This is six years

 

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Two weeks ago at 3:45 in the morning, Mr. B’s phone rang. I heard it in my sleep. This the call, I thought mechanically, automatically. We’d been waiting for it, but not wanting it, for the past month. It was his mom, and it meant that his grandmother had succumbed to the heart problems that had been plaguing her for the past thirty years and reduced the warmth of her life to a series of emotionless medical statistics in cardiac intensive care units across Philadelphia for the past month.

I held Mr. B’s hand in the darkness as he fumbled for the phone, and in those three seconds between when the phone rang and when he answered it with someone else’s voice, I felt like he and I I had turned forty years old and the weight of the world descended on us in the early morning gloom. The baby kicked her quiet early-morning kicks, breaking up the silence of our small space. Mr. B got up. He was going to drive with his family to his grandfather to spend time with him before the funeral, four, five people trying to fill the space one person had created through over fifty years of marriage. He didn’t say a word, putting on his shirt methodically. I went downstairs to make him bagels and oatmeal and tea, anything hot, as if that would solve everything, wondering what I would do if he died, how I would fill the him-shaped space in my life. It was still 4:03 am.

Three hours before his grandmother’s funeral, my mom called me. “We’re going to the hospital,” she said. “Your grandfather called himself an ambulance because he was having strong chest pains.” My grandfather had open-heart surgery the following week. Before his triple bypass, all of my family was uneasy. We are not quick to turn to superstition, but when we do, we turn hard. The night before his surgery, I lay quietly in bed, just me, my beluga-sized pregnancy pillow, and whatever room Mr. B still had to sleep on, and I waited for the world to shatter.

I imagined my grandfather in his hospital room with just machines for company, beeping coldly. I imagined that the night before his surgery would be the last time I would see him alive. I imagined him all alone, over 80, in the operating room, under anesthesia, and my heart crumpled into a ball, sending out weak, helpless waves of empathy that couldn’t reach him. I tried to go to sleep on my own but the world weighed heavily on me, mortality lurking at the corners of the peaceful room in the suburbs. I listened to Mr. B. He was breathing the even, slow breath of dreamers, his lanky shoulder blade rising and falling, rising and falling, steady like a wave, and I closed my eyes, confident that everything was still alright.

When I made my wedding vows, these are not the moments I was thinking of. I wasn’t thinking that we would have to go to countless hospital rooms, to funerals, to dimly-lit restaurants where friends were crying because their own worlds were ending. I wasn’t thinking we would sleep on urine-stained mattresses in Jerusalem or that we would sleep separately for months in different cities.

When I made my vows, I just was afraid I was lying when I said I loved Mr. B, and I was terrified he would find out. Because, I thought, love is big and grand and patient and kind and all of that, and every second of every day that I didn’t feel that exact feeling, it meant that I didn’t love Mr. B and this whole thing was just a huge fraud.

But that’s not what love is. Love is not a big, grand man with a trumpet following you around with confetti and champagne. Love is small and quiet and takes time. Love is not the creation of something that’s not there out of nothing. It means creating a space in the other person for yourself, to the point where, if the other person is gone, you are not yourself anymore. Love wedges itself into the cracks of your personality until you’re not sure where yours ends and the other person’s begins. Love is not something that happens to you, or at least something that happened to me.

We built it together. We build it each time I make soup, even though I hate cooking, or each time he peels my pomegranates for me, even though peeling a pomegranate is one of the most pain-in-the-ass activities ever. We build it when we fight but don’t call each other names, or do call each other names but then apologize. We build it when we do things together, and it keeps us when we are separate.

Love means going on a business trip and thinking, “This is a great city, but why isn’t he here, enjoying the view with me? He would have loved this little store that sells tea.” It means waking up every day and thanking God he is still there, alive, breathing, mine.

