Thursday, July 23, 2009

Places I have known...

On Tuesday, my son and I took the Green Line to the Brown Line, and rode that in a long zigzagged path across the middle of the city, to near the end of the line, where the famously elevated train points its nose down and riders find themselves at street level. The Rockwell stop is almost jarringly different from any other stop I can think of in Chicago's long, wide train trail. Instead of looking out at grey back porches, behemoth steel buildings or crowded streets, when one walks out on the platform at Rockwell, it's like a little slice of quaint Americana suddenly: there are trees, human-scale shops, open sidewalks that look freshly swept right there at street level. No need to descend down a vertiginous stairwell to get to the street below: one is where she needs to be practically as soon as she grabs her son's hand and hops off the train.

This was my stop years ago, back in the early nineties, having moved there not long after another George had sent soldiers and a fusillade of gunfire to Iraq. I came to live here, in the residential area between Lincoln Square and Ravenswood Manor, after living at my parent's home in the northern suburbs for six torturous months post-graduation. Living with my parents was a rude, harsh awakening for a girl who had been coming and going as she pleased for four years, on the phone whenever the desire struck, stumbling through the door in a loud, wow-I'm-lucky-to-have-made-it-home-alive whoosh of keys and purse straps. Admittedly, my habits at twenty-one left a lot to be desired. The me of today is rolling my eyes at this once-me, and she is rolling her mascara-flecked eyes defiantly right back. Still, if you really thought about it, you'd feel sorry for this once-me at twenty-one: I had come from a town I loved, left the friends I adored, to return to the place I had dashed out of years before, a house with so many unhappy memories and more in the making, still under the dictatorship of an authority figure with whom I fundamentally and frequently clashed. To say I was eager to leave this home again is an understatement.

Back home again, to a place that now felt like anything but, I had just one good friend, Eric, whom I was close with in college. One day Eric decided he wanted to take black-and-white photos of me at the beach - it was chilly but sunny and beautiful, from what I remember, a perfect autumn day - and afterwards we wandered back to his apartment. Eric was my lifeline then, a rumpled, brilliant, hilarious friend who dabbled in socialism and wound up at the University of Chicago on an academic track. He was leaving town, though, lured to Miami (a place he hated and left before long) but he felt terrible about leaving my sad sack self behind after we had dreamed of playing house together and buying leafy plants and French presses (I didn't have the heart to tell him that I killed plants and was revolted by coffee - it didn't matter). Eric was leaving, though, which was awful enough, and the likelihood of an early release from the North Shore seemed to be swirling in a cruelly drawn-out fashion down the drain as well. I think Eric felt terrible about leaving me, and so on that October afternoon back at his apartment with all his taped up moving boxes depressingly all around us, he introduced me to Judith, a friend of his roommates, someone who was also in search of a new life.

Judith, a recent Detroit transplant, wasted no time in convincing me that we had to go to bars in cute black dresses together, discuss literature and writing up into the wee hours, shield one another through the slings and arrows of life, and if we were to do all this, we should be roommates. Judith was very intense and protective; she was both an opera singer and a poet so she required a particular degree of drama in life. She was tall, with long, curly dark hair and olive skin. Judith was also very maternal, which was useful as I was in the market for being adopted and my marketability was diminishing.

Within a matter of months, we were roommates, living in a beautiful, large two-flat with wood floors and a bright sun room in Lincoln Square. Judith had the place picked out and I eagerly signed on, knowing nothing about the neighborhood or what the future might hold, just eager to be pulled to a dramatically different tide as I tried to figure out what to do with my fine arts degree and life in general. I bought an antique bed and vanity from Judith's ex-boyfriend, a gay musician who came to accept and embrace his homosexuality after their break up, and to this day, I still have that set in our guest room. At the time, it was the only bit of furniture I owned and I was so proud of it. Today, I climb on that pretty dark wood bed to read the morning newspaper, and every day, I am reminded of our apartment on Leland, a place I lived for a relatively short amount of time, but a time that is etched deeply in my mind nonetheless.

The Lincoln Square of the nineties was quite a different scene than it is today, though some things remain unchanged. There is still the European feel but back then, there were more actual Europeans, retired college professors and landlords who sat in the sun across the street from the German deli. The square, a cute little diagonal strip between Lawrence and Lincoln, was a ten minute walk from our apartment, and this was the hub of the neighborhood. There was the Brauhaus, still in operation, a German restaurant into which no vegetarian should ever tread (a thickly accented server there once offered me hassenpfeffer, or rabbit, as a dish suitable for a vegetarian, but thankfully I spent much of my childhood watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and was wise to her). There was the Merz Apocathary, also still standing, an ancient, long and narrow shop, all wooden counters and thick but pleasant herby scent throughout. This was the place to get homeopathic hangover remedies and Dead Sea bath salts; as a lover of both vodka tonics and aromatic baths, this place received a fair percentage of my paycheck. Lincoln Square was also lined with bakeries, trinket shops filled with miniature glass pieces and under stern German management, burrito joints, an imported shoe shop, a crowded antique emporium, a couple of Thai restaurants. The L tracks curved sharply overhead, intersecting the square at Western Avenue, above the bus terminal; gangs of pigeons noisily shot up each time a train rumbled past. This was home.

