Congratulations on your purchase of our revolutionary new product, Wresting Infants Without Injury (WIWI™)! If you have recently acquired a human infant, you may be experiencing the usual joyous spasms of parental sentiment. Do not let a warm emotional glow blind you to the dangers you face. In subsequent chapters, such as “Strollers: The Menace in the Trunk,” we will explain these in more detail. But for your protection, please read this introduction as soon as possible:

I wish the magazine Parenting would just go the full shot and rename itself Mothering; it’s never too late to be honest.

It’s a magazine by women, about women, and for women, with only a few obligatory Man Ghettos, a page or two on which fathers rear their dense and uncomprehending heads. I won’t bore you with comparative page counts or (follow the money!) an analysis of the advertising: more tampons than pickup trucks (and the latter at least can be gender neutral).

Numerology

By James B. Frost

Essay

Not long after my thirtieth birthday I went to see a numerologist. I did so on the whim of my new-age girlfriend, who purchased the session for me as a birthday gift.

Full disclosure: I read FATHERMUCKER (HarperCollins 2011) the first time around in installments. As Greg wrote, I would receive these amazing sections in my inbox — smart, compelling, raucous, heartbreaking and wholly original. I would tear through those pages, enthralled by Josh Lansky’s stream of consciousness, his riffs on parenting, popular culture, love, sex, his wife and children, all set to a playlist ranging in taste from Zeppelin to the Magnetic Fields. As soon as I finished I would send Greg e-mails that contained only one word: MORE. The voice felt entirely fresh and new, unlike anything I had experienced before in contemporary fiction, and definitely not from this perspective. Josh Lansky, while a devout husband and father, was still a guy, and he held nothing back in what would surely turn out to be one of the longest days in his life. Experiencing FATHERMUCKER will leave you breathless and wanting more of what goes on inside Greg Olear’s head; thankfully, he agreed to answer a few questions.

We have a happy little nuclear family, all things being equal. My husband and I had our son when we were past our exciting young adulthoods, and were married for seven years before we heeded the call to breed. It allowed us to create a good landing spot for parenting: we had fulfilled our craving for adventure in the outside world and we were more than happy to start an adventure in our house, no regrets.

It’s 4:35 AM and I’m running around the house like a chicken with its head cut off. Up and down the stairs. Up and down. Up and down. Back and forth. All the while the orchestral “William Tell Overture” by Gioachino Antonio Rossini is playing in my head as if plucked from a scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Elmer Fudd is chasing that whaskily wabbit Bugs Bunny through the forest with a double-barrel shotgun.

I shit you not.

Except I have made up impromptu words that go like this:

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

Rewind back a few minutes.

4:30 AM: My wife wakes me and informs me she’s in labor.

Not as in I-am-going-to-work-now labor.

Labor.

Child labor.

I-am-getting-ready-to-have-a-baby labor.

The conversation goes a little something like this.

WIFE: I think I’m going into labor.

ME: You?

You, question mark.

This is what my wife later tells me I say when all is calm and we’re sitting opposite one another in our hospital beds.

“You,” as if someone or something else in the room was getting ready to give birth.

My dog Motzie is fixed, so it’s obviously not her.

The television has no genitals, so it’s definitely not it.

I don’t have a vagina, so it’s definitely not me.

I’m pretty sure I would have recognized if it were me anyway. I hadn’t even bought any cute maternity clothing for work. It’s definitely not me.

And I have a penis.

That always makes giving birth difficult.

Unless you’re Thomas Beatie.

So there I am: 4:30 in the morning.

I wasn’t expecting this even though it’s been nine months coming.

Our first child isn’t due for two-and-a-half more weeks on April 27.

It’s April 11.

And the kid has my genes.

I’ve been determined there’s no way this baby is arriving on time if it has my genes. I’m never anywhere on time. I even have this funny scenario in which following my death—whenever that is—at my funeral, I don’t arrive on time.

It plays out like this: Everyone in church is mourning my loss. Tears are flowing. Family, friends – they’re all sobbing and boohooing their eyes out. The preacher stands in the pulpit at the podium or whatever it’s called in church. He looks out into the crying crowd. In walks a guy from the side door dressed in black. He’s holding a note. He walks over to the preacher and hands him the note. The guy walks back toward the side door and out. The preacher clears his throat and addresses the congregation, delivering the following:

“I’m sorry but I’ve just been informed Jeff is running a few minutes late and will arrive shortly. Until then, he has asked that his friends and family join in a hymn together. Please turn to page 368 in your hymnbooks as we sing, “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys, followed by an a capella rendition of “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag.

I’m putting this in my will. I’ve told my wife that if I die before she does, this has to play out exactly as I have written. If not, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt her. (Not really)

That shit will be hilarious.

Tears go to laughter. Quite the send off. Quite the exit. Just how I want it.

“Oh, that Jeff,” someone will say. “He sure knows how to get a laugh out of someone [pause] — even in death.”

Yet it’s April 11 and my kid is on the move down the birth canal.

I quickly pack a few clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, clean underdrawers, deodorant, cell phone charger, and my bottle of Citalopram, which I call my chill pills because without my chill pills I’m fucking crazy I tell you. Crazy.

Not really.

I take it for depression. Have since about six months after my dad’s death.

Leukemia. Age 59.

I saw my dad die before my eyes over a two-month span, then held his hand as the machines went beep and his soul ascended.

Two years later I still can’t face the fact my dad’s dead.

And here I am, about to become a dad myself.

I run back downstairs, open up my laptop, and type an e-mail to my boss.

“Not gonna be in this week. Having a baby. Not me. My wife. Some proofs will be coming in if you could take a look at them and sign off. They’re good to go. If you need to make any changes (which you shouldn’t), the InDesign files are located in the Comm. Info folder. Here’s my cell number if you need me but don’t call me for the next couple of hours. In labor. Not me. My wife. Holy crap!”

Rewind back again to me sitting in bed, my wife delivering the news she’s in labor.

“Did you call the hospital yet?” I ask.

“No. I will now.”

She does.

“Come in at 7:30,” they tell her. “Come sooner if your body tells you to.”

Flash forward less than two hours later.

6:20 AM: “I think we need to go now,” my wife tells me as I finish up my e-mail to my boss.

“Oh crap, I haven’t eaten anything yet.”

Yes, that’s right. I’m thinking about food at a time like this.

I have no idea what I’ve done over the past hour-and-a-half. Why the hell have I not eaten?

“We can stop by McDonald’s if you want.”

“We can? Are you sure there’s enough time? I’d rather you get to the hospital than me a chicken sandwich and extra hash browns.”

At this point, my wife is freaking me out with her breathing.

“Breathe in and out like they told us at our child birthing classes,” I say, trying to soothe her. But on the inside, me, I’m hyperventilating. On comes the “William Tell Overture” again. Bugs Bunny shoots down a rabbit hole.

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

“Yes. We have time,” she says. “You need to eat.”

See how wonderful wife my wife is? Always looking out for the nourishment of her husband even at times such as this. She continues:

“You can get into a funk when your sugar is low.”

Now the truth comes out.

“I don’t want you in a bad mood with all this about to happen. It could be a long day, a long couple of days in the hospital.”

She’s right. I do get into a funk when I don’t eat on time. And I eat all the time. Like six meals a day. It’s the only way I can balance my sugar. Even when I played basketball in college I was like this. Before the game in the locker room, I’d eat a Snickers and drink a half bottle of orange juice while Coach gave his words of wisdom. At halftime, I’d eat another Snickers and finish off my orange juice. Otherwise, I’d get the shakes – like Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias.

But I’m not diabetic. I’m hypoglycemic.

I put my dog in her crate, tell her to be a good girl, that she’ll have a new best friend soon, and scat.

6:30 AM: We stop by McDonald’s. I pull up to the drive-through window and order a chicken sandwich, two hash browns, and a large Coke.

“$4.29. First window please.”

I pay. Onward to window two.

It’s taking longer than usual to fulfill the order. I’m a very patient person, probably too patient in my day to day life (they say patience is a virtue), but I want to say, “Can you guys please hurry it up? Just this one time. It’s an emergency. My wife is in labor.”

