Several weeks ago I was having a driveway conversation with my neighbor, Todd, when we were interrupted by loud chittering noises. We turned and saw a red fox squirrel chasing a black one up the side of a big bur oak. I told Todd I suspected one of those squirrels was running around inside the walls of my house.
“You know,” he replied, “I read somewhere that red squirrels will chew the nuts off black squirrels to keep them from reproducing.” Then he walked back to his yard.
I took that as a threat.
This may seem paranoid unless you understand that my neighbor and I are both trying to reproduce, and failing. I know this because of other conversations we’ve had in my driveway. It started just after Steph and I moved into the neighborhood. I was out mending a retaining wall when Todd walked over and said that it sure seemed like hard work and that he wasn’t looking forward to terracing the hill in front of his house. He said that if it were up to him, he’d leave the hill alone, but “the wife wants our kids to have a pretty yard with lots of wildflowers.” I said I didn’t know he had kids.
He was smiling when he said this, but one year later, Todd has no baby and no terrace. I’d feel sorry for him, except I’ve been too busy failing to impregnate my own wife. Todd knows this, unfortunately, because of another driveway conversation we had a few months ago. We were shingling the new roof when Todd wandered over to say how good it looked and that he was planning to build an entire second floor on his house to create more room “for the kids.” I told him I understood, that that’s why we had to get new shingles, it was leaking in “the baby’s room.” His face fell — “Expecting?”
“Not yet. How about you?”
He shook his head.
I immediately regretted sharing this with Todd; Steph and I already had enough pressure. Like many of our friends — like Todd and his wife — we’d put off having children until our thirties. We wanted to be settled inside secure jobs; we wanted a house, a yard, a life. The usual reasons. But now that we’ve decided to have children, we want to have had them yesterday. Last winter, Steph and I sat down in the “family room” and came up with a game plan: she would get pregnant in April, the baby would be born in January, and with maternity leave and school vacations we would minimize day care. As each barren month passed we revised the strategy, emphasizing the positive: “Hey, look at it this way, if we conceive next month, the baby will be born in May — Grandpa Roy’s birth month!” Now it’s October and like the losing football coaches I’m watching on TV, we’ve thrown out the game plan. We’re in the two-minute offense.
The reproductive process has left me vulnerable in surprising ways — ways I thought were private until Todd’s comment about the squirrels. He of all people should have known better than to plant such a troubling image in my head where it would take root and, later that night, make intimacy more difficult between Steph and me than it should have been. While kissing, we listened to the squirrel scratch around in our walls and I wondered, for the first time, if it was a red squirrel or black squirrel, the aggressor or the victim, the chewer or the chewed. The thought grew, moving down my spinal cord, transforming into an overwhelming sensory experience. No matter where I ran in my mind, I could see it, feel it – the squirrels, the chewing, the horror.
The next morning it seemed clear: I had become a victim of sexual sabotage. Todd, my apparently benign neighbor, had drawn first blood in a campaign to prevent me from continuing my genetic line, from succeeding where he had failed. I started imagining counter strategies. I even did some research at the library, preparing for a future driveway conversation in which I’d be the one launching all the disruptive insights about the natural world. Like, hey, Todd, did you know bull fur seals will lurk offshore until their rivals start copulating and then attack them; or hey, how about the pungent stink fights between male ring-tailed lemurs; or hey, have you heard about how the bowerbird likes to demolish the home of his closest sexual competitor? Why don’t you try out those images in the cloacal bed tonight, Todd?
I’ve since realized that Todd is not to blame for our failure to conceive, but at the time it felt better than blaming myself. Now I’m used to blaming myself. There’s no rational reason to do so — I haven’t tested sterile and six months isn’t a terribly long time to try to conceive. Plus, I’ve been weathering reproductive pressures for years. For example, shortly after we were married, we were talking casually with friends about having children when their five-year-old daughter suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled me over to a pen near their barn. “See,” she said, pointing at a pair of humping pygmy goats, “someday you’ll plant a seed in Stephanie just like Sparky’s doing and she’ll grow a baby!” I laughed, of course, as I did when, years later, in the middle of Wal-Mart, an ex-girlfriend shoved pictures of her kids at me and asked, “Where’s yours?” Or when, at my doctoral graduation, Grandma pulled me aside and told me that “smarts don’t mean much unless you pass them on.” Even when the day finally came, as it did for Sparky, to plant some seed, the first few months were light hearted, providing easy excuses to order pizza, rent French films, and experiment.
