Jun 6 2020

Bird life

Birdhouse

I was digging a hole in the garden dirt when I heard the terrified screeching. I couldn’t tell what was making the noise but it was coming from almost in front of me, from under the deck. The slatted doors leading there were open. I walked over to them and looked in.

It was dark, with thin streams of light falling on the assorted rubble strewn around. A few feet in front of me, sitting primly with her front paws close together was Coco – her soft brown mottled fur the perfect camouflage. She was watching me. She looked guilty. The gentle sound of fluttering coming from the bicycle parked to my right caused us both to turn our heads at the same time. By this time my eyes had gotten used to the dim light and I could see that a small brown bird had gotten its leg caught in the grid of the wire basket hanging from the handlebars. It was hanging upside down and occasionally tried to release itself by flapping its wings. As I stood watching, Coco walked over to the bird and gave it a gentle push with her paw. The bird started screeching and flapping its wings in her face and she backed off. I shooed Coco away and reached for the bird, gently extracting its leg from the basket. I saw that it was injured, with a superficial wound along its back down near its tail.  It flapped wildly and afraid that I might crush it, I let it fall the 8 inches to the ground. It hopped madly to a protected cubbyhole among a pile of decaying plasterboard. Coco’s eyes remained glued to the little bird. Hunched over and squatting down, I made my way over to the bird and picked it up, making sure this time I had my hand firmly around its body and wings. It screeched and then lay quiet in my hand. I worked my way out from under the deck with Coco close behind.

But what was I going to do with this little bird? It wasn’t anything special. Just a little brown bird with dark speckles along its feathers. It seemed full-grown. And it was wounded. I didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell if it could survive. I knew that I had already decided I was not going to bring it to a vet. I also knew I didn’t want Coco to kill it.

We have a small wooden birdhouse screwed on to the trunk of a pine tree on our country house property. It isn’t painted or pretty. But it has one very special attribute; it has a video camera inside it that is connected by a very long cable to the TV in our house. Every spring we watch as a pair of small birds, either blåmes or talgoxe, feather their nest inside, lay their eggs and hatch tiny baby birds. We watch as Mr and Mrs bird take turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the gaping mouths that hatch. We can even hear their peeps on the TV as mom and dad feed them. We call it Bird TV and we like to keep the TV on during the day so we can watch the action as we go about our own business. But this year there was a calamity in our bird house. Mom and Dad bird had hatched 9 hungry little babies this year.  We watched as they energetically took turns bringing food to their tiny offspring. Towards the evening one of the parents would settle itself down for the night – first poking all the little bodies deep into the nest then spreading itself over the babies, and with a final flutter tuck its head under its wing to go to sleep. After about a week of daily bird life, we didn’t turn on the TV for a few days – it tends to get a bit repetitive – and just let them get on with their lives. When we finally checked in with our tenants, there seemed to be no movement in the nest. It was still too soon for any of the babies to have grown feathers and flown away. At first we thought the camera feed had crashed and froze. But we could see small bits of grass and feather down moving in the air. The camera was still live but no baby birds were. What had happened? We could just barely make out in the black and white image the shape of a few baby birds’ unmoving open mouths. Had the nest been attached by some predator? We looked out at the bird house and could see no mom and dad trying to get in. Had they died for some reason or been killed by something? There was no way for us to know.

We turned off the TV. We haven’t looked at Bird TV since.

I carried my rescued bird to the back of the house where there are trees and places she might be safer – out of reach of Coco – trying to figure out where to put her. I had decided in my mind that my little brown bird was a her. She was calm in my hand. I could feel her rapid heart beat rock her body through my gardening glove. Coco followed me – silent and slow – but not close. I couldn’t put my bird among the leftover planks of wood piled under this side of the deck – too open and easy for a cat to get at. What about in my son’s abandoned koja, his airy tree house built 4 feet off the ground? The roof was decaying but the half-walls were still sound, the floor strewn deep with undisturbed yellowed leaves from many summers past. It had a door that still closed. Coco couldn’t get in but would the bird be able to fly away when it felt a bit better? I loosened my hand. Where was Coco? I couldn’t see her nearby. My bird flapped her wings and flew 3 feet away, to land near the tumble of old metal supports left over from building our deck. They were piled on top of a half rotted wooden pallet lying close to the ground. She quickly scurried underneath. I saw Coco come out of the shadows and walk over to the pile but there was no way she could get underneath. My bird would be safe there.

But for how long? To live or to die? Like the nestlings in our bird house, I would never know what happened.


