Sunday, December 7, 2014

the cupcake exception

I haven’t seen myself naked in 13 years.

I exaggerate. It’s only been about three years since I took a gander at my own naked reflection. When I emerge from the shower, I’m already tightly wrapped in a towel that I swear keeps shrinking in the wash. In the morning, I avert my eyes when I pass a mirror until most of my clothes are on. And when I finally do look, it’s to make sure that the only skin showing is below my elbow or (barely) above my cleavage.

I don’t know what made me stand naked in the hallway before the full-length mirror today. Maybe I needed extra motivation for the diet that starts tomorrow. Maybe I felt it would discourage me from eating that extra biscuit at brunch. Or maybe Aliza Worthington’s complicated feelings about her weight inspired me to take new stock of my stockiness and really deal with it. 

ca. 2003, after a 30-mile bike ride.
I thought I was fat.
Aliza’s struggle with her weight and body shape mimics my own. My husband says I’ve had a poor body image since we met more than 30 years ago. And that’s because—excepting a year at 34 and two years at 40—I’ve had a poor body for three decades. 

At 52, it’s not only fat, but my body doesn’t even get me from here to there very well. At least two of my spinal discs are blown; my toes tingle, and my balance is compromised. Now I’m winded walking up the stairs, too. Being fat is uncomfortable and unhealthy. But that's not to say this is all about health. It's vanity, too. My current wardrobe consists of a closet full of elastic-waist skirts (a friend wisely calls them “crotchless yoga pants”), t-shirts from Target, and cardigan sweaters, seven of them black. My other wardrobe—the expensive boutique pants in size 6 and pretty sweaters and tank tops and trim suits—is packed away under the attic eaves for when I can wear those things again.

And I am convinced that I will wear them again. Because believing that I won’t means I’m stuck with this body forever. And even if it’s not the worst thing in the world, it’s not acceptable. I don't even want to accept it. I might as well start wearing sweatshirts with cats on them.

2006: I called this one "jelly belly."
A minute ago, I stopped writing to answer the front door. It was my neighbor, Anne, with a box of four homemade cupcakes. I am eating mine now—because of tomorrow’s diet. I would like to think of that cupcake as the exception, but it’s not. And nearly every person I know who has gained weight believes in the cupcake exception, believes she eats a relatively good diet, free of fast foods and extra calories, despite the half bottles of wine on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays; the extra servings of smoked almonds; the dressing she dips her salad in, rather than pours on it, even though she uses it all anyway. 

And that’s why I believe in diets, still, after all these years. Diets themselves do work. Whether you reach the calorie deficit by Atkins or Weight Watchers or Paleo or Beachbody doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you can stick with for the six weeks it’ll take you to stop hating the skinny bitches who always sit at your table when you go out for dinner. For the six weeks it'll take you to get used to what eating right feels like, you just need to suck it up by not swallowing every morsel in your path. Which means when Anne knocks on the door with a box of homemade cupcakes, you say thanks and give them to the skinny bitches who always live in your house. 

It’s not that diets don’t work. It’s that you don’t. 

2014: The cupcake exception.
If it were that easy, however, my closet would be full of size-six boutique clothing, and I’d be able to find the Christmas ornaments under the eaves. But to blame diets for my own inability to adhere to them is to abandon all responsibility for the extra 20 pounds—and, worse, all hope for removing them. In my case, this is my fault. Even if it's not about blame, it is about cause and effect. And though a few events might have had a hand in the expansion of my rear cargo space, the stress of my job or my father's death or whatever else may be bothering me was not relieved by eating—or drinking—my anger or sadness. (And menopause sees to it that the damage isn't undone easily.)

Some people advocate for making peace with our fat. I'm not that evolved. Besides, you haven’t seen me naked. This morning, after I recovered from the shock of it, I picked myself up off the floor, put some ice on my head, and put on my fancy crotchless yoga pants, Target t-shirt, and black cardigan in the dark. Then I went to brunch with some women I hadn’t seen since high school and ate the extra biscuit.