Specifically, though, home was a few blocks west, down Leland to where the trees start pushing together and the earth begins to buckle up around the river. If one were to venture a little farther west, she would find a pretty natural area in Chicago, almost wild in places, formed around the river that feeds into our beautiful Lake Michigan; there are docks and boats in back yards, geese floating past. On my block, though, it was pretty removed from this more natural setting, living so close to Western and Lawrence.

Just down the street from me, two blocks away, was Rockwell, where my son and I left the train. Trains pass frequently here, and, as I said, they are right there at street level, so one has to wait behind the long arm of the gate often. My son doesn't remember this, but back when we went to the Waldorf school on Friday mornings during his toddler days, we would often come here afterwards to sit and watch the trains go by: for a small child in love with railroad gates, also known as ding-dong lights, the Rockwell stop is a mecca. There's a cute little shopping district right here, now known as Rockwell Crossing, which was then known to Judith and I by the much less evocative but perfectly useful phrase "by the train stop." Back when I lived here in my early twenties, there was a grocery store on the corner, one with a friendly woman behind the cash register who also was the owner (was she Hispanic? Middle Eastern? I don't remember, but I do remember that she was very sweet). I could buy my basic necessities there - in my case at the time, the list was short: chips and salsa, laundry detergent, not much else - and they had a little produce section that grew droopier as the week progressed. There was a scary Chinese take-out place in a forbidding brick building with obscured glass blocks; I ventured into here only once or twice as it was unsettling even to my low standards. Across the street, there was the WomanMade Art Gallery, and for a time, I briefly thought I might have found my place here, drawing with others on Saturday mornings, but they moved out shortly after I moved in. Down the street, on the other side of the train tracks, was a bizarre southern bar, not southern-themed in a kitschy, ironic, post-modern sort of way, but in a Confederate flag hanging out front, too-scary-to-even-go-inside-to-make-fun-of sort of way. There was always a motorcycle or two out front and occasionally a dude with lots of facial hair and a Camel t-shirt face down in the sidewalk planter. I always gave this place a wide berth, crossing the street whenever I needed to pass.

In the Rockwell Crossing of today, which I see laid over the train stop shopping district of the past like a transparency with a different Sharpie-drawn details over the same raw structures, that southern bar is now a bar and grill (or is it a grille?) with an expensive awning and American-style menu but no passed out bikers or Confederate flags in front. The grocery store is long gone, replaced by a successful parent-and-child yoga studio. There is a doggy boutique, bagel shop, photography studio, a midwife's office, an upscale shop for the home. If anything reflects the changing nature of the neighborhood, it is this little section off the Brown Line.

This was where I lived when I met John, the father of my son, my partner. But that marked the end of my Lincoln Square days. Before I met John, there were languorous Sunday brunches in our apartment, and this was where I learned that I loved to cook. There was the three women group Judith had put together as a cappella singers, practicing once a week (it would end badly one day, with slammed doors and I remember shock at the ease with which angry curse words could shout from the mouths that had once formed angelic harmonies together). There was the sad family upstairs: a very passive, nervous wife, a wavy-haired toddler and a hotheaded, wild-eyed husband who stalked across the creaky wooden floors downstairs, screaming at them both every day. I remember grilling corn on a little Hibachi in the tiny square of grass in our back yard, and I remember the time Judith accidentally knocked an air conditioner out of one of our windows and held on to it by the cord as she called for me frantically (and I remember seeing our Arabic neighbors in the building pressed up close to ours next door, a group of two or three men, watching the scene wordlessly of us trying to coax that precarious and expensive machine back up to the window as if they were watching a movie). I remember boyfriends and break-ups in a way that seems unbelievable now, a revolving door of would-be and ill-fated suitors. I remember our European landlord, a man who inflamed Judith with his patronizing airs and hit on me every time he stopped by. I remember my horror as a man beat his girlfriend in front of our house in the middle of the night and Judith's response, which was more irritation at being awaked then anything: she came from Detroit, after all, she had witnessed a murder up close as a child. (I also remember the woman's horrible, guttural crying - like a mortally wounded animal, a mother who had lost a child - and that she threw up on the grass; I ran outside to help her but by that time, she had disappeared into the night.) I remember the woman who sat with her son on the front porch of a two-flat down the street, telling him in a voice that rang up into my ears like it was spoken for me alone to hear, "Danny, that is not a need, it is a want." I vowed right then that I would be a mother like her one day.

And now, seventeen years after Judith and I parted - again, not well, with me feeling overwhelmed and her feeling abandoned - I was walking down Leland with my son, my very own. He got a juice at the bagel shop and we walked past my old apartment, the one where I slept off too many hangovers but also the one where I fell in love with the tall, long-haired and recently divorced Scandinavian looking man who was part of the Green Mill poetry slam after-party that found its way to our home. I pointed out our house, and my son remarked that it was beautiful. "That's where I lived when I met Dad," I told him, with so many other memories flooding through me it was almost hard to talk. We stopped at the playground on the end of Leland where it meets Elizabeth, a tiny playground with the bare minimum of equipment but one that my son enjoyed nonetheless. On this day, a van from the park district was in front, and there was a long table set up with chairs. The Craftmobile apparently sets up here with watercolor paints, brushes, cups and paper every week. There was nothing special about the materials - just the same cheap stuff one could get at any dollar store - but as with so much in life, the idea of shifting things up a bit, of painting outdoors in this case, brought droves of kids and their caregivers to the little playground. My son did a quick painting of a space ship, whipping it out one-two-three like Picasso did as an old man, confident and impatient, and then he was ready to go.

