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The Little Bird

 

The morning we brought Ellie home, I was out with Cricket in the morning and we came across a little robin, sort of hopping on the walkway in stutter steps, and then belly flopping onto the grass. Cricket had had a moment of uneasiness with her legs a few minutes earlier, possibly as a result of the ACE she takes to tolerate grooming, so I was extra sensitive to motor problems in animals at that particular moment. When I tried to get closer to the robin to see what was wrong, though, she hopped behind a line of bushes and disappeared.

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Not the exact bird, but a relative.

We saw the robin again in the afternoon, when she was bravely crossing the lawn to the tree-side, in her faltering little hops. The bird was able to sort of hop/fly up onto the first step of the retaining wall, where she could sit and rest for a bit. I worried that there was something wrong with her wings and she needed help, but each time I got close to her the robin freaked out and hopped away.

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Another relative, giving me the eye.

When we took Cricket and Ellie out for their first official walk that evening, the robin was sitting on the lawn a few feet in front of our door. Mom said that her speckled breast meant that she was young, less than a year old, and maybe just learning to fly for the first time, rather than experiencing a serious injury.

And by our next walk, the robin was gone. If she was able to fly, even a short distance away, then maybe her motor issues were temporary, just like Cricket’s. I’d like to think that she was testing her wings, and making new friends, and starting the next phase of her life. Just like me. I’ve been taking these stutter steps towards my future for a long time now, unsure if I can do it, unsure if my difficulties are just growing pains or permanent disability. I need to take a lot of breaks to rest and re-group, but even if I have to hop instead of fly most of the time, I keep going. Just like the little bird.

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Mama robin watching over everything.

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p.s. Ellie is fitting right in.

 

My Voice

My Voice

When I was little, I used to sing stories to myself. I would walk to the library, make up a story, and revise it over and over, all to some endless tune in my head. My mother loved that I would sing around the house, and she wanted me to sing more. It was her idea to find me a voice teacher when I was in eighth grade. She wanted me to know that my voice was worth taking seriously.

I was always singing, or shouting, it's hard to tell.

I was always singing, or shouting, it’s hard to tell.

My first voice teacher had an opera background, but she spent most of my lessons on vocal exercises and breathing exercises, teaching me how to breathe from my diaphragm, and stand up straight, and relax my shoulders. I’d never much liked practicing scales on the piano, but vocal exercises made more sense to me. She taught me to sing through the mask of my face, like a raccoon, and to change the shape of my mouth to make the consonants clear and the vowels more open.

My father insisted that we sing songs together after Friday night dinner, as a family. But, he didn’t believe in normal limitations, like that a baritone might struggle to hit a glass-shattering high note. He refused to choose a key that everyone, including him, would be comfortable with, and he didn’t care about the quality of the note when he was done with it. He could rip it and strangle it, and drown the note in coughing, but if he hit that note, even for a second, he’d won.

And he did not like competition. He didn’t want me to practice singing between voice lessons. He would complain that I was “caterwauling,” even if I practiced in my room with the door closed. He’d complain about the money Mom was spending on my lessons. And eventually, he made it clear that he believed in the ban on kol isha – the voice of a woman – that we’d learned at school. I could sing at home, but it would be unacceptable to allow my voice to be heard by men outside of the family. He believed that singing, for a woman, is a salacious, sexually provocative act, and if I do it, I am a whore.

Unfortunately, around the same time as I was getting used to my voice lessons, we had a guest speaker at my orthodox Jewish school. Only the girls were invited to the gym to listen to her. She performed for us first, doing her own version of beat boxing, using her mouth like a drum and her hands as tambourines. The things she could do, the sounds she could create with no musical instruments to back her up, were incredible. There was something like bird song about her voice, as if she was born with these songs in her body and she just had to release them. She wasn’t just hitting notes, she was putting spin on them, like a tennis player, top spin and back spin, hollow sounds and full sounds, cold and warm, shivery and strident, all from one voice. I wanted her to be my teacher.

After her performance, she told us that she’d been a voice student at a prestigious conservatory, training for a professional music career, when she started to visit Chabad (a Chasidic Jewish outreach group) on the weekends. She gradually became more and more religious, until it became clear that as a religious Jewish woman she could never sing in front of men. She’d pieced together a career as a speaker, and sold her music to strictly female audiences. Her message was clear: being religious comes first, before anything else you might want, or love, or need in life.

Her visit haunted me. I didn’t stop singing altogether, but I felt her hand tightening around my throat.

My black lab mix, Dina, came along when I was sixteen years old, and she was a singer too. You had to hit a certain note, something in the howl-range, and that would set her off. Her pitch was pretty good and she could sing a nice clear note or series of notes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy it. She seemed like a button had been pressed in her brain and she had to sing, and had no control over it, and no choice. She seemed relieved when the singing stopped, as if it had taken so much out of her and now she could rest in silence.

