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Very Telling (#224)

No sooner had my husband and I returned from our honeymoon than my Chinese-American father-in-law called, demanding to know where his grandson was.

He called every week. In vain did I explain family planning and birth control to my husband’s parents.

After three years, Jay finally quit calling. Not long after he gave up, I got pregnant. Like many couples, we kept the pregnancy quiet, due to the risk of miscarriage.

Even after we saw the fetal heartbeat, we only told my Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister and a few others.

About two months into the pregnancy, Andy knocked on the bathroom door and asked, “Can we tell my parents yet?”

For once I was spending more time in the bathroom than my husband. So far, pregnancy had been one long vomit-fest. It did not make me cheerful. I yelled back, “You aren’t telling your parents ANYTHING. Until we get the ultrasound that tells us whether it’s a boy or a girl, your parents know nothing. If we tell your father I’m pregnant, he’ll start calling again, asking if it’s a boy. So forget that.”

“What if my aunt figures it out and tells them? We’re supposed to see her and my uncle and cousins tonight and if you’re carrying around your chum bucket, they’re gonna figure it out.”

“Dude. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Yeah, but if I go and tell them you’re sick, they’ll tell my mom and –”

“Tell them I’m off on a girl’s weekend or visiting a sister.”

“Which one?”

“Any of them! Pick one or make up a name. I have so many sisters I can’t even keep track of them. There’s no way your relatives will remember them. Now go away and let me puke in peace!”

When Andy returned from seeing his family, I was on the phone with my father and Current Stepmother. Out of eight kids, I was the only one who lived within driving distance. They were hoping we’d come to visit over the summer.  Their invitation forced me to reveal a) that I felt too awful to travel, b) I din’t know when I’d stop feeling awful, and b) the reason for feeling awful.

Dad was pretty low-key, typical of a man who had eight kids and multiple grandchildren: “That’s wonderful.”

Current Stepmother, who had only 2 kids of her own and no prospects of grandchildren in the near future, was not low-key. Her lengthy shriek of delight had me holding the phone at arm’s length.  Even Andy winced.

“Oh my God, oh my God that’s so exciting!” she gushed. “That’s just the best news!”

I said, “It’s nice that you’re so excited, since this is the sixth grand baby.”

“Yes, but we’re actually going to get to see this one!”

Invitations/ demands for visits at Thanksgiving and Christmas were promptly issued.

“Well, that was gratifying,” I told Andy after I hung up the phone.  “I had no idea Current Stepmother was such a baby hog.”

Andy said, “Huh.”

“How were your cousins?”

“Fine.”

“How was your aunt?”

“Fine.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re mad that I get to tell people and you don’t, right?”

“Maybe.”

“You can tell your friends at work.”

“It’s not the same. And some, like my boss Frank, can’t have kids and that’s awkward, you know?”

“Yeah,” I told him with a sigh. “You really wanna tell your mom, don’t you?”

“I want to tell my grandma,” Andy corrected me.

“Can’t you just wait a little longer? Until we at least know the sex of the baby? Then they don’t get their hopes up and then get all disappointed if it’s not a boy?”

“But Popo’s almost ninety.”

“Okay, how about after the first trimester?” I pleaded.

“But what if something happens and I never get to tell her?” Andy argued, sniffing and wiping away a tear.

My husband’s words hit harder than he knew.

*****

The Christmas I was fourteen, my then Stepfather gave my mother the ugliest, creepiest newborn baby puppet on the planet. He laughed and said, “You said you wanted another baby!”

My older siblings  and I eyed Creepy Baby, said “Ewwwww,” and recoiled in unison.

Baby Singing Sister, who was three, screamed and ran out of the room.

Mom pretended to snuggle Creepy Baby, telling Creepy Baby it was adorable.

She saw my appalled face and said, “Hey, if this is the last baby, I have to make the most of it. You know too much about childcare. I’ll probably never get any grand babies.”

She was right. Mom died unexpectedly the following spring.

*****

Twenty years later, I handed my husband the phone. “Go on,” I said. “Call Popo.”

He did.

Popo was thrilled. She told him to call his parents.

He did.

Andy’s mother was overjoyed.

Andy’s father? He let out one excited shout, before lapsing into speechlessness.

Which lasted about a week.

Try As You Might (#223)

I lost my mom when I was a teen. It was awful. It was untimely, a tragedy, etc.  She left six kids with a) a mentally unstable father/ stepfather and b) a ton of unresolved issues.

And yet.

I understood that it was better than the reverse. A mother should never outlive her children.

Once I studied history, though, I realized that outliving your children was a thoroughly modern expectation. Before vaccines and modern surgery, a mother would be fortunate if half her children survived — infant mortality rates in the 1800s were almost 50%.

From Lynn Wright’s “19th Century Death Bed Portraiture.”

I wondered, sometimes, if mothers were as attached to their kids back then as mothers are today. Or did they hold back, not wanting to invest too much emotionally or financially when the odds of survival were so low?

Research has always been my ally in outwitting or coping with catastrophe. So, perhaps like mothers in the last millennia, I prepared myself for failure when I got pregnant.  Especially in the first trimester, where pregnancy had a one-third chance of failure. Even with prenatal vitamins. Even eschewing Advil and all medicines.

But even though I didn’t want to become too attached, I’d already decided on a name – Dalton, after Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and crusader against McCarthyism/ fascism.

Andy was all, “’Dalton?’ What if it’s a girl?”

