Seven Years and Nine Months

From Ireland’s RTE Radio, here’s a new documentary about an Irish couple, Rachel and Daniel, who struggled with infertility for years before finally having a baby via a surrogate in Boston. It’s an honest look at what brought this couple to surrogacy, and an absorbing record of the twists and turns on their road to finally having a baby.

Seven Years and Nine Months

I’m proud to have played a small part in this project: I conducted the interviews with Rachel and Daniel, as well as with their surrogate, Carolyn, when they came to Boston in 2014 for their baby’s ultrasound, and I also interviewed them when they came back for the birth. Surrogacy is a complicated process – legally, emotionally and medically – and I think that Rachel and Daniel’s story helps give a human face to an issue that is too often over-simplified and poorly explained. Well done to RTE, and to producers Mary Elaine Tynan and Nicoline Greer.


Cows lazy in the grass, tonguing their shoulders like huge cats in the front garden

Today I was looking at the manuscript of a novel that I wrote more than twenty-five years ago. I started writing it when I was still in college, and I did eventually finish it – but I never tried to publish it.

I hadn’t looked at the novel for many years until today. While I never thought that the finished draft was good enough to want to publish it, there are sections of it that I think read quite well. Here is a short excerpt from near the beginning of the novel, which is set in Ireland. I kind of hope that it makes you want to know what happens next – although, paradoxically, I don’t think that I would let anyone read the novel in its current form!


June, 1981. It is a Saturday, and she is going to a wedding. The train chants rhythmically away from Dublin, then clouds gather and a sudden spattering of rain can be heard above the noise. Diagonal lines of water move slowly across the window pane, then the sky clears again and the sun emerges to penetrate the glass, making the young woman inside the airless train uncomfortably hot.

The countryside is generic midlands country: flat green fields, slight hills, untrimmed hedgerows dotted with white and yellow wildflowers. As the train turns south, the land becomes more interesting: hillier, the mountains look like great dark mossy stones, smoothed by thousands of years in some secret stream bed. On closer inspection, however, they are really covered with grass and rocks and scrubby brush, weedy ravines cutting across their faces like the lines of some abstract sculpture. Over the broken dry-stone walls which divide the fields, she occasionally catches a glimpse of cows lazy in the grass, couched on the ground and tonguing their shoulders like huge cats in the front garden. The sun disappears again behind low clouds.

She’s been invited to a cousin’s wedding. She will miss the ceremony, but is planning to arrive in plenty of time for the four o’ clock reception. Her black dress is being wrinkled from sitting on a train for five hours, but the alternative would have been to crush it in the maroon rucksack which is shoved onto the rack above her head. The pack is full of supplies for three or four weeks of touring the country: shampoo, t-shirts, socks, an umbrella, books. Essentials. She will arrive in town at ten past three, and her uncle will meet her and take her to the hotel, the sherry reception with tea and sandwiches which will be served to the accompaniment of traditional music played on piano accordions by middle-aged men who look like dentists and insurance agents.

“22 – 11 – 98”

I was looking through some old documents on my computer today (December 2, 2014), and came across a little snippet I had written in 1998, when I was living in the Isle of Skye. I liked it, and thought I would try posting it here. I’m not sure about posting this sort of thing publicly, but maybe other people will like it, too. Here it is:


Skye, Sunday afternoon. I stare at the keyboard looking for inspiration, but all I see is:

Esc F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 F6 F7 F8 F9 F10 F11

Not that there aren’t a million unthought thoughts swirling around inside of me, and a million faceless faces which I sometimes see in the moment just before I sleep. And not that there aren’t a dozen mountain peaks just outside my window, and the constant changing sea and light, which fill me with longing and more unthought thoughts and the beginnings of many unfinished poems and pieces of writing.

There is music even in these musings, but not much sense or meaning. I feel empty, and I do not know if it is because I am really too full to say anything, or if I actually have nothing at all to say.

I know that I cannot write anything in this state, that nothing good, moving or true will come of it. But sometimes it helps to try. Sometimes the effort is part of the clearing out process, the underwater movement which eventually results in a great unsuspected creature arising from the deep.

A typical view from where I lived in Skye

A typical view from where I lived in Skye – photo copyright Carol Zall

December 26, 2013 – “I think this is it” – A somewhat unsentimental view of dating from my late Grandmother

I haven’t posted much about my efforts to digitize my collection of old family recordings since last year, but today I was inspired to upload some more old tape.

I interviewed my grandmother, Florence, in 1997, when she was 82. It was just one of a series of interviews I’d done with her from time to time, trying to learn about our family history.
In this short excerpt, she tells me about the night she and my grandfather met, and about how he proposed to her.

I like my grandmother’s matter-of-fact approach to dating. When I asked her if she knew that he was the man she was going to marry, she said “I mean, I thought he was nice, and if he called me up, okay, I wouldn’t — you don’t know the first night”. She also couldn’t remember the movie they went to on their first date.

When it came time to propose, my grandfather was equally romantic. They were sitting in the kitchen of my grandmother’s house (her parents’ house, that is), drinking coffee, and he said, “I think this is it”. Meaning, this is something permanent. And so they go married.

“I think this is it” — actually, when you think about it, it is kind of romantic.

December 28, 2012 – More ridiculous blasts from the past


I’m continuing to digitize my old cassettes. Today’s was a doozy.

