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Inherent Risk, or What I Know About Investment

On Balancing a Career, Child, and Creative Writing

ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Ron Koeberer / Getty Images

Back in our day, our children were the center of our lives,” Mother said. “It seems like it’s so different for your generation. You just keep doing what you were doing before the baby arrived. It’s amazing to me.” 

This was the third week of the spring semester, eight months after Callie’s birth. I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, next to the baby, on the way to my office. I’d just described my upcoming spring schedule as my father drove us over the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, through the heart of the city, past the boisterous neighborhood of my single days, through the working-class residential neighborhoods I’d never visited, and onto the San Francisco State University campus. My parents were going to spend the day taking care of their grandchild. I would teach late into the evening.

After eleven years living away from California, I’d been back in the Bay Area for four years and hoped I could be there for good. That spring, I was under review for tenure and promotion. New baby or not, I needed to perform. (1) Mondays and Tuesdays that semester, I’d teach my full load of three creative-writing seminars that lasted three hours each. I would meet with students about their theses and writing projects, schedule advising meetings, wait in my office during the institutionally required office hours, attend committee meetings about college-wide paper use and office-supply rations, and sit through departmental meetings about how to manage budget cuts and curriculum changes. I’d leave for campus at 8 a.m. Monday and arrive home around 11 p.m., and I’d be back out of the house from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. Tuesday. Then, with papers to grade and classes to prep, I’d board a plane to give lectures at colleges across the country. First there would be Fort Kent, Maine; then Pittsburgh; then Cedar Rapids, Iowa; then Austin, Texas. Between cities, I’d come home, teach Monday and Tuesday, then get back on the road again. (2)

I traveled two to three times a month for these gigs. The salary I made teaching and the extra money I made as a visiting writer supported us. 

My husband, Ray, couldn’t accompany Callie and me on our trips or take long hours away from writing to watch the baby while I was teaching. When we’d met, Ray was working on the first draft of his dissertation. He’d take bits of time away from writing and teaching adjunct classes to court me, but then he’d get right back to work.

When we were dating, I made him sandwiches and stockpiled lasagnas in his freezer so he could focus. I wanted him to concentrate on completing his Ph.D., not on making lunches. Once, we took a three-day road trip to the Centrum writers’ conference in Port Townsend, Washington, where I was scheduled to teach a workshop. It was our first vacation together, his only vacation for ages, but once he dropped me off, he drove thirteen hours straight home so he could return to his dissertation. (3)

After we were married, and I was, to borrow a coinage shared with me by a transplant from the Ozarks, “with squirrel,” Ray and I decided he would stop teaching adjunct courses so he could focus on finishing the dissertation and thus be more immediately in the position to land a properly paying job. Our growing family would need two secure incomes but, for now, completing his dissertation had to be his full-time job or the years he’d already invested at the University of Chicago would be, in a substantial way, for naught.

The big worry was who would take care of our child while I worked and Ray wrote. My parents were only visiting for two more weeks. Once the semester started in earnest, we’d be on our own. Most day-care centers’ hours didn’t align with our quirky schedules. Quality nannies in the Bay Area cost between $3,000 and $4,000 a month, a salary far surpassing what Ray made as an adjunct lecturer and approaching my post-tax income. It would be prohibitively expensive to arrange around-the-clock home child care. We could no more fit a live-in nanny into our budget than we could accommodate one in our 1,200-square-foot rented apartment. 

Hiring full-time help was out of the question, but so was delaying Ray’s dissertation any longer or my working less. Until she turned two, Callie could ride on the plane with me for free, as a lap child. I hoped to nurse her through her second birthday, and my long trips away would make that logistically difficult unless I kept her with me, which was fine because I liked to have her close. Considering these factors, Ray and I decided it made economic, emotional, and developmental sense for her to come along on my visiting-writer gigs, and we established piecemeal solutions for my long Mondays and Tuesdays on campus. (4)

These gigs were a welcome opportunity, both financially and professionally. As California suffered one budget crisis after another, my salary, tied to a state-run education system, had been chipped away by furloughs and freezes. Money grew tighter just as our family grew larger. Even if the state recovered from its most recent financial woes, there might be more down the line. Not accepting invitations for speaking engagements wasn’t realistic. The influx of cash these appearances provided came like the sort of gift that a great aunt stipulates you spend on socks and healthy food. (5)

“I just can’t imagine doing all that traveling with a baby,” said Mother.

