James Baldwin +Black Lives Matter

#BlackLivesMatter
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The late literary genius and humanist nonpareil James Baldwin spoke for Black Lives Matter decades before the movement gained a name. And as a gay black man, born poor, he understood intersectionality in a profound sense.

Baldwin’s gifts included the ability to study himself and report, however painful or unflattering the truths that emerged. This spawned an empathy as rare as wise. He didn’t excuse cruelty but he acknowledged and, as a writer, rendered in meticulous detail the pain that (often) underlies it.

The following quotes, from interviews and from his fiction, articulate truths that are as urgent and relevant today as when he uttered them.

 

“Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do is shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper…. All you can do is bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

“The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared.”

Baldwin speaking to Esquire in 1968

 

“I’d learned how to get by. I’d learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong…. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken… I figured out what answers he wanted and I gave them to him. I never let him him think he wasn’t king.”

‘Previous Condition’ in Going to Meet the Man

“Those boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage.”

‘Sonny’s Blues’ in Going to Meet the Man

“For everyone’s life begins on a level where races, armies, and churches stop. And yet everyone’s life is always shaped by races, churches, and armies; races, churches, armies menace, and have taken, many lives.”

‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ in Going to Meet the Man

“To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness…. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate, or despise, no one’s history without repudiating or despising one’s own. Perhaps that is what the gospel singer is singing.”

Just Above My Head

“All the years that we spent in and out of the South, I always wanted to say to those poor white people, so busy turning themselves and their children into monsters: Look. It’s not we who can’t forget. You can’t forget. We don’t spend all our waking and sleeping hours tormented by your presence. We have other things to do: don’t you have anything else to do? Maybe you really don’t? Maybe the difference between us is that I never raped your mother, or your sister, or if and when I did, it was out of rage, it was not my way of life… Maybe the difference between us is that I’ve never been afraid of the prick you, like all men, carry between their legs and I never arranged picnics so that I could cut it off of you before large, cheering crowds.”

Just Above My Head

 

#BlackLivesMatter

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A short quarantine reading list

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Even before a ton of ordure hit the propeller-style cooling device I’d only read three books this year.

Three. 

Since the age of six or seven I’ve been capable of reading three average-length books a day. Once, when I was about 9, I read 1,000 pages in a day, to see if could.

On another occasion (again, pre-teen) I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in three days.

The point I’m sidling towards is that it is a sign of spiritual/ emotional/ logistical malaise when my word-consumption dips to such low levels. (The other obvious conclusion is I was backward as a kid, which is fair, but there were reasons.)

Being almost too far gone in anxiety to even read a book is new and unnerving. Books have always been a reliable portal away from the unappetitliche present, but the present present has got me so tied in knots I’m afraid to miss anything.

Initially, I tried to negotiate this in my usual Protestant, eat-your-beet-greens-they’re-good-for-you fashion. That is, I started a book about Palestine. If there is one thing more depressing than coronavirus, it’s the situation of Palestine. Reading about children getting shot with tear-gas canisters and all the other interminable head-fucking brutality of the Israeli occupation was enough to make me think that maybe enough humans are ugly enough that we all deserve to be wiped out by a virus.

Not reading material for these times.

After that failed effort, I didn’t read anything for a few days. Then my friend Nick emailed and it turned out I bought his book (presciently titled It Gets Worse) last year and forgotten to read it. That’s like discovering the bottle at the back of the cupboard you thought was cheap emergency plonk is a fantastic vintage meant for a special occasion.

This is a special occasion.

So, I’m (finally) on my way to having read four books this year. When I finish Nick’s book I may go back and reread his first, Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, because it’s nice to hear a friend’s voice — especially when it is funny, acid, and laden with anecdote.

After that, I’ll try Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and Primo Levi.

Disparate, yet equally essential.

All of these writers, including Ms Austen (whose reputation for daintiness is undeserved) exhibit rare levels of integrity, perspicacity and moral clarity. They took the world as it was, but refused to accept the supposed constraints of that relationship.

And they, one and all, write sentences so good I have to pause and let the wave of admiration/envy/admiration pass. Right now, it’s reading for pleasure, or not at all.

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The New Barebacking

I had to go to the village today.