We walked back to the Rockwell stop and we waited behind the gate for another train to pass. It whizzed by, just a couple feet from our noses, and I held on to my son extra tight. The Rockwell stop never ceases to shake me up a little.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

City kids, country kids

In the span of an average day,
our city-dwelling children might be exposed to dogs, cats, squirrels, birds – especially pigeons, robins, those little guys I maybe mistakenly call chickadees, geese and cardinals – and if our children are very lucky, they might be startled by a sharply-striped chipmunk darting past. In the summer, they can see ducks and even the occasional heron passing through town like a traveler with an intriguing accent. There are so many advantages of urban living with children, too many to list and you already know them but I’ll still give it a whirl: museums, great restaurants, a diverse population, public transportation, cultural richness, so many possibilities for diversions.

As with most things, there are distinct disadvantages to urban living with children as well. The tall buildings can blur out the sky, especially when downtown. How does this influence their sense of vastness, of both ambition and humility? Do they ever feel a gasp catch in their throats when face-to-face with a force of nature that is truly immense? There is not much more ripe with possibility than a whole expanse of stars shimmering in a pitch-dark sky, like pulsating, illuminated holes punched out of black paper, and this is something we city people with our light pollution and towering buildings just get a dim, truncated view of at best. And it’s not just the sky. I worry about my son and his friends having enough trees to climb, meadows to explore, rivers to dunk cups into in order to study the murky contents. And there is always noise – of car alarms and voices nattering on cell phones and the recording on the train (beep… ”An inbound train toward the Loop will be arriving shortly…” beep) not to mention the aural onslaught of the El itself, so much so that my internal radio dial takes at least an hour to switch off when I’m trying to sleep. How does this affect those who are immeasurably more fine-tuned and sensitive?

For me, the benefits of city living outweigh the benefits of a more rural setting and I think this is true for my son as well. We are raising him as a vegan and I think it is pretty easy to live as one where we do, with access to so many well-stocked grocery stores, so many vegan restaurants in relative close proximity and an active, diverse community. At the same time, it is an interesting experiment we are undertaking with raising our children as herbivores. Veganism, it could be argued, is distinctly urban in concept and demographics. On the other hand, it is intricately interwoven with something that was once completely in the domain of the country: how our food is produced, how it arrives on our plates and in our stomachs. So while many city dwellers may be raising children whose palates swoon for cuisines from far-away nations (injera bread from Ethiopia, dal from India), who can easily tell you the difference between omnivores, vegetarians and carnivores, it is a very good possibility that these same children have never seen a four-legged being larger than a St. Bernard up close. The danger of raising our vegan children in an urban setting is that most animals become purely conceptual and our practice becomes merely theoretical. For it to stick, we need to make the animals they are protecting real and the lifestyle they practice an active, personally-rooted conviction.

Insert SASHA Farm.

My family is part of a great group of interesting, dynamic vegans called the Chicago Vegan Family Network. We usually only see one another once a month, but we are a big part of one another’s lives. In addition to our monthly potlucks, our children play together and become passionate friends, the adults offer wisdom and support to each other and we do things like track down gelatin-free marshmallows once a year and flood nearby states with a big ol’ camping trip. Another thing we do, for three years running now, is visit a farmed animal sanctuary called SASHA Farm in tiny Manchester, Michigan, home also to some sort of famous chicken broil. This is where our city children feed voracious goats (is there any other kind?) carrots, learn that pigs loooove grapes, that the safest way to feed a cow is to hold an apple flat in your hand and smoosh it up close. They also learn that cows are slobbery when eating apples. They learn that pigs are covered in bristly hair, cats raised together will eat one another’s food and get a little chunky and that the fluffy reddish dog Toto nips but does not bite. The sheep stay back on the hill in a group, the horses have impossibly soft, velvety muzzles and one of the goats is not too friendly. They learn these things in a very short amount of time and the animals transform from idea into flesh-and-blood in the matter of a couple of hours on a farm. What is sort of staggering to me is how quickly and effortlessly a rooster crowing can become integrated to our minds. At first the sound is unexpected, then it becomes charming and before too much time has passed, the rooster crowing in the background is accepted as part of the environment. As part of our environment. Of course it was. It was as natural as hearing a train overhead and quite a bit lovelier.

This is Nick, contemplating a goat with the most delightfully inscrutable expression.

Tewa, our newest member, originally from Ethiopia, feeding a goat.

Jack here, Alice and her little sister, Eden. Alice is one of the "big kids" now.

City kids, taking a relaxing sojourn on a swing together. These kids are so comfortable together.

Alice with a horse. What more can I say?

You may notice by now that I find it impossible to not try to kiss the various creatures. It's compulsive. I can't help myself.

Jack, Eden's best friend from earliest childhood, also contemplating a SASHA animal in the most beguiling fashion.

Alice again with a cow, ever mindful of avoiding the droolies.

Kids and horses. Pretty self-explanatory.

Sylvana loved the horses.

Justice feeding a goat.

One lucky chicken.

This is Levi in the cat house, which was a very popular destination point for our kids. I think those cats probably got a well-deserved nap when the children finally left.

