Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Fossilized Fear & Prehistoric Luggage

Like a toddler who's just learned to walk, I am terrifyingly easy to knock off balance.

I was feeling like I was finding my footing in New York. Last week I went to a film preview, met an old colleague for a drink, attended a journalism school seminar on productivity, went to my French class, and worked an awful, awful lot. I landed a couple of new assignments. I got some good news.

I went to the gym. I did not binge.

I felt this nagging sense that there would be some payment coming for my sudden, well, lightness of being (if not body).

And when you look for something, it seems, you find it.

Midafternoon Friday I found out that a piece I wrote for The New York Times – and that I'd been looking forward to seeing published – was being held for space, and may not run as prominently as originally scheduled (if and when it runs at all). Against my better judgement I had told a few people it was running, and so relaying the disappointing news did not help.

I was exhausted, thanks to a lot of work and deadline – and having gotten up at 5 am to join a bunch of Wall Street guys in Central Park for something I was hoping would be a story. And not just any story, but a story for a publication I've always dreamed of writing for. I don't think it's a story – and by the way, I felt like the wimpy fat girl in gym class doing a workout with these guys (and they were all guys) this morning. I hate running down steps in the near-dark when they're slick with rain!

The physical tiredness combined with my general mental fatigue probably is partly to blame for my lapse into checking up on the Married Guy online. And then Googling various people, which basically is code for spending a couple of hours comparing my career and life to theirs and finding myself lacking.

And so I slouched further towards depression.

Suddenly all I could think about was how dark it already was in New York, how much work I had to do this weekend – and what I could have for dinner that would seem like a treat.

I recognized myself falling, and yet I felt powerless to do anything about it. I could not think of a single thing that would make me feel better, and that made me feel worse. I reminded myself that at least I wasn't bingeing; that everything really would be worse if I had to struggle through disgust and despair on top of it.

I tried to read a magazine, but the noise from the bar downstairs was so loud it felt like my bed was in the middle of a party I hadn't been invited to. Somewhere north of 1 am I remembered some earplugs I'd taken from the spin studio and dug them out of my bag. Finally, I fell asleep.


The weekend did not get easier.

On Saturday I saw friends visiting from London. When I left them in the early evening, I headed home feeling disconnected – a stray molecule who doesn't really belong in London anymore, but doesn't belong in New York either.

I walked home without music – I didn't have the heart even for that. The sounds of Saturday night were all around me, and all I could think about was getting a huge slice of cake from Magnolia Bakery, where we'd been earlier (I hadn't had any) and chasing it with all manner of cheap pre-packaged pastry from the bodega.

I had to work cake but I didn't know how I would manage it. Cake. Cake. I reminded myself, as I have eleventeen billion times cake cake, that I will have to get better about saying no to work, and that the price of cake finding balance may be cake less money. Cake. Cake. Cake. Cake.

F**k it all, I thought. De facto, life is supposed to be better when I'm not bingeing, and this just sucks. I might as well just eat what I want. Caaaaake.

But what would that accomplish? I asked myself. You can go and have a piece of cake, but in this state you're not even going to enjoy it and chances are you won't be able to stop.

I was unconvinced.

Then I did something I have never ever in my life had the willingness to do. When I want to binge all I want to do is binge, and I don't want to be distracted from it. But Saturday night I picked up the phone and called a friend. And then another. And another. After leaving messages – of the non-hysterical variety -- for seven friends I'd nonetheless worked myself up into a state that bordered on tearful.

What the hell is the point of this? I thought. I'm supposed to feel better and not worse.

And then I realized the binge spell was broken.

And then someone called me back. I told her I'd started feeling like I didn't belong in London anymore and feared that the option to go back was vanishing; a shimmering road that is only a mirage.

"You don't have to figure it out right now," she said. "Wherever you are right now is still better than where you were two months ago."


I worked all day Sunday without stopping. It sucked. It did no favors for my mood but I had four stories due today and therefore no choice.

I woke up today feeling grumpy and resentful and hungry the minute I finished my breakfast. I did not want to write another word. I did not want to do an interview I had scheduled. I did not want to fetch my tax return from FedEx and then send it off. I did not want to answer questions about stories I'd already filed. I did not want to exercise.

But slowly I started to tick things off my list. I started to feel better. And then I ran into a spin instructor acquaintance who invited me to a class he was teaching in a half hour. I'm hungry, I thought. I'm too busy. I don't wanna. But considering it was going to be that or no workout – I couldn't imagine motivating myself to do anything – I decided to do it.

I spent two-thirds of the workout resenting every minute of it. And then suddenly it was over, and I felt better. I felt good.

Forty-eight days without a binge.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Summer Dreams Ripped at the Seams

Last night I met someone who works with the Married Guy. And his company employs about six people.

