My Love-Hate Relationship with Feral Cats

The feral cats who spend a good deal of time in our backyard have been around for about five years.  After their first year of residency, my neighbor behind me and up the hill had them trapped and neutered.  Then they were returned to our neighborhood.  I believe this is the current practice for dealing with them…to stop their procreation.  At that time there were three of them, all obviously sired by the same parent since they had similar coloring but different markings.

I wasn’t thrilled that they were back but I was glad that they wouldn’t be able to produce more of their kind. You see…I am a bird lover and I look forward to seeing the birds who show up in my yard year-round. The arrival and constant presence of the feral cats has been a definite deterrent to the bird traffic.  In fact, the year after they arrived I noticed a significant decline in the number of birds showing up. This made me very upset, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any solution to this problem.

I confess to hoping that the harsh winter might have taken a toll on some of them. But, no…..instead, the same ones are back as well as a new one! And he is the worst of them all.  He is very large and furry, and  black with yellow eyes.  I know when he is around because I hear him first.  He has a blood curdling meow which is very loud that he uses to announce his arrival.  This meowing can go on for ten minutes or so, until he moves on. I run to the back door when I hear it, but most of the time I cannot see him. Occasionally I do catch a glimpse as he saunters through the yard territorially spraying everywhere he goes.

I am dreading spring when the birds become very active and the cats will all be hunting in my backyard. Shooing them away does nothing; they run a few feet and then stop looking back at me over the shoulder. They know they will come to no real harm. I especially dread the meowing of the black cat since we will want to have our windows open and there is no worse sound than a cat’s mating sounds in the middle of the night.

Yesterday, when I opened my back door I spotted the calico who darted away as soon as he saw me. But with my peripheral vision I spotted the big orange one, the Big Daddy, curled up under a bush catching the heat reflecting from the brick wall that lines our garden. He looked really weary and happy to have a safe place to warm his arthritic limbs. I, who hate these feral cats, didn’t have the heart to disturb him!

I Was Excited About Retirement; Instead..

I was excited about retirement; instead, I got cancer, 4th stage

I had made plans to really enjoy my first retirement summer; instead I spent 2 1/2 months being tested and evaluated

I wanted to have a celebration of my retirement; instead, I saw no one but my family all summer long

I had just joined a senior aerobics class to lose weight and get healthy; instead, I had to withdraw from the class after attending one session

I was excited about doing things with my family; instead, they ended up worrying about and taking care of me

I was eager to try out new things; instead, I spent my time in chemotherapy, radiation treatment and recovering from each round of treatment

I was looking forward to spending relaxed time with friends; instead, I was too sick to see anyone

We usually have a big house party around Christmas; instead we spent the Christmas holidays alonebecause I wasn’t up to having visitors

Everyone complained about the weather all winter; instead, I was glad I didn’t have to drive to work

The New Year came and people made resolutions; instead, I wished for more time with my family

The weeks went by and people were busy with their lives; instead, I was silently waiting to hear my prognosis

Everyone said I looked better and had more energy; instead of being happy, I felt scared

I thought the day would never come that I would learn the results of my ordeal; instead, the call I had been waiting for finally came one morning…I was cancer free!

The doctor who called was very excited and happy for me; instead, I was numb and grateful

Friends and relatives called and emailed to congratulate me; instead, I was unable to share their joy

Weeks went by and I wondered if I would ever be happy again; instead, I began to do things and spend less time thinking about myself

As I got busier, I realized my mood was lifting; instead of feeling fear and anxiety, I was being to look forward to each new day

Six months ago I sat alone for hours each day waiting for the day to be over; instead, now I am so busy there aren’t enough hours in the day

Whereas not so long ago I had lost all passion; instead, I am now passionate about everything

A month ago, I no longer had a community to belong to; instead, Slice of Life has provided me with “instant” community

I no longer turned away offers from friends to visit me; instead, I hosted a small dinner party for friends who had helped me through my ordeal

I didn’t succumb to cancer; instead, I am one of the lucky ones.  I am, for now, cancer free!

They’re Back!!! Spring Fever in the Local Pond

Moments after arriving at our local park yesterday to walk around the pond, my daughter said to me, “What is going on with the swans?”  Indeed, at a distance it was hard to figure out what the two resident swans were up to.   It seemed as though one might have been injured or both.  They were tangled in a kind of heap.  Then we burst out laughing because we realized they were actually trying to get it on!  Having never seen swans do that before it hadn’t occurred to us that the strange shape we saw at a distance was their attempt at coupling.  I almost felt embarrassed for them…they seemed so awkward.