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Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

On the short drive to the village a couple of cars passed heading the opposite direction, both drivers wore surgical masks.

In the taxi rank in the village a driver leaned against the hood of his car, mask tucked beneath his chin, smoking.

The receptionist and vet wore blue masks.

The middle-aged man with the shock of dark curly hair who passed me on the sidewalk wore a white N95 mask.

The lady carrying two armloads of groceries wore a mask.

The young dude unlocking his car wore a mask.

 

Barefaced and bare-handed, I felt like a lowlife misfit.

Appearing in public sans mask is the new barebacking. Socially irresponsible, verging on reprehensible.

On arriving home, I decided it was time to buy masks (Amazon orders are delivering a month out, so thanksthefuckverymuch Jeff Bezos, I’m off elsewhere).

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Covid Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash

Why the previous reluctance?

Because I don’t want to walk around thinking the next breath is going to kill me, or someone else. For the first time, I have an inkling how some men feel about condom use. Yeah, sure fine it’s the most appropriate thing to do but goddamn it, who wants to experience the world through a prophylactic shield?

Cherry blossoms are out, yellow wands of broom, did I mention the walnut trees are leafing? The air is pristine, sharp and Atlantic-cold. Our neighbor trundles up and down the road in an old red tractor, moving wine-sweet hay bales.

I do not want to touch the world with rubber fingers and breathe through layers of activated carbon. Why the hell would I sign up for that? Why not just lock myself in a sterile box and wait to die?

Okay, it’s not that dramatic but something important is being (has been?) lost in all this. Our sense of touch is already degraded from devoting too much of it to digital screens. We rarely breathe as deeply as we should. This stupid cunning virus is robbing us not just of too many lives but, sneakily, of things that make life worth living.

I’ll probably end up like wearing a mask for the common good (assuming I can beg borrow or steal one) but I refuse to think it is a Good Thing, in a larger sense.

We cannot do without enjoyment, wrote to Jack Gilbert. The ordinary sensual pleasures of filling our lungs and encountering the world through touch are not dispensable.

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The Future? Don’t Bet on It

Last year, Chris and I spent Easter week with our dear, long-long-long-standing friends
C & R in Yorkshire. On the edge of the moors. Next door, it transpired, to my ex-boyfriend (who, true to form, was smoking on the front porch as I had my first cup of coffee).

Twelve months ago, someone I’d met and dated in Ibiza turning up next-door in a northern English was cause to murmur, small world.

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Yorkshire bluebells

Today, proof of the world’s smallness is inescapable and grim. The ticker-tape death toll mounts, the number of official coronavirus cases races towards two million and even the most fortunate of us hunker at home, waiting for a future that might never happen (that’s cribbed from Mavis Gallant, who wrote exquisitely about societies in meltdown and the delusions they cherish on the way to the flames).

There seems to be a split take on COVID-19. Either, it’s going to usher in hitherto unimaginable era of mutual support and higher consciousness or we’re going to be dragged (resisting or not) back into the machine and crushed between the cogs of resurgent capitalism.

The latter argument is ably made by Julio Vincent Gambuto in his viral Medium piece ‘Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting‘ in which he writes, plausibly:

What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government… the all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw what you saw. The air wasn’t really cleaner; those images were fake. The hospitals weren’t really a war zone; those stories were hyperbole. The numbers were not that high; the press is lying. You didn’t see people in masks standing in the rain risking their lives to vote. Not in America.

On the chirpier side of the fence is Rebecca Solnit who writes in ‘The impossible has already happened: what the coronavirus can teach us about hope‘ (published last week in the Guardian):

When a storm subsides, the air is washed clean of whatever particulate matter has been obscuring the view, and you can often see farther and more sharply than at any other time. When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future.

(To be fair, Solnit is no Pollyanna. Most of her longform piece details how fucked things are and how stacked the cards are against people trying to unfuck them.)

It says something about my own wiring that I feel compelled to take sides, to argue the case. Coronavirus has turned me into armchair experts. Like a sad gambler, I stare at screens, watch the numbers, argue my interpretation of the stats, have opinions about things I zero right to opine about (South Korea’s testing policy! Sweden’s schools!)

