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Why I eat in front of the TV

            The one rule that I have never been able to stick to in every diet I’ve ever been on, is don’t eat in front of the TV. The reasoning for the rule is that when you watch TV you go into a dissociative state – you are focusing on the TV characters or the story or the horrible news, or the sound effects, and not on yourself – and therefore you are likely to overeat. But distracting myself from myself is pretty much the point of watching TV. I find my own thoughts overwhelming, especially my own thoughts around food.

            I haven’t had a problem with other aspects of dieting – I can drink enough water, and exercise, and use small plates, and eat-this-but-not-that, and reduce portion sizes – but I can’t turn off the TV. If I were only allowed to eat at the dining room table, with no distractions, I think I might starve to death – because food just isn’t worth that kind of suffering.

“I don’t understand.”

            This sounds crazy, I know. But I think the problem started because nightly family dinners were one of the most consistently awful parts of my childhood. And it was consistent. My parents, who didn’t believe in regular chores or bed times, believed in eating dinner together as a family, every night, no matter what. I couldn’t escape to eat alone in my room, or say I wasn’t hungry, or even leave the table early. Those were just not options in our house. When I found out that other families didn’t always eat dinner together, I was shocked.

“Sometimes I like to eat alone too. So, stop following me.”

            We didn’t eat “kid food.” I heard about families where the kids ate fish sticks, or chicken nuggets, or refused to eat vegetables, or only ate white food, but I thought those were fairy tales. There was only one menu for dinner and it had to fit what my father wanted to eat and that was that. There was a time when my brother tried to be a picky eater, keeping his peas away from his meatloaf on the plate, or refusing to eat cream cheese and jelly sandwiches because they just didn’t go together, but that didn’t last. He trained himself to eat whatever was put in front of him, whether he liked it or not.

            My father also had a habit of throwing dishes (if they had minor chips in them), or yelling about having to eat chicken twice in one week, or just yelling because he was in the mood to yell. Otherwise, dinner conversation was most often focused on my father’s problems at work, or arguments about paying the bills, or other adult problems that needed to be solved. There were so many times when all I wanted to do was to crawl under the table and sit with the dog, whichever dog we had at the time, but I wasn’t allowed to do that either.

            I remember Friday night dinners, the worst of the worst of family dinners each week, when we had to stay at the table for hours, with guests, and discuss the news (Jeffrey Dahmer), and the gossip from our synagogue (ugh, don’t ask), and the latest unfairness my father had experienced at work (where they were all out to get him), and listen to my father’s childhood stories, where the moral of every story seemed to be that he could get away with doing any crazy shit he wanted. Everyone acted like all of this was normal, but I didn’t want to hear about the serial killer who ate his victims, or the rabbi’s affairs, or my father’s paranoia. And when I didn’t join in with the laughter or sympathy the way I was supposed to, I became the problem. That was when I became the target of jokes about my sensitivity, my looks, my eating habits, etc. I was a rich target, they told me, because I always “overreacted.”

            I remember a few times in my teens when I desperately wanted to leave the table, and leave behind yet another endless argument about whether murder is really wrong, or monogamy is necessary, or sexual harassment is actually a thing. I was the only one on my side of every argument (Mom abstained, excusing herself from the table to serve food or fill the dishwasher or do pretty much anything else). As the awfulness continued, I actually fell to the floor hiccupping with high pitched giggles, unable to catch my breath.

            I still wasn’t allowed to leave the table, though Mom came over to rub my back and give me a glass of water (which I promptly snorted through my nose).

            My eating habits were already disturbed by then. I was sneaking food past my mother after school, and alternately starving myself and binging on cookies I didn’t even like (either because my father liked them and if I ate them he couldn’t have them, or because they were the only cookies in the pantry).

            I tried, once, as an adult, to force myself to eat at the kitchen table in the old apartment. I put a notebook next to me so that I could write down whatever came to mind, and I sat solemnly in my seat, alone, staring at my food. But I couldn’t eat, or write, or breathe, really. I persisted, one meal a day for a week. If it had led to pages and pages of writing, and insight, and recognition of the emotions behind it all, I might have continued the experiment, but none of that happened. Everything in me just shut down, and all I could do was force myself to sit there and fork food into my mouth, but I couldn’t taste anything.

            So when the week was over, I let myself eat all of my meals in the living room again, in my comfy chair in front of the TV, and color came back into my life and food tasted good again. I knew I was choosing to dissociate from my body, and most of my mind, as I sat there eating in front of the TV, but I also knew that that was the best I could do at that moment.

“We could use a snack.”

            I still struggle to taste the food when I eat at a table with other people. The anxiety is too big and I just eat mindlessly, unaware of hunger or taste or how much I want to eat.

            With my Intuitive Eating project, I didn’t even bother trying to eat away from the TV, even though it’s high on the list of rules, or suggestions. I told myself, and my nutritionist, that this was one rule I knew I couldn’t follow, and if she insisted on it then I wouldn’t be able to continue. But she accepted it. She said that you should only challenge yourself as much as is helpful, because pushing past your limits is counterproductive.

            So, I eat while I’m watching the news, or Christmas movies, or Law & Order. I eat with a towel on my lap, to protect the couch and my clothes. I eat with my dogs surrounding me, begging for my food with their eyes, and then with their voices. And the food tastes good. Maybe someday I will be able to eat dinner at the dining room table (I’ll have to move the dog treats, box of wee wee pads, and containers of snacks first, though), and maybe not.

“What are you eating now, Mommy?”

