Monday, October 31, 2011

Six months after we moved in together, Jillian and I became engaged. The next morning, we decided to go hunting for engagement rings.
"Let's check out pawn shops," she said. "It will be romantic." Her parents got their rings from a pawn shop. I was intrigued by the idea of saving money, but I thought, pretty quickly into things, that we would move from pawn shops to jewelry stores, maybe even on the way to the first place.
So we started at the nearest place, Mountain Man Pawn - an overgrown aluminum storage building in a run-down parking lot on the south side of town. Inside, an old man told us, "By the time you get to be my age, if you haven't worked up a good hate for each other you've done something wrong."
We drove all over town, talking about the old man with his odd candor and finally came back to Mountain Man for the ring, and picked up wedding bands there as well.
Later, Jillian called her parents to tell them the news. Her father answered.
"We're engaged," Jillian said.
He was quiet. "Let me get your mother," he finally said.
Jillian repeated the news to her mother and was met again by silence. "Oh my. That was fast," her mother said.
"We've been living together for six months, Mom," Jillian said.
"Don't you think you're rushing? I just wonder if you've thought this through," her mother asked.
"Why can't you just be happy?" Jillian asked.
I was in my office, working. But I could hear the agitation in Jillian's voice.
"What about kids? You're just going to give that up? You're too young to close that door," her mother said.
"I'm the same age you were when you were married," Jillian said.
"But this is different."
After 45 minutes of that:
"I guess the real reason is I can't be happy about you marrying someone who could die a horrible death or need you to take care of him. I think that before you get married," her mother said, "Cortney should get tested for Huntington’s."

"Don't hate them," Jillian said, later. "They're just worried. This is your decision," she said. "No matter what anyone says, even my mother, you have to decide. I'll support whatever you choose to do."
We talked about testing in noncommittal spurts. Mostly, we talked about her parents, wedding plans, politics, anything but testing.
After two days, Jillian called her parents. Her mother quickly broke into tears, explaining that Jillian's paternal grandmother was dying, and Jillian's father was on his way to Michigan to see her.
"Life's too short," Jillian's mother said. "Nobody knows when they're going to die. So if he doesn't want to get tested, he shouldn't have to."
What this meant was that I couldn't be mad at them for trying to force me into a decision. What this meant was that I had to make the decision.

When my mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s there was no definitive test. The gene that produces it was discovered in 1993. The test, at first, was enormously expensive and required multiple testings of family members for comparison, but over time, as more became known, the price dropped to around a thousand dollars. Huntington’s tends to manifest later in life. It is the perfect disease for procrastinators. My mother had three kids and was into her forties before she showed any symptoms. Her father likewise had three kids before he showed symptoms, and his mother was well on in years. This is the norm; symptoms tend to occur during the ages of 45-55, though they can manifest at any time, and my siblings and I had lived our lives as though in the moment of near-sleep dreading the buzz of the morning alarm. When we weren't concerned for ourselves, we worried about each other.
My brother was so sure he had Huntington’s that he never married, never planned for the future, and when he hit his forties, and the disease failed to appear, he suddenly found himself unprepared. He quickly married, became a stepparent and tried to make up for lost time. My sister took the opposite approach. She married young to a man with three kids, and struggled with the decision to have kids of her own and risk passing on the Huntington’s gene before finally giving in and having a son.
I wasn't sure where I placed on the family scale. I tended towards a pessimistic way of thinking, sure that I had Huntington's, but unsure what to do about it. The fear that I might have the disease had made my life swing like a pendulum. Some days, I felt I should live only for that day. What was the point in planning, preparing for the future? If I only had twenty years or so left, I had better live them for all they were worth. This meant that while my friends were settling down with mortgages, I was just starting college. And instead of paying for classes, I was using the loan money to travel.
Other days, I thought that if I didn't have much time left, I had better buckle down and try to achieve something worthwhile. So while those friends were starting careers, I was finishing up work on my first novel and recording demos with my band.
And when Jillian and I met, we settled into something I'd never really had before: stability. We made plans. We talked about children; we talked about careers; we talked about where we'd like to live. We built a mythology for our relationship by seeking out new and strange experiences that we'd both find rewarding and interesting. Instead of going to a movie, we drove around looking in other people's windows. Instead of playing golf, we planted a garden.
But no matter what, my mother's disease was always present, like an image in my peripheral vision that kept coming back.
At traffic lights, I wondered; what if I have it? In line at the grocery store, I pondered it: if I had Huntington's, the big if, what would I do? If my time is to be short, then I'd better do something worthwhile with it. At the fast food drive through, I thought: I'd better make it count.
It sounded good, and yet no decision seemed to be getting made. Jillian stood by during all of this, metaphorically, smiling supportively and trying not to scream.
I had just graduated college and was poised to enter graduate school to study playwriting at the University of Arkansas. I was taking a summer class on filmmaking and not working. And as I got further and further away from making a decision, I got more and more miserable. I began buying books I'd never read, movies I didn't even like, and blowing through my careful summer budget, just to keep myself entertained. I didn't know what to do with myself so I didn't do anything. I floated. I changed the subject. I talked about the weather.
A few weeks after our engagement, I received a letter from the bank. I was overdrawn. The money that was supposed to see me through the summer was gone halfway through the break. I drove all over town, putting in quick applications for a summer job, and then I sat and waited and thought, really thought, about the concept of a future.
Up to that point, I had parceled my life out according to looming deadlines. In nine months, it would be summer, in three months, school would start again. In twelve years, I would graduate with my high school diploma. In four years, give or take, I would graduate college. When I was a kid, I had waited for my father to get home from work. Now, I was waiting for Jillian to get home. All my life, it seemed, I had been waiting. At the Baptist church, they'd taught me that life is a dream and we wake into heaven. We just had to wait it out. When I worked, or even at home, I watched the clock, gauging my actions against the clock. All of these deadlines were tiny reflections of that giant deadline, the moment when I was sure I would wake from this dream of life into the nightmare of the future. All my life I'd been waiting for it, but now, with Jillian, I thought: maybe not. It was too delicate a bird to hold in my hand, fully formed, so I made the decision and didn't think about it anymore. When Jillian got home from work I told her it was time I got tested.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Helen Vitoria is a poet and founder of a brand spanking new poetry journal, Thrush. In an effort to soften her up so she'll publish me (jk) I spoke with her about her new endeavor.

Me: You just started a new journal, Thrush. Can you tell me a little about the aesthetic of the journal?

Helen: Cort, first of all thank you so much for this interview.

THRUSH, features only poetry. It is bimonthly, with a special Inaugural Issue in December 2011. Aesthetically, the design (I love the final product) is simple and elegant, focusing only on the poems and poet. I wanted an uncluttered atmosphere in which to present the poems, thus leaving all focus entirely on the work we present. It will feature no more than ten poems per issue.

As far as the poems themselves, I am looking for work that is emotive, stirring, a unique voice that will leave a lasting impression with the reader, and perhaps have them return and read the poems again and again, print them. It would be great if a reader stumbled upon a poem they love and then sought to find more poems from a particular poet. Open up a whole new relationship between the reader and poetry itself.

Me: What inspired you to start a new journal?

Helen: There are so many journals that I adore. But, very few if any feature poetry alone. Not all poets write fiction. I want THRUSH to be the journal poets turn to, when they have a poem they want presented in a special way. I love poetry and I think part of me always wanted a journal I can submit to that just features poems. The on line journals that feature fiction, interviews, and art are gorgeous, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed on the site itself. I wanted to present something different.

Ultimately, I guess I started THRUSH because it’s a journal where I would want to submit my poems to.

Me: Have you found that editing affects your own writing?

Helen: So many things affect my own writing. Poets I admire, a community workshop I teach each month, and certainly editing my own journal.

Someone asked me once: What is it that your poems are about? My answer to that is the human condition. I write about the things we all experience - love, loss, hurt, sex, death, the ways people fail one another, etc. As personal as my work is to me, there is no greater compliment than when someone outside the writing community reads a poem I wrote and takes the time to find me and email me telling me how my work affected them. Surprising to me, at times that happens and it always validates something about my poems and leaves me feeling as if I have accomplished the greatest thing a poet can do.

Me: Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?

Helen: My routine varies, I write in my head all day long, no matter what I am doing. I write in my car while driving and record notes into the voice recorder on my phone. I try to make time each day to sit and write, or draft at least one poem, either on my laptop, or on paper. Usually, early in the morning or late at night. I write in complete silence and hope the phone does not ring, and I do not get interrupted. Almost immediately, even with a draft, I read the poem out loud, my dogs are the listening audience. For me, reading my poems out loud helps me with editing, tweaking. It somehow gives life to the poem, almost instantly, and then it helps me to find the direction I want it to go in.

Me: Tell me a little about Corn Exchange, your forthcoming collection?

