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Final Exam Angst

Final Exam Angst


My first online, graduate, social work class went very well, except for one thing, the final exam. The materials for the course were set up by committee, pretty much, with one teacher organizing the course in the first place, then different teachers “facilitating” each class, and a team coming up with the review materials and the final exam, making changes each semester.

This, already, was a recipe for disaster, and when I read the conflicting review materials and practice exams I said so to my teacher. I said that, one, the review made no sense and made it unclear what in particular the exam would focus on; two, the course overall did not seem to lend itself to a final exam like this, because the readings were so various and really, a written assignment would make more sense, a test of comprehension rather than of memory; and three, the online testing set up, with a strange proctor watching us through the web cam, was just freaky.

My teacher tried to reassure me that everything would be fine, but he also asked me to let him know my thoughts once I’d finished the exam.

I tried to use the review materials to organize my study notes for the test, but they just didn’t make sense. Either the categories were too broad, or the advice conflicted from one page to the next. In the end, I did what I always do and overstudied. I re-read my notes from all of the lectures and readings, and re-read the readings themselves, and condensed my notes, then re-read my condensed notes, and re-read my original notes and re-condensed them another few times, until I’d stuffed information into every corner of my brain.

Cricket had been doing her best to interrupt studying all week, but she is, surprisingly, much less dogged than I am when it comes to studying. She only understands studying smells, and my notebooks just don’t smell that interesting to her. I was worried about how the dogs would deal with the proctor talking to me through the computer screen, so just before the test, I took them for a walk and then gave them each a chewy, and they were fine.


“Play with me!”




“Are you done yet?”

I considered bringing Butterfly with me to the computer for the exam, but I was afraid that the proctor would accuse her of helping me cheat on the test. I might have stuffed notes into her ears, or tattooed answers under her hair. (I actually heard from classmates that each time they moved their chairs, or dropped a pen on the floor, the proctor stopped the exam and scanned the whole room again before restarting).


“I’m sending you the answers with my super powers, Mommy.”

My exam time was 9:15 in the morning, with my web cam wavering on top of my computer screen, and my microphone trying to slide off the desk. It took fifteen minutes for the proctor to set me up for the exam, with various browser issues and weird noises and blank screens. The exam itself only took about ten minutes. There were a handful of short answer questions, which were easy enough to answer, and twenty to thirty multiple choice questions, which, for the most part, made no sense. There were typos (!) in the exam questions, and words were misused, and some of the questions and answers were so vague that you could have chosen any of the four answers equally.

I was spitting mad. I wrote to my teacher immediately after the exam and said as much, trying not to type out the curse words rushing through my head. He wrote back within half an hour to tell me that I had scored an 80 on the test, and that all of my mistakes had been in the multiple choice section. And because the test had to count for 40% of my grade, I would earn an A- for the class.

This is where the noise in my head got all conflicted. An A- is not a bad grade, so it seems obnoxious to complain about it. If I’d skipped some of the readings, or been lackadaisical about studying, or submitted assignments late, then I would have accepted an A- with gratitude. But I know how hard I worked. I had to sit through sessions with my therapist, for eight weeks, while she criticized me for working too hard for this class.

I wrote back to my teacher and made a very clear and detailed argument for why this test was unfair, and why specific questions should be reexamined, and he took me seriously. He said no one else had complained about the test, but that that only meant they didn’t think they had the right to complain. The teacher believed that my argument deserved attention, and he took it to the chairman of the department for review. We are now waiting for a decision.

I worry that it is selfish to fight for myself, and bother people with my own needs, but the dogs have taught me that this is what you are supposed to do. Cricket worked on me for years, but it took watching Butterfly – the sweet, gentle, accommodating one – fighting for her needs, to wake me up.


“You’ve gotta fight for your right to chewies…I mean justice.”

There is no guarantee that my argument will prevail or that my grade will be changed. In fact, more likely than not, I will be ignored, and that feeling has been difficult to sit with, like bees buzzing under my skin. I wish it didn’t bother me so much. I wish my blood didn’t boil and my thoughts run rampant. But the girls have done their best to remind me that life goes on. Walks must be taken, poop scooped, treats given. There must be scratchies, and cuddles, and adventures, and all of that matters more than this one small unfairness.


“Hi Mommy!”

But still. Grrr!



Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yom Kippur


My Rabbi came up to me after services in September, a week before the high holidays, to ask if I would be willing to do one of the readings for Yom Kippur afternoon. I think they’d run out of volunteers to take part in the services, so he threw up his hands and asked me.

