OTR, Take 52: The National - Cherry Tree EP

Here are your links to this absolute masterpiece: Tidal and Spotify.

The sun fell behind you and never stood up

This might be a short On the Record; I woke up a bit late and today is Audra's baby shower. That doesn't mean I'm going to go easy on you, or on myself.

It's an odd feeling to be roughly two months away from your first child being born. Audra and I began trying to have kids in another life, way back in 2018. I was incredibly ill and it may not have been the most responsible thing to do, but then this isn't a reasonable desire, is it? My illness made it quite difficult for a number of biological reasons. I underwent surgery – twice – in an attempt to get a step closer, to no avail.

Eventually, I became so ill we put this pursuit on hold. I was trying not to get unalived, as the kids say. I barely succeeded, for now. It's a race we all eventually lose.

After my transplant, gluttons for punishment that we are, we began to try again. Audra got pregnant in July 2020 via IUI. For a few months, we were stunned by our fortune. I had received a transplant before Covid hit, we were building a house, and despite everything being shut down, we got pregnant with the help of science.

We lost the baby in the second trimester. The baby was not genetically viable. This, we learned, is one of the downsides of IUI: there's no genetic testing component. You're at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she's ruthless, unapologetic, and final. I recorded a short episode of Sonder Union about this time.

Can we show a little discipline

It took nearly a year to pick ourselves up and think about trying again. This time armed with the hard-won understanding that genetic testing is a critical component to ensuring we don't repeat a mistake, we moved on to IVF, where science plays a confidence game with Mother Nature – pretending to be in control, while holding on for dear life.

Friends: if you want to go to one of the most desperate places in your city, just visit a fertility clinic between 7 and 9 am. I cannot begin to describe the pit of wanting, desire, and pure existential dread that exists in those pale lavender walls. (Some consultant, I was informed, decided that the particular shade on the walls was "calming" for the edgy patients.)

From the first moment I walked into the first of the two, mostly indistinguishable, clinics we paid well over $100,000 to, the unique atmosphere of the place grabbed me. The stark divide between these women (generally there by themselves) seeking a child and the cattle-call machine of the clinic was such a fucking mess. The clinic had an endless supply of patients and acted like it: the service provided was clumsy, unfeeling, and utterly without compassion. To wit: we learned via voicemail that after getting our hopes up with ten embryos sent off for genetic testing, none of them were viable. We were sitting in the parking lot of a Get Go, having just got some food, on a Friday night when that message rang through the cabin of the car like a death knell.

There's a part of me that wants to volunteer my services to engineer a better system for these places. Truly: it is shameful, and I would venture that anyone (and there are waaaaay more of us than you might imagine) would agree that the state of this care is abysmal. It wouldn't be hard to make it more humane, to not leave a couple eating french fries in a parking lot finding out via an absent-minded voicemail that their dream had died.

Imagine that ride home, hand in hand, trying to see the blurry lines of the road through your tears.

Your eyes are broken bottles, and I'm afraid to ask

The moment they became the National.

I mentioned a few OTRs back that The National is one of my two or three favorite bands. This EP, Cherry Tree, is when the band stepped into itself. They'd previously released two albums, the self-titled debut that is fine, and the much better follow-up, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. They were a good band, enjoyable. Some good tunes.

And then came Cherry Tree.

This EP is different from any of the records that followed – it is primarily acoustic, it features Matt Berninger in hushed, acerbic form, and the trademark percussion is muted – but nothing comes after but for Cherry Tree. This is the National's coming out party and it might just be my favorite of all their records. They have better records, but nothing quite as affecting as this.

Let's just take the lyrics of the first track:

You're cussing a storm in a cocktail dress
your mother wore when she was young
Red sun saint around your neck
A wet martini in a paper cup

You're a wasp nest
you're a wasp nest.

Your eyes are broken bottles
And I'm afraid to ask
And all your wrath and cutting beauty
You're poison in the pretty glass

You're a wasp nest
you're a wasp nest

You're all humming live wires
under your killing clothes.
Get over here, I wanna
kiss your skinny throat

You're a wasp nest
you're a wasp nest

Tell me that this doesn't paint a crystal clear picture for you of both the woman and the narrator. Tell me this isn't also commentary on upper-class white East Coast society: a WASP nest, if there ever was one.

The EP only gets richer and more cutting, building and building the stakes until the crash and catharsis of "About Today" – which on some days is my favorite song. The EP version is great, but when they play it live, it is transformative:

Don't look at me, I'm only breathing
Don't look at me, I'm indiscrete

Audra and I went through another three rounds of IVF. This is more trying than you can imagine, if you haven't done it yourself. Emotionally, it guts you, dries you out, and leaves you desiccated. We went on for three straight years pretending that things were normal, only to find that the insanity of the whole thing in fact became normal. On our journey, we exhausted the ways IVF could go wrong until, to our disbelief, an embryo implantation had taken.

Going into the transfer procedure, we'd agreed that if this one didn't take, we were done. We had come to terms with not having a child: we were happy as-is. So, as we sat in the clinic on Halloween waiting for the doctor to come in and transfer the embryo, Audra asked me to play some music to take her mind off her ludicrously full bladder. Rather perversely, I opened Tidal and played Taylor Swift's "All Too Well" for reasons I cannot explain. We sat in that lavender room, laughing about the absurdity of the moment, content with the inevitable failure of the procedure and ready to move on.

And here we are, seven months later, boxes of strollers and pack-and-plays littering the house, getting ready to see friends, family, and loved ones come together to celebrate simultaneously the least likely and most fought-for baby in the family. I cannot say that we are without our hesitations; we had, after all, come to terms with a childless life, and now this child is bursting onto the scene.

Is that wrong to say? That we have our doubts and hesitations after trying so fucking hard to make this happen? No matter: it's true, and what's OTR for other than to say things I am thinking? I've been considering a short Owen-only Sonder Union episode about this, but that's for another time. Christ, we're complicated animals, aren't we?

It is also true – two contradictory things can be true at once! – that we are incredibly excited to be having a little boy in a few months.

So here we are, little man, willing a world filled with love into existence for you. Look at all these people coming out just to say hello!

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