felt like I was picking up loose threads from the community, and weaving them into the whole, to make a stronger fabric.

My biggest regret is that I wanted to do more interviews with the seniors at the synagogue. There’s a whole generation of ninety, and near-ninety year olds, with stories to tell. Stories about coming to the United States when their families escaped from Nazi Germany, or fighting in World War II, or meeting their spouses (of more than sixty years now), or marching and protesting and taking political action to change the world.

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Cricket is an awesome protester!

It’s amazing to me that I have gotten to the point where I’m not terrified of doing interviews anymore. I’m a little anxious, it’s true, but I’m even more compelled by the lives people have managed to live, and any clue they can give me on how to live my own life better. I want to know these people, and I especially want to understand the work it takes to build a community out of such different people. Relationships between individuals are hard enough to create and sustain, but communities? They are complex beings that can die so easily.

There’s a concern among older Jews, and maybe older people of other religions as well, that young people don’t want to belong to religious communities anymore. That, even if they believe in God, or engage in religious behavior, the synagogue itself is not where they want to be. But I have a different take on it. I think young people want the chance to create their own communities, the same way previous generations were able to do. They want the chance to reconstruct the world in their own ways, which is what every generation hopes to do. And if they can hear the stories of their parents and grandparents and great grandparents, they can learn how previous generations went about making their own choices, and where they may have struggled or succeeded along the way. Then the next generation can take the communities we already have and re-imagine them instead of needing to start from scratch.

At least, that’s how I feel about it. I see ways that my community brings me comfort and knowledge and connection, but also ways that it doesn’t quite include me, or reach me, as I am. And my job, in the articles I’ve been writing, and may have to start writing again next year, is to teach people how to expand their view to include me and the rest of the people who have felt left out until now.

Like Cricket. Just watching services on the computer is not enough. At the very least, she’d like to have a private meeting with the rabbi to discuss her concerns. And if he just happened to have a bag of chicken treats at the ready, that would work too.

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“Treats!!!!!!”

 

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After Teddy

 

Cricket is feeling better. I don’t know if it’s because her back has healed enough to let her jump on beds and couches again, or if she’s relieved that the course of steroids is over, or if it’s all because Teddy is no longer trying to steal her bed, or her people. She seemed extra tired for the first day or two after Teddy left, barely lifting her head from hang dog position, but then she went back to full tilt play mode, trying to taunt her humans with her stuffed birthday cake.

Whatever Cricket says now, I think she was getting used to having Teddy around. On the last night of his visit, Teddy and Cricket did a tandem poop (perfectly timed, walking in sync in the same direction three feet apart, and then, poop), and during their final shared nap they squashed together on my bed, butt to butt, despite having a lot of space to spread out on.

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Nap time

After Teddy left, and I was clearly bereft, Mom asked if I’d be ready to look for another dog over Thanksgiving, or maybe Christmas break, but I still don’t know. Cricket seems to have recognized my need for extra company, and has been offering up her belly for more frequent scratching, but she’s not willing to go so far as to sit on my lap and stare at me adoringly, the way Teddy did.

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“Harrumph.”

What I really need is an emotional support dog; one who can come to work with me, and listen to all my problems, and sit on my lap to keep my legs from shaking when I’m anxious. If she could also have some social work training, then we could even hire out as a team, once I graduate and get my license.

But I feel guilty even considering a new dog when Cricket is just settling back into her only dog role. It doesn’t seem fair to bring in yet another dog who wants to challenge her position in the family, and share her food. Though it’s possible that I am underestimating Miss Cricket. However grumpily she may have responded to Teddy’s attempts to play with her, and sleep in her bed, she got used to him pretty quickly. She may have even enjoyed having him around. But shh, don’t tell her I know.

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Cricket quickly reclaimed her bed after Teddy left.

p.s. Teddy may be coming back for another short visit soon. It turns out that he misses us as much as we miss him.

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“This is my kingdom. Of course I’m coming back.”

Teddy!

Teddy arrived two weeks ago, on Friday the 20th at three o’clock, freshly groomed and trotting like a tiny horse. Without his fluff, he looks like a black-haired miniature greyhound, or a tall spider, or a stuffed animal made out of black pipe cleaners. But when he was a puppy he was just a ball of black cotton with eyes.