I didn’t want to imagine not doing it.

My book tour wasn’t just about the money. I’d had a baby. I was now a mother and a wife. In my mind that meant something separate, meant I’d become someone separate from the person who wrote books. In the months before Callie was born, I published the anthologies Black Nature and From the Fishouse and also my own book, Suck on the Marrow. Smith Blue—the sixth book of poetry with my name on its spine—would be published around my daughter’s first birthday. The book tour was about honoring the years I’d spent writing in solitude. Years I’d spent creating an imaginative space all my own. I didn’t want to slip into the kind of oblivion I visualized where women stopped doing the things they’d previously done because they’d had a baby. I wanted to remain the sort of woman who taught at a university, wrote books, and accepted invitations to speak about those books.

“Your generation is so different from ours,” Mother repeated as I outlined my schedule while my father drove me to my job. She wanted to know how I intended to take care of the baby while I gallivanted around the country talking about my books. And what about my long hours at the office? 

I sat in the backseat, my hand wrapped loosely around my baby’s. Holding her like that made me relax. I couldn’t store anger in my body, clench my fist, and risk hurting the baby. Relaxing was good. I didn’t want to fight.

In the last trimester of my pregnancy I’d forgiven my mother. She hadn’t actually done anything wrong. I wasn’t forgiving the flesh-and-blood woman. I was pardoning the woman I’d constructed in my mind. I was pardoning “Mother,” who questioned and cautioned and judged. As I contemplated what kind of mother I was likely to become, I realized that most of the time, when my mother asked questions and pushed against me and made me feel uncomfortable, she was voicing doubts I had also confronted. (6) My mother was just a woman. She had opinions, but they needed be no more powerful or correct than any other woman’s. I had made Mother the repository of my ideas about right and wrong. What I was irritated by was not Mother, not even her questions or the fears they conveyed, which felt unceasing, but the idea that someone would bring up questions I’d actively, and perhaps rashly, dismissed. Mother was a tedious bore, perpetually anxious about her first grandchild, but she was true and important.

I’d already done the worrying about how my travel companion would be received. At first I’d cautiously queried my hosts, but eventually I simply told people I was bringing my nursing daughter and we would need special accommodations. People sounded tickled by the idea of helping me find a locally favored sitter for the hours I was scheduled to visit classes or deliver lectures. If not tickled, at least they weren’t distressed. They promised to put me in hotels with refrigerators. They offered toys their grown children had left behind. 

When she assured me she looked forward to meeting the baby during my upcoming visit to Pittsburgh, Toi Derricotte said the early days of motherhood were made less difficult for her by a community of helpful women. (7) Saying this, she reminded me she’d been a mother and a writer as well. It’s not something about which I should have needed reminding. The first book of hers I’d ever loved was called Natural Birth. But when I thought about whom I was to become when I became a mother, I hadn’t pictured Toi. I hadn’t pictured anyone really. When I thought about whom I was to become, I mostly felt very alone.

I think of the period between learning I was pregnant and accepting my new life as a professional mother as a period when a fourth wall fell. At first I thought I was alone in a boxed-in space. I felt sure that the woman I’d worked thirty-six years to become would be pushed aside by someone else. I held off announcing the pregnancy, worried how my colleagues and mentors would take the news. But when I revealed my condition, I saw that I didn’t have to disappear into oblivion. I would join a large community that had been there all along. People I’d known for years all of a sudden became parents. In my eyes, at least, it was all of a sudden. People who were the same people they’d been moments before, people I’d known and respected, revealed alternative aspects of their lives I’d not had the privilege or inclination to see. Circumspect public figures told me intimate stories about their labor experiences. Women I knew as high-powered administrators glowed about their own pregnancies. Men I’d shared whiskey with for years manifested as fathers who were silly with their kids on Sunday mornings. People were excited to welcome me into the company of parents.

“People seem to like the idea of having a baby around,” I told Mother. “This will work. We will make this work.” (8)

On Mondays and Tuesdays, when I spent the day on my home campus, Ray would watch Callie during his less-productive morning hours. A friend who wanted to help Ray finish his dissertation and who wasn’t averse to having a bit of extra cash would watch the baby in the afternoons and evenings. Thus, we’d resolved the child-care dilemma for the meantime. 

