The Daily

First Person

Notes from the Milk Cave

July 17, 2014 | by

Breastfeeding and boredom.

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Detail from Stanisław Wyspiański’s Motherhood, 1902.

“You are an animal,” my husband told me. We were in bed. The context was not what you’d expect. A baby was latched onto my right breast while the left leaked an opalescent waterfall of milk.

“I’m a mammal,” I said. This is about as deep as our conversations got in the first month of parenthood. We were upstairs in what we have dubbed the milk cave—the dim bedroom of the nineteenth-century log cabin in southeastern Ohio, where we are currently living. I spend the better part of my days here, watching as my baby’s eager, sucking mouth goes rooting, and then latches on with the force of a heavy lid sealed shut on an overflowing container. There is nothing soft or gentle about my baby’s latch. It is the precise enactment of its definition: a clamping on, a fastening of two bodies. I feel a sudden tug of suction, a rasp of thirst, then sleepiness. I listen for the ker, ker, ker of her swallowing.

Before I gave birth, I knew breastfed babies needed to eat every two hours. But knowing this did not prepare me for the sheer amount of time breastfeeding would demand. Even if someone had told me “twenty minutes per breast per feeding,” it would still have taken sitting down every two hours for forty minutes for me to understand, because just like every other aspect of pregnancy and motherhood—morning sickness, contractions—the imagined experience turned out to be laughably unlike the experience itself.

I was hunkered down in the milk cave in a mess of sheets, sticky with an overabundance of milk, balancing the baby in the football hold and watching her eyes blink slowly open and closed with the rhythm of sucking. I’d finally finish, set her in her Baby Björn, and start digging into e-mails and then, again, she’d shove her fist in her mouth and start smacking her gums with comic franticness. Whole yellow and green summer days slipped by between the milk cave and the breezy porch, gazing at baby on the breast, at the whirring fan and the sheets with their pattern of roses, at the pastures of wavering grasses incandescent in afternoon light. Nights I awoke at two, at four, at six, and in the grainy coffee black, I’d hold the warm parcel of her, feel the eager pressure of those small gums, our animal bodies pressed together, the trickle of milk, the darkness undulating a bit in my delirium. I’d try not to fall asleep, have half-thoughts, then enter a space of no thoughts at all. Read More »

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Waiting for the Siren

July 11, 2014 | by

A letter from Jerusalem.

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Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, via Flickr

The rockets are back. It wasn’t two years ago they were falling over Israel. Things progress, they regress, they explode, and then you find yourself where you first began. With the rockets come all the accompanying nightmares about the endlessness of this war. We mutter darkly about escalation, look at pictures of the brutal deaths in Gaza. This is what comes when the rockets fall again. But the truth is, I missed them.

In Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, when the rocket siren goes off—a rising and falling pitch, kind of thin, actually—you have a recommended ninety seconds to find shelter. I use a method I’ve written about before to keep track of time: I sing Ghostface Killah’s “Run” to myself, as I run around the apartment looking for my boots. You’re supposed to go to a shelter or a safe room, if your building has one. If it doesn’t, as mine does not, you go to the stairwell, because it’s a reinforced area without much glass. Then you wait, nodding politely to four or so of your neighbors, whose names you still don’t know; smiling sympathetically at their children, who are posting fallout selfies.

The siren stops and you hear the booms of the rockets being detonated midflight by the Israeli defense system—the Iron Dome, love of my life—or hitting open areas that the anonymous geniuses manning the Iron Dome have determined to be okay to hit. They say to wait ten minutes, but nobody does. A few minutes after the booms, you all go back to your apartments, or step outside to catch a glimpse of the wispy, white puffs—all that remains of the rockets. Read More »

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House-sitting and Other Work

June 27, 2014 | by

Precarity and creativity in other people’s homes.

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Charles Demuth, Modern Conveniences, 1921.

When I moved back to Portland, Oregon, in 2010, after four years away in New York and Arizona, no one would hire me. Not Whole Foods, not the local New Seasons market, not the upscale Zupan’s chains. “Thanks for your interest in the Deli Service Clerk/Courtesy Clerk/Cashier/Meat Cutter - Back up position,” an automated email said. “If your skills match up with the requirements of the job, we’ll be in touch to arrange an interview.” No one got in touch. Trader Joe’s wouldn’t even respond to my inquiries. If I, a thirty-six year old with college degrees and retail experience, couldn’t get hired to work a register, what hope could I feel in anything?

I subsisted on egg dishes and microwavable food. Whatever canned soups were on sale I bought by the armful. In lieu of a “real” job, I made it my job to spend very little money. Portland is a tough town for good employment. It has a glut of eager applicants and limited industry. Our main commercial offerings are arguably food, advertising, and stylishness. Combined with our large artist population, that means that countless musicians, writers, and painters are cooking and serving your meals.

Hope came from a local landmark, Powell’s Books, which hired me as a temp cashier in the summer of 2011. I’d worked at the flagship store full-time between 2000 and 2006, and the intervening years seem to have erased my employer’s memories of my often gruff customer service, my habit of sleeping on the lunchroom couch, and my tendency to use the company Xerox machine to photocopy material for whatever I was writing. That summer, by the large windows along Burnside Street, I stood at the cash register and pushed keys for four to nine hours a day. But when the season ended, the store created a few permanent part-time cashier positions, and I didn’t land one. “We’re sorry to say we’ve found somebody else,” my manager said weeks after my interview. He wasn’t as sorry as I was—he, with a job to cover his mortgage and health insurance.

