All posts by SJ

A delicious two years

I’m not scared to admit that I am afraid of obesity. The health complications, the isolation, the social rejection. I have been a ‘fat girl’, and it sucks. It scares the hell out of me.

I have to live in this body for the rest of my life. I can’t have collapsed arches, collapsed veins, and diabetes and high blood pressure brought on by weight. I have a family bent towards excessive weight gain, especially in the waist, hip, and thigh areas. I see what it does to their knees, their hips and, most importantly, their self-esteem.

When it comes to weight gain, we as a society are not kind. I want to be able to run around with my kids when I have them and do what a woman my age should be expected to do, without complaint. I want to be happy in my own skin.

And I was. Very happy. I was a stone cold fox…until we moved to the UK. A slow creep started two years ago and I’ve gained a stone since. I’m 5 foot 7 with a medium build; I started out at the mid 140’s and now I’m at 158 pounds, and it feels fucking disgusting.

Plato said, “Think of the human body as a ship. It should not be overloaded.” And my ship is listing to port side. I’m fat and I have to shift this shit before it fucking takes over. I have to lose weight because if I don’t it’s too slippery of a slope for me to not roll all the way down.

Fear and panic is what helped me lose weight the first time and it’s what kept the weight off. But that’s gone away now. In fact, once I got married I can honestly say I stopped weighing myself. Not that I didn’t care about how I looked, but I was so happy and comfortable, I felt so loved, that the scales just didn’t figure into things any more. I didn’t need to be one number or another to feel comfortable in my skin. And it’s not just me – when I met my husband he had a washboard stomach, very nice arm/calf muscles, and could lift me up with no more effort than a mother cat with a baby kitten. No more.

The UK is a minefield of pub culture, grey meat encased in wet pastry, weather that makes you cry, and really tasty ale. It’s just we two; we have no children, no mortgage, no car payments. No car, in fact, just a Vespa. We walk a lot, but we have nothing to spend our money on but ourselves and we work long hours and have little time to do that. So, we started to eat. We’ve been munching a path through London’s gastronomic multiverse. It has been a delicious two years. It’s hard to say goodbye.

We started doing a weight challenge. It sounds stupid, I know. But what’s also stupid is that I can no longer fit into the Levis I bought just last year. I used to wear my husband’s dress shirts around the house of evenings after he’d taken them off and now I can’t – too much back fat. He looks like he has a bicycle tire around his middle and the pile of pants he’s had to throw to the back of the closet is growing.

So we made an agreement to get back to our pre-UK poundage. I make healthy dinners; my husband’s in charge of healthy breakfasts. His plan of “small sustainable goals” is a novelty for me – crash diets that produce results in short order are more my thing. But this seems to be working. It’s not easy for me to choose oatmeal over croissant or lentil soup over Chicken Tikka Masala, but we’re doing it.

We have made weight loss our bitch. There will be a few extra treats left on the UK’s shelves for the rest of you to hoover up. Sorry about that.

Hey sexy

Let me tell you what happened to me: I’m walking down my street after leaving my flat, dry cleaning in hand, bag and laptop slung over my shoulder. It’s a Friday afternoon in a busy and bustling area of east London. My neighborhood is half working class and half artsy-hipster crowd. Not that where you live should have any bearing on what happened. I have had equally humiliating experiences in neighborhoods of every socioeconomic stripe.

My neighborhood is a good neighborhood where I feel safe 99 percent of the time. But not today. As I walk down the street I notice I am coming up on a group of men standing around near the end of my apartment block. I don’t know them, have never seen them or spoken to them before.

Yet as I approach, they murmur to me, ‘Hey sister…hey baby…hey beautiful.” I knew this was coming – I have a sixth sense for these situations now – and tense up immediately, my eyes forward as I continue down the sidewalk.

I turn the corner. A drunk, homeless man mumbles something. I am polite, so I stop and say: “Excuse me?” He repeats what he said and I am immediately sorry when he asks me to perform an activity that starts with F and ends with me feeling a gross mixture of surprise and disgust.

