Betty Duffy

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's Raining Watermelons

In the history of symbolic dreams, this might top all:

I’d spent a lot of energy dressing up in a folksy ballet tutu with a laced up bodice like the costumes for Gisele, so that I could go to a festival. Once I had found the ankle binding footwear to complete my outfit, I went out to the playing fields where the festival took place. On the opposite side of the field lots of romantic men with ponytails, wearing blousy J Peterman shirts and black hose, were fencing with one another, and just as I made my way to them, it started to rain watermelons. I was running here and there catching big lusty fruits, though many of them splattered to my right and left. And the romantically hirsute fencing gents went about their games without paying any attention to me or my folksy tutu.

I love how the watermelons fall spontaneously in this dream, as though I do nothing to provoke them. Just when I’m ready to go out and do some damage, I’m attacked by symbols of fertility. I think this might be related to another dream I’ve had where I lose so much weight and become so sexy, I commit mortal sin just by stepping out of my house. Funny how in real life, not much changes whether you lose weight or not. Strange and exciting men don’t beat down the door, and what would I do with them if they did?

As I was falling asleep last night, I was bombarded with thoughts of my inadequacy as a mother. Do I really know my children or do I herd them around like sheep, feeding them, and occasionally reigning in the errant? I maintain their lives, without doing a whole lot to cultivate their personalities. My aunt is fond of saying that children are little savages that require civilization. On that note, I’ve always assumed that they are endowed with their personality at birth and that they just need tweaking. But among the things to feel most guilty about is that, while I LOVE them all deeply, I don’t always LIKE them. Is it just their immaturity, or my failure to mould their personalities?

My husband called home from work yesterday to quote a radio show with Dr. Dobson in which he said the goal of a family is to actually ENJOY spending time together—this because I’d complained earlier that I needed to get out of the house, away from it all for a bit. Pedge and I found tickets to a rock concert, but husband was not enthusiastic about my attending it. In fact, it would be expensive, and in his words, “immature” to go to a rock concert, which I know is tit for tat. When he was talking about going to the Casino with his high school buddy, Deano the Dodo, I dismissed it as the ill-conceived notion of a couple of children. It sounds like trouble; a recipe for bad behavior. Sort of like two women getting dolled up to go to a rock concert—dolled up for whom? And why? Romantic men with ponytails, no doubt, immersed in their own games. Pedge and I might cast a glance in their direction until we realize it’s starting to rain. It’s raining watermelons.

I opted not to go the concert, not out of fear I might cheat on my husband, but because it was more money than I could spend without a guilty conscience. We’ve just received the bill to put three kids in Catholic Schools. But that’s not what I told my husband. I told him I wasn’t going because he disapproved. And now safe from my defection he said, “Well I was just joking about that. You can go if you want.”

But I’m not going. Money, yes. And also this nagging cultural message that being on the playing field is fun, that being sexually desirable gives you power and makes you happy. But true sexual desirability requires a modicum of sexual availability, and that I do not have.

I hear the whisper of feminism: “Birth control could liberate you to enjoy the playing field. You wouldn’t have to worry about watermelon showers spoiling all your fun. Tired of the kids and the old ball and chain? Worn out? This little pill will allow you to quit staring up at the sky so you can open your eyes to all the exotic fruits blossoming on the ground around you.”

But I don’t want the exotic fruits. Every now and then it crosses my mind to take a bite of an heirloom apple here and there, discard the rest before I get to the core. But there’s no purpose in indiscriminate eating, and it would just make me fat. The pot of gold I’m looking for, the one that always eludes me, is that acquired taste for watermelon. It’s cumbersome to prepare and it only tastes good on the hottest of days, when I'm in the mood for it—but perhaps if I keep trying?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Science Lesson

Yesterday, I was driving down a country road and came upon a gaggle of children inspecting something on the pavement. Growing up, our road was an extension of our yard. It was our velodrome, our tennis court, our skating rink. We counted on the mercy of the occasional driver to be aware, and respect the life that takes place in the road.

