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Bird Town

 

We used to have a colony of feral cats in the backyard at my building, or so I’m told. Over the past few years, the feral cat population has been gradually dying off, or leaving town, without being replaced. There is only one cat who has come by this year – I’ve seen him twice now – and he is a huge grey and brown cat, who looks like he may have swallowed one of the local raccoons. I tried to take his picture, but he faded into the background so well that all I could see were his eyes flashing back at me through the camera. As a result of the decreasing cat population, though, the local bird population has been exploding.

We have two, very loud, bird families living adjacent to our apartment: one under the air conditioner in Mom’s bedroom, and one under the air conditioner in the living room. Mom says they chose those spots because of how the air conditioners are set up, with a piece of wood on the window ledge, allowing for a hidden nest. But I think she was just looking for a nice way to explain why there was no bird family under MY air conditioner. The fact is, Mom likes to feed the birds – there was a frenzy over the bowl of poppy seeds she put out a few months ago, and the leftover Passover matzo was a big hit – so I’m pretty sure that she’s the draw.

A few weeks ago, we started to hear the baby birds squawking in their hidden nests, their voices gradually lowering each day, but still crying out for food, hour after hour, when their parents went out to hunt and gather. For Mother’s day, Mom shared her chocolate crepes with the bird family in her bedroom window, and in exchange, the parents agreed to pose for pictures.

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Mommy Sparrow

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Daddy Sparrow

There’s something about all of that squawking and singing that brightens the air around the apartment – though Cricket finds the babies’ voices a bit hard to get used to, and she really doesn’t understand why they get to eat chocolate crepes and she doesn’t.

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“Harrumph.”

There’s another bird family in the back yard. In one of the Rhododendron bushes, just below eye level, a Robin made herself a nest. At first it seemed like a strange place to choose, but as the flowers have blossomed and the leaves have spread, the Robin and her nest have become very well hidden. I have to bend down to get to eye level with her, and it’s almost impossible to get a good picture of her, through the leaves and flowers. Once her nest was finished, she proceeded to deliver four beautiful blue eggs, one each day, and then she sat herself down to wait.

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Really, she’s in there.

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And so are they!

I stopped by to say hello to her a few times a day, when I took the dogs out for their walks, and I made sure to ask her how she was doing, and how the eggs were coming. I even put some of Butterfly’s kibble down near the nest, but not too close, in case she didn’t appreciate sharing a dog’s food. I had the strongest impulse to grab one of those blue eggs one day, and had to clench my fists and walk it off. I decided to manage the pull I felt towards that nest by stealing pictures of the babies, instead of risking the temptation to steal the babies themselves.

As I left for work on Tuesday morning, I checked the Mama robin as usual, and she was standing instead of sitting on the nest, and I wondered why (and asked her). That’s when I saw two baby bird beaks lifting into the air. I went back inside to tell Mom that the babies had arrived, and to get my camera. I got a picture of side eye from the Mama Robin before she flew off, and then a few images of blurry pink shapes with white hair puffs here and there, because the babies were sleeping in a tangle and hard to distinguish from one another.

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Mama Robin gives good side-eye

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Blurry Robin babies

I try not to check on the babies more than once a day, but it is fascinating to watch them as they separate into identifiable individuals. Mama Robin keeps flying away when I arrive, landing in a nearby tree and squawking at me from a distance. She seems to have recognized that I that I’m not a danger to her babies; at least I hope she knows that. I choose to believe that she’s just running away because she’s worried that I’ll catch a picture of her on a bad feather day.

Even mommies can be vain.

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Robin babies on Day Two

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Robin Babies on Day Three

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Robin babies day 4

 

In the Heat

I hate the heat. It’s still only spring on Long Island, but the temperature went up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit the other day, and then it went down again, so that the heat in my building came on, until it felt like it was at least eighty degrees again. Just to piss me off. When I get too warm, by even a few degrees, I start to get double vision, bad headaches, dizziness, and sudden bouts of nausea that make me want to sit down on the floor for a few hours until the world stops spinning. It’s unpleasant.

At my synagogue, people are always telling me how chilly it is with the air conditioning on. Aren’t you cold? Four women ask me, one after the other. If it’s over 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then no, I’m not chilly, I’m fine.

