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Monthly Archives: August 2015

Tennis with Dogs

I had one leftover can of tennis balls, and a bucket of dusty balls in my closet, for years after I stopped playing tennis. I tried to get Dina, my black lab mix, to play catch with me, but she’d watch the yellow ball fly past her ear, or roll right up to her foot, and look at me like I’d gone crazy.

Dina

Dina

Peanut butter over tennis balls every time.

Peanut butter over tennis balls every time.

I used to play tennis, a long time ago. I started when I was seventeen years old, and stopped by nineteen, but during that time, I played almost every day. It was an obsession. I wanted to hit an inside out forehand like Jim Courier, and storm the net like Martina Navratilova. I started watching tennis during the U.S. Open the fall when I was seventeen, because there was nothing else on TV. I’d never liked Tennis before. In fact, when I was eight years old, I went to a local day camp and took a tennis elective in the afternoons, and I hated it. I have a hazy memory of bright sun and hot courts and not being able to see the ball clearly because I didn’t have my glasses on.

But something about those night matches at the US Open captivated me. I signed up for an adult education tennis class at the local high school gym, and my brother and his best friend volunteered to practice with me. My brother’s idea of playing tennis was to hit the ball as far as he could, not just over the net but over the back fence of the middle school tennis courts down the block from our house. His best friend had played on his high school tennis team, so when he “practiced” with me he used a wicked back spin and dropped the ball just over the net, plunk, where I could never reach it.

Over the next few months, I took more classes and lessons and practiced serves on my own at those middle school courts. I ruined my right rotator cuff with all of those practice serves, but I didn’t care. I’d carry my basket of tennis balls up the block and hit serves until the basket was empty, then cross to the other side of the net, collect the balls into the basket, and serve to the other side until the basket was empty again.

I started to practice with my college team in the spring, and over the summer I spent all of my scholarship money on tennis camp. I was eighteen, and the oldest camper there, but I was determined to become a tennis player. In the morning we practiced volleys and groundstrokes, serves and footwork, and in the afternoon we played matches. I could never figure out strategy, though. I was too busy trying to retrieve the ball myself to ever figure out how to make it harder for the girl on the other side of the net. My strength as a tennis player was my persistence and consistency. I didn’t give up, and I didn’t play differently each day. When I learned something, I added it to my game, and it stuck.

That fall, after tennis camp, I became a full-fledged member of my college tennis team and I went to all of the practices and played in real matches. I played sixth singles and I even won a match or two. I took more lessons and practiced religiously, and in the spring, the coach had me play a set against the girl who was currently playing fifth singles. We were evenly matched, because even though she was faster and in better shape than I was, I never gave up. Every game was hard fought and I won the set in a tie break, and won the fifth singles slot on the team. It was the best match I’d ever played, and the last, I think.

My back went out at the beginning of my next official match and I had to default. My mother took me to a doctor of osteopathy and he twisted me like a pretzel and gave me pain killers and muscle relaxants. But the back injury was one injury too many. I’d made it through the torn rotator cuff, strained hamstrings and upper back, a thousand blisters on my feet and hands, but when my back went out it just refused to go back in. And I was relieved. The desperate need to make up for years of not playing tennis was overwhelming me. I kept getting better so quickly that people forgot how recently I couldn’t play at all, and expected too much from me. Most of all, I expected too much from myself. I always do.

I tried to play tennis again a few years after the injury, but I was too tentative about twisting at the waist, and my timing was gone. I’d either hit the ball with the rim of the racket, or so flat that it landed four feet beyond the court. I knew I wasn’t up to practicing enough to get my strokes back, and I couldn’t imagine just playing for fun.

I wish I could be more like my dogs. Butterfly only expects herself to do what she can. She takes a long time to learn new skills, and does them only as much as she wants to. Cricket pushes past her own limits all the time, not to impress anyone else but because she just wants to do what she wants to do. Neither one of them is as much of a people pleaser as I’ve been, Thank God.

Butterfly takes her own sweet time.

Butterfly takes her own sweet time.

Cricket is NOT a people pleaser.

Cricket is NOT a people pleaser.

Maybe if I could convince the girls to play tennis with me now, it might be different. I do miss the sound of the ball hitting the racquet – whomp – right in the middle, and I miss the feeling of my whole body working together to line up the ball just right and follow through.

