Thursday, July 28, 2005


Well, it's official then -- I've failed.

I had thought I knew what failure would look like, but of course I didn't. I imagined a dam breaking or a building collapsing, roaring water or clouds of dust; but what has happened is -- nothing. Nothing has happened. Except realizing just how entrenched this habit of self-conflict is. It's not so easy to set it aside. Virtually everything I've ever known, felt, or thought about food has been in the context of trying to control myself. I have no other way to think about it. I have no other relationship with food to fall back on. This will all be new.

Many of my earliest memories are of my mother eating chocolate. She would buy cans of ready-made chocolate frosting and eat them, while reading or watching TV. She was fat, sometimes very fat, but she was haunted by the dream of being skinny. If her will had only been strong enough, she thought, she would have been skinny. And if she had been skinny she would have been happy.

No happiness. I have no clearer image of misery than my mother huddled in her armchair, doggedly eating her way through whole cans of frosting.

My father would point out the health risks of obesity -- he was conscious of the health implications of diet long before it became a national obsession. He would explain, patiently, relentlessly, why she shouldn't eat that way. It was my first lesson in the limits of reason and will. My mother already knew all that. If she could have stopped, she would have. She was utterly miserable. She was well aware that she was killing herself: in fact I'm not at all sure that wasn't part of the project.

The irony now, is that none of her health problems have turned out to have anything to do with her diet. When they opened up her heart to do the bypass, they found a perfectly healthy heart, apart from the defective valve. She's being taken down by multiple myeloma and and the tubercular infection it's enabled. She'd be dying the same death if she'd lived on raw vegetables all her life.

All that misery. And none of the supposed consequences of being fat every came into play. She's never been alone or abandoned -- she's divorced twice, but she was the one to leave, both times -- and her health never really suffered from it. But the misery of knowing herself to be flawed and weak stained the whole fabric of her consciousness.

My own history with food echoes this, on a lesser scale. Most of my life I've been thirty or forty pounds overweight. It humiliates me in odd ways. I don't really mind the belly so much; I'm even fond of it, but I hate how quickly I become red-faced and sweaty. I've always exercised in private, so no one can see that. And for the same reason I have avoided dancing, which I love, most of my life. It was one of the things I was going to do when I lost weight. Likewise, going to massage school. Who wants to be massaged by a stout red-faced man, dripping sweat?

This morning, contemplating breakfast, I kept drawing a blank. What did I want to eat? I had no idea. I knew what I ought to eat, and I knew what I could eat if I meant to thumb my nose at prudence and authority. But I had no idea what I wanted to eat. Accepting failure, which I had pictured so clearly, turns out to be a puzzle. I'm not sure how to do it.

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