Archives for the month of: July, 2015

Over a year ago, I wandered into my local Goodwill and fell in love. It was a small typewriter desk from the 1940s. Somebody had replaced the original hardware with hammer-beaten brass pulls, and then painted it a horrendous shade of institutional green with a faux paint finish over the top to make it look like black brush strokes. (Someone had taken some time to make this poor desk look really, really ugly.)

Faux finish hell

Faux finish hell

But, when you opened the top, slid the inner panel out and locked it up into position, suddenly, you saw the original, rich brown wood. The machinations for moving the typewriters up and down: gorgeous in their simple complexity. The small scuffs and gouges that marked its use and love and age—dents in the stiles where a desk chair had rubbed against it for years, a sweat ring on the top from a spilled cup of coffee, places where the paint had rubbed off from years of fingernails scratching behind the handles while searching for a pen. Best of all, I found inside that desk the original instruction label: “Please Note Typewriter Positions.” It was selling for $25.

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I think I walked into that Goodwill looking for lampshades. I came out with two store clerks, carrying a seventy-year-old desk into my minivan. I had to have it. It was a piece of furniture made exclusively for writing. For creating. It wasn’t the greatest piece of furniture ever constructed (there was some veneer peeling off on the back, and I was convinced it was probably a cheap desk even when it was new). But there was something about it that called me. I couldn’t walk away. The Goodwill worker smiled when I asked her to put a “sold” sticker on it.

“Oh, I was hoping someone would take that desk. I remember my grandmother having one of those. It’s so cool!”

I put it first in my guest room (my parents smiled when they saw it. They still remember using typewriter desks. Everyone else cringed at the ugliness), then up in my master bedroom. My plan was to repaint it. Maybe something fun. I toyed with the idea of a cream base and orange top. Or a stately, dark brown. I wanted to turn it into my vanity table. I’d remove the horribly warped top, and instead place a mirror on it, tucking all of my makeup into the hidden lower panel. My style tends to lean towards mid-century modern. Clean lines. Bright colors. Either very dark or very white woodwork. Square corners. This desk had curves, routes, panels. It didn’t quite fit, but I still just loved it. I couldn’t really explain why.

Last Saturday, while my children napped, I decided to finally start working on my desk project. My husband has been working about 80 hours a week recently (we just broke ground on a new building for our family business, and he’s overseeing the entire, massive project), so I had been looking for something to fill up the lonely hours without him. I grabbed a screwdriver, took off all of the hardware, pulled out the drawers, cleaned it all with some Windex (I would never use that on a wooden surface, but it wouldn’t hurt the paint, and I needed to get the years of grime and dust off!), and carried all of the drawers down to the garage, where I knew we had some leftover paint stripper and mineral spirits. It was while carrying all of this downstairs that I noticed it. Underneath the largest drawer was an original factory stamp: “F.1117-846.” On the underside of both of the slide out writing panels, handwritten in orange, was “No. 846.” I chuckled, and texted my husband, “This thing is numbers matching!” I instantly started calling the project “The 846” in my mind.

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I decided to strip the center drawer first. I poured on the stripper, following the instructions I had read on an online forum, and got increasingly excited as I watched the green paint bubble across the surface. After a half hour, it looked ready to test, so I grabbed a putty knife, and dragged it across the paint surface. (I have since switched to plastic stripping tools. This just shows what a big learning curve I had in front of me!) I actually gasped out loud. The wood. It was gorgeous. Dark, rich, reddish brown. Book-matched. With flame figuring. I texted my husband a picture, “Holy SHIT!!”

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When he got home that night, my husband asked to see the center panel again, up close. The top three center drawers were all made of the same kind of wood. The bottom ones were something different. A straight, whitish wood that was occasionally speckled.

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“I was expecting pine. Or oak. Honestly, I never see wood anymore. Furniture is almost all made with veneers and particle board now. What the hell kind of wood is this??”

My husband, who builds guitars (and therefore knows a lot about various “tone woods”) started getting excited. He was almost antsy, turning on the lights, inspecting the grain, talking about the pores, gently wetting it to bring out the figuring. He checked his phone, looking up various wood species, murmuring, “It couldn’t be . . .” Finally, he looked up.

“This is mahogany. This is what raw mahogany looks like. I thought from your picture that it still had a stain or a lacquer on it, but this is just the wood. This is just what the wood looks like.”

“My $25 desk is mahogany??”

“It’s not just that,” he was shaking his head. “I’m pretty sure—especially given the age and, really, the coloring—that this is Honduran mahogany.”