Something changed in September. Steph stepped into the bedroom doorway and I could tell by her face that we had failed, once again. The previous month, on the same occasion, we’d gone out to a restaurant, eaten fudge sundaes, criticized other people’s bawling kids. Laughed. This time, I spent most of the night holding her, listening to the sobs, understanding, perhaps for the first time, how strung out by hope we’d become. Steph fell asleep, but I didn’t. I went downstairs and out onto the deck. The night was beautiful — no wind, the moon casting the woods into silver relief. Fireflies sparked in front of a young spruce where I knew a goldfinch nest was hidden. I’d been watching it for weeks, noticing the male at the feeder, peeking at the pale blue eggs, listening to the peeps. The goldfinch — a medieval symbol for the Holy Child, I recalled — had done his job. Now he was probably sound asleep in the spruce which, at that hour, seemed not so distinct as in the day. It seemed, instead, to have fallen back into the woods, back into the immense tangle of life from which, to my sudden grief, I had somehow become freed. When I crawled back into bed, I put my arm over Steph and whispered the only words that came: I’m sorry.
The next morning I wondered aloud what I had done wrong: Was it the tight jeans in high school? The pimple medication? Was it too much lying around in front of the television while writing my dissertation? Too much microwave popcorn? I went on and on until Steph slammed her hand down on the table and told me to knock it off, that it’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault. If one of us is sterile or infertile, she said, it’s just as likely to be her. Let’s wait until we get tested before we panic. Steph was trying hard to be reasonable, I know, but what we felt the night before was beyond reason. It was also, strangely, beyond the circle of our love for each other. I think I realized this for the first time that morning, how the possibility of infertility had thrown us back into ourselves as individuals, John and Steph, male and female, to work through it in our own ways. And over the next few weeks, aside from the late night sobbing, or maybe because of it, Steph seemed to be working through it better than me. She met with friends, took walks, weeded the garden. I, in contrast, avoided people, especially those with children. I also avoided the outdoors, moving quickly from front door to car door to office door. I found that if I lingered too long in the open air, I’d start feeling like the boy in the bubble, convinced that my body was a troubled, poisoned ecosystem sealed off from the fertile cycles of life around me. In such a state, every bug, every leaf, every wild cry mocks.
After a week or so of intense indoor activity — painting walls, reading, writing — I’d almost convinced myself that I could hide from the outdoors, from the daily reminders of my failure. But then the outdoors came indoors. The squirrel. It dug a hole under the new roof and started scratching around inside our bedroom walls. The first time I heard it, Steph and I were “trying” and it distracted me. Not that it took much. The squeaky bed frame, the faucet dripping, an Alanis Morissette song on the radio — any of these were enough to cause difficulties. But the squirrel was different. By visiting us in that moment, the creature seemed to be flaunting its reproductive prowess, its two litters a year, its ability to mate while hanging onto a tree branch, wrists rotating 180 degrees. I tried to change the mental channel to a different pest, but each time, obscure reproductive facts and the voices of various Orkin men surfaced to deflate me. What if the scratching wasn’t a squirrel, but a mouse? Mice can have twelve litters and over eighty young a year. Roaches? A roach can get his head cut off and continue mating for a week. A bird? In one species, the males have the human equivalent of fifty pound testes. It didn’t matter – squirrel, mouse, roach, bird – they were all eating away at my home, eating away at the very foundations of my ability to reproduce.
