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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Visiting the Boys

 

Before our most recent visit to my brother’s house in New Jersey, we gave Cricket some doggy Xanax, to see if it could make her a little better behaved. The occasion for this visit was my youngest nephew’s eighth birthday, and my brother insisted that the dogs were invited. He’s terse, but he seemed to be clear. But, Cricket is terrible in the car. Harnesses cannot hold her and she ends up climbing behind my neck, and then trying to insert herself behind her grandma’s shoulder. My job, in the passenger seat, is to make sure that Cricket keeps her paws off the steering wheel.

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“Squirrel!”

Butterfly, on the other hand, slept peacefully in the back seat. She was so quiet that I had to aim the camera over my head to catch a picture and make sure she was still alive back there. I couldn’t turn around far enough to see her, what with Cricket balancing on the back of my neck.

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If you listen carefully, you can hear her snoring.

By the time we got to a gas station in New Jersey, Cricket was losing her marbles. We always wait until Jersey to fill up the gas tank because they have no gas tax, so it’s significantly cheaper to buy gas there, even if the roads are a bit extra bumpy. Cricket seems to think that gas station attendants are closer to the devil than even Mailmen. She shrieks and throws herself at the car window and scratches the glass in a terrifying fever of activity. Sometimes the guys laugh, but it’s that nervous laugh that means they’re trying very hard not to pee in their pants.

When we were back on the road, I had hopes that Cricket would be calmer, but no. She climbed behind my neck again and then started hyperventilating when she recognized my brother’s neighborhood. When we turned onto their block, she started to whine and dig into my shoulders with her toe nails. We were in the car for two hours, and the Xanax still had not kicked in.

My brother’s driveway was empty, and the only family member in evidence was cousin Lilah – the black lab – standing behind the front door, barking at us. I didn’t have the patience to stand on the stoop and wait with Mom for my brother to appear, so I took the girls on a walk around the block, passing all of us single file through a shovel’s width of clear space in the snow. I’d already done my exercise for the day (ready for birthday cake!), and I was a bit wobbly on my feet, but adrenalin got me through, and as we neared my brother’s house again, the littlest nephew (aka birthday boy) came running to see us, or rather, to see the dogs.

It turned out that they’d been away in the Poconos for five days, and were just returning. Don’t ask me why this did not come up in the planning with my brother. As I said, he’s terse. Lilah had been dropped off by the pet sitter an hour earlier and that was why she was so agitated to be home alone. As soon as my brother opened the front door, to drop off five days’ worth of laundry in the front hall, Lilah raced out to greet the rest of her humans in the street.

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Lilah and Cricket

I assumed that this was all preparatory to the whole family going inside, but the minivan was still running, and it turned out that sometime during their drive back from the Poconos, it had been decided that we would be going out for pizza instead of eating at their house. The dogs would have to stay home. My girls would be given the basement, and Lilah would get the rest of the house.

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“Are you talking about me?”

I tried not to look into Butterfly’s big brown eyes as we closed the door to the basement. I was angry at the change in plans, and confused about the right thing to do, and feeling guilty because I was actually considering staying behind with the dogs and missing my nephew’s pizza party. Cricket stood on the other side of the basement door and barked her frustration clearly and succinctly, and I had to agree she made a good argument.

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“Mommy?”

When we returned from pizza early (because littlest nephew missed the dogs), Cricket was still standing right at the top of the basement stairs waiting for the door to open (she left drool behind as evidence of her plight). Meanwhile, Lilah had eaten the rabbit food in one human brother’s room, and pooped all over the floor in another brother’s room, to let her family know how she felt about their decision making priorities.

After some screaming and cleanup, we finally ate birthday cake and watched my nephew unwrap his presents. Out of the pile of gifts tottering on the table, partially opened, three boxes contained toy guns, and this inspired the older boys to go and find their own favorite toy guns – bright blue and orange and yellow guns that could not be mistaken for the real thing, but filled with marshmallow sized bullets that actually sting quite a bit when they hit you. My niece was, unsurprisingly, missing from the action, holed up in her bedroom with her iPad.

I held Butterfly on my lap, because she was shivering, and I had to hold Cricket’s leash to keep her from starting a fight with Lilah. I also had to stay alert, because guns kept being aimed at each of our heads.

