About six or seven years ago I had a conversation with a woman with whom I had a somewhat difficult friendship, a conversation that has replayed like a tape in my memory banks ever since. (For you kids that would be like a MP3 on my internal iPod). We had just discovered we had a mutual acquaintance, someone I was just starting to know, and my friend said “you know a few years ago she lost SO much weight and now she’s gained it all back and then some. I just don’t understand how someone can do that, I mean, once you’ve lost it why would you ever gain it back? I just don’t get it!” Loaded with judgment and scorn and a bit of the smug satisfaction that comes with knowing your arrow has struck the bulls-eye, her comment stung and I whispered, “because it’s hard.” But, lost in her rant, she didn’t hear me. The irony of the fact that the comment came from someone with her own substance abuse demons was not lost on me. What I should have done was tell her that a struggle with food and weight is every bit as real as a struggle with alcohol or drugs. That those of us for whom food is the drug of choice face our dealers not on shady street corners but at dinner parties, and barbecues, at meetings where bagels or cookies or sandwiches are spread out in an array as tempting as the glittering bottles of the local bar. What I should have done was ask her how she could judge another person that way. What I should have done is remind her that she was talking to someone who has trod the well- worn path between weight loss and weight gain and perhaps she should be more sensitive. But I kept quiet. For at that moment I knew what was happening to my own body, then a year or two out of a great weight loss and new level of fitness. The fat was coming back, creeping back in with every bite of brie and glass of wine, with every morning that I slept in instead of working out, and with every lick of my treasured chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cones. The fat was coming back. The yo-yo was on its’ way back up the string.
For the past couple of years I’ve chronicled the story of my weight with jokes, self-deprecating humor and with a whole lot of defensiveness, but I knew my day of reckoning was coming. So this fall I finally bit the bullet and did something I never do. I looked at myself in the mirror. A full-length mirror. Without the benefit of clothing. And I looked long and hard. Then I looked at photo after photo of me from the summer and instead of looking at the family and friends with me, or the scenery surrounding me, I looked at the rolls of fat, the lumpy thighs, at the way my face seemed puffy and bloated. I thought about the cute summer dresses I can never wear (What? It surprises you that I look at catalogs of cute summer dresses?), and the roles I’m too fat to play and I faced it all. And I took a deep breath and plunged once more into the weight-loss breach with Kelly by my side.
That was sixteen weeks ago. I know this because at our Weight Watcher meeting this week we were given our sixteen week “Stay and Succeed” charms for our key chains. You’re green with envy aren’t you? Sixteen weeks and 28 pounds into my weight loss escapade (I flat out refuse to use the word journey) and I’m actually excited over the tchotchkes. Oh how the chubby have fallen. And yes, you read that correctly. I have shed twenty-eight pounds from my oversized frame, my rock star wife has shed thirty. And yet, tonight we looked at each other and burst out laughing… “who’d have thought we could lose this much weight and still be fat?” Kelly said. And it’s true. I love the well wishes of my friends, I love the kudos, and goodness knows I love the support, but the fact of the matter is, I’m not even half way there. True, I’m leaving the realm of obese and corpulent, but I have to lose another fifteen pounds to get to where I was just considered “fat” and another twenty after THAT to get to where I was when I was “slightly overweight.” If I get really ambitious I can try for another ten to get to the tippy top of what is considered ‘healthy” for my height and weight. Now I know you were told there would be no math, so I’ll add it up for you. That’s a minimum of sixty-five pounds and an ideal of seventy-five. Mother of God, seventy-five pounds. But that’s fine I own it. All of it. The size 20 pants and the XXL sweaters, the up and down look of judgment from the naturally thin colleague, the need to immediately put on my elastic waist flannel pajama pants when I come home from work, the sarcastic comebacks and pointed jabs I make at the accomplishments of my exercising friends (because after all it’s so much easier to mock than to face what’s in the mirror), even the two-year old comment that still stings from the woman who told me I got ‘too much support for being fat” and after all it really “wasn’t that complicated to just eat right and exercise,” and most of all the desire to just make it all go away with a really big bag of Sour Cream and Onion Ruffles. Yeah I own it all. Finally.