Dina as a puppy.

Dina as a puppy.

I took a few years off from trying to sing, until my last semester of college, when I had two credits to kill. I’d been feeling like a robot, detached from myself and my voice, and I hoped voice lessons would help unlock something. I didn’t have to perform in public; my lessons would be in a safe, partially soundproof room. I still couldn’t practice at home, though, so I’d sing in the car on the way to and from school.

This was my first male voice teacher, and he was closer to my age, and friendly, and an opera singer. Whenever he actually sang something I sort of cringed, though. I’m not an opera fan. The vocal quality they strive for is bombastic and brassy and kind of hurts my ears, but he was very nice. He had me singing from an opera workbook, in Italian. There was something freeing about singing in a language I didn’t understand.

I sang to Dina at home, but not too loud, and never in full voice, and gradually, the hand around my throat grew tighter and tighter, telling me to stop singing, and I did.

Dina had a lot to think about.

Dina was a very good listener.

When I think back to that girl singer, though, telling us that she had to give up her dreams in order to be a good girl, I wonder if I ignored something important. With her words, yes, she told us to hide ourselves from the world, but her body carried a different message. Her voice seemed to be saying that, if you have a bird trapped in your chest, flapping its wings and trying to sing its song, you have to let it sing, or it will die.

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Cricket is on Prozac


 

A few weeks ago, when I was getting fed up with the overwhelming balls of goop under Cricket’s eyes, I went to pick her up to address the problem and she bit my hand, twisting the skin with her teeth. The pain was extraordinary.

Cricket has a prescription for ACE, the doggy version of Xanax, for her trips to the groomer, but clearly, she needed more help. So for this year’s check up with her veterinarian, I planned to ask what else we could try.

I think this was Cricket’s first solo outing since we brought Butterfly home almost a year ago. When she realized that we were on our way to the car, without her sister, Cricket was jumping and skipping with glee. She loved being an only dog again, even for a little while.

Back when Cricket was an only puppy.

Back when Cricket was an only puppy.

She wasn’t as thrilled when we reached the vet’s office, though. She sat on my lap, and then behind my legs, and then she jumped up on Grandma’s lap and started all over again.

There is a bird in the waiting room at the vet’s office who is as much of a scratchy glutton as Cricket. He’s a parrot. An African Grey, I think. He stands in his cage and rings a bell to get attention. When Cricket moved over to Grandma’s lap, I said Hello to the bird and he walked over to my side of the cage and bowed his head for scratching. It was a strange feeling to scratch through feathers. They were soft and small around his head, and I worried that I was pulling them off as I scratched. But when I backed off, he bit the cage and cried and re-bowed his head insistently. He was really quite demanding. And regal. He bowed his head with noblesse oblige, as if to say, I accept your tribute, oh, dog person.

A noble bird, named "Boopy."

A noble bird, named “Boopy.”

"You may scratch my neck."

“You may scratch my neck.”

"Where do you think you're going?"

“You are acceptable.”

I had to leave him behind when we were called into the exam room, and he rang the bell to try and call me back. I was quickly distracted, though, because Cricket was busily looking for a place to hide, and when she couldn’t find one, she asked to be picked up. I tried to hold her in my arms, but she climbed behind my neck and stood on my shoulders, gripping my hair for dear life.

"Help me!"

“Help me!”

The vet is used to her, and her kind. He always has to call in one of the vet techs to hold Cricket in place while he takes her blood and gives her shots. God forbid they have to clip her nails or remove hair from her ears, but we didn’t have to deal with that trauma this time, so I won’t think about it.

When I asked the vet about Cricket’s anxiety issues, he recommended a trial of Prozac. I’ve been putting off asking for such a thing for years. I hoped training would help, or that Cricket would just grow out of it, or that Butterfly would help calm her down, but nothing has really worked.

I’ve gotten to the point where I’m less concerned about her behavior and more worried about how she feels. She doesn’t enjoy barking and being on guard all the time. She often looks grumpy and depressed, and worried. I’d love to be able to make a dent in that for her.

The vet said that, other than the crazy, Cricket is in wonderful health. All of the anxiety and barking certainly keeps her weight down.

When we got back home, Butterfly had to do a full sniffing investigation to find out where Cricket had been. There were a few odd smells, like the rubbing alcohol where the doctor took blood, and the faint smell of bird, but Butterfly was satisfied, both that Cricket was unharmed and that Butterfly had not missed out on anything good.

"Cricket has passed the smell test."

“Cricket has passed the smell test.”

Every morning now, Cricket takes her Prozac in a piece of sausage, and while she enjoys the sausage, I think what she likes most is that Butterfly doesn’t get a piece of her own. We’ve discovered that people food makes Butterfly pee in the house. Maybe if we could find a medication to stop the pee, Butterfly could have morning sausage treats too.

But Cricket would not like that.