Friday, November 21, 2008

Sex and Birth: Fundraising with Astroglide

The idea that a fundraiser for a birthing center would be held in New York's infamous Toys in Babeland sex boutique actually makes perfect sense.

Consider the simple fact that you can't have one without the other* and that Toys in Babeland owners are ardent supporters of women's right to choose - in EVERY respect; the union makes even more sense.

Tuesday night's fundraiser, held in the store's Soho location on Mercer Street, was about announcing the launch of the New Space for Women's Health. Since Elizabeth Seton Childbearing Center closed its doors in 2003 there has been no free-standing birth center in Manhattan. This has been the mission behind the New Space, providing women with an alternative to a standard hospital birth. New Space is eagerly supported by women all over the tri-state area who are fans of birth alternatives.

This includes last night's guest stars and New Space committee members, Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake. The two collaborated on last year's controversial documentary, "The Business of Being Born" which focuses on home births in contrast to hospital-style medical births. As you might imagine, the film kicked up quite a storm, not just for the very poignant scene starring Ms. Lake birthing her second son in her own bathtub, but also for its argument that birthing at home is safe and preferable, in many cases.

Rebecca Benghiat, New Space's Exec Director, spoke eloquently about the need for providing women with empowering choices. Toys in Babeland co-owner, Claire Cavanah, spoke about her own disappointment with her C-section (due to a breech presentation) and her recognition that birth, for many women, is a rite of passage and profound event. She joked that you could substitute "sex" for "birth" in both their speeches and you'd get the same exact message: women taking authority over their bodies.

Most amusing to me were the faces of the few men in the room. This was an event packed with beautiful, vibrant women AND the hugest array of dildos, vibrators, strap-ons, and lubricants you could ever imagine. Even the wait-staff, passing delicious hors d'oeuvres, had to keep their eyes averted from the plethora of silicon phalluses.

Walking around meeting other women was thoroughly enjoyable and completely effortless; we all shared a similar bond and interest. I never realized before how women who are passionate about birth are equally passionate about sex in a similar way. The freedom to birth under your own terms, unencumbered by restrictions imposed upon you by faceless hospital bureaucracy is not that far from embracing your sexual prowess and nature. The women in that room were the same ones who take responsibility for their own orgasm as readily as they take on breastfeeding in public. The same strength that leads you into this sex shop to pick up a "Vix-skin" life-like dildo also allows you to nurse on the MTA (more or less).

Incidentally, I did receive a pocket vibrator in my gift bag along with an ergonomically designed sippy cup! Thereby proving my point: Sex and Birth - not so unseemly on the same page, after all.

* OKAY, excluding IVF

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hot property: A former firehouse in Jersey City

by Jennifer Weiss/The Star-Ledger
Wednesday February 20, 2008, 3:16 PM

Freeman furnished this room on the home's first floor with a sofa and chair she picked up at a local Salvation Army. At her Sweet 16 bash in December, a mammoth room on Jayne Freeman's first floor was transformed into a dance hall. Two local DJs provided the beats. A disco ball, rigged up to a ceiling fan, tossed lights onto stone floors, white tin walls and the revelers in between.

The party spilled into an adjoining room, the garage where Freeman normally keeps her orange Honda. More than a century ago, when the building was a firehouse, this is where they kept the horse-drawn steam engine.

It was unusual for Freeman to host a big party in the firehouse (that's what she calls her place: the firehouse). Normally, she has people over in smaller numbers. One night, she'll have friends and their children over for dinner; the next, she'll host a play date for her daughters, who are 5 and 7.

Freeman wasn't turning 16, by the way. The theme was just for fun. The party was a chance for her to celebrate her birthday and share the firehouse, her home of almost two years, with friends and people from her neighborhood in Jersey City. If it's possible to fall for a building, Freeman has.

"It's the energy of this place that I love," Freeman says. "I love its history, its aesthetic, its location. It's just truly beautiful. Sometimes, I feel like I'm living in Versailles."
Freeman, a single mom, is the host of "Mamarama," a public-access TV show on parenting. She has been living in the firehouse as a caretaker; Andrea and Russell Read of Brooks, Maine, are its owners.

Freeman in the doorway of the firehouse.The Reads lived in the firehouse for nearly a decade, moving in with their two children in 1997. A third child, Jack, was born later.

The firehouse already had been converted to a home by the time the Reads looked at it. After their first tour, "We just knew that at least we had to try to get it," Andrea says. She and her husband had made an offer on a brownstone in town, but changed their minds and bought the firehouse, paying about $320,000.

The alcove she and her daughters use as a reading nook."When we actually got it, I remember thinking for several weeks that I was just dreaming, that I didn't actually get to live in a place like that, because I'd never lived in a place that was so unusual," says Andrea, who grew up on a farm in Iberia, a tiny village in Ohio. "It was great for us."

The building comes with lovely historic details, including antique sconces, bedroom doors that say "Office of the Battalion Chief" and "Captain" and an original cast-iron spiral staircase that links the first and second floors (no fire pole, though -- that was taken out before the Reads moved in). Ira Rubin, archivist for the Jersey City Fire Department, says local historic firehouses have spiral staircases because they take up less space than vertical staircases and couldn't be accessed by horses. In the years in which the department relied on them, horses were boarded in a space at the back of the house.

