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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Cricket Saves The World

Cricket has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and they are very skinny shoulders. She wakes up in the morning believing that she has, single-handedly, kept her Grandma safe over night from all manner of insidious evil. Sometimes she curls up on Grandma’s head to protect her from bad dreams (though not from headaches, clearly).

Cricket thinks she is enormous.

Cricket thinks she is enormous.

“I’ve got you, Grandma.”

When Mom is quilting or making a pair of camouflage pants for one of her grandsons, or his raccoon, I always suggest the she use some of the material to make a superhero cape for Cricket. It wouldn’t be hard to make, but Mom does not believe that Cricket would be willing to wear a cape, or a poncho, or a sweater, or even a sari (we had some lovely diaphanous apricot colored material that I thought would look heavenly on her – but no).

A suitcase is sort of like a cape. Right?

A suitcase is sort of like a cape. Right?

As soon as Cricket has finished guard duty over the sleeping Grandma, she sets her sights on the front door of the apartment, where she senses that there are shadows lurking on the other side, trying to slide through the keyhole. She has been known to race down the hall, with her knees locked and her back feet barely touching the ground, to yell at some vague sound or another.

Cricket believes that every time she hears a noise she needs to make as much and, if possible, more noise in answer. So, one bark from a dog outside equals ten barks from Cricket. Ten footsteps on the stairs equals twenty barks from Cricket. It’s a rule as important as gravity, or conservation of energy. It’s not a form of communication so much as an energy matching plan, to keep us afloat. It keeps the world spinning. And if she can get her sister to bark with her, so much the better.

“What are we barking at, Cricket?”

The big test comes when we leave the building and her feet touch public space. Then she must be even more watchful; so many dangers lurk in the backyard! One of the worst, beyond the daily horror of mail delivery, is the man who walks up the Forbidden hill, at 6:45 in the morning, carrying newspapers!!!!!!

Cricket finds this horrifying. She barks, and pulls at the leash and tries to get her paws up into the air to fight. I drag her, and a bewildered Butterfly, up the Good hill (the one the co-op says we are allowed to walk on, and therefore does not weed or mow), until Cricket can no longer see the offending newspaper man. But she still barks at him in absentia. She barks much longer than any reasonable dog could think it might take for the man to walk down our block of buildings and out of sight.

When I take the dogs back down the hill, Butterfly strolls along but Cricket is still pulling to get to the invisible interloper. She has come very close to hurting herself any number of times by leaping into the air while her leash stays still, because I’m in the middle of picking up her sister’s poop.

Most of the time when we are out in the backyard, Cricket is so busy trying to save the world (from work men, mailmen, neighbors and squirrels) that she forgets to poop. Inside the apartment she was hopping and climbing on me and scratching at my arm or leg in desperation, but outside, there’s too much going on to focus on something as boring as having to poop.

Butterfly’s job is to follow Cricket, to back her up in a worthy cause, or to get in her face and offer some calming doggy breaths when the hysteria has gone on too long. But Butterfly NEVER forgets to poop, or pee, or listen to the birds, or meditate for a bit, or check out the cat food left out for the local feral cats. Butterfly’s priorities are internal. She hears the rhythms of her own body loud and clear and only focuses externally once those needs are taken care of.

“I’m meditating, and it could take a while.”

We finally make our way back to our building, and Cricket is still blinking, and checking from side to side, and imagining newspaper men hiding behind bushes and around corners. The girls have to stand in the lobby of the building while I bring the bag of poop down to the garbage cans in the basement (we have no outdoor garbage cans at the co-op, as a matter of policy that I still don’t understand). I can hear Cricket pacing and checking and sniffing under our neighbor’s door, to make sure that she is safe and sound.

Finally we get back to the apartment, and Butterfly begs for a treat and drinks three buckets worth of water, and Cricket’s throat is sore, and she’s out of breath, and she starts to look around and check in with herself and you can see that moment of confusion when she gives herself a sniff and realizes she forgot to poop.

Being a super hero is hard work, and requires a few sacrifices; just ask Cricket.


My Online Class

This is how Butterfly feels about school.

This is how Butterfly feels about school.

