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Archive for August, 2010

August 27, 2010 Nantucket

I’ve always been very competitive, but about small unimportant matters. For instance, I ran track in junior high, and as I’d break out of the starting blocks for the 80-yard dash, I could feel my legs giving up within the first 20 yards because I already sensed I was losing the race — a move that guaranteed I would lose the race. But put me against another car as a two-lane highway is about to turn into one, I will run the other car off the road rather than let them get ahead of me in the merge. If I’m walking toward the door of a restaurant and I see a party of four walking toward the door as well, I speed up to make sure I get to the hostess first.

So when we decided to go to Nantucket for a long weekend, I wanted to leave at 4 a.m. to beat the traffic out to the Cape. And when we got our boarding passes at Hyannis airport and were first in line to board the plane, I sped up when I saw the man behind us trying to get to the door of the airplane first.

“Would you like to sit up front?” asked the man from the airlines who escorted us across the tarmac.

“Sure,” I said.

“Take the seat next to the pilot,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“That’s the best seat in the house,” said Bruce, who was standing behind me.

It’s not that I don’t like flying. I just have a tenuous grasp of what makes the plane stay up in the air, particularly a small 10-seater like the one I was about to get on. But if I was going to be flying, I wanted a good view. I didn’t necessarily need to be sitting in the cockpit, though. My seat actually had its own steering wheel.

I fastened my seat belt and grasped tightly onto a piece of the armrest.

I looked at the window next to me. There was a little handle with which I could open it, but it said in neat little block letters, “Do Not Open.” What if I have to throw up? I thought. I get queasy in turbulence. But if I open the window, the plane might go down.  I usually make sure I have a bag in my seat pocket in front of me. But this time, I didn’t have a seat pocket in front of me. There was only a dashboard filled with complicated dials and gauges. I kept thinking, “JFK Jr. crashed because he didn’t know how to fly the plane by instruments.” I didn’t know either.

“You don’t actually need me to do anything, do you?” I asked the pilot.

“No, I got it covered,” he said.

“How long is the flight,” I said. I could feel myself beginning to perspire.

“Fifteen minutes. It’s short,” he said.

“Fifteen minutes,” I said. It sounded like a long time.

He turned on the engine and first one propeller went on. Then the other. He began to taxi down the runway, and just when I thought we weren’t going fast enough to be airborne, the plane began to rise, and we were aloft. I squeezed the armrest tighter.

As we rose up above the ground, I thought I can do this. I’m not afraid. That much. We continued to rise up in the air, high above Hyannis. I could see the strip mall and rotary we’d passed earlier, and the water tower in Barnstable. I looked around for the little beckoning finger that is the end of the Cape, where Provincetown is located, but I didn’t see it. I wanted to ask the pilot where it was, but I didn’t dare distract him. He was busy will all the controls and gauges, flipping levers and buttons up and down, and slowly steering the plane to the left. As he turned his steering wheel, the steering wheel in front of me turned as well

Suddenly, the plane hit a small air pocket and dipped. My stomach dropped, and I began to breathe in and out. In and out. I squeezed the armrest tighter. I looked over at the pilot. He had a little scratch on his forearm. I wondered if the previous passenger who was sitting in my seat had clawed him in a fit of fear as the plane plummeted toward the ground, just before he was able to right the situation and get the plane back on course.

As we flew over the edge of the land and then over the ocean, the plane seemed to steady itself and the ride was smooth. I’m flying, I thought. And it’s nice. As I looked out the front of the plane, I imagined the baby was tied to my front, looking out the window as I was, like he was in a papoose. Me and my baby are flying. Baby Eddie’s first flight. We’d decided to name the baby Eddie after my father, who died 10 years ago. His name was Edwin. If the baby is a girl, she will be Edwina or Edie. In either case, it will be called Eddie, which is how my father was known.

As Eddie and I looked down at the blue sea below, I thought about how my father, who was in the air force, had wanted to be a pilot, but they wouldn’t let him because he was color blind. So he worked in an office. He’s flying now, I thought, as I watched the steering wheel in front of me turn a little to the left and then straighten itself.