“She can be a Dalton, too. Look at the proliferation of girl Madisons for chrissakes.”

“I don’t like Dalton for a girl,” Andy objected.

“’You don’t like?!’ Let me remind you who is doing the heavy lifting here,” I began – only to run off to the bathroom and vomit (my new pregnancy normal). Then I tried to brush my teeth. Which made me gag, which made me puke again. By the time I escaped this vicious cycle, Andy was hastily assuring me that I could name our baby whatever I wanted.

“How gracious of you,” I told him as I flopped onto the bed. “But don’t worry, it’s going to be a boy.”

Andy, who’d already said he wanted a girl, scowled, but only said, “Are we calling the baby Dalton, then?”

I shook my head. “Not yet. It isn’t even a baby. Doesn’t have a brain yet. I don’t wanna jinx it. You can call it embryo or fetus.”

“Uh, no. That’s kind of clinical.”

“It’s medically accurate. And it’s nicer than what I’d like to call it when I’m puking my guts out. If this keeps up, ‘Parasite From Hell,’ or ‘Demon Spawn’ is going on that birth certificate.”

******

Not naming “it,” was more difficult than I expected. I’ve always liked naming things, then renaming them, and then giving them nicknames. My childhood blanket was male, and called “Blankey.” My first black car was Bagheera, after the black leopard in the Jungle Book. My houseplant was Fred. Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister and I had so many boyfriends we gave them nicknames to help each other remember them. Who can forget “Tank Lord,” “Divorced Dude,” and “Trolley Tim?”

All of my pets had multiple titles, depending on how they were behaving. The dogs were everything from “Doggums” to “The Excavators.”

I anthropomorphized everything (even subhuman boyfriends). It was hard not to do the same with the collection of cells in my abdomen.

Especially when those cells made my life miserable. “Listen,” I’d begin, trying to psyche myself up and off the bathroom floor. “You just listen up, D–  crap, I mean Baby—ugh, I mean embryo-thing. The doggums need a walk or they’re going to tunnel under the fence. So please could you lay off the making-me-feel-like-shit hormones for like an hour? Please?”

After I threw up in a neighbor’s bush 20 minutes later, I’d mutter, “Contrary already. Thanks a lot, Baby D—ugh! I mean Evil Embryo!”

Andy did better than I did. By cheating. He’d never ask specifically about the status of the fetus. Instead, he asked how I was feeling.

“D—er, fetus thing let me eat half a muffin today.”

“Good job, honey.”

And then came the Sunday night when I realized I was bleeding. As I expected catastrophe and knew the odds, I immediately warned Andy that probably this meant the fetus wasn’t viable and it was common. Then I talked to Dr. Sister, who assured me that a little brown blood from the cervix was normal and no big deal.

I crawled back into bed and told Andy, “False alarm! Dr. Sis says Baby D is totally fine and not to worry.”

“’Baby D?’ Don’t you mean the fetus?”

“Shut up or I’ll puke on you.”

Andy squeezed my hand and said, “Good night, honey.” Then he whispered, “Good night, Baby D.”

From the night forward, the fetus was known as Baby D. Even though it didn’t have a functioning brain. Even though there was still a 33% chance Baby D wouldn’t make it out of the first trimester.

Which answered my question about the mothers who gave birth centuries ago. You may know the odds. You may know you shouldn’t get attached. But try as you might…

…they suck you in anyway.

Post-Memorial Day Post (#222)

Both sides of my family served in the military. My mother’s family went in the Army, all the way back to the Civil War (yes, fighting on the wrong side). Dad’s family went for the Navy, which was pretty funny considering they were from a landlocked state. Dad did one tour on ships, realized pilots had a better deal than anyone else, and wound up flying helicopters.

My brother, who has always had an eye for a bargain, opted for the U.S. Naval Academy, where he could be paid to go to college. Not surprisingly, Big Brother then opted for submarines, which paid the best and had the best food. (We’re really into tasty food and a lot of it in my family.) He had to go to nuclear engineering school and spend months underwater. You might think freezing cold water or drowning would be a submariner’s greatest fear, but Big Brother assured me that the greatest dangers were fire — a fire in the clothes dryer, or a fire in the deep-fat fryer. (The price of delicious food!)

My brother’s closest friends/ roommates also became self-proclaimed “bubbleheads.” By the time they graduated, they’d also practically become family, visiting us every weekend they could escape the USNA. Like my brother, they told us stories of sitting on ice blocks to commemorate their first trips under the North Pole. Minnesota Sub Man once called me when he was supposed to be underwater for at least another month. Turned out his boat had crashed into another sub. They had to return home for repairs.

“Wow! Were you scared?” I asked.

“Officially? Nah.”

“Unofficially?”

“We were shitting ourselves.”

“Damn. Who the hell was driving?”

“Have you learned nothing? You don’t drive a submarine. You steer—”

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

“That’s classified.”

I watched my brother and his fellow bubbleheads get shot down regularly by women who’d watched An Officer and a Gentleman or Top Gun too many times. These women would laugh and smile at first, only to move on when they found out Big Brother and his buddies were “only” submariners. These women were determined to land the most coveted naval prize – an aviator like Iceman or Maverick.

It didn’t make any sense to me, but apparently plenty of women won’t answer when their phone rings unless the caller has aviator’s wings.

Living in D.C., I saw military uniforms everywhere, especially the summer I worked at hotel restaurant by Dulles Airport. But only once did I spot an actual pilot.

