,So, I realized that I haven't written anything of substance for nearly a year. Writing, breath of my mind, simply dried up with no warning. Just as suddenly, crashing and jangling from my brain, words of heavy-hearted confusion tumbled as I heard my 15-year-old son relay his plans for when he's homeless. Driving home from band practice, this smart, funny kid told me, in excruciating detail, his confidence in a future sleeping on the streets.
Stunned, I asked him why he a) thinks he'll be homeless and b)would believe he wouldn't have a place to live with me. He told a tale of school personnel pounding into his head the idea that he won't get into college without a 3.8 GPA. If he doesn't go to college, he won't get a worthwhile job. Without a worthwhile job, he's destined for the streets. Oh, and he'd rather suffer the elements than ask for help (one of the unfortunate traits he's inherited from me).
Lamenting the clear lack of hope and vision for the future now evident in my son, I reflected for hours into the night upon what society and schools impress onto kids. As a teacher, I understand the pressure to succeed and excel. But the definitions of succeed and excel are warped and narrow. What about the kids who aren't college bound or college interested? What about the kids who find no relevance or meaning in school, but have something to offer the world, if only they were understood and made to feel equal to the scholars?
After years of spinning on the public school hamster wheel, I switched positions this year to a private school for gifted children. I spend my days nurturing middle school minds in a supportive environment with small class sizes, freedom from high-stakes testing, teachers who are treated as professionals with plenty of planning time, and parents who exude kindness and involvement. Students assume adults care about them, and the respect I'm shown is unprecedented in a school environment. While pondering my son's plight, I also toyed with the idea of what a world it would be if all students participated in the "private school" experience. All students benefit from happy, balanced teachers, small classes, resources, and freedom of self-expression unencumbered by the pressure of standardized testing. Where would my son's thoughts be, had he gone through his 10 years of school in such a place? Or even better, in a place where his passions drove his learning?
Today, riveted, I spent a couple of hours of a conference held at my school in rapt attention (those of you who know me understand how shocking this is - my mind tends to wander into an undiagnosed ADD haze fairly quickly when I have to sit still) as two teachers from Colorado described their Denver-based self-directed school. At this school, students determine their own learning units based on personal interests. They learn how to learn. What more do kids need? Why put unengaged students through the stress and anxiety surrounding test scores and numbers and memorizing things that can be easily found at our fingertips (dates of wars? calculus? the Pythagorean Theorem?). Who decided what kids "should" learn and why? Why can't they decide for themselves? Why is allowing students autonomy to pursue passions and grow their worlds so anathema to the general public? Saddened, I resigned myself to the reality that my son would've thrived in such a place.
I don't have any answers, and not for the first time I found myself longing for the ease of being a mom in the preschool years when problems came quickly, and went just as quickly with a snuggle and a story. Brokenhearted for the myriad kids who don't "fit" the school paradigm, I created a quick fantasy of a school in which every student enjoys knowing his or her value AS A PERSON, not tied to a GPA or a test score. A place in which no one creates contingency plans for homelessness at the age of 15 because of the message sent to him or her BY THE SCHOOL (and let's face it, I'm not innocent here either - I've had several "come to Jesus" talks with my son revolving around grades and the future). All I can do is hope, and listen to, support, and love the kids I have and those with whom I have been entrusted.
In January, I had to go to a biometric screening in order to keep my health insurance at an affordable level. The nurse made me get on a scale and then viciously stabbed my finger for a blood sample. It was horrible, and not only because the numbers revealed what I already knew - I'd become fat and unhealthy. I was told a few years back that weight gain following a hysterectomy (at age 41) was likely here to stay due to hormonal imbalance, and It seemed that diagnosis was correct.