I started laughing. And shaking a little. You see, Honduran mahogany is an endangered species. It has been farmed almost out of existence. Prized for its coloring, its smoothness, its beauty, and only found in a specific climate region, Honduran mahogany (as opposed to the more plentiful African mahogany) is considered “genuine” mahogany. It is also almost impossible to get in the United States right now. Though there are mahogany plantations in Honduras that grow, sell, and export the wood, “genuine” Honduran mahogany is from the old growth forests. Massive trees that can reach up to 100 feet tall, and that, because of some genetic fluke found in many trees from that region, demonstrate the most amazing flame and quilted figuring. Those trees can no longer be cut. Their wood can only be used if and when a tree falls from natural causes. And there are now laws in place, strictly limiting the amounts of Honduran mahogany that can be exported. Mostly, instrument makers get small pieces of the wood, to use as guitar backs or necks (my husband’s custom-built Taylor acoustic has a mahogany back and neck, though there is no figuring on it).

And I had it across the front of my little desk. In fact, it turns out that the entire back, both sides, and even inside panels are genuine mahogany. That piece of veneer that was popping off the back corner? Yup. Mahogany.

The sides are mahogany veneer framed with cherry.

The sides are mahogany veneer

We determined that the other wood was cherry. I was expecting it to appear reddish, but the paint stripper had removed the original lacquer and revealed wood that had never been exposed to air and sunlight before, so the wood was still a fresh white. The entire desk was cherry wood and mahogany. Nothing else.

We sat and looked at the drawer fronts for awhile.

“Is it strange that I really want to honor these materials? I mean, I want to honor them. I want to show them off, treat them right. I want them to shine.”

“That doesn’t sound strange to me at all.”

I paused, thinking. “I want this to be my desk. My writing desk. I want to write my first book on this desk.”

My husband nodded. “I think that it should be.”

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I have just now finished stripping all of the paint and original lacquer off of the desk. I also straightened the warped top piece. I’m waiting for the wood to dry before I start hand-sanding it all. Then, I’ll look into filling a few dings on the top with wood filler (though I don’t mind them. Dents in wood are like wrinkles in a beloved face: evidence of their years and wisdom). My plan is to protect the mahogany. Seal it, coat it, and polish it until it shines. Then, I’ll mix a custom stain to make the cherry wood match the mahogany. The final touch will be these handles. They’re reproduction, but the style is period-correct (though the material isn’t. This desk likely would have had brass pulls). I’m hoping that by the end, this desk will look like it still has its flawless, factory finish. (I found another person who restored one of these desks, but I feel as though his final product doesn’t look cohesive. He stained both the mahogany and cherry the same color, so they don’t quite look like a family in my opinion. I also think that the finished product makes the cherry look almost grey.)

It will be quite a bit of work, but I’m willing to expend the energy, give the hours. I think about the beautiful, long-dead trees that were used to make this desk special, and I feel a responsibility to their legacy. This wood was once a living thing. Perhaps, with the right amount of care, it can feel that way again.

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I want to tell you a story. And I promise. This is entirely true.

D’Shawn was a young man growing up in a poor neighborhood in Peoria, Illinois. His father was a factory worker. His mother stayed at home with him and his two older brothers and baby sister. Their neighborhood was tight knit, filled with other families from the factory, and very dedicated to their local church, at which both D’Shawn’s mother and father volunteered.

Then, D’Shawn’s father got sick. For two years, he fought leukemia, sometimes being hospitalized for over two months at a time, losing work, losing pay, seeing his family’s meager savings being used exclusively for medical expenses.

When D’Shawn was 12 years old, his dad died. D’Shawn’s oldest brother was just finishing up his degree program at a technical college, and his next oldest brother was getting ready to graduate from high school. D’Shawn’s baby sister was only five years old. D’Shawn’s mother fought with the administrators at the factory, arguing for an increase in her husband’s pension, asking them to extend and expand the company insurance to cover her and her children. These were both programs that had been in place when D’Shawn’s father passed, but he was forced to quit his factory job before these policies came into effect. The administration was sympathetic to the family’s story, but corporate policy was corporate policy.

After over 20 years, D’Shawn’s mother had to start looking for work.

Luckily, their church rallied around the family, offering childcare, food, and quietly leaving little gifts for the family such as shoes and school supplies (gifts that D’Shawn’s mother would certainly have been too proud to accept if offered openly). D’Shawn’s mother was determined that her children would attend college, and would finish. She knew that it was one of her husband’s last wishes: that his children succeed, be educated, have opportunities that he never had. D’Shawn’s mother threw herself into finding work. She started as a part-time employee at an elementary school, and at night took correspondence courses to earn her teaching certificate. She needed to see her older boys educated, her baby girl happy.

