Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Are There Clothes on Mars?

Here's a topic I think about a lot, so it should be easier to write about, but I think I am overwhelmed by its universality - by that I'm not just making a Martian joke but also referring to the sad fact that other women I know (and consider gorgeous) have confessed to some of the same thoughts.

Here goes - I feel (or should I say, "I think"? - my brother Tim always corrected feel for think in his student's papers...although the older I get and the more therapy I have, the more I think/feel the words are interchangeable) that I have been imprisoned in a Martian body for lo, these many years

I was a chubby little girl...a skinny teen...a young adult of varying sizes...and in middle age still struggling to find my proper size. At some point I started theorizing to myself and anyone who would listen (a small subset of people) that I may not have a human body. It seems to defeat the odds that I was never a proper 6, 8, 10, 12 or 5, 7, 9, 11. "Odd" is a good word here - surely it is odd that I never hit any proper size, at any of my varying weights.

Catalogue and online retailers list their size charts, but when I plot my body measurements they are always at least 3 separate sizes on the charts and there are no instructions on how to approximate this into one clothing size. Part of the explanation is my inheritance of what my cousins call the Schmidt buttocks, pronounced "buh" as in butter (for good reason) with a very crisp "tocks!" at the end. Adding to the Schmidt buttocks (which remain even when the rest of the body is flat or starved, such as when I weighed 97 pounds, my near-anorexic phase) is the fact that I developed a bust very late in life, probably due to emotional stress in my teenage years (kind of a vicious teenage circle, since having no bust created more emotional distress), which accounts for an odd conglomeration of body parts for a certain time period, but I am now past my mid 40s and can't remember any segment of existence (shopping existence, which is surely the same as regular human existence) during which I was a legitimate size. In my anorexic teen phase I was a 4 or 5 - too big for a 4, too small for a 6, but 5's didn't fit either. In my slim adult years I was just below an 8 (that didn't last long...a couple of French fry sides with meals and I was back into size-8 land), then I hovered above 8 for a while (although various parts of pants and skirts still did not fit well), verging toward a 10 when I got bloated, and as soon as I gained even a few pounds I was a lumpy 10...and now I am more of a 12, but a "dryer 12" - meaning, when an item is clean and out of the dryer, size 12 fits me OK, but as soon as I put it on and it starts to stretch even a bit, it is too big. Yet...when I try on, or wash and wear, size 10s, they are definitely too small.

Would I fit in better, would things fit me better, on Mars? Do they actually wear clothing on Mars? It's too bad that the U.S. Mars Probe did not have these questions on its mission plan.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that cheaper clothing manufacturers (maybe almost all clothing manufacturers) don't use consistent sizing - so that you can never be sure that things of a certain size will fit you.

Some people assume I am a Petite, maybe because I'm short and have a high voice...? It's true that my shoulders are petite, but the proportions of my bust/hips/crotch are not. I hate to use the C word, but Petite clothing makes me feel pulled tightly into the center without room to breathe...apparently there are not enough parts of me that are Petite.

Given varying sizes, even within a brand (different Kohl's sizes, J Jill sizes, Land's End sizes...you know, all the luxury brands). I remain amazed that my body has never morphed toward a standard size at any point in its growth. But maybe, probably, I was a perfect Land's End t-shirt size 10 for a few days...during which time I didn't happen to wear t-shirts...and then let's say I gained a few ounces, which put me into a different size, but I was still wearing things other than Land's End t-shirts...and by the time I put them on, maybe a week later, they were getting snug across the something (bust, shoulders, or pulling up at the waist). See how this works?, or doesn't work?

So to theorize and throw in a sloppy metaphor, there is a very short window during which I am a standard size, but that standard is different for different designers of different brands...so the whole thing is a crap shoot, with terrible odds.

If you plotted on a graph the changing size of my body parts, and the sizes of apparel on the market, there would be no intersection. Although, if I tried on every item in my closet, every day...stood up straight and put my shoulders back...and objectively assessed the fit (as if any woman can objectively assess her image in a mirror), I guess it's possible that I could catch the brief moments in which my clothes truly fit me. But my gosh, is that any kind of a life?