Butterfly would make a great tennis player, if the court were a little bit smaller and no rackets were required. She practices her split step before every pee squat and she’s very light on her feet. Cricket almost always runs on a diagonal, so her court coverage would be fantastic, and she would also be great at intercepting shots at the net, but she might try to catch the ball before it gets to her side of the net, which would be frowned upon.

She's so light on her feet she can barely stay on the ground.

She’s so light on her feet she can barely stay on the ground.

Cricket can jump!

Cricket can jump!

Their ideal would be me standing on one side of the net with a bucket of tennis balls and a racquet, hitting directly to them, and never expecting any of the balls to be returned. The game would be over as soon as the bucket was empty and then Butterfly would head off to take a nap, and Cricket would growl and beg for chicken treats, just like any other day.

Cricket is very good at begging.

Cricket is very good at begging.

And Butterfly is very good at napping.

And Butterfly is very good at napping.

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Assistive Technology for Dogs

I want someone to create a device for me. It needs to be big enough to accommodate paw sized buttons, with pictures on them and maybe even sounds attached. Cricket needs a device like this, next to the front door, so that when she races across the apartment barking her head off, she can press a button to identify the source of horror. Is it the mailman? A neighbor? A leaf in the wind?

“Why don’t you understand me?!

“I am a very articulate barker!”

The device would have to be on the wall, rather than the floor, to avoid the possibility that Butterfly would pee on it.

“You want me to pee on something?”

I read about assistive technologies in a class about exceptional children, by which they meant children with disabilities in vision or hearing or cognition or other physical limitations that required adaptive methods for communication. But what if some of these adaptations could enhance the other kids’ educations as well? What if using pictures as part of education for longer than we do, or concrete objects for examples, or music, would create more thorough and sustaining connections in children’s minds? Just because a child can jump to the theoretical level, and imagine an apple or the color red without seeing it in front of her, doesn’t mean she would no longer benefit from those inputs. What if your understanding of a poem or a story would be richer if you could see a picture of the ocean, or smell the sea air, or hear the sound of the waves that you’re reading about on the page?

I think Cricket would benefit from having these more concrete connections available to help her organize her thoughts. If she hears the mailman, she can run to the front door and press the picture of the mailman with her paw and hear the word “Mailman” ring out. This would also help me, because instead of barking in the abstract, I would hear the word mailman, or “Bird! Neighbor! Leaf! Car passing by!” And I’d have a better idea of what she wanted to communicate, or complain about.

My fear, though, is that we would just replace the incessant barking with a chorus of “Mailman! Mailman! Mailman!” all afternoon long.

“Where’s that mailman?”

I don’t think Butterfly particularly wants to talk, like Cricket, but maybe she could have a little music center so she could press a button to pick a song that matches her mood. One time when we were watching Dancing with the Stars (don’t judge me) Patti Labelle was dancing to “When You Wish upon a Star” and Butterfly was entranced. She likes Princess Songs. But sometimes her mood is darker, so she’d have to have a button to press for punk rock, or singer song writers on acoustic guitar for her sad days.

But really, the only assistive device she wants is one that gets her extra food. Her ideal would be to have a room full of treat dispensers, one for cheese, one for peanut butter, one for chicken, etc. She’d at least get exercise running back and forth between her favorite treats.

“Treats? Where?”

What I really need, more than assistive technology, is another person to take over with the girls when I’m tired, or run out of ideas. Someone to take Cricket for long walks, or bring Butterfly to the zoo, or spend an hour a day teaching them new skills.

This is the level of exhaustion I'm looking for.

This is the level of exhaustion I’m looking for.

Oooh! That’s it! I need a robot to train the girls! I’m sure someone is working on this right now. Would the robot be human sized or dog sized? Maybe a robot in the shape of a golden retriever? The robot could be programmed to take them for walks and maybe have an attached pooper scooper?

Do you think this would work? (not my picture)

Do you think this would work? (not my picture)

“I think Mommy’s gone crazy.”

I Sound Like Elmo

For more than a month now, I have sounded like Elmo from Sesame Street. Sometimes, instead, I sound like a twelve year old boy whose voice is changing. I’ve always felt like there was a hand around my throat, but I’ve never sounded like it before. It’s like there’s a damper pedal muting at least half of my vocal chords and I have no way of making it let up. I can hit a handful of notes in the upper part of my range, and sometimes a low note will drop in and then disappear again. That’s it.

