LIFE LESSON FROM LAW SCHOOL

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[As some of you may know, I became a lawyer in my mid-fifties.  The process of becoming one has therefore probably remained clearer in my memory than it might have been if I had done it in my twenties. I’ve even occasionally blogged about certain aspects of law school that seemed to me to remain relevant to life outside the law.  This piece, and the one to follow, appeared in “The Getting Old Blog” about four years ago. But who digs back in the archives that far? So here they are again, in slightly different form — because they’re still useful to me, even now that I’ve embarked “On Being Old.” This lesson is instructive.  The next one will be illustrative.]

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WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE TOO NERVOUS TO DO IT

In England I believe it’s known as “reading law.” That makes it sound very grand, although I understand you can get right to it after finishing secondary school, as long as you’ve passed three A Levels in “hard” — that is traditional academic — subjects. Here in the United States, it’s just called, quite casually, “going to law school.” But you need four years of college or university education and an undergraduate degree in something or other in order to apply.

Nonetheless, unlike many other graduate programs, and contrary to what you may have thought, law school is much more a glorified trade school than an immersion in higher thought. When you finally acquire the J.D. degree — “J.D.” meaning juris doctor, or doctor of law — you’re not yet entitled to practice. There’s another hurdle ahead: you must take and pass one last big test in a state or states of your choosing. And that’s what you really need the J.D. degree for. It’s your entry ticket to “sitting for the bar.”

“Sitting for the bar” means you register to take, and then actually take, a two-day examination — three days if you’re sitting for two state bars at a time. Each day’s part is six hours in length, with an hour’s break after the first three hours for lunch and for standing in long bathroom lines. It’s administered in a huge aerodrome or covered stadium designated by the state in question as the place where its bloodless torture takes place twice a year. The size of the venue is driven by the fact that as many as 1500 newly minted J.D.’s may be taking the bar exam at the same time, in addition to the ones who failed their first or second try and have to try again.

Only when you’ve at last “passed the bar” may you finally proceed to the practice of law, and find out how little you really learned about it in law school. You will either (1) become an associate at a private law firm; (2) find a municipal, state or federal government job as a lawyer; (3) go what is called “in house” as a member of the legal staff of a corporation; or (4) “hang up your own shingle” — quaint phrase — usually because none of the other three possibilities have panned out.

But let’s back up. Although I don’t know what’s involved in learning how to be a plumber or electrician, I imagine the subject matter to be mastered for those trades must be broken down into manageable bits.  So it is in law school. Allegedly learning how to be a lawyer is broken down into various subject matters to be mastered, most of them in year-long courses. The specific choice of first-year course work may vary from law school to law school. In the end, however, all law schools will cover the six courses we took during my first year. Four of them ran from September through May: Property Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, and Civil Procedure. A fifth course, in Criminal Law, was tested at the end of the first semester and replaced in the spring by Constitutional Law, which was tested at the end of May, together with the four that had run for the whole year.

That’s right: five examinations at the end of the first year — and the first and only examinations we would have on each of those five subjects. Each exam lasted three hours, and consisted of three long-paragraph accounts of complicated hypothetical fact situations which between them raised every possible legal issue that had arisen in any case discussed or even mentioned in that course since September. We were advised to write for an hour on each hypothetical, but for no more than an hour, quickly identifying and explaining every legal issue we had spotted. Bathroom break? Take it at your peril! Leaving the room would mean less time to write, fewer issues spotted. Brilliance on one hypothetical did not compensate for ignorance on another. Failing an exam meant having to repeat the year-long course. Doing poorly in any exam adversely affected one’s class rank, an extremely important consideration in securing a first job — unless one of your parents or relatives knew somebody.

Understandably, there was much growing tension in the classroom as the weeks of May rolled by. Many of us, myself included, were there on federally backed student loans which would need to be repaid irrespective of the outcome of these exams. Some students were the first in their families to go to graduate school. Not making it would mean not making a family’s dream come true. The school had thoughtfully provided a ten-day study period following the end of classes before the first exam was scheduled to take place. But how do you study when you’re too nervous to focus on anything except the possibility of impending doom?

The youngest of our professors was an attractive woman who may have been a bit past thirty but certainly no more than thirty-five. This was only her second year as a member of the law faculty. It was known that she had taught fourth grade for a few years before going to law school; she brought a touch of the kindly and patient manner with which one instructs young children to teaching us, which was perhaps an error of style when addressing an auditorium full of twenty-somethings, plus me. What’s more, although she taught Civil Procedure — which governs courtroom practice in civil cases –she had never actually practiced law. She may not have even sat for a bar. She was slender, shapely, had great legs, and wore high heels to show them off — which was much appreciated by the young men in the class but did nothing to enhance her reputation as a professor to be respected for her knowledge.

