The Spins of the Father

My father’s visiting next week. He’s been threatening to visit since summer, before Christian was born. Before that, he was talking about going to Argentina with my cousin, to visit some relatives there. I was all for it, but my cousin has a job and a family and he couldn’t commit to a date. My dad also refused to pay 200 dollars a night for a hotel room, although they probably would have shared the room and the expense.

He told me he didn’t know why my cousin wanted to go, because he was closer to those relatives than my cousin. I stifled a laugh on that call. My father’s never shared enough of himself to be close to anyone. His job once sent him to assertiveness training. He said the class was ok but he didn’t want to participate because people were using examples from their own lives, and “I’m not gonna do that, in front of everybody!”

Once the Argentina trip fell apart, he started saying he wanted to come here. I worried he’d want to come right away. I was pregnant. The last time he saw me pregnant, he called me obese. Now I’m obese, but I wasn’t then. At the time that I saw him I was six months along with Rose and had only gained 16 pounds.

So I tried to put him off, but it turned out I didn’t have to. Someone at the Senior Center must have suggested that he wait to see his new grandchild. So I got a stay of execution. After Christian was born, I told him we were very busy and he accepted that. I knew I’d have to acquiesce sometime, but I wanted some time to lose weight before he saw me, so I wouldn’t have to hear his nasty comments.

Then he started trying to pin down dates. Fortunately we had a few people stay with us after the baby came so I told him we were having houseguests. But we finally ran out of excuses and he started to shop for a plane ticket.

That was an ordeal in itself. My dad knows very little about using his computer, and he hasn’t traveled since the 90s. Back then, we still had travel agents and they would find the best price and get us our ticket. Now we buy tickets online. Somehow my father knew that – maybe it was his computer class at the center, maybe it was seeing that little gnome on TV – so he attempted to get a ticket online. But the travel websites baffled him.

He called me, “What do I do when I get on to Travelocity?”

“You click on ‘Flight’ and enter your cities and dates,” I said.

“Where do I enter my cities?”

“Where it says ‘Locations and Dates.’”

“Where does it say that?”

“On the ‘Flight’ page.”

“Where’s the ‘Flight’ page?”

“I think you should go to the Senior Center and have them help you.”

“Naaah, they don’t know anything there,” he said.

“Ok, well you find the ‘flight’ page, click on it, and enter your cities or airports and your dates and then click ‘search flights.’”

“Where’s the ‘Flight’ page?”

“Are you on there now?”

“No.”

“Call me back when you’re at the site.”

“What number do I put in to get there?”

What address did you put in before? Sigh. “Www.travelocity.com”

“How do you spell that?”

A few days later he called me back. “Can you buy me the tickets and I’ll pay you back?”

“I can’t be charging things to my credit card.”

“I’ll pay you back.”

“Well if I buy your ticket you can’t use express check-in.”

“What’s that?”

“Ok, fine. Let me boot up the computer. We were just about to eat dinner, Dad. Matt, would you get dinner ready for us, please? I have to buy this ticket for my dad. Dad, do you have your credit card?”

“Let me go get it,” he said.

Five minutes of silence.

“Hello? I’ve got it.”

“All right, so what dates were you looking at? “ I entered them. “Ok, the lowest price ticket is $343.”

“I saw that. But there were a lot of numbers on the page.”

“Yes, those are different flights. You’re supposed to pick one.”

“How do I do that?”

“You click ‘Select Flight.’”

“Ok, well, you do it,” he said.

I picked round trip flights and got to the confirmation page.

“Ok, with taxes and 19.95 for trip insurance it’s going to be 372 dollars,” I said.

“I don’t need trip insurance,” he said.

“It looks like it’s mandatory. I don’t see anywhere to opt out.”

“Oh, well, then I guess I’ll just go to the travel agent,” he said.

He did go to the travel agent. He got his ticket $10 cheaper. The next time we spoke, I said, “As long as you’re here, you can’t make nasty comments about my weight.”

