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Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Brain

I worked hard at gymnastics as a kid, and could barely lift myself up onto the low bar, or walk across the high balance beam. I practiced all the time, but I could never do a back walkover, or hold a handstand for the requisite ten seconds. My body is not smart in that way. My body feels like a group of people who are shouting to each other over mountaintops miles apart. It’s as if the communication system between my various body parts is crunchy and static filled, instead of clear and smooth.

Cricket, on other hand, is an athlete. If she were human instead of canine, gymnastics coaches would be clamoring for her. She’s compact (aka small), and she can run fast and jump high and stretch into unreasonable positions, just like a world class gymnast. I would not send her into rhythmic gymnastics (with the ribbon, and the ball, and the hoop, etc.), because she cannot be trusted with toys, but artistic gymnastics, especially floor work, would be ideal. Butterfly would love to run around the edges of the mat, ready with a bowl of water, or some paw chalk, when her sister needed it.

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Cricket can fly!

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No, really. Butterfly is my witness.

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Butterfly has to work on her flexibility to keep up with Cricket.

The lack of clear communication in my body has always disappointed me. I am in awe of dancers who can speak, and sing (!), with their bodies, never needing words to tell a story. I feel almost mute, physically, and it really bothers me.

My social work internship for next year will be with traumatic brain injury patients. Some will have motor difficulties, speech and reading difficulties, and pain, but all will have some kind of dysfunction in the connections in their brains. Even if every distinct brain region is working fine, the communication between the areas will be muddled in one way or another, and I think that being able to see the varieties of this will be good for me. I have never been diagnosed with a TBI, even a mild one, but while the brain can be shaken up physically, it can also be shaken up emotionally, with similar results.

I took a class called Brain and Behavior a few years ago and was fascinated by the idea that you could identify specific brain areas where certain types of information are processed. There is a biological basis for the things we consider ephemeral and wispy, like emotions, and knowing more about the brain gives more weight to all of those things people have pooh poohed for years as silly and unprovable. Studying the impact of brain injuries on different areas of the brain helps us understand how much who we are, and how we behave, is physiologically caused.

The work I will, eventually, be doing at my internship, comes after the physical therapists, and occupational therapists, and speech therapists have done as much as they can to stabilize the TBI patients, but I will get a chance to observe their work, and I’m very interested in seeing the different methods people have come up with to try and retrain our bodies and brains. With one kind of injury, practicing speech patterns and walking skills can really bring you back up to close to normal, but with another injury, no matter how hard you practice, the brain connections just aren’t there and can’t retain the information. There’s some relief in the idea that you could know which goals are reachable with hard work, and which ones are just not possible.

I can watch Cricket and Butterfly walking next to one another and see clearly how their different physiques control and limit how they walk. Butterfly will never be as flexible as Cricket is, because her rib cage is too big and her legs are too short. And Cricket will never “walk like a girl” because her hips are slim and refuse to sway. Butterfly’s brain can’t begin to imagine the number of horrible dangers Cricket believes are right outside the apartment door, and Cricket’s brain cannot fathom the Zen-like calm that Butterfly feels when she hears bird song in the distance.

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See, they’re completely different.

I wish I could accept my own limitations for what they are, but I still hold onto the dream of plasticity, that my brain will change and grow over time and allow me to be something more. It’s not impossible, actually. Someday, Cricket’s brain might rewire itself inexplicably and allow her some peace.

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Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

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The Baby Next Door

 

My next door neighbor is pregnant and due at any moment. The last time I saw her she was on her way out for a walk, to try and shake the baby loose, but I’m pretty sure he’s still in utero. She and her husband are going to be first time parents, and they have all of the new furniture and rabid anxiety to show for it. They’ve had parents and siblings and nieces and nephews traipsing in and out of the apartment for months, offering help and advice and a chance to practice their parenting skills. The two year old niece who cried 24 hours a day was especially good practice. Cricket survived the experience quite well, I think.

