I Sing the Body Mammalian.
Mammal: a warm-blooded vertebrate animal of a class that is distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, females that secrete milk for the nourishment of the young, and (typically) the birth of live young. --Oxford Dictionaries
When it comes to the classification of mammals, the preponderance of traits go to the female. Fish and frogs, for example, are vertebrates, yet not mammals; birds are warm-blooded, yet also not mammals. With only a few exceptions, secretion of milk and live birth are the deciding factors; in contrast, there are no characteristics specific to males that define mammals. Strange, but true: the female, at least where biologists are concerned, is the first sex. The prototype.
2. Mammals are Warm Blooded
Sitting in bed, just before turning off the lamp, my nightly divesting of jewelry takes on all the qualities of ritual, proceeding always in the same order: First, I unclasp my necklace and drop it on the bedside table; next I remove the left earring, then the right; my wedding ring, a gold band inlaid with garnets, comes next, along with whatever ring I wore on my other hand. With each chain or gem removed, I shed a layer of the day's obligations, a layer of the person the world thinks I am. Gold, silver or stone, each ornament emits an electric aura that warms my hand before I transfer it to the table where it quickly grows cold. Perhaps because I've already begun to fall sleep, I feel vaguely grateful for my body's power to transmit heat to these inanimate beads and metals-they remind me that I glow, radiate, live-but sometimes they also remind me that my body's heat must one day be extinguished, and I realize that what I fear most about death is the coldness of it. Thankfully such unpleasant thoughts usually fade as soon as I burrow into my comforter, intensely eager for sleep--sleep so much like death, but not death, my body generating a warm haven throughout the night to which I will return in the morning.
3. Mammals Have Hair or Fur that Retains Warmth and Increases the Sensation of Touch
My sister and I sit in the two large armchairs by the window in her family room, savoring coffee and conversation, our kids having downed lunch before disappearing again into the tall grasses of her farm. Her dog, a floppy-eared King Charles spaniel, claims me as a member of the family, gently placing his hairy rump over my foot; I likewise claim him, palming the baby-soft fur that hugs his miniature skull and running my fingers through the gnarled, waxy mat of hair that clings to his droopy ears.
4. Mammals are Vertebrates
This must be why we call a person who's a dirt-bag, spineless. We're saying he's not one of us.
5. The Majority of Mammals, Including People, are Eutherian
"In Eutherians ... the young are nurtured within the body of the mother by the placenta, which allows nutrients to pass from the blood of the mother almost directly into the blood of the young. --"Eutheria: Life History and Ecology," University of California Museum of Paleontology "A normal uterus is about the size of a pear, or an orange" --D. Ashley Hill, "Issues and Procedures in Women's Health Uterine Fibroids, "Modern Medicine Network.
You could have fooled me when it comes to the size of this phantom organ, because when it's dormant, you don't feel it any more than you would a dust mite. It's not like your limbs or your stomach, all of which can be felt even when they're merely content and not registering pleasure or pain. The uterus, an ornery organ, is only noticeable when it's radiating pain. During ovulation, it is a dull pain that is indeed the size of an orange; during menstruation, it's a cantaloupesized pain that rolls into the gut or backward into the spine; during labor, it's a washing machine throttling at full speed, the belts threatening to break loose.
6. The Obstetrical Dilemma
The obstetrical dilemma hypothesis states that the human female pelvis represents a compromise between designs most suitable for childbirth and bipedal locomotion, respectively. This hypothesis has been challenged recently ... The bony pelvis of adult humans exhibits marked sexual dimorphism, which is traditionally interpreted in the framework of the 'obstetrical dilemma' hypothesis: Giving birth to large-brained/large-bodied babies requires a wide pelvis, whereas bipedal locomotion requires a narrow pelvis. --"Developmental Evidence for Obstetric Adaptation of the Human Female Pelvis," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
You won't see me among the obstetric dilemma challengers. I guess it depends what kind of locomoting you're talking about. In my experience, the widening of your hips does reduce efficiency, maybe not all that much in bipedal walking, but definitely in bipedal running, skipping, jumping and, most frustrating for me at the time, pirouetting. During the sobering transition from girlhood to womanhood, I was a student at the School of American Ballet. Granted, the ballet world is not the ideal place for a girl to go through puberty. When puberty entered my life threatening catastrophy, I took my cues from my peers and got the unsightly burgeonings under control by religiously counting calories. But even with this no small triumph, I was troubled by the additional onset of a subtle but demoralizing, foreign heaviness, which my youthful ignorance mistook for a spiritual failure on my part. How else to explain the new invisible tethers that tugged at my limbs, detectable even in the most mundane actions of walking long city blocks, or pounding the pavement to catch the bus in the morning? How else to explain the decided dampening of pure joy in spinning a pirouette, in lilting along an intricate allegro, of taking off with wild abandon into a grand jete? I still wanted to do all these things; and to be a swan, a sylph, a sugarplum fairy; but my body had somehow grown less interested--instead of urging me to whirl about in delight, it now had to be shamefully nudged along.