“I think this is going to work,” I told my parents once again. I wanted them to agree with me, but Dad said nothing. He was focused on keeping us safe on the traffic-saturated freeway. The population of California more than doubles every fifty years. For every person who gives up on the state, at least two are likely to take her place, joining their vehicles with the rest of ours. 

Mother said, “It seems like you’re trying to do too much.”

“These readings are part of the life of a modern writer,” I reminded her. I felt like I had to reaffirm this. I’d had a prolific phase as a writer and editor, and lest that work sink far below the radar, I needed to get out into the world and tell people what I’d been doing. “Writers have to have a public face,” I told her.

“I suppose so,” Mother said, as she looked out the window at San Francisco’s financial district and its skyline. (9) “I guess we just stopped working while we were raising our children, or we went half-time—” 

“If you go to half-time,” I interrupted, “you might as well stop working.” I’d developed a bad habit of interrupting people around the time I went back to work. The minutes of my days were limited. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting while someone formulated a conclusion I’d anticipated, particularly if the conclusion would reveal one of my own fears. “It’s pretty hard to be a successful professional on a part-time basis,” I continued. Though I interrupted others, I wanted to be sure I was fully heard myself.

“Yes. You’re right, of course,” said Mother. 

Her own professional trajectory reflected this truth. She earned her master’s degree when I was eighteen months old but didn’t return for her Ph.D. until I went off to college. After I started the first grade, she cobbled together flexibly scheduled jobs, some related to her field of interest and some which simply allowed her to be home at a certain time to care for her children. She is representative of so many. I can count seven women writers who told me that having children cost them at least one book because of the ways they had to reorganize their lives. “I have a son I love,” said one prominent Bay Area writer, “and a rich life. But I’ll never have that book. That book is gone forever.”

 Mother ended her professional career as an associate dean at a top-tier medical school. She was no slouch, certainly, and she managed all this while also serving on PTAs and providing snacks for my Girl Scout troop when it met at our house. Part of my drive comes from a desire to emulate my mother’s success. Another part is fueled by my questions about what she might have achieved if she had begun her professional track before she was in her early fifties. (10)

The backseat of my parents’ Lexus is designed to be more comfortable than it was on that particular drive. Already my breasts were filling, though I’d fed Callie just before we climbed into the car. It was hard going to the university to teach other people’s children how to write when I would rather be home teaching my own daughter how to talk and walk and reason.

An hour or two into my time on campus I’d have to pump milk. There was very little I hated more than pumping. The Medela Pump In Style I hauled around in its sleek black backpack stopped being low profile the moment it was turned on. Then, it sounded like heavy machinery. With the clear plastic cones—“flanges”—cupped over my breasts pulling meager amounts of milk up a tube and into a storage container, I felt like a nameless character in a science-fiction movie where things end badly for the women.

After harvesting sufficient milk, I would stand in front of a lecture hall and talk about the historical context of a mid-twentieth-century poem about a busload of people gawking at a moose and wonder if I’d remembered to insert a pad into my bra in case I started leaking. Elizabeth Bishop, author of “The Moose,” had no children. I don’t know if this is important to her poetry. Anne Bradstreet, whose work I also teach, did have children, and they provided her with the experience she needed to write one of her most famous poems, “The Author to Her Book.” But after Phillis Wheatley married and bore three babies, two of whom died in infancy, her days as a poet of record were done.

While I lectured on the precarious position of women poets in America, I worried that Callie would be crying because she disliked drinking from a bottle. 

Two weeks before, the first time I left her with my parents for the long Monday shift had not gone particularly well. I had given them plenty of diapers, toys, extra clothes and blankets, several bottles of pumped milk, pureed peas, and rice cereal. I had even given them some of the unopened formula samples that arrived in our mailbox within ten days of Callie’s birth.Formula companies obtain birth records from hospitals or the county, and they use these to identify the addresses of new parents. When samples started arriving, I wondered what it must be like to suffer a stillbirth or a sudden infant death and receive formula, unbidden, in the mail.

I tried not to feel guilty about leaving Callie. Instead, I kept myself busy meeting with colleagues and teaching and pumping and meeting with students about their courses of study and grading and pumping and teaching and advising graduate students on the poems that they found time, amid their own hectic schedules, to write.

