Reflections on Being Obese

No one ever gets up in the morning and says I think I’ll get morbidly obese today. It’s not like deciding one day to learn how to ski or ride a bike. Those take intention, practice and skill. Becoming obese isn’t intentional, it takes no practice and requires absolutely no skill.

 Many obese people begin life that way. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child. She wasn’t a great cook and knew nothing about balanced meals, so much of what we ate was battered, fried or boiled to a mushy mess. Fruit was a treat.  Cookies were available at all times.

Mom made excellent pies and apple dumplings. Her homemade noodles were delicious. Her concoction of sauerkraut, polish sausage and drop dumplings was to die for. I hated her fried chicken. The top half was crispy but the bottom half was drenched with oil. Mom’s bacon was inconsistent: sometimes it was done to a crisp but most of the time it was limp and soggy. I still dislike friend chicken and bacon!

So, if you believe that being obese is a learned condition, then I learned from my mom that I had to anything and everything that was put on the table. It made no difference whether you liked it or not: you were watched and monitored for food consumption. I never saw my mom write it down, but somewhere in her head she stored how much of what we had eaten.

If you believe that being obese has a genetic connection, then I am my Grandma Reiske’s relative. She was short like me and quite round. Grandma was not a good cook so she snacked. A lot. She loved cheese and crackers (so do I), chocolate (same here) and cookies (yep!). She could make a meal out of those items and feel quite proud of herself.

If you believe that becoming obese is inevitable for some of us, then that’s also me. When your diet is not balanced as a child, you put on weight. When you’re not allowed to play outside as much as you’d like, well, that’s what my life was like. When you spend most of your time in your room, alone, imagining happy scenarios, that was me. Without healthy food and limited activity, I was doomed from the start. Years of that set my body on a weight-gaining course that was hard to stop. I’d have “lean” years for me, but then more and more weight would pile on.

If you believe that morbidly obese people really like how they look, then you’re an idiot. Imagine standing naked in front of a mirror and seeing rolls of fat. Imagine watching your blubber jiggle with the slightest movement. Imagine taking a hand and pushing those rolls up and down. Then think of the clothes you have to wear: saggy, baggy plain, unattractive outfits designed to sort of mask the fat beneath.

No one gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they’d love to be puffy like the Pillsbury dough boy. No one revels in having a body that resists all movement except for down. No one wants to wobble like a duck when they walk through a grocery store, especially knowing that people are going to be checking out what’s in your cart. No one wants feet so bulgy that you can only wear slippers.

Your response is to say, then quit eating. Nice. If only it were that simple. I have a friend who records everything she eats and tries to stay at 1800 calories per day. You’d think she’d lose weight, but she doesn’t. Monitoring and maintaining is all she can manage.

You can eliminate all sugars from your diet. However, when you do, that oatmeal raisin cookie hollers your name so loudly and so persistently that you cannot block it out. Unless you’ve heard that call, you have no idea how powerful it is. It’s like being pulled by the largest magnet on earth, a magnet with so much leverage that you cannot fight it no matter how hard you try.

That’s what life is like for the morbidly obese: day after day that magnet pulls, your name is called, you resist and resist and resist until your willpower is weakened. And when you give up, you can either consume everything in sight or portion things out. The problem with portioning is that the other half is still there, still calling your name.

So when you see a fat person, instead of staring while you shake your head in disgust, stop and think about what that person’s life is like. And then remember that no one sets a challenge for themselves to be obese.

Pandemic Woes?

            The mayors of the San Francisco Bay Area announced the pandemic shutdown as we were returning from a trip. My initial reaction was shock and confusion. What will be open? What would I be able to do? How will this change the life I’ve created since I retired?

            Now that we’re all these months into the pandemic response, I have to admit that not a lot has changed. I still go hiking three days a week with a friend, with masks and social distancing.

My two book clubs are held via zoom, making it fun to share thoughts.

I belong to two critique groups that help with my writing. We also meet via zoom, so I’m still getting ideas about how to sharpen my stories.

My Red Hat group went into hibernation as we are all in the older population. The last month, however, we’ve figured out that we can bring chairs and lunch, sit six feet apart and keep in touch.