On the final day we met with us, she did a quick review of what we might anticipate could be on the Civil Procedure exam. At last she put down her pointer and chalk, turned to us, and said she knew we were all very nervous. She had been through it herself not so long before, so she understood completely. And then this pretty woman with the gorgeous gams said something so important, and so applicable to so many other aspects of life, that I’ve never forgotten it, although by now I’ve forgotten almost everything I memorized that year.

“You may be so nervous,” she said, “that you’re too nervous to study. So this is what you do.”  Now no one was looking at her legs. We were all listening very carefully. “What you should do when you’re too nervous to study,” she said, “is study. And then the nervousness will go away.”

I was nearly fifty-two, as old as the mothers of my classmates. They called me Mrs. Mishkin very politely, but not one of them had invited me into a study group at the beginning of the year. I had to do all the class outlines by myself. I hadn’t taken an exam, except the one in Criminal Law, for twenty-seven years. The word “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind. My husband had been out of work for well over a year. I had two adolescent children. I had done this all on loans. But I took her advice. And studied. And studied. And studied some more. And the nervousness did go away.

When the class rankings were posted after the grades were in on all five exams, I found myself tied for first place in a class of 345. That rank opened doors for interviews in major Boston law firms, despite my age. One of those interviews — and all it takes is one — one of those interviews led to a job that brought money into our family again, paid for braces, sneakers, music lessons, good private schools.

That’s why what I heard on the last day of the Civil Procedure class in May 1983 was the most useful lesson I learned in law school. There would be many more nervous-making situations ahead, beginning with sitting for the bar. Then came standing up in court in front of judges known to be misogynist. Leaving a marriage after twenty-two years. Being let go in my sixties and having to find respectable, interesting work again at that age. More recently needing to pull myself up from a nearly fatal medical experience and its aftermath. But I’ve never forgotten that when you’re too nervous to do something, just do it. The nervousness will go away. And then who knows what good things will happen next?

 

 

 

 

PROUSTIAN MEMORY

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Nearly every morning, after filling a small bowl with fresh organic berries, I spread a tablespoonful of raw crunchy organic almond butter on two brown rice crackers while the water boils for coffee. The reason I’m so precise about the amount of almond butter is because almond butter is caloric. Healthy but caloric.

When raw, without added sugar or salt, it’s also surprisingly expensive, which is interesting to consider. Why should doing nothing to organic almond butter cost more than roasting, salting, and sweetening it first? If I were a culturally responsive and critical blogger, I might have posted about that. But as I’ve always been at heart a me-me-me (and mine) person, I have other thoughts whenever I dip the knife into the glass jar of almond butter and spread the measured amount I’ve allotted to myself on the crackers.

It would be easier to keep dipping until I had enough to cover all the cracker surfaces, preferably thickly. However, given that I’m still vain (admittedly with less and less to be vain about, except I still fit a size 6), I don’t do that. Instead, I try to get as close to the edge of the crackers as possible with the almond butter available on the knife, carefully scraping it thin and out with the blade.

And then nearly every summer morning, rising out of the depths of me as I wield my knife, comes a picture of a narrow-boned slender young woman of perhaps twenty in a miniscule bikini. There’s no extra flesh at all — does she ever eat? — yet you couldn’t call her underweight. She is perfect for her purpose, whatever that may be. She has deeply tanned Mediterranean skin and long nearly straight dark hair. She sits dockside under a café umbrella with two dark men in the sparkling port of Leros, a Greek island in the Dodecanese between the Greek mainland and Turkey. Are the three Greek? Italian? (This part of Greece is a summer getaway for many Italians.) The sun is high, the water — just yards from the café — a saturated gorgeous blue which makes anyone who’s ever seen it long to be back in Greece again. The dark men, in stylish sunglasses, are shirtless; they wear only shorts. Leather slides dangle from their bare feet. They have tangles of dark chest hair, dark straighter hair on arms and legs.

I can’t see her face because she’s bent over two thick slices of warm Greek white bread on a white plate; she’s preparing the bread for one of the men. He’s twenty-six or twenty-eight. He must know she’s doing this for him; he doesn’t touch the cup of bitter black coffee that was part of his order. He’s talking with the other man and smoking while he waits. I can’t hear them well enough to make out the language. As is customary, the bread is served with a lump of butter and a small cuplet of Greek honey. Her hair falling over her face, the young woman spreads the butter slowly and meticulously over the entire warm surface of both slices, until the bread is thinly covered all the way to the soft crusts.

