Abortion After 20 Weeks

A few days ago, I received an email from one of the many pro-choice organizations I follow. The email was in panic mode:

“URGENT! Your signature needed! Our reproductive rights are being threatened again!”

Two days ago, Congress passed a bill banning elective abortion after 20 weeks gestation. “Elective,” meaning not due to conditions dangerous to the mother (such as preeclampsia or eclampsia), or fetal demise, or fetal malformations that are incompatible with life. Those are still possible. Just not, “I don’t want to have this baby.” I haven’t read the full text of the bill, so I don’t know what other exceptions there are. Stay tuned.

I took a deep breath and wrote a letter, but not the kind they wanted or were expecting.

You see, I have a lot of personal history surrounding both abortion and fetuses, and from where I stand, it’s not so simple. Truth be told, it’s never simple to curtail any life, no matter how tiny or how tenuous.

When I was a 16 year old virgin, in 1970, I was drugged, dragged into a dark basement, and raped so violently that after two reconstructive surgeries my nether parts are still not normal. I ran away, partially because the much older man who did the rapes was then sharing me with his friends and as a young person with Asperger Syndrome I didn’t know what to do, and partially because my mother’s abuse escalated around that time, probably due to my increased vulnerability. I fled from Massachusetts to California, where instead of peace and love I found more rape.

I missed a couple of periods. My breasts were swollen. I had no idea what was going on, since there was no such thing as sex education in the schools at that time, and my parents were phobic about anything having to do with sex. I went to a mobile street clinic and discovered I was pregnant.

Being California, there were choices. I could have the baby and keep it; I could have the baby and give it away; or I could have an abortion. I couldn’t fathom either of the first, so I settled upon the latter.

My pregnancy was past 11 weeks by the time I discovered it. California law required that pregnancies over 12 weeks be terminated in the hospital rather than the clinic because of the different technique necessary and the increased danger of perforation of the uterus. The soonest they could schedule me was in two weeks, at almost 14 weeks of pregnancy.

I’m glad they did it in the hospital, because they knocked me out. All I remember is the OB resident coming to see me afterward in tears, ranting at me about “people thinking they can use abortion as birth control.” I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he was so upset.

Fast forward to 1988.

I was a second year resident in Pediatrics at a big city hospital. My Neonatology rotation included participation on the Perinatal Ethics Committee, which deliberated on matters concerning difficult pregnancies and how to handle them.

There was a woman in her fifth month of pregnancy on the inpatient Obstetrics ward. She was 38 years old and had been pregnant already many times, and had miscarried every time. Her underlying problem was high blood pressure, which prevented proper blood flow to the placenta. She routinely miscarried between 18 and 24 weeks. At that time, and mostly until this day, for specific reasons, 24 weeks was considered the lower limit of fetal viability. Efforts to work around those limits are ongoing, but for the most part not practicable.

But she desperately wanted her baby. The perinatal team knew her well and liked her in spite of her challenges. They felt that if it were technically possible to save her baby, then we had a mandate to do all we could to deliver her a living child.

Now, this lady was no married, upper class, healthy white person. She was black, intellectually disabled, and chronically ill with severe hypertension due to lupus. She was unmarried, lived in a rough part of town, and had a criminal record for theft. In other words, a high-risk prospective parent under any circumstances, and especially for a very premature delivery. What was the prognosis, really, for her to safely and effectively parent a tiny preemie who would, if she survived, need intensive care in the hospital for months and intense home care for years afterward? Not so good. We debated the issue for hours and hours. The lady really desperately wanted her baby, but we were literally not certain we could deliver a viable baby for her, and certainly not a healthy one.

What should we do?

One thing in favor was stress. Normally we think of all kinds of stress as undesirable. We’re always thinking up new ways to combat stress in our lives. But stress is the premature baby’s friend. Stress in utero leads to increased stress hormone production by both mother and fetus, and this speeds the maturation of the fetal lungs. That was one good thing. After the lungs, the greatest challenges are the kidneys, and the skin. In utero, the placenta takes care of fetal waste, but undeveloped kidneys are something we have not learned to adequately deal with on the outside. Likewise, no need for skin inside, but here in the big world, without skin we quickly dehydrate and without its protective barrier, bacteria get in and wreak havoc.

These things don’t finish their development until the middle of the 23rd week. Our job was to keep this lady pregnant until the end of that week, if possible.

The plan was to do thrice-daily ultrasounds of the maternal-fetal circulation. Her problem had historically been that because of her hypertension, her placenta would become calcified, leading to a net reversal of blood flow so that instead of her blood going to the fetus, the blood flow became reversed, so the fetus became starved of oxygen and died. We put her on complete bed rest with high levels of supplemental oxygen, to keep the pregnancy going until that precious 24th week, at least.

In our cutting-edge neonatal ICU we boasted well over 90% survival at 26 weeks, unheard of at that time. That’s because our hospital pioneered the use of pig surfactant, a substance that, when blown into the stiff lungs of a tiny preemie, caused those lungs to become suddenly functional. It was nothing less than miraculous.

(Part of that miracle is that it was discovered by an Orthodox Jewish postdoctoral fellow, who would come into the hospital at all hours to blow a tube of pig lung secretions down a baby’s tube.)

This almost entirely eliminated the biggest barrier to survival of premature babies, the lungs, unmasking the next big challenges, which were and still remain, skin and kidneys. (We don’t have artificial substitutes for either kidneys or skin, but believe me, they’re working on it.) So we knew that if we could get this little girl past that 23rd week, between the stress and the surfactant we’d stand a pretty good chance for having her grow up.

The neonatal team was on call for the moment the blood flow in her placenta reversed. If she made it to 24 weeks, we’d deliver by Cesarian section and then, if she breathed spontaneously or with minimal intervention, we’d go all out. If she did not breathe, we would not intubate her. That was the compromise we worked out.

