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.


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.


Jul 19 2018

Summer 2018

To simply sit. To do absolutely nothing.

The air outside is warm – so warm that I don’t feel it surrounding my bare skin. I should get up and do something; sweep the deck clear of all the brown dried pine needles, put away the wood sander, coil the garden hose back on its holder, wash the dinner dishes from last night. So much that could be done. But I don’t move. The chair cushion is soft and encompassing, almost too warm under the shadow of the umbrella spreading its rust-tinged grey fabric over me. I don’t want to move.

High above me, in the upper reaches of the trees, the sunlit, dry and yellowing leaves of the birches flutter in a breeze that barely works its way lower, to move my hair against my neck and whisk away the dampness from my skin.

One time Jersey girl that I am, I close my eyes and imagine that the sound which the leaves make as they rustle against each other is the sound of salt water boiling up against the wide white sand of the Jersey shoreline. All that is lacking is the rhythmic pounding of the waves. But I can pretend, can’t I?

Last week, we washed the dirty grey from the deck’s wide boards. They look almost new-laid except for the uneven warping and dry fissures that give away the fact that they’ve been there a long time. In the sun, the wood is almost too hot to stand on with bare feet. They remind me of the Boardwalk, running along the Brooklyn beaches from Brighton to Coney Island, that I walked on with Grandma long ago. If I descend the staircase leading from the deck, will I arrive at the dry patchy grass of our sorry excuse of a lawn or to the blinding hot, white sand which leads to the far away water’s edge? My eyes are closed. Who can tell what I will find?

I still remember the summer of 1997. My son was only six years old then. We had an inflatable wading pool, nestled on top of the uneven moss and grass-covered rock below our tiny cottage, for him to splash around in. The summer was hot and long and dry. I emptied everything out of the mildewed tool shed, laying all the junk on a tarp spread on dried moss, without fear of anything getting rained on and wet – it hardly ever rained that summer. All summer, my husband and son spent hours lying in a hammock suspended between two birch trees, using paddles to swing themselves back and forth, pretending to be sailors on the open sea. That was also the summer we built our Friggebod. Or at least, the carpenters we hired built it. For many years, it was the only mold-free house on our property.

One of the birch trees gave up and died many years ago. We no longer have a good place to hang the hammock,so it sits rolled up on a shelf, in the over-crowded and still musty tool shed.

Five or ten years from now, I’ll sit with a cup of tea in my hands and remind friends of the summer of 2018 – how long it was, how hot it was, how sunny it was, and how dry it was. How wonderful it was. Hopefully, it will be the occasional exception to the rule, worthy of remembering and not become the expected normal Swedish summer.

It rained this year on Midsommar afton. It was practically the only rain we have had all summer. But, then, what would Swedish Midsommar be without a little rain?


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com