But I imagine the 18-year-old kid who is waiting on me, stop and say rather coldly, “Then why the fuck did you stop for breakfast dickhead?”

And he’d have a point.

A very valid point.

Out comes my combo meal. Peace and chicken grease Mickey Dee’s. We’re off to Martha Jefferson Hospital.

I use this as an excuse to drive like a bat out of a hell down 29, just like in the movies. Then I picture a cop fly up behind me with his siren on to which I stick my arm out of the window and wave for him to pull up along side me. Then I say, “Officer, my wife is having a baby. Can you please escort us to the hospital?”

He nods yes, flashes his lights, and I roll my window back up, turn to my wife and referencing the cop, say, “Sucker.”

We (“we” as in me following behind sucker cop) bolt down the highway, going through red lights like it ain’t nobody’s business. I smile for the asshole traffic camera they just installed at the intersection of Rio Rd. One day I’ll put the photo the Police Department sends me in my baby’s scrapbook.

But none of this happens. Because this isn’t the movies. It’s real life.

But I continue to drive like a bat out of hell, weaving in and out of traffic, beeping my horn at any car in my way and yelling at them, “Get out of the way you slowpoke prick. My wife’s having a baby.” A very cautious, alert bat out of hell I might add. Okay. You got me. You called my bluff. So I’m not really driving like a bat out of hell. I’m going 55 MPH in a 45 (technically, I am breaking the law) and there is hardly anyone on the road. I’m not weaving in and out of traffic. I’m not beeping my horn. I’m not yelling.

6:45 AM: We arrive at Martha Jefferson Hospital on Locust Avenue. I pull up to the Emergency Room entrance. A security guard approaches and opens the door for my wife. He tells her where to go. I tell him where to go (hell) and to stop looking at my wife’s cleavage (she’s pregnant. Her breasts are full of milk, nourishment for my soon-to-be first child, you stinkin’ perv). Actually, I do none of that either. He isn’t even eyeing my wife. He’s very polite like some child’s nice grandpa.

I park the car, strap on all our bags like I’m some oversized coat rack made of pine, and make my way to the Maternity Ward.

It’s Go Time…

Following is an excerpt from “Cooking for Gracie,” a memoir with more than 40 recipes that recounts a year in the life of a new parent learning to cook for three.


Just weeks into the experience of parenthood, I seem to experience a fresh epiphany about every other day—moments of clarity, addicts call them, in which the camera lens of life is screwed sharply into focus, and the afflicted suddenly realizes what path he must take.

I’m having a moment of clarity now, alone here in my kitchen at night, where I’m spooning and spooning cold cereal. This is dinner, these days: standing at the kitchen window with a bowl of breakfast. I’m nettled by problems with sleep, and with timing, and with other things. The hour is late enough that even the pointillist panorama of New York, a city I’ve called home for fifteen years, seems almost subdued; York Avenue, five stories below, is nearly deserted, and taxis streak by only occasionally. Summer is barely hanging on, having exhausted itself with hot September. The scene appears tranquil to the naked eye, but it’s really not—if this kitchen were the galley of a Boeing jet, the Fasten Seatbelts sign would be blinking right now, directing all passengers to buckle up and prepare for terrible turbulence. I’ve ruined dinner, blackened it to the pan—the haze hanging below the ceiling is the proof. My wife, Jessica, and I were going to eat six pristine lamb chops an hour ago, but as we sat down at the table our weeks-old daughter, Grace, gave a cry of hunger from her room—and I looked up with the troubled expression of a picnicker who hears distant thunder.

Just weeks in, and I’m already a worried dad. The big questions seek me out after midnight, and apprehend me at the moment of sleep—there in the night, that grand unifier of parental anxiety. Every night I face down the stark information of Gracie’s low birth weight— these are delicate subjects, these subjects of Gracie, birth weight, and nourishment, and when our daughter delivers a cry of hunger we answer it. So an hour ago we abandoned dinner, and just now I blackened the chops trying to reheat them. I’d thought this would be a simple process of applying the flame, the necessary heat, but things moved much faster than I expected and quickly evolved into a Larry, Moe and Curley scene of the highest order. As I heaved the window open, fanning the smoke out into the night, I wondered if it was possible to be mad at a kitchen implement. But no, it’s hunger itself that I’m mad at—I was hungry for those chops, and now I’m having a bowl of breakfast instead. There was a time when I thought of hunger as a useful, instructive thing—not just physical hunger, but hunger for things like success, or romantic love. The idea was that the wanting could teach things about yourself, about your various prowling appetites, and perhaps I was right in that, because tonight’s hunger has propelled me into a moment of clarity, with all of its dreadful data about my situation.

Here is what I’m coming to understand: What is broken in the kitchen is broken elsewhere—the problem would appear to be that life no longer moves according to my schedule. If you’re a writer or a cook, timing is crucial; if you happen to be both, as I am, you’re finished without it. I used to have it, this timing, in the kitchen and on the page, but now it’s gone. I’m a beat behind in everything I do—I go around half the time feeling like an actor who belongs in a drama, and finds himself, instead, in a comedy, where the jokes are all at his expense.

 

********

 

I’ve felt this way for weeks—since September 9, 2007, when I surfaced from a deep sleep around 4 a.m. and found Jessica standing over me in the pale bedside light. Marriage has taught me a few things, among them that you should be worried when your pregnant wife wakes you at 4 a.m. by standing over you with the lights already on.

My confusion resolved itself quickly enough when Jessica told me in no uncertain terms that she hadn’t slept one minute all night, and added that she was pretty sure our baby was on the way, showing me startling evidence to the same. (I’ll not describe it here, but rather note that the condition “bloody show” is very well named indeed, and as bracing as two strong cups of coffee to see. Google it.) I slapped around on the floor for about ten minutes, searching for my clothes, and we phoned the obstetrician. The baby, if she came today, would be five weeks early. At our latest sonogram we were told that the baby’s weight was just north of four pounds. In most cases an obstetrician encourages a couple to remain at home until the woman is through early labor, but the fact that we were five weeks early, combined with other unusual conditions of the pregnancy, was enough to cause him to tell us to come on in, and right away. There were no cars out so early—we hunted down a cab, and the driver seemed to understand everything with a glance. He thundered through intersection and along crosscut, around hairpin and down avenue. Jessica was in that trancelike state women achieve when the biological imperative asserts itself; that is, she was an arresting example of female can-do. If there’d been any time to stop and think I suppose I would have panicked, but I was fully occupied by the events unfolding around me and, anyway, I was still shaking off the anesthetic effects of the martini I’d had at dinner the night before. We swept past the sleepy hospital admitting desk and were fired skyward by the express elevator to the birthing floor, where an IV was inserted into the back of Jessica’s hand. At this point Jessica’s blood pressure swirled upward like a cartoon barber’s pole, and I heard a staffer in attendance use the word preeclampsia. A monitor strapped over Jessica’s navel began delivering data to a printer beside the bed—a measure of the contractions she was experiencing. This immediately began drawing rolling ocean swells, and for a moment the illusion was complete: I imagined that this was indeed an ocean liner, and here were the heavy seas. But then the IV began to do its work, Jessica’s blood pressure eased, and the printout swells subsided into barely-noticeable upticks.

That’s it? I asked, and the attending doctor repeated my question in the declarative.

During the cab ride home I was electric with the cherry high of someone who has been granted a reprieve—every other block I felt the urge to seize the cabbie by the shoulder and say, “That was a close one, wasn’t it?” Now I had time to prepare for this thing I hadn’t been prepared for. I helped Jessica into bed, seared a grilled cheese sandwich for her and watched her eat, then pulled the covers over her head and drew the curtains. After offering a heartfelt plea that she rest, and rest well, I stepped into the shower. What a still moment that was, standing blameless beneath the roaring benediction of the showerhead, nodding to myself, arms crossed, eyes closed, breathing deeply through my nose and reflecting on the near-miss of a five-week ­premature birth. Close, Keith, I said, so close, too close, and then hollering Jessica ran into the bathroom and leaped, fully dressed and exultant, into the shower with me. Her water had broken. The warning shot had revealed itself to be the report of a starting gun.