In my attempt to cope on Planet Earth, I continue buying bigger sizes of clothes, which are often baggy although sometimes still constrictive, and to hold onto the older smaller-size items I hope to get back into. Probably I should consider the problem in reverse...if I gain easily, rapidly passing a size, on my way back down weight-wise I should pass the size again. (But even as I typed that last sentence, I did not believe it.)

There is hope for the future - sometimes I have glimmers that I have evolved (sunk?) to a point where I am more interested in fabric colors and jewelry than clothing fit, and thus can somewhat tune out my silhouette while finding esoteric pleasure in dressing (color combinations, jewelry design, etc.). But the key word is, sometimes.

Spilled Goldfish - Best Attempt to Pick Them Up

Getting this posting right, or even figuring out in general terms what I want to do with it, has daunted me. I wrote a condensed version of it for a 2002 short story contest (the contest that catalyzed "Blood in New Orleans") but the finished product seemed to me like chunks of the tips of an iceberg - too brief and too scattered to serve the real topic. In one of my recent notes for updating the story I wrote, "love, loss, fear, guilt (joy?)". Yikes! No wonder I get overwhelmed if the story brings up, or should be about, all those emotions. In an effort to break through my webwriting block I have decided to go ahead and slap it online...maybe that will bring some magic to it by way of giving me a fresh perspective.

(The Short Story)

I was very nervous about starting 4th grade, which meant going to my older brothers’ former school and changing rooms between class periods. It had taken me until 3rd grade (when I became one of the older kids on campus) to get used to the elementary school, and now one year later my shyness and anxiety was refreshed with the move to Tomball Intermediate School.

Toward the end of my first lunch period - maybe the bell startled me - I accidentally spilled my sandwich bag full of Pepperidge Farm goldfish. I watched them hit the floor with horror, feeling bereft of a treat from my Mother-packed lunch and blaming myself with harshness - there was a strong sense of loss and a feeling that Mother had given me something I didn’t take good care of. The motherly preparation inherent in my newly purchased, color-coordinated lunch box and thermos (containing milk and ice cubes, my mother was very conscious of food safety) somehow added to the angst of the situation.

My mother died a few years later, and that’s one of the reasons why this spilled goldfish memory has remained powerfully emotional for me - I've never lost the image of myself sitting on the edge of a battered folding chair, holding an empty bag and sadly/angrily/guiltily looking down at the cafeteria floor. Many triggers from my own actions - disappointing a family member, disappointing myself, sometimes even just spilling food - have been effective at poking the bruise of the goldfish memory.

I knew that Mother took good practical care of us but in processing my memories I've struggled with the question of whether she and I had a special mother-daughter relationship - and I don’t even know whether I should define such a thing by 21st century psychology. These relationships weren't explored much in the early 1970s in middleclass Texas, and certainly not by my mother, who although supportive of my sensitivity was a no-nonsense type. I’ve wondered if I was just another responsibility for her?, a sensitive child who at times was probably a lot of work. We were a “Texas German” family (a term I later applied to our habits of not saying Good Morning and not being much into hugging). That label explained, culturally, why outward demonstrations of love (and demands for such affection) weren't easy for us, or valued by us, or... [Already I am getting lost in murky iceberg waters as I try to clarify my original statements here.]

My mother’s lunches were thrifty but not uninspired - I have a vivid memory of a field trip where the centerpiece of my sack lunch was a recycled margarine-tub portion of homemade buttermilk pie. Food was often an escape for my youthful sadness (as evidenced by my chubbiness) but sometimes I felt I didn’t deserve the blessed goodness of it, at least not in the tasty and creative way my mother sometimes presented food. She only gave me lunch things she knew I would eat (nothing yucky, even if that meant the meal was less than balanced) and occasionally would add perks like cheese strips on a toothpick and little notes on scraps of paper. [I would give anything to remember what she wrote on the notes - surely not "I love you," too demonstrative...and not "Be a good girl," that would have been too direct (my parents controlled us with guilt, not admonishments)...maybe simple jokes, like knock-knock?]

The memory of buttermilk pie is especially poignant, since the recipe was introduced to us by a caretaker of my ailing grandmother - and my mother, whose own health began to decline soon after, was very attracted to the ease of the recipe - you stirred simple ingredients together and poured them in a ready-made pie shell, no stovetop cooking was required as for a traditional custard pie. I loved the pie’s high-fat sweetness right away (like a chess pie, but with vanilla instead of lemon flavor), and buttermilk pie fandom was something my mother and I shared during the last two years of her life.