May 30 2020

First the bell bottoms came back

The crowd on Day 1 of the Woodstock Festival on August 15, 1969. Clayton Call/Redferns

Back in the 60s, my baby boomer generation rode the interstate buses into the south to protest segregation in the southern states. My generation protested at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and were met with the use of extreme violence by the Chicago police force. My generation stood up and called out shady backroom politics. We demonstrated for clean water and clean air. We toppled a dishonest president. We ended an unjust war. We wore our bell bottoms and we changed the world. We thought we had fixed things.

The word Boomer seems to have become a bad word lately, connoting all kinds of unpleasant things about my generation. By now we have gotten old, and people have forgotten what we did. 

I no longer live in New York, the city of my heart. I haven’t lived there for over 30 years. I view America from afar. When I meet someone new and we spend a bit of time exchanging the Cliff Notes of our lives, I usually summarize myself by saying “I’m an old hippy”. Perhaps this isn’t completely honest. Though I went around braless, I never lived in a commune. I didn’t practice free love and have sex with anyone who seemed interested. I attended a few peace marches but that was mainly because a boy I liked wanted to go. While I smoked pot on occasion I didn’t spend my days in a daze. I didn’t attend Woodstock. But I still feel I can nevertheless call myself an old hippy. That’s how I identified back then when I was young, wearing long flowered skirts and sandals (in the summer) and my hair a wild curly mass…for a short period of time. Life is usually lived in short periods of time. We are something for a while and then we evolve. Inside we stay who we are. It’s just our outside trappings that change. I gave up my patched bell bottomed jeans for mid-calf length flowy dresses that were replaced by broad-shouldered suits that became baggy-waist pants that turned into tunics over leggings. But I’m still me underneath.

I still love New York though I no longer belong there. I still love a good argument. I still believe people are fools, all of us, but we should at least be friendly and show consideration and respect. I still love science fiction and hate oysters. And while I believe in the equality of all human beings and their right to be able to live a decent life within a just system regardless of race or gender or social status or hairstyle or clothing choices, I still reserve the right to choose who I like and wish to be friends with. Though everybody is equal I have no desire to love everyone equally.

I read my electronic New York Times subscription from here in Stockholm. I read articles from CNN or the few stories I am allowed from the Washington Post without a paid subscription. I look at the things people share on Facebook and Twitter. And I get very scared. Black men get killed while jogging and a white woman threatens a black man with a bold-faced lie to the police about him endangering her. The only thing new about this is that they are being filmed, live as it is happening, like the reportage from the Vietnam war in the 60s and 70s. Synagogues are attacked. And churches. Men with military grade weaponry feel they have the right to threaten State capital buildings and the police just look on. Right wing fascists are rioting, burning buildings, reminding me of Kristallnacht in the 1930s, though this time it isn’t specifically aimed at only Jewish citizens. But the purpose is the same – to create havoc, to tumble society. Demonstrators are marching again, protesting injustice. And like at Kent State, the police are firing on them. 

I read all this and it worries me, a lot. There is a vacuum in the place where the head of state of the USA should be. Instead there is a man totally unfit to be there, filled with anti everything that is good and decent and humane and sane. There is so much wrong with America now and once again it is all coming to the surface, into plain sight. My generation thought we fixed things. We had that hope at least. We obviously didn’t. Hans Rosling, the Swedish academic, believed that statistically the world was improving for the majority of people. But the things that are still wrong in the world can’t be fixed all in one fell swoop. Perhaps it is up to each generation to stand up and say “This is wrong” and demand change. Time to protest, time to demonstrate, time to march, time to stand up and be heard. Change for the better won’t be able to happen until the current administration is voted out and its enablers in the Republican Party are also voted out.  

But right now, it’s the 60s all over again, baby. The struggle is here once more. Put your bell bottoms on and start getting on with it. 

And just for a bit of memory and inspiration…My Generation by the Who.
Photo credit: The crowd on Day 1 of the Woodstock Festival on August 15, 1969. 
Clayton Call/Redferns


May 9 2020

Diet food

I just ate a doughnut with chocolate frosting on it. There were sprinkles sprinkled in the chocolate. I ate it in a few bites. It wasn’t a big doughnut. I felt no guilt for eating it. It wasn’t the best doughnut. Not as good as an Entenmanns crumb doughnut but you can’t get them here so I settled for the chocolate coated one I bought in the fresh-baked section of the local grocery.

For most of my life I could eat anything I wanted and as much as I wanted of anything I wanted and never gain a pound. An entire bag of salt and vinegar chips – the large economy size? No problem finishing it off as I sat in my office working on a PowerPoint presentation for a client. Two large pork chops and several small potatoes with 4 or 5 stalks of broccoli steamed just right was an ordinary dinner. My favorite trousers at the time had zipped pockets on the thigh and fit totally flat against my stomach. I could lie down on the bed and the span between my hipbones sank down into a hollow curve.

