Thursday, December 24, 2009

Comfort and Joy

This fall has been a traumatic time in my family, most lastingly, perhaps, because of the schism of alienation in the wake of my mother's death.

Enough said.

I was talking to my pal BJ not long ago about how she was decorating her new house for Christmas. She's new to this concept of trees and wreaths and whatnot, having fallen in love with the idea after marrying an Italian. She's still adverse to the notion of Santa Claus or nativities, and he gets a Christmas stocking while she gets a Hannaukah stocking, but for the last couple of years, nothing has delighted her more than getting ornaments as gifts and buying them after Christmas. In the latter case, she puts them away still packaged and is surprised all over again when she opens them the next year.

So we were talking about her tree, which she put up some time in mid-November and I asked what other decorations she would put up. "Nothing," she said. "A wreath...lights!"

"Icicle lights," I recommended. "No lawn ornaments?"

She laughed with derision. "No sleighs, no inflatable anything. I won't live in a Bay Ridge display."

I laughed because when I was growing up, we lived across from a carninval. Each year, our neighbor made one more mechincal gizmo from wood and machinery -- a carousel, a waving Santa on the roof, a elf-run workshop. I don't remember everything that filled his yard, but I do remember the traffic in our cul-de-sac, bumper-to-bumper on the days around Christmas. Most of the other then-seven houses kept the spirit up, I told her, by putting up lights. My mother sewed long strings of gold foil disks to hang in our living room window, with gold lights in evergreen boughs in the flower box that ran along outside.

"Oh, and we decorated the circle of the cul-de-sac," I remembered. This was my brother Dick's project. Our court had a small stone circle with some evergreens and a birch tree. For much of the fall we saved the lids of coffee and other large cans, and collected copies ofReaders Digest. We spray-painted the lids and thronged them with glitter, punched a hole in them and hung them up in the circle. We folded each page of Readers Digest to make a point so that when we were done we had a large heavy diamond-shaped object that we also spray-painted and hung. We put up flood lights. It was very homely but had the advantage of being unappealing to pranksters.

"You had an enchanted childhood," BJ said with a certain wonder in her voice. I thought about that and decided yes, in main I did. Passing for Thin and Angry Fat Girls tell the grim stories but I know from the Rooms and from friends how good I really had it, especially at Christmas.

That's an odd statement in a way because when I was a kid, gifts were not always my parents' point at Christmas. I recently got a Barbie catalogue and nearly choked when I saw that one of the reissued dolls was Nurse Barbie. I got my first Barbie in first grade, which was in the days when it was clothes we wanted for our dolls, not more dolls. Barbie was expensive. The clothes were beautiful. Now it seems the opposite is true. Girls collect the dolls and the outfits are frayed rags.

So I got my first Barbie and she was the first bubble-haired Barbie, the pony-tailed version just phased out. And I got two outfits, which would have to last her a year of play -- a tutu and pointe shoes and that nurse's uniform.

Need I say that I bought Nurse Barbie that night?

My brothers often gave me choice between a birthday or a Christmas present, the two dates spearated by less than two weeks. The next year, my brother Jim gave me a packet of Barbie shoes and hats.

We all know that not only can a gal have too many shoes, but an eight-year-old is especially in need of Barbie shoes.

I think I got Ken in second grade but one of the puppies made short work of him and ever after my Barbies -- Midge, Francie, Skipper, Tutti, Todd and Jessica -- were, unbeknownst to me, lesbians. I think Barbie had to be replaced at some point because she was an amputee. More fine work on the part of Jet or Sandy or Buff or Jan.

The first cooking memory I have is of waiting impatiently for my mother to come into the kitchen to make sugar cookie dough for Christmas cookies.

Last year I gave BJ a mistletoe ornament and her husband a bike ornament. They had a few of these personal ornaments among their generic but pretty balls and I felt kind of sorry for them for not having a tree that is their lives' histories. I just put ours up and saved the few fragile bulbs from my childhood for prominent positions. We have Henry VIII and his six wives because I'm obsessed with the Tudors, and Clara, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker because we all love the Suite so much. There is a cathedral radio like the one my father grew up with, many gnomes because my father loves them (and calls them g-nom-eys), a number of Labradors, a hippo in a tutu because one of my parents' "songs" is [Offenbach?] the piece in Fantasia ("Dance of the Hours." Note: remember to tell Jean the flowering bush is forsythia.) There are oraments from all over Europe and the Southwest, the University of Montana, cloisonne bells that match my mother's small collection of Japanese cloisonne that my father brought back from R&R while he served in Korea, Polish emblams and German and Englsh Santas from my mother's of the family. This morning my father asked why we don't have any mushrooms, which he studied and during surgery made replicas of with the hot substance used to make artificial hip sockets.