I continue, stopping at the dry cleaner. On my way out I run into a group of teenage boys, who start making noises I’m already determined not to hear. As I rush past them, one of them tries to grab my hand crooning, “Hey sexy…where you going?” I shake him off and keep walking, the color rising in my cheeks.

I stop at the post office to mail my postcards and as I leave a delivery man on a scooter waiting for a traffic light shouts, “Sweetheart!” and gives me what could only be described as a lascivious gesture. I throw up a hand to signal to him to leave me alone and continue walking, now head down, determined to get to the library.

My heart is racing, my blood is pumping, shame and anger is rising within me alongside rage and frustration on a fundamental level. I get to the library and exchange my books without incident. My shoulders start to relax a little as I leave. Finally I see my destination. As I walk towards it, almost running, I don’t even have the thought, “This is London, wtf?” Because it doesn’t matter. It never matters. This is the world women live in. I am shaking when I reach my final destination. There are tears in my eyes.

Do men know? Do they know what this does to women? How it makes us feel? Even when we know we shouldn’t, even when we know it’s them that’s the problem and not us, do they know the shame, the degradation, the embarrassment it produces? How threatened we can feel? Do they know and just not care?

Or do they honestly not know? Can they not put themselves in our place and think, “She’s someone’s mother/wife/sister/daughter” and then not do that stuff? Do they realize how on edge we feel, never knowing how to respond? Whether we should or not? Whether it will lead to violence if we do? Or violence if we don’t?

Then there is always the fear, the apprehension that accompanies these interactions. What to do? If I purposely cross the street before I get to a large group of men who I am worried will harass me, will they come after me or catcall me anyway? Or should I just brave it out and walk through them hoping they’ll be kind? If they make a comment and I put my chin up and pretend I’m not fazed, will they do it again the next time they see me thinking I like that kind of thing?

Will it get worse in the moment as they try to get a reaction out of me? If I yell at a man who says rude or disgusting things to me, if I push a man who’s grabbed my hand as I walk past, will he call me a bitch? A cunt? A whore? Will he hit me? And if he did, would anyone step in and help me? Most men are bigger than I am. I take it for granted they are stronger.

If a man or a group of men whip out their camera phones and take pictures of me, what do I do? If a man or a group of men says horrible things to me or touches me, however slight, I can, technically, yell at him or fight back. Technically. But how likely is it that I would come out on top?

And what if it happens at night? Just me and him, or them, on a dark street? What might happen to me then? Might I get some ‘corrective’ treatment at the hands of men with hurt pride and damaged dignity? Would I be killed?

And even if I were rescued or I went to the police after, what are the odds of anything positive happening in my favor? There is a backlog of rape kits, verbal abuse against women is tolerated in broad daylight, and many cultures and places tolerate physical and emotional abuse of women, in private if not in public. There’s violence against women all over Facebook. Look it up sometime.

I can’t tell you how many ‘jokes’ I heard when I worked in the school system and how many parents, fathers and mothers, tried to excuse it with: “It’s just words….kids…you know…it was a joke…it’s nothing…”

Is it? Is it “nothing”? Would a “joke”, would “nothing”, provoke these kinds of reactions in women? How many women do these things happen to? Trust me, none of them are fucking laughing.

The old-fashioned way to get knocked up

My husband and I have been trying to start a family. I suppose that’s the ‘delicate’ way to say we are trying to get pregnant. Or maybe its that I am trying to get pregnant and he is just being…ahem…supportive.

The old-fashioned way to get knocked up is, theoretically,  the easiest way to go about it. And things are not going as planned in that department. Not at all. I can’t believe how much time I spent trying not to get pregnant and now I am faced with the Murphy’s Law of pregnancy.

Teenagers are getting pregnant all over the place, to look at the statistics. Every seven seconds a 16-year-old, low-income minority teen conceives a child just by talking to a man, if the conservative media is to be believed. The developing world is turning them out assembly-line style.