Continuing our walk around the pond, my daughter then commented on how the water in the pond seemed bubbly underneath the surface.  It was not quiet and still or frozen as it had been for weeks.  We kept walking and soon came to one of our favorite areas…a pond within the larger pond where the ducks tend to gather.  This is always an active place, and today was no exception.  We have been observing a couple of male Hooded Mergansers for weeks enjoying their winter visit to our pond.  But today there was a surprise.  A female Hooded Merganser was suddenly visible, and she was as beautiful as her partner, but in a much more subtle way.  Her feathers are not the dramatic contrast of black and white like her mate, but a subtle blend of russet and black, with several dramatic white stripes on her wings folded close to her body.  With our new minibinoculars we stood there for at least ten minutes watching the couple  enjoy the warmer weather and each other.

About a hundred feet further along the path my daughter suddenly stopped and exclaimed, “Mom, look over there on the bank of the pond.” Sure enough, across the pond there was a good-sized turtle,  completely out of the water, sunning himself.  As we gazed around, we suddenly noticed there were many  more turtles sunning themselves on the small islands in the pond.  They were so well camouflaged they were not immediately visible to our eyes. The bubbling pond water was no longer a mystery.  The turtles had been emerging from their winter hideouts.

Moments later my daughter said to me in a low, intense voice, “Oh my God, he’s back!” while pointing to a spot in the pond just below the snowbank we were standing on.  Then I saw him, too…the huge turtle that has mesmerized us for this past year since we discovered his residency  in our pond last summer. This is not any ordinary turtle…he has extremely long claws, very massive legs (is that what you call them?), and a spiked tail like a dinosaur.  He is kinda’ scary looking…like I imagine the Loch Ness monster would be if anyone ever actually found him.  He was mostly submerged with only his head sticking out of the water, but occasionally floated close  enough to the surface for his shell to partially poke out of the water to remind us how big he is.  And then…as if that weren’t enough for one day’s sightings…my daughter pointed to another head swimming nearby.  It was another turtle nearly as large as the first swimming about 10 feet away from him.  We surmised that it is probably his mate, based on the coupling we had witnessed circling around the pond on our walk.  A small Irish man passing by stopped to participate in our fascination with the turtles and told us he had learned from nearby residents that these turtles were probably 80 years old and some live to be 100!

Seeing these now familiar birds and reptiles brought almost as much joy to us and excitement as seeing an elephant in the wild.  My daughter said, “Well, it’s not California with its sea lions, sea otters and brown pelicans swooping past us over the Pacific waves.”  But it will have to do.  Here on the East Coast we experience nature on a much smaller and user- friendly scale.  But there’s definitely enough nature on LI to keep all of us attentive and engaged.

With everyone pairing off in the small animal kingdom in preparation for raising a new generation, nature is once again rewarding us for making through and long and challenging winter.  In an earlier posting,  one slicer who was extolling the book Wondrous Words, which was changing her own writing style,  talked about paying attention to your choice of words because they make a difference. Well, paying attention to the life around you, the small details, will also make a difference if you really do it. So get off your cellphones, take a walk in nature  and look around you. You might be surprised.

Back to Brooklyn

I consider myself and my family members to be well traveled.  Before marriage and children I had driven across the country several times taking different routes; spent three years living in Central California; and lived for nine months in Paris by myself (not as a student). With my family I have traveled to the Northwest, Canada, the Southwest and New England. My two children have lived in even more far- flung locales such as Botswana, Africa; Menorca, Spain; Berlin, Germany, Costa Rica; Australia and New Zealand.  Because we are all so peripatetic,  I think of us as citizens of the world.

What I did not see coming was my return to Brooklyn.  Until my family moved to the north shore of LI when I was 9 years old, we lived in an unusual community of German immigrants in Ridgewood,  Brooklyn. I was too young to know it then, but it was like living in a foreign country.  Most of the families in my neighborhood were German, with a smattering of other immigrants.  Mostly everyone I knew, including the local shopkeepers, spoke German.  Neither I nor any of my six brothers and sisters spoke German, even at home.  My father was a transplanted Floridian who spoke only English, so English was our first and only language. My mother spoke only German until she entered school and eventually became English dominant.

Like all postwar families we were ready to leave Brooklyn and move to a “better life” in the suburbs.  My father was building our new home, pretty much singlehandedly, which is the only way my parents could have afforded to move.  I don’t remember my feelings about leaving Brooklyn and I remember very few things about actually living there.  I know we walked everywhere, took an elevated train to church every Sunday, roller skated a lot on our street, and pretty much stuck close to home during the week.