With loss of childhood, went loss of lightness of being. To be among eutheria, was not to be ethereal.
Perhaps, at the time, it would have helped to know that my pelvis was experiencing an obstetrical dilemma, that the universe was demanding a compromise, that the need for large-brained babies was the reason for this nagging sluggishness, not a weakening of will. As I doodled and daydreamed to get through my daily ninth-grade physics class, it never occurred to me that my widening pelvis was at work altering my relationship with gravity--my relationship, not just to my body, but to the universe itself had changed.
It wasn't until many years later that I understood the reason for this general malaise I had experienced at fourteen and begrudging-ly become accustomed to. One day a more scientific-minded dancer enlightened me while we stood chatting in the doorway where dancers were practicing. She explained to me in pure physics why male dancers typically turn twice as many pirouettes as their female counterparts. I had always assumed it was simply greater strength, but I learned from her there's more to it than that. When a girl's hips widen, her center of gravity drops as her hips become the widest part of her body; a boy's center of gravity, especially after puberty when his upper body broadens, remains higher up, in his chest. An adult male resembles a top--he's basically made for spinning. A woman's hips to shoulder ratio, on the other hand, is the opposite, requiring her to pirouette in defiance rather than with the help of physics.
But mammals, comparatively speaking, are sensitive to gravity anyway. Gravity has a more relentless hold on us than it does other animals. Birds, having wings, can hardly notice it, nor fish, buoyed by water, nor insects with their spindly limbs. No wonder we experience relief as a weight off; experience joy, as walking on air.
7. Of Placental Mammals, Only a Few Menstruate: Primates, Bats, and Elephants
I remember how in those early years, before taking the Pill, once a month the sensation of heaviness overcame my body completely A black hormonal cloud of depression descended, making it seem an enormous effort to put one lead foot in front of the other. The active uterus, a molten core, clamped, coiled and stung.
By the time I reached my early twenties, the warm bloods monthly passing, seemed not only to mark time, but my body's obsession with its own project. Relief from cramps and depression would gradually set in, but so did, with the dogged repetition of the cycle, a kind of reproach. My body had spent weeks preparing its placental matter, its iron, its nutrients. All of this stared back at me in the bright red mucus, the purple-black coagulation, all going to waste time after time, month after month. I wasn't sure then if I would ever want to have children. My body definitely felt otherwise. It seemed determined to collect a blood debt I owed the universe, the price demanded of my existence. Was my body dumb or did it know I was tricking it with my tiny, laboratory-pills picked up every month at the drug store? Did it feel betrayed? Were we finally outright enemies?
The pill, on the other hand, was my friend. What a truly magical invention the Pill is. A tiny powerful get-out-of jail-free card for the human, female mammal. None of our recent liberations-reproductive, sexual, economic, political-would have been possible without it. That's why all other pills are pills, but the Pill is the Pill.