Because—you know. Tomorrow. I wish I could say it will be the last time I diet, that I'll never again succumb to the power of cake, that I'll never sneak a peppermint patty in the car, that I won't cave in to the desire to enjoy an IPA every day after work. And I'm fine with that. But what I'm not fine with is spending the rest of my life uncomfortable in elastic-waist clothing when there's a chance, however slim, that I can be uncomfortable in a pair of size 8 skinny jeans.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

in the attic

I’m not a hoarder. I’m a saver. Hoarders take in all the cats. They hold onto all the magazines and newspapers and mail. Savers keep the things with sentimental value. Hoarders stack their piles in the way of life—high towers of precariously perched magazines, too-tall bundles of mail, each folded and returned to its envelope, all of it claiming surface and volume. Savers put their keepsakes in plastic boxes in the attic. Hoarders keep things out of fear; savers keep them out of love.

Still, I’ve saved too much. I have enough ornaments for three Christmas trees; Halloween costumes that, while I made them myself, fit no one; original boxes from cameras and computers I no longer have; hat after hat after hat; a sewing machine I don’t know how to use; a serger machine, ditto; leftover copies of the magazine I used to publish; 72 VHS tapes we’ll never watch; box after box of point-and-shoot photos, five pictures worth looking at again; lighted garland and a lighted wreath we’ve never used and will never use; a yellow Boby trolley with a set of clogged Rapidographs and black-from-use Staedtler erasers; boxes full of books that were never unpacked when we moved here 20 years ago; dry-rotted duffel bags.

And then there’s the paperwork. Even if you save nothing (who are you?), you have a few years worth of documents, tax returns, and bill receipts. I have more: papers and designs from high school and college (my favorite: a font I designed, the example and title a reference to The Cars, with an A+ from Ed Smith, an art teacher who died a decade ago), clever or meaningful correspondences, birthday and congratulations cards with sentiments so lovely they probably made me cry, acceptance and rejection letters, press clippings from the times I was in the news or in the band. One of my favorite saved things: a letter to my daughter’s first-grade teacher informing her that I will not enforce the use of the D’Nealian k. It was a funny letter, but the school did not laugh. Instead, I got a reputation.

Until recently, all of this “savings” was hidden under the eaves, in the cabinets we’d had built for this very thing. But the gems are spilling, and I’m worried that they’ll come crashing through the floor and kill me in my sleep. So I am sifting through, sorting out the permanent keepers from the things that can go, like tax returns from 1997 and business receipts from a venture that failed in 2006.

In holding on and discarding, I’ve learned three things.

1. I was always bold. Among my high-school papers is a comparison of Dracula to Vlad the Impaler: “A Tale of Two Sickies.” The pair of “bloody” holes punched in the upper corner was my mother’s idea, but I wasn’t afraid. There’s also a rhyming poem—for tenth grade English—called “or maybe an aspirin,” which ends with the line, “or maybe a good fuck,” as if I had known what that even meant.

2. I am a good friend. Sometimes I wonder why people like me, and I still don’t know the answer. But if I had any doubts, words people put inside these hundreds of cards should dispel them. I could take away from this the fact that I have good friends. But how can you consistently have wonderful people surrounding and supporting you, saying  extraordinary things about you, unless you’re good to them? More proof: breakup letters I’d written to two old friends I felt had wronged me. They are better friends than ever now. 

3. I am an optimist. This one might sound like a stretch, but there's no other way to explain it. I have saved, for at least a dozen years—some much longer—clothing in size 6 and 8. OK, yes. I admit it. The size 10s are up there, too, now.

I'm sentimental. It's true. But I can count the times, this one included, that I've looked at those cards in the last sixteen years on one finger. So most of them are in the box of our five-year-old iMac, where I've stuffed 50 pounds of papers for recycling. But I kept a few of them and a few of my school papers. And yes, I kept all the clothes, too. You never know.