As it turns out, she never made it to 24 weeks. At 23 1/2, placental blood flow reversed. We had a quick conference and reconvened in the delivery room, where the fetus was removed by Cesarian section and handed off to the attending neonatologist, who happened to be me.

Squirming in the surgical towel they handed me was the tiniest human I have ever seen. I placed her on the scale: 325 grams, about a third of a pound. I’ve had burgers bigger than that! Her eyes were open, and she had all her fingers and toes. She was perfect.

As I laid her very carefully on the cold scale, a hole opened in her tiny face and a huge wail came out! She cried lustily, and I shrugged as I handed her to the NICU nurse.

“She wants to live,” I observed.

“Damn right she does,” said the nurse protectively, placing her in the warm incubator. “Let’s roll!” And they took her to the NICU, where she endured many challenges but never gave up.

I followed her until she was nearly 3 years old, then lost track. She didn’t have it easy. Her mother predictably dropped out of the picture, but her aunt took over and did a great job with her. She never had any of the really disastrous preemie problems (brain bleeds, oxygen toxicity, gut problems, sepsis.) We figured the stress she endured prenatally might have helped. Or maybe, as in the Jewish way of thinking, her soul really, really needed this particular vehicle in order to accomplish its mission.

No matter. After holding that little tiny life in my hand, watching her hang onto that life for all she was worth and actually grow up, there’s no way I’m going to say that a 20+ week fetus does not feel, or is not alive.

Red Flag Warning

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Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, at a state park right on the dunes, all is peaceful after a line of thunderstorms whipped the lake into a froth of foamy breakers.

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As each five-foot wave recedes, it takes with it a hiss of sand that whisperes: “Riptide, Riptide….” that terrible current that will suck the sand from under your feet, sweep you up and before you know it, you’re bobbing around beyond the surf line, wondering how you got there.

A red flag with a “No Swimming” symbol on it cracks in the wind at the top of the flagpole.  Parents watch their children playing in the undertow, arms folded, chatting.  I bite my tongue, wanting to run and shake them and point to the red flag. 

The past few weeks have been frightening.  I’ve been swimming through the cloudy seas of dissociation since….well, ever since I turned my back on the beautiful West, where I feel grounded and relaxed.  That’s been a while.  Since the end of June, I think.  I remember it was beastly hot in Northern Arizona.  I came through Colorado, a lovely cool break, and headed for Michigan, where I picked up my new rig and camped in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before schlepping all the way to North Carolina to get it registered there.

It was on my way back, via West Virginia and Virginia, that I realized I could only drive a couple of hours a day before becoming completely exhausted and having to stop for the night before mid-afternoon.

This is crazy.  I’m one of those fanatics that likes to see if I can break my own long distance driving records (that is, if I really want to get somewhere rather than noodling along enjoying the scenery).  I wanted to get back to the West, to high altitude, to the beautiful mountains and forests of conifers with their resinous fragrance.

I’ve been having bouts of exhaustion that come and go, for years now.  But this was beyond anything I have ever experienced.  I felt as if I were struggling with all my might just to hold on in the same place, as if some force were dragging me down.  The stifling humid heat.  That has something to do with it.  Any heat, anything warmer than 80°F, totally wears me out.  Add humidity, and I’m body slammed.  Can’t move.

I’ve been having spells of extreme muscle weakness, muscle wasting despite living outdoors…hard to do.  Muscles going into spasm, cramping up, having to stop whatever I’m doing to wait for the cramp to ease up.  My life.

I decided to make a stop at the Cleveland Clinic, to check this out

Like most medical encounters, this one involved several hours in the MRI scanner, many tubes of blood, referrals on to other departments, and I think by the time I get finished it will already be winter.

Since I had a few days in between appointments, I came up to Michigan to enjoy the late summer peace and quiet of the State Parks.
………………………….

I remember another day, in 1992.  A bright blue day on the island of Maui.  My Pediatric Trauma conference had happily chosen the beautiful town of Lahaina as our meeting place.  The conference venue itself turned out to be a sprawling 1960’s vintage resort with a golf course, etc., beach frontage, etc., and it cost a bloody fortune.  I booked a room in a Colonial era inn, graciously furnished, with a crystal clear swimming pool lined with handmade ceramic tiles–and at half the price of the awful resort. I was an habitual swimmer back then: I put in an hour every morning before getting my son up and off to school.  Thank God.

In those days I did not know I was bipolar.  All I knew was that I always felt restless and jittery, and was often depressed and sometimes suicidal.  I managed all of this-not very well-by exercising to the point of exhaustion every day, often swimming, running, weightlifting, and dancing in the course of 24 hours.  Sleep was an infrequent visitor.

So I swam in the beautiful pool in Lahaina, and took my spare suit to my conference meetings in my backpack, to swim in the resort pool at the lunch break.

Our Big Social Event for that meeting was to be a Real Hawaiian Luau (groan).  I was disappointed in the organizers’ cultural insensitivity (tourist attraction: Hawaiians!).  Maybe it was that I had just completed my Master’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology a few years earlier.  But it was the big networking opportunity of the year: attendance essential.

I arrived at the conference center’s private mile of beach a couple of hours before the luau was to begin.  I wanted to savor some solitary beachcombing while the other attendees were out with their golf and tennis.

Red flags whipped and snapped in the stiff breeze that churned the tall breakers into foam as they thundered onto the beach.  There was a storm in the South Pacific, but here in Hawaii the sky was a dark blue crystal dome.

I mostly grew up by the sea in New England, where the people and the waters can get downright crusty.  I took a look at the waves and decided that swimming was out of the question; so I shifted my shell collecting mission to the highest tide mark, a span of dried and decaying sea-leavings far up the beach.