“When did I do that?”

“All the time. The last time I was pregnant, you called me obese,” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said.

What does that mean? I thought. Will he abstain from commenting or is he saying that his comments shouldn’t bother me? I guess I’ll find out when he gets here. In preparation, I have changed my eating plan and I’ve lost some weight, but it’s been tough to get to the gym because I have Christian and the gym childcare won’t take him.

So now I’ve got to see my father at my largest. About 10 years ago I lost 90 pounds. I came home for a wedding looking svelte, and he asked me, “So how big were you?” So I doubt he can abstain from the nasty comments and I’ll stress eat and he’ll berate me for that too. There is one saving grace. My father’s a teetotaler, but in our house we have a full bar, and I’m stocking up for his visit. If I’m drunk, maybe his comments will roll off my fat.

Nasty comments aren’t the only thing that worries me. My father and I are political polar opposites, which would be fine if we refrained from discussing politics, as I’m sure even the Schwarzeneggers and Kennedys do. I don’t bring politics up, but my father does. I think he wants so much for me to be like him that he’s convinced himself that I am like him. He constantly brings up snippets from Hannity or Rush and expects me to agree with him. I admit I take the bait. I point out all the obvious impossibilities that these guys manage to sell to the paranoid right in my arguments. And he still doesn’t get that our politics disagree.

Not only that, but he thinks I should emulate these “great conservative minds.” He thinks my writing business is “cute” and I guess he wants to help, so last week he said, “There’s this guy around here. He puts out this conservative newsletter. You know, he does it to get the ads. I pick it up at the Stop n Shop. I’ll send it to you.”

“Why?”

“So you can see how other people write,” he said.

“I read. I know how other people write.”

“It’ll just cost me a stamp, that’s all,” he said.

“I don’t want it,” I said.

“I’ll send it to you,” he said.

After we hung up, my husband said, “You should let him send it. It gives you stuff to put in your book.” He was right. I have to absorb everything my dad says and does so I can portray him effectively in the book. Once again I’d taken the bait and I’d let my pride deprive me of priceless memoir material. So next time I’ll tell him to mail me the newsletter. It’ll make him happy and give me something to mock in the blog.

So now I’ve got my strategy. If anything positive can come of this visit, it’s new writing fodder. Usually I just post his notable quotes on Facebook, but I need to keep those snippets for the blog and the book. I’ll study his character every moment and take notes. Depending upon how it goes, by choice or chance, this could be our last visit. He’s not getting any younger. I’ve got to appreciate him for the character he is while I can.

Weighing the Options

As I waddled out of the locker room, I thought, How can I look less fat and more pregnant? Maybe if I lean back when I walk. Yeah, that’s it. At the gym, impressions can go either way. People can wonder how far along I am or just think I’m there to work off this enormous belly and butt. I want everyone to see that I’m pregnant, not just fat, but this time around the belly looks pretty proportionate. I never lost weight after having Rose. My plan was to use Rose as my personal liposucker, but breast feeding didn’t work out and then neither did I, for two years. I started working out again right before I got knocked up, and then, thanks to exercise and morning sickness, I lost 10 pounds. But now it’s back. And since pregnancy is the only socially acceptable state of obesity, and this is my last chance for body acceptance, I want people to know I’m pregnant, not just fat.

But why is it so important to me? How is it that 63 percent of the country is overweight or obese, but society still scorns fat people? If most of us are overweight, why do we strive to be the thin minority? How do we let the diet industry rake in $40 billion a year? Why does despising extra pounds account for such degradation of our personal happiness?

“But extra pounds are unhealthy,” you’re saying. “Obesity is bad for your health.” Sure it is. But how many of us really diet for our health? Face it. We diet for a number of reasons, but if we’re honest with ourselves, the sight of our butt in jeans ranks much higher than any words the doctor uttered. These days, girls are starting to worry about body image in preschool (that’s right, preschool). If your four-year-old says, “Do I look fat?” do you applaud her for being so health conscious?

