Saturday, April 30, 2005

Pretty Women

I'm watching Farrah Fawcett on the David Letterman show. She's leathery tan with her usual blonde hair mop. Her nose resembles Michael Jackson's (which might explain why she always sounds like she has a cold) and she can't move her frozen mouth when she smiles or laughs. Dave is gushing all over her and she starts to bounce up and down in the overstuffed chair. When he asks her to do it again, she does. I'm feeling sick.

She's hawking her latest project: a reality series where cameras follow her around and try to make something out of nothing -- just as they have with other pseudo-celebrities who only have the bizarre-ness of their lives to market. This comes after decades of the merchandising of Farrah: first, there was the blockbuster masturbation-inducing swimsuit poster, her stint as a "Charlie's Angel" on TV until she wanted too much money, Playboy centerfolds, an erotic video that showed her acting as a human paintbrush covered in slippery pigment rubbing up against various surfaces ("I was an art major before I went into modelling!"), and most recently her partnership with a sculptor who immortalized her in a show at the Los Angeles County Museum. I don't why, but that one makes me the saddest.

I was fat for most of my life, so I've only felt the occasional glimpse of what it's like to deal with the issues that come with "pretty". And at an age where I should know better, I still feel twinges of envy when I see the admiring looks from men focused on pretty women. But I think being really beautiful must be like being very rich. You never know if someone wants you for YOU or for what you have to offer them -- visually, socially, sexually, whatever. I think I stayed overweight to avoid all that nonsense since I had to watch close-up how pretty women are marginalized by men when I was growing up.

My Dad married my mom largely because she was an attractive arm piece half his age (unfortunately she came with two kids who required some attention). Once while they were working out in the yard under blazing hot sun, some friends stopped by unexpectedly. My mom, dressed in a bikini top and shorts, waved enthusiastically and started over to greet their guests when my Dad hissed at her: "Go put something on." And she did.

For years, he insisted on coming to her office to pick up HER paycheck and when she insisted on buying her own car, the arguments seemed to go on for days. In his eyes, being pretty meant weakness and dependence. These were big steps forward from her previous life. Pregnant at 15, she eventually had two kids with a violent bully who -- among his other credits -- was dishonorably discharged from the Navy, hit my mother while she was pregnant with my brother, refused to let my mom feed her crying baby, and preferred to be thrown in jail rather than pay any child support. For my mom, being pretty meant being treated as a foreigner in a family full of boys, disposable by the first attractive man who promised to get her out of the house, and as a defiant child by her second husband.

My Dad had another family before us. Two girls and a boy who shared the most infectious and magical sense of humor. I could never get enough of their company. I still can't. The middle one, step-sister Lynn, grew up to be incredibly striking. She was always able to get men to do things for her and I admired the mastery she had over males. They were the moths and she was the flame. They waited patiently for any word or nod that showed special attention or interest. For awhile, being pretty meant power and attention.

A teenaged bride -- another beautiful woman so desperate for male attention that she got knocked up in high school -- Lynn made a bold strike (as a single mother) to New York City to start a modelling career and to turn her beauty into money and fame. She discovered that even women treat pretty women badly during her first meeting with mega-agent Eileen Ford: Eileen was screaming at the exquisite black model Beverly Johnson as she stormed out of Eileen's office. Next, it was Lynn's turn. Eileen slowly perused her modeling portfolio, spitting out a commentary about how many girls she saw every day with a dream of making it big and gradually Eileen slowed down, her voice sweetened, and she offered Lynn a contract on the spot. Instead, Lynn signed with the much warmer Wilhelmina (a former Ford model) who treated her "girls" more like family than commodity.

But no matter how much success she enjoyed, she still hooked up with lousy guys. Even the men she loved took advantage. On a brief return home, She and my Dad went to lunch at a local restaurant. As the meal ended, he asked if she would kiss him on the mouth to make it look to the other men in the dining room like they were a couple. And she did.