Nice as it was, I kept looking over at his watch and calculating how much time we had left. We took off at 11.46 a.m., and it was now 11.55 a.m. We’re almost there. Sure enough, I could see a large island below, which I assumed was Martha’s Vineyard. I knew Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard were near each other but that Nantucket was a bit farther out. As we were just above the island, I looked around for Nantucket but there were no other islands out there. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the island below is Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard is somewhere off to the left where I can’t see it? But once we cleared the island below, the pilot kept flying. Where was he going? There was not another land mass in sight. Just the wide open sea. I looked at his watch. 11.57 a.m. Where’s this fucking island? I thought. As my sense of panic began to slowly rise, the plane glided to the left, and we began to travel along the southern edge of the island we’d just passed. I was beginning to see what looked like a runway – a very tiny one, but a runway nonetheless. Just then, an alarm began to sound from one of the dials. My heart sank. Here we go, I thought. We’re going down. It always happens when you’re this close. The pilot flicked a lever and adjusted one of the gauges, and the alarm stopped.

The plane took a left and eased down on the runway, like a goose pulling in its wings and gently landing on the surface of the water. I released my grip on the armrest.

“That was fun. Let’s do it again,” I said to the pilot.

We got off the plane and walked into the luggage area to wait for our luggage. As the baggage carrier wheeled in the cart full of bags, I walked over to the rack and plucked out my suitcase, making sure I got there before the man who’d tried to cut us in line.

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I always judge a place’s cleanliness by whether I straddle the toilet seat or sit  down on it. It’s a subconscious thing. I could be in someone’s home, and without even thinking, my mind off in thoughts about yesterday’s train ride or tomorrow’s dinner, I’ll find myself standing over the toilet rather than sitting on it. And I’ll realize my subconscious mind made a value judgment about the place before I did. At the hospital where  I had my nuchal translucency ultrasound yesterday, I found myself straddling.

When I arrived, there were two little children running around the waiting room.

“Little one. Little one. Sit. Now,” a woman kept saying to the young girl, thrusting forward a little pink stroller into which she wanted the little girl to sit. “Ahora!”

The little girl would look up at the woman and then go back to what she was doing. When I first arrived, what she was doing was sitting at the desk in the reception window, banging on the computer keyboard.

“The employees here are a little young,” I said to the receptionist.

“We get ‘em early,” she said.

The little girl was cute, with lots of tiny little pig tails, but I was relieved when they left. Minutes later, another woman, who was extremely pregnant, came in with two daughters, one dressed in pink and one dressed in blue, who sat on each side of me and talked to each other, making it impossible to read my book. I got up and moved to a seat across the room near the elevator, though I could still hear the blue girl chomping on her gum and talking.

The place felt a little shoddy. Low budget. Old. It was a little disheartening because this was my first visit to the hospital at which I will be delivering my child. I didn’t really pick the hospital. I picked the OB GYN, and this is where she delivers babies. I’d heard the hospital had good emergency care, which I liked, in case anything happened during child birth. I just wasn’t sure about everything else. The doors were worn and appeared to have claw marks on them. The elevators were so old, the buttons for each floor were about half an inch thick, like pegs, and had the floor numbers engraved on them like scrabble tiles.

After about half an hour, I was called into the examining room. I was seated on the examining table, but I told the nurse I had to use the restroom. As I walked across the room, I was nearly knocked over by a second nurse, who didn’t see me coming from behind the door. I half-expected her to apologize. Instead, she tapped the back of her thigh with her hand a couple of times.  I looked at her blankly.

“Your pants,” she said.

I looked down at my new jeans and saw that stuck to my pants leg was the wide plastic sticker on which they print the pants’ size. I’d bought a size 34 waist so that I could grow into them. I didn’t necessarily need everyone to know that.

I was a little nervous about the procedure because I feared it involved needles –even though no one had mentioned that. I lay down on the examining table, and the nurse who alerted me to the plastic sticker on my pants began rubbing an ultrasound wand all around my stomach. She angled the monitor downward so I could get a better view.

“Look. It’s the feet,” the nurse said.

I could see little feet on the screen for a moment, and then they were gone. I laughed, knocking the ultrasound wand off my belly. The image disappeared. The nurse had to re-locate the fetus with the wand. She was pressing pretty hard. I didn’t care. I was mesmerized.   Every now and again, the baby would bounce up in the air and then float back down, but it looked animated, a little disjointed, like that computerized dancing baby that made the rounds on the internet a couple of years ago.

“What is that?” I said, pointing to a little flickering white spot in the baby’s chest. “Is that the heart?”