In the midst of wars, natural disasters, genocide, political upheaval, terrorism, and incredible poverty with a lack of basic care and sanitation, women are banging these kids out right and left. There are even shows that showcase women who have an awfully hard time not staying pregnant constantly, or who get pregnant on a ridiculously grand scale with multiple embryos. Even our friends who also waited to settle down and begin families are just popping them out like a row of champagne bottles. Our Facebook explodes with daily and monthly reports of their current and impending offspring.

My husband and I are not included in this explosion of obstetrics. I am not getting pregnant. No-one knows why and so no-one knows how to fix it in a way that does not involve medical/surgical intervention or the taking of large amounts of hormones, none of which we’re keen on. We will give this the old college try, we decided. But so far, nada.

I have read articles with titles like ‘The 10 best ways to get pregnant after 30’ and visited websites showing happy, fecund women in the sidebar proclaiming: “I gave up ___ and conceived after 10 years of infertility!” They are more depressing than helpful. I’ve read books with titles like ‘Pregnancy and the Older Mother’. They mostly leave me with visions of me finally conceiving but needing an ambulance during delivery that can accommodate my walker and that has a holder for my false teeth.

Most people’s advice is shit. Telling us to relax, not think about it, to let nature take its course. Bullshit. Nature and I are at odds 90 percent of the time. I think it’s trying to kill me which is why I stay out of the rural areas and stick to the city where the human animal is the one thing I am sure of.

They recommend cutting out cigarettes (no problem) and alcohol (problem). Try acupuncture, some Reiki, perhaps? Being stuck with needles and having hot oil poured on me from an angle is just not my thing, so I’ll pass. Apparently, I should keep an ovulation chart (the romance of statistics), take my temperature regularly and check my…um…discharge, to monitor whether “conditions are optimal”, as though conceiving a child is akin to deciding whether or not to take a long journey by sea on a small raft.

My poor husband has been ridden enough (literally) without the medical community’s infantilization of his genetic material by referring to his sperm as ‘swimmers’. He is supposed to wear loose underwear, not take hot baths or showers, not smoke pot, and not drink refined or processed foods with their insidious anti-sperm ‘toxins’. My husband and I both now share the indignity of examinations full of plastic cups and “wands”, medieval looking tools put in uncomfortable places, and tables covered in paper roll.

See, we thought this whole ‘buns in ovens’ process would be a lark. We thought it would take six months tops and we’d be on our way to weekends full of puke and dirty diapers. So we stupidly told our families we were trying and for the first year we’d get excited talking about the prospect of parenthood with them. Well, maybe we shouldn’t have done that. It’s backfired and taken a lot longer than we imagined it would.

Things are also getting weird, more for me than for my husband. I feel alienated from my body these days. As if it has disappointed me, gone off to do its own thing and left no forwarding address. My body has always done what I’ve needed it to do, except for cartwheels . Never was able to do one of those. Now, I feel let down. I am making a ‘hospitable environment’ for baby and baby doesn’t want to live there.

Even though I’m happy for them, I have begun to get sad when people I know let us in on their ‘joyous news’. I have a bit of a sinking feeling when I experience a ‘moment’ in my job (I work with children) and wonder what it would feel like to be a mother. My husband is sad too but he keeps it to himself. Truth be told, we are both in disbelief at this whole mess – there’s even an undercurrent of slight shock. We never imagined anything like this would be an issue. We are both physically fit, happy with ourselves and each other. So: what the fuck?

We’ll keep trying, for now, and then evaluate our options. But if nothing happens and I find out it’s the water supply or the bisphenol A in my fucking plastic kettle, I’m burning this motherfucker to the ground.

Supermarket meatballs and processed parmesan

The true test of any diet is always, always the point at which a woman gets her period.

Sorry if anyone reading this is uncomfortable reading this next part, but you’ll just have to deal with it because I refuse to cave in to the mullahs who say that a woman’s period is never to be mentioned. If it’s pertinent, I will mention it, out loud. I will even call it what it is: a period. I may even use its technical, medical name: menstruation. I know, it’s revolutionary.

