First Time To Trump’s America

Friend Reeve meets baby Thomas, one of many babies born since I’ve been gone.

My experiences during short bursts of time in the states are reliably memorable because they are so abbreviated, and therefore I have to really make the most of every moment. In my downtime I a.) kept going to the Au Bon Pain next to my DC hotel to get giant iced teas and breakfast sandwiches and b.) watched some domestic cable news, which let’s face it, is pretty terrifying these days. The programming is interrupted by catheter and other medical device commercials, which are clues I should not be watching.

Highlights that I can piece together through the jet lag:

The Washington Half

Finally visited the Blacksonian — the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — on the day I landed in DC. Eyes still bloodshot from the flight and jet lag setting in, Matt Thompson, his partner Bryan and I powered through and saw crazy amazing stuff like the Parliament Funkadelic MOTHERSHIP. Yes, yes we did.

Friend Claire came down from New York for a hang. We lingered over a three and a half hour dinner at a mezcal place, not because of the meal but because we had some epic catching up to do.

With one of the greats, Don Gonyea, at NPR HQ.

Don Gonyea gave me advice about work and life, which is always much appreciated.

Hanson, you know, of mmmmbop fame from 20 years ago, played a Tiny Desk Concert on the first day I went back to work in DC. They actually played two, because they recorded their very special Christmas Tiny Desk, too. Taylor (the middle one) and I joked around a bit about how the dinosaur on his Christmas sweater was wearing the same sweater, creating some sort of ugly Christmas sweater matrix.

One of my ex-work spouses, Javaun, took a train up from Lynchburg (where he now lives) to spend Tuesday evening hanging out and eating barbecue and drinking beers together. I can’t even remember all the ground we covered because, beer.

Finally ate at the State Department cafeteria in Foggy Bottom — a bucket list item.

Because I am support the notion of spending money to save time, I hired April Yvonne, friend of my always glam friend Angie Goff, to shop for me. She picked out racks of clothes in a few Georgetown shops in advance, so all I had to do was try things on and make decisions. The whole excursion only took two hours in total and I was hella wardrobed for the weekend and work by the end. Endorse.

The Austin Half

Met the following babies who have joined us since I’d last been in Austin: Baby Adaline. Baby Thomas. Baby Marcella. Baby EJ. Baby Franklin. Toddler Hattie. Toddler Emma. Missed Baby Sam, who is fattening up in a NICU right now, but boy was I overjoyed to see his parents.

Sam’s dad Jimmy is my ultimate favorite eating partner. He also cooks delicious food and personally catered my engagement party with Spanish tapas since he trained to be a chef in the kitchens of Spain and Charleston, SC. Because of serendipity, the weekend I was in Austin was also the Far East Food Festival, in which some sixty Austin restaurants served up healthy portions of various Asian creations and Jimmy was judging the food. He added me as a judge so we CHOWED DOWN until the heat and the food consumption did us in. I had to quit early because I just couldn’t eat anymore. Embarrassing, but true.

Fried kimchi rice balls at Far East Food Fest

Due to the abbreviated time, there were extra meals sandwiched in. On Friday I had a cheeseburger appetizer at P Terry’s while en route to Cooper’s barbecue where we disappeared pounds of brisket, sausage and ribs plus jalapeno mac-and-cheese, potato salad and the standard vat of pickles plus white bread. (Also Cooper’s offers free beans!) This was my favorite meal because of the strong appetizer IN THE CAR ON THE WAY to BBQ and my reliable eating buddies, Blake and Justin, joined to work up some serious meat sweats. I probably could have recovered for third lunch after this but we had do disperse.

Reunited with the dim sum club on Saturday morning to eat our faces off.

Did not see my oracle, Harry Whittington (the guy Dick Cheney accidentally shot in the face) but did see Bachelor Brad, who we seem to run into in Austin pretty much all the time. Is he everywhere? Is it because he’s a twin?

Surprised my goddaughter Marion Cass at her school, which led to second graders drawing me a bunch of butterflies and teaching me how to play a game called Sleeping Queen (need to get this for my daughters). Marion Cass also had me over to her house Sunday afternoon where she showed me how she can do things like SPLITS IN THE AIR because, gymnastics and being seven.

The purpose of this Austin return was to attend Friend Todd’s wedding. Did it, and so glad, because I love weddings! I also get to take partial credit for this union in the butterfly-flaps-its-wings kind of way, because I brought Todd to the Texas Tribune in 2009 as we were starting it. Here’s what happened: He was a weirdo who was teaching me Final Cut Pro as a part of a class I took at Austin Film School. I decided he was adorable even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t wash his hair at the time and was always railing about the dangers of aspartame and fluoride. Started calling him Hot Toddy behind his back (he later confronted me about this and yep, guilty) and convinced our boss Evan to give him a job at the Tribune because we were in wild wild west days of throwing jobs around. It was through this job that he met Carsi, his bride.

Reeve and I ran the hike and bike trail and joked around the whole time, just like the good ol’ days.