His mom told me that he wouldn’t need to pee outside, would never eat Cricket’s kibble, and he wouldn’t need a pet bed, because he would be on my lap or on my bed constantly. She gave me his duffle bag full of food and wee wee pads and toys, and specific instructions on when and how to feed him, but she forgot to tell me when she was coming home. Oops!

Teddy was anxious and pacing around the apartment after his Mom left and I decided to take both dogs outside, to help Teddy work off some of his anxiety and to get him used to the particular smells of our neighborhood. On our way back, he raced up the walkway, and found our door on the first try, just like Butterfly did when we first moved here. Then he raced up the stairs and sat down next to me on the couch to get his petting. Within five minutes, though, he’d returned to pacing, and crying at the front door of the apartment. Cricket sniffed his butt a few times and watched his pacing from afar, but mostly she kept her thoughts to herself. Eventually, between bouts of pacing, Teddy chose to sit on the second couch, where I’d spread out Butterfly’s pink blanket and all of his toys. He especially liked putting his head up next to the fan and sniffing the air.

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Teddy, on Miss Butterfly’s blanket.

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“Ahh!”

At dinner time, I put out Teddy’s special food, in his special silver bowl, but he was still too anxious to eat. He sniffed his food, went to the door to cry, came back and ate a little bit, and then went back to the door to cry.

When we went outside for the final trip of the day, Teddy followed Cricket carefully, watched where she peed, and studiously aimed his pee stream onto the same spot. It had taken him six hours to be ready to pee in this strange new place.

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“It’ll be okay, Teddy.”

He cried extra hard at bed time, scratching at the front door for almost fifteen minutes, but then he came to my room, jumped up on my bed, did his nesting ritual (eerily similar to Cricket’s), and smooshed himself down as close to me as possible.

In the quiet, my fears got louder: that Teddy wouldn’t get used to being at my house, and would continue to cry at the door for the whole visit; that Teddy and Cricket wouldn’t get along, and Cricket’s feelings would be hurt; that I would disappointment Teddy, and his Mom, in some fundamental way; that Teddy would have some unexpected health crisis, caused by something I did wrong, or have a health crisis that I didn’t notice until too late (though I was at least reassured by the fact that he goes to the same vet as Cricket, so I’d know where to go if there was trouble); I worried especially that I’d be so busy with my school work that I wouldn’t be entertaining enough, and Teddy would be bored.

I finally fell asleep, but woke up a few hours later when Cricket came to visit during the night, and Teddy growled at her. I had to talk them both through it, convincing Cricket that she still belongs with me, even with Teddy nearby. It took what felt like hours of dual scratching to calm them down, and I fell asleep still scratching them and trying to convince myself that everything would be okay.

By the next morning, things were calmer. I started to notice that my normally athletic, tall Cricket looked like a little matzo ball next to skinny black-haired Teddy. His long legs make him an incredible athlete, taking the stairs like a speed demon, and doing all kinds of ballet poses when he stops to pee or to scratch his head.

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My little matzo ball

My original hope, that Teddy would help Cricket, by teaching her better manners, and calming her anxiety, and easing her loneliness, were pretty much smashed. If anything, it was Cricket who was teaching Teddy: when to bark, and where to pee, why doggy beds are so comfy. And she was trying, admirably, to tolerate his quirks.

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Resting with Grandma

Food times were one of my anxiety zones, because Cricket eats kibble and Teddy eats homemade food (frozen in Ziploc bags by his mom and kept in the freezer). Cricket eats whenever she’s hungry, because the food bowl is kept full all day. Teddy has definite meal times, and when he’s done eating the leftovers are picked up and put away in the fridge. (His mom told me he doesn’t even know what kibble is, but within a week he was sneaking over to crickets bowl for kibble. Shh.) Even Teddy’s treats are home cooked (chicken livers), while Cricket’s treats come from a bag (two bags, actually, one for dental chews and one for chicken jerky).

But already by that Sunday morning, we had meal time down to a science. I put a little bit of Teddy’s fresh food into Cricket’s kibble, and then I sat between them while they ate, and I used the chicken livers as an additive to Teddy’s meal, mixing it in carefully, so that Teddy wouldn’t be able to pick it out (which he’d done on previous attempts). He would eat chicken livers all day long if he could. Cricket, on the other hand, thinks everything in his meals is gourmet, and even likes the wet food from a can that I had to add in.