Having come of age in the eighties, my generation was the first to be able to take the mini pill, the first pill that had minimal side-effects and that was safe to take for most non-smoking women. I felt guilty about taking it, in part because I was unable to shake off my mother's fervent disapproval of premarital sex; at the time, though she had left the church when I was too young to remember, she was still culturally Catholic. It was not enough in those days that I felt ashamed and embarrassed walking the long isle to the back of the drug store to pick up my prescription. Sometimes my guilt would take a truly perverse turn. Withdrawing the plastic packet from my purse's secret compartment, I would confront the tiny pills standing to attention in their neat little artillery rows, and think of the countless women throughout the millennia who could never have even dreamed that this magical potion, like a spell in a fairytale, could ever actually exist. As I gingerly pushed the tiny white tablet from its plastic bubble, it sometimes seemed I could feel the eyes of those feminine multitudes (perhaps my mother among them) staring at my pills with a terrible jealousy, as if I'd caught the last train out of some desperate, forsaken town. Eventually this guilt wore off and taking the Pill came to seem as natural and wholesome as taking vitamins. I somehow forgot my initial almost superstitious gratitude for it. So, let me express my gratitude now. Without the Pill, I would never have had the lightness of heart, or uterus, or life, to write this essay.
8. Placental Mammals Have the Longest Gestational Period
"During gestation, eutherian young interact with their mother through a placenta, a complex organ that connects the embryo with the uterus" --"What is a Mammal?" Encyclopedia of Life
John, my first child, turned slowly like a rotisserie chicken or like a smooth ball rolling up out of the water. William, my second, fluttered sideways back and forth like a fish or a butterfly, the first hint of their many differences. In the long gestational period each son and I began to take to one another, before ever even laying eyes on one another.
Eutherians are struck by love before first sight.
At the time of both pregnancies I had two cats who, being themselves in possession of eutherian knowledge, were well aware that my body had embarked on a major project. During the first pregnancy, when I had time to sit and read for long periods of time, they would traipse up and over the firm mound at my center, and one or the other would perch up alongside it. When labor finally started, the female stood watch at my feet through the long hours before it was time to go to the hospital.
In the first few weeks of pregnancy, when you get to hear the heartbeat for the first time on ultrasound, it's not at all what you expect. You think you will hear a faint tapping, like the wing of a small bird. You expect to have to listen for it; instead, you hear muffled but urgent rhythmic galloping, a heartbeat much quicker, but much stronger and more determined than your own. You realize this new life means to make use of you, and knows exactly how. You're scared. And thrilled.
Hail Mary! Full of grace, the Lord is with thee Blessed art thou among women And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. "The Hail Mary Prayer," FamilyPrayer.Org
When I was pregnant for the first time, parents could learn the sex of their child at the four-month ultrasound, if the baby happened to be in a cooperative position. Some people liked to keep it a surprise but my husband and I never had that kind of patience. And besides, I didn't like referring to the baby as it. On the day of the appointment, I had to go alone because Jim couldn't get off work. I arrived at the hospital on an unusually sunny morning in February. After sitting awhile in the waiting room flipping through magazines, a nurse led me to a back room where the ultrasound technician was waiting. A blonde woman in her thirties, she was wearing the usual blue scrubs and sitting on a stool in front of a monitor surrounded by wires. She said hello and directed me to the table. As I swung my legs up and lay back, I told her I wanted to know the baby's sex. She reminded me it wasn't always possible and began making adjustments to the equipment. Lying flat, my hands clasped over my belly, I was feeling pretty confident about my odds for no other reason than beginner's luck. It seemed strange, though, to be given such momentous news by a person who did this all day long for an assembly line of pregnant women, each of them feeling her own baby was so important. She came over with the tube of jelly, to which I, already out of habit, lifted my shirt. She squeezed the tube and spread the cold film over my belly.
Blinking at the florescent lighting above, I ventured a bet, trying to sound casual.
"My mother's psychic said I'm having a girl," I said.
She guided the stick, her eyes on the screen, her expression impassive.
I blinked a few more times.
Suddenly she blurted, "I hope your mother didn't pay that psychic a lot of money."
I was confused, for a moment, even though I put no stock in psychics, "Huh?"
She laughed, "You're having a boy. He's downright mooning us."
This technician might as well have told me I was having a giraffe. Only after being told I was having a boy did I realize I'd been expecting a girl, probably for no other reason than because all my life I'd been surrounded by girls. The oldest of six granddaughters, I had grown up surrounded by younger sisters and girl cousins, so without ever picturing a girl, or even necessarily wanting a girl, I had been expecting one all the same.
