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Learning German

 

A few weeks ago I went on my regular online search for a way to learn Yiddish. I keep looking for a program that will start where I am (at the beginning), and maybe give me some idea of why Yiddish seems to be filled with words I still feel too young to use. But none of the free language learning sites offer Yiddish, and the sites that charge a fee for each lesson are often too advanced for a beginner like me. Then I came across someone who suggested learning some Hebrew and German first, before starting one of the difficult Yiddish classes. So I added German to my Duolingo and Lingvist accounts, and tried to reassure Cricket that she would not have to learn yet another language along with me. She was not convinced.

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“Je ne comprend pas.”

The first time I heard German words coming out of the speaker on my phone, though, I felt like I needed to lower the volume, to hide some hideous crime; I didn’t realize how emotionally loaded the German language would be for me. Like when they taught me the word for “work”: Arbeit. My mind automatically finished the sentence to Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will make you free,” the motto on the gates to Auschwitz.

So many German words were familiar to me, even though I was sure I knew no German ahead of time. Some were familiar because they are pretty much the same in English, like perfekt for perfect, Haben for have, ist for is, etc. Some were familiar from the last names of so many Jews: Blume (flower), Berg (mountain), Stern (star), Baum (tree), Schreibe (write).

Essen and Fressen were also familiar words, because some time in my childhood my father tried to make a joke about people who eat like animals, and I didn’t get it, so he had to explain that Essen is eat, for people, and Fressen is eat, for animals. I don’t remember who he was trying to insult at the time. Schmutzig, for dirty, was familiar too, as in, you have some schmutz on your face. Then there was schmuck, which Duolingo said was the German word for “jewelry,” despite the fact that, for my whole life, I knew it as the Yiddish word for a part of the male anatomy.

One early discovery was that in the German language words can be capitalized in the middle of sentences. I used to get in a lot of trouble for throwing in unnecessary capital letters in High School English classes (this was back when assignments were handwritten, and not spell checked and grammar checked and emailed to the teacher). I realized that I may not have been making up my own rules out of thin air, as one teacher had suggested, and instead was just using the grammar rules of the wrong language.

I may have taken in more German than I’d realized in my childhood. My father did have a habit of speaking to our dog in his high school German, and I heard random Yiddish words whenever I was around older Jewish people (which was often), and I watched plenty of Holocaust and WWII movies over the years.

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“Ich bin ein Doberman Pinscher?”

It’s a funny thing. Politically, Germany has managed the aftermath of the Holocaust better than most other countries (certainly better than Poland, where they recently made it illegal to even suggest that Poland had any connection to the Holocaust). In Germany they educate their kids from an early age about what their grandparents and great grandparents did, and why it should never happen again. Yes, they still have neo-Nazis and white supremacists and fascists, but so does the United States. But despite all of that, I can just barely listen to a computerized voice speaking simple German words, and I’m still overwhelmed with words that remind me of things I wish I could forget.

I grew up with kids whose parents would never have bought a BMW or a Mercedes, because they were German-made cars, and Germans would benefit. I grew up with Holocaust survivors telling their stories, at school, and synagogue, and in books. This is my history. But maybe learning some German will help me come to more peace around this history, or at least help me to articulate what still resonates in my bones. One thing I know for sure is that German will give me a bridge to Yiddish, which is worth a lot to me.

 

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“Danke”

The Social Work Detective

 

I keep thinking about writing a mystery novel with a social worker as the protagonist. I never took a class in forensics or criminalistics (they weren’t offered at my schools), but I think one of the things that draws me to social work is the craving to be a detective; to find out the mystery of the person or family or couple sitting in front of me, telling me they have no idea what went wrong. My protagonist would be curious about everyone she meets, though, so I’d have to be careful to try to limit her focus to the people who are pertinent to the particular case at hand, or else the book will be never ending.

