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Author Archives: rachelmankowitz

The Work of Memory

 

One of the most anxiety producing parts of being a social work intern is having to write process recordings every week. Some schools have moved onto a much simpler format for these, with two pages of basic description (and evaluation) of a meeting with a client, but my school, and many others, still use a long form that includes: a word for word (approximately) transcript of the conversation, a column to point out the skills the student tried to use, a column for the analysis of events that happened, and a column for the feelings and doubts of the student throughout the interview. On the first page of the process recording, there’s also a section for a description of the who, what, when, where, and why of the meeting, and on the last page there are questions to help you analyze the meeting’s success overall.

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“What is she talking about?”

My early process recordings averaged 13 pages, for one client meeting, and one was up to eighteen pages (my supervisor was not in love with that). The hardest part, for me, is the word for word transcript. Obviously it’s not an exact record of what the client and I said, because I don’t tape my meetings and because I don’t have that kind of memory. In fact, each transcript takes me three or four passes, at least, to get it into the semblance of a back and forth conversation similar to what really happened (though, given that each of my meetings is an hour or so, a lot still gets left out).

I can’t imagine Cricket or Butterfly trying to reconstruct a word for word, or bark for bark, transcript of their day. Their sense of time is, to say the least, imprecise. Cricket forgets how long it’s been since she last saw Grandma. A minute could have passed since Grandma went downstairs for the mail, but when she returns, Cricket greets her as if she’s been gone for days. If she tried to record that event, there would probably be twenty pages in the middle, filled with despair and resentment, as if she’d been lost in the desert without water, for years.

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“Oh my God! Oh my God! Where were you?!!!!!”

For official purposes at my internship, I have to write out a summary of each of my meetings, and that gives me a general record to start from for the process recordings. For those reports, I describe what we talked about in the meeting, and what we resolved for the client to do by next week, etc. But to get those notes into dialogue form, I need to pull a lot more from my memory, and fill in the transitions between topics, and focus on particularly difficult moments: how we get from topic A to topic Z; what order things came up in; Did I say something to bring this up, or did it come out of nowhere; when I was overwhelmed and unsure what to say; when I thought I did well.

I often wonder if the work of remembering is this hard for everyone, or if it’s a specific problem for me, because my brain seems to store things out of order and scattered in various corners instead of in a more linear fashion. I dread doing these process recordings every week, but once they’re done, I feel like I really learned something, about myself, about the client, and about how I want to proceed. I resent having to do them, and yet I hope we don’t switch to the short form, because this method has been my best learning tool, and the best way for me to really resolve the leftover feelings I have after a session with a client.

Ideally, I would become so practiced that I could knock off a process recording in an hour. Then I could do one on every client meeting, or on my own therapy sessions, or on the news shows that drive me nuts. I could write out each of my interactions with the dogs to see where I’m going wrong: like, why is Butterfly still so stubborn about who should be in charge of her leash (I think it’s me, and she thinks I’m wrong)? Maybe there’s a secret hidden in plain sight, and if I could just diagram every moment, I could figure out what I’ve been missing.

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“I will stay right here, looking adorable, until I get what I want.”

Maybe that’s what Cricket is really doing while she seems to be chewing on her feet: she’s processing, and analyzing, and deciding how she wants to handle things the next time I do something that bothers her – like when I say No, or Quiet, or I fail to give her treats when she wants them. Maybe she’s doing this all day long, and sharing her realizations with her sister, and that’s why they keep outsmarting me. That could also explain why they are so exhausted all the time.

It’s a theory.

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“Getting Mommy to do everything we want, every day, is exhausting.”

Dog Day

 

Why is there no national dog holiday in the United States? I’m sure there’s a national dog day on the calendar, like there are national pizza and ice cream days, or like there’s an International Women’s Day that Americans never bother to celebrate. Maybe I don’t need a single day to remind me to celebrate my dogs – just like I’ve never felt like Mother’s Day made sense, because my gratitude for Mommy, and for my puppies, is inescapable every day. It would be like having a national Let’s-Watch-TV-After-Work day, or Maybe-Today-We-Should-Eat-Dinner day. It’s a given.