“Did you say something?”

I did have a cold three months ago, for about a week. And my voice was hoarse, which meant that my voice was actually lower than usual and it was the upper notes that were muted. But when the cold resolved my voice went back to normal. I assumed that this current vocal constriction was a sign of a cold coming on again, but the cold never showed up.

So I went to my primary care doctor. She stuck a tongue depressor in my mouth and said that my throat “could be” red. She wrote out a prescription for antibiotics, and a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist, to use only if the antibiotics made no difference. I hate antibiotics, they wipe me out and never seem to actually kill off any of the bad stuff, only the good stuff. And they didn’t do anything for me this time either.

I went to the ENT next, and the first thing he did was to spray something evil into my nose, to numb my throat. It tasted bitter, and the spraying device was sharp, and when I responded like a normal human by pulling away, the doctor said I was going to hurt myself, as if I were the one holding the metal skewer and he had nothing to do with it.

After the spray started to numb my throat, he took a garden-hose-like device (only a slight exaggeration) and started to feed it into my right nostril, telling me to sniff, swallow, and sing at different points, until I was afraid I would swallow the garden hose entirely. And then he did the same thing down my left nostril.

Once he was done he said that that my sinuses were “pristine,” and there were no nodules, or polyps, or cancer, and there wasn’t even mucus on my vocal chords. He said that my nervous system was messing with me.

When we got home, Mom googled and found out that vocal constriction is yet another weird symptom that’s been associated with MS – Multiple Sclerosis – which all of the tests say I do not have. If I go back to the neurologist with this new symptom, he’ll just tell me it’s Fibromyalgia, or a psychogenic disorder, and he’ll ask me if something is going on in my life that I’m converting into a physical symptom. And I will have to kill him. So I’m not calling.

The dogs don’t seem to have noticed the change in my voice, which bothers me. I’ve always thought that the girls found my voice soothing, but when I talk to them in my cartoon character screech, I get the same reactions as before.

“I didn’t notice anything. Did you?”

My vocal weirdness hasn’t kept me quiet. I still speak up at Friday Night discussions at synagogue and talk to neighbors and friends. But I am nervous about meeting new people with this voice, and having them think that this is who I really am. People who already know me can ignore it, but new people will use my voice as one of the ways to get to know me, and they will make assumptions and get impressions of me that can’t be right.

What would happen if Butterfly, whose voice is very low and resonant, suddenly shrieked in a high soprano? Would it change who I think she is? Or even change how she thinks of herself? Her rumbling bass represents something essential about her personality, just like Cricket’s high trill gives you a clue to her emotional life. Who would Cricket even be without her shriek?

IMG_1142

Butterfly

IMG_0441

Cricket

No one has actually commented on my voice. Sometimes I’ll mention it, but mostly I let it speak for itself, and no one asks what’s wrong. Either people are very polite, or they assume I have laryngitis.

Almost everything I say in my high pitched voice sounds funnier than usual, and I don’t mind that. I like that I can make Mom laugh without even trying. But when I’m trying to talk about something serious, or just ask if the dogs have gone out for a walk, I still sound like I’m trying to be funny and it’s hard even for me to take myself seriously.

Sometimes during the day now, my voice is closer to normal. And last night at Friday night services, I was able to sing most of the regular notes – though I did have to shift octaves a few too many times. But, inevitably, by the end of the night, my voice was up in Elmo territory again, and the older people have trouble hearing anything pitched that high, so I had to repeat myself a lot.

Losing my voice, no matter how temporary the loss may be, seems symbolic, and ominous. I keep accumulating these odd, non-specific, undiagnosable symptoms that make doctors shrug and treat me like I have no voice at all. Luckily, the dogs understand me even when I can’t talk. They always think I have something important to say, whether it’s about chicken treats, or walks, or naps, or how much I love them.

The doctor said that my voice would probably go back to normal on its own, but he prescribed speech therapy just in case it doesn’t. And Cricket is chomping at the bit to be my vocal coach. We’ll start with growling exercises, to warm up my low notes, and then move into barking, to build vocal strength, and then, maybe someday, I’ll be to the full up and down, loop to loop, of arguing for a piece of chicken that is not yet mine. Though, and I think Cricket would agree with me, that would be quite advanced.