One addition that I hadn’t planned on was all the free interviews with authors! Several bookstores host these events on a regular basis.

Yes, the pandemic has changed my life, but alternative activities and methods have arisen that allow some semblance of normality. That’s what life is all about: adapting to changing circumstances.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

The author in 1968.

            I recently came across my high school graduation photo from 1968. Granted, it was taken a long time ago, but I still recall how I felt. That time in my life was filled with confused emotions. I was excited about college, but knew nothing in my situation would change because my parents would only allow me to attend the local community college. That meant continuing to live at home, which was not an experience to look forward to.

            I’ve shared stories of what my life was like back then. Let’s suffice it to say that I was miserable. I understood that something was wrong at home, but I lacked the words or experience to understand what it was. As I aged and my knowledge base expanded, I learned the words.

            My mother smothered me and my dad terrified me. I was a middle child, close in age to an older brother who tormented, teased and at times, physically hurt me. I was many years older than a sister who commanded my mother’s attention and could manipulate mom into believing fantastical stories about the evil things I did when mom wasn’t looking.

            My sort-of-safe world was school. No one teased me there because I was invisible. My clothes were made from recycled material, pieces cut out of hand-me-down clothes. My mother chose the styles, so everything was old-fashioned and ultraconservative. I wore saddle shoes that had gone out of style years earlier but they were the only ones I was allowed to have.

            When I look at that photo I see a young woman with a forced smile. She’s showing just enough teeth to categorize it as a smile, but not enough to show joy. The woman is wearing wing-tip glasses which were in vogue back then and her hair is teased and lacquered in a somewhat popular style.

            When the photo appeared in the yearbook, anyone flipping through the pages might stop for a moment and wonder about the pearls. Would they think my family had that kind of money or that they were a gift from a relative? Or would they correctly surmise that they were a studio prop? Assuming they guess correctly that I never owned something so fine, then they might be able to see through the mask.

            I walked the high school halls as a nobody. Academics distinguished me from my peers, but in a social world, I blended into the bricks. To the best of my ability I styled my hair in a contemporary do. I was allowed to choose glass frames similar to what others wore.

            However my physical presence exacted no reaction. No smiles, nods, or words of greeting. I was alone. For four years.

            Is that loneliness reflected in my eyes? In the fake smile? The tilt of my head?

            I think it is, but then I walked in those shoes. All I wanted then was for someone to see me as a valuable human being, worthy to be called friend. Because of my poor self-esteem ingrained and reinforced at home I lacked the ability to initiate a relationship. The person would have to speak first, look my way first, nod first, wave me over first.

But who would want to do that? In high school you are who you are friends with. Anyone wanting to be known would not have called me over. You don’t invite a nobody into your social circle if you’re hoping to rise the ladder. My presence would either have knocked them down a rung or held them on the floor with one foot raised.

You didn’t know me then, so when you look at the picture you see a happy soon-to-graduate girl who’s got her hair done, a smile on her face and a glint in her eyes.

Looks can be deceiving.

Preparing for “The End”

            My husband and I think we’ve got everything lined up for when we die. We’ve taken care of the house and our important possessions. We chose the executor. We gave each of our kids a copy of the paperwork.

            The kids know where I store my passwords, but are there details we haven’t thought of?

            Our kids will become our accountants, bookkeepers, lawyers, house cleaners and detectives. Is this what we want? Or is there something else we can do?

            My husband put together a binder with financial information. Did he include electric bills? Car and house insurance?

            We both completed Medical Directives and gave them to Kaiser. But we haven’t updated them recently. Have our opinions changed now that we are older? Perhaps. That means that we both have to update them…soon.

            Who should get my “real” jewelry? What if my bird is still alive? What happens to her?

            Do my kids know what are religious preferences are in terms of music, funeral or not? Who should they invite? Is it worth it to pay for an obituary in the paper?

            What if one of our kids wants to move to California and live in our house? That impacts the other two. What if one wants my husband’s truck or my car? The truck is old, so probably not, but it still runs pretty good. My car is newer. It would be perfect for a grandkid. Where are the pink slips?

            I could go on and on, but it’s better that I take action. But I don’t like thinking of the end. So I procrastinate, putting it off for another time.

