Monday, January 31, 2011

Five years


Five years ago, I was in graduate school. I had just been on a Christmas cruise to Mexico with my mother, brothers, sister-in-law, and husband. It was my mom's first vacation in about a decade and the first time she hadn't taken a business call in more than 24 hours (maybe in more than 12) in all that time, and we enjoyed karaoke and running amok. It was the best time.

When I got back, my nose went to the grindstone trying to attract more committee members to my dissertation committee -- as had been my project for the previous five or six years. But by this time, I knew the situation was desperate; my chair was looking for a polished proposal and wasn't offering much helpful advice, and I'd been turned down by almost everyone who shared research interests with me. They were "too busy" or "on sabbatical" or "doing fieldwork" or "just didn't see the overlap."

In early autumn of 2006, my chair quit my committee, claiming no interest in my project. (That had been amply evident by her level of participation, but other profs were also disinterested in taking up where she left off.) I begged her to stay on-project, to just read what I had written for her. She would not. I broke down and cried in her office. I told her I had given up everything (children!) to pursue my career and that her departure from my committee would spell the end of my career, since I was well aware that I could not replace her. She told me to take up yoga or something. She told me she was concerned about my ... health. (She looked me pointedly up and down; I am fat, and since I was having a bad rosacea flare and had, at the time, pneumonia, I was red and wheezing after the three flights of stairs to her office.)

I alternated sleepless job-hunting, slumping in despair, and despondent WoW marathons for the next couple months. I didn't want to start over; I was too damn old and I had already given up absolutely everything I wanted (children!) for the dead end in which I'd invested myself. To start over would be to postpone fulfillment (children!) for several more years -- years that would claim my fertility.


Four years and a couple months ago, we visited home for Christmas. I had been horribly stressed beforehand because I had not yet told my family that I had dropped out of grad school. But when I took my mom aside and sobbingly confessed that I was considering it, she was so supportive. Proud of me despite my crippling sense of failure. Loving. It was all I could do to keep her off the phone and to keep her from trying to take my ex-chair to court somehow. I told her I wanted to come live close to her and my brother again, and could she keep her ear to the ground to see if suitable jobs were available? Because they certainly were not available in Chicago... at least I had bad luck landing permanent work.

I was no sooner home than I got a phone call from Mom. Mom's good friend Stacy had an entry-level position opening. I applied, and Stacy was eager to have me aboard. She was simply worried that the entry-level salary wouldn't be sufficient. I told her that it was not, but if there was opportunity for advancement, I was in.

Four years ago tomorrow, I began working for Stacy. Her office was wonderful -- over a dozen of the loveliest people anywhere, working hard together. I caught on quickly and, three months later, was promoted into the most difficult position in the agency. I loved the work.

Shortly thereafter, Pat finally threw in the towel and joined me in abandoning graduate school. It hit him even harder than it had hit me, the sense of failure and despondency. His committee was absolutely unsupportive even face-to-face, and long-distance, it was impossible to proceed. He blamed me, but didn't mean to.

On our 19th anniversary, we went to the beach and watched people and birds and the waves, and we talked -- the tail end of one of those exhausting arguments where you just nibble at one another verbally for days and days, "talking it through" because there's nothing to fight about. I was bitter and hysterical. He was bitter and annoyed. And then, everything melted away; we managed to spark the wavelength that united us. We cleared the air about our negative feelings about leaving U of C and how we felt about one another's roles in the process. We were so wrung out we were clean and clear-headed. We finally internalized the lesson that life could be a journey and that we hadn't failed, we'd simply changed paths. I finally confessed that I'd hated the program for a really long time; I loved the work but hated the politics. He told me he felt the same way, but felt he had so much invested in it that he didn't want to walk away.

I wiped hamburger grease off my lips and put my head on his shoulder, holding his hand. I watched a toddler playing in the waves and told him that I felt the same way when we decided to put off having kids, and then decided against having them. All I had ever wanted to be before we were married (aside from some kind of Utopian commune leader, because I was a very New Age teenager and we were married right out of high school) was a mommy. And I didn't even know how I felt about having "made" that decision by enduring the slow and endless grind of grad school, forever deferring all decisions about our real future. Did we want kids? How would we know?