So I gave up hiding indoors and returned to neglected yard work. That’s when I had the unfortunate squirrel conversation with Todd, and the weirdness intensified. Over the next few days, I became increasingly worried that Todd would impregnate his wife first, thereby exacerbating our pain and, through that stress, further reduce our chances. When I caught myself watching him and his wife in their front yard, studying them for signs of success — giddy laughter, hand-holding, flower-picking — I knew something had to give. I decided to turn to my closest male friends for advice. I planned to begin by asking them about fertility and then, if it went well, raise the psycho factor. It didn’t go well. Most seemed reluctant to talk, hiding behind easy prescriptions like “boxers instead of briefs.” In my altered state, I interpreted their reticence as further proof that all men, know it or not, are in genetic competition with each other and cannot be trusted for advice. There were, however, a few who tried to be helpful. One confessed that he and his wife had resorted to artificial insemination. For a guy we had nicknamed “The Mailman” during league basketball games, this confession took guts. His story got me thinking more about the promise of medical miracles. Fertility drugs, for instance – maybe we’d end up with septuplets like the McCaugheys and get a free house and minivan from the governor. At the time, however, I was still convinced I could do it on my own, using more natural measures like a better diet and exercise. But I was still open to suggestions. One friend recommended trimming the hair off the scrotum to keep it cool. This sounded like a risky procedure. And for all I knew, that was his intent.
I’m done talking to men now. I’ve been talking to God, instead, confessing, cutting deals. Late at night, I fill with remorse for the ways I’ve wasted my body’s resources over the years, spilling them randomly and without purpose. I worry this wastefulness has been a kind of sin against God, for which I’m now being punished. So I’ve been praying for forgiveness. During these prayers, I often recall the televangelist Steph and I stumbled upon a few years ago while channel surfing. The slicked-back preacher was hopping around the stage, spitting on and on about the evils of birth control, including withdrawal. His biblical reference was Genesis 38, 1-10, the story of Onan. God had recently “slewn” Onan’s older brother, Er, for crimes unnamed and it had become Onan’s duty to sleep with his brother’s widow, conceive a son, and preserve Er’s patriarchal line. The preacher read: “And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.” Whatever Onan’s secret motives – lust, greed, genetic competition – they “displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.” The message then was laughable — If I can’t conceive a son, will Steph have to sleep with my cousin Steve? Should human males, like cats, have penile barbs to prevent early withdrawal? But during these late nights, the message has returned as a more serious question: Just how closely entwined are the ecologies of body and spirit? Have I, in squandering the fruits of one, squandered those of the other?
Sometimes, though, it helps to think of my reproductive self as a necessary sacrifice, as a rightly poisoned ecology, the demise of which will not be mourned by God or anyone else. On the contrary, it may be worthy of celebration. I recently retrieved two newspaper articles on overpopulation and stuck them to the refrigerator. One was covering the birth of “the world’s six billionth child” in Bosnia. The boy and his mother had received a visit from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan which, I thought, probably wasn’t as welcome as a new house and minivan would’ve been. Nevertheless, I was surprised to learn that despite the staggering numbers, world reproductive rates are actually slowing down. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby picked up this fact in the other article, declaring it further proof that humans are the superior animal, that people “don’t breed like rabbits, multiplying without regard to their ability to support their offspring.” Right on, I thought — and that goes for squirrels, too.
But then, in the second half of his column, Jacoby started worrying about an impending “baby bust,” and that fewer people in the world would mean fewer minds at work to solve our problems. “For babies are a blessing,” he wrote. “And the more babies each generation produces, the more blessed is the generation that follows.” My eyes filled with tears. I tried to fight it. I reminded myself that American children aren’t like other children in the world, that they eat up more of their fair share of sugared cereals, crude oil and trees. I reminded myself that it’s easy to choose to have children when your ability to support them is subsidized by starvation half a world away. It’s even easier when you believe that your child will grow up to solve the monstrous you’ve created or quietly amplified. Jacoby’s breed of American selfishness makes me hesitant to start handing out blessings to our generation, or the next. Instead, it reminds me of another Bible passage I wish I’d never heard: “Of those to whom much has been given, much will be required.” When I think about that one for too long, I fill with fear that God may, in fact, be just.