He brought me to the synagogue library, where he had lined up all of the poems on the table, in the order in which they would be read during the Yom Kippur afternoon services. He had a piece in mind for me, a poem by Marge Piercy that looked very long. He said I could read the Marge Piercy, or really, I could choose whichever one I wanted. I started to read through a couple of the other pieces and he laughed at me, because I’d read all of them a few times over when I helped with the proofreading a few weeks earlier, but, my memory’s not so good.

I glanced across the table and saw the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece and just grabbed it, because that was the one, of everything I’d read, that echoed for me. I felt the same way with that piece as I’d felt when I asked if I could adopt Butterfly, and the woman at the shelter said yes. You mean, you don’t have to save her for someone more worthy?!


My Butterfly.

After I’d made my choice, the rabbi told me that it would be part of something called the “Martyrology.” I’d never heard of a Martyrology before, and he described it, or at least this iteration of it, as a focus on what it is like to be Black in America right now. A young (white) man from our synagogue came up with the idea, and he was bringing two friends to speak about their experiences, and congregants (including me) would read three poems, to echo their message, and fill out the ceremonial quality of the event.

The rabbi said it might be cheesy, but I stuck to my choice.

It took me about three seconds after leaving the library to realize what I’d just agreed to – reading in public, dressed up, in heels, at the podium, in front of a crowd (the whole sanctuary, plus the social hall behind it, was filled for that service by the way, and if I’d known that ahead of time there would have been vomiting).


“Mommy, you look ill.”


“Are you gonna puke?”

At the same time, we had a weekly assignment in my Human Rights and Social Justice class (for social work school), to write a journal entry about the assignments and readings and anything else going on with us each week related to social justice. It was an opportunity to complain to our teacher, or consider new ideas, or confide internal conflicts or limitations or prejudices where no one else could read it.

My teacher was an African American man, with two young daughters, so when I knew I would be reading a piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, I wrote to him about my concerns, that I was usurping this story in some way, or misrepresenting it. I felt guilty in particular for taking this full-throated rant about race, and applying it to my own experiences, which are not about race at all. And I wanted permission to read it anyway, from a black man who could stand in for Ta-Nehisi Coates in a pinch. The teacher wrote back to me and told me to go for it, and be loud!

I read the two or three paragraphs to myself, and then to the dogs out loud, every day leading up to Yom Kippur, because I was terrified of reading in public, but also because reading it made me feel better. To write a book to your son, even if it is also a book to the world, is a way of saying – you matter. I would tell this story only to you. I have told this story only to you over and over again. I would spend years of my life talking to you and sharing with you even if no one else ever heard me, because this love between us deserves that level of effort and care and communication.


Reading to the girls. Clearly they are fascinated.

The words, and the fact that I could hear them out loud in my own voice, were soothing. They reached into corners of my mind and body that are usually ignored. When I read the line “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” I felt it deep in my bones. I don’t think this is necessarily how other people see me, but it is how I see myself: as subterranean. And I’ve taken the same comfort in the “struggle to understand” as Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken. I’m a writer because I need to be, because I have to struggle with how I see the world and myself every day.

The reality of the Martyrology was so much more powerful than I’d expected. First, the young man from the congregation spoke about how he’d grown up on Long Island, in a largely white town and largely white school and largely white synagogue, and it wasn’t until he went to the city for college that he met people whose experiences of the world were really different from his own. But it was the two speakers themselves, confronting us with the ways people like us have ignored them and mistreated them, which made the deepest impression on all of us. Everyone in the synagogue stood up and clapped when they were done, in the middle of the service, on Yom Kippur afternoon.

I was barely a blip in the program, but it meant a lot to me. Maybe people assumed I was just reading for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who for some reason could not make it to our Yom Kippur services on Long Island, but really, I was speaking or me, for the parts of me that have been ignored, mistreated, and pushed aside; the parts of me who rarely get to speak up in public, and be heard.


Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2015) Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau.

The Day My Grandfather Died

I was eight years old and we’d just gotten back from visiting him in the hospital the day before. Memorial Day weekend. We’d stayed at a campground near the hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, as if it was just another adventure, not pancreatic cancer.

I think we were only there one night, and then visited him in the hospital in the morning, but I don’t remember much. It was the phone call the next morning, as the bus was arriving for school that stuck with me.

Mom answered the phone on the wall in the kitchen, next to the yellow and orange wallpaper that was starting to peel. The skin around Mom’s eyes turned dark purple and if she said anything I don’t remember it, but I knew that Grandpa was dead.

I was in a fog. My grandpa was the first of my four grandparents to die, and the one I needed the most. He was the one who loved us. He was the one who could fix everything, or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. His death meant that we were on our own.