I have already lost just under six pounds in two weeks and I plan to keep going until the holidays when I will reward myself with a trip to some place warm, where I will sunbathe and show off my new , even hotter body. But back to the topic of monthly bleeding from your vagina, or getting your period.

As anyone whose ever been a woman, or met a woman, or who is currently a woman with a working uterus will confirm, the duration of menstruation is an interesting 5-7 days. Once a month from the ages of roughly 13 to 50, a woman’s body decides it wants to kill her. Accurately, it decides to start the potential baby-making processes from the woman end of things; every month your uterus gets all excited that maybe today, maybe this is the day, actually the few days when you might decide to reproduce.

In preparation for this, each of your two ovaries decides to release an egg. These eggs meander to the fallopian tubes, then roll down your tubes and implant themselves in the uterus – if they get fertilised by a sperm, of course, and only one of them can. There they glory in their newfound home and start growing into half a version of yourself and use the build-up of coagulated blood and nutrients in your uterine lining – which has been building thanks to hormones and such for the past few weeks or so – for sustenance as they evolve. Sounds rather alien-like. Creepy, right?

If they don’t meet up with a member of the spermatozoa persuasion they just, I don’t know…go away. Melt, disintegrate, like sugar in the rain. And this, along with the raw meat-like insides they were supposed to munch on (the uterine lining) spend the next week making you feel like you want to die. The uterus wants to get the gross stuff out so it causes cramping of the muscle. There are chemical processes that go on involving Science which cause nausea, constipation, bloating, vomiting, headaches and leprosy. Well, maybe not leprosy. It just feels like that.

Let’s not say leprosy. Let’s say…INCREDIBLE, UNDENIABLE AND IRRESISTIBLE FOOD CRAVINGS, the likes of which you’ve never had before. You can be the kind of person who can easily go without eating chocolate, or chips or pasta for 25 days a month. You could be a punk rock vegan who weeps thinking about the exploitation of bees or a strict vegetarian yogi for whom “eating clean” is your personal mantra. You could be a person who prefers to eat all organic, free range eggs and who wouldn’t touch a meat product who you weren’t on a first name basis with.

Once your period hits, its going to take more than an inversion or a show to get your mind off the primal urge you have to stick your face in a  bowl of gluten filled spaghetti, covered in canned pasta sauce, and drowning yourself in supermarket meatballs and processed parmesan.

I have become a completely irrational person when it comes to my period in a way that almost scares me. If it wasn’t temporary, this momentary madness where certain foods were concerned, I would think I had a serious problem. Once those cravings hit, cravings I feel absolutely driven by, I have to exhibit superwoman strength to keep myself on an even keel. One side of the boat is the pasta, the other side of the boat is a triple layer fudge cake with fudge filling and fudge icing garnished with fudge. I could eat an entire pot of pasta for lunch and an entire chocolate cake for dinner. And I actually have done.

Five days in every month my body needs carbs and fat and sugar for the mythical baby it thinks I may be gestating. It has a NEED TO FEED. It wants to make sure this non-existent zygote has food. It wants to ensure the literally fantastic embryo is well-supplied. It is fighting against all biology to try to stave off those urges. I tell you, you have to work really hard not to just become a Great White in human form…quietly salivating, roving the aisles of your local supermarket, teeth barely covered, hunting the corners of the local shop, grabbing boxes of macaroni and cheese and snatching the last box of eclairs from a horrified old lady.

So this week, my period should start. And with it there will be a sacrifice demanded. Will I be able to hold off? We shall see. Fuck the diet. I’m going to eat a whole wheel of cheese now. I’m going to own this shit.

Before she went west

An old acquaintance from college, now a Facebook friend, she and I have found we have more things in common than we thought over the years.