Monday, September 8, 2014

writing: the latest territory dispute in the battle of the sexes?

Do women write better than men? I'm not sure I'd use the word better. They're different—but only sometimes. Here's a little infographic from Grammarly, the world's best grammar checker (next to me). Hang it up in your cube to settle those office disputes, or download it and email it to that gentleman who always says "VERB-idge."

And remember: If it didn't get said by someone else—and verbatim at that—it doesn't get quotation marks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

open letter to the lady who reserved twelve feet of beachfront property by placing two chairs ten feet apart

This open letter was rejected by McSweeney's. Only the best rejections for me.
Dear Lady Who Reserved Twelve Feet of Beachfront Property by Placing Two Chairs Ten Feet Apart,

Please forgive me today for breaking the invisible force field between the Tommy Bahama "The Coolest Spot in Paradise" beach chair and the blue no-frills version, both of which sat peacefully at the water's edge this morning, hypnotized by the hazy sun, lulled by the white noise of crashing surf.

I should have felt the chairs' almost-psychic connection—and indeed would have had I not gotten so much sun the day before, my skin a leathery, impenetrable shield that wasn't even tickled by the electricity emitted by this meant-to-be pair.

So when you called from the blanket behind us and excused yourself to tell me "that's my chair" as I put my own between the two—still so far from either that I'd have had to yell to them over the waves slamming the sand after last night's storms were we to converse—I was not at all being facetious when I asked if you'd like for me to move it closer to its friend (its lover?). Blame it on vacation brain! Blame it on being a mom traveling alone with teenagers. (Or blame it on the fact that one chair was a pillow-clad, mesh-pocketed, deluxe model, the other a one-position chair equipped with nothing, not even a colorful Coors Light ad on its back, though perhaps the pricey one came from Costco and the other from Sunsations, where it was likely to cost just as much, so who am I to judge?)
It's an endearing little custom of your people, that of sending the men out in the early morning to plant the tent legs and umbrellas in the prime spots, dig them in hard against the high tide coming along in two hours, and space the chairs so they get the proper breathing room. They work so hard, those chairs, stuffed for 358 days in cramped lockers under the sundeck. They deserve their freedom. After all, I get a whole cubicle to myself for nine hours five days a week, with weekends to move about freely.

Besides, they got here first. What am I doing at 7:00 a.m. but lazily wiping counters and folding laundry between sips of coffee on the 15th floor of the Capri, staring longingly out the salt-crusted window as a striped canvas forest unfolds before my eyes, a panorama of umbels breaking ground and blooming all at once, big swaths of wild umbrellas a wildlife preserve for bikini- and tankini-clad wives and mothers who will finally come to keep their belongings company after a leisurely breakfast at 10, the ice in their red plastic cups watering down the mimosas and bloody Marys in the elevator.

I'm sorry, your red plastic cup. Your melted ice. And then you have to stand there and endure the likes of me, my age- and sea-addled brain just not getting it, just not comprehending that empty chairs—like so many blankets and towels lying out on cruise chaises at 6:00 a.m.—deserve their rightful place in the front row.

I am humbled by my mistake and, truth be told, a little embarrassed. So I apologize not only for myself but for my chair, a blue Tommy Bahama "The Coolest Spot in Paradise" chair,  borrowed from my sister, which demanded that we sit arm-in-arm with yours and which was crestfallen when you moved it.

Couldn't you feel the connection? If not, you'll probably get another chance. We're here till Friday.


Leslie F. Miller

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

on being super

 “Everyone’s special, Dash.”
“Which is another way of saying no one is.”
—Dash and Elastigirl, The Incredibles
 “And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”
—Syndrome, The Incredibles

Once in a rare while, my mother will call, and we’ll have a conversation that starts like this.