The sun hung low over the western horizon, glaring straight into my eyes.  I put on my brand new $100 Bollé shades…my first expensive purchase “just for me” since landing the new job.  Ah, they fit perfectly.  Now to find the ultimate cowrie shell!

A cloud covered the sun.

A very sudden cloud!  Perhaps the storm…I looked up from my shelling.

I just had time to grab a breath and clap my hands over my brand new sunglasses when the wave, towering at least three times my height, crashed down on me.

Years of martial arts training saved my life then.  My body instinctively became liquid.  I went with the wave, flowing with it.  I knew if I fought, it would break me.  The wave had the force of the whole Pacific Ocean behind it.  I made like the seaweed that flows and floats and survives.

I tucked into a ball.  The sea bounced me across its floor.  I still hung on to those glasses.  If I was going to die, it would be with my new shades on!

At last, an eternity later, I bobbed up to the surface and gulped air.  I looked around in astonishment: I had come up behind the surf line, out where the boats were moored.

The swells were huge.  It felt as if I were floating up the sides of mountains, sliding into valleys.

Worse, so were the giant catamarans that took people on whale watching tours…hundreds of people at a time.  They bucked like gigantic steeds against their mooring ropes, their bows rising, enormous pontoons clear of the water, then crashing again as the rollers went by…

All around me, these juggernauts strained at their ropes, sending sheets of water over me with each crash so that it seemed every moment I was blinded again.

I finally drew a bead on the shore and struck out for it, body surfing whenever I could to conserve energy.  I swam up the back side of the waves and surfed down the front, over and over and over…why did the shore seem no closer than before?

The tide was going out, is why.  And it was taking me with it.

I swam harder, finally got to where I could touch bottom, and ran like hell for the beach.  But just as I reached knee high, my legs were sucked out from under me, and the sky clouded over once more…I grabbed a breath, and my glasses, and crash….I collapsed, rolled into a ball, bounced across the sea floor, and came up, an eternity later, right between the pontoons of a sea-going catamaran…about to crash right over my head!  I dived, and the shock of the boat crashing into the trough of the wave sent me rolling again, but this time to my advantage, as I was a few waves closer to the beach.  I started again, strong but pacing myself, knowing that I could get free of this rip current by swimming parallel to the beach…if only I knew how wide the current was!  It could be miles wide.  And I couldn’t afford to get caught in the shallows where the waves breaking would break me too…

I reached the beach and dragged myself through the sucking sand.  There it is!  The beach!  I was there.

Then the sun went out again…

This happened five times.  I lost hope of actually living through this thing.  The sea had a bead on my life, but I refused to go down without fighting to the last.

After the fifth wave, I caught a good one in to shore.  I rode it as far as the knee deep mark, hit the sand running and ran right up the beach to the hotel sidewalk and kept running until I hit the pool, where I floated on the calm water and washed the sand out of my hair, my boobs, my butt crack…my teeth…

I wondered that I was still alive.  Or if I was still alive.  Maybe I only thought I was alive, like those ghosts you hear of that don’t know they’re dead yet…why would I have been alive?

And I still had my expensive sunglasses.  Maybe that’s what saved me: I was damned if the sea was going to get my Bollés!

My waterproof geeky Casio calculator watch said it was time to go to the luau.  I dragged myself out of the pool and threw on shorts and Hawaiian shirt from my rental car.

By this time I was feeling it.

But if you’re a Pediatric Trauma specialist, you ain’t allowed to feel.  So you just open that gate and walk into that courtyard with the kitschy tiki lights and the very decent Hawaiian band and the luscious brown dancers with the coconut shells over their boobs….you eat the poi and the pig…doing battle with the sea is hungry work.

Red Flag Warning

image

Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, at a state park right on the dunes, all is peaceful after a line of thunderstorms whipped the lake into a froth of foamy breakers.

image

As each five-foot wave recedea, it takes with it a hiss of sand that whisperes: “Riptide, Riptide….” that terrible current that will suck the sand from under your feet, sweep you up and before you know it, you’re bobbing around beyond the surf line, wondering how you got there.

A red flag with a “No Swimming” symbol on it cracks in the wind at the top of the flagpole.  Parents watch their children playing in the undertow, arms folded, chatting.  I bite my tongue, wanting to run and shake them and point to the red flag. 

The past few weeks have been frightening.  I’ve been swimming through the cloudy seas of dissociation since….well, ever since I turned my back on the beautiful West, where I feel grounded and relaxed.  That’s been a while.  Since the end of June, I think.  I remember it was beastly hot in Northern Arizona.  I came through Colorado, a lovely cool break, and headed for Michigan, where I picked up my new rig and camped in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before schlepping all the way to North Carolina to get it registered there.

It was on my way back, via West Virginia and Virginia, that I realized I could only drive a couple of hours a day before becoming completely exhausted and having to stop for the night before mid-afternoon.

This is crazy.  I’m one of those fanatics that likes to see if I can break my own long distance driving records (that is, if I really want to get somewhere rather than noodling along enjoying the scenery).  I wanted to get back to the West, to high altitude, to the beautiful mountains and forests of conifers with their resinous fragrance.

I’ve been having bouts of exhaustion that come and go, for years now.  But this was beyond anything I have ever experienced.  I felt as if I were struggling with all my might just to hold on in the same place, as if some force were dragging me down.  The stifling humid heat.  That has something to do with it.  Any heat, anything warmer than 80°F, totally wears me out.  Add humidity, and I’m body slammed.  Can’t move.

I’ve been having spells of extreme muscle weakness, muscle wasting despite living outdoors…hard to do.  Muscles going into spasm, cramping up, having to stop whatever I’m doing to wait for the cramp to ease up.  My life.

