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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tick Tock - Time to Close Up Shop

With less than a month to go before the big 4-0 I’ve been waiting with anticipation for some sort of existential (or perhaps even more real) crisis to wash over me. After all, the milestone of turning 40 does have some pretty heavy baggage that comes with it. In 26 days I’ll be officially over the hill, past my prime, closer to being an old hag than I am to my fabulous teenage years roaming the halls of Mamaroneck High School.

And let’s face it, the only thing that is stopping me from being one of those sad women in an urban apartment, all alone and with too many cats (I already had two in my 20s, which usually doesn’t bode well for the future), is that five years ago I made the controversial, difficult, and (looking back) perhaps even bold decision to go it alone and procreate.

And now I have Jaden and Rowan, turning 4 in 17 days. Some might still call me a woman “alone” (since I have no partner), but instead of heading towards hagdom, I’m enjoying the life of an international soccer mom (yes it is possible to be a soccer mom even in Tanzania.) chaperoning the kids to play-dates and swim lessons, and going on a weekly outing to the noisy and annoying “kids” restaurant with a play area, face painting, and really mediocre food, just because they love it so much.

During the past year I’ve been having that internal (infernal?) conversation that many women who’ve gone before me have had. Am I going to stop at two? Although I know that there are magical hormonal changes going on inside of me, I am fool enough to believe that the reproductive bits and pieces are still in working order and at 39 years and 339 days I likely have some small bit of fertility left, a few eggs in good condition, a uterus that still does it’s monthly duty, enough estrogen and progesterone to make the magic happen perhaps just one more time…

Luckily, I still have several vials of Jaden and Rowan’s donor sitting in cold storage back in Washington, DC. And I do think that they are just the neatest kids – so why wouldn’t I want some more just like them? Hell, I live overseas where there is an infinite supply of affordable human help to do just about anything you can possibly imagine. If I wanted I could have day nurses, night nurses, wet nurses, midwives, housekeepers, etc. I could have another kid under the best of circumstances you could ever find a single gal in. It would be so easy compared to the last time. And I would have a cuddly widdle baby to love, and he/she would love me, and we would live happily ever after…

Whoosh. This is the point in the movie where the girl wakes up in her own bed, startled. Clearly the last few minutes of magical fantasy have been a dream.

Back in the real world college costs $40,000/year per kid (unless I manage to finagle a job with the UN, which pays for college), preschool even runs $4,000/year per kid in Tanzania, and all of a sudden I’m remembering how much I struggled the first two years with Jaden and Rowan. Now that I think about it, I was pretty miserable during my pregnancy, too. And OMG, what if I got pregnant with twins again? Four year olds are awesome. Four kids, not so much. Besides, eventually I’ll move back to the US where being a single mother by choice of three or more kids would really make me freaky.

Recently a friend told me that 50 is the new 40. I suppose that may be true for guys, but for us gals we have this ticking biological clock which gets louder and louder until about 42 when the chances of being able to have a biological child of our own pretty much ends abruptly. (Don’t be fooled into complacency by all those women having children older than 43, 95% of them are using donor eggs.) I look around me at my friends who want to, but haven’t taken the reproductive plunge yet, and I feel their pain. I want to stand on my soapbox and tell them that they, too, can go it alone. They don’t have to wait for a partner to produce. Better yet, they can join me overseas and find heaven on earth for the single mom.

Five years ago I knew that and that and made the decision to not take a chance in the fertility sweepstakes and go it alone. Lots of people thought I was nuts. When I finally got pregnant I thought I was nuts, too. But I’ve decided that my 40th birthday is my payout for all the stress and second guessing. I’m actually looking forward to it. I plan to be 40 and fabulous and I’m currently planning a big blow out party in a fun new restaurant featuring Jamaican food (lobster patties, my favorite), 80s music, and the many wonderful friends I’ve met since I moved to Tanzania, and some who even came here with me. Jaden and Rowan will help me celebrate my birthday, but the party is for adults only because nurturing the un-mom part of Hally remains an important part of maintaining my identity – of being 40 and fabulous both with kids and without.

This morning I woke up with a whoosh and a start and sat up straight in bed. I was literally dreaming about clocks, and the ticking was so loud that I couldn’t hear myself think anymore. My subconscious was reminding me that it is time to make a decision – take the plunge or empty the pool.

So with 40 looming, and parenthood being a lovely extension of the real Hally but not the entirety of Hally, I am taking the executive decision to shut off my biological clock. I’m removing the batteries. The ticking has stopped.