My years working as a secretary sometimes seemed to mimic parent-oriented struggles of guilt and anger. For a while my personal trigger to deflect frustration with my boss was the memory of an instance when I missed checking for an important fax he’d been nagging at me to watch for - so that by the time we noticed it was there, we had almost missed our client’s deadline and I had to cancel a personal appointment I’d scheduled after work, to stay late and finish our proposal. In some weird way I would use my mistake (even months or years later) as a way to excuse the office abuse I experienced. My boss was often a deadline-delayer and would throw various wrenches into the wheels of our day, but in that particular situation I felt the blame was clearly mine - there seemed to be many “should haves” I’d ignored including better checking of priorities and being better prepared. This memory became a deflection tool, handily converting anger toward my boss (over having to cancel a doctor appointment - actually/ironically, a psychotherapy appointment - in order to meet an office deadline) into blame of myself.

In a later and very different office example, my boss’s junior associate C. announced in a peevish tone (he was a redhead and a bit introverted, which meant he imploded sometimes) that he had poured his afternoon can of Diet Coke into a styrofoam cup without remembering the cup contained Pepperidge Farm goldfish (we worked for a professional services firm and our kitchen was well stocked with popcorn and chips - but no bowls, we ate the snacks out of cups or off paper towels). I wasn’t sure why C. had gone out of his way to mention this - he wasn’t exactly angry but he also wasn’t laughing.

I sat quietly at my desk after C. went back into his office, wondering why I didn’t find his goldfish cracker situation more personally poignant, given my own history. This time I felt only a dry memory connection and no bruising pain with the thoughts of drowned goldfish, and I almost regretted the lack of pain response if it meant that mental emotional files had been erased. Surely one should be grateful for the dulling of pain - but a precious family memory is a precious family memory, and did I really want to lose any of them?, even ones that were encumbered with anger and guilt?

I was relieved when I later realized that writing or thinking about my own spilled crackers, in more private surroundings than a busy office, could still provoke a deep wince - and the response is dulling only very gradually, so it will probably be there for a long time. I want to continue to have a visceral reaction to thoughts of my mother and my sadness over losing her, and the goldfish memories remain one way to get to that. [Well, when I wrote this pat ending in 2002 I still had a clear pain response, but by 2008 it is more of a ghostly vibration. Rather than digress into comments about brain cells killed by Chardonnay, I will allow myself to write that maybe I have grown up to the next stage - whatever that might be - of contemplation of this memory.]


Here are more of my update notes that the reader can probably connect to the story better than I could over-explain them:

Mother was a thrifty shopper - she checked the local newspapers for coupons and often drove to all 3 grocery stores (within a one-mile radius, since it was Tomball) to get the best prices. My favorite thrift-complaint (mild parental abuse) story is that when we got hamburgers to-go from the Goal Post, we had to put the cheese on at home to save the 10 cents per sandwich the restaurant charged. (Sometimes we did dine-in at the Goal Post and then it was OK to order a cheeseburger, with the cheese actually melted on a hot patty.) And yes, the name was a tribute to Tomball football - there was a fake goal structure out front wrapped with red & white like a candy cane. I'm a bit fuzzy on the architecture but I think the restaurant might have been a converted gas station. We usually ordered sandwiches...once my brother Dave branched out to fried fish and he couldn't eat it - they had left the scales and fins on and the bones in - that might be suitable in an ethnic restaurant but in a place that served chicken fried steak and overcooked everything to mush, it came across as nasty.

Mother did buy us some special things that were name brands, like Instant Breakfast, Oreos and Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers. She didn't try to make us feel guilty for consuming them but I, and I think my brothers too, always had a sense that these were special items, to be appreciated (not to say we didn't nag for more of them, more often, more flavors, and other brands as well). We didn't know all the details of my dad's childhood deprivation, but from his expression and occasional comments we deduced that he considered any snacks other than homemade and any drinks other than ice water (and not too much ice) to be frivolous. Written in his late 70s, his book "Growing Up in Rosehill: We Were Poor But Didn't Know It" pretty much tells you from the title - they didn't go to bed hungry but they didn't have goldfish crackers either.