In real life, death and destruction, or any kind of physical pain or gore, horrifies me, but in a novel, murder calms me down. Maybe murder mysteries have the same paradoxical quality as Ritalin or caffeine: calming a hyperactive mind with a stimulant. The intensity of murder, in a novel, helps me to focus on one thing at a time, instead of on the thousands of priorities running through my mind: I need to lose weight, pay off my student loans, do my homework, find a second dog, get to work on time, keep up with friends, fix the world, and find the right outfit to wear on Thursday.

But would it be as calming to be the writer of the mystery instead of the reader? Would I have to do a ride along with the local police in order to get the details right? Would it be a cozy or a thriller? Would I have to kill off characters I like? Or worse, make one of my favorite characters into the murderer?

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Cricket, with the trowel, in the garden.

I don’t even know why I’m trying to plan a new novel right now, given all of the work I have to do for school. I feel swamped this year. The work seems harder and more all-encompassing, and the stakes seem to be higher too. But, it’s not so much that I want to write a mystery, it’s that my mind goes there on its own. Some part of my brain is always working on story ideas, and coming up with plot points and character names. Taking the time to put it all down on paper at least gives me some sense of order for these random thoughts, so that they don’t think they have to repeat themselves, endlessly, out of fear of being forgotten.

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“Listen to me!!!!!!”

The only thing I know for sure about my social work mystery is that there would have to be a dog in the book. This isn’t a social worker thing, just a me-thing. I would feel bereft trying to write a whole novel, or even a short story, without a dog in it. Cricket is auditioning for the role, but I’m worried she’d want to be the protagonist herself.

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“I am always the star of the show.”

 

The Bird Came Back

 

Last Sunday, while I was answering heartfelt condolences on the death of Mom’s friend Olivia, and sharing the joy of a visit from a bird who seemed to be acting as Olivia’s familiar, the bird came back. This time she came into the apartment through the small opening next to the air-conditioner in the living room (where Mom leaves bird snacks year round, just in case). The bird visited the quilting closet again, of course, and the light fixture in the dining room, but then she became more bold and stood on the kitchen counter to eat pizza crumbs off of a plate, and walked on the living room rug, looking for any treats Cricket might have left behind (as if that would ever happen).

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Psst. Check the pink thing.

Cricket tolerated the invasion moderately well, until the bird stepped into Cricket’s food bowl to sample the kibble, and then wet her beak in Cricket’s water bowl. The bird even had the temerity to wander under Cricket’s couch! Cricket ran after the bird at that point, and was flummoxed by the whole flying thing.

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“I must guard my couch from interlopers, Mommy.”

The bird landed on top of curtain rods and lamps, checked out cookbooks, and stood on my computer chair for a good long time, looking over at me with what looked suspiciously like Cricket’s side eye expression.

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(This is my favorite picture – photographed by Mom and her magic camera.)

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“These had better be vegan.”

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“This chair is just right.”

At bed time, instead of remaining in the living room, or the kitchen, the bird followed me and Cricket into my bedroom, investigating the tops of my bookcases, and the notebooks on my bedside table. She even followed Cricket into Mom’s room, and stood on the blanket, about a foot away from Cricket’s tail. We were starting to wonder if we had accidentally adopted a wild bird.

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“No. Just say no to the bird.”

 

Mom did research on Carolina Wrens, through Google and bird-wise family and friends, and she found out that this is the time of year when they go house hunting, to decide where to nest in the spring. Of course, we started to worry about how much bird poop we’d be dealing with if the bird decided to bring her whole family to live in our apartment, but there was also something gratifying about even being considered for such an honor.

 

When Mom woke up in the middle of the night (she and Cricket are big fans of the late night snack), she was sure that the bird had left, but then she saw a pile of feathers on the radiator in the living room. She was afraid that the bird had died, but it turned out that this was just the bird’s sleeping pose, puffing her wings out to act as a blanket, and stuffing her head down to mute the outside noise.

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Ssh. It’s nap time.