Unfortunately many drivers do not proceed with the required caution. It bugs me when people drive down my road, shrieking their tires. Though I don’t allow my children to play in the front yard, nor anywhere near our street, there’s always a possibility that one of them could wander out there under somebody’s tires. It keeps me in a constant state of alert.

When the children saw me approaching they gathered together on the side of the road. They’d been trained well. Nevertheless, I like to make a point, that I’m a mother, and that I know one of them could dart unexpectedly into my path. I dropped my speed to fifteen, then ten miles an hour, smiling at the kids as they stared at my car. A couple of my kids waved from the rear of my mini-van to the kids on the side of the road.

Strangely, the children all bore an expression of great distress. One of the little ones started crying. Faces, one after another, rumpled as we passed, and then they all ran back out into the road. Seems I squashed a turtle they’d been trying to coax across the street into the drainage ditch, and in slow motion no less. In my rearview, I could see them all doubled over inspecting the turtle guts.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Brief Summary of My Diet History

Over the past two months I have lost a total of twenty pounds. Being on the svelte side of the fence makes me one of those annoying people who believe that weight loss is the answer to any of life’s problems. Toenail fungus? Have you tried losing weight? I’m no fun to be around, and all I eat is salad. But it occurred to me the other day that weight loss, like having children, is something deeply personal, for which the internal schematics and formulas are always changing. Yet the external formulas are about as straightforward as first grade math: intake < output.

With each of my five pregnancies, I have gained no less than seventy pounds. I’ve hesitated to write this post because it is so embarrassing. Seventy pounds. That’s about 3/4s of another adult person. My face gets fat, my hands, my ankles, my toenails. I don’t look like myself. I can stick my finger in my shin and it leaves an indentation of about a half inch. Edema, fortunately, which means that I lose 30 pounds instantly upon the birth. By the time I leave the hospital people say I look more like myself again. The swelling around my nose dissipates. My chin becomes visible again. It’s a relief. And I continue to lose water for another couple weeks, until I’m down to about thirty pounds of raw yellow belly jelly to lose over the next year. Surprisingly, I’ve always, more or less, lost it. And still, I go back and forth between thinking I have unlocked all the mysteries of weight loss, and that I know absolutely nothing about losing weight.

I’ve never been a waif. Even running track and cross country in high school, I was always the girl on the bottom of the pyramid, big boned, holding up my skinny friends to wave at the crowds. Bikinis and halter tops were always the dominion of “other girls,” though I bought them, and took them for an unflattering jaunt here and there during my early, breast budding teens.

My weight regulation method of choice was always, from puberty onward, a form of binge and purge with exercise. Controlling my weight was the only reason I ran. Not having the self discipline to deprive myself of food, I once tried an actual binge and purge with a girlfriend in college. We planned it out. We would go to the dining hall, eat as much frozen yogurt as we could and go to the basement of our dorm to puke. Everything proceeded as planned until it was time to purge. We’d consumed about 2000 calories of sugary frozen milk, but with much effort and gagging, neither one of us could get more than a thimbleful back up. I broke capillaries on my face. My nose was purple. We vowed never to do anything so disordered again, and went out for an eleven mile run instead, finishing at about two in the morning. And I felt a little dejected: if I could just have an eating disorder like everyone else, my weight problems would be solved.

Though not always to that extreme, I continued through young adulthood, to eat and run, eat and run. I ran a minimum of five miles a day, just to be certain I accounted for every calorie. And I maintained a steady size ten (or a twelve in the winter months), until my first pregnancy. It always starts the same way: ten pounds before my first appointment, twenty by my second, and on up from there, until I weigh more than my 6’5’’ husband.

After my first pregnancy, I was still young enough that I could start running again at about three weeks post partum and my uterus wouldn’t fall out. The weight came off, and I was pregnant again before my baby was five months old (thanks, early return of fertility, ecological breastfeeding notwithstanding). Second round of baby weight went the same way, though it took longer, a full year to lose the weight having been more or less out of the saddle for two full years.

