Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fat Tuesday

I don’t deserve my body / it may not be perfect but it works for me / and I can walk and I can see the sky
—Lori McKenna, “The Deserving Song”

I haven’t been in a locker room in decades—since I first realized my two feet could connect with trail, concrete, or asphalt in a healthy way for the price of a pair of running shoes. But this morning, at the gym where I do therapy for my back, I went back to scary high school phys ed class. The snaps in my yellow uniform always gaped at the bust. The bloomers left crinkled imprints in my thighs.

I have never been proud of my body, never celebrated its accomplishments or its appearance, except for a few lean months at ages 34 and 40 and one nine-mile run. At 46, it’s not even on the same planet as perfect, and it does not work for me just yet. I can’t pick up my underwear when it falls on the floor. I have to sit to get dressed. I can’t lift more than a gallon of milk or walk a quarter of a mile. And forget touching a trail; uneven footing makes me feel as though I am walking en pointe.

Movement is hard enough. Now add an extra dozen pounds, brought on by an antidepressant (one that’s supposed to decrease appetite, naturally) to my unexercised, flabby, nonworking body, and—you can see where this is going. Last night, because it was the very last minute I could wait, I tried on last summer’s swimsuit—or tentini, as my sister likes to call hers. I looked in the mirror long enough to be sure private parts stayed private but not long enough for the image to burn my retina. When I recovered, I took a bath. My daughter came in to brush her teeth, and I asked her to close the shower curtain. For the first time in months, I couldn't fall asleep, too ashamed of how I looked—no slack granted for four months worth of lying around with back pain.

This morning, before my Healthy Back class at the gym uptown, I hobble into the women’s locker room and hang up my coat. Though I stare intently at the row of coats and the plentiful hangers (the kind with full-circle holders, so they can’t be stolen off the rack), I can still see naked women from every corner of my eyes. A woman my age is in a half slip and stockings at the sink. Another strolls from the shower to her locker. Still another stands at the bench arranging her clothes, her gigantic dark nipples like dinner plates dangling from her chest. Young and old, fat and thin—mostly thinner than I—all these women are moseying around in various states of undress, not one of them hurrying or hiding behind a towel. Not one of them seems to possess a modicum of self-consciousness, as if walking about without clothing in a large room with other naked women were not a deranged thing to do.

I am both modest and modest about my modesty, shamed into folding my clothes neatly and carefully, so I don’t look like I’m as embarrassed as I am by the way I look, in a race to hide myself. But I don’t want, even for one second, to be a flash of puckered thigh in someone else’s peripheral vision.

Poor body image and depression can accompany one another down that dark road and keep you from doing the very things that would improve your body and lift your spirits. It’s not so easy to get over yourself. And I didn't at first. When I am introduced to the instructor, I break down—partly with fear and partly with relief at finally doing something about my circumstances. I’m going to have to suck it up and suck it in as best I can and not let my brain spoil this for my body.

In a class of five, I am likely the youngest and the least fit. But once I make that mental note, it dissolves in the 92-degree water. For one liquid golden hour, I stand in neutral spine, walk, hang in traction, and perform exercises called “square box” and “dead bug,” And when I get out of the pool, I don’t feel the usual crunch of my spine bearing down on my tailbone as full gravity returns.

The locker room, to my chagrin, has magically refilled with new naked nipples and bare bottoms, and it’s time to face my scary semi-public nudity. But while I sit to take off my suit and put on dry clothes, I see, out of the corner of my eye, one of my classmates. She is not naked but is instead carrying her clothing into one of the small private shower rooms, where she changes.

Each fat Tuesday and Thursday, that’s where you’ll find me.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


O, a long winter
watching the crows
ballet dancers
on the wind

O, out the window
only place she goes
carried safely
on their wings

but they won’t share their secrets
shred all the evidence
they won’t grant her wishes

O, e minor
the only one who knows
how a girl
can get so old

subtly and swiftly
swallowing the medicine
waiting for a second wind

to blow-ow ow

O, do you recognize her
the woman you once knew
holing up
beneath her skin

And will she recognize you
wearing different wings
will she
pull you in?

narcotic ritual
tuned to the barking crows
drowning without waving


Sunday, February 1, 2009

lists: another list (also a thank-you card)

I love lists—whether they’re in literature or song or even tacked to someone’s fridge. They tell us about other people while they remind us about ourselves. I once wrote a long essay about the list, and it didn’t even include the best list song ever written, “It’s Only Money, Tyrone,” by Marah, which enumerates all the items that might be found while dragging a lake: “a bag of dead kittens and mufflers and engines” among them.