Helen: Corn Exchange should be out in late November of this year. It’s my first full length collection. Many poems in it are scattered in different journals, the book brings them all together. It’s divided into three sections of poems. Each section represents work from a different period of my personal life.

Me: What has your experience been like working with Scrambler Books?

Helen: I love Scrambler. Jeremy Spencer has made this process so easy for me. I was not sure what to expect, but he makes it all so relaxed. Scrambler approached me back in late 2009, I had a poem that came out in [PANK], the poem was “we were horses”, in my bio I mentioned I was working on a full length collection. A few weeks later, I heard from Jeremy and he asked if I had a publisher. Of course, I did not, and my collection was still in the beginning stages of how I envisioned it. Also, at that point, there was so much more work I wanted to get in journals. I asked if he would wait till I had the collection complete, and he did, it took another year plus. Jeremy is super patient, and I love that he is no pressure. I don’t have a place for pressure when I write. When I finally sent him the completed manuscript, somewhere in my mind I thought well, it will be okay if he no longer is interested. But his notes back to me were wonderful. Since I am a huge believer of fate, I feel Corn Exchange is exactly where it belongs.

Me: Can you tell me a little about your novel(la) in verse, Amsterdam?

Helen: Amsterdam is a book of poems that will tell a story, all the poems are titled Amsterdam as well. It is still in the beginning stages, my hope it to have it completed by Spring 2012, with a total of fifty to sixty short prose poems when complete. Then I hope to find a home for it.

With THRUSH starting up, and other things I am working on, I hope to invest a great deal of time into Amsterdam this coming winter.

Me: Who are your biggest influences?

Helen: I have so many that I love, a few are: TS Eliot, Anne Sexton, Roberto Bolaño, Pablo Neruda, George Seferis, Lucille Clifton, at least another hundred more.

Me: Who’s writing the killer poetry these days?

Helen: Alex Lemon, Kim Addonizio, Carol Frost, Carolyn Forché, Traci Brimhall, Ada Limón, Eleni Sikélianòs, Jeffrey McDaniel, Alison Stine, Kimberly Johnson, John Poch, Nathalie Handal, Anis Mojgani. I could go on for a long time, I feel I am living at a time when some of the best poetry in history is being written.Recently, I have stumbled upon two poets (Tess Patalano, Alexis Orgera) whose work was so outstanding, it instantly left me wanting to read everything they have written and seek out all future work.

Me: Who will history remember?

Helen: All those and many more. History should remember all of us who write poems, we write what we are passionate about, from deep inside us. Poems are our way to sharing who we are. If one is brave enough to share publicly on that level that should not be forgotten easily. For me, the written word is history, it’s timeless.

Me: What are you working on now/next?

Helen: Besides Amsterdam, I just completed and submitted a chapbook titled 1611. I submit to journals I adore, and want to see my work in. I am pouring allot of myself into THRUSH. Some days, I wake up and decide, today I am writing a small chapbook. I try not to plan too much, I sort of go with what I am feeling at the time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

3) When Drugs Are Good, ‘Mmm kay?

What I quickly discovered after the initial elation at finding out those little white pills had done the trick and that I was now an incubator for a whole new little person was that being pregnant actually sucks big time, at least for the first fourteen weeks or so.

My friend accurately described the indescribable fatigue I felt as “THE TIRED”, and that’s what it was. An entity full of capital letters, an institution within the institution of my marriage, a feeling so potent it was practically a physical manifestation with jet-black wings, fuzzy tentacles and many, many sand-papery teeth. At the time, it was an all-consuming phenomenon that seemed to take over my whole life, but now, after having my daughter and living through the first six weeks of her life, I don’t really remember the specifics of that first trimester fatigue. This is not because “it was all worth it!” and all the pain and suffering has been washed from my memory in a beautiful pink haze of love for my baby, but because the fatigue of parenthood is so vastly, gargantuanly, spectacularly MORE that THE TIRED seems to shrivel up in the sunlight by comparison. And it was all worth it.

What was not worth it was trying to cope with morning sickness at all times of the day except the morning sans medical intervention. I knew it was time to take more drastic measures to alleviate my all-day-sickness when, one afternoon, I came lurching up the stairs of our admin building and gagged audibly and visibly, just as our sweet little old receptionist happened to be walking past. She shook her head, clucked a bit, and handed me the 800th starlite mint I’d gotten from her that day. Yeah, maybe saltines and ginger ale ruled the roost as far as “cures” for morning sickness went when my mom was pregnant with me (thought she claims she never had morning sickness) but we’ve come a long way, baby! Thank God for Zofran. Sure, it’s a medicine originally concocted to help chemo patients deal with nausea, and yeah, maybe it did dehydrate me so badly my kidneys ached, but you know what? I didn’t walk around gagging into my hands anymore and the green-hued dashes to the loo every 20 or 30 minutes practically stopped altogether. Now that’s what I call “worth it!”

4) That “Glow” is Really a Barrel Full of Eels Rolling Around in My Abdomen, Thanks Anyway

I work at an all-girls boarding school in the middle of the Baltimore suburbs, which means when the student body found out I was pregnant (via a skit performed by my 4 advisees, complete with volleyball preggo bellies) my personal space disappeared entirely. Kids I barely knew would run up to me and coo at my mid-section even before I started showing, which was amusing up to a point. After a while I began to seriously consider wearing a hula-hoop attached to suspenders a la those freaky clown pants, just to keep explorations of my food-babies to a minimum. Once I “popped”, though, fuggetaboudit. All hands on deck – or belly, as the case may be.

Working at all all-girls school also meant I got the distinct honor of answering every girl’s deepest, darkest questions about pregnancy, often in the middle of class. Mostly, they asked things like “Are you scared about having the baby? I mean, not having a baby, but HAVING the baby, ‘cause I am totally terrified of squeezing something that huge out of my vaj, no lie.” To which I replied “Then keep your pants on and you won’t have to worry about it.” Mostly, though, I got the question “What does it feel like?”

For all those who adored being pregnant and who felt somehow hollow once you weren’t sharing your insides with a small alien anymore, you might want to stop reading now. I loved being pregnant for the sole reason that I had worked damned hard to get that way, and I really REALLY want to raise an awesome daughter. Beyond that, I’ll tell you what I told my girls: Being pregnant feels EXACTLY like it looks. You feel like someone shoved a beach-ball under your skin, and when those elbows and that butt go rolling past your ribs, it feels like a school full of mackerel just gave your lungs a drive-by tickle. It’s not “nice”, per se, but it is somehow life-affirming, even when said butt is firmly lodged under one’s esophagus and you think you’re going to die from heartburn.

I loved feeling my daughter move because it meant she was alive and well. Beyond that, I’ll take my unagi in a sushi roll, if it’s all the same to you!

5) How every health teacher everywhere lied about the human gestation period


Needless to say, I did not realize this until I hit week 36 and went “Waaaaaiit . . . four weeks in a month times nine months equals having this baby right now, but I’ve got another month to go. HOLY SMALL HUMAN, BATMAN! This shit is BANANAS!”

Thanks a lot, every health teacher everywhere and my terrible math teachers!

6) Plans are for Pussies!

Pardon my French – I couldn’t resist the alliteration and the grotty pun. But seriously, here’s what I learned about Birth Plans: The Plan is to Have The Baby. That’s as far as one really needs to go with it, I think, but I know plenty of other women who feel otherwise. There must be discussions with doctors and protocols put in place, sometimes in writing, and though they’re told not to, they inevitably feel bad that they somehow deviated from said plan if all does not go according to it. This is silly. At the end of the plan, there is a healthy baby (God willing and the creek don’t rise.) I did not have a plan because I know myself well enough to understand the following:

a) There’s something in me that does not love a plan. It’s really, really hard for me to see or think beyond the immediate future, so making a plan for 40 weeks down the road just stressed me out more than it helped calm any fears I had. But I only had one, and it was that birth was going to hurt. Bad. Pain is scary to me, but no plan I could have come up with for Ellie’s birth was going to make it not hurt at some point, so why bother? I didn’t.

b) Giving birth is one of nature’s most powerful events, much like hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis. Do you see where I’m going, here? Nature is unpredictable, gross and sometimes violent, therefore the birth process is equally so. Ergo, no plan necessary. Knowledge about what SHOULD happen and when, sure. Knowing what might happen if things don’t follow the normal path, also good. Thinking happy thoughts about what you’d like to have happen, okay. Making a big master plan based on that ideal scenario? No.

c) I’ve always known something was going to go wrong when I had a baby. It’s just a thing I’ve known, so though we attended the Born Free birth class to learn what the hell everybody’s so excited about in natural childbirth chat circles, I knew that was most likely not the way my own “birth experience” would go. Call it woman’s intuition, or maybe it was that I am the product of an emergency c-section. Whatever. It was in the back of my mind for my whole pregnancy, so no solid plans for a natural birth were made.