After my third child, I felt like a lump of dry clay. My body wouldn’t do it. I’d run a few steps, and walk ten. I had to move to drastic measures: the Atkins diet, which lowered my weight enough to exercise. That was the year I lost more weight than I’d gained, working out at the YMCA for two hours a day, and sort of minding my carbs.

Then I turned thirty. I want to blame it on my age, that after my fourth child nothing seemed to work. I had foot and knee injuries from running while overweight. I was tired all the time, and grouchy. The Atkins thing didn’t work, probably because I cheated and I drank a pot of coffee a day (ten cups). I went to the doctor, thinking something must be wrong with me: I can’t eat whatever I want and not feel terrible. I was diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue (“A Twentieth Century Stress Disorder!”), high cholesterol, leptin resistance, and pre-diabetes. I did the Leptin Resistance Diet for a couple months, and felt better, but didn’t lose weight. So I hung up my losses, and decided, as my sister-in-law says, that if I was going to be fat, I might as well be pregnant.

Enter pregnancy #5. I tested positive for gestational diabetes. I had to go on insulin, and eat a very restricted diet. I asked my doctor, “Is there anything that I can just eat until I get sick?” “Not really,” she said, “Maybe lettuce without dressing.” It was probably the first time I ate like a normal person, which I guess means portion control. It didn’t kill me. In fact my life and my baby’s life depended on it. Funny how that works. Eat right, or you’ll die. That’s what it took.

I still gained all the water, but not so much of the weight. I continued on the diabetic diet after delivery, and got into a sort of acceptable size without much effort or exercise. Back at the doctor, my diabetes slipped back into a pre-diabetic status. My cholesterol went back to normal. I had energy. And I asked my doctor what I could do to lose the rest of the weight without exercising like a maniac.

It’s very simple: no sugar and intake has to be less than output. He prescribed about a month of consuming 1500 calories a day with no exercise because exercise makes you hungry. From there, you can increase activity and increase calories accordingly (about 100 calories, the equivalent of one apple, per mile of walking or running). The weight has melted off quickly, and continues to do so, even as I increase calories and activity.

I guess the moral of this long tale, is that I’m 33 years old, and have finally learned how to eat like a grown-up. I never thought I had a bad relationship with food, but I would feel stressed out and depressed just at the thought of limitations on my eating. Like so many other things in life, I can’t have as much of it as I want.

Disclaimer: Talk to your doctor about the calorie intake that may be right for you!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Lake Has Ears

On one of our vacation days, we went to the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. To get there, you hike for two miles through the woods, then another quarter mile over the dunes. On arrival, you’re paid off with beautiful views, and miles of beachfront entirely to yourself.

I went for a run in my swimsuit, like a little girl, something you can only do on a completely evacuated beach, and saw many interesting things washed ashore: the skeleton of a large fish, a tampon applicator, a dead seagull, and a rock that was exactly the same size and shape as my oldest son’s ear. Many rocks glistened as the waves receded from the shore leaving a sudsy film in their wake, and there like a scene from the life of Van Gogh, lay an ear of stone. I picked it up thinking, “What is Nick’s ear doing here?” and took it back to our camp for him. He held it up to the side of his head to check the fit. It was an exact match, same coils, same impish fold at the top. Then he skipped it out into the lake. It was a perfect skipping stone, bounced three times before it sunk.

The Family that Plays Together, Has Knee Replacement Surgery Together

My dad played pro football for the Oakland Raiders. My uncle is a lifelong football coach. My brothers played football and/or Rugby through high school and college. I was a football cheerleader, and played four years of powder puff football in high school—yet, implausibly, I still do not know the rules of the game, and I have never sat through a televised football game in its entirety. My obsession with playing the game is based solely on an innate desire to run and jump on people. So when my siblings were in town this week for Granny’s funeral, I helped to instigate a football game between my siblings and in-laws.

Some families are gamers, and some are not. My husband’s family plays Poker for dollar buy-ins and Ping-pong for blood. My family favors word games like Boggle and Balderdash, until one of us gets a wild hare and decides we should all go out and have relay races or play ultimate Frisbee or football. It’s very cute of us, like a sit-com family. We throw our bellies around as though we’re still teenagers, slip in the mud, give high fives, and I get more than my share of opportunities to run and jump on my relatives.

