Elvis Costello and the Effortless Cool People

I have a list of things that I consider cool and that list starts with Elvis Costello. Elvis Costello fans look good in hats. They can wear suspenders with vintage t-shirts and not come across as total assholes. They drink coffee with long elaborate names and smoke weed on the fire escape of their box-size New York apartments. Elvis Costello fans are smart and witty. I am not a fan, and I desperately want to be. 

Being cool is something that I always reach for but fall just short of touching. In elementary school I wanted to be Stephanie Zinone, the leader of The Pink Ladies in Grease 2. Let me just say, if you have not seen Grease 2, you are missing out on a cinematic gem. Stephanie was over her relationship with the leader of the T birds; she wore pants on the first day of school; and she wanted to find her very own Cool Rider.

“If you really want to know
What I want in a guy…
Well, I’m lookin’ for a dream on a mean machine
With hell in his eyes.
I want a devil in skin tight leather,
And he’s gonna be wild as the wind.
And one fine night, I’ll be holdin’ on tight…”

I spent many afternoons pretending I was Stephanie, turning my jacket inside out and singing Cool Rider. It did not make me cool. The problem I discovered with being cool is that there is a casualness to it that I may lack.

I know the most interesting people and they don’t seem to understand just how cool they are. I know a poet. Yep, a real life mother fucking poet. She is smart in a way that amazes me. I want to tinker in her brain to see if I can figure out how she does it. She has the casual coolness that I seek. She isn’t pretentious in the least. If I wrote a book, a book of poetry no less, I would wear a sandwich sign that said, “Ask me about my book.” She is just effortlessly interesting to me; although if asked, I am sure she would disagree.

I know someone who moved their family to Haiti and works for the betterment of others every single day. She has seen things that I cannot even begin to imagine and rocked babies as they die in her arms. The next day she gets back up and goes and tickles the necks of children who have seen way to much suffering in their little lives. She raises her children and loves her husband, and when someone comments on the work she is doing, she gives the glory to God. Again, if this was me, the sandwich board would now read, “Ask me about my book and the amazing work I do in Haiti.” Yet, today this friend woke up, swatted a mosquito, and got busy. She is just effortlessly interesting to me.

I know someone who takes amazing photographs and has three children under the age of six. She is an amazing artist and infinitely artistic. She throws weddings and parties for her friends and children. She works with the homeless and treats them with dignity and grace. Her children will have memories of baking and crafting and will not be afraid of those that are different than them. Also this friend has freckles and I love freckles. If this was me, my sandwich board would now read, “Ask me about my book, the amazing work I do in Haiti, and my photography.” She is just effortlessly interesting to me.

I know a pastor who was part of a music movement. He was even part of a documentary about the hardcore music movement. He loves his wife and children. He boycotted Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving because of the unfair pay and practices. He has seen bands play that I have never heard of and met people that would make Trey stutter and stammer. He was part of a movement. He is good and he does good, but if asked he would probably tell you he was just living his life. I have only met him once in person, but when he bowed his head and asked for a moment of silence for those that weren’t allowed to marry, my heart swelled with gratitude for his bravery and understanding. If this was me, my sandwich board would now read, “Ask me about my book, the amazing work I do in Haiti, my photography, and my part of a musical movement.” I can’t help but find the good pastor effortlessly interesting.

These are just a few people that I find interesting and cool. I could write forever about the mothers who have lost a child, the teachers that give and give while receiving no credit, the social workers who save lives, the doctors and nurses, the lawyers, the friends that help me find the mistakes I’ve made, the single mothers covered in vomit and begging for a break. I know interesting people, people who are effortlessly cool. A few may even be Elvis Costello fans, who knows?