Then she begins again with the honey, teasing it out patiently and slowly over every bit of surface of now melted butter. And again. And yet again. What is this all about? Is it what he expects of her? What she feels is fitting for him? (God forbid a morsel of un-honey-buttered bread enter his mouth?) Why not order more honey? Because he’s the one who’s paying and might not like her not making do? None of this breakfast is apparently for her. And he seemingly ignores her. Not even a friendly pat of thanks. The other man nods, rises and leaves.

We have to leave too. We came to Leros earlier this morning from Lipsi, an even smaller island where we’re spending the summer, to pick up some prints made from a memory stick sent with an acquaintance the week before. Now the noon Flying Dolphin is coming into harbor.  It will soon turn around for the return trip to Lipsi. No waiting for stragglers.

I hadn’t thought about that young woman for a long time. Then I discovered almond butter. Now suddenly, more than ten years later, she comes to me in the mornings as I ply my knife out to every cracker edge, just as she did with the honey. What was their relationship back there on Leros, the dark man with chest curls and his lean subservient handmaiden? I don’t want to think she was just for fun. I like to imagine he had brought her to Leros for a week or two to get her away from some laborious, repetitive job, either in Athens or Naples, because in his way, whatever that was, he cared about her. I want to think they had some kind of relationship; her body wasn’t quite beautiful enough for her to be just arm candy. At other times, on other islands, we saw vacationing men with gorgeous, scantily dressed young women brought along to the beaches to have their luscious glistening near naked flesh everywhere shamelessly palmed and squeezed and fondled, day-long foreplay on public display.  Then when the sun went down, these beauties were fed, doctored with alcohol, and taken to bed, where presumably whatever skills they had, if any, were put to use behind bedroom doors. These young women did nothing all day but lie extended on the sand on their stomachs, idly turning the pages of the same magazine over and over, apparently without shame at their soft supple bodies being so openly degraded by idle male hands, like large pieces of silly putty without feelings.

I hope my young woman wasn’t like that. She’s in her early thirties now. If he didn’t marry her (or she decided in the end she didn’t want him), I hope she found someone else. I also hope she eats now and then, and that whoever she’s with talks to her and loves her. Anyone so dedicated to making two slices of warm white bread as perfectly appetizing as possible, given the limited resources available, deserves at least that, if not more.

You might also wonder why another woman, this one in her seventies, who was sitting near the water in a Greek café while waiting for the Flying Dolphin to take her back to another island, would be so focused on a young woman more than fifty years younger as she buttered bread and spread honey on it. I can only speculate. Because I never had a body like hers? Because dark Mediterranean men with curly chest hair had never looked at me, even in what might have been called my “prime?” (Whether I would have wanted them to is another question.) Because I’m always interested in food, even when I might not let myself eat it because it’s bad for me, has no nutritional value, etcetera etcetera? Or just because I’m always watching other people, listening to them if I can get them to talk, trying to learn something more about life and how we live it, each in our different way, before my own comes to an end? Whichever it was (or all of them), it has now led to me having Proustian memories in the kitchen nearly every morning.

It would be a lie of omission if I didn’t add that when the young woman on Leros comes to mind while I’m putting almond butter on rice crackers, those hot, bright blue and white summers on Lipsi also rise up, almost as alive as they used to be. As Proust observes about the effect of dipping a petite madeleine (a little fluted French cake) in a cup of limewater tea such as his Aunt Leonie gave him as a child when his family brought him from Paris to visit her house in Combray:

And as in that game enjoyed by the Japanese in which they fill a porcelain bowl    with water and steep in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct, which the   moment they are immersed, stretch and twist, assume colors and distinctive           shapes, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognizable, so now all        the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the          Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the    church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this, which is acquiring         form and solidity, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. [From Lydia Davis’s translation of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.]

It seems almond butter – organic, raw and crunchy – is my petite madeleine. I once wrote a first chapter of what was going to be a novella about Lipsi. It was called “An Island of Their Own.” (I did cast it in the third person then, but now there’d be no need that. Almost everyone who’d be in it is either dead or doesn’t read English.) And that was before I discovered almond butter. Maybe I should resurrect it and continue. Not a promise. But I’m not stopping the almond butter in the foreseeable future. So who knows?

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART SIX

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[…continued from previous five posts.]

Gathering clouds obscured all traces of sun as I traveled north to meet my friend Emily in Ogunquit – first on a train from New York to Boston, then on another train to Portland, Maine and finally on a bus. During the long trip I mused pleasurably on what the next two days might offer. Cozy confidences while Emily’s new friend Kit was otherwise occupied? Confessions of wrongdoing? Appeals for help? Less pleasurably, I was also quite hungry by the time I reached the Ogunquit bus terminal where they were waiting to pick me up. Emily looked glad, but Kit was merely polite, which made me suspect my presence was some kind of peace offering to Emily.