On my way home, as I drove again through Norristown, a dilapidated eastern Pennsylvania neighborhood, black-eyed warehouses covered with graffiti streamed by like I was passively watching a film and not driving. Every couple of blocks, the sun stronger now in late morning, bounced off plexi-glass planes of empty bus shelters. Normally, I found this stretch of urban ugliness depressing, but now I felt encapsulated from it all, as if I too were bound up in a translucent, embryo sac.
It was a few years before cell phones, so the drive home gave me time to relish my secret, even though I knew the moment I got home I would burst through the door and rush at the phone to spill the news first to Jim, then to my mother, his mother, and anyone else who would listen. But in that half hour, I basked in my secret knowledge of this new person coming to us.
Stopping at a red light it seemed necessary to take it all in once more. A boy (how strange and wonderful) was coming into the world, and I was the corridor through which he was traveling. A newly minted male being was embarked on a timeless journey, was one of myriads of souls crossing the galaxies, my body the ordained circuit that would bring him here. Though alone, I giggled aloud as it occurred to me that in my current state, I was both male and female. I was a temporary hormonal cocktail. A wonderful concoction. A Miracle. The Virgin Mother, however paradoxical. Blessed among women. Full of grace. God, however conceived, was with me, in me, through me, as with all mothers, my child immaculate. Religion, I suddenly realized, was an attempt to explain my body, but it in reality it was my body that explained religion. My kind: enveloping All. My body: Conduit of Life.
10. Placental Mammals are Viviparous--They Bear Live Young
The unspeakable pain and turmoil of labor, mercifully, are brought to an end with the physician's exacting slice. A pulsing organ is extracted from my body and held up on high as in an ancient Aztec rite under the blinding lamps. I fall back into darkness as the thing's cries pierce the air above like church bells. Everyone lets me rest now as they busily take over the prize. My body, damp with sweat, drained as never before, I drift in and out of consciousness. In the darkroom of my mind I see a slideshow of three tableaus depicting the stages of my life. In the first, I see myself as a toddler standing in a polaroid my mother must have taken years ago. I have blonde hair with bangs and I look up with the confidence children have in their faces when they are loved and well cared for; in the second, I see a collage of related images quickly summarizing subsequent stages of my life: a girl who danced, grew up and reached out to men, loved and married. The third I don't see because it frames me now in this newest phase: it depicts, simply without any background or distractions, a mother.
I open my eyes because the creature's wailing has suddenly stopped. I realize he's gone quiet because he's been swaddled and tucked under my arm. His lids are delicately closed, his tiny lips puckered into a perfect o. A tiny Buddha, he seems to have achieved his Zen.
11. Mammals Have Fewer Young To Which They Devote Extensive Parental Care And Protection, Their Young Having A Prolonged Period Of Development
One morning my mother and I took my sons, then ages ten and seven, to the Pittsburgh Zoo. By late afternoon, just before going home, we found ourselves at the polar bear exhibit where a large naturalistic enclosure allowed visitors to observe the bears both above ground and, as you progressed down a ramp, underwater. When we got there all the bears were sprawled along the rocks, well into their afternoon naps. Glad to have a chance to get out of the sun, we walked down a ramp alongside the tank that formed the bears' pool. Reaching the bottom, we entered a wide underground tunnel with floor-to-ceiling glass on one side, and parents, grandparents and children on the other. Parked everywhere were strollers, some with occupants in varied states of consciousness, some vacant, those of the heavy-duty variety carrying the usual snacks including mini or zip-locked packages of pretzels, cookies, goldfish, along with an array of bottles, sippy-cups and juice boxes. Hanging from handles, or stuffed in netted lower compartments, were diapers, wipes, pacifiers, miniature blankets, parkas, stuffed animals and whatever else a small human might possibly need. Some adults were carrying their infants in harnesses; a few others had a child slung over a shoulder, and one or two, being pregnant, carried their newest arrival in their bellies. A few toddlers sat astride their father's shoulders, or stood pressing their foreheads into the glass; another tried running off only to be caught by an experienced hand while yet another stood clutching his mother's pant-leg while sucking his thumb. All told, we were an encumbered bunch. Compared to most of them, my load was light. My boys were well beyond the toddler stage, not to mention I had my mother along. The tunnel, despite the dank smell of wet cement and soiled diapers, was blissfully cool, especially after a hot summer day of hiking with kids over seven continents of animal exhibits.
