Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Stuff I Write: La Petite Butt

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 at 7:57 pm

What is this ‘butt’?” Constance wants to know, but she says “boot.”

Constance is from France. Her real name is Ursula. Ursula goes by Constance when she’s in the States. It’s easier on Americans, who think anyone named Ursula must be a Disney villain.

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We’re in a dressing room, trying on bathing suits. All around us, other women are doing the same thing.

“How does my butt look?” one says.

“Does my butt look big?” another one says.

“Is my butt hanging out of this?” one says, and another says, “Oh dear God.”

Constance is in a bathing suit the size of a sandwich baggie. Her butt is tiny and firm as a coconut. She twists and squints, tries to examine herself from behind as the fluorescent lights buzz and snap overhead.

Constance says, “What is this fuss?” She says, “A butt is a butt.” She says, quieter, “Americans,” and sounds like she’s flicking mosquitoes.

Then she looks at me as if to say sorry, as if to make me, with my own big American butt, exempt.

I am here to find a suit that will not make me look like a beached manatee. I think Constance is here because she’s doing observational research and wants to understand:

a) American women’s obsessions with body image;

b) The trauma of bathing suit season in these United States;

c) The cultural significance of this.

Significance, signified, signifier — all those French ideas American literature professors push on poor graduate students.

Constance studied Latin at the Sorbonne. American literature professors, Constance says, are stupid imperialists. Americans, Constance says, can never understand existentialism. Americans, Constance says, understand ice cream.

“I am never eating again,” a woman in the dressing room says, “ever.”

Constance sighs in French, all breathy world-weariness.

Constance says everything Americans think is French is not French — French vanilla, French manicures.

She shows off her own nail tips, red with the moons left clear, tiny test tubes half filled with blood.

Constance tells me, “You have hair like my mother,” and she holds a bit of my hair, twists it around one of her red-tipped fingers. I think she’s going to say something nice but she says, “My mother used a cigarette to burn the ends.”

Constance is beautiful as a paint stroke. She’s brutal as a virus, but I like her. She’s honest. The limits of language make it difficult for her to lie in English. I don’t know about her French.

The times I’ve been in France, I apologized a lot. My manners were, I think, good because I can’t say much more than merci and pardon and champagne. I, like many Americans, am mostly monolingual. I speak American English with some passable street Spanish and a spattering of words that can help me find bathrooms and beer in many countries.

In France, people treated me as if I were a child, innocent and clueless. I wore denim overalls to dinner at the Eiffel Tower and the maître d’ out of pity gave my friend and me a window table. I got my foot stuck in a Metro door — despite the signs featuring a cartoon rabbit with a big throbbing foot that was supposed to illustrate that the doors, in fact, did not bounce back. Another subway rider helped pry me loose. Then he patted me on the head like a French poodle.

For the first time in my adult life I was not responsible for my own failures. I liked this very much. I pointed to coffee — signified, signifier — and someone would hand me coffee. I pointed to menus and food appeared. If I wanted to navigate a grocery store, I followed someone who looked like he knew what he was doing. I bought the same cheese, the same wine, imitating every movement as if I were one of the mimes I saw in Luxembourg Gardens and which I presume are both French and existential, though Constance might say otherwise.

The cheese could have been the French equivalent of Velveeta. The wine could have been Mad Dog. It didn’t matter. I was happy. At the checkout, the cashier would help me sort my cash. Nearly everyone seemed kind.

If I could speak better French, or if I wasn’t so afraid to try, I’m sure I’d come across as more myself, and I’d be much more difficult to tolerate.

I have no idea how Constance’s personality translates back home in France.

When are people most themselves — with the power of language or without it?

Once, when Constance was sad, she sent me a note. She wrote in English, “I am all sorrow. I need a big arm to wipe this tear,” as if her whole body were a tear, all that water under the skin, a water balloon, a vessel for every stashed sadness.

I wrote back in English to say I was sorry, that I understood how she felt. I wanted to pick good words, that could close the distance between us, but I went with standbys.

“We all feel sad sometime,” I wrote. “Things will get better.”