Lynn committed suicide a little over a year ago. Her modeling career had long since ended and the weight of a deadbeat stoner husband (who was preceeded by a much younger deadbeat, abusive boyfriend) must have been too much for her. She left behind a devastatingly beautiful 15-year-old daughter who is pursuing her own modeling career. As sad as I am for Lynn, I'm grateful as hell that she's not sitting in a chair next to David Letterman, bouncing up and down at his command, trying to hawk a cable reality show just to make a living.

Super Baby!

Shhhhhhh! James is dreaming of superheroes.

Breakdown Part 1: "What the________?"

Even though we are well into the new year, I have made a new resolution: I will no longer glare, sigh heavily, harrumph, or curse under my breath when I see or hear of a disabled vehicle on a freeway or bridge. Those poor victims of mechanical unpredictability used to earn my scorn -- such an easy target of ridicule and Schaudenfreude. Why can't they take care of their shit? Why can't they drive more carefully?

Well, those days are gone. Why, you ask? Because last Friday afternoon -- in the middle of a simmering mass of stop and go traffic, my brakes seized up. Shit! Stranded in the center lane, five miles and 25 minutes from home, I became a statistic for the radio traffic report and my heart dropped into my stomach. How did this happen? I take care of my shit. I'm responsible. I get regular oil changes.

The afternoon started out so well. My "to do" list had been conquered after a relatively productive week and I happily waved ta-ta to my co-workers, heading home early to spend the remains of a lovely spring afternoon with my beloved. He'd been holed up in our apartment for three days sans shower, sans razor, sans dignity, finishing an overdue writing project and we needed some time together out and about, hopefully culminating in a drink or two in the neighborhood.

As soon as I reached the freeway on-ramp, I sensed a problem. Normally when I leave the suburbs and head downtown, the traffic doesn't get bad until I'm halfway home. But when the line to get ON the freeway is crawling, to paraphrase Margo Channing, "Hold onto your hats, it's going to be a looooooooong-ass commute." Normally, I would have foreseen what I was getting into and taken a parallel route, but now there was no turning back and an attitude adjustment was necessary. So, I became calm: I turned on progressive talk radio (or was it NPR? I can't remember. I think the subsequent adrenaline rush erased a bunch of my brain cells). I eased into the natural rhythm of the traffic. Craaawwwllllll……….stop. Craaawwwllll………stop. Cra..stop! Goddamn! Those sudden stops make me nuts!

I tried to enjoy the scenery, absolutely clear blue sky, green trees along the roadside, and radio tales of much worse traffic on adjacent freeways. So, hey, this isn't so bad. It's gonna take a little longer to get home, but not forever. What should we do later? Go for a walk? For dinner? Find a movie? It's going to be hard to pick. Aaahh…going home early…what a good idea.

About half way there, I started to feel resistance when I let up on the gas, like some mysterious force was hitting the brakes. Eventually, the gas pedal wasn't revving up the car like it should and the car eventually slowed way down. This is when your heart starts racing because your car has now taken on a life of its own. It is NOT doing what you are TELLING it to do and you are in the MIDDLE of the fucking FREEWAY, Goddammit, and you are pretty close to HOME, and you DON'T know what the hell is going ON, and…THUD, SKOOOORCH. The car stops. FUUUUUUCK!

And I can't find the goddamned hazard lights! Where the fuck are they? I roll down the window to let the people behind me know I ain't goin' anywhere, frantically waving them along while I try to figure WHAT THE HELL TO DO NEXT! AAAAAAAGH!

After fumbling for fucking EVER, I finally hit the hazard lights and I can see disgust in the eyes of the drivers behind me. While I was in the thick of it, traffic seemed to crawl, but now that I'm stuck, cars fly past me and they're copping a major attitude. I can feel them glaring, sighing exasperatedly, harrumphing, and cursing under their breath. Yeah, Yeah, I hear ya'.The driver I feel most sorry for is the one unlucky enough to land nearest my rear bumper. She's trying to get around, but all the traffic coming up behind us makes it a life-threatening venture. I think her eyes hold more terror than mine.