We stood in silence for a moment—facing each other, hands clasped, like a couple about to recite a marriage vow. Even the most vivid memories tend to fade with time, but decades from now, when Death appears in my doorway and beckons with a bent finger, this is the image that will burn brightly in my mind’s eye—Jessica standing fully dressed in the shower, clothes dripping, wet hair plastered to her face and neck, and the waters that had protected Gracie for the first thirty-five weeks of her life now swirling around my bare ankles.

Here comes the future, at one hundred and forty heartbeats per minute.

 

********

 

I have a funny relationship with pain. The experts tell us that pain is trying to tell us something, that it is delivering a distress signal from a body part that is being misused, and that we ought to listen to that signal. For that very reason I don’t mind small amounts of pain—I’m strongly resistant to taking aspirin, cough medicine, allergy medicine, and other such palliatives for headaches, scrapes, burns, cuts, etc. & etc.—but I just can’t stomach the bad stuff. When it comes to the big-ticket items—knee operations, cavity fillings, room-spinning migraines—I immediately cave, jettison all principles, and request as much painkiller as possible, and the sooner, and stronger, the better. Were I faced with the prospect of eight or more hours of labor, I would surely arrive at the hospital pre-tranquilized, all but holding out my arm and slapping the vein to show the doctor where she should thread the needle. Jessica, on the other hand, has always been a believer in using aspirin and other painkillers to ease the discomfort of everyday headaches, sore muscles, cramps, etc.—which suggests that she believes in using modern medicine to ease pain. I was surprised, then, to learn that she planned to scale what is considered by many to be the Mount Everest of pain: to push a baby out with a drug-free birth. Upon hearing this news, my first thought, selfishly, was to fear that in this extreme circumstance I would be placed in a position that any husband deeply dreads: that of feeling essentially useless.1 There were a number of logical fallacies we employed to mitigate my (and Jessica’s) fear about meeting this challenge. “It’s temporary,” she would say, referring to the pain, “it’s temporary,” and I would nod my head and say, “Yes, it’s temporary”—thinking, But, Jessica, this is a very long temporary, lasting hours (or even, God help us, days) instead of moments. Nevertheless, we stuck with this line of logic, to great success. “It’s temporary,” she would say, and I’d nod my head and repeat the phrase back.

We would discuss this matter of painkillers nightly, sometimes more than once a night, and we even took a weeks-long class on how to survive a drug-free delivery.2 Through the early stages of this, there remained an element of unreality about the whole thing, which helped tamp down the urgency of the discussion—many first pregnancies, after all, don’t begin to show until some time during the second trimester, which means that even as you’re having these hard discussions about things like painkillers, the whole enterprise at times seems almost theoretical, as if you were being rooked by a slew of doctors and baby-gear vendors trying to separate you and your wife from your last dollar. The doctors keep telling you that a baby is on the way, these men and women dressed in long white coats, all busily poking columns of blood test results, a tax­ audit’s worth of facts about height, weight, bone length and fetal age, and the occasional sonogram photograph—but for the first five months you study your wife’s belly region and see no obvious evidence that any of this is true.3 I remained silent through much of the drug-free delivery sessions, thinking, Well, it’s her call isn’t it? But I also remained silent because a significant part of me believed that this would all resolve itself when the first wave of contractions hit and Jessica, duly startled by the size of the pain, would raise her hand and call for an epidural, and perhaps even a martini on the side to hold her until the anesthesiologist had done her work. I had this opinion because this is the way I would have come at the birth4—so I was doubly ashamed by my self-assured outlook when Jessica devastated all parties involved by seeing her way through labor without so much as an aspirin to blunt the edge of the contractions, even though near the end of it the pain was so intense and went on for so long that it caused her eyes to roll up until the whites showed, and forced her to grip me so tightly about the waist for support that she threw out my back.

Seemingly all at once, with the fury of a tornado that had gathered for hours and then dropped out of clear blue sky, here was the moment of birth, and here was Gracie, born at four pounds—her skin alarmingly gray. Just seconds old, the obstetrician held my daughter aloft with a single hand, then carried her over to the heat lamp, where an attending staff-member rubbed her dry with a towel, her color rising now, the staff member suddenly sweeping past me, taking Gracie out of the room in a cart, things already moving faster, and Jessica didn’t bother to remove her oxygen mask when she lifted her head and said: “Go with her.” Then down the hall, through the double doors and into another wing, this one as harshly-lighted as an interrogation room, Plexiglas isolettes lining the walls, each occupied by a tiny baby, and I thought, Ha ha, very funny, joke’s over, the NICU is where Other People’s children go. Isn’t it?

But I was now Other People, the person whose misfortunes you talk about in hushed tones, and the joke was on me. The unreality of the moment was scored by a sort of electronic symphony, alarms sounded by individual heart-rate and blood-oxygen monitors. Gracie now had one around her foot. The alarms are false, a nurse said, grasping my elbow for effect, no need to worry, it just means the baby has shaken the cuff so that it’s not getting an accurate reading—but later that night another baby’s alarm went off, and this time a pair of nurses seemed to materialize out of thin air at either side of the isolette, one with her hand inside going about some sort of complicated business with a baby the size of her palm. When I got it, when I realized what was happening, it was like being dashed with a bucket of cold water: the baby’s heart had stopped or the rate had grown erratic. The nurse was giving it CPR. I watched the nurse bring the baby out of it, my heart in my throat even though it wasn’t my kid, and I reflected that if you’d asked me before Gracie had arrived what emotion I thought I would have experienced in such a situation, I probably would have guessed sadness. And I would have guessed wrong. This was something more like waking from a nightmare long after midnight and sensing, with the decisiveness of a hatchet stroke, that someone was in my room and was here to harm me. Except this predatory force wasn’t here for me—it was here for my baby, and I could do nothing to protect her.

Three days later I was introduced to a diagnosis known as Failure To Thrive. The parents of its victims may feel inclined to ask why the name must be so literal. Perhaps we should rename hypothermia Failure To Keep Warm. I learned about this condition when my Gracie Failed To Thrive, and seemed to waste away before our glazed eyes, her weight sinking below four pounds. First she became too exhausted to eat; and because she was taking in no nourishment she became even more exhausted, the situation rapidly deteriorating from there. During the midday feeding she was nearly unresponsive, asleep in her mother’s arms while all around us babies were crying out for food. I was paralyzed emotionally. It was like trying to feed a plastic doll, and I suppose we were as naive and deluded as children playing house that afternoon. The nurse assigned to us, who had hovered at a distance for a day, now moved in, as if cued by a director with very good timing, and with gratitude I felt control being taken away from us. We were told that Gracie would be fed with a feeding tube that night, and were sent home. The last stage of my grandmother’s life began when she was fitted with a feeding tube. I was helpless to avoid drawing parallels. I found myself thinking, You need to begin dealing with this now. You need to accept what may happen. If you don’t, this is going to send you all to pieces. You will not recover.

My mother: ‘It’ll be okay. Babies are tough.’ But I’m not. At home, seeking comfort, familiar rhythms, I made dinner with ingredients from the cabinet. It didn’t help. She’ll come out of it. You’ll see. Sometimes I’d feel all right, almost human for ten or even twenty seconds. And then I’d picture my three-day-old daughter limp in her mother’s arms, unresponsive, and all at once I’d feel as if the ground had vanished beneath me.

This is how I feel when I fly over water at night—out of control, beyond the help of a higher power, and reliant on nothing but faith I’ve whistled up out of nowhere.

 

********

 

I push the plate of lamb chops aside and set the bowl of cereal on the counter. I’m no longer hungry; not for food, anyway—it’s something else I want, something I’m having a hard time identifying. Gracie is hungry, and I’m hungry. She did come out of it, just like everyone said she would. Our daughter is home with us, gaining weight—but in many ways I’m still back there in the NICU, a spirit haunting the waiting room.

I snap off the overhead light, then wrap up the chops and open the refrigerator door— the fluorescent interior light bathes the kitchen surfaces in soothing lunar shades: ultramarine, cerulean, bondi blue. I’m tempted to remain here, where things are being shown, if only for a moment, in the kindest light. In a little while I’ll have to come up with something for Jessica to eat—I want her to eat well, which will help Gracie get the nourishment she needs.