I decided to make a stop at the Cleveland Clinic, to check this out

Like most medical encounters, this one involved several hours in the MRI scanner, many tubes of blood, referrals on to other departments, and I think by the time I get finished it will already be winter.

Since I had a few days in between appointments, I came up to Michigan to enjoy the late summer peace and quiet of the State Parks.
………………………….

I remember another day, in 1992.  A bright blue day on Maui.  My Pediatric Trauma conference had happily chosen the beautiful town of Lahaina as our meeting place.  The conference venue itself turned out to be a 1960’s vintage resort with a golf course, etc., beach frontage, etc., and cost a fortune.  For much less, I booked a room in a Colonial era inn, graciously furnished, with a crystal clear swimming pool lined with handmade ceramic tiles.  I was an habitual swimmer then: I put in an hour every morning before getting my son up and off to school. 

In those days I did not know I was bipolar.  All I knew was that I always felt restless and jittery, and was often depressed and sometimes suicidal.  I managed all of this-not very well-by exercising to the point of exhaustion every day, often swimming, running, weightlifting, and dancing in the course of 24 hours.  Sleep was an infrequent visitor.

So I swam in the beautiful pool in Lahaina, and took my spare suit to my conference meetings in my backpack, to swim at the lunch break.

Our Big Social Event for that meeting was to be a Real Hawaiian Luau (groan).  I was disappointed in the organizers’ cultural insensitivity (tourist attraction: Hawaiians!).  Maybe it was that I had just completed my Master’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology a few years earlier.  But it was the big networking opportunity of the year, so attend I must.

I arrived at the conference center’s beach a couple of hours before the luau was to begin.  I wanted to savor some beach time alone while the other attendees were out with their golf and tennis.

Red flags whipped and snapped in the stiff breeze that whipped the tall breakers into foam as they thundered onto the beach.  There was a storm in the Pacific somewhere to the south, although here in Hawaii the sky was a dark blue crystal dome.

I mostly grew up by the sea in New England, where the people and the waters can get downright crusty.  I took a look at the waves and decided that swimming was out of the question; so I shifted my shell collecting mission to the highest tide mark, a span of dried and decaying sea-leavings far up the beach.

The sun hung low over the western horizon, glaring straight into my eyes.  I put on my brand new $100 Bollé shades…my first expensive purchase “just for me” since landing the new job.  Ah, they fit perfectly.  Now to find the ultimate cowrie shell!

A cloud covered the sun.

A very sudden cloud!  Perhaps the storm…I looked up from my shelling.

I just had time to grab a breath and clap my hands over my brand new sunglasses when the wave, towering at least three times my height, crashed down on me.

Years of martial arts training saved my life then.  My body instinctively became liquid.  I went with the wave, flowing with it.  I knew if I fought, it would break me.  The wave had the force of the whole Pacific Ocean behind it; I made like the seaweed that flows and floats and survives.

I tucked into a ball.  The sea bounced me across its floor.  I still hung on to those glasses.  If I was going to die, it would be with my new shades on!

At last, an eternity later, I bobbed up to the surface and gulped air.  I looked around in astonishment: I had come up behind the surf line, out where the boats were moored.

The swells were huge.  It felt as if I were floating up the sides of mountains, sliding into valleys.

Worse, so were the giant catamarans that took people on whale watching tours…hundreds of people at a time.  They bucked like gigantic steeds against their mooring ropes, their bows rising, enormous pontoons clear of the water, then crashing again as the rollers went by…

All around me, these juggernauts strained at their ropes, sending sheets of water over me with each crash so that it seemed every moment I was blinded again.

I finally drew a bead on the shore and struck out for it, body surfing whenever I could to conserve energy.  I swam up the back side of the waves and surfed down the front, over and over and over…why did the shore seem no closer than before?

The tide was going out, is why.  And it was taking me with it.

I swam harder, finally got to where I could touch bottom, and ran like hell for the beach.  But just as I reached knee high, my legs were sucked out from under me, and the sky clouded over once more…I grabbed a breath, my glasses, and crash….I collapsed, rolled into a ball, bounced across the sea floor, and came up, an eternity later, right between the pontoons of a sea-going catamaran…about to crash right over my head!  I dived, and the shock of the boat crashing into the trough of the wave sent me rolling again, but this time to my advantage, as I was a few waves closer to the beach.  I started again, strong but pacing myself, knowing that I could get free of this rip current by swimming parallel to the beach…if only I knew how wide the current was!  It could be miles wide.  And I couldn’t afford to get caught in the shallows where the waves breaking would break me too…

I reached the beach and dragged myself through the sucking sand.  There it is!  The beach!  I was there.

Then the sun went out again…

This happened five times.  I lost hope of actually living through this thing.  The sea had a bead on my life, but I refused to go down without fighting to the last.

After the fifth wave, I caught a good one in to shore.  I rode it as far as the knee deep mark, hit the sand running and ran right up the beach to the hotel sidewalk and kept running until I hit the pool, where I floated on the calm water and washed the sand out of my hair, my boobs, my butt crack…my teeth…

I wondered that I was still alive.  Or if I was still alive.  Maybe I only thought I was alive, like those ghosts you hear of that don’t know they’re dead yet…why would I have been alive?

And I still had my expensive sunglasses.  Maybe that’s what saved me: I was damned if the sea was going to get my Bollés!

My waterproof geeky Casio calculator watch said it was time to go to the luau.  I dragged myself out of the pool and threw on shorts and Hawaiian shirt from my rental car.

By this time I was feeling it.

But if you’re a Pediatric Trauma specialist, you ain’t allowed to feel.  So you just open that gate and walk into that courtyard with the kitschy tiki lights and the very decent Hawaiian band and the luscious brown dancers with the coconut shells over their boobs….you eat the poi and the pig…doing battle with the sea is hungry work.

