Friday, June 29, 2012

NY missive no 112 - A June 22 birth story

Note: not for reading if you don't fancy hearing about a birth process - it's not full of graphic details, but has some detail!

Two years and a bit later and I’m driving with C in a taxi over the 59th Street bridge in labor again. Though the first time arguably I wasn’t quite “in labor”, as my water had broken but contractions hadn’t yet kicked in – I’m not sure when labor officially begins. Anyway, this time there were contractions. They had started while I was walking with Mum and JNH down 30th Avenue in Astoria. Mum had just arrived off the plane from the UK an hour previously and we had been looking forward to a week of relaxation, getting organized, spending time with JNH etc. before CMH’s due date. Clearly that wasn’t to be.

They began as a gentle rhythmic whirring from the back to the front of my body, a distant rumble. Like a machine that had been lying dormant for a long time slowly grinding back into action. I didn’t say anything at first, just observed the sensation as we bought salad ingredients from Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable, and spanakopita from Athens CafĂ©.

When we were back at the apartment, by which time the fact that yes, these were contractions, was sinking in, there was a torrential rainstorm. The rain was still falling as C and I got into the taxi and it drove us to Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side: Mum was thrown into the thick of things with JNH's bedtime routine (such as it is). When we approached the hospital I was struck by the view looking West down 99th Street to Central Park. Time froze momentarily as I looked at it. At the end of the street were the blackening silhouettes of trees against the by now post-storm evening brightness of the sky.

I was lucky and got a delivery room overlooking the park. As night fell the features of the park were rapidly effaced by the pedestrian crossing light closer by as it changed from white man walking to red man standing and back again. The machine in my body was grinding more rhythmically and intensely and so it remained for three or four hours. Deep breaths in, then concentrating on getting all the air back out. C was there, patiently supporting and no doubt thinking oh-my-god-here-we-go-again.

A wonderful nurse, N, guided me on. We had between-contraction conversations. Among them she mentioned how she’s volunteering as a doula for a 16 year old who is going through the process of pregnancy and labor alone. N hopes the girl’s labor comes when she not on her nursing shift so that she can be there (a friend is also working with the same girl so hopefully one of them will be present). She said 16 year olds often cope much better with the whole thing than older women. Partly because they’ve crammed in less “knowledge” and are more likely to trust the process, and because they’ve been exposed to fewer stories about what can potentially go wrong.

Then came a second phase. My doctor arrived and did a second check to see how far along I’d progressed. Baby’s head was far down, she said, but I was still only 3cm (out of 10) dilated like when I’d arrived at the hospital and – this I was well aware of – my water hadn’t broken yet. I’m pretty sure it was that CMH’ and my body weren’t yet in sync. He was more ready to arrive than my body was to release him.

My doctor presented options. During an experience so momentous you hope for clear instructions and a sense of what to do. But as with so many other things, you’re faced with decisions and are never quite confident you’re making the right one – especially as nowadays in modern hospitals there are so many different paths to take and supposed motivations for taking them.

Options she suggested were for her to break my water to get things moving, to give me an epidural so I relaxed more, or to send me home to keep laboring there for a while. None of them felt right. In particular the going home one – I couldn’t imagine getting dressed let alone getting into a taxi. We decided just to stall for a while. I’d walk the corridor for 40 minutes, go onto the monitor for 20 and we’d see where things were at.

Over that hour the machine in me went into full gear. I remembered that now from JNH’s labor: N described it has hitting a wall. You think that you’re getting into the flow of things when boom suddenly it’s much more difficult. I swung between determination to move everything faster – including visualizing water falling – and frustration and tiredness just wanting the whole thing to end. The key is remembering and trusting that the machine is your body and it knows what to do.

At the end of the hour, suddenly whoosh my water broke like a bucket being emptied from inside of me then within five minutes I had to push, leapt, for some animal instinct reason, onto all fours, and CMH was born, before my doctor made it back into the room (one of the Mt Sinai resident doctors made it in time to catch him). C, who saw, said he did a kind of somersault.