All those reasons aside, when my alert popped up that it was time to make my birth plan I thought first about the child floating happily inside me and realized that the only thing that mattered to me was that both of us came through the delivery healthy and, if at all possible, happy. However that happened, I didn’t really care. Like her, I was just going to float and let what would happen, happen.

Not so for some of the folks in our birthing class! We chose to do the “weekender” version of the class, meaning we arrived at the hospital at 8:00 on a Sunday morning and didn’t leave until 4:00 that afternoon, but I’m a total people watching whore, so the time flew for me. I knew pretty much everything we were being taught, so I wasn’t shocked by much (save the model of a cervix at each stage of dilation. 10 cm is FUCKING HUGE!) and that left me plenty of time to ogle the other couples.

When asked if we were committed to natural birth or not, just about everyone in our class gave an emphatically positive answer. It was just the two of us, my husband and me, who seemed fine with learning about how one might make it through a delivery with no drugs without being wholly committed to actually doing it for real. I felt oddly proud to be so undecided, maybe because most of those women were having their first babies, too, and they didn’t know any more than I did what we’d be able to do in the moment. Aim low and you won’t be disappointed? Hm.

One guy was pretty much obsessed with his wife’s cervix and wanted to know if she could feel it changing, if he could measure her dilation at home, and if he could help the dilation along at all by “manual means.” Grrrross. Cort and I just looked at each other, appalled. It was understood that he was to face the wall, hold my hand, and look only into my eyes when I was having the baby, and this sudden discussion of cervical mucus, measuring techniques and color changes just about undid us both. I’m all for full fatherly involvement TO A POINT. I also would like to have sex occasionally, so there was to be no “looking.”

A lesbian couple asked if they could lie to friends and family and say that the hospital only allowed two visitors at a time to be on the premises, another couple wanted to know all about pushing techniques and whether giving birth really does feel like taking a big poop. It was entertaining as hell, and I’d recommend it to anyone with a free Sunday and a pregnant friend!

Leaving the class, Cort asked what I thought about this whole natural birth thing. We were told that if I could make it to 7 cm dilated, then I might as well just keep going without meds because I was almost there and the last three cm were the fastest, in terms of time it takes to dilate. I said I’d give it a shot, but that if I couldn’t do it, I wasn’t worried about asking for an epidural at that 6 cm point, though I definitely preferred the idea of being able to get into any position I wanted to deliver the baby. I didn’t relish the thought of being confined to a bed on my back for hours, but if I had to, I had to. He agreed to work on his massage skills, just in case I went all the way sans drugs.

I think NOT having a plan was the best plan I could’ve had because I got the best of both worlds: the confidence to give a drug-free birth a shot with the freedom to choose mas drogas, por favor, should the need arise. Either way, my baby would be in my arms at the end of that labor, and that’s what I was planning for.

7) Why My Kid Will Be Cawdor, Someday

Turns out it was a good thing I wasn’t 100% committed to natural childbirth. At 42 weeks pregnant and, once again, going in for weekly ultrasounds and exams, I really didn’t care how she was going to make her way into the world, only that she was going to do so SOON. I had gained exactly 15 pounds over the course of the whole pregnancy and up until week 40 hadn’t gotten a single stretch mark. With every day that passed I got bigger and bigger and the skin on my belly turned shiny until I looked like a big pink plum, ready to burst. No longer could I sit up from the exam table without help, no more did I feel like a vaguely off-balance and forgetful but still sexy mom. Now I just felt like a beached whale. Still, when my doc finally slipped off his exam gloves and sighed, I felt my stomach sink a little. “The baby’s not engaged, you see, and this only happens for one reason at this stage in the game: She’s too big. I think we should schedule you for a c-section on Monday or Tuesday.”

Up to this point, every appointment had gone perfectly with only glowing comments from the docs. “Looks good!” “Everything’s on track.” “Great job with the weight gain.” Even after the 18 and 40 week ultrasounds, where you could clearly see Ellie’s noggin as well as the rest of her, no one mentioned the c-word. No one said anything about my incredibly narrow pelvis, not even when, week after week, I had the distinct pleasure of someone trying to shove his or her finger into my cervix to no avail. Nobody seemed to mind that I was literally carrying the baby ALL out front and looked like a beach-ball on legs. Then, suddenly there was no question – this baby wasn’t going anywhere and we needed a new exit strategy.

I walked out of the office after making my appointment for Monday or Tuesday, dejected, and couldn’t figure out why. I sat on the brick wall outside the office, called my parents, and cried. I was disappointed, and that was a surprise. I mean, I was actually psyched to know exactly when my baby girl would be born, and, truth be told, I was pretty relieved not to test my mettle with that whole labor thing.

Still, I’d never had any kind of major surgery before and everything I was dreading most about going to the hospital to deliver the baby was par for the course with c-sections: Sterile rooms, hospital gowns out of which my bare bum would peek, the inability to keep my own undergarments on, catheters, ivs and lots of drugs. Not cool, Zeus. Plus, everything had gone so well for so long that I’d actually started to be able to envision myself delivering my baby by my own efforts and now that chance had vanished like so much fog on a sunny morning.

Needless to say, I got over it, and right quick! I knew when and where my daughter would enter the world and the doc I saw was the best surgeon at the hospital. Plus he was the sweetest little Indian man and I knew we were both in good hands with him. I then spent the remaining 5 days hoping I wouldn’t go into labor, and my mom even asked me to call and see if they could bump up my appointment because she was a nervous wreck. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to be sliced open! The only thing that had me worried was the recovery – how painful would it be? Some of my friends were in agony, some were totally fine, none of them were me. Much like knowing whether or not I could handle the pain of childbirth, there was only one way to find out. And it would happen on a Tuesday, whether Birnam Wood was marching on Dunsinane or not.

8) Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt – it’s also a reason for your doc to tell you about his German vacation in vivid detail

Sure enough, the morning that I was scheduled to go in for my c-section, I went into labor. Luckily, that meant absolutely nothing to the nurses who tried literally 16 times to take my blood, shoved a catheter where the sun don’t shine (surprisingly painless, I might add) and talked smack about each other as they came to check on me and the baby every so often, assuring me that “we’re right on track, aren’t we?”

It did, however, mean something to my tiny Indian doctor. Once he showed up and saw that I was having contractions on a regular basis, looked at the 90 Brightness tone of my skin and heard my slightly insane laughter as I said “Oh HI Dr. Singh! I’m in LABOR!! Guess that means I can’t have my c-section, huh? AAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!” he decided his only recourse was to distract the hell out of me until the operating room was fully prepped and he could drug me properly.

To that end, he calmly held my hand and told me and CL (in minute detail) about the month-long trip to Germany he had just planned. From the opera house at Munich to the tour of every castle in Deutschland, Dr. Singh’s voice kept right on soothing away my adrenaline rushes that came with each contraction. The smell of the cloves he chews calmed me more than the body-temperature saline solution I had pumping through my finally-i.v.’d hand, and for his small but wiry self I am truly grateful.

Especially since I still hadn’t really come to terms with what was about to happen next and was only then beginning to think that maybe being sliced open so another human could enter the world was a slightly big deal and that maybe there could be some side-effects to that. Like, you know, having a child to take care of. FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Because several of our close friends are embarking on the absolutely insane journey called parenthood and have asked us to answer some important questions like: “How do I not walk around gagging and or throwing up every 15 minutes?” and “What do you mean I won’t sleep for months?”, I thought I’d share my own experiences of getting, being, and then getting over being pregnant. Here are the topics that I will discuss in the following guest-blogs:

1) How babies are made when you can’t make babies, and why that led to some surprise on my part
2) Why adoption might’ve sent us both to the loony bin, or Be Careful What You Wish For
3) When drugs are good, ‘mmm kay?
4) That glow is just a barrel full of eels writhing around in my abdomen, thanks anyway
5) How every health teacher everywhere lied about the human gestation period
6) Plans are for pussies
7) Why my kid will be Cawdor someday
8) Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt – it’s also a reason for your doc to tell you about his German vacation in vivid detail
9) When drugs are bad, ‘mmm kay?
10) Why people pepper you with platitudes that in no way prepare you to take care of your kids

1. How Babies Are Made When You Can’t Make Babies, and Why That Led to Some Surprise on My Part

You might have figured out from the pithy title of this section that I had a hard time getting pregnant. We tried for many long and entertaining years to get me knocked up, and only after a truly concerted effort that involved daily temperature taking, month after month of disappointment and an almost constant conviction that I was definitely pregnant this time, for sure, did I learn that there was no way I was going to pass on my mitochondrial DNA without a little boost from our fabulous pharmaceutical industry. Like many women, I have PCOS (feel free to look it up on google image) and, while mine wasn’t a terribly severe case, I did find myself in the rather shocking position of being told I was going to take Clomid for three cycles and that if I didn’t conceive that way that I would then come in for IVF treatments. Notice I say that I was told this is what would happen.