He watched the toddler, smiling. "You know what? I think I do."

I made him promise to take his time and think about it. But he didn't need time. He wanted children and he wanted them NOW. It took ME three days to decide I thought I wanted kids too.

A couple weeks later, I was at my annual ob/gyn appointment and mentioned casually to my doctor that I thought we might want to have kids. The doctor whisked away my IUD with the merest by-your-leave and told me to go get pregnant. Just like that. So that was how decisions worked in the real world!


It only took us three months to get pregnant. We told everyone. My mom was aglow. My dad was beside himself with delight. My brother looked at me as if I were sacred. My boss bubbled. Pat and I were giddy. But in the first week after the New Year, I lost the baby.

I have never cried like I cried then. I knew, just knew, that it would be hard.

I missed only one work day.

We miscarried five more times in the next two and a half years. We got pregnant easily, but couldn't keep it. I submitted to infertility treatments that seemed designed to wring out our pocketbooks rather than to increase our family. Sex became stressful. When pregnant, I would go hours without drinking anything because to pee was to have to check my panties for blood again; when not pregnant, I was thinking about how to get pregnant. It was unspeakable.

My senior co-worker's callousness started to get to me from right after the first miscarriage. She started watching me obsessively, asking nosy questions and lecturing me when I contacted Pat during my workday (on breaks); she felt I was out of line to use the phone or email to do so. The real tone-setter was when she threw a fit because I had a doctor's appointment two days after I lost the baby -- which would have been the first prenatal check-up. "Well, you don't need to keep it -- you're not pregnant NOW." (The doctor wanted to do an ultrasound to be sure I didn't need a D&C.) She wanted to take the day off in my place, so that she could give her dog some attention, as he had begun to escape her yard frequently as a result of neglect (requiring her to take off of work without warning to go track him down.)

I went to my boss. She was sympathetic and got me a little space from this co-worker (who had chewed through four unhappy assistants before me). But the bottom line was that the co-worker held all the cards and Stacy would not, or could not, do the only thing that would improve the toxic situation: disciplining or firing her.

When Pat surprised me with a 20th anniversary cruise to Alaska, it irritated my office manager and my boss that I had been absent so much. I had already used my nebulous quantity of work days on doctors' appointments and fighting colds without medication (lest I be pregnant and endanger the pregnancy with cold meds). I took vacation without pay, but it damaged my relationship with the office manager that the days off were not negotiable and that there was limited advance notice. Ah well. The vacation probably made me a thousand times more productive, and saved my sanity -- a shining moment of beauty and love, marred only by the depressing knowledge that I'd be ovulating sometime during the trip.


Two years ago, I continued to loathe my senior co-worker and to miscarry often. My job began to haunt me day and night. When the co-worker asked me to commit fraud, after a few stunningly fraudulent moments of her own, I gave up on ever coming to terms with her.

We quit trying to conceive and started enjoying sex, and our life together, again. We decided to adopt a baby. We researched it, traveled to information sessions, decided on an agency. We started thinking about the home study. We wisely decided to wait a few months before beginning the process so that we could relax a little, let go of our remaining grief about the whole infertility thing, and focus on each other. We felt wonderful and we started being enthusiastic again about life.

One and a half years ago, I quit the job. In this job market, it was an insane move -- but it made me happy and it made Pat happy, because I was so oppressed by the office situation. At any other time I might have weathered it, but under so much stress, no.

But I was happy again!

Right around Valentine's Day, we conceived. I didn't know. I had taken up new hobbies -- knitting (baby hats, for the eventual adoptee), spinning yarn, making sausage.

In April, I drove to the discount grocery in another nearby city to buy meat for sausage (hey, yes, their prices and products were THAT GOOD if you were buying 8 lbs. of meat). On the way, I decided that I was going to ask Pat for another year before we tried to begin the adoption process. Longer to get my perfumery business off the ground. Longer to become solvent. Longer to treasure just my darling partner. Even if we were never selected by a birthmother as parents for her baby, we'd be okay. We had each other; nothing had been diminished.