Cricket finally did calm down, when we returned to the car at the end of the visit. She curled up behind my neck, with her feet shoved behind my back, and fell asleep within minutes. Halfway through the trip, she was snoring into my hair. On an efficacy scale of one to ten, doggy Xanax, zero, house full of boys, ten!

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Exhausted puppies.

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The Rains Came

 

The rains came this week and washed away most of the snow, leaving ice bergs every five to ten feet across the backyard. Cricket took it as her duty to explore each little island of snow. She climbed up to the highest point of each one and seemed to be contemplating names for the new nations, given the amount of time she spent inspecting each crevice, deep in thought. This one I shall name Mathilda, for my Australian friends who have never seen snow. This other one I shall name Pluto, because it is so much smaller than all the others that it may not even be a real ice berg.

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The new nations.

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“What shall I name this new nation?”

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“Shall I poop here?”

Cricket took her job very seriously, but then she was distracted when she reached the one remaining snow bank up against the retaining wall, because there, over yonder, was a pile of cat poop that had not yet been claimed. Ahoy!

The endless variations in landscape that come across Cricket’s yard keep her enthralled – from the autumn leaf piles, to the desiccated brown grass over the summer, to the variations on the theme of snow. She could write a treatise on the magical world of her backyard, if she could only figure out how to type on the computer, one key at a time. Weqjhrgweop.

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“Mine!!!!”

For Butterfly, the rain meant that she could get closer to the bird seed that our neighbor spreads on the lawn each day. Our downstairs neighbor likes to feed the birds every day, so that they will congregate on the snow in front of her apartment and she can see some life in the midst of the cold and icy winter. When I look out the window there is always a line of birdseed on top of the snow and a huge squirrel stealing the food brazenly from the tiny birds. Butterfly would like to line up with the cardinal, and the mourning doves, and the squirrel, and at least sniff communally, but they seem to think she looks too much like Cricket and do not yet trust her intentions.

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The leftover smell of little bird feet still fascinates her, though.

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Bird feet smell so good!

As the snow melts, both dogs help me find the rocks of cat poop that solidified over the winter and now dot the landscape. This is not my favorite task, but the girls enjoy it immensely.

If the groundhog was right, and winter has only a few more weeks left, then the backyard will soon transform again, into its green-shoots phase, and then its over-come-with-weeds phase, which is Cricket’s favorite. She loves to help Grandma pull up weeds, and drag them around like trophies, and then lovingly chew them down to nothing.

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“Yum!.”

It is truly a wonderful world.

My Senior Snow Dog

 

Winter finally kicked in a few weeks ago with more than two feet of snow in one day. I think the Great Snow Planner in the Sky was trying to make all subsequent snowstorms seem puny, so we’d feel shamed into going out, even in eight inches of snow.

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The big snow!

For some reason, this year, Butterfly loves the snow. In the past she’s been uncomfortable with the snow swirling in her face, and the ice crunching and sliding under her feet, and she could never understand Cricket’s fascination with climbing to the top of Snow Mountain to poop. But this year, with the snow piled up over her head, she changed her mind.

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“What is this fluffy stuff?”

This is a dog who does not try to climb up on the couch, and hesitates each time she sees a stairway looming, but she saw a two foot wall of snow and decided not only to try to climb it, but to pull herself up and over, and walk along the iced over top. She went out onto the tundra of the backyard, like a lone explorer, sniffing for squirrels and birds and cat poop. (It didn’t hurt that one of our neighbors had tossed huge chunks of French bread out into the snow for the birds to choke on, again.)

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“I think I can, I think I can…”

Butterfly came home three and a half years ago as an eight year old dog, with a long puppy mill history and a heart problem. She had to learn how to poop outside, and climb stairs, and bark at strangers, and generally be a dog, and we figured, at a certain point, that she was finished catching up. She was running and barking and begging for food, just like Cricket, and really, who expects an eleven year old senior citizen to learn new tricks? But here she is, learning to love the snow. She loves when the snow hardens and she can walk on top of it, she loves sticking her toes into the rain-softened snow and trying to keep her balance as her legs fall out from under her. She loves the way the snow keeps smells fresh for days and days, and she can revisit an old message twenty more times. She even managed to pass the scary corner of the building, because the snow made her forget her fear of the outside world, for a little while.