Maybe I’ll have another doughnut.

I never had to diet, at least not the way so many of the women I know did all their lives. When I was a teenager, my mother would buy me a drink I remember being called Weight-on but maybe that was the wrong name. It doesn’t matter – I drank the high-calorie chocolate flavored one to gain weight. That was my diet. I was that skinny. All arms and legs, like the spider. I used to tell my mother “I only eat to live”. I rarely ever got hungry, then or even now. I wasn’t anorexic. Anorexics are consumed by the thought of food. I didn’t care about food. I ate whatever I felt like.

I was also very tall – that’s part of why I looked so skinny – all elongated. If you just shortened my arms and legs and torso I would have seemed more normal. I wasn’t bony looking with my collarbones sticking out the way people who are skinny in a really sick kind of way are. I was just long.

I sewed most of my own clothes. Clothes off the rack rarely fit me well. In high school we had to wear this one-piece gym uniform. Light blue, it had a stretchy waistband, was sleeveless and had shorts. It was purchased though the school and came in a lot of sizes: extra small, small, medium, large, extra large and extra extra large. No tall skinny size. To get it to fit the length of my torso I had to buy the extra extra large size and then use my sewing machine to take it in about 5 inches on both sides. But the waistband never really was in the right place – too high.

I still have clothes I made during the 70s and 80s hanging in my closet. I don’t wear them anymore. Except for those drawstring pants that were super wide and gathered around the waist. I can still wear them. I made the string longer and they aren’t as gathered as they were before.

One outfit is a bright yellow, jacket & skirt suit. It was a pencil skirt, tight and straight down to mid-calf. The jacket has narrow lapels, hip pockets and it ends just below my butt. I don’t know anyone I can give it to. The skirt would practically reach the floor of anyone who fit the waist and hips. The pockets would fall below their hips and if the width of the jacket fit, the shoulders would most certainly be too wide. And we won’t even talk about the length of the sleeves.

Another is my red and white striped jumpsuit. Last time I wore it was when my son was under a year old. I don’t know anyone but my 28-year younger self who would fit that.

Somewhere in my mid 50s the never-gaining-weight principle seems to have faded away. And has continued to non-exist. When I lie down now, the space between my hipbones, seems more to resemble an arched bridge instead of the low hanging suspension bridge of my younger days. Back then no matter how much I ate my waist never expanded. Now, no matter how little I eat, my waist never seems to contract. During my formative years, I never learned to diet. No one in my family was big on physical activity then or even now. I still have in my head my grandmother Bertha’s half Yiddish admonition, “Ess, Ess. You have to eat more. You’re so skinny.” She was very good at spreading guilt around but never for eating too much.

I am still long and I don’t think anyone would call me fat. But I’m having trouble finding my waist and I am starting to become Big. That’s what happens when you are tall and start putting on the pounds and padding. You get big. You don’t fit in small spaces. I eat less than I used to but still eat what I feel like eating – though maybe not the entire bag of chips at once. My head might tell me that’s a bad idea but I still don’t know how to feel guilty about it. I maybe should look into some sort of dietary regimen. And some sort of exercise program. But I have always been so terrible at following rules.
What am I supposed to do?

There are two more doughnuts left in the bag on the kitchen counter.
I’m going to eat one.


May 5 2020

Over social

I woke up Sunday morning with bright sun shining on the blackout shade. My eyes were all gravely, my voice felt hoarse and my body had absolutely no desire to move. I was totally drained. I looked over at the clock on the wall and saw it was already 10 am but I decided to lay there a while longer and put off getting up. I had time…no plans until the evening. I wasn’t hungry for breakfast yet. I picked up my phone and checked Facebook. After 15 minutes of scrolling through miscellaneous posts, I clicked on my email app. 

What!!

At the top of my inbox was an email from my friend containing the link to the meeting she had scheduled for a group of us to meet… today…at 11 am! I remembered helping to plan that meeting but I also thought that we were going to do it in the early evening. The meeting was with 2 girlfriends I used to do GNOs with before one of them left Stockholm. Now I had half an hour to get ready. So I threw on the clothes I had worn yesterday (and maybe the day before and the day before that). I hobbled over to the kitchen, made a cup of instant coffee, buttered a piece of toast and sat down at my computer still only half awake and barely mobile. My terminal glasses weren’t helping much to see the screen as I logged in. 

This pandemic that is sweeping the world right now is going to be the death of me.