We had a picnic, played duck, duck, omnivore on the grass outside the barn (Tewa learned this game with astonishing speed), and huddled together to decide which animals we would sponsor as a group. We decided on a goat and a turkey. The turkey was one who was in particularly poor shape. His bones, bent and painfully warped, struggled under the weight of his enormous chest, genetically engineered to grow to immense proportions to supply the boneless white meat of the sandwich and filet, slapped between two slices of bread and never thought of again. This turkey, and so many others like him, was simply not designed to live past a certain age, usually not past a few months. He was without a name; the children, after floating names like "Cool Dude' and so forth, came to the name Al, which was an abbreviation of Albus Avis, White Bird in Latin. Monte Jackson, the wonderful cofounder of SASHA Farm, was so happy that we'd adopted this bird. He told us that he was hoping that Al would make it through the winter.

Unfortunately, we received news last week that Al died. I haven't told my son yet. Our sponsorship money will go towards another SASHA turkey. It is very bittersweet, of course, the little bit of sweetness present because we know that Al got to live out the last of his days at a sanctuary, that he felt human kindness, human tenderness. You see the worst and the best of humanity in stark relief when you are at an animal sanctuary. I am so grateful that our city kids could see this with their own eyes, helping them to develop into even more compassionate, engaged children as they grow up. These animals aren't just conceptual, suffering isn't just theoretical, and living compassionately isn't just an ideology: the animals are flesh-and-blood, suffering is real, and living compassionately is an active, dynamic and personal commitment.

And, of course, SASHA Farm, and the roosters crowing, and the pigs begging for scratches and the goats waiting to be fed and all the magnificent muzzles designed for nuzzling will be around next year, for us city folks to get our country fix.

Shalom, everyone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lettuce Wraps of Gratitude...

So hallelujah and huzzah and hurrah, the fearsome Technology God has smiled down upon us (or at least taken the appropriate measure of pity) so we've finally got working email/phone/TV-we-can-ignore functionality back at the bungalow and suddenly things are a little less "Pa, could ya go fetch some water from the well? I'm feeling mighty parched," around here and for that, I am deeply grateful. Six weeks - six weeks and you're midway through a trimester! - without have made us all a little more resourceful, a little more apt to suggest an early evening stroll, and a lot less reachable, and through the fresh lens of being unplugged for so long, I can see how technology has its benefits and drawbacks - don't throw that lightning bolt at me, scornful Technology God, oh, please be merciful - in a way I was only theoretically clued in to before. And though I was tempted to cackle all melodramatically "See ya, suckers!" at my fellow library computer room denizens - with the occasionally loud personal electronic devices and weirdly stretched way-the-hell-out arms totally crossing into my territory and giggling teenaged boys punching one another on the shoulder to show off soft porn on their monitors - when I skipped out of there this morning, I also feel like we endured something together (a hostage situation, getting stuck on an elevator without power) and while I don't exactly have survivor's guilt, I will always have empathy for those who are at least somewhat unmoored in the ocean of technology. I can see that all this talkety-talk is making the Dark Lord of Technology raise an overgrown eyebrow contemptuously towards me so I will end it now with a good recipe you should try at home and the acknowledgment that I am truly grateful to be plugged back in.

Lettuce Rolls of Gratitude

2 cups dry rice, your preference

1 bunch broccoli, cut into florets
1 1/2 cups frozen peas, defrosted

1/2 cup smooth, natural peanut butter
2 cups water
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, grated
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon umeboshi vinegar (found in the Asian section of your natural foods store)
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Two small can water chestnuts, drained and slivered
1 or two heads of Bibb, Butterhead or Boston lettuce, washed, leaves separated and allowed to dry
1 lime, cut into wedges

Cook the rice. Meanwhile, steam the broccoli for three minutes. Add the peas and steam until the broccoli is bright green, about five or six minutes.

In a blender, add the peanut butter, water, and garlic. Squeeze the ginger into the blender, releasing the juice but not the pulp. Add the rest of the ingredients up through the turmeric. Blend that sucker up until smooth.

When the rice is done, put it in a large saute pan with the broccoli and peas. Mix this together with the peanut sauce, stirring over medium heat until the sauce has thickened. Oh, yeah! Add the water chestnuts.

When it's all thickened and thoroughly combined, serve portions lovingly spooned into individual lettuce leaves. Roll up or eat taco-style with the filling in the middle. Serve with extra tamari, lime wedges and Sriracha or hot chile sesame oil. You will love this, I promise, and it will taste like a big production but it's really not.

This produces a lot of the middle part, the stuffing, which is delicious on its own as vegetable rice with peanut sauce. I brought some of the leftovers along with us to the farmer's market last week and this guy with bright blue eyes came over and asked which booth he could also make such a purchase. I smiled but let him down gently. "It's from home," I said, "I'm sorry." He thanked me anyway. Make this delicious vegan meal, bring some leftovers out in public and see if the same thing doesn't happen to you.

So with that, I'm back, babies. And it feels good.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

June 12, 2002 (Part one if you can believe it...)

[This as written a couple of weeks back for my son's birthday but things have been in disarray technologically at our home, so there are a bunch of hoops to jump through in order to post. I'm writing more to be uploaded whenever possible. Hopefully the computer limbo should be cleared up in mid-July. In the meantime, please accept this humble offering...]

