Sunday, October 4, 2015

That Time I was held at Gunpoint

When I was nineteen, and admittedly an idiot, my second ex husband and I (I told you I was an idiot) decided it would be a good idea to hitchhike from North Carolina to California (see above idiocy). We stored our stuff, took two backpacks, our two-year-old Doberman Pinscher (see above) and set out to go through our old homes in Pascagoula and New Orleans, across Texas (see above) and up the West Coast to the counterculture mecca of San Francisco. That’s as far as the plan went (see above).
            It probably isn’t necessary to note that we were picked up by an “interesting” assortment of travelers. Some clearly pitied us, some professed their envy, some were dead set on scaring us, like the two ragged men whose entire conversation centered on their recent escape from prison, and some floated, but didn’t press, the idea of various sexual escapades.
Only one, though, on our trip back, after the loss of the dog and sheer hunger made me wise up enough to demand that we go home, took us out into the middle of the desert and held us at gunpoint. And he wasn’t a criminal. He wasn’t a mentally ill oddball living with his mother and an arsenal of automatic weapons. He was a trucker, a big old Hoss Cartwright of a man who kept up a nonstop stream of jokes and patter so far into the night that we let down our guard, crawled back into the truck’s sleeper, and slept. I dozed off listening to him on the CB radio, calling out to people he clearly had known for a long time,  “This is Big Daddy and The White Lightning Express; come back,” into the desert night.
            There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that wakes you up like finding yourself under the glare of a truck’s cab light, in the pitch black middle of Nowhere New Mexico, staring at death in the form of a 357 Magnum. I know what caliber the gun was because I asked, right after I said “Wait a minute. Let me find my glasses.” Not that they mattered. Big Daddy was right there, not three feet away, and the look in his eyes was as chemically induced insane as any I had ever seen. There was a reason he talked nonstop and drove all night long, and that reason had convinced him that forcing a couple of stupid kids to have sex at the point of a gun in the middle of the desert was a fine, fine idea. He’d mentioned the amphetamines in passing, but he’d been so affable. Such a regular guy. Now he was a regular guy with the eyes of a madman and a perceptible hard-on.
            Here’s where the stupid finally ends. We tried talking to him person to person. My ex told him that he loved me and couldn’t subject me to that, that he couldn’t perform if he was terrified, that Big Daddy must know what it was like to care for someone since he’d told us about his wife and children back home. That big, affable face and those crazed eyes never wavered. After a few minutes of pleading and promising that we wouldn’t rat him out if he let us go, all the while being most afraid that the teeth-chattering jitters that the speed had induced would cause a twitch that blew us to pieces, it occurred to me just what the consequences of that would be.
            “You know,” I said, in a line I know sounds like bad script writing but is absolutely true nonetheless, “if you shoot us with that thing up close we’re going to be all over the inside of this truck. You’ll never get it clean.”
            I remember seeing that sink in, seeing that expression of pained realization that his plan wasn’t going to work and his gun wasn’t going to give him the power he thought it would. Once we weren’t potential sexual victims we became the objects of disgust we’d probably been all along.
            “All right. Get out,” he said.
            “If we get out you can shoot us.”
            “I won’t shoot you.”
            “I don’t believe you.”
            It’s funny how little time all this took. Within a span of five minutes we had gone from sleeping to terrified to, well, still terrified but clearly not without the power to at least create a stand-down. And yet, having had the smarts to convince Big Daddy to drive the White Lightning Express to a rest stop where he couldn’t kill us without witnesses didn’t give me a sense of power, or even as much relief as you might think. Why? Because he seemed so ordinary. He seemed like a good old boy in a tradition we’d grown up with. A working man, driving the roads and telling his buddies how much he missed his little ‘uns. Who knows who he was without that lightning in his veins? Not I.
I lost any sense of relief and safety that night for one more reason. When we got a lift from a nice old couple to the nearest Highway Patrol station, described who he was and what he’d done, told the two officers there that Big Daddy and the White Lightning Express were on the road right now, headed across Texas, his eyeballs practically throwing sparks and that 357 sitting like a coiled snake under his seat just waiting for him to pick up someone else, they laughed in our faces. Not their problem if stupid kids took their lives in their hands, they said. Not their problem. Not their problem. Not their problem.
Since that night, more than forty years ago, I have wondered what would have happened if we had had a weapon of our own. Could either of us have stood the aftermath of having blown him all over the inside of that truck? Would that trigger finger twitch us into oblivion if either of us gave the slightest hint that we intended to shoot first? Would those patrolmen have thought we were their problem if we, two indigent, homeless, stupid hippie kids had killed hard working Big Daddy, had made sure the White Lightning stopped then and there? What would one more gun have injected into the situation?
I’ve never been happier not to know something in my life.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