I’d heard the heartbeat before, that rapid bum, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, as if it had just ran a mile and was out of breath. But this time I saw the little heart. It was pulsating quickly. I feared if it continued at that pace, it wouldn’t last the whole nine months.

“Yep, that’s the heart” she said and put on the volume.  Bim, bam, bim, bam, bim, bam, bim, bam.

She continued to move the wand around my stomach, stopping every now and again to take a measurement of the neck fold or to measure the entire fetus.

“How does it look?” I asked.

“It looks good,” she said. “Dr. Gonzales is going to come in now.”

Dr. Gonzales had hairy knuckles like my father. I stared at them as he spoke. Soon he was moving the wand around my belly and taking measurements. After a few minutes, he, too, said everything looked good, but that he wouldn’t know for sure until after the blood work came back in several weeks. But he seemed pretty positive.

“So this means the baby doesn’t have Down’s syndrome?”

“It means the baby isn’t likely to have an extra chromosome,” he said. He explained that we all have 23 pair or a total of 46 chromosomes in each cell and that abnormalities occur when someone winds up with an extra one. Depending on what type of chromosome is in excess determines what type of abnormality the baby will have. If someone has three copies of chromosome 2 instead of two, for instance, the baby could develop myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease that affects the blood and bone marrow. Many chromosomal issues are so severe, the fetus usually aborts itself early on. Down’s syndrome is one of the less severe, he said, so the fetus can have it and still sustain itself.

I asked him if he could tell the fetus’ gender. He said he could. I told him not to tell me. Bruce and I  had decided we didn’t want to know. Still, it was strange to be sitting next to someone who had such vital information that would change my life forever, and yet he wasn’t going to tell me.

“Do most people want to know?” I asked.

“Depends,” he said. “Sometimes, if it’s a first pregnancy, they don’t want to know. And then if it’s a second pregnancy, they want to know so they can plan better. And then if it’s their last pregnancy, they want to be surprised.”

“But you can tell?”

“Yes,” he said.

I looked at the monitor. The baby looked like a boy to me. A man, actually. I could see his profile — his eyes, his nose, his lips, his chin. I could see exactly what he looked like. And it wasn’t like anyone I know.

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malformed corn

The world is divided into people who peel back the husks on their corn before they leave the grocery store, and those who leave it all to chance. My husband, Bruce, and I have always been the latter. So I was horrified when I shucked the corn we’d bought at a farm stand last week and revealed some of the most hideous, malformed ears I’d ever seen. This time of year, the corn in New Jersey is enviable: white, and so sweet, it needs no butter or salt at all. But when I opened up the corn we bought at the farm stand, instead of finding small white kernels in neat little rows, like children’s teeth, I found over-sized yellow kernels going off in every direction, like a hillbilly’s smile. It was grotesque. And it tasted mealy, to boot.

I wouldn’t be the first person to gasp at ugly corn. There’s a contest each year, sponsored by CropLife magazine, where farmers in Iowa win a prize for having the most wretched, nasty, and just plain ugly ears of corn in the state.

Ugly corn is apparently on the rise. According to the Iowa State University’s Corn and Soybean Initiative, professors have received an unusually high number of ear samples over the last several years, where farmers sent in photos of their most hideous looking ears of corn. Some ears had reduced numbers of kernel rows, others were classified as blunt ears, short ears, ‘baby’ ears, twin ears, pinched ears, and ears with no kernels at all.

We went to bed relatively early after dinner. We’d had a long drive back from Toronto. That night, I dreamed our baby was malformed. I don’t remember the details of the dream. I just remember telling Bruce about it the next morning, and that I knew my dream was spurred by the corn.

“We’ve had a lot of good corn,” Bruce said.

I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with my baby’s health and development, and it’s taken away some of the joy of being pregnant. People say, “Oh, don’t think bad thoughts. It’s bad luck,” just as some have told me, “Don’t obsess about cancer. You’ll bring it on that way.” I can’t help it. I can stop listening to my mind’s chatter by covering my ears and saying, “Loo loo, loo loo, loo loo, ya ya ya,” but I can’t stop the thoughts from coming. I can only feel reassured that one probably can’t create cancer by simply thinking about it, just as one’s baby won’t suddenly develop deformities simply by dwelling on it.