This impulse has  to do with lack of control. I value knowing things, having well-formed and well-informed ideas. In other words, I’m an instant relic; a creature who belongs to the bigger yet more predictable world that existed before January 2020.

Taking sides, prognosticating, surmising and supposing are ways to pass the time but little more. (Aside: I was listening to a TED en Espanol talk about coronavirus from 16 March; it felt like  listening to a historical reenactment.)

If this pestilent mess proves anything, it’s that opinion is pretty much beside the point.

Still, if I had place a few bob on an outcome, my money is on business as usual with a twist. Advertisers will come after what’s left of our bank accounts, governments will wrangle for the remaining shreds of our civil liberties, global warming will heat back up and we will not turn into kinder, gentler, better versions of ourselves.

Nonetheless, we may be more attuned to the ludicrousness of the situation, and quicker to say so, to complain or resist. I hope so, anyway.

Above all, a year from now, I hope to be with friends somewhere, drinking, breathing fresh air, gossiping about some minor coincidence. That would be a happy ending.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love, the Verb

Yesterday, after spending the preceding waking hours running in furious circles and generally comporting myself like a week’s worth of bad news, my friend called.

We’d scheduled a video chat (the vomitous de rigueur of current social interaction) and, armed with a glass of cava, I sat down, propped my feet on an adjacent chair and tried to think happy thoughts.

Within a minute or two of saying hello we were cackling about something.

That’s the first time I laughed today.

A guilt-breaker washed over me. Somehow, I’d found something to share a genuine laugh about with a friend while my partner had heard nothing but bitching all day.

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Love and courtesy

Once, apropos who knows what, a colleague said that one’s family is ‘obviously’ easy to get on with. I argued then, and argue now, that however much and sincerely we love someone, intimacy and proximity often cause carelessness.

I choose, when engaging with friends, to not sulk and storm. My time focused on them is brief so, even on bad days, I can muster the energy to be a slightly better self.

This isn’t falseness so much as simple courtesy. Other people have feelings too, and limited time, and worries. It is unkind to fill up their head space, which is surely every bit as overcrowded and precarious-feeling as mine, with solopsistic whinging.

But when you’re with someone round the clock, for the indefinite, it is easy to feel like every moment doesn’t count. Like, it’s okay to be grumpy and skip showering because he’s going to be here tomorrow (and the next day, and the next day).

Slipping into this perilous relaxation happens when we treat love as a noun. I love him, he loves me, ergo I can do what I like.

Fair is fair

The trouble is reconciling my bellyaching inner child with the duties of an adult relationship. I’m an individual, entitled to feel and express my feelings. Granted.
My partner is also entitled to not live with a whiffy harpy.

Excuse me while I shove a tea-towel in the gob of the me, me, me voice in my head.

It is only right to acknowledge that my rights end when they being to infringe on someone else’s. Yes, I have every right to curse, moan and carp; but when my crappy mood blackens the air for both of us, I’ve overstepped.

Basic courtesies like this are what allow us to maintain friendships and relationships. Letting ourselves act and react unchecked is what leads to breakups, meltdowns and guest spots on Jerry Springer (if that’s even still a thing).

Get to work, love

Making it work, in real time, means doing love not just giving ourselves credit for feeling it. Love has to be a verb, or it risks losing any real meaning.

Love, the verb, is making the effort to find something funny or pleasant to talk about, it’s not complaining constantly, it’s taking a shower and remember to put on deodorant, it’s shutting up for a minute and listening, it’s keeping some of the more outrageous paranoid thoughts to yourself, it’s saying ‘we’ll be okay’ even if that seems like a stretch.

Ursula LeGuin, the (Oregonian!) stalwart of goodness, sanity and fine prose, said:

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a thing that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

Of late, my way of relating has been sub-optimal, to put it mildly. Which is, and this I must remember, okay. Only Pollyanna or a complete ditz believes that long-term confinement, financial precarity and uncertainty bring out the best in people.

It can’t be all or nothing anymore though. I can’t be one of those positivity freaks (and would hate myself more if I tried) but that isn’t licence to be unbearable.

For now, I’ll do my best in the circumstances and try to keep faith with love, the verb.