We were expecting to saunter on through the tunnel and begin making our way out of the park when an older child's voice echoed above the others. "Hey," he called, pointing to the top of the glass," That one's getting up." Some people who had started through the passageway lingered. One of the bears had hefted himself up and was lumbering over to the pool. When he reached the water's edge, he took a moment to surmise the horizon; then, without further ado, he took the plunge. It was a beautiful thing to watch. He hit the turquoise water like a huge Alka Seltzer tablet-bubbles climbing, fur swishing, like the rag-wipers in a drive-through car wash. After enjoying a long, slow rise, he reached out and began to traipse in slow motion with all four furry limbs as if starring in his own ecstatic water ballet. We, his audience, standing in the dark, our feet planted to the cool cement floor, joyfully partook in his watery romp, his shameless, sensual enjoyment of cool, aquatic weightlessness. Watching him, we were delightfully suspended ourselves-momen-tarily relieved of oppressive heat, of aching backs and feet, of sweaty necks of heavy bags, even of clinging children.
12. Marine Mammals
You sea! I resign myself to you also--I guess what you mean, I behold you from the heachyour crooked inviting fingers, I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me ... --Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," Leaves of Grass
Newport Beach, California. It's late in the afternoon, and my sister Laura and I have spent the day at the beach with our kids. The temperature has dropped some; there's a slight breeze, and the light has grown softer. We're packing up to leave, shaking sand out of towels and blankets, directing kids to pick up their allotted portions to begin making the trudge back up to the car. Laura tells me to look at the water. A school of dolphins is passing midway between the shore and the horizon, a lucky coincidence. If wed left only a few minutes earlier we would have missed them. There's a long train of them, grouped in twos and threes, black against the orange-grey light, rising and dipping in perfect harmony. Mesmerized by their synchrony, I wonder what secret mechanism drives the muscular rounding of their backs, the smooth, confident churning of dark, slippery fish-flesh. They appear to be intent on some mysterious excursion that has brought them to the outskirts of our world. They are as elusive as always, barely surfacing before disappearing again. They tantalize the heart with strange magnetism. I think about how millions of years ago they gave up terrestrial existence and returned to the sea to live as mammal minorities among so many fish. They seem to beckon me to follow them, to let them take me back all the way to our original home. I want to drop the towel I still hold in my hand and walk a straight path out to them, the darkening waters closing over me.
9. Mammals Nourish Their Young With Milk Secreted by Mammary Glands
This ultimate distinction, as far as biologists are concerned, is reflected in the word, mammal, which derives from the Latin, mamma or breast. Unfortunately, in American culture there is much to hinder this natural process, which is why so many women give up in the first few days or weeks. For one thing, breastfeeding isn't talked about much, even privately among women. No doubt this is a vestige of our Puritan heritage, which is why you still hear from time to time about someone (sadly often a woman) complaining about a mother nursing in a mall or some other public place. This was more the case for my mother's generation. Formula was just one of the many "liberating" scientific improvements offered to post-war housewives, along with washing machines, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers; when advertisers depicted housewives going about their housework in full-make-up with permed hair, flared skirts, and high-heels. In this cultural context, the middle-class associated breastfeeding with women who couldn't afford such products, the barefoot and pregnant type. Somehow, advertisers had managed to imply that breast milk, being "homemade," was tainted goods, obscuring one of its greatest boons-it's free.
It's hardly surprising, then, that when my mother had me in the mid-sixties, she gave up nursing after only four weeks. She and my father were living with his parents, and she felt embarrassed by it. By the time I was pregnant, in the late nineties, breastfeeding had come somewhat back into fashion after scientific studies had proved its benefits. Most doctors strongly recommended it during prenatal care appointments. I remember thinking at the time, Why'd it take so long to figure that out? I thought nursing would be simple and instinctive, like in the movies when the newborn, just after birth, is put to the mother's breast and gets along swimmingly to the mutual satisfaction of mother and child. A few women tried to warn me that it might not come so easily. At my baby shower, a few guests discretely recommended that I call La Leche League, the international organization devoted to assisting women with breastfeeding. They suggested I attend my local chapter's meetings before I gave birth. My sister Karen was the most adamant of these voices. She had suffered from a bad experience with nursing because of the ignorance of an old-fashioned pediatrician's interference.