When I’d finally driven across the Bay Bridge after that first day back to work, I kept busy listening to some of the Freakonomics podcasts I didn’t get to listen to when a baby who wanted soothing music was strapped into a car seat in the back of my little red car.Focused on driving on a busy freeway at night and listening to Stephen Dubner talk about grown-up ideas, I could stop fretting over the things that typically occupied my mind. I wasn’t thinking about whether or not Callie was breathing, whether or not Ray would get a job, whether or not I would lose my belly fat, whether or not Callie was sleeping, whether or not I would get any sleep that night myself. My thoughts did not skip around as they so often had. My attention was focused on thinking about how amazing it was that the Chinese taste for chicken feet meant Perdue Farms could ship billions of chicken feet across the ocean, thus preventing an enormous amount of animal by-product from entering the US waste stream. I actually felt good when I walked through the door of my parents’ vacation condo. (11) I felt a bit like my old self would feel if my old self had engorged breasts.

“You didn’t leave us with enough milk,” Mother snapped the moment I walked in.

This was not what I wanted to hear upon seeing my daughter for the first time in more than twelve hours. 

“She didn’t want her food, and she drank through all her milk almost immediately,” Mother said. 

“What about the milk I put in the freezer?”

“She drank it all.”

“I thought I’d left enough.” I tried to say this calmly. “She’s never gone through that much milk before. Did you try the formula?”

“She wouldn’t touch the formula,” Mother scolded, “and refused cereal. You’ll need to bring more milk. She was hungry all day. Couldn’t be consoled.” (12)

I took the baby from her grandmother’s arms and sat in a quiet place to try to calm her. I was trying to be a good mother.

I let Callie nurse for longer than usual. Eventually, she stopped crying. She’d suckled to her heart’s content. (13)

Once she settled down, I reached into the travel cooler I’d lugged to campus and extracted the six ounces I’d pumped. This little bit I’d leave for the next day. We’d augment the short supply with the stock I kept in our freezer. 

When I first started pumping, I was alarmed. I’d pumped for thirty minutes. How could I feed my baby with just that little bit of milk? I called a friend who had pumped and nursed her sons to their second birthdays. “I don’t have enough milk!” I cried into the phone.

“It comes slowly sometimes,” she assured me.

“But in the videos … ”

“Ugh, those videos,” she interrupted. “You were expecting to be like a cow or something, right?Just shooting milk into a pail?”

“I think so, yes.”

She took a deep breath. “It’s not like that for most of us. Milk can come slowly, but you’ll make enough, don’t worry. Remember, babies’ bellies are small. They don’t need as much as you or I would need.” (14) She paused briefly. “And don’t listen when they say you need to throw away the bottle if the baby hasn’t finished the whole thing. You put that bottle right back into the refrigerator.” A deep exhalation, and she was finished on the subject.

When I went back to work the next day, I knew that my parents would have to give Callie whatever fresh and frozen milk I had. I knew this possibly would not be enough. I’d have to build up a much larger store. I sat in their vacation condo after my first long day of work and thought, I can’t keep my baby fed.  (15)

Thirty minutes later, as I was packing our gear for the drive home, Callie cried for milk again. I put everything down and prepared to nurse. 

“That’s why you don’t have enough milk,” Mother scolded. “You’re always feeding her.”

What Mother said didn’t make sense, but the truth of the contradictory accusation was not lost on me. One of the discomforts of parenthood is that people can come at you with several contradictory statements, and you must acknowledge the truth in the lot. Callie was fussy all day because she was accustomed to being nursed on demand, and because I allowed her to nurse on demand I didn’t have much milk when I tried to pump. She didn’t love the bottle and was skeptical of food, and for the first seven months of her life I was on hand most anytime she required me. When I first went back to work, I developed a complicated system that allowed me to be with her as much as possible, so there was no need for her to grow accustomed to the bottle or demand alternative foods. Because she hadn’t grown accustomed to either one, she had to nurse all the time and I had trouble pumping. What I’d pumped in the past had always been more than sufficient because I usually returned to her within five hours. She hadn’t had to go without fresh milk very long. Now that my life had returned to the sort of schedule I wanted and needed, and that I believed would be the best for my daughter, Callie and I both had to adjust. That would not be easy. (16)

Twice already, I’d driven short distances for campus speaking engagements and left Callie with her grandparents for eight hours. On both occasions, women in the departments I visited lent me their offices, where I set up my Medela Pump In Style, which loudly whirred and sucked away. 