Did I ever tell you about the Married Guy? I bet I didn't, though I still think about him every day. Nothing much happened beyond the exchange of literally a thousand dizzying, dazzling, and at times, hilarious, emails (I received about 460, and sent slightly fewer) over the summer. But he unfortunately was proof that a certain type of man really does exist – and yes, is always taken.

I have not spoken to him for several weeks, and it's unlikely I ever will again unless our worlds collide. Which I guess, given that we seem to share the same brain, is entirely possible. I also noted on Facebook that his wife and I have a friend in common, though not a close on my part. Friend is a rather charming, attractive, clever, flirty, successful journalist – with a personality, come to think of it, that is not unlike the Married Guy's. (He's not as literary, though.) What is it about these Princeton types?

It would not be hyperbole to say this relationship, such as it was, changed my life – though anyone you have any kind of meaningful interaction with does, don't they? It's like a pinball that pauses on the brink of one chute and then goes a centimeter off and veers down another. He affected – and affects – the way I think about so many things.

And there this woman was, telling me she works at his company. I said I knew their product, and she asked me if I knew someone there. I said I did; I've never been good at hiding things.

She gushed about him. I wasn't surprised. She finished her tribute with something like "...isn't he?"

It was at that moment I felt on the cusp of great power. Just a couple of seconds and I could alter the course of his life, and possibly my own, in a way – like a bullet – that cannot be undone. I didn't delight in the power, but instead was somewhat terrified by it. Occasionally I thought about this in my days at the magazine in London, but that was so over-lawyered and usually so harmless there honestly wasn't much to think about. But the moment with this woman made me wonder how often I have thrown the power of words and someone's confidence into the wind, and made me suddenly cautious and newly keen to avoid gossip in the future.

Then I realized she still was waiting for me to answer.

I smiled and nodded and finally said: "He's one of a kind."

Monday, 10 October 2011

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Forty days without a binge and today the food – cheap pastry, candy pumpkins, pizza, muffins, anything – didn't just call to me. It was screaming and whistling and demanding I pay attention.

Maybe it was because it was a Sunday where I hadn't made many plans. Maybe it was because the unseasonably warm day made me feel like I should be out taking advantage of the weather, but I wasn't. Maybe it was because I feel like I can't catch my breath; that I have way too much to do and never enough time to do it.

Maybe it was because Neptune was rising. Or something. The truth is that I may never know why, and I hate that.

This morning I realized that honestly, it doesn't matter if I know why, because knowing why will not stop the urge to eat candy pumpkins in huge handfuls until the sweetness makes my throat hurt. And I don't even particularly like candy pumpkins and am not even sure I've ever bought a bag of them.

It is both humbling and terrifying to realize that the urge to stuff myself can rip through me like a tornado, and without warning. The other day it happened to me when I was feeling jaunty and happy and that life was shimmering with possibility.

I feel like bingeing and I may be two people who cannot even agree on the same set of facts – and so we can't have an argument. Perhaps it's time for me to stop trying.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Like a Prayer*

One of my best friends and I recently had a discussion about how we don't really do casual friendships any more – that we crave connection, not just people to pass the time.

For someone who has spent much of her life with about two feelings (starving or stuffed, because "fat" is not actually a feeling), the honesty required for connection still makes me feel like I'm on a rollercoaster, just before the dizzying plunge. But as I've discovered – mostly from writing about weight and bingeing – most of the time the results are surprisingly wonderful.

This morning at a meeting I was attending I happened to mention my guilt about being there on a Jewish holiday. I was feeling especially so because of a memory that bubbled to the surface – something I'd somehow allowed myself to forget: That I did not speak to my grandmother the weekend she died -- because I'd binged so badly at Thanksgiving dinner that I was too full and exhausted to do anything but lie on my sister's sofa. The next day I struggled to get through the day, then binged again. Grandma died on Saturday.

At the end of the meeting I went to give an acquaintance a jacket – she'd admired mine the week before and I happened to have a spare one that I'd been sent in my days as an editor. I'd decided – much as I love this jacket (it folds up to be a travel pillow!), and much as it's my instinct to hoard – that I didn't need two.

A woman I knew only slightly was hovering. "I'm actually going to synagogue right now – it's right around the corner," she finally said quietly to me. "I'd love some company."

"Like this?" I said, indicating my sweaty workout clothes.

She shrugged. "It's a progressive synagogue in the West Village," she said. "Believe me, no one will care."

In fact, everyone was dressed up. (The woman in front of me had fabulous Louboutins.) But honestly, I didn't care. Growing up the High Holidays – as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are known – essentially were the start of the Jewish social season. Usually you wore new clothes, and if the holiday fell too early in September, most women – particularly single women on the lookout -- would risk roasting just to wear autumn clothes.