Here’s the first thing to know about making babies with the help of drugs: the first step is almost always to visit with a doctor who does this shit for a living, and therefore your sudden stunned silence at learning that you are defective as a woman is taken for tacit agreement that you’re going to spend bazillions of dollars to create a life that maybe shouldn’t be created, if you believe everything happens (or doesn’t) for a reason. You will continue to ponder this as you go every week (it seemed) to have a pelvic ultrasound and/or the morning after you were ordered to have sex (so they can check your partner’s sperm count. That’s right, he doesn’t even have to go to the office. That’s the definition of BULLSHIT, folks!) and often in the presence of one or more male interns who stand with arms akimbo staring at your lady bits while your (also male) doc can point to the blurry black and white blobs on the screen and say things like “Now, do you see the mass of partially matured follicles here? This is just a mess.” Sometimes you consider not shaving before these appointments, just to show him what a real mess looks like, but you never get bold enough to do that, because what if he decides he’s NOT going to help you after all? That might be worse. Anyway, eventually said doc tells you to take these tiny white pills for five days in a row, and that somehow that will fix it so that your body creates a life. You only sort of believe this, but you figure “What the hell? Might as well give it a shot!” which is a nice, normal thought to have before you make a baby that you will be responsible for for the next two and half decades, at least. Then you head home for lunch and have a pretty spectacular dessert and think nothing of it after a quick shower, ‘cause your life is still your own, it’s only the first round of said meds, and you’re not really sure that you want kids anymore anyway, but any excuse to have “dessert” is okay with you.

2) Why Adoption Might’ve Sent Both of Us to the Loony Bin, or Be Careful What You Wish For

I should mention here that while I was going to a fertility clinic and taking fertility meds in order to be fertile, my 18 year old cousin was busy getting pregnant instead of going to class and studying in her freshman year at college. This was awesome in exactly zero ways but she was the first baby that I ever loved and what was I going to do? Stop talking to her for months after she told me she was pregnant and that I was the only person she’d considered asking to adopt the baby until she’d decided to keep it herself? Yes. Yes, that’s what I wanted to do. But I didn’t. Instead, I told her what kind of prenatal vitamins to take, where to get them, took her shopping for diapers and baby stuff so she could see how much it costs, and decorated little teeny, tiny, organic cotton onesies with her so that we could both pretend for a little while that this was a happy time for each of us.

When she was eight months pregnant, her baby-daddy (or The Inseminator, as my folks referred to him) decided that he didn’t want to do this whole baby thing after all and if my cousin didn’t put the baby up for adoption then she would need to find a new place to live because he was going to kick her out on her waddling, uneducated little butt. When she told me this I felt a whole range of things, not the least of which was elation that this might be the universe telling both of us that I was meant to be her baby’s momma after all!

When my husband heard me plead with her over the phone not to feel like she had no options other than to leave The Inseminator and go home to her mother to raise the baby and to remember that we were always here for her, his head snapped up and he spent the rest of the conversation staring at me with that inscrutable look he gets when he can’t decide whether he’s appalled, thrilled, or just has to go to the bathroom.

Nothing was decided during that phone call, but the next afternoon I got a text from my cousin asking what we’d name her (the baby) if we adopted her. I literally dropped to my knees and thought I might pass out because that question meant that she was actually considering having us adopt her baby. Suddenly, the reality of the situation hit both of us. We’d need to arrange leave, child-care, insurance, a nursery, adoption papers (do we need a lawyer??) and there was so much we didn’t know about babies and how to care for them! Oh my GOD, what did I do, and this is CRAZY! What if The Inseminator changes his mind after we’ve already taken “Lilly” home? My aunt is nuts, what if she changes HER mind and wants the baby, even though she’d been begging my cousin to consider adoption since she got pregnant? The only way this was going to work would be if we cut off all communication with that part of the family, at least for a few years, but could we really do that? In short, Holy Shit. We Might Be Parents In a MONTH.

Eventually, after many many, conversations with my cousin during which I attempted with every fiber of my being not to pressure her one way or the other, it came to the point where she had to decide. She was two weeks away from delivering the baby, so, you know, we needed to know one way or the other. She agreed to take the weekend and just spend it thinking and weighing her options, and I agreed to go to the beach with our friends and not think about it at all.

While I spent the weekend soaking up the rays and many, many margaritas (“hahahah – boy, it would be just my luck that I’m pregnant right now! Yes, barkeep, I WILL have another!) my cousin came to her decision. When we returned home and I checked my messages, she’d left a text letting me know that she was going to keep the baby.
While I knew this was the most likely outcome, it still felt like an elephant had suddenly landed on my chest. I mean, we tried really hard not to get our hopes up, but my husband had been playing “Punk Rock Girl” and “That’s My Daughter” on his guitar for the last two weeks, and it hurt to know that yet another child would be brought into the world and raised by someone other than us. My God, did it hurt. We both went to bed quiet and drained (after a couple more beers and the better part of a bottle of raspberry Absolut) and snuggled into each other as we had for the last eight years while we waited for the sun to rise.

The next morning I woke up and laid in my husband’s arms, squinting in time to the pounding in my head and felt something . . . new. Something sure. Something was suddenly correct and right with the world. I slipped out of our bed, brushed my teeth and put my flip flops on, then drove to the grocery store for a pregnancy test.

It was early and no one was out on the roads. I took the back way past these gorgeous, rolling cow pastures where black angus dotted the hills and the sun slowly burned off the mist left from the rain the night before. I sang along to Faure’s Il Paradiso and smiled as I drove a little to fast along the curves back toward our house. Then I climbed quietly up the stairs and peed on a stick, set it on the sink in the bathroom and walked away.

By that time, Cort was up and in the shower in the master bedroom, but he still had no idea I’d even left the house, much less what I was doing. I went downstairs and started the kettle for tea, then, unable to wait the full two minutes it clearly said to wait on the pregnancy test box, I went back upstairs to the bathroom and just peeked at my peed on stick. Finally, there were two lines where there’d always been one before. I was pregnant.

Oh FUCK. How many drinks did I have this weekend???

Monday, October 17, 2011

It had been so long since I'd been to the nursing home that I didn't remember which room my mom was in. I tried a couple with no luck, and finally had to ask at the nurse's desk.
“Lilly Hall, first door on your left,“ one of them said. All of the halls were named after flowers: Rose, Lilly, Daisy, Chrysanthemum. Each hall housed specific types of patients. Rose Hall was for just plain elderly people, those who were still mobile. Chrysanthemum was for bedridden patients, those who required more attention. Daisy was terminal, and Lilly was Alzheimer’s; a hodge-podge of symptoms and patients. The way it worked was the more in need of care the patient was, the closer they were to the nurse's station, which was in the center of the building so that the halls radiated out from it like the arms of starfish. Which meant that beds nearest the station were vacated fairly quickly. Every time I came, she had inched closer to the center; so that every time I had to ask a nurse which room my mother was in.
Even then, I wasn't sure, at first, that this was her room. It used to have pictures of Elvis hanging on the walls, and one hanging over her bed like a mobile. When she’d first gone into the nursing home, she claimed to be pregnant by Elvis. She’d seen him in college. When the nurses helped her use the bathroom, she’d say in her garbled, drunk-sounding voice, “Careful of the baby.” The ones who’d worked there long enough to have heard this before played along.
“Is it your husband’s baby?”
“Elvis,” she’d mumble. “Elvis is the father. I’m pregnant by Elvis.”
Elvis’s pictures cluttered the walls, like posters in a teenager’s bedroom, little clippings the size of postcards, some with neat straight edges, some ripped out of magazines, their edges still curled and fluffy from having been licked to facilitate tearing. Some of the clippings were in black and white, some were in glaring color. There were pictures the size of whole pages jumbled together all over one wall.
Now someone had taken them all down. Only one picture remained on the wall near her bed, a picture of young Elvis, with slicked back dark hair, thin and healthy.
I tried to remember the last time I’d been to visit her. Not since last Christmas, I realized. This was Thanksgiving. She was behind the first door, the first room on the left.
She lay quiet on the bed, her bare knees thrusting out from under the rumpled sheets awkwardly. Her feet were tucked under her, making the sheet look like a tent that had fallen down in the wind. Her skin was so white it looked gray. Her eyes locked on us when we entered the room. They looked like a chained animal’s. I stared hard at her, trying to find something familiar in this woman’s face.
“Hi Mom,” I said. "This is my girlfriend, Jillian."
Jillian and I had been together for a couple months before I worked up the courage to introduce her to my mother. Not so much because I was afraid of how she'd respond, as that I was afraid, always afraid, to visit my mother.
“You look like her,” Jillian said, talking slowly. “She’s pretty, good bones, very Southern.” I looked at my mother, writhing on the bed. All the sun had been sucked out of her once blonde hair. Now it was gray, chopped short. The skin of her face was loose. Her whole body was bony and thin.
“She‘s so thin,” I said.
“It’s the liquid diet,” Jillian said.
There was an IV attached to my mother's hand. Something was taped to her throat. Her head flopped from side to side. Her mouth was open; she tongued the air as though she was trying to speak. Her body was in revolt.