I have a nuchal translucency ultrasound this morning, which determines the likelihood the fetus has Down’s syndrome. They assess this by measuring the collection of fluid under the skin at the back of a baby’s neck. While all babies have fluid, babies with Down’s syndrome have more.

If all looks good, I can breathe a small sigh of relief. However, if anything looks suspect, they’ll likely suggest an amniocentesis, thrusting us into that biblical place of having too much knowledge and being punished for it: we’d have to decide whether or not to terminate the pregnancy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I have a nasty habit of getting depressed about news I haven’t yet received.

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I’ve always had trouble ordering food in a restaurant. I don’t trust my judgment. Unfortunately, either Bruce doesn’t trust his own judgment either, or he’s tired of picking something off the menu only to have me try to persuade him to get something else (we usually order two dishes and split both), but lately, he’s had me do the ordering for the both of us. And so it was at the Chinese restaurant we went to in Toronto.

I had been looking forward to the meal because I knew Toronto had a large Asian population, and I figured they had a lot of good Chinese food –which they did. But once in the restaurant, I was at a loss as to what to order. I always seem to get the old standbys: hot and sour soup, spring rolls, a vegetable like baby bok choy or spicy string beans, and chicken in garlic sauce. That night, I opted for soup, spring roll and two vegetables. In the end, as often happens, I chose badly.

Making matters worse, the four people at the table next to us ordered impeccably. Every dish brought to their table – and there were many – looked absolutely delectable. They had sautéed grouper with snow peas and celery in a black bean sauce. They ordered sautéed shrimp with chili pepper and eggplant – though they told the chef to hold the shrimp. They had eggplant and celery in a black been sauce, as well as sautéed tofu with Chinese mushrooms and vegetables in a garlic scallion sauce. I know because I tried to ask the waiter, surreptitiously, what they’d ordered, but they saw me pointing and gawking and the waiter whispering in my ear.

“It’s the grouper in black bean sauce,” said an older gentleman, who had a mop of white hair like Einstein.

“And that?”

“That’s eggplant,” he said. “Where are you from?”

“New Jersey,” I said.

The man said his name was Dr. Kosoy. After talking about food and restaurants in New York, he and his wife fired off a list of restaurants we had to visit while we were in Toronto. You like Italian? He suggested an Italian. Greek? He had just the right Greek restaurant. Indian? Ah, now that was his favorite restaurant of all.

“You must go to ‘259, the Host.’ It’s the most wonderful Indian restaurant. Ask for Amir, and tell him Dr. Kosoy sent you,” he said.

He took the piece of paper onto which I’d been writing all of the restaurants and wrote down his name and the restaurant’s phone number.

“Remember, ask for Amir. Tell him to give you the same treatment he gives Dr. Kosoy,” the man said.

The next night, we set out for 259, the Host. It wasn’t far from our hotel, but we were early so we took a walk along the waterfront. It’s a strange area of the city because there are a line of high-rise condominiums along the water’s edge with nice views of Lake Ontario, but you have to cross two busy highways to get there. They’ve essentially quarantined their waterfront.

The Clanking Ship

By the time we got to the lakefront, I was tired. We sat down at a picnic table, and I put my head down to take a nap. But I couldn’t relax. There was a ship docked behind me, and the wind kept rattling the sails on the mast, causing them to make  a constant clanking sound. Bruce had taken a short tour of the area the day before, and he said the tour guide mentioned how a lot of the Toronto Raptors basketball players had condominiums in one of the buildings nearby but that they didn’t like living there.   Many of them left town for other teams. I wondered if it had anything to do with the incessant rattling of that sailboat.

We made our way to the restaurant and found Amir. We told him to give us the same treatment as Dr. Kosoy. Upon hearing the good doctor’s name, Amir was more than cordial.

“Would you like to sit here? Dr. Kosoy usually sits here,” Amir said, pointing toward a table by the window.

“Great,” I said.

We sat down and talked with Amir.  It turns out he’d worked at an Indian restaurant in New York City for many years before coming to Toronto two years ago.  He missed New York, he said. Toronto was nice and clean, but it was too quiet for him. He planned to move to London in a year or two to join his brother.

We looked at the menu, and I spotted “Butter Chicken.” I’d recently read an essay by a fellow writer, who went on about her father’s butter chicken, and I’d wanted to try it ever since.

“What does Dr. Kosoy order?” I asked. I trusted Kosoy’s track record, implicitly.