The Freeman's eat-in kitchen.Rubin estimates that the Reads' firehouse was built within two years of 1855. Back then, it was the home of Jackson Engine Company 5; it became the quarters of Engine Company 3 in 1871, after the fire department reorganized. Engine Company 3 closed in 1961. The building became a residence in 1981, according to the Jersey City Tax Assessor's Office.

When they moved in, the Reads put in a new kitchen and redid the children's bedrooms. There were no closets in the master bedroom, so they added a row of new closets from Ikea.
Andrea says it took a while to figure out how to arrange furniture in a way that made sense -- the house has only three rooms with doors, not counting the bathrooms. The rest of it is wide open. She and her husband added a Steinway grand piano and a kitchen island to the large, open space on the second floor, which helped to define a living room and kitchen. They used storage pieces to make up for a lack of closets.

Freeman stands outside on the terrace that connects to the master bedroom. The glass structure is a skylight.The firehouse's open layout encouraged the Reads to entertain. "It always felt like a really big community sort of place, so it ended up functioning that way," Andrea says. "There were a lot of big, impromptu social gatherings with our friends and family. It kind of lends itself to that."

When the Reads moved out, they put the house on the market for $2 million, according to Andrea, and eventually lowered the asking price to $1.8 million. The offers that came in seemed low, Andrea says. So, they decided to hold onto the firehouse.

One of the home's bathrooms.Enter Freeman, who met Russell at the Garden Preschool Cooperative, their children's school. Both served on the board. Freeman was looking for a new place to live, and the Reads agreed she could stay in the firehouse and look after it for them.
When they moved their furniture out, Freeman made some changes that suited her decorating style. She added a thrift store couch and chair on the first floor and bought a new bed. She brought in a secondhand kitchen table and chairs, a set she now feels looks too "modern" for the space.

On the whole, Freeman resisted filling the firehouse with stuff. "I was kind of devastated when (Andrea) moved her stuff out," she admits. "Then I embraced the zen emptiness of the space."
JERRY MCCREA/THE STAR-LEDGERAmong Freeman's favorite parts of the firehouse are the second-floor alcove (a good place to play, read and take naps), the large, TV-free living room on the second floor (a good place to hula hoop, do gymnastics and dance) and the terrace (in the summer, a good place to barbecue and enjoy the "explosion of petunias" she plants.)

She says the framework of the place is so tied to its history "that it sort of permeates everything, in a way. I never forget that this place was a firehouse originally."

The Reads, whose new home is a 250-acre farm in Maine, are the founders of Newforest Institute, a nonprofit that works to foster relationships between people and the land on which they live. Andrea, the organization's executive director, hopes to open a branch of Newforest in Jersey City and have the firehouse serve as both its office and a community gathering space.

The master bedroom.Freeman knows she'll have to move out of the firehouse at some point, and that makes life there bittersweet. She's not sure how her next home will compare.

"Where will I go from here?" Freeman says. "How will I ever top this?"

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Accidental Roommate

You know folks, living in this fabulous firehouse has its benefits and certainly has had its odd inconveniences as well. Not that I'm complaining. I love it here and wouldn't trade it for any other place in the greater New York area - however, every once in a while I get thrown a curve ball.

In May of this year, I received a convoluted message that a Harvard student was coming to stay in the firehouse for the summer. Just like that. Plus, I heard this info second-hand so I couldn't ask any questions. All else I could learn was that she was "doing an internship at a TV station in Jersey City."

That sounded rather odd to me, as I didn't think there was an actual TV station in JC, but I put the idea out of my head and hoped it wouldn't come to fruition.

A few weeks later I got a phone call from a very upbeat and earnest-sounding young woman. She said that she was coming to intern at none other than WMFU which is widely regarded as the best freeform radio station in the US, and that her boss would be, coincidentally, an old friend of mine. I had been a supporter of this non-commercial radio station for years and knew it very well - so that was our first common denominator. Though when she announced that she was arriving the next day, I was taken aback. I needed to give up my bedroom to her but I still hadn't moved-in my new deluxe bed from my former house. I didn't feel at all prepared for her arrival, yet there was no stopping it; she started work the following Monday, ready or not.

When Nayeli arrived at my door the next day, I impulsively hugged her - somehow knowing we'd be fast friends. She looked almost like a younger version of me and she was already wearing a cute outfit that I might just need to borrow.

We gabbed the whole day together; about the radio station, the many bands we both liked, about how she would be happy to babysit for my girls (YAY!) and then discovered that the one student I happened to know at Harvard was one of her very best friends. The coincidences were piling up.

In just a few days I went from being irked at the arrival of an "intruder" in my palace to loving the notion of having a roommate or housemate, more appropriately. The firehouse is so big that we never got in each other's way. She had the Battalion Chief's room and her own bathroom with the killer showerhead. I had the master bedroom (which I swiftly moved my bed into) and access to the terrace. I was sort of the Queen Bee, and she...the Battalion Chieftess.