When I got to the store, I had a dizzy spell and lurched against the car. My breasts were sore.

I shopped. I came home, realizing that I felt nauseous. I knew I was pregnant. But I was coldly furious. I would be damned in hell if I would buy another pregnancy test -- I never wanted them in my home again.

A little voice in my head said, "you might still have OPKs laying around, and they work as ghetto pregnancy tests."

When I got home, I peed on an OPK. It turned two-lines-pink before I sat it on the counter. Positive-positive-positive. So I was pregnant. REALLY pregnant.

I jittered until Pat came home. I wasn't going to tell him, but when he got home I blurted it out before he had time to set down his keys, trying to keep my tone casual. "I just got a positive pregnancy test using an OPK. We're going to need a really ineffective pregnancy test to shoot this down with."

He was cool about it, but as unhappy as I was. We neither one wanted to weather another miscarriage. We didn't want a positive. We went to the store and bought the bluntest instrument of a pregnancy test we could -- a comparatively insensitive test with a text response, "PREGNANT" or "NOT PREGNANT." Unfuckupable. Uninterpretable. Unlikely to pop a false positive from hormonal fluctuation.

Before I had set it down on the counter, it, too, said "POSITIVE." I crumpled. We cried. We called my doctor. It was Friday afternoon (as it always is if you get a positive pregnancy test, by the way -- no joke, six out of six times). He told me to go get a lab test in 3 days. We waited to miscarry and cried in jags all weekend.

On Monday, I was still pregnant.

And at the end of the first (endless) trimester, I was still pregnant.

And at the end of the second (twitchy) trimester, I was still pregnant.

And at the end of the third (lightning-yet-bullet-time) trimester... I had Fletcher.

Heart's desire.

At last, at last. And someone who will join us on our journey, however far it takes us from our planned paths.

Today I embraced a new job opportunity and filled out an application to be a reserve agent for the same insurance company for which I was a CSR; here's hoping it embraces me back.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dessert to dream on: brandied figs in tea syrup

I got this idea from a cookbook, but noodled with it a bit and will probably noodle with it more. It's not that it's not perfect as/is, it's that I can't leave well enough alone. You know how it is.

Brandied Figs in Earl Grey Tea Syrup

3 cups of Earl Grey tea (normal strength or strong, but not bitter)
1 to 1 1/2 pounds dried figs (I used VERY dry calimyrnas, because that's what I had)
1 cup sugar
peel of one or two tangerines, in large, easy-to-remove pieces
3 or 4 inch cinnamon stick
1/4 vanilla bean
1/2 cup decent brandy

Add cinnamon, vanilla, and fruit peel to tea. Simmer figs in spiced tea until they are swollen, plump, and tender. Remove figs with slotted spoon to sterilized jars or your serving bowls (figs will be dark and dramatic -- color-coordinate accordingly). Add sugar to spiced tea and simmer mixture for a few minutes or until it behaves like syrup should, thickening slightly and coating your spoon. Remove from heat and add brandy. Pour brandied syrup over figs.

Serve over something not too sweet, with something crunchy alongside, four or five figs and a healthy belt of syrup to a person. I recommend Greek yogurt and waffle cookies or other dainty, wafer-like crispy cookies. But I am considering saturating a pancake or two with the syrup. Truly, this is swoony good and oh-so-sophisticated and, if you have it cold in the fridge, you can put it together last-moment without breaking a sweat and then socialize while you're still as glamorous and seductive and unruffled as Nigella.

One of these days, soon, I'll bundle homemade white cheese or ricotta into crepes and top it with this stuff. Magic.

I think this would be totally tits made with prunes instead of figs, but the deep-dark flavors are necessary with the tea and brandy, so I haven't thought further than figs and prunes. If you want something lemony light, for God's sake go make Emily's wonderful pudding cake. I've made it a half dozen times or more and every time, people just about faint.

(Hail Eris.)