If I were a poet, I’d write about the dry-cleaning woman who was kind to my daughter and her bell-bottomed jeans that needed hemming. I’d write about the crow that waited on the sidewalk like a father forced to go shopping. But what about the man wanting a dollar for a coffee but how does anyone buy a coffee for a dollar in a town with eight-dollar donuts? If I were a poet, I’d stretch the word conflict to spill over the page and I’d rhyme words and phrases like antisemitism and no place for them. This morning, after the hemming, the patient crow, and the coffee incident, two freshly laundered Mormon boys in skinny black ties asked if I had time for a story. I said no thank you I’m Jewish. What I didn’t say was that today, on Irving Street, I am more Jewish than I’ve ever been, and my grandmother didn’t escape the Holocaust with my father, his baby brother, and diamonds in the sole of her shoe for all the who-said-whats. But maybe that’s exactly why she did. Because someday she’d have a granddaughter named in her memory who would still feel the hatred of Jews in the words people toss around without an eight-dollar morsel of understanding. If I were a poet, I’d fill a page with commas to look like tears, make a million copies, and hand them to slogan-lovers and say here, burn this instead.
There is a bunny in the dog park. And it’s not a small, brown, outdoorsy bunny. This one is large, black and white, and fluffy. I first became aware of it when the friendly man with the Husky was running after his dog, screaming something in Russian. When I asked him if everything was ok, he said, gasping, “There’s a bunny.” I went on Next Door and sure enough, the previous day someone had posted, “Is anyone missing a rabbit? It’s in the park.”
That was a month ago. Since then, it’s all anyone can talk about. It is a welcome distraction from Sadie the Terrier’s ear surgery or whether Chester is back on wet food. Now it’s bunny all the time.
At first, everyone wanted to save the bunny. Red Raincoat with the Poodle was particularly concerned. “How’s it going to survive out here with all the dogs and coyotes?” Visor Lady (no dog) was convinced the bunny escaped the clutches of a neglectful owner. “If that were my rabbit, I’d be out day and night looking for it.” With all the big dogs running through the brush, we were all convinced that Bunny’s days were numbered. When my own dog hunted and gobbled up a gopher, I cringed at the thought of her nice girl reputation being replaced with Bunny Killer.
After a week or so, our worry turned to awe. “Darn bunny is still alive!” said the owner of the shaggy German Shepherd. “Saw it this morning!” The owner of the mean Chihuahua I once referred to as a cunt (not to its face) pointed out the increase of hawks in the park. I had been so focused on my own dog’s thirst for blood, not to mention the coyotes, that I had forgotten all about the hawks.
It’s not a large park. You can walk its circumference in less than five minutes. I knew it was only a matter of time before I had my own spotting. And then one day, Ginger had run ahead on the path and when I turned the corner, she was intently staring at something. There, a few feet away, was a watermelon-sized, black and white bunny, chomping away on the grass, not a care in the world. This cutie had the confidence of a gangster. When I approached my dog to try and leash her, the bunny hopped away. Ginger sprinted after her. After a chase in the bushes, Ginger appeared, head hanging low. The energizer had outpaced a gopher-eating Lab. I was relieved. This park is so convenient. Being ostracized is not an option.
Last week, several people saw not one but three bunnies! That sent everyone into a tizzy. “It’s all I think about,” confessed the blond computer programmer with the Pit Bull. I told her I understood, saying, “It’s the most exciting thing to happen to this park since the new playground.” She didn’t know the playground was new, so we had to talk about that for a few minutes even though my brain was screaming, “Bunny, bunny, bunny!”
Eventually, the park community coalesced around a shared narrative that some dude had tossed his pregnant bunny to the curb, and now the tiny family is hopping around in the fresh air, mocking predators, and celebrating freedom.
But yesterday, someone from a humane organization set traps. A few of us watched solemnly, as they set up three small metal cages with lettuce and carrots inside. This morning I expressed my feelings to the Russian Man with the Husky. “It makes me sad,” I said, “These bunnies seem like they’re living their best lives. Maybe they’re choosing quality over quantity.”
He convinced me that if the bunnies survived a month with coyotes, hawks, and dogs, “they’re not stupid enough to walk into a little box.” As he sprinted after his dog, he called back over his shoulder, “Who wants to live life in a cage anyway?”