Not that you could miss him – with blonde hair, in his summer whites, the man stood out like a shining unicorn in a herd of grey and navy business suits. He strutted like a unicorn, too, puffing out the shiny aviator badge on his chest like a golden horn as he came to pay at the register.

As I handed him a receipt to sign, I asked, “Are…are you in the Navy?”

His chest puffed higher. “Yes, yes I am.”

“Oh, wow,” I told him, my eyes big and round. “What do you do in the Navy?”

“I am a Naval Aviator,” he announced, his chest puffing even further.

“Oh.”

This was not the reaction he expected. He tried again. “You know, a pilot.”

“I know,” I said, giving Mr. Unicorn Aviator his copy of the receipt and my most disappointed face. “I was just hoping you did something really cool and dangerous. Like submarines. Like Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide, or Courtney B. Vance in The Hunt for Red October. But a pilot is okay, I guess. Thank you for your service.”

I might be a writer, but I will never have the words to accurately describe the mixture of shock, deflation, and puzzlement on that pilot’s face as he slunk out of the hotel like a kicked mule instead of a prancing unicorn.

Score one for the bubbleheads.

Lost & Found: Mom Edition (#221)

Every mother has secrets. Some are dark — a deeply buried history of domestic violence or mental illness. But some are light — generations of wisdom on everything from gardening to cooking.

My mother died before I was fifteen. As a “liberated woman,” she turned her back on domestic wisdom. She had no helpful hints to give me regarding makeup, stain removal, cleaning, sewing, or baking. She was, in fact, terrible at all those things. She had a hell of a green thumb with houseplants. Our neighbors exclaimed over all the hanging baskets of greenery in our D.C. dining room. At the time, I shoved errant leaves out of my hair and glowered. Now I wish I’d asked how she did it.

As she had six children who survived, Mom undoubtedly had a ton of information on pregnancy and child-rearing. She died before she could pass any of it along. Mainly, I learned from her mistakes, vowing to marry later in life and use ALL the birth control.

When you’re in your twenties, you don’t think much about running a household or raising kids. But once I was married, with house and garden, I realized I didn’t know jack about flowers or pregnancy.

I wonder how many other women realize, after their mother is gone, that they’ve lost generations of useful info along with the person who loved them most in the world? A hundred years ago, other women in the community might have come forward to help a bereaved daughter. Now young women tend to leave home and live alone in the city, hanging out with other young women. Without a weekly call home to Mom for advice on some disaster, we’re on our own.

Luckily, we’ve got women bloggers. And sisters.

During one visit, Brilliant Blonde Lawyer Sister told me that those shoots I was weeding in my new yard were freesia.

Gladioli gone crazy.

I let those shoots sprout and discovered I had fragrant freesia and gorgeous gladioli. They’re perennials, which means they come back every year. (Husband complained about the profusion of pink gladioli until I reminded him that all those flowers are FREE.)

Turns out I also had some narcissus. I cut them and brought them inside. They fell over. I found a post about how a half-shot of gin in the water will keep your paperwhites upright. Apparently grandmas everywhere know this. I sometimes wonder what housewife hastily dumped her gin into her flowers during Prohibition and made this handy discovery. Whoever she was, I salute her.

I was lucky enough to have Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister, too. She’d had children before I did. She warned me I would feel like shit when pregnant. She was right, damn her.

And when I bled vaginally on a Sunday, all the OB’s answering service said was, “Call again tomorrow, go to an ER if it gets really bad.”

I looked in my pregnancy books. All they said was bleeding = miscarriage.

I called Dr. Sis, telling her I was probably losing the fetus, and that it was okay, it was undoubtedly because something was wrong–

She interrupted. “Is the blood bright red?”

“No, more brownish.”

“You’re fine. There’s a lot of extra blood in the cervix at this point. Some is going to leak out. If it isn’t bright red and heavy, it’s totally normal.”

“So the fetus doesn’t have two heads after all?”

“Probably not. Do you still feel like crap?”

“Yes. If I’m not actually throwing up, I feel like throwing up.”

“That’s a good sign.”

“Yeah, thanks, gotta go puke now, bye.”

“Great!”

*****

Yesterday, my husband brought me tulips for Mother’s Day. I cut about an inch off the stems and put them in a vase. They began to droop.

“Maybe you can tie them up with a ribbon?” Andy suggested.

“Do we have any gin?” I asked.

He brought me a bottle and said, “You’re not really going to start drinking over drooping flowers.”

“Watch and learn, buddy.” I poured half a shot of gin into the vase.

This morning, my tulips stood tall.

Boozy. But good.

Of Cursed Birthdays (#220)

When I was a kid, birthdays were a big deal.

As an adult? Well, after your 25th birthday, when your car insurance bill drops, there’s not a lot to look forward to. Besides, no birthday could ever live up to my 10th, when I got a kitten and pierced ears.

My husband tried, though. Andy made me a cake the first year we were together. It was beautiful: nicely frosted, with my name written across it, even. Andy is a fantastic cook. I know it. He knows it. Everyone knows it, probably because I brag about it all the time. I expected the cake to be delicious.

I took a bite. The cake was moist. It was sweet.

Other than that, it had absolutely no flavor.

I took another bite and asked, “So, um, this cake is really unique.  What flavor is this?”

Andy groaned and said, “It’s supposed to be chocolate, but I forgot half the cocoa.”