By the next morning the bird was gone. We were able to clean up all of the lingering bird poop, which is surprisingly tenacious stuff, but there was also a sense of loss, and then hope, that maybe the bird will return again. Maybe this will become a weekly Sunday visit! Cricket would not be thrilled with a bird in the house on a regular basis, but, for me, it was nice to have another pet again. I think Miss Butterfly would have approved.

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“Birdie!”

(Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Naomi Mankowitz. Any pictures that look less than perfect were taken by me.)

Olivia

 

According to the New York Times, Olivia Cole died a week ago Friday, on January 19th, which was only a few days after the last time my Mom had spoken to her on the phone. At first, we weren’t sure the news was real; maybe someone had confused her with her mother, who died this fall. But her mother had a different last name, and lived in NY, while Olivia lived in Mexico, and the news stories had that detail right. And then we saw a quote from her agent, and too many more details that made it all sound true.

Olivia was dead.

Olivia is dead.

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Olivia and her Mom

It still seemed so unlikely, though. She was just in New York in December, traipsing across the city by foot, despite her rheumatoid arthritis, because she didn’t like spending money on taxis. She even refused to take a cab when she had to be at the airport at five o’clock in the morning, and instead chose to wear most of the clothes, so she wouldn’t have to carry them, and take the subway at three o’clock AM, in the middle of winter.

Mom was worried about that trip back to Mexico, with twenty four hours in transit, and called Olivia a number of times to check if she’d made it home safely. Olivia had a landline, but no cell phone, or email, or even a computer, so when Mom didn’t hear back, so she emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel and finally heard that Olivia had made it home safely. It still took a few weeks for Olivia herself to call, though. She didn’t like to use her phone for international calls, so she would borrow her friend’s computer-based phone system, on Mondays, to make her calls. She called on MLK day, and the two old friends talked about the need to take care of oneself, and about the foundation Olivia wanted to build, to help finance early education for children of color.

Olivia was one of my mom’s lifelong friends, from their years in the drama club at Hunter High School, and she would pop in and out of our lives every few years, sending tickets to plays she was in, and visiting when she came to New York to see her Mom. The first time I met her in person was when I was eleven, when she played Mama in A Raisin in the Sun at the Roundabout theatre in Manhattan. Seeing Olivia on stage was just like seeing her in real life: she was a character. She was larger than life. She was stubborn and opinionated and fiercely intellectual, delving into the Shakespearean canon for life lessons in even the most obscure of areas. She loved acting, and reading, and opining, but she didn’t like fame, or compromise.

Then Mom received the email, this Thursday, from a high school friend, with the attached announcement of Olivia’s death in the New York Times. The article said that she’d died of a heart attack in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she’d lived for the past thirty years. Mom called to me from the living room, sounding odd, and the only word I understood was “Olivia” and I thought, that’s weird, Olivia wouldn’t call on a Thursday. When I reached her and she repeated “Olivia’s dead?” as a question, I was sure it was a mistake. Yes, Olivia was 75, and had rheumatoid arthritis, and no sense of her own limits, but she took good care of her health and went to all of her doctors on her most recent visit to New York. She hadn’t mentioned any heart issues to my Mom, but then again, she wouldn’t. She was full of plans for the future, and still full of piss and vinegar, never changing, and never really aging.

 

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Three old friends on a recent visit

Since we were still not quite believing the news. Mom emailed Olivia’s neighbor in San Miguel for confirmation. The email came back, yes, Olivia was found on her porch, sitting upright in a chair, reading an old article about Barack Obama. Friends hadn’t heard from her in a couple of days and decided to check on her, and they found her there on the porch. The comfort for the people who knew her is that this is exactly how Olivia would have wanted to go: reading and thinking and full of hope for the future.