I spent the whole summer freaking out about the first online class for my masters in social work, as some of you know. I’m a very anxious student. I always worry that I won’t finish my work in time, and rush and rush, until I’ve finished everything by Tuesday, when it’s not due until Sunday. There is a lot of work for my online Human Rights and Social Justice Class: first of all, because it’s a graduate class, and second because it’s all in eight weeks, so each week is like two weeks of a regular semester. I take notes on everything: the chapters from the terrible textbooks, the scholarly articles, the radio programs, and the video lectures. Even when the information is duplicated and quadruplicated, I take notes each time, just in case I missed something.

I hope this will calm down soon and I will start to trust myself a bit with this new school format. I’m kind of enjoying arguing with all of these authors as I read their work – and one of our weekly assignments for class is a reflection journal to “process” what we’ve learned, so I can rant and go off on tangents and have my say and, eventually, the teacher has to read it.

Human Rights and Social Justice as a title for a class sounds daunting. It suggests a seriousness and a comprehensive-thousand-page-thesis vision of learning, but the reality of the class has been more down to earth. The Professor focuses on manageable doses of vocabulary and ideas, rather than expecting the TRUTH to come down from heaven and infuse us with a burning light.

There is an acceptance that these terms are so big as to be almost meaningless, or to carry many meanings within them. We each use these terms, and every term we learn in the jargon of social work, to mean specific things that they may not mean to other people: words like distributive justice, and equal rights, and positionality, and intersectionality, and internalized oppression, and on and on.

Cricket has already let me now her feelings about my watching the video lectures on the computer. She’s used to me reading quietly, or looking at blogs and pictures on line, but for the computer to talk, and for so long, makes her very angry. She had a big bad case of Barking Tourette’s during the longer of the two lectures, and I almost lost my mind.

“What the heck is that?”

“I must bark it to death!”

We have twenty one or twenty two students in our class and I read everything they write, because a lot of my classmates are already working at social service agencies and have valuable experiences to share, and because it’s nice to know someone’s out there reading and thinking about the same things I am. The online format is surprisingly intimate, and thorough, compared to in-person classes, because everyone gets a chance to have their say, and to respond to each comment that interests them. We don’t have to compete for attention, or fit our comments into a limited time period. We have all week to think and write and read at our own pace – and the professor can hear and respond to everyone, with no need to pick only one or two voices to speak for all of us.

Most of the work for the class is reading and then writing responses, but some percentage of the final grade will come from the final exam – a forty question multiple choice test that I will take on my home computer. Their answer to how to make sure we are not cheating is a service called ProctorU, where you sign in and someone sits there and watches you on your web cam, and talks to you, and checks out your environment, and makes sure you have no unacceptable resources. It looks really creepy. I am much more anxious about the process of being proctored online than I am about the final exam itself.

Maybe Butterfly could sit in front of the computer for me. Do you think they'd notice the difference?

Maybe Butterfly could sit in front of the computer for me. Do you think they’d notice the difference?

With my luck, Cricket will take an instant dislike to the proctor talking at us from my computer screen, and will spend the whole test barking, until my head splits open and all of that studiously gathered information spills out all over the floor.

“Cricket is ready.”

A Cardinal’s Song

We have a lot of birds in our backyard. There are the Baltimore Orioles and the Blue Jays and the Cowbirds and the Phoebes and the Starlings and these tiny little birds that seem like extra-large flies that crowd together in groups, and the Robins, and the Cardinals.

There was a Cardinal, back in the spring, whose song was like a Rosh Hashanah shofar blast – three long notes and nine short blasts, shvarim truah.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

This is someone else's picture of a shofar.

This is someone else’s picture of a shofar.

This is someone's picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

This is someone’s picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

The cardinal came before the heat and humidity, when I didn’t mind spending extra time outdoors, just to catch the end of a song or hear it repeated. We might as well call the backyard of the co-op a wild life preserve, given the feral cats, birds, raccoons, squirrels, and random humans who hang out back there. The retaining wall is a massive overgrown hill, full of various plantings and weeds and trees and flowers, and the birds have found plenty of places to live in there. Mom tossed out some quilting scraps to help them build their nests, and the fabric disappeared, so someone made use of it. It’s possible that the squirrels are fantastically well dressed this summer.