I said, “It’s okay, it’s very pretty and not dry at all, and no one has made me cake in decades. Thank you, honey.”

The next year Andy planned an elaborate surprise party for me…only to have a an acquaintance give it away. Andy was furious for weeks.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “It’s not really his fault. My birthday has been cursed for years.”

“But you always talk about how great it was when you were a kid!”

“When I was a kid, sure. But my mom died right before my 15thbirthday.  On my birthday, my Ex-Stepfather got me this gorgeous cake from the premiere D.C. bakery. Then, as we were eating, he read us a letter from a family friend telling us how wonderful our dead mother was and we all cried and couldn’t finish the cake.”

“Wow,” said Andy. “You and your siblings couldn’t finish dessert?”

“I know, right? Shows you how catastrophic it was. Anyway, every birthday after that was a reminder of her death. Since then, crap seems to happen the month of my birthday. Someone dies, I lose my job – and it’s not just me.  It’s a miserable month for my whole family. It’s better not to celebrate my birthday.”

Andy didn’t believe me. Not when we when we ran into problems buying the house we wanted the week of my birthday. Not when the plumber’s apprentice made an error that sent sewage all over our bathroom. Not when we lost a beloved pet. Not when I spent 5 hours in a Houston airport or when his parents insisted on visiting for my birthday. Not even when Andy of the Iron Stomach got  stomach flu for the first time.

Last year, Andy insisted on making a big deal out of my birthday.

“Don’t do it,” I warned him. “You know it’s cursed. The bigger the plan, the more likely something will go wrong.”

“It’s gonna be fine,” Andy insisted. “I’ll take the day off work. I’ll make you eggs Benedict for breakfast, poutine, and a cake. What kind of cake do you want?”

“You and cake and my birthday seems like it might not be the best combo—”

“Once! I only forgot the cocoa once! Just tell me what kind of cake you want. You make amazing cakes for everyone else’s birthdays, you should totally have a great cake on your birthday.”

“If you must, how about a single layer Genoise with strawberry whipped cream frosting?”

“I can totally make a Genoise,” said Andy, typing furiously on his phone.

“You’re googling Genoise, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely not. But is it spelled G-E-N-O-I-S?”

A few days before my birthday, Andy’s company had an important conference call scheduled with the East Coast. A shocking, unseasonal blizzard hit the Eastern Seaboard. The important call was rescheduled for my birthday.

“Give it up,” I told Andy. “We’ll go out to dinner on Saturday.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I mean, I won’t be able to make the eggs Benedict, and I probably won’t be able to manage homemade French fries, but I will be home by noon and make you a cake!”

Andy picked up a nasty respiratory virus the night before my birthday. He barely made the conference call. He came home and crawled straight into bed.

I had Campbell’s tinned tomato soup for dinner.

When he regained consciousness, Andy weakly said, “Sorry, honey, I’ll make that cake this weekend. We’ll have your friends over and celebrate.”

“Dude. What will it take to convince you it will never work out?”

“I’m making a cake, damn it,” Andy swore.

And make a cake he did.

Exterior shot of actual cake.

The cake came out suspiciously flat. Andy refused to admit it was problematic. He gamely frosted it, decorated it, and sang “Happy Birthday” as he placed it in front of me.

I had to use my sharpest knife to hack through the bottom crust of what was supposed to be a European sponge cake, but I served it up to our guests.

“Sponge” cake interior.

Andy’s cake was again…unique. While the bottom was tougher than shoe leather, the middle and top of the cake were gooey. The frosting, however, was divine. The guests and I ate that and complimented Andy.

“Thanks!” said Andy. “Does anyone else want another piece?”

We demurred. Andy pouted, then declared, “Fine. I’m having another piece.”

The rest of us avoided eye contact as Andy served himself. But as Andy struggled mightily to fork off a bite-sized piece, I locked eyes with the guest on my left. He was red in the face, holding a napkin over his mouth.

That was it. I lost it, and the rest of the table followed me into endless gales of laughter. I didn’t quite pee my pants, but it A Very Near Thing.

Andy was a good sport, which was a good thing, because we must have laughed for five minutes.

Later that night, he mumbled, “Sorry about your cake, honey. I must have over mixed it.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry! That was hilarious, what with your pouty face and the Great Chef’s refusal to admit that his sponge cake could not be cut. I haven’t laughed that hard in years.”

“You’re not just saying that?”

“Nope. Frosted Genoise jerky is officially my most favorite birthday cake ever now.”

“Good. Because I’m gonna make it again for Mother’s Day.”

West Versus East: The Birthday Edition (#219)

In my childhood house of a thousand siblings, there was only one day more exciting than Christmas.

My birthday.

On my birthday, I got to sit at the head of the breakfast table and preside over a plate of powdered doughnuts with candles. Powdered doughnuts might not seem very exciting compared to the Krispy Kremes and Voodoo doughnut delicacies of today, but back then they were a huge treat. Especially to a kid in a big family on a budget.

I also got a pile of presents (i.e., three). If there was a birthday cake later (or brownies, in the leaner years), I got the first piece. And I got seconds.

I got the front seat in the car.

For an entire day, the overlooked middle child was seen.

And I was queen. And it was good.

This is how I thought all birthdays should be. But as Australian-Asian blogger Mabel recently pointed out, every culture and every person is a little different when it comes to birthdays.

