Monday, June 24, 2019

For The Love Of Pets

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published June 26, 2019] ©2019

For the 12 years I was a divorced working parent, we lived paycheck to paycheck.  It was a good thing that my younger son was allergic to animal dander because we could never have afforded a dog or cat, even to feed them, never mind shots or grooming or God forbid, if the animal got sick.  Instead we had Dinky, a cockatiel.

Birds tend to be low cost pets – just a cage, seed, some toys. Dinky was truly a member of the family, feeding our souls as we all healed from the trauma of divorce. While he had a cage, he was rarely in it unless we weren’t home, instead riding around on someone’s shoulder or head.  He recognized our voices, our footsteps coming up the walk, and the sound of my car engine.  He even ate at the table with us, albeit a little nervously when poultry was served.  We were all hugely attached to this little bird who had so much personality and brought us all so much daily joy.

It was Rory who first noticed that Dinky was listless and not eating, sitting on his perch fluffing up his feathers. I had yet to learn that birds are really hard to save; they have to look good even if they’re ailing to survive in the wild. By the time they look bad, they’re pretty much on their way out.  The kids were absolutely weepy.  (I was too.)  Dinky won’t die, will he Mom? Can we take him to the birdie doctor? 

Few vets treat birds so I was finally referred to a specialty veterinary hospital.  They said that to do diagnostics and treat Dinky would cost $600 up front, regardless of the outcome.  I was distraught.  When you take home $1,500 a month, $600 means a lot of months of spaghetti. I had always been careful not to run up credit card debt. The only alternative was to take Dinky home and pray for a miracle.

From the vet’s office, I called Olof in San Jose with my phone card. We were dating then, in a commuter relationship.  As he listened compassionately, I sobbed into the phone about how this really wasn’t even a choice given my financial situation.  Finally, he said gently, “I think you know what you need to do.”  I blubbered to the affirmative. Not that I did it. Three minutes later I had handed over my credit card for the $600, and the bird, after some pricey blood tests, died in the x-ray machine an hour later.

Not long ago, my younger son Henry, now 39, said, “Do I remember that we ate a lot of spaghetti?” And I replied, “Yeah.  The bird died.” 

The reality is that pets are expensive.  No one ever adopts an animal thinking that they will develop a catastrophic medical condition. 

People might say, “well, you should have gotten medical insurance for your dog or cat.”  Pet insurance isn’t all that cheap either, and we found with Winston, our much-missed English bulldog, that our pet insurance didn’t cover conditions that were endemic to the breed.  Which in bulldogs is pretty much everything.  Our vet said that during her training they had a bumper sticker that read “Buy a bulldog. Support a vet.”  We were fortunate to be able to cover the $7,000 in medical bills for Winston before he died suddenly of a heart attack in our living room at the age of eight. 

Fortunately, there is a local organization that helps people who would have to euthanize a pet with a catastrophic medical condition because of an inability to pay.  It’s called FACE (The Foundation for Animal Care and Education.) Over 2,300 pets have been saved through the program since its inception in 2006. This year’s FACE fundraising event, Paws and Pints, sponsored by La Jolla Veterinary Hospital, already took place on June 6 but it’s never too late to donate to this worthy cause (

The FACE program started decades after Dinky who I think was probably unsavable. But the feeling of being unable to save a beloved fur, er, feathered child because of the cost still sticks with me 30-some years later.  I still cry when I think of Dinky.

While medical care for your pet can really add up, here’s something that isn’t expensive:  a collar and tag. At least a few times a month, I encounter an animal – usually a dog, but sometimes a cat, and occasionally even a chicken – who has escaped from its home. A surprising number have no tags. And, when taken to a local vet, aren’t chipped either. (Can you chip a chicken?) Aside from a fear that these poor animals will be hit by cars in our neighborhood’s fast-moving traffic, I’m afraid those anonymous roaming canines will eat the untaggable escapee chickens.

Don’t let this happen. 