The following day, when we all gimped around the block for a walk, my brother-in-law argued that they shouldn’t let their sons play football. Exhibit A.) My brother had to chassé into the end zone because of a residual knee injury from college Rugby. Exhibit B.) My dad had hip replacement surgery several years ago from his own post-football Rugby forays. Exhibit C.) All of us limping around the block.

I tend to think that our injuries are more from our attempts to play like we’re kids when it has been years since any of us have been in peak physical condition. My mom sits on the porch while we’re playing and gasps and sighs, waiting to take one of us to the ER. “You guys make me so nervous when you go out and play like that when none of you are in shape.”

Just a bunch of old fatsos, we are. But it’s worth it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music, Greed, and Heaven

There are songs of my faith that evoke memories of significant spiritual milestones. The Salve Regina, sung in chant with the Consecrated every night before we went to bed, signified “a little death” as the failures of each day were assuaged by Our Lady and put to rest. My dear friend Melanie, now an opera singer in New York, sang the Salve Regina a capella at my husband and mine’s wedding. I have sung it to my babies when I put them to sleep.

As my husband and brothers carried my Grandmother’s casket out to the hearse, the Bishop intoned the Salve Regina, and those present who knew the words sang it as Grandma was taken away.

I’m reading a novel right now about the significance of music, and how it shapes our memories. It’s called “The Song is You” by Arthur Philips, and while it’s too soon to recommend, this quote sums up what’s wrong with a lot of modern music:

“Julian sat in the fall air and listened to Dean Villerman on his Walkman, stared at Manhattan, and inhaled as if he’d just surfaced from a deep dive, and he had the sensation that he might never be so happy again as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that. “Love” was in most of these potent songs, of course, but they—the music, the light, the season—implied more than this, because treacherously, Julian was swelling only with longing for longing.”

The main character in this book writes commercial jingles for a living, makes money at using music to contrive longing. I wonder sometimes if music, in its essence, is a conduit of greed—because for me, as well, it has always been about longing, wishing for something that will make the intolerable now a more palatable future. Religious music seems to harness this longing by giving us very specific aims, providing an object for our longing, a hope in Heaven and the things of God.

Consider this quote from “After This” by Alice McDermott as a character, disengaged with his Catholic faith remembers the words of the Salve Regina:

“He thought how even after you’d disentangled yourself from everything else, the words stayed with you:

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile show us the blessed fruit of thy womb…

Words you could dismiss as a joke as readily as you could claim them as the precise definition of everything you wanted.”

If music uses the artful arrangement of words and notes to create longing, and religious music, to create longing for Heaven, hearing these songs, I have pause to consider my own hope in Heaven. Am I greedy for it? Do I do whatever it takes to get there? Am I celebrating my Grandmother’s arrival at her eternal reward?

When someone like my Grandma dies, we say things like, “She’s so much happier now.” “She’s in a better place.”

If there is a weakness in my Christian belief, however, it is a halfhearted hope in the afterlife. I realized my lack of faith on the eve of her funeral, when I wanted to comfort myself at the thought of her non-existence. I was trying to picture her in Heaven, wondering if she had received her memory back, considering whether or not she might be reunited with my grandfather, and all of it felt a little, I don’t know…sentimental, and even, in an odd way, inconsequential.

If someone has just spent the past ten years of their life in a living purgatory, experiencing separation from their past and the people they loved, what benefit would it be to her soul to receive it all back? What benefit would a Heaven be, if it looked like the best aspects of our life on Earth?

Of course, I could yield to my childhood ideas of Heaven as a cloudy, glistening place where white-robed souls sing in unison to music played on harp and lyre. But such a boring Heaven, I’m sorry to say, holds little appeal.

