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PART ONE: Once upon a time, when Gay Panda was a pimply twelve-year-old cub, the Perpetually Arguing Panda Parents drove our family car across the country so that the Perpetually Sticky Panda Siblings and I could meet our paternal grandparents for the first time.
They had never visited. Nor did they call, or send birthday cards or holiday greetings, I did not have pictures of them nor did they have pictures of me. All I knew of my grandfather was that he threw hammers at people; all I knew of my grandmother was that she stubbed out her cigarettes in other people’s soda cans. Armed with this information, I squirmed in the backseat for three thousand miles trying not to let the sticky Panda Siblings touch me because it triggered my OCD.
When we arrived, I was told to go to the living room and introduce myself. So I went hesitantly to a bent old woman on a sofa and stood by the armrest. The television roared with a ball game and there was a can of beer in her hand. Cans of soda were lined on top of the television, cigarette butts ground out on the open lids, the room was a disarray of magazine stacks, and a cigarette smoked in the ashtray. When the game went to commercial, she looked at me and grunted, “Who are you?”
“I’m Young Panda,” I said. Hadn’t she known I was coming?
No response. Maybe she didn’t.
“I’m your grandcub,” I tried again.
“Oh,” she said, and returned to the television. Realizing that I had been bettered by a commercial for laundry detergent, I stood there uncomfortably. Then she stood with her beer and cigarette and dragged out to the hall pulling her oxygen tank behind her.
We stayed for days, but that was our only interaction. I ate one breakfast with Grandfather Panda as he looked over his newspaper, but he only spoke about the articles as the kitchen light reflected on his hot pink bald head. Flustered by these strange people, I poured orange juice into my cereal instead of milk. Then I ate it* so I wouldn’t get in trouble and have a hammer thrown at me.
The year after that, they sent Christmas stockings with dollar store toys, but I was now thirteen years old and didn’t know what to do with them. Then it returned to no contact. They died when I was in college, having never exchanged another word with us. She drank and smoked herself into Valhalla; he got dementia and greeted people with cheery hellos before punching them in the face. I don’t know if there was a funeral, as Father Panda never mentioned one. I’ve known my coworkers better than those two.
On the maternal side was a grandmother. Her grandcubs disinterested her. Polite yet reserved on her rare visits, she was simply unable to connect. At Christmas or Easter, the Perpetually Arguing Panda Parents would bring her over to sit in our backyard and smoke. The only time I ever saw passion was on the topic of homosexuals. “Homosexuals,” she spat when I was in high school, “are going to burn in HELL! Disgusting!”
So I entered adult life having had no experience of grandparents other than this odd, somewhat hostile threesome. My family is very troubled, as readers of Primal With A Side Of FABULOUS can testify, so I try to avoid them. But certain branches of Lady Friend’s family have always been willing to include me, and so I hijack their Jewish holidays with my presence and learn Yiddish words that one should not say in polite company. And that was how in my twenties I met an older couple related to Lady Friend through marriage, and they decided to be my grandparents.
PART TWO: “You should cut your hair. It looks immature!” Grandmother Friend scolded. Mild-mannered Grandfather Friend closed his eyes in pain at her outspokenness. They sent me birthday cards and always wanted to visit at family gatherings, and once Grandmother Friend mailed me a bag of socks. She had seen them in a catalog and thought I needed socks, so there they were on my porch. I did not know what to do with this, other than be amazed that she had thought of me. I still have them Valhalla knows how many years later.
They took cruises around the world and Grandmother Friend said loudly at a restaurant, “You should have seen it in China! They stop the subway and people come boiling out like ANTS!” They bitched about their synagogue and trundled up and down the freeway miles under the speed limit doing errands, and when Grandmother Friend had knee surgery, we went to the hospital and Grandfather Friend stuffed twenty dollars in Lady Friend’s hand and told us to go out for dinner. Then Lady Friend smashed her knee to tiny bits and they trundled down the freeway miles under the speed limit to visit while I took care of her since she was bedridden.
They pressed me about careers and told us to lose weight; they called to check up and applauded my challah; they bought me shoes at the Shakespeare Festival to continue the Random Acts of Footwear theme* they associated with me. Grandmother Friend told stories that changed every time while others shook their heads behind her to indicate that was NOT how it happened; Grandfather Friend pulled Lady Friend into his backyard to figure out what new illness was blighting his lemon tree. I liked having grandparents, even if it came so late to me, and we weren’t even related.
And then in March, Grandfather Friend died.
