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The Clumsy Bird

 

A few years ago, I started working on a children’s story about a clumsy bird, but I couldn’t figure out how to finish it. I knew who the main character was: if there was a tree or a power line or a roof in her way, Lola would smack into it. Her mom took her to every doctor she could find and the bird doctors did every possible test on Lola. They diagnosed her with bad eyesight, then partial deafness, attention deficit disorder, maybe a neurological movement disorder of unspecified origin, or bird seed intolerance, but nothing seemed to stick.

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This is what I think Lola looks like

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This is what Lola thinks she looks like

The last doctor Lola went to was a specialist in flying disorders. He squeezed Lola’s feet, and rotated her wings and had her fly to and from his medical nest twenty times. And then he stared into her eyes, with his wormy breath going up her nose, and said, “You’re fine, go away.”

The flight back home was long and Lola’s Mom had to tie a rope between them to avoid an accident along the way.

Of course Lola had an older brother, who was embarrassed to be seen with her. And mean girls in her flying class (aka gym), who made fun of her for her awkward flying technique and tendency to fall out of the sky.

There was a boy bird in Lola’s class who was taunted for being “as blind as a human,” because he couldn’t see where he was going as well as everyone else could. Lola was nice to him, thinking they were in the same situation and could offer each other support, but he resented her sympathy. He called her clumsy, and taunted her along with the rest of the class, just to feel like at least he wasn’t as low down on the social ladder as she was.

I kept looking for ways for Lola to save herself. She was an inventor, by necessity, and created parachutes and nets and trampolines out of whatever she could find in the garbage. She spent months in physical therapy with the seagull at the beach, who was a little too hard core. He made her stand on pebbles to stretch the webbing in her feet, and wrap her wings around the trunk of a tree, and then he’d drop her into freezing cold water to shock her brain, but nothing changed. And then she was sent to the wise goose, who worked at the median of the main road. He spoke in riddles, while walking in constantly changing patterns to help retrain her brain. It didn’t work, but at least with the goose Lola felt less self-conscious, if only because he wasn’t like anyone in her own community, and he didn’t laugh at her for being different.

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This bird is one hard core trainer

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“Are you saying I’m fat?”

But what I really wanted was for there to be something in the bird world that would work better than in the human world. I wanted the elders of her community to come up with a non-stigmatizing way to help the disabled birds who lived amongst them. I imagined bird community conferences, with the elders sitting in the sacred tree, and the younger birds left to line up on the telephone wires, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the birds creative and compassionate enough to make the clumsy bird feel welcome.

I have this block against writing better endings for my characters than I have experienced for myself. It feels like lying in a way that fiction doesn’t usually feel like lying, to me. But I want better for Lola than to have to be in it alone, hitting up against walls that shouldn’t be there. I just don’t know how to get that for her.

 

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“You can do it, Mommy. I believe in you.”

 

 

 

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Look-a-likes

 

I have a friend whose 17-year-old daughter is like a facsimile of her, except that she does her hair and makeup differently (as in not at all) and dresses her own way. They’re like two identical dolls dressed by radically different children. There’s danger there, because my friend sees her own face so clearly on her daughter, and struggles at times to see her daughter as a separate person, with different characteristics, and needs, and limitations. The temptation to project yourself and your own feelings onto such a familiar face must be extraordinary.

“You sound just like your father.” I said this to my second oldest nephew recently, because I heard his voice from a distance and actually thought it was my brother. His voice had deepened significantly since my previous visit. The older one looks more like his father, and the younger one sounds more like his father, but neither one of them is just like either of their parents, even though there are those genetic matches, and habits they’ve picked up in how they phrase things.

I look very different from my mother, especially in body type. I am taller, with a bigger frame. I’m built more like my father, which does not feel good to me. As a teenager, I tried to starve myself down to the right size, so that I would resemble my mother more, and my father less, but it only lasted long enough to give me fainting spells and muscle cramps, and when I started eating again, the illusion of similarity disappeared.

My father is six-foot-four and over three hundred pounds. He used to be unspeakably strong, before diabetic neuropathy, two strokes, cancer, and age. My hair is brown with red highlights, like his was, rather than dark brown to almost black like Mom’s. My nose is more rounded, like his, my face is more Russian, like his, my skin color is peachier, like his, whereas Mom’s coloring is more Mediterranean. To other people it’s probably subtle to the point of invisible, but to Mom, and therefore to me, the differences are overwhelming.

The fact is, I didn’t and don’t look like my father. I have a full head of hair, and no beard. I am nowhere near as tall or imposing as he is, and my body language is very different. I wasn’t a smaller version of him, at any point in time. But when categories were being given out, my brother matched up more with my mother and I matched up more with my father, and that was that.

For a lot of people, there’s relief in being able to see a parent’s features in a child, if only because it proves parentage. That way you know for sure that the babies weren’t switched at the hospital, and the mailman didn’t get his genes in there without you knowing. But I wonder if looking nothing like your parents might be easier, as long as you are certain of their love and attachment, because then people can see you more clearly as an individual and not so easily confuse you with someone else. But then again, we all look for clues to who we are in the people in our families. We look for a great uncle with our particular inability to do math, or a cousin with our propensity to laugh until we fall on the floor crying. The balance between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in is so precarious.