I’m considering attaching a small fan to Cricket’s head so that when she, inevitably, jumps on my chest and tries to smother me awake, at least I’ll get a nice cool breeze for my trouble.

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“Where do you think you are going to put this fan, Mommy?”

Cricket is currently a big fluffball, because my mom prefers the fluff and always conspires with Cricket to put off grooming for as long as possible, until not only can’t we see Cricket’s eyes, but she can’t see us either, through the encroaching hair from her forehead above, and her cheeks and nose below. It’s possible that she’s staring at me with searing hatred; it’s also possible that she’s asleep. I’ll never know.

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“I don’t see a problem.”

If I were Cricket, I would go to the cabinet and take out the rounded-edge doggy scissors, and bring them to one of the nearby humans, as a hint. But Cricket is not me, so she hides under the couch and pretends it doesn’t bother her at all that she can’t see, and has started to smell of eye snot, and is probably sweating to death in that fluffy coat. Totally not a problem. Everything is cool here.

Butterfly likes to sit in the direct line of the fan, or the air conditioner, and feel the breeze in her hair, but she also likes to go out for walks in the heat of the day, so she’s an enigma to me.

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“I’m an enigma? What’s an enigma?”

I would like to complain about the current changeability of the weather, and how it goes from hot and humid, to rainy, to cold and windy, and then to mild and pleasant, so that I am forced to change from my winter jacket to my fall jacket to my rain coat al in one day. But by July, the heat and humidity in New York will be so unrelenting that I will be hugging my air conditioner for dear life. Even Cricket will be splayed out on the floor, looking for one last cool spot. Though she still won’t be begging for a haircut, or a bath. She could be dying of heat stroke and she’d still see the bathtub as a torture chamber. So, I’m trying to embrace the moments of nice weather when they come up and ignore the rest for now. Maybe, along with putting a fan on her head, I should get Cricket a book bag so she can carry all of my weather options with her: like a bottle of water, an extra sweater, and maybe a rain hat. Then all I’ll have to do is convince people that she’s my service dog and bring her with me everywhere I go. I mean, what could go wrong with that?

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“Help Me!!!!”

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The future service dog.

 

 

The Book of Job

 

I’ve been missing the bible study class at my synagogue for the past two months, because it’s on one of my internship days. When I come home from work, I can barely move, let alone get back in the car after dinner and make sense of the Book of Job. My brain is like a block of ice by the end of the day, and it takes hours and hours for any melting to take place in order to allow room for new information to come in.

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“You want me to go out, again?”

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Cricket refuses to go.

I like bible study at my synagogue. It’s nothing like the way we read the books of the bible in my schools growing up. In elementary school (liberal) we read each book like a story, straight through, looking for plot twists and heroes and villains. In Junior high and high school (orthodox) we read everything line by line, or word by word, with three sets of commentators arguing about the deeper meaning of each spelling oddity.

My current rabbi likes to take a literary/historical approach, giving us a sense of when each book was written, and what lessons the stories were meant to convey, and who decided to include them in the canon.

I was in class for a few of the early chapters of the book of Job, where Job is pissed off at God, and wishing for an early death, and his “friends” are self-righteously correcting his thinking and telling him to trust in God and he’ll be fine.

Bullshit. That’s what I was thinking as I sat there reading those annoying passages about how a good person would think and act and speak, accepting fate and God’s judgement and blah blah blah. I came very close to screaming at my poor rabbi for making us read this crap. Can’t they see that this man is in pain?! What kind of friends would have such a lack of compassion?!

            Okay, so I actually said this out loud. But my synagogue is full of social workers and teachers and social activists, so I was not alone in my plaint.

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“We’re with you, Mommy!”

The rabbi rolled his eyes at me (he does this a lot) and said, they’re not really his friends. It’s a literary device (with a look at me, like I should have recognized this). Job gets to criticize God and cry out and get his words published for the world to see, as long as these straw men can put up their empty counter arguments too. Why else would the rabbis have chosen to include the Book of Job, about a non-Jewish man, in the Jewish Canon, if not to offer room for anger at God? They know their people. The Jews need to complain and rail at God, and this was a way for the rabbis to give them permission.