Grateful

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Last evening as I was picking my way down a rutted forest road I had to stop to let three enormous javelinas cross the road.  This is the first time I’ve seen javelinas, although I’ve smelled them, and I’ve seen their lying-down places where they rest.

I had no idea that javelinas range so far north.  I thought they were a Texas and Mexican border kind of thing, but I guess not.

Javelinas are the northern cousins of the peccary, a wild and voracious pig that travels in packs and eats anything alive that it can overpower, even adult humans.  I was trekking with a native guide through the jungle in Costa Rica when we smelled the peculiar and disgusting aroma of peccary.  We tiptoed as close as the guide felt safe, staying downwind.  If the pigs got a whiff of us, the guide said, we would be dinner.

There must have been thirty of them, with a huge boar standing sentry.  That herd of pigs could run us over and make a meal of us in seconds, he said.  So we tiptoed back the way we had come, avoiding the horrible trees with long sharp spikes all over their trunks. 

Who can have read or seen the movie “Old Yeller” that does not vividly recall the terrifying fight between Yeller and the javelinas (I think they call them “wild boars”)?  Poor Old Yeller got himself tusked up pretty bad.

I thought of that last night at dusk, when I found a decent camping spot not very far from where the wild pigs crossed the road.  Atina fretted because I wouldn’t let her out after dark.  She would be no match for a hungry, angry, or frightened tusker.

I actually ate wild pig once.  My first ex-husband’s folks lived in South Florida.  They (the folks) ate anything they could catch.  Kind of like javelinas, come to think of it.

By the time he was a year old, my son had eaten (raw tuna, but that’s normal) fried squirrel (pretty good, actually), pheasant, wild duck, fried alligator tail (very much like chewing on an old tire, vaguely reminiscent of fish), javelina, crawdads, and who knows what else.  I tried not to look.  (He lived through it, and acquired a taste for weird and disgusting food.)

Some distant relatives threw a party out in the bush.  They owned a ranch, so they took a couple of days off and barbecued a whole cow and a couple of whole pigs.

One of the teenage sons trapped wild pigs in a pit trap, hauled them out of the pit, popped them into a pen, and fattened them up for eating for a month or so.

Normally javelinas are very tough, because they have to travel long distances, and they have to work for their food, subsisting on acorns, and anything they can root up or catch, such as household pets and small children.

Fattened up javelinas taste mighty good.  Tender and sweet, but not kosher.

At the ranch barbecue, the eating was all done outside in the blazing South Florida sun.  There was a large pole building right near the barbecue pit, but we weren’t allowed to congregate in there, for inside the barn was a gigantic U-shaped assemblage of banquet tables groaning with “salads,” the kind made of canned fruit ruined with gobs of pink or green colored Kool Whip, and punctuated with contrasting colored tiny marshmallows.  Some of the endless variations on this theme were sprinkled with toasted coconut.  I believe they call this “Ambrosia.”

Much more interesting were the tables laden with every kind of pie: blackberry, mulberry, cherry, lemon,  chocolate cream, banana cream, and my personal favorite, Shoo-fly pie.  Shoo-fly pie, if you haven’t had it, is all about the thick layer of molasses that blankets a rich, flaky crust on the bottom.  The crust and molasses are baked slowly till the molasses thickens.  Then a layer of vanilla custard is poured on top, the pie is cooled, and topped with whipped cream (or not).  The result is that the molasses kind of makes its way up through the custard, resulting in a delightful variety of tastes and textures.  Shoo-fly pie, yum.  Forbidden to diabetics.

Regrettably, we must return now to the present.

After two days of cardiology testing, Atina and I decided to do the old splitsky into the woods.  It’s Memorial Day Weekend, so I’m pretty sure that most of the good spots are taken by three day weekend revelers.  So I studied the Forest Service map and picked a likely looking road.

It took some searching, but voila, the photo above shows you the delightful camping spot I found, with a fine view of the San Francisco Peaks, which are the Westernmost boundary of the Navajo tribal lands, marked by four sacred mountains.

We’re sitting right about 8,000 feet, elevation wise.  Glad I filled the propane tank; it’s gonna be a cold night.

Everyone Knows It’s Windy

Ahem.  Yes.  1967.  I was 13.  Remember 1967? 

It’s windy.  Today and yesterday, in NOAZ (that’s what they call Northern Arizona), upon wave of wind up to 50 miles an hour!

The sky is a perfect blue diamond.  I’m surrounded by forest, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, some kind of Spruce.

The waves of wind from the South-Southwest pile up on that majestic escarpment, the Mogollon Rim, and spill over into the Coconino Plateau, which rides above the Rim like a giant plate rising to 8,000 feet before cracking in half to form the Grand Canyon.

And I, in my tiny RV, with my not so tiny canine pal Atina, had a choice to either go crazy in the two days (so far) of relentless waves of wind, or…or not.

At times the wind rocks the RV so hard, I think it’s going to tip over.

Atina thinks so too.  I can tell by the way she clings to me and farts.  As I write she is wrapped around my leg with her ass in my face, farting great clouds of evil fumes.  At the risk of being covered in red volcanic dust, I have had to open the window.

Every three or four minutes, another wave of wind-here it comes now-roars through the tree tops and through my window.  Atina sleeps, heaves a big sigh, farts.

I’ve been nervously checking my NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) high-definition radar app for any approaching precipitation.  This volcanic soil, when rained upon, becomes a treacherous soup of slippery mud.  If the soil becomes saturated, it can turn into quicksand.  So I watch the sky and keep track of the aviation forecasts.

I’ve always loved weather.  When I was 10 or so, a gigantic tornado passed right over our house.  We were listening to a record on the old record player.  Suddenly there was a deafening roar.  The dog dove under the couch.  The lights flickered.  The phonograph slowed eerily to a halt.  The lights went out.  The roar passed overhead…we thought it was a low flying jet, but strange… Then the lights came back on, the record player started up again, the dog came out from under the couch, and everything went back to normal.