I have two dogs instead of human children, and they are small, white-haired dogs. We will never show up in those side by side pictures of dogs and owners who look alike.

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“Wait, you don’t look like us?”

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“We need to lie down.”

When I was younger, we used to have black-haired dogs, so that was a little more like me. I especially felt like Dina, my black lab mix, was my familiar, even if we didn’t look exactly alike. I related to her “black dog” status, not the most desirable puppy at the shelter, not the right size or breed or coloring to be popular. There were lots of puppies like her at the shelter, and at every shelter. But mostly it was her personality, and her status in the family, that I related to. She cried desperately when we had to keep her downstairs in the kitchen as a puppy, before she was potty-trained. She escaped from every enclosure we made for her, but no one was willing to put time and effort and money into training her, or buying her special beds and toys and treats, or coming up with a set schedule for her. She was largely left to her own devices, like I was, and she was overwhelmed, like I was, and she developed some odd behaviors as a result, to try to comfort herself, like me.

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Dina’s smile.

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Me and Dina (we even dressed alike).

A look-a-like was what I needed at that time. Someone I could think of as just like me, and still worthy of love and attention and care. Taking care of Dina taught me how to take care of myself. But by the time Cricket came along, I was ready for a dog who was not like me at all, but who needed me anyway. She was so assertive, and cute, and very high maintenance. She taught me that even though there’s a steep learning curve in loving someone so unlike yourself, there’s also a freedom in it. It’s so much easier to accept her strengths and weaknesses as they are when they don’t reflect on me. She’s her own person and I can see her clearly without judging her, or myself, quite so much. And that’s a relief.

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Cricket is her very own person.

Puppy On Call


 

            Cricket needs a job. She has a lot of excess energy, and uses it for barking and biting, and I’d like to find more constructive ways for her to keep busy. Some ideas that have come up in the past are:

·        Fitness trainer. She could help anyone build upper body strength and cardio, by pulling like an ox on her leash for three or four miles at a time. She might have a lot of one time customers, though, after an hour with her, I’m not sure we’d get follow up visits.

"Streeeeeeettttch!"

“Streeeeeeettttch!”

·        Assistant dishwasher at a restaurant, pre-cleaning the dishes. Except that any dangerous foods would have to be picked out before she got there, like onions and raisins and chocolate…

Cricket is an expert dishwasher. At least, Butterfly thinks so.

Cricket is an expert dishwasher. At least, Butterfly thinks so.

·        Ball puppy at a tennis court. Though I wonder if anyone would really want the ball back after she’d been carrying it in her mouth.

·        Carnival barker? I don’t think they really mean her sort of barking.

Nothing seemed quite right, and then I started thinking about my brother, the doctor. What if Cricket could do something in his field? I don’t actually believe she could go to medical school (anti-puppy prejudice!), but a hospital would be a fascinating place to work.

Doctor Dog (found online)!

Doctor Dog (found online)!

            Children in the hospital can get very lonely, especially at night, when their visitors go home and the noise quiets down and they are supposed to be asleep. I know dogs have been invited in during the day, but I think they could be even more helpful at night. I can picture the puppies wearing blue scrubs, and beepers at her necks. Puppies could be called by the nurses when a child had a nightmare and couldn’t get back to sleep, or when parents had to leave at bedtime and knew that the child would be lonely.

The human handlers could bring the dogs in and leave a jar of treats by the child’s bedside table, with a bowl of water the dog could reach.

            The job of the human handler would be to be as unobtrusive as possible, but also to know when a child and puppy combination would not be a good match. If the child was angry, at being in the hospital and poked and prodded, and lashed out at the dog, the human handler could remove the dog from harm and prevent the dog from needing to fight back.

            The puppy-on-call room would have to have treadmills, and fake grass to pee on, and a water fountain to drink from, one for the big dogs and one for the little dogs. There could be a play circle filled with tennis balls and chew toys, and mats and beds to sleep on between jobs.

The dogs could do rounds earlier in the day, to meet the children currently in the hospital, and help the doctors with sniffing diagnostics, and then the dogs would be on call at night.

            But now that I think of it, I’m not sure this would be a great job for Cricket. She’s a bit more of a me-me-me dog, rather than an aching-to-be-of-service-to-others dog. Now Butterfly, she’s a whole other story. But her scrubs would have to be a light pink.

Butterfly is very patient.

Butterfly is very patient.

And very Zen.

And very Zen.

            Maybe Cricket could work for the police? Drug sniffing? Recapturing escaped prisoners? She’d be great at catching anyone resembling a leaf or a stick.

"Gotcha!"

Cricket always gets her leaf!

The Baby Substitutes

Me and baby Cricket

Me and baby Cricket

 

Almost from the beginning, I carried Cricket like a baby, she grabbed around my neck with her front paws and wrapped her back paws around my waist, or whatever was closest. She’s kind of a cross between a dog and a monkey the way she can use her limbs like arms and legs. I wanted to make the most of the hugs and baby-like things about her in case I never got to have a human baby. Maybe I was being too fatalistic.