Running to nowhere

Since I was 12 or so, running has been my talisman against self-destruction. It hasn’t kept me slim (that was an early-20s drug cocktail followed by vegetarianism) or particularly fit — after more than 25 years of running regularly I still take an hour to run a 10K — but it kept me functional, if not always happy.

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Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

The worst of this godforsaken lockdown is not even being allowed out to exercise. The minor saving grace is we have a driveway, or mini-camino, that is the only part of the property currently free of knee- to hip-high grass.

After five or so days of trying to get a buzz off yoga I started jogging in the driveway.

It is about 75 metres long, uneven, inconsistently cambered and comprised of a variety of surfaces. Beyond the concrete slab in front of the house is a spot of mud from where we turn the car round. This gathers itself into a mossy, grassy hump I cover in two strides before settling into the right-hand tyre track.

The driveway subsides going away from the house till it reaches the j-bend up to the paved road. About halfway down, at the end of a crumbling, overgrown stone wall, a walnut tree is putting out leaves. They are still tightly furled, waiting, presumably, for some solar encouragement before showing face.

Chris has tramped along the verge with our trusty hand-mower, keeping the grass reasonably lawnish for about 50 metres. Beyond the close-cut strip is an explosion of waist-high weeds. There is dandelion and stinging nettle in there, but mostly some skinny chancer with reddish seed pods. No idea what it is.

Romeo, the tiger-ish looking one of our twin boy cats, usually stakes out a spot at the end of the driveway during my run. Yesterday, he sat at attention, perfectly immobile, for about 15 minutes, staring at something I couldn’t see. He may be a Zen master.

I am not.

Today’s news was that Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s improbably debonair, well-spoken and (I believe, as of today) utterly useless, mashed-potato-brained president has threatened/requested an extension of the state of emergency until 10 May.

While I’m rarely carefree I am also not often apoplectic. Continuous low-level outrage and cynicism seems to inoculate me against the wilder mood swings.

Hearing we are going to be trapped in a rain-sodden ice box of a house, in a place neither of us have any love or affinity, for makes me want to put my fist through a wall.

Literally.

As I write, my chest feels like it is self-compressing. If it weren’t for Chris napping upstairs and the cats (Teddy in particular is distressed by loud noises) I would scream.

Running is supposed to help when I feel like this. Watching my footfall, adjusting my posture, picking up my knees, monitoring my breathing, these things can help.

So I run, counting out the laps: 2.5, 3… 5… 10… 14.5… 23…

On odd-numbered laps I run faster, picking my way between extrusions of natural rock — pinkish, glimmering with tiny crystals — and detritus: rubber piping, smashed tiles, bin liners, odd bits of plastic embedded in the hard earth. Uncut hair flops damp against my forehead. My left Achilles tendon twinges a warning.

Near the end of the drive, on the right (as you face the house) is a bare tree with small white flowers. Must check with my sister later, she’s the garden wizard.

Add that to the post-release list: plant a garden. Be ready,  when (not if) this shit comes raining down next. Dig potatoes and pluck herbs.

The permanent mist thickens and moves purposefully. Rain, now, really.

I jog/wheel/sprint/job/wheel through the 40s without shedding the desire to inflict damage on something. I’m going to need a lot of therapy, which I can’t afford.

And the reasons I can’t afford therapy are part of the reasons I’m at risk of melting into a lava pit of rage and self-loathing without it. None of which can be addressed now, or in a week, month, or perhaps a year.

That’s the kicker, as I turn through 47… 49… 52… Nobody knows when, or how, this ends. (I’ll take ‘bang’, if that’s an option.)

 

 

 

28 Lockdown Days Later

Sometime ago, in the hazy days when freedom still seemed like a possibility, however faint, I wrote a pile of rubbish.

Writing rubbish isn’t an occupational hazard, it’s inevitable. Most writing is crap in the aesthetic/artistic sense: unrefined, hasty, careless, lacking finesse. Ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of anything I write falls in that category and, for the sake of sanity, has to be accepted as ‘good enough’ otherwise I would never make a deadline.

The article for which I need to apologize isn’t that kind of rubbish. It is pure, unmitigated cringe. My strong inclination is to wipe the pile of twaddle titled ‘10 things to do on coronavirus lockdown‘ from the internet and, if it were possible, from my memory.