But the whole idea of going to a breastfeeding class seemed ridiculous. I figured it could hardly be more difficult than eating, or drinking, or going to the bathroom. Not having any experience with young children yet, I had no appreciation of how using the bathroom require education. Experience taught me that we have to learn to breastfeed too. And yet that really shouldn't be all that surprising because just about everything we mammals do has to be learned, sometimes on our own, but mostly from one another. We cling to one another, not just for warmth, but for the knowledge it takes to survive. Unfortunately, in our culture, because breastfeeding isn't talked about much you're thrown into it, and then left mostly to strangers, the "lactation consultant," or the La Leche League, volunteers who care passionately about the benefits of breastfeeding but who, even so, are not among one's tribe.
In the final weeks of my first pregnancy, mostly to please my sister, I made a perfunctory call to La Leche League. It turned out their next meeting was about a week after my due date, so I had blown my chance for any preliminary advice. Fortunately, in the first few days after I gave birth, my baby did latch-on easily. The lactation consultant came by my hospital room and pronounced us a success. What is a well-kept secret, however, is that even when the first forty-eight hours go smoothly with latch-on, having a newborn clamp down with all his might every two hours on what he considers his own personal property, can cause this sensitive part of the body to become seriously inflamed. My baby had colic, and therefore an especially desperate grip, nursing being the only thing that soothed him. At one point, when my mother-in-law held him between feedings he sucked the skin on her arm so fiercely he left a large, dark bruise. Soon my skin turned red, cracked, and for a brief time, even began to bleed. By that time, the first few seconds after clamp down were especially vicious. The baby might as well have had teeth. I was ready to give up, but I kept thinking that I just needed to hold out until the next La Leche meeting. Finally, a little over a week after I gave birth, we drove up to the elementary school where the meeting was to be held. I had the ravenous creature in his car-seat under my arm. A note was posted on the door. The meeting, for some reason, had been cancelled. The next one was to be held in a month. It might as well have been a year. By then the matter would be decided, one way or another.
Fortunately, because of the advice of two experienced women, my mother-in-law and a family friend, I made it through. My mother-in-law noticed that I held the baby improperly so that he hung from me. She showed me how to prop a pillow on my lap, a device that not only helped support the baby, but also put him at a more forgiving angle. Also, a friend of my father-in-law, who was at the time nursing her fourth child, told me over the phone that speed was critical. I learned from her that, if you don't recklessly shove your entire nipple into the baby's mouth as quickly as possible, he will only latch on to part of it, pulling and tearing at the skin. Because of these women who were either known to or members of my tribe, along with the skin's natural callousing process, by the time the next La Leche meeting rolled around, there was no need to go. I was now an old pro.
I breastfed both of my children for their first two years, and except for that cruel initiation period, the memories I have of nursing, especially at naptime, are among my happiest. In the baby's room, I had a tired-looking upholstered rocking chair from the seventies, and a beige faux-velvet ottoman, both hand-me-downs. Nothing felt better after a busy morning looking after the baby at the park, or the library, or at home, than to slip into that battered rocker, tip my heels to the soft velvet, put the baby to breast, and throw my head against the chair back. I often drifted off to sleep right along with the baby, awaking after twenty or thirty minutes to put him, by now fast asleep, into the crib. My memories of those times include our two cats who never missed this special, enveloping afternoon ritual. One would shimmy into the ottoman cushion and the other would lie along the edge of my chair-back, so that I could feel his fur lightly touching my hair. Both assumed a regal attitude, as if presiding over a small ceremony. It was nice drifting off to sleep on a winter's afternoon to the drone of their involuntary purring, punctuated only by the irregular hiss and clank of the old steam radiator bathing us in its warm mist. It was like gliding along on a raft, into the fog, attended by two sphinxes. While the rest of the world sat in front of computers, in company meetings, or in traffic jams, we four creatures had blissfully wafted off together into an alternate, sublime mammal consciousness.
Now, if that's not sacred, then I don't know what is.
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|Publication:||The Carolina Quarterly|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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