I had an idyllic pregnancy, considering everything that could and often does go wrong. There was no threat of gestational diabetes, no placenta previa, a weight gain within the range of what is considered healthy, and only a quick episode or two of morning sickness. Aside from freakishly swollen ankles my last trimester – I came to learn that I am a water retainer, as my midwives openly admired the oceanic environment of my abdominal region - and some difficulties getting my iron levels up, my pregnancy was blissfully free of health concerns. Everything measured up as it should, heartbeats were easily detected, and, for the first time in my life, I actually looked forward to warming up an examination table.

I found my midwife practice on the recommendation of a friend who is very involved in the Chicago natural birthing community. Once the little plus sign appeared in the window of my pregnancy test, a little like a Magic Eight Ball, I moved toward the birth of my dreams with a gusto fueled by equal parts naivety and revolutionary zeal. My child’s emergence into this world would be natural, calm and gentle, the perfect entry for my little peacemaker, and it would be such a staggering, personal insult to George Bush that it would make him boil with impotent, red-faced rage. Two rules became evident while my future baby was just a shrimp-like mass of cells as if they were chiseled onto a tablet. Rule #1: I would not use painkillers. Rule #2: my baby would only be caressed by those with selected, loving hands. Anyone deemed to have bad personal vibes was forbidden to touch my child’s perfect, satiny skin. Every night, I would stay awake reading passages from Ina Mae Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, that goofy, dated and perfect manual to having the back-to-the-land, patchouli-scented birth of my dreams and I grew even more resolute in my pursuit. It was a given that my child would breastfeed until all his adult teeth came in and that I would shield him with my own body from menacing, zombie-like pediatricians with their vaccination needles: before all that, though, he’d need a birth befitting such a perfect creation. He’d float down from my uterus and land on a cushiony pile of organic rose petals. He’d be a Raphael angel come to life. Thus, he’d need a midwife-assisted birth.

My friend was surprised that I didn’t want to give birth at home.

“Marla, I’m surprised. Home birth is so you,” she said, unable to avoid sounding just a little disappointed.

I asked her if she’d been to my home lately. With the addition of my landlord’s three dogs, there were five unruly ones in our residence, including a senile Yorkshire terrier who would start a session of ear-piercing yipping for unknown reasons and not stop for an hour or two, and a basset hound with the world’s most blood-chilling howl. At any given time in our apartment, there were drawers crammed with batteries that needed recharging, a distinct lack of functional light bulbs and soap dispensers in need of refilling not to mention the dog fur that rolled like tumbleweeds in a 1950s western. Outside our home was a whole different environment to consider: ice cream truck recordings, cars screeching and honking down Humboldt Boulevard, the incessant dinging bell of elote vendors, the occasional gun being discharged, and then, of course, police cars wailing. No, John and I were in agreement. We wanted the baby to be born in a calm, quiet, well-prepared environment. In other words, definitely not at home.

To me, having a midwife offered the ideal middle ground – I wouldn’t be laboring in a field between shifts picking corn, nor would my child’s birth be a hyper-medicalized surgical procedure. Was having chanting friends with bindis on their Third Eyes or sage rubbed on my belly really necessary? I just needed to give birth.

I made an appointment with the midwives my friend recommended early on in my pregnancy. I was probably just eight weeks pregnant at the time. Their office was not much different than a regular medical office, except there were no pharmaceutical salespeople in business suits and there were issues of Mothering magazine with their cover shots of contentedly breastfeeding babies neatly stacked throughout. The pictures on the wall of radiant mothers and their babies made their clients seem healthier and earthier than in any other medical office. Also, the receptionist Yolanda was exuberantly, existentially happy: in fact, everyone who worked there always seemed to be in a good mood.

So this became the practice that measured and touched and listened to the growing belly of mine. Week after week, I’d get weighed and examined, and I’d be given book recommendations (“Get Red Tent,”) and other recommendations (”You’ve got to try Hypnobirthing!”). And I gobbled it all up, scribbling in the little blue notebook I’d dedicated to midwife appointments, having convinced myself that George Bush had an undercover Agency Of Pregnancy and they didn’t like what I was doing one bit. It turned out, though, that not all the lovely squishy things one can embrace on her way to a joyously natural delivery worked for me. There was Hypnobirthing, for example, which was a class was taught by a nurse in my midwive’s office. While it was fascinating to watch the video in which a woman went through all the stages of labor in a seemingly pain-free, trance-like state, that wasn’t me. Taking the class confirmed for me something I had long suspected: I am not someone who is easily hypnotized. I could relax, I could even space out, but truly believe that the hand that touched my belly would instantly numb it of any feeling? Try again. My husband, however, my coach in all this, was eminently suggestible and highly hypnotizable it turns out. So hypnotizable, in fact, that during our practice sessions, he would inevitably put himself in a hypnotic state. He would put the Hypnobirthing cassette in and he would follow the instructions gently prompted by the soothing voice on the tape. Before long, I’d be lying there, staring at the ceiling fan and twiddling my thumbs impatiently, listening to his increasingly trace-like, droning monologue. “Relax…My hand has a soothing blue gel on it…Where I touch you, you will feel a pleasant numbness…” His hand on my belly, I’d roll my eyes and count every last bone. “Now you are numb…You don’t feel a thing but a sense of calm throughout your body…You feel goooo…oood… Soothing blue gel…Now I will go out…On the back porch…And drink some lemonade…”


He’d bolt upright. “Wha – what?!”

“You were doing it again.”

