Monday, July 11, 2016

Just People

Trevor Noah said it best: It is perfectly possible to believe that Black Lives Matter AND that the lives of police matter. I can hold those two thoughts in my head at the same time, and I see no contradiction.

I feel affronted when I hear white people in my life express the idea that black people pose a danger to police. It was one shooter in Dallas; but even if it had been twenty, or one hundered, and all of them black, and all of them hating white people and the white police and the Black Lives Matter movement, (as did the shooter in Dallas), they still wouldn't have represented the motivations or actions of anyone but themselves. To believe otherwise is, frankly, racist--and I say that with a heavy heart, knowing that it could drive a wedge through some friendships.

I was chatting with my friend Ron the other day. We were talking about parenting, and how we were both working on being better parents (actually, he was working on it, and I subsequently realized that I should be working on it, too). That was last Wednesday. The next morning, Philando Castile was shot by police in Minneapolis, and Alton Sterling was killed by police in Louisiana.

Suddenly, even the weighty topic of parenthood and its attendant anxieties seemed trite. Ron is black. I didn't know what to say about all of this to him without sounding like I was apologizing on behalf of all white people, as if he were all black men. I decided not to attempt to tackle this gaping wound with one well-worded text. It was not a situation that lent itself to pith.

I had been reconnected with Ron because of our mutual affection and history, and then, not 24 hours later, disconnected from him (temporarily, I hope) by the latest outrageous examples of racism in our criminal justice system.

I am white. I live on a bucolic farm in Wisconsin (far from Louisiana and Dallas, but not far from Minneapolis, and certainly not from Madison, which has had its own examples of police violence against black people). I may be horrified, outraged, and saddened by these events--and I will worry about my friends who are black--but I know that I will all-too-quickly shift my focus to the details of my life. My mood and focus will drift.

The implications of these stories do not apply to me, directly; they don't strike exactly the same chord, because I am not going to be a victim of police violence, and my son isn't going to be a victim of police violence, because we are white. I also don't have any loved ones on the police force.These things make a big difference in how I experience these events. However appalled and disturbed I may feel, it's still basically news. It's still happening to someone else, and though I may catch my breath as I hear of it, and feel the joy sucked out of the room, still my day will proceed as planned.

I have in-laws who are Moslem. Over the years, we remained close. Maybe we didn't talk very often, but when we did, we could pick up where we left off. But, that's changed in recent years. I didn't know what to do or say when the tide of anti-Moslem feeling rose up, threatening to drown out all reason. I failed to call and express my concern because I didn't want to place us in the position where I was speaking as a white person to a Moslem person. That was never how it was before; but now, with everything that's happened, that is undeniably the elephant in the room.

And yes, I know it's probably stupid. I should have called a dozen times to express my support. Even if it was awkward and imperfect, it would have been better than nothing.

What I did instead was to write in this blog, as I am doing now. Here, I hoped to articulate what I couldn't say on the phone or in a text. Here, I hoped to express my solidarity with social justice and the enormous value of confronting attitudes of prejudice and racism. Here, I hoped to openly and honestly express my views with reason and love, and not to drive more wedges between people.

Racism, and not race, makes us different. Without it, we are family. Without it, we are friends. Without racism, we are a just people. Without it, we are just people--people who can talk together about small things, like raising children and striving to be better parents.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Upside-Down Woman

When I was in the part of the maternity ward where no expecting mother ever wants to be, (the extremely high-risk part), there was one woman there who was worse off than me, and that was the upside-down woman.

When I was 23 weeks pregnant, my body started to go into labor. (A full-term pregnancy goes 41 weeks, give or take.)  I was rushed to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and given something to stop it. I was sent home the following day. But, 24 hours later, my contractions were ten minutes apart.

"We can give you something to stop the labor," said the doctor, "but it's going to make you feel lousy."

"Fine. Give it to me."

I desperately wanted to save my pregnancy.  It was going to be a boy, and I had already named him Joshua.  (Later, my father would say, "Jesus, I wish you hadn't named him.")

The magnesium sulfate drip they gave me felt like a horrific hangover. Looking left or right brought intolerable pain, I could only look straight ahead. The magnesium also made my muscles weak--that's what stops the contractions--the muscles of the uterus become too weak to contract. I shuffled very slowly to the bathroom like an extremely frail old lady. ("My God, this must be what it feels like to be 99-years old.")

Every day on the magnesium got worse. I had headaches. I couldn't sleep. I was nauseous, I couldn't eat. I had diarrhea. I could barely walk.

I only fell asleep shortly before sunrise. Soon after, a doctor whom I never set eyes on would come in to check on me. She would take my vitals (and Josh's vitals) while I semi-slept, semi-lucid, and too weak to roll over.

"Have you had any contractions?" she would ask.


"That's wonderful. You're doing really well." (She was like an angel.)

A young nurse told me that no matter what I did to foul up the room, it wouldn't bother her in the least. I shouldn't worry for a second, not one second. (I was profoundly grateful.)

The head of the NICU paid me a visit. She gave me the impression that she was required by law or hospital policy to read off the entire list of everything that could possibly go wrong with a 24-week old preterm baby, a 25-week-old preterm baby... 26 weeks... 27 weeks....

