Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Fine and Private Place

I sit in my 1997 Honda CRV in a church parking lot, because I'll be alone here on a Thursday. Not since I had my own apartment during my early twenties--before marriage and motherhood--have I enjoyed this much privacy. Here, there are no interruptions and no judgments, real or perceived. As far as anyone knows, I'm running errands.

Today, it's raining, and that's rare enough in Utah to be a real treat, a reason to stay out an extra hour. I lean against the window and feel the cool glass on my forehead and fingertips. Both the exterior and interior of the car are a comfortable, forgettable gray. Even when it was brand new, no one said, "Ohmigod! It's gorgeous!" It's like me: practical, reliable, nonthreatening. It doesn't take itself too seriously. It's clean, but not overly so: if I spill a diet Coke, I don't panic. There are dings and some peeling paint, but it's quite presentable. Right now, it sounds like rain, traffic, and Leonard Cohen's "Recent Songs" CD. It smells like grilled onions and my dogs.

The beauty of the car is its smallness, like the most efficient of efficiency apartments. Everything is within easy reach: money, fast-food coupons, Tums, Dr. Pepper lip gloss, cell phone, road atlas. I give thanks to those who invented cup holders, map lights, and vanity mirrors. In the cargo area, there's a duffel bag full of emergency supplies (box cutters, duct tape, twenty-dollar bills, clean underpants). If I feel so inclined, I can start the car and just keep driving.

With the car parked, I indulge in my two favorite activities: compulsive reading and compulsive eating. Today, I will read a mediocre detective novel that my dad sent; I will eat two Big Mac's and six oatmeal cookies. I sometimes read better books ("My Antonia," "Go Tell it on the Mountain"), but I stick with junk food, focusing on large quantities of meat and sugar.

When feeling chatty, I plug my cell phone into the cigarette light and fill the small space with my voice and my laugh. I call my younger sister, and we talk about short skirts and tall men. I call my Overeaters Anonymous buddies, and we talk about how much better we feel since making a searching and fearless moral inventory (I don't mention the fries I just ordered, or the extra fry sauce). I call an ex-boyfriend two thousand miles away, and I say bold and outrageous things. The words "I love you!" burst from me like stampeding horses, like projectile vomiting. He laughs...kindly, indulgently, from a safe distance.

And while the car is a pleasure in Park, it's also a pleasure in Drive. We've known adventure. In north Texas, several years ago, I responded to the online cry-for-help of an animal-rescue group, and--an hour later--I was driving through Plano with seven puppies and their Rottweiler mama in a large crate in the cargo area. They lived with us for a few weeks, until adoptions could be arranged. Months later, my family and I moved back to Utah with two foster dogs that had failed to find Forever Homes (until they found them with us). My son and I spent two long days on the road, with the Lab occasionally vomiting in his large crate, and the sixty-pound Chow curled up on my son's lap, eager for tummy rubs and an occasional stray Frito.

A year later, I drove to Southern Utah in early summer to enjoy the lilacs in bloom (and to reboot the foul mood I'd been in for months). I went alone, spent eighteen hours in a motel room watching a "Law & Order" marathon and eating junk food, and came home with a much brighter outlook.

And a year after that, the CRV and I went to the Oregon Coast, to a Jesuit-run retreat nestled in the rain forest, where I made new friends, took my first Holy Communion, and got a glimpse of a better, more evolved, more open-hearted me. On the way home, I had car trouble an hour east of Portland, and had to change plans on the fly, something that is not a strength of mine. But I found a place to stay, and--though it wasn't yet noon--donned polka-dot PJs, microwaved some popcorn, and climbed into bed with a Steinbeck novel. I felt broad-shouldered and self-contained. I'd had serious car trouble--an emergency!--alone, out of state, and I'd handled it. And I hadn't cried. A small miracle.

So here I sit, in the rain, in this eleven-year-old car with its 198,000 miles and surprisingly high resale value. It's my tree house, my panic room, my partner in crime. It's my means of escape, and the relief valve that makes escape unnecessary, for now.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Young Girl

My earliest memory is of perching on a swing set in the front yard of a Long Beach, California, duplex. My thoughts were contemplative: Why was I so very good, and my sister--one year older--so very bad? When our mom called us in from playing, why did my sister refuse to cooperate, risking a spanking or--much worse--our mom's very temporary withdrawal of affection? What could be worse, really, than loving someone who didn't love you back?