A story of JNH's birth, interwoven with a couple of other birth stories, is here

Monday, June 18, 2012

NY missive no 111 – Socrates Sculpture Park, the East River and time

Tucked between a Costco and a rusty-gated warehouse guarded by barking dogs on the far Western Side of Astoria, bordering the East River, is Socrates Sculpture Park. Sometimes the grass is wearing a bit thin. There’s often a feeling that things are in flux, as the rotating exhibit of sculptures changes. On one visit you might find a captivating cement tree embedded with rescued ceramics (an owl here, a cat there, a fish, a human face, pastel flowers), the next a dirty mound marking the spot where it stood, and the next, grass over that mound making it a perfect perch for picnickers and sprawled sunbathers.

The feeling of things in flux is part of the park’s magic though. That, and the contrasting presence of the river, which despite its restless flow and fluctuating light speaks of permanence. It’s the same river after all that was navigated by the Rockaway Indians in their canoes, and the same river where they ominously reported sighting “white winged canoes” in the late 1400s and early 1500s when on various occasions the British and Dutch eventual settlers made their first sail-bys in search of a northwesterly route to the East.

It’s the same river where the Hussar frigate sank, supposedly containing a chest full of coins that was never recovered. It’s the same river where on June 15, 1904 the General Slocum excursion boat caught fire. Over a thousand passengers died, mainly women and children, who were on an outing from St Mark’s Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side – it was New York City’s worst disaster before the 9/11 attacks. It’s the same river where there are new efforts afoot to encourage recreational canoeing, and where the East River ferry recently re-launched, making quick hops downstream: 34th Street in Manhattan - Long Island City - Williamsburg - DUMBO - Wall Street - Governors’ Island and back again.

One of the current exhibits in the Sculpture Park reflects the area’s past and present and casts an eye to the future. Thin red and white striped vertical poles mark a route from one of the park’s entrances on Vernon Boulevard, to the river. Their colors echo the red and white striped chimneys of "Big Alice" power station a little downstream, while the path they follow marks that taken by Sunswick Creek. The creek used to wind its way from what is now 37th Avenue and 21st Street to its East River mouth. As an 1896 history of Long Island City describes, when the East River first formed after Long Island Sound burst opened up to the sea, the river's “Western shore became scenes of salt marshes, lagoons and creeks…Beaver, deer and other fur and food producing animals roamed the forests, while the streams abounded with fish and other food products of the sea.”

Over time the creek became surrounded with agricultural land, then industry, and was then buried entirely by an illegal dumping ground which in 1986 artists, led by the sculptor Mark di Suvero, claimed to create the Socrates Sculpture Park. The exhibit also works inland to the former creek’s source, using red and white stripes painted onto lamposts. It is the artist Mary Miss’ contribution to a project called “Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City” in which the Sculpture Park and nearby Noguchi Museum are exploring ideas for what this waterfront area could become.

Artists who take up in previously derelict areas are often gentrification canaries. A pattern kicks in, in which before long they help make an area desirable, which pushes prices up and them out. Socrates Sculpture Park looks stunning at the moment. It’s a hive of activity and excitement. Yet I can’t help being wary of a future High-Line effect (while hopeful it can be avoided). Recently, walking down the High Line on the Western edge of Manhattan, a disused elevated railway line that has been converted into a long thin park, I was struck by how corporatized it feels.

The High Line is still fun to visit, with its quirky-angled views Chelsea buildings and streets and the occasional glimpse of a fragment of the Hudson, but new luxury apartment buildings already loom over it and are beginning to dominate. Most are still freshly-clad in billboards advertising their location “on”, “by” or “over the High Line”. The songs of birds pecking at feed-boxes on an exhibit designed to attract them are drowned out not only by tourists’ cameras photographing them but more loudly by the banging and clanging of adjacent construction sites. Squished between the new buildings are stifled attempts by arty types to say “hey don’t forget us”: a naked mannequin posing in a window here, some space-claiming graffiti there.