What kind of grade-A asshole writes, in the face of a global pandemic, things like:

Always wanted a capsule wardrobe? This is the moment to dig through those chests of drawers, wardrobes, cupboards and shoe boxes and sort the wheat from the chaff. If this current crisis demonstrates anything it’s that certainties aren’t. Stop holding on to that sale-rack outfit you bought for the occasion that never happened.

or

Do something with your fingers that isn’t typing. Do you draw? Paint? Sculpt? Throw pottery? Play an instrument? Knit? Quilt? Scrapbook? If you do — awesome. Now you have time to throw yourself into it. Get into the flow and lose a few hours, see what you can create.

The smug wanna-be positivity MindBodyGreen-lite-esque-ness of that makes me want to crawl inside my skin and pop my eyes out from the inside.

What moron writes that?

Er, this one. 

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Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

My words stare at me: the image of myself I don’t want to see.

Worse than silly, worse than naive, worse than tone-deaf, worse than irritating.

Phony. Forced. What she thinks someone (or some algorithm) wants to hear.

Let’s be clear: I have never in my life looked on the bright side. I have never seen the silver lining before the cloud. I have never thought the glass was half-full.

As a kid, I believed neither in Santa nor happiness. Not much has changed.

Though I am conscious of and grateful for the many good things in my life my default setting is not optimism.  My primary emotions are boredom, frustration, fear, and disappointment.

Before COVID-19 I worried about dying without having accomplished anything. Now, after 27 days of my own company, unrelieved by the mental-health saving drudgery of work and other people, that meaningless death feels inevitable — and  my own fault.

The inescapable fear is that if I were a person who could take my own vapid advice (“If you aren’t already studying something, check out online learning resources”) maybe I would have something to show for 40 years on earth. But I’m not and, it seems, I don’t.

No doubt some people are using quarantine to repaint their cupboards, learn Danish or perfect their eclair recipe. Whoever and wherever you are, I salute you.

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Photo by Xenia Bogarova on Unsplash

Meanwhile, I’ve purged zero items from my wardrobe. I’ve read zero books. I’ve written zero letters. I’ve had sex zero times. I’ve made zero playlists.

What have I been doing?

  • Checking the Johns Hopkins coronavirus map.
  • Reading the Spanish lockdown rules the way hungry people check the fridge: hoping something new will have appeared since the last time.
  • Checking my bank account, hoping something will have appeared since last time.
  • Crying.
  • Dropping thing, having meltdowns then crying.
  • Being cold.
  • Having nightmares.
  • Watching Father Ted.
  • Trying, unsuccessfully, to remember what having freedom, or a libido, felt like.
  • Running up and down my driveway.
  • Being angry.

There is so much to be angry about. I’m angry at myself, at global capitalism, at politicians, at the old ladies in the grocery store who travel in packs, at the weather, at my inability to concentrate, at my helplessness, at my writing skills, at my ex-boss, at the banks, at timing, at circumstances, at the whole stinking croaking aching joyless goddamn mess.

Whenever, if ever, we get out of it, I’d like very much to see my friends, go to the beach, go to a gig, hug someone without worrying one of us will be mortally sick as a result.

Until then, I’m hanging on by my fingernails, not using this as an opportunity for self-improvement. My sincerest apologies for suggesting otherwise.

 

 

 

To Eat or to Not-Eat

After a childhood eating unprocessed food, my diet swung towards “normal” in my teens. My parents finally separated, my mother, brother and I moving into an apartment in town. Along with freedom from the constant, harrowing stress of living with my father’s moods came a relaxation of the eating regime. My mom was working; I had an after-school job at the outlet mall. This meant less cooking and the financial freedom to buy what I liked. For several months of junior year breakfast was, religiously, a Lender’s bagel (sold-frozen white rings that toasted to an alluring combination of chewy dough and crunchy crust) caked with Philadelphia Light Cream cheese, washed down with Diet Coke. My kid brother got into PopTarts and pizza-flavored Hot Pockets, I discovered a brand of microwaveable burrito and would buy them by the half-dozen.