Rory and Dinky, 1988

Monday, June 10, 2019

Just Trying To Keep Enough Synapses Firing In Sequence

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published June 12, 2019] ©2019

It’s really easy to put your head in the sand about getting old and decrepit until you start hearing about friends’ parents, and even the friends themselves, requiring 24-hour care.  As in forever. 

So Olof and I decided that maybe we should look into long-term care insurance.  Let me sum up the concept: they hope you pay exorbitant premiums for 20 years then die of a heart attack. 

Olof was out of town when the long-term care people called in response to my application and said they were sending a nurse out for a physical exam, including a cognitive evaluation. 

Uh-oh. I do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day (except Monday; too easy) and read three books a week. But I’m clear that my mind is not as sharp as it once was.  The Light will testify that my proofreading skills have gone to hell.  I mis-use words a lot more.  When I’m writing, I’ll ask myself, “Do I mean ‘propitious’ or “prophetic’?”  I’m not so sure of spelling anymore.  I have to look up grammar rules regularly. 

As we get older, Olof and I are hoping that together, we can maintain one complete brain and one functioning body between us.  Especially one semi-complete long-term memory bank.  We’re always asking each other: What was the name of the actor in… 

What’s scary, however, is that I sometimes temporarily lose a really basic word. 

Inga: “Olof, what’s the word for those things you put on your feet inside your shoes?”

Olof: “Socks?” 

Inga: “Yes! Thanks!”

There was a time when one of us querying the other as to whether they’d remembered to take out the dog or turn down the heat before bed would have suggested a mildly insulting lack of faith in the other’s mental prowess.  But now we’re in total agreement that we have no faith in either our own or the other’s mental prowess.  We’re just trying to keep the dog from peeing on the carpet and the heating bill under control.  We’re grateful for the reminder.

The problem will be when neither of us remembers to either ask or do it.  Or remembers that we even have a dog. Or heat.

Fortunately that day is not here yet. 

But having the long-term health care insurance evaluator come out unnerved me.  I knew I could chug an extra blood pressure pill a few hours before she got there, but what was a “cognitive evaluation” going to actually entail?  If they asked me to count back by 7’s or do a level one (easiest) Sudoku puzzle, I’d be toast. 

I decided to do a little home staging before she came, carelessly strewing around collections of New York Times Saturday crossword puzzles (the really hard ones, NOT the Sunday), a few books in Swedish, an assortment of green teas. I wanted to create a subconscious impression of someone who dwells among the cognitive-scenti, the kind of person for whom an evaluator would say, “Oh, we  obviously don’t need to be testing YOU.”

But she didn’t buy it. The cognitive exam, alas, was even worse than I expected. She told me she was going to tell me ten words and ask me to repeat back as many as I could remember a half hour later.  (Would two be enough?) I explained to the nice lady that I am afflicted with Auditory Processing Disorder (really) and learn better visually. Could I see the words instead? Nope. 

Um, doesn’t this violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?  If people can get more time on their SATs, shouldn’t I be entitled to accommodations on a dementia exam?

After she told me the words, giving me as much time as I needed to try to process them, she chatted it up with me about my current health and level of functioning.  (Inquiring minds want to know: Since when did “toileting” become a verb? Actually, when did it become a word?)

She had been deliberately vague about the costs of the insurance, noting that it would greatly depend on what type of coverage I might choose, and for how long I might want it.  Apparently, long term care can be pretty short term.  When I balked at the cost, she handed me a price sheet showing all the local memory care facilities costing anywhere from $8,000-$12,000 a MONTH.  And no, Medicare doesn’t pay. 

Against all odds, I actually was able to come up with nine of the ten words after the required 30-minute lag. Years ago, I learned that if I can’t write something down, I project it up on a pretend screen in front of me so I can see it. 

By the way, the words were chimney, salt, button, train, harp, meadow, finger, flower, book, and rug.  (The one I couldn’t remember was meadow.) 

Write these down.  You may get the same lady. 