Because I needed to clean up yesterday, I also took inventory of the things that have kept me company in these last seven weeks of convalescence. With the exception of the cold remedies and the gifts, each item has been here from the start. Everything is proximal; if it’s not, I can reach it with the Deluxe Gopher Pickup and Reaching Tool, which I recently saw being derided on an episode of Law & Order SVU. (The Deluxe part is the pair of suction cups on the bottom, which helps to grab tiny things, like my laptop plug.)

I have a 14x30-inch table to my left. On it is a mug (a gift from Ava a few years ago) filled with knitting needles in bamboo, metal, and plastic—double pointed, round, and straight; scissors—long, short, and the scrap-booking kind, for making a fancy edge for my Lunatic Fringe scarf tags; a ruler; a telescoping back scratcher (from Jen); a thermometer (last reading: 98.7—down from yesterday's high of 100); pens—purple Pilot Precise, red Foray, and blue fine-point Pilot Better Retractable (you need that pen); and a business card from Spinster Yarns and Fibers. A yarn needle and some earplugs are in the bottom.

Also on the table, a plastic Halloween bowl (from Jen) holds all the pills—hydrocodone, promethazine, a laxative I no longer need, and vitamins I forget to take; the world’s best face cream—Dermologica’s intensive moisture balance; Zicam nasal gel, which only works on the rhinovirus (I’m convinced this is the hippovirus because, well, look at me); and sixty dollars in cash from the sale of a scarf to Jen.

What is not tucked away neatly remains spread out on the table: a crow cup (Jen, again) half-full of water; coffee in the morning, a can of Diet Hansen's root beer after that; Halls cherry, both loose and in the bag; the remote to the best iPod stereo ever, Altec Lansing’s In Motion IM7, with speakers in the front, back, and sides (bought new for $100, now selling new for $147 to $200, if you can find it); a book light that came with a Snuggie (my dad’s Snuggie, since he rarely reads, though he told me he was enjoying the Carrie Fisher book, Wishful Drinking, a gift from his partner, Tom, but he mostly marveled at how big the type was and was impressed that Simon & Schuster is her publishing company, too); the remote control to my new TV, an RCA 22-inch wide flat monitor with a DVD player in the side (Garden State had been accidentally ejected; it's since been replaced with Lost in Translation); the DVD case for the last movie; a ball of leftover yarn that would make perfect fringe for Wrap Me Up, You'll Take Me; a nearly finished roll of toilet paper (we never have tissues); a pair of cupid earrings (the cupids have penises), a pair of Ed Hardy skull earrings, and a big metal crow, all gifts from Jen; two packs of 5 gum in Rain (spearmint) and Cobalt (peppermint)—gum that lasts longer than you do; a pair of reading glasses that I never, ever use; a hairy pony-tail holder; loose earplugs; and a lens cap. I also have a Bob Schneider guitar pick (because I adore him) and a Dunlop .88 Rhino pick, because it’s absolutely perfect.

On a smaller table to my right, when it’s not on my lap, is my Macbook Pro laptop. I also keep the phone there (because there’s no room on the other table anymore), as well as a CD I’ve been meaning to copy (Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue) and an AT&T bill I’ve been meaning to pay, a box of thank-you-cards, and a white noise machine, which I use every night to drown out all the noises that aren’t muffled by my earplugs. During the day, my hat is its cozy, and a Do Not Disturb blindfold is on the hat. Beneath the table is a box of fancy ribbons for fringing.

Under the first table, usually loose but now bagged with help from my daughter, are dozens of bags of yarn, sorted by color, mostly; a box of just-begun projects and fallen knitting needles and discarded skein labels; a hat knitted for me by Kristi Evans, someone from Flickr who has her own spine problems; an ugly doll, Babo (from Jen yet again); and a notepad from a game Jen and I tried to play the other night.

On the bench in front of me is more yarn—a duffle bag overflowing with bags of it. My back brace, my bathrobe, my hat, and my blankets are there, too.

In front of the bench and by my feet, within easy arm’s reach, is my guitar, a Gibson Songwriter Deluxe (Serena says it's the same guitar Billy Ray Cyrus plays). I pick it up more frequently these days. It is the best guitar in the house, and I don’t deserve it.

On the doors of the armoire that holds the TV and the stereo and hundreds of bulky VHS tapes are four absolutely beautiful scarves that I would like to sell and two I made for myself.

To the right of my glorious $1,200 red leather Perfect Chair are two windows, with blinds I can adjust while seated using the grabber. Every day from about three to five, the crows taunt me. They swoop by the window, over the house, close, in great numbers, and I quickly set the chair upright, grab my camera, and run—if you can call what my deformed body does running—outside to an empty sky. But I keep going back, and sometimes I catch a good shot of them in the trees or swooping overhead.

