Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Very ACLU Christmas

There was a so-called “war on Christmas” long before Bill O'Reilly and friends went mainstream with it a few years ago. I should know. I worked in the ACLU’s Philadelphia office in the mid-1990’s, and it was my job to open the hate mail. Most of it arrived during the month of December in the form of Christmas cards. Nice picture of Mary and the Baby Jesus on the cover. Scrawled scathing message encouraging us to burn in hell or die painfully on the inside. Joy to the world, indeed.

It was all because of that pesky “separation of church and state” which, at least in those days, typically meant your courthouse couldn’t have a crèche on its front lawn. (Unless you went 
this route.) Our lawyers were much busier with other pursuits -- helping the woman who'd been evicted over her boyfriend's race or the man with Down syndrome who wasn't allowed to ride a merry-go-round at a local amusement park. Crèche-busting typically required a few phone calls in the middle of a hectic afternoon, then they’d move on. But that’s what gained us the most notoriety.

Our lawyers didn’t mind the hate mail. Some of them thrived on it, in fact. These were people who loved a good fight; being told to burn in hell just meant they were doing their job. I didn’t take it personally either. But it did make me think. I’d just be sitting there at my cluttered desk in my little hippie skirt making my little $20K a year and listening to my little mix tape, wondering what sort of Christian would think I deserved endless pain just for showing up and doing my little support staff job that day.

And what a job it was. Our office of ten people served all of Pennsylvania. There were two or three lawyers in Philly, another one in Pittsburgh. Phones rang all day long. Mail poured in. I did everything from photocopying to event planning to producing a newsletter. There were some exciting days, being in the midst of important cases and press conferences. There were downright degrading days, dealing with big egos and unkind words from our superstar freedom fighters. But there were plenty of slow, peaceful days, too.

That’s how it was right before Christmas Eve that year. My major projects were finished for the time being. No fires to put out. My mom was coming that night to take me out to dinner and give me a lift home for the holidays. I was clearing up some of the months-old clutter on my desk when I heard some bustling in the foyer area.

I saw Frank, our long-time senior citizen volunteer receptionist, sitting at his desk and speaking earnestly with a young man wrapped in a coat while two small children, a boy and a girl, squirmed in our uncomfortable waiting-room chairs. Each child was holding a gorgeous oversized mesh plastic “stocking” stuffed with toys, clearly yearning to open them but showing remarkable restraint.

Except for the children, it was a familiar scene. All sorts of folks dropped in on our office from time to time, seeking help. Frank would listen patiently to every word of their stories before he would purposefully explain, in his Jim-Ignatowski-meets-Grandpa-Simpson manner, that the ACLU does not handle such cases and refer them to an agency that did. Sometimes they’d get angry, but Frank took the verbal abuse stoically, patiently listening again before restating his position. And listening. And restating. Eventually they’d move on.

But this family was different. From what I was overhearing, this was clearly not a situation the ACLU could help with in an official capacity. But Frank didn’t give him the speech. He kept listening. He kept asking questions. The children got antsier and louder as the conversation continued. Some of us came into the waiting area and tried to keep them entertained with whatever random toys we had on our desks. Stress balls. A Marge Simpson doll. Finally, their dad gave them the go-ahead to open the stockings, and merry chaos broke out.

In the midst of all that, our Legal Director and chief crèche-buster came blustering out of his office on some unrelated matter. He asked Frank what was going on, and Frank discreetly explained. This family had nowhere to sleep tonight. They’d been staying with a friend of the dad, but they couldn’t go back there now. The friend molested the little girl. The lawyer’s tone shifted in a way I’d never heard before, from busy and important to sincere kindness and concern. He invited the young dad into his office.

Which left the babysitting to the rest of us. But no one seemed to mind. Children rarely made an appearance in our office, and they lightened the mood considerably. They pulled crayons and containers of Play Doh from their stockings, and we all got creative together. We made up games and let them run up and down the long hallway.

The meeting went on for most of an hour. Our Legal Director was on and off the phone, networking with his colleagues in social services, tracking down a place for this family to stay. Finally, he was able to line something up. We helped the children gather up their stockings, got them into their coats, and off they went into the Philadelphia winter dusk. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat as I picked the squished Play Doh bits from our waiting-room carpet. Sweet little girl. Who knew what was going to happen to her? It broke my heart just to think about it. But at least she had somewhere safe to go on Christmas Eve.

The “Very Special Christmas Episode” message here is probably pretty obvious, but it bears repeating: The ACLU may have caused the relocation of a few plaster Mary-and-Josephs that year. But an ACLU lawyer also found this real-life unfortunate family some room at the Inn. And with all due respect to Mr. Schulz, I’d like to suggest that that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
Dedicated to the memories of Stefan Presser, Larry Frankel, and Frank Kent.