Huntington’s Chorea: everyone in the family called it that, including me until my freshman year in psych class when the professor, a Mr. Stroman, broached the topic. He was a round, bearded professor who resembled a chain-smoking koala bear. He lectured from a book he’d co-written and wore Hawaiian shirts and ratty blue jeans whenever the weather allowed.
“Huntington‘s Disease,” he said in class, out of nowhere one day, snapping me to attention. “It’s in the Parkinson’s family. A genetic disorder, attacking the nervous system and the brain. Victims lose their identity, their ability to control motor functions, as the cells of their brain and nervous system succumb, over a period which can last as long as fifteen years.”
I raised my hand, feeling like a ludicrous sort of teacher’s pet. But here was something I knew about. I could tell him that Woody Guthrie, the folk singer who wrote “This Land Is Your Land” had it. I could tell him that one line of it had been traced back to inbreeding in a European royal family.
“It used to be called Huntington’s Chorea, but that‘s wrong,” he said, ignoring my hand. “Chorea means dance. It was named this because of the shaky, uncontrollable spasms its victims suffer. But that’s a very insulting name. It’s a disease, not a dance.” I lowered my hand.
He went on to lecture us about nursing homes. “People dump their parents, their grandparents in these places, and never visit them,” he said. My jaw dropped.
"I wish that the same thing would happen to people who abandon their elderly family members,” he said. “I hope that when they are old, someone dumps them in a nursing home and leaves them to die.”

It is hard for me to envision my mother as a young woman, dancing to Elvis. I have almost no memories of her before the sickness. She was already in her forties when I was born, and she had given birth to my brother eighteen years earlier, making me a late surprise. By the time I was in school, she had already begun her decline. The most persistent image I have of her is of a shrunken woman, head bowed under fine blond hair.
She was in college in the fifties when she and my father met. He went along with a friend to Jonesboro, where my mother went to college. The friend was there to see a girl, and Mom was her roommate. My father's friend gave him fifty cents to beat it. My father spent the money on a milkshake for her.
My parents had been married for two decades when I came into the picture. Theirs was a troubled marriage, my father was poorer than my mother was used to and as her discontent grew, he spent more and more of his time at work, drinking.
All I have of her before the sickness are glimpses. The house was brighter then, the windows cleaner, new, curtained, instead of being blocked by the tacky shades my father installed. She had pretty things. A closet full of hatboxes. She wore scarves, jewelry, and smelled of vanilla lotion. She fried donuts on Sundays and my brother would take us on family drives, though my father was always working.
Most of what we have left of hers comes from before I was even born. Her things have mostly disappeared over the years. There have been a lot of bodies through her room, nurses, relatives, housekeepers. My memories of her could be scribbled on a napkin.
My sister has told me about the nicknames our mother used for us.
"She used to call you Little Boy Blue," my sister says, "Little Boy Blue and Sister Sue."
People I don’t recognize have stopped me on the street, more times than I can remember, to introduce themselves as “a friend of your mother,” and then spent several moments reassuring me that she has always been a beautiful person, a good person, though it is the rare soul who, when pressed, can relate a specific memory of her. My grandmother says she was impetuous, married my father straight out of college. A farmer. She could have married a doctor, my grandmother says, never would have had to worry about money the way she did with my father, but she wouldn’t wait on the guy to finish med school. She ended up teaching elementary school in the Arkansas delta; close enough to Memphis, at least, to go shopping, if she'd had any money.
“She always worried about you kids,” Grandmother reassured me. “When she became sick, she would say, over and over, ‘What’s going to happen to my children?’”

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a child who didn’t really know me, and so I have struggled to take up the slack on my end and discover all that I can about her. But her family is tightlipped and uncooperative. I have wondered if this is due to her illness, or her marriage, or if they are just this sort of people. I have her annual from college; it’s a volume full of people I’ve never known. There’s no mention of Elvis, which just goes to show how little documentation there may exist of a person’s true happiness. There is a portrait of her in my father’s living room, which I showed to Jillian. My mother has big, blonde hair, deep eyes, and an easy smile. She can’t be twenty-five. She's pretty in a Grace Kelly sort of way. There's a mystery behind her eyes that can't be reached, and a sadness. It seems to say, "I was meant for better things. But this is where I am and I will make the best of it." But a portrait is two dimensional, and you can’t learn much from one. I wonder if somewhere behind that smile, she knew what the world had to offer her. I wonder if she still would have smiled.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Daniel M. Shapiro and Jessy Randall are two very talented writers whose work I had the pleasure of publishing in Ghoti Mag. I was recently able to reconnect with them and talk about their collaborative poetry collection Interruptions.

Me: Tell me about your new collaborative collection: why should I buy it?

DS: It depends on who you are. If you like experimental poetry, humor, intentionally non-poetry language, friendship, pop culture, true collaboration (i.e., both of us contribute to every poem), intentional and unintentional craziness, upstate New York, or some combination of these elements, you will be pleased. Plus, you get two poets for one price. If you get sick of one of us, the other one comes along soon enough.

JR: Don't buy it. Get your library to buy it and then you can borrow it, and so can other people.

Me: Why collaborative? How did you approach writing a collaborative collection: did it just happen organically, or did one of you force the other at gunpoint?

JR: Last time we talked about this, Dan thought it was my idea to start collaborating, but I thought it was his idea. I can't remember exactly how we started doing it, or if there was a direct cause, or what. I know it must have been around 2003, because our first collaboration was published in 2004. At the beginning of course we had no intention of writing a collection of poems; we had the intention of writing one poem together. Then we did another one, and then, for a while, we were doing almost one a day. At some point we realized that we had enough for a book, if we wanted to think that way, and we did.

DS: It was definitely Jessy's idea. I think the main purpose of collaborating was that it allowed us to challenge each other: "I dare you to top this line," etc. Most of the time, we were striving to avoid inside jokes, cuteness, etc. Sometimes, we were even lucky enough to make each other uncomfortable. As Jessy says, I don't think we considered it to be writing a collection until we had enough poems for one.

Me: Can you each tell me a little about your normal writing routines; do you write every day, only when inspiration hits…?

DS: For collaborations, my normal writing routine is: A.) E-mail a line to Jessy; B.) Wait a short time; C.) Receive a new line from Jessy that responded to my previous line; D.) Respond to her line; E.) Repeat A-D. I know there are people who believe the process must be long and excruciating, but we prefer to respond to each other almost instinctively. You're not really responding to a thought honestly if you sleep on it or ask your mom what she thinks.

JR: It was kind of like going to an exercise class with a friend. You know the friend will know you were absent if you don't go, so you have to go or you'll be shamed. I mean, I liked everything about the process, so it wasn't like exercise class in that way! I didn't watch the clock waiting for it to be over! But we had this little noodge from each other most days by email to work on poems. When we were in the thick of it, it was every day, just a minute or two to think of a line or to make a change and then fire it back to the other person, and then maybe two hours later, do it again.

Me: Who are each of your biggest influences?

DS: John Berryman's Dream Songs and The Essential Etheridge Knight are still my biggest influences because I've re-read them so many times. Many musicians have influenced me, too: John Coltrane, Hüsker Dü, Lou Reed, Tim Buckley, Marianne Faithfull, Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Presley, Patti Smith. I'm also influenced by Pittsburgh people I've gotten to know and/or hear read: Margaret Bashaar, Jason Baldinger, Jerome Crooks, Jimmy Cvetic, Joan Bauer, Kris Collins, Renée Alberts, Don Wentworth. I could say I'm influenced by Jessy, but that would make you say, "Duh," and I don't want you to say, "Duh."

JR: My biggest influence has to be Kenneth Koch, whose classes I took at Columbia University in the early 1990s. He told me (in his mild way) not to use poems to prove that I was smart, not to over-intellectualize. And he had a wonderful, expansive, generous way of talking about poems by great poets and poems by students in the class in the same breath, as though we were all poets together. And of course the New York School of poets was big into collaborating so maybe that's where this all came from in a way. Other influences for me would be Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nikki Giovanni, Russell Edson, Scott Poole, Sarah J. Sloat, Emily Lloyd, Nate Pritts, and getting outside poetry, Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, Julia Child, Robert Rauschenberg, L. Frank Baum, Ellen Raskin, Daniel Pinkwater, Shirley Jackson, and Louise Fitzhugh.

Me: Did you find it difficult to market a collaborative collection? What has working with Pecan Grove been like?