I know sin makes me miserable. Abandoning a life of sin was more about relinquishing my hell on earth than fear of eternal damnation. Even with the sacrifice Christian living entails, I’ve found that overall, it has improved my quality of life. Sin is expensive, literally, while virtue, as it affects my pocketbook is a very good bargain. Maybe what it comes down to, is that my life has become too comfortable.

As my priest said in the confessional yesterday:

“Of all the things you’ve mentioned, it seems the Lord wants me to speak to you about greed. We all think we’re not the Bernie Madoff’s of the world, and yet, who among us is satisfied with the minimum we require in order to survive?”

My grandmother lived for weeks on a couple bites of food daily, and the absolute charity of others.

Obviously, that would not satisfy me. I have felt, more than once, that I am owed a vacation—and if I had my own private beach for that vacation, I’d be completely within my rights. I cannot enter the grocery store without dropping a minimum of fifty dollars, because there’s always something on clearance at the Manager’s Special table. And if one jar of hot pickled banana peppers is good, then ten must be better. We’ll eat them, after all, even if it takes ten years.

I’m not above Pascal’s Wager. If there’s a Heaven, I will live so as to achieve it. The only concept of Heaven that makes sense to me, however, is a complete body and soul union with Christ, who must be the beloved of my earthly life. And yet how can one feel greedy for that union when there are so many things on this earth to long for? I have such a long way to go.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Someone is Going to Do Something About Us

July 4, 2009

All the usual suspects are at the lake: The lanky and tan old man tugging slowly up the hill on his afternoon run. A woman with a long gray pony tail has been riding her bicycle up and down the south shore since I was a girl. And so many tan old women in pink polo shirts that accentuate the age spots on their forearms as they water their geraniums, or drive to Prevo in their convertible Mercedes. They are Midwestern Doctors’ wives, or brides of Chicago attorneys. Most of the residents on the lake are old, because it takes money, lots of it, to live here. But they have children and grandchildren.

I was thinking the other day of all the boys with boats I used to date up here with the hopes that at some point I would marry into a lake house. At fifteen years old, riding my bike past the Elliott’s house in a bikini top and cut-off jeans until I scored an invitation to go out on the lake and tip the catamaran. It was the blue-blood version of cow-tipping. I spent several afternoons in a Boston Whaler with the Bateman scion ignoring the goiter on his neck, even inviting him to our house for Thanksgiving, before it occurred to me that life with him would afford me 345 days of the year in hell for twenty days at the lake in the summer.

What could I endure for money and privilege and ownership of a portion of lakefront? This place is packed to the gills with every comfort and beauty that nature designs and money can buy. I want to keep it all, forever, and I can't help counting down the days and minutes until all this grace will be taken from me. The terminal nature of our vacation taints every moment of this respite with sadness. Such is life for a greedy pessimist.

Fifty years ago when Grandma and Grandpa first started coming up here, they could have bought a cottage with a private beach for a couple thousand dollars. Fifteen years ago, when the Little Brown Jug went up for sale, we could have bought it for 200 grand. We laughed at the price then: “That much? For that dump?” It was a plywood house with no insulation that smelled like mothballs and musty carpet. But the joke was on us. Beach front now sells for four times as much. And the taxes are as much as a mortgage, so that more and more, this corner of the state is a millionaire’s club. In town, the rich people patrol the sidewalks in madras plaid shorts with cashmere sweaters tied nonchalantly over their shoulders. Mom and pop restaurants have been replaced with sushi and fusion bistros decorated in slate and black paint. The charter fisherman whose wife ran the local bakery sold out to a cranky yuppie couple who serve artisan breads and gourmet coffees.

Every year that we come here, I feel more and more like an interloper. In a place where ownership has its privileges, we have always been the grandchildren of renters. I suppose we have moved up in status a bit, being borrowers now, and of our own flesh and blood. But it only masks the reality that at $2000 a week, renting a place up here has exceeded our means.