When Mr. B’s other grandmother died three months into our marriage, I was heartbroken for him and for the woman she had been. When his grandmother died two weeks ago, I became heartbroken for his grandfather, because, after six years, I have finally begun to understand what it is to build love with someone, to carve space inside yourself for someone else, and then to have them leave. I saw ourselves, fifty years later, floating ghosts, soul-less, the love we had built into the other person, draining out, leaving a bottomless world void of meaning.

As he sat in the kitchen at 4:05, ashen, unshaven, drinking his tea, I looked at him, but I didn’t say anything. I could tell he felt the same way. I could tell he was thinking about the ghosts.  I moved to the toaster and quietly cut his bagel in half, turning the setting up to 5, the way he liked it.

Just make the damn meal

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Inspired by this and other NYT hijinks.

Just cook. Just cook dinner. We’re all crunched for time, but please, just cook dinner. It’s never easy to cook. We at the New York Times realize this. You might have a million other things going on in your life. You might have just dragged your ass in from night class that lasts from 6-9:30. Your ass, because it is pregnant, may not even feel like it is attached to your body anymore because you sat in a chair designed for a much less pregnant woman for three hours and tried to thoughtfully participate in class discussion even though oh my god you felt like maybe your midregion was detaching from your body.

We at the Dining and Wine section of The New York Times know. We feel for you and your unborn unorganic child. But nothing is as good as a home-cooked meal. Trust us. Nothing feels as good as a roasted chicken sliding down your gullet, well-oiled with extra-virgin olive oil grown on the terraced olive groves of Sardinia. Free-trade, of course.  Please, please give cooking a try. Quit your classes. Put your fetus in prenatal daycare.  Buy some really good knives.  Please, just make this one meal for us.  Please, make us feel good about ourselves for encouraging middle-class values.

We realize that some days this may be exceedingly difficult. We realize that some days, when you have enough energy, you may go dragging yourself to your fridge, knuckles first, like an ape, and stare blankly into its void, desperately searching for a spatchcocked chicken to appear in front of your eyes like a sub-zero mirage. That chicken will not appear.

Maybe what will appear are some frozen chicken breasts that you forgot to thaw in the morning. Or maybe there will be the soup you made last week. Maybe you will be tempted to feed your husband that. Maybe you will smell it, gingerly. “Still good,” you may say. “Certainly not bacterially safe for me and the baby to eat, but husband should be mostly ok.” Don’t feed your husband that soup. Throw it out. It served you well for six days.But now that soup is done, honey.

We at the New York Times know you’re dreading it, but you will have to procure a spatchcocked chicken.

You will have to drag yourself to the grocery store, yes, after work. We at  Dining and Wine don’t really work – we’ve outsourced that tedious chore to our Micronesian labor butlers- but we understand theoretically it might be hard to come home, change, sit on the couch weeping an anguished, existential cry for fifteen minutes, and then force yourself out in traffic again to go to the grocery store.

How can you hate it, though? We don’t understand that. We at the New York Times work from home in our tiny loft apartments on the Upper West Side, so we’re enthralled by the thought of going out, seeing the masses of society, rubbing shoulders in amongst the tomatoes. Feeling the tomatoes. Just go to the grocery store and feel the tomatoes. We encourage it.

Don’t mind the angry mobs of soccer moms that try to push you out of their way on their path to the kale.

Don’t mind the fact that you have to not only find a chicken with bones in it, but that you then have to go to another person to get those bones taken out. Why not buy boneless chicken breasts to begin with like hundreds of generations of Americans have been doing for the past seventy years? Because it’s not artisinal. It’s not sexy. It’s not spatch. It’s not cocked.

And if you don’t buy the spatchcocked chicken and the unsalted flour, God have mercy on your soul. If you don’t buy the chicken, who knows what you will have for dinner? Frozen food? TAKEOUT? Oh my god, ARE YOU EATING CEREAL FOR DINNER?

And where will that lead you? Down a dark path, a path we are afraid of at Dining and Wine. We have heard of this path, the path of people who don’t have time to make a spatchcocked chicken for dinner. These are sad, scary, miserable people. They work for a living. They go to classes. They have to take work trips. They have children. They have family obligations.  And by the time they come home, they couldn’t care less about spatches or cocks.

