About the Author

Patricia Pearson

Books by this Author
A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine)
Excerpt

Let’s Roll

We foresee great peril if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change.
–stephen hawking, physicist and member of the atomic bulletin’s board of sponsors, 2007

I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew ­before . . .
–william james, 1902

Given my druthers, I would prefer not to be afraid of the following: phone bills, ovarian cancer, black bears, climate change, walking on golf courses at night, being blundered into by winged insects; unseemly heights, running out of gas, having the mole on my back that I can feel, but not see, secretly morph into a malignant melanoma. Plus, flying. This is a big problem. Also, on occasion, the prospect that the supervolcano underlying Yosemite National Park will erupt and kill us all. Certainly, in addition, unexpected liver failure. And cows. Also, but only occasionally, when I’m really over the edge with anxiety, the fear that the car I’m driving will simply explode.

It is not that these fears aren’t inherently valid, because maybe they are. One must be vigilant. One must struggle continuously with the validity of one’s fears. Yet they vex me because of what I do not fear: crime, bats, ­house fires, social censure, terrorism, breast cancer, trans fats, and any harm coming to my two small children.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,” wrote Walt Whitman, that great American poet who was phobic of spiders. Apparently, I share this odd proclivity for contradiction with forty million adult Americans in any given year. That is an astonishing number. Nearly 20 percent of the adult inhabitants of the Land of the Brave are as anxious as I am, in one way or another, to a clinically significant degree. Phobic, some of them; others, prone to panic attacks; generalized anxiety, which is my label; somatic hysteria, ­post-­traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive ­disorder–an array of thorny cloaks to wear.

I like to imagine ­them–these forty million kindred ner­vous ­souls–experiencing the same juddering sense of alarm that I felt in January 2006 when I noticed that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Ser­vices had issued a bulletin about pandemic influenza. The warning went out via a newly dedicated Web site, pandemicflu.gov, advising the citizenry in all states to stockpile six to eight weeks’ worth of food and water . . . like, nowish.

“But why?” I wondered, with detectable palpitations of the heart. “What’s about to happen?” A Google search suggested terrible things. Vast amounts of suffering and death. Rasping, ­blue-­in-­the-­face plague along the lines of the Great Influenza of 1918. A brand new pandemic that would kill pretty much everyone in the prime of their lives more or less shortly (it ­wasn’t precisely clear when). In the winter of 2006, the virus was still busy trying to figure out how to mutate in order to infect humans more swiftly than birds, but then . . . well. That’s it. You understand? Calamity.

Therefore, proclaimed pandemicflu.gov, which I had stumbled across from a random link on the Drudge Report, you really, really need to stock cans of tuna and Evian water in the basement, because at the appointed time, the clerk at the 7-­Eleven will drop dead and no one will sell you your food.

How do I, and forty million Americans, put this? When you suffer from anxiety, which has been very aptly described as fear in search of a cause, you do not need official encouragement. Go away with your stockpile advisory, because ­here is what it is going to make me do:

“Patricia?” ventured my husband about a month later, having signed for a postal delivery at our door. “Are you all right?”

“Why?” I called down distractedly from my ­third-­floor home office.

“Well,” he said, coming upstairs, his ­even-­tempered voice growing louder with each step, “last week a box with twelve containers of ­freeze-­dried vegetables arrived at the ­house from a company called Survival Acres, and I meant to ask you about it, you know, but I forgot, and now you seem to have purchased a really big tin of powdered butter.”

He darkened the threshold of my office, displaying the newly delivered package. “It says you need to add ­twenty-­seven cups of water.” My dear husband eyed me thoughtfully, poised somewhere between bursting out laughing and giving me a hug.

It is always thus. I catch him off guard. Ask anyone who suffers from what John Keats called “wakeful anguish,” and they will assure you that their affliction isn’t visible to the naked eye. The chronically anxious aren’t physically timid, or cringing. We don’t quake in our boots or whimper aloud as we board airplanes. In folklore and anecdote, the anxious have been conflated with the immature and emotionally uninhibited as “ner­vous Nellies,” but the perception is a prejudice. Our fears are private, arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and very often masked. Anxiety rages undetected in the mind, both secretive and wild.