Like most working moms, I feel guilty when I don't spend every waking moment doing things for my kids and husband, and when I spend time with them I feel guilty that I'm not working. This leads to fat, frumpy, stressed person who's lost herself somewhere along the way. Then, my brother died at 44 from an overdose. My mom died four years ago from breast cancer at 64. I learned that my father, whom I hadn't seen nor heard from since I was 15, died in 2011 at age 63. My mind jolted and I lost many nights' sleep worried that my health would take me from my children and husband, if not through early death, then certainly through being a burden to them, unable to move easily or be involved in their lives. I decided to be selfish and get myself back.
After a visit and advice from a Fat Lady Doctor, I embarked on a low-carb, low-calorie diet plan and started exercising again. I signed up to run a half marathon and started counting steps. Half marathon training began in earnest in July, and by that point I was down 30 pounds. I roused at the crack of dawn on Saturdays to do "long" runs with a group, and hobbled through the prescribed plan each week. I wheezed through 5 and 8 minute runs and cursed my Fred Flintstone feet and Hobbit body. But I persevered, since the running is raising funds for clean water in Africa through Team World Vision.
As I took this time to watch my diet and do four increasingly longer runs each week, the feeling that I was letting down my children, husband, principal, and students weighed heavily on my mind and soul. What right do I have to take precious and waning time away from them - my oldest child is a senior and leaving for college soon; my twins are freshmen. I missed part of some soccer games and was late to a couple of football games due to my Saturday run commitment. My kids said they didn't care, but my guilt was ever present. Why do we, as women, feel we must always subjugate ourselves to everyone else?
Fast forward to today - I've lost almost 60 pounds and my longest run has been 10 miles WITHOUT STOPPING, BARFING, OR DYING. I think of a 5K as easy, and recently placed in the top 1/3 of runners in my age group in a women's run. I've had to purchase new clothes in much smaller sizes. I feel better and look better than I have in years. I realized that I enjoy running long distances. The solitude is soothing and cathartic. I pop in some headphones, get into a rhythm, and go. I am slow - my latest run was 9 miles at 11:59 minutes per mile average. My PR for a 5K is 34 minutes, and my 10K PR is 1 hour, 12 minutes. Slow, slow, slow. But I feel good. Guilty, but good.
After the training and the race end, a few women I've gotten to know through training and I are starting up our own running club - the Menopausal Milers. We're going to meet on Saturdays and claim ourselves for an hour or so each week, running or walking. There are a few ground rules: no one with young and cellulite-free thighs; no "elite" runners; no guilt (by our age, the kids are sleeping until noon and won't realize we're gone anyway); no boys; NO PEP TALKERS. Pep talkers are the worst. You only get pep-talked if you suck. No one pep talks the winners. Reach out here or through Facebook if you'd like to join our group! You can be a virtual Menopausal Miler if you're not in the area... if I can do this, anyone can. I'm lumpy, jiggly, and my feet are weird. Please join in. Experience the thrill of meeting challenges and seeing your body do things you've never thought possible. Connect with other ladies. Gossip. Toss the guilt aside. And maybe drop a pants size. The possibilities are endless. Choose you.
I've reached the age at which I have a child on the cusp of adulthood and flying the nest to higher education. To that end, we have begun the grueling process of The College Visit. In days of yore, most kids I knew arrived - sight unseen - at a state school. Which state school one attended depended largely on grades and which sports teams one preferred. The two flagship schools in my state, IU and Purdue, were not only bitter rivals, but also considered the "better" schools. The kids with a bunch of Cs on their report cards went to the other schools. We graduated and entered the grind of careers, families, and mortgages. The end.
I naively thought the process would be the same for my kids. HA! Now, colleges take attendance and having visited the campus (or not) can make or break admittance. We live in an age in which a kid, like my daughter, can have a 4.3 GPA, a 30 ACT, a 1400 SAT (since we are relatively poor and can't pay for the thousands many somehow afford for extensive test prep and tutoring, these scores are the best we can hope for and I think they're pretty stellar - but what do I know) and be looked upon - by some schools - as academically weak (?!?). There are honors colleges, fellows, research institutes. College is way more involved than I remember.