They just want to sit down, clear their head from the fact that their day has spun around them, and relax.  For five minutes, they just want to melt into a puddle and not hear about how delightful and romantic home cooking is when they would give their left arm not to have to do anything else for the day.

These are scary, miserable people, and we at Dining and Wine can’t even fathom functioning this way.

Just buy the spatchcocked chicken and gently fry it. Trust us. We know what’s best for you.

If you love books, leave Amazon alone

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I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, near a small library that always smelled of old book pages and cookies. The main entertainment in the town was going to the mall on Friday night to gawk at other people going to the mall on Friday night, and the main reading demographic was people who liked butter sculptures and Quaker Steak and Lube.

I liked being melodramatic and learning Italian.  My weird didn’t mesh with the normal for my area.

As a result, I spent hours in that library, both as a reader, and later as a volunteer shelver,  and it is responsible for introducing me to the series of books that has remained in the top five books I have read in my lifetime: His Dark Materials, as well as hundreds of other books that I can’t remember.

When I started trasitioning from the children’s to the adult section, though, I realized I was starting to come up on the limits of my little backwater-town library.  The adult section had hundreds of copies of Danielle Steele, Jan Karon, and anyone else who had either flowers or women’s half-obscured faces on the cover, catering to the audience who wanted most of the books.

But, there were zero copies of books I really wanted, books I had heard about somewhere and wanted to see for myself. I saw T.H. White’s The Once and Future King on a suggested reading list and wanted to check it out, but the only copy was always either lost or on reserve. It was impossible to get the latest Isabelle Allende, and you could definitely get whatever was on the NY Times Bestseller list, as long as you were willing to wait at least eight weeks. Eight weeks for a book. Agony!

Some books, I was able to buy at the new Barnes and Noble  that opened at the mall when I was in high school with allowance or birthday money. Some books, I found by accident at the wonderful used bookstore near my house that has since long shuttered.  But I couldn’t buy all the books, and I couldn’t find all the books when I wanted them, and by the time I did find them, I’d forgotten about them.

By the time I started my professional life and started reading seriously about books and literature on the internet at places like The Paris Review, The Morning News, The Millions, The New York Book Review, HTMLGiant, I felt  I was missing a huge part of my Western literary education.

Part of this is because all of these websites are snobs.

But part of it is because, if you live in the outer ring of popular culture in the United States, you are just not going to have access to the same kinds of books and knowledge about books that people in huge cities do.

Clay Shirky writes about this in a great essay:

After devoting half a paragraph to the central fact of Amazon’s history — they are better at making books available to readers than anyone else in the world — Packer drops that line of thought. If more people having access to more books is a good idea, it becomes harder to argue on behalf of Little, Brown. The readers in Podunk towns get a cameo and are then banished from the conversation. (As usual.)

Access to books was poor for anyone who lived in Podunk, because in the twentieth century (and the sixteenth, for that matter), keeping books in stock presented the same problem as keeping shoes or pots in stock. They had to be created in advance of demand and delivered someplace for sale. The limitations imposed by physicality and geography are so normal that people rarely mention them, but they create persistent barriers to access for anyone other than well-off urbanites.

This is not entirely the fault of my tiny town library, which provided a lot for the budget it was given to work with, I’m sure. It is the fault of my local Barnes and Noble, which stocks much the same things that my library does: whatever appeals to the middle majority in the suburbs of Philadelphia (lots of books with cursive titles and blurry pictures of women in bikinis on the cover.) That’s what sells.

It is also the fault of people who are trying to sway public opinion by  saying, and have been saying loudly for the past couple years, that Amazon is killing the book, and against people who say Amazon is unfair to readers.  All of these people live in big cities, where it is impossible not to find good books. I am always amazed when I go to The Strand, or Kinokuniya or Powell’s,  just how much literature and news about literature is available to people in huge cities. In Philly, we have the Joseph Fox bookshop, which is good, but tiny-tiny, and I’m always half-afraid it will close.