It was a long and relentless list, and when at last she finished, I threw up.

I was semi-conscious, semi-sleeping, but able to respond yes or no, when a woman with a clipboard came into my room. She told me about a study that required dead preterm babies.She had come to me because there was a good chance that I would have a dead preterm baby. Would I give them permission to use its body in the study? Or part of it?

I don't remember how I responded to that question. I might have  agreed. I was on my second or third day, unable to deliberate on such a choice. But I'll never forget the request.

After one week, I was discharged from the hospital, still pregnant. I went home, and spent the next ten or eleven weeks in bed, with bathroom privileges. (I didn't have to use a bedpan, thank God. Some women on bed-rest have to use a bedpan.)

Really, I was fine in the hospital until about the third night. Until then, I was glad to be pregnant, everyone working to help keep me pregnant. But after the third night, I was so sick in body and spirit that I would have turned back time to become not pregnant.

At no point, however, did I consider having an abortion, though I did receive the message from the head of NICU and the woman with the clipboard that abortion would have been a sensible solution to my problem.

For me, an abortion would have only added heartbreak and God-knows-what physical trauma to my situation.

I am not anti-abortion. In fact, when I was in my twenties, I was proud to work at a women's health clinic where safe abortions were performed. It was the clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, where John Salvo shot and killed two women who worked in admitting (as I had, two years earlier).

I just really wanted to keep my baby, whom I had been dreaming about vividly for months, whose name was Joshua, and whom I already loved  deeply, just as I assumed the upside-down woman next door from my hospital room must have loved and wanted her baby.

The upside-down woman had been worse off than me. This was before HIPAA, and though I never knew her name, I knew that she was about 23 weeks pregnant when her uterus sprung some sort of leak.  In order to keep her pregnancy, she had to spend the next several months strapped to a hospital bed (in the hospital) at a 45 degree angle, head down.  She didn't have bathroom privileges, and she was on some unpleasant medications.

Clearly, given the weirdly subtle encouragement I had received to have an abortion, the upside-down woman did have a choice. I understood why she was doing it, and I thought she was awesome.  She was in love with her baby. She probably knew if it was supposed to be a boy or a girl. She had probably named it. It was probably her first child, like mine.  She had let her imagination run away with her. She had dared to have powerful dreams, and to fall in love too soon.

This is what the upside-down lady would do for love. She was my hero. She was everyone's hero on that ward, and we all felt sorry for her.

At 38 weeks, I had a scheduled c-section.  After that, like all parents, I had endless other frights and worries, but I was very grateful and happy to have Joshua still with me.

Be that as it may, when one well-meaning friend dismissed my entire ordeal by declaring that "it was all worth it in the end," (not having asked for any details of the experience), I felt woefully under-supported.

Someone else told me that she had known all along that everything was going to turn out okay...And maybe she did have that psychic revelation. But to me, this sounded dismissive.

We are told to expect a normal pregnancy.

At 36 weeks, my husband and I attended a required orientation for new parents at Beth Israel. (At 36 weeks, I was allowed to get out of bed and even walk the dogs; I wasn't having any contractions, and the baby was perfectly viable.) The guide showed us the attractively appointed maternity ward for expecting mothers.

"What's over there?" someone asked, pointing down the hallway in the opposite direction.

"Those are the rooms for high-risk pregnancies. We won't be going down there. None of you will have to worry about having a high-risk pregnancy." (Of course not, I thought, rolling my eyes.)

Most of my close friends have not had "normal" pregnancies. We have had these incredibly surprising,  horrific ordeals.

When we first started talking about our experiences, it seemed incredible that one story was as traumatic as the next. I had thought mine was the worst pregnancy story ever, second only to the upside-down woman. But three of my close friends' pregnancies had been as difficult as mine or worse.

One friend's pregnancy had had a lethally septic effect on her body--and she had twins. She needed to remain pregnant (and on strict bed-rest) until the twins (which take longer to be viable, because they're smaller) could survive, but not so long that the pregnancy would kill her.

Another friend had a complication with amniocentesis in which her unborn baby's fingers and toes perforated the intrauterine membrane. She was told that her baby would be born with severely damaged or missing fingers and toes. (He wasn't.)

I knew one young mother whose pregnancy caused a rare form of cancer to grow rampant through her body, ultimately killing her.

I could tell you more stories of real women's real pregnancies, but I'd have to go about gathering more specific details, and that would postpone completion of this post. I don't think I need to do that to make my point.

My point is this: Why are women so broadly assured of having an uneventful pregnancy, when we so frequently don't?

Why are our real stories dismissed by just about everyone except the initiated?

And why is it alright to dismiss, ignore, gloss over, and generally white-wash the whole experience?

And what if the upside-down lady had not been in love with her child?  Can we bear to imagine a world in which it was not her choice to spend those months upside-down, drugged into misery, and strapped to a bed?

Friday, July 1, 2016

How to Grow Old Gracefully, Like a Dog

As I may have mentioned, I recently turned fifty years old. When time throws down its gauntlet, all we can do is accept the quest (the holy grail, you'll never find it) with grace and if we were glad.