JR: Uh ... yeah man, the manuscript was difficult to place. But probably not any more difficult than finding a home for any collection of poems. The story of Pecan Grove taking the manuscript is actually kind of interesting, maybe, for anybody who has a manuscript making the rounds. It's one of those very lucky things. We sent the manuscript to Pecan Grove and didn't hear anything from them for maybe six months. During that time Dan and I had trimmed the working manuscript quite a bit. So I emailed PG and asked if we could sub in the shorter version of our ms (thinking they'd rather read a 60-page ms than an 80-page ms, right?). It turned out that they had rejected our manuscript, but we'd never gotten the rejection. Amazingly, though, they said they would be willing to read a shorter version, and then they accepted that version. So I guess the "no" that we didn't receive was more like a "maybe." Thank goodness we didn't receive it! I would never in a million years have tried again if I knew they'd said no! As for working with them, in the last couple of months it's been ... what's the word I want ... "emotional"? I hate that word. But I don't want to say it's been sad or bad. It's been very good. But Palmer Hall, the editor at Pecan Grove, has had some serious health problems. We didn't know the details until he started blogging about it at Reading the posts, I felt apologetic that he had to think about our book on top of all the tests and treatments. But then I thought maybe his Pecan Grove work was a good distraction—like the blog itself—sometimes scary health things need to be combated with making art, right? But all that aside, Pecan Grove really knows what the heck it is doing. I mean, the Library of Congress record for Interruptions appeared in WorldCat (the national library catalog) even before the book was officially out. That is just the coolest.

DS: I feel like we had less frustration because there were two of us. It was easier to share setbacks and much more enjoyable to celebrate success together. Collaborations cause some publishers to scratch their heads, and they're entitled to do whatever they want to their heads. Pecan Grove has been putting out high-quality books for some time, and Jessy and I were consulted regularly during all phases of Interruptions. We were lucky to be able to work with Palmer Hall and Louie Cortez.

Me: Who are the standouts in the poetry world right now, do you think? Who will history remember?

JR: I did a project in library school predicting the six contemporary poets whose names would live on, a very scientific kind of project looking at journal publication, book publication, appearance in textbooks and anthologies, and so on. But the six poets on my final list were not poets whose work did anything for me personally. They weren't my favorites or even poets whose work I liked. So ... that isn't really an answer ... that's more like a complaint. One time Dan said that if he didn't write poems he would be "a full time complainer." I think about that all the time!

DS: I will start negative and grow positive while answering this: I have spent countless hours reading poetry online and in print, and I see a lot of poems that do no more than blend contrived "heavy" language (deliberately complex vocabulary alongside "husks," "ribs," "[fill in the blank] the size of dinner plates," etc.) with either trite themes or no themes at all. I don't believe poetry should be defined by a singular bland voice; I believe it's supposed to question boundaries, blend genres, or otherwise expand. I hope history will remember the people who make sacrifices, e.g., people who run their own small presses because they want to make things nobody else could make. Jessy and I both love journals such as Forklift, Ohio, because they are innovative conceptually and physically. They seem to be the products of fearless people.

Me: You use a lot of humor in these poems. Do you find that "the poetry world" responds well to humor?

DS: Jessy and I have talked a lot about how to keep our poems from sounding like jokes and how we don't want to be considered "stand-up poets" at readings. Not long ago, I read a poem that was a series of fake, third-person autobiographies that were outlandish (with zombies and pet ocelots), and I got almost no laughs. Yet afterward, people told me they loved the poem; it was the most fabulous thing they had ever heard me read. I always thought the best way to show that you love a funny poem is to, um, laugh. But perhaps I haven't evolved with the times.

JR: Luckily for us there are multiple poetry worlds. I think there's a poetry world that would find our work frivolous and discount it. And then there's another world -- the world we actually want to get into, maybe are already part of -- where people are going YES! CHEETOS! or whatever. And there are many other poetry worlds too.

Me: If you met David Bowie on the street, what would each of you say to him?

JR: I would tell him that my friend Amanda and I went to see The Linguini Incident TWICE in the theater when it came out and that we both have it on DVD now and we still like it, even though it seems like nobody else has ever heard of it.

DS: I would tell him to get off his indolent posterior and make another album, lest I punch him in his blue eye to make it match his non-blue eye. Or perhaps I would just drool and be a non-hero—just for one day.

Me: What are you each working on now?

JR: Together, we've been working on some diagram poems based on diagrams in The Exploratorium Cookbook, a science museum handbook published in 1975. By myself (does that sound forlorn? but it really isn't) I'm working on a collection of poems to be titled Injecting Dreams into Cows, forthcoming from Red Hen in 2012. I just saw the cover design and it's fantastic. It has a shark!

DS: I am trying to get my first full-length solo manuscript, Sasquatch Job Interview, published. As you probably guessed from the title, it does contain humor, so we'll see how the poetry world (or which of the multiple worlds) responds. With new writing, I had been going through something of a dry spell, but I just wrote a poem I would describe as Stéphane Mallarmé meets Norman Bates. It has potential. And I'm not sure if this counts as work, but I plan to bask in the green glow of Interruptions for an undisclosed period.

Monday, October 10, 2011

This Trick I'm Learning To Do...(Originally appeared in the Dead Mule)

The night before last I dreamed I was sitting in my old bedroom, the one I inherited from my sister after she moved out, with several friends and Hollywood celebrities. We were talking, having a party, when dozens of snakes dropped from the ceiling.
It is surprising how many phobias I have about that house. I blame the snake dream on stress and an experience from my childhood— we had an old dishwasher in the kitchen that hadn't worked for years. One day my sister, my father, and I were standing in the kitchen, talking. My sister's cat started nosing around the dishwasher, pawing at it, alerting us to some kind of weirdness with it, and so we opened it up. And an annoyed snake stuck its tongue out at us. I think it was a blue racer— a black one, the kind we told stories about how they would chase people or drop on them from trees. At the sight of the thing, the cat leapt from my sister's arms onto my father's neck, a la Piddy Sing. My sister screamed. My father ran to the back door and tried to dislodge the cat from his neck, which took several tries, and finally threw the cat outside. My father was ever the champion cat flinger.
The dishwasher door had slammed closed, so the snake was still inside. I don't remember what we did with it. Dad probably took it outside. I remember that he wouldn't kill it. Sometime soon after that, he sealed the drain pipe up, so nothing else could get in, and finally replaced the old thing with a slightly less-old one.
Looking back, of course, this is a hilarious scenario to me. Afterwards, after the terror had been overwhelmed by the adrenalin and excitement, I remember my sister and myself standing, shaking, laughing at dad's bleeding neck while he fumed. But it was an uneasy laughter.
This scenario represents one of my first memories of intrusion. We had simply been talking, when this thing, this OTHER, intruded into our kitchen, our lives, shattering our illusion of security.