We lived on the same floor of the all girls dormitory and I don’t remember much about those days where she is concerned, except that at the time I was very much in the throes of a militant feminism/piercing/tattoo/anti-establishment phase without knowing what most of that meant. As long as I could shock my parents and get free drinks once I got down off my soapbox, that was what I cared about most deep down.

On the other hand, Jane, not her real name, was probably the nicest and yet most boring person I knew on our floor. Well maybe not the most boring but she was plenty dull in my eyes. She was quiet and unassuming, studied a lot, had conservative opinions about all things in general, and wore clothes that made her look like an LL Bean catalogue model. I can’t imagine what she must have thought of me.

We both graduated. I joined the Peace Corps and was the Taylor Swift of relationships.  She got married young and had three children. I eventually married for keeps at 33 and relocated soon after the wedding to live in London. She now lives a somewhat comfortable life, I imagine, as a suburban housewife outside of a major city. She Zumbas while sharing tips on Crock Pot recipes and where best to buy your children’s back-to-school clothes. I volunteer at a soup kitchen and am on a first name basis with most of the staff of our local pub.

I discovered when I was dating my husband that she and I shared an acquaintanceship with a third party who I would get together with in social situations. Naturally, we became friends on Facebook.

This morning I got a Facebook message; a group message that detailed the findings of the genetic testing Jane had had done a few months ago. This test was for the BRCA gene. The breast cancer gene. Jane has it.

She has a 57-87 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Oh, and a 24-54 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer. Since this is genetic, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that Jane’s mother died of breast cancer while Jane was still in her twenties.

Jane now has three children under 8 years of age and she is considering going in for a double mastectomy and a possible partial hysterectomy. She doesn’t want to wait, she says. She’s seen where that road leads, she walked it with her mother, and she doesn’t want to even point her toes in that direction. And I don’t blame her.

Jane is a realist. These surgeries will lower her risk of cancer in those areas to a less than the 2-8 percent chance of occurrence. And she refuses to use words like ‘survivor’, refuses to say someone ‘won’ their battle against this disease. Jane knows that by using those terms to define those who manage to live in spite of cancer invading their bodies, we are unconsciously putting those who don’t make it in the sub category of ‘victim’ and ‘loser’. Jane knows that cancer just…is.

She’s willing to face the pain of surgery and recovery now while she’s still healthy and in control, rather than wait to be invaded and dominated by a mass of incontinent cells that carve her life into pieces as she lives it. If she goes through with it, it will be like Herodotus’ legend of the Amazonian warriors who would solder off their left breasts to make themselves better adept at archery. Like the delicate woman in the Stephen Crane novel, ‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky’; she takes an axe and chops off the hired man’s infected finger rather than have it turn gangrenous and kill him even though before she went west she’d never even used a pocketknife to cut a shoelace.

Jane knows her enemy. She knows it’s only a matter of time before it comes for her. She recognises its face, its ways, its strategies. She is going out to meet it rather than wait, huddled and afraid, for it to find her.

This is a different kind of courage than what we are used to seeing or reading about in cancer sufferers. When we think of cancer we see it in our minds eye the way it is portrayed in the media. It is a bald woman, skinny, pale. It is a man hooked up to a breathing apparatus, wearing a hospital gown and an ID bracelet. It is a child lying wasted in a bed surrounded by stuffed toys, a scar on the side of his head from where his brain tumour was removed.

Cancer imbues its victims with a quiet dignity, a stalwart, dreamy acceptance of the vagaries of life…that’s what the commercials make it look like. This is a lot of bullshit and both Jane and I know it. The reality is that a diagnosis of cancer is not the automatic catalyst for someone showing their inner saintliness. Cancer comes with screaming and swearing and raging. It comes with vomit and diarrhoea and blood. Cancer comes with sweating and shivering and crying. It comes with incredible, agonizing, stabbing, shooting, throbbing, pulsating pain. Cancer makes people delirious, demented, and depressed. And until you get it you won’t know which ‘you’ you will be. I guarantee you will be lucky to be someone for whom quiet reconciliation is your go-to persona.