I had to go to my internship soon after the death was confirmed, but Mom’s high school classmates stepped in, sending messages on their class listserv, offering memories and kindness and compassion. These New York girls grew up knowing that all that mattered was how smart you were, not the color of your skin, or which neighborhood you lived in; and a woman could become anything she wanted to be: a lawyer, a doctor, a mother, a teacher, a writer, or an actress.

There’s a sweet coda to this story. We had a visit from a bird last weekend, two days after Olivia’s death, though we didn’t know that at the time. The bird stayed in the apartment for a while, resting in the quilting closet, and on the vitamin bottles on the entertainment center, and then in the light fixture in the dining room. The bird seemed to want to stay with us, fluttering from place to place indoors, even though the window in mom’s room was wide open. Looking back at that visit, after the news of Olivia’s death, Mom is convinced it was Olivia, saying goodbye. Because that would be a very Olivia thing to do.

 

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Keeping Cricket Busy

 

A few years ago, I collected a bunch of Cricket’s toys and put them into a bucket on a shelf under the TV. The plan was to switch out the toys from the bucket every week or two, so that she could have the benefit of all of her toys, without spreading them on the floor where I would trip over them. Of course, I got distracted and forgot about the bucket of toys a long time ago. At around the same time, I stopped taking Cricket for her three mile walks each day, and she definitely noticed the difference and has perfected her disappointed-with-Mommy face.

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Recently, I watched a story about a man with a movement disorder who went to a special kind of occupational therapy, with not only a human therapist but also a doggy therapist. The exercises required the man to put treats into treat puzzles, in order to rebuild the strength and flexibility in his fingers. His reward was to watch the dog chasing after the toys and enjoying the treats. The smile on the man’s face when his knotted hands were successful at fitting the treats into the toys, and the dog ran across the room after the toys, was pure joy.

And it occurred to me that we might have some of those toys; not the flat puzzles with secret compartments, but the plastic toys in different shapes that would allow small amounts of treats out if Cricket could figure out how to make them bounce the right way. We’d bought a ton of toys for Cricket when she was an incorrigible puppy, in order to keep her from continuing to destroy the furniture with her sharp puppy teeth. And in the bottom of the bucket, under the everlasting chew toys, and the purple dinosaur that has dried into a husk of its former self, I found three treat puzzles of varying sizes and levels of difficulty.

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Pink vase, red ball, and blue thingy

Cricket has been needing more attention and distraction since Butterfly died, and even more so since it’s been too cold for Grandma to take her for extended walks in the afternoon; those garbage cans up by the 7-11 were an endless source of fascination. So I was willing to try something new to keep her busy, and, hopefully, happy.

I had to do some significant cleaning on the old toys – boiling them with baking soda and rinsing thoroughly – before I could risk putting food in them again. For my first experiment I used the pink vase-shaped toy. I was worried that I’d made the pieces of Pupperoni too big, and Cricket would go straight past optimal frustration into the land of rage and disappointment, but, actually, she loved it, and was busy for hours. She was actually disappointed when I gave her next treat toy to play with, the red ball, and she was able to empty it within minutes. Cricket likes a challenge.

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This is where Cricket uses her head.

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This is where Cricket guards her toy from the humans.

Now, if I try to let a day go by without filling the pink vase toy with treats, she gets grumpy, and insistent. She stands next to me as I fill up her toy and then she tosses it around the room, and hoards it under her couch, and does everything she can think of to make it give up its riches. I’m pretty sure that my face looks very much like that man in the occupational therapy video, full of joy, as I watch Cricket running after her toy and bouncing it into submission to get every last treat.

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“I need more treats. Now.”

Now, if only I could figure out how to set up a drone to take her for walks when it’s too cold for me. Does anyone know if a drone can be programmed to pick up poop?

 

 

Scrabble Trauma

 

I am terrible at Scrabble. I had a traumatic experience playing Scrabble once when I was a teenager, with the nanny of the kids I used to babysit for. English was her second or third language, so when the mom came home and looked at the Scrabble board and laughed at her nanny’s terrible spelling, I had to tell her, no, that word was mine. It was humiliating, but, really, it’s not my fault Scrabble doesn’t come with spell check.