So far, we have visited Butler, IU, Notre Dame, and DePauw. Sadly, my pleas to apply to Pepperdine so I can have an excuse to visit Malibu on a regular basis have fallen on deaf ears. While I couldn't wait to flee the midwest as soon as possible, I've spawned a homebody with no sense of adventure. But I digress. We embark on a pilgrimage to Nashville soon for the Vanderbilt trip - her "reach" school. Yes, apparently we are supposed to categorize and rank the schools now in to "safety," "target," and "reach" schools. The "safety" schools are the less desirable schools, but guaranteed admission. It's a point of shame if one must ever utter the phrase, "I had to attend my 'safety' school." Heaven forbid someone should have to endure four years at a *gasp* state university these days, even though most now require a very respectable 3.4 GPA. Don't get me started on the cost on any of these institutions, which makes my eyes bulge and my hands tremble. Merit aid, anyone?
As we amble through the campus on the tours, usually guided by wholesome and earnest work-study students extolling the virtues of their particular institution of higher learning, I formulate questions in my mind that I am dying to ask just for effect, but do not, lest I ruin my daughter's chances at admission. She is aware of this list of outlandish queries, and often gives me the side-eye as a reminder NOT to voice my crazy in front of people. These questions include the following:
1. My preferred mode of transportation is a hot air balloon. Do you have anywhere I can store it?
2. I have a wolverine as my emotional support animal. Can this be accommodated?
3. Do you have a carny or clown preparation program in your school of performing arts?
4. How many of your graduates are still living in their mothers' basements because they can't afford to live on their own with the massive debt they have from paying $60K a year for a liberal arts degree? Is that number higher or lower than the 96% cited as having gainful employment in 6 months after graduation?
5. How many of your graduates' parents will never be able to retire and are spending their twilight years as Wal-Mart greeters, still paying off the Parent Plus loans from said tuition?
6. How many notorious serial killers or cult leaders were once students or faculty at this school? How many students have been murdered in the history of the university? Can I request their dorm rooms?
7. Where can I obtain a medical marijuana prescription locally?
8. Do you offer a "nudist" dorm on campus? Is it co-ed?
9. I own several firearms. Am I allowed to conceal-carry on campus?
10. Why are the dorm rooms so bleak? Why do they smell like mildew and despair?
11. What are your thoughts on public seances and spell-casting? Does the university support these activities?
And so on. My daughter, who is unlike me in every way (which is probably why we get along so well), has created a spreadsheet of her college priorities and listed color-coded pros and cons for each school we've visited thus far. Notre Dame is winning; IU is losing. I'll just be glad when the process is over, and I'll have a couple of years to breathe before starting it all over again with my twin boys. I just know I'll miss the girl when she's off becoming who it is she's supposed to be - which, for the moment, is a neuroscientist. And I'll start practicing my Wal-Mart Greeter skills now.
On Monday, I got the call I've been simultaneously dreading and anticipating for more than two decades. My brother was found dead of a heroin overdose. He was 44. He died alone in his car outside a 7-11 in Colorado.
We were not close as adults, and my feelings toward him were complicated, vacillating from intense love to anger to bitterness. I watched helplessly as the boy who was so full of life that he filled a room with brightness and personality turned into a man who was a slave to addiction, first to alcohol and then to cocaine and heroin. At the time of his death, I hadn't spoken to him in nearly three years, in large part because I didn't know how to get ahold of him and for also self-preservation. But he consumed my thoughts with such force that it often pressed tears out of my eyes. How does a person with such potential fall so low? How did my brother, who had every advantage, end up homeless, at times incarcerated, and addicted to drugs? How did I escape the same fate? After all, we have the genetics of siblings. We grew up in the same home with the same alcoholic father, who abandoned us as teens. I have such guilt that it isn't me, succumbed to his fate. What right do I have to live a life free of such things in a suburban bubble? How did I get lucky and he did not?
