Getting Old is Like Feeling Fat

 

BY KATHY PERUTZ

It turns you into something that isn’t you, never was, couldn’t possibly be you, though some people out there and a chorus of inner voices continue to insist this IS you, all right, you (fat) (old) (thing).

Feeling fat doesn’t have to mean you actually are fat, of course – just as not feeling fat doesn’t guarantee that you’re not.  But the feeling, as of dirty laundry being mulched in your mouth, is unmistakable.  It’s a mood or emotion and also a new viewpoint, a rearrangement of your vision, the crunching of your posture, of the way you move, the inability of your feet to stop shuffling.  In the dressing room, you turn slowly – this beautiful outfit, so absolutely YOU a few minutes ago when it was hanging on the store mannequin, has turned into a torture device.  You must weigh at least 350 pounds, an unkind voice barks at you, and even though you know it’s one of your own voices, kept in that box where you have a teacher voice, mother voice, bitsy girl and tough businesswoman voices, along with the alluring, the suspecting and the altogether too glamorous for-you voices, still this unkind voice of your own is now barking like a rabid hound saying Take it Off, take it OFF because there in front of you, plain as the nose on the face in the mirror, you have added 200 pounds in one slow revolution of your extraordinarily elephantine body tightly wrapped in cruel gingham.

You run out of the store, you have a coffee to calm your nerves, you tell yourself that you are suffering from delusion, from heat, from anything you can think of, and you reason with yourself that it is impossible for anyone to gain that much weight that quickly. You have always been a touch on the not-altogether slender side, but then, you never expected to make your living as a fashion model.  Your bones alone would be too heavy.  And people haven’t complained, have they? they seemed to like the breasts and hips and all the contouring that makes the silhouette of a woman different from that of a man.  People have even loved you, you think miserably, knowing that they were all tricked, it was a bad show, and now it was over and time for them to claim their money back.

But a day later, a week later, one afternoon after a lunch you failed to eat in order to tame the calories already raging in your system, someone tries to pick you up (at your age!) and your indignation is as nothing compared to your pleasure, to the relief of having landed back, safely, on the island of the well-shaped, the young, healthy, the sexually desirable.

You will feel too fat again, and then you will have days of feeling slim and fashionable, and so you see-saw through life, never quite at ease with what you have, your senses at the ready to change your perception of yourself in an instant.

 

Getting old is like that. Comes and goes in spells and aches.  It may be that you’re past 80 and still see yourself, as my husband Michael did, as the same lad who could easily carry a clutch of suitcases down the stairs or run for the bus just taking off across the street.  And one day, boom! “I feel today I have gotten old,” he announces, as he has on other days, and will on many more.  Because on this day the joints ache or the eyes strain while reading.  Because he can’t be bothered by the folderol of news that is churned out every day, every minute, disturbing our universe. Or it will be before a surgery that he, that I, may not survive.  Or looking at the photos on a grandchild’s smartphone showing the passing of years, the hollowed cheeks, the skin that once was rose now closer to pea green.

 

Most of the time what we’re feeling when we feel old is a sense of dislocation: we are not who we were and the world has shifted, along with word usage, grammar and of course to us now, the preposterous invention of the internet that simply begs people to become illiterates so they will never be alone. But then, the old ways are not worth keeping up.  It’s become too tiresome to again have a dinner party and have to plan it, shop for it, prepare it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it. . . . Just too much effort.  A wild expense of energy that will not benefit us or our offspring one bit in the grand scheme of survival.  And we know it’s ebbing away, that life has not a long way to run; and as we become aware of that, everything seems to fall inward like Alice’s playing cards: we are not physically strong enough to do this or that, our body has betrayed us once more; our thoughts are fleeting, they start as strong distinct streams and not long after peter out in a dry ditch.  Our friends are dying.  Simple colds turn into pneumonia.  Childhood moves closer, dead friends reappear and yes, even heaven awaits the atheist because of a small cat who might, just might, be dwelling there.

And then you become afraid – of the next diagnosis, of the “cure,” with all its side effects and consequences; of the need to cancel plans, of your inability creeping up on you – do you dare to drive? can you drink the way you did? Why is his touch so boney, her lips so cold?

Because you are old, says the voice, because you are old.

And the night comes and in it you fear desiccation and negation, life is not tolerable, and you drift off and re-enter in the morning to soft light spilling out from the sides of the blinds, and something stirs in your chest, a small flutter or a gentle breeze and you realize you are alive, you will get well, you are not lost, not over, you will rise again, your phoenix self, as bouncy and funny as ever you were.

And you realize it wasn’t age at all that had you in its maw, but illness, something very different, though as much a concomitant of age as slenderness of youth. But we can be young and plump and middle-aged and slim, and we can be old with no plaints or aches, and in that way we can be free of age because we have conquered it through spirit.  Just as John Donne tells the specter: “Death, thou shalt die,” so we now, getting older, are just a little smarter than others, know just a bit more, have been round the block (and peered in all the windows) and know what we know.  Let the world see us how it will, and let the dumb mimicking voices repeat what the chattering world is saying, but I am not feeling fat, I am feeling fine.  And I am not getting old, just biding my time.