Sadly, in many ways, D’Shawn was left to fend for himself.

He started to drink. He tried drugs (mostly marijuana). He would sneak his way into bars, and took up gambling to make some extra money. A smart kid, his grades dropped as he started skipping school.

Then, one day, he was picked up by the police. He was driving his friend’s car, going way too fast, and it was obvious that he had been drinking.

He was thirteen years old.

This is a true story.

But the boy’s name wasn’t D’Shawn.

It was Roger.

And it was my father.

My father who was released later that day into the custody of his very disappointed and angry mother.

My father who was arrested for drunk driving at 13, but who has never had a criminal record.

My father who was punished for his juvenile stupidity as all children should be—grounded, watched carefully and continually by his stern mother, forced to perform chores and volunteer at the church.

My father who then went on to earn his master’s degree in English, primarily studying classic literature and dramaturgy (50 years later, he still has large sections of Macbeth and Hamlet memorized).

My father who dropped out of his PhD program after spending a semester teaching children about literature in a recently desegregated high school in the south.

My father who saw his own lost self reflected back at him in the faces of the black students who had already been deemed “lost causes.”

My father who decided to dedicate himself to teaching, to reaching, to helping those students, those children, while they still had the chance. While they were still young enough to be turned around, supported, upheld, guided.

My father who believes to this day that there’s no such thing as a bad kid. Just bad circumstances.

 

And that’s why I’m a racist.

Because I know that, had my father been “D’Shawn” instead of “Roger,” I wouldn’t have spent chilly fall days attending plays at the local theater, or making family road trips to national parks. I wouldn’t have grown up in Michigan’s north woods, but probably in Peoria, not too far from dad’s old neighborhood.

And I’ve said nothing.

Because I have seen the incredible poverty in which my father grew up as more of an interesting historical artifact of his childhood rather than a defining characteristic of his personality, a reflection of his or his family’s moral compass, work ethic, or worth. But I know that “D’Shawn” would have been vulnerable to all of those assumptions. And more.

And I’ve said nothing.

Because I’m eternally grateful for the white privilege that was extended my father when he was a confused, grieving, frightened young boy. The privilege that made other people, important people, people of authority, people with power, look at my father and acknowledge that he had potential. Because, as much as I academically, ethically, and personally abhor the white privilege that gave my father “potential” when it could have given him “criminality,” I also secretly love it.

And I’ve said nothing.

I’m a racist because, as a white woman, just about every single aspect of my public life has been made easier by my whiteness. By the racist system under which America operates today. I’ve made jokes—jokes—about my “cloak of invisibility” that renders me unseen to police officers, airport officials, security guards. I’ve said several times that I’d make an excellent thief because, as I’ve said, “Nobody suspects the little white girl.”

I’ve made jokes about this.

I’ve laughed about it.

As though incarceration were funny.

Because I’ve never had to consider how fundamentally unfunny, unamusing, and unfair the prison system is. The prison system that incarcerates 20 black men to every 1 white man. Even while whites outnumber blacks in arrests (especially in drug charges).

I have the freedom to blend in. I have the privilege to feel comfortable. Everywhere.

And I’ve said nothing.

And that’s why I’m racist.

Because being complicit to a system is tantamount to supporting it.

Being complicit to a system that you know, statistically, logically, morally, ethically, academically, scientifically, is wrong is unjust is bullshit is tantamount to criminality.

My father is not a criminal.

D’Shawn wouldn’t have been either.

It’s me.

Because I keep doing what I know is wrong. I know that my life benefits me and those around me, while it hurts others. That’s what criminals do. They do bad things to other people in order to satisfy a need, a desire, a drive of their own. It’s the ultimate in selfishness. And it’s me.

I am not a Good Samaritan.

I would walk by D’Shawn. I would avert my eyes. Focus on the ground. Look straight ahead. Gaze anywhere else but at his broken body. His broken spirit. His broken community. Our broken country.

But I’d run to my father.

Because, deep down, if I admit it honestly, I believe that my father’s life is more important. Is more valuable. Is more worthy of salvation.

And I’m so sorry, daddy.

I’ve said nothing.

I’ve been quiet.

And I’m sorry.

