The sweetie needed some tests, and one of them involved a CAT scan with a dye injection. (Looks like he’s OK, thank heaven — only a kidney stone. I shouldn’t say only, as everyone who’s had one or knows someone who has says it is excruciating.)
I’m the one who’s usually lying on the gurney/MRI platform/X-ray table. We’ve been back and forth to our small local community hospital so many times in the past decade — thankfully, for nothing serious — we’re on a first-name basis with the doctor who works the overnight shift at the ER. On one of our last visits, he asked: “So, whose turn is it now?”
It was my turn, then, with a fever of almost 104 and a spot on my lung so dark and ominous he drew the curtain and said it might be lung cancer. The sweetie, a photographer by trade, asked to see the films, as he can read negatives with the skill of a radiologist, even if he doesn’t know what he’s looking at.
It turned out to be only pneumonia, but it still meant three days on an IV, sharing a room with a 95-year-old who startled awake at midnight, sat on the edge of my bed and tried to pull out her tubes. I coughed, as one does with that disease, so hard my body ached from exhaustion; I wrote an essay about it for The New York Times.
This time it was my turn to watch the phlebotomist wheel in her cart and overhear her explaining to him how his body would react to the contrast dye. I kept him company as long as I could. In our 11 years together, I’d never seen him lying flat inside a diagnostic machine, grateful for this and shocked at the sight.
I sat and waited, staring at the lavender wall trim and burgundy cupboards and a cheerful British print on the opposite wall, aware for the first time how soothing it all was and how much I needed it to be so.
My last ER visit was January 2009, the beginning of a five-month odyssey to figure out my painful/arthritic/inflamed left hip — I was in so much pain I could barely walk and I do remember admiring the handsome design of our shiny new ER.
When I’m scared, and I admit to not loving going anywhere near that hospital by now (three orthopedic surgeries since 2000, a hip replacement my next, and more than five times to the ER, for everything from a broken finger to a mild concussion the sweetie incurred in a biking mishap) I do not want to be soothed or distracted by television. Old copies of People don’t do it for me either.
The sweetie, a devout Buddhist, did a lot of deep breathing to stay calm.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time around hospitals, thanks to my mother’s various illnesses, which included a mastectomy and a brain tumor (both of which, 10 years apart) she survived. I’ve seen her in hospitals from London to Sechelt, BC, and have learned to make medical staff crazy when necessary with my direct questions and insistence on information.
We’re glad we have a good hospital nearby, deeply grateful for good health insurance and generally good health, and knowing we can get there within a 10-minute drive.
Imagine a television show on a major American network in which AIDS victims were paraded in front of the cameras and hectored by ultra-conservative evangelical ministers. The ministers inform the victims that they are being punished for their “decadence” and “hedonism.” Or perhaps a different program – one centered on people dying an agonizing death from lung cancer. They’d have cameras shoved in their faces as anti-smoking campaigners told them that if they wanted sympathy, well, tough. After all, they should never have smoked in the first place! Or, best of all, how about a show concerned with fat people. A chef from a foreign country would come stateside and lecture the citizens of America’s “most obese city” about how their unhealthy eating habits are going to consign them and their children to an early grave. This infantalizing message would be accompanied by lots and lots of camera shots lingering on the fatties’ rolls of flesh.
This week, kicking and screaming like a three-year-old who really needed a nap, I went to see a dietitian who put me on a severely restricted diet, on doctor’s orders. I don’t look obsese to most people. Curvy, yes. Definitely a candidate to shed some weight. I’ve gone into surgery more eagerly.
As Jamie Oliver is learning with his ABC television show, getting anyone to change what they eat — size, portions, taste, fat, salt, sugar — is a task far more complex than it appears. Set aside his show and the drama of battling school bureaucrats. Our emotional relationship to food and drink is like some tenacious desert plant, its wiry, tough roots buried deep in our psyches.
We eat what we eat, whether sipping, swallowing or gulping, for many many reasons, some unconscious.
Here’s what happened today at lunch. I ordered a small Caesar salad with grilled no-sauce chicken and a Diet Coke. I’m allowed, for that meal, two cups of salad and 2 tablespoons of oil and vinegar and 6 ounces of lean protein. No starches. I brought (hidden beside me, I ate alone) a measuring cup and set of measuring spoons. Waiters stared. I didn’t care.
The small salad, in our local Greek restaurant, was four cups of lettuce. It also had croutons that looked fried. A huge plate of fresh pita bread — I love warm pita! — dropped onto the table. A thick dish of creamy sauce. I had both taken away.
Were I my usual weary, distracted self, reading a newspaper or magazine or deep in conversation with a friend, I could easily have eaten both, inhaling a delicious 500 extra calories, all while eating “healthy” food. In only one meal.
My diet, for now, is about 1700 calories a day. Sounds like a lot to me. Hah! Hunger is now a constant companion. It’s like a little dog gnawing on my ankles, day and night. I’d like to drop-kick it across the room, (not a dog, the discomfort), and have two more weeks to go.
Millions of people today would be desperately thrilled to have access to half these calories.
We need to acknowledge to ourselves — our kids, our doctors, our mirrors, our fridges and grocery carts — that food is not simply fuel. We cling to it, and savor it and gobble it and gorge on it, for many reasons:
Culture: For many people, certain foods mean “home”, whether the fat-marbled smoked meat sandwiches Montreal is famous for; the creamy hummus of the Middle East; the flaky delight of a burek or baklava or croissant. It brings us, with every bite, closer to our country or culture of origin, in a nation of immigrants, no small thing.