I visualize my spine getting smashed like a fallen icicle when some distracted driver slams into me, then I take deep breath, pick up the cell phone, and call Triple A. I get the recording telling me they'll get to me when they can and as my blood pressure rises, a bald twenty something asshole with a vicious mouth races past and screams "Get out and push!" Oh yeah. The best course of action for me right now is to get out of my car, walk into rush-hour traffic in my 2-inch heels, and try to push my car somewhere.Why don't you stop and help me, you stupid jerk??!!?? Bite me!

And then, just like Cinderella felt when the prince on the white horse rode up to take her home to Tara, I see the flashing light bar of a big-ass white truck two or three cars away and -- don't ask me how I knew -- THEY WERE COMING FOR ME. The Triple A lady finally answers and starts asking me a lot of questions which sound so goddamned pedantic, I start to lose it and the panic rises in my voice, "I'm headed South on I-5 at the 45th street exit in the middle of the freeway….I don't KNOW what the exit number is!" Like I'm going to fucking LOOK at the exit numbers while my car sputters into a heap. Right!

The big-ass white truck slowly passes, enters my lane and backs up toward my car. Oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, take me away! Clad in white overalls (the symbolism in this experience is so cool) the two rescue guys exit the truck and come toward me. I meet them halfway and we try to figure out what the fuck is going on. Since the car won't move no matter how much we speculate, I don't know why we do this in the middle of the freeway, but we do.

They explain they are from the Department of Transportation (I will never begrudge another state tax dollar as long as I live!) and they were on their way to help another poor schmuck (my words, not theirs) when they saw me. They pull me over to safety in the nearby exit where I can wait for my tow-truck. They advise me to get back in the car and put on my seatbelt. They give me a comment card (trust me, when their boss gets my letter, they will get a commendation, a medal, and a friggin' pay bump) and an informational brochure. I thank them, tell them they saved my life (and honestly, they may have), and thank them one more time as they drive into the sweltering rush-hour morass.

I lean back in my seat and go over what just happened so I can call my boyfriend and tell him the story. Then I realize: from the time my car stalled to the time the DOT boys showed up was probably no more than two minutes. And I smile. And I breathe. Two minutes!? Stranded in the middle of a five-lane highway during rush-hour?! Jesus. I am so Goddamned lucky.

(to be continued)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Separated at Birth?

Maybe it's the round head or the cheerful demeanor, but I can't stop looking at James without thinking how closely he resembles your old pal, Charlie Brown. And here's something weird: when we were in junior high school, my brother Kevin (James' Dad) played the famed cartoon character in a highly entertaining production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown." Maybe some of the jokes and songs seeped so deeply into his skin, they jumped back out as James. I hope he gets a big crush on a little red-haired girl some day.

Good grief, I love this kid.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Workin' the Night Shift

I recently hauled myself to the gym after realizing that if you sit (or better, recline) for over a year doing nothing but eating, knitting, and watching television, your behind can grow to resemble that of a pachyderm. Sort of like the "garbage in, garbage out" principle, only with fudge cake. Your body truly reflects what you do in your spare time, trust me. Don't let your overweight friends gain your sympathy by telling you they "just don't know why they can't lose weight." You can tell what people do in their spare time by the size of their waistline and mine had reached its largest circumference ever.

Although my year (OK, maybe more) of sloth was fun while it lasted, I had to get moving for many reasons: my energy was so low I could literally curl up into a ball and nap at any time of day; those madcap, impulsive trips to the mini-mart next door for Ben & Jerry's were becoming a nightly ritual; and I was very close to having to go to work naked for lack of clothes that fit. You can only stretch that black turtleneck so far before someone can read your bra label through the fabric.

My past history with the gym has been mixed. A few years back, I was going through a divorce and, in order to reach my "mating weight," I tried stumbling through a 5:30 a.m. aerobics class. I got pretty good and my hips were shaping up nicely until I started dating and I found I much preferred snuggling under a warm comforter with my partner of choice to throwing on sweats in the dark and cold.

Soon after, I moved to another city and the weight started creeping up again, so I decided to commit to regular gym attendance by paying for an entire year in advance (with three months thrown in for free as a bonus!). I never even set foot in the place -- literally -- after I signed the contract. Apparently, that's how health clubs make a great deal of their income: by banking on the insanely low probability of yearly subscribers attending regularly if ever. Although that factoid reduced my embarrassment, my pant size continued to move upward.

