• katherine halligan

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Well, it’s official: I have now gained the quarantine fifteen.

On each thigh.

Apparently, calories consumed during a pandemic do still count, so even while everything else in the world has turned upside down, that pesky rule still holds. And I have consumed many, many calories. Sometimes seeking to ease boredom, sometimes seeking to ease my anxiety, I am most definitely eating (and drinking) my feelings.

And these days I have a lot of feelings.

I am not new to the world of weight gain, having worn in my adult life everything from a size 4 US (8 UK) to a size 14 US (18 UK). As a slim child I had a prodigious appetite (what, don’t all nine-month-old babies enjoy a hamburger, baked potato and a giant helping of creamed spinach for dinner?), but those hollow legs began to fill out when I headed off to college, and my weight began to rise and fall with my stress levels. Some people get thinner when they’re stressed, but I would have been excellent at surviving during times of famine in days of yore, as my currently expanding thighs will attest. I have broad shoulders (which I love because my clothes always hang well), big bones (is that a thing? They’ve never broken so perhaps it counts for something) and good birthing hips (definitely a thing, because I birthed two babies very naturally and easily, one of them in 45 minutes flat). All this means that I knew I’d never be a fashion model, and I made peace with that long ago. I normally like the skin I’m in, no matter how much of it there is, until a few years ago when I realised that the fat suit I was wearing was stopping me feeling like myself.

So I embarked (not for the first time) on Weight Watchers, which a friend of mine, with her wonderfully dry British humour, used to call “Fat Club”. The thing is, Fat Club works. It’s easy and forgiving and if you stick even vaguely to the plan, you will lose weight. These days it’s very snazzy and modern and there’s an app for it, and you can find recipes and inspiration and look at other people’s transformation photos while never posting your own because that’s a step too far. You track what you eat by entering it into the app and it calculates the points value of pretty much everything under the sun. The points are based on calories, fat, nutritional value and some mysterious algorithm which means — I’m sorry to have to tell you — that eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s or an entire jar of salted macadamias is probably not a good idea — but the excellent news is that you can eat all the raw celery or poached eggs you like. It also tells you how many points you have left in a day or a week, so you can save them up and plan what to do, say, for a Friday treat. I’m not entirely sure how that actually works, since I have never had anything other than a negative amount of points left in my budget by the end of the week. Some weeks I might only go over by 30-odd points, and then I lose weight (which is pretty miraculous when you consider that you’re only allowed around 28 points a day, max); other weeks, for example when I go on vacation to Hawaii to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary and indulge in a delightful reprise of that game we played twenty years earlier, called Honey-ballooning, I might go over my budget by 287 points (true story), and then I don’t lose weight.

So, it’s all very simple really. Which means it’s not remotely surprising when my body tapped into its genetically programmed urges and started living in March what my mind had been anticipating since February: disaster meant famine was on its way, so food became our primary obsession. We weren’t actually starving (unlike my cousin in New York City, who was genuinely struggling to get any kind of food, so I’m not being flippant here), but our bodies definitely went into some primal, comfort-seeking, eat-whatever-you-can-now-because-tomorrow-there-may-be-no-woolly-mammoth-burgers mode. That urge to prepare for a winter of privation (in March), combined with the fact that everyone in the world was doing the same, meant that we ate large of amounts of very odd foods, often just because we could.

Living with a scientist who’d worked on pretty much ever major pandemic since 1997, we were ready for this one, or as ready as we could be. We bought a chest freezer back in early February and quietly filled it. We’d already started an earthquake-and-fire contingency cupboard, but we knew it was time to raise our game. So we calmly stocked our shelves with canned peaches (which we never normally eat, but thought they would be an excellent way to ward off scurvy); we tranquilly tracked down toilet paper (but we did not hoard! We promise! We even made a spreadsheet to calculate our projected usage and I’m happy to share it with anyone who questions whether we were the reason there was no toilet paper left in all of Southern California). We felt like good Girl Scouts: we were prepared.

Slowly, almost surreptitiously (I demurred when the lady in CVS wondered why I was restocking our entire medicine cabinet; if she couldn’t guess why by February 27, then I wasn’t going to be the one to set off panic alarms unnecessarily), we filled our pantry and garage shelves, due to a slightly weird but not entirely unfounded worry that an earthquake would hit in the middle of the pandemic and we would have to survive for even longer without basic foodstuffs. Not having been raised in Communist Russia, it was a rude awakening when our supply chains actually stuttered and choked, but among the many painful lessons we have learned this year, we all now know what life is like without flour, rice, milk, eggs or guacamole... and it isn’t pretty.