In some ways being back counting points and obsessing over how much one cup of cereal is feels comforting and familiar and I’ve settled into my routine of individually-sized servings of snacks and saying no to the weekly office pizza gathering. But there is one thing that’s making all this even more bearable… and that’s my wife. Because, let me tell you, if you too have run up and down the yo-yo string like I have, and if you find yourself once again facing the scale and saddling up for the weight loss ride (how’s that for some mixed metaphors?), then I highly recommend doing it with someone who makes you laugh. Because what keeps me going back to those deadly meetings every week isn’t the “tips on responsible snacking!” discussion or the “Bravo!” stickers, or even the key chains, it’s hearing Kelly unleash another brilliant one liner and watching a room full of people fall under her comic spell. When one earnest participant recently declared Fiber One bars a ‘treat,’ my wife responded with “only for your colon!” Forget the local open mike night my friends, comedy gold is happening at our Monday night Weight Watchers meeting.
Look, I’ll never be skinny. I’ve known that since I was eight years old. And honestly I don’t really want to be. A skinny Katie would be really weird. Thin isn’t in my future but maybe healthier and happier is. But for now I’m just trying to get through to the next weigh in, get that next little charm for my key chain, and keep that yo-yo from running back up the string.
Wish me luck. I’ll need it.
My family loves to vacation. Well more accurately, Kelly loves to research vacations and read “Budget Travel”, I love to read guidebooks so I can plan where we’ll eat (oh like this is a surprise) and Liza loves anything that comes with a pool. In the past several years my little family of three has had some great trips (the kind that chirpy mommy magazines love to say are all about ‘making memories!’ Wheeee!). There was our whirlwind trip to “Carnival” in Provincetown when Liza was only 9. We spent three nights in a one-bedroom efficiency on the bay in Truro at an establishment run by a kooky ,caftan-wearing woman who was accompanied by her mangy dog as she rattled her keys and checked in on her guests exclaiming “oh love, you look so much more relaxed!” (Come to think of it she always had a tall plastic orange tumbler in her hand, which may be why she was so relaxed.) It was a quiet refuge from the boys and bars in town where Kelly and I could drink wine on the slab of concrete that passed for a deck while Liza watched TV inside, recovering from a full day of drag queen-spotting and bead collecting at the parade on Commercial Street. There was the week we rented a friend’s beach house in Maine, where days lost all meaning and ran together in a blur of body surfing, novel reading, sunblock applying, and rinsing off sand in the outdoor shower. That was the trip where the three of us found our vacation routines – the arrival-day expedition to the local grocery store to stock up on provisions, the mornings of mom getting up early to make coffee and write, Kelly sleeping in and Liza emerging from her room like some exotic creature made completely of tousled hair and squinty eyes. There was our mega trip to Disney where we went through an entire stick of Dr. Scholl’s blister relief, where Kelly and I drank margaritas by the pool while Liza got a groovy hair wrap, and where for the first time I looked at my daughter and didn’t see a little girl any more. Most recently there was our big city tour of New York, where Liza learned to move with the rhythms of the throngs on the sidewalks, where Kelly, (who normally loathes musicals) got teary during the finale of “Wicked,” and where I spent four straight days feeling like a gargantuan Gulliver who had landed among the size zero, stiletto heel-wearing, black-clad women of a strange and foreign land. But no matter the destination or the accommodations, vacations with my family are part adventure and part sloth with a healthy dose of compromise and conspiracy and I love them.
