Category Archives: Health

The Songs We Sing

Sometime in the middle of May, in the blinking daylight hours between rolling fog and thunderstorms, the buildings along Lincoln Avenue inhale. The restaurant workers in their white aprons have thrown open the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that line the fronts of their buildings. You have to fight against the draw of their breath as you walk by them, and the gift shop, and that store on the corner that sells running shoes, because the sidewalk could pull you inside to a waiting wood-trimmed bar or cash register. But it doesn’t. Instead it pushes you farther up the street past a Bierstube (once upon a time your neighborhood was German Town) where a young man stops talking to his date long enough to appreciate a tendril of her hair blowing onto his wrist.

And you feel an unfolding inside you.

The doors of the gift shop are propped open with heavy chairs. The greeting cards in the spinning racks at the front of the store whistle as the wind vibrates between them. They are reed instruments accompanying the bass of traffic noise rising from the busy street. They play a tune you find yourself wanting to sing.

A gaggle—or is it called a Fitbit?—of joggers stand outside the shoe store. They stretch, popping one foot up on the free-newspaper racks and light posts. Or they lunge, the hems of their matching yellow shorts almost make contact with the pockmarked sidewalk. The runners silently form a rank and piston their way down the avenue. Your shoulders square as you watch them. Your spine straightens. Intersection after intersection, they stop traffic with their presence until they turn left and vanish.

You walk the four blocks to Lincoln Square. Las Lagunitas, a new cantina, is raucous with 20-somethings. Its patrons spill neatly out onto the grid of tables formed on the patio. Chartreuse margaritas beckon from every table. On the other side of the patio gate, couples sit on benches gripping the handle of a baby stroller the size of a Humvee in one hand and a paper cup the size of a golf ball in the other. Inside the cups, mini-glaciers of coconut, chocolate mousse, and roasted-banana gelato peek at you over the rim. The parents chastise their sons and daughters to sit still, then they dip the tiniest shovels you’ve ever seen into their cups. You smile as they take their first bite.

The Fitbit of joggers thunder past you. You join their most informal of parades. They breathe loudly and rhythmically, and you match them. It is not a surprise that they take you back to the shoe store and assume their scissor and jackknife positions up and down the sidewalk. It is not a surprise to you because this ritual takes place every year: the birdsong, the echoes of laughter coming from inside the pub, the guitar riffs only audible when the School of Folk Music door swings open. None of it is a surprise. You breathe, you swing your arms, you glide up the back steps of your apartment ready to begin again.

 

String Bean

“Thin people shouldn’t talk about their weight. It always sounds like bragging.”*

A few years ago, at a party I hosted, an acquaintance— all six-foot three, 235 pounds of him— leaned down to me and said, “Look at you! You’re just a wisp of a thing.” He meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t stop old insecurities from flushing my face. I felt like every jock I went to high school with somehow crawled through 20 years of space/time continuum to slam me up against my own refrigerator.

I am a thin man. That’s not bragging. I have always been self-conscious about being “too skinny.” It sounds weird now in these times of skinny jeans and moob jobs and size-zero male models, but I grew up when “skinny” was a put-down. It meant frail and nerdy. Thin guys were called weakling or twig or string bean. And everywhere we looked in the media of the 1990s we saw powerful bodies like Mark Wahlberg’s and Tyson Beckford’s with arms the same size as their thighs and shoulders that angled out from their waists at impossibly wide vees.

“Everyone likes to hear how thin they look.”

Not long after that party, I went to the doctor for weird feelings in my extremities. Tests were done and a specialist informed me that I was pre-diabetic. She gave me no prescriptions; she wanted to see how I fared without them. Instead, she handed me a tri-fold pamphlet with an illustration of what good eating habits look like: half a plate of vegetables, a slice of meat that could fit in your palm, and either an apple or a dollop of mashed potatoes. It looked meager. She told me to cut out carbs and sweets, to eat more greens and less starch. No sugar or white rice and exercise more. In other words, the string bean was on a diet.

“Man, when you turn sideways, you disappear.”

Of course, I followed her orders: I started ordering Amstel Lights (the beer with the fewest carbs) at bars. I ignored the looks on waitresses’ faces when I quizzed them about low-carb fare. I secretly put back the cake and donuts that well-meaning co-workers brought to my desk. When friends offered to “fatten me up,” I laughed politely. I became known as a health nut, and swallowed the anger I felt due to my prescribed eating habits. They couldn’t know I’d kill for a heaping bowl of pasta, or a sandwich with regular fucking slices of bread. I kept my mouth shut about why I ate the way I did because I knew they would say exactly what I hated to hear: “But you’re so thin.” As if being thin made me invincible.

Around Easter this year, I started feeling thirsty all the time. Like an unrelenting fill-a-swimming pool-with-unsweetened-iced-tea-and-I-will-either-drink-my-way-out-or-drown kind of thirst. I waited for the thirst to pass, finally seeing a doctor when it was either that or clawing my throat out. As the doctor handed over a prescription to manage the diabetes symptoms, she nonchalantly added, “One of the side effects is weight loss.” I’m not sure what sound I let out, but her subsequent concern demanded an explanation.

“Look at me,” I huffed, motioning with my open hands from my chest to my waist. “People tease me about being blown out to sea by a strong wind. I just started gaining back the weight I lost after quitting carbs on your orders, and now you’re telling me I have to start all over again?”

“Oh, poor skinny dude. Can’t gain weight. Boo-hoo.”

I know. There are so many worse diagnoses to hear. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where I can manage my symptoms with a pill. But this just happened. The ink has barely dried on the prescription bottle. I need a day (or six) to wallow in my frustration. I need to tell people that “thin” is not a synonym for “healthy.”

Five Star Mixtape

*The italic sentences in this essay are direct quotes from various people at various times in my life.