The Goal Skirt – A Weight Loss Story

I fell in love with it the first time I saw it.

My faux suede
skirt circa 2008

There, in the 2008 autumn catalog from Coldwater Creek, was the kind of skirt I’ve dreamed of most of my life.  Long. Full. So Western in style it could have been used on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. (Okay, so my fashion sense is cuckoo.) Draped on the model with a Squash blossom necklace, it was the essential Southwestern Dream, or so I thought. And, of course, it looked great in the picture. Even better, although the skirt looked and felt like suede, it was made of washable material.  Even though it cost an outrageous amount, I ached to have it.

That was the year I gave up carbohydrates and lost about 40 pounds.  I intended to lose more but as a partial reward, I bought myself the skirt and for the next few years, measured my self-worth by it.  If the skirt fits me comfortably, I am a terrific human being.  If I can, at least, manage to zip it, my overeating isn’t that bad.  If I have to wear a sweater over the waistband to cover an inch of unzipped zipper, I need to lose weight.  Anything more and I was the worst person on earth.  For five years the skirt stayed in my closet while I stayed the worst person on earth.

So, last March, one of my hopeless hopes was that I’d wear the faux suede skirt again.  I really didn’t believe it would happen, but my weight was so out of control, I knew I had to try something.  And I knew if I wanted to succeed, I had to have a tangible goal.  So I remembered the skirt.

Occasionally I would pull it out in the closet to measure my weight loss success.  In June, the skirt didn’t come close to closing close but at least I got the zipper more than half way up.  By September, I could almost get the zip to stay closed but the waistband cut me in half. I kept at it, and in November the stars aligned, and, after years, I was back in the skirt.

Me and Goal Skirt at our last outing. 

I wore that darn skirt wherever I could, convinced I was the hottest thing in shoe leather.  I didn’t care that it weighed a ton or was miles out of date.  By January, I didn’t even care that the skirt no longer set squarely at my waist.  I cinched the skirt in with an elastic belt and kept on going to town.

Then this month I got a chance to see some photographs of a recent event where I’d worn “the skirt”.  Know what I saw?  There I was, unconsciously clutching the buckle of the elastic belt, making sure it kept the skirt in place.  The extra fabric, bunched up under the belt, puckered out over my rear, making it look even larger.  The photos made clear what I didn’t want to see: – my skirt didn’t fit again. This time, it was too big for me. I either had to stop losing weight or I had to find a new goal.

So, last Thursday, I showed the skirt off one more time, to the wonderful folks in my weight-loss support group.  I told them the story.  And I explained why it was important for “Goal Skirt” to have a new home.  Sure enough, one of the members there saw what I saw years ago and she owns Goal Skirt now.  I think they’ll look good together.

I never really understood, until then, the meaning of that old phrase, “If you love something, set it free.” Goal Skirt is free to go on to a new life now.  And, happily, so am I.

The Best Rejection I’ve Ever Received

I guess it’s no secret I’ve finished writing a book.  Well, up till last week, I thought it was finished. After 5 years of slaving away on paragraphs and polishing each sentence, I thought The Plucky Orflings was complete.  I liked it, my sister liked it, and my friends loved it, so I figured it was just a matter of time until some agent agreed.  Well, if so, that time isn’t now.
Now, I suspect most agents are decent people.  They work incredibly hard in a difficult industry that gets more challenging by the day.  And, so far, not one of those that turned me down has said the dreaded words, “You can’t write.”  But none of them are interested in representing my book.  They say, it’s “not right for us” or “not what we’re looking for” and then they wish me well finding somebody else.  Since I only write to agents who work in the genre my story falls within (Historical Fiction for Middle-Grade readers), I had no idea why my book was wrong.  It’s like being told you aren’t some guy’s type when you resemble his last three girlfriends.  Okay, what am I doing wrong?
Last month, my rejected novel moved one baby step forward. An agent I had written to asked to see more of the manuscript. (If you don’t know, agents specify how much of your work they want to read, and you’d better give them just what they’re looking for if you want their attention.)  After jumping up and down for fifteen minutes, I pulled up the material she requested, re-read and polished it for the umpteenth time and sent it off, fingers crossed through the email. 
Eight days later, she turned me down.
But this rejection letter was different from the rest.  Instead of the usual “thanks, but no thanks,” this agent told me what problems she saw.  How the book focused on a supporting character for too much time before the main players took the stage.  How I built expectations on the first few pages that weren’t supported later on. That the main conflict wasn’t all that conflicted.  As many times as I’ve read these pages, I didn’t see all this.  But I looked again and what the agent said is true.
So, I’m going back to the drawing board, to re-write the darn story again and this time I’ve got some help. Even if I end up publishing The Plucky Orflings without an agent, it will still be a better book than it is right now.  And it will be better because an agent that turned me down.  I may not like rejection letters but this one feels pretty darn good.