A simple syllogism that keeps playing its logic in my head:

Major premise: I’m cooking for Jessica. Minor premise: Gracie gets all her nourishment from Jessica. Conclusion: When I cook for Jessica, I’m cooking for Gracie.

Eventually Gracie is fed, rocked, and gentled off to sleep, and Jessica joins me. We watch a movie that makes us laugh, but my attention is divided. I realize what it is I’m hungry for; it is a lack of reassurance that has left me famished. But reassurance is in short supply these day, and it will be left to me to supply my own. Caring for my daughter—cooking for her—helps me cope. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that when I cook for Gracie, I’m caring for myself.

And I’m doing it poorly. In this situation you don’t make delicate lamb chops, not if you’re wise to the new timing—you make lamb shanks, or braised veal, or short ribs, or a chickpea stew. You make something that can cook away all night, if need be. I must adapt, or we’ll all do without.

Soon I’ll have to learn to cook all over again.

 

_________________________________________________


1 This turns out to be a position that fathers-to-be find themselves in regularly. Throughout the many weeks of the pregnancy the father is often, much to his dismay, reduced to following stage directions—and he finds himself, paradoxically, in a key role that has virtually no lines.

2 And here I didn’t exactly earn votes for the title World’s Greatest Husband. This class was important to Jessica and, precisely because it was so important to her, I should have attended cheerfully and without complaint and in fact made a point to tell her that I believed in her and was here to support her—but instead I grumbled about the quasi-new-age aspects of the class, the paltry snacks on offer for pregnant women who were skipping dinner, the hours-long commitment, etc. & etc. In a nicely symmetrical come-uppance, the class turned out to be of great benefit to me: we had planned to hire a doula to help us through the birth, and when Gracie arrived early, before we’d had a chance to locate a doula, it was exactly the practices I learned in this class that allowed me to help Jessica through the delivery.

3 Though I should qualify—although in the first few months I saw no evidence of the baby in my wife’s belly region, I did see dramatic evidence that her body was going through remarkable physiological changes, viz., that this author’s wife, at the late first-trimester period of pregnancy, suddenly blossomed into a striking Playboy-bunnyesque build, one sharply arresting in its perfect recollection of many of this author’s latent adolescent desires, but enough about that.

4 An outlook surely informed by the fact that I am the son of a doctor and a trained nurse, and have developed a engrained trust for modern medicine and its practitioners.

 

When I first received the email warning me that a breasteraunt wanted to open in the middle of town, I snorted it off. “Yeah, right,” I thought. “Like they’re going to let them do that here.” The almighty They—those who are not me. The bucolic Here—Evanston, Illinois, which boasts not only Northwestern University and some Lake Michigan shoreline but also, I’d wager, the most Whole Foods square footage per capita of any town in a thousand mile radius and a population that yes, by and large does think it’s pretty special, what with our diversity and community and well-preserved Victorian architecture. It’s the type of place where you have to have three hearings just to put up a fence in your yard, where you’ll get a visit from the city if your neighbors don’t like the placement of your garbage can. It’s a nuclear free zone. These alarmists leaning on the horn about the Tilted Kilt, sort of a Celtic-themed Hooters, and calling me out as a “Parent of Evanston” who should be concerned weren’t going to get me parading downtown with a bull horn: “What do we want? Tits covered! When do we want it? Now!”

The restaurant sounded tacky, but complaining about skimpy uniforms wasn’t my style—especially when the whole thing seemed hypothetical.

It wasn’t until last month, when the developer had applied for a liquor license and it seemed like an approval might actually come to pass, that I decided to pay attention. I looked at the Tilted Kilt’s web site and read about the controversy in news outlets, and it was the comments following the articles and editorials, as much as “The Kilt Calendar Girls” video that I clicked on, that actually got my ire up.

“Quit the elitist attutude because you are a woman and wake up and realize what century you are in!”

“If you have three kids and dont want to go there, DON’T GO….This is the US of A. You are a socialist and need to live in Old Russia, and keep your kids inside….”

“Grow up and smell the deficit.”

Being told I was stupid for questioning a business venture made me question it all the more. And what I found upon examination was a perfect circle of capitalist fucktitude→ The overdevelopment of Evanston’s downtown during the boom years, the evacuation of the older buildings and the bust’s resultant under-occupation of the new ones, the scorn and disgust for those who don’t see the vacancies as reason to do whatever it takes to attract new businesses and bow down to the almighty revenue, the call for personal responsibility in the face of any resulting issue or problem, and the fact that if the restaurant was a success, it’d be the male developers and investors who’d rake in the big bucks, while the young women who worked there would receive the same relatively shitty pay as any other service drone while having to continually invest in a high-maintenance look and run the risk, should the context change slightly, of being told that they flaunted themselves like sluts and so deserved what they got at the after-party or in the parking garage.

Even six months ago I might have believed, or wanted to, that last worry to be over-stated or far-fetched, but victim-bashing has been high-profile this spring. When the New York Times ran a story on the gang rape of an 11 year old girl, they famously included quotations describing her sexy, mature attire (which I had something to say about), and, more recently, a Toronto police chief told a group of women that if they didn’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Somewhat relatedly, a commentator on CNN gave a long diatribe about how parents shouldn’t let their kids dress like tramps, and the opinion went viral, appearing in countless blogs and being recommended by over four hundred thousand people on Facebook, including several of my friends.

Oh, yes, I decided. In this climate, I have every right to have an opinion about a sexual themed eatery where the “entertainers”—so-called to avoid sex discrimination suits—dress as naughty school girls. I have a responsibility to have an opinion about it. I know that according to the CNN commentator and the indignant righteous everywhere, I shouldn’t blame society for my parenting weakness, that it’s all on me, but come on, I need some help here. My three-year old is tripping over shoes that are a size too big for her as I type this because I could not convince her to wear anything else before we had to get out the door this morning, so I better take some preemptive action before I have a middle school principal reprimanding me for “letting” my offspring wear a plaid bustier to band rehearsal.

I clicked on the petition to deny a liquor license to the Tilted Kilt, and I signed it.

But when I scrolled through the dozens of the anti-Tilted Kilt comments on the petition site—well, I have a contrarian streak, and they gave me pause, too.

“Our children should never be exposed to this kind of establishment!”

“I do not want to dread walking downtown with my dauthers.”

“Please spare our daughters from this damaging model of sexual objectification.”

“There are too many diseases in the world already that have no cure! All because of SEX! Temptation creates sex, sex. Please do not allow this Tilted Kilt to take place!”

Hmmmm. What do we mean by never? By damaging? By temptation?

True, when pro-breasterant commenters suggested that instead of banning a tax-paying business from town parents should instead use the presence of the Tilted Kilt as a teaching moment, I didn’t relish having the conversation that quickly popped to mind. My son’s the oldest, so I’d have to deal with him first.

“Mom, I want to have my fourteenth birthday party at the Twisted Kilt.”

“No, son.”

“Ah, man. Why not? Miles had his party there. You never let me do anything. Everyone has a bigger TV than us. I hate this family!”

“I don’t approve of businesses that train scantily clad young women of a very specific aesthetic type to offer sexual innuendo as they serve burgers. I believe this contributes to a climate of sexism—even to a culture of sexual violence. And although I know sexuality has been part of the marketplace since forever, I really think, as a young person, you should develop your own sexuality and discover that of others in a more organic, more egalitarian, less pre-packaged fashion.”

“Does that mean I should hide my search history when I look at porn on the computer?”

“I would appreciate that.”

“What about dad’s photography books?”

“Those are art.”

“Really? Even Tokyo Lucky Hole? Cool. Whatever. Paintball then.”

But would it really be that bad to have a masquerading tittie bar in town?