Our obsession with body image is crazy and it has to stop. We talk about accepting and celebrating diversity, but that only covers ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Insulting fat people is still socially acceptable. And that’s because we learn from the very beginning that fat people are worthy of blame, and jokes about weight are funny.

I have never been the same size as everyone else. In grade school I was chubby – not very chubby – just enough to attract peer torture. Fortunately, I found some chubby friends, and some “normal” kids who didn’t care about my weight accepted me as well. But that was school. At home my mom would offer me a big piece of cake after school, then call me fat by dinnertime. During one big fight at age nine, I said I was leaving to play with the neighbor girl. She said, “Good, go play with the other pahia [fattie]!”

Although my mother was one of those people who could never gain an ounce (bless her heart), her bias had much deeper roots. Appearances took priority over everything in her world. She told me that every time she and her sisters left the apartment, her father insisted on inspecting his girls’ dresses, hair and makeup. They couldn’t go out until they met his approval. Later on, my mother spent most of her money and time buying clothes, for herself and for me. On high school mornings, I’d come down the stairs with a new outfit and if she liked it, my mother would say, “Jim! Jim! Get the camera!” My mother was so impressed with my appearance that we had to make it a lasting memory.

Appearances were rooted so deeply in my mother’s psyche that, once during a manic episode when I tried to check myself into the hospital, my mother came to talk me out of it. My Uncle Gus’ family’s imminent arrival (see “Some Things You Can’t Forgive”), the event that triggered the episode in the first place, took priority. “What am I gonna SAY to them about where you are? What am I gonna SAY?” she kept asking. The pull was so strong that I did check myself out that day, and stayed at the neighbor’s house for the duration of the visit.

And then there’s my father. Last pregnancy, I paid him one last visit before moving cross country. I was six months along, and I’d gained only 16 pounds. (Just for reference, that’s pretty freakin’ impressive.) I was a size 16 at the time. A week later, my father called me at my office to ask if I had a doctor. Unfazed by the odd question, I said, yes, I saw my doctor once a month. He said, “Well next time you see her, ask her about your back. I read that obese people can have back problems when they’re pregnant.”

“You think I’m obese?” I said.

“Just ask her about it,” he said.

Our conversation tumbled downhill from there. That was one of the worst arguments we ever had, and it ended when I hung up on him. The next time he called, I told him I’d decided not to talk to him until the baby was born, because he upset me every time we spoke.

And it all started with weight. I’ve since told my father that my body is neither his problem nor his business, but that doesn’t stop him. Last time we spoke he asked how the pregnancy was going and I made the mistake of mentioning some back pain. “Well, you’re carrying all that extra weight around!” he said. I pretended he was talking about the baby weight and let it go, but I know that’s not what he meant.

So it’s no wonder I’m self-conscious, even in the sixth month of pregnancy. And I haven’t even touched upon the effects of emaciated supermodels or the media’s weight obsession on my self-image. Let’s just take those as a given. I enjoyed the legitimacy of my size during my last pregnancy. It was about the only thing I enjoyed at the time, so I tried to focus on it. I know that I’ll never be thin. I’ve achieved thinness twice in my life and both times, the weight came barreling back. I hadn’t stopped watching my weight, it just got easier and easier to see.

We all have a natural, comfortable weight and mine doesn’t approach skinny. I don’t think that my current weight is my body’s ideal, either, but once I have the baby, I’ll be able to find a happy medium, and if that medium turns out to be an extra large or a plus size, that will be ok with me. I don’t anticipate becoming a fashion model or a jockey, so my weight will rank low on the priority scale.

What will matter is how I see myself. And more important, how my self-perception affects the people around me. If Rose can accept her body as she grows, no matter its shape, I’ll consider Operation Body Image a success. If my son can appreciate that people come in every shape and size, another success. And if I can accept my body, enjoy food without shame and ignore society’s unrealistic ideals for women, my happiness will far outweigh any dissatisfaction with my butt’s appearance in jeans.