Friends and acquaintances, children, even lovers can be fooled. Who knew that Charles Darwin was struggling to suppress a rising sense of panic in his later years? Who glimpsed the dread felt by Alfred Lord Tennyson, or by W. B. Yeats? Is a ­face-­clutching terror evident in the bold joy of Aretha Franklin as she sings, or in the elegant play of David Beckham? Yet both contend all the time with a fraught sense of balancing on the cliff’s edge. I know of one CEO who gets paralyzed with terror whenever he enters a tunnel, but I doubt his business associates have noticed this when they’ve driven together in a limo from LaGuardia beneath the East River and into Manhattan. Another accomplished professional of my acquaintance spends her downtime silently making contingency plans for the tornado she’s certain will hit her ­house in Montreal. One friend is a gregarious charmer, a man who soars at his job in Chicago, all the while governed by his phobia that something will snap off his toes.

You ­can’t claim to spot an anxious person a mile away. The signals aren’t that strong. Anxious people don’t even recognize one another. Apprehension runs through us like an underground current; it electrifies when no one is watching.

By March 2006, the government of New Zealand had embarked upon a ­house-­by-­house mailing to all of its nationals, asking them to think seriously about an imminent outbreak of death and pestilence. I knew this because, rather than contend with the financial issues that ­were actually causing my anxiety, I had become a daily visitor to a Web site called Flu Wiki. ­Here could be found a great milling together of fiercely articulate and ­freaked-­out people from around the world, posting to discussion topics like “What Will We Do with the Bodies?” It was like an informal or unacknowledged meeting space for Neurotics Anonymous. The conversations ranged widely, from scientific discourses on virus mutation to historic analysis of pandemics, to tips for home fuel ­storage–on the presumption that ­self-­quarantine would be the only effective protection from contracting the virus.

“I’ve washed my hands so much this week they’re bleeding,” a Texan mother of seven posted to the Flu Wiki one eve­ning. She was ­self-­reliant and in control. She had already bought birthday and Christmas presents for her youngsters so that they would enjoy all their rituals while in quarantine. She had thought of every possibility. For anxiety is engaged in endless subsets of “what if?” and “if then.” The essence of the condition is an intolerance of uncertainty. A need, as the psychologist Maria Miceli has said, “for absolute predictive control.” The mother from Texas was a frequent poster to the site, and seemed to function as a maternal figure for the others. She confessed to being exhausted. I might have suggested that she had a touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, what with washing her hands until they bled, but any post that implied that the community was ­disordered–and such posts appeared now and ­then–was swiftly batted away by a chorus of boos.

I read “Cooking with Canned Goods Only” with interest, feeling a certain nostalgia for pioneer days as depicted in Little ­House on the Prairie, when fears ­were succinct and clear and Pa had a gun. But I didn’t warm to the more jangly ­post-­apocalyptic topic “How to Prevent Home Invasions,” which was based on the notion that people who had failed to prepare for the pandemic would begin searching desperately and aggressively for food. All 262 suggestions on this classic American thread ­were inventive in an earnest, homemade kind of way, as if Martha Stewart had developed a psychosis and put out a special issue of her magazine: crafts and cupcakes for The Followed. “Roll up towels ­etc. and tie them all up in plastic bags to look like the shape of a dead body and put skunk oil on it,” one poster suggested. “Maybe lay the ‘dead body’ on pavement, or somewhere, so that the ‘blood’ that seems to be seeping from it is noticed.”

Lest anyone on Flu Wiki begin to wonder if we ­were paying “selective attention to threat,” as researchers say those of us with anxiety are prone to do, one could always find a supportive quotation from bird flu experts. According to the epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, for example, if the pandemic hit that winter, “I don’t know what we could do about it except say, ‘We’re screwed.’”