The weather was both cloudy and cool; beach was out of the question. Not to worry, said Kit, there were plenty of other things to do. Since they’d already had lunch, we stopped at a grocery for two apples I could eat in the car. Then we went from art gallery to sculpture workshop to arts-and-crafts gift shop to seafood restaurant. The proprietors of all these establishments seemed to know Emily and Kit quite well; they were soon engaged in warm conversations about local people and events to which I couldn’t contribute. I smiled whenever anyone looked at me, which was now and then but not often, until I realized smiling was unproductive of anything but a return smile.

There was no private time with Emily; she participated fully in all this Ogunquit-based chitchat. After dinner at the seafood restaurant, I pleaded I really wasn’t up for anything more. By then it was actually true. Kit agreed it was probably time for bed. My mother had been wrong about the house. It was an A-frame, with an open area that served as living room, dining room and kitchen. There was only one bedroom — with a double bed, I noticed as we passed by the door. “Will I be using the sofa?” I asked when we got back after dinner.

“Oh, no. You’re going to have a place of your own,” said Kit, as if this were wonderful news. “We’ve fixed up a bed and lamp in the barn. I left an extra quilt out there, too.” What was wrong with sleeping on the sofa? Their bedroom had a door. If they were very noisy doing whatever they did, couldn’t they refrain, just for this one weekend?

I let myself be led to the barn. An oval braided rug had been laid down in a corner and a few minimal furnishings arranged on the rug. Kit lit the lamp. The light showed the rest of the barn floor to be tramped-down dirt with bits of straw scattered on it. They showed me how to bolt the barn doors from inside. “Now let’s go back so you can do whatever you need to do in the john,” said Kit. “As you can see, there isn’t one here.”

After hurrying into pajamas in the cold barn and burying myself under the blanket and quilt, I tried to imagine for a few moments what might be going on in the main house. Had I been sent out here because they preferred doing whatever they did in front of the fireplace? Just what did they do, anyway? Absent factual knowledge of such matters, my thoughts soon faded into sleep. I awoke to dim cloudy light filtering in from a skylight at the top of the barn and checked my watch. Morning. Very early to be sure, but time for the bathroom. If they weren’t up yet, I would sneak in quietly.

I scuffled into my ballet slippers and opened the barn doors. There was the A-frame, just down the path. I walked around the house in the damp grass to reach the door and set my hand on the cold doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It definitely wouldn’t turn. It was locked. They had locked me out. How could they!

Back in the barn, I rocked on the bed, really a camp cot, holding in pee but not rage. If there’d been anything to eat within range, anything at all, I’d have gobbled it up. But the barn held nothing edible. Why should it? It belonged to Kit, who pushed food around on her plate as a prelude to smoking.  An hour later, I returned to the house. The door remained locked. Now it wasn’t too early to knock, and I certainly did.  Nothing.  I put my ear to the door. Nothing. I knocked more forcefully. Nothing. What were they doing in there?  I picked up a rock from the flowerbed by the door and pounded. Still nothing.

What choice but return to the barn? This time I found a crumpled piece of Kleenex at the bottom of my purse, took off my pajama bottoms, stepped off the rug onto the dirt of the barn floor, set my feet wide apart and let go with a vengeance. Only a little dribbled down my legs, and the Kleenex took care of that. Then I put on the pajama bottoms again and slid between the sheets to brood. If the whole barn stank of stale urine when I was gone, what did I care?

At ten o’clock, I finally heard voices outside calling “Wake up, sleepyhead.” We had brunch, prepared by Kit, who now seemed in exceptionally good spirits. Of course, she ate none of it and neither did I, since it was fried eggs and bacon, followed by pancakes with syrup – a meal that could have undone a week of fast walking up Forest Hills Boulevard and down Austin Street. Like Kit, I had only cigarettes and black coffee. Emily, who’d never dieted in her life and had apparently worked up a tremendous appetite overnight, was glad to eat my share as well as her own.

The meal over, we cleaned up and read the Sunday Times and went to a summer playhouse matinee of Harvey and had another early seafood dinner. I read more of the Times in the evening while they went through the local paper. There was no talk, except about the play and what was in the news. Before I again retired to the barn, I asked them please to leave the house door unlocked so I could get to the bathroom. They professed surprise they hadn’t done it the night before. “Force of habit,” Emily explained.

And that was the whole visit. Next morning, after more black coffee and cigarettes for me and Kit (and eggs benedict for Emily), we all three exchanged hollow thanks for how great it had been and I embarked on the long trip home. Reading furiously without remembering a word of what I read, I tried not to think how much I had wanted Emily to be my friend again, how hurt I felt and also how starved. I remembered when I reached Grand Central I could buy eight or ten candy bars to eat on the subway ride home to Kew Gardens.   But it was Labor Day, and the newspaper stands were all closed.