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“I survived, barely.”

But I am worried about how Cricket will react to having a baby next door full time. I hope that she will be protective of the baby, rather than frightened by him. I hope that she will see the baby as a fount of wonderful new smells, rather than a source of unpredictable noise and movement. Butterfly will, inevitably, want to lick the baby and I’m not sure if that will be allowed. I have my fingers crossed that my offers to babysit will be taken seriously, and that Cricket’s presence will not count against me. Our downstairs neighbor is a pediatric nurse, though, so if they’re choosing between us, I’m pretty sure she wins. Though I do spend more time at home, so I have availability in my favor.

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That tongue was made for licking.

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“I’m a sweetheart, Mommy. I don’t know what you’re worried about.”

When the most recent child visited next door, Butterfly took up her spot on the mat by our front door, and listened to the child’s voice, mesmerized. It’s possible that she thinks babies know all of the mysteries of the world, and if she just listens long enough she will absorb all of that wisdom. Or maybe she can smell them from across the hall; the mix of poopie diaper and sticky jam hands must be intoxicating. Maybe our neighbors will only ask Butterfly to babysit, and I will have to stay home with Cricket while she grumbles under the couch.

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Butterfly is a very good listener.

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“Do babies like duckies?”

I don’t usually get to be around babies, and I feel the loss. People talk about a biological clock, as if the pull towards having children starts and stops at a given time, but my clock has always been ticking. I never actively chose to be single or childless. There are so many people, especially nowadays, who have made those choices consciously and are satisfied and happy with their lives, but that’s not me. I would have liked to be a full time mom. I would have liked to put all of my research efforts into figuring out my own children, and all of my fight into making their lives better. I just wasn’t up to it in time.

I used to babysit as a teenager, for friends of the family, starting when their first born was only a month old. I was there for just an hour or so during the day to begin with, learning how to bottle feed him and change diapers. I babysat for him, and his younger brother, for a few years, until they got a live in babysitter to watch both kids so their Mom could go back to work. Most of what I remember about babysitting was staring into the pantry, looking for cookies. I even drank tea when I was babysitting, even though I never drank tea in real life. I was very good at reading Thomas the Tank Engine books, but less expert at the diapering business. As soon as I was told that boy babies will pee at you, I developed a face averting/arm guarding/diaper-as-pee-shield routine that slowed the whole process down.

I only did a little bit of babysitting when my brother’s first child was born, and that was me and Mom together, so she could be in charge of diapers and messier tasks, and I could teach Benjamin how to sing, and help him with his bizarre baby yoga poses. Most of the baby sitting I do now, with my brother’s four kids, is just hanging out, being an alternative to those bossy parents, and playing with trains and computers and other fun stuff. I don’t have to force them to brush their teeth, or keep them from drowning in the bath tub, thank god.

But I’d really like to have some baby time again. The incredible high of being able to make a baby smile, or just getting locked in baby eye contact for a moment, is unforgettable. Cricket also thinks she could be good at babysitting. She would be very good at keeping an eye on the baby and alerting sleepy parents to any incipient emergencies: like a dropped bottle, a stab of gas pain, a serial killer trying to get in through the window, or, you know, birds passing by.

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“Birds!!!!!!”

The Three Echos

 

Three of the four of us had to have echocardiograms recently. Butterfly had hers first. She’s an old hand at doctor visits at the clinic, and always tries to bolt when we get near the front door, but her doctors are friendly, and the women at the front desk think she’s adorable, even though she’s too anxious to take the treats they offer her. Butterfly has to have an echo every six months, to keep an eye on her prolapsed valve and enlarged heart, and she does not enjoy the experience.

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“Are we leaving yet?”