            When I’m supposed to be sleeping, these are the thoughts that plague me.

            What about you? Are your papers in order?

Anything Goes

            The first time I heard this expression I didn’t think it applied to me. I was a follower of rules. Because of my home environment, I understood that straying resulted in physical punishment, ranging from being beaten with a belt, shaken, slapped and humiliated.

            The concept of anything goes was as foreign to me a Greek. There was nothing in my lexicon that allowed me to process the meaning.

            When I left home to attend college, for the first time in my life, no one hovered over me telling me what to do or ridiculing the decisions I made. It was terrifying and rejuvenating at the same time. If I wanted to skip a meal, I could. If I felt like sleeping in and not making my bed, my mother was not there to chastise.

            In essences, I could do whatever I wanted. The caveat was that I had to attend classes and earn grades good enough to graduate with a degree.

            When the Vietnam War protests began, I could march and carry signs expressing my opinion, knowing that my parents would be horrified. There was nothing they could do to stop me. It was only when smartly dressed me in tight fitting expensive suits with ear pieces arrived on campus, did I retreat from the movement. At that moment I couldn’t do whatever I wanted because I knew they were keeping track and most likely taking pictures.

            Once I was an adult, anything goes ceased to have meaning. I had to be present for my kids. I had to forsake my own wishes to teach in order to make sure the kids had food, opportunities to learn and explore, clean clothes and a responsible adult overseeing them. I did haul them to pottery classes, preschool, parks, parties, sports practices and games. I made sure they got to school on time with clean clothes.

            In other words, I was back to being a follower of rules.

            One advantage of getting old is that once again, rules disappear. Anything Goes is truly my motto. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can choose to not do something as well. My life is my own to monitor. I can go hiking with a friend or walk with my husband. I can write or read a book. I can send cards to family and friends or laze in front of the television. Laundry can stack up in the hamper until I feel like washing it.

            The only monitor I have is me.

            I hope that sometime during a person’s life they can fall under the umbrella of Anything Goes. It’s a powerfully liberating concept. Enjoy!

Life’s Journey

            My friend and I have been sharing the various paths our lives have taken.  Neither of us had an easy time along the way. Both of us have disappointments. No matter where our journeys took us, we agree that the steps we traveled made us who we are today.

            When I was in Kindergarten I decided to become a teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher was kind to me; in fact, she barely spoke to me or recognized me in any way. She’d drop a bunch of worksheets on my desk and then move on to the next student. She did know what skills I was deficient in, however, because I worked on the name of colors, shapes, the alphabet and recognizing basic numbers.

            The one positive thing that the teacher offered was calm and safety. She never yelled at me or anyone else. She never slapped or threatened me in any way.

            Because I felt safer in Kindergarten than I did at home, I liked it there and soon chose teaching as a career.

            My first job was keeping score at a local bowling alley. I was only fourteen, but I had spent much of my early years in bowling alleys. My dad was a semi-professional bowler who traveled to competitions. He taught me to bowl when I was twelve. Keeping score was a logical choice.

            In college I began working for aa fast food restaurant. At first I only took orders and then handed them over when filled. As my confidence grew I learned to make coleslaw. I had to stick my hands into deep vats and stir the ingredients around. My hands and arms would get so cold that I couldn’t feel them.

When strawberry season arrived, I took over the pie-making enterprise.  I was the best at trimming the berries. I could cut off the stem so quickly and neatly that no one could match my efforts.

That was a major turning point on my life’s journey. Knowing that there was something I could do better than anyone else boosted my ego. Ironically, although I had been a good student out of fear of physical punishment, now my grades stayed high because my confidence had improved.

When I transferred to USC I found a job at the university book store. I was so happy! I begged for more hours but was refused because students were restricted to how many hours they could work in a week.

Books called my name. Sometimes while shelving new books, I had to stop and read the cover. If it appealed to me, I put one aside. Often I bought them even though my earnings were supposed to supplement the grants that paid my housing.

I returned to writing when I realized the university published a literary newspaper. I submitted poems, but never had any accepted. Despite those rejections, my confidence as a writer grew.