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Photo by an_vision on Unsplash

Concurrent with the foray into junk food was a – possibly not atypical – adolescent obsession with my weight. At that age, there were a lot of things working against me: untamable hair that veered in texture from ringlet curls to limp waves, higgledy-piggledy teeth, plump cheeks prone to blushing, and a tendency to run to fat. Objectively, at 135-140 pounds, I was a reasonable weight for my 5’6” height. My self-perception, though, was that I was grossly fat and repulsive. The solution that presented itself was dieting. Every month Reader’s Digest, which I’d been reading cover to cover since I was five or six years old, wrote up a new diet or exercise scheme alongside ads for Weight Watchers and Slim Fast.

 

I never joined a club, but I did regularly glug ultra-processed chocolate Slim Fast shakes. Somehow, liquid seemed less dangerous than solids, less likely to stick to my sturdy waist. This rational prompted me to develop a black coffee habit, along with Diet Coke. During basketball practice and track workouts I drank Lemon-Lime Gatorade. Despite these measures, my size and shape refused to morph.

My best friend at the time was blonde, blue-eyed, and fit in the narrow confines of Levis 501s. She work Converse high-tops and wrote Nirvana lyrics on her jeans. In addition to the exoticness of having been transplanted from Florida, she’d had braces not once but twice. It was a close call which I envied more: her straight teeth, or the casual way she’d say things like, “oh, I haven’t eaten in two days”. The boys who fluttered around would respond admiringly, “no wonder you’re so skinny”.

None of the boys admired me for being skinny, nor could I ever claim to have not eaten for two days. The spirit was willing but the flesh got hungry.

Is it strange that between the ages of 15 and 25 I thought that not-eating was actively something to aspire to?

At 17, I moved across the country to go to university. More freedom, higher stakes. The first year I lived in halls and had access to the cafeteria: all-you-can-eat, three meals a day. Pizza, pasta, hamburgers, cakes, fro-yo. Like most of my friends, I put on 15-20 pounds in the first few months. Those who didn’t pursued not-eating in novel ways: one friend eat heaping bowls of plain iceberg lettuce, and nothing else; another gradually reduced her food intake to raw baby corn.

By sophomore year, eating disorders were a competitive sport. Classmates and acquaintances literally wasted away while those of us who ate kept gaining weight.

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Photo by Alan Hardman on Unsplash

No wonder, given our food choices. We lived, like many Americans, in a food desert. The nearest grocery store that sold produce was a Thriftway on 42nd street; mostly, we shopped at the 7-11 on the corner: Cheerios, Kraft Mac&Cheese, Kraft Singles, microwave popcorn, white bread, turkey ham, potato chips. The Papa Johns a few blocks over had a permanent two-for-one special, which we’d scarf down with the emulsified oil concoction it branded garlic dipping sauce. Our rituals included watching Golden Girls while scoffing Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids, purchased and eaten in bulk from a basement commissary.

By the time I graduated, I was 160-165 pounds and it seemed inevitable. If the only options were eating and not-eating, and I couldn’t not-eat, my fate was sealed.

Proof of this was the fact that I’d been running regularly and for decent distances since 13. It kept me fit, I suppose, but neither a 20-25 mile a week running habit nor a later-acquired weight-lifting regimen made prevented or reversed the weight gain.

On a trans-Atlantic flight home, I sat next to an older couple who told me they’d lost a collective 50-60 pounds by cutting processed food out of their diet. It was the first time anyone had suggested processed foods as a specific problem, and the idea of not eating “normal food” was as eccentric as a moon walk.

This early alert sailed right past me, and my journey towards a more rational diet continued on mildly self-destructive lines. Developing a clubbing and (concomitant) recreational drug habit during my early 20s peeled off the university poundage. (There’s a reason diet pills were laced with speed – it works.) Finally I could not-eat; finally, I was skinny enough to wear mini-skirts, crop tops, bikinis.

Gradually, I started eating more real food. My then-boyfriend (a slumming it public school boy) had solid British middle-class taste in everything, including food. After a weekend of coke and wine, we’d go to the market and buy fresh vegetables, fish, rice, seeded loaves and fruit. On weeknights, we’d watch Master Chef while we mashed sweet potatoes and roasted chicken breasts. I learned to make roux, red onion marmalade, creamy scrambled eggs.