            In the meantime, I hope I can come to some kind of peace with food, even if I can’t come to peace with the dining room table.

“Tables are overrated.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

My Father Died

            I found out that my father had died by listening to Mom’s side of a phone call. It took a while for me to figure out that she was talking to my brother, and then even longer to figure out that he was telling her my father had died. I had to wait until the call was over to get the details – that my father had been in and out of nursing homes and hospitals for the past three years (which we sort of knew, from clues but not from direct information), that he didn’t have dementia (which is what Mom had assumed), and that there was drama around when and where the funeral would take place.

            I wrote to four people after I found out – two good friends, my therapist, and my rabbi. And my rabbi rushed out of a committee meeting (reluctantly?) to call me and see what I might need from him. He already knew the backstory, about the sexual abuse and the estrangement (I hadn’t seen my father in 23 years), and he said something that really stuck with me. He said that the commandment to Honor your father and mother is often misinterpreted. The word in Hebrew is Kaved, which actually means weight or weigh, not respect or honor. It means that you should weigh the role of your parents in your life when you decide what you owe them in return; you are not required to blindly honor or respect a parent simply because they are your parent, but because they acted as a parent should and raised you with love and respect and guided and protected you. The commandment to Honor your father and mother is not meant to be a get out of jail free card for any parent who abuses or neglects their children.

            I am not orthodox, like my brother and his family, and I don’t believe that my rabbi is the final word on what I can and can’t do as a Jewish woman, but it helped to have validation and support, both from a person I trust and from the tradition of my ancestors.

            I made sure to tell my rabbi not to put out an announcement that my father had died or to add my father’s name to the list for the Mourner’s Kaddish at our synagogue at Friday night services. I didn’t want to receive messages from people who care about me but don’t know my situation, telling me that they are sorry for my loss and may my father’s memory be a blessing. It isn’t a blessing. He wasn’t a blessing in my life.

“Grr.”

            Jewish funerals are required to take place as soon as possible after the death, but I did not go (though Mom watched it on Zoom to support my brother and his children). And I didn’t go to sit Shiva at my brother’s house, though Mom went to visit and to offer support, avoiding discussions about what did and did not happen in the past.

            I stayed home and sought comfort from my friends and my dogs and my therapist, but I was jealous of my brother’s ability to mourn our father, and all of the Jewish rituals that would support him through that process. I found myself feeling jealous of anyone who could find comfort in hearing their lost loved one’s name read out each week before the Mourner’s Kaddish, or who found comfort in saying the Mourner’s Kaddish and praising God in the memory of their lost loved one. I’m jealous of people for whom the traditional rituals work – like giving nostalgic eulogies and having friends and family over to reminisce and tell stories and share food for a week. Those mourning rituals are so beautiful and powerful, but only when thinking about the lost loved one is a comfort.

“Oy.”

            My situation doesn’t fit into the traditional framework. My father sexually abused me, and others. He was a pedophile and a narcissist and a manipulator, and he denied what he’d done and denied the significance of the things he couldn’t dispute having done, and never made any attempt to make amends. If anything, he continued to try to convince important people in my life that I was lying and he was a victim. The fact is, I still live in a world that doesn’t want to reckon with the reality that abuse and neglect are everywhere, and that they destroy lives every day.

            This was brought home to me, vividly, that night, when, after writing my emails and texts and making my phone calls, I tried to distract myself with an episode of New Amsterdam on NBC. It’s a hospital show with an idealistic bent, often too simplistic, but still hopeful about making the world a better place. It’s not my favorite show, but I watch it regularly and often find it comforting and/or interesting. But for whatever reason, that night, out of nowhere, the writers chose to go down a rabbit hole about Recovered Memories.

            Recovered Memories is a somewhat generic term that people often use to describe traumatic memories that have been forgotten at some point and then remembered later. A lot of how you define the term Recovered Memories depends on what your intentions are: if you want to debunk the idea that it’s even possible for memories to return after a period of forgetting, you will probably define Recovered Memories as wholly forgotten and then remembered only with the help of a therapist or a drug; if you believe that trauma can cause memories to fragment or be blocked for some period of time, you’ll probably define Recovered Memories more generally, as partial forgetting and partial remembering over time, often triggered by events in the present that remind you of the past trauma (like your own child reaching the age you were at when you were abused).

            On this episode of New Amsterdam, the writers decided to take the loveable psychiatrist on the show, who is more often than not empathetic and kind, and have him testify in court that all Recovered Memories, of any kind, are unreliable. They even had him quote a study about The Shopping Mall Experiment, where the researchers said they were able to “implant” memories in susceptible adults of having been lost in a mall in childhood. The study has been debunked for any number of reasons, but the biggest reason is that traumatic memory and “normal” memory are not the same, and while being lost in a mall might be scary, it would not qualify as a traumatic memory unless something traumatic happened while you were lost.

            But still, I wanted to believe that the writers on the show were going to handle the issue sensitively, and in the next scene they gave me hope when the psychiatrist’s female colleague confronted him with her own recovered memory (though not of abuse), and with the terrible impact his testimony would have on millions of women and children who had been abused and tried to testify to that in court. But then the psychiatrist doubled down on his belief that not only Recovered Memories, but ALL memories, are unreliable. He went on to specifically attack the legitimacy of his female colleague’s memories, by researching the probable season and location where the memory would have taken place, disputing her memories of the weather on that day in order to prove to her that it could not have happened the way she remembered it. He was relentless and wildly inappropriate, and the writers gave no explanation for why he would feel so strongly about this particular issue or why he would be willing to be so cruel to his friend.