I got a job working the front desk in a residence hall. It was my responsibility to screen anyone entering. It forced me to talk to people, something I was wont in doing. I discovered that people often wanted to know what I was thinking. They would stand and listen, then share a bit of their story. I met some awesome people who remained friends until graduation.

Another step on my journey checked off.

I applied to be a resident advisor during the summer. The residents were not students, but an ever-changing group of conference attendees. Oh, my, they were a lot of fun! There were social events almost every evening. I was invited to attend, but understood that I was not to abandon my post. Often food was delivered to me. The person making the delivery would stand and talk.

I learned that I could talk to strangers, fulfilling another step on my journey.

My first full-time job was as a customer service representative in a furniture store. That was horrendous. All day long I was bombarded by unhappy, sometimes angry people. All found fault with the furniture or the delivery. I wanted money refunded. I didn’t know what to do and no one bothered to train me.

This was a step backward. My confidence took a hit.

The office had a switchboard for the telephone service. I applied when a position opened and got it. I loved connecting calls. It was fun and something I learned quickly. All I had to do was match the plug to the right hole.

Check one off for confidence!

When I took that job I knew it would never become a career: it was the first job offered.

The government needed employees, so I took the test and scored high enough to be hired by the infamous IRS. This was a huge step on my life’s journey, benefitted by the government’s need to hire women.

I hated seizing property to pay tax debts. I was terrible at calculating interest and penalties despite mat being a strength for me. I hated walking into dark bars and going into strangers’ homes.

Most people were respectful even though I represented a hated agency. One time I was threatened by the owner of an automobile tire shop. The next day I returned with gun-toting agents. Even though nothing happened, I tremble for days.

One positive that moved me along my journey was that I learned to speak to strangers. Another momentous event was meeting my future husband in the office. If I hadn’t met him, who knows were my journey would have gone?

In the past 46 years I’ve had three amazing children who are all successes in their own way. Add in seven talented grandchildren who fill me with joy.

I got to become that teacher 38 years ago, and taught for 34. In my college classes to earn my credentials and certificates, I garnered information that allowed me to mentor peers, lead workshops and participate in district-wide trainings.

My favorite part of the job was being a mentor. It filled my heart with joy when someone came to me for suggestions and advice.

Another step along the way.

Now that I am retired, you might think that my journey was nearly over. Wrong.

I listen to the news, read newspapers and magazines and talk with friends. I gather information from all those sources that develop my opinions and beliefs. I read books that take me into worlds and situations I met never see. I travel to countries I’d never thought about visiting.

Everything I’ve done, whether there were positive or negative outcomes, have made me who I am today. Because I am always learning, I know that I will continue to progress.

My life’s journey isn’t yet over and that’s a wonderful thing.

One Man’s Trash

Shiny penny

Left behind like somebody’s

Old candy wrapper

Dropped, forgotten

As the owner moved on

 

Too busy, too proud

To bend down and pick up

Something so small,

So insignificant

Relatively meaningless

 

Until someone, down on luck,

Sees an opportunity

Contrasted against the gloom

Of the blacktop

And smiles

 

A chance for improvement

A sliver of hope

Calling for redemption, as it

Glitters in the darkness

Of lonely despair

 

So cool to the touch

So small in the palm

Yet, when combined

With other shiny coins

Can mean a meal

 

A hot cup of coffee

A night’s rest in safety

Clean clothes

A bar of soap and

Long, refreshing shower

 

Someone’s forgotten coin

Left behind like a chewed up

Piece of gum

Brings redemption

To the finder

Memories of Life in the Projects

I first became aware of home when I was about four years old. Our house had a front porch that stretched across the width, the front door right smack-dab in the middle. There were no chairs out there, no toys, no swing, but it was my preferred place because it got me out from under the watchful eyes of my mother.

I remember getting splinters every time I was out there, and although I hated the Mercurochrome that my mother applied after each extraction, I returned time after time. Maybe this is why my parents thought I was slow: I never seemed to learn from my errors.

My older brother was really into cowboys, so therefor I was as well. He had a hat, chaps, and a holster. I had a hat and a skirt. When he wanted to play cowboy, he’d get dressed and go out on the porch. He was five, big enough to climb the railings and straddle the top. I couldn’t do it no matter how hard I tried. He’d tease: I’d cry.