You raised me better than that, daddy. You saw your own second chances, and observed with empathy the need for second, third, fourth chances in the children around you. I never had to encounter my own second chances. That was my privilege. Because of you. Because of your protection. Your love. Your realized potential.

I don’t want to be quiet anymore.

I want to pay for my crimes.

I really do.

But.

How?

Be forewarned: I have zero medical evidence for what I’m about to say. I am fully aware that I am about to sound like a crazy person making ridiculous claims, on par with the colon cleanse/multi-vitamin/essential oil/obsessed with “toxins” people who also have no actual medical research to back up their claims. But still. I want to tell this story, if only to potentially reach another woman who could be in a similar situation. Maybe to give her hope. Maybe to give her an option. Maybe to give her a fellow sidekick. Maybe to create a community of similar women who are fully aware that, to a medical doctor, we’re on par with a guy wearing a tinfoil hat and yelling at the clouds.

Or maybe I just want to show off how cool my tinfoil hat is to all of you.

Either way, I get it. This could, and likely will, sound crazy banana pants.

I make no sense. I am one in a million. One in several million. Even scrolling through to the fifth page of a Google search reveals not one other person who can claim the crazy, the wonderful, the insane, the ridiculous, the completely unbelievable medical miracle that I am finally willing to claim. Not a single other conspiracy theorist nut job on an international forum. No other person seems to have actually experienced what I am now going to declare. Here. Publically. Fearfully.

My C-section cured my incontinence.

Cured it, you guys. Like, gone. Like, mama don’t need no Depends no more. Like, I can go for a long run without fear of leaking. I can laugh and sneeze with impunity (well, unless I already really have to go, then I need to do a little leg-cross-and-squeeze to avoid a dribble). I can jump. Jump.

Because I delivered my second child via C-section.

Perhaps I need to start at the beginning:

I have already written about my first child’s vaginal delivery. I was in complete denial the entire time that it would actually work, and apparently my instincts were spot on. I pushed for over an hour and a half to no avail while my baby remained stuck behind my pelvic ridge. The nurse set up a mirror in front of my hooch while my daughter was crowning (completely against my wishes—I’d like to put that on record. I did not want the damn mirror. I did NOT want to see what was happening to my poor little coochie), and I watched, helpless, as her head wiggled, adjusted, shoved, and bulged against my pelvis. But she never advanced. Then, suddenly, her heart rate plummeted. The nurse tapped my OB on the shoulder, and pointed to the monitor. Just an instant later, the mirror was gone, my baby’s monitor was turned away from me, and a tray appeared next to my OB with scalpels and surgical equipment on it. Quietly, he murmured, “Rachel, I’m going to have to cut you.” I must have nodded, though I don’t remember the exchange at all. My husband had to tell me all of this later. I just remember the sharp pain as he gave me an emergency episiotomy, and the strange contraption that appeared—a suction cup—and affixed to my daughter’s head. There was a loud pop as the cup lost its grip on the small part of her crown that was exposed. We all jumped at the noise, then laughed, more nervous than amused. He reattached the cup, and on the next push, my daughter was finally born. After almost two hours of pushing and crowning, my daughter was yanked out of me within the span of a minute.

This final violent push on the day of her birth wreaked havoc on my body. Ten weeks later, while trying to take my newborn for a walk, I called my OB, crying, while urine dripped uncontrollably down my leg. His voice was gentle on the phone, and he said exactly the words I wanted to hear at that moment: “No, you’re right. This isn’t normal. Come in. Right away. This isn’t normal.”

I saw my OB, and he recommended me to a urogynecologist. I was given catheters. I had a scope placed inside of my bladder. I underwent months of pelvic therapy. The diagnosis? “Nerve damage, resulting in atrophied urethral muscles.” My urethra had lost the ability to close, leaving only my external pelvic muscles in charge of keeping the urine from dribbling out. Kegels couldn’t help. Abdominal exercises couldn’t help. Luckily, my bladder was itself still healthy and functioning (the sphincter that connects my bladder to my urethra was still functional, which meant that, when I did go to the bathroom, I was successfully emptying my bladder, giving me a few moments of relief where I didn’t have the constant leaking). But it was sagging now, falling into my urethra and pelvis. The only solution was surgery. Vaginal mesh surgery. They would have to put an artificial sling around my bladder, connected through my vaginal walls, and lift it up, taking the pressure off my urethra and hopefully relieving most of the incontinence (though the best number the urogynecologist could give me was “80% relief.” Not the best scenario). They could do nothing for my open urethra (which left me susceptible to “walking bacteria” and severe UTIs. I was in the emergency room twice with those things. I can’t even describe how horrible they were. From fine to pissing blood within the span of an hour. It was misery). They could do nothing for the nerve and muscle damage around my vagina, which made me—ahem—significantly looser than I was before having my daughter.