When we were kids, we played in our neighborhood, pretending to be superheroes and football stars and Masters of the Universe. We helped each other cross the treacherous creek in the woods at the end of our neighborhood, never once letting the other fall into the perilous depths rushing beneath the log bridge. I once made him wear a dress and pretend to be Laura Ingalls to my Mary during my Little House on the Prairie obsession. He cried - he didn't want to be a boy in a dress - but he went along with it for me. A favorite game was pulling either end of my Stretch Armstrong doll, just waiting for the other to let go, sending the one who waited too long tumbling head over feet across the grass. He was an excellent athlete, good-looking, and collected friends as easily as giant snowflakes falling from the sky. Everyone fell under his spell.
A story my mother told everyone who would listen - almost as a mantra to prove to herself that her drug-addicted son could overcome all his demons - was the time when he walked forward, tugging my Pop by the hand, at a Billy Graham convention to accept the Lord into his life. "He walked forward at Billy Graham," she said. "He walked forward." As the years went on, her voice sometimes faltered during this story, but she remained steadfast in her support and belief that he would hear and remember and return to being that earnest boy proclaiming his faith in front of thousands.
At the lowest moments, I screamed at him just to stop. Just don't call the drug dealer. Just don't jab that needle into yourself. Just. Don't. I saw it as a choice he was making, not as the all-consuming need that I now understand addiction to be. Society will see his death as just another criminal junkie gone, and good riddance. They don't know that he was a son loved fiercely by a mother. That he made such an impression on people that they remember him 25 years after high school and seek me out to ask how he is and tell me stories of what he got up to as a kid. That the impact of his choices affected all of them, too. That he was a talented chef who once cooked for former president Barack Obama when he was chosen to cater the DNC National Convention in Denver. That when he was clean he made an indelible stamp on the world and on the hearts of everyone he touched. That he loved dogs and the wide open sky of the west. That "criminal junkie" did not define all of who he was.
And yet that part of him defined how everyone around him behaved. We loved and feared and pitied and cursed him. Breath caught in our throats every time the phone rang, waiting for news of him, good or bad. He spent as much time in rehab as he did incarcerated, and always went back, finding and using the drugs that must have, for poached moments, given him relief from the inner turmoil that ruled him and his behavior.
His death devastates me in a way I did not anticipate. I expected, when this call inevitably came, that I would react with tight-lipped stoic resignation and carry on. Instead, I curl up and weep for the loss of his life. For the loss of his talent, charisma, and my own hope that he would someday recover. May you rest in peace, my brother.
Today, I had my first book signing at a fantastic bookstore in Indianapolis, Indy Reads Books on Mass Ave. Go there, if you haven't, and support a local business!
Anyway, as I set up my little books and all my fun promotional items, my inherent insecurity kicked in. Was I too fat to entice anyone to buy my books? (the photos say YES) Are my books actually a little dumb? What if nobody came? I found myself feeling the need to apologize, pack up, and run.
Then, they started coming. Friendly faces of people I love and who were there to support me and my big dreams of being an internationally recognized author (is that really so much to ask?). Former and current coworkers came. Fellow Dance Moms came. My BFF and old high school friends came. They did not scoff. They did not laugh. They did not seem to mind my girth. They forked over their hard-earned cash to purchase the Cate books and proudly carried them away in my special Cate-emblazoned bags. They asked for selfies. They cheerily chose a favorite Flair pen color for me to use to sign the novels. For two hours, there was a steady stream of people who went out of their way on a Saturday to see me and give a hug and words of encouragement.
Then I thought about how very lucky I am to have these people, this tribe. They overlook my flaws and focus on my strengths. I can learn a lot from them all. I tend to be abrasive and was told recently that I'm negative much of the time. My answer to her was that I'm positive that I don't like most people. It was a joke, of course, but then I realized I don't often go out of my way to support people like friends did for me today. I stay in my bubble and focus on my perceived imperfections. After today, I'm going to make a concerted effort to go out of that zone and help others feel as important as I did today.
And the best part? Ron Swanson came for a visit (courtesy of dear Julie). He approves of the books and thinks you should help me in my quest for the domination of the independent book world!