The story to how I ended up on MDA starts there. In Jewish tradition, one is buried quickly. So as we drove home from the hospital having just seen him slip away, I realized that the funeral was going to be the day after next, and I was too fat for my nice black trousers. I was going to have to go shopping or wear my tight old pair of black athletic pants in hopes that other mourners would not notice the leg zippers, reflective silver stripes, or the mesh waist and crotch for comfy airflow.
I did not want to shop so I unloaded every pair of nice pants in my closet and drawers and tried them on: too fat for these ones; too fat for those ones; too fat for the ones a size bigger than that. I weighed myself in the morning and was 217 pounds. Why the hell did this keep happening? Why couldn’t I keep the weight off? I didn’t stuff my face at the table; I didn’t rove about the pantry at midnight, if anything I erred on the side of too little food, not too much. Yet there it was on my scale: 217 pounds of panda and too fat for all of my pants.
The day after Grandfather Friend died, a day in which I really just wanted to turn off my brain and watch something dully on television and circle every last sad face on every feelings chart, I drove to the store instead. It was bright and cheerful and loud with a sale, the man and the woman who worked the dressing room chirped about finding items in different sizes and did we know that it was Half-Off Day? Yes! Half-Off! The woman asked me excitedly if I were going to a party.
“No,” I said. “A funeral.”
“Oh,” she said solemnly. And then she chirped, “You’re my second one today!”
Gay Panda is not a violent panda, but Gay Panda admits to wanting to slap her. I bought a pair of gigantic black pants and fled the store with its happy shoppers and Half-Off sale.
* The Random Acts of Footwear began when Lady Friend took off her shoes one day in their presence. She had a small hole in her sock. I did not, but since Lady Friend did, Grandmother Friend decided I must, too. So that is why she sent me socks, since Lady Friend’s had holes. It was wonderfully bewildering.
Relatives that you got to pick, how excellent is that! It is very normal for grandmas to focus on socks, or undies, or some other what the heck item. I know mine sure did.
My grandparents were great, if rather kooky. I noticed on my last road trip home that I'm turning into the goofiest one - Bargain Billy. (Really, that's what we called my grandma. She called herself "your old fat granny"; she signed every card with that.) She had an annoying habit of reading signs out loud and here we were, less than five miles from home, and I hear myself say "Great Burgers". Oh my Lord, when did I turn into her? My daughters don't remember her as she died when they were little but you can bet my sister and mom made fun of me when I told the story. Thanks to primal living, I'm not planning on signing any cards with "your old fat granny", though.
PART THREE: After the funeral, I drove over MDA. I believe that I had rolled over the site once before, but I dismissed it as a bunch of loonies who wanted to live in caves and paint buffalo on the walls. But what did I have to lose? My weight rose defiantly no matter how stringent I was with food, how excessive I was with exercise. I could go down but only so far; it would bounce back up out of control leading to shopping for fat pants the day before Grandfather Friend’s funeral.
You know the rest. The 217 in mid-March was 211 by mid-April, I slipped under 200 at the end of June. In August I lived at 195, for most of October around 189. It is now November and my body is still a little pissed* about a recent Happenstance of Potato, but I’m weighing 185. Those black pants I wore for Grandfather Friend’s funeral in March hang perilously, because the 32 extra pounds of panda that existed back then have taken a trip down the Fat Vortex. I have to buy new black trousers, because now Grandmother Friend is dying.
We do not know how long it will be, but we know it will not be long. Tomorrow I’m making chicken pot pies that she likes for my visit and I will be near the same store where I bought the fat pants in March. I do not want to be in that same situation where the day after she dies, I’m out shopping for thinner pants. Yet it seems so morbid to buy them in expectation, even though it is inevitable. I don’t want to be prepared for that day, because I do not want that day to come. But avoiding it won’t hold at bay a swiftly approaching horizon.
Just this summer I was driving her to her radiation appointments and gossiping about her synagogue. We were eating meatballs and watching Bones, and I bought her socks since she liked the ones I was wearing. It seems sick to buy pants in anticipation of her death, that when she asks me what I’ve been doing, I’m going to think today I bought pants for your funeral. Making it worse is that Grandmother Friend is not ready to go. She wants to continue trundling down the freeway miles under the speed limit, seeing movies and visiting friends; her mind is charging ahead but her body has simply said no.
I wish that my weight loss were not going to be bookmarked by deaths; I wish that their funerals were not going to be associated with clothes shopping. Perhaps I struggle because I am unfamiliar with the rituals of death, its pain and its absurdities pressed side to side. I went to none of my grandparents’ funerals; one of the Panda Siblings died when I was too young to remember. I gave CPR to a dying man at my gym, so death is not a stranger to me, but its rituals are.