Confessions of a Kitchen Clutter Monkey

I used to feel so sorry for the people on that A&E show, Hoarders .  There they were, self-imprisoned victims, overwhelmed by their obsessions with trash.  Most of them knew they were sick but, because of their illness, couldn’t find the way to heal themselves. I’d sit in my mostly tidy living room and pity these folks, sure I didn’t have a problem like theirs.  Well, I do and it’s appeared in a very odd place.  I seem to be a kitchen clutter monkey.
This all started last Thursday when the leader of my weight-loss group talked about how “stuff” fills up our kitchen pantries.  Along with the staples we use on an everyday basis, people often store groceries they never use.  As everyone in the meeting began nodding, I got an idea. “Hey, let’s all clean out our pantries and bring the extras to the next meeting so we can donate it to a food bank!”  Everyone agreed so I had to clean out my own shelves.  I wasn’t prepared for what I found!

What was hiding in the pantry
Found: flea collar for the dog
that passed away more
than 15 years ago!
This is what came from my two-tier, under-cabinet, Lazy Susan pantry.  Yes, all of that was stacked on two tiers.  Frankly, with all that weight, the Lazy Susan had trouble spinning.  And, despite that cornucopia of cans, we rarely found what we wanted in that cupboard. So, Rog or I would run back to the market and end up buying more stuff.  Well, as of today, that practice was ending.  I was going to get us back to the items we wanted and needed!
The first step in sorting out this mess was to take out all of the unhealthy out-of-date food which, in itself, was an unpleasant surprise.  Some of these were souvenirs of an earlier time when we were eating some dish regularly. Others, like the sugar-free, Irish-Cream syrup that didn’t taste like Irish Creme,  were food experiments that failed.  A few items fell into the “What was I thinking?” category.  Turnip greens? Watermelon Jello? Organic Grits? Rutabagas? Roger and I would never eat these unless we faced nuclear winter, so how did they end up in our pantry? (Seriously, who carried Rutabagas into my house?) As it is, some of them have been in this pantry almost as long as we’ve lived here. Well, they’re going now!
Food too old to eat or share – I hate this kind of waste!
Once the bad choices and the oldy-moldy-goldy cans were sequestered, it was time to sort for the food bank’s benefit.  Now, I don’t want to sound selfish but I do need to be practical.  Giving away Roger’s favorite pears may delight some hungry people but it won’t fix my pantry space problem because Rog will just go get more pears.  So, what went to the food bank? The collard greens, the wax beans, the extra cans of chicken soup. (no one needs that much chicken soup!) The cake and muffin mixes I’m never going to bake; the unopened bottles of salad dressing.  My food bank donations ended up filling a laundry hamper.
Charlie has to get in front of the hamper of food-bank donations.
Of course, the cupboard clean-out held some good surprises as well.  An unopened box of one of my favorite teas had hidden itself in the cabinet. Behind the remaindered pumpkin, I found a jar of butternut squash soup.  These went back with the “keeper” groceries and would you believe the result?
Finally, a Lazy Susan that spins and shows me what we have at a glance!  It took a couple of hours and more cleaning than I’d like to admit but my pantry is, once again, tidy. So, I may be a Kitchen Clutter Monkey but I’m in recovery right now. And I’m no longer eligible to star in my own episode of “Hoarders.”

A Tale of Two Sisters

Parents don’t tell you (even though they should) that it can be hard to grow up with a sister  It means there’s there’s always someone else around, and, whether you’re older or younger, you two are always in each other’s shadows. When the two of you are small, sisters are in-house competition for any family attention and favor. And, because a sister gets to know you well, she can figure out every last thing that annoys you. This is knowledge she uses religiously.  If someone meets your sister first, they may expect you to be a lot like her.  You’re not.  In spite of, or maybe because of their physical proximity, sisters can grow up only seeing how they’re different, believing they have nothing in common except relatives and DNA.  
Ask June Elbus in Tell the Wolves I’m Home how hard it is to have a sister in the house. At one point, Greta seemed like both a sibling and a friend, but now they fight all the time.  They can’t help it; they’re such different people. Greta is self-assured, in high school and a gifted actress.  June’s still in Junior High and shy.  There’s a lot of emotional distance between them and, square in the middle, is their Uncle Finn.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home is more than a story of sisters, it’s a tale of the recent past. Finn, as the family artist and June’s Godfather, is bent on painting a portrait of his nieces. June loves spending time with him while Greta wants to stay away.  After all, Uncle Finn is sick and everyone’s worried about the modern plague. Everyone is terrified of catching the HIV virus and the death sentence that comes with it, AIDS. Uncle Finn is dying from AIDS.  
June must sort through the unspoken lies and half-truths she and her sister were told to sort out why Finn’s picture is so important to the world.  Why her mother says Finn’s death is murder. Why a sibling can be so cruel and still understand you better than anyone in the world.