During my own adolescence, no one put blinders on me, and I don’t think I’m the worse for it. As a teenager, I worked in a diner for a guy who also owned the only strip bar in town, which was located in an alley a couple blocks away from the restaurant. (My friend and I were hired by him when he came through the car wash we were working as part of a school fundraiser—five bucks and you’d get your car washed by a gaggle of high schoolers in bathing suits.) Most of the bar’s dancers were imported to our small, rust-belt town; they came in on the Greyhound for week or two stints. When things were slow on my shift, as they often were, I’d sometimes be asked to use my parent’s Ford Fairmont station wagon to ferry the ladies between the restaurant and the seedy hotel where they stayed. Some of them were drugged and scuzzy. Some of them were nice, confiding or conspiratorial with me as I sat on the bed and watched them get ready. What stands out now is how pale most of them were; this was before tanning booths were ubiquitous, but just. Perhaps my own sense of self emerged intact because the women who came through on the Pittsburgh to Buffalo stripper circuit were not necessarily representing an ideal or upholding any rigid notions of beauty. I mean, for one thing, lots of them were getting around by Greyhound, OK? And reliable cars and tans weren’t the only things they were missing. There was no fake anything, to the discernible eye—the dancers had flopping boobs of various density; teeth that probably hadn’t been subject to orthodontia, let alone bleach; muscle tone that more often bespoke a penchant for cocaine or for chicken wings than a regimen of Pilates (or Jane Fonda’s workout, as would have been the case at the time). I saw that the men buzzed brighter around some of the dancers than others—I remember in particular a woman who looked like Crystal Gayle, with a tent of long brown hair and a Mona Lisa smile—but there was no one exact model. The quality of the most desired women was ineffable. Sometimes, running back and forth with coffee refills to a booth where some regulars were sniggering about something that had gone down at the club, I felt alienated by the presence of commoditized sex, and I was probably subject to a few more objectifying remarks than I would have been elsewhere, which could make me uncomfortable. Perhaps the environment did contribute to the feminist rage I’d be feeling a couple years later. But mostly I was curious. And generally I had a healthy body image, a healthy sense of my sexual self. I didn’t obsess about my imperfections, was vain but not encumbered by vanity. My feelings of sexiness didn’t lodge in the eye of the beholder or what I believed was seen there, and I was having a great time rolling around with my very nice boyfriend. If more than less, I basically wish the same for my own daughter.

But it does seem to be a different era. And yes, I do worry about how the image-onslaught of literally or figuratively photoshopped sexuality will affect my girl child. I do see the ways in which narrow standards of desirability can be warping to girls (and boys). For example, from what I gather, the ubiquity of internet porn has created, among other things, an expectation of what the ideal vulva looks like, a market for plastic surgery of the pussy. At my diner job, I had to wait outside the strip club when I was assigned to pick up one of the dancers there; I was never allowed in the door. But even if I had spent every shift with a front row seat at the rowdy bar, I’m pretty sure I still wouldn’t have thought to criticize the appearance of my labial lips. Clicking through the girls competing to be in next year’s Tilted Kilt calendar, it’s amazing how differences are canceled. White girls, Asian girls, African American girls, they all start to look like a mass—the same shape, the same expression, the same presentation. It’s depressing to me. Deadening. I can hope that my daughter acquires punk rock sensibilities and purposefully chooses an opposite track—and my son too—but I’ll tell you what, I notice that even the counter-culture girls I see these days have brilliant white teeth and smooth armpits. I’d place a bet that they don’t have much pubic hair, either.

So, although I couldn’t heartily join in some of the most dramatic hand wringing about the Tilted Kilt, I left my name on the petition. And when the day of the hearing for the liquor license came, I watched it closely.

By this time, more than 2000 people had signed their opposition to the restaurant’s opening in downtown Evanston, and critics packed the hearing. Defenders also came out, representatives from the chain and the businessman and his wife who wanted to open the local branch. In the face of accusations that revealing costumes and the serving of alcohol increased the risk of sexual violence, the company argued that they do everything they can to protect their employees from being disrespected; that there’s no sexual innuendo in the menu or marketing. They essentially said that the web site is misleading, that the Tilted Kilt is a high-end establishment that draws people in with pretty women, yes, but that keeps them with a big beer selection and a plethora of even bigger TVs that all have the game on.

“And let me make it clear, the entertainment is not the young ladies and women that are working there as wait staff. The entertainment is that it’s a sports bar,” Carol Mengel, the businessman’s wife stated at the hearing, according to the Chicago Tribune.

A-ha! Reading that quote helped me put my finger on what was bothering me most. I was more offended by the boosters’ denial that the carefully casted boobilitious staff was not offering sexual entertainment than I would have been if reps had said, yeah, we’re selling sexiness—whoo boy, have you taken a look at those ladies?—and that’s just fine.

Because look, I myself like to be waited on by beautiful servers. Especially as I get older, I like it inordinately. And when I used to go to clubs, I was happiest when foxy dancers-for-hire were shaking it on a platform in full view, the less clothing they had on the better. Who knows where I’d be putting my dollar bills if I were a guy, and actively enticed. I’m not saying I don’t have reservations about sex work; I do, along with a lot of interest. But about the concept of pushed up, spray tanned boobs as functional wallpaper, I’m finding I don’t feel too ambivalent.

It’s not too far afield from the reaction I had when I first learned there was a service that hired out bikini clad-women as house cleaners. Strippers, prostitutes, masseuses, dominatrixes—I get why someone would do and pay someone to do all those jobs. But stripper/toilet-cleaner? That gets my judgment going: Ewwwwwww.

While still in college, I had a friend who started stripping at a little dive bar. After a short time, she wanted to see what else was out there in the world of adult entertainment, and I made the rounds with her. The only place I remember going into was a joint with the TVs behind the bar and the stripper stage to the patrons’ backs. In the afternoon, when we walked in, one tired woman in a fishnet body stocking with a couple of dollars folded suggestively against her belly whirled desultorily around the pole while two of the three patrons at the bar looked the other way, at the game. This made such a depressing impression on me that I can recall the image as if I’d just turned away from it. If you’re taking off your clothes and dancing, whatever else there is to say about the dynamic, attention should be paid. Tits-out waitresses running back into the greasy-floored kitchen to get another ramekin of mayonnaise while recreating men let out a uniform cheer at a ref’s call—I call that a poor use of youth’s voluptuous blossoms.

After hearing testimonials from both sides on the day of the hearing, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl delayed her decision about the Tilted Kilt, and the town had another week to question our views, comment on them, and berate the opposition. My own opinion was crystallizing, and, finally, I was putting both my feet down on one side of the fence and honing my battle cry: “What do we want? Reverence for the sexy! When do we want it? Well, it’s a goal!”

A week later, on May 2, the final verdict came in. Mayor Tisdale voted against the liquor license.

“We are proud of (our) diversity and are sensitive to anything that would stereotype or demean us,” The Chicago Tribune quotes her as saying. “The final straw was at the end of the liquor commission hearing,” she said. “I was given a business card from the owner that shows a picture of one of the entertainers — that is what the waitresses are called. She had no head — it was just breasts, a shrug shirt, a bare midriff and the kilt, that little skirt.”

Ah, Evanston. I knew They would never let that tacky shit open up in our town square. Good call.

“Happy Mother’s Day, Ladies”, Mrs. G’s voice rang out strong and southern in the cavernous prison unit, where two hundred women were waking up far away from their babies.

Her voice hit me hard in the chest and I thought of my brown haired boy. His second birthday a month away and there was nothing I could do to get back to him. This is an unimaginable kind of powerlessness. Even when it’s happening to you.


While in college, I tutored the following subjects for two years: Anatomy & Physiology, Biology (general and Advanced), and Microbiology. Yet there is one area I was never made privy to: the timeline of the umbilical cord. Going into the last weeks of childbirthing class with my wife, I suddenly find it psychologically incommoding I never learned that following labor and delivery, the umbilical cord is not cut all the way down to the bellybutton.

Yes, all the way down to the bellybutton.

Maybe you’re like me and didn’t know this.

Or maybe you aren’t.

Suddenly, I feel like the dumbest person on Planet Earth for not knowing this.

For the last 36 weeks, I have been a bit scared of having the honor of cutting my baby’s umbilical cord.

“Who needs scissors,” I told my wife when she was around 24 weeks. “I’m using my teeth. Look at these incisors.”

Then I grabbed the air with two hands as if I was holding an invisible rope and started gnawing.

Humor comforts me in times of the unknown.

Note to future dads: Your wife probably won’t find this amusing.