Still, I wept over the article. Not because of what Jacoby understood, but because of what he did not seem to understand. This thing I’m feeling is not about the next generation or the last. It’s about right now, me, my wife, our happiness, our desire to have a child, heaven and earth be damned. Why do I feel this way? The question had been frantically knocking around my brain, finding nothing close to an answer. Then, yesterday night, I had a dream. It occurred just after Steph and I — despite the squirrel — had successfully completed our seventh straight day of “trying.” I was lying in bed, thinking that I finally understood how rutting elk dies from exhaustion, when I drifted into sleep. I woke up in a tree. It was a large tree, with no top or bottom, filled with lots of people, billions of them. They were each holding a ladder that extended way down toward the bottom of the trunk, too far to see. The ladders were wobbly and fragile, but not more fragile than the arms holding them or the faces searching their lengths. I was holding my own ladder, afraid that whatever might latch on to it would be heavy enough to pull me off the branch, but even more afraid that nothing would latch on at all. So I held steady, even as my arms began to tremble and cramp, even as others around me fell or sobbed or shook their empty ladders. Even as they shouted and screamed because they thought they’d seen, just for a second, a small, dimpled hand reach out for them from below.
It had been a while since I’d shared with Steph any feelings or thoughts related to having children, but this morning I told her about the dream. At first she offered a safely scientific interpretation: the ladders are DNA strands, the rungs chromosomes. We’re all up the same proverbial tree, trying to extend the genetic line. Then she abruptly got up from the table.
“How did we become so desperate?” she said, and walked into another room.
Desperate…I let the word reverberate through the bowl, the spoon, the bones. I became defensive — desperate was what I had been at the junior high dances, skulking along the dark edge of the disco lights, watching girls dance with other boys, wondering if I might ever know the sweet privileges of flesh. That wasn’t who I was now. Or was it? The dream, the feelings did indeed seem desperate, and despite what I’d thought, they had brought me closer to the natural world, closer than ever before. Especially to the squirrels – always in a hurry, high-strung, panicked like my adolescent self. Tree dwellers, as I was in my childhood and even earlier, millions of years ago, when our species was cut off from the main genetic branch and cast out onto the savannah to fend for ourselves. How desperate might we have been then to feed, to reproduce, to move, leaving our footprints in the newly settled ash of volcanoes? I’d read about them somewhere, those ancient footprints. They were uncovered in central Africa, three figures moving in a straight line — the Laetoli apeman, his mate and child. At one point, the prints reveal that the apeman paused and turned himself to the west. I wondered what he saw – Food? A rival male? A mirage of trees? Was he desperate? Or was he just amazed at a world once again changing, transformed by forces beyond his understanding, the thick volcanic air pulling across his future like the skin of a snake? Within that pause, he might have felt a twinge, an inward turn toward his mate, his child, the source so deep it was beyond his memory, beyond the place where memory matters. In that place, there is no he and I, no generations or species or nations, no blessings, no reasons to consider. In that place there is only the one reason: Life.
Then again, the ladder in my dream might represent the actual ladder in my garage, the one I should haul out and use to reach the gutters, desperate for cleaning. I can see from my window that they’re clogged with leaves, which may also explain the tree image in my dream. I’ve been putting off cleaning them until, perhaps, I have a teenage son or daughter to do it for me. I look over and see that my neighbor has the same problem with his gutters. I haven’t talked to Todd in a while. The last time I saw him he was standing in his still unterraced yard, dressed in a Chicago Bulls basketball jersey, swinging at dandelions with a nine iron. Winter is almost here and I wonder what he has been doing to prepare? Despite my lingering suspicions, I’m half inclined to call him, to offer to help with his gutters. Maybe he’ll offer to help me as well. Maybe, in the coming years of this generation, as we and our houses grow older, he and I are going to need each other more than we think, learning to exchange one of the few blessings we may have in us to give: good will.
In the meantime, the squirrels already cross the boundary between us, running from his yard to mine and back. I have no idea if what Todd said about them is true. At the moment, I see both black squirrels and red, but neither seems interested in hurting the other. They just seem busy. Between the oaks in Todd’s yard and the walnuts in mine, they have a lot of work to do. I can hear them now, the walnuts, thudding against the ground. One after another, as if there will always be plenty, as if none of it matters.