Someone has released a fleet of self-driving cars in my neighborhood. Not a human in sight. This morning on the way to work, a white one was stuck. Two lanes needed to merge, and in the right lane, the driverless car just sat there. All the boring regular cars like mine pulled around it. No one honked. Perhaps they knew there was no point. At the next red light, I stared out the window at the rain and wondered what would happen to that poor car. I felt sad. For a robot.
I recently adopted a dog named Ginger. She weighs 90 pounds, has big brown eyes, and smells like a dirt road. The click of her toenails on the hardwood floor evokes a secretarial college typing class. She barks when the doorbell rings, or when a squirrel might be near, but mostly she is a quiet roaming presence. She greets everyone with a tail wag and half-closes her eyes if you rub her jiggly pink belly. She often looks forlorn which I’m guessing is mostly an evolutionary advantage, but perhaps also due to a recent change of lifestyle. Ginger’s previous owner died, so I’ve spent some time reading about grieving dogs. “While they may not understand the full extent of human absence, dogs do understand the emotional feeling of missing someone who’s no longer a part of their daily lives,” says one article. A stranger on the beach told me he could never adopt a dog who had had a loss like that. “It’s too sad,” he said, watching Ginger sniff a crow’s carcass before running back for a treat. “But good for you,” he called out over his shoulder as he ran to stop his goldendoodle from humping a terrier.
When Ginger knows I’m awake, she moseys over to my side of the bed to sniff my nose. And when I open my eyes, she wiggles her body back and forth in anticipation. I can see how some might dislike a dog’s dirty mouth in their face at the crack of dawn, but I love waking up this way, feeling loved and needed.
Does this dog love me? I don’t care. I get to feed her and take her to the park. I get to scrape the yellow goop out of her eyes and rub my finger along her gums. I get to try and bathe her, even though she’d rather smell like dead seal than step one foot in a bathtub. I get to love her and say she’s mine.
Years ago, when I was living in Perth, I recall sitting in the car, hearing a news story about robots and humans. I was in a parking lot waiting for my daughter to finish her field hockey practice. An ibis was raiding the dumpster. It was pouring rain and my daughter would soon need a hot shower and a snack. The story focused on whether robots would ever love us back. Some scientists had figured out how to make robots mimic emotions like anger, love, and jealousy by releasing artificial oxytocin. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the scientist saying that if you ask a human whether their partner loves them, they will respond that they feel loved. And the same goes for the relationship between humans and robots. In other words, if you feel loved, you are loved.
After work, I took the same way home. The driverless car was gone. Someone must have saved it.
The swim club was abuzz. “There’s a whale out there,” a flushed-face woman announced as I dumped my bag on the locker room floor. No, she hadn’t seen it, but everyone was talking about it. “Someone said it’s just past the opening,” she said, as I stepped carefully into my swimsuit.
I swim in an enclosed part of the San Francisco Bay called Aquatic Park. The opening is just that, and will lead you to Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.
Soon, my brother and I met up on the beach, in our bathing suits and fluorescent neoprene caps. Sometimes he tries to get me to swim to the opening and I usually say no. It’s further than I normally feel like swimming, and if something happens out there, it’s a long way back. That morning, however, we didn’t discuss our route. There was a whale out there, and we were swimming out to see it.
As always, the cold water stung for the first minute or so. I kept moving and breathing, and soon the burn was replaced with joy.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about joy and burden. In the case of 54-degree water, for me, the joy of swimming in the Bay supersedes the burden of the initial discomfort. Many lifestyle choices come with both joy and burden: marriage, children, and travel to name a few. When the joy greatly outweighs the burden, it’s a no-brainer.
Swimming out to see a possible whale felt especially joyful.
I focused on pushing my arms through the water. I take this cancer-prevention medicine that makes my legs tire easily (joy of lowering rate of recurrence outweighs burden of unpleasant side effects). Just past the large buoy, we passed a swimmer we know. She was easy to spot with her graceful breaststroke, bright blue visor, and stylish sunglasses. “I saw a whale!” she said breathlessly. “I stayed out ten extra minutes just staring at it.” This was the motivation I needed so I readjusted my goggles and kicked hard to catch up with my brother.
I spotted something black in the distance. “Is that it?”
“That’s a bird,” he said with mild exasperation (joy of being with my brother outweighs burden of feeling like a little sister). I reminded him I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and he reminded me of all the times I’ve thought people were seals and tree branches were sealions.