 

Philip Roth, The New Yorker and Me

 

A few weeks ago The New Yorker published an essay by Philip Roth in which the last paragraph, a long one, begins: “A Newark Jew – why not?  But an American Jew?  A Jewish American. . .”  He ends the paragraph and the piece by saying, “As a novelist, I think of myself. . . as a free American . . .writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed.”

I was thrilled to read this, to have the imprimatur of as great a writer as Roth on what I myself believe, and in gratitude wrote a Letter to the Editor, presenting myself as an unmodified American writer.

My letter, when it appeared in the June 26th issue, was considerably shortened and though it contained the nut of what I was saying, there wasn’t space enough to amplify my point, or points.

Here is the original:

Philip Roth’s essay on “American Names” ends on a small note, how you call yourself, and by this reminds us how far afield we are from the time when we were all unhyphenated Americans. My parents came from Central Europe in 1938, but I was simply American.  In the early ‘sixties I went to England, a young writer, and met other writers who, to my amazement, defined themselves as Jews.  Brian Glanville, writer of tough football novels.  Harold Pinter.  I went to a party and a woman named Miranda Rothschild ran over to embrace me and call me “sister.”   I thought they were all nuts.  A close friend, Errol John, a Trinidadian actor (Othello at the Old Vic) and playwright, winner of the Observer Prize for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, walked off a BBC panel that demanded to know his views on racism in the U.S. “I am a writer, not a politician,” he said. Brigid Brophy, a well-regarded critic, reviewed a book of mine for The New Statesman, (later reprinted in a book collection of what were considered seminal essays), saying that if my photo hadn’t been on the jacket and my first name only an initial, no one could have told my age or sex. That’s what we were aiming for, we writers, and it was the highest praise: to be indistinguishable from the worlds we made and lived in.  The current practice of qualifying “American” by race, background, sex or anything else, growing ever more divisive under our present government, takes away our wholeness and leaves us (almost) as empty as our leaders.

You can google the shorter version published in the magazine. Basically, I was trying to make two points, about the unhyphenated American and the unhyphenated writer.  Writers of Roth’s generation, those born in and just after the Second World War, took two things for granted: 1) the American dream (we are all Americans, no matter what we look like, where we came from and all that rot) and 2) the belief that a work of art is a thing in itself, not to be explained or approached as an artifact produced by such and such a member of such and such a sub group at a particular time or location.  A novel, if it succeeds, reminds us of no one so much as ourselves: we learn from it, and sometimes understand ourselves better.  Reading is a way of traveling though both inner and outer space.  It doesn’t matter a damn if we share the same sexual orientation or racial characteristics, hair color or nose shape; whether we do or don’t believe in anything beyond or within ourselves; what matters is that the work of art leads us somewhere new, gives a fresh perspective, entertains, enlightens or perhaps transforms us.

I was having this conversation last week at Pete’s Tavern over a couple of great and greasy burgers with a brilliant literary agent. “Most authors now want that,” she said, “they want to be identified as women or Jews or addicts or whatever the main selling point is.”

I was aghast. “You’re kidding.”

She shook her head. “No. Yes.  It’s what the writers want, and the publishers want, and the sales reps want.  It’s what people buy.”

Everything is about sales. It’s always been about sales to those in the business of publishing and selling books.  And even writers want to make money.  But to many authors the act of writing – which is discovery as well as invention – often serves as its own reward.  I have writer friends who say (as I do), I can’t believe anyone would actually PAY me for doing this, because writing is living and we can’t think of anything we’d rather do.

Gathering information is one thing, but it isn’t literature and it doesn’t provide you with a new frame of reference or reality. Read everything you can find about whales, but you won’t find Ahab or Starbuck or Moby Dick; you won’t have the adventure of a lifetime in the contest between good and evil.  Study intellectual trends of the early 20th century, illness, the Alpine air of Switzerland, but you will not be transformed by Hans Castorp as you ascend The Magic Mountain.  Yet readers and (if my agent friend is right, even writers) now regard a book, any book, as simply a form of processing information, and the industry responds to the book buyer’s supposed pursuit: because I am a lesbian, I want or read about lesbians by a lesbian, or: because I am fat, I want to read about fat people by a fat person.

When Philip Roth says I am an American, or I am a writer, the nearly boundless category gives him all the freedom in the world. He defines himself as American writer because the language he uses to write is American – not French or Chinese or even British – just as a painter in oils will define herself as that, and not a watercolorist.  It’s a description of the medium or the materials used in composing the piece.  A Jewish writer, a Jewish-American writer (or a woman writer) –  these are caricatures, stereotypes.  They claim to define but instead mislead, because though a writer’s life may provide material for the work, it isn’t the particulars of that life that matters, it’s the work.  And the work succeeds through its universality.  Ever since Cervantes blended into Don Quixote, writers have created worlds shaped out of their own experience, other people’s stories and thin air, their selfhood on hold as they become the conduit that brings the book into being.