When I returned to college a week later, the bathroom scale did indeed read 128. Despite my own subterranean (and not so subterranean) urges, I had finally managed to succeed. By anyone’s definition, I was thin.  For now.

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FIVE

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[…continued from previous four posts.]

Three weeks before returning to college,  I had a long distance phone call from Maine. It was Emily, with whom I’d shared a dormitory bathroom the year before. My mother left the room ostentatiously, to show she wasn’t going to listen.

Emily — plump and until recently lovelorn like me — had probably become my closest girlfriend by the end of our sophomore year. We shared some difficult elective classes and the same sense of humor, enjoyed the same kind of movies, and on dateless weekend evenings indulged together in making up time-travel fantasies over half-pints of ice cream delivered from the town drugstore. As rising juniors, we’d even chosen adjoining dorm rooms (with that shared bathroom).

But in our third year, Emily began spending several evenings a week, as well as many weekends, with someone else:  an emaciated and chain-smoking special student who had neither waist, hips, stomach, breasts or, when she occasionally joined us in the dining hall, interest in food.  Kit’s very narrow jeans required a broad leather belt to keep them up. She wore her straight hair chopped short like a boy’s and (Emily reported) could really hold her liquor. Rumor had it she’d been on suspension during our first two years for having come onto another girl. The object of her desire had complained. Now, after mandatory therapy to address her conduct, Kit was being permitted to finish her degree, provided she lived off campus.

Emily and her new friend were always affable when I ran into them together, and occasionally even asked me along when they went somewhere. But I always sensed they were sharing something from which I was excluded and about which I tried not to speculate. Perhaps I’d been invited to serve as camouflage? They did speak mainly to each other on these occasions.

I had very much resented the entry of this hermaphroditic-looking person into Emily’s life, and still did. Emily had been my friend, always available to complain about our respective mothers, critically examine everyone we knew, faculty included, and discuss the difficulty of meeting a really nice boy. [She had also served as a kind of control on ice-cream eating in the evenings; when we ordered a delivery from town, she was inclined to ask for two half-pints, whereas I would have gone for a pint each.] My simmering hostility towards Kit achieved nothing. Emily’s father was in the foreign service and her parents were therefore always overseas; she went home with Kit for Christmas and Easter. Then she announced she’d be spending the summer with Kit too — at a country house in Ogunquit, Maine.

On the telephone, Emily now said she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch earlier in the summer but things had been a little crazy. (What did that mean?) Would I like to come up for the Labor Day weekend? I asked if that was all right with Kit. Well sure, she answered. And added she’d really like me to come. She’d mail travel instructions. And I should bring a sweater. It was already getting chilly in Maine, especially in the evenings.

“Your friend must be rich,” said my mother when informed about this sudden uptick in my social life. “They’ve got to have a big house up there, if there’s also a room for guests.” I explained the place in Maine was just a summer house, and anyway it belonged to the family of the friend of my friend.  “She’s not your friend, too?” asked my mother.

“Yes and no,” I said. “I’m not exactly wild about her.”

“Why are you going then?”

It was too hard to explain, so I changed the subject. “I just hope they have stuff up there I can eat.” Stupid of me to bring up food and dieting. She must have been waiting for weeks. Now she pounced. “What difference does it make what they have when you eat cookies?”

I tried to keep my eyes steady on hers. “I don’t know what you mean.” My face felt very hot.

“You know.”

She waited a few moments for me to say something more. What could I say? Then she walked away. I heard the vacuum start up in the living room. I hated her. Over and over I told myself how much I hated her. What did she know, anyway? Did she think I’d merely been nibbling away at her hidden treasure one or two fig sandwich cookies at a time — the way she would do it, if she’d been me? Except, of course, she wasn’t me. She had “will power.” How could she imagine, much less understand, that once I began there was no way I could keep myself from emptying an entire box — or even two, if there had been two — in the middle of the night?

[…to be concluded in next post.]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FOUR

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[…continued from previous three posts.]

My nights were hungry. Often I had to drink two glasses of water to fill me up long enough to fall asleep, but then I would wake at two in the morning to pee. One night, the empty gnawing in my stomach after a bathroom trip was intolerable. Barefoot, I felt my way into the kitchen without turning on the light, opened the box of Social Tea biscuits my mother had left on the kitchen table as quietly as I could, and reluctantly put one between my lips.

But somehow I found the will to keep from biting into it, and after a while was able to put it back in the box, close the lid and drink more water before feeling my way along the wall back to my room. There I lay in the dark, listening to the tick tick tick of my bedside clock. Where had she hidden the European fig sandwich cookies? They had to be in the kitchen. Behind something, where they couldn’t be seen. And probably high up, not easy to get to. I really needed to know.