And I couldn’t have any more children. I’d have to be finished with children before going under the knife.

But it was my only option. It was my best choice, even while it felt like I had no choice at all.

So, I got pregnant again. What the hell? I was already pissing myself. May as well complete my family first.

Everyone agreed that a scheduled C-section was going to be the best course of action for me. It would minimize any damage; keep it contained to what it already was.

The pregnancy was miserable. During the height of my morning sickness, we were staying with my in-laws while waiting to move into our new house. Every morning, I’d have to leave my mother-in-law in charge of giving my daughter breakfast while I went and threw up. The force of vomiting always made me pee on myself, and I spent most mornings, sobbing on the bathroom floor, using my own sopping pants to mop up the puddles of piss that I left behind. I quickly learned that I needed to run to the bathroom, take off my pants, and throw a towel down on the floor before puking (if I had enough time, that is). I didn’t want my mother-in-law to know, so I would try to be discreet as I ran for the cleaners and paper towels, trying to hide my shame, the smell, and my own tears.

My daughter was born over three weeks early, after two weeks of early labor. I was already 6 centimeters dilated when I was wheeled in for my C-section. I could have delivered her vaginally. She probably would have had an easier time than my first child. But my new OB (we had moved, so I changed practices early in this pregnancy) had already assessed my medical records and agreed that mitigating my nerve damage was essential.

It was three days after my Caesarian when I first noticed it. I coughed. I was in the NICU with my baby, and the dry hospital air gave me a coughing fit. I pushed a pillow over my incision, and hacked for a good fifteen seconds. I looked at my husband, happy that the soreness from my incision wasn’t really that bad at all. Then, I looked at my legs. I stared at them as though they were a strange genus of algae. They weren’t crossed. They were straight out in front of me, propped up on a footrest. Lifting my legs had proved to be the most painful part of my C-section recovery, so I hadn’t bothered trying to cross my legs during the coughing fit. Didn’t think about squeezing my thighs to stop the urine. And I didn’t pee myself.

Since the C-section, my incontinence has all but disappeared. For perhaps the first three months, I still wore a light Poise pad every day, more out of habit and fear than necessity. Then, I switched to panty liners. Then, I just stopped. When my baby was still a newborn. By six months post-partum, I tentatively went for a run, with a pad. The next time, I used a panty liner. Then, I found myself running without any protection. My youngest is now almost two years old, and I haven’t worn any incontinence protection for at least a year and a half.

So, what happened? My OB couldn’t really explain it. She said that she had seen something like this happen just once before. She shrugged, “Your body is an amazing thing. It’s always finding new ways of healing itself. It’s like sympathetic nerve pain, but in reverse.”

“It’s like all the healing powers of my body rushed to that one area and fixed everything in the vicinity??”

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She chuckled, “Sure, Rachel.”

So, I coined a new phrase, “sympathetic nerve healing.” It’s actually called something like “neuroregeneration” and “axogenesis” that occurs at the “nerve repair site.” Usually, though, neuroregeneration just doesn’t happen on its own. It requires a skilled surgeon to physically reconnect the nerves that have been damaged, either at the nerve site, or directly in the brain. And it’s not supposed to happen suddenly, and never after an occasion of physical trauma (like a C-section). But, basically, it’s sympathetic nerve healing. My brain suddenly realized that there was a big trauma to my generalized girl parts area, and sent my immune system and blood cells and nutrients to that part to fix everything. Then, while it was busy repairing the big slice in my uterus that the OB left behind, some of those blood cells noticed that my bladder and urethra needed some attention too. So they went to work on those. And voila! They nudged those nerves, and woke them up from an 18-month-long hibernation.

At least, that’s how I like to think about it.

So, there it is. My freaky body. My tinfoil-hat level medical claim. My strange miracle. I am no longer a candidate for vaginal mesh surgery. I no longer get UTIs. I’m not crying on the bathroom floor in a puddle of my own urine, and things have gotten, ahem, tighter down there again. I’m cured.

I have no medical proof that any of this is actually what happened to me. I have no other testimony from another woman, making similar claims. I have no facts, figures, or studies to back me up.

But I have an opened, yet unused, package of Depends in my bathroom.

And a new PR on my 5k time.

So I guess that’s all the proof I’m going to get. It’s all the proof I need.