Full-figured

At my annual preventive physical, I weighed in at a shade over 200 pounds.  This is about twenty-five more than I was expecting.  I immediately slid into that familiar panic. 

As soon as I got home I checked to see what my BMI: I am only ten pounds short of obese.  (Do you know how much weight I’d have to lose to be underweight according to the BMI?  More than seventy pounds, or twenty more pounds than I have ever shaved off.) 

I could feel it rolling around in the pit of my stomach: 200! 

But then I thought to myself, I’m devastated.  I might not get any work done all day.

In the past, that would have been true: I would have spent the day upset about my weight.  I might have resolved to starve myself.  I wouldn’t have accomplished anything but an extra portion of self-loathing and maybe the first installment of a harmful, ultimately self-defeating starvation regime. 
I might have derailed every other project and stable routine for weeks.  Nothing but bell peppers and coffee til New Year’s! 

And now I’m not going to do that.  I used to think of my earlier self as thinner.  Now I think of her as screwed up.  I like having an anchored brain.  I like being able to think. 

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More on “insufferable.”

Pleasures of a Tangled Life is a book about pleasure in various forms.  I’m not drawn.  Jan Morris’ voice isn’t all that unique, maybe, outside the genre where I encountered her first.  It would be unfair to link her to Stephen Fry or Bill Bryson, but it is that garrulous heavy lightness of tone: the unremitting jocularity that can grate like sugar on the back teeth.  And when she writes, for example, about incest:

I am also unreliable about incest.  In this of course I am not alone….I am simply struck by the ideal nature of the practice.  Blood love is the purest of loves, the love one is born to, so in principle what could be more beautiful than to seal it with the God-given gesture of physical union?  If we are to believe Giraldus Cambrensis, the twelfth-century chronicler of Wales, we in Wales have always taken a relaxed view of incest.  Only a year ago an elderly and widowed near-neighbor of mine, found guilty of sexual relations with his unmarried daughter, was sent to prison for it; but I was not alone in thinking it a mean-spirited response to a primitive expression of affection that was certainly genetically misguided, but which, far from being the cruel abuse of one by the other, undoubtedly brought comfort to them both.

I don’t find that passage intriguing.  And I react badly to its tone, the generosity that pleased me so much in another context.  It’s strange: in both cases, hers is an unfamiliar level of gentility, of acceptance, one which could seem equally flip in either place.  But here it seems repellent and there it seems like an act of kindness. 

And then the breadth of her tolerance comes to seem damning:

That corpulent couple in the dining room, so protuberant that one would think it difficult for them to kiss, let alone to copulate–he in his thick serge waistcoated suit, smoking a cigar, she so primped of hair, so loudly bangled, to layered with makeup, the two of them steadily working, scarcely exchanging a word, through the heavy courses of their dinner–is it conceivable that, when they go upstairs to their room, they are this very evening to be afforded the momentary vision of the unimaginable that is sex’s truest meaning?  Certainly it is.

It makes perfect sense to her that a daughter might fall in love with her father, but she can also understand why two fat people would appear anti-sexual at first glance.  Is it just because it’s my ox being twitted?  Or is her tone somehow harming her writing?  Both of these passages are evocative, but they seem misplaced.  And it is that dimension in her writing that makes me so happy in Conundrum: this is not how it’s supposed to go. 

An inner reconciliation

I’m going to write about Jan Morris–here, if not anywhere else.  The original question was, “Why do I like Jan Morris so much?”  After reading most of a late collection of essays, Pleasures of a Tangled Life, it’s morphed into, “Why do I find Jan Morris so insufferable?”  Or maybe, “Do I like Jan Morris for the same reasons I find her so insufferable?”

The answer’s probably yes.

At the moment I’m re-reading Conundrum.  I read it once, years ago, and was disappointed that it wasn’t more conventional, more informational–as when I thumbed through the entire LAMBDA library list looking for dirty bits (including Giovanni’s Room, perhaps the Baldwin novel least suited to a curious middle-schooler), I wasn’t interested in her story so much as mine.

The book is amazing me.  I think it’s the grandeur of her voice, the insistent protagonism of her narrative.  It opens with the first moment she realized, or discovered, that she was a girl (at three or four, hidden under a piano, immersed in Sibelius), but proceeds to this opening to Chapter Two:

As I grew older my conflict became more explicit to me, and I began to feel that I was living a falsehood.  I was in masquerade, my female reality, which I had no words to define, clothed in a male pretense.  Psychiatrists have often asked me if this gave me a sense of guilt, but the opposite was true.  I felt that in wishing so fervently, and so ceaselessly, to be translated into a girl’s body, I was aiming only at a more divine condition, an inner reconciliation; and I attribute this impression not to the influences of home or family, but to an early experience of Oxford.