I did a little home staging before the cognitive evaluator
came hoping she would conclude I was not a person in 
need of testing.  (She didn't buy it.) 

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Amazing Secret Life Of Crows

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published June 5, 2019] ©2019

It’s officially spring if the crows are back. Besides their tail shapes, you can tell they’re crows and not ravens because they travel in groups (as opposed to ravens which travel in pairs) and like to make a lot of noise starting at 5 a.m. I’m tempted to stick my head out the back door and yell, “Excuse me! Do you have any idea what TIME it is?” 

I’m not clear why we have larger crow populations every year now when we used to hardly see them at all.  They enjoy congregating on our power lines. Somehow they’ve figured out the right ones. (The ones who didn’t obviously failed to put their genes forward.) Their fondness for extracting insects from our front lawn suggests that we have inadvertently provided them with an ample food supply.  But it’s not like they’re all that picky.

Crows are reported to eat over 1,000 food items including “carrion, fried chicken, hamburgers, Chinese food, French fries and human vomit.”  I confess I was intrigued by the order on this list. Intentional?  In a study by someone who clearly has too much time (or money) on their hands, crows were found to prefer French fries in a McDonald’s bag over those in a brown paper bag. This is something that McDonalds should work into their advertising. (“More species prefer McDonalds than any other brand!”)

While it sounds like crows are just sitting up in our trees endlessly cawing, crows apparently have a very intricate system of communication, and a wide variety of vocalizations. But what is truly fascinating about them is that they are the only species of bird that is known to make and use tools.  They will select specific types of twigs to burrow into trees to get insects that their beaks can’t reach.

Crows will chase sparrows into buildings to stun them (before making them an avian lunch).  They’ve been known to drop walnuts on the road so that cars will run over them and crack the shells.  I think you’d have to pick your road pretty carefully to find one with enough traffic that you’re not just sitting around on your branch for hours bored out of your beak, but doesn’t have so much traffic that it’ll turn you into road kill when you go to collect it.

Other interesting crow behaviors include moistening hard foods in bird baths or other water sources to soften it. (We see this all the time in our fountain.) Some scientists theorize they’re washing it but as a strictly non-scientist observation, any species that eats carrion and human vomit is probably not all that big on sanitation. 

Crows mate for life but males will cheat. (Is this sounding familiar?) It’s actually pretty amazing considering that male crows have no penis. The male crow’s sperm is transferred from their cloaca (a cavity at the end of the digestive tract) to the female’s cloaca in an act that lasts all of 15 seconds.  Definitely short on the foreplay.

Once crows have mated, they no longer demonstrate courtship displays. Is that sounding familiar too? What’s the point of bringing her a nice piece of cow dung if she’s already committed?

If the male crow is non-fatally injured, his mate won’t leave him, although reproduction apparently drops waaay down. I’m thinking it would be hard to notice the difference if all you ever got was 15 seconds to begin with. Female crows seem to have very low expectations.

Moving right along, the expression “eat crow” – i.e. having to admit to a humiliating mistake – suggests that crows themselves are not good eats. Others say they taste like chicken. (Joke.) Regardless, given that they are scavengers, there is an inherent aversion to essentially eating what the crows themselves have eaten.  One website noted that one crow “will feed two people who don’t know what they’re eating or 12 people who do.” 

Finally, groups of creatures are known by collective nouns, like a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks, a school of fish…and a murder of crows.  Apparently the term came about during an era where groupings of animals had colorful and poetic names.  Scientists, always so unimaginative, apparently just refer to a group of crows as a flock. 

Now that I know more about our seasonal avian friends, I’ve enjoyed observing their behavior. There are a lot of mature trees both on and around our property and it is my observation that these guys are pretty territorial about which branch belongs to whom. Watching this from the safety of my deck chair, groups of crows look like avian F-4s engaged in dog (er, crow) fights. Our cars have been underneath some of these battles, as have our brick walkways. I just try to keep my head from being a target. I’m abundantly clear they’re smart enough to get me if they wanted to.