Of course. But ­we’re screwed anyway. As I write this in the winter of 2007, scientists in London have just moved the hand on their Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight in order to symbolize the approach of civilization’s end. I’m not sure what they want me to do in response to this dramatic ceremonial gesture, other than sigh deeply and lie down. Cover myself with crumbled autumnal leaves, ­perhaps, as I once witnessed an injured squirrel do in my backyard on a ­bone-­damp November morning, remarkably effacing itself.

At least, in prepping for a flu pandemic, I can store tins of butter and plot my family’s flight from an urban center. What exactly am I supposed to do about “civilization’s end”? The scientists who operate the Doomsday Clock are practicing a ­self-­defeating rhetoric that actually appeals more to the depressed than to the anxious. Anxiety distinguishes itself from depression by expressing a grim and slender hope that one will manage to prevail. The depressed drop their briefcases, sink to their knees, and say “fuck it.” The anxious pick and choose between the many vague, ­world-­ending scenarios offered to them these days and seek out the ones they can plan around. To respond to the Doomsday Clock requires tracking down shadowy figures in international arms dealing in remote corners of central Asia and somehow preventing them from selling nuclear weapons or ­else the world will end; the threat of bird flu calls for a ­whole bunch of shopping at Target.

There are several ways to cope with dread, but I specialize in what psychologist Maria Miceli calls “hypothetical analytical planning.” This is where you lie in bed at night and run through as many prospective scenarios as you can imagine and then rehearse them in French, or from the vantage point of a cat. “One’s power over events is closely dependent on one’s power to foresee,” Miceli notes, “because if I cannot foresee, I cannot act.” In order to be able to take the preventive actions required, I have to proceed in the laborious and demanding task of formulating the various hypotheses about the possible courses that events could take. And since those courses are pretty much infinite, the anxiety is never solved and simply deepens, like grooves being laid down in vinyl.

What if I ­can’t fit
The powdered butter and dehydrated dinners
Into my Mazda? Along with the dogs and children?
Will we stay ­here? In the basement?
If the dogs need to go out, how will they come back in
Without bringing the virus into the home on their feet?
They might
Step in avian feces.
Shall I purchase booties?

In these times we speak a great deal about fear: the politics of fear, the culture of fear, the “gift” of fear, the fear of fear. But fear and anxiety are vitally different experiences, and it is actually anxiety that characterizes our age. Fear is invoked by immediate threat, and galvanizes a response. A bear chases you: you run away. A car hurtles out of control: you leap off the road. Terrorists hijack your flight and aim it at Washington: you say, “Let’s roll.”

“Fear sharpens the senses,” observed the German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein, “anxiety paralyzes them.”

We perceive these two responses as if they marked a difference in character, but it’s really a difference in plight. It isn’t that there are some people prone to paralytic anxiety and others prone to clarifying courage. On the contrary. Recent MRI research has demonstrated that the same people who suffer from anxiety disorders have a totally normal ­response–in how the part of the brain known as the amygdala lights up when ­cued–to real danger. In other words, on United 93, the neurotics would have been right up there with everyone ­else in responding briskly and bravely to the clear and present threat.

The signature vexation of anxiety is that it is objectless. It washes over one in formless waves, pulls one under until the pressure and constriction are tangible and panic rears: I’m in deep, I’m going to drown. What is so incredibly harrowing, as the psychoanalyst Karen Horney once noted, is “the feeling of diffuseness and uncertainty, and the experience of helplessness toward the threat.”

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Area Woman Blows Gasket

Area Woman Blows Gasket

Tales from the Domestic Frontier
edition:Paperback
tagged : motherhood
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Excerpt

Preface

The other day, I had to write an op-ed for USA Today, which meant that I had to formulate an opinion about something in the news, and this required tracking the news, which is like following an exploding bag of confetti. Facts fly out of media damnably fast, with spectacular aimlessness, and pundits who try to pursue those facts develop something less like wisdom and more like ADD.

“Did you know that the average person swallows five spiders a year?” I asked my husband last night.

“No, I did not,” he replied, “and don’t tell me you’re going to write a column about it.”