Family and love are works of delicate mystery, as complex and layered as a Bach fugue or modern art. They’re not easy to understand or dismiss.  But they are also the glue that can hold us together when everything else is falling apart. So it can be hard growing up with a sibling. It’s even harder to lose one. Tell the Wolves I’m Home shows why family is important, even at the worst of times.

Much Ado About Much Ado

Posts occurring on Valentine’s Day are practically obligated to have a romantic theme.  Well, this is as close as I’m likely to get: the Shakespearean play that made me fall in love with love.

Everyone remembers their first, I mean the first production of a Shakespearean play.  It tends to dominate their world view and every play by the Bard they see after that.  Present a newbie with the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet, and you’ll find you’ve created a romantic; force another to audit a poor reading of Julius Caesar, and they’ll loathe plays and politics for the rest of their days.  Like so many others, the first Shakespearean play I ever watched is still my favorite today.  It gave me the way I like to look at romance.  Tragic lovers can entertain somebody else, I favor the wit and laughter of Much Ado About Nothing.
What makes this lighthearted romp so different from Shakespeare’s other comedies isn’t the “supposed” leading couple of the piece (Claudio and Hero) but his comedic characters, Benedick and Beatrice.  From one perspective these potential partners have everything in common: they’re both smart, funny, astonishingly verbal, unromantic, sarcastic and brave.  Their similarities give them one other trait to share: they hate each other.  These two began one-upping and upstaging each other long before the story begins, so the first time the audience sees them together is just a fresh outbreak of hostilities.  They don’t just steal every scene, they up and run away with the play. 
What’s great about Benedict and Beatrice is that neither ever gives an inch, even after they’ve fallen for each other.  Both of them are equally determined to have the last word and love makes neither one soft in the head.  Every smart couple, love-at-first-fight romcom owes a debt to these two.  I swear, they taught Tracy and Hepburn how to spar.

 2011 production of the play starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
 (courtesy of Digital Theatre.com) 

There are two issues often found in productions of this play, both good and bad. First, the setting. For years, theatrical companies have enjoyed adding dimensions to Much Ado by giving it an anachronistic setting.  In the 70’s, Joseph Papp’s Edwardian Era themed production turned the law officers into Keystone Cops (hysterical, by the way). Kenneth Branagh gave us a film adaptation some 20 years later with 18th-century costumes and a villa, and Joss Whedon filmed a modern-dress version a few years ago that was shot in his own house. That’s the fun bit.  The challenge is finding actors with matching comedic and Shakespearean skills to play Benedick and Beatrice.  This comedy only works if the audience likes and understands both characters as equals.  If either actor is too much of a ham or unable to handle the Elizabethan text, the equation gets out of balance.  But when both actors can meet the demands of the text, the result is pure champagne: bubbly, frothy, intoxicating fun.

So, if you are tired of the moody and lovestruck Heathcliffs and Edward Cullens; if you can’t stand one more sweet, victimized, Juliet; if you’ve worn out your DVD of Pride and Prejudice and a neighbor has your copy of The Thin Man, re-read or watch a good production of Much Ado.  It’s a Valentine for the mind and the heart.

Lost in the Fog of a Story

It’s been foggy as all get out this week. I don’t mean one of dark, pea-soup fogs that blacken city centers for days, but a daily, thick, white, winter mist that layers everything outdoors in microscopic droplets and obscures any object more than 30 feet away. Fogs that makes the world seem even colder than it is. We’re talking weather an English Teacher can use to lecture about creating “atmosphere.”