The next morning my mother and I went to the laundromat.  It wasn’t there.  Just nothing but the concrete pad it was built on.

The mile-wide tornado sheared the city of Toledo, Ohio, off at second-story level and dumped it into Lake Erie.
_________________________________

My father and I were big buddies.  We used to pack a lunch, a frying pan, a little bag of corn meal, a couple slices of bacon, and our fishing tackle, and we’d go fishing.

Dad taught me to fly fish.  I was good at catching twigs from overhanging trees.  We never caught anything, but we did forbidden things like chewing tobacco (yecch) and smoking corncob pipes (blecch). 

We did better fishing in ponds, where we caught pan fish: crappie, sunfish, bluegill–cleaned and scaled them on the spot.  Dad taught me how to make a small cooking fire, and we’d fry the bacon, roll the fish in cornmeal, and fry them in the bacon fat.  A delectable feast.  We ate them, fins, tails, and all.  Crunchy.

We went surf casting in the ocean, using long heavy rods baited with 8-10 inch long Styrofoam lures called Atoms, bristling with hooks, in hope of catching a bluefish and not getting bitten.

Once I was in a rowboat in Narragansett Bay with my friend Becky.  The bluefish were running, a huge school of them, so many that it seemed the boat was riding on top of waves of bluefish instead of waves of water.

We happened to have fishing poles, so we threw a line in, without bait, just bare hooks.  Becky hooked one immediately, and it fought so hard it took both of us to get it into the boat.

(Breaking news: Atina just puked.  She’s such a good girl, she urgently asks to go outside when she has to puke.  It was the Malinois Empty Stomach kind of puke, so I just fed her.)

We got the angry bluefish into the boat.  It thrashed and snapped, jumping around in the bottom of the dory.  Bluefish have a mouthful of deadly sharp teeth.  They can take a finger off, and bluefish bites seem to always get infected.

Becky yelled, “Hold into him, there’s a club in this boat somewhere!”

It was her father’s dory.  He was an avid fisherman, so there had to be a club in the boat, for whacking fish over the head.  That’s how you kill a fish.

She had to find the club, because the only other choice was to throw the fish overboard and cut the line.

But this could not be done without getting bitten, because a dory is a deep sort of boat.

No luck with the club, so we pulled one of the oars and whacked the fish to death, but then a wave came along and snatched the oar; and we were forced to paddle back to shore with one oar, which was not an easy task.

In normal conditions, if deprived of an oar, a person would jump into the sea and push or pull the boat ashore; but the sea was filled with snapping bluefish, so we managed, after a long time, to get the boat to land, more worried about what Becky’s father would say about the lost oar than anything.  Becky’s father was a kind man; he didn’t say anything.  He was a man of few words.  Not so, her mother.

One bright blue morning, Dad and I packed up our surf casting gear and headed out for Horseneck Beach to try our luck.  Somebody had told somebody else, who had told Dad that the bluefish might be running.

By the time we got to the beach, it was starting to cloud up.  Nevertheless we hauled our tackle to the shore and threw a line in.

The tide seemed to be coming in strong, although by the tide tables it should have been turning, just at the end of going out and starting to come in (“neap tide,” in fisherman’s terms).  High tide wasn’t for a good few hours yet.

But we cast our lines and tried to smoke, he his cigar and I my Balkan Sobranies, daring black cigarettes with gold leaf where the filter would have been, if there had been a filter, which there wasn’t.  By this time it was impossible to smoke, as the wind kept putting our smokes out.  So we put them away and turned our attention to trying to get our lures in the water.

But the wind, which was now howling like a banshee, kept throwing our lures back in our faces along with sheets of rain and salt spray.  We decided to pack it in and go have lunch.

We threw our fishing gear into the back of Dad’s Ford pickup and wallowed through the driving rain to a nearby fishermen’s bar that served the best conch chowder ever.

The scratchy t.v.was on.

When we came through the door, soaking wet, stamping our dripping boots on the mat, the boys at the bar said,

“What in the world have you two been doin’ out THEYAH?  In the middle of this hurricane?  You-ah lucky you didn’t get taken by a storm wave!”

Hurricane?  HURRICANE!  Nobody said anything about a hurricane.

The lights went out, and the barkeep lit kerosene lanterns.  Dad ordered us beers (yes, I was only fourteen, but the law was that a minor could drink if accompanied by a parent), and we lit fresh smokes.  The fishermen looked on approvingly.  We ordered hot conch chowder, and crumbled Common Crackers, which the barkeep scooped from a barrel, into the rich stew.

It made us forget, temporarily, that we were soaking wet.

(For you who did not grow up in New England in the ’60’s or before, Common Crackers, also known as Ship’s Biscuits, are rounds of flour, water, and baking soda, slowly baked until completely dehydrated, and dangerous to teeth unless broken up into chowder.  They keep indefinitely when stored in an airtight container, and thus were taken on long sea voyages on whaling ships.  As long as they don’t get wet they are good practically forever.)

After the wind died down some, we hydroplaned for a couple of hours till we got home.  My mother was frantic.  No cell phones in those days.  For all she knew (she wailed, through tears), we could have been taken by a storm wave.

Mom seldom approved of our adventures.  That’s one reason we seldom took her along.

The wind-waves seem to be slowing down now.  The NOAA weather discussion said it was going to, but I don’t trust it, as that’s what it said last night and today was worse than yesterday.

So I’ll keep on recollecting pleasant memories of dangerous adventures that turned out good.  Atina and I are warm and dry, and we’ve got plenty of food and water, without bluefish…although they are very tasty.

image

My father, with a giant pot that he made for a demonstration at some art school or other.  Note that the pot is wearing his apron and hat.  He was 5’8″, so that gives you an idea of the size of this pot.