If you want access to good books, it used to be that you had to hear about them from some list and wait for them to come to your library or backorder to your store. Now, all you have to do is be able to find it on Amazon. I have never had as much access to literature, for as low of a price,  as I have with Amazon, and I am in love with this experience, and these people are trying to diminish that for me.

I’ve been able to buy a used, obscure copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon for $4 from someone who was clearly done with it for years. Instead of waiting for months while The Magician’s Land bestseller circulated through my local library, I had it on pre-order. It came on my birthday. I read it that day, and Mr. B picked it up two days later.

Being connected to literature, to physical books, and to people who talk about books is one of the greatest joys in my life, and Amazon has given it to me. I am happily (Mr. B, less so) drowning in books at my house right now.

If you love books, publishers are not your friend. They are gatekeepers, and they make money by being so.  Amazon is no angel. It also makes money from squeezing the hell out of economies of scale, low distribution costs, and all that stuff they teach you in MBA classes.

But.

But.  Just as books serve as a portal to a different world, Amazon currently serves as a portal to books. Publishers and bookstores can afford to cull the books they offer, thereby limiting what’s available to the public. Amazon can’t, because its whole business model is that it’s everything to everyone.

As a result, Amazon has created a broader, richer experience for readers who live outside of New York City, this one included.

The first rule of Russian club is you don’t use last names

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One of the interesting things about being pregnant is that I’m getting all kinds of new information.  In addition to people sending me (sometimes unsolicited) parenting advice, I’ve also been invited to join Russian parenting groups for Russian-speaking parents my age in the New York and Philadelphia areas on Facebook.

In these forums, people (mostly women) my age with perfect English and names just as Americanized as mine discuss what to do if your toddler is not eating kasha (try to guilt them) and where to find Russian versions of Disney cartoons online for free (BitTorrent.)

One of the other things that frequently comes up is the need for service providers, such as nannies, plumbers, people who install hardwood floors, lawyers, etc.  “Can someone recommend a plumber that works in Northern New Jersey? Tia!” a post will read, thanking the recommender in advance.And invariably, only hours later, the thread will be full of something that looks like this:

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If you’ve noticed the pattern, you are correct: NONE OF THESE PEOPLE HAVE LAST NAMES.

Every service professional anyone Russian recommends does not have a  last name, but, even in the age of internet transparency and websites and business licenses and that kind of thing,  they can always somehow magically be located by just a simple phone number.

You call them. “Allo,” a gruff voice will say, sounding like they are either in the bathroom or smoking in an underground opium den. “Is this Oleg?” you’ll ask timidly, because, again, you have no real way of knowing since…you only have their first name and phone number. “Yeah, it’s Oleg,” the voice will say, acting like you owe them something instead of the other way around.

“I heard from my friend/mother/cousin/accountant named Lilya that you do good plumbing work,” you’ll waver. “Maybe you can come look at my pipes?” The line will remain silent. “If you have some time? Maybe next week,” you beg, like it’s them that’s doing you the favor.

“Sure,” the man will say, and gruffly hang up. You haven’t given Oleg Nolastname your address,but you can bet your bippy he’ll be there, and be cheaper than Americans.

I’ve been trying to figure out why Russian professionals do things they way they do for several years now, and this latest forum trend has brought up the last name thing again for me. In the pre-Facebook era, when we asked for recommendations, we’d be handed a first name on a slip of paper. There was a guy who did our backsplash. I still have no idea what his last name is.  What if you want to recommend him to someone? You simply go by phone number, because Russian businesses also don’t have websites.

What do you do if there are two people with the same name, as invariably happens when you have a small immigrant community? You just switch the phone number.

My sneaking suspicion is that this is all done for tax purposes. As in, if you don’t have a last name that can be traced anywhere, you’re super-mysterious and  don’t pay taxes, hence passing the savings down to the average Russian.  Kinda like Voldemort. He doesn’t have a last name, and it takes 7 books to find him and kill him.

