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 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.


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.


Apr 5 2020

Corona times

We are living in strange times now. Corona times.
For many weeks the Corona virus has been traveling – on a world tour – starting in China, spreading through Asia, running around Europe, and jumping the fish pond over to America. And yes…it’s here in Stockholm too.

We are not yet under lockdown like Italy and Spain. But most of my younger, still-working friends have been ordered by their employers to work from home, my son included. Universities and all high schools have been closed & are trying to do online teaching instead. I have no idea how that’s working but I saw a funny video on YouTube about that. Schools for children who are too young to stay at home alone are still open but if their parents are home, often the kids are kept home too, regardless. The thinking about keeping schools open for younger kids is that the government wants the parents who work in the healthcare field & have young kids who need minding, to be able to continue going to work.

All the activities I had written in my calendar, such as writing workshops, board meetings, plans to meet friends and any other miscellaneous events have been cancelled. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment that had been booked over 6 weeks ago because who wants to go to a place all the sick people go to? All activities in the Jewish community are cancelled except burials, food delivery to old people and some Saturday morning services. All the big Seders are cancelled. My annual J.A.P.S. Seder, gathering my Jewish/American/Swedish gang, is also cancelled due to the fear of passing the virus from hand to mouth along with the chicken soup. I went to Bajit, the big new Jewish Center, on Friday to buy matzah. The place was empty and only 1 person at a time allowed in the shop. Me & the other 2 people on line all waited our turn far from each other. Hand sanitizer was everywhere to use while we waited.

And speaking of hand sanitizer, I can’t find it to buy in any of the stores. And Håkan has looked on-line. Nadda, nothing to buy there either. I can understand that. In these plague days it works better than lamb’s blood. But toilet paper? What’s the big deal about hoarding toilet paper? I can not understand that at all – it’s not a plague of diarrhea.
Dare I say it??? People are idiots.

But key words these days are definitely “social distancing” and “self-quarantine”. Or in other words STAY AT HOME!

But I do get out. My friend Barbara, working from home and living on Kungsholmen, walked over to Reimers last week and we took a long walk together on Långholmen. We foot-bumped first, keeping safety in mind. There were other people also out walking but everyone kept their distances. We stopped at the Långholmen värdshus in need of fika. We had the whole place to ourselves and enjoyed coffee and a bulla. There was lots of hand sanitizer there too.

I still go to my local grocery. I see people from my neighborhood there – but everyone keeps their distance – this is Sweden after all. Nobody hugs or talks to each other anyway, a simple nod is enough if you meet someone you recognize. Even in normal times, people sit as far away from you as a park bench allows. This is not Italy, France or Spain. Swedes are not huggy types, they are good at aloneness and don’t need much encouragement to isolate.

And it seems neither do we – Håkan, Bevin and I. My little family hardly notices the new societal rules operating now. All three of us are introverts and staying cooped up in our home doesn’t seem to be a problem for us – that’s how we usually live. I am mainly the only one who goes out now and its just to the grocery store. Occasionally I will walk the 20 minutes to Hornstull and go to the large Hemköp grocery there or maybe the drugstore. Once I also went to Clas Ohlson because we needed good glue. Hemköp has started special early morning hours for seniors but the way I figure it, I’m retired, I no longer have to (or want to) get up super early in the morning. Especially not to do grocery shopping! I try to go later in the morning or early afternoon when its not too busy and we customers can keep a decent distance from each other.

Bevin, a programmer at Ericsson, has been working from home now for the past 3 weeks and his longest walk is from the kitchen to his bedroom. He spends his evenings and late into the night socializing online with his pals around the world. No worries about catching anything that way except maybe a computer virus.

Håkan spends most of his time sitting in front of his computer screen, commenting on Facebook or watching TV programs there. He is busy devising all kinds of plans for growing sweet corn out at our country house this summer, ordering necessary things online. For weeks now, he has been bugging me about completely moving ourselves out to the countryside, trying to justify the move by saying that we are supposed to self-quarantine. He is so happy to finally have society on his side. But I am resisting. It’s still too early for me and too cold to turn the water on yet. But we have been out there a couple of times already just for day trips to plant potatoes and to get his corn seeds started in his new mini-greenhouse. Easter weekend will be our first overnight stay.

So this Stay at Home directive hasn’t changed much for us personally. My apartment is not a bit cleaner! I haven’t painted new colors on the walls of any room. My freezer is still mainly filled with ice instead of enough food to last months. And my kitchen cupboards are still cluttered, as are my closets. If I am not laying about on the sofa to read, then I am laying on the bed. And I only have enough toilet paper and paper towels to last for the next week. I spend a lot of time looking at Facebook but that is just a distraction from what I should be getting done on my computer. And just for you dog lovers who have been spreading nasty rumors around social media about cats, our cats are exceedingly happy that we are all home. Coco wants to always keep Bevin company by sitting on his keyboard, so during his working hours he has to close his door. She lies patiently outside, waiting for him to open it.

But as I said we are all introverts here – we need others to plan activities that can entice us out of our homes. And I admit, looking at my empty Google Calendar is a bit depressing. Though, secretly, I am happy not to need to put on makeup or get dressed in clothes I haven’t worn for the past 4 days. Putting on my Extrovert Coat in preparation to leave my home and venture out there in the wider world takes energy. So I have started calling people instead of just texting. I have been using Skype to talk to friends and family in the US. And I have participated in two Zoom meetings! I think a lot of self-isolated folks must be doing that now – there is not a web camera to be found, either in stores locally or even online!