Below on the far left are a salt glazed porcelain teapot and vase that he made.  The rest of the pots were made by his former graduate students.  From a show in 2001 more or less.  I hope he’s playing in mud in Potter’s Heaven now…and enjoying a good conch chowdah, with a good cigar for dessert.

30 years after Glienicke Bridge | Rachel Sharansky Danziger | The Blogs | The Times of Israel

What is freedom, if not truth?
What is religion, if not compassion?
What is compassion, if not right action?

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/30-years-after-glienicke-bridge/

Talking Shop

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but I’ve noticed, that I haven’t been posting.

Lord knows I’ve wanted to.

Blogging serves many purposes for me, as I’m sure it does for you: catharsis, self-expression, connection, community, dialogue, intellectual challenge, exercise and sharpening of one’s writers’ craft teeth, etc.

But: things around here have been less than peachy.

Dad had another stroke a week ago, was in a coma for a couple of days.  Then he began his struggle back into This World.  He’s not quite as “with it” as he was before–and he wasn’t too “with it” then either–but sometimes he knows where he is.  Thankfully he still knows who I am.

While we thought he was dying or about to die, there was a certain amount of drama (really?!) on the part of my mother, who actually hugged me and wept on my shoulder for an uncomfortable while.  I do feel sorry for her, but not that sorry.  But it’s not as if I would push my mother away while she’s having a dramatic sad moment, or a sadly dramatic moment, being about to lose her husband of sixty-six years.

Life is now a patchwork of caregivers and nurses coming in and out of the house.  That’s good, because I cannot help with physical needs other than the food-related ones.  I can prepare food, and help him eat it; and if he’s too “out of it” to get his food into his mouth, I can feed him.  Some days he’s able to feed himself, and some days he’s just too exhausted.  He’s hungry, but he just can’t manage the eating part.  I never realized how complex the act of eating is, until this experience of watching Dad’s stepwise loss of the mechanical ability to manipulate food, even with his hands, let alone utensils.

Once it’s in his mouth he can usually chew it up and swallow, but sometimes he needs his food “blenderized” and sometimes he just can’t eat at all.  I know that’s part of dying.  And sometimes he absolutely refuses to eat, and that’s part of dying too.

We try to keep him hydrated, at least.  He’s on a medicine that decreases the fluid in his blood, taking some stress off his heart, which does make him feel better but causes increased urination, so getting the fluids into him is important.  I know, it seems paradoxical: on one hand, taking the fluids out, on the other, shoving them in.

The other day we were sitting alone together, watching the afternoon coming in through the brilliant greens of the forest canopy, and he said:  “You and I need to go up into the woods and talk shop.”

I know what he meant.

We have always been best buddies, even when times weren’t so good, even though he served as my own private “Flying Monkey” who tried to explain away my mother’s evil ways.  I always came back, for my dad.  Here I am!

Just about every night, starting from…when?  Maybe after I got back off the road, when I was seventeen–every night when I was visiting and would be staying over, my dad and I would sit up late drinking whiskey and “talking shop.”  We would solve the world’s problems, solve problems for worlds that were entirely theoretical at the time but in fact exist now, and dig deep into authors, poetry, philosophical genres, the nature of human existence, art (of course), artists (same), relationships of all sorts….and now and then my mother would stick her head down the stairway to ask us to please “keep it down.”

I do salute her for allowing us those times together and not throwing a monkey-wrench into things, which she is quite capable of doing.  She knew that those late-night rap sessions were sacred.

The only time my dad and I ever got into a shouting match was oh, around 3 am when we were both three sheets to the wind, and somehow or other we fell into the topic: “Does God have a sense of humor?”

He staunchly and solidly maintained that God does NOT have a sense of humor.  The Holocaust.

I equally stubbornly held that God DOES have a sense of humor, because WE exist and that is the ridiculous proof!

Neither of us would budge, and having put a good dent in a fifth of Bourbon whiskey, the volume worked its way up until we were actually shouting at each other in earnest.  Luckily my mother yelled down the stairs for us to “knock it off down there.”  We sheepishly toasted “to Life” and stumbled off to our respective beds.  We never did resolve that point.

So, we need to go up into the woods and talk shop.  Some more.  Soon.

Dina Leah is Alive and Well

Some of you may know that I am writing a book.  It’s a memoir that chronicles a seven-month period in my life, when I ran away from home and never went back.  It’s pretty gruesome in some places, and kind of wacky in others.  The title, so far, is A Runaway Life.  And since it’s already about 315 pages, I kind of doubt the title will change; but you never know.

I have another blog, Dina Leah: Story of a Teenage Runaway, which at first I had intended to be the canvas upon which I would paint this story, in serial form; but the book got out of hand and took on a life of its own and galloped away with me, so my poor Dina Leah blog has languished.  Oh right, I didn’t tell you that Dina Leah is the pseudonym I chose.

I’ve been trying to write this book for at least 30 years.  The problem has been that there is so much trauma oozing between its covers that every time I started to write I would break out in a cold PTSD sweat, and I’d put it away.  My hard drive is bulging with drafts and attempts at chapters.

Last NaNoWriMo I got the bright idea that I would give it a whirl using Third Person instead of First Person, or maybe alternate: just play with it, and see what came out.  So far, since November 1st 2012, about 95,000 words have come out.  Yikes!  I had no idea.  And as it now stands, I’m only five months into the seven month journey.  Gonna be a whole lotta editing goin’ on!   This isn’t War and Peace.  Well, it’s MY war and peace, but that’s a different story, so to speak.

If you don’t mind, please stop by Dina Leah and tell me what you think.  I’m really looking for honest feedback, the more specific the better.  Thanks!