“Actually, I don’t plan to,” I said, “because, also, the Middle East is burning down, and some woman sued McDonald’s because she burned her mouth on a pickle, and the actor Richard Harris died, and he had cancer, and women who took the Pill in the sixties are more prone to breast cancer, and cancer charities are being given stock options as a new form of donation, and donations are up for Hillary Clinton, and so are polls, and a new poll suggests that more people in Europe are smoking pot, and pots are on sale at Wal-Mart.”

“I don’t suppose you remembered to buy cat food at the corner store,” my husband replied.

“No, I forgot,” I said. This is how conversations go in our house – I believe the term is nonlinear. “But,” I added, “it would help if the dog stopped gobbling the kitten kibble in addition to his own specially formulated Science Diet for Seniors.”

Of course, my husband likes to point out that our dog and three cats could subsist quite happily on an undifferentiated blend of sparrow corpses and wood chips, if I would just stop buying into the “science” and “expertise” of the pet food industry. But I cannot. I read the news. How, in good conscience, could I feed them dead birds when a “new study shows” that only specially formulated Science Diet for Seniors – or a similar competing brand – will ease digestion in older dogs? How, for that matter, could I, as a worried mother, wife, and woman who wants to reach a ripe old age, ignore what “a new book argues” or what “scientists now believe” about anything?

As I write, a new study shows that “three out of four mothers have no idea what should be in a balanced diet for their children. Food fads and health scares are so common, it has left most mums confused.”

Indeed. That is one way to put it. Addled, guilt-ridden, anxious, constantly at cross-purposes trying to keep up – those are other phrases that spring to mind.

But not to worry. If the news proves too vexing, you have choices. You may choose not to follow it, with the only real consequence being that you never know when the emergency evacuation orders are issued for your town or the cheese you’ve been feeding your children has been abruptly recalled from the shelves.

Alternatively, you may choose to follow select streams of news, pertaining for instance to global warming, the possibility of abrupt climate change, terrorism, and what’s up with Brad and Jennifer. Otherwise, ignore the headlines, and calm yourself down with therapy of some sort. I’ve tried this. It turns out that there are some challenging choices along that road, too. You find yourself whacking through a thicket of options in terms of retail, pharmaceutical, athletic, vacation, or talk therapy, and then have to select from all the vast bemusing subsets to be found therein. So you might skip therapy. Seek wisdom instead. Dabble in kabbalah and change your name to Esther, hire a pet psychic, have your palm read, audit every single course at the Learning Annex. There are so many contradictory possibilities, you could write a book about it. Certainly, I did.

But first, I confronted a basic choice, an A or B question that I highly recommend your answering: Stand in your kitchen clutching parenting books in one hand and credit card options in the other, while the cats eat the dog’s kibble and the phone rings off the hook, and decide whether to laugh or to cry.

News We Can’t Use

Hemp Waffles: Betcha Can’t Eat Just One

The other day, I bought some organic maple syrup, because I’d read something alarming in the paper about lead being present in ordinary maple syrup. I’m not sure if this was because the sap was being stirred with pencils or because the syrup was simmered in vats covered with heavy X-ray blankets. But all neurotic parents know that lead exposure will either kill their offspring or turn them into violent psychopaths. And it is my job, my calling, my necessity and pleasure, to guide my two children through the shoals of a childhood filled with fast-flowing traffic and pedophiles, pesticide residues, asbestos-lined walls, and lead-infused condiments to a safe footing on the shore of adulthood. So I purchased some organic syrup, and then I went home and poured it onto a pair of Eggo waffles.

After a few bites, I put down my fork and stared at my plate. This is sort of silly, I thought. What health advantage am I pursuing? Surely whatever lurks in ordinary maple syrup couldn’t be worse for my family than the unidentified substances that menace our bodies via frozen waffles. If I’m going to be a good mother, I should buy organic waffles.