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Teddy had taken to following me everywhere by then. He would even bark when I went into the bathroom, and stand at the door to wait for me. There was something about Teddy’s need to follow me everywhere, and be as close to me as possible, that puffed up my ego to almost normal size.

He even started to play! He’d brought his own squeaky throw toy, but he also took an interest in Moose, a gift from my brother’s family, for Butterfly, that she’d never had a chance to use. It was nice to see Moose getting some attention.

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Teddy and the squeaky man.

But then Teddy started to sit in Cricket’s doggy bed. He even tried to sit in it when Cricket was already there, and Cricket demurred and escaped under my computer chair to give him the evil eye from a distance. I haven’t been able to figure out how much of Cricket’s submissive grumpiness over the past two weeks has been caused by Teddy’s presence, and how much is from her back injury. A few days before Teddy arrived, she hurt her back and had to go to the vet. She’s been on steroids ever since, and can’t jump up on the beds or the couches without an assist. Watching Teddy spring up and down like a bouncing ball could not have helped her mood.

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That’s Cricket’s bed.

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That’s Moose, on the doggy bed.

Teddy continued to carefully watch where Cricket peed and aimed for the same pee spot. I could see the angles forming and reforming in his head as he did the math. He loved running up the stairs, and jumping on the bed, and climbing up onto the couch. He, like Cricket, thought that tug was supposed to be about taunting humans and never letting go of his toy. He and Cricket both scratched their heads on the rug, contorting themselves into pretzels to find the itchy spots.

He’s still going to be here for another day or two, and I’ll be interested to see how Cricket reacts when he goes home. Will she miss him? Will she get back to being more like herself? She’s only played with her toys once or twice in the past two weeks, preferring instead to hide under my computer chair while he runs around and plays tug and scratches his head on the rug. She still thinks he’s in charge of her bed, and mine, no matter what I say to her. We may have to make her some more chicken livers, and chopped meat with rice, to help smooth the transition back to her only dog life.

But I know that I will miss Teddy. He’s been my guardian and constant companion for two weeks. He reminds me of Butterfly, the way he takes a piece of food over to the rug, to savor it. And he reminds me of Cricket, with his crazy pretzel shapes as he scratches his face and back on the rug. The only problem with Teddy is that he is so unrelentingly black that I can’t see him in the dark, and I worry that I’m going to smoosh him. But he’s a resilient fellow, and he wears a shiny collar, just in case.

I don’t know how I’m going to tell his Mom that, in two short weeks, her baby has discovered that he likes kibble, doggy beds, and, even though he still prefers wee wee pads for bathroom purposes, he loves to follow Cricket around in the great outdoors and pee on all of her pee spots. Maybe I’ll leave all of that unsaid, and let Teddy do the talking.

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“So it’s like this…”

Watching Shul

 

Teddy, the miniature poodle, arrived at around three o’clock last Friday afternoon for his visit with us, with a duffle bag full of wee wee pads and special homemade food, and it was immediately clear that he and Cricket should not be left alone without supervision. So we decided to skip Friday night services at synagogue. I rely on those weekly services, though, for some comfort and sense of community, and we took advantage of the new streaming service that gives us access to Friday night services online. As we were searching for the link in a past email, I realized that, finally, this would be a way for Cricket to “go” to shul.

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Teddy, resting on the couch.

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Cricket’s opinion about Teddy resting on the couch.

 

 

Watching services on the computer is not like going in person, but it was at least a connection, except that I kept worrying that the Rabbi and the Cantor could hear me talking through the computer, as if we were on skype. I’m very good about not talking too much during services, but at home, I’m a blabber mouth.

Teddy and Cricket sat with us on the couch, and we sang along with the Friday night prayers on the lap top. To be honest, the dogs didn’t seem especially interested. Cricket was stretched out on the floor at the foot of the couch, and Teddy was still pacing back and forth, to the front door, where he cried for his Mom, and then back to me at the couch, where he sought some comfort and attention, and then back to the door again.

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“Where’s my Mommy?”

There were a bunch of teenagers at services that night, making faces, reaching around their parents’ backs to tap each other on the shoulder, and waving at friends across the aisle. Watching the congregation do the silent standing prayer (The Amidah) was a medley of fidgeting and whispering.