As soon as we checked in and sat down in the waiting room, my mostly non-shedding dog released hair all over my jacket and drooled on my shoulder and tried not to pee on the floor. She was curious about the other dogs sitting in various states of terror around her: the three month old Labrador who couldn’t contain her enthusiasm; an eighty-pound brindle Pit Bull who was hyperventilating under his owner’s legs; a cat hiding in her carrier. But the Chihuahuas seemed reasonable to her, and the floor itself was a potpourri of odoriferousness. She went adventuring for a few minutes at a time, and then asked to be picked back up for emotional refueling before making her next attempt to survey the territory.

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Butterfly believes that all floors must produce kibble, like the floor at home does.

She went in for her echo in the arms of a vet tech, trusting and blank. She trained herself to accommodate humans many years ago, living in the puppy mill, and still uses her old coping skills, pretending-she-is-not-where-she-is, as they slather cold goop on her chest and probe for pictures of her heart.

It is not surprising that her heart has been damaged, or that her heart is bigger than it is supposed to be. I could have told you that without all of the fancy equipment. After the test, her cardiologist came out to tell me that she was the same as she’d been six months before – with a leaky valve and an enlarged heart and no need, yet, for medication.

He couldn’t see on her pictures that she has learned how to chase squirrels and run like the wind and jump for chicken treats. He couldn’t know that she has developed a full range of expressions, and only once in a while falls back into her blank stare of old. But he believed me when I said so, and he was happy for her, and for me.

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“I’m dancing!”

My echo was a different kind of experience. I’ve had a few in the past, and hated them all. One in particular, was both humiliating (changing into and out of the flimsy robe with the door half open and strangers walking by) and painful (half an hour of rib bruising pressure). This new doctor was specially recommended, and requested, by the new pulmonologist who is trying to figure out the possible causes for my shortness of breath.

The paper “gown” I had to wear was not much of anything, and the tech this time was male. In my three previous echo’s I’d only had female techs and assumed that was the norm. Stickers were placed above each breast and on my abdomen, and then wires attached. I was told to roll to my left, away from the tech, which was a relief.

I could hear the whoosh whoosh whoomp sounds of my heart coming from the computer behind me, but it was hard to concentrate because the probe was pressing hard against my breast bone. I could feel a black and blue mark forming and could only grit my teeth and tell myself it would be over soon. Whoosh whoosh whoomp, whoosh whoosh whoomp.

Because of the position I had been placed in for the test, on my left side with the probe at my chest and the tech leaning over my body, it almost felt like I was being hugged. It wasn’t sexual or disturbing. I did not expect this feeling at all. His hip and waist were pressed against my back, so that he could comfortably reach over and take the sound pictures of my heart. And despite the pain of the probe on my chest, the pressure of his arm over my side was a relief. I felt safe. I sensed no danger, no inappropriate or confusing energy from his body, just presence.

The doctor came in to look at the pictures, then, and he said that my leaky valve was, pfft, not much, and if you use an expensive machine like this you’re bound to see “something” but that doesn’t mean that “something” really means anything. He was annoyed that anyone would come for an echocardiogram and have a boringly normal heart to show him. Pffft. You’re fine, go home.

And normally, that dismissal is what would stay with me, but instead, this time, it’s the hug; the closeness and security of a stranger next to me. I don’t know what to make of it except to file it in the back of my mind, under surprising, and good.

Mom’s echo was the third in the series. She gets them regularly, though not as often as Butterfly, ever since her “minor” heart attack more than fifteen years ago now. It did not seem minor to me, or to her, at the time. The only explanations given were a leaky mitral valve and “stress”, which my doctor-brother pooh-poohed. The result, though, was that she started to take much better care of her health, and found a less stressful job, closer to home. The regular echos, and stress tests, and blood tests, are another thing she has accepted and rarely complains about, at least to me. I asked if it hurt. No. Or if it was humiliating. No. Or if the wait was long. No. She and Butterfly share this capacity, for going somewhere else in their minds when they need to not be with their bodies. It’s a skill I do not have.