In an earlier post on a “Queens Kind of Cool” I hoped that Queens retains three defining traits as it evolves: diversity, entrepreneurialism and openness. The same goes for changes along Queens’ border with the East River. Hopefully the park and its surrounding areas will also keep elements of messy flux and marshiness. Hopefully they will always be a place where the river brings a whiff of the past and the land can render surprise.

This pic was taken back in April. When I went to the park the other day the grass was much thicker, the sun shining, and the Sunswick Creek exhibit complete - here it's still in the making.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

New York missive no 110 - Clockwork Oranges on corporate control?

Image by ~gsgill37 at Deviant Art

In an article about the writing of Clockwork Orange, recently re-printed in the New Yorker, Anthony Burgess focuses on the dangers of government control over our lives and particularly our minds. It struck me that it seemed dated, for the fact that corporate control didn’t feature as a theme in the book or his thinking about it (the article was written in 1973). Now there’s not only a lot of corporate control in our lives, but so much of government control is corporate control.

There are plenty examples of government repression in the old sense – look at the recent massacres in Syria. Even there, though, there is a corporate dimension. For example the fact that Russia is pushing for the “international community” not to intervene is no doubt connected to the fact that 10% of Russia’s arms exports go to Syria.

Here’s a very different example, less violent but more pervasive. Burgess says in his article: “…[W]hen patterns of conformity are imposed by the state, then one has a right to be frightened.” Among some of the prolific news coverage of Facebook’s public offering last week are commentaries on the way in which Facebook drives conformity. Like this one in Asia Times, which says Facebook's raison d'ĂȘtre is “to advertise one's conformity to commercial culture in a way that preserves the illusion of individuality.”

Another dimension, different again, is the privatization of detention and the way in which the pursuit of profit drives up prison populations. In Louisiana, where the prison system is largely privatized, the proportion of the adult population in prison is nearly double the US national average. As Charles Blow says in his powerful op-ed about a Times-Picayune investigation on the issue: “The state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing…[M]any with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it. The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.”

Fear of government control over our lives can now more realistically be placed in a fear of corporate control. Time for a Clockwork Orange or two to tackle these and other manifestations of it.

New York missive no 109 - Gluing things together, and City Island

Last weekend I glued various things together that needed gluing. I’d even written a list of them to keep track – ready for when I got around to buying the superglue. They were things that JNH had broken unintentionally at various points through play and exploration (in most cases, through me letting him play with things he probably shouldn’t). They were:

- A fox’s head back on its body. The fox is from a set of china Beatrix Potter characters that I’d had as a child, gathered on top of a little shelf of Potter's books. One day JNH tugged the top of his bureau. The bureau, its drawers, the books, the china fox and his friends, came tumbling down.

- The tail back onto a china tiger (more china!), given as a good luck present when JNH was born by Dad’s business contact in China: JNH was born in a year of the tiger.

- The groom back onto our wedding cake decoration, which despite its tackiness we keep on top of the fridge as a souvenir. Good thing neither C nor I are superstitious.

- A tail and ear back onto a giraffe piggy bank.

- A small joining piece back onto the bridge from a wooden train set.

- I gave up when it came to the fragile ladder from a plastic FDNY fire truck.


The mind moves like plate techtonics. Ideas grind and slide alongside one another, their movements barely perceptible. Then a clunk, a shift. On occasion an earthquake.


After visiting the Bronx Zoo JNH’s godfather W picked us up in his car and we drove to City Island. It dangles off the Bronx shore into the far Western hip of Long Island Sound. With the architecture of a quaint New England fishing village, at the weekend it still feels the pulse of the city as Bronx-dwellers come for a getaway. We ate fish and chips at one of the rammed sea-food restaurants overlooking the Sound, accompanied by the roar of revving motorbikes, salsa beats and seagull cries.