Jerry and the Winnie the Pooh Conundrum

Kara and I grew up in a fish restaurant. Our mother went to work there when we were just little, she was only a “fill in” but she somehow managed to “fill in” for about 30 years. She was like Heather Locklear on Melrose Place, a permanent part of the show but always with the special guest star title. We would spend our Thursday nights sitting at a little table, helping to bag the silverware. The silverware would come to us piping hot from the dishwasher and we would add one fork and one spoon per plastic bag. The smell of fried food and old grease would work its fingers into your hair and clothes and leave you feeling like you needed an hour long scrubbing. Sometimes we had company at that little table: cooks, waitresses, and table bussers all taking a minute to eat their plate of fried food. Plates heaped with catfish, frog legs, oysters, and shrimp. The table littered with oily fingerprinted napkins. It was the kind of place where mom knew your drink order and had it on the table before you had finished with the buffet line. For years Trey was known as, “two waters, no ice, no lemon.” One of the cooks was a man named Jerry. In the eyes of a fourth grader he was a hulking man, huge, with a mane of salt and pepper gray hair. He rode a motorcycle and blue and black tattoos snaked his arms. I remember him sitting across from me and asking, “Are you scared of me?” I answered, “No,” in a way that surely screamed yes to him. “You shouldn’t be.” I remember him as kind and I remember being enthralled by the tattoos.

In the over active imagination of a child I thought that the tattoos were part of some secret life Jerry had. Was he is a motorcycle gang? Were these prison tattoos? Maybe he had been a sailor and they were part of his adventures. As I got older the love and allure of tattoos stayed with me and I always knew that someday I would be marked by them as well. I will not lie. I have some of the most stereotypical 90s tattoos in the world, but each one of them as ugly as it may be tells a story.

Never again will I be 20 and on my weekend honeymoon. Walking into my first tattoo parlor all nervous and excited, knowing that what I was doing was rebellious in the eyes of my parents. As if my entire existence hadn’t been somewhat rebellious in their eyes. I stood in the parlor and flipped through the artist books, pretending that I knew what to look for. Eventually I chose flash off the wall, secretly acknowledging that the tattoo wasn’t what was important it was the experience I was after. A yin yang wrapped with roses forever etched on my thigh while the artist discussed her time as a plus size exotic dancer.

Never again will I be 21 and in Detroit Michigan, having driven there with two babies asleep in the backseat while their father and I listen to Pearl Jam on the CD player. Walking into Ink Slingers was a totally different experience. I had picked the tattoo I wanted from a picture on one of Kiaya’s shirts. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Eyore doing hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil forever marking my shoulder. It seemed like such a good idea at the time; a tribute to lost childhood perhaps, a cliché most definitely. The artist was grumpy and spoke very little to me as I sucked up the pain and tried not to move. We drove back to Paducah the next night my right shoulder on fire and covered in plastic wrap. Each crinkle a reminder that I was a revolutionary in only my own mind.

Never again will I be 23 and in the middle of a failing marriage desperately clinging to the life we had.  We used the barter system for the tattoos. Daniel, trading a stereo system for two tattoos that night. My first tramp stamp a Chinese symbol for love, although it probably says “Eat at Fred’s” if it were translated correctly. Characters for K and S on either side were the only initials safe to use because the children would always be mine. Hank was the artist that tattooed me that day singing along with the radio the entire time unaware that I was grabbling with divorce and bad decisions. We had a party at our house that night and ended up three people deep in a bed trying to keep warm. Someone I thought was my husband, but was not, curled up next to me and slipped his hands into my pajama pants, “Shhh…” he whispered, “I need my hands to be warm.”

Never again will I be 25 and best friends with a girl who introduced me to A Prayer for Owen Meany. When I closed the back cover of that book it was as if the sky opened up and all I could see was bright sunlight. Lisa and I got matching tattoos of armadillo feet with a tiny O.M. next to them. The matching tattoos forever bonded us together as friends. The second Owen Meany tattoo came a short while later, tattooed by Derek, who sneezed through the entire sitting. It was a silhouette of an armadillo that Lisa calls a possum because she didn’t like me having more Owen related tattoos than her. Come to find out she was on to something because when a flash of the burrowing mammal is caught I almost always hear, “So, what’s with the possum?”