            You have no idea how disappointing this was for me. All this time I thought that my railing against God and orthodoxy and, you know, the weather, was unique to me and a sign of my special insight and intelligence and bravery. But, no. Everyone feels this way, or at least a lot of us, and the rabbis wanted to give us a safe container to express those feelings, without getting excommunicated.

I know that the trend is to do gratitude journals and focus on the positive and say all of the “right” things. But, in my experience, we all have things to complain about and if we can get those complaints out, and find validation with our friends, we’ll have a chance to survive the stress. Whenever people complain to me about something, and then apologize for complaining, I automatically tell them there’s no reason to apologize. Complaining is one of our best tools for maintaining good mental health. Make two complaints and call me in the morning. If we just pretend that everything is okay, and swallow the pain, and spout self-righteous messages on how to be perfect, our heads will explode. Poof! Poof! Poof! Brains exploding all around me.

It’s possible that I learned this lesson about complaining from Cricket, who never lets a complaint go unbarked. Or from Butterfly, who sits down when I try to pull her leash and just waits for me to get the message, I know what I need, Mommy, now f*** off. Though I don’t think Butterfly would ever use that kind of language. I would. But she’s a much better person than I am.

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Cricket is contemplating all of her complaints, and trying to choose the one to bark next.

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Butterfly demonstrating her sit-in techniques.

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And now they are exhausted.

The White-Throated Sparrow

 

Have you ever heard a piece of birdsong in the morning and then been unable to get it out of your head? It seems odd to call this kind of song an earworm, but that’s what it is. I was out with Cricket and Butterfly, and this bird just kept singing, over and over, until I found myself trying to sing along. First, I tried to whistle the song, but my whistling skills seem to have dropped off over the years. So then I tried to sing it, but it was early in the morning and my upper register was not awake yet. As a result, my version of this bird’s song was an octave lower, slower, and maybe a bit jazzier than the bird intended. It’s possible that the bird wouldn’t even recognize his song the way I sang it.

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“I hear birdies.”

After getting rid of the poopy bags, washing my hands, and giving the girls their morning dental treats, I sang the song to Mom (she is basically a savant when it comes to the names of birds and plants, just don’t ask her to remember the name of a person she has known for twenty years). Mom went to her best friend, Google, for help, and she found a bird song website. We listened to the songs of all of the possible suspects, based on who she knows to frequent our yard, and I said, No, No, Nope, Not even close, until she found the singer. The website said that the White-Throated Sparrow has two songs: one that goes up, and one that goes down. The one I kept hearing was the one that goes down.

Mom took out her trusty recorder to help me figure out the starting note, which turned out to be F over High C. When my voice is warmed up I can hit G above high C, but that early in the morning it was a challenge. And of course, as soon as I finally managed that F, Cricket duplicated it without a problem.

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The singer!

The whole idea that a website can capture all of the birdsongs, because each type of bird has only two or three songs in her repertoire, and sings these same songs over and over again, for the rest of her life, boggles my mind. I wonder what would happen if a baby bird, trying out her voice for the first time, accidentally sang a different song from her parents. Is that what gets babies kicked out of the nest prematurely? Or are baby birds physically incapable of that kind of heresy? Maybe it’s like a pre-set recording in the bird’s throat and any time he tries to speak that song is the only thing that comes out.

Then there’s the Mocking bird, who can mimic any other bird’s song, which is kind of like doing Karaoke for your entire life. Is that better?

I originally thought that the singing bird might also be one of the birds building a nest complex under Mom’s air conditioner. It’s a couple, actually, and Mom gave them a handful of colorful scraps of fabric, to help with their interior decorating, but they are still busy with construction, adding room after room to this McMansion of a nest. The nest builders are Sparrows too, but from another sect. Maybe the singer is the construction manager, giving his orders from on high! I’ll have to be more careful singing along to these bird songs in the future. Who knows what kinds of messages I’ve been sending to the bird population without realizing it?! Wait, what if they all think that I’m a Mocking bird?!

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“You’re not the mockingbird, Mommy. That’s MY job.”

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The very busy birdie.

 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-throated_Sparrow/sounds

 

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?”