By the end of the episode it seemed to me that the writers’ intention was to use this whole storyline as a way to question the female colleague’s memories of how her father had left her when she was little, so she could reassess her feelings towards her still living mother and therefore change her plans to move to London, which threatened the status quo at the hospital; but they could have found hundreds of other ways to change her mind without invalidating millions of people.

            I was in shock. The violence of the psychiatrist’s attack on his friend seemed to come out of nowhere, and the female colleague’s willingness to forgive him right away was out of character and bizarre. But more than that, the way the writers were misrepresenting the research was horrifying, especially because it is well known in the field that traumatic memories often have missing or distorted nonessential details, like the time of day, or the weather, or the clothes you were wearing, and those mistaken details have no bearing on whether or not the crux of the memory is true.

            The emotions I couldn’t produce in response to the news of my father’s death came roaring up as I watched this show and felt invalidated and manipulated all over again. You can’t prove it and therefore it didn’t happen. You have no pictures and I don’t want to believe you and therefore it didn’t happen. Your memories, your symptoms, your feelings, are nothing in the face of what I want to believe.

            But I’ve done the reading that the writers on New Amsterdam clearly did not bother to do, and I’ve done the listening, to many people who have been abused, and I know that the brain often tries to protect us from knowing things we are not ready to deal with. I just felt so let down that a show that had seemed thoughtful and kind was no longer trustworthy.

“Oh no!”

            I am still processing my father’s death, and trying to figure out how it changes things, if it changes things. I am safer now than I was as a child. I am loved and supported and listened to and believed; and I cherish the people who have brought me comfort and made my world a better place. But the mourning process is still ongoing, for the loss of the childhood and the father I could have had, and for the years spent trying to recover, and I wish there could be established rituals to help me through this kind of mourning. There are so many of us in similar situations, trying to cobble together the support we need to move forward. I can’t be the only one who struggles to create those rituals on my own, and I can’t be the only one who feels let down by a world that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness and validity of the need for those rituals.

“Would hugging a puppy help?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Johnny Weir and Dancing with the Stars

            I started watching Dancing with the Stars when Cricket was a puppy, as a way to unwind after her training classes every Monday night. Even after we gave up on the classes – Cricket hated being told what to do – we kept on watching the show and practicing our Waltz and Tango together. In our version of Dancing with the Stars, lifts were always allowed. Cricket thought we should allow biting and scratching as well, but even I have limits.

“Help me!!!!!”

            I’ve kept up with the show ever since, even though I’ve been annoyed by the voting for years, with beautiful dancers being voted off early in favor of crowd favorites without much dance ability. Honestly, I should have given up on the show a while back, but I still love the dancing, and I record each episode so I can fast forward through the silliest parts. When the change in hosts was announced over the summer I was ready to give up again, because you need a host with a sense of humor to puncture the pomp and melodrama of the show, and they went in the opposite direction, but after the entertainment-starved Covid summer, and the announcement that Johnny Weir would be on the show this year, I decided to give it another chance.

Johnny Weir (not my picture)

Johnny Weir is a classical balletic-style figure skater, one of the first openly gay figure skaters, after Rudy Galindo opened that door with a bang in his U.S. Nationals win in 1996. Figure skating, maybe because of its reputation as a feminine sport, has spent many years forcing its gay male skaters to stay closeted, but Johnny Weir, who won his first Nationals in 2004, was ready to be himself, no matter what. I was excited to see how he would handle the ballroom styles on Dancing with the Stars, but especially the partner dancing. And he didn’t disappoint. As the season progressed, I was more and more compelled by Johnny and his partner, Britt Stewart, and how they negotiated their male and female roles, using both their costumes and their choreography to push past the expected into something less familiar and more equal. They were often at the top of the leader board, based on the judges’ votes, but the audience votes kept putting them in danger.

            I never thought I would be this compelled by Johnny Weir. He was always a beautiful skater, but as a young man he could be catty and stinging in his comments about other skaters. And when he pushed boundaries on gender norms back then, he did it in a sort of obvious way, like the teenager and young adult he was at the time. I was always impressed with his courage and his talent, but not his maturity. In his interviews on Dancing with the Stars he explained some of the snarkiness as the result of being a young skater who was surrounded by adults critiquing how he expressed his sexuality in his skating, long before he knew that that’s what he was doing.

            He started to grow on me when he and Tara Lipinski began commentating together at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, as the second team on a faraway channel. I didn’t expect to like their commentary at all, honestly. Tara Lipinski had never been one of my favorite skaters (as a Michelle Kwan fan, I am still bitter about the way Tara-the-jumping-bean came in and won so easily). But Tara and Johnny were fun to listen to together. They were playful and honest, and much kinder than I’d expected them to be. Johnny, especially, was funny and insightful and more compassionate and vulnerable each year. Tara was still Tara, but I appreciated her enthusiasm and how well she responded to Johnny’s playfulness. At some point I decided that if Johnny Weir liked her there might be something there worth liking.

SOCHI, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 14: Figure skating champions Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski comment for NBC the Figure Skating Men’s Free Skating on day seven of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)

            With Britt, on Dancing with the Stars, Johnny was exploring another male/female relationship, based on mutual respect and vulnerability, and quietly breaking stereotypes of what male/female relationships have to be in dance. But I guess the rest of the audience didn’t see things the same way. Johnny and Britt’s last performance in the semifinal was a jazz routine that, to me, seemed to be bursting with hope and strength and trust, but they were still voted off.