It was very liberating for me to move to the small seaside community on LI  where I lived until I went to college.  I discovered nature, wide-open spaces and the freedom to wander all day without fear.  Those were the golden years.  Life must have been much better for my parents, too, since their brood had grown to eight children which would have been unsustainable in our cramped city apartment.  We were lucky enough to be part of a very fine school district, so we all received a very good, albeit old- fashioned, education.  Although the house my father built was sold following my parents’ deaths, I will always think of it as home.

But this story doesn’t end there.  Today my husband (who is from the Bronx) and I will be returning to Brooklyn to visit our son and his girlfriend who share an apartment in Carroll Gardens.  When my son first moved to Brooklyn about a decade ago I thought it was a phase and he would eventually move on.  During that decade he moved several times through several neighborhoods, each time improving his real estate status.  He has now been in Carroll Gardens for several years and loves it there.  At first I was shocked.  Why would anyone choose to live in Brooklyn?  I didn’t realize then that a major migration of young adults was doing the same and bringing new life to old Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Soon we will be making the now familiar trek to a place we have grown to love to visit (I am still at heart a suburbanite)…Carroll Gardens…to meet up with relatives and have dinner at my son’s favorite venue, a local jazz club.  We love the change of scenery and the change of pace, and I have learned to think of Brooklyn as a place where happiness can be found. But having become a suburbanite, it is not a place where I could easily choose to live.




A Lovely Lunch Ritual

Earlier in the week I wrote about needing to get some rhythm back into my life (Gettin’ Back in My Groove!).     One of my routine activities has become a new ritual when my daughter and I have lunch together several times a week. This ritual only began about a month ago when I was declared cancer free.  Up until then I wasn’t strong enough to make it happen.

My daughter lived in California for about 7 years from age 20 to 27.  She’d probably still be there if she had been able to find meaningful employment and an affordable place to live.  She found neither and, in addition, was facing her fourth open-heart surgery in the not too distant future.  So about three years ago she came home. I am not a helicopter parent, but I do care deeply about both my children (now ages 31 and 33).  Though I didn’t hover much during those 7 years, we did communicate weekly by phone and my husband I visited her once or twice a year.  I was happy that she was happy and tried not to interfere with her life.

Needless to say,  I did miss her and was excited about the prospect of having her come “home” to live with us until her surgery was well behind her and she was on her feet again.  It is now almost three years since the surgery, and she is back on her feet and in her own groove.  Though she longs to have a place of her own and a real job, she knows she is in the same boat as so many young adults her age who are experiencing the long-term effects of the 2008 recession.  So we try to make the best of a bad situation.

Little did we know that her presence at home was to become so important.  After I developed cancer last summer, her caregiving became really important to me.  She works part-time at a nearby bookstore and was able to check in on me several times a week during her lunch hour.  Since I had a gynecological cancer,  she was able to understand some of my needs better than my husband, and make the necessary purchases of items I needed for my care. But most importantly she was my safety net…the one person I could talk to who really understood me and could take care of my emotional needs.  Having been through five open-heart surgeries in her short life, she is extremely knowledgeable about medical issues and very compassionate toward those who are suffering.

Now that I am in remission and have fully retired from my job, we are able to have lunch together several times a week.  Usually it’s at home; I try to make a healthy, comforting lunch for her because she is on her feet all day and her job is not always pleasant.  This small ritual of making lunch for her is my way of paying her back for taking such good care of me.  Recently I designated Wednesdays as our going-out-to-lunch day when we try out new places and often return to old favorites.  Our Wednesday lunches feel special and help to break up the monotony of these long winter weeks.  After 7 years of not seeing very much of her, it is a luxury to have these lunches with her.  I know it won’t last forever, so I cherish each and every lunch we have together  as  a celebration of our mother-daughter connection and how much we have overcome by helping each other.

…and “You Think Your Winter Was Rough?”

Reading the NY Times this am as the snowflakes continued to fall, I came across an interesting editorial entitled “You Think Your Winter Was Rough?”  The writer, Nicholas Kristof, is a globe-trotter, peace-maker, do-gooder…you get the picture.  I often read his column to lift my spirits because he mostly writes about his uplifting interactions with people around the world.

In this column he shared the conversation he’d had with “two young Americans set off on the most daring and foolhardy wilderness expedition since, oh, maybe Lewis and Clark.” (Listen up social studies/history teachers. This piece of writing would make for good close reading and a comparison  someone else’s expedition…say Shackleton.” Those of us who read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, or saw the movie (a rare example of the movie being almost as good as the book), know that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a major accomplishment both emotionally and physically in summer. But doing it in winter does seem, well, crazy!