Of course, when I was a kid, there were some fancy glass balls, some less fancy ones, and a lot plastic. The lights were the big colored ones and my brother Dick would string tinsel, strand-by-strand, for hours. At some point, my mother made a popcorn garland: I remember taking the ornaments out each December and nibbling on the incredibly stale popcorn.

My father actually had candles on the trees he grew up with. They were lit for about five minutes with a bucket of water at hand. My mother's father invented (and should have patented) strings of white fairy lights from the switch board lights at Bell Telephone where he worked. Her baby doll and straw carriage were left behind in a move but I still have the electric oven of the `30s that was another year's big gift.

Because I was the youngest by seven years and because my mother figured out that T.I.N.S.* from the handwriting on the packages as soon as she could read, Santa was downplayed. We opened our presents on Christmas Eve -- we are Northern Europeans whether we know it or not -- and as I was in the bathtub later, I would hear my father or mother saying, very loudly, "Ohhhh...Santa. Francie is going to be SO sorry she missed you!"

I'd go running out to the living room, wet and nekkid, but he had ho-ho-ho'd off to thenext door neighbor's house and I was left with a tricycle (white, with those plastic streamers on the handle bars, so pristine that I remember riding it through the house) or a cradle and high chair for my baby dolls. Then, when I was four or five, I asked my mother why there was a Santa on every corner Downtown. They were the Salvation Army of course, and the six blocks of Higgins Avenue that was our Downtown, and a place we wore white gloves when we visited, was merry with ringing hand bells. She was tired of Santa and had been disillusioned early enough that she looked down at me and said, "T.I.N.S." End of THAT ritual, though I kept hoping that if I said I believed, I actually would and Santa would come back.

That, I believe, is double-magical thinking.

There was so much snow when I was a kid! Forget about quilts and blankets of snow, this stuff huffed down in boulders and stranded my father's Jeep in mid-driveway. One year my brothers were broke and so they built me a snowman as tall as our house. I loved that more than Barbie shoes and I loved my Barbie shoes. The dementia of the project tickled me and it was such hard work to go to for a baby sister.

All of this left Christmas Day wide open. We always had dinner with our aunt, uncle and cousins, always a reprise of Thanksgiving, always mincemeat pies and "poison" (a.k.a. oyster) stuffing. There was, also, always a paranoia about cranberries, a condition we grew up with from the holiday dinner my aunt served without cranberries. My father and uncle, his brother, excused themselves and went out to find a can. Where? In those days, there were no 7-11's, no grocery store was open -- society expected housewives to be ready in advance because that's what all women did. Somehow the cranberries were procured and I wonder still if they went to one of my father's nurse's houses or my uncles railroad buddies to find them. They grew up in Missoula, went to the same grade school I went to. They knew everyone between them. My uncle had the most wonderful dimples and melodious laugh, as did my other uncle. All of their kids inherited both. Put my eleven paternal cousins in one room, tell a joke, and you will hear the music of the spheres.

There are pictures but not many of those Christmases. To take a home movie or photo meant, in the former matter, a six-foot light bar that instantly made all participants' behavior completely abnormal. And cameras had single flash bulbs that, once used, smoked and had to e thrown away. The temperature of the living room was raised by a good five degrees when movies were taken, and another ten degrees when we burned the wrapping paper in the fire place. Please don't tell Al Gore about that.

So much of what I remember has been lost -- the big Christmas bulbs, the plastic ornments peculiar to the 1950s, tinsel and the patience to string it, the Big Snow, the ice skating rink at the University where my brother Jim danced with me, the hats we wore (knitted ovals that covered the ears and tied under our chins: the Vermont Trading Company just started to carry them and I bought two), the worry about finding last minute cranberries. But a lot of it is on our tree, collected in fond memory of who we are and where and when we came from.

There are ornaments I couldn't bear to unwrap and hang this year - the tin treadle sewing machine that was like the one my grandmother used, the quilt blocks, the Scarlet O'Hara figurine (my mother to my father when Francie wa third grader, when Gone with the Wind was released every ten years: "I am not waiting until my daughter is nineteen before she sees Gone with the Wind!").

But a lot of them are hung, rehung, admired after being forgotten for a year. And now I'm going to go make my grandmother's sugar cookie dough.