I wasn’t aware of appliances at that age, but I was mesmerized by the washing machine. It was a huge tub with two tight rollers, which my mom called ringers, on the top. Mom would stir the clothes in the tub, then push them through the ringers one at a time. She was afraid that her hands would get stuck. I sensed her fear, so I tried to stay back far enough, but because I wanted to see, I’d slowly move closer and closer.

One warm day Mom sat on the side steps smoking. I wasn’t supposed to be out there, but I went anyway and sat next to Mom. She wasn’t good at snuggling, so I maintained distance between us. A steady stream of kids came by, each dressed nicely and carrying a metal box. I knew about those boxes because my dad took one to work everyday.

Those kids seemed so happy on their journey, so I stood to join in. Mom pulled me back to the steps. I cried because I wanted to hear what they were laughing about, to be a part of their silliness, to run and hop and skip with them as they passed along the path. But more than anything, I wanted my own lunch box.

Mom told me that the kids were going to school, that I wasn’t old enough, and that my brother would go to school next year. I didn’t know what school was, but I felt that I would love it.

I begged over and over to go, to have a box, but Mom always said no. Eventually she yelled at me, something I earned often, scolded me and sent me away. I was told never to mention those two things again.

One night when my dad came home from work, he brought me a gift. This was an unusual occurrence as we only got gifts at Christmas. Guess what it was? A beat-up blue metal lunch box that someone had left at work. My mom washed it out, my dad gave it a fresh coat of paint, and then it was mine, all mine. My brother stole it from me, but dad forced him to give it back.

For several weeks someone packed a lunch in it for me. Eventually that person must have grown tired because one morning it was empty. After throwing a wonderful temper tantrum I was told it was never going to happen again. I got to keep the box, but I turned it into a keepsake collector where I stored pretty rocks and other such things.

We were seldom allowed off the porch by ourselves. One day Mom was busy doing something and my brother and I snuck around the side of the house. There was a hose on the ground. My brother picked it up and waved it about, telling me it was a snake out to get me. He grew tired of that so moved on to something that would get me in trouble: he turned on the waer.

Because the sun was shining, when he waived the hose up and down, it created a spray that took on the hues of a rainbow. He repeated the action over and over, amazing us both. Of course he grew tired of that and decided to soak me through and through. However, when I ran next to the neighbor’s’ house, the spray hit the window before it got to me.

My brother was old enough to understand that something terrible had happened, so he handed me the hose and disappeared. I was thrilled to be in charge, but only until the neighbor arrived. I was the obvious culprit. I was the one that he dragged to the front door and who was shown to my mother. Even though I pleaded innocence and blamed my brother, I was the one who was punished.

One last memory comes to mind. Someone gave my brother a tricycle that was no longer needed. To celebrate, we all went outside to watch my dad teach him how to ride. It was great fun. My brother learned quickly enough that he could pedal all around the house without falling over. My parents went off to do something important.

My brother, seizing the opportunity to torment me, chased me with the trike. He’d pedal as fast as he could then crash into me, knocking me over. I’d brush off the dirt just in time to be hit again. Over and over he did this. You’d think I would have been smart enough to leave, but I had been told to stay with him for fear of punishment.

Even after me knees, hands and elbows were scratched and my dress filthy, he continued. At some point he got off the trike, so I got on. The problem was that my legs weren’t quite long enough and strong enough to make it move. My brother returned and pushed me. At first it was great fun, but he pushed faster and faster. I must have hit a bump because I toppled over, hurting myself even worse.

My brother didn’t get in trouble but I did.

Much later when I was older and we had moved away I learned that we had been living in the projects, low income housing. Once I understood that, my mother’s protests made sense. She was miserable there and let her displeasure be known whenever my dad was around.

As a kid I saw nothing wrong with the projects. We were on the path to school, we had a wonderful porch and there was a path around the house perfect for riding. We had food, beds and clothes. While I was a whiner and crier, I was comfortable there, sharing space with Mom, Dad and my brother.

My memories are all a mixture of happy and sad, a perfect combination for life in the projects.

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.