We had to go to school anyway, me and my brother. He was ten years old and I was eight, and he didn’t talk to me on the bus or in the hallway at school, ever. My friend Alex noticed that I wasn’t my usual self in the one class we had together, art. He chatted to try to get me to smile, and listened when I remembered how to talk, but mostly he just watched me, to make sure I was okay and not shattering into tiny pieces.

My parents picked my brother and me up from school at noon, and took us to the deli where our father picked up too many sandwiches, and chatted with the counterman, and drank Dr. Brown’s celery soda, (really gross), before we drove up to Westchester to see Grandma.

The funeral had to be planned. Relatives had to arrive. Decisions about the future had to be made. But I just remember sour pickles and pastrami sandwiches and the utter emptiness of that house without Grandpa in it.

My grandfather was my idea of God – a little bit frail and not especially powerful but full of love and joy. I knew he loved me, and my brother, and my cousins, and I knew there was enough love for all of us. My grandfather was the only person in the world who seemed to have power over my father, though he rarely used it.

One of my aunts spoke at the funeral, but I don’t remember much about that day. A lot of funerals seem to mush together from those years: the funeral parlor, the pine box, the black ribbons, the cemetery, the prayers, and all of those grey stones. What stays with me is the grief; the void of no-Grandpa that we were left with after that.

I don’t remember Delilah, our Doberman Pinscher, being a part of things. Did she come with us camping that weekend? Did she sleep on my feet after the funeral? Was she there in the kitchen when the phone rang? I don’t know. But I do know that I would have talked to her about all of it, like I learned to talk to Grandpa after he died, and like I used to talk to God. I never considered it talking to myself, because I always knew that someone was listening.



Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

Delilah and my brother, comforting each other.

And Delilah, who loved me in her own quiet way, was always willing to listen.

Delilah's favorite form of listening.

Delilah’s favorite form of listening.

Nature Poetry

My rabbi adds poetry to Friday night services. Scratch that, he adds poetry to every service he leads, but the services we go to every week are on Friday nights. I am not really a poetry person. I wrote poetry and songs as a teenager, but I felt like I didn’t belong with the other poets. I wrote poems just to get the glitchy thoughts out of the corners of my mind, not to be profound. I just wanted to say what I meant without having to think about rhythm or rhyme, or “the right word,” or what was going to impress people. So much of the poetry I was told to admire was incomprehensible. I love Mark Doty’s prose, but we spent two hours in a graduate class trying to diagram one of his poems, and I still did not understand what he was getting at.

So it was a surprise to me when I realized that I looked forward to the poetry every Friday night. That’s not to say I love all of it, I don’t. But sometimes it says exactly what I needed to hear, that I didn’t know I needed to hear.

“Mmm poetry.”

The other night there was a poem from Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet, with the Hebrew version and the English translation both printed on the page. My Hebrew is clumsy, and if I’d tried to just read the poem in the original, it would have been a struggle. It was pretty and melancholy in the English, about the conflicted feeling of being in Jerusalem in 1967, where you expect joy and transcendence, and instead get grief and complication.

In the English the words were bland, plain, clear and practical, but in the Hebrew, the words themselves were onomatopoetic, they bounced. The Hebrew words were playful and full and carried some of those sprouts of joy that were missing from the plain meaning of the poem.

It wasn’t even one of the nature poems, intentionally. It was one of the “Israel is complicated” poems that we get every once in a while, because our rabbi does not believe in making everything nice and simple; he believes in seeing things as they are and still trying to have hope anyway. This is why he is my rabbi.

There was also a poem by Mary Oliver, called “What Gorgeous Thing,” about the beautiful, and incomprehensible, song of the bluebird in the morning. She describes it as “the only thing in the world that is without dark thoughts,” or at least seems so.


I keep thinking that I’ll go to the library and pick up a stack of poetry books and find poems that speak to me, but I never do. I often have to re-read a poem to really get it, even on a basic level (forget about depth, or historical references, or coded language, then I’m clueless). If I like the sound of the poem, or the image it leaves in my mind, or the feeling it creates in me, then I’m in.

It helps that someone else is reading the poem out loud and I’m not just stuck with how the words appear to me on the page. We have some very good readers at my synagogue who can bring out the rhythm or pacing of the language in a way that doesn’t occur to me on my own.

For sentimental reasons, I always like when a dog shows up in a poem, but most dogs make more sense as storytellers than as poets. Cats could be poets. Cats are terse, with a well-chosen gesture or expression saying everything that needs to be said.

A genius at work.

A poet at work.