It's Not the Hunger. It's the Venom

I’ve thought of myself as many things over the years. I’ve been a daughter, wife, sister, mother, student, Baptist, atheist, Southerner, therapist, analyst, analysand, friend, enemy, writer, and too many other things to count.  And I have, for the most part, been fat. Not only have I been overweight to varying degrees since puberty, I have also discovered, through my own responses to the issue of weight and the struggle to lose it, the dwelling place of some of the darkest parts of my psyche.
I’m on another diet. I imagine, and I think realistically, that the sum total of all the weight loss on all the regimens I have been on in my life is now in the hundreds. This does, of course, include day long swearings-off of all food, a program that my fat repulsed brain actually believes I can continue until I break down somewhere around the cocktail hour and rationalize that vodka and olives covers two of the four food groups. It also includes weeks-long meat-based plans in which that selfsame brain enters such a stupor that the only thing I can do is drag myself through my busy day obsessed with the feeling that I smell very, very strange. Then, deciding meat is the culprit, and backed by my vision of the stringy, blissful vegetarian that I could be, I have given up meat for more than a year. I gained weight.

In fact, like many dieters, I have lived most of my life with the absurd yet inescapable conviction that my problem stems from eating various kinds of foods, and that eliminating them will be the equivalent of waving a magic wand over my zaftig body and rendering it eternally “height/weight proportional.” I have given up carbohydrates, alcohol, everything vaguely associated with oil or butter, most of the delicacies dear to my Southern upbringing, and, in a fit of ritualism, every food that begins with the letter “p” (Potatoes, pasta, pepperoni, pizza…it wasn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had). I grill or bake everything. I haven’t been through the window of a fast food restaurant in years, with the exception of a few months where, taking the advice of a weight loss expert who assured me I would overload and never want them again, the only thing I did eat were French fries. I have eaten enough fish to start checking when I shower for gills. I gave up when I remembered that Orca eat fish, and no Orca ever walked down the aisle in a tiara with “Miss Mississippi” emblazoned on a sash across her ample but height/weight proportional chest.

I am stunningly well educated where diets are concerned, and a less useful degree I can’t imagine. I collect eating tips like junk jewelry, amassing great, useless, embarrassing heaps of them that I try on until I can no longer think my own thoughts at all. I know about portion control. I have carried a half-cup measure to restaurants, trying to look casual as I stuffed a quarter of the gargantuan portions into the cup and set the rest as far away from me as possible. I have eaten exclusively off the appetizer menu, fighting off the admittedly goofy worry that the waiters would think I couldn’t afford a full meal and feeling compelled to leave ridiculously large tips. I know a serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards and not the deck of a small sailing vessel. I know both that the size of a baked potato referred to in diet literature is that of a tennis ball, and that the prospect of finding a potato that size in the supermarket is roughly equivalent to finding the cheap earring that my puppy once ate. It’s not impossible but I’d rather not go through the crap for so little reward. Therefore, I have gotten used to eating halves, half a banana, half a cup of oatmeal, saving the other half specifically so that it can stare accusingly at me from the refrigerator shelf as I stand there looking for something to keep me from feeling faint, but that has the kind of calorie count only available from the ice dispenser. I have eaten according to the old food pyramid, the new food pyramid, and the tenets of combination diets recommended by books that only make sense to the truly desperate and the authors’ accountants.
I have lain on more than one analyst’s couch and wished fervently that I would be told that my lifelong struggle with fat has to do with my chronically angry father, my beauty-obsessed and prematurely dead mother, the restaurant owned by my grandparents and in which I was pretty much raised, and the peculiarities of my culture. I want to blame the Gulf Coast where I grew up. Its hundred-degree heat and ninety percent humidity, the ubiquitous fire ants, water moccasins, poison oak and men who think nothing of hollering “Whoeeeee, shake that thang!” out their car windows at any woman engaging in overt body movement, keep all but the most masochistic women from doing a lot outdoors. Exercise in my family consisted of looking for the remote control for my father. I’d like to believe that growing up with such conflicted relationships with men made being svelte an ambiguous proposition and that being free of the conflict would make me free of the need for padding. But the fact is, there are still parts of the world where the only requirement for being fodder for inappropriate male attention is having a temperature above the ambient. It was the South that gave birth to the phrase, “More to hold on to.”