Yesterday, on the association-owned beach, which extends beach privileges only to landowners, my son kicked one of the association members’ daughters square in the middle of the back. She was enthroned at the end of the dock testing the water with her big toe at the precise moment my son wanted to run and jump off into the water. I saw it happening in slow motion like an impending car accident that you see coming and can do nothing to avert. I yelled his name but he didn’t hear me. He kicked, she squealed and her grandmother came to the rescue, swooping her off the dock and back to safety on the beach without allowing a moment for me to intervene and coax an apology out of my son.

That night, I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I tossed and sighed in bed, compelling my husband to inquire why the heck I wouldn’t let him sleep. When I told him, he asked me, “Are you more upset about your humiliation, or about the fact that our kid kicked a girl, because to me kicking girls is a bigger issue.”

And there was that age old vanity that threatened to out me as an interloper here. I don’t have the money. I don’t pay my dues. If we are congenial and stay under the radar, then the charity of others that tolerates our stay here will not be exhausted. But if we are rowdy and mean, and hog the beach, and kick unsuspecting little girls, then someone is going to do something about us. My bittersweet feelings upon coming to this place have always been about class; my middle class to their upper class; their membership to my being an outsider trying to secure my place here. I’m the Becky Sharp of the lake.

We really do make our own hell on earth. Here I am on borrowed time in a borrowed place, every day is a grace, and I can’t allow myself the luxury of not caring what people think.

"No matter what the circumstances, no man can completely escape from vanity."--Shusaku Endo

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Being Finished

July 3, 2009

Our family is at the lake.

Driving north last night was such a relief from our last road trip heading south through the plains of Middle America. At night, the road to Michigan is a tunnel through pine trees punctuated by northern smells of sand and fish and evergreen. It makes me feel hopeful, where the shrubby trees and concrete horizon of Oklahoma City and Dallas fill me with dread, more so knowing that at the end of our trip I will live a life encapsulated in air conditioning rather than in the dry winds coming off Lake Michigan. Road signs heading North advertise orchards and berries, where the southern billboards hock adult entertainment and amusement parks. I know there’s beauty to be had in the South, just not on the tollway from Indiana to Texas. And it’s a problem of road trips with kids, that we want to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time, so we see only what is offered as the crow flies.

It’s hard not to be consumed with want when we come to the Lake. Someday I will sell a book and make millions, and I will buy my writer’s retreat, come up and spend the summers here with the kids. I want to foresee a time when the kids will be grown, when I may even be done having kids, will pack up the baby gear, and gawk at other people’s infants. But it is at times a thorn of my Catholicity that I am unable to say, “I’m finished” with any certainty.

A friend of mine sent me an article recently written by a cancer patient who is dying. She discussed giving birth to her children over the years, and how her impending death would be the last labor of her life. While I appreciate the beauty of the metaphor if the labor is a coming to terms or surrender, in a literal sense, it seems that death doesn’t care what we do to prepare for it. It can happen suddenly in an accident, or when we are anesthetized or asleep. We think of a “good death” steeped in Christ and holy offering, but it is staggering how few of us will be in our senses at the end of life to achieve such a death.

In Grandma’s case, her health dwindles so much, we think, if she continues at this rate, she will not last through the week. We make the preparations, we wait, and then she plateaus, life stabilizes and we continue with our lives for a time. The only constant in death, as in the bringing forth of new life, is that we seem to have no control over it. Or at least, for Catholics, we cede control. We could arm ourselves with the illusory controls of assisted suicide and contraceptives. But even still, the moment of death and the moment of life’s inception would not be our labor. I have many friends who conceived while on the pill, or who did not conceive while “trying.” And death, well, it’s not something I have to balls to commandeer. I think you would have to be an atheist to steal the reigns from God in your final hours.

I listened to an interview on NPR a few months ago with Dr. Philip Mitchke. He’s an Australian Doctor who travels around giving seminars to the over 50 crowd supplying practical advice on the drugs and equipment necessary to end their lives when they deem the time has come. He believes that people have a right to the information that allows them to say “I’m finished” in the most humane way. After a certain age, it becomes a conscientious examination: Just as I might examine the evidence of a certain month and ask myself, “Is now the time to have a baby?” the over fifty crowd should ask themselves, “Is now the time to end my life?” It’s odd.