Thus I went to my local health food store and immediately confronted the domino effect of one organic ingredient demanding another. Organic flax-seed blueberry waffles cry out for organic butter, which in turn demands to be spread on organic bread, or at least on English muffins crafted of spelt, which then require, as logic dictates, a container of organic jam. And so forth and so on, all the way across the food chain, until one has no money left to pay for the children’s shoes. Eventually, I drew the line at soybean potpie. People who won’t eat organic chicken in a potpie shouldn’t eat a potpie; they should eat something else. Like a tofu burger or a chickpea steak. Or really what I am saying – to myself, since I’m talking to myself in the health food store – is that vegetarians ought to get over their weird conceptual attachment to meat and stop eating pretend-meat products. Carnivores don’t try to make their meat taste like vegetables, after all. They don’t go to rib joints and ask for shredded pork slaw or salads made of giblets.

I also refused to buy vegan lip balm.

“What’s vegan about this lip balm?” I asked the proprietor, a handsome Asian man with a slicked-back ponytail and a white T-shirt pulled taut over his muscles.

“No beeswax,” he said, which failed to enlighten me.

“What’s wrong with beeswax? Is it bad for you, or are the bees being maltreated? They’re not free-range bees? Is that it?”

“It’s a vegan thing,” he said, mysteriously.

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Believe Me
Excerpt

Lately, I’ve been thinking about death.

Actually, I haven’t.

I don’t like to think about death. Whenever the subject of death springs to mind, the two thoughts that form in my brain are scary, and go away. It’s my son, Lester, who has been thinking about death, and he has been asking me all sorts of practical questions.

“How do people get to Heaven, do they walk?”

He tossed out this particular query from the back seat of our rented Pontiac Firebird while we were driving to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital to visit his granny, who had told him two days previous — tremulous, clutching a rosary — that she expected to be in Heaven soon with her husband, Stan. This is not the sort of thing that I would generally encourage grandparents to say to five­year­olds, particularly when their mother has not yet prepared them for the concept of finite existence. But Lester took from it what he could, which is to say nothing, beyond the idea of Heaven itself as a new destination. Now Earth consists of four places: our summer cottage, Toronto, Cape Breton and Heaven.

The North Atlantic wind was buffeting the car, so cold that my earlobes were still throbbing in spite of the car’s heater and I could barely keep my shivering hands still on the wheel.

“No, I don’t think they walk to Heaven,” I replied.

In truth, I haven’t got the faintest idea how people get to Heaven. I have never read the Bible. Nor the Talmud, the Koran or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. If any of them have specified the transit route to the afterlife, I am simply unaware. So.

“They float,” I told Lester, experimentally.

“They float?” He sounded awed. We passed Dana, my mother­in­law’s cousin, who was shuffling along the icy sidewalk, head to the wind, with a bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the crook of her arm. I slowed down to wave. She pointed emphatically to the bag, and then uphill toward the hospital, indicating that she was on her way to deliver the contents to Bernice.

“Great,” I mouthed to her, nodding.

“Do they float in the lake?” Lester asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“When people go to Heaven, do they have to wear a life jacket?”

“No, they — I don’t think they float on water, Lester, they float in the air. They don’t float like fish, they float like leaves. Except up.”

“Where, up?”

It’s the follow­up questions that nail you. You can get away with fairly preposterous theories when you’re talking to a five­year­old, but you have to have thought them through. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the probable existence of elves: these are lines of inquiry that I’ve rehearsed. “Ah, the Tooth Fairy. Yes, she’s very special, Lester,” I was able to explain recently, when his friend Clarence turned up at the Tweedle Dee Daycare with a gap in his front teeth. “She wears a cloak of maple leaves and builds little castles made of teeth — deep in the forest. She’ll leave coins under your pillow if you place your tooth there.”

Ever since, Lester has been planning what to do with his windfall, and I have been silently adjusting the figure for tooth­fairy leavings depending upon what he envisions. Fifty cents doesn’t buy much any more, but $4.99 is enough to snag a two­inch plastic hadrosaur at the Museum of Nature.

God is a different proposition entirely.

“I don’t know where, exactly, they float,” I conceded to my son. “Nobody knows, honey. The stairway to Heaven is a secret passage that only the dead can find.”