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“Did she say dinner?”

But, if we were going to do a big commercial celebration of Dog Day, with a day off of work, and ritualized outings, what would we include?

We’d probably suddenly realize that there are nowhere near enough dog parks to serve all of the families that want to take their special loved ones out for a run. And we’d have to change all of the no-dogs-allowed rules in restaurants. We’d also have to come up with a very big, high powered pooper scooper, to help us clean up the sand at the beach at the end of Dog Day, or maybe every ten minutes of Dog Day.

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“Where’s the poop?”

There would be a run on bone-shaped aluminum pans at the supermarket, for all of the homemade meatloaf cakes people would be baking, and kibble and cheese and chicken and salmon would all sell out days in advance. Amazon would have to deliver thousands of doggy treadmills, wrapped in colorful bows, that would end up being used as hangers for doggy sweaters and jackets and never get used. People without dogs would have to sit at home and mutter about how there’s nothing on TV that doesn’t remind them of their dogless status, and they’d end up eating one of the leftover meatloaf cakes from the supermarket the next day, because they were on sale at half price.

The thing is, though, I’m not sure the dogs would even notice. They might notice that the dog parks were extra crowded, or that there were more barks in the air than usual, but otherwise, it would be the same celebratory feeling they get every day. The joy they feel when mommies come home from work, or human brothers come home from college for the weekend just to play with them, or when everyone in the family is home on a Sunday morning to eat bagels and give puppy scratches and run around the backyard.

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“It’s dog day?”

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“Yup!”

What I’m saying is, pretty much every day feels like dog day to Cricket and Butterfly, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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“Are you exhausted? Because I’m really exhausted. This being a dog thing is hard work.”

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“Phew.”

Passover

 

I feel like I want to take a pass on Passover this year. I’ve done it before. I tried to do the whole thing last year – closing up cabinets and shopping for matzo meal and gefilte fish and kosher for Passover candy. I spent an inordinate amount of time looking up articles about kitniyot (some Jews say that beans and corn and rice are fine for Passover, others say no, based on which crops used to grow next to other crops way back when). It is, of course, a fascinating debate. I made a double recipe of Sephardi Charoset (dates and figs and chestnuts and wine and on and on) and resolved to think Passover thoughts for the whole week. But, I didn’t have a Seder to go to, and I hate (really, really hate) Matzo.

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Sephardi Charoset on Matzo is much yummier than it looks (not my picture).

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Here the Charoset is shaped into balls (not my picture). I’ve even seen these covered in chocolate. Seriously.

The problem is that Passover is a family holiday; it’s not a pray-in-synagogue holiday. Everyone comes back to the synagogue the next week with stories about their uncle Zephyr, who drank all of the wine before dinner, and second cousin Zoodle who has a matzo allergy but refuses to abstain and then spends the rest of the night complaining about his belly pains. It’s a badge of honor to come back with the most unbelievable family stories, and I had none.

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“I could eat some matzo!”

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“And chopped liver?”

I used to love Passover when I was little. I loved Grandpa standing at the head of the table, reading from the Maxwell House Haggadah. I loved falling asleep in the guest room, still wearing my dressy clothes. I loved chopped liver, and Brisket and Tzimmes, and super sweet gel candies pretending to be fruit slices.

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There were things I loved about it after my grandfather died, too, just not as many, and not in the same whole sort of way. I loved learning the Yiddish versions of Hebrew songs from the Haggadah, and how the Yiddish words made me feel drunk and silly (in a good way). But I didn’t like when we had guests to our Seder who couldn’t read Hebrew, and my father still insisted on doing the whole thing in Hebrew, making them feel stupid. I hated fighting with my father, every year, because I didn’t want to drink four whole glasses of wine, and to end the argument he called me an apikores (an apostate, but in a bad way).  I remember having to carry all of the boxes of Passover dishes in from the shelves in the mudroom, because my father’s diabetic neuropathy had mostly crippled one of his arms, and I remember scrubbing out kitchen cabinets on my own, because my mother had to escape my father’s screaming abuse.