My dogs usually curl up on the rug next to me, and there’s sometimes a child on the sofa with her disgusting socks stinking up the room and her beautiful smile making me ignore it, sorta. My husband offers me foodstuffs, picks up my guitar and strums it, scratches my head and rubs my shoulders on his way from the kitchen to the upstairs when he isn't carrying trash bags and laundry baskets.

This is not the way I want to live, but I’m making the best of it. I don’t do as much writing as I should, but I’m revising a proposal for my second book, at Simon & Schuster’s request, so I’m trying to be positive.

I lapse into occasional bouts of self-pity. Today has been among the very worst, despite a crabcake and turkey omelet wrapped in a pancake my husband made for brunch; I had to force myself to eat it.

My hygiene is dependent on helpers who won’t run away when I take off my pants. I count two—my mother and Marty. Serena is starting to shield her eyes. Hence, my legs look like they belong on a gorilla, and I’m growing eyebrows to match. My roots are gross; I’d dye my hair back to dark brown if I could bend over. To that end, I miss sex the most.

I can't help but be depressed. And so I seem to suck up joyful moments and touches like a desert plant sucks up rain. I am starved for everything but pain and the pills to curb it—and even the latter wasn't always this easy.

My daughter played guitar at school mass the other day—in front of the whole school, confidently, not nervous. I would have gone. (I was there back in October when she played guitar for her class mass, though I could barely drive myself.) When she came home from school, I had her describe to me not only how she played but also how the kids responded. Did they think she was so cool? Did they covet her guitar? What did they say to her afterward? (The seventh-graders ogled the Gretsch and couldn't believe it was hers and hers alone; the sixth grade girls dug it, but the boys are too sixth-grade to say; all the fifth graders love that she can play.) These are the stories I want to hear. It's one thing to know your mother thinks you're incredible. It does everything for your spirit to know it's not just because she's your mother. It's because you're incredible.

Even though I'm lonely, I have made the best of my time. I write. I sometimes scream out my frustration (scaring the dogs a little). And I play my guitar wildly (and poorly), without any self-consciousness. When no one's around to yell at me, and now even when they are, I step out the front door with my camera and shoot the crows or drag myself to the attic to shoot the sunsets. In fact, since they know I'm going to do it anyway, Steve calls to tell me of a spectacular vista, and Marty and Serena hurry home to make sure I know when the sky is dramatic and fiery.

In two weeks, Serena plays her first rock concert. I am practicing walking up the steps, one foot per step, and coming down that way, too. It's harder. I practice maneuvering around the dogs. I try to correct my deformed posture, relax my abdomen and lower back, walk naturally, without one arm sticking out to my right side, my fingers all contorted like I suffer from a birth defect rather than just a bad back and a muscle tear. I will be at that show, whether I need to pimp my collapsible walker and stick old-man tennis balls on the bottom or be pushed in a wheelchair. But I'd most like to go like a hot rocker mom, and, OK, dare I say it? Even a Rocker MILF—that's how much my self-esteem has suffered these last seven weeks.

I have not merely taken stock here of the little things that keep me sane, but I remember all those blessings and am encouraged and warmed by the kindnesses of strangers and acquaintances as well as friends. Marty's school organized a meal program for us, and now someone brings a dinner nearly every other weeknight—huge containers of amazing cheesy ground beef casseroles, stuffed shells, London Broil, fancy rice, and brownies; there's more to come next week. How nice is that? My parents' friends have fed us, bought me gifts, sent money; Internet friends I've never met have sent care packages of books, manicure sets, crossword puzzles and pencils. Who knew I'd actually need that Do Not Disturb blindfold to hide the glaring porch lights? Monica Mansfield, that's who. She's a music show host in Boston, and we met on a Willy Porter fan site. Ten people bought scarves. Countless friends send me get well wishes on Flickr and Facebook and by phone and email. Smack sent me a card every day for the first week after surgery. Aunt Teena, not my aunt but just as good, sent me a book and some gorgeous yarn she bought on a whim. My best friend from kindergarten found me on Facebook and sent nine cupcakes from Williams-Sonoma (in a cooler and everything!). Cory came from Harper's Ferry with cookies. Sarah drove from Philadelphia and, even in financial crisis, brought a birthday present for Serena and a blanket and duck pillow (which I use every single night) for me. Jen spent four days here, driving from New York in the snow (!), bringing me another bunch of gifts and, best of all, helping me to get out of the house two days in a row. As we navigated the icy patches, she stopped me a few times to kick aside the slushy snow, like a lover laying his coat over a puddle so his mistress could cross.

The thing about lists is that they are far better when you're listing the things you have than when you're listing the things you need. This little reminder just went a long way toward improving my day. I hope it helped you, too, somehow.