            I want to give the audience the benefit of the doubt. Maybe other dancers who made it to the finals had more intense fan bases. Or maybe the viewers preferred to watch the journey of someone with no dance experience, rather than someone coming from a similar field, like figure skating. But I’m afraid the reason Johnny Weir didn’t make it to the finals is simple homophobia, or more specifically, fear of the way he was attempting to widen the scope of what it means to be male. I wonder if people would have been more comfortable with him if he were a transgender woman, or if he had refused to identify with either gender. Instead, he was saying that there are more ways to be a man, and that there are more relationships worth exploring in dance than the heteronormative romantic partnership, and I think both of those things scared people. But, for me, there was something fascinating, and challenging, and full of potential in what Johnny and Britt were exploring together, and I wanted to see that continue. At the very least, I wanted to see their freestyle dance in the finals.

            I missed out on the chance to really see him grow as a professional skater, because by the time his generation retired from Olympic skating, the golden age of professional skating on TV was fading, and the shows that were still on TV were overproduced, with the same skaters in each show, doing programs with the same choreography just set to different music. But for years before that, there were shows and competitions for the professional skaters, where they could showcase their growth as performers, beyond the triple and quadruple jumps. I feel very lucky that I got to see skaters like Torvill and Dean, Scott Hamilton, Katya Gordeeva, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning and so many others as they pushed skating into new directions. I wished for the same with Johnny Weir’s generation of skaters, but if they were building their artistry in their professional careers, it wasn’t being shown on American TV. Dancing with the Stars was a chance to see Johnny Weir perform as an adult, and I loved that his style challenged my idea of what’s possible and what’s beautiful.

I hope that Dancing with the Stars will learn from this season and find a way forward that honors both the hard work of the dancers and the range of emotion that comes up as they learn how to dance. They’ve created a valuable platform for exposing audiences to all kinds of non-traditional dancers of different sizes, ages, abilities and backgrounds. It’s a show that can be silly and over the top one minute and then deeply resonant the next, and it’s worth saving, but it really needs saving. More than that, though, I just want to see more of Johnny Weir’s dancing. Maybe someone will hear me and give him his own show: a series where he can train with different choreographers and build his style as a dancer, or a let’s-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn kind of show, or a return to the more varied and complex skating shows of the (recent) past. That would be a nice way to say good bye to the toxicity of 2020 and move into 2021 with more hope.

I also think there should be a Dancing with the Dogs spin off, but I’m probably the only one. Cricket and Ellie are skeptical.

“Don’t even think about it, Mommy.”

Just in case you didn’t get to see Johnny Weir on Dancing with the Stars: https://youtu.be/jTLtCj-Hcj4

Or during his Olympic eligible skating career: https://youtu.be/5FVrjUIcCuQ

            And, just because, here are some of the great performances from those professional skating shows:

            Torvill and Dean: https://youtu.be/4OWk5a0I1BA

Kurt Browning, Paul Wylie, and Scott Hamilton: https://youtu.be/QCapfwISfAU

Katya Gordeeva: https://youtu.be/QdkFS3R30-8

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Before and After #MeToo

            I’ve been thinking about the #MeToo movement a lot, especially in the shadow of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, which has led to both protests and intensive discussions over the past months. The parallels in how discrimination functions are so clear, no matter which group is being put down. The literature on microaggressions and systemic racism gives language to what women face too, especially women who have been sexually abused by men and then have to function in a world that is inherently prejudiced against women’s voices. It is incomplete to talk about sexism in the workplace without acknowledging the deeper wounds many women carry with them into adulthood, because they were born female.

Ellie says, “Me too.”

Violence against women and children is part and parcel with a culture that keeps women from advancement in the workplace, and allows the workplace to be hostile to women in a sexual way, as well as in the form of gender discrimination. We talk as if women experience sexism for the first time as adults, in the work place, as if sexism hasn’t been impacting us throughout our development, creating their expectations and self-perceptions and opportunities. Even though we are more aware of the prejudices women face today, we are barely scratching the surface.

            I grew up in the eighties, when women were supposed to be able to accomplish anything men could, while still being held to many of the older expectations of womanhood. My lived experience as a child wasn’t just about my abusive home life, or my religious Jewish education, but was also deeply impacted by the fact that I watched A Lot of television, where it was clear that women could be anything, yes, as long as they were beautiful or skinny or sexy (or all three!) and willing to work at the pleasure of a man.

There was a show called Three’s Company in syndication when I came home from school each day. It was a sex farce (no, really, that’s what they called it), and the local New York station aired it at Five o’clock on weekdays. It was a sitcom about a man who had to pretend to be gay in order to live with two women, because, you know, they might both be having sex with him all the time if he were straight. The innuendo and misunderstandings centered on the man supposedly being gay and also on one of the women’s “blonde moments.” The women were ALWAYS being groped and demeaned, and while I remember that the man was an aspiring chef, I have no memory of what the girls did for a living.

I didn’t feel like I could turn off the television, because when the TV was off I felt the fear and loneliness of my real life too vividly. I kept it on while I did my homework, or played with my dog, or even read through piles of library books. TV was my constant companion, but it was also my teacher. TV was my way of finding out about the world and learning how I was supposed to think and act in order to fit in.

“Who needs to fit in?!”