I am here for the services, I thought. And it was liberating. (Though one of the rabbis was distracting adorable and referred to the OED, then explained: Oxford English Dictionary. Swoon. He was also about 25 years old.)

I haven't been to synagogue in about eight years, and I went only sporadically before then. Still the prayers and the rhythms – Adorable Underage Rabbi played guitar – came back to me. I used a spare bandanna in my gym bag to mop away tears I couldn't seem to stop from falling. Then – as if someone knew why I was there – Yizkor (the special Yom Kippur memorial service) was held right after the morning service. Usually it is at 5 or 6 pm. The rabbis read the names of everyone the synagogue members were remembering, and I silently added my mother, grandmother, uncle, and grandfather.

As I left the school auditorium -- yes, it's a synagogue without an actual home -- I felt lighter.

During the service I'd received a text from the acquaintance thanking me again for the jacket and saying she didn't know what to say.

I did. I texted back: "As my grandmother would say, 'Wear it in good health'"

*No, this isn't going to be a religion blog. Regular programming will resume promptly!

Saturday, 8 October 2011


As summer turned to autumn in London, I knew every year to keep an eye out for Yom Kippur.

Preprinted calendars sold in England don't tend to list the holiday, the way those in the U.S. do. Apples and honey and honey cake, the traditional desserts of the Jewish New Year (the week before Yom Kippur), don't crop in supermarket displays, the way they do in many U.S. cities. Nor can you buy a Yahrzeit candle from the local Safeway – though after years of nicking the memorial candles from my grandmother, last year I discovered they're sold in Selfridges.

Back in the U.S., where the American language setting on my iPhone even recognizes the occasional transliterated Hebrew words like kaddish (mourning), I thought reminders of Yom Kippur would be unavoidable. Certainly in New York, arguably one of the most culturally Jewish of all American cities, I never thought I'd have to hunt for a Yahrzeit candle in the hours before sundown.

I have an uneasy relationship with Yom Kippur. For years I loved the idea of being forgiven once a year; a slate washed clean, or – my preferred method for starting anything anew – a fresh notebook. Except Yom Kippur required 24 hours of fasting, so either my head was full of food or my stomach was (and therefore my head was full of guilt, not just for bingeing, but for doing so on a day meant for atonement).

I stopped fasting about eight years ago, availing myself of the Jewish get-out clause of doing so if one is sick. I don't know that the relief from the more practical aspect of the holiday made me any more spiritual about it, because then my mother died. Until her very last Yom Kippur – a couple of months before she died – she always went to synagogue on the holiday for the special memorial service for the dead. Like every other religion, Jews have our superstitions, and because of this, generally you do not attend a Yizkor service, as it's called, unless you have lost an immediate family member.

My arrival in London in 2002 was timed to be just after Yom Kippur. I didn't want to spend the holiday alone in a new city, so my flight was the morning after break-the-fast. I remember reluctantly leaving the party to finish packing. The next year may have been, I think, the only year I went to synagogue in all the years I lived in London – and I have a memory of meeting my friend Graeme, at the time the only English Jew I knew, in the pub afterward (He had not gone to services.)

Still, I always lit a candle for my mother and called my grandmother, her mother, who had a lineup of flames so long it must have looked like a menorah. Her parents. Her husband. Her son. Her daughter.

Last year she was upset because she hadn't wanted to bother anyone to buy Yahrzeits for her, and so she didn't have any. I looked at the candle I'd bought in Selfridges and told her it was the thought that counted; that she could light a regular candle and everyone would still know she was thinking of them. I told her that like cards and presents on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, lighting a candle on Yom Kippur is nice but what really counts is how you remember them the other 364 days.

She was quiet for a few seconds. My grandmother was a worrier by nature; she frequently sighed in her sleep and would be up at 3 am, panicking about details that became smaller and smaller as her world did. (In the last years of her life, she would be worn out just by all-night thoughts of how she was going to get out of a car or a restaurant booth – both exhausted her.)

"You know, you're right, Beth," she said. Except she used a diminutive of my name. I remember it specifically because my grandmother wasn't one for endearments. It felt like an anointment of sorts. I could not take away my grandmother's considerable pain, but I glowed thinking I had given her a bit of peace, even for a few minutes.

This year I kept forgetting it was Yom Kippur. I briefly considered going to my sister's for the holiday, but decided against it. I realized I rarely go to supermarkets anymore; it's just not where I buy food these days. And today I tried all the ones in the neighborhood – and all the drugstores, which seem to sell everything these days – and came up empty-handed.