  After listening to me try to both articulate and avoid articulating my struggles with being a large woman in a world that associates anything BUT “beautiful and intelligent” with being so, my analysts have, eventually, come around to using the same dread inducing word that makes me feel as if they have simply given up on me—genes.  Forget Freud, forget oral fixations and shaky object relations and a narcissistically wounded sense of self. I’m a product of my people in the most fundamental way, and we are ill suited to abundance. My survival skills have doomed me.

I’m hearing a lot about the genetic components of obesity these days, and, perhaps strangely, I don’t like what I’m hearing. Having come from mostly Irish and Welsh and a little Choctaw, races whose entire existence in the world today is based on their ability to survive starvation conditions, it makes sense that I have a body that would hang onto every calorie as thought it were its last. I must admit I can’t help being tickled at the idea that this is the physical equivalent of a psychological problem. I have a neurotic gene structure. What once was a perfectly good mechanism for survival in times when famine was upon the land and a few thousand miles of forced march was an acceptable way of showing people to their new home is now an albatross around my short, fat neck. My DNA can’t understand that, unlike the old days, plenty of nourishment is available and my metabolism doesn’t have to go on standby every time I refuse a piece of pie. I want to scream at my genes, “This is inappropriate! You’re living in the past!”
The sad part is, I do scream at myself a lot when I’m dieting, and that has gotten me to thinking about my dieting self. Not long ago I began to really look at how I talk to myself when I’m trying, yet again, to lose weight. My dieting self is engaged in a 24/7 war, and it isn’t against weight.

I’m one of those people who lives with one internal voice that thrives on punishing, and another against whom the punishment is aimed, and who can’t help but endlessly rebel against it. Never mind where they came from; psychoanalysis did clear that up for me. But knowing has not, so far, done much to help. Dieting, which involves facing up to issues for which denial is a fine mechanism for psychological survival, calls that punitive voice out like nothing else on earth. Let me just think about forming a plan and standing firm in the face of hunger, and the tongue lashing begins.
“Here we go again. If you hadn’t let things go so far you wouldn’t be in this condition. You screwed it up before; what makes you think you won’t screw it up again?”  I feel like a child taking blows from the most sadistic bully and, lacking the ability to either fight or flee, becoming surlier by the blow. These parts of me despise one another. That internal relationship becomes a sinkhole for energy, optimism, pleasure in accomplishment, anything but sheer pain. They just can’t seem to give it up. I feel like I’m living with an internal version of domestic abuse, and can’t move out of the house.

When I restrict my eating I become food phobic, driven toward total abstinence by the blanket application of “Thou shalt not” to any form of consumption whatsoever.  Any act of eating is an act of transgression, and the punisher in my head and the rebel that responds with fury make a simple meal an exhausting, draining experience. No wonder I can’t keep it up for long.

But I have. I have kept it up for periods of time measured in years, and I have been successful in going from what the actuarial charts call morbid obesity to what they call acceptable and I call attractive (To hell with healthy. Show me a woman without a doctor’s orders who is dieting purely for health reasons and I’ll show you a woman in denial.). I started gaining it back as soon as I stopped losing it. I once exercised and starved for a year and a half, buoyed by the actual, real Richard Simmons. I was so good I made infomercials with him. If he couldn’t actually destroy the punitive voices, he at least drowned them out with positive affirmations and sheer goofiness enough to keep me from going mad wondering whether that piece of bread contained a hundred or a hundred and fifty calories.  I regained it. I have had my hair fall out on the most reasonable of diet and exercise regimens. I have gone through periods of time when I stuck arduously to a program designed for healthy weight loss only to watch the scale go up a pound and down a pound and up a pound and down a pound without rhyme or reason to the change.  There is nothing like an incomprehensible weight gain to call that voice out from its lair.  “Oh HO—if you’d just get up off your lazy butt…” The idea of living with that voice for the rest of my life in order to believe other people think better of me makes me sad. It’s not the hunger. It’s the venom.