My husband Andy came from a Chinese-American family. He was the oldest boy, which meant he got most of the attention and food. As his family actually practiced family planning, he had enough food, too.

But birthdays and holidays? Nope. Andy remembers exactly one shocking Christmas with a tree and a ton of presents. He was sure Santa had made a mistake until his mom told him to open his gifts. Andy’s family never wasted money on pumpkins, turkeys, or Easter Baskets, either.

And birthdays? Andy’s grandmother, Popo, who grew up in China before the Communists took over, told him that it was better not to celebrate birthdays. “If you celebrate your birthday,” she explained, “evil spirits will take notice, realize you are still alive. Then perhaps they will remedy that situation.”

The first year we were a couple, I asked Andy want he wanted to do on his birthday.

Andy shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”

I was aghast. “It matters! It’s your birthday! You get to pick everything we do!”

“Really? I pick sex.”

I rolled my eyes and explained, “No, I mean, do you want to go out for dinner? Do you want me to surprise you or pick your favorite place? And what kind of cake do you want?”

“Uh, any cake that’s not from a grocery store,” Andy said.

“Are you kidding? I would NEVER! Who does that?”

“My mom. For my eighteenth birthday, she called me at work and told me to grab any kind of cake at Foodland on my way home.”

“I didn’t even have YOUR NAME ON IT?!” I screeched.

“Nope.”

My horror was complete. That year, and every year after, I made Andy a cake. From scratch. I even bought a Wilton cake-decorating set so I could write “Happy Birthday Andy” on it in my own icing, rather than the bitter frosting tubes from the grocery store.

Leveling the layers of Devil’s food (about hour 3)

Andy’s favorite was the three-layer Devil’s food cake with poured ganache frosting. For short, we called it six-hour cake, because that’s how long it took to make the sucker. Every year, Andy would say, “No, no, you’re busy, it’s okay, you don’t have to!”

And every year, I’d think of his 18th birthday cake from Foodland and reply, “Oh yes I do.”

Post-crumb coat, mid-pour of ganache (about hour 5)

The first few years, I invited friends over to celebrate. Then I added his cousins and Aunt and Uncle. One year his brother was even in town, and he also joined us.

The following year, when I asked what he wanted to do, Andy asked, “Please can we have a party for just us?”

“You sure that doesn’t seem boring? You won’t get as many good presents.”

Andy snorted and said, “Their presents aren’t THAT good. And last year there was hardly any leftover cake!”

“Wait. It’s the cake? You just don’t want to share your cake?!”

Andy mumbled, “Well, it’s really good cake. And it’s not THEIR birthday. They don’t deserve that cake.”

Now we celebrate Andy’s birthday alone and Andy eats his cake for a week.

And he is king.

And it is good.

Wretch (#218)

My mother loved being pregnant. When I was 10 and she was pregnant with Baby Brother, she gave up alcohol and cigarettes without complaint. Same thing when I was 11 and she had Baby Singing Sister. She rarely threw up and was always cheerful.

My older sister, the Judgmental Genius Doctor, had miserable pregnancies. Her nausea was so bad she wore ice packs while operating. She gained 75 pounds because only Dove ice-cream bars were appealing and food had a fifty-fifty chance of preventing her from puking. Once the nausea ended, her cervix became problematic. She spent months on bed rest to avoid an early delivery.

When I told Dr. Sis I was pregnant, she immediately asked how I was feeling.

“Good,” I told her. “I mean, a little cramping where my innards are rearranging themselves, but I don’t feel sick at all.”

“How many weeks are you?”

“No more than five.”

“Hahahaha, enjoy not feeling like shit while you can,” she advised me. “Which will be one more week.”

“You don’t know that,” I argued. “Mom felt great during her pregnancies. Dad’s mom was the one who was sick and miserable when she was pregnant.” Gram had been so sick with her third pregnancy that she’d had an abortion – in the 1950s. Gram only managed this because her father was a doctor with connections. I only learned about this then illegal procedure when I spent the summer with my grandparents and experienced A Summer Night of Too Many Martinis.

“You’re gonna be sick, too,” Dr. Sister predicted. “It’s in the genes.”

“Not necessarily,” I countered. “You’re tiny and built like our little Welsh Grandma. Of course you take after her. But I’m built like Mom, from strapping Germanic peasant stock. I’ll be one of those women who finish threshing a row of wheat, push out a kid, and finish the next row.”

“You can tell yourself that all you want. Don’t you remember high school?” Dr. Sis asked.

“Are you talking about the genetics part of Biology? Of course I don’t remember that. Or Geometry. Never used them again, they were completely useless–“

“I’m not talking about Geometry,” Dr. Sis interrupted. “I’m talking about you. Every morning…” She made a retching noise.

“Oh,” I said, remembering. “Shit.”

*****

I’ve been a night owl since infancy. I was the kid that always snuck out of bed, unable to sleep. Then I’d overhear my parents fighting and have to sneak back into bed. Once I hit adolescence, I rarely slept before midnight.

Our high school started at 7:30 AM. It took almost an hour to get there, either by school bus or driving, thanks to northern Virginia traffic. To manage staggered morning showers with low water pressure, 6 siblings, and 2 working parents, I had to get up at 5:30 AM.

Almost every school day, I either threw up or felt like throwing up until at least 8 AM. Sometimes I threw up waiting for the bus. Sometimes my sister, or friend, or boyfriend had to pull over so I could vomit. I had multiple winter scarves; they were for face-wiping, not fashion. The good news was that on the mornings I did throw up, I only did it once. After that, while I didn’t feel great, I didn’t feel queasy.