“Doing what? I was totally awake.”

“Whatever you say, lemonade boy.”

Despite the occasional Natural Thing That Didn’t Work, I pretty much loved and embraced it all. I loved the midwife-recommended Bradley Method class, despite the fact that the instructor seemed to be phoning it in at times. I loved the breastfeeding class with the hungry baby dolls to practice feeding. I loved my subscription to Mothering, perhaps most of all. My future baby would be a Mothering magazine pin-up one day, all bright-eyed and vaccine-free and breastfed and swaddled in organic cotton. I also loved the way I felt, wholesome and part of an exclusive club, sitting in the waiting room before my appointment, smiling and sharing little details (“I’m due in six more weeks…” ) with the other pregnant women.

As the week of my due date edged closer, nothing much was happening. I was measured and examined by Gayle, my primary midwife, a toned, cheerful blonde who seemed far more likely to be a soccer mom than a Red Tent-quoting advocate of empowered birthing, and while everything looked good, not much was happening yet. I was one-and-a-half centimeters dilated, though, which thrilled me. I hadn’t even felt that! Only eight-and-a-half more to go. It would be a breeze. This was what my body was designed to do. Ina Mae and Mothering magazine had told me.

The weekend before my baby was due, John and I drove to Madison for the day as I needed more tie-dyed onesies and Chicago has a distinct shortage of groovy headshops. It was time to pack the bag for the hospital and I finally found the perfect dark purple one. The woman with the dilated pupils behind the counter asked when I was due. “Oh, in four days,” I said as she widened her eyes. “Whoa.”

I was five days overdue – which I really didn’t mind, as it gave me more time to get work done, and during that last trimester, I felt like I had the energy of several hundred women inside me – when my midwife suggested moving things along. I was still at one-and-a-half centimeters and no contractions had occurred. I agreed, because while I enjoyed this productive free and unfettered time, it was all about having the baby eventually, right?

Gayle did something called scraping the membranes to gently stimulate labor. It was every bit as delightful as it sounds. Okay, I thought, if birth hurts as much as that, I may actually be in for something. A half-hour later, John and I were eating lunch at the Thai place downstairs from the midwive’s office when I felt that first contraction wave through me between bites of pad sei eiw. Hmmm. It didn’t exactly hurt but it was distinctly different from a cramp, which was the prevailing description I’d heard. On the way home, John was distracted by thoughts of boiling water and last minute phone calls, and I was thinking to myself, “Why the hell didn’t I get more done? I’m not going to have a chance to sweep again until the baby is, like, three.”

Once we got home, we called Gayle and informed her of the news. She seemed a little blasé, honestly, given the momentousness of the situation. My contractions were erratic and at least twenty minutes apart, but still. Gayle told us to get some good rest while we could and to call her when the contractions were consistently closer together and around seven minutes apart. John scribbled furiously in his sketchbook, where he’d already begun recording my progress (“3:17 – strong contraction, lasted twelve seconds; 3:42 – medium contraction…”) and he called my doula, Prem. Prem is a good friend who happened to have some great stats as a doula: she lived on a commune for ten years (where she herself gave birth) as a onetime follower of the Yogi Bhajan, she had been a practicing midwife in the past and she knew Ina Mae Gaskin personally. Prem arrived about an hour later with her overnight bag and a radiant smile.

For the next twenty-four hours, my contractions gradually nudged a little closer together. As I predicted, this was not going to be a quick birth, where one goes from that first contraction to a speeding car on its way to the hospital in the blink of an eye. My mother had had two c-sections so I wasn’t able to establish any hereditary predispositions. We ate take-out from the local Thai place (Thai food was a big player during this time in my life, so much so that I still associate wide rice noodles with being pregnant) on the balcony, we walked around the neighborhood, me shuffling and gripping onto cast iron fences when the contractions rolled through (they had become less mild), I tried to relax as John followed me around, jotting down my progress into his sketchbook. At one point, we took another stab at Hypnobirthing and he fell into a trance again at record speed (“You look really pretty…”) and I thought to myself, Well, I’ve always got Prem. We updated Gayle every couple of hours, who still seemed remarkably unmoved by my headway, suggesting glasses of wine and hot giant pregnant lady sex as labor facilitators. Between contractions, I briefly entertained the image in my mind of being a sloppy drunk woman in labor, slurring her words (“I’m not drunk!”) and behaving inappropriately flirty in my hospital gown, but I decided to call my mother instead of following Gayle’s suggestions. My mother’s unintentionally hilarious commentary brought my contractions a little closer together(“Shouldn’t you be in the hospital yet? What are you and John trying to prove? This is irresponsible. Your contractions have to be seven minutes apart? Put John on the phone. This is ridiculous. Why didn’t you see a regular doctor? I don’t understand why you insisted on seeing this mid – what’s it called? Midwife person. Is that even legal? Why wouldn’t you listen to me? Back when I was pregnant, we were already in our hospital beds before labor even started.”) and a day-and-a-half after my contractions began, we were ready to turn off the lights and head for the hospital. Prem followed in her car.