A local squirrel.

A local squirrel, not noticing me, yet.

Feral cat.

Feral cat, yawning.

When I went inside and reenacted a whistled version, Butterfly went nuts barking in response. It’s possible she was objecting to my rusty whistling technique, but maybe she understands bird, and I was singing a very offensive song.

Butterfly, offended.

Butterfly, offended.

My mom can pick out a few birds accurately by their songs, and what she’s not sure of, she can check with Google. (Google sounds like something a bird might say, after all, or it’s what Cricket says when she sees a bird and tries to run after it and her leash stops her.) But Mom had never heard a bird sound like a shofar before, and neither had Google.

Cricket, mid-google.

Cricket, mid-google.

The shofar blowing is supposed to be a wakeup call, or a call to arms, but at our synagogue it ends up being a competition between the shofar blowing guys for who can hold the long note (the tekiyah gedolah) the longest. By that point in the service, I’m starving and feeling faint and I wish they had just a bit less lung capacity so I could go home and go to sleep.

I’m not a fan of the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which start the Jewish calendar each year with a heavy dose of guilt and atonement. They probably throw in the apples and honey because otherwise we’d all shoot ourselves halfway through. The services are longer than usual, the clothes are more formal, the rabbis actually give speeches, and the synagogue is full to bursting with people I’ve never seen before.

When I was a kid I resented that we couldn’t sit in our regular seats for the high holidays, because someone else was already there, someone I’d never seen before who should really not be allowed to sit in my seat. Instead, I ended up in the folding chairs in the way back, because we were always late.

I would much rather have a bird service and sit outside on the lawn, and listen to the birds talking to each other. I wouldn’t have to dress up for that, or even comb my hair, if I didn’t want to. I wonder what the bird calls would wake me up to, the way the shofar wakes us up to do penance or atone or forgive or ask for forgiveness. Maybe the bird calls would simply be there to remind me to sing to someone, or to speak my piece to someone who will listen? Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a holiday? Cricket would love that! But she would probably spend all day singing and forget to listen to anyone else.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Lately we’ve had the cricket and katydid chorus blasting at us each night in the backyard when we take the girls out for their final pee, and Cricket thinks that’s as it should be.

Kosher Food

When I was nine or ten years old, not long after my family started to keep kosher, we went to a hotel up in the Catskills for Presidents’ weekend. It was a skiing resort, basically, and it was kosher. I’ve worked hard to block out the skiing portion of the trip because it was truly harrowing, but there was also an outdoor ice skating rink, and an indoor pool, and a theatre where the last gasp of the Borscht Belt came to perform. But most of all, there was the food. They made fake scallops from halibut, cut into rounds, and whenever they were on the menu, that’s what I ate. The waiters were convinced I was lying about my age, because I could have had a hamburger and French fries, or spaghetti and meatballs and I chose this?

But I’d grown up on seafood, at my best friend’s house; mussels and clams and lobster and crab legs were normal for me, and I missed them so much.

Seafood! (not my picture)

Seafood! (not my picture)

I discovered fake shrimp when my school took us on a class trip to a kosher foods expo when I was twelve. The fake shrimp was at the first table as we walked through the door. It didn’t actually look like shrimp, more like a distant cousin. And it was sweeter, and didn’t have the right texture. But I loved it. It had been only three or four years, by then, that I’d been without shrimp and lobster, but it felt like a lifetime. And just the idea that someone in the Jewish world seemed to feel my pain, and wanted to offer me a substitute, felt very kind.

There is a lot of internal conflict within the Jewish community about how to keep kosher. I couldn’t have school friends over at my house in junior high and high school because my family’s level of Kashrut was not high enough for the orthodox kids. We had only one sink and one dishwasher, so that even though we had separate dishes for meat and milk, they were all washed together. We bought strictly kosher meat and cheese, but we only waited an hour after a meat meal to eat dairy, and my classmates waited six hours.