Easier said than done, especially, within a culture that answers the question (how to age gracefully?) with, DON'T.

JUST SAY NO to fine lines and wrinkles.

JUST SAY NO to "liver spots" (who came up with that charming phrase?) and sagging boobs, bellies, and butts.

The older you are, the more expensive your moisturizer--because it has to work that much harder.

Wear more make-up and "spanx" and girdles--and yes, even corsets are making a comeback--we are that evolved.

So, once again, I have to look to my dogs for guidance. I'm telling you, they know how to age gracefully.

Take Sam, for example, a Labrador Retriever. As a youth, she was tireless. She loved to run fast and swim for hours. She loved to dive into the lake with her little legs curled up (so cute) to fetch a stick over and over and over.  She was dazzling, a regular Zelda Fitzgerald in the fountains.

But, as Sam got older and slowed down, her interests  shifted gradually from running and swimming to sniffing and rolling.  She developed a keen interest in smelling everything and rolling onto her back and kicking up her feet, joyfully. These became her primary activities on our walks.

Toward the end, she still sniffed everything, but now when she rolled, she took longer to get up. We would stop for a spell on our walks, and she would rest on the grass in the sun or shade. Sometimes, passers-by would express their concern.  Yes, she probably did have some discomfort. She was very old, at 13.  Eventually, she would get up, shake it off, and be ready to go, The sniffing, the rolling, and the resting--these were her pleasures, now.

Her counterpart, Bart, was an intimidating mix of Rottweiler, Doberman, German Shepherd, and Lab. He lived one year longer than Sam.  He disproved the adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

When Bart was young and kids came to the front door he went out the back. It was as if he didn't trust himself not to eat them.  But toward the end of his life, Bart decided that kids were alright. His feelings for them softened dramatically and bloomed into love. He already adored our Joshua, but he also fell hard for the kid next door.

Now, I have three different dogs, and they're all getting old.

Hank, a standard poodle, is twelve, approximately. (No one's really sure; he's got a shady past.)

I'm not saying that all poodles are sociopaths, but Hank was.  He had no conscience. He knew right from wrong, and neither weighed more or less than the other on the scales in his mind.

But, being a smart and elderly poodle, Hank apparently has given some thought to his mortal soul, and he has concluded that he was certainly going to go to Hell.  As a result, Hank has by and large reformed.

Hank no longer steps foot in the kitchen. If he did, he would certainly raid the garbage and devour any food left out on the table or counter tops.

He used to wear an electric collar that sounded off every time he came near the kitchen, but he hasn't worn it for a year. Don't think for a minute that he doesn't realize that he could go into the kitchen if he allowed himself. Hank always tested the electric collars to see if the batteries were working. I had to keep back-up batteries and order them way in advance.  If they expired for even a day or two, Hank raided the garbage. Poodles are many things, but they are not stupid.

Hank doesn't go in the kitchen of his own accord. He's trying to be a good dog. He doesn't want to go to Hell.

Personally, I don't believe in Hell, (although I do believe in the gnashing of teeth and the wringing of hands), but I think it's interesting that Hank does.

My three aging dogs have good days and bad days. Sometimes, they seem younger; sometimes, older--just like me. The right supplements (fish oil, glucosamine chondroitin, and Milk Thistle) and a bit of love seem to make a big difference.  If I forget either one, they slow way down.

Today, Hank didn't want to go on his second walk; he was very comfortable on the couch. I cuddled up to him and told him he didn't have to go with us if he didn't want to, but we'd love his company. And then he bounded up off the couch, energized and dog-smiling, as though it had all been a practical joke. Of course he would go for a walk!

Hank and Gretchen are slowing down and hanging back. Betsy has more energy, though she and Gretchen are both nine. Betsy is not my favorite dog, but I think some day she will be.

Betsy is getting more gray and grizzled than Hank or Gretchen.  She is a black Border Collie/Lab, now with a mostly white chin and muzzle. The gray hairs don't bother her in the least. She's not vain.

My three dogs started out terrible. They were the worst dogs I've ever had. (I say this with love.) But every year, they get better. By the time they're ready to die, no kidding, I think they'll be perfect. Figures.

Physically, dogs have a high threshold for pain. Rarely does it hold them back, or obscure their view of what is good and pleasurable in life.

I could make this really sad. Yes, dogs die with grace. Let's leave it at that.

We humans, we're all in knots about these things.

I was born without any powers of denial. That's why I write. That's why I'm a freak of nature. So, I confront this aging business head-on, every day.  And, right behind that, my mortality.

For inspiration and guidance, there's nothing good out there.  It's all twisted, fear-driven, youth-obsessed, vanity-mongering, horribly depressing crap. In French, "c'est nul."

If you want to know how to age gracefully, ask a dog.

Or ask a horse. My friend Fire, a 20-year-old Polish Arabian, has taught me a thing or two about getting old...

First off, pageantry is everything. For short stints, be fabulous. Make a big impression. Keep the young in line. But if you're asked to  do something difficult or dreary, get a very tired look on your face and say, oh! I am so weary! My arthritis is acting up!  (It works every time.)