Never again will I be 28 and falling in love with someone who was difficult and fascinating. Lisa was in town and we discussed, ad nauseam, why I should not be wrapped up in this man. We walked into the same parlor that had given us the Owen Meany tattoos and I picked a piece of flash off the walls. A black butterfly that was supposed to stand for imperishability of self, but in reality is just a black tribal tattoo. It was like being 20 again and walking into my first parlor. I was there for the experience more than the tattoo. I needed to prove to myself that I was me and I was rebellious. I was an adult and in charge of my own bad decisions. The tattoo was really just another afterthought what I really needed was a little self-affirmation of my independence.

Never again will I be 37 and dealing with the grief of losing my mother. Walking into the parlor with a new found friend and clutching the folded up letter written in Mom’s girly handwriting. Arm outstretched for Hank as he sings along to Tupac while I wrestle with what becomes of Kara and I now that Mom is gone. The enormity of my first tattoo that was visible to the outside world. A public acknowledgement of just how exposed my heart feels with her loss.

My tattoos are not attractive and I occasionally think about cover-ups but the thought is fleeting. The most beautiful back piece in the entire tattoo world could not make up for the independence I felt when I got the ugly Winnie the Pooh tattoo in Detroit. I see little posts on Facebook about how the tattoos will look when I am 80 and I don’t worry about that. First because an overwhelming amount of women in the nursing home will be rocking a dolphin ankle tattoo that reads “Daytona 1994.” Secondly, the tattoos mark time for me, they remind me of the past and the tattooed words I dream about signify the future. They are ugly as sin but they are my sin to wear.

Tolstoy: Let your Freak Flag Fly

I know this girl, and by know I really mean stalk, who is the type of person who wears scarves in the summer, drinks chai tea, and wears boots with shorts. She is the kind of girl who rattles off the names of Russian authors in mid conversation. “I love the new print from Anthropologie/Urban Outfitters it reminds me of the works of Dostoyevsky with a dash of Tolstoy.” When she refers to Thanksgiving, she must first take a moment to acknowledge the Indians who lost their lives. I feel bad that I can’t stand her and I want to be her all at the same time. I am much too fat to shop at those stores, but dammit I want shoes with metal spikes on them too. She is cooler than me and always will be; I have to come to terms with that. One difference between us is that I will never be able to fake enjoying a book again. I used to only read things that I thought had literary value. Not anymore, I want to read things that take me away from this reality for 350 or so pages. I cannot fake an orgasm over the Jeffery Eugenides of the world if I don’t enjoy what he has to offer.

I read all three of the 50 Shade books and I enjoyed them. I don’t have to justify it or explain what I didn’t like about it. I just sat down and read them. The gray silk tie on the cover yelling, “Yeah, I’m reading light bondage porn, what about it.” I got lost in a little world of rich people and bondage. I wanted to take a ride in Charlie Tango. While I read them I didn’t think of the bill collectors calling my cell or the constable who served me court papers. I just read and enjoyed myself while drinking a Diet Coke which is decidedly less cool then a chai tea. There was no need to impress. No need to cover the instantly recognizable cover. I carried the books to the football field and to school with pride simply because I was reading. Shouldn’t that be what we focus on instead of judging each other on our reading choices?

Over dinner one night my kids were asked what they were reading. Kiaya was reading a book called Jellicoe Road and quickly gave us a very detailed report. The person responded, “what ever happened to books like Catch 22 and Old Man and the Sea?” I almost had to be restrained from jumping across the table. I am one of the lucky ones, my oldest daughter reads for the pure enjoyment, my youngest daughter carries around her tattered copy of Where the Wild Things Are? and her father and I roar our terrible roars and gnashing our terrible teeth. Selena reads less than the other two, but still every Christmas asks for a stack of books. We stack them in corners and stack them on tables. Our book shelves overflow with titles, some with Russian authors and others by Jennifer Weiner, they sit together on the shelves never once judging each other. They are books, not a measure of our worth or intelligence, just books full of characters that have touched our hearts or scared the pee out of us. My copy of Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill, sits on a book shelve at the back of the house, because I don’t want to be reminded every day of the creepy old man in the suit. My battered copy of Practical Magic sits on top to keep the creepy old man at bay. My copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany sits in a place of honor, the first book on our main book shelve, inside I place trinkets of my life; letters, photos, and a pack of armadillo foot print stickers for safe keeping. Some of the covers are pink and scream “chick lit” others are comics and graphic novels. They are each important and each worthy of praise. Someone took the time to write it, they loved it, and wanted you to read it. While it may not be Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy it makes someone happy.