And one more note about the lunchbox containing the goldfish, which I think was decorated with daisies...on another day I was upset that the matching thermos had broken and the glass liner had mixed into the milk - but although that was surely the result of my banging the thing around, I was more mad at fate, or even at Mother for not replacing the lunchbox set sooner, so I didn't personalize the incident as much as I had the goldfish. The melting ice thinned the milk to skim milk, and the glass didn't look so strange floating in it (dare I make another reference to icebergs?), but I knew from the odd rattle and altered weight that this thermos was a goner.

Why Chucks

I still have a backstock of Chucks in boxes (winter colors, or other styles I'm not ready to wear yet) but I keep wanting/needing to have more active pairs on my shoe racks. I had to break down and, instead of having them all prettily sole-down on the racks, turn them sideways, like they come in the box - sole to sole, one toe forward, the other toe back. I can still see the colors and maybe they will get less dusty this way. Each of my shelves can hold 5 pairs by using to the new setup - 4 turned sideways, with room left for another pair the original way, soles down. The colors have worked out in nice groupings - blues with red and purple, pink solids and prints, oranges and neutrals - of course doing the color groupings is one of my favorite things. My monthly household calendar, in addition to Clean A/C Filter and Dog Flea Meds, now has Dust Chucks. I have to admit I cradle the Chucks in my arms rather like babies as I gently wipe them with a towel.

And yes, I continue to freely admit it is an addiction, but there's more to it than that - in case anyone still wonders or cares, here is more detail on my Chuck Love.

Looking at the colored shoes on white backgrounds is great online shopping...the availability changes every day, almost like eBay or gambling. When I add an item to my Zappos cart the screen screams, "Only l left!" or "Only 2 left!" I admit it's more usually "Only 3 left!", which probably means they start out with 3 of every new style and size, so there's not really a run on my items. But I still fall for the sense of urgency. Sometimes it frustrates me that there's not a good way to eliminate the high-tops and punk designs (skulls, guitars, etc.) from my online searches, but in a way that makes it more fun, giving me more shoes to wade through in pursuit of something good, picturing different designs with my wardrobe..."Maybe the red & white tie-dies wouldn't actually look punk if I wear them with the right outfit" etc.
Because I have so many pairs to wear each one comes up only in infrequent rotation, and I can usually look at the shoes in my closet and remember where I wore them last - with what outfit and to see what people - little slices of my life made more colorful by Chucks.

Chucks have consistent sizing - they always fit with no surprises. This is so different from ordering clothes with a wide range of fit, or trying on items in a store and changing my mind at home when I get a new view of the fit (lack of fit) in my own mirror.

When Chucks arrive in their special Chucks box (brown & black, with eyelet holes punched in the box as if there is a turtle or hamster inside - presumably the holes are really to ventilate the canvas and rubber), they are already laced. There's a thin piece of tissue paper separating the shoes and occasionally each shoe has a small wad of paper inside but other than that, I can put them on immediately - no arduous lacing with alignment of long shoestrings, no break-in bending/stretching like you have to do with a real athletic pair.

It's a bit embarrassing to include but yes, Chucks give me a certain connection, however remote, with the world of sports. To state the obvious, I do not, and have never, played any sport...but Chucks are no longer worn for pro basketball, so the association is not as silly as it might be. And, because they are so simply engineered - the other end of a continuum from something as scientifically designed as a Nike - Chucks don't remind me that I don't exercise enough to need a real sports shoe (although I do wear New Balance or K-Swiss for my neighborhood walks, which would dirty my Chucks anyway).

Not to go too heavy on the medical drama here, but because of the nerve damage in my feet I don't walk well in thick soles. The increased ground contact I get with lightweight Chucks makes me feel almost like a dancer, or at least someone who walks with more spring.

There is another upside to the relative flimsiness of them - well-worn Chucks get dingy and they come apart (not that my zillion pairs would get enough rotation for this to happen anytime soon), but I kind of like the fact that they are temporary shoes, for play and for fun.

Chucks actually make it fun to get dressed - pairing colors and designs with outfits, even otherwise boring outfits. I'm able to look down at my cheerful Chucks while driving to my boring destination, i.e. the grocery store, and while I'm trudging down the aisles.

