Updated: Sep 22, 2020
It all started with "Oh you pig!"
I was eleven, recently extricated from Portugal to Massachusetts. The minister's daughter of Grace Chapel in Lexington had invited me over for dinner. Her mother, lovely, round and blonde, a true German Frau, was on something called a diet. I had brought a Hershey bar to share later while we tanned on the woven lawn chairs—another concept I'd never heard of.
The pig remark stunned me. It stayed with me until I was nearly forty. Not okay to have a chocolate after a regular food-group meal? This was so not a Portuguese idea. So I started starving. And binging. Later I added bulimia to the clever coping mechanisms. Cigarettes helped, since they had no calories. Plus, string players didn't care about their lungs. Orchestra breaks sent the wind players in one direction, the cellists and violinists out to the smoky stairwell. I got up to two packs a day.
When I was in my late thirties and teaching tenure-track philosophy in San Diego, I had an infant daughter just learning to talk. I vowed never to say this particular four letter word in front of her, d-i-e-t. (She heard all the others.) But since kids pick up on what you do even more than what you say, my modus operandi for adhering to the US female ideal had to go. What good were eating disorders if I couldn't hide them?
So I devised a five-year plan. Well, I didn't know it would take that long, but it did. I settled on two rules: 1) Never work out when you don't feel like it and 2) Always eat whatever you want. And a caveat, to get brutally honest with myself. This latter proviso is the part that took five years.
I soon realized I had no idea what it even meant to be hungry. The external commands for How to Be a Girl & Make People Happy had drowned out any instinctive buzz from an inner thermostat. The new instructions had also conflicted with the earlier "clean your plate, it's a sacrilege not to," but my puberty-anatomy got me special dispensation from the Church Fathers on this one. The dog under the family table was helpful, too.
Interestingly, accomplishing my five-year plan meant rejecting all notions of discipline this side of arm-wrestling and holding your breath. Such temporary states are brief exertions we're able to force upon reluctant nerves for a bit...but spending six hours in a Conservatory practice room, memorizing Pushkin's Медный всадник (okay, just the вступление and первая часть), writing an article on Schlick's crazy Konstatierungen, working out the kicks and chops for the brown belt, learning a hundred places of Pi? No. These are utterly different. (By the way, I did beat my summer opponent in the Pi-contest.)
So what's the difference? We can force ourselves to do just about anything if the payoff suffices. Look at Houdini. Or live organ donors. In the more convoluted cases, though, who or what is directing these requirements? Collective evolution of humankind? Jungian archetypes? Spiritual guides? Leprechauns?
Inference to the best explanation suggests that my teenage brain was likely affected by being told I was already sterile, providing me with ample time to pursue pointless activities. That the alleged sterility was due to nonconsensual insertion of male biohazards, however, made it essential that I stay alive long enough to excel in any such pursuits. Odds were against me there. Getting myself to Moscow, traveling the world, surviving grad school—I wouldn't recommend this particular method for inspiration, but it no doubt spurred my initial journey forward.
In any case the airbrushed hairless female ideal was blasted right out of my ambient consciousness. Sorry Hollywood, Advertisers, Pornography. I'm out.
At the time Gilligan's Different Voice and Dworkin's fury had not yet reached me, but I was beginning to feel sickened by what men found attractive in me. No wonder I turned into such a monster once the curtain was pulled away. The combination of call girl and custodial woman was just too ludricous to perform, especially once I messed with the costumes.
Evidence-based data about the doubtfulness of discipline also came from my very own history of quitting cigarettes. I've got a lot of experience here. In fact, I still hate the flower-smelling herbal tea because I associate it with trying to give up coffee, beer—anything that made me want to smoke. The final and successful effort involved quitting quitting, not the cigarettes. I bought a carton of nasty Marlboros and put them on top of the refrigerator, went out for a three-mile run, and came back telling myself they’re there, you can have one whenever you want. I said that to myself all day long for weeks and surprisingly never wanted to open the carton. To amuse myself I drew pictures of a person with a mouthful of lit cigarettes. I also drew pictures of...tubas. Why tubas? I had never wanted to play the tuba, so I wondered what would happen if I expressly forbid myself to ever play a tuba.
Have I smoked since then? Sure. Now and then, a cigarillo with a Gin & Tonic, on my porch in a Minnesota snow, on a pre-coronavirus cruise around Cuba, at the Cascais Jazz Club...but none of these moments frighten me with Eternal Relapse. I can have one if I want.
As for tubas, I have yet to play one.
I won't hold my breath.
16 MARCH 2020