Learning Normal

“Scott … he’s not letting Potatoes near the seeds again.”

I sighed. This had been a running theme of our first day or two in the Finch Family Revival. We’d finally managed to get a pair of birds, Potatoes and Molasses, named for a silly song on a favorite cartoon. On arrival, they were everything two finches should be: cute, energetic, curious.

But they were also not the matched pair we’d been seeking. Potatoes is a society finch. Molasses is a zebra finch. For those of you not steeped in the intricacies of Birdie Lore, that’s the Odd Couple: the quiet-living, polite individual suddenly asked to be roommates with Mr. Pushy.

Most of the time it didn’t seem to matter. They’d quarantined together for a week at the pet store and seemed appropriately friendly and affectionate when it came time to discover the strange new setting of Chez Rochat (or at least a comfy cage within it). But when Potatoes would land on the seed tray, Molasses would get uncomfortably close. “Ahem. Excuse me. You know that’s MY spot … right?”

And off Potatoes would go, putting off her meal until later that night.

We tried a separate dish. Results were … ambiguous at best. We weren’t taking them back – we’d never returned a pet in our marriage and we weren’t about to start now. Reluctantly, knowing how social finches were, we bought a second cage and began putting it together. And then we gave it one more day, partly from hope and partly from the knowledge that moving just ONE finch out of a cage is like trying to catch a single specific fly out of a swarm: a matter of grace, delicacy and no small amount of luck.

Something happened.

Potatoes grew a backbone.

Molasses hadn’t stopped coming over with his “Watcha doin’, why’re ya here, lemme see, lemme see.” But Potatoes stopped retreating. And faced with that, Molasses didn’t push it. Before long, the two were eating together at the seed tray like old buddies on lunch break.

They’d had to relearn what normal meant. And they pulled it off.

That gives me hope for the rest of us.

About 100 million of us are now at least partly vaccinated from COVID-19 (including the Rochat household). With that, the rules of “normal” are starting to get rewritten again: how to travel, who to visit, when the masks can come off and when they still need to stay on. We’re finding out once again how to live with each other, especially during this transition period when some are protected and some aren’t.

When the dust settles, it’s highly likely that some pieces of how we live and work won’t look anything like they did before. (And sadly, as we saw recently in Boulder, some pieces of it may be all too familiar.)  But one thing will be just as true as it was in 2019 – or, for that matter, as it was during that oh-so-chaotic 2020.

We still have to do this together.

That doesn’t mean rolling over for the demands of the callous and the cruel, any more than sharing a cage meant Potatoes had to starve herself. But it does mean remembering what we learned during the Great Pandemic, or should have: that we all depend on each other, that small acts of compassion can make big differences, that it’s worth giving a little to get a better world.

That when the world changes, we can change with it. And remain neighbors through it.

A finch can learn it. Maybe we can, too.

Meanwhile, anyone need an unused bird cage?  

Making Change

Duchess the Wonder Dog is wondering how to get up on our bed. It’s no small puzzle.

Not for the mind, I might add. As part lab and part border collie, Duchess is an honor student among canines. She’s especially gifted at the thesis problem of “Removing Objects From the Trash For Later Consumption: A Study in Subtlety,” bringing art to a field where her companion Big Blake has often gained renown through sheer raw talent and audacity.

But even in the most brilliant of dogs, the body has limits. And at 12 years old, those lines are a little clearer than they used to be.

Just a little bit of arthritis in the lower back and hind legs. Eyes that are blurrier than before. Even some recent balance issues (now mostly cleared up) that had my wife Heather wonder if she was trying to join the cool kids’ club, since Heather’s own MS often causes vertigo.

We’re not at the end of the line yet. I hope we won’t be for quite some time to come. And Duchess still has an energy reserve that can turn on at surprising moments, letting her tear around the back yard with great vigor.

But in dog terms, she’s closer to Helen Mirren than to Ellen Page, the Grande Dame rather than the Ingénue. A living reminder that – well, things change.

We’re not always so good at that.

We like to think otherwise, of course. After all, the easiest way to sell something in this country is still to make it “new and improved.” (An old Garfield strip once cracked “Gee, and all this time, I’ve been eating old and inferior.”) We like the latest and the greatest in our toys, our phones, any convenience we can manage.

But when change touches us personally, that’s another story. Rising hairlines. Falling assumptions. Faces that leave the building. A world that moves on regardless of what we like or don’t like – which is why Madison Avenue also does great business with nostalgia and items to fight the clock.

We don’t necessarily want to dip the universe in amber. But just like when we were kids, we often want the good stuff of growing up without the rest. Don’t touch me or the things I care about. Don’t touch my friends or family.

And especially don’t touch the loved ones who can’t speak for themselves.

We know better. Or we should. But that doesn’t make it easier.

My own family’s been fortunate when it comes to pets. Heck, we even had a goldfish make it to 13. But sometimes that makes things even harder as time goes on. The longer they stay, the stronger they grip. I know I wouldn’t trade anything for all the wonderful years – but I’d trade almost everything for just one more.

I know we’re not alone there.

What can you do? What we have to. Live in the moment, regardless of what it brings. Not without thought for the future, but not in fear of it, either. Enjoying the good and adding to it whenever and wherever we can.

We do touch the world even as it touches us. Especially in the lives of those closest to us.

I’ve joked before that Duchess has been Heather’s furry guardian angel for the last nine years. I sometimes wonder if she feels the same of us, taking a timid “rescue dog” and introducing her to a world where cuddles are OK and pizza crust is just a tilted plate away.

Soon our bed will have some pet steps near it. One more concession to a changing life, one more battle to keep things the same for a moment.

Duchess the Wonder Dog may wonder many things. So do I. But neither of us need wonder how much we care.

Some things, truly, never change.