My second theory is that Stalin scared Russia so bad in the 1930s that no one  STILL wants to own up to the fact that they’re who they say they are. Since Facebook has essentially become Happy Stalin with a Flat UI, the urgency for anonymity is even more apparent.

My favorite theory, though, is that everyone wants to be a star. If you don’t have a last name, you are unique, the best of your kind.  Like Cher. “Oh, you know that Slava? Which Slava? THE Slava. Plumber Slava. Master of the pipes. Fixer of the leaky faucet. He’s the star of Northeast Philadelphia. SLAVA! SLAVA! SLAVA! The people want more (for much, much less than the Americans are charging.)”

Don’t trust Pinterest pregnancies

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Before I was pregnant, I had a lot of great ideas about how I’d do pregnancy.

First, I would surprise Mr. B with a positive pregnancy test and something cute and clever I’d seen on Pinterest, like maybe a bunch of balloons with the test tied to them, or a t-shirt with “Best Dad” on it, and his eyes would light up and we would toast to our success and then casually go about our business.

In reality, what happened was that by the time we decided we wanted kids, we were desperately yearning for them. Wanting to have kids is not something other people can impose on you by constantly nagging you about when you’re going to have kids. It’s not something that happens overnight. But when it does and you’re ready for it, it is the most pressing, urgent feeling in the world.

For me, what happened was that everything that used to be interesting to me became boring. We booked tickets to Hong Kong and I thought, great, another vacation, just the two of us, alone together. Sitting in coffee shops reading alone slipped from fun indulgence to mindless luxury. Watching other peoples’ children grow up on Facebook became painful. Despite the fact that I had a successful career, was in school and active in the tech community, my life seemed dull, uneventful, like I was growing older for no apparent reason, without a purpose. It was like being in a Woody Allen movie.

We were really intensely ready and trying to read any and all signs that might mean the start of something new. I stared at the two faint pink lines on the pregnancy test, squinting. Was this really a positive test? It seemed so normal and innocuous on the counter. I called Mr. B in. “Hey, I think this is positive,” I said, as if hoping he could interpret it better than me.

He walked in eating a banana, carefully avoiding all of my sample specimens laid out on the counter. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe you should take another test.” I took another test. Same faint pink double-line. But no certainty. I started Googling. Well, not so much Googling as opening an anonymous browser, starting up a VPN proxy, and using DuckDuckGo, because, privacy. “It says we should buy an electronic test,” I said. What kind of mother was I, buying pharmacy brand? Mr. B went to get cash from the ATM, in case the test came up on our credit card statement, and bought three.

It said pregnant.

“Congratulations?” I said to Mr. B.

Even though our bathroom at this point looked like the beginnings of a meth lab, I still didn’t believe it. How can a simple pharmacy test determine the rest of your life?

I waited with Mr. B and the doctor’s office, feeling completely unpregnant.

A kind woman asked me the last date of my cycle and told me I was due in January. “Congratulations,” she said, handing me a Toys R Us catalog. “Wait, you’re not going to test me?” I said, incredulous. “You did take a pregnancy test at home, right?’ “yeah, but isn’t there something more official you can do?” I asked her. She looked at me like I was insane. “We can take the same test here, but it will charge to your insurance.” “And there’s nothing else?” “No, congratulations again,” she said, shooing me out of the office.

“What a scam,” I told Mr. B. “We can’t tell my parents yet, then. I’m still pretty sure I’m not pregnant.”

Two weeks later, while we were taking a morning walk, I threw up on the sidewalk. “That’s definitely pregnancy,” Mr. B said. “Or cancer,” I said, wiping the prenatal vitamin spitup off my chin.

I didn’t believe I was pregnant until I heard the heartbeat at my first official appointment. Then I squinted my eyes hard to stop the tech from seeing me cry with relief and awe.