As we learned to survive without avocado products, we learned to be creative with our consumption, depending on what was — or more often was not — available at the grocery store. This meant snacking on everything from cheese puffs to whipped cream (not at the same time, I hasten to add; things were never that bad), and nearly always finishing the day with a drink in hand. A bottle of wine has 22 Weight Watchers points, and I was only allowed 23, so as my wine consumption increased, I was faced with some cruel choices: three full meals plus a snack, or one cracker and a bottle of wine? That sort of starvation math never worked for me, so I just glibly pretended that the wine calories didn’t count, added them to my carefully-tracked healthy food choices for the day (whipped cream has surprisingly few points), and gaily ignored the clever little markings on my Weight Watchers wine glasses that are intended to inspire self-restraint.

Among the many more important lessons I have learned of late, I also discovered to my horror (for the Weight Watchers app is full of all sorts of horrifying discoveries, just like the newspaper these days), a small-sized, ostensibly-healthy, eat-your-greens-type smoothie at Jamba Juice, whilst offering far more obvious health benefits, has as many calories as an entire bottle of wine. (Yes, really!) Forget the greens: pass the corkscrew, please.

But the food and especially the wine served their purpose: I needed a way to numb myself, very slightly, to the realities that we have all faced during this strangest and most difficult of years, as we have watched and waited for an end to the nightmare that is gripping this nation (since March 2020, but also since November 2016), and hoped against hope that it would resolve itself and we could wake up to a better, more recognisable reality.

So the food and the wine were, especially in those early days of this pandemic, a form of comfort, a way of taking the edge off of days which were decidedly sharp and spiky and painful. And during these endlessly edgy days, accomplishing anything — anything at all: folding the laundry, making a phone call, waking up — feels like a cause for celebration, so on days which aren’t officially terrible, I like to celebrate. (Which means wine, not smoothies, and cheese puffs, not apples.)

Celebrating seems perverse and sometimes wrong these days, but not celebrating also feels like a missed opportunity. And so I seize the day by seizing another bag of tortilla chips, and making (low calorie!) margaritas, because who knows what tomorrow will bring and whether there will be any limes at the grocery store? At some deep level that it took me a long time to acknowledge, the lurking fear of COVID-19 meant that I treated every meal like that of a condemned prisoner: what if was my last? So despite the fact that I recently spent nearly 18 months doing Weight Watchers to lose nearly fifty pounds, I threw myself with gusto into this new carpe-diem-style celebrating. It’s not surprising, then, that the numbers on my scale have crept steadily upward, toward unseen heights, much like our COVID numbers.

So although I’m on a healthier slope these days, the corona-coaster has also been a caloric-coaster, at least for me. This is in part because the type of calories I’ve consumed — both liquid and otherwise — has been rather unlike my normal diet, especially at the beginning of lockdown and we were obediently staying home. We ate what we had and we didn’t complain. When a grocery delivery arrived, I celebrated the prospect of another week of fully stocked cupboards by eating two days’ worth of food. We were bored so we baked; we were frightened so we fried. My husband and children did a lot of cooking, while I dutifully enjoyed the fruits of their labours. All roads led back to the kitchen (and many to the wine fridge) and so my waistline grew as our world shrank.

When southern California started opening up again, we treated ourselves to marvellously indulgent meals. Having eschewed takeout for months — initially out of fear of transmission of the virus and then out of fear that if my husband lost his job we would need to save all we could for that very rainy day — we were overjoyed by our first dinner delivery. My daughters and I actually hummed and sighed with happiness as each delicious bite from our local Greek restaurant melted in our mouths. Just as we were emotionally exhausted, so were our palettes, after weeks of pasta. Desperate for anything new and different, we went around the world in 80 (well, maybe 8) restaurants: we nearly cried with happiness at a plate of calamari; our tears of joy merely added to the sweet saltiness of our sushi; we danced with delight at our first Thai takeout in months. Whether we were eating because we weren’t entirely sure if there would be food on the shelves the next week, or because we were celebrating there being food to spare in restaurants, we ate. And ate. And ate.

My growing children could get away with this; my exercising husband could get away with this; I, however, could not. And so, eventually, something had to give. Perhaps it was fearing that the extra pounds meant extra risk from the very thing we’d been trying to avoid all along. Perhaps it was mere vanity, in my case. Or perhaps we were simply, finally, bored of eating and drinking, just as we have eventually bored of so many of our other quarantine pastimes, like TV and video games. Whatever prompted it, we have turned a corner. Our daughters are dancing again; we go on family jogs; sometimes — just sometimes — I choose veggies over vino; I stand on the scales occasionally and wrestle with the truth.