There will be no third kid. Time’s up.
The heros of my 40th birthday.

A Member of the Club, Part II. The Insurgency.


Jaden enjoying a Friday evening at the Yacht Club

Well it is now official. On December 5th, in front of friends, my sponsor, and God, I became an official member of the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club.

Since I wrote you last about my post-Sea Cliff fire depression, the kids and I have been enjoying the benefits of temporary membership – meaning that we could enjoy the place without the guilt and scorn of certain friends (who shall remain nameless, but you know who you are) since we weren’t yet “official members”. We’ve been using the beach, playing in the playground, and enjoying the best pizza in Dar washed down with a beer on water’s edge as the sun sets across the bay.

Almost every Friday in the early evening we’ve been gathering with friends, the other “outsiders” who don’t quite fit the traditional Yacht Club membership profile. We are single parents, crunchy-granola types, people of color, Jewish, lesbians, and oftentimes not nearly as pretty as the other members on the bar patio. Most of us don’t sail. We are there for the beach and now for the company of each other. We have a lot of fun, drinking and eating the Friday-night barbeque, with our kids swarming all around us. Each of us fights the nagging guilt of being members of the Club. But when you look out over the sea, and the breeze actually causes tingly goose pimples at a time when Dar es Salaam is so hot you feel like a lit wax candle, all the guilt is assuaged and we manage to just enjoy.

Temporary membership was great and mostly guilt-free, but then the inevitable letter inviting me to the official membership induction ceremony arrived. I was directed to the bank where I was to deposit $1000 in cash in the Yacht Club’s account for the privilege of membership. I was ordered to get a sponsor and a spare to state on the membership form that should I default on my debts to the club that they would be financially responsible. Then I was forced to spend one of my precious Friday evenings walking around the bar patio trying to locate three committee members to sign on the form that they had “met” me. (Well… if “meeting” me involves someone not even asking my name but drunkenly grabbing the form and signing it in the wrong place… well, ok.)

So, on the 5th I showed up at the Yacht Club, as ordered, with my main sponsor in tow. To my happy surprise a lot of my friends were joining at the same time. After about an hour in the bar we were directed to a space where the meeting “officially” began. One-by-one the committee members stood and told us about all the ways in which we could get fined. The boat master told us that if we need to be rescued he will fine us; the beach master told us that if we drive down to the beach he will fine us; and the dive master told us that if we do unauthorized dives and he finds out about it he will fine us. It was like Catholic reform school without the habits. Warm and fuzzy.

When it came time to give out the official membership cards I expected there to be some sort of formal ceremony. Why else would they insist that you bring your sponsor and go through so much pomp and circumstance?

I expected something like this:

Quatermaster: Please rise, Hally Mahler.

Hally: (rises)

Quartermaster: Who brings this woman forth for membership into our revered institution, the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club?

Sponsor: (stands) I do.

Quartermaster: And do you attest, under oath, that Ms. Mahler is Yacht Club-worthy? Will she uphold the laws and obligations of Yacht Club membership?

Sponsor: I believe she will, sir.

Quatermaster: (turning towards Hally) Ms. Mahler, do you accept all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of membership to the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club? Will you do your part in maintaining the premises and keeping out the riff raff?

Hally: I will sir. Sort of. Sir, before I become a member, I’d just like to put in a plug for more diversity at the Club. You see, sir, I think the club would have a much better image in this day and age if we actively recruited a variety of…

Quatermaster: (outraged) Silence! (pause) Do you accept all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of membership to the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club?

Hally: (meekly) Yes…

Quatermaster: Ms Mahler, you are one of us now. Congratulations.

Hally (sounding resigned) Yes sir. Thank you sir.

In reality, they called my name, I went up the head table, and they gave me my new card, which is now “permanent member” white, instead of “temporary member” green. And I have no idea why I was required to bring my sponsor. Perhaps it was so the bar could make a little bit of extra money that night?

Now that Jaden, Rowan and I are officially members I’ve been taking a bit more flak, but I’ve also finally read the rules. No one can be denied membership with a proper sponsor, and people born in Tanzania can become members at half price. Every time I meet someone who would normally not fit into the Yacht Club mold I give them a hard sell to try to convince them to join. The more of us misfits that join, the more enjoyable the club will be.