"Grrr. Now you try."

“Grrr. Now you try.”

“You can do it, Mommy!”

MSW

For the past few years, I’ve been taking psychology courses, to see if I liked them, and to work towards applying to a PhD or PsyD program in psychology. My therapist, an MSW, has spent a lot of her career being bossed around by people who had nothing like her level of experience and expertise, simply because they had doctorates, and she wanted better for me.

Sometime in the fall of 2014, though, it became clear to me that a doctoral program, of any kind, would not be possible right now. I would have to commit to full time coursework, plus field work, and my body just can’t take it, and neither can my mind. So then the question was, do I continue to float, taking more undergraduate psychology classes at the community college, or do I accept my current circumstances and apply to a social work program, most of which can be done part time, and after which I would be able to work in that field. (A Masters in psychology, at least in New York, wouldn’t qualify me for a job. This is a “social work state.”)

Cricket would prefer that I work towards a degree in Cricket Care. We could do three hours a day of training exercises, massage and physical therapy, plus an hour long walk at the beach. She’d be willing to give me a degree for that, or at least a certificate. I think Butterfly would rather we fostered dogs from the animal shelter, or set up a doggy hospital in the apartment, so that she could help nurse them back to health. The idea that I’ve chosen a course of study that doesn’t involve her, or make use of her talents, feels very selfish.

Cricket's exercise plan.

Cricket’s exercise plan.

Cricket’s walking plan.

Starting in December, after my last undergraduate psychology class ended, I put all of my energy into my application for graduate school in social work, including: writing my essay, asking for recommendations, and requesting transcripts from the different schools I’ve attended over the years. I kind of hoped I’d be rejected, though, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. The whole idea of preparing for any career that isn’t writing really bothers me. I know it’s the most practical option – since years of hard work have not yet led to becoming a published author, and because I have a deep interest in psychology and social issues. But, down to my core, I’m a writer. I’m a novelist and a memoirist. I write because I have to, and because I love it, and because it’s the most necessary thing in my life, next to breathing. Sometimes before breathing.

Butterfly understands. Sometimes ducky gets in the way of breathing too.

Butterfly understands. Sometimes ducky gets in the way of breathing too.

The program I chose accepted me for fall 2015, and it will take me four years to finish, instead of two, and the course work will be online, to leave me energy to do the field work in person. But I’m worried that the coursework will be boring, or even antagonizing, and bring on despair about the state of the world that even the puppies won’t be able to joy me out of. I’ve already started reading one of the textbooks and it is full of gobbeldy gook. Anything you could say in five words must be stretched out and twisted into fifty pages of verbiage. It’s a rule.

Maybe I should give my textbooks to Butterfly.

Maybe I should give my textbooks to Butterfly.

The girls are not readers, it’s just not their thing, and they see no value in collecting degrees, but they would love to spend more time each day learning and doing things. We have a new community garden at our co-op and four of the five plots haven’t been claimed yet. Cricket would love to have a plot of her own to work in. She’d probably end up planting chicken treats and chewy bones in her plot, but still, the digging would be very satisfying.

The social worker idea has grown on me over time, especially during the past three years at my synagogue, where, to a certain extent, social work is their religion, but I think both dogs have helped lead me here, too. Nine years of working with Cricket’s psychological issues has taught me tolerance and patience. She has taught me that even if someone will never be fully healed, you still do your best to help them live their best life. I would have wanted perfection for her, and Cricket has taught me that there is no such thing, or if there is, it’s really boring.

“Hi Mommy!”

But, but, but…I still don’t want to go. I want to write this blog, and walk my dogs, and revise my novels over and over again (okay, maybe not that last one). I want the life I promised myself, the life I recognize myself in. I’m afraid I will have to be a completely different person to succeed as a social worker, and I don’t want to be a completely different person. I kind of like who I am.

“We love you just the way you are, Mommy. Where are the treats?”