What if I didn’t cut far enough and my baby had an outie? I remember back in the summer days of my youth thinking that kids at the pool with outies looked funny.

Or what if I cut too close and my baby has the ultimate innie, a three-inch deep crater that will collect lint for all eternity? All this time, I’ve been terrified I would cut the umbilical cord much too close to my baby’s stomach and cause some nightmarish infection, thus subjecting my first born to weeks of antibiotic treatment and various hypoallergenic ointments 3x a day.

All because I cut the umbilical cord too close to the bellybutton.

And it would be all because of me.

Her dad.

Her hero.

The man she would grow up idolizing and compare all men to who ultimately could never measure up .

Or at least this is what I like to tell myself.

Then I learn the real story: that after I cut the cord—not all of it, just some of it—a clamp is placed on the leftover upright noodle and remains clamped until a week or so later when said umbilical cord dries up and falls off.

“If you’re lucky,” our childbirth instructor said, “You’ll go to pick up your baby after a nice, long rest and you’ll see the umbilical cord lying there in the crib.”

Just lying there?

In the crib?

Like a fat earthworm that has baked in the hot sun?

Shouldn’t someone have sent out a mass e-mail to all expecting parents that along with taking your baby home, you also take home part of the umbilical cord?

Look, I’m not grossed out by this.

Actually, I am slightly.

But why is it I didn’t know this?

When I told my mom that Allison and I were expecting she didn’t tell me about the umbilical cord.

Neither did those Biology textbooks.

Then again, we never did get to the very end.

Science is sort of like history in that regard. You never get to the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, nor do you get to the nitty-gritty in concern to the timeline of the umbilical cord.

Whereas I’m the youngest of two children, my wife is the oldest of four. She knew this already. Maybe all women do. Maybe this tidbit of information is something all women receive when they get their ears pierced.

Allison’s youngest sibling is nine years younger than her.

“I remember when I was a kid, Emily [her sister] and I would go into the nursery each morning to see if Carrington’s umbilical cord had fallen off yet,” she said to me while we were eating some 80/20 Angus Beef hamburgers I’d cooked up.

“What do you mean you’d go in and see if the umbilical cord had fallen off?”

“It dries up.”

“What do you mean by ‘it dries up’?”

“It dries up and falls off.”

“Falls off?”

“Yeah, falls off.”

“The umbilical cord?”

“What did you think happened to it?”

“It stayed at the hospital . . . with the placenta.”

So let this be a lesson to all you expecting first-time fathers out there. When you go in the nursery to snatch up your baby for a good rocking and see what appears to be either a turd or a chewed up cigar in the crib, Red Auerbach has not returned from the dead and been watching over your baby at night. That’s your baby’s dried up umbilical cord stump.

And let this also be a lesson that I am apparently not the right man to talk to in regard to tutoring you for any Biology class, especially Anatomy & Physiology.

As for me, I guess it’s about time I get some shuteye. As the story goes, there isn’t much of that in my near future. But it’s all gravy.

Here’s to first time knowledge and dried up umbilical cord stumps.


The Visit

By Meg Worden

Memoir


It’s visiting day, and somewhere my son, Aidan, who just turned two, is getting ready. They drove twelve hours to get here and my mom said they were staying at the La Quinta in Bryan, but that means nothing to me. Confined to the walled eighteen acres of this prison, I am completely ignorant of the size or layout of the city I live in.

Going to visit Mommy they’ll be saying and in my mind I see him raise his arms so my grandmother can pull his shirt over his head, his thick hair standing up from sleep. I imagine the strain of keeping him still to redress him, tie his shoes. It’s seven forty-five.

My stomach is twisted up in bittersweet knots while I pull on my khakis, tie my own steel toed shoes, tuck and button and make certain I’m visiting-room-regulation-ready. I look at my watch. It’s seven fifty-two. Five minutes later I check my watch again. It’s still seven fifty-two. Time is moving slower than usual. It feel like I’ve been preserved. Embalmed.

I sit on the tight, tucked edge of my bunk, I’m longing to see him and wracked with the anxiety of how, after six months, I might go about being a mother for half a day. I have to focus to hold my body still while gale force winds arc up over my heart, through my throat and crash like waves into my belly. It’s seven fifty-nine.

“Attention! Attention in the Unit! Inmate 15894-045, you have a visitor.” The sound comes crashing in and though I expected it, I am startled and so is my roommate, Boobs, who turns onto her side and adjusts her earplugs, causing the metal bunk bed to shift and hit the cinderblock wall with a thud. The springs beneath her plastic mattress let out a shrill and painful squeal. A voice across the building screams at the intercom, “Shut the fuck up!” another in response to the first voice, “Naw! You shut up!” and “For real! I’m sleeping here!” The fact that addicts are so naturally adept at self-destruction makes the shouting, the general din of this place, reeks of overkill.

“Attention in the UNIT! Inmate 15894-045, report to the visiting room ASAP!”

Another blast through the sleeping unit stirs another chain reaction of groans, shifts and protests. A few room lights switch on as I gather my courage and head for the door. He is here. He is waiting to see me.

Dark pavement recedes under my steps, it plods away under the swollen sky as I walk the length of the compound towards the visiting room with its little playground, board games, vending machines and tears. The humid morning steams and softens the wrinkles in my clothes; heavy doors loom large. What lies beyond them, looms even larger. In a couple of minutes I’ll be with him. I’ll be able to hold him. The empty ache of separation has made him seem like a dream. A sweet, but fleeting, dream.

I watch my hand reach out and grip the solid door handle and pull it towards me, I smell the acrid years of microwaved ham sandwiches and pizza rolls and hear hinges whine my arrival. The officer looks up, and, even though she knew I was coming, she’s clearly annoyed to see me. “It’s about time,” she says. “Do the Dance.”

The dance is legs wide, arms to either side like wings while she pats me down. Later I will strip naked in the bathroom, and I will be searched more intimately, but, right now, I don’t care about violation or my lack of civil rights. There is no periphery, there is only the point. My son, all legs and black hair a-blur. He is here and he is running.

When his thunderclap of a body collides with my own, the impact takes my breath. He clings, face buried in my collar where he will stay for thirty full minutes. I wrap my arms around his heartbeat, his warm weight, and I know he is real.

“We were first in line,” my mom says.

“Im glad,” I reply.

“We miss you,” says my Grandma.

“Thanks for coming,” I say.

No one really knows what to talk about. There’s no language for this, no points of common ground. My grandmother holds her purse close, a silver cross hangs around her neck. I consider telling her how I’ve learned to say the Hail Mary in Spanish, but reconsider when words fail me. It’s superfluous information. Like I’m talking about making ashtrays at summer camp. My mother just stares, her head cocked. She comes up close and starts petting Aidan’s hair.

“Are you glad to see Momma?” she asks this rhetorical question an octave too high, and a head too close to my ear. She keeps staring, keeps drinking us in, shaking her head and smiling a smile that threatens to melt into tears, threatens to spill over, to fill the room and leave no space for anyone else to feel anything. I turn away. I want this moment to be mine. I don’t want anything to interrupt me and my arms and this boy growing sweaty in the curve of my neck.

“Let’s find a table,” I suggest.

We sit near the indoor play area, next to the vending machines and I close my eyes for a minute. I want to cry, am desperate to cry, but don’t.

“See that man over there in the cowboy boots, Meg?” Grandma says, nodding toward the exit door. “He was next to us in line. He visits that blond lady there.” She nods again in the same direction. “He told us her story, it’s so sad. She’s innocent, got framed.” Now the head nodding gets rhythmic, matches the tsktsk of her lips while she contemplates the injustice of this place. It’s weird to hear my Grandma say “framed.”

While I appreciate her ability to believe, her desire to see it all as so unfair because I’m here I’m socially inept and out of practice making small talk. I don’t want to be the center of attention, don’t want to have nothing to say, don’t feel like I have the fortitude to explain the inexplicable. My answer comes out sharper, more sarcastic than I mean it to.

“Yeah, right. Her and everyone else here. I wonder how much he puts in her commisary account every month.”