I remember going through the paper bags of romance novels my Grandma would send me; looking for the one that had the absolute most sex possible. Velvet sheath and glistening swords were the words my 13 year old eyes honed in on. Books like Flowers in the Attic or any other V.C. Andrews novel taught me the lesson that there is always a secret brother you may accidently have sex with, so be watchful. The point is whether or not you read Dostoyevsky, shop at Anthropologie, and drink Chia tea or you love Stephen King, shop at Old Navy, and drink Diet Coke just be happy the person next to you is reading.

Fat: A small responsibility

As a woman of a certain size I feel a great deal of responsibility to the world. This basically means that I try not to end up on peopleofwalmart.com, which is both a horrible and fascinating site. I remember no time in my life where I was thin. I was a 9 lb. baby. I was a chunky cheeked toddler. In fourth grade I remember thinking that my head was abnormally large when compared to those around me. In middle school I became focused on the amount of space between my belly and the stationary desk. In high school I got pregnant and my prom dress was an electric blue tent with beading across one lactating breast. What I probably had was a plus size case of body dysmorphia. Now at 37, I am a 22-24 and live by the strict rule of only looking at myself in the mirror if I have pants and at least a bra on. Please understand that I like myself very much. I think I am smart, funny, occasionally insightful, kind of sexy, if not a little lumpy. But as a plus sized person there is a responsibility to myself and others that starts with not wearing off brand Keds.

Let me paint the picture for you. You’re standing in Wal-Mart idly thumbing through the racks of White Stag and Faded Glory shirts when your eyes meet up with the woman across the aisle. She is dressed in the official uniform of “hot fat mess” at Wal-Mart. A woman with greasy hair parted down the middle, a pair of leggings so tight that you could pick her vulva out of a police lineup, a Tweety bird shirt that leaves an inch of white belly exposed, and lace-less off brand Keds. I know that this seems like a mean description, but I promise you she is real and you have seen her too. There is a stereotype about plus sized women, but I think it is worse for women in the south. We could now call it the Honey Boo Boo effect. Fat southern women spend their time walking around town in pajama bottoms, drinking Diet Mountain Dew, and gnawing on a chicken leg. But I am here today to preach to you what fat southern women really do. We wake up early and get dressed for work. We get our kids up and to school. We laugh with our friends. We worry about our families. Very rarely if ever are we involved in redneck games. As a plus sized person I work hard to look like I mildly have my shit together. I wear pants and shoes to run my errands; no matter how much my polka dot pajama pants with the busted elastic waist are calling my name.

I often wonder where my body dysmorphia comes from. Is it internal or from an external source? I know that my mother always worried about her body. Talking about her bumps and body slumps with Kara and I while we were teenagers. I played with Barbie as a little girl, but in no way did I ever think that I should have the same stature as the 12 inch doll. Did I learn my body images from TV? I do know that as a child my Barbie doll became pregnant, and she needed a doctor to deliver the baby. So, I cut off another Barbie’s hair and dressed her in Ken’s clothes stuffed with toilet paper to fill in the gaps. Essentially, I created the first “butch Barbie,” but I know that this was in response to having never seen (at that time, because God had not yet given us Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman) a female doctor on TV or in my real life. I may never know where my body issues came from but I know that I spend every day fighting them; pushing them to the darkest rooms of my psyche while they fight back and sharpen their teeth on my self-esteem. If I lost 100 pounds I know that I would always check my double chin before allowing a photo to be posted. I know that I will always worry about the way my stomach laps over on itself from the C-sections I have had. The only way I know to combat the self-doubt I feel is to rally against the stereotypes. I cannot let myself be the lady in the Tweety bird shirt. I will not dress in a way that hides who I am. These are the mantras of a fat lady. These are my Vedas.