I remember the last Passover at my parents’ house, just before the divorce, when my father calmly told me that he felt better when he knew my mother was in pain. And I just stood there, frozen, with no more arguments or suggestions or strategies to make him into a real Dad.

Passover is the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery into freedom, because we need celebrations to remind us that we really did escape, and the past is over, even though, sometimes, it just doesn’t feel that way.

This year, I’m going to celebrate the exodus by trying to help people at my internship, and studying for my future, in the hopes that that’s what will make the past seem more like the past for me. I’m pretty sure that Cricket and Butterfly are willing to help me with that project, though they were really looking forward to the Brisket.

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“No Brisket? Is she kidding?”

Weighty Issues

 

My weight has always been an issue. I was a chubby kid, and then anorexic, and then a compulsive eater, and then on every diet known to womankind, and then mostly normal for a few years. But then, during the trials of endless medications for my body pain and neurological symptoms, we found one that really helped, but also increased hunger and slowed metabolism. And no matter how helpful the medication has been, it hasn’t increased my ability to exercise at any reasonable pace. That means that I can’t maintain the weight I want to be. I don’t overeat, by much, and I do exercise regularly, but I would have to cut or burn at least five hundred calories more per day to make a dent in my weight, and at this point, that’s not possible.

I do what I can. I’ve tried protein shakes and high fiber foods, I’ve cut out refined sugar (and added it back in), and cut almost every other kind of food at one time or another. But if I try to go below a certain number of calories a day, I feel like I’m dying, and if I try to exercise more often or more vigorously, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.

And I’m angry about it.

I had hoped that, at some point in my life, my relationship with food and exercise would fall into a regular pattern and stop being a problem. I’ve worked hard on the practical side of eating and exercise, and the emotional and psychological sides too. But it’s all still there, still making me feel like a stranger when I look in the mirror, or making me panic when I open the refrigerator. I want to be one of those people who doesn’t have to think about her weight: someone who exercises because it makes her feel better, or can say no to chocolate frosting without feeling the residual longing for the rest of the week. But I’m not there yet.

Both of my dogs, food obsessed as they are, have zero weight problems. Butterfly can eat kibble all day long – and she does – and it never impacts her weight. Cricket could probably eat a whole chicken without showing any signs of it, except in the stomach upset that she would inevitably pretend she was not experiencing. They exercise when they feel the urge, and then rest most of the day without guilt.

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I keep a food and exercise journal. I drink bottles of water every day. I try out new, healthier recipes, and buy single portion low calorie snacks, but I don’t get anywhere with it. If I could stop taking the offending medication and still function, I’d do that. But I had to make the decision to function, at some point, rather than to maintain my weight. Most days it doesn’t feel worth it, until I try to stop the medication and find myself struggling to breathe, and struggling to walk, and then I remember why I made this decision in the first place.

But it still doesn’t feel worth it. And when I look around me, I see millions of people who believe that a woman should be willing to be sick and in pain in order to look the way she’s supposed to look, and hate herself for eating when she is hungry or resting when she is tired.

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The puppies know they need their rest.

The dogs think this is insane. They believe that how they feel is everything, and how they look is only useful when it gets them more scratches or treats. And even then, they’re pretty sure that it’s their powers of persuasion that get them what they want. I don’t think they even know how cute they are; though I could be wrong about that.

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“You want to give us food.”

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We are not relying on our cuteness to get what we want.”

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“We’d never do that.”

 

Butterfly is losing her vet, again

 

Butterfly goes to the clinic at the shelter that rescued her in the first place, and she has a wonderful veterinarian. Her doctor is the kind of person who walks around with a kitten on her shoulder all day, to keep an eye on the kitten’s well-being while she’s tending to the rest of her patients. Despite her many patients, this doctor answers emails about Butterfly’s various health issues, and recognizes us when we come in to pick up refills at the pharmacy, and always asks after Butterfly’s health.