I was back where I started. I struck out on my own and became a house sitter. Read More »

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Project Angel Raid

June 19, 2014 | by

Sleep-away camp revisited.

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From the cover of Alexandra G. Lockwine’s Camping by Biddy, 1911.

Five miserable summers straight, I made the trek to Camp Saginaw, a.k.a. Camp Saggyballs. The cornpone setting in Oxford, Pennsylvania, was the backdrop for my induction into the myth and ritual of the camp, whose songs and traditions served mostly to perpetuate the philosophy that this was the best place on Earth. It was not—what with the mediocre campfires, the soggy waffles, the deflating banana boat on the murky lake.

Still, I attended until I had earned the only slightly coveted green Old-Timer shirt, affixed with an Indian chief insignia; until I’d scraped my knuckles raw enough times at the gaga court to develop permanent scars; and until I no longer became teary-eyed when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played at the roller rink while the girl I crushed on slow-skated by with another boy.   

Most important, I attended until, at long last, I successfully snuck to Girls’ Camp at midnight.

How many nights over multiple summers my bunkmates and I had stayed up plotting Project Angel Raid! We dressed in all black or navy blue, talking with our flashlights pointed up to the rafters, only to fall asleep in our sweatpants and hoodies. Come morning we hit our mattresses with a heavy fist—yet another failed mission …

But there was an added incentive the summer I turned twelve: I met Jill, she of the freckled cheeks and strawberry blonde hair. So what if she wore corrective glasses because she was slightly cross-eyed? She had taken a shine to me, and it was important for me to demonstrate my devotion with the type of bravado brandished only during a caper. Read More »

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Odysseus in the Yard

June 16, 2014 | by

Celebrating Bloomsday in prison.

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An illustration of Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s notes, ca. 1941.

The man I affectionately termed Odysseus, though never to his face, was sixty-five and ailing. He was Philip Rubinitz, a onetime actor who had served about twenty years by then for the crime of stabbing his best friend through the heart with an antique SS dagger. Nevertheless, he was the facility rabbi’s clerk. His liver was failing and his back hurt, but he took laps with me around the yard of Green Haven Correctional Facility, observing our simulated Dublin through cataracts in his eyes. It must have been hard for him to keep up with my much younger legs, but he tottered around our Nightown seeking out a way home to his long-lost wife with the same fervor that Leopold Bloom had. His parole date was still five years away. I followed around full of the overconfidence and energy of youth and insecurity, much like Stephen Dedalus. It was June 16, several years ago now, and little did Rubinitz know that he was helping me celebrate Bloomsday in the yard.

After I’d been convicted, my father had said, “Good. You’ll finally read Joyce.” But it took a few years inside to finally come to it. Having initially avoided Ulysses, my mind was blown when I finally gathered the fortitude to read it—the scales fell from my eyes, and from then on I decided I had to celebrate Bloomsday with the rest of the converts.

None of whom, it seemed, were anywhere near me. Working as a prison librarian, I had seen a few men attempt A Portrait of the Artist, but our edition of Ulysses always stood on the shelf gathering dust. Grim, thick, and foreboding, it was too imposing in reputation for even the most ambitious of convicts. Finnegans Wake wasn’t available at all. The civilian librarians knew better. Read More »

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Contaminated

June 6, 2014 | by

Getting back on the skateboard.

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Not long ago I went to lunch with a gracious, well-intentioned editor who was not, I quickly realized, interested in publishing my book, the worst possible pitch for which is: “It’s a middle-grade novel about peak oil.” Having tabled my hopes like a used napkin, somewhere between the Lebanese tea and the shaved fennel, the editor asked what I’d rather be doing with my days, “in an ideal world.” I was surrounded by sandwich-eating professionals and suffocating, psychically, at the thought of being one: that’s when I remembered kickflips.

I’d given up skateboarding when I was fifteen, after breaking my wrist—I hadn’t been on a board since. When, shortly after graduating high school, an acquaintance of mine went pro, the specter of his early success strengthened my resolve not to skate: Why confront my talentlessness when it was more easily avoided? But at lunch that day I realized I was thirty years old and viscerally hating myself for matching the workaday worst of Lower Manhattan in my light-blue button-up and tan oxfords.

So I started to skate again, taking mostly to a ten-block loop in Brooklyn that I call the Greenpoint Skate Lab, a toxic hat-tip to the ecological impact tours that roll through the Lab while I’m there most Saturdays. It’s a deeply unhappy spot, physically and psychically—haunted by the same oil spill (“three times worse than Exxon Valdez”) that, at home, a few blocks away, I only ever remember after having drunk from the bathroom faucet. As a reflective-vested guide explained to a small, inexplicable crowd on one of my first days out, a drunk driver once crashed through the barricade on Apollo Street where it dead ends next to the BP oil refinery. The car dove nose-first into the shallows of Newtown Creek. The water was so contaminated with oil that it was on fire for days. Read More »

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