Where I Live

I live on the other side of the North Toe River, facing the Penland Post Office.  The Post Office, built in 1900, is on the National Historic Register.  If something isn’t done about it soon, it will continue its slow yet determined process of decomposition, just like all of us, I suppose.  I was pleased when Bucky the Carpenter put some new boards over the hole in the row of planks that constitutes a front porch. Now you can just walk straight into the post office, without having to be sure not to fall in the hole.

Claude (who was slow to larnin’ but hell on critters) blew that hole in the boards about twenty-five years ago, after Carlene, the previous postmistress, started hearing strange sounds emanating from under the boards; and the source of the sounds was revealed when she came out from behind the counter to close up the post office one evening and there was a great-granddaddy of a rattlesnake grinning at her from the doorway.  After she got done shrieking, which could be heard all the way to Bailey’s Holler, she got on the phone and called for Claude to quick come down with his shotgun, which he was happy to oblige, and blew that hole in the post office porch.  Once he had it opened up, he saw that there was a whole nest of rattlers living underneath there, so he fired off the other barrel, which pretty much took care of that problem.

Inside the post office isn’t much more sophisticated.  The fifty mail boxes, vintage 1879, are beautifully cast in brass, having been moved from another post office. All the original scales and equipment are still there, although since the computer has invaded the scene, it is some crowded. The post office inside has plank walls and a puncheon floor.  A puncheon floor is made by smoothing out some dirt and laying some boards over it.  That’s it.  That way you don’t have to go to the trouble of making a foundation.  It is a matter of speculation what the postmistress and her clerk do about bathroom needs, as we know for sure there isn’t any over there, not even a port-a-potty like I have.

The best part is the postmistress, Becky, who is Carlene’s niece.  She started out as Carlene’s clerk when she was about fifteen, and then took over as postmistress after Carlene got too sick to work.  She smoked herself to death.  Carlene, not Becky.  Becky is as charming a mountain lady as you will ever meet.  She likes to tell me about Mr. De Bell, who is the ghost who lives in the Old House, which sits on the same rock as the one I live on.  In fact the two buildings are attached.  Anyway, Mr. De Bell, who died of a heart attack some fifty years ago, likes to come sit in the rocking chair next to the wood stove in the post office and smoke his pipe.  Becky says he smokes that cherry pipe tobacco.  She loves the smell of it.  She maintains that Mr. De Bell is good company, and it always makes her feel safe when he’s there with her.

 

But you didn’t really come here to hear all this gossip about the speculative inner workings of the post office.  What you’re after is the view.

2013-05-02 19.03.56

The white building on the other side of the river is the post office.

This shot is taken from the River Road, which is the road I live on.   What you see here is a spray of wild Dogwood blossoms hanging out over the North Toe River.  The river’s real name is North Estatoe, after a Cherokee princess named Estatoe who jumped off a rock because her parents wouldn’t let her marry a boy from another tribe.  But I think the name of the river has been officially changed to the North Toe, because there is also a South Toe River.

On the other side of the river is the railroad grade.  It was once a narrow-gauge railroad, called the Clinchfield Railway, and there was once a thriving town where you see a few little buildings.  The Clinchfield had a passenger line, and Penland was a regular stop, not a whistle-stop.  A gigantic flood in 1916 wiped out the village, leaving only the post office, the general store, and a couple of houses that were fortunate enough to be above the flood line.

The flood also wiped out the narrow gauge railroad, and a standard gauge track was built to replace it.  It used to be a Conrail track but now CSX has taken over, and to tell you the truth even though I hate CSX for personal reasons, they take a lot better care of the track.  When Conrail had it there were derailments every five minutes, practically.  Now, for the two and a half years I’ve been living with Mr. De Bell, there hasn’t been one.

 

Penland Post Office1

The Penland Post Office

There is a railroad crossing right next to the post office,  so the trains have to blow four times every time they approach it.  The standard pattern is BWAAAAAA, BWAAAAAA, BWA BWAAAAAAAA, but they like to mix it up so it could be anything as long as they get their four infernal blasts in.  I hate them.  I have visitors (VERY rarely–I hate visitors too) who simper, “Oh, a train, I LOVE trains!  Don’t you just LOVE living near a train?”  No, I don’t.  They  come BWAAAA-ing down here day and night, and some of them have OK voices and some of them sound like a cow in labor.

I don’t have to tell you that I don’t have indoor plumbing.  Plus, if I told you, the building inspector would shut me down and I would have to move; which might be a good thing, but at least here I don’t pay rent.

But I do have to put up with Mr. De Bell, who makes an infernal racket walking around in the attic at all hours of the night.  I can always tell when Becky goes home from the post office, because he starts up tromping away in the rafters.  If he thinks I’m going to invite him down here, he can think again: not only do I hate visitors, but I’m asthmatic and I’m not about to put up with his damn pipe.  And by the way:  whoever told you that ghosts don’t cross water was WRONG.  Mr. De Bell lives over here, but he crosses the  North Toe River and visits Becky the Postmistress whenever he wants to, so that completely debunks that old myth. I never believed it anyway.

 

Reblogged from In the Booth with Ruth: Dina Leah

Dina Leah, a survivor of child abuse and rape, ran away from home at age 16 only to find herself homeless on the streets. The only way to get shelter, food, and other necessities was to have sex with strange men. This led to more rapes, and a vicious cycle of drug abuse, survivor sex, and homelessness. She is currently writing a novelized memoir, using a pseudonym out of fear of her abusors. Ruth Jacobs, tireless advocate for change and abolition of prostitution, interviews Dina here about Dina’s life as a writer. In a second interview on Ruth’s website, Dina talks about her life as a runaway and how it has affected her, both as an activist for street kids and in her own personal life.