This week finds us vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, less then two hours from our home. A trip planned to take advantage of Kelly’s timeshare trade, and give us time to explore one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Now I must admit we are a bit spoiled by our recent timeshare excursions to Florida and New York, where remodeled units, upscale amenities and doormen made us feel like royalty. Our current digs are um, not so much about the fancy, tending rather toward “early rustic” with a slightly musty smell emanating from the plaid sofas and a chair whose springs gave up the ghost long ago. Upon turning the key in the lock we all sigh a bit and Kelly speaks what we each are thinking “well….it is a bit rundown.” But by the end of our second full day we find our vacation groove. The kitchen bears wine and chips, milk and poptarts, brie and bagels, our beach towels hang on the dilapidated narrow porch (which holds the promised ‘stunning mountain views’) and our books and iPods litter the dining room and coffee tables. Liza has commandeered the entire “loft” space and frankly I’m slightly afraid to venture up there lest I start madly cleaning up the tossed clothes and soda cans. We’ve explored the “resort,” and in the evening Kelly and I squeeze ourselves into the teeny plastic chairs on the porch with our glasses of wine while Liza communes with a dvd she rented at the ‘rec center’ (how seventies) and all seems right in vacation land. On our first night here I relax thinking that while I felt out of place and self conscious in New York, it will be nice to spend a vacation in my home state where I’m just like everyone else. I fit in here right?
Here’s what I’d forgotten about the North Country denizens of New Hampshire. They LOVE them the outdoors something fierce. (Ok, for that sentence to work you have to do it in a Shirley Hemphill voice. Shirley Hemphill. She was the waitress on “What’s Happening!” I’ll stay here while you go to Wikipedia) Anyway, why shouldn’t they be in love with the outdoors up here? The White Mountains are full of stunning views, natural swimming holes, walking trails, biking trails, hiking trails, pretty much every conceivable kind of trail one would want. The whole atmosphere up here just screams LOOK AT US WE’RE SO HEALTHY! You can’t go two feet without passing a store catering to outdoor enthusiasts. Our porch overlooks tennis courts where even the tiniest vacationers take part in clinics with the pros. Even the people in line at the ice cream stands have that smug “we can get ice cream, we just biked 100 miles and rappelled down that cliff over there ” look about them. When I told friends we were planning this trip more than one person (usually a thin, healthy looking person) exclaimed “oh! Are you going to do the zip lines? I LOVE the zip lines. Oh. My. God. You HAVE to do the zip lines!” Zip lines. Really. Spoken like someone who never had to check the weight limit on any given attraction. Are you kidding me? Strap this gargantuan frame into a belt suspended by a wire and shoot myself across a river? No thank you. Let’s just say I’m uncomfortably close to being that “Hoo boy Jim, we lost a fatty in the river” zip-liner. No thanks, I think I’ll clap from the sideline .
On a journey to North Conway we stopped at various points along the Kancamagus Highway, spending time at scenic overlooks and even splashing a bit in the river at Lower Falls. Yet at each of our stops we were surrounded by hiking boot-clad families, their babies strapped into backpack carriers, their organic lunches snugly packed in eco friendly coolers. One family even had one of those annoying family stick figure stickers on their van – WITH EVERY MEMBER OF THE FAMILY depicted doing some kind of sporting activity – soccer, baseball, field hockey etc. The most energetic our vacation has been so far is when we traversed the entire length of the world’s longest candy counter (at Chutter’s in Littleton). What? The Bit-o-Honeys were wayyyy down at the end it was rough but we did it. (Cue Kelly chiming in “um actually they were in the middle of the counter,” and me explaining literary license ..) Look, don’t get me wrong, I love how beautiful it is up here. I loved watching Liza sit on the rocks of the river watching the rushing water go by, I loved the breathtaking views from the overlooks but I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that we were interlopers. We weren’t there to camp, we weren’t there to hike, we frankly were there on our way to have lunch in North Conway. It was as if our passive appreciation of the natural world wasn’t enough. Every cyclist we passed seemed to mock my former days of clipping into my bike and taking off on 20 or 30 miles rides. True, I was a fairly serious cyclist for several years but I’ll let you in on a little secret: I was never that good and frankly I didn’t so much enjoy the cycling as I did how good it felt to take a shower after I was done and have a burger. I have to admit when I sold my bike to a friend I felt a pang of sadness, but mostly I felt a sense of relief that I wouldn’t feel that pressure to ‘get out there’ anymore and I would no longer have to fight the losing battle with my bike jersey to stay down over my huge belly.