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Butterfly’s first day at home, way back when.

The vet emailed us to let us know that she, and her relatively new husband, will be moving out of town, and she wanted to have a last visit with Butterfly, and set her up with a new vet at the clinic, to ensure continuity of care. I’ve never met a doctor-for-humans like this, let alone a veterinarian who, working at a clinic rather than in private practice, can’t be making a ton of money.

Butterfly is an expensive dog. She is twelve-and-a-half years old and a pure bred Lhasa Apso, with heart disease and diabetes, bright blue cataracts, and terrible teeth. The clinic partially subsidizes her twice yearly echocardiograms and vet visits, but we pay for all of her medication and diabetes supplies, and anything over two visits a year. Miss Butterfly takes three pills twice a day, gets her blood tested twice a day, and gets insulin shots twice a day. I’m not even counting the huge quantities of peanut butter and chicken treats that make the meds go down easy. So having a doctor who tries to minimize extra costs, while advocating for the best possible health care for Butterfly, is a godsend.

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“Any more medication Grandma?”

Cricket has had the same reliable doctor since she was eight weeks old, and it is wasted on her. She needs to be held in place by a vet tech to have her ears checked and her nails clipped, no matter how well she’s been cared for in the past. The vet techs have, often, had to put a muzzle on her for checkups, though it rarely stays on long. We brought Cricket along for one of Butterfly’s vet visits at the clinic, because Cricket ran out the door of the apartment before we could catch her, and Cricket could not stop barking. She’s used to the small waiting room at her doctor’s office, with the African grey parrot who tries to keep her calm. The crowded cacophony of dogs and cats at the clinic was not her thing. I like it, and Butterfly likes it, because there are always new friends to meet, but for Cricket it was too much.

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“You want me to go to the vet, Mommy? How are you gonna make me?”

The positives of the clinic, affordability and solid care, have always seemed worth the inconveniences, like a long wait and talking to different secretaries every time we call. But this is the second vet we’ve come to trust and have had to lose. I don’t want to have to argue with a new vet about teeth cleaning (the anesthesia for which could kill her), or hear some stranger tell me not to expect Butterfly to live much longer (just shut up). But most of all, I’m going to miss feeling like there’s someone else out there keeping an eye on my baby. It’s more than just having a doctor with knowledge and skill and the ability to write prescriptions, it’s about having someone who loves my baby and cares about the quality of her life.

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Butterfly believes that peanut butter has magical powers of healing.

I’m sure we’ll adapt. Butterfly will still be nervous going to the vet, until she gets a chance to sniff the other dogs, and the new doctor will make too many assumptions about Butterfly’s prospects, until I’m able to set her straight. But we’re going to miss this vet a lot, and we have to mourn a little bit before we can move on to what comes next.

Cricket & Butterfly waiting for Mommy

Butterfly’s Ice Rink

 

This past Tuesday, New York was hit by a massive east coast storm that was supposed to bury us in snow, but halfway through, the snow turned to sleet and the world froze. I slid across the walkways in the dark, when the dogs had to go out to pee. The next morning, the maintenance guys came back and salted the sidewalks and broke up the ice in the parking lot, but they left the backyard as it was and we have had an ice rink ever since. Butterfly is in love. Cricket may be a snow bunny, but Butterfly, it turns out, is an ice skater. Her ice rink is bumpy and often runs uphill, and she has to skate around various impediments, but that only seems to make it more of an adventure.

Girls at the door

Surveying the territory

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Testing the ice

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Going on an adventure

Back from adventure

and returning

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Happy.

Cricket has been more circumspect about the whole thing. She has found it impossible to dig into this strange version of snow, and has had no luck removing leaves from their icy casings. She sniffs huge clumps of snow for signs of pee and birdseed, but she spends most of her time on the edges of the ice, ready to return to solid ground at any moment. But every once in a while, she lets loose, jumping and spinning and leaping across the ice, while her sister placidly skates along nearby. They meet up to check in, sniffing each other’s noses and ears, before going their own ways again.

