Scared Skinnier

kensington doctorsAlmost a year ago, on May 18, 2015, I visited a new medical practice to have an initial consultation as my internist was in the process of retiring. I asked the mother of one of my students, married to a doctor, for recommendations from him of doctors with offices near the school where I teach. Yes, I based my choice on the three magic words of the real estate industry: location, location, location. The office space itself was tired and dated but right away I could tell that the staff was efficient and well-versed in the technology of the 21st century, something that was sadly lacking in my previous doctor’s practice.

laptop and stethoscope

My medical history was taken by a PA through a series of questions with my responses entered directly by her into her laptop. While I loved my former doctor, and felt that he was an excellent diagnostician having steered me safely through shingles and Lyme disease, I felt immediately at ease with her and really liked her bedside manner.

cardio system

Because it was my first first visit and I was seeking the refill of a prescription from my previous doctor, she did a mini-physical: weight, blood pressure, pulse, EKG. And, that’s where the visit took an unpleasant turn. The weight discussion. And to make matters worse, she disclosed that my EKG was abnormal. She gave me an order for lab work, to determine my blood sugar and cholesterol numbers. She also wrote out a referral to a cardiologist for additional tests. The subsequent visit with the cardiologist and follow-up cardiac tests was unbelievably scary and life-changing.

diabetes symbolIn my essay When Best Friends Become Enemies, I briefly discussed the beginning of my journey to health, which I mark July 17, 2015, as the official start date. Since then my husband and I have completely changed the way we eat, the way we shop for food, the way we order food when we eat out. We are not on a diet; we are on a health plan. We have given up certain foods but for the most part we don’t feel deprived or depressed about it. We have instead replaced those food enemies with food friends we also love that are healthier for us. Yes, it has taken willpower and discipline to make these lifestyle changes but to say it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done would be a lie. It would be much harder to live with type 2 diabetes, which is where I was heading, or to recover from cardiac bypass surgery, which was almost a certainty. The diabetes and bypass surgery may still happen in the future, if genes and family history have any say in the matter, but I truly believe I have delayed if not prevented them from happening, which is nothing short of a miracle.

faux sandwichA few weeks ago I visited the PA again, ostensibly to be sure the lingering effects of a terrible head and chest cold had not evolved into a sinus infection. As usual, she sat across from me on a tiny rolling stool, laptop balanced on her knees, asking questions and typing in answers. She asked me how I was feeling overall, other than the hacking cough, and I told her GREAT. I said, “Take a look at my weight today and compare it to my first visit with you back in May of 2015.” She clicked a few keys and replied, “Wow, what is that, like, 30 pounds?” I said, “31 to be exact!”, which every dieter in the world knows that even one pound is worth a correction. She was truly impressed that I had taken heed of the serious warnings from my May 2015 visit with her, my subsequent lab work and EKG. I told her of my visit with the cardiologist and how she had outlined what were to be my new food enemies and my soon to be food friends. And, for some reason, I explained to her, fear of my impending health crises had finally motivated me to make drastic lifestyle changes.

lettuce wrapsWe chatted about this journey to health I had undertaken and my successes thus far, along with the successes of my husband, who has also staved off, no doubt, health issues with his weight loss and new level of fitness. She decided we should do labs again to see how my blood sugar and cholesterol had changed in the ten months that had passed. As I had not eaten anything yet that day, I went right to the lab and had blood drawn. Later that night, through the marvels of technology and the innovative way this medical practice operates, I received an email from the PA, and it was one of the best emails I have ever received. My blood sugar was completely normal, well out of the pre-diabetes range, and my overall cholesterol was only two points from normal, which given that I am not on a statin or any other medication for cholesterol reduction was great news. The most significant decrease was my triglycerides, which went from 197 to 112.

While it was great knowing that was going on inside my body was on target for better fitness, there have been more tangible results as well. I can walk longer distances and at a substantially quicker pace than before without huffing and puffing like a three-pack a day smoker. I can see a noticeable difference in the shape of my legs. I’ve had to purchase new jeans and dress pants. new outfitMost significantly, I recently purchased clothes at a popular women’s clothing store, one that targets younger and more affluent career women, a category I haven’t been in for quite some time. This is not a store that carries plus sizes, and other than a necklace I purchased for my daughter’s birthday present one year, I’ve never been able to shop there. On a whim, I went in and tried on a blouse and cardigan from the sale rack. Yes, it was the largest size they had, but a long way from the plus size I had been wearing. It fit and I almost cried right there in the dressing room. That one shopping experience was worth the countless salads and low-carb meals I have had over the past ten months.

zoodlesSo, dear donut, dear cupcake, dear pizza, dear cheesesteak, it has been totally worth saying no to you. And, dear zoodles, dear butternut squash, dear arugula, dear baked sweet potato fries, thank you so much…you made all this possible.