Out of desperation, I often watched a show called The Honeymooners at eleven o’clock at night, while I waited for Johnny Carson’s monologue to start. I cringed at all of the screaming from Jackie Gleason who played Ralph Kramden, a New York City bus driver living with his long suffering wife in a gritty Brooklyn apartment building. He was always getting into trouble and blaming other people for his problems, especially his wife. He would scream at her, “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!” He didn’t actually hit her, and he would eventually apologize, saying, “Baby you’re the greatest,” and give her a kiss and a hug. The excuse for his behavior seemed to be that they were working class and struggling to get by. A comment I read online said that there had been arguments about whether or not the show depicted domestic violence, since the threats were always “comical,” and he never followed up. But even back then, for me, the show was very clearly about man’s right to threaten and blame and demean women and call it funny. I’d been trained for The Honeymooners by watching my father’s behavior, which was very similar. He always praised himself for not actually hitting us. I’d actually watched The Flintstones first (basically an animated version of the Honeymooners, set in the Stone Age, appropriately enough), and found that disturbing too.

My other option at eleven o’clock, when The Honeymooners got to be too much, was MASH, a dark comedy about the Korean War, made during the Vietnam and cold war era. It was lauded for its nuance and political commentary, and when I watched it in syndication in the eighties it was only a few years out of date, but for me, MASH was just another show obsessed with women as sex objects and men as the drivers of all action, thought, humor, and pathos.

            I took some, brief, solace in shows like The Facts of life, which, especially early on, showcased a wide range of girls with different body types and personalities and interests. But it was a rarity. Most shows starred men, or boys, and presented women as sex objects, or money hungry, or both.

            Star Wars, one of my mainstays, was also filled with sexism. Princess Leia, who should have been powerful and in charge, always had to be dressed in skimpy clothes. The whole first act of Return of the Jedi was Princess Leia in a push up bra, locked in chains as Jabba the Hut’s sex slave. It didn’t escape me that, of the twins, only the male had the powers of the force.

            And then there was the music, especially the videos on MTV, where Heavy Metal and Hard Rock and Rap videos all featured scantily clad women draped suggestively over cars, for some reason. Madonna was a huge star back then too, in large part because she was willing to exploit her own sexuality instead of leaving it to the men. Neither of those options were going to work for me.

            Things started to change on TV when I was a teenager, I think. Oprah Winfrey revamped her talk show and started to discuss issues like sexual abuse more openly. And China Beach showed that the skinny, sexy, tipsy nurses on shows like MASH had a lot more going on behind the scenes, even if the men refused to see it.

            But change was slow, and inconsistent, and often, like Madonna, moved from the exploitation of women by men to the exploitation of women by women, to show that women could be powerful too. Even now, we still accept an extraordinary amount of misogyny as normal in our movies and on TV, in our books and certainly in our politicians. And we still seem to accept the trope that men can’t be expected to control their desires, but girls as young as ten (no, younger) are held responsible for choosing to wear outfits that men consider provocative, and are assumed to know exactly what impact they are having on men. But girls and women are also judged for being too plain or prudish in the way they dress. A sixteen year old girl who dresses in baggy clothes, or skips makeup, is clearly just not trying to be successful, and she should be ignored, or hated (just take a look at the backlash against Billie Eilish), whereas a sixteen year old boy can wear whatever he had on for soccer practice and become a superstar.

            The backlash against Billie Eilish, by the way, for dressing in baggy clothes, is constant and virulent, as if she’s a thing rather than a person, because she won’t let us judge her breast size. The fact that girls generally hide under so many layers when they have been sexually assaulted barely gets discussed in favor of how freakin’ weird that girl is; so moody.

“I’m moody too. You wanna make something of it?”

Even this past year, post #MeToo, with half a dozen pre-eminently qualified, charming, accomplished, intelligent, and hard working women running in the presidential race, we still ended up with two old white men, in the DEMOCRATIC primary. (And yes, a woman of color has been chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, but that’s one man’s choice, not the choice of our whole society.)

            And now, during the pandemic, we’re experiencing what media figures are calling a Shecession, because it’s most often women who have had to quit their jobs, or reduce their hours, to take care of the kids. And since women are more likely to work in hospitality and education, where so many of the jobs have been lost due to Covid 19, more women are losing their jobs than men and a decade of employment gains made by women has been eroded. On top of that, the jobs were low paying to begin with, so those women didn’t have the benefit of savings to make it through the recession safely until their jobs can return, if they ever return.

            I’m tired of being told that we solved sexism with #MeToo, just like we solved racism back in 1965, and we should just get over it. The assumption behind both statements is that if women or people of color are still achieving less, or earning less, it must be because they are as inferior as we thought they were, and not because there is still something wrong with the system.

            I’m not sure #MeToo changed much, actually, other than a few men with egregiously long resumes of abusive behavior being fired from their high profile jobs. As a society, we’re not even reading long lists of books exploring systemic prejudice against women, or discussing what it means to try to pull yourself up by bootstraps that don’t exist, because they’ve been ripped off by force.        

            One of the more startling realities of the Black Lives Matter movement is that even though most of the originators of the movement were women, the movement overall barely addresses women’s issues. Women were also at the heart of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and then too the issues specific to black women were barely discussed.

            I don’t have a solution to this. And watching the backlash against Black Lives Matter protests, including the killing of protesters in the streets, is demoralizing. I’m tired of the ways manipulation of reality has continued, and worsened, in our current environment. I’m tired of all of the ways being female makes me less likely to be believed or even heard, than the average white man. Maybe having Kamala Harris on the big stage will have an impact on our society’s willingness to listen to and respect women. I hope so. Get your ballots in early if you can.