So, this February, I began "Project Me." I wanted to miss the rush hour traffic of New Year's resolution makers, so I waited an extra month after the holidays. "Project Me" included medical and dental check-ups and minor repairs, a mammogram, a pap smear, "saying no" to all extra-curricular activities, joining Weight Watchers (on-line to avoid the weekly weigh-in -- I can humiliate myself just fine in the privacy of my home, thank you) and re-joining the same gym -- this time on a month-to-month basis. The good news: I had perfect gym attendance for two weeks. The bad news: It took me six more weeks (maybe more, I don't know) to get back there. This time around, I'm trying something new: I'm working out at night. Why? Well, since I got rid of all my other commitments, I have time for myself in the evenings and since that's when I start grazing for goodies, it’s a healthy substitute. Besides, it's not like my evening social calendar is chock full and a workout gives me something to look forward to during deadly boring office meetings. Most important: I get to sleep in a few extra minutes and I still work off my booty. So far, so good.

But I've noticed some interesting differences between the morning and night shifts. Very different creatures inhabit each world. Even at 0:Dark:30, the "High Rollers" are up and at 'em and ready to start the day the same way they live the rest of their lives: fast and furious. They already have great bodies, usually run really fast, lift heavy weights, and put the most into their aerobics or calisthenics. They make me want to go back to bed. "Worry Warts" are also early birds, trying to restore their bodies to the ones they had before babies, sedentary jobs, attacks of depression, whatever. You can read the anxiety and desire on their faces and on the pages of the fitness magazines they compulsively consume.

The "Cranky Grandmas" are the scariest. One gray November morning, I was shaken from my sleepy stupor by an 80-something dressed in matching leg warmers and headband who told me I was in her spot and she waited for me to pick up my mat and weights and get out of her way. The grandmas usually travel in packs, love to gossip, and go to coffee after. The saddest thing, though, is when I hear them pine for the thin bodies they wish they had. I have this secret hope that when I reach retirement age I won't have to get up early for anyone or anything and I can throw off this mortal coil and stop worrying about my weight. Maybe not.

Early morning hours also attract the "Semi-Tenants" who know all the details of the towel girl's personal life, have a favorite locker, and bring their work clothes and toiletries with them. The gym has become a second home for them and, like any crowded household, the bathroom can get busy. Blow dryers whirring, showers whooshing, locker doors slamming. By 7:45 a.m., the locker room frenzy resembles bath time at Grand Central Station.

Evenings, on the other hand, feel more relaxed. The atmosphere is social and the demographic younger. No one is in a hurry. People linger to talk, flirt, take a class or two. When I asked about the busiest times at the gym, I was told "between 5 and 7 p.m, " so I try to go after 7, but even then the remnants of the mating game are still visible, especially in the weight room. Something about clanging plates of steel seems to attract members of the opposite sex. Married couples seem to work out more frequently together in the evening and the wives hover close to their mates. Their female antennae must detect a lot of competition and they want their territory clearly staked out.

There's one final nocturnal group. These are guys with nowhere else to go and no one to dress them. You can tell by their workout clothes: reminiscent of the 1970s jogging craze, made out of polyester, and a little too tight. They loiter conspicuously and because of the artificial content of their clothes, usually have terrible body odor (which, surprisingly you don't smell much at the gym -- sweat yes, chlorine yes, body odor, not so much). They're sort of like depressed over-the-hill Jack Trippers wandering among the treadmills, trying to find a place to feel comfortable or maybe some company.

I sympathize with these guys. It's hard to find your place at the gym, whether it's on your favorite Stairmaster or in your preferred location for yoga class. It can feel kinda silly at first -- even painful. When my trainer showed me the machines and walked me through some excruciating moves, I warned him, "don’t make me hate this place." I'm determined to hang in for the long term and forced agony won't help. So, I'm thinking this evening workout thing has potential. It offers the best of both worlds: pushing my physical limits while reducing the psychic pressure of getting out bed too damn early and enjoying the self care I'm giving myself. It's a delicate balance to maintain while I whittle away at my sizeable center of gravity.

