Years ago when I was teaching an adult school English Composition course I was having trouble with a rather arrogant Chinese student. He had insisted on taking a higher level class than he was ready for and he was keeping the rest of the students back. I wasn't doing the best job of concealing my annoyance. He approached me after class trying to make nice and commented, “You fat. Like to eat a lot, eh?” I was mortified until I realized that from his cultural perspective he was noting my prosperity in a complimentary fashion and perhaps trying to illicit a bit of compassion for his less privileged skinnier self. Despite my cultural sensitivity I think I probably savored a sense of comeuppance when I failed him.
When the Volvo was new and didn't stink of dog and I could still afford to shop at places where's they'd put the groceries in the car for you, a box boy asked me what I'd paid for the car. I knew within a dime but he may as well have asked me what I weighed. I would have flat out refused to answer the poundage question but in the matter of the car I just muttered inanely, “I don't know. My husband bought it for me.” It was easier to sound like a helpless pathetic ninny than provide a dollar figure or get on some high horse about the vulgarity of asking about what things cost. Although the price of a Volvo, unlike my weight, is not exactly a closely guarded state secret. Thank God they don't have scales at the DMV to nab those of us who interpret “weight” to mean “what I wish I weighed.”
“See a Little Light,” alternative rocker Bob Mould's memoir, ain't Proust but Mould is remarkably candid with regard to money. I am always curious about dollar amounts pertinent to fields other than my own and Mould is very frank about how recording deals are structured and how much he's earned for his music. I wonder if Mould set out intentionally to defy this long standing taboo against being frank about money or if he is naïve to the extent that he just doesn't know it's not done. Nevertheless, he's made more money than I would have thought, even being rock royalty and all.
I am culturally predisposed not to discuss fat and money although I am finally getting it into my head that a surfeit of the former and shortage of the latter do not evidence a lack of character. I inherited from my mom the association of feelings of self worth with thinness. Dad's Depression survivor message was that a person's worth to the universe is calibrated based on his bank balance. I mastered the art of making excuses to bill collectors lest I not be perceived as a loser but have recently discovered that the simple response, “I don't have the money,” doesn't garner any disrespect. And even if it did, does it really matter if a debt collector thinks I'm a deadbeat? Still, my weight is known only by me and the lady who weighs me at Weight Watchers.
Despite being able to disentangle my self image from issues of fat and finance to some extent, I'm putting a lot of energy into losing the fifteen or so pounds that will render me normal on the BMI scale and I did buy a mega-millions lottery ticket. I do not consider myself a bad person because I weigh too much and earn too little but there certainly is lingering neurosis on both fronts. I try not to lay this on the kids but I embarrass them by loudly reading nutrition labels for fat and carb content whenever we go shopping and morph into Ilsa She-Wolf of the S.S. when a light is left on in an unoccupied room. So many of the little thrifty gestures my mom made, and I ridiculed, I've now adopted. I am a coupon fiend and will shop with four or five different purveyors in order to get the best available prices.
For all the hangups regarding fat and money that I've inherited from my parents, I have also inherited the firm belief that hospitality always trumps all and that anyone who visits my home will find a nicely set table and copious good food. This is has always been non-negotiable, much to the chagrin of the introverted Himself who claims that he cannot remember his own parents ever serving a meal to a guest. This strikes me as unbelievably weird but probably also for the best because his mother's idea of a vegetable side dish was to open a can of peas, stick a spoon in it and throw it on the table. While I cannot overstate Himself's distaste for entertaining, I will add that after over twenty years the gigantic force of my will has prevailed and he adroitly runs through the motions of a genial host.
Joe College was unable to make a meaningful connection with the work-study office at his school. He tries to be frugal and apologizes often that we still have to subsidize him. There have been school and car repair expenses though and I have been quite unsubtly sending him summer job listings from Craig's List every day. Actually, a couple times a day. He is off school this week and reports to me that Redlands is dull as dirt, which having spent four years there myself, is not an astounding revelation. The boy intends to stay on campus and work on a project with some friends but the dining hall is closed, the dorm is empty and they are all broke. He asks if he can come home with a friend for a few days. Later in the day this becomes two friends and he shows up at dinnertime with two boys and a girl.
I prepare a big Mexican feed and it is obvious that the kids have been on limited rations for a couple days and plates are heaped high. The guests are gracious, funny and highly appreciative of homemade eats. Knowing that the dining hall on campus doesn't open again until Monday I presume our houseguests will be with us for the better part of a week which means assembling a big meal every night and making sure that breakfast and lunch supplies are in the larder. With three guests, Spuds is displaced from his bed and relegated to the sofa until I get up at 4:30 and he is sent upstairs to take my spot next to his dad. Due to the limited capacity of our refrigerator I shop for a dinner at a time and after taco night comes an enormous bowl of pasta and a platter of Italian sausages and I mentally plan the feed for the next night. However, during the slurping up of spaghetti it is announced that the crew is returning to Redlands directly after dinner. They are terrific kids and it is a pleasure to have them around. It is wonderful that the boy, who wasn't sold on college at all, has made such wonderful friends. I hope his manners are as nice as theirs when he mooches off their parents. Running the crash pad is a nice distraction from my careful eating plan (I am too tired to prepare a different meal for myself and just eat the cheesy/carby stuff I make for the kids) and my worries about scant receivables at the office. Still, I am only slightly less relieved than Spuds and Himself when they hit the road.
I've had a hard day and am driving Spuds home and griping about a big order that's fallen through. Spuds sees a grossly obese woman at a bus stop and says, “For all of the things you worry about, at least you're not fat.” I'd actually been thinking the same thing myself but how lucky I am to have someone who wants to make me feel better and understands what's important to me, even if it is shallow and superficial. I am reminded of the need to keep my fretting in perspective by another loved one too. My lovely niece is enduring chemotherapy for breast cancer. She has lost her beautiful hair but has amassed an enormous collection of wacky wigs. She reports on her blog that her doctor is pathetically lacking in bedside manner and that the side effects of the treatment are ghastly but she poses daily for a portrait, modeling a different wig, which is posted to Facebook. Who'd have thought anyone would look so adorable and serene in a blue wig?
Although I've gotten better at it, it is a challenge still to remain mindful of my blessings. I end another week with the lights on at the office and a Body Mass Index just a nonce away from normal but best of all is that I have heroes like Spuds who knows what makes me tick but does not judge. And his big brother who was apprehensive about starting college but stuck it out and flourishes. Plus there's niece Cari in Grass Valley who's turned unimaginably bad fortune into wig flipping fun. I'm winding up here now and heading home for the first real Shabbat after a few weeks of travels and other obligations. The table will be set although the meal is mainly college kid leftovers. Number one son is back at school and number two is planning to beat it as far away as humanly possible next year. I'll still entertain, and although it bristles every fiber of his being, Himself will be the gracious host, indulging me in this and in so many other things that must rub him the wrong way and try his patience. Someday I may be a size eight. Maybe my ship will come in and there will be extra money to throw around. And, yes, I would be relieved and happy but now, when I take a moment to drink it all in, even pudgy and poor I must be the luckiest person on the planet.