John drove to the emergency room entrance, which was what we were advised to do, and a valet took our car to the lot. The perks were rolling in already! That night, though, there had been a shooting so the hospital staff was a little less than impressed by my laboring self. We were led to the examination room, a tiny, Spartan room we’d seen during our tour of the hospital maternity ward weeks earlier, when one of the more spacey fathers said, incredulously, “This is the Alternative Birthing Suite?” after the whole thing had been described in great detail. The Alternative Birthing Suite, or ABS, was the crown jewel of the maternity ward. It was a huge room with wood floors, a patchwork quilted four-poster bed and a deep tub, more befitting a Vermont bed and breakfast than a hospital room, and it was run by the midwives. To get to the Promised Land, though, first one had to be admitted, and a visit to the examination room was a prerequisite. As the nurse examined me, I thought to myself that I would be disappointed after laboring for more than a day if my dilation was less than, say, six centimeters. The nurse dully informed me that I was dilated at one-and-a-half, the same as I’d been a week earlier in the midwive’s office. The three of us were crestfallen. How could that possibly be? How? My contractions were seven minutes apart, long in duration and intense. A day-and-a-half later and I still had eight-and-a-half more centimeters to go? I had barely taken two steps on the marathon of my labor. Okay. It was over. This whole giving birth thing was a ridiculously ambitious pipedream. My body was clearly not designed for this. I’d have to cancel my subscription to Mothering and George Bush, that asshole, was somewhere smirking at me.

I couldn’t be admitted into the ABS until I had progressed more, so John, Prem and I commenced with more of that infernal shuffling, this time down the hospital halls. Thankfully there were rails throughout for me to cling to like I was on a ship being tossed between violent waves. Prem gave me some noxious oil to drink to bring on labor, which came erupting right back out of my mouth, causing John to say “Ew!” as he jumped away and prompting me to want to kill him for the first time. Finally, my water started to trickle out just a tiny bit and we could be admitted to the ABS. We informed the nurse eagerly and she granted us entry. I swear, I heard harps playing as we walked in the room and I felt like I had just reached our world-class hotel after a white-knuckled journey. I settled onto the bed and John called Gayle. Again, wine was suggested (wasn’t that contraband in a hospital and what was her obsession with wine about, anyway?) and she also suggested that I take a shower to help with the discomfort. John relayed this back to me and I wanted to shout, “It is not discomfort: it is pain!” but I couldn’t speak. My contractions were coming on fast and furious at this point. I must be progressing, I thought between teeth-gritting, patchwork quilt-clutching waves of pain so fierce that sometimes the only reaction was to meekly laugh afterward. I hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours in the past two days. John and Prem weren’t so well-rested, either. Of course, the Jew in me managed to squeeze in a little time to feel guilty about this fact, too.

I hobbled to the bathroom and I thought about all the other women who d stood exactly in this spot in the shower, laboring, waiting, worrying. They were silly to worry, though. I was the one who had to worry. After forty-something hours, my bag of waters had not fully ruptured yet. For all I knew, I was still at one-and-a-half centimeters, I was certain that I would end up in the news for carrying a three-year-old child in my womb. “He just doesn’t want to come out,” I’d say, shrugging, and the natural segue would be to blame it on George Bush. I’d be an old lady with grey hair and an adult-sized form would be sticking straight out of my feeble body. Well, that way I could always keep close tabs on my child.

By the time I was out of the shower, I could hear other voices in the room, a conversation. Gayle was there. John and Prem, bleary-eyed and a little wobbly from sleep deprivation, were doubtlessly relieved to have someone else to bring into the marathon of my birth. John relayed the details again of my contractions. Prem offered her observations. Gayle took it all in in her friendly but nonchalant manner. She examined me again, observing aloud, “Marla is not someone who really enjoys examinations,” causing me to briefly wonder about those who really do enjoy them, and finally, the rest of my water broke, a great gushing, Biblical flood. Unfortunately, in the amniotic fluid, Gayle found something that caused her fine little eyebrows to knit together. There was meconium in the water, which is a tarry substance and is otherwise known as baby’s first poop. It can appear when pregnancies are carried past forty weeks (as was in my case) or there has been some distress in the uterus. Meconium is fairly common but it’s not something one wants. In my particular case, this meant that I was now risked-out of the glorious birthing suite personally crafted with Gaia’s loving hands herself; I now had to shuffle down the hall to the regular old maternity room, with its starched, white sheets and medical-looking hospital bed, to labor like a commoner who had her baby’s room already filled with plastic crap. But I wasn’t her! I belonged in that other room, with Pachelbel's Canon quietly playing on the stereo and the way better vibes. This wasn’t just about me: how was my future child going to recover from this staggering, self-esteem crushing blow? I saw his future stretched out in front of him like a carpet of disappointment and mediocrity and my stupid, dysfunctional uterus was to blame. This is where the mind goes after so long without sleep. At the very least, I thought, I could still have a natural birth and usher us out of there as soon as possible. The scars to my baby’s psyche would be minimal. Maybe this would help my labor to progress; in the ABS, I was already a little paranoid that someone with a more showoff-y uterus would materialize and I’d be kicked out as there was only that one suite. In a regular plebian maternity room, there was no concern about this. Maybe the pressure of the Alternative Birthing Suite and all it seemed to represent to me was what was keeping me from dilating.