The Dishwasher Debacle

Out of nowhere, sometime in May, our dishwasher stopped washing the dishes. Mom called a repairman, and when he looked the machine over, he said that what we’d been told was a fairly new dishwasher (when we moved in two years ago), was actually on its last legs. But, he could replace a few bits and pieces and give us another year of use, if we wanted. Mom wasn’t sure what to do. Should we buy a whole new dishwasher, or squeeze out another year with this one? The decision was made when he told her that the fee for the diagnosis of the dishwasher would be put towards the cost of repair, if we did the repair. Otherwise we’d be out that money, plus all of the costs that would come with a new dishwasher.

What Mom didn’t tell me, because she didn’t know, was that it would end up taking three or four weeks before the new parts even arrived, and only then would we be able to make an appointment to have the repairman back to fix the dishwasher.

I’d forgotten all about drying racks, and how water pools on plates and bowls when they dry right side up on the counter. I’d forgotten how much I hate washing dishes, and how leaning over the sink makes my back feel like it’s being stabbed with cleavers. And I’d forgotten how much panic I can feel about a strange man coming into the apartment.

I don’t actually remember the repairman’s first visit. I don’t know if I slept through it, or if I was away from home when he came. I just know that I would have done anything to avoid it.

We finally heard back from the repair company that the missing parts had been located and the repairman would be coming to fix the dishwasher “sometime after one o’clock in the afternoon.” When we got the call that he would definitely be there by 2:30 PM, I thought that was pretty good, as these things go. But he didn’t arrive until 5:30 PM, and by then my anxiety had transformed into a strong belief that the world was ending, and I just had to sit there and wait for it to happen.

“Why do we have our leashes on indoors?”

There was drama about where he would park his van, and while Mom went out to move our car so that he could use our parking spot, I corralled the girls into my room and closed the door. And then the sky went dark and the rains came, and then the thunder. I wish I were being melodramatic here, but no. It felt like the apocalypse to me, and to the girls too, well, mostly Cricket. I couldn’t hear the dishwasher repair guy’s arrival over Cricket’s barking.

“Why are you letting the mailman IN THE HOUSE?!!!!!”

I picked the girls up one at a time and put them on my bed, hoping that would calm them down somewhat. And calm me too. But Cricket stood on my legs and then paced across the bed. Her eyes were shiny and she couldn’t breathe without rasping. When Butterfly ran down her doggy steps to guard the door of my room, Cricket jumped off the bed to follow her, and then they scratched at the door together, and restarted their barking duet.

They were NOT this calm.

They were NOT this calm.

I attempted to intervene five or six more times before I gave up on trying to calm them down. The fact is, I was in no real position to calm anyone. My brain felt like it was stuck in a Panini press; I was sick to my stomach, and dizzy and frightened; and I couldn’t talk myself out of my fear. All I could do was to make myself feel guilty for being such a baby and for leaving Mom to manage on her own. Guilt, I can do.

At some point, Mom slipped chicken treats under my door to quiet the girls down and, while Butterfly actually rested in front of the door for a few minutes to wait for more treats to appear, Cricket could not calm down.

Butterfly, on her way back to the door for treats.

Butterfly, looking for treats.

Then the power went out, not from the storm, but because the dishwasher guy was testing out the fuse box to see which fuses went with which appliances. Mom had tried to warn me, but couldn’t make herself heard over the barking, and couldn’t risk opening my door lest Cricket run out and chew on the repair man.

After the power came back on, there was a big crack of thunder, and a rush of rain outside the window, and Cricket stood on the rug next to my bed, stared into my eyes, and peed. This was not like her at all, at least the peeing part anyway.

When I peered out the window to check on the rain, I saw that the repair man was leaving the parking lot, and I gratefully let the girls out of my room. They checked the rest of the apartment for leftover signs of repair man and once they were satisfied that he was really gone, it was time for more treats, and pee removal spray for my rug, and a trip outside to walk, very quickly, in the rain.

“Where’d he go?”

We had survived. And the dishwasher worked again. And a crazed maniac had not killed my mother while I hid in my bedroom. But, I was still shaky, and so was Cricket. I didn’t feel relieved as much as exhausted by the whole ordeal. I worry that pretty soon something else is going to break and we’ll have to go through the whole drama again, and maybe Mom won’t be available to take care of it.

I don’t know what I’ll do in that case. Maybe Butterfly could talk to the repairman for me?

“I don’t think so, Mommy.”