Monday, December 8, 2008

What Child Is This?

Little Girl turns two today. Though that’s hardly an occasion for a rousing chorus of “Cats In The Cradle,” it is a beginning of an end of sorts. She has boundless energy and opinions of her own. She can do jigsaw puzzles and recognizes any letter or number that’s been featured in a They Might Be Giants video. Even at her tantrumy worst, she’s brilliant. She is our youngest child; my last baby. And soon there won’t be any babies in this house at all.

That started to dawn on me about a month ago when I noticed my favorite crunchy-granola baby store had opened a new shop near our house. I used to drive across town to their old store for slings and cute non-matronly nursing bras. So I happily breezed right in, only to realize…I no longer need slings or nursing bras. Even the baby clothes were too small for my girl.

That same week, I was running an errand up in suburbia and reflexively stopped by Babies R Us while I was in the neighborhood. And there it was. The first time in five years that I actually didn’t need anything at Babies R Us. But I walked up and down the aisles anyway, for old time’s sake, smiling at the bouncy chairs and cribs, watching all the expectant moms and couples with their hopeful faces. (And, even more endearing, the folks with confused “WTF-even-is-this-stuff-and-why-do-we-need-it?!” faces. Ah, memories.)

Of course, I’m happy that the buying-baby-stuff phase is coming to an end. But for me, there was more to this shopping than mere consumerism. There was even more to it than nesting.

My path to motherhood was one big absurd obstacle course. Nearly two years of trying. Early miscarriages, one after the other, dragged our marriage and my sanity through the trenches. Month after month of inconsolable sadness, bouts of wildly looking around for an exit, feeling saturated with pain and disappointment that never seemed to get familiar or easier no matter how many times we’d been through it before.

And then, just like that, I got pregnant and stayed pregnant. Months passed before I truly believed a real baby would actually show up. Not knowing how long the pregnancy would last, I savored every wave of nausea, every spiral of exhaustion. I spent my sleepless nights trying to visualize the cloudy little being inside me that might or might not grow into my child. This was no pink-cloud pregnancy. It was some dark, primordial fog, always uncertain.

But during this time, I was also checking out pregnancy magazines and taking my first tentative steps into the baby-gear stores. Talk about yin and yang. It was as if, right in the middle of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Muppets pop out for a musical number. It was “We Three Kings” played back-to-back with “Feliz Navidad.”

But as the months went by and my pregnancy stayed healthy, it became clear that the baby really would be born. I really would be a mother. I was shopping for my baby just like any other expectant mom, and it felt like a small miracle. That first time I chose a single pair of baby pajamas and actually carried it to the front of the store, paid for it, and took it home…it felt downright revolutionary to me. Yes. I get to have a baby too. I get to participate in this crazy retail ritual too.

My pregnancy with Little Girl was a little easier, but still uncertain. I’d had two more miscarriages after my son was born. I figured she was okay in there, but I was still anxious for her safe arrival. I’d planned and prepared diligently for a VBAC and knew that the key to a successful one was “Don’t Go to the Hospital Too Early.” But when my water broke and contractions never started, it was all I could do not to strap on the fetal monitor myself. All the prenatal yoga in the world couldn’t calm me. I needed to know she was still safe in there. I needed to hear the beeps and know she was breathing.

Birth stories are a funny thing. So much is happening at once. There are moments that are glorious, degrading, painful, and strong, all within seconds of each other. I remember dozens of details about both of my births, but they fall together differently each time I tell the stories. Like a kaleidoscope. Little Girl’s birth looks something like this:

I resist the planned C-section and get my labor started naturally, walking around with Mr. Black past all the neighbors’ Christmas lights as the sun sets and people are arriving home from work. In the hospital, I wear my hair in little pigtails, a black tank top instead of a hospital gown, and dark nail polish on my toes. There are hours of tiger-woman natural labor and hours of dreamboat-epidural labor. Hours of pushing. A flurry of busy scrub-suited arms and a foggy explanation of why a C-section will be necessary after all. There is a freaked-out husband, a gentle doula, and a friendly-but-jaded nurse.

There is me on my back, the jolt of OR doors opening. Bright lights, busy voices. A wet, red baby with a thin film of fuzz for hair. They hold her up for me to see. Her arms and legs flail. Her eyes are squeezed shut. They hand her to Mr. Black and I’m shaking and shaking. Teeth chattering uncontrollably. He brings her over to see me. I try to kiss her and red liquid pours out of her mouth. Suction, suction. Her eyes are still shut.