My grandma’s face falls. She looks tired, sad and stricken. I wish at that moment that I was a gentler, more patient human being. I don’t know how to right what I’ve said because It’s true, about the woman using her cowboy, but who cares, I just feel so out of words, so incapeable of talking right now. I inhale the smell of his hair. I want to contain it. To keep it in my lungs, to float with it up and up and up until we both dissapear into the wide Texas sky outside of this room, away from everyone and everything awkward and all the things said and unsaid.

I get it, I’m here, It’s what happened. I sleep with regret, I practice faith, surrender, I do my best to make it all worth something, accept it, be grateful, blah, blah…but, Goddamnit, I think. This is my baby and I want to go home.

Home. The word dissolves, transforms as I think it. It becomes abstract, loses meaning, wrings out the weight of what’s lost and washes it in wretched isolation. My tears spill onto Aidan’s salty hair, onto his uncharacteristic stillness, his tiny high-top shoes. He squeezes in tighter, our hearts pound together. Louder, like the volume in the room as families continue to navigate security procedures and wait in turn for their particular inmate.

Our story, The Story, repeats itself. Children cling, mothers weep and we all become participants in the same heartache, playing our very best games of everything-is-alright, wishing we were anywere but here. I look around and it feels like I’m standing between mirrors, witness to the infinite reflection and mine is in every khaki uniform in the room. I feel the lines of separation become blurred and my raft of isolation is temporarily beached. The desolate city fills with people, and the flames subside.

As the day wears on, my Grandmother, my Mother and I, we talk more freely, even laugh while we become weary trying to wrestle with the minutes, knowing it will be months before we see each other again. I push Aidan in the swing, buy him strawberry Pop Tarts from the vending machine. I rock him in a chair while he naps, whispering, “Soon, little man, I’ll be back with you soon.”


Why did you pick this topic, or specifically this case, for your first book?

It was a story that needed to be told. I’m not sure that I picked this story so much as it picked me. I was fascinated by this lawsuit. I had heard about the Scott case, but I really didn’t have any reason to write about it.  And yet, it kept coming up somehow.  There’s a certain chemistry a writer feels with a story and this one just stuck with me. I couldn’t let it go. Eventually I went up north and dug around a little bit. By the end of the trip, I was completely fascinated. After I entered a graduate writing program, I looked at it again and that’s really when I began to see it as a book.


What appealed to you about the story?

Because it showed how a serial predator managed to work his way through a major religious institution for 20 years. But this isn’t just Brother Curtis inside the Mormon Church. This is a sex abuse lawsuit that became a giant Constitutional fight. This court case was so complex it stretched into courtrooms in three states. It went to two state Supreme Courts. The law is very often made in individual court cases that lead to appeals and decisions. We’re interpreting the laws here, we’re making the law with these individual court cases.  It was the story of the dogged perseverance of the attorneys, and the survivors. They were outmanned and outgunned, but everyone who lived this thing kept on fighting.


Tell us about your research. How many states did you visit, depositions did you read, transcripts did you study, victims did you interview?

Six states, from California up to Washington and over to Michigan. The civil court file in Oregon alone is about 28 volumes long, and I’ve probably read the entire thing at least three times. I read the transcripts of more than eight court hearings and about 35 depositions. I interviewed dozens of people, and logged plenty of miles in airplanes and rental cars.


Before you started the book you already knew plenty about this case yet there were so many curveballs the more you dug. What surprised you the most?

The sheer amount of abuse. The number of victims, states, years –- I began to grasp the real extent of the situation and it was astounding. Everyone thinks it’s only him. Working on the book, I also soon realized that several victims thought they were the only one.


How might the church culture have played a role in Brother Curtis’s acts?

Sexual abuse certainly is not exclusive to the Mormon Church. But insular communities, especially where there are many children, can be susceptible to predators. They function with the assumption that if you’re one of us, you must be okay; they have blind trust. You also have lay people in positions of authority who have no idea how to handle matters like this, yet feel they have to.  And there is a natural tendency to trust people more when they’re standing inside a church building, and I too have felt that.


This is not exactly a feel-good story. Did you have to put it down and walk away for a bit to get some space?

There were absolutely times when I had to walk away. Journalists face a lot of disturbing things. You get used to it. There is a certain shell that you develop that’s a necessary part of the reporting process.  The interesting thing was that my own life changed, which in turn changed my perspective.  When I first started looking at the story I was a new parent; now I have children the same ages as many of the victims. I was heartbroken, horrified, and angry by a lot of what I learned. On my best days, being possessed of powerful emotion made me a better writer. And sometimes, yes, I just stepped back for awhile.


Are you, or have you been, a member of the Mormon Church?

No.


Were you molested or abused as a child?

No, thankfully.


As a parent, how has this book changed you? Have you made changes in raising your young children because of what you discovered in writing this book?

I’m not sure that it changed my parenting so much as it informed my parenting. Perpetrators are most often people you know. It’s fair to say that caution can spill into paranoia pretty easily after working on this book, though, so I try to keep my fear in check.


You’re a wife, mom, university teacher, freelance writer –- and author of a national book with a major publisher. How did you create the time to take on such an ambitious project?

I discovered early on that I had to leave the house in order to get any productive writing done, and I did most of my best work at the library.  But, honestly, I also wrote this book in a lot of cafés, on the bleachers during swim practice, or in the car while I waited for my children. In all, it took eight years, not by design.


The book examines in detail how the Mormon Church went to great lengths to stall the court cases. The Church has stalwartly denied any wrongdoing. Is there any indication that the church is starting to look more seriously at red flags and disciplinary reports involving possible sex crimes in the church?

It’s hard to say. I think there is likely more awareness about sexual abuse among the average citizens, which would include Mormons. The Church now requires that potential scout leaders be vetted by the Boy Scouts of America. And there’s the hotline for bishops to call for help. But child molestation is a crime and safety requires calling the police and actively keeping a molester away from children.


You have a book tour coming up in Oregon, California, and Arizona. What do you hope people will take away from either the book or your discussion?

Keep children safe. Realize that most sexual abusers are not strangers. Insular communities can be quite dangerous if people are reluctant to seek help from “outsiders” like the police.  As a society, we still haven’t figured out how to navigate through the intersection of religion and law.


If you had the many victims of Brother Curtis sitting with you here now, what would you say to them?

It wasn’t your fault.


If you could ask Brother Curtis three questions what would they be?

What would have stopped you from hurting children?  What happened to you as a child?  Did you find spiritual comfort in the church?


After all of the reporting for this book, what is left unanswered?

Was Frank Curtis merely using the church as a way to further his sexual abuse or was he wrestling with his own demons and trying to find spiritual help?  These questions will bug me forever.



Two things I’m often heard complaining about: I don’t have enough time to write and I don’t get enough sleep. What I do have is a full-time job and two little kids, so my beefs seem pretty legitimate. There’s a supportive husband in the mix, but no extended family close-by, and we don’t have the money to hire much in the way of time-saving. We do the cooking, the cleaning, the yardwork (or we don’t). We skimp on or swap for babysitting.

At this point, some readers are probably like: You have a yard on top of all the rest? Cry me a river of unspilled ink. Others might be thinking: You clean your own toilets? Glad I’m not you, but honestly, it’s irrelevant, and it’s sort of pathetic that you bring up the fact that I don’t.

There’s a lot of snark and defensiveness around the issues of time and money. This is evident everywhere from the rhetoric of the Tea Partiers to the comments sections inspired by mommy warriors like Caitlan Flanagan, sure, but exhibit A in my trial is my experience of living with myself. I am still rankled by an interview in The Rumpus in which, when asked how she does it, what with two little kids and a nonprofit and a writing and editing career and all, Vendela Vida  says that everyone can find two hours a day to write. That interview appeared over six months ago, but many a day ends with me shouting in my head: Do you see two hours of writing time in this day? DO YOU SEE TWO HOURS OF WRITING TIME IN THIS DAY?

And then a little internal voice might say: Well, if you’d gotten up at six and jumped right on the computer you might have been able to get an hour in. And admit it. You probably spent at least an hour today dawdling online—you read that interview, didn’t you? And what about those two episodes of Friday Night Lights you watched back-to-back the other night?