But in spite of all this let’s make one thing clear. This piece is not an invitation for my nature/organic loving friends to tell me that I should “totally try hiking” or “get back on that bike girlfriend! You can DO it! ” or “ I bet if you just tried the zip line once you’d love it!” (Please. PLEASE.) Nor is it an invitation to tell me that eating healthy is fun and easy when you try it whee! (Cue the sunshiny chorus of vegetables dancing in the back ground) Friends, I know all that. And those of you who know me well know that my discomfort with my size has been there since the first time Derek S. called me Elephant Youngs on the playground of Houston School in 1975. I’m an enormous person who hates exercise living in a thin-obsessed world, the fact that I hate my body is not breaking news. But I’m on vacation, the sun is shining and rumor has it there’s a water park a few miles from here. I think I’ll go lie in the sun in my new super lycra-ed bathing suit that sucks in my stomach, and I’ll laugh at the cyclists speeding past. While I eat my chips. Ah. Vacation.
My best friend in the whole world is coming for a visit next weekend. With him will come nearly 25 years of shared experiences, highs, lows, laughter, tears….losses….and gains.
Joe and I met at an audition for a college production of “Equus” in 1985. He was a funny talented freshman who made a point to come talk to me after my audition to tell me how good he thought I was. I responded with the cool assurance of a sophomore who thought she knew the theater department ropes pretty well by then. We basked in our mutual admiration and went on our way.
Neither of us got cast. Turns out we weren’t as spectacular as we thought we were. But that failed audition brought a force of nature into my life I can’t imagine living without. My Joe. MY Joe. Having drawn a monosyllabic weight lifter as his freshman roommate (your basic nightmare for young gay theater boy), he’d show up at my dorm room door with a blanket, a pillow and a stack of books asking plaintively “can I study in here?” Both of us were English majors who spent far too much time in the theater department and as such were glued at the hip. We snarked our way through three years of poetry and drama classes together — one time even naming everyone in our contemporary poetry class after the poets we were studying. “ I think HE looks like a W.S Merwin don’t you?” I’d inquire. “ Yes but SHE is absolutely a Louise Gluck.” When a classmate asked for an extra bluebook during a test Joe snarked “boy, you’re optimistic aren’t you?” Like me he shared a deep love for really great writing, a passion for musical theater and Sondheim, and a strong desire to mock the uber-serious students around us who refused to see that the world was one big glorious playground if you looked at it the right way. In acting classes when we’d pile on top of each other for the inevitable soundbeast (where you’re supposed to become all inventive and listen to each others sounds and build a wonderful cacophonous noise) Joe would instead start saying the names of 1970s tv stars. Around us earnest young actors would be click-clacking and “ahhhhhh” ing and woofing and there he’d be calmly injecting “Gavin McLeod.” “Polly Holiday.” “Charlotte Rae.” When a new building on campus was dedicated to the memory of a woman named Edith Stein we promptly renamed it the Edith Bunker building. We insisted there had to be a way to get a MacArthur fellowship to study the importance of sitcoms and buddy cop dramas on American culture. We’d steal guns from the theater department prop room and play Cagney and Lacey or Charlies Angels in the hallowed halls of academia. Joe was beloved by everyone in his orbit and I was just grateful to be along for the ride.
Our friendship endured through a marriage (mine), a few relationships (his), a divorce (mine), death (my parents and sister), major career changes (his), a child (mine –but his goddaughter), a major life change (mine) and a sad and painful breakup (his). And through it all there is nothing that makes me smile more than to have my phone ring and hear on the other end “what do you think that girl who played Dee on What’s Happening? Is up to these days.” Or to receive an email with an attached photo of Joe dressed up in a kimono with the caption “do you think I’d ever get cast in Pacific Overtures.” Every Oscar night was spent glued to the phone with each other dissecting fashions and acceptance speeches. For me, nothing was sweeter than making him laugh so hard he couldn’t breathe. I’m often told I’m funny…but to make Joe laugh is the gold medal of humor.