Advertisements

Floating Like a Social Butterfly Can Sting Like a Bee

real butterfly on astorMy dad was a handful, a real character. His classic repertoire of stories was filled with his escapades and shenanigans from a very young age, up until the day he married my mother, November 20, 1954. He settled down in a big way to woo her into first dating him, and then marrying him. Even after they were married, and parents to the three of us, he occasionally returned to his bad boy self, often as a result of scotch, a drink he loved but could not handle very well. Eventually, he gave up scotch altogether, and drank beer or wine, which still had the ability to loosen his tongue a bit but did not wreak havoc entirely on his behavior. Up until the day he died, May 8, 2015, he was a social butterfly and every bit the extrovert.

slow downMy mother, on the other hand, was very much an introvert. They say “opposites attract” and I guess in their case it really did. Her parents raised her as they themselves had been raised, with traditional Scottish values—don’t laugh or cry in front of others, don’t talk too loudly, don’t talk too much. This is not to say she was a pushover or weak in any way; to the contrary, she was the strongest person I have ever known. She weathered all the trials and tribulations of her life, including serious and severe health issues, with grace and dignity, no complaints or whining. In a short two-year period, she underwent surgeries for heart bypass, cervical cancer, renal vascular bypass, and finally, after two years of dialysis three days a week, a kidney transplant, a generous and selfless gift from her older sister and only remaining family member.

nine months photoEarly on it was clear that I had inherited my father’s gregarious and outgoing personality. Being the first-born, my mother took copious notes of my early childhood development and documented them in my baby book, something I treasure even more dearly now that she is gone. I was an early talker and from a very young age always wanted to go somewhere. baby book entry travelerMy mother documented this, too, noting that whenever a visitor to our home was ready to leave, I would grab the nearest thing to clothing, wrap it around my head, and lift up my arms to be carried away with the visitor. A reoccurring phrase in my baby book is “you had so much fun”, which was applied to birthday parties, trips to the zoo, school functions, vacation bible school, swimming lessons, and more.

DHA senior pageIn high school, I participated in everything the school had to offer except sports, marching band, library club, yearbook staff, and the oratorical competitions. College was no different. Even though no one from my high school went to SLU with me, it wasn’t long before I felt as though I knew everyone on the campus. Pi Kappa Delta sweetheart photoI joined a sorority, Phi Mu, participated in student government, the English club, speech competitions. I loved being in clubs and groups because it meant I always had somewhere to go, whether it was meetings or parties or setting up for an activity. The more clubs I joined, the more people I met, the happier I was. Of course, my college GPA would have been healthier had I focused a bit more on academics and a bit less on my social life.

social media sitesThis continued in my adult life. When our daughters were in grade school, I was very active in the home and school association, as well as serving on the parish council for our church. Currently I lector at Mass and serve as a substitute for the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. I belong to the parish’s sodality, an organization for the ladies of the parish, and once again, I am serving on the parish council. I’m also very active in the life of the school where I teach, directing the school plays, and helping with other school functions like graduation, Confirmation, and more. While social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can sometimes isolate people and draw them away from activities outside of the home, for me, staying active online is just another aspect of staying socially active, connecting with others from all other the world even when I can’t go out to do so.

burning candle at both endsEven at an age where some of my friends are retiring from work, giving up teaching, slowing down and having more free time, my calendar is still always full. Frequently this results in late nights of binge-grading papers to get caught up, or an entire Sunday afternoon being spent in my classroom doing lesson plans and making copies. Even though “sleep more” tops my list of resolutions each January, this night owl still burns the candle at both ends far too often.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

Remember, though, that opposites attract. So, when it came down to dating and getting married and having a family, did I end up with someone who loves to go and loves to participate and loves to join stuff, someone who loves to be around people? No, I did not, much like my parents. My husband does not have all the characteristics of an introvert, mainly because he is a trained vocalist and enjoys performing for others.  But, he likes to pace out his social functions, and by pace, I mean, one a month at most.

SJ gala

Us at SJ Gala, 3/12/16

Last week, while we were watching TV after dinner, I casually reminded him that this weekend was my school’s big fundraising gala. And, then, I squinted, waiting for the response.