We are also wrestling with some very difficult truths as a nation. Just as I am forcing myself to be accountable about my choices, so must we force our leaders to be accountable about theirs. Just as I have acknowledged that something has to change to return myself to my best version of my self, so must this country acknowledge that something has to change. My personal realisation that I need to look in the mirror and be honest with myself comes alongside a national realisation that we need to reflect on ourselves as a society and truly see that we cannot continue as we are, any longer, if we are to return to the best version of ourselves.

We are often told that we need to accept ourselves as we are. But sometimes acceptance is not a good thing. Sometimes we need to fight. Against excess weight and bloat, against apathy and resignation, against gluttony and greed, against blindness and selfishness. I’m not giving in to this place I’m in now; I’m not giving up on my better self. Nor should we as Americans: we need to take this fight to the ballot box, so that we can get back to being who we really are.

As I have watched my weight go up, not down, we are all also watching and waiting for this country to go up in the estimation of the world or else down in flames, to return to sanity or else to dissolve into chaos, to grow up or else to blow up.

We all need to look into that mirror and ask ourselves what truly matters. Would that it were a magic mirror, which could tell us the future: not who is the fairest (we know which one that is), but whether our election will be fair, whether the results will be accepted, whether goodness will prevail over evil.

Without that magic mirror, it remains to be seen how this story will end.

So we watch. And we wait.

And we hope.

  • katherine halligan

It has come to my attention that some of my lovely, loyal readers were unaware that I sometimes share my reviews of books we’ve been reading. This is not entirely surprising, since I’ve only posted three to date… including my newest, which I’m sharing today. It saddens me that I have not posted a book review since June. I started this project — as I start everything I undertake — with great gusto. But, during these strange times, often my energy has deserted me entirely… as have my creativity, my positivity and pretty much every other good -ivity I might normally possess.

But with the arrival of autumn and a return to school — of sorts — come renewed doses of all of those good things, and so here I am again! We read many books over the summer, but we often lacked the will to finish, so September was an especially productive month on the literary front, as we got into our back-to-school routine. With mandated distance learning for the first few weeks, that meant curling up together with a stack of books in the afternoons, as we used to do in the early days of lockdown — and as we did when my children were very small and still unburdened by schoolwork and busy schedules — and we got just the comfort and joy we so sorely needed.

So if you’re interested in seeing what we’ve been up to on the reading front, please head on over to the “Books We Love” page on my site, where I have every intention of sharing reviews a bit more often… and enjoy! (Please note that I do not include publisher or price information since I have readers in multiple countries, but all of the books we love are available at any good bookseller — and I would encourage you to support your local independent bookshop, of course!)

  • katherine halligan

I was horrified to hear the news yesterday that the highly regarded, internationally renowned and generally brilliant Institute of Latin American Studies (or ILAS, for short) at the University of London — where I earned my Master’s degree in Latin American Literature and Culture, with Distinction, thank you very much — is about to be closed, almost without warning and almost certainly without due process, by the British government, presumably in some wildly misguided cost-cutting exercise.

Now, if we take a moment to pause and reflect that the leader of that government is simply a younger, blonder, more intelligent and better-educated (so shouldn’t he know better?) version of the hopefully-soon-to-be-ex US leader, it’s not really a surprise. The decision to close it most certainly didn’t come from the chancellors of the University of London, for it was they who out of desperation started a petition (to which you can add your name, if this terrible tale moves you to action: ), in hopes of persuading the powers-that-be that this would be a terrible decision. We don’t know if it will succeed but, as with voting, we need to make our voices heard and, as with voting, there is a hope it might change the outcome.

But whatever happens, this whole episode is — sadly and deeply worryingly — a sign of the times. Insularity and nationalism are valued over broad-mindedness and globalism. Individualism is rampant, and is tearing apart more countries than just this one. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, another pandemic of me-ism rages too, and they’re not unrelated. The countries which are having far more success in tamping down this virus are places where concern for community comes before concern for self, where broader social ties matter as much as personal ones.