Visit the "Cate Books" page on this site if you want to be on the cutting edge of the Catevolution!
In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Florida last week, there has been much hand-wringing, blaming of parents, and teens taking charge. Everyone is asking why all this is happening and coming up with solutions ranging from the rational (tighten up gun regulations, get rid of assault weapons) to the irrational (arm all the teachers, ban all video games, blame all the parents). I've done my own fair share of guesswork, to no avail.
I can't for the life of me come up with a good answer to "why." Parents only have so much control over a child's nature and behavior, especially as they age. I've seen fantastic kids come out of homes with atrocious parents, and vice versa. Kids are sneaky. When I taught high school, it wasn't unusual for kids to have 2-3 phones on them at any given time - one sanctioned by the parents and full of goodness and light, and one or two more cheap, untraceable Tracfones they used for their real dirtywork. They had multiple social media accounts under different aliases and e-mails - one shared with parents, the others for more...teen-agery use. These were GOOD KIDS who, like all kids, resist adult intervention into their lives, and do some really, really dumb stuff. Unfortunately, that dumb stuff is forever documented and posted online, but that's a whole other issue.
I was thinking about the kids in school right now. My oldest child is almost 17. She was born just a few months before September 11, 2001. She has never known a world in which terrorism isn't at the forefront of everything. She has never known a world without technology and social media. She has never known a world without a 24-hour news cycle. She has never known a world without copious school shootings reported every year. Multiply that by millions and millions of kids just like her, and you have a whole mess of kids about to graduate from high school who are angry, scared, and ready to fight. I think there's a reason why the whole strong-teen-rises-up-from-the-dystopian-hopelessness-and-subverts-the-dominant-paradigm-with-peace genre is so popular, and why we'll see some real change once these kids come of age.
I think what these kids experience is incomprehensible to us old folks, who still remember with nostalgia the days of our unfettered "Lord of the Flies"-style childhoods in which we rode our bikes everywhere, played in the woods unsupervised, and were able to leave our worries at the door of the schoolhouse. Today, kids can't escape. There are threats to their well-being circulating constantly on Snapchat - real or otherwise. There is constant news of death, destruction, and dire economic circumstances. Expectations in school and life are unrealistic. No wonder a record number of children under the age of 18 are on medication for anxiety, depression, and insomnia. They live in a constant state of what I call earthquakiness - an unsteady, shaky existence that can be shattered in an instant. This way of life is unprecedented and unsustainable.
Thankfully, I think we'll see a real shift when these people become men and women capable of affecting change. There are rumblings of uprising; a rising realization that, while the adults are clutching their pearls and crying WHY, their peers are dying at the hands of other kids in senseless attacks brought on by fear and helplessness. I read an unfortunate attack on a well-spoken young man who had the audacity to question a senator at the CNN town hall meeting. Some adults were calling him disrespectful; I say GOOD. FOR. YOU. I teach rhetoric to my students, and was so impressed with the ethos, pathos, and logos he employed to make his points. Since when is it disrespectful to question the status quo? Oh yeah - Nazis. Of course, that's hyperbolic, but you get the point. Hearing my daughter and her friends, who are such articulate people about to leave high school and venture forth into their lives, I have hope that they will do what the adults who are SUPPOSED TO PROTECT THEM will NOT do (for fear of what, I do not know - losing political clout?) and start insisting that guns are more difficult to purchase, start insisting that people stop treating each other like subhumans, and start insisting that we stop attacking each other simply because we are different.
So I say to these kids, go forth! Lead the way! Show the old fogies how it's done. And I'm sorry we've failed you.
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. We did have an irrational fear of Russians nuking us, but other than that, I led a fairly fear-free childhood (well, in terms of going to school). I never worried that I'd be shot or hurt in a school building. I never had to huddle, silent, in the corner of a classroom as an armed shooter simulation played out in the hallways. Kids were mean sometimes, but none ever took that meanness so far as to shoot up schools. Many kids at my high school openly had guns and hunted. It honestly didn't occur to any of us that anyone would bring the guns to school for the purpose of shooting people.