The second thing I thought I would do is write a cute post on my blog that many bloggers do, starting with a coy allusion to “BIG CHANGES” and then maybe a picture of Mr. B and me and our shoes and another tiny pair, like they always do on all the lifestyle blogs. But for the first 17 weeks, I was too exhausted to even read the news. I was throwing up every other day, figuring out a new job, driving to class three times a week, and then slithering onto my couch and trying to gestate quietly without the room spinning. I never realized I could get this used to throwing up.

“How are you feeling,” everyone asked, and I tried to come up with a viable metaphor, but there is none. For me, the first trimester was like being hungover every day. Starting with the possibility of throwing up, followed by faint waves of nausea where you have to be prepared to dart to the bathroom at any time. One week, I could only eat chicken nuggets. Another week, it was Lifeway Kefir. A third week, only a specific cereal brand. Every day was like walking through quicksand: enormous and unimaginable.

Mr. B handmade me water with lemon juice mixed in for three months because I couldn’t drink regular water. He drove to the store on almost a daily basis because I couldn’t get off the couch. And if I didn’t eat, even though I wanted to, bad things happened. When I showed up at my parents’, not having eaten for three hours, and my mom didn’t have food I could eat, I broke down and cried. When Mr. B tried to dash out to the grocery store, I sat down at his foot and held his leg and cried, because I was worried he wouldn’t get a chance to eat first.

Every time I sat down to blog, I became drained, exhausted, and stupid. There was nothing interesting going on in my life, and nothing public worth sharing without giving it all away. Everything I’d written before seemed dumb and every analogy or allusion I could possibly write seemed trite, already written about pregnancy before.

And, there was no way I could write a cute post with a baby announcement, because of the third thing I’d thought about pregnancy, which is that I was constantly terrified. I thought I would do when I was pregnant is be happy that I was pregnant, and just become really nice and mellow. And there are some moments where I am. But mostly, I am anxious. Not terrified, but anxious. Anxious that the baby is developing fine. Anxious that the baby getting enough nutrition. Anxious that I am not in situations where I could expose the baby to harm.

Only chill American moms who aren’t anxious can write posts with cute baby clothes and baby plans looking out to 9 months ahead. Russian Jewish moms who are genetically imprinted to remember pogroms, cholera, the Mongols, Eastern European family heath histories and other tiny tragedies of every day life cannot be this blasé about babies.

In addition to the fears I knew from my own every day life, I was terrified of things I had read on the forums. “Don’t read the forums,” Mr. B said, but the forums were mostly helpful. Just sometimes, people would announce that they had had a loss at 7 weeks, 12 weeks, 13 weeks, and just when I thought I was safe, I saw their messages. I constantly checked myself between checkups for signs that my baby was ok, that it was growing and healthy. Every time I threw up, I breathed a sigh of relief afterwards because it meant everything was fine.

When I stopped throwing up and before I started feeling baby movements, I tried to read big fantasy books to keep my mind busy. Blogging about a process that was so fraught with terrifying potential avenues, that was so new and fragile, seemed like tempting fate, and it still does, but I’m getting to the point where I can’t not write, because writing is also my life.

When I did want to write, I was worried about privacy. I saw hundreds of naked babies on Instagram and Facebook, and didn’t want that to be me. Where do those baby pictures go when Instagram dies and Facebook becomes dismantled? Where does my privacy end and where does my child’s begin? I don’t know, and as someone who likes to document her life, it makes me worried. But I also didn’t want to not share, because it felt like was living life with a gag across my mouth. I’m trying to toe the middle line. (Maybe I’ll repost pictures of those Instagram babies as a compromise.)

So anyway, surprise blog post ending, I’m pregnant, and there is no certainty to anything about being pregnant like there was in every other part of my life, and it’s scary. But I am certain (knock on wood, tie the red bracelet, spit over your shoulder) that we are having a healthy, happy daughter in January and I could not be looking forward this part of my life more.

P.S. Don’t believe the sunshiney-happy-belly-rubbing pregnancies people tell you about in social media. Social media, especially Pinterest, was invented by Americans.