At some point, I started counting the rows and realized that everyone sitting in the first seven rows in the sanctuary was visible on screen. I usually sit at row six or seven, because I assumed that would be far enough back to be invisible. My self-consciousness immediately kicked in and I started wondering if people have been watching me at services, judging what I wear (a sweater and jeans usually), or my side to side shuckling (I have to shift from foot to foot when my back hurts), or noticing when I scratch my head or look for a tissue in my jacket pocket.

So now I know to sit at least eight rows back, no matter how many times the rabbi asks us to move forward.

The big problem with watching the streaming service, though, was that we couldn’t hear the discussion, or any of the poetry readings, because they were done without microphones. I could see the Rabbi doing his hand gestures, putting one idea or anther on a shelf for later, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

We decided to put the computer away for the night at that point, and see if we could distract Teddy from his grief with a walk outside. But even when we were watching Teddy follow Cricket from pee spot to pee spot, meticulously aiming so that his pee fell on the same exact spot Cricket had just peed on, I was still thinking about the streaming service.

 

The discussions are a big part of what I look forward to in Friday nights. The music makes me happy and comfortable, but the discussions force me to look at issues that I don’t ordinarily think about, because the rabbi reads a lot more newspapers than I do. Inevitably, even in the most unfamiliar areas of discussion, I realize that I have something to add. Something that no one else in the room is going to say. And over the years I have built up my willingness to raise my hand and say what I need to say. I’m worried, though, that now that I know I’m being watched on the computer, with no idea who the watchers are, I might be less willing to raise my hand. Even Cricket would be intimidated by that camera over her shoulder. She’s very outspoken at home, and with people she knows, but, as Teddy’s visit has shown us, she can be as uneasy with strangers as I am, and shut herself down in response.

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“What are you talking about, Mommy? I never shut up.”

Don’t worry. I’ll give a full rundown on Teddy’s visit next week, once I’ve had a chance to figure it all out. It will be a relief to be able to go back to shul in person, and sing and be with my community again, and not have to worry that my two favorite dogs are having a stare down over Cricket’s orthopedic doggy bed, or the last piece of chicken liver in Teddy’s bowl. But I will definitely miss Teddy when he leaves, and Cricket will miss his food.

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“Num num num num num….”

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“Chicken livers?”

The Yellow Warbler

 

Last week, I met a little green and yellow bird. She was standing on the front stoop of our building, with her mouth open, stunned. She must have flown into the glass door and lost herself for a minute. Mom noticed her on the way into the house, and, thinking this was a baby bird and I would want to meet her, she came upstairs to tell me about our visitor. I padded downstairs in my pajamas and socks and sat down next to the little bird on the Welcome mat. On closer inspection, the bird seemed to be an adult bird, just small in stature, and very shocked. At first, I even thought she might be a fake bird, someone’s idea of an ornament for the season, made of cloth and wood, but then she fluttered her feathers, just a little. I reached out to touch her, trying hard not to scare her, and she let me rub her head and neck with my thumb. That seemed to release the muscles in her neck just enough for her to close her mouth and tilt her head towards me. But she was still moving in slow motion and staring into space. Mom suggested picking her up, so I gently wrapped my fingers around her folded wings, feeling her rapid heartbeat against my palm, and held her loosely in my hand. She stretched one leg, and then the other, stepped up onto my fingers, and then pooped into the palm of my hand. And then she flew away.

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(from google images)

I’ve been told that having a bird poop in my hand is supposed to bring me good luck, but it was the few moments I was able to spend with that little bird that felt magical to me. The way she allowed me to be her in-between place, her respite, between trauma and flight.

Mom, of course, googled and found out that the little bird was a female Yellow Warbler, with her yellow throat and belly, her green overcoat, and her long skinny feet.

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(from google images)

And I realized that my short moment with the little warbler felt like a sped up version of my years with Butterfly. Because, it turned out, I was Butterfly’s respite too, between her first eight years in the puppy mill, and her flight into a new world. The little miracle of the bird’s visit, and the big miracle of my time with Butterfly, were both incredible gifts, and I am trying to believe that I deserved them.