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“What is this stuff?”

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“Wheee!”

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“Whoohooo!”

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“And a two-footed landing!”

But it’s Butterfly who is loving this new ice world. No matter how far out she goes, and no matter how high she climbs, she leaves no foot prints, and I’m realizing that, for years, she must have felt unsteady walking on the grass, and now, with ice under her feet, she finally feels secure.

 

Butterfly on ice

Butterfly, in her own world.

Harry Potter et Moi

 

I finished reading one of the Harry Potter books in French! I started with book three, the Prisoner of Azkaban, because it’s my favorite of the series. I thought I’d be struggling through each page, with a French/English dictionary at the ready, but I read it like, well, like a novel. It’s not that I understood every word, but a lot of the words that were unfamiliar could be figured out by the context, and having read the book a number of times in English didn’t hurt either. There were some oddities in the translation, though. Like, Neville Longbottom’s last name was translated as Londubat, and Severus Snape’s last name was translated to Rogue. Muggles are Moldus, and Hogwarts is Poudlard. Diagon Alley is Le Chemin De Traverse (The crossroad), and Dementors are Detraqueurs (possibly because the word dementir is in there, as a French word, meaning “to deny.”

Unforgivably, they changed the names of the OW.L.s and the N.E.W.T.s, the school-wide tests, and gave them non-funny names to make the initials work in French.

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“What’s that about?”

One big discovery. I thought ennui was always translated as boredom; that’s certainly how we use the word in the United States. But it was used over and over in the book to mean “trouble,” and that was the alternate definition given on Google Translate as well. For one word to mean both “boredom” and “trouble,” suggests what the French think of feeling bored: that it’s the gateway for getting into trouble.

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“Trouble? I don’t see trouble.”

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“Look Mommy, I found trouble!”

There were some words that were fun to say, like hululement for the hooting of owls, haletante for panting, and chuchotta for whisper.

I think I’ve become addicted. I’m just not sure to what.

Coincidentally, one of the family-friendly cable channels decided to run seven of the eight Harry Potter movies this past weekend, as an ad for the upcoming Beauty and the Beast movie, starring Hermione (or the actress who played Hermione, Emma Watson, whatever). Oddly, they left out movie number five, the Order of the Phoenix, and therefore I felt obligated to order it On Demand to see why, because I didn’t remember what could have been so objectionable as to make them leave it out.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but it bothers me, why was this the only movie left out, of the eight? Certainly other movies in the series were equally dark. The Order of the Phoenix is, basically, about the danger of pretending that everything is fine, when everything is clearly not fine and about to get much worse. There’s also an ultra-feminine aide to the minister of magic, with a penchant for alternative facts; and the minister himself, who’s afraid to see what’s right in front of him, looks suspiciously like Mitch McConnell (Majority leader in the U.S. senate). Ralph Fiennes, as Voldemort, though, is a whole other level of evil from what’s currently in the white house. We have more of a Wormtail as president (including the crazy hair), with a dark lord as advisor, whispering in his ear.

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I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Harry Potter is in the air right now in the United States. It’s been on my mind all year, and it’s been coming up more and more in comparisons in the news, and in tweets from J.K. Rowling, wondering if people actually got the message of her books.

I need the comfort of knowing that Harry Potter was able to prevail, though he had magic on his side, and, as far as I know, we don’t. I’m going to read through all of the HP books again, in French and maybe in Hebrew, both to practice my language skills and to give myself a chance to fill up on hope, because my tank has been getting dangerously low.

One of the most powerful lines in the Order of the Phoenix movie comes from Hermione, trying to make Harry understand that his isolating behaviors are playing into Voldemort’s hands: “If it’s just you alone, you’re not as much of a threat.”

I always have to fight against my own isolationist tendencies, to remember that I’m not alone, and that it’s the people who have hurt me who have made me feel so alone, and unsafe, not my friends. The Harry Potter message, over and over, is that you can’t do it alone. The flip side of that message being, you can do almost anything, if you have help.

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