“WHAT? We went to a gala last weekend! This is, like, the FOURTH THING THIS MONTH!”

HR gala

Us at HR Gala, 3/19/16

Actually, it wasn’t. Yes, there were four recent social events we attended but two were in February and two were in March. And, there was an entire weekend in between the two months where he didn’t go to anything…which I reminded him. That weekend I had gone to two different high school plays to see former students perform, but I had gone with a friend from school. I didn’t even try to talk him to coming along, fully knowing we were reaching maximum overload on his social calendar.

homebodyYes, I married a homebody—me, who started life wrapping a dishtowel around her 13-month old head to signify that she was ready to go, ready to travel, anywhere and with anyone. I’m not complaining about his lifetime membership in the stay-at-home club, though, because that is one of the qualities that I love about him. He loves being at home with his family. He doesn’t feel the need to go out drinking, hang out at bars with guys from work, spend the weekend golfing or shooting baskets, or even at his desk working. He loves being at home with us. My daughters and I have always come first in his life, both in his calendar and in his heart.

butterfly on rockSo, while I continue to over-schedule and triple-book myself crazy, he is there, at home, reminding me to slow down and find time to rest and relax. He is the one who considers all possible consequences of joining something, of volunteering for something, of saying yes too many times. He is the one who took care of me during a case of shingles in 2006, after overextending myself into exhaustion planning five major events to commemorate our church parish’s 50th anniversary. He is the rock that this social butterfly lands on when she is too tired to flit about anymore. Opposites attract, indeed. Thank God.

Reflection and Renovation

Exciting news for me! One of my essays, Reflection and Renovation, made the front page of a local regional newspaper that publishes news about our area’s Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington.

As this is a newspaper for parents, faculty, and students of Catholic schools, this essay has a spiritual theme based on the current liturgical season of the Catholic Church, Lent. If you enjoy HGTV’s hit show Fixer Upper, you might enjoy my lead in for this essay.

Check it out! Would love your feedback!

The Elephant in the Room

puccini on stairs newAs my regular readers may know, I have always been a cat person although currently I am the catless owner of an eight-year-old Maltipoo named Puccini. In fact, my very first essay published on Cajun Girl in a Kilt was “License to Carry”, a tongue-in-cheek essay about Puccini’s reluctance to go up and down the stairs of our two-story home. He is mostly cured of that but still sporadically will climb to the fourth step from the top and wait there, whining, hoping someone will come and carry him the rest of the way up. Even though Puccini has been a major part of our lives for six years now, and in many ways has improved our quality of life, I still miss having a cat and often toy with the idea of getting another one.

puccini and charlie

Charlie and Puccini

There are several cats in my neighborhood, but the leading male character of Briarwood Terrace is Charlie, a beautiful long-haired tabby tom cat who prowls up and down the street, in and out of yards, on and off of porches, and back and forth from underneath our parked cars. He is very clever and has escaped direct contact with automobiles although he occasionally can be spotted with minor wounds indicating he has been involved in some sort of scrape, obviously with someone or something that doesn’t know he is the “mayor” of our street. When I am out walking Puccini and I see Charlie basking in the sun in his own driveway, I always stop to pet him. Puccini is now used to this minor detour and the two of them no longer hiss and growl at one another.

My reoccurring desire to have another cat in my life, particularly strong right now, makes me think of one of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, “Cat in the Rain”. This very short story is indicative of Hemingway’s writing style, lean and tough prose, with only enough dialogue and details to give the reader the bare minimum required to follow the story line, or at least the surface level of the story line. It’s up to the reader to dive deeper into the subtext to discover what lies beneath. Hemingway himself coined a term for this structure, the iceberg theory.

asiago war memorial

Asiago, Italy, WWI War Memorial

“Cat in the Rain” is the story of an American couple traveling in Italy. As usual, Hemingway doesn’t tell us where in Italy, but we know it is on the coast since the hotel faces the sea, and we know there is a war memorial in the center of town that is a tourist attraction, even for Italians themselves. We also don’t initially know the names of the Americans, they are only referred to as the husband and the wife. In the courtyard of the hotel there is a cat, crouched under a table in the rain trying to stay dry. The wife is looking out of the hotel room window at the cat while the husband lies on the bed reading.

Hemingway devotes valuable space in the exposition of the story to make sure the reader understands the emptiness of the setting. They are the only two Americans in the hotel. They don’t know anyone and don’t make any effort to meet the other guests. Because of the rain, there are no artists out with their easels and sketchpads. The parking lot is empty. The town square is empty. The courtyard is empty—except for the cat and a waiter, standing in the doorway of a café looking out at the empty square.