Actually, I think Butterfly might be writing nature poetry all the time, but her medium is pee, and I am too human to understand it. She is a nature poem all by herself when she stands out in the yard listening to the birds and contemplating the world around her, and then she becomes two poems intertwined, when her sister jumps over her still, contemplating body, to catch a falling leaf before it hits the ground.

My nature poem!

A nature poem!

Cricket, a poem in process.

Searching for a poem…

There it is!

and there it is!

Zoe and George

We noticed, first, that our new neighbor had a parrot. The parrot’s cage is next to the front window, so when the shades are up, the parrot is on full view, and looking out into the backyard full of potential birdy friends. The parrot’s name is Isabel, and she has an anxiety disorder that makes her pluck out her own feathers, so she’s a little scruffy.

Isabel behind bars.

Isabel behind bars.


Isabel is giving me the beak.

The first bark could have even been mistaken for a parrot squawk, but not the six barks after that. There were dogs in that there apartment. Two dogs.

It was at least a month before I met them in person. George and Zoe are a little bit bigger than Cricket and Butterfly, but not by much. George is a white Havanese with a very outgoing personality. He likes to wave his front paws in the air to ask for attention. He’s very curious and keeps trying to go up the stairs to a stranger’s apartment to say hello. His older sister, Zoe, is a black and white Poodle mix, with an almost Dachshund length back that seems to have extra hinges in it. She is more demure than her brother, a bit more reserved and circumspect, but she will climb over him to get her share of scratchies.

That's George!

That’s George!

Zoe needs more light, but George is a glutton!

Zoe needs more light, but George is a glutton!

George and Zoe are both in middle age, or late middle age, like Cricket and Butterfly, and have their share of complaints: a hip here, a back muscle there; but they are still full of beans.

Whenever we walk past their building, my girls start sniffing feverishly. Butterfly seems to think that she must go inside, but she’s pretty shy when the real life dogs are around. Zoe and George had a little trouble with Cricket at first, because they’re all alphas and none was willing to cede power. Butterfly just stood by looking innocent and uninterested and let everyone sniff her butt.

Puppies? Where?!

“Puppies? Where?!”

I was able to take George and Zoe for a walk and it was pure joy for all of us. They are much better behaved that Cricket and Butterfly and appreciate any and all attention. Zoe has ballerina-like turn out in all four feet and almost gallops. George keeps his feet facing forward and sniffs everything and pees on everything he sniffs, and then he smiles like it’s the best day of his life.

“More walkies? We’re ready!”

There should be a puppy place in the backyard where all of the dogs who live here can hang out, so that I’ll never run out of my doggy vitamins. If I could just sit on the lawn and play with puppies for a few hours a day, I’d never have to take anti-depressants again!

Zoe finally gets her moment in the spotlight!

Zoe finally gets her moment in the spotlight!

Family Photo Albums

Earlier this summer, when one of my cousins came to visit from Paris, it occurred to me that she might like to look at the two or three family photo albums we have at our house that I’d been organizing and reorganizing obsessively. Both my French and American cousins spent hours poring over the pictures, and requesting copies, and Mom spent the next few days at the library scanning the pictures and downloading them to drop box, for everyone in the family to share.

My grandmother was the keeper of the family photo albums, and showed them to us as the only form of entertainment she could offer when we visited her. I loved the black and white pictures of serious people and children in sailor suits. I loved knowing that I was connected to this ongoing story and I wasn’t just a solitary blip in time.

I don’t know what it means that my grandmother created and kept the photo albums. She wasn’t a storyteller, she was a collector: colored glass, interesting people, recipes, and photo albums full of disconnected moments in time. When we looked through the photo albums at her house, she stood at a distance, and when we asked questions, she answered in one or two words, or not at all. She could only offer us the pictures, not the lives behind them.

After her death, my aunts divided up the photo albums and furniture and books. I don’t know if they looked through the boxes and made conscious decisions, or if they just put things where there seemed to be room. My French aunt took the blue and white sofas and put them in her country house, I have the old rocking chair with red cushions and a few photo albums, and the largest box of family photo albums was in my other aunt’s attic in Queens. Untouched. And after my cousin’s visit, I had to go get that box. I spread the photo albums out on the floor of the living room: a lot of them were falling apart at the binding, or had lost their stickum, and pictures were falling out the sides.

It was exciting to finally see so many pictures of my cousins as children, because they were all together each summer at my grandparents’ house in Lake Placid, even my brother was there one summer as a baby, but the house was sold the summer before I was born. We were rarely anywhere at the same time after that. One set of cousins or the other would visit, or my brother and I would visit our grandparents, but there were no big family gatherings again like those summers in Lake Placid.