People assume that writers are all great spellers, and grammar geeks, and can recite Shakespeare from memory, and none of those descriptions fit me. I never won a spelling bee in my life, I rely on spell check for everything, and I only lasted two semesters as an English major before my head felt like it was going to explode from boredom. I only like using big words when they capture something I couldn’t express in any other way, otherwise I prefer basic vocabulary. I am unlikely to wax rhapsodic about a vermillion sunset, for example.

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“Me neither.”

The idea of playing Scrabble, even now, makes me nauseous and sweaty. One of my best friends in high school was a demon at diagramming sentences. She loved the math of it. She also did well at spelling bees and vocabulary tests, but she hated writing essays. I could write essays and stories and poems ad infinitum, but my spelling was atrocious and the parts of speech still elude me.

My Mom plays Words with Friends on her computer. She has an ongoing game with my brother, and another with a good friend of hers, and she can stare at the screen for hours trying to come up with the perfect words, enjoying every minute. I would punch the computer screen within two minutes if I tried to play, so I don’t.

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“Grandma has been stolen by the computer.”

I had to look up the rules of Scrabble for this post, because I can never remember them. They seem random to me, even though the point value of each letter is supposedly determined by rigorous statistical determinations of letter usage in Standard English. Vowels get one point and less common letters, like Q and Z, get ten points each, which leads to some very silly word choices, in my opinion. Scrabble takes words, which I normally view as a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression, and turns them into nonsense.

One thing I did like, in my research, was finding the dictionary definition of the word Scrabble: to scratch frantically. This describes exactly what happens inside of my brain when I try to play the game; it captures my anxiety and panic perfectly. But is that how other people feel when they play the game? Are there people who enjoy frantically scratching at the sides of their brains?

I think Cricket and I are on the same page when it comes to Scrabble, or Words with Friends. Though Cricket’s anger has more to do with the fact that Grandma is staring at her computer instead of doing what she is supposed to do: scratching Cricket, frantically or otherwise.

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“Much better.”

Snow Day!

 

I really needed a longer winter vacation, so when the snowstorm hit the East Coast this past week and “forced” me to stay home, I was thrilled, though I still think I should be allowed to hibernate until March. The roaring sound of the wind scared Cricket when Mom took her out for her first pee of the morning, but when I woke up I took her out again, pulling her through the deep snowdrift at the front door, and then she got into the spirit of the day.

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“That leaf is mine!”

There’s something about a snowstorm that brings out the kid in me. Or the Cricket in me. Even with the snow swirling, and thirty mile per hour winds, Cricket and I went outside over and over again. I stepped into a three foot snowdrift, thinking there would be stairs somewhere under there, and just laughed when I fell into the snow. I tried to make snowballs for Cricket, but the snow was so powdery that it split apart as soon as I threw it, making little snow explosions over her head, which she desperately tried to catch with her mouth.

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This time she caught the snowball with her whole face.

I need a snow suit like Cricket’s though, because my loafers and yoga pants did not stand up well to the snowdrifts and, after a few short play periods in the snow, I needed a long defrosting break indoors. Cricket and I took a long afternoon nap to recover from our snow traipsing, and Mom made bone soup with lentils and carrots to keep us fortified, and then we went back out into the snow again.

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When I woke up the day after the snowstorm, the sun was shining and the roads were clear, and I realized how much I missed the drama of the wind and snow and everyone trapped indoors, marveling at the spectacle. In my next life, I would like to come back as a dog, with a furry coat like Cricket’s and a very understanding family. And I’d like to live somewhere far north, where it snows for half of the year, and I can go romping and playing and burying myself in the snow drifts until I’m so exhausted that all I want to do is eat treats and sleep in front of the fireplace, until the next adventure.

Fingers crossed that it will snow again on Monday!

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“Is it Monday yet?”