For a moment I marveled at this impromptu theology until it hit me that I’d copped it from Led Zeppelin.

Lester was stuffing his nose into his ski mitt.

“Are we there yet?” he asked.

What saves you in the end is the fact that five­year­olds have no attention span.

“Don’t worry, little goose,” I said, because this one I knew: “We’ll be there soon.”

We were there, in fact, a minute later, for New Waterford is a teensy town on an enormous island in the North Atlantic, connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a single causeway. When I first came here with my boyfriend Calvin, more or less direct from New York City, I was amazed at the remoteness of the place, and further awed by the presence of malls. I could barely comprehend how piles of Mexican bananas and John Grisham novels could wend their way so far into the wilderness. Geography ought to have cast the island culturally adrift. Perhaps in some ways it had. Certainly nowhere else in North America had I seen fire hydrants painted as Smurfs.

The town Calvin comes from is inhabited by unemployed miners and their wives, all of whom work at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital serving tomato soup to the eldest of the unemployed miners, or next door at the Maple Hill Manor, serving soup to the eldest of the miners’ wives. New Waterford was once a thriving community made prosperous by the Dominion Coal Company, which hired strapping young Acadians and Gaelic­speaking Scots to exhaust the motherlode while they sang. In the evening, they joined together to play their fiddles and accordions. At some point, as the mines closed and the miners began to pay for their careers with their lives, the business of the community shifted. Now, if you want to work here, your best bet is to learn how to give sponge baths.

As we got out of the car, I saw Dana’s sister Janey trot through the squat brick hospital entrance and dart across the parking lot. I waved. She didn’t see me, but waving is very important in New Waterford. I learned this on my maiden visit, when Calvin brought me to meet the unexpected grandparents of our unplanned child. I discovered that waving was far more essential than knowing who anyone was. Not waving signaled that you — the stranger, the New Yorker, in my case, for that was where I was living when I got pregnant — think you’re too good for them. That you’re stuck­up. A snob.

In fact, I feel quite the opposite here. I worry that Calvin’s relations and all of their friends secretly think I’m inferior. Inept at baking, lousy at bingo, ill­informed on the subjects that matter — like God, good coffee and how to craft doilies. Luckily, New Waterford folk are very kind, provided that you wave, and they have been a wonder in their care for my ailing eighty-year-old mother-in-law.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Looks Can Kill

Looks Can Kill

A Doctor's Journey through Steroids, Addiction and Online Fitness Culture
edition:Hardcover
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Opening Heaven's Door

Opening Heaven's Door

What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They're Going
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Playing House
Excerpt

New life announces itself as a mystery that a mother cannot solve. Something happens, a certain gear-shifting in the body that she notes, but makes no sense of. Especially if she isn’t planning to be pregnant. I shall offer myself as an example. I did not have a basal thermometer handy on my bureau, or any recall as to when I last had my period. I was not expecting to read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I was barely even in a relationship, with a man about whom I knew little. I was simply going about my business, enjoying early spring in New York City, when all of a sudden I woke up in the clean morning sunshine to find that my breasts had inflated like dinghies and were heavier than my head.

Late for work, I fiddled with my bra straps irritably, to no avail. They had all the supportive power of Scotch tape. I searched through the clothes on the floor of my one-room apartment and dragged on a shirt taut with Lycra, then I cupped my breasts in my hands as I stepped gingerly down the four flights of stairs of my walk-up, arranging my arms just so -- as I entered the brisk-stepping crowds on Sixth Avenue -- so that I could look like I was clutching myself in vexed contemplation over the Great Issues of the Day, as opposed to holding my tits up.

My first assumption was that I had a bad bout of PMS, so I dosed myself with evening primrose oil. We were wrapping up our April issue at The Pithy Review, heading into the inevitable panic of magazine production. There were last-minute changes, troubles with ad placement, authors to placate after pompous sentences were slashed from their essays, an editor-in-chief who rendered himself inaccessible behind closed doors in a pointed sulk. It happened every month, as if none of us possessed a short-term memory.