Family: Feeding your family is the most primal act we commit, from the moment the baby latches onto the breast to deathbed purees.
Love: There are few easier, quicker, more affordable ways to show your love for someone than to cook them a meal, whether chicken soup or a birthday cake. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” women are told. And it is.
Memory: For my friend Dalina, it’s her Nana’s spaghetti sauce. For others, their mother’s pie or uncle’s barbecue. For my partner, who grew up in the Southwest, his late Mom’s posole. My Dad always adds fresh apple to his salads so when I do it I think of him. (I also do it when I sip a great glass of Scotch.)
Pleasure: In a time of terrible financial difficulty for millions of Americans, food and drink remain, for the fortunate, a ready and cheap source of refuge and comfort. If the fridge or cupboards are full, so, too will be our belly, if not our gas tank or bank account. The salty crunch of a fresh potato chip or the creamy smoothness of a rice pudding — bad for you!!! –– carry tremendous allure when everything else is simply too damn expensive right now.
For low-income families, “right now” can be a lifetime.
Yes, I know and I agree — everyone needs to make wise(r) choices, eat small(er) portions, stop choosing to consume fried crap crammed with chemicals and color and sugar and salt. Have you tried to buy a loaf of commercially made bread withno added sugar or high fructose corn syrup? Good luck!
The United States — unlike France, Germany, Canada, Japan — was founded by Puritans. People not, perhaps, wild about the sensual pleasures of the flesh. Consider this in the finger-wagging culture that mistakenly and punitively conflates the size of your ass with the value of your soul.
I am now doing physical therapy for my arthritic hip at an upscale health club. The parking lot, at 9:00 a.m, is so packed I can hardly find a space, jammed with Range Rovers and Mercedes and BMWs as dozens of lean, ropy women head inside for yoga or a class or a workout. They are not, clearly, distracted from their goals by a long commute or a job. It’s a lot easier to be skinny and nauseated by fatties when you’ve got hours to burn off every calorie that goes into your mouth.
The cheap easy rush — sort of an addictive sugar high, really — of loathing fat people needs to be moderated by compassion.
Some fat people have no money. Some work three jobs and have little time to find and cook fresh foods with the lowest calories. Their local stores or bodegas may not stock the right foods and drinks. They work weird hours and/or it may be dark, cold or too dangerous in their neighborhood before or after work to even go out for a healthy, vigorous walk. A gym or health club can cost a shocking amount; our small, crowded, worn suburban Y charges more than $80/month for a family membership. That’s not cheap.
And who will watch your kids?
Too many people are forced to gulp (!) meals at their desks, shoveling food into their faces as fast as possible to avoid looking slack or weak — someone who can be fired. Many are constrained by physical pain or injury — I haven’t been able to exercise since January. To the ignorant and judgmental observer, I’m PiggyGirl — clearly someone with zero awareness of how she eats, obviously overweight from (not), snarfing Twinkies and double cheeseburgers.
When some of us can’t even cross a room without agony, and 46 million Americans suffer from some form of athritis, (only aggravated by obesity), it’s time for the skinnies to lay down their self-righteous whips.
The next time you feel like sneering at a fat person, whether their flesh is jammed up against yours on a bus or airplane, or on TV or at the gym, ask yourself why.
There were years, plural, we simply didn’t speak to one another, locked by anger and hurt into our comforting cages. I still remember, and wish I didn’t, a screaming fight in an outdoor parking lot in Antibes at midnight when I was 19. An argument on a crowded public street in Toronto. My college graduation neither parent attended as I tried to dance around their mutual rancor.
Many times over the decades I’ve come to the very precipice of walking away for good from my father, a complicated, proud man with more talent, energy and creativity than a dozen men combined. An award-winning filmmaker, he wears me out with his energy, at 80. We went to an antiques fair this week and reveled in handling objects, like the 6,000-year-old oil lamp in the shape of a dog or a fine piece of Georgian silver, chatting to the dealers and reminiscing fondly about the Egyptian basalt fragment of a lion’s head we saw at the last show we attended here in 1996. That’s typical of us, both obsessive about beauty and history.
“Your Dad’s a hard act to follow,” my late step-mother once said, and it was true. It took me many years to find a partner who offered my Dad’s best qualities (insatiable curiosity about the world, a well-worn passport and the desire to use it frequently, work he’s passionate about and does well that combines ideas and advocacy, a roaring laugh, stylish elegance) without his tougher bits.
We’ve just put put him in his car, a black Jag, and hugged goodbye as he drives to his home from ours, north from New York to Toronto, about 10 hours. This morning we took a gorgeous photo of him and posted it, with his headline and profile, on match.com, hoping to help him find a good woman to enjoy life with.
My sweetie lost his father when he was only 26 so he enjoys borrowing my Dad whenever he can. They’re very different people in some ways, so it’s sometimes lovely and sometimes I need a stiff drink to cope with their misunderstandings and clashes. They’re both strong-minded guys with specific worldviews, so it’s bound to happen. We really need this time to get to know Dad, because the past few years were an ugly and terrifying marathon that began, in March 2005, when his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer; she died two years ago on my sweetie’s birthday, which we celebrated this week.
When your Dad is 80, even in blessedly robust health, you might still have decades or you might have days. I’m lucky to have whatever time we’ve got.