When I have to wear non-Chucks to the office, sometimes I leave a pair of Chucks in my car, with clean white socks, and I put them on for the drive home. Somehow they give me a boost, which is weird since in this weather they get warm while sitting in the car (even in a basement parking garage) and my feet don't work right when they're warm - but my office is freezing cold all day so putting on the slightly warm Chucks after 5 feels good.

Compliments received on Chucks are completely painless to accept, with no self-consciousness. Men seem to have a special fondness for Chucks, granting even my pastel star-studded pair a connection with the legacy of basketball, and a male compliment that has absolutely no reference to one's body is refreshing. Chuck compliments, which sometimes even come with squeals, are always sincere - nothing like the "Did you get a haircut?" type of comment received when people don't like your new style but just feel compelled to say something.

As previously mentioned online, my sainted brother wore Chucks, although he only had one or two pairs at a time (a newer pair, and a nastier pair) and only wore one color - the exact name of which, a legacy orange-gold, I haven't figured out yet. My sister-in-law has reminded me that Tim's friends acknowledged his habit by tying Chucks to the going-away car at their wedding.

I sometimes wore Keds as a child - there are photographs of me in a red pair - and while of course Keds are not the same as Chucks, they did have round toes and there is a certain nice nostalgia, especially when I wear my solid-red Chucks.

I think my father wore a predecessor of Chucks, some cheap 1930s version, in his childhood, when it got too cold to go barefoot. (Leather shoes were for rare occasions.) There's also a connection with the common canvas shoes worn in China and other Asian countries. Thus, family history Chucks? Global Chucks?

And OK, although I'm not usually snobby about brands, I like buying real Converse, which I do think are better made than the knockoffs, and cuter. (I have one pair of Target fakes, bought months before my addiction began, and they don't feel or look anything like the real thing.)

With Chucks, I'm matching my clothes from the shoes up - fewer concerns about skin color, hair color, age-appropriateness, or anything else. All kinds of colors are flattering on my feet! They are a truly blank canvas.

Although I'm usually a stickler for colors really matching, sometimes I allow off shades in clothes worn with Chucks - because except for long pants (and I wouldn't wear bright-colored pants anyway) the Chucks aren't adjacent to my outfit - my legs provide a separation so what's on my feet doesn't have to match exactly.

I had planned to write that my Chucks inspire me to accessorize more than I have in the past - even on slobby days where I'm only leaving the house to buy groceries or gas - but as of July, I am too hot to care about jewelry, even my beloved colored crystal bracelets. However, Chucks add Chuck-glamor to even a slobby outfit.

When I started wearing Chucks in the early spring, I needed double socks to keep them from sliding on my feet - but now that it's summer and I continue to swell from heat, wine and middle age, they fit great with just one pair of socks. I just slip them on and go - no fancy lacing, no special socks, no stiff heel to be broken in.

On days I work from home, I traditionally haven't worn shoes inside the house (I just let my white socks pick up floor dirt all day) but now I've started wearing Chucks on remote work days. This gives me an opportunity to put more mileage on the Chucks (wear more colors in a week), it gives me a psychological uplift (I smile down at my cute shoes), and having any type of shoe on somehow makes me feel more businesslike. There's something really silly about wearing shoes indoors though - it reminds me of a mother putting shoes on a baby that hasn't started walking yet. I think we follow the same principle: socks would be sufficient, but cute shoes are more fun.


This is a short entry, but the content is simple - the other dimension of my Chuck Taylor addiction: Zappos.com. The site provides such bang for the buck, a legal high - almost instant gratification. You place your order (free shipping and free returns) and select standard delivery. When you check your email the next morning, there is a message announcing more prompt shipment - for no extra charge, just because you are a special customer (as all their customers are - of course this is part of their gimmick). Unless ordered on a weekend, items - even if ordered late in the day - arrive the very next day. When I get that Expedited Shipping email, I immediately follow the link to UPS, and get excited reading that my shoes were put on an airplane early that morning, and within a few hours I read the item is in Dallas, on a truck and Out for Delivery. It's like Christmas morning - somebody pulled my box of shoes from a warehouse rack while I slept and they are on their way to me! I had thought that after several dozen such Christmas emails I would get immune to the excitement...but it hasn't happened yet.

Can we say...INTERVENTION?!?!