“He likes vegetables,” Amir said.

He pointed to several vegetable dishes, and we decided to get two of them.

They were delicious, every dish, particularly the butter chicken. But we ordered too much and then ate too much. I always feel nauseated these days and having over-indulged only made it worse. I tried to figure out where the bathrooms were in case I had to make a mad dash. I didn’t see one. I asked Amir.

“Third floor,” he said.

“Third floor?”

“Well, one of the flights is a half floor,” he said.

I’ll never make it, I thought. I imagined running out of the restaurant and relieving myself right there on the sidewalk. I couldn’t imagine a worse reflection on a restaurant than to have someone standing right outside its doors throwing up their meal. And I knew if that happened, the only thing Amir would remember of us, the Americans who came and threw up, would be two words: Dr. Kosoy.

I made it to the bathroom, and in the end didn’t even throw up – though I wished I could. I felt dreadful. There seemed to be some disagreement going on in my stomach between the spinach and the yoghurt drink, and they were having a very heated discussion. The rice and naan bread also seemed to be expanding by about ½ an inch every 10 minutes, making things a little tight in there. Dr. Kosoy was able to tell us where to go and what to eat. What we really needed was for him to tell us when to stop.

Swollen arm to match my swollen body

As we walked back to the hotel, I could feel my arm throbbing from where a bee had stung me several days earlier. I’d gone onto the internet to find out whether bee venom could hurt a fetus and found a remedy for the itch. Someone recommended making a paste of baking soda and water, which I promptly did in our hotel room that morning. I lathered it all over my arm and left it on til it dried and flaked off in chunks. I then went to the police station to conduct more interviews for my story. By the time we got to the restaurant that evening, my arm had swelled like a balloon. There was so much excess skin there, if I put weight on my elbow, it felt like I was leaning on a sack of clay.

In fact everything is swollen. My breasts. My belly. My bee sting. Who are these women who love being pregnant? Either I missed that part of the movie, or I haven’t gotten to it yet.

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By the time we arrived in Toronto, I had no time to go to the hotel. Bruce drove me straight to my interview at the Toronto Police Station. I spent the morning and into the early afternoon talking to Constable Scott Mills about my story, and by 2 p.m., I was beginning to feel faint from lack of food. Thankfully, I was interviewing him in the cafeteria, so I got up and bought myself a sandwich and pasta salad. I felt funny eating in front of the officer, though, so I offered him half my sandwich. He declined. I insisted. He took it. I regretted it. I wanted it. He ate my pasta salad, too.

At 3 p.m., he had to leave for a memorial service for a 15-year old boy named Terrence Ali, who was killed seven years ago during Caribana, a festival of Caribbean culture held every summer in Toronto. Ali had apparently had an argument with three other teens and was beaten beyond recognition. They then tossed his naked body into Lake Ontario. An expert at the trial described his injuries as similar to the trauma one might suffer in an airplane crash.

The tragedy has made a victim’s advocate out of Terrence’s mother, Moonie, who holds a memorial at Terrence’s grave site every August to raise awareness about the effects of violence in the hopes she can prevent future tragedies.  Moonie — and Constable Mills  — believe strongly that if someone who saw Terrance was falling in with a bad crowd had said something, they may have been able to save him.

The service was at a cemetery about 30 minutes outside of Toronto. When we arrived, we immediately saw Moonie, who was stooped over and leaning on a cane because she’d been in a car accident. Someone hit her car from behind. It was about 90 degrees outside, even at 4 p.m., and there was one bench on which people could sit, but Moonie said she preferred to stand. Her injury made it too painful to sit.

Pieces of Terrence

There were only about 12 people there. Two were from the police department, three were from the media, and then there was me and my husband, Bruce, who joined us. While Bruce and I held up a big banner that said, “Walk for Justice, For Our Murdered Children,” — even though we weren’t walking — two of Terrence’s friends handed out a package of items made for the occasion: a bookmark with a photo of Terrence in a graduation outfit, a CD entitled “In Loving Memory of Terrence Rias Ali, aka Junia,” with three photos of him on the cover — one of which was very blurry and had clearly been taken from a computer photo– a thank you card from his mother, Moonie, and a booklet of prayers that was to be read at the service, though almost none of them wound up being recited. At the bottom of the booklet, the name of the original pastor who was supposed to be there was whited out, and the name, “Mike Holmes” was written over it in pen.