“I’m ready!”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The Children Inside

 

Generally when I write in my blog, or anywhere else, I’m writing from the point of view of my most grown up, most presentable self, because that’s what people do. When I leave the house to interact with other people I generally dress up in a certain way and use certain words and facial expressions, and I pay close attention to how I present myself. Am I being nice enough? Mature enough? Responsible enough?

But when I’m at home, watching TV, doing puzzles, or playing with the dogs, other parts of me are allowed to surface and have their say. There’s a lot of arguing about food (Why can’t I have the whole container of ice cream right now?) and clothes (I want to wear pajamas all the time!) and entertainment (Cartoons! No, wait, mysteries! No, episodes of Law & Order on an endless loop!). Most of this doesn’t fit my image of who I’m supposed to be at my current age, and therefore I try to keep it at home where no one can see and judge.

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The girls don’t seem to care what we watch, as long as everyone’s together.

Or I bring it to therapy. Though it’s still hard for me to bring my whole self to therapy, even after twenty-five years. Generally, I report the hard stuff from my notes, or I keep it to myself.

Over winter break, I watched the HBO miniseries version of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and it reminded me all over again of the thing I loved about the first book when I read it a few years ago (someone said to me, if you like Harry Potter, you’ll love this): each character, in this alternative universe, has an animal dæmon; not just an animal companion, but a part of their soul that exists outside of their body and takes an animal form. Up until puberty the dæmon is able to take many different forms (ferret, mouse, bird, turtle, cat, etc.), to meet many different needs, and then at puberty the dæmon takes the shape of one specific animal for the rest of the character’s life. That last part was the only thing that didn’t ring true for me when I read the first book. Only ONE animal companion? Only one aspect of the soul? Unlikely. My dæmon has never settled. My self has never come together into one definite and unchanging thing. I still flit and switch and change.

I would say that, for my most grown up self, the part of me that goes out into the world, my dæmon would be a Yellow Labrador Retriever – not quite as trusting and fluffy as a Golden Retriever, but playful and loyal and gentle, and smart, rather than clever.

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“A yellow Lab. Really?”

My writing self is more like an eagle, soaring above it all and observing, feeling the wind in her feathers and finding her way; mostly isolated, but able to be part of a congregation, when necessary.

But the little ones, the ones who live in pajamas and think chocolate covered pretzels make a great breakfast, they’re different; both from the adult version of me and from each other. After watching the HBO miniseries, I tried to come up with a list of animal familiars, to help me recognize each internal child part more clearly, but that just set off a lot of internal noise and a sort of buzzing that sounded like a table saw, so I had to stop for a while and rest before trying again.

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“It was so loud I could hear it too, Mommy.”

I think there must be a porcupine, and a fluffy brown rabbit, and a black Lab puppy, and a Starling or a Sparrow, and a bee (though nobody likes the bee).

I don’t have anything like a tiger or a bear or a lion in there, and I feel the lack of that protection.

This feels like a project I should take on: get out a huge animal encyclopedia and see which ones resonate with me and which ones don’t. I should draw pictures and write stories and figure out everyone’s favorite foods and colors and music. But just the thought of it exhausts me.

Like Walt Whitman said: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I’m just too tired to count them right now.

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Clearly, everyone’s exhausted.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

From the Earth to the Moon

Mom and I left my childhood home when I was twenty-three-years-old. She was in the process of divorcing my father, but he didn’t plan to leave the house. Mom’s lawyer wanted her to stay in the house until the divorce was final, to avoid any penalty for “abandonment,” but I was clearly struggling. I’d finished college, but I couldn’t figure out how to move forward in any direction. My therapist spoke to Mom’s lawyer and said something along the lines of, if she stays she will die, so we left.

We had to find a place to live that we could afford, and that would accept Dina, our then eight-year-old black Lab mix. Mom had to get a new job in the city to afford the move, and I had to be on disability, because I really couldn’t function, and money had to come from somewhere, and it was not going to come from my father.

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Dina, at the old house

 

Mom was scared, but I was paralyzed. I don’t think anyone other than Mom really understood that, at the time. Even my therapist thought I should be able to do more, or at least she told me I could, maybe to push me.

It was all humiliating and terrifying and confusing. I had lived in the same house for twenty-three years, seeing my father every day, and suddenly I was living somewhere new and never seeing my father at all. I thought he might try to call, or write, or even stalk me, but he didn’t. I could hear his voice calling up the stairs in the middle of the night, but it wasn’t real, just a hallucination.

We found a half a house to rent, where Mom could use the front yard to plant whatever she wanted. That was her way of healing. Mine was watching TV. I would break up my day with television shows, forcing myself to write until one show came on, and then exercise until the next one, and then walk Dina, and make dinner, all on my TV schedule.

 

I wasn’t in school, I didn’t have a job, but I went to therapy twice a week and spent hours every day writing through all of the pain – picking apart my dreams, going through my memories from each year of my life, trying to excavate each molecule of pain and confusion so that I could find a way forward. It was, in its way, a full time job.

My one blissful escape was a miniseries that started to air on HBO as soon as we moved into the apartment, on Sunday nights, called From the Earth to the Moon, starring and co-produced by Tom Hanks. It told the story of the Apollo program at NASA in the 1960’s and 70’s (I had remembered Steven Spielberg as being a part of it, but Wikipedia says I was wrong). I thought of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as my two ideal dads. I was always looking for good fathers, my whole life, and I needed them extra at that moment.

from the earth to the moon

The analogy of striking out from the solid ground of earth out to the unknown of the moon resonated with my situation. I had to believe there was something out there, something worth finding. I was out in the middle of space, with so few landmarks to tell me where to go, and there was Tom Hanks, experiencing the same things. And succeeding.