And then a much shriller voice says: Six o’clock is not sustainable! She said everyday, and didn’t you hear me say already that I don’t get enough sleep? And am I not allowed to ever relax with my husband? To exchange news with a friend on Facebook? To read a book?

And then, the loudest voice of all screams at ear-splitting volume: No! You’re not! (That voice runs out of breath the fastest.)

There’s also a reasonable murmur, which calls for order: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Show some compassion. And don’t be too easy on yourself, either. Employ some self-discipline. And definitely don’t waste your energy whining. Calm down, and write or don’t. No one really cares by you.

Indeed, it’s true. Which is both a relief and salt in the wound.

The thing is, I do care. When my son was born I kept up a writing schedule for a while, but I ceased any regular exercise. By the time he was around two, I felt crippled. Curled into a child’s pose in yoga class with my back screaming in pain and relief, I swore that as God as my witness, I would never go two years without exercise again. It’s the same sort of difference between writing and not. Except that two or three hours of yoga in a week makes me easily feel great, whereas two hours of writing a week can sometimes feel like worse than nothing. Especially when had on consistently inadequate sleep.

So I get back to ole woe is me, and the plaint that it’s hard to sustain a creative project while raising kids and working.

But this year when going through a box of old journals that had been packed away for years, I came across an entry from, oh, about 1995. I was child-free, lived alone, worked close by, and my only obligations were to spend some time with my friends and my boyfriend. And what was I complaining about in a journal so old it was now turning to dust in my hands? That I didn’t have enough time to write and I didn’t get enough sleep.

Hmmm. So maybe just: Writing is hard. (And sleep is sublime.)

The other day, I enjoyed this post by Victoria Patterson on Three Guys One Book, talking about the dangers of Facebook and Twitter for writers. (Found time to read that too, did ya?) Well, yes. I clicked on it while procrastinating on writing an essay about my writing process with my first novel, and the combination of the post, the procrastination, the memory lane made me recall that when I was writing Currency, I felt the need to keep eliminating things from my life: I drank less, I socialized less, I more or less dropped friends who required a certain kind of effort, and I ceased my involvement with the zine I co-published. I didn’t write anything else, for anyone, no little reviews or essays. One after another things got hauled to the chopping block, even during a period when I had a life as conducive to finding writing time as mine is ever likely to be.

And that was before the distractions of the internet had multiplied so splendiferously, before online networking time became almost as important a part of a writer’s schedule as writing itself.

I remember a conversation with a writer friend who had a semester off. He went away to a solitary residency somewhere, and when he returned from the mountains or the meadows or wherever he’d gone, he was a little rueful. He’d felt that at home, even with no formal obligations in the way of class time or teaching, his social life impeded his writing progress. But alone for a month or two, he found that having no demands at all didn’t necessarily speed things along. Sometimes it’s not the time, exactly, that we need. Even the most concentrated beam of hours can’t always melt away the difficulty. Uninterrupted concentration often breaks on its own, and depending on where, or why, it can leave one happily spent or empty and unsatisfied, sticky and fidgety with loneliness and doubt.

Although staring down my own novel project was difficult, I also felt a huge amount of momentum. The momentum was the mudslide that pushed away other things that were enjoyable and important to me, that made me sometimes resent invitations to weddings or writing events or pleasant outings with friends.

If I were on fire with momentum now, would I be hauling Facebook up to the chopping block? Maybe. Probably. But what about the tender arm of a toddler? What about the lean buttock of tweenaged boy?

Because here’s the thing about the having-kids part: I don’t want to resent spending time with them. I don’t want to be any more distracted and impatient with my family than I already can be. And when I’m immersed in a world I’m creating, everything that competes feels like a hindrance. To walk the tightrope every day between my outward and my inward life, to trot out the litanies for strength and mantras for balance—that’s exhausting in its own right, and makes me need a nap that much more desperately. I resist writing not (only) because it’s hard, but because it’s hard to come back from. It’s hard to keep in perspective.

That sounds good, right? That sounds like I might actually be a writer, and not only a divisor of elaborate complaints? I hope so, because that’s the image I’m going for. But also, I believe that it’s true.

In 2007, I traveled to Duluth to hole up with three women I’d met at an author’s retreat in the previous decade. At that time, I’d not been doing much writing for the past few years. I’d worked on no fiction at all, beyond some scribbling in notebooks. But rereading the scribbling had a powerful effect on me, and after spending a couple quiet days with those notebooks and myself, writing many more pages in a frantic hand that became illegible as the hours wore on, I had a passionate and almost violent outburst in a deserted outbuilding of our motel. I was absolutely frenzied with both my desire to surrender to the fermenting ideas and with my need to defend my family from that happening. My son was five at the time, and parenting was becoming slightly less all-consuming, and perhaps the wrenching that I felt was the emergence of a submerged self from a chrysalis. It’s hard to say for sure, because within a couple months I found myself pregnant and undergoing a career crisis. My full attention was called for elsewhere.

All of us in Duluth had raised or were raising children, but when we first met, I was still a maiden, affianced. I remember studying Ladette and Allison, who were already mothers, because I knew even then—before I really knew anything, really, about what was in store for me with parenting—that it was an achievement to have maintained a writing life in the face of supporting others economically and emotionally. When I asked Ladette about how she’d done it, she quoted Toni Morrison, a single working mother when she had written The Bluest Eye, as saying that she wrote her first novel “in mornings and noon hours.” I can’t confirm the quote, but it’s stuck with me. I know that Alice Monro wrote her first collection in the scraps of time she found while raising three kids, and that there are many other parent-authors who have written in the margins of busy lives—but if I stop writing now to do some research on exactly whom overcame what I will never get this post up before my kid wakes up from her nap.

So suffice it to say that some of our greatest living writers are part of the “everybody” who can find two hours a day in which to write, no matter what. And yeah, I doubt they all had even occasional housecleaners. But they’re not me.

As for me, now, the house is unusually quiet for a weekend afternoon. My daughter is asleep, and the other half of the family is at a friend’s house watching the Bears-Packer game. (That’s what I’m missing today. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying.) If all the stars align—which they could, because she was up for chunk in the middle of the night, and I along with her—I might manage to post this before Lilli wakes up and still have time to close my eyes for ten minutes myself. I won’t have worked on any fiction this weekthe long haul versus the quick fix is a whole other topicbut still, that’s a pretty good day.

(I am not even joking when I say that literally at the moment I typed that last line, my daughter woke up.)

(And I did get to watch the Steelers win, so it was an extra good day.)

Dear Fetus

By Jeffrey Pillow

Letters

Dear Fetus,

At 22 weeks, your mother and I will learn whether you are a boy or a girl. My mom—your Gammie Pillow—has informed me the exact date is December 20. (I believe she has an internal countdown meter, which projects all of your life’s milestones) Just to forewarn you, I will probably make some uncalled for comment during this particular ultrasound.

Scenario A: Doctor says you are a boy
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh, is that his penis? It is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is his leg.
ME: I’m pretty sure that is his penis.

Scenario B: Doctor says you are a girl
DOCTOR: And that right there is your baby’s—
ME: Oh my gosh. My daughter doesn’t have a penis, does she? That thing is enormous.
DOCTOR: No, that is her leg.
ME: Oh, thank God. I thought my daughter had a penis.

That is when your mother will give me the evil eye. Actually, your mother will probably lecture me prior to the visit not to make any penis comments. I will still make a penis comment.

Love,

Daddy

I

We will go to the post office.My two girls and I will walk.It is close, so close, in fact, that the old stone building where it’s housed would be visible from our third floor apartment window if not for the still older stone buildings blocking the view.I open the window, thinking what a quick and agreeable walk this will be as the November morning air blows into the room bracing, but the sun over it shines.Maybe winter won’t be as grim-reaper gray as last year.Maybe we can spend one last day in the park.This will be an unfettered, uncomplicated day off.We have no plans.We can simply enjoy what could be, by certain measure, the last day before my daughters need to go back to school, before they start calling friends, before they couldn’t care less, before they leave the house without first checking the temperature or listening to anyone who cares enough to have checked it for them.This day, before all these others, remains open and my call.We need only to go this short distance from our door to the post office to send a medium-sized package.

This should be fun.