*There Is No Santa.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow Day

Well this really sucks -- or maybe it doesn't.

I tripped in the Grand Canyon this October & smashed the lens coverings of my camera. If I was careful, I could still use it but last week it died a true death. I find I'm lonely without my camera. It's been a good friend. I'll replace it in lower-priced everything in Arizona but in the meantime I can't show you what my street looks like under whipped cream.

On the other hand, it's one more reason I don't have to put on 8 million items of clothing & go outside.

I was due to leave The Bat Cave for La Guardia at 6.30 a.m. for my 8.30 flight to Phoenix. When I called American Airlines last night about the weather conditions, the Human said the flight was on but to call as soon as I woke up. At 4.45 this morning I called & found out my flight was canceled & please hold for the next available agent. I knew, after something like 24 hours of cancellations, I had to stay on the line if I was going to get a flight in time for Christmas. At 7.15 a Human voice interrupted the music & woke me up.

"M'mpg m'mph, yabba, bwaf," I said.

"I can't understand you," the Human Agent replied.

I shook myself awake and told her my flight had been canceled and what should we do about this. She reticketed me for Monday afternoon & I found myself truly alone for the first time in years. There was white snow-light pooling into the Cave, I was exhausted from therapy, errands, packing & laundry the day before, Daisy is staying with her auntie & uncle for the duration of my trip & went off to the Fields of Snow in New Jersey yesterday. I keep thinking she's sleeping at the end of the bed & will start whining any minute for a walk. It's very quiet. I slept till 11, called various car services to cancel & re-book, read, called my father, read, napped, considered a spot of interpersonal turmoil I've hit but had had explained to me by New Therapist & now it's 8.30 & I've taken two Klonopin & thought I'd write a spot of blog before it hits.

I love Daisy. You know that. But I'm oddly enjoying this strange solitude that comes from everyone thinking I've left & no dogs to be wrenched around by & resting after an incredibly busy week. I've boarded with dogs for something like two weeks, had a promotional video & podcast to do at Berkley, a day of tradition with my friend Meem (Union Square Xmas Fair, Qi Dong massage in Chinatown), a marathon present-wrapping day & another of delivering, then a Saturday of errands & appointments & chores. Had I made that flight this morning, chances are I'd be a zombie tomorrow. Maybe I'll be a little fresher & rested for today's enforced downtime.

I'm missing a radio interview in Phoenix, however. Never a good feeling but, well, not my fault.

I'm actually looking forward to this two weeks in Arizona, although I know it will have some heart string tugging without Mom. Does Dad really want a tree? Does he really want cookies? Will I be forced to make mincemeat pie with my mother's alliance? Despite the questions of who my father and I really are when it comes to Christmas, I know my presence there will do more good than not. It's a good feeling, to be needed.

One of the gifts of this year's general yuckiness has been a growing correspondence with one of my cousins. She gifted me her kids who have adopted me. I'm like a pig in shit with all these younger first-cousins-once-removed who are snarky, smart, articulate, educated & share some common ancestors we can laugh at. One lives in Arizona & another is coming to stay with Dad and me (I should tell him this, yes?) for a few days.

I'm looking forward to 2010. Angry Fat Girls may have been turned down for some of the media coverage that Passing for Thin got (20/20 wants all five women in the book & I've been creative in protecting their anonymity), but I think AFG is a much more important book. PFT is a sort of fairy tale come true; AFG is the truth waiting at the close of every fairy tale. I want very much to make the point that weight gain is not merely statistically inevitable but biologically and emotionally normal. If we can't live with our selves we won't sustain weight loss and will make being overweight a form of 24/7 punishment. I want to salve some of our collected woundedness.

I want my relationship with my family to mend. New Therapist asked how I expect this to happen & I said, "Organically." I'm not sorry for this hissy fit(s) I threw over not being at Mother's memorial service but I am working through the anger & not mattering to my family. The lump in my throat right now is MUCH smaller.

I'm done with writing about fat & thin. I'm moving on to the kookie side of my life, of being a peasant in Brownstone Brooklyn. Today is the only day I've not had some light bulb flash of something I need to add to one or another planned essay.

I've eked out enough savings to plan another trip abroad, either to Budapest/Krakow or Brussels/Amsterdam. I'm planning to go to Seattle & Portland to promote AFG & will see many friends & extended family there, as well as snoop around Seattle as my potential next home.