I’d never been much of a space or science nerd, though Star Wars was an important touchstone for me, and I’d never thought much about the moon or astronauts or NASA. I didn’t want to be a daredevil pilot, or an engineer, or a scientist, and I wasn’t fascinated by space shuttles or computers. But I watched each episode and absorbed the sense of wonder that came through the TV screen. It was such a relief to spend time with people who believed in the future and the next small step forward. For a little while, each Sunday night, I felt like I was living on their life support machine, and it was enough to get me through. It was just enough.

As the weeks passed, I learned small things, like how to breathe in the smell of honey in the air when I walked Dina around our new neighborhood; how to smile at the librarian when she smiled at me as I checked out books at my new library. Every lesson was a small step, sometimes invisible even to me, but it was enough to keep me going, even when I didn’t think I could ever leave the apartment, or answer the phone, or talk to a stranger.

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Me and Dina walking by the water

I knew that people would not understand what was wrong with me, because I kept hearing people say that I wasn’t trying hard enough, and that I could do more if I weren’t so selfish and lazy. If only my mom would expect more of me; if only I would pull myself up by my bootstraps, if only I would lower my expectations, I would be alright. But they were wrong. I was doing what I could do.

The shame I felt, being twenty three and non-functional, was overwhelming. I’d already felt awful for not graduating from college until I was twenty two, because I had dropped out of two or three schools before I was able to stick to one for four years. But shame was a lifelong thing for me, and it just shape-shifted to fit whatever I thought was wrong with me at the time.

Dina and I were a good pair, because she had all kinds of fears too. She had severe separation anxiety, and fear of small children and most moving objects. She’d had false pregnancies on a regular basis until we left my father’s house and finally had her spayed (my father wouldn’t allow it). The two of us took long, exhausting walks up and down the hills of our new neighborhood, and then huddled together indoors for mutual support. We even walked to therapy together, maybe three miles, so that we could each work through our own issues. She ended up living to sixteen years and two months old, incredible for a dog of her size, and with her long list of psychological disorders, and it gave me hope. The moon is still out there, waiting for me, and you never know, I might reach it one day.

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Dina, later in her life, and happier

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

Watching Roots

 

One day in February, the Sundance Channel advertised that it would be replaying the original miniseries version of Roots, for Black History Month, and I realized that I’d never actually seen it. I’d seen little clips here and there, but I was too young to watch it the first time around, and I’d never made a point of finding it on video or DVD later on. So I set the DVR to tape every episode, and then made sure that the episodes wouldn’t be erased until I erased them (the DVR generally saves things for two weeks and then they magically disappear), because I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get through all of it.

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“I’ll help you, Mommy!”

I knew Roots would be hard to watch, but Mom’s good friend from high school, Olivia Cole, won an Emmy for her role in Roots, and I’d watched everything else Olivia had done on TV, but not this. Mom, of course, had seen Roots when it ran the first time, but she was ready to see it again, if only as a tribute to Olivia, who died a little more than a year ago.

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Mom and Olivia

We watched an hour at a time, because I couldn’t handle any more than that, especially when Kunta Kinte was on the slave ship travelling to America. I felt like I was being beaten, and I could almost smell the crowded bowels of the ship, and feel the chains on my wrists and ankles, and chains, like a yoke, around my neck. I felt powerless and triggered and complicit, as if just by watching the horror on the screen I was making it happen. Even more awful was listening to the language of the white men as they discussed their “cargo,” as if the young men were animals. Words like “herd” and “buck” were used constantly. And of course, the “N” word. They talked about the girls as “belly warmers” for the crew to take to bed overnight. I watched one girl jump off the ship, in the middle of the ocean, rather than remain in that dehumanizing world. I wanted to jump with her.

I forced myself to keep watching, though, taking a day or two off between each hour, partly because I needed to see Olivia in her role, and that came later in the series, but also because I needed to watch all of the minutes before and after Olivia, to understand where she fit in.

The moment that shows up in all of the clips is of Levar Burton, as a young Kunta Kinte, being whipped, and refusing to call himself by his “new” name, Toby. The scene was even more powerful in context, because it was clear that the intention was to take his self away from him, not only his language, his home, or his freedom, but his sense of himself as an individual with his own thoughts and his own name.

 

It took me two weeks to make my way through the whole miniseries, because each time there was a seeming respite from pain, some damned white person had to go and screw it up. There were some elements to the story that felt too easy, too perfect: characters made out to be too noble to be human, or events working out Forest-Gump-like so that this one family experienced all of the highs and lows known at the time about slavery. But the hardest parts, for me, were the endless rapes.

Some men seem to take rape lightly, and I use the present tense advisedly, despite the #MeToo movement and the wisps of awakening that came with it. She’s not dead. You can’t even see any bruises. So why is it such a big deal? But the people who made Roots in the 1970s seemed to understand. Rape is the soul destroyer. It’s the violence that goes past your skin and invades your body so that there’s no safe place even inside of yourself.

I keep thinking back to the early episodes of the miniseries, on the slave ship, when the young black men fought to be free, risking their lives against their captors, but the one woman who escaped her chains jumped over the side of the ship, in the middle of the ocean, with no hope of survival. She wasn’t fighting to survive; she was fighting to make it stop, to make the violation stop, and to take back the only thing she had left: her life.