Having lived through such predictable challenges as snow-blinding blizzards, staying up all night to keep the snow off their tent to prevent it from collapsing, and getting frostbite from hiking through a blizzard, you would think they would retell their story focusing on their near-death experiences.  While they did mention them, what came through in the conversation was their absolute addiction to the beauty and challenges of nature.  Both had hiked the trail in summer, but  both were eager  to see it in another season.  “With the snow there’s so much natural beauty…It’s so peaceful. And the frozen rivers have these strange ice formations,” explained one of the hikers.

As we struggle through this never ending winter, let’s try to appreciate the savage beauty of winter and those who rise heroically to its challenges.  My daughter and I took a walk recently in our local park and were rewarded with two sightings of ducks that can only be seen locally in winter: the Ring-Necked Duck and the Hooded Merganser.  A swan waddled awkwardly across the snow-covered pond…white on white.  We had the whole park to ourselves. Not exactly the Pacific Crest Trail, but we were happy. As I sit in my cozy living room with a crackling fire in the fireplace and look outside at this suburban winter wonderland, I am thankful for all the seasons.

Gettin’ My Groove Back

I sometimes do my best thinking when I am not thinking too hard.  For example,  recently  I was doing errands when I suddenly remembered that it was Chinese New Year.  In my classroom this was always a big deal since I taught ESL and this is definitely a holiday that celebrates diversity and invites cultural comparisons.  Besides…it’s fun what with making dragon masks, interpreting horoscopes, learning to count to ten in Chinese, eating with chopsticks…you get the picture.   Old school teaching.  We followed the rhythm of the year with our small celebrations.

While driving somewhere yesterday, another thought came to me about my daily rhythms.  I thought about my newer classroom and how much I loved it after having taught in another  closet-sized room for about 15 years.  The newer one was spacious and looked out on a grassy area and a huge oak tree, “my tree,” I told my students.  I actually physically felt the sensation I had when I reached my classroom every day, coffee cup in hand and obligatory tote bags dangling from my arms…this was My Home Away from Home.  I savored the time I often had to myself before my classes actually began.  It was a half hour of business and reflection. I collected my thoughts and my intentions for the day, and the rest of the day took care of itself. I was in my groove.

Then I began to think about how much kids also like regular routines, though they also enjoy a break in the routine!  But to enjoy a break in routine, you need to have one in the first place.  Since we know our students’ lives are often less than perfect, I believe it is important to provide them with as much consistency in the daily routine as possible.  School is their safe place, and safe places are calm and predictable and protective.  This probably also explains why I felt so good each morning in my classroom.  It was calm, protective and predictable.

Now,  I am retired and recovering from a life-threatening illness.  Although I am “in recovery,” I have been wondering why I have been feeling so dazed and confused…and definitely not as joyful as I thought I would be feeling. I finally realized that due to my retirement followed immediately by catastrophic  illness, I no longer had a rhythm to my life that would carry me forward from moment to moment, day to day.

But yesterday my mood suddenly lifted. I realized it was because I had stopped thinking about my feelings and was, instead, becoming more involved in doing things.  I have been creating a new groove for myself by joining a couple of exercise classes, taking my daughter out to lunch once a week, reconnecting with the wonderful people in the Long Island Writing Project, reading the NY Times in a leisurely fashion every morning….and last but not least, joining the Slice of Life writing community.  Interacting with teachers every day has helped restore my rhythm and has definitely restored my pleasure in writing and my faith in the intelligence and goodwill of the teaching community.  It’s so good to be back in my groove!



A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I had not intended to start my Tuesday slice with an unhappy story, but I need to get past it, so here goes…

Several years ago I was happily bubbling along in my role as an elementary-level ESL teacher. A late-bloomer in public school teaching, I was really appreciating my new career (since 1993) which allowed me to pretty much be as creative as I wanted to be in my own classroom while helping students to learn English. I was rewarded for my work and creativity in 2009 when I received the New York State TESOL teacher of the year award, as well as a LI ESL Teacher of the Year award from Molloy College. Things were better than good. I was enjoying my work, feeling confident about my skills and knowledge after 15 years on the job, and eager to stay on the jobas long as I could.

Fast forward to 2012-2013. The Common Core and new teacher evaluations were summarily introduced into our district with little warning and no preparation.
Panic and chaos set in. Programs which had taken years to develop were curtailed, such as our Balanced Literacy Program. New curricula were passed on to the teachers with no prior professional development.
New approaches were dropped within months because they were ineffective. It was survival of the fittest in every school in the district.