Returning again to the kitchen, I carefully lifted one of the chairs out from under the kitchen table, set it softly down in front of the grocery cabinet and climbed up to find out what was in the back of the top shelf. A very faint light that was almost no light came through the window from a street lamp around the corner, so that I could just make out oatmeal, sugar cubes, and bags of rice and coffee along the front of the top shelf. I took them all out, leaning over the back of the chair to set them on the counter. Now I could see the back row: baking soda, cornstarch, tapioca pudding, Jell-O, and – aha! – the package of cookies, unopened.

I had to do it. Had to.

Quietly I removed the whole box from its hiding place, arranged the coffee, sugar and rice so as to conceal the gap in the back row, replaced the kitchen chair under the table, tucked the box under my arm, felt my way back to my room, silently closed the door and took a deep breath. And now, quickly quickly, to bed again.

It would have been easier if she had already eaten one or two. Without prior experience in stealing crackers or cookies undetected from unopened boxes, I had to improvise. No thought now of the seven or eight pounds already lost with such difficulty or how I might feel tomorrow. There was only the box with me in the dark under the sheet, and my fingers carefully prying open the glued-together folds of paper at one end without tearing them, so as to make a paper sleeve, and sliding the sleeve from the cardboard box, and feeling for its opening, and reaching the first double cookie, and trembling as I brought it to my lips in the dark and tasted it. I chewed slowly and swallowed, and oh the pleasure of it. Then the cookie was gone. So I felt for another and then another and ate faster and was happy, and felt for more double cookies and ate them, and went on eating and eating, and then could it be there were no more left in the box?

I felt around in the paper cups. Empty. All of them. What to do now? I had to get the box out of my bed. That was the first thing. Best to return it to its original place, so that everything would look as it had when my mother reached up for the coffee and sugar in the morning.  I closed the empty paper sleeve, licked and pressed shut the folds at the end as best I could, slid it into its box and tiptoed the box into the kitchen again. Up behind the sugar, rice and coffee it went, very light with nothing in it. But it would probably look all right up there.

Back in bed for the fifth time that night, I made careful plans for next morning. I would have to buy a replacement box when I went out and smuggle it back into the apartment. Also I would have to double the length of my daily walk for the rest of the week at least, to make up for all those cookie calories. That solved, I had no trouble falling asleep.

Everything went like clockwork. I carried another package home from the A&P in a large straw handbag, and while my mother was in the bathtub after her housework had plenty of time to get it up into place at the back of the top shelf and dispose of the empty package in the incinerator at the end of the third floor hallway. And I walked so furiously and dieted so conscientiously that by the end of the week I had even lost another pound! So where was the harm if I did it all again a week later, when midnight hunger gnawed once more? None, apparently.

Wrong. What I had left out of my calculations was the possibility there would be no more packages of European fig sandwich cookies in the A&P when I turned up a second time to replace the box emptied the night before. I asked for the store manager. No, they didn’t stock those on a regular basis, he said. They were something new, which the company might or might not order again, but how about Fig Newtons? They always had Fig Newtons. Frightened, I rushed to “Alice’s – Delicacies from Around the World.” Double fig cookies in an oblong box were not anything from around the world the snooty saleslady in “Alice’s” had ever heard of.

Maybe my mother would forget about the cookies. I didn’t think so. She never forgot a thing. Or maybe she wouldn’t open the box till I was safely in school again. So as not to tempt me. Maybe, maybe. Days and then weeks passed, and she said nothing. Did she know? Did she not know? How could she not know? I lost more pounds. By the middle of August, the bathroom scale read 130. I had done it: I was fifteen pounds lighter than I’d been at the beginning of June! But there were still three weeks to go. Could I reach (and hold) 128 by the time I went back to school? Two more pounds in three weeks: why not? Now that would make the whole wretched summer worthwhile!

[To be continued…..]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART THREE

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[…continued from previous two posts.]

Back in Kew Gardens again after the Atlantic City fiasco, I settled into a weight-losing routine.  First, a breakfast of an orange followed by a cup of coffee with skim milk and saccharine. Then walking for at least an hour every morning, often more, from our apartment house down to the corner and then along Queens Boulevard to the Forest Hills subway stop. This was not so tedious a route as it had been when I used to walk it before I’d gone to college. In the intervening three years, several new specialty stores had come into being between the A&P, the kosher butcher, the non-kosher butcher, the one remaining dairy, the dry cleaner, the hardware store, and the bakery that sold mostly rolls, challah and poppy-seed Danish.