Well, fog works in stories, doesn’t it? The very nature of the phenomena creates confusion, where good things and bad are hidden, and individuals are isolated. Writers have been using fog as set-dressing, plot-device, and symbols for longer than I care to think about. Since we’re stuck inside until the sun breaks through, why not take a look one or two stories that turned these earth-bound clouds into art?
Fog and England have been associated for so long, it’s practically become a cliche. Yet, if you are talking about bright, white, fog, forget about the stories of London. The soot and sulfur-filled clouds that permeate Bleak House and every Ripper tale ever written are peculiar to the city. Instead, look toward the southern coast for one of the greatest Gothic stories ever penned: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here, fog is used as a plot device to heighten suspense and terror during the story’s climax. Holmes and Watson are running through the Great Grimpen Mire (what a name!) to catch the villain and foil his plot. The thick fog slows down our rescuers and blinds them to the approach of the terrible Hound until the last second. But the fog is even-handed in its justice.Just as it keeps our heroes from seeing where danger is, it hides the escape route from the criminal of this piece. Unable to find his safety markers in the fog, our bad guy gets lost in the quagmire of a peat bog and comes (we assume) to a wet, miserable end. However, the fog and bog add a note of mystery. Because the criminal’s body is never found, Conan Doyle left open the possibility open for him to survive and return from the fog to threaten Holmes in a sequel!
My own Great, Grey Grimpen Mire
As isolating and dangerous as the fog can be, there are those that welcome it.  To Edmund Tyrone, and his mother, Mary, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, fog creates an illusion of isolation. It also symbolizes Edmund’s active alcoholism and Mary’s addiction to morphine. As the drugs isolate them from reality, Edmund describes how fog transforms their world into a place where “Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue, and life can hide from itself.” As for Mary, she admits,”I really love fog. It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you anymore. It’s the foghorn I hate. It won’t let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back.” Notice that neither character believes the fog makes them happier or better people; these tortured souls aren’t seeking happiness, but distance. The fog isolates them from their underlying feelings and their problems. Of course, like other wanderers in the mist, these two can’t find their way out of this half-life because they can’t tell how lost they are.  
It isn’t as gloomy as O’Neill’s Monte Cristo
Cottage, but it sure isn’t cheery either!

If you think of this play as autobiography, it’s amazing to realize these are the two family members who found their way out of the mist. O’Neill (as Edmund) eventually chose life and his work. His mother, by realizing her disease had a  spiritual as well as physical component, found recovery through a religious retreat. Ultimately, the fog’s illusion of comfort wasn’t enough for the real people.

That’s what fog ultimately means for people, in fiction and real life: confusion and the illusion of isolation from reality.  In the end, we have to deal with whatever comes along, even if it’s illness or a big, scary dog.  No matter what the mist obscures, we aren’t that far apart from each other. That’s something we’ll all see when the sun comes out again.

The Writer who Changed the World, One Story at a Time

Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.  It’s an incredible milestone, one no other ruler of England has attained, and she deserves all the honor and respect she gets.  The woman has seen a lot of changes during her reign, but that’s not what England should celebrate today. Today marks the 205th birthday of Charles Dickens, one of the most influential Britons and writers of any time. He didn’t just watch the world change, he changed our language and world with his stories. He was the literary Colossus of the Victorian Age, and his influence is still felt today.  
Dickens in his early years
The life of Dickens holds enough drama to fuel a multi-season mini-series. His terrible childhood has become so well-known we label all other impoverished, chaotic beginnings as “Dickensian.”  The funny thing is, he tried to hide these facts for years. Destitution was considered a social and character defect in the Regency and Victorian Eras and Dickens spent much of his life’s energy trying to get as far away from his impoverished past as he could. That drive turned him into a law clerk, a court reporter, a freelance journalist and finally a novelist.  Like any good storyteller, he wrote about what he knew.  And his stories changed our world.
After witnessing how poverty corrupts and ruins lives, he wrote Oliver Twist and satirized the Poor Laws that punished the very people they were supposed to help.  The book exposed the disgusting London slum, Jacob’s Island, to a heretofore unsuspecting public, who cleaned up the area so thoroughly that thirteen years later one bureaucrat insisted it never existed! In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote about the system of farming unwanted children out to boarding schools in Yorkshire where kids were neglected instead of educated.  An investigation shut that practice down.  In Bleak House, in The Old Curiosity Shop, in Hard Times, and more, Dickens attacked some social evil.  And because his books sold like hotcakes, his readers followed his pen to the trouble and tried to correct the wrongs.
Best-sellers!  It’s hard to compare the popularity of any novelist writing today with Dickens.  J. K. Rowling came closest with the midnight publication parties for her Harry Potter series.  But those were orchestrated affairs hosted by the bookstores.  Now, imagine yourself in Victorian times.   Dickens doesn’t publish a whole novel all at once, he serializes chapters in a magazine.  If you want to read the latest installment, you have to get each new issue of the journal.  In America, people gathered in droves on the wharves, to get the new issues as they came off the ship!  This wasn’t some publisher’s or PR agent’s operation, these were people who couldn’t wait any longer to find out what happened to Nell Trent or Little Emily!  Readers are crazy people, but they wouldn’t have done that if the man hadn’t created wonderful characters and stories.
Of course, his characters have entered our lexicon.  The saintly, too-good-to-live girl is known as Little Nell, and an insincere toady is labeled Uriah Heep.  (By the way, Dickens had a way of naming his characters that was second to none.  You don’t have to meet Wackford Squeers, Fagin, Quilip, or Uriah Heep to know they are all villains; the sounds of their names are enough.) And people who have never picked up one of Mr. Dickens’s books still know the worst miser is a “Scrooge.”  That single story, The Christmas Carol, changed how we celebrate the holiday.  It used to be a relatively minor festival in the Christian calendar.  Now it’s a season of family, parties, and charity because Dickens wrote about it that way.
Boz, the Grand Old Storyteller
Am I saying he was the world’s greatest man or subtle writer? Of course not.  There’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting he had faults as a family man and Ellen Ternen knew he was no saint. The way he treated his wife when their marriage fell apart is enough to make a feminist cringe.  And, as entertaining as many of his characters are, they lack the complexity and depth of real people. There are too many coincidences and far too much sentiment in a lot of his stories.  But that doesn’t make them any less compelling.  And his influence doesn’t lessen with the years.
So, pull out your noisemakers and cheer old “Boz” as he was known then.  Over-blown, over-sensitive, over-dramatic, Boz, who could tell a story that made you laugh, cry, and shiver with fear.  Boz who made money telling people what was wrong with the world and said it so well his readers tried to make it better. With Shakespeare and the Beatles, he may be one of Britain’s finest exports. We’re lucky he came our way.