I will buy trousers for her funeral while she is alive, and one day when we are both in Valhalla** I will tell her how utterly weird that was. And I know exactly what reaction I will receive: Grandmother Friend will brush off my complaint about the weirdness because what matters to her is if I got them at a Half-Off sale. One should never pay full price for clothes.
* You know what? I didn’t care so much this time that my body got all bent out of shape over a lousy plop of mashed potatoes and two sips of Lady Friend’s beer. I weigh in the mid-180s, at 5’9” this means that I look chubby but not fat, and some of the agitation has faded. It inspired cravings but they are not unbearable. So go ahead and freak out, panda body. I’m too tired to care since Eye of the Storm’s new dog Shelob is a night barker.
** Ah, but whether I get admitted to Valhalla depends on which grandparent’s afterlife mythology, if any, proves true. Maybe I’ll have unfinished business and float about causing minor mischief like Benign Poltergeist. If Gay Panda can’t be on Animal Precinct in life, then maybe Ghostly Gay Panda will guest-star on one of those paranormal shows as a floating orb hiding everyone’s car keys.
Buy pants because you need them and they are Half Off (ha ha). Maybe Grandma Friend doesn't want you to show up dressed for mourning and would rather you come in snazzy purple clogs and fabulous new skinny pants!
Like Booth, you must buy some outrageous socks to wear with the new black pants. Socks and Grandmother Friend go together so well, and you can tell your Grandmother Friend about shopping for FBI black pants and outrageous socks, and it will make her smile remembering the meatballs and watching Bones together.
Then if you happen to wear your Seely Booth homage outfit sometime later this fall or winter, to celebrate her life and journey to Valhalla, you can tell the socks and pants shopping story to Lady Friend, and you can both smile and think how wonderful that you all made your own family together, and how lucky you have been.
"If man made it, don't eat it." ..Jack LaLanne "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are.
If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong." ..Richard Feynman beachrat'snew primal journal
PART ONE: Gay Panda does not have moves like Jagger.
This is a fantastic understatement. Gay Panda has no moves at all, despite years of cubhood dance classes including tap, ballet, and ballroom. In the line-up of graceful boys and girls moving crisply over the glossy floors of studios was Young Gay Panda tripping and stomping and moving to a beat not emanating from the stereo or piano in the room. I was a blunt force in a sport defined by the acute.
Put me in a pool and I could slam out a beautiful butterfly; it was the only dance in which I could keep a beat. I could belt a ball across the field (and once a line drive directly to a sticky Panda Sibling’s stomach) and charge for first base like a bowling ball of determination. My body is a singular object, not a plural. I love to watch dancing but I almost never engage; my body wants to stay together, not come apart. Trying to get one foot there and then the other here while the arms move this way and that and doing all of this while keeping a beat? You might as well expect Gay Panda to fly.
The joke is that I was a musician. I can still hear the heartless tap-tap of my metronome, which I struggled mightily to match to the piece that I was playing. By four years old, I was in music lessons, by eight I was playing for pay at old folks’ homes. By eleven I was performing at weddings and garden parties. Later came funerals and orchestras and competitions and fairs and theaters. I played a very complicated instrument that involved both hands and feet in a veritable frenzy of activity, and seventeen years of daily practice made me proficient only. I have no gift for music, neither its production nor the activity in which it inspires.
But Mother Panda was determined that my genius be uncovered. One more lesson, one more year, one more wedding . . . go to Oberlin Conservatory, a spotlight in the L.A. Philharmonic, farther and farther her dreams reached over the head of a cub who forgot the music in the middle of a recital in front of forty people*. I would play for movies and commercials! I would be in magazines! I would dazzle the world! Except that I had no talent, and on top of that, no interest.
I made audiotapes of me practicing and then I would play them at full volume to make her think that I was hard at work on my music while I was really reading Babysitters Club, Hardy Boys, and the Oz series. When I had to practice, I did it with a cat sitting on my shoulder. The balancing act distracted me from the boredom, and my left hand always played harder than my right because I had ten pounds of squirming feline weighing it down. I loved how it sounded, the diddle-tinkle-diddle of my right hand followed by the THUNK-THUNK-MEOW of my left. I weaved paper between the strings to make horrible rat-a-tat-tat sounds while I played enthusiastically; instead of my horribly complicated artsy-fartsy French pieces that I had been assigned, I tapped out cartoon theme songs and composed my own music. Or I played Christmas songs in July and slapped the soundboard to hear the echoes and looked out the window thinking about elves and rips in space-time and Cup o’Noodles. The drive that I have to write, which has consumed me since I was four years old, never appeared in music at any point in the seventeen years I played.