My handwriting was fat and open, as easy as the words that tumbled out.

Constance is much braver than I am. She’s not afraid to work to find the words to say what she means.

“If the butt is so consuming,” she says, “eat lettuce.”

This piece first ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August 2012. Thanks very much to editor Greg Victor. Thanks, too, to Constance, for her ongoing, timeless perspective.

Stuff I Like: Sir Mix a Lot, Bathing Suits at 72, Crushed Velvet Anything, and Love (of course)

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Just a few months before she died, my mother did something she hadn’t done in many years. She got into a bathing suit. It was a flowery one-piece with a tiny flounced skirt and a built-in push-up bra for beach cleavage.

My mother was 72 years old.

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For decades, she’d sworn off beaches and bathing suits.

“Who in their right mind would want to look at this,” she’d say, and jiggle everything that jiggled.

“Imagine,” she’d say. “A bathing suit. At my age.”

But then our neighbors, three beautiful kids, asked her to join them in their backyard pool. That summer had been very hot. Our neighbors had been very persistent. My mother loved them very much.

“Come on, Bertie,” they’d said. “Just a little dip.”

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My mother also loved fun. She turned our neighbors down until she couldn’t turn them down any more. Then she drove her little red sports car to JCPenney, rooted through the sale rack, and came back with something she could manage.

“It’s sensible,” she said about the suit. “Nothing that leaves my ass hanging out.”

My mother was still a double-D, so the push-up bra was important, too.

“With a little boost, these make a good tray table,” my mother would say, and pretend to balance a glass of iced tea on her boobs.

***

Even at 72, my mother said and did things like that. She also still wore fake Ray Bans, could eat an entire pan of peanut butter fudge in one sitting, and had a collection of animated animals she’d pick up at dollar stores. One of her favorites was a duck dressed like a rapper, complete with bling and its own pair of Ray Bans.

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Flip a switch and the duck shook its tail feather to “I Like Big Butts” by Sir Mix a Lot.

“Catchy,” my mother said of that song.

***

My mother had, by all accounts, a blast that day in her very sensible suit, although there are no pictures to prove this.

“She told us she’d kill us if anyone came near her with a camera,” one of our neighbors said.

The suit was still hanging on a clothesline in the basement after my mother died. It was the subject of a lot of funeral-home conversation.

“Imagine,” people would say.

***

I do imagine.

I imagine being like my mother when I’m 72. I imagine being like her right now.

I still worry too much about things that don’t matter.

Bathing suit season, for instance.

At the mall earlier this week, the Beach Boys were playing on repeat. Macy’s smelled like coconut sweat. Everywhere I looked, there were preying-mantis mannequins lounging between racks of hot pink bikinis and day-glo orange tankinis, metallic mono-kinis and suits with names like Miracle and Magic and, simply, Control.

I think about that word, Control, and what it means to lose it.

Every year, my kids like to go to water parks. This year’s no different. The other day, I caught my daughter Googling Kalahari, America’s largest indoor water park and our family’s favorite.

“We’re riding the Zip Coaster together again this year, right Mom?” she said.

I love my kids more than I worry over my own dignity. I’m 49, and like my mother, I love fun. The Zip Coaster — half rollercoaster, half waterslide — rocks.  Nothing says family bonding like throwing ourselves off a man-made waterfall in a raft that looks like something out of “Land of the Lost.”

Still, the idea of a bathing suit makes me recoil. And this season, I’ve gained a few pounds and need a new one.

“Who in their right mind would want to look at this?” my mother said.

I try not to think about everything on me that jiggles. I try not to Google anti-cellulite cream. I make plans to hit the gym as soon as I can find my membership card, which is probably lost somewhere in my sock drawer. I think about self tanner a lot.

Jergen’s makes a good one and it’s cheap ($8).

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I’ve always been — um — curvy, back before Sir Mix a Lot and my mother’s animated duck liked big butts. I’ve dreaded bathing-suit season ever since I was 17 and my high school boyfriend convinced me I’d look great in a white bikini.