For the most part, I was awash in love. Both mother and father adored me, and took in stride my rather marked emotional tenderness. I was a soft child, both physically and temperamentally. I was a good little learner, though, reading early and well, excelling academically from the start.

Two memories from kindergarten linger. Mrs. Wilson was tall, gaunt, and unpleasantly old and sour, with a rather imposing and unfriendly bosom. I'm quite certain my charms were lost on her. One day we were going to watch a movie in class, and a massive projector atop a massive wheeled stand was positioned in the center of the room. A cord snaked across the room to an electric outlet, and we were admonished to not trip on the cord. Perhaps I forgot, perhaps the room was dark and I couldn't see the cord, but I tripped on it, and both projector and girl went tumbling. Mrs. Wilson was furious, menacing, unconcerned with my possible injuries. I cowered before her, knowing she wanted to grab me and shake me. She shouted, "I told you to be careful!"

And even though I cried easily, and occasionally wet my pants, I was a logical child and a keen observer, and I knew she was wrong to scold me so harshly for a simple misstep. Forty-five years later, a voice in my head says, "It was an accident, you old cunt! I wish the projector had fallen on you! I wish you'd died slowly of a sucking chest wound while 30 five-year-olds--sitting cross-legged in an orderly half-circle--had watched. Might have been more interesting than a hygiene film or a Cold War propaganda film."

The second incident was more disturbing. A boy named Adam misbehaved and was taken by Mrs. Wilson into a restroom and paddled. I suspect that Adam's crime didn't involve hitting or biting, but was of the coloring-outside-the-lines variety. Whatever the case, I was horrified, traumatized, indignant. Even at age five, I knew that a teacher or a principal paddling a child was perverse. And I knew that for all the talk of bullies, the most egregious bullies were the grownups.

Life got better when my family moved to another Long Beach neighborhood, and I began first grade at a new school. Miss Barbie--my teacher and my first love--adored me; she favored me. Because I'd been reading since age four, I was sent to the school library during classroom reading instruction, where I was able to indulge my love of books unfettered by even a librarian's supervision. I sat on the floor in front of the bookshelves, reading book after book, relishing the solitude, relishing the pleasure of special privilege, of being The Smart Girl.

The years passed. We ducked-and-covered, we mourned the loss of JFK. I was madly in love with boys and men: classmates, neighbors, the Monkees, "The Rifleman." When I wasn't attending summer school for gifted students, or giving perfectly memorized talks in Sunday School, or putting on plays in our kid-friendly backyard, or writing affectionate and newsy letters to my Utah relatives, I was indulging in more private past times such as spinning sexual fantasies about the cast of "Hogan's Heroes," picking my nose to the point of bleeding, and smuggling food from kitchen to bathroom where I could binge in blissful privacy.

I still cried easily, and still took everything personally. I can recall every time my mom scolded me or swatted me, and every time my dad was stern with me. In third grade, my teacher--at her wit's end--said something like, "I'm fed up with all of you today!" and in response I sobbed quietly at my desk. She called my mom that night and apologized, offering that I was the only one who cried, and the only one who didn't deserve the scolding. I never really toughened up, and, in my twenties and thirties, a disapproving word from an employer or policeman or gynecologist could reduce me to tears.

Puberty hit hard: bras, sanitary pads, crappy romance novels, bad haircuts, unflattering glasses, short skirts, brightly colored fishnets attached to garter belts (in elementary school!). Wisely, my mom refused to buy me white go-go boots, or I'd have that to add to my list of sartorial regrets. I was the tallest kid in school, chubby, awkward, self-conscious, and almost obnoxious in my ability to outshine others scholastically.

Junior high school represents a low point. While our house was in a decent neighborhood, the school was not. My sister and I took a city bus, catching it early enough to avoid the most dangerous kids, but arriving at school before any adults. It was 1969, racial tensions were running high, and one predawn morning found us surrounded by a large group of hostile black girls accusing us of some invented slight. They'd been stealing my lunch money and lip gloss for months, ridiculing me in gym class, and I stood before them that morning, cowed, exhausted, vanquished. A couple of months later, my parents moved us to rural Utah, where most children had been taught to "be nice" at all costs, and schoolyard intimidation was much more subtle, and I stumbled upon a system in which I could work and thrive.