Near the end of my 20s we split up and I set off for Ibiza with a suitcase. Living on a slender wage, I ate gazpacho, bran flakes, chorizo. In addition to walking 90 minutes a day to and from work, I would often take a disco nap and get up at 2AM to be in a club by three. At the end of the first summer I was thinner than I’d ever been – and had pneumonia.

What the Spanish call the punto de inflexion – the turning point – came in the form of a second-hand paperback copy of Walden, from a bookshop in Mallorca. Thoreau’s remarks about the absurdity of farmers insisting they need meat to be strong, while plowing behind oxen that only eat grass, struck a chord. There was a stringency to his logic that appealed to the part of me that still believed that not-eating is a superpower.

I became a vegetarian then, gradually, for the sake of seeing if I could, a vegan.

During a transitional period, I found a Xeroxed copy of an Upton Sinclair pamphlet about fasting in a Humboldt junk shop. It shed cast a socialist-literary aura over not-eating (The Jungle had already convinced me that not eating meat was a moral duty towards my fellow humans, as much as towards animals). Animated by this new information, I took up intermittent – then less intermittent – fasting.

veg

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During a couple of difficult years I used not-eating as a way to manage things. For nine months in Glasgow, I ate only bread that I’d baked; or would go for days eating only raw foods, or would dine on mugs of vegetable broth laced with hot sauce. At that point, I was clinically depressed and hanging on by my fingernails. Borderline disordered eating seemed like the least of my concerns.

In retrospect, though, it seems significant – part of a pattern of carelessness/awarelessness that is individual yet unmistakably the product of a disordered food culture. The times my body most needed nourishment, I clung to the hollow comfort of not-eating. For more than two decades, self-deprivation was a goal. Though wrong, in absolute terms, I wasn’t wholly wrong about the relationship between conventional diet and overweight. Recent research indicates eating a diet high in saturated fats and sugars can damage cognitive abilities and lead to early death. Not eating ultra-processed foods is the only way to avoid the physical damage they cause – of which fat is a manifestation. However, not-eating should not apply generally.

There is a world of real food – fruits, vegetables, beans, unrefined grains, nuts, eggs and naturally processed foods like cheese and wine – that are better for you, the more you eat. After half a lifetime of treating food as the enemy, it turned out I was fighting the wrong battle.

Food, or An Unprocessed Childhood

Yesterday brought a Guardian article to my inbox: How ultra-processed foods took over your shopping cart. In it Bee Wilson recalls eating slice after slice of buttered white bread, and whole tubes of sour cream and onion Pringles. It struck a chord: those were two of the specific staples of my late-teens/early-twenties diet – along with SuperNoodles, PopTarts, Papa John’s, Taco Bell, chicken cheesesteaks, Dunkin’ Donuts and frozen pizza. These are, Wilson explains, ultra-processed foods: manufactured edibles made from other manufactured items. Their role in the global obesity and disease crisis is emerging, and it fascinates me because, though I’ve eaten my share of them, I didn’t grow up eating them – which has perhaps made all the difference.

There was a lot of strange in my childhood, ranging from benign to destructive. Yet, at the other end of the teeter-totter (as we called the wooden seesaw my father carved and balanced on an salvaged driftwood log), were a few quirks for which I’m grateful. My parents’ stopped-clock moments, I’ve dubbed them, undertaken at random, or for the wrong reasons, but nonetheless beneficial. No TV was one – the edict that set me on the path to becoming a writer.

The other is harder to sum in a phrase, no junk food? No processed food? Plain food only?

potato

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Whatever they might have called it, if asked, the food ethos of my childhood was that anything artificially colored or flavored, anything with cartoon characters or superheroes, anything that could be put in a toaster or microwave, was essentially forbidden. My mother is, by her own admission, not much of a cook. Nor was her mother. What she knew about cooking she must have learned from fellow drifters (hippies, in a loose sense) when my siblings were young and from my grandmother, a reluctant emigre of East Prussian farm stock.

We were also poor – for most of my childhood I thought Food Stamps were colored money – and my father was ardently interested in Eastern spirituality, yoga, tai chi, and Transcendentalism.