The popular preconception is to think of the childhood home as a place of safety, a place to look back upon wistfully once one has left and entered into the much less forgiving world. I never have thought this. Quite the opposite, in fact. I can't remember a time when I was comfortable in my parents' house, though I was definitely dependant on its familiarity. It was an evil I knew.
Very early on, my mother doted on me to the point of nearly smothering me. A teacher and church member well known in the community, my mother was loved and loveable. And then, somewhere between my Kindergarten and elementary school years, an intruder came into our lives. Mom began to show symptoms of Huntington's disease, and her health declined. She became, over time, withdrawn, reclusive, a stranger haunting the couch in the living room, eyes fixed on the ABC affiliate out of Jonesboro, where she'd gone to college, establishing a pattern in the family of forever looking back.
I wanted to get away from her. I spent all of my time dogging my father's footsteps, riding along and sitting in the truck while he walked the rice fields, begging him to come home instead of spending late nights on the farm drinking with his buddies, which became more and more frequent as Mom's health declined. I wasn't urging him towards a moral path; I simply didn't want to be at home with Mom without some backup. She was becoming, herself, an OTHER, an intruder, a stranger. She haunted that house, and it terrified me because I didn't understand it. One moment, she was my mother, another, she was violent, crying, unpredictable.
I dream about her, too. When I moved out, I dreamed, often, of her as a wraith, moaning outside my bedroom door in whatever apartment I was in at the time, while I huddled in bed, willing her to stay outside.
More recently, after her death, she's become a different sort of archetype. My (and my wife's) favorite dream happened before my birthday, a couple months ago. I dreamed that my wife had bought a bicycle for me and hidden it in the bathroom of my father's house. It is important to understand that as my mother's health declined, she became prone to violent attacks. The bathroom was the only room in my parents' house with a lock on it, so my sister and I hid there. The lock broke at some point, and we would pull a drawer out so that the door would hit the drawer and couldn't open all the way. The door couldn't open far, but my mother was still able to stick skinny, long nailed fingers through, in between bouts of slamming the door against the drawer. But in this dream, the horror archetype, the "safe room" outside of which the monster lurks, scheming a way to get inside, had become the repository of this bicycle, this gift. I knew the gift was there, but I refused to spoil the surprise. I sat in my bedroom (with no snakes in the ceiling, this time) waiting for the big day. But my mother wouldn't have any of it. She wanted me to come play with her. I refused, determined not to spoil the surprise. This, I should add, is very close to what was really happening at the time. My wife had hidden gifts in a certain room of our apartment, and I was thoroughly banned from entering.
But Mom was determined. When I wouldn't come out into the living room to play, she went and got the bike herself and rode it through the house, exclaiming how much fun she was having. But I refused to budge, even when she rode it into the bedroom and did loops. I ignored her until she left and went back to the living room. She offered me all sorts of bribes, finally calling out, "I've got fried chicken." This was enough to draw me to the door, where I saw her, sitting in a recliner in the living room with a bucket of chicken, savoring a drumstick.
This turn, this re-envisioning of my mother from wraith to childlike, playful friend in my subconscious, is at least indirectly due to her death, ironic as it may seem. Aside from the emotional backlash, the opportunity for closure, which played a large part, something else important happened after she died: I found her diary. It was an ancient book, chronicling two summers from her childhood, one when she was about the age I was when she first became ill, then dropping off and picking up again several years later in her late teens, the summer between high school and college. Brief and limited as these entries are, they present a window into her personality, allowing me to fill in some of the gaps.
And really, isn't this the bane of the archetype? Doesn't the killer in the horror film become much less frightening when we realize the reasons for his actions, the motivations, when we begin to delve beyond the chainsaw and see that he is simply a deformed freak, when we learn that his terrible mother isn't real, it's him in a dress, driven mad by constant goading? The terror gives way to revulsion, pity, empathy, sometimes, but the magic is gone. Its hold over us is weakened.
And there's something sad about that. It's a kind of loss of magic, like growing up and realizing Santa isn't real. When I look back at this house from my childhood, I can chalk the snake up to poor plumbing, neglect. It is an old house. The shadows on the ceiling are caused by poor lighting, nothing else. There is no magic, there. There are no demons or ghosts haunting its walls, as I and several friends have believed over the years. The wraith outside my door, in my dreams, is my guilt, my loss; it is emotional collapse trying to get in and confound me, but I haven't let it. My mother was sick and we were children. We didn't understand what was happening, not really. Now I am beginning to understand. The monster is losing its power.
And my snake dream from the night before last isn't even a proper nightmare, because I haven't told you everything that happened. As I said, it was in my old bedroom; I was standing with several people, talking. Some of these people were friends, but most were celebrities. Angelina Jolie was there, Brad Pitt and George Clooney, probably the entire cast of the Ocean's 11, 12, etc movies. They were standing, sipping martinis because this is what celebrities do, when the ceiling opened up and snakes fell onto their heads, into their drinks, curling around their throats like scarves. There was silence, the deep intake of breath...
And they laughed, en masse. It was a well-timed joke, this trick I'd learned to do with my ceiling. They clapped, the women daintily holding cigarettes, their tips burning in long, skinny black holders. They were flappers, they were ape men with robot heads, they were demons and girls I sat behind in grade school. My mother was there, in the back, smiling, young and healthy. All of them turned to me and applauded, thundering, covered in snakes.
And I woke up, realizing that I am no longer afraid of that house; I just don't like being there. It was an epiphany. Sometimes snakes crawl into dishwashers. It happens. Sometimes people die. It is always tragic to someone. Life is full of tragedy and terror. That doesn't mean we have to be afraid of it.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Things Writers Love...

I don't know if it's because I have a so-so memory or if it's because I'm running around so crazy wild these days, but I'm in love (well, serious crush anyway) with the camera in my cell phone. Look at the following two photos:

I don't even remember where I saw this. All I remember is that I couldn't take it with me, I was in a hurry, and that I would absolutely *die* if I couldn't take away terms like "creep," "nep," and "slub" for use in a poem later on. I didn't have a clue on how to pronounce "griege" (I know now that it kind of rhymes with "sage"). I've made a note in my ever-running ideas notebook; one day, I'll throw some slubs and neps into a poem. (I already have a creep or two. Wait, that was just some guy I dated briefly.)

So *this* photo-idea-chunk actually ended up in a poem:

At first, all I could think was that it looked like a headless-many-armed-monkey tree. The more I looked at the photo later though, the more it became tragic rather than comic. I ended up with these lines to end my poem "Trees of Lower Table Rock, November" quoted here:

again sorrowful madrones and black oaks,
stripped of leaves, with boughs like so many arms,
they take us down from our perch,
see our way out, brush us by
with branches spliced and twined and reaching.

I don't think I would have gotten to this place by memory alone. I had to dwell on the photo.

Sometimes a photo merely fulfills a need to be social. A facebook friend asked for quick snaps of work spaces from other artists and writers. I obliged with:

I gave up a lot of information about myself with this picture. One, I'm a slob, but I tend to try to hide it (note big, disorganized pile right smack in the middle). Two, I can't throw away any of my writing-related tchotchkes and trophies (bonus points to those who can identify some key logos). Three, I have a wacky Allen Ginsberg doll, and I think it has warded off measles, scurvy, and rickets over the years.

And last, access to a cell cam is an awesome way to cheer myself up every now and again. Earlier this year, I went to visit a poet friend in another state. I was thrilled to see I had made the family's chalkboard agenda for the day:

(Don't miss the daily weather forecast in the upper left, and yes, now you know one of my nicknames.) If I'm having an especially crazy day, I pull this photo up for a little laugh, and it works. Like. A. Charm.

* * *

Amy MacLennan has been published in Hayden's Ferry Review, River Styx, Linebreak, Cimarron Review, Folio, and Rattle. Her poems have appeared in the anthologies Not a Muse from Haven Books and Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems from Ragged Sky Press. One of her poems is available as a downloadable broadside from Broadsided Press, and she has an article on social networking appearing in the 2011 Poet's Market. Her chapbook The Fragile Day was released from Spire Press in September 2011.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Shakes...(Originally appeared in the Arkansas Review)

I woke in my underwear in my brother’s arms with dark sky above me. We passed through the front door of our house and down the step and out to his car. He tossed me in the backseat, turned to my father, who followed behind, and spoke,
"You happy now?" my brother said. "You drunk bastard, are you satisfied?"
My father mumbled something I couldn't make out.
They got in and my brother slammed the car into reverse. I slid like a sack of flour against the side of the car, sending a sudden pain through my daze. I realized that I couldn’t move, not even to hold my head from lolling around, obeying only gravity.
"You don't care about nothing but yourself," my brother said and jerked into a curve.
Bang! My head said to the side of the car.
"Sucking on that bottle like you want to die or something. Well go ahead, but don't bring us with you."
Bang! My brother turned another curve.
I strained as hard as I could to flex the muscles in my neck and hold my head still.
"So you like being sorry and good for nothing?" My brother said.
Bang, but much softer now as I started re-assuming control. I felt like I was trying to wake up a sleeping limb, but it was my whole body. I concentrated, tuning out the argument and the confusion, and when my brother turned the next curve, I was able to hold my head still enough so that it only banged a little, hardly hurting at all. By the next curve, I could hold it still. I focused my attention on other parts of my body, and was able to flop myself away from the side of the car.
My brother turned violently, then turned again and slammed the car into park. He jumped out and threw his seat forward. I managed to sit up as he reached for me.
"I can walk," I said, though I didn't know if this was true.
"Come on," he said.
I extended a shaky leg out onto gravelly asphalt. My brother pulled me to my feet. I had to lean against the car to stand.
"Come on," he said again. "If you can walk, walk. If not, I'll carry you."
"I can walk, but I don't have any clothes on," I said.
I looked around. We were in the parking lot of the Cross County Hospital. It was dark and still cold, though it was spring. The parking lot was mostly empty. My father had gone ahead and was just entering the emergency room.
"What are we doing here?" I asked.
"You were shaking," my brother said.
"I'm okay now," I said.
"Let's go," he said.
"I need clothes. I can't go in there like this."
He took a step toward me. "You're going in there right now, whether I have to carry you or not."
My brother was well over six feet tall and broad as a lumberjack. He was a farmer's son, used to long hours of hard, physical work, and he was standing in front of me with his eyes so wide they were bugging out, agitated and dancing in place.
"What happened?" I asked.
"We're going. I'll tell you after," he said, reaching for me.
I pushed his hand off and stepped into the parking lot. There were rocks and pebbles, probably other things that I couldn't see jabbing the soft soles of my feet.
"You gonna make it?" my brother said.
"Yeah," I said, hobbling along.
A nurse came out with a wheelchair, followed by Dad, who still hadn’t spoken. The nurse stood in front of the emergency room doors, holding the wheelchair, and watched me limp. As each sharp rock stabbed into the soles of my feet, I hated her. When we got to the ramp leading up to the doors, she pushed the chair towards me. I walked past, ignoring her.
"He don't need a wheelchair, he needs a doctor," my brother said.
They took me to a little room and laid me on a table. I tried to ask a nurse if I could have something to wear, and my brother said, "Later." The nurse disappeared and came back with a paper gown.
The inside of the hospital was warmer. There was a preponderance of green and a smell of hot glue. All that cold air outside had given me a powerful need to urinate. A doctor came in and shone a light in my eyes, checked my blood pressure and reflexes. My brother and my father were close, but I couldn't see or hear them. Finally, the doctor let me go to the bathroom.
When I came out, the doctor was talking.
"What happened?" I asked him.
"It was probably a grand mal seizure," he said. The name sounded like a sports term. Or maybe like I'd won something.
"What do you remember?" he asked.
I'd spent the day pretty normally, working in the rice fields with Dad and Mike, my brother. Later in the evening, I'd pulled coffee weeds with a weed puller that resembled a miniature scythe. It was hard work, and I’d gotten very hot and dehydrated doing it. I didn't remember eating supper. I'd gone to bed pretty early and woken to this.
The doctor whose name I never learned gave me some pills. "Take one as soon as you get home," he said. My father was to make an appointment at St. Jude's hospital in Memphis in the morning. With that, they released me.
It was only during the drive home that I was able to drag a little bit of info from my brother and father about what had happened, which I still didn't remember, and only over the course of the next few days did I get the full story.
My father had gotten up to use the bathroom some time after midnight. On the way back, he heard a noise and came into my room to find me writhing on the bed. He said that I was vomiting, but I was on my back.
"Nothing was coming out," he said. "You were choking."
He went to the bathroom, grabbed a towel and used it to clear out my mouth so I could breathe.
"Like Jimmy Hendrix," I would say, later.
“Damn,” my brother would say, shaking his head and laughing.
My father woke my brother to drive, and they argued the whole way to the hospital.
"We’d had a real blowout earlier that night," my brother told me. "You were lucky to miss it."
They’d argued over my father's drinking. My brother had thrown Dad out of his room and they'd nearly gotten physical. It wasn’t particularly new; arguing was the fuel that kept my family going in those days.
That night when we got back from the hospital, my brother insisted I take the pills the doctor had given me.
"I'm really sick," I said. My stomach felt raw and sore as though I'd drunk molten metal.
"If I have to stand here and watch, you're going to take them," my brother said. I went into the bathroom and poured a cup of water.
"Maybe if you ate something it'd go down better. Didn't the doctor say not to take it on an empty stomach?"
"I'll eat something in a minute," I said. I forced the pills down and drank the water. My brother stood in the doorway watching me.
"Should get some sleep," he said, finally. "Try to, anyway."
I nodded and he left. I stood in front of the mirror until the heaves started and vomited the pills back up. Then I went to bed. Shortly after I lay down, my father came in and sat beside me. I fell asleep with the warmth of his presence, silent beside me.