One other thing bound us together. Our love of food. Lifelong struggles with weight and self confidence plagued us both. Life can really whollop you but a really good lemon cake never disappoints we’d say. I loved eating with Joe. When you’re a fat girl and you find someone you can eat with without self-censoring yourself it’s like manna from the heavens. Any excursion we took would be peppered with “you know, I could go for a snack” or “hmmm …why don’t we eat?”. We explored high-brow restaurants and diners, stopped for ice cream, and sat for hours over the Saturday morning breakfasts he and his (then)partner would prepare for Kelly and me when we visited. Of course we’d talk about how fat we are, joke about moving to Afghanistan where burkas were all the rage (“they’re so LUCKY over there” we’d say). Oh sure along the way we’d yo-yo at different times, I’d go through one of my many flirtations with Weight Watchers, lose a bunch of weight then gain it all back plus the requisite 10 more pounds. We’d always talk about getting up early to go for power walks but would sleep in and drive to get coffee instead. He had his time at the gym and I had my time at jazzercise and my attempts to turn my gigantic body into that of a cyclists. (Probably the most futile effort in weight loss history ).
Right now I’m heavier than ever. Always a stress eater I turned again and again to comforting carbs as I tried to deal with the most difficult work climate year of my entire career, parenting difficulties, and residual grief from the loss of my mother. Excessive snow and ice made it easy to stay home and eat and hide my fat under layers of fleece. The bigger I got the less excercised, feeling sure that everyone who saw me walking or at the gym was mocking me. Clothes stopped fitting. I bought an assortment of colored tops so people at work wouldn’t notice I only had two pairs of pants I could wear anymore. Photos depressed me. Life, as it always does with me, became about my fat. This cycle however, coincided with Joes renewed commitment to fitness. Stronger and leaner than ever he looks wonderful, healthy and handsome. But when we got together a few times in June something was different. He didn’t join me and Kelly for snacks, he didn’t want to stop for lunch. He was thin and had acquired a thin person’s sensibilities.
I felt like an alchoholic who loses his bar-crawling buddies. My food buddy had abandoned me. I felt awkward and self conscious about what I ate in front of him. Of course I made the usual jokes about my girth and panicked when he suggested we start off his visit with a trip to an exercise class. Near tears I wrote him begging him not to ask this of me. I couldn’t go back to that class. It was too hard to wheeze and groan in front of women I used to keep up with. I didn’t want to be the subject of the “what the hell happened to HER she’s bigger than ever?” comments. I couldn’t bear the conversations where people’s eyes would furtively dart to my fat rolls instead of my face. “Of course honey of course,” He replied. “It’s you I’m coming to see we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” He’s my best friend, someone who would never hurt me and who understands me better than anyone on the planet next to Kelly and loves me with a fierce devotion that humbles and honors me. But in the back of my mind as I look at the new photos of his lean buff physique and compliment him on how great he looks (for indeed I don’t think he’s ever looked better), I wonder what he thinks looking at my photos.
Yeah I know. It’s not all about me. I get that. Nor is this meant to be a pity party. I got myself this fat and sooner or later I have to get myself out of this cycle. The responsibility for my obesity sits squarely on my shoulders. And honestly I couldn’t be happier for Joe that he’s found such a great new state of health and fitness at a time in his life when he needs to feel really great about himself. But as I prepare for his visit next weekend, eagerly anticipating the laughs, the snark, the musical theater references, and the long quiet talks about what’s happening in our lives, there’s a part of me that will miss my food buddy. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time I learned how to navigate the world of food without him by my side. Maybe it’s time I finally learned to eat for one. And I know as I try yet again to make this journey toward a body that doesn’t shame me, he’ll be there for me as he always has been to make me laugh, let me cry, and love me for who I am and not my dress size. My Joe. MY Joe. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.