The weeks went by and summer was fully upon us. We entertained almost nightly blasting music in our spacious empty living room and re-discovered New Order; we danced to new Avril Lavigne with my girls, and we got into a brilliant Jersey City Ramones-style trio called The Impulse. Totally on impulse I decided to invite the band to play in our garage one night in July. Afterall, the firehouse garage is enormous, and the band was enthralled by the idea; they said YES immediately.

We made the gig time early hoping that the neighbors wouldn't complain--at 7:00 pm, it was practically an early-bird special. I purchased a few cases of beer and transported them home in a baby carriage, which was somehow fitting. Nayeli invited some of her friends and I invited lots of parents and their kids. With the garage door open all the neighborhood passers-by could get an earful as well.

By 7:15 The Impulse was warming up and already creating quite a racket. What I hadn't considered was that the pressed tin that decorates the walls and ceiling of the garage would create an acoustical terror-dome. One reveler told me that she first heard the music upon exiting the PATH train; that was three blocks away. I was getting kind of nervous about the noise, plus there were a few too many kids running free-range in the house.

Suddenly, a neighbor-- an uninvited neighbor -- came into the house looking rather grim. He informed me that someone had called the firehouse owner in California and said that there was a huge party going on in his home with a live raucous band! The owner called this guy and he relayed the message to me.

I almost passed-out with dread. How could I jeopardize the sanctity of this wonderful home with a boozy neo-punk rock band? What on earth was I thinking? I quickly phoned the owner and explained that reports were wildly exaggerated; I reminded him that it was only 7:30 here on the East Coast. He was a great sport about it, however, he did suggest that I close the garage door as not to create any further complaint.

Doing that was a huge buzz-kill. It was now about 900 degrees in the garage and if you thought the sound was ear-splitting before, now it was positively tooth-loosening. In the end, I pressed the red "open" button and raised the garage door; the band played on in fresh air and evening light. Forget the neighbors; this was a pure punk moment.

And so it became the defining moment of the summer. Nayeli and I had created our own little scene which, for better or worse, became a much-talked about event in downtown JC. If we didn't set our status as rockstars per se, we solidified our rep as Rock-the-Firehouse concert promoters.

Throughout the summer, we fell into our groove and got along perfectly, with nary a cross word expressed. Nayeli also had to endure my vicious diabetic cat, Kaos. Whenever I would go away for a weekend it became her task to give Kaos his shots as he is profoundly diabetic. He is also kind of old and ornery so he enjoyed taking swipes at Nayeli's ankles, and more than once sunk his teeth into her calves. She was always good-natured about it, but had no problem conveying her lack of love toward this kitty.

Occasionally, I had to step out of my "I'm a teenager too" role and sometimes be a "mom". I'll admit that I would get annoyed at Nayeli for drinking the last of my milk, or for forgetting to take out the trash; or sometimes, more protectively, I'd find myself saying things like, "You cannot wear that on the subway."

Usually, I just pushed the age distance out of the way, and kind of felt my own inner-teenager come through. There was a day, when Nayeli's friends and I just hung around on the terrace, playing music and basking in the sun. We intended to go out and do stuff, but truthfully we were enjoying being slothful. We pretended that we were staying at a fancy hotel in the South of France. We drank fresh lemonades with garden mint, read trashy magazines, then deconstructed the decline of Britney Spears, and why it's prudent not to put Coke in baby bottles.

Around that time, she and her friend, Mischa, also from Harvard, decided that they would try their luck at being go-go dancers. Nayeli had been invited by a bar-owner in Brooklyn to test out her routine the next time a band played the back room (nevermind her being underage, of course).

The night of the event, she and Mischa donned ridiculous spandex get-ups, matching in fuchsia with wide stretchy belts, and worked their groovy magic. It didn't hurt that Nayeli borrowed the coolest boots I own: platform, skin-tight, and sort of plasticy. I, now in full parental mode, drove the girls to the venue and hung-out while they tested out their synchronized moves. Somehow (despite the micro-skirts) they avoided being overtly slutty-looking, and were actually quite entertaining and fun.

That night, a huge success monetarily (because who can resist tipping gals in spandex), made them both decide to take up careers, whilst at Harvard, being professional go-go dancers for parties and bars. I applauded this entrepreneurial endeavor as it certainly beats slinging burgers.

And so, just like summer's last pink rays, the internship ended and it was time for Nayeli to leave the beloved firehouse and head back to school. By then I had grown so accustomed to her that I tried to convince her to transfer to Columbia instead and stay in New York. That was not going to happen, but we both knew that we had created a magical summer experience; much better than either of us had imagined.

Again, I thought of how I resisted the idea of an "intruder" to my domain and in the end was all teary-eyed upon saying good-bye. I shall include my favorite photo of Nayeli from this summer, where she is wearing all my clothes including a JonBenet t-shirt I had created in the 90s. She calls this her "Clueless" look and, by the way, there are my plasticy boots in full badass glory.