We stood around in the hot sun for about half an hour. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was hungry, having given away half my sandwich, and I was hot and tired of standing, but I felt silly taking the only bench there when Moonie was standing next to us, her face wet from crying, swaying back and forth on her cane. Finally, I just started telling everyone who would listen that I was pregnant, and I sat down.

When the pastor began to speak, he recounted the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year old black boy from Chicago who was murdered in Money, Mississippi, after reportedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman whose husband owned the small grocery store at which Emmett and his cousins had gone to buy candy. Bryant’s husband, Roy, was out of town but when he returned, he and nearly a dozen other men hunted Emmett down and brutally murdered him. The only thing reconizable was the mole on his face.

“Nooooo,” Moonie gasped.

The pastor continued. “The main suspects were acquitted by a jury of 12 white men, but the defendants later admitted they were responsible for Emmett’s death–”

“Can I say something?” Moonie said, walking over to the microphone.  “When they took me to see if that was my child, I couldn’t recognize him. But I saw a mole. That’s why I said, ‘Nooooooo!’ I saw a mole on the child’s face, and I thought I don’t believe that’s my child,” she said, flapping the hand that wasn’t holding the cane for emphasis. “But that’s the only identifiable thing I saw there, on that day, on that gurney, and I have a feeling that is my child, only because of that mole.”

Moonie turned from the microphone. “I’m sorry,” as she walked off and stood by the banner. 

On the ride back to Toronto, Scott opened up a little cooler he had in the front seat of his car, and in it, there were slices of salami, some peaches, a bag of sliced cucumbers, and a package of cheese.

“Eat something,” he said.

“Well, maybe just a peach,” I said. Soon, I was taking one slice of salami after another before moving on to the cucumbers. Scott had torn open the package of cheese and was biting into it like it was an ice pop. It turns out he’d been about 100 pounds heavier and had just lost a lot of weight in the last year, mostly because his father had gotten very sick and ultimately died.

“Was Terrence in a gang?” I asked.

“He was most definitely not in gang,” Scott said. “But he was starting to change his behaviors in a way that are the fantasy stages of gang development. He was getting into at-risk behaviors.”

On what would have been Terrence’s 16th birthday, Moonie brought a cake and candles to his grave site. On his 18th birthday, she brought him 18 long stem roses. And on his 21st birthday, she brought him 21 long stem red roses. I wondered how long her wound would stay open, because after seven years, it didn’t seem to have healed much at all.

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We went with Mark and Cheryl to the Otsego County Fair. Mark wanted to see the harness racing.

We took Mark’s pick-up truck, and me, Bruce and Mark sat in the front cab, with me in the middle. When we arrived at the fair, Bruce got out, and as I went to unfasten my seat belt, the back of my arm rubbed against the seat, and I felt the most horrific pain. I thought I’d rubbed against a burr that was stuck in the cloth of the seat and that it was now lodged in my arm, but when I picked it off, I saw it was a bee. I threw it down on the seat and began swatting it like mad with the magazine I was holding. I’d never been stung by a bee. Wow. It really hurt.

“I can feel my throat closing,” I said to Bruce, mostly joking.

“Let me see it,” he said and took a quick look. “It’s fine.”

“You didn’t even look.”

Then Mark took a look. He seemed to give it a longer, more extensive examination. At that moment, I wished I was married to Mark and not Bruce.

“We’ll keep an eye on it,” he said.

I looked over at Bruce.

Harness Racing

As we walked through the rides and food stands to get to the harness racing, I kept rubbing my arm, thinking, I can’t believe the first time in my life that I’m stung by a bee is when I’m pregnant. Will the bee venom go into the baby and thwart its development? I imagined the fetus developing fuzzy black stripes and wings. My mother says she ate a lot of cherries when she was pregnant with my sister, and now my sister hates cherries. Maybe the baby will love honey. Or hate it.

Kevin Bacon is in the lead

We took our seats in front of the horse track and watched the harness races for about an hour. After a while, I got antsy and went for a walk through the fair. At one booth, there were pig races, where the participants had names like Brad BBQ Pitt, Porky Pig, Kevin Bacon, and Piggy Gaga.