But the great discovery was the dogs! All of these dogs I’d heard about over the years were finally visible. We are a dog family, no matter what else we are. My Grandmother, severe and moody, loved Rufus. My mom, skinny and lonely, had Minky by her side. Even the housekeeper, dour and apart, had Chihuahuas – given to her by my grandfather, for company – dogs that really did make her a part of the family. Dogs have magical powers to soften the harsh edges of life, and people. There was Lady, and Minky, and Rufus, and Hercules, and Bijou, and Sarika. The dogs were much easier to love than the people, but all of the people loved the dogs.

That's my aunt, mind-melding with a family dog.

That’s my aunt, mind-melding with a family dog.

Annie, the housekeeper, with Herculina.

Annie, the housekeeper, with Herculina.

Grandma with a puppy.

Grandma with a Momma and her puppy.

Mommy and Minky.

Mommy and Minky.

Rufus, guarding the house.

Rufus, guarding the house.

Through all of this, Cricket and Butterfly wandered around and sniffed. I don’t think they could identify which particular pictures were of their doggy relatives, but there were interesting smells everywhere nonetheless.

After-sniffing exhaustion.

After-sniffing exhaustion.

It’s going to take a while to scan all of these pictures, but it will be worth it, to keep the family narrative intact so that we all know where we came from and that we are different strands of the same complicated family story.

Shiny Poop


Recently, Mom has had a lot to deal with. Her sister hasn’t been well, and there’s been a lot of doubt and worry and conflict and hospital visits and family discussions, which means we have needed to resort to the heavy weaponry of comfort: chicken wings.

For some reason, chicken wings are my mother’s perfect comfort food. I’m not talking about fried chicken, or, God forbid, Buffalo chicken wings. These are tossed with some salt and pepper and chili powder and baked in the oven. It’s a plan ahead meal, because the wings need to be defrosted, and then baked for more than an hour, and then cooled so they won’t burn off your fingers. But it’s also a family meal, because the dogs think I’ve made it just for them.

I’ll make a salad or something to go with it, but that’s really beside the point.

As an antidepressant, nothing beats chicken wings and watching the dogs hop up and down, and salivate, and smile, and run in circles waiting for their share. While the chicken wings are cooking in the oven, the dogs gradually become twitchier and glassy eyed, until they are drawn to the stove like magnets, staring at it from the kitchen doorway. I tend to share a lot of my chicken, because I don’t like the skin, and they love it. But when the chicken is all gone, they don’t really believe it. They will dig into the corners of every room looking for left overs, and then get angry and start barking in disbelief. Butterfly, especially, looks high, and crazed, after she’s eaten her chicken. She’s jonesing for more, and out of her mind. I don’t understand why I’ve never seen a warning sticker on a package of chicken wings – “Danger, Addictive Substance, Keep away from young children and dogs!”

“I need chicken!”


I myself do not have that reaction to chicken. In fact, lately, I’ve started to wonder if I’m allergic to the stuff. I’ve noticed feeling nauseous a few times and not being able to finish eating, both with chicken and with eggs. Chicken is supposed to be the universal meat – the one that everything else tastes like (squirrel, frog, whatever else people are trying to get you to eat), but it’s not really my thing.

The problem with baking the chicken wings is the mess they make. I go to a lot of trouble to cover the whole baking pan with aluminum foil, and cover the aluminum foil with parchment paper. The idea is to wait until the pan cools and then fold the aluminum foil up and put the whole mess into the garbage can so we only need to rinse the baking pan for its trouble. But no. Mom does not believe in this. She believes that the dogs should have the benefit of every drop of fat that drips onto the pan, and insists on putting the pan, paper and foil and all, onto the floor for their delectation.

One Friday night, I made emergency chicken wings before Friday night services and didn’t have time to organize the clean up before we left. Without my knowledge, Mom had put the pan on the floor and left it with the dogs while we were out, for two hours. By the time we got home, the kitchen was a storm of tiny bits of aluminum foil and large swathes of parchment paper, and Butterfly’s face was dark with oil. Cricket was standing far away from it all, to make it clear that this was not her fault. I should have taken a picture, but at the time I was too shocked, and too busy corralling the dogs outside, and telling Mom that she would be the one to clean it all up.

Bath time after chicken.

Bath time after chicken.

“But I wanted to smell like chicken forever, Mommy.”

I worried, for days, that there would be shiny poop, and when there wasn’t, I started to worry that Butterfly’s internal organs were filled with aluminum foil decorations. A few weeks have passed now though, and Butterfly is still running and hopping and pooping as usual, so, fingers crossed, there’s no shiny poop waiting around in there.

“I could eat some more chicken.”


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