Remember all those hours you spent as a child, playing in your room alone? Just making up stories, playing with your toys (or your cat or dog), maybe singing songs or making up songs? In other words, all that STUFF that kids used to do when they had nothing to do, before the internet existed. Do you ever wish you could be a fly on the wall of your childhood, and listen in to what went on? Well, I don’t have to wonder anymore about what I got up to, because the tape I digitized today is a recording of exactly that kind of stuff. It’s a series of recordings actually, seemingly over a period of time, made whenever I felt like playing with my tape recorder. There’s a truly random assortment of bits and pieces on the tape. It begins with me announcing the “six o’ clock news”. Then I read a report about people who escaped Nazi Germany (don’t know where I got that from – it sounds like something I was reading for school perhaps). The report stops abruptly where I taped over myself, this time singing a Hebrew song. Then my mom sings “Three Blind Mice”. I play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the recorder. Then there’s more Hebrew singing. Listening, I realize that it’s not actually a Hebrew song – I was singing the questions from a homework assignment, along to a particular tune. It’s quite amusing if you understand the words! Then I sing a poem that I wrote about water pollution to the same tune (“Help us we are choking, we’re choking to death / Please don’t let us take our last breath / We’re only fish, we can’t do a lot / Please don’t let the water and all the fish rot” – and so on). After that I read a story in the style of a film strip – remember those? – complete with a blast from my recorder every time you are supposed to advance to the next frame of the filmstrip. I’m not sure if I was making the story up or not – it sounds quite ridiculous. And on it goes. There’s even a part where I try to get my cat Mushy to meow, so I can record her (she does meow, finally – although she sounds quite wretched; I hope I didn’t do anything to poor Mushy to make her meow! (That’s her photo above by the way – she died in 1989 – I never thought I’d hear her meow again)).

Anyway, below is a snippet with some highlights culled from the cassette. It ends with “Strawberry Fields Forever” (probably recorded from the radio) – which I’ve left on for the last 2 minutes of the clip, so if you feel like listening to a very bad recording of the Beatles, listen on to the end!

December 27, 2012 – My Own Personal Time Capsule

I have a box full of old cassette recordings that I made when I was a kid, and I’ve been meaning to digitize them before they disintegrate and become inaudible. (One of the recordings is in fact the one I made with my late grandmother, Ray Zall, in 1978, and which I featured in my piece about using DNA to help trace my ancestry). There’s quite a few of them – here’s what the pile of tapes looks like:


So, I’ve finally started the digitizing. Many of the tapes are labelled – others aren’t, so I am not sure what I am going to find over the coming weeks as I listen to tapes that I haven’t played for the better part of 35 years. Truly, it’s my own personal time capsule.

One of the first tapes I digitized was a recording I made of my mother’s thirty-sixth birthday party, in 1978. I had recently turned eleven. The “party” consisted of me, my mom and dad, and my sister, giving my mother her presents and cards, and then eating cake and ice cream. (We all couldn’t stop saying how delicious the cake was. At one point (before we eat the cake), my father remarks on how expensive the cake was, and then asks my mother, “How much would this cost you to bake, a dollar?”).

I guess I really was born to be a radio journalist: the tape begins with my announcement of the date and the fact that it is my mother’s birthday party, and the party is followed by immediate interviews with all the participants about what they thought of the party. Talk about instant feedback!

Listening to the recording is bittersweet: My father died in 2005, so it’s both wonderful and sad to hear him joking around, leading the chorus of “Happy Birthday,” being silly and making me laugh. As for me, I sound REALLY young; still very much a little kid. My sister, who is almost 14 in the recording, sounds older – but still childlike, and is very much the big sister being mean to the little one (I can’t help but feel indignant on behalf of my younger self when I hear her making fun of the elaborate cards I made for my mom!). One shocking thing about this recording is that my mother was just 36 years old. THIRTY-SIX!! Younger than I am now – and, as she says on the recording, “still the youngest mom in the class” – meaning that all the other mothers in my class and my sister’s class were older than she was at the time.

Anyway, the real fun of these tapes is in hearing them, so here’s a snippet from the beginning of the tape, in all its raw, unvarnished glory:

As you may have been able to tell from that clip, my parents grew up in New York. And speaking of New York accents, I’ve also digitized another tape – this one was a kind of spoken letter, recorded in 1984 on a cassette and then sent to Israel when I was spending a semester on a kibbutz there in high school. Both my parents and my maternal grandparents recorded messages, for me as well as for my sister, who was also doing a semester abroad, and my aunt and her family, who lived in Jerusalem. I found it particularly enjoyable to listen to my grandfather, Izzy, who died in 1994 – I’d forgotten what a good sense of humor he had, and I also really enjoyed hearing his accent and his manner of speaking again. Listen to this section – it still made me laugh today:

Finally for today, I will finish with another snippet from the 1978 cassette. After the birthday party, there are other random recordings – me talking to my mom, me singing in my room, and so on. The clip below marks me out as a fully paid-up member of Generation X – it’s me, singing along with my 45 of “We Are the Champions” by Queen. I make no claims for my singing ability (I sound pretty bad, in fact), but there’s something about the recording that captures the essence of being eleven years old in the late 1970s – singing along to my records in my room, knowing that nobody else could hear me.

I’ll post more from my time capsule in the coming weeks as I go through the tapes.

(Next up: More Ridiculous Blasts from the Past)