As we drove past our local park yesterday and watched a large gathering take place — we counted around fifty people, all unmasked and closely packed together, eating and drinking and celebrating something that was almost certainly less important than the lives of the guests, many of whom were elderly — it struck me once more (as it hits me all the time, on a daily basis) how America’s individualism and hedonism may well be America’s undoing. Pleasure and personal gain are prioritised over caring for those whom we don’t necessarily know and may never see; individuals fail to take responsibility for their actions, unaware of or wilfully heedless of the consequences. Of course when the leader of our country not only doesn’t take responsibility for his actions but lies his way towards his own preferred version of events, in every instance, it’s no wonder that we find ourselves in this state of affairs. The leader whom I sometimes call the Clown-in-Chief (or CIC, pronounced “sick”) and more often the Dictator-in-Chief (or DIC, pronounced… well, you know) is both the most prominent symptom and an absolutely mind-blowingly enormous problem, but he is not the only problem: the problems that plague America are legion.

If this makes me sound like a disloyal patriot, please know that I am not. But I do not conflate a love of my country with an inability to criticise it; there is a vast difference between patriotism and nationalism. Having lived in many different places — Argentina, Spain, all over the UK and US — I have learned, of course, that it’s not what is on someone’s passport cover that matters, but what is in their heart and mind. The flag to which we swear allegiance is but a symbol; instead, the people we love are what binds us to a place. So it is true that I am bound to many places, and have left little pieces of my heart all over the world. This diaspora of my self has also occurred through the diaspora of friends who — after coming together in the UK, a shared country that welcomed us all in — have returned to whence they came, taking a little bit of me with them, too. And so I have friends in well over a dozen countries around the world, and know people from many dozens more; that internationalism is part of who I am, and I would never change it. I love the idea that the whole world lives in America — with every country represented in many of our states — but I am also deeply saddened that so many have been made to feel so unwanted of late. So with the love and the pride also comes a large and healthy streak of frustration, disappointment and anger at the way immigrants are being treated in a nation that was built by immigrants, as well as the ways in which the original inhabitants have been treated for far too long.

My ambiguous feelings about my homeland are mirrored — in a far more minor way — in my ambiguous feelings about my alma maters (or, if we’re going to get geeky about the Latin, my almae matres), which in Latin means “nourishing (or nurturing) mother”. The Institute of Latin American Studies was, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, if perhaps very slightly inclined away from nurturing students on an institutional level — so in fact it was indeed a lot more like that redoubtable nanny than a mother. We were left largely to fend for ourselves, but that was partly cultural, partly because it was graduate school and we were (supposedly) adults, and partly because they knew they could rely on their truly excellent staff to make us feel cared for and to help us grow as humans and not just as scholars. I loved my time there truly, madly and deeply, and am continually grateful for the entire experience.

My first experience with higher learning, though, was less successful than my second, and the term alma mater could not be less accurate in my case: Duke was neither my mother — thank goodness I had an excellent real one, who’d given me the tools I eventually remembered so that I could survive my time there — nor was it especially generous or nourishing to my soul. That much-vaunted institution suffered from the same issue of administrative diffidence, but on a much greater scale, and it mattered much more — not least because we were merely 18 when we arrived, but also because it had fewer redeeming qualities to balance that failure by the administration to make each student feel as if they mattered.

If it weren’t for the incredible friends I made there, I would have felt like I’d been thrown into a shark tank, given the lack of supervision by any responsible adult (yes, technically we were adults ourselves — but truly we were still children). It was an uncomfortable place, fraught with many problems, from a male-fraternity-dominated social scene to a lack of diversity, both of which were later thrown into the spotlight in the lacrosse scandal that finally exposed what happens when those two yawning chasms collide. Much has improved following that racial and social reckoning, but at the time, there was a lack of truly caring, committed leadership during my first year that got me off to a rocky start.

Then during my sophomore year (I’m not sure about the wise part, but I was certainly often foolish) the newly appointed (female) president undertook to banish the party school atmosphere in favor of emphasising the academics, which had started to take second place to the fun, and that ship slowly began to right itself. I certainly enjoyed my share of fun, but the lack of truly meaningful guidance for any student who wasn’t pre-law or pre-med meant that I was adrift during my time there and for a few years afterward, anchored only by some extraordinary professors and some amazing fellow students who became friends for life. Should I have gone to a smaller college with a stronger support system? Yes. Am I glad I went to Duke anyway? Yes, actually. It opened doors for me and changed me for the better, in ways both great and small.