On the first such trip, my host, a women I knew from my single days, sat in the office with me and gossiped about people we knew in common. After my pumping session during the next visit, the professor in the adjacent office came into the hall to tell me she remembered how, during her own pumping days, the woman who occupied the office in which I’d pumped used to knock on the wall and yell, “Moo. Moo.” This was meant to make me feel better about pumping milk for a child I’d left behind. This was meant to remind me I was a woman, not just a mom. This was meant to remind me I wasn’t alone.

“You have a nice time with your granddaughter today,” I told my parents as their Lexus approached the campus. I was tired already from the difficult commute, and the workday had not yet begun.

Much of what I thought would make me tired had become par for the course by the time the new semester started. Callie had been sleeping more successfully through the night since her six-month birthday. Rather than take this gift of time to get some rest myself, in order to build a stockpile of milk, I had been staying up to pump in the half hour at midnight when the baby used to wake for a feeding. These were hours of sleep I’d not experienced for months, and so they did not seem to have been stolen from me. Their loss had already been accounted for.

I was the kind of pregnant woman who read book after book as I tried to understand what was happening to my body and the body of the baby inside me. When I read books about pregnancy I learned not to read more than two months ahead. If I started reading the labor-and-delivery chapter in my first trimester, everything sounded terrifying, unreal, and impossible. Once I was thirty-four weeks pregnant, and the ligaments in my pelvis loosened alarmingly to allow room for a person who would only continue to grow, it was a relief to read two chapters ahead and learn that I’d have to go through a bit of pain and gore but at the end of this process (which I read about, then, with keen interest), I’d have a person and, with proper exercise and lots of nursing, I’d get some approximation of my old body back. 

In the first weeks after Callie was born, I’d wake in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. I slept on a towel, my body had so much excess water to shed. This was normal. Case histories in the pregnancy and parenthood books warned me about hormonal fluctuations that caused night sweats. 

What I hadn’t accounted for were my night terrors. (17)

The books warned me that the flood of hormones related to pregnancy and birth, coupled with the sleep deprivation and emotional sensitivity triggered by caring for a helpless person, might make me particularly sensitive. But as every woman’s emotional sensitivity is unique, unlike the relative similarity of the final stages of a baby’s route out of a woman’s body, there could be no textbook illustrations. The books could prepare me for the fact that I would react to the world differently than I might have reacted before, but only experience would teach me the ways these differences would manifest. 

It was this generally experienced and yet incredibly personal psychological discomfort that kept me up at night. 

There was so much at stake now that the fourth wall had fallen. 

I was connected to more people—had a bigger family. I was exposed to a much larger network of success and failure. 

I worried about the safety of those I loved. I worried about tsunamis, debt, car accidents, brown recluse spiders, who would care for my baby, and how we were going to survive. 

I worried about the 20 percent of children in Alameda County—our home—who experienced food insecurity in 2011. (18) I saw these children around me all the time. I knew some of their names. If I could put a face to suffering, I would call that suffering face into my dreams.

My father idled beside the humanities building, where I would spend another workday. Bordered by native plants and accessible pathways, the building rose above the campus surrounding it. I kissed Callie’s forehead, trying to breathe in the pleasure of our last moments together, but her attention was drawn by my office building’s glinting windows.

“Goodbye,” I told my family, “and good luck.” 

As they pulled away, I remembered ascending the escalator at the Montgomery BART station during a trip into San Francisco. This was Tuesday, October 26, 2010. Callie was nearly five months old. Her whole body arched toward the long reach of sky. She was harnessed to me as I bore her along, her six-inch trunk pressed between my breasts. She was arching away from my body so she could follow the trajectory of the skyscrapers all the way to the place where their antennae tried to scrape the Northern California sun. We were on the way to City Lights Bookstore where I was due to give a poetry reading, but she didn’t care about that. She wedged her arms and legs against my belly for support as she bent back, back, and farther back, mouth open in what looked like hunger. I’d been wearing her this close to my body all her life, and I’d never felt her exert a will like this before. I hadn’t felt her work so hard to push away from me. Callie was looking at the tallest buildings she had ever seen, and she needed her whole self for this looking.