Monday, April 18, 2005

I've Got a Crush on Her

I have fallen in love. With a woman. On TV. Behind my boyfriend's back.

Actually, we both caught a glimpse of her a few nights ago as a guest chef on the David Letterman Show. Her gorgeous pale skin was poured into a sumptuous strapless black velvet dress and a curtain of warm brown curls surrounded her perfect face, dark eyes, and rosy lips. As someone who had to abandon all tanning attempts years ago and annually endures derisive cadaver-like adjectives, I couldn't stop staring at her yummy vanilla whiteness. She wasn't hiding her pallor. On the contrary, she had poured hers into a chocolate shell and was serving it up proudly to a national television audience. Yummy.

On a recent foggy Sunday afternoon, while my boyfriend worked in his office, I wrapped myself up in a quilt, too lethargic even to go next door to the mini-mart for a cheap magazine or Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie Frozen Yogurt (or both). I clicked the remote and there she was. Those eyes. Those lips. That milky skin. And those curves! Why hadn't some image consultant put her in a tanning booth and forced her to eat 600 calories a day to "take her career the next level" like Katie Couric did when she was re-negotiating her last contract?

I soon learned why. She no doubt would have told the consultant to "bugger off" while she sat down in front of the TV, draped in a silk dressing gown, and savored a bowl of warm, buttery linguine sprinkled with cheese and pancetta. God, how could you NOT love her? Instead of going on a diet, she wrote a book called "How to Eat". Imagine the allure to a lifetime dieter who sees food as an adversary to be constantly grappled with. Nigella doesn't grapple with food, she massages it. I get lost in her poetic descriptions of color (sometimes she adds spices just to change its hue), the way she inhales hypnotic aromas, and her insistence on adding texture to enhance the visceral enjoyment of eating. Whew! Give me a minute. I gotta take a breath.

Just so you don't think my passion is shallow, let me assure you I am not naïve about Nigella Lawson: I know she is a celebrity chef. I had vaguely heard of her bohemian approach to cooking ("Forever Summer") and had seen bits of various guest appearances, but up until now that was just vague celebrity background noise. Years ago, my mother had embraced Martha Stewart's ideas, bought rubber garden clogs, and even painted her deck the shade of pale green that Martha used on her web site. But, gees, even before she went to prison, Martha was never someone you could warm up to, even in a platonic way.

Nigella is the anti-Martha. Martha is austere and pastel. Nigella is dark, rich, and deep. Martha hides her maturing figure behind boxy, starched, stand-up-collared cotton shirts. Nigella wraps her hourglass shape in clinging red, black, and white. Martha had a contentious divorce while she ruthlessly climbed her career ladder. Nigella is a widow who stood by her husband during a long, painful illness and worked hard to support her family. Martha seemed to use borrowed children as props for her holiday shows. Nigella feeds her own children yummy southern eggs and ham cooked in cola before walking them to school and she makes snacks for "tea" when they return home. Don’t you love the whole "tea" thing? I once heard that while filming, Audrey Hepburn demanded the cast and crew stop each afternoon for tea. Nigella? Audrey? Snacks for tea? I am so in LOVE.

But the ultimate seduction of Nigella is that she is the anti-me. What I fear, she savors. What I try to hide, she celebrates. She criticizes "food fashion victims" who reject certain groceries as "too old fashioned" or who expect a plate to be immaculately presented. And unlike Martha, who stands at a distance acting as a school marm, Nigella generously invites me to join her tribe and to bring all my flaws with me. Her producers cleverly show scenes of Nigella and friends enjoying her food in settings where I can actually see myself: a Christmas Eve dinner, a girls-only night of drinks and decadent desserts, or an easy meal of comfort food for one.

As warm as a bowl of her favorite lentil and chestnut soup, as beautiful as her bejeweled Christmas fruitcake, and as comfy as the house slippers she pads around the house in, she's the perfect partner. As they (sort of) say in the movies, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

But please don’t tell my boyfriend.