The next day we went to Memphis for tests. Never before, that I could remember, had my father taken me to a hospital. He didn’t actually believe in hospitals. When we had headaches, he told us to drink water.
“It’s just sugar,” he said about Aspirin.
He held a working-class distrust of doctors, hospitals, banks, and organized education. He chalked most ailments up to laziness, including my mother's, at least until it became obvious from her deterioration that she was seriously ill, and if he had not actually witnessed the seizure, I doubt that he would have believed it happened. But here he was, taking me to the hospital every week, more than that, he was driving to Memphis to do it.
At the hospital, I underwent a series of tests, including a CAT scan, an EEG test, and I had to come back for blood-work every week. I felt much better that day, though still tired. During the EEG test, they took me to a room and glued little electrodes to my head. The nurse told me to lie down and close my eyes. I immediately fell asleep. She woke me when I started snoring. The CAT scan felt as though I were being loaded into a large oven while X-rays baked me.
I was diagnosed with childhood epilepsy. The doctor showed us an MRI of my brain. He pointed out certain areas that represented lesions.
"How'd he get those?" my brother would ask, later.
"His head swole up," my father would say.
"You always had a big head," my brother said.
"Been thinking too much," my father said.
The doctor said I should grow out of it by the time I was fifteen or so. He gave me pills to take every day and told me to come back if I had any more seizures. It was a lot like going to the school nurse to get out of class.

I researched epilepsy in the county library. I imagined myself walking down the street, falling down, and shaking, while everyone around me stared. Or maybe it would happen while I took a test in class. I wasn't so much scared as intrigued, and I wasn't sure how this condition would affect me. The epilepsy was a random factor that had been introduced into my life for no discernable reason. I expected to have seizures all the time. I read that epilepsy sufferers often noticed hints of impending seizures; certain smells, odd feelings. Because no one seemed to understand it, all sorts of things were thought to trigger seizures. Flashing lights, stress, drug use. I imagined that I was smelling things, seeing things. I warned my family members of impending seizures. "I smell modeling glue," I would say. And everyone would look worried. When school started, I went to the guidance councilor and tried to get out of PE because of my condition.
"Exertion and stress can lead to seizures," I told her.
"Thanks for telling us," she said and sent me back to the gym.

The events of those days, my near death and the interminable visits to the doctors, sparked something in my father. Before this, he had pretty much ignored my existence, and the existence of my sister and brother. After I had the seizure, though, he swooped down on my life like a hungry dog on a bone. He began dragging me all over the state trying to make a man of me. He devised fishing trips, though he raised catfish himself, and we spent many a miserable afternoon sullenly casting lines, our hooks undisturbed in the water of various rivers and lakes. He took me to deer camp a few times, with no luck, though at one outing I entertained myself by pouring spurts of gasoline from a spare gas can onto the campfire, to the delight of our fellow hunters, who were mostly drunk. There were often more bodies than beds, and late one night one of my father's friends crawled into bed with me, throwing his arm over me and muttering something I couldn't make out. I spent the night in a chair. In the morning, the man had wet the bed. Everyone overslept and my father and I spent the morning hunting squirrels instead of deer, of which we shot not one.
He didn't take me out to work with him as much, and when he did, he didn't make me do very much of the work. Mostly, he wanted me to sit in the truck until he got back from walking the levees looking for breaks.
My father's sudden attentions weren't only reserved for me. He bought my mother a walker, and he began hiring a string of nurses to care for her as she became bedridden. The first one, a thirty-something black woman named Tomecka, was the sweetest. She stayed for several months and became almost like one of the family until the day my mother had a violent fit and attacked her, clawed her arms while Tomecka tried to bathe her. Tomecka came into my bedroom and asked if I could help her quiet my mother.
"No," I said. "But I'll try."
Mom was inconsolable, and finally Tomecka gave up and left. We never saw her again.
After Tomecka, Mom's dementia became uncontrollable, and none of the nurses stayed for more than a month; most lasted a day or less, and we didn't bother to learn their names. Soon, my father had exhausted all of the home health care workers available in three counties, and my sister and I tried to take over.
I had taken to arguing with my brother about what I would want done to me if I had Huntington's disease, my mother's illness.
"I would shoot myself," I said with the obstinate assuredness of a teenager.
"Don't come near me," he'd say. "If I get sick, you stay the hell away from me. I want to live."
"That's not life," I said. "You'd be dead; you just wouldn't know it yet."

When my mother developed a bruise on her backside from being bedridden, my father decided to put her in a nursing home before it became a bedsore. The doctor who examined her was emphatic. He made it clear that if we didn't either find a professional nurse or caregiver to take care of her, or voluntarily put her into a home, he'd press charges and the state would take over.
Dad rode with Mom in the ambulance to the nursing home; then he walked back to his truck and drove home. He didn't drink anymore that day, or the next, and for the next two days after that, he laid on the couch in the living room, shaking and grinding his teeth; he sweated the alcohol out of his system. He rose pale, weak and sober, took a long shower and went back to work.

A few days after that, he fired my brother. There was no row, just a quiet conversation I wasn’t a part of. The next morning, my brother was up and out early looking for factory work. I found my father in the kitchen, as I did every morning, hangover, rain, or shine, reading a novel.
“Heard about Burr,” I said. “Burr” was my brother’s nickname.
My father spoke without lowering his book. “No future on the farm for either of you,” he said. “You ought to do more with your life than I did.”
“But that’s all we’ve ever done.” I thought back to a lifetime of seven-day workweeks, half-days worked on Christmas.
“Mike’ll get something. You’re young yet. Maybe you can go to college. Me and Bobby are getting old. We’ll retire in a couple years. Ought to just let it die with us.” Bobby was my uncle. They’d founded the family farm when my father returned from military service after World War II over fifty years ago.
“Some eggs on the stove,” Dad added, without ever raising his eyes from his book.

I never had another seizure after that first one, and shortly after Mom went into the home I was able to stop taking my medication. I had grown out of the childhood epilepsy. Sometimes, though, I'd catch Dad on the way back from the bathroom, late at night, peeking into my bedroom. He rarely closed his bedroom door anymore.