And yet, I can’t stop wanting to be attractively, acceptably slender. I’d say I’m pining for health, but except for a persistent and ironic tendency toward gastric upset and a few joints that have admittedly taken too much wear I’m one of the healthiest people I know. I’m just tired of feeling as though I’m being punished for the way I am, and so am willing to be punished as a result of trying to change instead. Between the two, there’s not a lot of rest.  
So here I am, one week into a Nutrisystem program, having lost about three pounds. I hate it. I’m back in old familiar territory, watching the scale with a level of obsession that borders on diagnosable, as my stomach growls and I try to decide whether as my “extra” I’ll have a cup of fat-free yogurt or an egg white for breakfast. Or nothing at all. Maybe if I eat nothing I’ll lose the pound I gained for some inexplicable reason yesterday.
I wonder if there are any olives in the fridge.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Somewhere Between Hurt and Hallelujah

For two months, when I was sixteen, I was the voice of the high school news on WPMO, the AM station in Pascagoula Mississippi.
The station scheduled we three volunteers—News, Sports and Weather—at seven on Sunday morning, a time when we were not only the least likely to be heard, but they expected we would hate and eventually quit, relieving them of the task of firing us. In fact PHS News lasted two months before my friends decided that Saturday night trumped Sunday morning, and the job proved too much for me alone.
But during those months I got to listen to another voice, one that, ever since, has haunted the edges of my own. In a tiny, poorly soundproofed room next to the station’s office, at six thirty in the morning, a little, bandy-legged, brokedown man preached his heart out to the sleeping town, a lone technician, and three teenagers standing openmouthed outside the glass, watching him cry out his faith and his pain.
            “Do not despair-AH! Hallelu-JAH! Christ is ris-EN! Hallelu-JAH!”
            I don’t remember his name. We called him Reverend Hickey, for the way his blotchy, blood-suffused neck stuck out of a cheap, short sleeved dress shirt whose collar seemed determined to strangle him to a dead faint. That would have suited me fine. He was everything I feared, everything I didn’t want to be.
            “And the LORD-AH, says to you-AH, ‘Where is thy faith-AH?’ ” There wasn’t a cool word in him. Reverend Hickey exhorted. He cajoled. In the space of a minute he went from tender supplication to full-out cry. He cried out in the poetry of his people, the small and the poor and the just-getting-by, the last chance, last hope Mississippi farmers and fishermen who had lived off their wits and their God and almost nothing else for generations, while the world changed around them faster than they could comprehend.
            My friends snickered behind their hands but knew better than to laugh outright. I tried to pretend he didn’t exist at all. He represented all that galled me about my people, the ones that, on the newscasts I worshipped on national TV, looked ignorant and petty and mean. Endless reports about the outrageous things we Southerners did, delivered from a cool, distant place where I imagined no one stopped anyone from realizing their dreams, became a beacon for the someday when I would get away, when I would never hear those I loved say things that made me want to curl up and cry. I would never sound like they did. Instead, those professionally neutral anchormen, so unlike those around me, became my family of choice as my shame about my own, seen through their worldly eyes, grew. By the time I found myself at WPMO I had assumed an air of weary ennui, every word careful, vernacular eschewed, emotion cooled to reflect how not from Pascagoula I was. The fact that my family said that I was gettin’ above my raisin’ let me know I was succeeding.
But as I stood week after week watching that preacher howl and cry and sweat, the rhythm and the words woven together as beautifully as any song, in spite of myself I began to understand him just a little.  He wasn’t just talking to the Lord I hadn’t believed in for years. He was talking to the part of me that so often felt more than I could contain. He spoke to that place somewhere between hurt and hallelujah, to the need to look up from the ground and believe there would be better someday.  If those newsmen spoke from a safe, rational place, Reverend Hickey howled from his belly, with a cadence and feeling that I knew lay in mine. By the time Sports and Weather decided to sleep in on Sundays I realized there were other ways of telling the truth, ways that lay inside that brokedown place, and that the truth there lay not just in fact but in faith and fear, in looking around instead of looking down.

I left Pascagoula, but never did take up a career in the news. I became a poet, writer and psychoanalyst instead. I never became a believer in that breakdown man's god, but I learned to do my best to understand, and speak, not only with my head but with my belly, the way Reverend Hickey taught me, to reclaim and reflect my love for the parts of my people that dwell in the only eternity I know, the one between hurt and hallelujah, the purest news of all.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Of Mockingbirds, Wounded Girls, Ideals and Realities

Warning: If you haven’t read Go Set a Watchman and want that experience to be pure, stop now. Then after you’ve read it come back and tell me what you think.