We swam over tiny waves, past a brown wooden boat named the Grace Quan. And then, just when we arrived at Muni Pier, right at the opening, we saw a giant spray in the distance. We both shrieked with delight. A dark shape glided across the surface and we kept shrieking. A whale! Even without my glasses, I could see its shiny coat. I was starting to shiver but I wanted more whale action. We treaded water for a while.
“Remember when we all rented that house and Mom banged her knee and tried to get all of us to go to a park?” Daniel said suddenly, looking out towards Angel Island.
“Yea,” I said. We were going to see our mother later that day. She wants to fire her social worker because she thinks she’s patronizing and too expensive (joy of having mother alive outweighs the burden of navigating the aging process with her).
My body was starting to feel warm which meant I had about 30 minutes to get to the sauna. We had to turn back. As we breaststroked side by side, I told him the entire plot of the movie The Whale. He asked me, “What did the students think of him when they saw his body for the first time?”
“They were repulsed,” I said.
“But then he takes a few steps towards his daughter- the redhead from Stranger Things- and dies.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s it?”
In early December, I was at dinner with three friends, all of us going through different challenges having to do with illnesses, empty nests, and husbands wrestling with identity and hypochondria. We were looking at the menu and talking about fish when one of them started to relay a recent discovery about flounder. “Apparently,” my friend began, leaning over the table, as if sharing a military secret, “There’s something going on with flounder.” Another friend knew exactly what she was talking about. “Oh right,” she agreed, ripping off the end of a baguette, “I read about that. They are in a state of evolutionary change.” The first friend nodded. “They are turning into something else, that’s for sure.” Baguette looked excited. “And we get to witness it.”
Evolution in real time? What on earth were they talking about? I wanted to learn more but they quickly moved onto more pressing matters like dead family members.
As I tossed my purse on the couch later that night, I asked my husband, “What’s happening with flounder?” In my experience, he usually knows things, or, more accurately, has gotten wind of science things. But he knew nothing and was eager to complain about one of our kids leaving a messy kitchen.
I had never given flounder much thought. I have probably spoken the word flounder just a handful of times in my life.
I spent a few minutes googling the issue but didn’t find anything, so I watched a video featuring tiny, crocheted farm animals in stop-motion.
A few weeks later, I was in Perth, Australia, on South Cottesloe Beach. Our family had finally returned to visit our old home. It was summer in the southern hemisphere and my pale body was happily marinating in sunscreen. I watched two older men in snorkel attire approach the ocean, and after a minute of floating around, scurry out. They then stood on the shoreline, pointing excitedly at something.
It was not a flounder.
I grabbed my sunhat and approached the tan men to ask what all the commotion was about. “It’s a cobbler,” the taller one said, pointing. I must have shrugged because he added, “Like a catfish, with spikes in the front and the back.” The other one laughed, “You don’t want to step on one of those.” Looking at the long, brown fish half-buried in the sand, I asked if it was poisonous. The tall man answered in customary Australian no-worries-but-also-worry fashion, “It’s not so much the toxins, it’s the three hours of throbbing pain.” He then excitedly shared all the gory details of the time he stepped on a cobbler. “I mean I howled, really cried out, for three straight hours. Throbbing pain I tell you. Hideous.”
I walked back to my towel and told my husband about the three straight hours of throbbing pain. We left for a different beach down the road.
A few days ago, back in San Francisco, I found myself thinking about the flounder situation, and that ominous cobbler. I was alone in a pre-op room, my chest decorated with black pen. I was about to go back under general anesthesia to adjust one of the breast implants I acquired after my cancer ordeal, as my niece called it in a school assignment. The flounder thing was a mystery I’d left unsolved, and what if I didn’t wake up? And the terrifying cobbler rushed back to me when the anesthesiologist missed the vein in my foot, while trying to insert the IV. “Someone hold my hand!” I had yelled out. “That was sharp!” By the time they moved me to the OR, and I positioned myself on the operating table, I felt calm again. I closed my eyes and imagined swimming in the ocean, a trick I learned during the ordeal. I pictured my arms pulling through the water and listened for the seagulls. This time, I also tried to picture large, flat, happy flounder, and knew that as long as I stayed afloat, I wouldn’t step on anything sharp.