The wife goes out to get the cat out of the rain. She encounters the hotel-keeper, the padrone, and here Hemingway allows us a bit deeper, in the way he tells us what the American woman thinks of the padrone, what she likes about him, what she feels about him. The padrone makes her feel important, and when he sees that she is going to go out in the rain into the courtyard, he sends a maid after her with an umbrella. The American woman knows the padrone has sent the maid, to shield her from the rain, to take care of her, unlike her husband who remains upstairs on the bed reading.

When she is unable to find the cat, she returns upstairs, empty-handed. Her husband, whom we now know is called George, makes small talk with her about the cat and about her hair, after she says she wants to let it grow out, so that she doesn’t look like a boy anymore. She continues to carry on about her hair and the cat, and how she wants to have a cat to hold and pet. She branches out in her whining and talks about wanting new clothes and wanting to have dinner at a table with real silverware and candles. Eventually her husband grows weary of her whining and tells her, “Oh, shut up and get something to read”. She pauses but does not stop…she starts up again with how much she wants a cat, and if she can’t have the things she really wants, then she wants a cat.

Obviously this story is not about a cat. It is not about an American woman wanting to rescue a kitty from the rain in a hotel in Italy. This story is more about what it is NOT about than what it IS about. Most agree that this story is about a woman who is feeling empty and unfulfilled, about a woman who wants to be loved and cared for, about a woman who wants to have a baby to love and hold and pet. Her unhappiness with her life and her marriage is the elephant in the room, not the cat in the rain.

family christmas 2015

Family Photo, Christmas Eve, 2015

I can’t identify with the American woman who has an empty life and an unhappy marriage, who longs for a baby. I am happily married with a full and rich life, and I have two wonderful daughters whom I loved and cherished as babies and whom I now love and cherish as young adults. But, the elephant in my room is that they are no longer my babies, they are young women who are living their own lives, seeking their own happiness, walking their own paths, creating their own dreams. In a blink of an eye, we went from sippy cups, play dates, and bedtime stories to college graduations, tax returns, and different zip codes. In spite of my confidence that they are well-grounded, bright, intelligent, loving individuals who will go out into the world and be successful, it is still heart-wrenching at times to want to turn back the clock and draw them closer, hold them a bit longer, as they go farther away from us, into their own space and time.

In today’s society, there is much talk of the empty nest, and much of it is positive, the middle-aged couple with fewer responsibilities and perhaps a bit more disposable income, combined with the free time, energy, and flexibility that did not exist with young children at home. In “Cat in the Rain”, however, Hemingway described the empty courtyard, the empty parking lot, the empty town square, all to establish a foundation for the woman’s yearning for a baby, for a loving marriage, for a full nest, not an empty one. It was not about a cat.

Iron-Gray Magnolia

FaulknerWilliam Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” has always intrigued me. When completing course work for my certification in secondary education, this somewhat dark tale of a Southern belle was part of the syllabus for a course on the short story as a type of fiction. Of the thirty short stories covered in that course, “A Rose for Emily” was one of my favorites. Being a Southern belle myself, Faulkner’s description of the town, the townspeople, and the title character were all very familiar to me. The very last lines of the story paint a haunting picture: “Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.”

Steel MagnoliasGiven the setting of this story, this passage brought to mind the term “steel magnolia”, which entered into the vernacular with the release of Steel Magnolias, the film adaptation of Robert Harling’s critically acclaimed play of the same title written in tribute to his younger sister, a typical Southern girl with a soft and feminine exterior masking an inner character tough as steel.

The images of the “steel magnolia” are readily available in pop culture: Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret Mitchell’s one and only protagonist, standing atop the stairway of Tara, wearing a ball gown fashioned from the velvet curtains of her decaying mansion; Julia Sugarbaker of television’s Designing Women, known for righting injustices with her bombastic monologues while wearing feminine and luxurious designer clothing; and Dolly Parton, reigning queen of country music, having overcome a childhood of staggering poverty to rule over her own massive entertainment empire, resplendent in full make-up, blonde wig and four inch stilettos.

movie

Angelica Huston in a PBS adaptation

William Faulkner provides for consideration yet another example of a steel magnolia in that of Emily Grierson, while also providing a peek into the well-established patriarchal society of the time, which while suppressing its women in many ways, also bestowed upon them certain powers that even the patriarchs could not touch.