Somehow, this combined to determine that childhood meals consisted of variations on the following: potatoes (which they grew in humped rows on the east side of the house), brown rice, beans, carrots, peas, broccoli, zucchini, beans, milk, and cheese.

My mother baked whole wheat bread, brushing the crust with melted butter as it came out of the oven so the thick brown dome gleamed. Her signature dish was spinach souffle, made with a dozen eggs and two frozen bricks of greens. She also made vegetarian chilli with kidney, pinto and black beans, and fresh tortillas to go with it. I’d slice tomatoes, then get out the orange block of Tillamook cheddar and grate a golden mountain that melted through the bowl in unctuous swirls.

Dairy in everything must have come from my grandmother, whose cooking was as weighty as her Lutheran faith. When we visited my grandparents in California, or they came to Oregon, she’d make pound cake and what we called crumb cake. I have no idea of its proper name, but its flavor is ineradicable: dense, slightly sweet base topped with melt-in-the-mouth crumbs of hard-packed butter and sugar. Perhaps it is not surprising my grandmother wound up having quadruple bypass surgery and evenutally died of cardiac-related causes. What is curious, though, is that she was always slim. To my memory, thin, even. Though stockily build, my grandfather, who never missed his afternoon coffee and cake, was fit and vigorous well into his 80s.

Despite the abundance of milk, cheese and ice cream in our diet (my mother was deeply brand loyal to Tillamook Dairy) we rarely ate conventional processed foods. Sweets, apart from ice cream, were limited to elaborate home-made birthday cakes. The most popular among my siblings and I was a chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache, layered and adorned with chocolate buttercream frosting, and wrapped in a marzipan bow. Its creation was a day-long process, at minimum. The marzipan alone required almonds to be blanched in boiling water, peeled (accomplished by pinching the fat end until the point broke the skin and the nut shot forth), cooled, and milled in an orange-plastic and stainless steel hand grinder before being mixed with the appropriate ratio of powdered sugar.

Even store-bought goodies, as we called them, were outside the usual realm. On our weekly shopping trip to Trillium, a wooden-floored, patchouli-scented health food shop where my mom bought bulk grains and beans, we were allowed to choose a treat: either a peach frozen yogurt pop that you pushed up through a blue-and-white cardboard tube, or a paper-shrouded, sticky-edged frozen sandwich: ice cream between two chocolate graham crackers. These were flavored with carob rather than cocoa, a trend which extended to my mother’s version of hot chocolate: bitter, clumpy powdered carob boiled with hot milk and laced with honey – an anti-indulgence that left me with little taste for the real thing. Other dishes we experienced only in health-food form included chow mein (tofu) and burgers (veggie).

This food ethos felt oppressive, restrictive as the Biblical edicts we were fed each Sunday – and, like any good American child, I craved Wonder Bread, Hamburger Helper, Kraft Singles, Snickers, and Capri Sun. Even without a TV, food advertising found me; the slogan – M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand – has been jingling in my head since I was about six. The difference was, my parents were stubborn/mean/enlightened/impoverished (delete as required) enough to make me to eat boiled carrots and broccoli, brown rice and potatoes regardless. In another twist, they introduced me to foods like hummus and avocados, things my working class British friends didn’t experience as kids.

avocado

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Plus I had the tremendous fortune of a big sister who loves to cook, is good at cooking, and helped me discover the joy in food that was the missing ingredient in my childhood. My mom did her best, according to her lights, but daily life was too tense and unhappy for eating to be the celebration it should. One peculiar feature of her cooking was a lack of seasoning. My father didn’t like salt (or perhaps didn’t approve of it; he was a man who could be hostile to a condiment). Herbs, spices, chilli, vinegar – I don’t recall any of them. It was a relvelation to learn how fantastic vegetables can taste when slathered in olive oil, roasted, spiked with rosemary and chilli, sprinkled with lemon, sea salt and coarse black pepper. Like many aspects of growing up, the food could have been brightened, mitigated, with a little effort.

Between then and now, I spent many years in food deserts, actual and self-constructed. Unhappiness shaped my relationship with food and my body yet, simmering beneath, were memories of a worthwhile conjunction of effort and occasion.

Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

black cat

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Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

kindness

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Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.