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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?”

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