While here in Sweden, we aren’t under an enforced lock-down, we are nevertheless expected to practice voluntary self-isolation and to stay-at-home as much as possible. This is not a hardship for me since I like staying at home. I don’t go out to movies. I don’t attend concerts or dance recitals. I have no interest to try out the latest new restaurant in the neighborhood either. Did I say how I like staying at home? I am not a complete hermit though. I do go out. And meet friends. Occasionally.

Before Covid 19, I would meet a group of writer pals every other week at a charming cafe; we would chat for a while, then write for an hour and then chat some more.

Before Covid 19, I would attend board meetings once a month or so, at the home of the chair of a small Jewish organization whose board I am a member of. I can see her apartment from my apartment window and it only takes 10 minutes to walk to the meetings. I have been on this board so long that all the other members have become my friends and the chair makes great soup for us to eat before the meeting. 

And before Covid 19, a friend would sometimes manage to talk me into going out to have dinner with them as long as it wasn’t too far from my home. And sometimes I got tempted into seeing a movie (as long as it was sci-fi) with a group of other like-minded friends.

But now…because of this pandemic, no one is going anywhere or at least not anywhere outside of their house, unless it’s to the grocery store to try to stock up on toilet paper. All my board meetings were cancelled.  My writers group…cancelled. The few organized activities that I had planned on attending have been cancelled. I cancelled both a doctor’s checkup and my dentist appointment. My google calendar which is never really all that filled up anyway is now totally empty. Instead of going to a restaurant for dinner, going on a walk with a friend in the fresh air is the new way to hang out…as long as you keep your distance from everyone. 

In spite of all this anti-socializing, I’ve been meeting old friends and even making new ones more now than I usually did in pre-Corona times. I was never this social before Covid19 arrived and I am not sure how well I am going to survive this sudden social upswing even though I’ve been able to do it without needing to travel further than to my living room. I don’t have to put on my shoes because I can walk barefoot to my computer screen. Most of the time I don’t bother with putting on my face. I do try to remember to put on pants. Once I was wearing my nightgown but from the shoulders up it looks like an ordinary knit shirt with stripes so no big deal. My new frenzied social life is all the fault of this app called Zoom.

My recent stress started on Thursday evening in a zoom meeting with 2 of my writer pals who I haven’t seen for awhile because all our writing evenings were cancelled. We spent over an hour discussing plans for virtual writing workshops and we got to meet a very cute cat. Then a few days later on Saturday afternoon I had a zoom meeting with a couple of old co-workers. We used to get together a couple of times a year for dinner but this time we just sat around in our homes and caught up on how things are Coronating in different parts of the world. Later that same night or rather morning, I attended a Zoom party held by a friend in New York City. It started at 7pm NYC time which is 1am my time. She was a friend to both me and my husband. He dropped into the party long enough to say hello and then goodbye. I stayed for the next 2 and a half hours! There was one other person at the “party” that I knew but all the rest were strangers. When I signed off at 3.30 am, I saw on Facebook that one of them had asked to be my new Facebook friend. It took me a while to finally wind down and fall asleep. After a few hours I woke up to discover the unexpectedly early new Zoom meeting that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. By Sunday afternoon my introvert self had had enough.. This was just too much talking and socializing for me. I found that I couldn’t remember what I had said to who and who had said what to me. I hadn’t had enough time between conversations to process everything. I felt like I had gotten hit in the face with a ping pong racket. Five virtual social events in 4 days – I needed to look for a dark room somewhere.

All this virtual viewing reminded me of a book by Isaac Asimov that I had read way-back-when as a teenager – The Naked Sun.  It was the second in his sci-fi detective trilogy staring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, a human-looking robot. While the first book in the trilogy takes place on an overcrowded Earth, most of the action in this book happens on a planet named Solaria that has a small human population and a huge robot one. People live isolated on huge estates that are hundreds of miles from each other and are taught from birth to avoid personal contact. They almost never meet in person. Even married couples who live on the same estate have their own parts of the home so they also rarely meet in person. Face-to-face interaction, referred to as “seeing” is considered dirty and the idea of being in the same room as another and breathing the same air makes them almost physically nauseous. But the inhabitants of Solaria are not hermits.  They socialize by “viewing”, a kind of 3D two-way teleconferencing that was so advanced that you can go out for a walk on your property, contact a friend and view/talk with them as they are walking on their own estate and barely notice the difference in backgrounds. 

We aren’t there yet. The quality of the Zoom app experience depends to a great deal on the quality of your WiFi and the state of your computer or smart phone. Mostly people just sit there in front of their video camera and hopefully you see their whole face and not just the top of their head. One friend did take me on a tour of her new house and neighborhood but as soon as she got out of reach of her WiFi the picture started to break up. 