Just as they are imperfect institutions, so I am an imperfect alumna; just as this country is imperfect, so I am an imperfect patriot. Although I do donate to many excellent causes that I hope will help this country heal itself, I never donate to Duke (surely, their massive endowment and the astronomical tuition is enough) and I never attend any events. I did once purchase a collegiate license plate frame (a distinctly American entity) in a wine-fuelled internet shopping moment when we had recently returned to the US. Other than an irritating propensity to get bent going through the drive-through carwash, though, and the instigation of a brief, bonding nod-and-smile with a fellow Subaru-Outback-driving-license-plate-frame-owning Duke alum in the local post office parking lot (I mean, what are the chances? We’re talking about a pretty narrow sliver on that particular Venn diagram), it did nothing to change my life; buying things rarely does.

More to the point, it actually actively annoyed me because its principle flaw was terribly incorrect Latin, which I had graciously (but, in the end, foolishly — or should I say sophomorically?) overlooked during aforesaid wine-fuelled internet shopping moment: it said at the top “Alumni” (which is the plural Latin for the male alumnus, but not for the female alumna, for even one male in the group makes the whole group male, in an astonishing but pervasive example of linguistic sexism), and at the bottom “Duke University”. However, as I am neither male nor plural, it really bothered me, increasingly so as the weeks wore on. And so, in a fit of feminism and Latin geekery, I removed it from my car. By myself, with my own tools, of course. Take that, you alumNI!

I also have not watched a single Duke basketball game since graduating (which, to translate for my international friends, is something of a religious experience for most Duke alums, male, female, singular or plural) nor have I gone to a single alumni event. Aaaagh! There it is again: so male! So plural! So insidious! Get me a wrench. In fact — since I’m more at home talking about grammar than basketball — why not subject Latin to the same equality movement taking place (quite rightly) in Spanish grammar? Just as we now refer to Latino and Latina people as Latinx, rather than assigning the male-dominant gender to every plural group even if just one of them is male, why not just say, “alumnx”? Because, of course, it’s totally unpronounceable with that “mnx”, I hear you say, so it could be “alumnox” (which I quite like because it sounds like equinox, which makes it feel more official) or “alumnex” or “alumnux”. The possibilities are endless. And the Romans are long gone (and anyone who ever took Latin will be familiar with the rhyme that blames the language itself for doing them in: “Latin is a dead old language,/ dead as it can be.’ First it killed the Romans,/ and now it’s killing me!”), so they can’t protest anyway. So there! Alumnox it is. Gendered-grammar rant over.

But I digress (doubly or triply), so I’ll come back to a few points. The first of which is that I didn’t watch any college basketball, of course, because I lived in Europe for nearly twenty years (18 in the UK to be precise, plus a year in Spain, but in this post-Brexit world I feel it’s important to stress that I was living in Europe, because — hey, guess what — BRITAIN IS IN EUROPE; it certainly isn’t in Australasia), and US college basketball games were rather harder to come by. A lot of American phenomena were harder to come by, and that was good for me. I had to adapt and, in that process, became a better, more interesting person.

Over time, just as I’d learned in Spain to eat my fruit with a knife and fork, I learned in England to live without decent peanut butter, to speak quietly, to articulate and enunciate more clearly, and to (always, always) carry an umbrella. And of course I learned so much more than that. It is impossible to live in a city like London without also loving and embracing diversity, for British tolerance and inclusiveness are infectious, and I knew I belonged in just such a place from the very start. I ate the cuisine and shared the languages and had friends from every continent (except Antarctica because, well, as much I like penguins and would enjoy chatting with them, I can’t speak penguin and raw snailfish doesn’t really appeal), and with every bite and word and hug I felt like I was a citizen of the wider world.

I’ve digressed again, but I’ve also very neatly ended up where I was headed all along (see how I did that?). Because of course this is not simply about my lacklustre (or indeed simply lacking) loyalty to an alma mater: this is about the notion of loyalty and belonging on a much larger scale. As we consider the probable sad fate of a highly esteemed and once-vaunted educational institution, let us all agree that it is more important than ever to strive for tolerance and open-mindedness, learning about and appreciating other cultures, about the ways in which people and places can mother us and nurture us — in the truest sense of the words alma mater.

This is about how we need connections, on a global, international level, as well as on a personal one. And how better to connect as countries than by first connecting as people? We need institutions like my beloved ILAS to bind us together, across oceans and miles, to help us understand other countries, their cultures, languages, histories and politics.

To help us understand their people, so that we in turn can be better people.

To help us become better people, so that we in turn can better understand both ourselves and the wide, wide world around us.

To help us nourish our own souls, so that we in turn can help nourish the world.

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