What has happened in the last 20 years that school shooting news is commonplace and almost an accepted part of life in America? As I watched news of the latest horror in Florida, tears streamed down my face. All I could picture was my own precious children shot down in cold blood. All I could feel was the fear those students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School must have had pressing in their brains and on their hearts as they ran screaming from their school, watching classmates and teachers senselessly gunned down. I have a moment of worry every day as my kids drive off to school. Will a kid who's really hurting bring a gun today and shoot them? Would a potential shooter think about what amazing people he planned to murder?
People like to blame guns/social media/video games for these shootings, but the real answer has to lie much deeper. From what I've seen in my years of teaching in several states across the country, kids are isolated in general and pressures are so high to achieve more and more from a very young age. School standards are not developmentally appropriate. Kids have fewer and less forceful consequences for their behavior, and more poor behavior is tolerated much longer than it should be. Parents aren't as present, despite the reputation of helicoptering over their offspring. These, plus the relative ease of availability of firearms and other weapons, add up to disaster.
The question is what can we do about it? People are tired of platitudes, if my Facebook feed is any indication (one friend threatened to unfriend anyone who offered up "thoughts and prayers" to Florida families, and I have no doubt he was serious). I feel so helpless and bereft of ideas. The reality is that gun laws are unlikely to change much, despite the clear need for stricter regulations, and if my criminal brother is any reflection of the overall criminal element, changes in laws are unlikely to keep people determined to get their hands on a weapon from procuring one - legally or not. And then there's the whole political issue of NRA contributions.
I do think we need better, government-subsidized mental health interventions and threats made by people to be taken seriously and investigated - a news update tells me that several tips were sent to the FBI about the Florida shooter (I refuse to write his name) that were simply filed away. Yes, it takes time to follow up. Yes, many of the tips will turn out to be nothing to worry about. But are we willing to take that chance? I look at the faces of my children. They trust me to keep them from unsafe places - and I send them to school every day. I hate the nagging worry that I may be willfully sending them into the firestorm of a hurting person who sees no other way to work through the pain. As a teacher, I worry about the safety of the 25 young people in my care every day. I'm trained on what to do in case of such a situation. I don't ever want to use it. I WILL go out of my way to get help for any kid I see who I think needs it. I WILL talk to my kids EVERY DAY and make sure they're connected to other people and find out what's happening in their schools. Some of the things they share are shocking; some are not. I WILL report anything weird I hear that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I WILL e-mail and call local, state, and national representatives to express my concerns as a mother and a teacher, and I encourage you to do the same. Please put down devices and really TALK to your kids. Get them (or their friends) help. Make sure they're connected and invested in their school and community through activities and sports. Take action if you hear anything untoward. Call for mental health services and stricter gun regulations - what does a teenager need with a gun anyway outside of parental supervision?
Personally, I don't trust our current administration to do much more than cry crocodile tears as part of a media show. Any change needs to start with local action and grow from there. Any change needs to begin in the hearts of today's kids.
During a typical drive with my daughter, age 16, I found myself embroiled in a conversation with her about quantum physics, alternate realities, and Schrodinger's cat. She has long been obsessed with all these ideas (as well as One Direction and nature documentaries), and loves to engage in esoteric, philosophical conversation with me as we cruise through our small, bucolic town in my Ford Flex.
I found myself thinking quite a lot about Schrodinger and his cat - how the cat can be both alive and dead, but the reality isn't revealed until one opens the box. I'm particularly interested in the Uncertainly Principle, and often I ponder is what my reality would be like if I had opened different boxes along the way. What would life be like if I hadn't had the kids? If I hadn't moved back to Indiana a few years ago? If I'd followed a different career path? Do I even understand the Uncertainty Principle enough to be discussing it, or am I getting it all wrong? Can we be both particles and waves at the same time? Arrrgh.