Right now my attention is on those things. It's also on the intangibles of what I want from therapy -- setting boundaries, making myself heard, not reacting to stubbing my toe by automatically saying, "I hate myself." It's high time I hie myself off to the Rooms to get those boundaries & automatic reactions applied to food as well. But for now, it's a small miracle that this Panic-Disordered Lady can run a half dozen errands & get herself into a shrink's office.

These are the ruminations of a snow day. I'm grateful this difficult year has less than two weeks to wreck its grief, worry, stress, loneliness & rejection on me. I want, for the first time, to be the driver of the new year, rather than a nervous cringing passenger.

So. Happy new year to all of us. May the snow melt quickly.

Friday, December 18, 2009

In My Own Two Hands

Things are coming together for the publication of Angry Fat Girls, and between the work involved with promotion and Christmas preparation, I haven't had any time at all.

However: here it is, in all it finery:

I'm setting up an Angry Fat Girls website & redoing my personal website at Look for changes to come.

I think it's a glorious cover & have no idea how the art director came up with it. But then she probably has no idea how I come up with some bizarre metaphor, either.

You can pre-order from Amazon now and it should be in bookstores in late December - early January. Its official publication date is January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany.

Will post soon. I'm freeeeeezing.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


A close friend called last night and took me to task -- gently, a little bit -- for leaving my blog readers dangling for a month. I'm sorry. I've been on a bender of pain and finding ways to dodge the pain.

I start my days wondering whether it's a Klonopin day (if my heart is beating fast and my stomach is fluttering at the thought of leaving the house, leaving bed), or a codeine day (if my heart is in my throat and I've got to try to show up. Some days I use those drugs, other days I get back in bed as soon as possible, or I zone out on computer games or, of course, at night, sugar.

The other day I realized I was really and truly poisoning myself with sugar. I was dashing to the toilet a half dozen times a day, shaking like a leaf and so, so tired. I have a very fragile few days' reprieve and my energy is a bit better as are my visits to the bathroom.

But each of the last three mornings would have been a codeine morning had I chosen to swig some back. Let me explain that my reaction to codeine is a muffling of bad feelings and a slight heightening of good ones. It's also dangerous if not taken with a lot of water, on a full stomach. And one of the reasons I'm making an effort to reign in my food is that my new shrink commented on Saturday that it's no wonder I'm so tired: I'm hanging onto the cliff above all the grief, fear, anger and love that I need to go through that it's exhausting. He's right. So I'm trying to get rid of the sugar/flour & let myself fall off the cliff, as frightening as that is.

My poor friend who prodded this entry: she got to hear a shard of the abandonment by my family and my fright over Christmas alone with my father. There are other things gnawing my insides as well. I don't have a good feeling about the fate of this book. I know of an adoption going on and my birthday is soon -- I want to write a letter to that baby to tell it how special it is. I've started work on a new book proposal and, wouldn't you know, despite it not being particularly about me, I hit a spot where I'd have to talk about how apart I've always been from my family: dead halt. Nor am I sure I want to write that book. There is a boy on the far, far periphery of my life that I try hard to keep behind my dinky fake Christmas tree on a high shelf who has fallen off the shelf a few times. My favorite aunt died a month after my mother did.

I don't even know where to start letting myself feel this stuff although I'm weepy as I write this.

There have been wondrous things as well, of course. I've discovered a branch of my family who care unjudgmentally about me, who are hilarious, literate, interesting. I spoke with the cousin my age about my aunt's brief illness and that little contact with a cousin I've always looked up to was marvelous. Hero's dad took Daisy and me pheasant hunting. Daisy put up a flight of crows, found a dead pheasant and played nicely with a pheasant from the freezer, her repugnance to feathers a one-off before she caught on. I watched how much fun she had following Hero's lead into the brush, how well she took my commands to go with Uncle S., and her concern when I lagged too far behind. I saw about 95% of what a Lab is all about that day.

I've spent masses of money creating a wardrobe for my hoped-for publicity, mostly in browns (a bright color will really add pounds; black is what is expected of authors, fat women and New Yorkers) & I've assembled a couple of calendars for gifts and a raffle item that were absorbing, amusing projects. I want to start my last calendar, for the Labs, today.

And, after two months of being unable to concentrate on much, I'm sick of chick lit and can, with certainty, say that the only writers in the genre truly worth reading are Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes.

But I've been in heroin zombie mode except for those times I had to get it together, and exhausted from the effort afterward. I keep thinking of first lines of this blog but fall into pointlessness almost as quickly as I think of them.

Fingers crossed that I stay clean. I've got Christmas to do, dogs coming out of my ears, and vegetables to chop.