A Mid-Winter Hiatus

The American South does lots of things well, but Winter ain’t one of them.  While hardy New-Englanders take February like a dose of nasty-but-fortifying medicine and mountainous regions celebrate the annual return of snow bunnies to the slopes, the denizens of Dixie roll ourselves up in fleece and wonder why God sent an Ice Age our way.  He didn’t, not really, but when you live in the sun belt, it’s hard to cope when the sun goes away. Our houses and wardrobes don’t accommodate perma-frost that well and neither do our moods.  We like living outdoors in a world drenched in green instead of staring through the window at a universe of muddy browns and grays. It gets depressing. That’s why Wednesday was such a ray of hope.  It was a Mid-Winter Hiatus.
Winter doesn’t look so dreary
when the sky is this blue!

After two fairly solid cold snaps and an impressive amount of rain, the sun came out on Tuesday and Wednesday and put some blue back in the sky.  Not that thin, watery blue sky that makes a cold day colder either, but the deep azure we’ve come to accept as a birthright.  I knew it was time, not only to seize the day, but opportunity, and my gardening gloves.

For all of our grumbling, the Deep South has a short dormant season, and this is it.  Now is the only time of year I can make headway against the kudzu, sawbriar, and Jimson weed that threatens to take over my yard each year.  My allergies return with every spring, and this stuff starts to grow…well, like weeds. So, if I want to get in front of the enemy and encourage real grass to grow, this is my chance to do it. With my wheelbarrow and implements of destruction in hand, I began uprooting and toting away the scrub.

My hero

Sometime after carting away the sixth wheelbarrow load of thorned and prickly fauna, I realized something I hadn’t noticed for weeks: it was too hot to work in a sweatshirt.  A quick check of the phone app verified the miracle: the temperature was 70 degrees and climbing!  I started back to the house to change my shirt and then saw my annual miracle: the first flower of the year.

Almost thirty years ago, while my home was being built, the wife of the owner-contractor planted narcissi in the yard.  Since then, these flowers have returned every mid-winter, as if to affirm that, no matter how impossible it seems, Spring will return.  Of course, narcissi are so common they may be a floral cliche but they are the first flowers to appear each year, and that’s why I treasure them. They give me hope and color when I need it the most.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re heroes.

And, for the next few hours, everything seemed right with the world. I cleared out weeds, while I listened to a book on tape and felt the sun on my face. When the work was done, I sat outside with a drink and decided the returning cold does not dismay me.  It’s part of the cycle of life down here and, at worst, it’s temporary. Spring is coming. I’ve seen the signs.  They were there in a mid-winter hiatus.