I would like to give the ancient Jews the benefit of the doubt that the purpose of kashrut was to look out for the health of their people, by avoiding pork which would have carried trichinosis, and using salt to drain the blood from meat to preserve it. They were also thinking about the most humane way to kill an animal for food, and checking carefully to make sure their people would not eat meat from an animal who may have been diseased. But over time, other things were added in by the rabbis and sometimes it’s hard to know why.

How did “don’t cook a calf in her mother’s milk” become don’t eat any dairy for six hours after eating any meat? Not only can’t you eat meat and milk together at the same meal, you can’t, ever, eat them on the same dishes. Just washing the dishes with soap and hot water between meals is not enough, you need to have separate dishes, and pots, and pans, and utensils, and silverware. Wine has to be watched over to make sure it hasn’t been used for a sacrament in another religion, which would make it unkosher for Jews. (Wine, it seems, absorbs blessings more tenaciously than any other substance). And what the, pardon me, freaking hell is Cholov Yisroel? Jewish milk? Really?

When I hear about gluten free diets and wheat free, nut free, dairy free diets, and vegan and vegetarian and lacto-ovo, and only organic and no preservatives…I think this is probably what it was like with the early Jews. Everyone had their own weird rules around food and the rabbis wanted to put everyone on the same diet so they could eat together. Because that’s what it’s all about, you want people in your community to trust each other and eat in each other’s houses instead of each family eating alone in their own homes and guarding their own individual rules. The fact that kashrut has become one of the primary things that separates different groups of Jews from each other was probably not what the rabbis had in mind.

My current synagogue is a lot less strict than what I grew up with. I would call it “kosher style” or “Kosherish” if I were going to give it a name. No one is bringing in crab or pork or non-kosher meat into the building, but food can be brought in from homes or restaurants where non-kosher food is also prepared.

Our rabbi waxes nostalgic, not usually during services, about side trips to discover lobster flavored ice cream (disgusting, just so you know) and Philly cheese steaks (much better!) on his way home from one religious conference or another.

From early on, my father insisted that my brother and I had to try all of the foods he remembered from his childhood. We’d go to a kosher delicatessen for turkey and chopped liver on rye, or knishes, or knockwurst, or hot pastrami with mustard. I assumed that Jewish food was always kosher, and that any food served in a kosher restaurant must be Jewish, like Moo Goo Gai Pan, and sushi.

One day, my father brought home ptcha, calves foot jelly, a cloudy white mass served with lemon juice, and it was abhorrent (much as you might think). Then there was Kasha Varnishkas – buckwheat with bowtie pasta, which tastes kind of like sawdust and dirt, with onions. Stuffed cabbage was better, because we could remove the slimy cabbage and just eat the chopped meat and rice mixture inside.

Ptcha (not my picture, Thank God)

Ptcha (not my picture, Thank God)

Kasha (not my picture)

Kasha (not my picture)

The kosher butcher always has aisles of things to try – like potato knishes, and blueberry blintzes, sour pickles, Israeli pickles, Gefilte fish, Matzo ball soup, noodle kugel, and kishka (which used to be made with cow’s intestine and stuffed with yummy stuff, until they realized that no one could get past the intestinal coating and another coating was chosen). The last time I checked, though, they did not sell kosher dog food. This was the excuse orthodox families used, when I was growing up, for not getting their kids a dog: animals bring treyf into the house.

My father tried to make that argument at our house as he became more religious, and we said we were fine with feeding Delilah, our Doberman pinscher, all of the steak in the freezer, if that’s what he wanted. Delilah was also a big fan of hamburgers and brisket and grilled chicken breast and sausages. When there was no steak left in the freezer for my father’s Friday night dinner, he gave in on the anti-dogfood argument.



If Cricket could decide what was kosher and what wasn’t, I think she’d outlaw kibble altogether. She doesn’t believe in the need for fiber or a balanced diet. She would also declare that all meals should be shared with your dog, or else the meal will not be considered kosher. If you eat that whole pancake, and your dog has not had at least two bites, you have sinned.

"I deem this dish: Kosher!"

“I deem this dish: Kosher!”

And Cricket said, "It was good!"

And Cricket said, “It was good!”