The fall of my freshman year, I begged to stay home. My father had no sympathy. “You always feel like crap,” he told me. “Unless you have a fever, you’re going to school.”

So I perfected the art of predicting actual heaves, as opposed to just feeling like I might puke. I learned to immediately assess every venue and vehicle for places I could get to quickly and heave with minimal clean up. Bushes, for example.

I also learned how to chew gum without teachers noticing.

During a particularly nasty morning episode in the kitchen sink as a senior, I heard Dad grouse to my stepmother, “I don’t understand this. I mean, she can’t be pregnant. Not for four years!”

Once I got to college, where the earliest I ever got up was 7:15 AM, my nausea disappeared. Research appeared, showing that adolescents need more sleep, and they need to sleep as late as possible, thanks to the biology of puberty. My body decided that puking was the best way of  punishing me coping with sleep deprivation.

Northern Virginia high schools now start at 8:10 AM — or later. (Thanks for nothing, fuckers.) Like many high school districts, they’ve learned that later classes mean higher test scores and better grades.

And possibly schools that smell less like puke.

*****

“All that high school heaving means it’s your body’s go-to response for biological stress. And pregnancy is NOTHING but physical stressors,” Dr. Sis said.

“You don’t have to sound so damned gleeful,” I muttered.

“I am not being gleeful. I’m just preparing you for the fact that you’re gonna start puking soon. Just like I did. Get ready.”

“No way. I already spent 4 years puking, that’s enough! I did way more vomit time than you. You only had six months, you poseur!”

The conversation deteriorated after that.

But my appetite did not. I passed the 6 week mark.

“Ha!” I gloated to Andy between bites of an In-n-Out burger. “Six weeks and I still feel great! I was right and I got the good pregnancy genes!”

My high lasted 12 hours. I woke up queasy the next day. I ate little oatmeal. It didn’t help.

I gagged brushing my teeth.

When I walked the dogs, I threw up in a neighbor’s yard.

“Goddamn it,” I said to the dogs. Sitting nicely, they cocked their heads at me as I dabbed my mouth with the precautionary wipe I’d stuck in Fey’s pack. “Dr. Sis was right. And now I’m gonna feel like shit for the next three months.”

I tried to look on the bright side. I hadn’t puked on my shoes. I’d at least avoided puking in the yards of my close neighbors. In fact, I’d made it to the yard of the jerk who shot raccoons (and ate them, but that’s another post, this one has enough nausea in it already). The vomit had missed my shoes and landed in a nice, concealing bush.

The dogs needed a walk. We forged ahead. I ignored the nausea when it returned, but I was ready with one of the dog’s plastic bags when I did have to heave again.

I used five bags on that walk. Only two of them were for dog poop. But we made it several miles that day, and almost every other day of my first trimester.

Various girlfriends and family members told me to stop being masochistic and make my husband walk the dogs. Sometimes I did. But mostly I kept trudging along.

I may never have used Geometry or Chemistry again, but at least there was one high school skill that proved useful later in life:

How to keep functioning while puking.

 

Not Your Ordinary Magic Wand (#217)

Finding out I was pregnant was anticlimactic. Because here’s the rule: you can’t tell anyone until you know it’s a viable pregnancy.

Actually, you can tell people, sure, but since 1 out of every 3 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, you run the risk of having to un-tell them later. Possibly while sobbing incoherently.

So I was stuck in this no-man’s-land of being pregnant – maybe – for two weeks while I waited for my obstetrician to officially confirm that a) my pregnancy tests weren’t liars and b) the embryo had a heartbeat.

Normally the only people you’d tell that early are the girlfriends or family members you’d tell you miscarried. Like your mom. Except my mother was dead.

My BFF, M, had already had five heartbreaking miscarriages of her own. I was too chicken to tell her I’d gotten pregnant easily. Of course she’d be happy for me. And yet…how would I feel if I’d wanted a baby for years and someone who’d  been pretty ambivalent about having kids got pregnant right away? I’d be happy for my friend, but I’d also be bitter enough to flip off the universe. And maybe my fertile friend, too, while she was looking in the opposite direction.

It’s kind of how I feel about writers who get their first book or screenplay published or sold immediately. Happy for them while also screaming “why not me?!” at a smirking universe.

I stayed quiet, waiting. Waiting for the moment you see in all movies, TV shows, and commercials, where the doctor holds the ultrasound wand on a pregnant belly and announces, “There it is!”

Or, alternatively, turns white and runs out the room to get a specialist because something is very wrong. (Since I’m always imagining scenarios with my close friend catastrophe, I was sure we were headed for that second scenario.)

Only my husband Andy knew about my pregnancy.

I didn’t feel sick and I don’t drink alcohol. No one suspected a thing.

Six weeks after my last menstrual cycle, we visited the OB.

It’s not like TV. Turns out, when the embryo is barely 4 weeks old, it’s hard to pick them up on a regular abdominal ultrasound.

Enter the wand. Yes, the transvaginal wand, which goes exactly where you think. The transvaginal wand even gets covered in a condom and lubed up before insertion. Maybe someday it’ll vibrate, but until then, Mr. Wand feels about as good as you’d expect, which is to say, not good at all.