Cricket has no such skill either. If she needed an echo they’d probably have to knock her out, like they do for an x-ray. Thank God, her heart is fine. Normal whoosh, normal whoomp. I know, because she likes to suffocate me in the morning, with her chest close enough for me to hear the sound pictures without any fancy equipment at all.

Pffft.

We’re all fine.

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Grandma and Cricket, whoosh whoosh whoomp.

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Whoosh whoosh whoomp.

American Politics

 

Cricket would make a wonderful politician, in the current mold. She has tons to say and repeats it all day long with the same passion and outrage. I’d love to be able to harness that power for good, but she would like to use it to outlaw grooming and vet visits. No more bath time! Stay away from my eye goop! She would wear a Bernie for President Sticker, if he promised her she’d never again have to get her poopy butt washed.

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“Help me, Bernie!”

Cricket’s only difficulty would be the length of the run up to the presidential elections in the United States. Her ideas of argument and persuasion are much faster. You make your spiel, and you get a no. You up the ante, you bark, cry, sing, bite, and you get a no again. You give it one more shot, but that’s it. You need your damn rest.

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“Grr!”

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“Argh!”

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“That was exhausting.”

Watching the news recently, I’ve been wishing, often out loud and using bad words, that our country invested more time and energy in educating us in our history and our form of participatory democracy. My mother used to talk about taking civics class in high school, rather than social studies, and I never realized that she meant something completely different than the vague pass over American history that I’d been given.

Donald Trump says he loves the poorly educated – but why are there any poorly educated people in a country that supposedly has a free public education system through the secondary level? How can he be so glib about the failure of American education?

I resent that it took an endless run of young black men being shot by police for me to even hear about the modern history of black lives in America. Why weren’t lynchings in the South and Red Lining in the North part of my basic education? It’s not like I was protected from images of graphic violence in school – we studied the Old Testament in yeshiva every single day, for God’s sake! I was supposed to be okay with learning about rape and incest and beheadings and whole towns being shmiced by god, but I couldn’t be told about horrors that happened in my own country, in my own century?

We haven’t invested enough time in reinvestigating our history and coming up with ways to improve our democracy. Just imagine what we could accomplish as a society if we were already steeped in our full history before we even entered college. Imagine how many ideas our kids could generate for how to make our country a better place?

It also wouldn’t hurt to throw in a few lessons in empathy, here and there.

I think it’s interesting that so many presidents have pets, often dogs, and even the Clinton cat, way back when, but political candidates do not bring their dogs along with them on the road, or put them in commercials. Obama even had to wait until he was in the white house before he could get his daughters the puppy they’d been begging for. Would Jeb Bush have had better luck on the campaign trail if he’d, say, brought a chocolate lab up on to the stage with him? Maybe if Donald Trump had to carry a long-haired white cat in his arms, people would be able to see him more clearly for what he is.

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(not my picture)

Butterfly would not make a good politician, because she wouldn’t last two seconds on the debate stage. As soon as the screaming and insults started, she would scamper off to hide behind a curtain. Like me.

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“Is it over yet?”

The current election cycle reminds me of when we used to play Dodge Ball in elementary school. The whole class, boys and girls, would be split into two teams and given red kick-balls to throw at the other team. Some kids really seemed to enjoy taking aim at their classmates and hitting them with as much force as possible. They don’t allow this game at most elementary schools anymore, because it is too brutal, and too mean. But it would fit right in at the Republican presidential debates.

I still feel intimidated by people who are certain that they know what’s best. I am overwhelmed by the amount of confidence politicians must have, to talk constantly to crowds and reporters and believe that what they are saying is all useful and good. My social anxiety, though it is much better than it used to be, will never be down at politician levels.

And I have to wonder if just a little bit of self-doubt might be a good thing in a leader; just a little bit of room to question the heinous things that might come out of your mouth. Even Cricket knows when she’s gone too far.

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