We were Mormons, and that offered a modicum of social currency once we lived in Utah. I was lucky enough to have a girl cousin in attendance at the same junior high school, and her friends became my friends. I began to shed my pariah status, and eventually scored "Best Personality" and "Best Grades" in an issue of the school newspaper. Between church, school, and extracurricular activities, I was managing to fit in, to enjoy a certain level of respect.

High school suited me. The boys were taller, the classes were more demanding, and the opportunities to excel were vast. I donned skirt, sweater, tights, and chunky shoes (to this day, my favorite outfit) and set out to own that school. Between acting, debating, public speaking, creative writing, before-school religious study, student government, and straight A's, I was busy. I had a new circle of friends and an occasional date. As I entered my junior year, I was a considerably slimmer version of myself, and walked the halls with new confidence. I was never going to be popular, but that was okay: I could already see that power--and fun--can often be found at the fringes.

In retrospect, BYU was a huge mistake, but I refused to consider other options. After one miserable semester, I scurried home. And when a close friend said that she was considering leaving the Mormon church ("You can do that?!?"), I promptly did, without fanfare, acrimony, or regret. And I was surprised and delighted to find that "men" are really quite different from "Mormon men." (Later, I would notice some crossover, but at nineteen there was a bright line.)

Due to a chain of events for which I will be forever grateful, my mom scored a job at the officers' club of a military post near our home. Timing is everything: I was in my early twenties (and as cute as I was ever going to be), The Pill was easily available but AIDS was relatively unheard of, and the country was mercifully between wars. Every summer, hundreds of soldiers (all men, mostly Special Forces) would train here for weeks at a time, and--evenings and weekends--nothing could keep me away. Adorable, affectionate, and agreeable, I took full advantage of the rare opportunity. Endless pleasure, endless pain.

Between summers, I visited soldiers at their base camps, answered personal ads in magazines, tried to revive high school romances, and hung out with my brother's buddies. Mostly, though, those were dry and lonely times. I lived alone in a charming and much-loved apartment in Provo and worked for an oral surgeon. I had neither friends nor pets. I corresponded feverishly with soldiers, sat cross-legged on the floor playing "Abide With Me" over and over again on an acoustic guitar, and went for burgers and Cokes with my mom. She would die several years later, and I would rephrase the question of my girlhood: What could be worse, really, than loving someone who isn't there to love you back?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Falls the Shadow

A dozen times, I've lost and regained fifty pounds or so. Twice, I've lost and regained more than a hundred pounds. The challenge seems to be the once-and-for-all part. My friend Claire said that regaining weight is one of her hobbies, like photography or adultery. "There will always be another binge," she said. "It's never the last one. Maybe not today, maybe not, probably tomorrow...tomorrow's looking good...."

Considering my past performance, I won't give weight-loss advice. Rather, I'll share a list of my favorite things about being fat.