When he built the Palace Hotel in 1875 at the corner of Market and New Montgomery, William C. Ralston, cofounder of the Bank of California, insured his San Francisco marvel against destruction. He constructed the seven-story Palace of marble, brick, cement, and stone with walls twelve-feet thick at the foundation, the rigging a crisscross of iron. Hoarding 760,000 gallons of water, rooftop tanks and underground reservoirs protected the hotel. The building fared well through the 1906 earthquake. But because its water reserves were depleted in an attempt to spare neighboring buildings in the subsequent fire, the Palace could not save itself.

(2) HOME
The Peralta Land Grant, the Rancho San Antonio, once constituted approximately 112 square miles and encompassed what would become the cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, and San Leandro—a stretch of land my family now called home. Given to Don Luis Maria Peralta in recognition of his forty years of service to the Crown of Spain, the estate was worth more than $1 million when Peralta died in 1851. Don Luis and his sons could ride out and map their territory every day for a year and still not cover all of it.

Most of the time I forget that all this land once belonged to a single family: the Peraltas. In 1847, there weren’t more than 160,000 people in all of the California territory. On Rancho San Antonio, there were as many as 8,000 head of cattle, 2,000 horses, sixteen houses, and a wharf. The Peraltas commanded hoards of conscripted Native-American laborers, and Spanish laborers, too. Peralta told the four sons who would inherit his estate, “This land is our gold.” In the summer, after the rains had passed and the grasses on the hills that ringed the ranchero returned to dormancy, everywhere the brothers looked they must have seen this gold. But by the 1970s, a hundred years after the death of the last son, even the house he died in had been subdivided into low-rent apartments, some of them surely occupied by newcomers to the state.

The sturdy base that supported San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid through the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake was built on the site of the old Montgomery Block, a massive brick building constructed in 1853 over the buried debris that helped to make a bay into a port, and a port into a landfill, and a landfill into a market center and then an artists’ enclave and finally the financial center of one of the largest cities in the modern West.

A. P. Giannini, whose Genoese father had found fortune in the gold fields of California and who, himself, had made his first fortune selling wholesale produce, opened the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. After the 1906 earthquake, Giannini supported the redevelopment of the city with assets kept secure in the bank’s safes. He loaned money to working-class immigrants from ethnic communities throughout the state, ignoring the contemporary convention of localized banking. In 1928, he formed a holding company for his bank’s many branches. This he called the Transamerica Corporation, and from this he formed Bank of America in 1930.

The Montgomery Block, the largest office building in the West at the time of its construction, was San Francisco’s safest building in its day. Many structures erected then were made of wood, sometimes with oil-soaked canvas for walls and tar paper for roofs. They were tinderboxes and frequently held stores of combustibles like ammunition and whiskey. But the Montgomery Block was brick. Not only did the building withstand the 1906 earthquake, it served as a fire block against the quake-incited fire, which was, in fact, more culpable for destroying the city.

When Joseph Strauss developed a daring design to bridge the channel between San Francisco and Marin, he could find no substantial financial backers. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, established by Congress during Herbert Hoover’s presidency, might have otherwise supported the project, but it had already overcommitted by promising more than $60 million toward the construction of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Convinced of the economic viability and necessity of a bridge connecting the city to the North Bay, in 1932 Giannini’s Bank of America accepted the risk of bonds for the bridge’s completion. This $6 million investment emboldened others; soon, Strauss had $35 million for constructing the Golden Gate Bridge. Though the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge cost more, is longer, required greater feats of engineering, includes what was then the world’s largest tunnel, accommodates the first (or final) miles of the transcontinental artery I-80, demanded one of the heaviest and longest cantilevers of all time, and was completed six months sooner, Strauss’s bridge immediately and seemingly permanently became the more highly revered of the San Francisco Bay’s spans.

(8) WORK
According to the Los Angeles Times, the unemployment rate in Alameda County, where we lived, was 11 percent in January 2011 when Callie was an infant. One of the paradoxes of California is that, though it has been perceived as a land of opportunity since its fast-tracked introduction to statehood, the big booms that make the state so attractive mean that the busts hit more people in more severe ways. Waves of economic insolvency overlap with every major economic upswing the state has seen. In California, someone is always down on his luck.