One possible reality is pretty grim. I do spend time fantasizing about the ease of life with no husband or kids, how I'd wantonly stay up late on school nights and buy white silk furniture and blow all my money on books. But I also know that I have a tendency toward disorder, overconsumption of snack foods, and an irresistible draw to cats and kittens. When I really think about it, I realize that I'd be a top contender for (likely multiple) guest appearances on Hoarders, My 600 Pound Life, and My Strange Addiction. Having a husband and kids limits my cat ownership to ONE, allows me to delegate cleaning to multiple sources, and my teens eat all the snacks before I can get to them. So I'm grateful I have this reality in my personal life. I shudder to think of who would take care of my 600-pound body and all the cats in the alternate realm, especially if there is only one narrow path to my bedroom among all the detritus of my life.
The staying in New England reality is a little more difficult to find fault with. Except as a single mom (at that time), economic circumstances would've dictated that I live with three growing kids in a tiny apartment in a questionable area of town, not the beach house existence of my dreams. So I guess I'm grateful for midwestern home prices and lower cost of living.
Career-wise, I've always imagined myself as a brilliant, tortured artist selling millions of books that make little sense and are therefore regarded as masterpieces (ie: Finnegan's Wake) and afford the reality of white silk furniture and all the books I want, but that the kids (whom I've decided to keep - see above) would destroy. I also really like to sleep, and my research on brilliant, tortured artists reveals that they work for days on end without sleeping or eating (and we've already established my affinity for snacks). Also, they have to work in the summer, so in the end I'm grateful for my teaching job and relative non-brilliance (though PLEASE FEEL FREE TO BUY AND READ THE BOOKS I'VE WRITTEN. See: Cate in Flux page on this site, and look for my second book to be published in March - they sort of make sense and are full of dark humor, some mild gore, and romance).
At the end of the day, I'm glad for my reality, as chaotic and exhausting and unpredictable as it can be. For now, I'll just leave the cat in the box and choose to believe it's alive. And I'll watch a little reality TV to distract myself from smart stuff that I don't know if I understand or not.
It's winter in Indiana, so there's nothing to do except go to the mall and try mightily to avoid chain restaurants. I loathe winter, with its cold, gray expanse of desolation. Every winter is the winter of my discontent, but there's an awful lot going on at the mall if one just pays attention.
In my last couple of visits to the Fancy Mall (aka Keystone at the Crossing, a mecca of stores that people loiter in, but cannot actually afford any of the merchandise brazenly priced above middle-class affordability), I've noticed that there are men who just sit in ergonomically correct chairs, looking lost and forlorn, holding purses and shopping bags as their wives/significant others shop. These men have eyes fixed in the million mile stare, their mouths slackjawed, shoulders rounded from years of mall-sitting and staring at devices as they while away countless hours waiting. They make sidelong eye contact with their fellow sufferers, ostensibly wishing they lived somewhere with something remotely exciting to do, lamenting their Hoosierness as I do.
I want to reach out to them, to tell them they're not alone. That I, too, trudge through the shiny stores avoiding the chirpy cheeriness of avaricious salespeople, wishing for something more out of life as I crumple onto a chair from sheer ennui. I imagine such groupings at all the malls across the world, and my heart goes out to these soldiers of love, enduring artificial light for hours for adoration of their counterparts.
Last weekend, while strolling the mall with my dear darling husband (who is of perpetually good cheer to counterbalance my perpetual crankiness), I noticed that some of the men had trainees with them. Boys ranging in age from about 8-16 joined their future selves on said ergonomic chairs, tapping away at their phones and affecting the "mall face" so prevalent on a frigid Saturday in the heartland. Where, I wondered, are all these men and their trainees from, and for whom are they waiting? Is this something passed from father to son? There don't seem to be enough people in the stores to pair with all the chair-sitters. Do these men come to the mall alone just to sit with their cronies and wait for no one? Do they have nothing better to do? I make up stories about them as I try to figure out which lady goes with which man (In my mind, the sitters are straight; I don't know why). Are they here of their own volition? Is it their own personal purgatory? Do they make friends? These questions plague me.