The doula whispers to me that the doctor is doing one of the most careful, gentle stitching jobs she’s ever seen. With The Boy, they just stapled me shut, wham bam. So, I take a moment to appreciate that. But the baby’s hungry, chomping on her daddy’s fingers. Please, can I breastfeed her now? No. Out of the question. Shiver. Shake.

Back in the room, I still can’t stop shaking. They still haven’t given me the baby. I had a high fever during labor, which means antibiotics for her. The nurse skillfully works a needle into that tiny infant hand and tells me we’re lucky; the hospital just recently changed its policy about this. Otherwise they’d have taken her to NICU.

As it is, her blood sugar is low. They’re recommending formula. Please can I try to breastfeed her first? But my arms still shake and shake. So the doula brings the baby into bed with me and gets her latched on. She and Mr. Black take turns holding her at my breasts while my girl feeds and feeds like a neonatal Homer Simpson. Test her blood sugar again. The nurse is amazed. She’s fine! No need for formula after all.

And then. They move us into a recovery room. Mr. Black goes home to be with our son. It’s just you and me, baby. It feels like we’ve been washed ashore on some island. Battered. But safe. I bring her into bed with me and sing to her as best I can. The only song I can remember is the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.” My voice is so weak.

As the days go by, we get stronger. I heal. She thrives. It is Christmastime and family members are coming to visit and help out. Parents from The Boy’s preschool bring casserole after casserole. During the day, Mr. Black and my dad take The Boy on outings, and I sit in the rocking chair with my sweet new baby, listening to her sleep, watching movies, eating the fancy treats my dad brought me from Pike Place Market. Our days are merry and bright.

There’s a wonderful dreaminess with newborns. It’s the light side that goes along with the dark sleep deprivation, constant stream of bodily fluids, and infant-wails that viscerally break your heart as well as your eardrums. But that dreamy side... Those quiet moments when you feel as connected to that baby as you did when she was growing in your body. Except now you can see her, hold her, hear her breathing and know she’s safe. You can remember how much you wanted her, how hard you fought for her, the pain and suffering you went through to bring her here. You can slip your finger into her tiny uncurled hand and let her clench it.

And now. It’s been two years and my feet are back on the ground. Running. Chasing. Getting them dressed and fed and shuttled from here to there. Playing and laughing. Outings and adventures. Letting them watch too much TV. Saying things I thought I’d never say. Lacking patience. Watching them take their first steps toward independent social lives. For The Boy, that means playing Bionicles/Vampires/Pirates with his preschool pack. For Little Girl, that means smacking other kids in the face before I can swoop in to stop her. Here comes Two.

I’m going to miss the baby years so much. But I look at these kids of mine, these individuals; these smart, funny, wild, exhausting little bed-jumping monkeys. The baby years are over. But we’re only just getting started. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s next for them.

Happy Birthday, Little Girl.

“And now you’re mine.
Rest with your dream in my dream.”
- Pablo Neruda

“My house if full of sevens!
Lots and lots of sevens!”
- They Might Be Giants

Monday, December 1, 2008

There’s Something About Milt

Sarah doesn’t swoon. She is a whip-smart, dry-humored, big-firm lawyer. And when this story takes place, she was the jaded 30something to my puppyish 20something. So I was rather intrigued when she called and asked in a voice that fluttered with high-school dreaminess if I’d met Milt at her neighborhood yard sale last weekend.

Well, no. I hadn’t met anyone at that yard sale last weekend. It had been just another disappointing Saturday, spacing out in a lawn chair, bathed in Philadelphia humidity, waiting for someone to take an interest in my grandmother’s friend’s old dresses. But no one even looked at them and I’d lugged the whole batch back to my apartment, my arms sweating under their sticky dry cleaner bag.

But apparently, Milt had noticed me sweating there in my faded old black tank top. Apparently Milt liked what he saw. And I tried to recognize my typically underwhelmed friend as she chattered excitedly about Milt. Milt! He’s so handsome. He’s such a great guy! Milt is very single and very particular about women, and he noticed you at the yard sale and wants to meet you! When should we get together?

Well…soon! Of course! We made loose plans and I hung up the phone with an extra little spring in my step. The guy who could make my cynical friend swoon wanted to meet little-old-faded-tank-topped me. Not too shabby.

Sarah had also mentioned that Milt was in his 40’s. But that wasn’t much of a concern. I’d dated older men before. They were sweet and, well, let’s just say…housebroken. They’d make actual dates instead of just meeting up at Dirty Frank’s. They weren’t allergic to returning phone calls. If you were carrying something heavy, they’d offer to help you with it, or at least hold a door open for you.

Also, there was a certain hetero-zeitgeist thing that made us more intriguing to each other. What was it like being in college in the 1970’s? When did you first see Patti Smith perform live? What is this thing you kids call “grunge”?