Now there were two more bakeries, with large windows full of trays of delicately iced cookies and lavishly decorated birthday and wedding cakes. There were also a Barton’s and a Barricini’s — candy stores displaying in their windows open boxes of dipped chocolates and a few larger boxes of interesting-looking little fruit cakes in paper cups. And four blocks after the Barricini’s, there was a place called “Alice’s –Delicacies from Around the World.”

The windows here generally featured enticing square tins of Peak Frean cookies, bags of cheese straws (what could they be?) and something called “fruit tarts” (how English!), as well as large tablets of Lindt and Tobler chocolate (colorfully packaged in sophisticated paper wrappings) that came in European flavors I hadn’t known existed — not just milk or “bittersweet” but also mocha, hazelnut, and at least three other kinds whose names I couldn’t read from the sidewalk. I would allow myself a breather in front of these windows, especially when the displays changed, but always made myself turn away and walk on after a few minutes, perspiring in the summer morning sun.

I also tried to give equal time to the “ladies’ sportswear” in the windows of the two new clothing stores along the way. Nothing I ever saw there looked really fashionable, but for at least a couple of blocks I could divert myself from the hot boredom of the walk by imagining a future me sufficiently slender to enter either of those stores and try something on without shame. At Forest Hills Boulevard, I almost always circled back towards home on Austin Street, which ran parallel to Queens Boulevard, and to fill out the hour (or more), went up and down the side streets, an area known as Forest Hills Gardens, past stately homes set far back from pavements.

I never saw another person on these streets, and only rarely a car. Perhaps everyone was away for the summer. These were what I thought of as mansions, and I wondered what sort of people lived in them and what it might be like to live in one myself. I couldn’t imagine. All I knew was here was another desirable world probably closed to me, even if I was a Sarah Lawrence girl, unless I could alter my appearance sufficiently to invite entry into its exclusive precincts.

Finally home and showered, I would read until lunch, a carefully measured repast consisting of a half-cup of cottage cheese, two Ry-Krisps and an apple, or four apricots, or two very small peaches, or some other fruit listed in the diet books as a hundred calories. I didn’t eat bananas, because one banana, a hundred calories right there, always left me wanting another. And I wasn’t sure how to count grapes (five calories a grape?), so I avoided them.

Without further agenda to occupy my days, I began to accompany my mother when she went out in the afternoons, just for something to do besides read. This seemed to please her. Her routine was invariable: every morning, housecleaning (“because the windows are open and everything gets dirty even if I just cleaned yesterday”); every afternoon, shopping at the A&P for dinner, with a stop on the way home at the newsstand on the corner for the World-Telegram and maybe a magazine; and – because she now had me with her, whatever protection that might provide from the dangers lurking outside after dark — sometimes a movie in the early evening.

At the A&P, under my supervision, she ordered round steak with all the fat trimmed away and put through the grinder just for us. She bought frozen string beans, frozen asparagus, frozen chopped broccoli – frozen was a godsend, she proclaimed, no more cleaning and cooking vegetables! She sometimes also bought a box of Social Tea biscuits, because she “had to have something sweet with her coffee after dinner.” This didn’t bother me because I didn’t especially like Social Tea biscuits. But one afternoon she hid away under her other purchases in the shopping cart a box of those new European-style cookies you could now buy even at the A&P. It was an oblong package of round scalloped butter cookies dusted with powdered sugar, sandwiched around a fig filling visible through a circle cut from the cookie forming the top of the sandwich.

Did she think I wouldn’t notice when the cashier rang everything up at the checkout counter?   “Just to have in the house in case,” she explained. In case of what? Company? She never had company. But how could I reproach her? She wasn’t on a diet. Nor did it occur to me to consider it an act of sabotage. She was my mother. The oblong package disappeared as soon as we got home. I opened all the grocery cabinets in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom and couldn’t see it anywhere.

She did try to help me. (Would a saboteur do that?) Although she had several times declared with conviction the regular whole milk yogurt in the store wouldn’t “hurt” me, she showed me how to make yogurt on top of the stove the way she had learned in Russia, so I could try to make it with skim milk. It took several days, and then turned out watery and very sour. But I ate it anyway, in measured portions, since it was only ninety calories for an eight-ounce glassful.

The summer dragged. This was the domestic life I had scorned, the life I’d gone away to college to escape, and here I was living it. I thought about my college don, who had also been my Shakespeare professor this past year; he had written a really appreciative final report based on my long “All’s Well That Ends Well” paper, calling it graceful criticism and telling me to publish it! He must really like me. We had been don and donnee for three years already, and he hadn’t suggested a change might be a good idea, as some other dons had done with friends of mine.

He was going to be on sabbatical the first term of next year, but would be back for the second and third terms.   Maybe when I was thin, he would see me in a new light. Not just brilliant. Irresistible too. True, he was married, but that hadn’t been an impediment to Amy’s exciting romance. He was about the same age as her professor-lover, too. Forty or forty-one. Wasn’t that when a man was most susceptible? Especially to a lovely twenty-year-old?