Maybe because my top curves never matched my bottom ones, I’ve never been comfortable in bathing suits period, let alone bikinis, but I went with him to the store, where he picked out a suit he thought was perfect.

This act is, of course,  its own kind of love, although a very young and misguided one.

When I got the suit home, I tried it on, not looking in the mirror. I walked out to model it. I tried to suck everything in. It is impossible to suck hips in, not to mention thighs, but flexing helps.

“So, what do you think?” I said, spinning like a rusted jewelry-box ballerina.

He paused for a minute, then said, “It looks weird. Like someone inflated your butt.”

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***

You’d think I’d be over worrying about how I look in a bathing suit. I’m not. It still feels scary and humiliating to be exposed like that. But the good thing about these waterparks is that they’re filled with other parents, many of them curvy like me, many of them marked with the cuts and bruises and sags that come with raising and loving small children, the fun that comes with that.

“We’re easy to spot,” my husband says.

Years ago, when I asked my mother why she gave in about the bathing suit, she said,  “Well, they asked me.” She said, “I didn’t want to miss out.” She said, “I figured it was time to get over myself.”

Yes, I think now. It is.

***

P.S.

O.k., so I found this sensible and beautiful suit over at Mod Cloth. It’s velvet, even. Imagine.

I may not be over myself just yet, but I’m working on it.

“Rome wasn’t burned in a day,” my mother, the master of the mixed metaphor, would say.

Small steps. Small steps.

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Stuff Nice People Write About Stuff I Write: A Spot-the-Terrorist Interview

In Uncategorized on April 7, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Here’s an interview Marty Levine did with me for the April 4, 2013 issue of Pitt’s University Times. We talk about spotting terrorists, refrigerator poems, life/work balance, my forthcoming memoir, and Studs Terkel (of course). Thanks very much to Marty and the UT for this.

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A closer look: Lori Jakiela

Before Lori Jakiela was a poet, memoirist and associate professor of English at Greensburg, she wanted to be Barbara Walters — the journalist who once anchored a major network’s evening news, not the one who presides over the television talk show “The View” today.

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Then Studs Terkel, the Chicago writer famous for chronicling the lives of ordinary Americans, spoke at Gannon University in Erie, where Jakiela was studying journalism. His appearance, she says, was “a touchstone … the moment that changed me as a writer. He cared about people, the people I grew up with” in the Mon Valley. “Terkel was interested in the meter reader and the steelworkers and the waitresses — everybody I knew.”

As a college sophomore, Jakiela worked as a stringer for what is now the Erie Times-News, first on the sports pages, then handling a newspaper beat that may not exist anywhere else in the United States, before or since — “the love-story beat,” she calls it, writing about happy couples with a good story to tell. “I loved it,” she says. “I started writing poems off of the stories at the time.”

She is still doing that in her latest book of poems, “Spot the Terrorist!,” which  chronicles both her relationship with her father and with her other career as a flight attendant.

Poetry was her first love, and she has long written and studied the form. “I hope people feel something when they read them,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like, because a poem’s so compressed, you get more of an emotional punch.

“It’s not really a fashionable thing to say, but I always wanted to write poems that anyone could read, that people could put on their refrigerators. We learn early on that you have to approach poetry on your knees, that you have to decipher it. My poems are largely narrative, very similar, to me, to my voice in prose. That just means people think, ‘Oh, I can understand this.’ And that’s a good thing.

“Someone made a meme of one of my poems a little while ago,” she adds. “I said: ‘That’s it. That’s the new refrigerator.’”

After graduating from Gannon, a detour to public relations work at Penn State-Behrend brought her to Pitt. Friends in Penn State’s English department urged her to pursue graduate school, and Pitt accepted her into its Master of Fine Arts program with a teaching assistantship — the only way she’d consider attending. “I couldn’t see going back to school for poetry if I had to pay for it,” she says. “I couldn’t see explaining it to my family.” She completed her MFA in 1992.

Two years later, she began working as a flight attendant, and only quit the year after she took her job at Pitt-Greensburg in 2000. She even was tempted to return to flying in 2008, as a side job to teaching. By then, she was married, with a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. She got dressed one morning to leave
for her first flight, and her daughter awoke.