Olivia was wonderful, by the way. She played Mathilda, the wife of Chicken George, Kunta Kinte’s grandson. She had an oracle-like quality to her in the miniseries, and in real life too: the straight-backed wise woman who knows when to pause for dramatic effect. It’s interesting that her character was never raped, or at least it wasn’t told as part of her story, because she was able to maintain her sense of self in a way that other women through the course of the saga were not, and that rings true.

The hopeful ending to the story, when Kunta Kinte’s descendants ride their wagons to a piece of land of their own, is iconic: this is an American family, a family of pioneers discovering their own land and building their lives from scratch. All through the miniseries, the voice overs introducing each episode made it clear that this was the story of an American family, rather than a story of slavery. That message resonates at this moment in our history as a country, when we need to be reminded that being American is not about where we came from, or the color of our skin, but about the freedom to start over and make a new life, despite everything.

We tend to focus on the freedom, instead of on the “everything” that still needs to be overcome, individually and communally. There are so many more stories to be told, about the “everything” that we all need help to overcome.

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Cricket is worried about “everything.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

p.s. The Book signing event went well, and I will tell you more about it next week!

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The girls are still grumpy that they didn’t get to go.

The Summer Olympics

 

Cricket has been losing her mind even more than usual lately, and I’ve decided to blame it on the heat. Of course, I’m projecting. I can’t stand the humidity of summer in New York. As a kid, I went to sleep away camp in the mountains, which was just a smidge better, until they made us play sports in the middle of the day, and ruined it. I am allergic to the heat. I get sun poisoning, usually on my arms, so I end up wearing a light jacket all summer long, and taking it off when I get indoors, which drives people crazy. I put sunblock on my face year round, so as long as I don’t stare up at the sun, I’m alright without a hat for a few minutes at a time. But the worst part of summer humidity is when I feel like I’m breathing through a straw, but not a nice, normal flexible straw, one of those hard plastic crazy straws that look like a roller coaster for tiny ants. Oh, and I don’t like bugs either.

So, as I was saying, summer is clearly a problem for Cricket.

Cricket has been tossing Platypus around like, well, like a stuffed animal. The problem, is, even though I still take the dogs out four times a day, none of those trips takes them beyond the backyard. We don’t walk through the goose poop fantasia of the duck pond, or get into the car and drive to the beach to sniff seaweed and rotting fish. We don’t even walk up the hill past the Seven Eleven for a hint of cigarette butts and old ham sandwiches.

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“Play with me!”

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“Platypus likes this game, Mommy!”

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“Let’s go outside!”

Cricket is getting stir crazy. She is barking at the next door baby (she made him cry!) and she’s been using me as a trampoline when I try to take my afternoon nap. Butterfly has been fine with the current level of exercise, though. She might enjoy a few more minutes of staring into the distance and listening to the wonders of nature (those birds are such gossips!), but she comes inside willingly and goes back to sleep until real physical need hits again. But Cricket wants to run and jump and hip and hop. I’m afraid to let her watch too much of the Olympics because it will give her too many ideas (though she would never want to go swimming – it’s like voluntary bath time – are they insane?!). The dogs would be fantastic at the Treat Toss and the Chase-The-Mailman race, but somehow these events have not made it into the big competition.

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“There’s more room in my mouth, Mommy. Throw another one.”

Of course I am watching the Olympics. The TV stations have conspired to have nothing else on during the Olympics, so this is all I’ve got. It’s not really a relief from the political drama of the past year, though, because the broadcasters keep making each event and race seem like life or death, not just for their chosen protagonist, but for the masses of unknown people who never even made it to the Olympics and are therefore at home in deep dark depressions with no idea what to do with their lives. Woo hoo!

I try to be inspired by the Olympics, but certain sports make me feel vicariously exhausted. When I watch Michael Phelps flap his arms over his head, my shoulders hurt. And those long distance runners give me leg cramps. I can’t watch women’s beach volleyball at all, not because it’s too sweaty, but because in those outfits they might as well not be wearing clothes at all; there’s no safe place to look. I can watch the gymnastics and swimming pretty comfortably, because they are indoors and nice and cool, but the Track and Field events look too damn hot! I think there should be some breaks in the coverage for a nice ice skating routine so we can cool off.

My favorite place over the summer is next to my air conditioner. I wish I could carry my air conditioner with me everywhere, like one of those old time boom box stereos, right up next to my ear. Maybe someday they’ll make high powered air conditioners the size of iPads and summer will finally make sense to me.

I’m sure I will end up watching some sports that do not usually interest me at all, out of guilt, the same way I watch Luge during the winter games, because someone worked really hard to get to the Olympics in that sport, and it seems only fair to give them a glance. Though I haven’t yet given in to my curiosity about the boating races. There’s something about watching athletes dodge old couches in the middle of rancid waterways that worries me.

One night, I found myself sitting on the couch, kicking for dear life, willing Michael Phelps to the end of the pool – as if he needed my help! I don’t bounce around the room during the gymnastics events; somehow I feel like I have more control over the outcome in the swimming.

At some point in the evening, inevitably, I have to pause the action on the TV and attach the dogs to their leashes and brave the Sauna that is the out of doors. And of course the dogs meander and sniff and pee multiple times and drag me to the far end of the yard for every possible exciting hint of cat, until I am a puddle of sweat. And then we go back inside, and I sit down next to my air conditioner to watch the gymnastics, and I know in my heart that I have done my share of the work and can now revel in team USA’s success.

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Hershey likes to leave her smell in places the dogs can’t quite reach.

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Cricket can smell that cat, but Butterfly is ready to go back inside, just like me.

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Much better.