Oxford made me….

and then on to Chapter Four:

I was still only a boy, still unformed, when walking into the colonel’s tent on the banks of the Tagliamento river in Venezia Giulia, I found the commanding officer of the 9th Queen’s Royal lancers rising to his feet to greet me.  Yet I was entering a man’s world, the world of war and soldiery.  I felt like one of those unconvincing heroines of fiction who, disguised in buskins or Hussar’s jacket, penetrate the battlefields to find glory or romance; and the colonel’s civilized gesture of welcome, to an undistinguished and unpromising reporting subaltern, seemed to me a happy omen.  So it was.  Stranger and impostor though I was, I was kindly treated in the Army; and far from making a man of me, it only made me feel more profoundly feminine at heart….

But most of all you [women readers] would have felt plain pleasure, at having handsome and high-spirited young men all around you.  I did not realize it very consciously at the time, but this is undeniably what I felt myself.  Cherishing my secret still, nevertheless I was encouraged often with indulgences, for by now, I discovered, both men and women sometimes instinctively felt the femininity within me.  With women this gave me a new sense of ease, for it was always hard work pretending to be gallant; with men it gave me unexpected advantages.  In the Army as at Lancing, I was never short of protectors.  If my books were stolen, somebody would go get them back for me.  If I was losing an argument, somebody would back me up.  If, at the training camp of the Royal Armoured Corps, I could not start my blessed motor-bike, I never had to kick for long.  At Sandhurst I shared a room with a fellow-cadet who was willing, it seems to me now in wistful retrospect, to do for me any chore I wished, the more tedious, the more eagerly.  The worst would never quite happen, I came rather smugly to thing: somebody would always intervene, take the brunt, or forgive me.  You know the feeling, I’m sure.

“The worst would never quite happen.”  I think this is what intrigues me so: the idea that her identity or status as trans feminine would protect her from mistreatment, would offer her social access rather than undiluted social isolation.  She writes about her time in the army as though she were Viola–as though her male identity was a trouser role, and as though she herself was capable of glorying in its possibilities–those not so much subversive as fortunate.  She writes about her history as an adventure, a journey in some sense very different from the way Jonathan Ames means it on the back of the nyrb edition’s jacket:

This is a beautiful book.  I found it to be melancholic, courageous, and wise.  That its subject matter is Jan Morris’s transsexual journey almost seems secondary to her incredible prose and the clarity of her honesty and introspection.  Beyond the issue of gender, she searches for an answer to that most elusive of questions: who am I?

There is some niggling, elusive yet crucial difference between a journey and “a transsexual journey.”  And some of it has to do with Ames saying that this book is so profound, so poignant, as to transcend its transsexual subject matter.

But I am also amazed by the joy with which she recalls her time among men.  Her account of that part of her past is totally free of any shadow of violence.  (There are other shadows–she picks up with those in the next chapter, describing herself as a “silent prisoner.”)  There’s no fear, and it is striking.  It is striking, too, that she believes women would be tickled to go among men disguised as men–that the experience would be one of inclusion, even as a “visitor” or mascot.  I am not used to reading accounts so firelit and “wistful,” like an Evelyn Waugh novel without the squalid, cirrhotic epilogue.  In Morris’ version, it is not her solemn eulogizer who enters the chapel to light a candle to his own memories, but she herself who remains there: at no point in this story does she give up her subjectivity to an imagined reader.  And at no point does her subjectivity become suspect.

Charging the Ditch

I react to the possibility of disaster with machismo–not the cutlass-between-the-teeth kind, the eventual-heart-attack kind.  I got to go and see a former professor, a really kind and friendly woman.  She suggested I consider a master’s to see if I’m ready for the several more years’ intellectual rigor and labor I’d have to endure to get a doctorate. 

And part of me responded–just as it responded every time a dear former professor recommended not rushing headlong–with, “Oh, noooooo, I might end up trapped in a thicket of bad choices, and have to pick my way out over the course of several extra months or years!  I might have nothing to show!  I might have made humiliating mistakes!  I might hate my life!  I might have to start all over!  What a catastrophe!  How would I ever cope?” 

I hear What if it’s not what you want after all? and part of me says, pfft.  Like that’s anything new

I don’t know how to feel about this.  I guess I should feel dismayed: HOOYAH is not a sensible reaction to misgiving.  I might luck into bad options like a cult or a husband.  Or both in conjunction.  Life offers all sorts of disastrous possibilities.  And if you take joy, even perverse joy, in your own unhappiness…well. 

But I think…I think there’s some strength in that hard knot my brain has now, the place where fear skids into excitement and then into dual certainty.  I’ve gathered a lot of experience in screwing up: making terrible mistakes and then having to diligently correct them.  As terrible as it is, it’s really not so bad.  You do gain from your mistakes.  You gain the mistake.  And although it can lead you to give up on your judgment, you do learn from living with your own weakness.  I’m not afraid of ending up in the wrong endeavor, not really. 

And when I probe around the edges of my eagerness for this, to see if I’m just looking to get hurt, I don’t find perverse excitement.  And, for what it’s worth, I can’t rush into this.