During all this turmoil, the esl students and teachers were the last concerns on anyone’s mind, but I felt from the get-go that the new exams would be inapproprate for esl students still very much in the throes of learning basic English, never mind the more sophisticated and nuanced tasks required of them by the new exams. I was right. When the evaluations were presented to us on the first day of school in 2013, I was one of 11 teachers labeled Developing. As such, we were burdened with a TIP (Teacher Improvement Plan) for the remainder of the year which involved particular tasks, most of which were monotonous, tedious and in my case had nothing to do with ESL pedagogy. I failed to see how I would benefit from this punishment. Furthermore, my students had all done well on the ESL state test, the NYSESLAT, so my evaluation was based on the results of their other state and local tests on which they did poorly. No surprise. I hated the fact that each of the 11 Developing Teachers were invited to “appeal” our case to a kangaroo court which approved only 1 change in status; the fact that I had to spend several hours per week on a TIP plan that was irrelevant to my work; to the fact that I was considered Developing after 20 years of very satisfactory annual evaluations and the awards spoken of earlier. Nonetheless, I continued to teach in the most professional way I could and strove to support my students for the challenges that lay ahead of them.

I decided to retire at the end of 2014 for many reasons, not the least of which was because I was losing my passion for being a teacher. Although I shrugged off the label of Developing, I could see the handwriting on the wall for me. My students would never do well on the Common Core tests, or even the local tests, BECAUSE THEY ARE STILL LEARNING BASIC ENGLISH! They were simply not ready for the cognitive challenges presented to them because of the level of their language development. In addition, as I told both my Principal and Assistant Principal, I would probably be labeled Developing again in 2014 because my students that year were even weaker in language arts than my previous year’s students. Several of them had also been recommended for evaluation for Special Education, a process which took nearly the whole academic year. There were also unidentified Special Ed candidates who had been in my class for a year or two because the parents refused to allow them to be screened and/or the district delayed screening them because of their ESL status. It was a no win situation for them and for me. I couldn’t see the point of continuing to work as hard as I had for 21 years only to be punished again by my evaluation.

So, yet, I retired. And yes, I was mailed by evaluation in late August. And here’s the “kicker.” I was told that I was again a Developing teacher…on the same day I was diagnosed with a very scary, late-stage cancer.

I spent the next six months fearing for my life and dealing with chemo and radiation treatments. I am one of the lucky ones….I am now considered “cancer free.” I know that what really matters is that I have my life back and now I can really retire. And I no longer have to report for a job that devalued my expertise and experience in my final two years of teaching.
But still….

The Church of Nature

I’ve always responded enthusiastically to nature.  Today as I write this I am looking through my kitchen sliding doors at the hill behind my house covered with confectionary sugar.  Nature has always been a source of great beauty and comfort to me. When my children were younger I used to tell them that the closest I ever felt to “God” was when I went backpacking in the High Sierras of California above the treeline where it feels like you can reach out and touch the sky at night.

Today, as a retired teacher, I still feel the same way and look forward to the days when taking a walk is possible or to the sudden arrival of a flock of birds in my backyard as did happen yesterday when dozens of robins appeared out of nowhere to peck at the ground on my hill looking for insects to eat.  I can get as excited about sighting a blue heron as I can about anything else in my life.

This brings me to “The Church of Nature” and how it came to exist in my life.  When my children were around the ages of 8 and 10, as a family we took a “hike” every Sunday.  We are fortunate to live on the north shore of LI where the local scenery is quite lovely in most seasons and opportunities for short hikes are easily accessible.  For me the goal was to get outside and away from all the indoor concerns of the past week and the week to come, while introducing my children to the wonders of nature, albeit on a smaller scale than the High Sierras. We would pack a snack and drinks in our backpacks, dress appropriately for the season and set off for the day’s adventure.

In an age when it is irresponsible to allow children to just wander as I did as a child in my small seaside town, it was a relief to be able to let my children run through the woods or along the seashore discovering nature for themselves.  We have walked in Caumsett Park in Lloyd Neck when it was so cold the entire landscape was frozen.  We have often visited the Theodore Roosevelt bird sanctuary in Cove Neck and ended our walks with an obligatory visit to their nature center where my children could watch the local birds feeding from a wall-sized window or browse among the specimens of local flora and fauna. We have spent many summer Sundays on north shore beaches watching the children explore the saltwater marshes, discovering and capturing in their small nets (and releasing) the small crabs and fish that inhabit these waters.

Today, both my children are avid nature-lovers and environmentalists and each of them has traveled to far-flung places like Africa and Australia to experience the wonders each locale has to offer.  I like to think that some of their enthusiasm is due to the many Sundays we spent hiking and enjoying our local natural wonders.  When they got older I told them that instead of going to church every Sunday, we visited “the church of nature,” as a way of explaining to them where my personal brand of spirituality comes from and most likely theirs, too.