Though not as bad as the curling iron/ vise the OB uses for your annual pap smear and woman’s wellness exam, at least. (Yes, I know it’s technically called a speculum, but that’s not remotely descriptive enough for that particular instrument of torture.)

But back to the exam room where a paper sheet covers my lower half and allows Andy, me, and the OB to pretend there’s no wand up my vaginal canal as we stare at the ultrasound monitor.

Nothing.

“Relax,” the OB tells me, moving the wand.

I glare at her, because never in the history of women being penetrated by a foreign object has ANY WOMAN EVER managed to relax just because the twerp initiating penetration simply suggested it. I settle for taking a deep breath and imagining shoving a wand in some of her bodily orifices. And maybe Andy’s too, since I know this is just the first of hundreds of poking and prodding indignities that I will endure while being pregnant.

“Good,” she says.

Apparently, I find images of violence relaxing. I file that away for the next appointment. Then I stare at the screen, willing an image to appear.

It does.  A tiny blob, smaller than a pinto bean, vibrates on the screen.

“That’s it,” says the doctor. “There’s the heartbeat.”

At that age, the barely-an-embryo is nothing but a heartbeat, beating almost twice a second. It’s not as complex as an earthworm, let alone an ant.

“That’s it?” Andy asks the OB.

I take immediate offense, answering, “Of course that’s it! It’s not even a fetus yet! What did you expect, a wave? It doesn’t even have arms! Or a brain!”

Andy asks again, “I meant, there’s only one, right?”

The OB says, “Yes. Just one. Were you hoping for more?”

Andy and I respond together: “NO!”

The OB looks startled, and so I explain, “My mom’s second pregnancy was triplets, but she lost them.”

“Ah. No, just one here.”

“Dodged that bullet,” Andy murmurs.

“Seen enough?” asks the doctor.

Andy, entranced by the vibrating bean on the screen, doesn’t answer. I tell the doctor yes, and breathe a sigh of relief when the wand withdraws.

I scowl at the vaginal violator as the doctor strips off its condom and ask, “Are you going to be using that thing for the next ultrasound?”

The doctor laughs. “No, no, as long as there are no complications, next we’ll listen to the heartbeat, then regular abdominal ultrasounds.”

And eventually, there’d be a baby.

Maybe.

I am sure this image is upside-down and equally sure my Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister will explain why. At some point. At length.

The Brilliance of the Teen Brain (#216)

I feel old. Yes, I did just have a birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one.

My knees started making noises. The orthopedist assured me that I’m young for creaky knees; it’s probably an unfortunate combination of too much dancing and volleyball. I feel decrepit anyway.

Even so, it’s not my knees that made me realize I’m old.

It’s my brain. My brain feels ancient. It’s also wiser, sure, which is helpful when it comes to spotting the free riders and over promisers of the world. It’s able to envision worst case scenarios and avoid potential pitfalls, thanks to years of experience.

My old brain has perspective now, too. The old brain recognizes that even the worst misery is temporary, and tomorrow the pain won’t be so bad (or maybe if I just eat something, a situation won’t feel as hopeless).

But you know what my old brain has recently been pining for?

Adolescence.

I know, I know. Totally fucked up. I mean, think back on the hideous days of acne, friend dramas, and romance rollercoasters. Whom among us would want to return to the tyranny of SAT scores, strict parents, sarcastic teachers, or the snide commentary of mean peers?

No one, of course.

Yet I yearn for my adolescent brain.

****

Daniel J. Siegel is a child psychiatrist who wrote a book about the adolescent brain half a decade ago, as his own children went through their teen years. It’s called Brainstorm, and it explains the scientific reasons for certain behaviors. Remember how you felt immortal as a teen and maybe did something risky like not wear a seatbelt or jump off cliff?

According to Siegel, “There is an increase in the activity of the neural circuits utilizing dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward… It can also lead them to focus solely on the positive rewards they are sure are in store for them, while failing to notice or give value to the potential risks and downsides.” In short, teens are optimistic about success.

The teen brain also rebels. It rejects parents and the status quo, hunting for new, novel ways of doing everything and anything.

One of the biggest drivers of an adolescent brain is a need for peer connection. When surrounded by friends, adolescents will engage in more novelty-seeking behavior and be more likely to discount the risks.

Living by a middle school, I watch this progression daily. The sixth graders are easily spotted, timidly scurrying by my house to get to school on time, often alone. The seventh graders will dawdle a little longer, laugh louder, and travel in packs. By the end of eighth grade, full-on adolescents skateboard down my steps and post their spectacular crashes on Snapchat. Or YouTube. Or Twitch. Or whatever new social media platform arrives tomorrow.

And the high schoolers in my neighborhood? They’ve used my house as target practice for their air rifles. They’ve tried to use my front yard as their personal port-a-potty at midnight. They even built a “campfire” on the roof of the school. A year or two ago, I decided that the collective noun for a large group of adolescents should be “a stupid.”

But now? I think maybe I’m the stupid one.

Because a group of teens from a bullet-riddled high school in Parkland, Florida now leads a massive movement that might change the American political landscape forever.

*****

After the Sandy Hook school shooting 6 years ago, adults, legislators, and even the President tried to shake the NRA’s hold on the Republicans and pass national gun reform legislation. They failed.

There were more shootings. Mass shootings, school shootings, police shootings, domestic violence shootings. Over 7,000 children have died from gun violence since Newtown.

Women marched and the shootings continued.

The Republicans took control of all three branches of government. The shootings continued.