When did Emily’s power take shape and where did it come from?  For this you must look to her father, who in his prime, raising his only child on his own, had vanquished all potential suitors as “none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such”.  In a 1959 interview with two University of Virginia students, Faulkner shares personal thoughts on the writing of “A Rose for Emily”.  He says that Emily was “brow-beaten and kept down by her father, a selfish man who didn’t want her to leave home because he wanted a housekeeper”.

oak alley

Oak Alley, Vacherie, Louisiana

Emily, however, was too powerful to be cast in the role of “housekeeper”, she instead became the “lady of the house”; she and her father together presided over the “big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies . . . set on what had once been our most select street”.  Her rise to the position of lady of the house was complete when the townspeople began to consider them “as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground . . . the two of them framed by the backflung front door”.  At the death of her father, Emily inherits the estate, which is nothing but the house, and despite being “left alone, and a pauper”, she remains lady of the house, alone, with no man at her side, save the “Negro servant Tobe”.  One must imagine the whispers and snide remarks of the townspeople over coffee or in the post office, the indignity of it all, a woman living alone with no man to lead and guide her.

And, so, Emily, beyond the age of respectable marriage, became “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town”.  With her pride fully intact, however, Emily would not have accepted charity, and indeed turned away all those who came calling, except for the then-mayor of the town, who craftily came up with a reason to exempt the family home from taxes: Miss Emily’s father had “loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying”.  Here the patriarch of the town himself, the mayor, bestows yet another level of power upon Miss Emily, power over the government itself.  Faulkner elaborates on the very crux of the patriarchal society with the statement, “Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it”.  When a new generation of young men comes to power, and attempts to reinstate property taxes upon Miss Emily, she continues to wield her power over them as well, by simply refusing to pay.  Her power extends to even the postal authorities who wish to “fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” for the free delivery of the mail.  She alone refuses, she is above the law; she will not be forced into modernity against her will.

Time marches on. When the town finalizes contracts for paving new sidewalks, Faulkner raises the possibility of a knight in shining armor on a white horse riding into town to save Miss Emily from her status as old maid and pauper, a rescue badly needed in this patriarchal tale.  The knight, Homer Barron, bears the armor of a construction crew chief, driving on Sunday afternoons with Miss Emily in her father’s buggy with a matched team of bays.  The un-chaperoned courting of Miss Emily and Homer Barron leads to more gossip and scandal, as Miss Emily continues to exert her power, eschewing the relatives from Alabama who have been called by the ladies of the town to intervene.  It appears Miss Emily’s power extends to God Himself, when even the Baptist minister is sent away, never divulging “what happened during that interview” but refusing to go back again.

rat poisonWhen the courtship of Homer Barron does not evolve the way Miss Emily desires, she refuses to accept defeat, and makes the rare trip into town to personally shop, demanding poison from the druggist with her terse statement “I want arsenic”.  Rising above the law once again, Emily refuses to give the reason for the purchase of the poison, and the druggist, who withers from her stare, sends the Negro delivery boy out with the package marked simply, under the skull and bones, “for rats”.  One must wonder if Faulkner meant this as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor of Homer Barron, the “rat” who comes into town, has his fun at the expense of Miss Emily’s reputation, and then, when he has finished his work there, intends to return to his life (and possibly, wife?) up North.

But, no, Miss Emily’s power does not end with power over her own household or power over the male-dominated society or power over the government.  No, Miss Emily’s power extends indeed over the life of another.  When she cannot use her feminine wiles to marry her knight, she alone denies him departure from her life.  She uses her illegally obtained arsenic to prevent Homer from “leaving” her.  While she could not have him in life, she would have him in death, laid out in the bridal chamber she has created, complete with “a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H.B. on each piece”, only discovered after her own death.

roseSurely Miss Emily’s power cannot extend beyond the grave?  Controlling her household until the very end, until after she was “decently in the ground”, the townspeople had to break down the door to the bridal chamber.  Here, finally, the true power of Miss Emily Grierson was brought to light.  A frail, beautiful Southern rose had controlled her own destiny, from the death of her father until her very own death forty years later.  She, who had once been described as “a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene”, had wielded power over society, government, the church, and over the life of another.  She brought death to another, something meant for only brave soldiers on the battlefields.  Very much the daughter of her father, she had inherited that “quality of her father which had thwarted her woman’s life so many times which had been too virulent and too furious to die”, a steel magnolia, to the very end, leaving behind just “a long strand of iron-gray hair” as her final display of power.