It turned out that that downscaling my hospital arrangements was not the magic bullet I’d been hoping to find. According to Gayle, checking in on me a couple of hours later, I was still barely dilated, this despite the intense contractions, confirmed by the monitor. My brief moment of levity occurred when, while squeezing his hand during a particularly intense contraction, John reflexively said, “Ow!” I thought to myself that I could break his goddamned impregnating wrist right there and then, and he’d just have to go down to the emergency room, get a cast, fill his prescription for painkillers, and get his ass back up to the room, and I’d probably still be struggling to get to two centimeters. I laughed at this thought then told him with dead seriousness to never say “ow” in my presence again. Ever, I emphasized, gripping his sore wrist.

At some point during this time, a different midwife, Hillary, was on call. Hillary was pretty much Gayle’s opposite, the yin to her yang: she was very maternal, kind of hippie-ish, definitely earthy. She looked at my chart then turned to me and smiled. “Wow, you’ve been in labor since Monday. [It was Wednesday afternoon at the point.] You must be tired, huh?” I nodded feebly, tears brimming my eyes. She studied my monitor, and, with a now-familiar knitting of her eyebrows, said, “This doesn’t look so good. Look at this,” she pointed to a faint line that was going way up and then plummeting. “That’s the baby’s heartbeat. It’s unstable, going way up and way down with the contractions.”

She shook her head, squinting again at the monitor. “Not good.”

I started to cry, drained from it all and feeling genuinely scared for the first time.

She patted my hand empathetically, sitting down on the bed at my side. “Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you. We just need to try a different tact.”

I sniffled. John put his arm around me. Prem stood nearby.

“You know that we try to avoid this, but I really think that you should do an Epidural and Petocin at this point. We need to move things along and your little guy is getting stressed. You need to progress. You have been giving it a valiant effort but…” her voice trailed off and she tsked, watching the monitor through yet another horrendous contraction.

“Okay,” I whispered.

She squeezed my hand. “Again, I really think it’s for the best at this point.”

I knew enough from reading all the natural pregnancy materials I had that the Epidural and Petocin were evil twin temptations created by Big Pharma and pushed by misogynistic OB-GYNs at vulnerable women in labor. I read Mothering Magazine plus a good deal of the back issues: I was no fool. These drugs were an almost guaranteed fast-track to a Caesarian section. Still, so many of fantasies of a natural delivery had already been shattered by that point that I consented without much regret. It was now approximately forty-eight hours after I’d begun getting contractions. In short order, a friendly man with thick black hair and a Middle Eastern accent came in and gave me a shot on the base of my spine, if I recall correctly. He talked admiringly about how I had not gained too much weight (“It makes pregnancy so much harder”) and within minutes, I had a pleasantly melting feeling throughout my body. I slept for the first time for more than an hour in more than two days. John sacked out in one chair, Prem in the other. When I woke again, two or three hours later, another examination was underway.

Hillary was there again with a nurse. After giving this labor the best everyone had, I was at a measly four-and-a-half centimeters and the heartbeat in my womb was still erratic. Hillary left to consult with Gayle and a hospital OB-GYN; the nurse stayed behind and adjusted things around my bed. I was numb in every way possible. The nurse looked like she wanted to say something, then stopped herself. Finally said to me, in the most compassionate way possible, “You know, you’ve done everything possible. You don’t have to prove that you can do this. You’ve already proven you can. It doesn’t work for some people. It’s not your fault. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.”

For me, this was the first real moment of relief I’d had since labor started. Somebody was finally giving me permission to raise the white flag, to say uncle. Instead of my labor being a beautiful extension of my healthy, blessed pregnancy, it had jumped my poor starry-eyed, delusional self in an alley and worked me the hell over. I had started, oh, at about hour forty-three, to see labor as something that was both outside and inside of me, like a demonic possession. Labor reveals astonishing facets of our character: strength we didn’t know we had, courage, incredible resilience, a guttural intensity. With me, my labor revealed that I really don’t like to be a quitter. With the nurse’s acknowledgment of my effort, I felt that it was now outside of my hands. I could get off the natural birth platform I’d placed myself on and finally accept the actual cards I’d been dealt. Maybe if I’d been in Tennessee at Ina Mae Gaskin’s farm, she could’ve coaxed this baby out of me, luring him by humming Appalachian birthing songs and rubbing poultices of local herbs and moss over my uncooperative belly, but I wasn’t in Tennessee: I was in an urban hospital, and we all gave it our best shot.

About an hour later, I was wheeled into the operating room with John at my side. Hillary was there, as was the kindly nurse and very, very nice man who administered and managed my drug levels, who I’d come to know as The Magic Man. From that vantage point, looking up at them from the gurney, I felt a little like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. After what felt like a short time of tugging behind a curtain separating us, the surgeon said, “Ah. I see why this baby couldn’t be born. You have a very short umbilical cord. I’ve seen short ones before, but this is like six-inches long. The shortest I've ever seen. Wow.” And then, moments later, she held up my baby, a red-faced, wet little sea creature. “It’s a boy,” she announced, and the group smiled, John and I gasping. He was immediately whisked away before I could say anything so the nurse could suction the meconium away from his mouth – I came to learn in a very personal way that meconium can be dangerous to aspirate into the lungs - and The Magic Man said for the first time something I would come to hear many times down the road. “He looks just like you!” It was all very surreal.

We could hear my baby – my baby!? - screaming from somewhere nearby, perhaps the next room, demanding to be heard in no uncertain terms. Moments after birth, he was kicking ass and taking down names.

We obviously shared more than just a physical likeness. This was my child of temperament, too.

End of Part One. Yeah, you read that right: Part One. To be continued…