So us introverted folks are coping OK but what about all my extroverted friends out there? You know who you are…all those of you who have kept inviting me to do things with you out there in the world even though 60% of the time I say I can’t (because I don’t want to leave my cozy shell) and yet thankfully you keep asking. Life now is probably harder for you guys. So while this is going on, give me a call and let’s talk…either by phone or Zoom or Skype. Drag me out for a walk in nature too – I promise to keep my distance.  I hope you all are also doing OK and I promise to say yes next time you invite me to eat dinner with you, or even just fika, after this is all over.

I know that a lot of people out there are feeling anxiety or fear due to this pandemic sweeping the world. I don’t really know what to say that could make them feel better. But my go-to advice that I like to keep in mind, is taken from one of my favorite books, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I like what Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent, when Arthur finds out that the Earth is about to be demolished to make room for a hyper-space bypass.

“Don’t panic,” he says, “and always know where your towel is.”

Stay healthy everyone.


Feb 3 2020

60+

I recently attended the birthday party of a friend who had just turned 60.  After I got the Save-the-Date, I told my friend that I probably wouldn’t be going. Not because I didn’t want to celebrate his birthday but because the party location was a bit out of my comfort zone – after all it was beyond the borders of the Stockholm subway map and everyone knows that I hate traveling. But in leu of my presence I decided to send him the Just Hilarie blog piece which I wrote nine years ago when I turned 60.

He wrote back to tell me that he read my piece but what he really wanted to know was if I had any advice for him about what to expect or consider in the next decade now that he was also turning 60. And then he made me feel guilty for not wanting to come to his party. Guilt I understand. Afterall, I am Jewish. So I told him I would be there. And…that I would give some thought to his question and try to find something pithy and enlightening to say at his party.

First I thought I could just cobble something together from some of the other pieces I had written about aging (you can find them under Aging in the word cloud to the right) but after doing some copy/pasting I felt nothing was working. Instead, I decided to start at the beginning and make a list of what had happened to me in the 9 years since my big 6 0. I figured if I made a list of the life changing, influential events that took place since that summer day nine years ago at our country house, I would be able to come up with some ideas for him.

Here was my list of events, not in order of importance but just as they happened in the timeline:

  • Mom spends a slow month dying as I sit by her bed and watch.
  • Lawsuit for unpaid (and unknown) American property taxes puts my anxiety levels through the roof and I end up taking anti-anxiety meds just to get through my days.
  • The organization I had worked for as a graphic designer, for almost 10 years, closes 6 months before I turn 65 and I am left jobless.
  • Håkan gets sick, spends 2 months in hospital and needs brain surgery.

Yeah, that should do it. That should be enough to fill a decade. No wonder I don’t want to get out of bed sometimes. But what should I tell my friend so he doesn’t end up drinking all his own booze at his party?

My first piece of advice was this:
Stay healthy. I know that everyone gives advice about exercising, taking all your vitamins and not eating a bunch of junk food. But you know what? That’s all a bunch of crap. If it helps to make you feel like you are in control of your life by doing those things, then by all means keep doing them. But if catastrophic illness strikes you, it probably doesn’t really have anything to do with exercise, vitamins or junk food. After all, James Fixx, the guy who started the jogging craze with his best-selling books about running and who preached the gospel that active people live longer, died of a heart attack on a Friday while on a solitary jog in Vermont. He was 52 years old! So, I don’t know…maybe it just means don’t jog by yourself.

Piece of advice two:
Keep on top of all your financial obligations. Know what taxes you need to pay and pay them. Don’t collect more stuff than you can afford, or need. Pay off your credit cards each month. (my mother taught me that one) Make sure you have money saved or a pension. After all who needs to have all that worry about money.
It is the real cause of wrinkles.

Piece of advice three:
Work – Keep working as long as you can (because this also applies to the previous point) but make sure it is work that you love. Or at least like. It should be something that makes you feel good about yourself, competent and appreciated by others. If you don’t get that from your work it’s time to think about retiring and finding something else that makes you feel useful and appreciated and competent. If you have been careful about point two you might be able to do this fun stuff pro-bono.

Piece of advice four:
Make phone calls. We all have that fabulous smart phone in our hands. Texting messages back and forth is great. Showing what you ate for dinner on social media is great. Email is great. But making a phone call is even greater.  A few days ago I called an old friend in New York and by old I mean I have known her a very long time – she’s actually almost 10 years younger than me. The first thing she said after hello was, “Are you OK, is everything alright? Is Håkan OK? What happened?” It took me a while to reassure her that we were all ok and that I was just calling her to say hi. We talked for over an hour. So don’t wait to call friends and family only when you have bad news. Call just to talk. Better yet – have lunch together if you are close enough. But we live in a big world and people are often far away, so call them. Use Skype if you are far away. You can look at each other and see if the other person has more wrinkles. And its cheap. See point two.

And finally, last but not least, point five:
Figure out how to laugh and do it often. Learn how to tell a joke and make other people laugh. Because life is just so crappy sometimes. It hits you when you least expect it and if you can’t laugh then you’re doomed.

So, health, work, money, loved ones and laughter.
That pretty much sums up all the advice I have to give right now. We’ll see what I can come up with in a few more years after I’ve started my big 7 0.