What the great quake and fire of the early twentieth century could not destroy, urban renewal at the midcentury did. Just like the ships that brought the first flood of nineteenth-century immigrants to the bay, the Montgomery Block, once home to Jack London, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emma Goldman, Bret Harte, and Ambrose Bierce, is now but a memory under the footprint of the Transamerica building, the world’s tallest pyramid.

When the Transamerica building was first proposed at 1,000 feet tall, many tenants of buildings around the old Montgomery Block protested. They didn’t want to be cut off from the Bay’s legendary light. The tapered sides of the pyramid are an elegant accommodation, a way to allow the building to stand taller than any other, but with a slight shadow. I think about that sometimes as I construct myself as a mother. I want to be as big as I can be, but I aim to cast a lighter shadow on my daughter than the shadows I have known.

At 853 feet, the Transamerica Pyramid is the tallest building in Northern California. When it was completed, in 1972 (the year I was born), it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, designed to be a grand representation of a bold and influential world city. The scuttled ships and crisscrossed logs that stretched the city for blocks beyond the natural waterline were exposed again as the building’s base was established. The pyramid would look taller if it weren’t built on some of the city’s most sunken ground.

In the first months of 1848, James Marshall found gold flakes while building a sawmill on John Sutter’s land along the American River. Within two years, the California territory became a state, as the population grew by more than 100,000 fortune seekers. It was in response to this rush that the elder Peralta reminded his sons that the source of their wealth was their land, warning them away from fickle gold mines.

For the Peraltas, mapping meant describing a boundary in relation to particular landmarks. They would indicate how many acres lay between the two tallest redwood trees in the foothills and their hacienda in the fertile valley, triangulating those references against the estuarial lake, now called Lake Merritt, formed by creeks in their rush toward the bay. The creeks and their courses were mapped, too. Highlands and valleys, fertile land and natural irrigation, existing labor sources, and a long growing season: The Peralta land held endless potential.

During the gold rush, many of the wealthiest new Californians made their money by selling goods to the miners, not by mining for the precious metal. Think of the Hills brothers selling canned coffee. Levi Strauss selling sturdy denim trousers. Think of Mr. Studebaker, who made his first fortune selling wheelbarrows to prospectors. Think of Henry Wells and William Fargo, who had the foresight to set up banking operations in San Francisco. Then there were the americanos who made their fortune selling land. Land like the Peralta land. Land like John Sutter’s. Think of the Rancho San Antonio’s first squatter, Moses Chase. Chase is known now as the founder of the town of Clinton, which would eventually become part of Oakland but was originally a plot of usurped Peralta land.

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John Sutter’s property was trashed by the onslaught of gold seekers. Deeply in debt, he handed over the deed to his son, who had big plans. The transaction brought Sutter no great wealth. He returned to Pennsylvania a bitter man, frustrated that the city built on his former property was known as Sacramento, not something more like Suttersville.

The courts recognized the deed that Sutter gave his son. Not so for the Peraltas. Squatters destroyed and usurped and leased and then sold and deforested and developed the Peralta land. The Peralta brothers took their case to the Lands Commission and had their first verdict in 1854, but they appeared again in the US District Court in 1855. The case for their land went to the US Supreme Court in 1857. It wasn’t until 1877 that Peralta heirs received a patent for their land from the US government. Two years later, the last son died in a house on land the Spanish once granted his family. His people called the place Rancho San Antonio, but now folks call the area Fruitvale because an out-of-state settler planted orchards on his new property.

The mode of mapping used by Californios like the Peraltas was as foreign to the newly arrived americanos as their language. What good does a map of landmarks do if those landmarks are irrevocably changed? Cut down trees and blast a boulder, reroute a creek with sludge from mining runoff, and tear down a house. Now there are no landmarks left to prove a claim.

In the late twentieth century, a woman saw a picture of the subdivided house where she’d grown up and also a picture of the Peralta Hacienda and she realized they were one and the same. She spearheaded a renovation project, and now the Peralta Hacienda is a historic site. I passed the sign for the landmark every time I took the Fruitvale Avenue exit off I-580 on my way home, but I had no idea what it referred to until one day, when Callie still cried constantly unless she was moving, I strapped her into the stroller and walked until I found the place, which is how I started to know some of the things I’ve written here.



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