KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 2: Winter 2015
Essay: 979 words

Well Begun Is a Home Run: Commencements

by Skip Eisiminger
 
“The soft-sprung rocker’s about to embark
as mother and child adjust to the dark.”
The Wordspinner
“A squalling child is a limpet mine
clamped to the hull below the waterline.”
The Wordspinner

My widowed father was eighty-six when he unburdened himself to me, writing that I’d been “conceived in sin but born in virtue.” I wrote back saying this divergence from the norm may have led to some clucking in the church, but from where I was roosting, nothing had changed. “A good lather,” I told him (quoting Charlie Brown’s barber-father), “is half the shave”; and as far as I could tell, he’d done his best to lubricate my face before I faced life’s razors without him.

My “sinful” origins are princely, however, compared to Billie Holiday’s. The famed singer opens her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, saying she was three when her mother married at sixteen. An African-American girl born out of wedlock in 1915, some would say, amounted to three strikes, but once she convinced the white umpires to let her bat, she hit pitch after pitch out of the park.

Apropos of baseball, no one has enjoyed a more auspicious baptism in the majors than Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes. Playing for the Cubs in 1994, Rhodes homered in his first three at bats on opening day. Had the Cubs’ savior been born? Over the next six years, “the Messiah” hit just ten more. Some might say that stellar start spoiled Rhodes, but later in the Japanese majors, he would knock Mr. Spalding over the fence nearly five hundred times.

Journalists like to say that a good lede is a baited hook, and the same may be said of a good birth. It’s true that Steve Jobs had a difficult childhood, but his parents enjoyed advantages which would have been unavailable to their son if he’d been born almost anywhere but the American Gold Coast. Indeed, one might say that Jobs was born with a silver lede in his mouth. And speaking of ledes, some advise writing the conclusion first, but I’ve never been so prescient as to write something before discovering what it is. “What it is” is only discovered by starting over and over again.

More than one Silicon Valley billionaire has been told in effect that if you miss the first buttonhole, your shirttails will be uneven. But as Jobs and others discovered, buttons can be unbuttoned and rebuttoned. With a human birth, however, there are no conceptual rewrites, but there may be second and third acts. One young man I know was so unpromising at birth, weighing in at 1.7 pounds, his father’s wedding band slid up to the lad’s shoulder. But at thirteen, he’s a miracle of determination. To compensate for the development he missed in the womb, his parents and teachers have held him back a year, but he’s fluently bilingual, and no one’s ready to say he’s lost that new-kid smell.

§

In the last four million years, humans have evolved through 200,000 generations, but it wasn’t until number 199,995, or loosely the last century, that science was permitted to assist with the intimacies of conception and birth. Most now realize that nature needed help much earlier than it came. Based on little more than a guess, Hippocrates figured male babies originated in the right testicle, while the “inferior gender” issued from the left. One Old Testament patriarch of a metaphorical bent asked God, “Didn’t you pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” Medieval philosophers debated whether God had a navel or Adam was circumcised. Michelangelo decided God had one and Adam wasn’t. For years, people thought sperm carried countless, fully formed babies into the “nest,” the mother’s sole contribution. As late as the nineteenth century, British women walked the thirty-foot phallus cut in Dorset’s chalk to increase their chances of conception, but woe unto her who asked for chloroform in violation of the Bible’s edict demanding pain. It wasn’t until 1875, when most Caesareans were still fatal, that anyone saw a sperm fertilize an egg, and that was in a sea urchin. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1928, that Dr. Edgar Allen saw a human ovum under his microscope.

Thanks to scientific advances, men and women can now freeze their genetic material for subsequent use. The window of conception has recently been raised to seventy years for women and ninety-six for men. Aided by modern premature-birth care, healthy twins have been born ninety-two days apart, and one transgendered male has given birth twice. In 2009, a British researcher made human sperm from embryonic stem cells, and surely there’s more to come.

As with most new technologies, two steps forward have been followed by one back. I’m thinking of the jobless, bankrupt, obsessive, single woman with six children who gave birth to eight more following in vitro fertilization and a billfold biopsy. Her doctors are guilty of something (“greed” doesn’t quite cover it) that we don’t have a name for.

§

In “The Intimations Ode,” Wordsworth said we leave the womb “trailing clouds of glory” to which a cynical colleague replied, “The only thing trailing my kid at birth was his umbilical.” Despite two attempts, I wasn’t permitted in the delivery room where my wife lay unconscious, so I cannot say for certain what children come trailing; but years ago, before teaching the ode, I decided to settle the matter by asking an authority: our five-year-old son. I asked him if he remembered anything of the nine months he’d spent in his mother. After reflecting a moment, he said with an out-of-town look, “I used to crawl around her chest, climb up and down her arms, and sometimes, I would look out at you through her eyes.”

If this was a jest, I don’t want to know, for some mysteries are best left unsolved.


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