Across the way, a group of seven gray-haired women in green and yellow skirts who called themselves cloggers were getting ready to perform under the tent. The woman whose husband was the announcer and played the music seemed to think that gave her special privileges. She was bossing everyone else around, including the little border collie that was part of their act. Most of the group appeared to be in their mid-seventies, making the one woman in her late 50s look like Brigitte Bardot in comparison. She had long, straight, dyed blonde hair and was taller than all the others, and when the group performed, all eyes were on her, and she seemed to know that.

Cloggers clogging

Behind the performance tent was a hall that housed arts and crafts. I bought two hand knitted winter hats and a pair of fuzzy pink mittens, though it took so long to get through the cashier line, I could have knitted the mittens myself. The cashier was an old woman named Clementine, who was  adding all the items together in her head, including figuring out the tax, and then writing everything on a tally sheet for the fair organizers. I could see on the shift schedule behind her that Clementine had been there since about 9 a.m., and it was now nearly two o’clock.

“Your shift’s nearly over, Clementine,” I said.

She looked up at me with glazed eyes that said, “Do you not think I know that?”

As I walked away, I saw a fat woman who had her child in a harness that was wrapped around his chest and attached to a long leash. The fat woman held the leash tightly in her hand, and every time her son would get ahead of her — which was often — she would yank on the chain to reign him in. She kept him on a tight leash, as they say. All I kept thinking as I watched him try to pull away, and her yanking him back, was that this boy will grow up to be a man and will one day kill his wife.

Lunch

I made my way over to the livestock. Each category of animal had its own building. There was one for cows, one for goats, another for pigs. The sheep had their own building as well. I was fascinated by the goats. I kept trying to get the young man seated by them to tell me why the goats had these little flaps of skin under their chins that looked like drop earrings, but he just kept telling me to read the signs they had posted describing the different breeds.

By the time I got back to our seats at the horse track, I was ready to go. We all got up to leave, and as we headed for the fairground exit, Cheryl spotted the lady who puts on a show with birds. I watched for a couple of minutes and found it tedious and wanted to leave. We’d already been there in the baking sun for about four hours and having eaten a hot dog, sausage and peppers sandwich, some french fries and a root beer float, we’d pretty much exhausted most of the food the fair had to offer. But Mark and Cheryl had driven us there so we had no choice but to stay until the bird show was over. Bruce and I orbited the bird booth and ate a candy apple and did a lap around the amusement park rides –rides that on a good day make me want to throw up. I wondered how fast I’d puke with morning sickness. I vowed never to go anywhere again without my own car.

I rubbed at my arm where the bee had stung, and it was beginning to get taut and itchy. First raw milk and now this. Another near death experience in the Catskills.

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August 14, 2010, The Farm

On our way up to Toronto, where I had to interview police for a story, we stopped off to visit our friends Mark and Cheryl in the Catskills. Mark, a lawyer, and Cheryl, who works in communications for a foundation, used to live in a basement apartment in the East Village  but decided to pack in city living and move to the country. They bought an 1870s farmhouse and have since acquired three cows, 50 hens, a rooster, and 11 turkeys. The raccoons came uninvited.  

They get up every morning at 6.30 a.m. to milk the cow, let the hens out of the hen-house and draw out the turkeys, each of which will only move if the whole pack decides to go. They’re quite a democratic bunch.  

Between the animals, a lush, extensive vegetable garden, and a maple trees full of sap out front, Mark and Cheryl are now self-sustaining. They get their milk from the cow and use it to make their own cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream. They get eggs from the hens — about 8 a day. They get fresh tomatoes, string beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, lettuce and corn from their vegetable garden — the potatoes apparently last through to March. They’re fattening up their young calf with buckets of cow’s milk so they can kill him for veal. And come thanksgiving, they, and 10 of their best customers, will have fresh turkey. Mark has even learned how to butcher them himself. He told me how, although I don’t remember much past, “…turn them upside down to drain the blood…”  

Farmer Joe

  

When we arrived at the farm, we saw there had been a little mishap. Several weeks earlier, the mother cow had backed Mark into a wall, crushing his wrist. He’d been in a cast for several weeks and still had a while before he’d  have use of it again. In the meantime, Cheryl was on milking duty, though they wound up buying a pumping machine to make it easier.  

