Monday, December 1, 2008

Why I Ended Up Sending My Mother a Book I Thought I Would Hate

I'm not a fan of books by Elizabeth Berg. They're too much about baby boomer concerns (Joy School and True to Form are, at any rate), and her writing is a little too consciously writer-workshop material for my taste. You know, the stuff that other writers like because it's character-centered and deals with the small details that others ("sniff") miss.

So when I saw her latest book of stories, entitled The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (and Other Small Acts of Liberation) at the library, I was not inclined to check it out. What kind of moron goes through life denying herself things to eat and then has to write about it, I thought, mentally classing the book with last year's baby boomer sensation "I Feel Bad About My Neck" by Nora Ephron, which had struck me as the worst title ever, until this one came along. I mean, really. Who goes through life worrying what her neck looks like, or even joking about it, unless she's utterly immersed in trivia?

For some reason, I bent down (why are the new books on such low shelves at the library?) and plucked out The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted rudely, by the spine. I flipped it to the first page, sure that I'd hate the title essay and could shove the book back onto the shelf and get on with finding something better. But I got sucked in. Has this ever happened to you? You start reading something, sure that you disagree, and then are disconcerted to find that the writer agrees with you? At the end of the first page, I started reading a sequence that ended with
"You start with I want and you end with I want, only now you have even more weight added to what is already too much and don't think we don't know it all, all, all the time."
Huh, I thought. Isn't that the truth. And then the narrator of the story walked out of her Weight Watchers meeting and decided "I am going to eat anything I want from now until midnight. And I drove right over to Dunkin' Donuts. You may be thinking, Why did she go to Dunkin' Donuts if she could have anything she wanted? Why didn't she go to Cinnabon?"
And, of course, I was caught up in that question.

Once the narrator has her donuts, though, I started to back away from the story. She does some of those deprived-for-too-long things I was dreading since I saw the title, things that are gross to read about or think about, much less do, and I'm not even referring to bulemia techniques. But then I got to this paragraph, which sucked me right back in:
"Lunch was a problem, like do I sit down or continue to fast-food it. Because I really do appreciate good food, but fast food is what I always want. Drive past a White Castle? See myself opening one of the little burgers with the onions all square. Go past KFC? See the big bucket, lift off the lid, see the one corner of one breast just loaded with coating that you pull off and pop into your mouth? Wendy's? Regular with cheese...."
I so get that. Passing fast food places is what makes commuting hard. I tell myself that it's a good thing I don't watch a lot of television, because I'm way too suggestible to be sitting there through all the fast food commercials. And it's not just an impulse thing. I'm fully capable of developing a yearning for some particular kind of fast food and carrying it around for a few days or even a week, until I can finally get there. (Yeah, no room for trivia in my brain, oh right!)

After she decides about lunch, I thought the story was going to lose me again, until the narrator caught me by informing me that "I'm carrying the banner for all of you who cut off a little piece wanting a big one, who spend a good third of your waking hours feeling bad about your desires, who infect those with whom you work and live with your judgments and pronouncements, you on the program who tally points all day long, every day...."
While this isn't me, it's definitely my mother and it's some of my friends, and it's basically way too many people I know. And then the wrap-up got me:
"That's what we tell ourselves, we who cannot eat air without gaining, we who eat the asparagus longing for the potatoes au gratin, for the fettucine Alfredo, for the pecan pie. And if you're one of those who doesn't, stop right here, you are not invited to the rest of this story."
Well, I was definitely feeling invited.

The kicker, for me, was "this woman I really liked a lot who died and she loved egg salad more than anything and didn't eat it for years because it was bad for her and then when she was on her deathbed and could have anything she wanted, she was given an egg salad sandwich and she couldn't eat it anymore."
That right there is a story stripped down to its bare essentials, which is one of those creative writing workshop things I dislike. And yet for some reason I can't quite dislike it, despite the disingenuous, almost childish way it's told. So I checked the book out.

At home, I read the rest of the stories, and most of them are about characters older than I am and who I have little in common with. But there were two others, both about eating, that seized me, in fact, seized me so hard that I had to order a copy of the book for my mother, who will find the characters younger than she is and have little in common with them, except that she and my father have done things that remind me of the couple in the story Double Diet.

The complementary story to the title one is "The Day I Ate Nothing I Even Remotely Wanted," and it has almost as many good parts as the title story, but they were less surprising to me, so I'm not going to recount all of them here. I'll offer you my favorite paragraph, which pretty much sums up why I don't go to Weight Watchers meetings:
"Crispy chicken skin being the worst for you, it tastes the best. It is just diabolical, how this is all set up, that the best-tasting things are the worst for you. Isn't it hard enough here? I hear all the time that once I make the change and get used to eating right, an orange will taste like dessert. 'It really will!' they say. To which I silently respond, 'Are you talking to me?'"
And personally, I'm not even fond of chicken skin; I just seem to have an overly developed skepticism response to cheery pronouncements about what I should and should not eat. And that response, of course, has been carefully honed by living with a woman who still, at the age of 77, tells me every single time we talk on the phone that she's too fat and she doesn't deserve to eat anything. And this is because she quit smoking last year.

This time I refuse to give in. My mother quit smoking for an entire year at the age of 50, and she was so miserable about the weight she'd gained that finally my brother and I were happy when she started smoking again. And we were the sanctimonious teenagers who had bugged her to stop.

This holiday season, I swear I am going to persevere in silence when my mother starts in about how horrible it is that she's gained weight. I don't think gaining weight is as horrible as she does, but I have no credibility since I'm overweight too. However, I have two children who eat only when they're hungry, for the most part, and who stop when they're full even if there's some dessert left, an attitude I worked hard to foster--and one that my mother and I will always find strange.

So I sent her this book, and although I don't have a lot of hope that it will change anything about her seven decades of struggle with food, at least she will have had the pleasure of reading this exchange, from "Double Diet":
"Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels."
Marsha thinks about this. Then she says, "Not true."
"I know," Tom says, and sighs.

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