  • Every day is a party. All the best refreshments are served, in the most generous quantities. Here in my suburban America, there is no shortage of food. Armed with my debit card, my Happenings coupon book, and my cotton jeans with two-percent Spandex, I sit happily eating chips and salsa, sipping Dr. Pepper, while someone does the hunting and gathering for me. I smile warmly; I tip generously. If I can't find a companion for lunch, I opt for fast food at a drive-up window, and enjoy a private party in my Honda. I find a shady spot to park, recline the seat a bit, and listen to Neil Young's "Decade" CD. With enough carbs and saturated fats, it's bliss.
  • Other women love me, because I make them look good. Of course, Claire loves me because I'm warm and witty and openhearted, and because I remember her birthday, and because I sat quietly and smiled patiently during a twenty-minute rant regarding "...what my effing mother-in-law said about that aubergine cocktail dress I ordered from Victoria's Secret." But Claire also loves me because the dress is a size 14, and it's a little tight on her, but she looks gorgeous compared to me. Lately, my bottom half looks like a blue-denim sack in which an Idaho farmer is storing his bumper crop of potatoes. Claire knows that, and she still loves me, but she stands a little taller knowing that when we go to Mi Ranchito, the cute Hispanic waiter will grin slowly at her, and not at me.
  • Children love me (especially sedentary children). What's not to love? I always have treats, my body is like a huge warm pillow, and I'm not easily distracted (because being distracted requires a modicum of energy that I do not possess). I stretch out next to the treats, smile at the much-loved child, and let him or her know that I care about safety and good manners, but not much else. I'm a good listener, and I'm a fairly good teacher. Unconditional positive regard fills the room (or the Honda). In that moment, my BMI doesn't matter all that much.
  • My wardrobe is simplicity itself. You know that feeling when you're going out-of-town for a romantic weekend, and you spend several hours trying on every item of clothing you own in an attempt to find the cutest, most flattering, most come-hither items? When you're finished, you're knee-deep in rejects but you have half a dozen outfits that are perfect, and you fold them lovingly and place them gently into a tapestry carry-on, along with some jewelry and a couple of silk nighties? Sure...that's one way to do it. It's time-consuming, though, and requires a lot of pesky decision-making. I'm currently limiting my wardrobe to a pair of jeans and two shirts, which is humble even by my standards. But it's not a problem, because...
  • I don't go anywhere or do anything. It's easier that way, really. Home is usually a happy place, what with cable TV, roomy sleep pants, a variety of cookie-making ingredients, and pets who love me as much as kids love me. And by staying home, I avoid the horrified glances of those who saw me a year or two ago when I weighed considerably less. When I was friendly and bold and flirtatious. When I didn't go to bed feeling all gassy, and wake up feeling all headachy. When my knees didn't ache all the time, and when I wasn't in the habit of eating warm German chocolate frosting out of a saucepan.
  • My marriage is rock solid (assuming--and this might be a stretch--that the only possible threat to my marriage is my unwillingness to embrace monogamy). At this weight, I embrace the hell out of monogamy. I don't seek out other men; I seldom even think about other men (take that, Other Men!). And, sure, it feels like prison, but a warm and cozy split-level prison. Anyway, all that wing-stretching can grow tiresome: He loved me, so he set me free, and I flew back, and I gained a hundred pounds, and he's probably wishing he'd moved out (without leaving a forwarding address) after he set me free that last time.
  • I feel nothing. Joy, equanimity, anticipation, grief, dread, outrage...all nearly forgotten remnants of a healthier past. The complete numbness is--really--quite a treat. The pills I take today have names like key-lime pie, churro, Italian sub, gyro, roasted cashews. My body is so well fueled by food that my motor is always running, and it feels like 737's are revving up in here, and stillness and grace and serenity have long since fled.
  • Obesity is a problem that will eventually fix itself. It's similar to owning a car or a house, and failing to address problems as they arise. One day, you find you're overwhelmed by all that has gone wrong: The car leaks transmission fluid and pulls to the right; the interior reeks of rotting fruit (even though you can't remember a single time you've eaten fruit in this car). The house is stupid with slow drains, poorly sealed windows, and the stench of cat box. Good news? You can sell the car, sell the house, and your problems magically become the problems of someone else. Obesity is kind of like that. All of the things you hate about your life (an unfinished correspondence course, a slightly prolapsed uterus, an emotional distance between you and your only brother, a tendency toward sloth) will go away the instant you stroke out after a brisk five-minute walk across a crowded parking lot.

Snails, Puppy Dog Tails, and Other Nonsense

When I was ten, a new boy showed up at my elementary school. A rumor quickly spread that if tetherball were an Olympic event, David Emerson would be wearing a gold medal. Fascinated, I watched him beat the boys, even older boys, one by one. But.... I played tetherball every evening in my backyard with my fun-loving dad, a six-foot-four longshoreman. I challenged David to a game and beat him soundly, grinning as the rope wound tightly around the pole, like an in-your-face May Day celebration. I waited for the cheering, the high fives, the adulation of boys on the brink of puberty. It did not come. I got some looks of disgust; David got some consoling pats on the back. Following my victory, I managed to be even less popular (no easy feat given my glasses, my chubbiness, and my years of straight A's). I'd had my first experience with the mystery that is masculine behavior.

A dozen years later, lanky and tan and braless in a denim halter dress, I was serving drinks at the officers' club of a military post. No game of darts, no naming the capitols of South American countries...I'd learned my lesson. I was content to scope out the most desirable man in each new group and seduce him (although he was often a born-again Christian or the happily married father of small children). My overriding goal was that one of these chosen few would choose me...that my sense of adventure and my open heart would prove irresistible. He'd bring his fatigues, his weapon, and perhaps his memories of 'Nam to my cozy home, and we'd save each other. But, apparently, a one-night stand is kind of like winning a game of tetherball: It seldom results in unabashed admiration or lifelong devotion.