But there was another element, too. Something a little more base.

Men find young women desirable for all the obvious sexist reasons. I’ll admit, I found it downright intoxicating to be the recipient of that desire. Guys your age can take or leave you. There are dozens more just like you in any bar on any given night. But being with an older guy changes the playing field dramatically. Suddenly, you’re fascinating just for showing up. Suddenly you’re the closest thing to Winona Ryder this guy’s got a real shot at. Yes, you’re the object of some dude’s sexist drooling gaze. But if the guy is attractive and smart and fun…if he’s savvy enough to parlay the drool into charm and skillful seduction… well, it can be delicious under the right circumstances. That’s all.

So anyway, I tucked Milt hopefully away in the back of my mind and went about my day. After some phone tag and consulting our calendars, Sarah and I finally found a date that would work for all of us. It also happened to be Milt’s birthday. He and a few friends would be celebrating in a kitschy-turned-trendy diner. Perfect! We could meet in a social setting, with Sarah there and no awkward blind-date vibe.

I was so excited about my upcoming date that I let it slip to Annie, a recently-engaged friend who’d been hoping to pair me up with someone with a little more marriage potential. We had our first and only fight that night. A guy in his 40’s? Why is he still single? Where is this going? Don’t you want kids?

Don’t I want kids? I was in my late twenties at the time, so I suppose it was a fair question. The true answer that night (which I didn’t say out loud) was “Probably. Hypothetically.” But my nebulous hope for eventual progeny couldn’t have been less relevant to my hope for a new luxurious fling with an older, attractive, adoring man. Did one necessarily preclude the other? According to Annie, yes it did.

But maybe she was wrong. Maybe Milt had more potential than I’d given him credit for. Sarah had made it clear that he was a bit of a player. But she also made it clear that he was a wonderful person, and I really valued her opinion. Maybe old Milt might be getting a little weary of playing the field. Maybe our passionate fling might give way to sweet domesticity. Stranger things have happened.

Our big night finally came. I put on my too-short dress and a fuzzy black sweater and took a hopeful cab ride up to the diner. I nearly tripped up the stairs on my own giddy anticipation. I saw a few people sitting in a booth. There was Sarah and her boyfriend. And there was…Milt.

Or was it the hippie dad from “Dharma and Greg”?

I smiled to cover my initial disappointment and sat down across from him, studying his face to see what Sarah had found so attractive. Bald, except for a fringe of salty-peppery hair that fell just a little too long. Sweet cow eyes under a dark pair of eyebrows. A long, kind face. I never got what people find so attractive about cheek bones, but the guy did have a decent set of cheek bones. Maybe that was it. Or maybe she simply remembered an earlier version of Milt. They’d known each other for years, after all.

I chatted and nodded and looked at him this way and that, catching his glimmers of attractiveness, trying to match the person in front of me with the fantasy I’d been nursing. He was funny and interesting enough. There could still be something here.

And then, more guests arrived: A pack of girls about my age. Maybe younger. And definitely more gorgeous. They were like Shirley-Manson-of-Garbage’s sorority: dyed red bobs and dark lipstick, wildly stylish and bubbling with the energy of girlfriends who’ve just shared a cab ride.

Milt! Milt! They poured into the booth behind him and lavished him with hugs and flirtatious greetings. They had a present for him: a Spam snow globe! (Milt apparently loved snow globes, a detail that made me belatedly and unrequitedly attracted to him. He loved kitschy irony too! Oh Milt. We could have had such a damned good time together.)

As we settled into the new, more raucous vibe in the diner, I settled into benign but certain disappointment. Milt and I made a few more attempts at small talk, but before long we mutually, wordlessly agreed to go our separate ways for the evening. Sarah and I caught up on gossip from our old workplace. Milt cavorted with his harem. I stayed for a polite amount of time and caught a ride back to my apartment. Que sera.

I was too embarrassed to ask Sarah what the deal was with the hot chicks, and she was probably too embarrassed to mention it. But I’ve wondered about it many times since then. If plain-old-me wasn’t attracted to Milt, what did these alternababes see in him?

When I told Mr. Black this story years later, his first guess was that Milt must be rich. But that wasn’t it. Milt's job wasn’t much more impressive than mine at the time. His next guess was that Milt must have been their drug dealer. Possibly. But I doubt it.

No, I suspect their attraction to Milt was no different than my interest in older guys in general. Drooling or not, sexist or not, that adoring gaze from the right guy can be one of the most affirming mirrors you could ever have (particularly if you’re Shirley-Manson-hot, I’d imagine). And in a single-girl life full of absurdity and rejection…well…sometimes a jolt of male-gaze-fueled self-esteem is all you need to make it to the next adventure. Sometimes.
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