I had, myself, a rant to scribble for the back page, which I’d put off until the last minute, and a half-finished play to complete by the first of April. There was a letter to be sent to the editor of The New York Times about the treatment of carriage horses in Central Park, and postcards home to be mailed, lists of ideas, Post-it notes about people to meet, cocktails and beet chips to consume at the Temple Bar.

Life in a city as opportunistic and exuberant as New York always felt busy, even if nothing got done. It was the whirl of the place, the sense of movement that mattered to me, and I grounded myself with small certitudes: I am here. I pay my rent. I like my friends. I have a membership to MOMA. God, when I think about it now, what a slender ledge of a life I was comfortably sitting on then.

On Good Friday, I was in Rizzoli’s bookstore contemplating the new Sylvia Plath biography, when I realized that my nipples were so sensitive that I couldn’t turn around quickly without crying out. For a few days, I donned the softest fabrics I could find in my closet -- an old cashmere sweater my mother had given me to coddle myself through a documentary on Kurds, a silk blouse, and double-wired bra to ineffectually brace me for dance lessons -- and still I walked around going, “Ow, ow, ow,” as if I’d fallen into a patch of nettles.

Perplexed, I peered at myself in my small bathroom mirror, which entailed leaning over sideways while standing on the worn enamel sides of my tub, effectively looming into the circular looking-glass from stage left. My breasts looked more or less the same as always. My nipples seemed darker, and even bigger, somehow, but I hardly ever looked at my breasts. I liked my waist and my rear end, but in truth my breasts grew in a bit droopy from the outset, with the nipples too low on the orbs, as if Mother Nature stuck them on during a game of pin the tail on the donkey. I had a tendency to fling my arms above my head like the Venus de Milo whenever lovers were afoot, in order to lift the nipples to a more acceptable position. It took a bit of work, this maneuver, especially when I had to walk across the room to answer the phone. But worth it, you know, for not revealing everything your nakedness actually offers to say.

I’d been arm lifting quite a bit of late, because of a fellow named Calvin Puddie. No. Pudhee. Or no, that doesn’t look right -- I think it could be Puhdey. In any event, it’s some sort of French-Canadian name, or more specifically Acadian, as in the French who emigrated to eastern Canada, and otherwise to Louisiana.

“That strikes me as a rather stark pair of choices,” I told Calvin on our second date. “Either they opted for the frozen, craggy coast of Cape Breton and slogged away in coal mines, or they got to do Mardi Gras? A or B?”

“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that,” he said lightly. But being a rather laconic man, he chose not to elaborate.

I knew that Calvin’s father was a coal miner, and that he himself had been aiming no higher than a job as a janitor at the local veterans’ hall when someone pointed out that he was musically gifted and ought to pursue it. This inspired him to head to Halifax to study music, after which he moved to Toronto, and from there, at some point, to New York. He worked as a jazz musician, living off the avails of his art, which was the annual salary equivalent of two Smarties and a piece of string.

We met at a bar called the Knitting Factory, where a band was playing Indonesian gamelan music. It was something a friend had dragged me to, and that friend bumped into Calvin, whom he knew through a mutual friend, who was a friend of other friends. So various friends gathered, and obediently listened to the occasional ping followed by half an hour of murderous silence, as is the tradition in gamelan music, and my friend from work said, “Frannie, that guy over there is also Canadian.”

Therefore you must meet him, because you are of the same nationality.

So, after several vodka tonics, I did, and he was funny, if quiet. Very, very quiet, really, bordering on mute. He sat there in an old fedora with his hands placidly in his lap, gazing around inscrutably, tapping his brogues on the floor as if absently filling in rhythmic gaps for the musicians on stage.

He reminded me of Canada in small, distinct ways. His self-effacement was familiar, and he understood certain expatriate secrets, such as where Alberta was and how it felt to be treated like a doofus in Manhattan for being Canadian, as if we were a nation of cheerful, unimportant people with Down’s syndrome.

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When She Was Bad

When She Was Bad

How And Why Women Get Away With Murder
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