So, what is it men want? With a nod to a certain degree of male-to-male variation (lest I be accused of stereotyping), men like a clear-cut victory at work or play, an affectionate and unsuspecting mate, roomy and reliable vehicles, comfy clothes, food delivered to the door, an assortment of beverages, long-legged women (or Asian women), and fellatio. They dislike emotional overreactions, lengthy discussions of motives or memories, fussy home decor, and entree salads.

Beyond these casual observations, I have yet to crack the code. When I offer to type a man's dissertation, he prefers a home-cooked meal. When I offer a home-cooked meal, he prefers to share a joint. When I offer to share a joint, he prefers a discussion of current events. When I offer a discussion of current events, he prefers a blow job.

Despite my confusion, I love men, I love almost everything about them. I don't want them to be more like women (I've heard that feminine behavior can be puzzling, even erratic). I admire men's devotion to military units, work groups, athletic teams, prison wards. I admire their devotion to wives. (Men loves wives. Men manage to love wives more after cheating on them.) I admire their devotion to family, although if a man has a teen-aged daughter, it's best not to mention her at all, but saying "she's very sweet" (in your most sincere tone) is probably safe. I even admire men's devotion to Jesus, although I'm baffled when it enters the conversation postcoitally.

What is occasionally lacking--and, God forbid, I don't mean this as a, never that!--is devotion to me. For the most part, I don't feel that I've lost out to other women, but to everything else: graduate school, careers, friends, hobbies, cable TV, cheeseburgers, random thoughts, cloud formations, naps. At this point, any decent life coach would tell me to focus on my own path: adopt a puppy, run a marathon, visit Tuscany. But, really, it's more fun to curl up with a Costco tin of Almond Roca and think about men.

In the progression of a romantic relationship, there's a brief window when a man does not yet feel bored or disappointed. Most rosy memories are of this too-short time. He encourages you to eat French fries off his plate, even if you're not rail thin. He notices what you're wearing and says in a husky voice "How cute are you" while grazing your fingertips with his own. He's in awe that you've memorized a poem or invested in real estate. His eyes say that you're worthy of his affection and that he's ready to find your next words both witty and wise, to be cherished forever.

If you notice a woman talking about an ex-lover, and her face is flushed and her hand is at her throat or tangled in her hair, she's no doubt recalling something from this period, from the first ten minutes of a relationship.

The downhill slide is less pleasant. He might say things like "Have you ever had a gym membership?" or "I told you not to call me at home!" or "I know it's natural, sweetheart, but that doesn't mean it's appealing." You'll realize--perhaps not for the first time--that life bears no resemblance to a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie (yes, yes...daisies are the happiest flowers, and you wish you had a small bouquet to grind to a pulp beneath your stiletto heel). He suddenly seems hostile and easily irritated; he doesn't laugh at your jokes or find your tetherball story charming. He does, however, find the waitress at Olive Garden delightful. "Isn't she delightful?" he might say, and you will have no choice but to roll your eyes and wonder if you still have the receipt for that overpriced christening gown with the hand smocking.

If you notice a woman talking about an ex-lover, and her arms are crossed protectively across her chest, and her tone is both derisive and tearful, and you overhear the word "dick" even though she doesn't look like the type of woman who would use the word "dick," stop and say hi. We'll talk.

But before reminiscing leads to quiet sobs or Google or both, it's time to take a deep breath and consider this cheerful possibility: When a heterosexual woman moves past cheerleader age, and even medical-school age, she doesn't need a stable of men to adore and understand her; she needs but one. One man...single, reasonable, productive, kind. Perhaps a man who doesn't say "all-righty-then." One man who doesn't seek the holy grail of first-time sex while avoiding at all costs the friendliness and coziness of second-time sex. One man who knows when it's okay to cry, when it's okay to quit his job and write that novel, when it's okay to corner you in the bathroom and whisper something menacing, when it's okay to admire your sister's leather miniskirt (and--more importantly--when it's not). And if that proves too much of a challenge, there's no shame in surrendering to the siren song of competitive tetherball.