And he was taller than I was, with broad shoulders. What might it feel like for such a knowing man, a grown-up man, to put his arms around me (when there was less of me) and kiss me? Would it be with tender yearning? Or savage hunger? I wrote a hesitant little note thanking him for the report and wishing him a good sabbatical, making sure to print my home address legibly on the envelope.

I even telephoned Amy, who seemed glad to hear from me. She was having a dreary summer, too. She hadn’t heard from Him. It was too late to apply to the graduate program at Juilliard. She wasn’t practicing. And her parents didn’t like her just sitting around the living-room sofa thinking about Him. They said if she wasn’t going to continue her musical studies, she should get a job. She wished she could die. Except she wasn’t brave enough to kill herself. Also, He still might call. I said I would come in to Manhattan if she wanted to go to a movie. She said I was welcome to come over for a visit, but she didn’t think she could enjoy a movie the way she still felt. I told her I had lost nearly six pounds since Atlantic City. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “Did you want to?”  I said I’d call her back about the visit.

My don wrote I shouldn’t thank him for the report because I’d earned it. He wished me a good summer. He also said he was looking forward to hearing about what I’d been doing when he saw me again after Christmas break. I couldn’t find anything in this disappointingly brief reply that implied suppressed desire. It was because of my weight, I knew. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he saw me again after I reached goal! I didn’t quantify this goal in pounds. I would know when I reached it.

[To be continued….]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART ONE

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As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a major part of my adult life losing fifteen pounds. It wasn’t always the same fifteen pounds. But I did it over and over again, until I probably had lost nearly a cumulative thousand of them. And then when I was already collecting Social Security, which was many decades after the first loss (and re-gain), it began to seem a foolish preoccupation. If every year there was less and less life left to live, why spend so much of it agonizing about how much of me there was or wasn’t, when I could spend more of it actually living?

That was when I invaded my savings to join a non-pretentious, non-judgmental low-profile gym that cost quite a bit of money, which made it clearly counterproductive to comfort myself with chocolate cake when things didn’t go my way. As they used to say in the old country, we grow old too soon, and smart too late.

It began long before, of course, with the well-known “freshman fifteen.” Except in my case, I arrived at college an unnatural fifteen pounds down from the comfortably rounded weight I carried through high school. Once I learned I had won a full scholarship to a prestigious girls’ college my parents could never have afforded on their own, I went into serious training to take complete social advantage of this opportunity, guided by visions of the slender and narrow-boned models who appeared every year in the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. I myself had peasant bones, but that didn’t keep me from limiting my daily nutritional intake to a spartan 750 calories divided between breakfast and dinner, with a vigorous hour’s walk during lunchtime to speed the fat-burning process.

I arrived on campus successful: I looked properly emaciated, with my hipbones jutting out in my narrow new college clothes. I was also starving, and soon began to eat back the lost pounds – aided by starchy college food, coke and candy machines in every dorm, and a disinclination to get drunk on disappointing dates, preferring food binges by myself in my room when life let me down. The first time the fifteen pounds came back, I panicked. What would my mother say when I got home? (It was she who had invested her household savings in my fashionable new college wardrobe, dreaming no doubt of potential wealthy son-in-laws.) In the three weeks before the end of the college year, I drank unsweetened tea, swallowed amphetamine-laced diet pills from the local drugstore, and savored only two thin slices of roast beef for dinner (250 calories?) until my new clothes fit again.

Coping mechanisms tend to be habit-forming. I also gained and lost a “sophomore fifteen” between September 1949 and June 1950 and gained them back during my junior year. That spring, alas, I had two major papers to write – one on “All’s Well That Ends Well” and the other on the minor novels of Dostoevsky; I needed nourishment right until the end. I came home in June 1951 without a summer job and with my skirt held together by safety pins.

My first college summer I had worked and had a serious boyfriend. The second summer I went to Europe on the money I’d saved to go to college and now didn’t need for that. But this third summer, the boyfriend was gone, my father was working in Texas, my mother was all alone in the apartment, it seemed too late to look for temporary work, and so I decided to make it my full-time job to get rid of those fifteen pounds for good.

It would be my last chance before I had to contend with “Real Life,” a last chance to have the glamorous college year I hadn’t had so far. I therefore embarked on training for this final year as seriously as I had trained for the first, except that then I hadn’t anticipated the possibility of eventual failure. Now, with several dietary defeats already under my belt (I speak metaphorically; the belt itself was in a drawer, pending a smaller waistline), I was not only determined but desperate. I had already learned my worst enemy was me.

[To be continued…..]