That wasn’t the only issue. They’d also bought some chicks, who were now young hens, and they weren’t mixing well with the old hens (at 30 months, the “old” hens ruled the roost). To make matters worse, a rooster, who hung out with the young hens, seemed to think the old hens had a rooster of their own, even though they didn’t. It was a figment of his paranoid imagination. Still, he felt threatened and kept his group away, restricting them to just a corner of the yard all day. They had so little access to the food, Mark had to sprinkle seed on the ground in their corner of the yard — even though hens don’t like to eat that way — just to make sure they got enough to eat.  

Eating Take-Out

  

I never realized what a rigid pecking order hens have. It’s worse than high school, or jail. Those at the top of the heirarchy get first dibs on everything: where to stand, where to sit, when and how much they want to eat — everyone else eats after them — and which nesting box they want to roost in (as in apartment buildings and hotels, the higher, the better). The only thing that upsets the pecking order is when Mark steps in and punishes one of the hens for eating out of the garden. The violating hen, regardless of their rank, is thrown into the penalty box: a nesting box that is fully enclosed. Some hens have stayed in there for weeks at a time, if they showed no sign of remorse.  

“Soon, all 50 of the birds — the new ones and the old ones — will be under the rooster’s wing. And they’ll go where he wants them to go –which is where I want them to go,” Mark said. And then, apparently reconsidering what he had said, he added, “I just want the eggs.”  

There had already been a catastrophe in the hen house a few weeks earlier. Ten birds were ‘lost to predation,” as Mark put it. It’s a fancy way of saying they were eaten by raccoons. Mark killed two of the raccoons and caught a third in a “Have-a-Heart” type trap, though Mark apparently lost the instructions.  

“What kind of people catch things like raccoons and skunk and then release them near someone else’s yard?” he said. “No, you take the trap and put the whole thing in the water and drown the fucker.”  

Milking Duty

  

We watched Mark and Cheryl milk the cow and feed the animals. I helped Cheryl collect eggs from the nesting boxes and pick string beans for dinner. By dusk, I was ravenous. Cheryl put out some pickled string beans and fresh-baked bread that was toasted and covered with a buttery home-made chicken liver pate. If not for the need to show a little decorum, I would have eaten the whole plate myself. As it was, for every piece of toast Bruce ate, I had three (I’d already finished off the string beans). But then he and Mark were preoccupied, smoking cigars and drinking mojitos, while I sucked on a seltzer.  

Just before dinner, they pulled out a bottle of the raw cow’s milk for us to taste. I wanted to have some, but I declined, knowing that “unpasteurized” and “unhomogenized” were definitely among the foods I was not supposed to eat.  

“Why?” Mark asked. “It’s healthy.”  

“I don’t know,” I said. “Botulism. Tetanus. syphilis. I don’t remember, but basically, I think bacteria can grow in it, and that poses a risk to the fetus.”  

“Nonsense,” Mark said.  

I sort of agreed with him, not just because I questioned the health hazards of something as natural as milk — and I saw how sanitary their milking process was — but because I come from a long line of shit -stirrers and scofflaws, who break the rules, little rules, for sport. Rather than signing his name, my father used to sign my sick notes for school in an unintelligible script that said, “This is bullshit.” He would go through red lights late at night, if no one was watching, throw handfuls of pennies into the toll booth basket to make it look like he’d deposited the right amount of change, and he refused to stop at stop signs if they were posted next to a speed bump. “They should have one or the other,” he would say.  

One time, my parents were playing Pictionary against my siblings, and the word everyone had to guess was “coconut.”  It was an “All Play,” meaning both teams had to guess the same word. The clock started and within seconds, my sister yelled out “Coconut!” Astounded, my father demanded to see what my brother had drawn on the pad.  It was a rough sketch of a palm tree with round objects and an arrow pointing at them.  When my brother asked my father what he had drawn, my father opened his pad, and on it, in big block letters, were “C O C O N.” He hadn’t had time to finish. 

Cheese Drying Out

  

Despite our cheatin’ ways, if anything ever happened to the baby, the first thing I’d think is that it was all because I drank raw milk, knowing I wasn’t supposed to, and that I killed my child. And so I didn’t partake —until later, when after dinner, Cheryl brought out the most divine home-made chocolate ice cream I’d ever tasted, made from raw milk. Oh, and then I had a piece of cheese. Who could resist? Home-made cheese? It’s so rare one is in the presence of home-made cheese. The next morning, I had some butter on my toast, and a bit of milk in my coffee, but I only had half a cup. And I didn’t finish it.  

Let the Botulism begin.

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