I have been video Skyping with my best friend Roz, from college, for many years now. Our Skype calls have become as humdrum as a phone call. The fact that it was free made it even better. However the use of Skype just never seemed to catch on with anyone else I knew in the States. Zoom on the other hand, with a kick from Corona, seems to suddenly be everywhere and used by everyone. Timing is everything, I guess. 

I admit that the appeal of being able to sit in my pajamas and meet a friend without leaving my home has its charm. Just being able to see everyone while Zooming with a group of friends who all live scattered around the world is really fantastic. But what happens when all this virtual socializing runs its course? Humans are touchy-feely. We need to breathe each other’s air, pat a back, give a hug. When these Corona times let go of us and we can go out once again a Zoom call will pale in the face of a real face-to face date. And even this introvert will put on her face and some clean clothes and go out into the world again. Occasionally. 


Apr 27 2020

Life and Death in the Country

Its morning. Full daylight. I can see white edges of frost along the back of the deck chair through the corner of the bedroom window. I’m in bed, barely awake. My eyes feel dry and teary at the same time. The sun has not yet risen above the eastern treeline so it must still be very early. I want to stay in bed but I have to pee so I open the bedroom door and go out into the main room of our country house. On my way to the bathroom I note the absence of cats.

I close the bedroom door on my way back to bed. The barely visible sun is silhouetting the trees now. The clock on the living room wall said 6am. No need to get up yet. I lay back in bed, calmly tallying up all the little aches and pains that seem to have become my normal. My eyes are closed but my ears are awake. A cat is softly meowing on the other side of the door. I try to remember if their food bowl was empty. The meowing continues. It’s probably Coco, she’s the whiner. Do I want to get up? We keep the bedroom doors closed because we don’t want the cats to run in from outside and transfer all the ticks they have picked up on their fur on to our bed. Or to deposit dead animals onto the bedroom rug at our feet while we are still asleep.

I drag myself out of the warm blankets and open the door expecting to see a cat lying down in front of the door jamb waiting for me. Nope. A sleek brown shadow scuttles past my feet into the bedroom and immediately pushes her way behind the door, searching. We store a large window screen and an insert that enlarges the dining table there. Coco is very determinedly trying to poke her nose behind all this stuff.

Shit!! She is hunting!

Custard and Coco on the hunt

I carefully move the screen to the other end of the wall. I move the top of the table insert a few inches away from the wall and look down behind it. A tiny grey shape is crouched next to the baseboard, equidistant from each edge of the insert. I didn’t even see him run in. I hear the cat door open and Custard saunters in, joining Coco in looking behind the door, one on each side of the insert.

“We have a mouse!” I yell.

My husband is still in bed, staring at his phone. His poor hearing means he is completely oblivious to all the excitement.

“There’s a mouse in the bedroom!”

“What?”

“Behind the door!”

“You have to chase it out of the room or catch it. Do you have a plan? You have to have a plan.”

I have no plan. Håkan starts to get his pants on and prepare for a hasty exit. While the cats keep watch on the mouse I go and get the broom from the living room. I angle the insert towards the door and start to brush the mouse in that direction. It moves closer to the door but then suddenly does an about-face and runs under the bed, two cats in close pursuit.

“It’s under the bed now,” I say.

“What are you doing about it?”

“Nothing. I’m letting the cats take care of it.”

I hear the tippy-tap of tiny feet and the rustle of plastic bags from under the bed. The cats are making mad dashing sounds. I stand along the wall and wait. After a few minutes Coco emerges from under the bed, the tips of her fur bristling with pride and a still moving clump in her mouth. She carries it out to the big room and puts it down under the dining table, waiting for us to praise her. It lies there, nothing moving except its rib cage, in and out, in and out, a mile a minute.

I stand there, uncertain. Before I can decide what to do, Coco picks up the mouse, gently, like she would a kitten and carries it out through the cat door. I lock the cat door behind her and watch as she brings it down the steps and on to the lawn where she again puts it down. Custard joins her on the lawn. He lies down and makes himself comfortable as he watches her start to play the eternal game of cat and mouse.

I stand on the deck, a heavy fleece jacket wrapped around me, watching them. After about 10 minutes of the Coco vs Mouse match, our tiny prey makes a mad dash past Custard and glides in under the planting boxes, safe from Custards grasping paws. I breathe a sigh of relief. Yea, mouse.

Epilogue
About an hour later, after I have breakfasted on a slice of Håkan’s home-made bread, I hear the cats trying to get in through the cat door. I never unlocked it. I walk over to the door and look through the glass. Both cats are sitting there. A very dead mouse with its head eaten off is lying on the door mat.