This is my mission (I choose to accept it). It will be a peaceful revolution. Change from within. I’ve decided that what the Yacht Club needs for me to feel more comfortable is more people like me, more diveristy, and I will do my part in recruiting it. I could stand outside, refuse to join, be deprived of the beauty and amenities that it offers, and complain loudly. But instead I’m calling up all the Tanzanian-born, black, Jewish, ex-Peace Corps, outsider, lesbians I know and giving them the sales pitch. Come join the Dar es Salaam Yacht Club. You will be welcomed here.

(Editors Note: In defense of the Yacht Club, I just want to say that although the place is pretty homogenous in terms of its membership, I’ve never actually encountered any outright elitism or racism among the staff, officers or members. It is rather the reputation of the place that spurs me on to write these posts. I assume that you will take this post with the humor with which it was conceived.)

South Africa Sweet and Sour

Over Thanksgiving weekend I traveled to South Africa to participate in the fabulous wedding celebration of my friends, Damon and Kent.

In the US gay weddings are becoming rather commonplace, even if they are not recognized in but a small handful of states. But not too many people in the US combine safari, petting lions, and a legal wedding in an apartheid-era women’s prison to such wonderful effect.

Kent and Damon are Americans who have been living in South Africa for about four years. Kent is white, Damon is African-American. Kent is from the North/Midwest, Damon is from Philadelphia. They have been married in practice for more than 12 years, but since they live in South Africa where since last year gay weddings became officially and constitutionally recognized, they decided to go for it and have a big extravaganza weekend.

I was just one of 30+ people who traveled from “overseas” to bear witness to the occasion. And I think that the novelty of a legal wedding is part of what drew so many people from the US to the event (in addition to the large and active Kent and Damon fan club). It was pretty amazing to watch two beloved gay friends legally “tie the knot” in a venue where a little more than 10 years ago the women freedom fighters of South Africa were held in chains, their freedom repressed.

A big theme of the weekend was the contradictions of “new South Africa”. On one hand, I spent most of my downtime roaming fabulous shopping malls and feeling like I was back in an alternative version of the US where everything costs (just slightly) less and shopkeepers have the most lovely accents. I stayed with my friend, Michelle, who lives in the carriage house of a most amazing property in the wealthiest part of town – complete with Italian renaissance-style terraced garden. We ate Thai food and sushi, visited a park where you can pet the baby lions, and took a mini-safari about an hour north of town. It was lovely.

The other side, of course, is the crime that Johannesburg has become so famous for – shoot first, ask questions later – rape – anger. Of course, this is the evitable result of decades of oppression and economic injustice. But from the outside it seems that it could be the downfall of a country that has so much going for it.

And then there is Jacob Zuma. Even two months ago he was all the talk of the town, and in the last week he was elected to lead the ANC which makes him the likely next president. I don’t pretend to know much about South African politics. But I can tell you that it is never ideal to have a man who has been accused (multiple times) of corruption take the helm of your country. But even worse than that, this is a man who during his trial for rape (accused of raping the underage daughter of a friend) stated that he didn’t use a condom during the act (which he said was consensual) because he wasn’t worried about HIV since he took a shower right after.

At the time he was a leader of the national HIV/AIDS program.

But the promises of Nelson Mandela and the potential of the new South Africa were all that was on the guests’ minds as we gathered in the rotunda of the old prison in the late afternoon that Saturday. Beams of light came through the high windows illuminating the 160 guests – the most diverse group of people I’ve ever seen in one place – half white, half black; half male, half female; half gay, half straight; half American, half not. Kent and Damon planned to walk down the aisle to a Frank Sinatra-type tune, but as soon as the South Africans spotted them down the path outside the hall they broke spontaneously into the most beautiful song. I don’t know which African language they were singing in, and I don’t know what the words meant, but it was the most harmonious, beautiful, and celebratory song I’ve ever heard. It made me cry. (And I don’t usually cry at these things.) It was incredible.

During the ceremony Kent and Damon accepted marriage advice from their “elders”, and prayers to their ancestors for a happy life together were said in the 10 languages of various participants. At the end of the ceremony they jumped over a broom, an African-America tradition; and then had guests pour water over their hands, a Thai wedding tradition (Kent was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand). Straying from the confines of a traditional marriage ceremony, it was a lovely tribute to their life together so far, the life ahead of them, and the things and people most important to them.

Later as I sat at my table in the courtyard of the former women’s prison I watched a full moon rise above the walls of the building that once caused so many patriots much pain. Under that bright moon, Kent and Damon danced as if gay marriage was a right that everyone around the world could enjoy, diversity reigned, and the new South Africa shone.





The grooms