Jakiela recalls the moment: “She said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Nowhere.’”

She canceled the day’s flight, and hasn’t worked a flight since.

***

As writing inspiration, however, flying is still central for Jakiela. Della, an older, more experienced flight attendant she knew, is the main character in the longest poem in “Spot the Terrorist!” and appears in Jakiela’s earlier memoir, “Miss New York Has Everything,” in slightly different form.

Della says things like: “It used to be flying was for the elite.” At the end of a long day of flying, when she and Della spot that night’s hotel, Jakiela tries to console Della by saying “I’ve stayed in worse.” Della replies, “Of course you have.” Jakiela labels her “The Queen of Sky.”

“Something happened every day, every day, that was funny or horrifying,” Jakiela says of her days aloft. “I always hope that I’m done with it, then something else will come up” — another memory of a strange flight.

It’s hardest to put her flight attendant times aside when former colleagues post on Facebook from Spain or New York City. Such postings make her think: “‘I could be in Paris now! That sounds pretty good.’

“I’m a permanent malcontent. I tried to be in the moment and to ‘be here now’. But I’m always thinking: ‘What if this?’ ‘What if that?’ Maybe that provides enough tension in my life, so maybe I can write from that.”

She has been plagued, or blessed, by unusual encounters with strangers for a long time, she says: “I started waiting tables when I was 12. When you have a job like that, people would tell you stories. My whole life has been spent with people coming up and telling me things. It’s wonderful but it produces a little guilt in me too, because I’ll think: ‘I have to write about that.’ The subject of your work is other people, and it’s their lives. It’s your life too.”

Flying is present in her upcoming memoir of her mother’s illness, “The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious.”

“The reason I write memoir in general is to work things out, to discover how this happened, to make sense of my life,” she says. “The Bridge” was harder to compose than “Miss New York,” Jakiela explains, because her mother was a tougher, more challenging individual than her dad — and because, unlike her first book, this memoir was about her adulthood. Kids, in life and in nonfiction, are allowed wrong turns, false starts and just “to be an idiot,” in Jakiela’s words; adults are not.

Memoirs also are scarier to publish than poems, she says. She recalls seeing her early poetry appear in small literary magazines: “I assumed nobody would read them and I could do what I want,” she says. Then “Miss New York” was slated to appear.

“A week before it came out I went fetal. I had this moment when I wanted to lie down in traffic and say, ‘What did I do?’”

She was consoled recently by a memoir panel discussion at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, in which she participated. When you write about your life, the panel concluded, “people are going to misunderstand you, people are going to be angry at you. It’s risky business. You have to find a way to understand yourself and figure yourself out.”

“Maybe it’s part of an ongoing grieving process too,” she says of “The Bridge,” “the desire to give it shape … to make something out of it that will be, maybe, beautiful.

“As a writer you want to connect to readers, that people will say, ‘Me too!’ I’ve written a novel and it’s terrible, so to some degree I’m an autobiographical writer. Perhaps it comes from being a journalist. What are the facts of my life? What does it say about me or about being human in general?”

***

Perhaps her feeling of being “a little lost and floaty,” as she describes her state of mind back in college, comes from being adopted. “For the adopted person, loss is love and love is loss,” she says. “I think I write about home and family because of that emotional thing. There’s part of being a flight attendant where you’re anonymous and floating around, and that was familiar to me.”

Adoption and her own parenthood are the subjects of her manuscript in progress, “Virtual Mother.” She also is working on an essay about Studs Terkel.

Looking back at her career, she recalls the MFA student readings she sat through, featuring too many poets reading in a drone-like voice.

“I don’t want to bore people,” she says. “And again, it’s not fashionable to say this — but a poem, you can just have it. It doesn’t take long to read. You can read it again and hear something else, and again and hear something else. It’s a good way to give people a fast experience. We’re all so busy. I don’t know if poetry can be practical — but maybe that’s the Studs Terkel part of me.”

—Marty Levine