I used to think I was in therapy almost entirely to prepare for motherhood, to make sure that I would be functional and kind and smart in raising my children and not take out any of my weirdness and depression on them.

Throughout my twenties, I had a dog with serious neuroses – separation anxiety, fear of strangers, fear of bridges, panting out half her body weight and releasing hair in piles every time I left the house. I practiced on her, learning how to be a mom to her, how to set limits and offer comfort and accept her as she was and teach her what she could learn.

Dina in her mild old age

Dina in her mild old age

My prospects for becoming healthy in time to be a mom before my eggs wither and splat are not good. I’m not quite at the point of no return yet, and with reproductive technology, that point has been pushed off even further. But I already feel the loss. I thought my number one goal in life was to be a writer, and it was, and is, but it turns out that being a mom was second, not fourth or fifth like I would have thought.

Theoretically, I could go to a sperm bank, or foster a child, or adopt. Mom would help. But I don’t feel like I’m up to the challenge. And I’m not sure if I would like children as much as I like dogs.

There are a lot of things that just aren’t the same about parenting a child and a dog. Children grow up and go through many different stages of development and need to learn how to be responsible for themselves and think independently. You can’t clicker train a child if you want them to make their own decisions about right and wrong some day. A dog remains on a leash or in an enclosure and never learns to drive or gets a credit card or finds a job or robs a bank.

Cricket is a lot of hard work. If she were a human child I would say that she has ADHD and maybe a conduct disorder. And I would say that, as a parent, I struggle with disciplining her and setting clear rules and keeping her busy in productive ways. I feel like instead of building better parenting skills from raising Cricket, I’ve become resigned to the way Cricket is.

Cricket, biting the hand that feeds her

Cricket, biting the hand that feeds her

I accept that I will have a shorter amount of time with Butterfly. She only came to me at eight years old, after a hard life, and her breed’s life expectancy is twelve to fourteen years. But what I’ve learned from Butterfly is that I could adapt to raising a child who is not a baby when they come to me, and is already formed by difficult circumstances. So, again, the dogs are my practice for little humans.

My adopted Butterfly

My adopted Butterfly

But they may also be all there is. I may never give birth or adopt or even foster a child. I may never be financially, emotionally, or physically ready to be a mom. And if that’s the case, then the dogs ARE my kids. And I need to take as much joy and education from their presence as I can.

My girls

My girls

Solomon, the dastardly Doberman

 

            Solomon was the first significant dog in my life. We have no pictures of him, probably because he was never stationary long enough to be caught on film. He was a Doberman Pinscher with clipped ears and tail, and he was mythological in personality. He was a puppy when I was still in diapers, and he used to grab the used cloth diapers away from my mother before she could clean them.

It was odd, looking back, for my Jewish father to be drawn to a pure bred, German dog. He came from a generation of Jewish people who refused to even buy a German car. But he liked the idea of a guard dog to protect his house, or his castle.

As Solomon got older, he was a very handsome dog, but not kid friendly. He was eighty pounds of muscle and he only did what he wanted to do. He didn’t like cuddles or playing catch. He certainly didn’t want to play dress up with me. He had a habit of escaping from the backyard and leading a parade of cars trying to catch him as he ran down the street.

One time, he ran away and took over someone’s lawn. He wouldn’t let the family into or out of their house for a whole day, until they were able to get to his name tag and call my parents to come get him. That’s probably when my parents called a trainer to help them manage him better. But the trainer said that my father’s aggressive response, jerking Solomon’s chain and yelling at him, and my mother’s very opposite submissive response, were the problem. And my parents knew they couldn’t change each other any more than they could change Solomon, so that was the last of the trainer.

When Solomon was four years old, and I was five, he was diagnosed with Parvo. I looked up the parvovirus online recently, and the symptoms didn’t sound good: bloody diarrhea, vomiting, anorexia, lethargy, fever, and severe weight loss. He stayed overnight at the vet and they sent him home with medication and an uncertain prognosis.

A few days later he was stretched out on our kitchen floor, listless. Our kitchen was very seventies, with orange and yellow wallpaper and a lot of light coming through the windows and the open back door. I sat on the floor with him. He was still alive but this vigorous, aggressive creature was wiped out by his disease. He was still and silent and he watched me solemnly as if he was finally seeing me. I don’t know what he was trying to communicate. Maybe he was asking me why he had to be so sick. Maybe he hoped I could make him better. Maybe he was just relieved to have someone with him while he died.

My mother covered him with a yellow knitted blanket, and stayed with us in the kitchen. I don’t remember if she was cleaning the kitchen or making dinner but it seemed like she was keeping busy because she was too sad to look at him. I sat there next to him and patted his head and looked into his eyes and I felt like we were together in this.

People underestimate what children can feel and understand, because children don’t have the words yet to tell you what they know. But I felt his grief and I stayed with him until he was gone, because that’s what I would have wanted him to do for me.

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