            I waited for the release of Harper Lee’s old-new-sequel-prequel novel, Go Set a Watchman, the way you’d wait for the birth of a much-wanted child. I counted the months, the weeks, the days. Before I went to bed on the night before its release, I considered waking at midnight just so I could watch the download appear on my Kindle’s home page. Like damn near everybody else in the country, it seemed, I had pulled up my old and tender feelings for To Kill a Mockingbird, and worried about how badly they were going to get hurt by what was about to transpire. I’d even reread the book for the first time in years so that I could have the taste of Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo and Atticus fresh in my mouth as I was being inundated with tidbits of escaped information and opinion. And boy, was I inundated. “Atticus a Racist!” “Harper Lee the Victim of Elder Abuse?” “A Mess of a Novel!” When I woke up on July 15th and turned my Kindle on, I had many voices in my head alongside Miss Nelle’s and my own.

            I read that book in a single day, with feelings that ranged from deep pleasure and delight to puzzlement and, ultimately, compassion and empathy, for its characters, for its author, for the whole upset world, and for myself. Go Set a Watchman is as important as it’s been imagined to be, but for reasons far more broad than can be conveyed in a tweet or a post or a minute and a half on the national news. Reading it in the context of today’s delicate dealings with race, and with the instantaneous and reactionary nature of opinion sharing, is quite an experience. More personally, reading with the eye and experience of a writer and a small town Southern girl who left its culture for a far different one, Miss Nelle’s newly published work was, for me, far more than simply the breathtaking story that Mockingbird was. This wasn’t just a book. It was literature as a social and psychological construct. It was old wounds and the attempt to heal them. It, and we, the people reading and reacting, have become partners in a piece of art that far exceeds the tale of a young woman’s disillusionment with her upbringing.

            I’ll admit that I’m the perfect audience for this book. Like a million other kids, I wanted Atticus to be my father. I wanted his tolerant wisdom, his secret and mysterious abilities, his vulnerability wrapped in a strength that it seemed could never fail. He was the exception to all the false things I heard about my people as I grew up in the South of the 1960s, and to the parts I knew to be true. I wanted to be the girl who could sit in the secure, loving lap of a hero, the one who was different from everyone else. I wanted the one who not only wouldn’t spew hatred and wish harm to anyone, but who would defend those hurt from those who did the hurting. I wanted the good humor that Miss Nelle mentioned again and again to be in the eyes of the man to whom I could go with my hurts and indignities. I, along with a generation, poured all my wishes for unalloyed goodness and tolerant love into the ideal of Atticus Finch, even as I dealt with the realities of my own father and the people all around me, people with whom my relationships were, as most are, far more complicated.

            Southern people, like all people, are never pure and never simple. The idea that we can be is wonderful, seductive, and immature. At their best my own father and the folks I grew up with were intelligent, interesting, hard working, loyal, brilliant storytellers and funny as hell. They saved me, as they did the fictional Scout, when my mother was dead and I never doubted for an instant that I would be taken care of and loved. At their worst they were separatists, conservative to the point of paranoia and every bit as haughty about people—including black people—having a natural place in the world and needing to keep to it, as Aunt Alexandra is in the new work. And as much as I sometimes wanted to tell some of them to, as Jean Louise tells her aunt, “Go pee in your hat,” I know I was shaped by those attitudes in ways that pop up as nervousness and anger around people whose ways are different from my own. I can be as reactionary toward others as I hate seeing in others. I can carry the haughtiness of the liberal the way my people carry it as conservatives.  I aspire to do better and I both succeed and fail every day. One of the reasons I write is to try to make it, and myself, better. And this, ultimately, is the lesson Jean Louise has to learn as well. I could be wrong, but I expect Miss Nelle was having a long conversation with herself as she wrote.

The title of Go Set a Watchman was taken from a Bible verse, Isaiah 21:6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The idea of being that watchful eye, the conscience of rather than a participant in a small Alabama town during those tumultuous times, must have been seductive beyond belief. It must also have been dangerous, because Harper Lee, whom I have come to think of as a combination of Miss Nelle and the editor who saw her rough struggle with her feelings and essentially advised her to regress to the unconflicted feelings of a child for an ideal father, gave us a most beautiful fantasy instead of the hard reality with which we all struggle. It is beautiful beyond measure. And it isn’t false. It’s just fiction, a story that we want to be the story. Now, with Go Set a Watchman, that story has a sibling, one who sees things differently, who isn’t the innocent, idealizing one. She’s the smart one who can’t live forever in her perfect father’s lap, and points us toward the realities and foibles of our own. And now that we’ve got the two of them, we all have to figure out if we can love them both.