I wanted to toss my purse and a shopping bag at my husband, and task him with infiltrating one of the klatches to find out the stories. I floated the plan to him, and he replied, "But I want to spend time with you - and our movie starts in just a few minutes." Another question - why does this gem of a man like me so much? Perhaps that is an even bigger mystery... but I digress.
According to Punxsutawney Phil, there is still way more winter than anyone deserves going forth. This will mean many trips to malls "just to get out of the house" and continue my sociological study of the chair- sitters. Perhaps I'll ply them with some fro-yo from Pinkberry so they'll accept me as one of their own and allow me to study their psyches. I'll get back to you with my findings.
Trembling, as though Pennywise the Clown had suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision with his terrifying grin, I lifted first my right and then my left foot and stepped on the scale for the first time in six months. After I peeked for the briefest moment out of a half-closed eye, I sank to the floor, wishing for Pennywise to take me away, though I doubtful I would "float" given the appalling number that flashed before me in blue digital horror, burning the number into my brain. WHY WON'T IT STOP FLASHING? I shouted in my head. As the scale went dark, I wept and the anger at how out of control my life had become all flooded out my eyes. I can't even bring myself to type the number here, so you'll have to use your imagination.
The number showed that I've gained 20 pounds since summer. Twenty pounds. Two-zero pounds. I've had a lifelong struggle with my weight, from about age 15 when my whole life turned upside-down after my dad left for work one day and never came back, and I began eating my feelings (I KNOW! That was 30 years ago - get over it). I remember, vividly, shopping with my mother two years later as a high school senior to purchase a dress for a winter dance. I had to get a size 8 - which isn't even that big - and she looked at me sadly, remarking, "Don't you wish you were thin and pretty like your friends?" I pretty much stopped eating after that, then ate again, then stopped, then ate all the fat and calories. Through the next three decades, I've gained and lost the same 75 pounds over and over again, through various means. The most effective diet was the "divorce diet," during which the stress of starting my life over with three kids and no job caused my weight to plummet in a matter of months. I looked great for about twenty minutes, then it all started creeping back on. I'm still waiting to reach my lifelong goal of being so thin people worry I have an eating disorder.
I'm not stupid. I know what causes fatness. But I fool myself every time I lose weight into thinking that, this time, I won't gain it back - much the same way I fool myself every few years into growing my hair out, thinking that this time it'll look like Jennifer Aniston's. And every time, it creeps back on, and I find myself weighing more than some male professional athletes, decidedly without the muscle tone, athletic talent, and salary. The self-loathing and feeling like I don't want to leave my house and subject others to the horror of looking at my body sets in. I feel like I should apologize and offer eye-bleach when I leave the room.
This time, I'm trying the Beachbody program, after a convincing coworker talked me into it. I did a 3-day reset thing, and currently suffer the humiliation of working out at home where my family can watch. In the last 10 days, I have lost a few pounds. I've eaten no carbs, processed food or sugar, and I haven't bought a Party Size bag of Wavy Lay's (my weakness) and consumed 2/3 of the bag on the way home from the store. I've made shakes and eaten a lot of salad. I feel much better - even my back, which has plagued me with degenerative discs of late - and more awake than I have in a long time.
Will this time be the time that changes my ridiculous emotional relationship with food? I hope so. At age forty-seven, there's not a lot of time left for me to fool around with it. I'm putting this out there to beg anyone reading this for some support, and if you see me with a cupcake in hand, PLEASE slap it away and say, "NO, Fat Girl!" You'll be doing me, and the unfortunates who have to look at me, a favor.
Courtney is a most fabulous writer and elementary high-ability teacher. She is the author of two novels - see the "Cate Books" page of this site for information! Watch for updates about future books that need to be part of your personal library. In the meanwhile, enjoy her pithy life observations.