Sent up a flare in DC, and again in Austin, for big group happy hours. Both led to the happiest reunions, predictably. In Austin, April, my BFF from those halcyon days of my partying/Texas lege-covering twenties in Austin, HAPPENED to also be back after moving away to Toronto a few years ago. We got to see each other for about twenty minutes. I’ll take it.

The last time I was in America, I was two people. This time it was just me and my pump, which had to be used every few hours for the duration of the nine-day trip, the bottles and bags of expressed milk piling up in my respective hotel freezers until I had so much that I paid $400 in heavy baggage fees to bring all that liquid gold home. In order to keep it frozen while flying, I snuck in a trip to Ace Hardware in DC and got a giant padded cooler bag, which ended up being perfect. Thanks, Ace Hardware.

 

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Goodbye To My Constant Travel Companion, The Breast Pump

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Yet again I was standing over several bottles of my breastmilk splayed out in a bin My bag got pulled for an extra look at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport security checkpoint, something that happens pretty often when you’re carrying lots of liquids, I guess. The Japanese security agent pointed out the milk in plastic bottles he had removed exceeded the 150ml limit. (At least I think that’s what he was saying. I don’t speak Japanese, and he kept pointing at the 150ml line on the bottle.) Then he pulled up a giant blue plastic jug that looked like one of those tanks you carry spare gasoline in. It was half-full with a swamp-colored mix of whatever previous passengers must have dumped out. He started unscrewing the lid of one of my bottles.

“Oh no, no,” I said, starting to panic. “This is MY milk. It’s from my body. I can’t dump it. I can’t.” I started doing the two-hands-squeezing-in-the-air motion, in front of my chest. I have made this hand gesture for “boob sucking” so many times that I can only remember a single trip in Asia when I didn’t do it.

He turned pink. My arm hairs were stood up. The passenger who could understand English standing nearby started cracking up.

“Oh ok ok ok ok,” the Japanese guard said, sheepishly. I packed up and scurried to the customs check.

I pass through two airports a week, nearly every week, as part of my job as a foreign correspondent. I’m also the breastfeeding mom of an infant. I love nursing, I do not love pumping. But to continue doing the former, I have to do the latter when I’m away from baby. Which means every time I travel without daughter Isabel, a milk-extracting contraption powered by batteries or an AC adapter must travel with me, along with attachments and the storage bottles and ice packs necessary to keep the milk from going bad before it’s transferred home.

As the baby gets close to turning one, a milestone at which she can drink cow’s milk instead of mine, I am preparing to stop globetrotting with my constant companion — the breast pump and the milk.

What a year we’ve had together.

There was today’s close call, when I almost had to pour out the four bottles full of “liquid gold” I’d extracted from my body with the suck-simulating device I strap myself to in between conducting interviews and other reportage.

There was the time two Beijing airport guards took out the plastic suction parts — the catalog calls them ‘breastshields’ — in front of a line of people behind us, examining them like a frog they were about to dissect for 9th grade biology class.

“We’ve never seen one of these pass through before,” one of the twenty-something year old guards said to me, of the machine.

There was the other time a Chinese guard demanded I show him all the parts of the pump, how the tubes connected to the base, and to turn it on before he let it pass.

There are the questions at security about where is the baby, to which I have to explain, good god if they baby were with me I wouldn’t have this overpriced contraption instead, would I?

Then there are the hassles I brought upon myself, due to carelessness. The first time I fired up the pump in my new home of Seoul, I blew out the pump’s power pack when I plugged it into Korea’s 220V. (The device was designed for America’s 120V.) Without that I couldn’t operate it, so a friend with military ties had to rush on to the U.S. base to buy me a new machine from the commissary.

Rule of thumb: Never leave any part at home. When I forgot to pack the critical suction cups, er, ‘breastshields,’ for a five-day trip to Beijing, I spent an entire morning on an odyssey to Chinese malls instead of reporting, because I HAD TO find parts close enough to what I needed so I could express my boobs before passing out from pressure and pain.

The adventures are always made more amusing (and challenging) because there’s a clock ticking on pumping — if you don’t do it every few hours, it’s not just uncomfortable but unhealthy.

Which is why a photographer I’d just met had to see (and hear) my pumping from the backseat of a cramped rental car as we drove through Fukushima’s temporary housing projects. Or why I have to reluctantly link up with the clunky device while in the middle seat of a plane, a blanket thrown over me and hoping not to wake the dudes sleeping on both sides.

The day President Obama visited Hiroshima I had about 20 minutes before he arrived to express my breasts in a bathroom stall. The State Department and U.S. Embassy press wranglers rushed my milk to the kitchen of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum so it could be refrigerated until the event was over. When the museum restaurant with the fridge closed, the Japanese staff had expertly packed ice packs around the bottles to keep cool until I was done working. (The Japanese are serious about their packaging.)

Before I know it, this spinoff story of my Asia adventure, the one starring an awkwardly purring machine, will be over. Maybe I’ll miss it, most likely I won’t. And either way, I’ll always have a reminder of the year of pumping endlessly. It’s the wee one at home, who’s the real power source for the pumping.

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