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Cricket’s Anxiety Disorder

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Cricket’s anxiety has increased tenfold since Miss Butterfly died this summer. It’s been five years since we’ve seen Cricket quite this clingy and over the top; not that she was calm and pleasant during Butterfly’s tenure, but she was at least demonstrably better. She’s at a level ten now (or an eleven, really), but for a few years she managed to get down to a seven, or even a six on occasion, with Miss B’s help. Now, Cricket is bullying her Grandma more than ever: physically pushing Grandma around, instead of just moping, and leaning on her, and making puppy dog eyes. If Grandma dares to eat something, Cricket will sit in front of her and yell – “Where’s mine!” – endlessly, until she gets her share. She doesn’t do this with me, partly because she knows I’m a harder nut to crack, but also because I know how to deploy “the look,” persistently, until she loses hope and hides under her couch in frustration. But giving that look wears me out, and the effect is only temporary.

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“Harrumph.”

 

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Cricket has her own version of “the look.”

 

The fact is, Miss Butterfly was the best medicine for all of us. She brought happiness and peace with her everywhere she went. Cricket was pretty sure Butterfly radiated calm from her butt, and therefore sniffed it regularly. Butterfly could even get in Cricket’s face, in a non-threatening way, and interrupt a tantrum.

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It seems obvious that my only option, for the sake of Cricket’s sanity, and Mom’s, is to go out and look for another dog, someone mature and generous and compassionate, to act as Cricket’s therapy dog when needed, and her friend the rest of the time. But I’m not ready. When I try to think about finding a replacement for Miss B, I fall apart. I know I‘m being selfish. I feel cruel leaving Cricket in her current state, just because I’m not ready to let go of Butterfly, and the illusion that she could come back, somehow.

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In the near future, we will be pet sitting for an old friend of Cricket’s, a nice old gentleman who used to be my therapy dog, and will now make an effort to bark Cricket into shape, if he can. And then we’ll see. Hopefully having Teddy around will also help me become ready for a new dog, but his Mom made me promise that I won’t try to keep him.

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We’ll see.

I Hate Driving on Highways

 

I will have to drive on a lot of highways this year for school, and I’m not happy about it. I hate the short entrance ramps, and being squished between two trucks, and having no stop signs to rest at. My ability to read road signs and drive at the same time is very limited.

I did a practice drive for an interview a few weeks ago, with Cricket in the car. I had already done one practice drive and I kind of thought it would be good to practice again, with some distractions. I did not realize that Cricket’s car anxiety had ratcheted up quite so high that she would try to climb behind my neck while I was driving and screech at the top of her lungs. She clearly thinks she can drive better than I can. I’m not sure she’s wrong.

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Don’t worry, neither one of us is driving in this picture.

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“I would be so good at this.”

I’m overwhelmed by the number of highways that even exist on Long Island: the Northern State, the Southern State, the Meadowbrook, the Long Island Expressway, the Cross Island parkway. There are more highways further out on the island, but I don’t know their names, and hopefully will not be required to drive on them any time in the near future.

The worst, for me, are the exits that are so curvy and loopy that they turn you more than 360 degrees around, and some guy behind me always thinks I should be taking this roller-coaster at high speed. Not gonna happen.

I have to stay very present while I’m driving and make sure not to drift off into thoughts, of any kind, because I have a tendency to lose track of lane lines when I’m distracted. And if I get too comfortable, I’ll forget when I need to shift lanes in order to avoid hidden exits that will take me out to the Hamptons (though, that could be nice).

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Cricket loves the beach

Driving has never been my favorite thing in the world. It took me a long time to even attempt highway driving because of the speed and the feeling of being pushed along by peer pressure. I can almost hear the other drivers complaining about me from inside of their cars. What’s with this freak only going the speed limit? I want to get home!

In order to manage my anxiety, I do at least one practice drive (preferably two or three) before I have to drive somewhere new for an appointment, so that at least the anxiety of the drive itself can be reduced, and I don’t have to think too much about which lane to be in, or read too many signs to find my exit. Ideally, every place I ever had to go would have a route by the side streets and never require highway driving, but this has not been the case. And, recently, when I’ve found alternate routes that avoided the highways, I found that street names like to change with each town boundary, and three streets in a single town will decide to have the same name, except that one will be a Road, one will be an Avenue, and one will be a Place, as if that makes all the difference and no one will ever get confused.

I am looking forward to the day when we all learn how to Apparate from one place to another. I don’t care if it’s magic, like Harry Potter, or science, like Star Trek. I’m ready. Cricket might need some convincing.

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Cricket prefers to travel by foot.