We despaired, even as we supported women candidates and cheered whenever a GOP candidate was defeated. Because even progressive adults, with our old brains, steeped in perspective and realism, didn’t really believe we could change anything. As Dan Hodges said on Twitter:

Then, out of yet another horrific massacre, hope arrived. Born in the battered, yet somehow still optimistic teen brains of students like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky. They challenged the status quo, telling GOP legislators to shove their thoughts and prayers up their collective assholes. They called bullshit on all the so-called reasons for not enacting gun reform. They supported each other, drew strength from each other, and took on both American disillusionment and the NRA.

They created a movement. They implored adults to run against the pro-gun lobby and spearheaded voter registration. And when they marched on D.C., they brought along their peers of color who’d been fighting against gun violence already. They gave their friends microphones, but refused to let the elected officials speak.

And rightly so. I read editorials and blog posts daily that eagerly point out the failings of the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. The culture can’t be changed, authors insist. The activists are flawed, or their messaging is flawed, or they’re being used by career politicians.

As if it’s better to sit smugly on your ass and be critical than to go to a meeting. Or a march. Or canvas voters. Or make a donation. Or just TRY.

Screw that, my fellow old brains. It’s time to jettison our realistic (or maybe our real jaded) neural pathways and resurrect the rebellious ones of our youth.

If my brain can’t manage that, well, I’m gonna limp along behind those teenagers as best I can on my creaky knees, supporting and admiring them.

You know what my newest collective noun is?

A brilliance of teenaged brains.

Illustration from Brainstorm, by Daniel J. Siegel

Sprinkling Stupidity (#215)

Look at how my neighbors water their green lawn…and the cement sidewalk.

I grew up in a swamp. D.C. is ridiculously hot and humid in the summer. A blanket of oppressive, immobile air suffocates the city for weeks at a time, only stirring for the occasional afternoon thunderstorm. But the thunderstorm doesn’t wash away the misery, oh, no. It just makes the ground steam.

All the water makes for lush, green lawns with minimal watering. I never saw a sprinkler system until I moved to Los Angeles. At first I had no idea why various lawns had black knobs on them – until I happened to be walking a roommate’s dog in Burbank one morning. After the knobs popped up and spewed water all over us, I figured out that, duh, of course you can’t have a green lawn in a desert without automated sprinklers.

Surprisingly, Californians, pioneers of catalytic converters and clean air, cling to their green lawns despite our near permanent drought status. On my street, there is exactly one house landscaped with California native plants instead of a green grass lawn. (It’s gorgeous and it smells awesome and it cost thousands of dollars.)

The rest of the neighborhood has perhaps 10 houses with Astroturf, or cacti, or gravel, or all three.

Everyone else has green lawns. Some are super green. I’ve been hit by sprinklers at 5 AM and again at 7 PM — AT THE SAME HOUSE. Even when drought ordinances mandated that sprinklers could only be used every three days, people continued watering twice a day.

Is it ignorance? If so, it must be willful ignorance. Because a lot of those same houses had newspapers on their front steps – newspapers with front pages screaming about the drought.

Maybe it’s a different kind of ignorance. Maybe they don’t understand their sprinkler systems. (You laugh, but I didn’t know how ours worked until Andy was injured last year.) If theses aren’t DIY folks, though, they could certainly tell their gardeners to adjust the sprinklers, couldn’t they?

Andy installed a drip system for my flowerbeds and his garden after we moved in, which cut down on our water usage. We supplemented our plants’ intake with buckets of “warm up” water from the shower. Any water we boiled for cooking we used for my hanging baskets, our fountain, or window boxes when it cooled.

Two years ago, amidst the worst drought in California history, Lieutenant LAPD next door installed a new fountain. Does it use re-circulated water, as it was legally required to do?

Of course not.

Another house installed a picturesque little pond with a bridge in their front yard at the same time. It was pretty as fuck and as illegal as hell. Sometimes it overflows. My dogs and I once had to wade through a creek of RUNNING WATER, pouring over the sidewalk and into the street in the middle of a nine-year drought.

Rage-inducing.

During the drought, California tried to crack down on water-wasters. Utilities raised the cost of water. Our water bill jumped a hundred dollars. I am sure our water-loving neighbors’ bills jumped several hundred.

Their sprinklers kept running.

When increasing the cost of water had no effect, cities set up hotlines to report water-wasters. All over Los Angeles, water vigilantes cruised their neighborhoods and reported those who refused to comply with the drought-stricken state’s laws. (I may have been one of them.) Some folks attempted to shame water wasters in public and online.

I don’t know if the offenders were ever fined. I do know that my neighbors continued running their sprinklers. I continued fuming.

After record-breaking rain last year ended the drought in most of California, we had an abnormally dry winter. Our snowpack is a fraction of what it should be.

It’s not just California, either. All over the world, climate change, overpopulation, and lack of conservation drain the water supply. Cape Town, in South Africa – with a climate similar to SoCal – is expected to run out of water in just a few months. The plethora of piped, purified water that industrialized nations are used to is drying up.

What are people doing about our disappearing water supply? Very little, if we go by my neighborhood.

Last week, Los Angeles finally got several much-needed rainstorms. The dogs and I had to jump all kinds of puddles on our morning walks. And even as I rejoiced in the raindrops on my face, I cursed my short-sighted and stupid neighbors.

Because their goddamned sprinklers were still on
in the rain
soaking my ankles.