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“Whoo hoo!”

Cricket has always loved the snow. In the snow, even Cricket can go leash-less, for a moment, and run and play like a puppy. I throw snowballs for her to catch and she buries her head in the snow to find them. She would stay outside for hours, except that snowballs accumulate on her fur and she starts to look like a Yeti who can’t move very well. She tried to chew off the snowballs herself one day, but, since she needed a bath anyway, I tossed her into the tub and melted off the snowballs with the shower attachment. She was not a fan of this experience.

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Cricket, headless.

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Grandma’s magic camera captured Cricket in action.

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“Grrrrrrrr!”

Butterfly didn’t get quite as covered as Cricket, because she’s still a newbie with this snow business. She likes how the snow feels on her toes, and maybe up to her ankles, but once it reaches her chest she starts to shiver. Her favorite thing is to run in the light powdery snow and leave a trail of paw prints in her wake.

cricket & Butterfly

 

Languages on the Brain

 

In college, after I decided not to be an English major, or a comparative languages major, I had to go for an interview with the head of the French department to see if I could become a French major. Sitting there in his office, I could barely put a sentence together, despite being in advanced French classes and doing well in them. The head of the French department was nonplussed and sent me packing, and I ended up as a philosophy major, where they accepted everyone.

Even after that debacle, though, I still felt tied to the languages I’d studied (French and Hebrew), and the languages I wanted to study (Spanish, Latin, Russian, German, Yiddish, etc.). I’m not sure what the draw is for me, because I have no particular talent for languages. My brother still remembers all of his high school French without even trying, or caring, but for me it’s a struggle.

Recently, I’ve been spending even more time and effort on my language studies, as a strange sort of antidote to all of the social work reading I’ve had to do for graduate school. I have computer games and audio cds and textbooks and short stories and poetry collections, in both languages.

The dogs have had to listen to a lot of people speaking French and Hebrew through the speakers on top of my dresser. They stretch out on the bed, or on the floor, and pretend they’re being told a bedtime story in gibberish. Actually, I have no idea how much they understand. It’s possible that when I try to repeat the Hebrew words the computer flashes at me, the poor puppy dogs are shaking their heads and thinking, How can you not know that word yet, Mommy? We’ve heard it a thousand times!

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Butterfly is listening carefully.

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Cricket, on the other hand, is getting annoyed.

It’s also possible that they couldn’t care less, and barely register that these words are in French or Hebrew instead of in English, because clearly no one is talking about chicken treats or pee trips, so what’s the point?

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“J’ai faim, Maman. You are starving me.”

I still have trouble producing words from the black hole of my mind. You would think, with all of the information I’ve stuffed in there over the years, the words would be spilling over the sides, but no, they go in and get sucked into another dimension and reappear only when they’re in the mood. I’m a writer with two master’s degrees, and I can’t think of the word for that plastic thing you use to mix cookie dough, or the metal version of it that can flip pancakes. I run through fork, knife, plate, napkin, flipper, baking thing, until Mom calls it a “spatula” and I say “Yes! That’s it!”

I can, and have, made a fool of myself in public many times when the wrong words popped up, or no words popped up at all. I think some of my nerve pathways must blink in and out of service like an old TV antenna. If I’m in a new environment, or under stress, even the most well-travelled pathways in my brain are hard to find. With the foreign language pathways, just the stress of being asked to remember a word can be enough to shut down the whole system.

Cricket never seems to struggle to find the right word, or bark, for a given situation, but maybe that’s just bravado and she’s desperately wishing for a larger, more comprehensive vocabulary with which to express her disdain. Do other dogs understand her? If she went to Paris, would Cricket be able to understand the dog in a beret, smoking discarded cigarette butts at an outdoor café? I don’t think she cares.

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“I have all the words I need.”

Maybe this herky jerky, non-fluent feeling I get from trying to speak in French and Hebrew is what I’m actually reaching for, though, as a metaphor that fits how I feel. My fluency in English doesn’t match the dysfluency of my mind. Maybe the struggle to find words in a foreign language, grasping for words and struggling with grammar, feels more like my internal experience of myself. And maybe, by working through this language learning process, I will eventually be able to feel more whole, or at least feel more like a dog.

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