I guess I could have trekked up to the Upper West Side, where I'd be more likely to see them, but I didn't think of it. I felt a little sorry for myself and a lot guilty as I headed to a bootcamp I was trying near the river; I knew by the time I finished it would be sundown. What kind of child was I that I couldn't even get a couple of lousy candles? (My mother liked the word "lousy" as an adjective, and so I deliberately use that word so I can hear her voice saying it.)

The sunset on the Hudson was glorious: A luxe deep red and orange that backlit the piers; colors so intense and rich they looked almost unreal. My mother loved the color orange.

The colors hovered in the sky – like they, too, hated to leave – for far longer than any other sunset I can remember. It wasn't me projecting: Even the instructor commented he couldn't believe how long it had stayed light.

I felt a strange push-pull: Alternately at least temporarily at peace in New York – and wishing I could call my grandmother to tell her. And then also guilty about my total lack of observance of Yom Kippur in the one place where it should have been so easy to do so.

As I walked home, I thought about how I don’t leave my apartment without wearing a piece of jewelry that belonged to each of them. How often I tell stories about them, or reference them. How daily I walk the streets of this city where my mother and grandmother spent so much of their lives and wonder if they have been on the very spot where I'm standing.

Am I walking in their footsteps? I'll never know. But I know they were here.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Otherwise Engaged

E-mail from the nice Cambridge Jew. Subject line: "My news." I immediately think he's landed a fancy new job, but it is this: "I just got engaged!" She's a casting director who knows Colin Firth, apparently.

I was awful to the Cambridge Jew, I couldn't fancy someone any less, I had very little to say to him, and yet the news brought me down. He was a nice, clever guy who only wanted to get married, and I wondered if I'd made a mistake. CJ certainly knew who Evelyn Waugh was (a recent date I had did not), even if he probably only would give me a copy of Scoop if he'd gotten one for free on some media mailing list (God, I abhor cheapness).

Maybe I should be grateful that the option to go pick up that relationship -- to settle for something I know is wrong -- has been removed. But at the moment, in my Beth-centric world, all I can do is think about how and if this reconfigures my thoughts about where I will live. It doesn't, exactly, except it adds to my growing feeling that the London I would return to -- my London -- would look nothing like the London I left. And in fact, that I might not enjoy living there. This makes me unbearably sad, since I am not sure I'm cut out to be a New Yorker, either.

I forwarded the email, which even detailed the proposal, to a few friends. O promptly wrote back that if CJ is engaged, there is hope for all of us. In typical O fashion, he also criticized the proposal location as touristy and said that if he'd been proposed to at the Colombe d'Or in Saint-Paul de Vence, he would tell the person to "eff off." Love the lovely friends.

I suspect the real purpose of the email was in the last couple of lines: a not-very-subtle attempt to see if I had any details about who's attending the Obama fundraiser at Gwyneth Paltrow's house in London tonight. I forgot how desperate celebrity reporting makes you. I don't miss it a bit, and in fact feel great glee if I happen to notice a celebrity these days – mostly because I don't have to do one single thing and can just go about my business, not caring.

I emailed back my congratulations, and joked that I would alert my former employer so that the magazine can be in prime position to cover the wedding. If there is hope for him there should be hope for me indeed, but I don't feel it.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Set Fire to the Rain

So I moved to New York and my life got so tiny and narrow and suffocating I could barely breathe.

And I broke the glass and air rushed in. But still I stood in the same place, not moving. Not doing much of anything except being unhappy but not being sure how to fix it.

It wasn't depression so much as the internal rot of deep dissatisfaction. I wished I could cut it out of myself, like the bruised part of a peach.

Since I landed back in New York in August, I've spent part of every day thinking and ruing and daydreaming and comparing. But in the process, I have learned what I guess everybody else already knows: The only way to have the life you want is to live it.

And so slowly, slowly I am fixing the ratio of things – minutes, hours – I like, and ones I don't. More New Yorkers, more New York things, more novels. A French class. (Je m'appelle Beth. Je suis americaine. It's ridiculous how happy this makes me.) Less time surfing the Internet, and getting annoyed at Facebook and Twitter for making me feel pathetic for all the things I am not doing. Less time daydreaming; more time dream-catching, or at least, building the net.

I eat more, I exercise less. And as of yesterday, I haven't binged in 30 days.

And it's an upward spiral. I feel better and so I behave better – to other people, but mostly, to myself.

I am still overwhelmed and overworked (my own fault) and dealing with messes I let fester (taxes, my apartment). I still wish I knew more people, but I'm working on it. These days I feel like I'm home and there's a light on and it makes me smile. I'm not always in such a rush, so I have time for pleasantries and random chats with strangers. And sometimes it's strange and sometimes it's nothing and sometimes it's someone to meet for coffee in the neighborhood. But it's me me me me. I'm starting to feel like myself again.

I'm back.