“[sob] Hello [sob]”
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s [sob] so beautiful [sob].”
“Your poem. I don’t know how you do it.”

That’s when I know.  And it’s how I know.

I am a writer. I have an undergraduate degree in English, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and a book published by Simon & Schuster. I’ve been writing for magazines and newspapers for thirty years, and I taught college English for 17. My 8 to 5 job is as a writer in the marketing department of a public corporation.

All writers need an editor, and my mother is a great one.

Most of the time, she calls with edits, corrections, and suggestions. She tells me when a word doesn’t mean what I think it means or when I’ve misspelled one. Her overall opinion is sometimes buried beneath the numbers of pieces of constructive advice on how to make my work better. I trust it. So when she calls me sobbing over a poem or an essay she saw somewhere, I know it’s a winner, and I can't describe that feeling.

I grew up long ago, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when blue, red, and white ribbons were given for first, second, and third place. Back then, earning a B meant you were above average, and earning an A meant you were excellent. Participation was its own reward, the act of showing up unworthy of special acknowledgment.

I grew up to be a confident realist. I know the difference between what I do extraordinarily well and what I do poorly. I know I'm a mediocre singer and a below-average guitar player, but when I do them together, I can make some pretty good songs. Mediocrity is sometimes the means to an outstanding end.

I also grew up to be the same kind of mother as my own—one who is delighted by what her children can do, who is proud, who is frequently verklempt, and who encourages them to excel at artistic endeavors, despite knowing that it may keep them poor, because it makes their lives so rich.

My daughter played her new song for me on Friday, shortly after she wrote it. I listened patiently, ideas and thoughts about how she could improve it swirling around in my brain. When she was finished, I told her it was “very nice,” thanked her for sharing it, and left the room.

We busied ourselves with dinner preparation, and eventually, with a hint of trepidation, Serena broached the subject of her song. She was a little annoyed with me. Did I really like it? Did she really want to know?

We all desire approval, and we don’t want people to think too hard about it because they might notice that a word isn’t perfect or that we settled for the most predictable rhyme (again!)—run with gun, anymore with door—or that we played a big, fancy lick when understatement would have been much more powerful at that moment. So she wasn’t happy to hear that even though I liked it, I thought seven minutes was too long for a slow song and eight times was too many to repeat the same line. She remained annoyed with me all night.

Some parents would have applauded and kissed their wonderful children. And some children would keep hitting the nail on the side or missing it altogether. When do they learn that the things we do well even as experienced adults don’t come out of us perfectly formed any more than our dent-headed children did? How does a 16-year-old girl's song achieve absolute perfection between brain and page? Under-scrutiny is a recipe for a lifetime of mediocrity. (This is only a blog post, but I will have edited it for hours and days before I publish it, and even after that, I will wish I’d written this paragraph differently and better.)

I used to call my daughter the Cal Ripken of Rock and Roll. Serena shows up and plays her heart out. She does so many things well that she can make the team look its best by picking up the slack. She’s reliable, and she’s helpful. And that makes kids who play with her want to do their best, too.

But there are other times when she’s the Babe—the Bae—and knocks that shit out of the park.

I want her to know it every time. I want her to trust me when I tell her that she is spectacular. And the only way that can happen is if I also tell her when she’s not.

One day, when Serena is no longer living under my roof and my wing, and I don’t get to watch her compose music and listen to her noodle on the guitar, I’m going to see a video of some magnificent new song she’s sharing with the world, and I’m going to dial her number. She will answer the phone (if she's still speaking to me), and I’ll say, “[sob] Hello [sob],” and she’ll say, “What’s the matter?” and I’ll tell her, “It’s [sob] so beautiful [sob],” and she’ll ask “What?” and I’ll say, “Your song. I don’t know how you do it.”

In that moment, she’ll know not only that she did it but how she did it. And getting a phone call like that one might even be why she keeps doing it throughout her spectacular life.