Authors: Patricia Pearson
AREA WOMAN BLOWS GASKET
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
When She Was Bad
and Other Tales
from the Domestic Frontier
Copyright © 2005 by Patricia Pearson
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from
the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Bloomsbury
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Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, New York and London
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manufacturing processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Pearson, Patricia, 1964
Area woman blows gasket : and other tales from the domestic frontier /
1. Canadian wit and humor. I. Title.
8i4'. 6— dc22
First published in the United States by Bloomsbury Publishing 2005
This paperback edition published in 2006
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The other day, I had to write an op-ed for
which meant that I had to formulate an opinion about something in the news, and this required tracking the news, which is
like following an exploding bag of confetti. Facts fly out of media damnably fast, with spectacular aimlessness, and pundits
who try to pursue those facts develop something less like wisdom and more like ADD.
"Did you know that the average person swallows five spiders a year?" I asked my husband last night.
"No, I did not," he replied, "and don't tell me you're going to write a column about it."
"Actually, I don't plan to," I said, "because, also, the Middle East is burning down, and some woman sued McDonald's because
she burned her mouth on a pickle, and the actor Richard Harris died, and he had cancer, and women who took the Pill in the
sixties are more prone to breast cancer, and cancer charities are being given stock options as a new form of donation, and
donations are up for Hillary Clinton, and so are polls, and a new poll suggests that more people in Europe are smoking pot,
and pots are on sale at Wal-Mart."
"I don't suppose you remembered to buy cat food at the corner store," my husband replied.
"No, I forgot," I said. This is how conversations go in our house— I believe the term is
"But," I added, "it would help if the dog stopped gobbling the kitten kibble in addition to his own specially formulated
Science Diet for Seniors."
Of course, my husband likes to point out that our dog and three cats could subsist quite happily on an undifferentiated blend
of sparrow corpses and wood chips, if I would just stop buying into the "science" and "expertise" of the pet food industry.
But I cannot. I read the news. How, in good conscience, could I feed them dead birds when a "new study shows" that only
specially formulated Science Diet for Seniors
— or a similar competing brand will ease digestion in older dogs? How, for that matter, could I, as a worried mother, wife,
and woman who wants to reach a ripe old age, ignore what "a new book argues" or what "scientists now believe" about anything?
As I write, a new study shows that "three out of four mothers have no idea what should be in a balanced diet for their children.
Food fads and health scares are so common, it has left most mums confused."
Indeed. That is one way to put it. Addled, guilt-ridden, anxious, constantly at cross-purposes trying to keep up— those are
other phrases that spring to mind.
But not to worry. If the news proves too vexing, you have choices. You may choose not to follow it, with the only real consequence
being that you never know when the emergency evacuation orders are issued for your town or the cheese you've been feeding
your children has been abruptly recalled from the shelves.
Alternatively, you may choose to follow select streams of news, pertaining for instance to global warming, the possibility
of abrupt climate change, terrorism, and what's up with Brad and Jennifer. Otherwise, ignore the headlines, and calm yourself
down with therapy of some sort. I've tried this. It turns out that there are some challenging choices along that road, too.
You find yourself whacking through a thicket of options in terms of retail, pharmaceutical, athletic, vacation, or talk therapy,
and then have to select from all the vast bemusing subsets to be found therein. So you might skip therapy. Seek wisdom instead.
Dabble in kabbalah and change your name to Esther, hire a pet psychic, have your palm read, audit every single course at the
Learning Annex. There are so many contradictory possibilities, you could write a book about it. Certainly, I did.
But first, I confronted a basic choice, an A or B question that I highly recommend your answering: Stand in your kitchen clutching
parenting books in one hand and credit card options in the other, while the cats eat the dog's kibble and the phone rings
off the hook, and decide whether to laugh or to cry.
The other day, I bought some organic maple syrup, because I'd read something alarming in the paper about lead being present
in ordinary maple syrup. I'm not sure if this was because the sap was being stirred with pencils or because the syrup was
simmered in vats covered with heavy X-ray blankets. But all neurotic parents know that lead exposure will either kill their
offspring or turn them into violent psychopaths. And it is my job, my calling, my necessity and pleasure, to guide my two
children through the shoals of a childhood filled with fast-flowing traffic and pedophiles, pesticide residues, asbestos-lined
walls, and lead-infused condiments to a safe footing on the shore of adulthood. So I purchased some organic syrup, and then
I went home and poured it onto a pair of Eggo Waffles.
After a few bites, I put down my fork and stared at my plate. This is sort of silly, I thought. What health advantage am I
pursuing? Surely whatever lurks in ordinary maple syrup couldn't be worse for my family than the unidentified substances that
menace our bodies via frozen waffles. If I'm going to be a good mother, I should buy organic waffles.
Thus I went to my local health food store and immediately confronted the domino effect of one organic ingredient demanding
another. Organic flax-seed blueberry waffles cry out for organic butter, which in turn demands to be spread on organic bread,
or at least on English muffins crafted of spelt, which then require, as logic dictates, a container of organic jam. And so
forth and so on, all the way across the food chain, until one has no money left to pay for the children's shoes. Eventually,
I drew the line at soybean potpie. People who won't eat organic chicken in a potpie shouldn't eat a potpie; they should eat
something else. Like a tofu burger or a chickpea steak. Or really what I am saying— to myself, since I'm talking to myself
in the health food store— is that vegetarians ought to get over their weird conceptual attachment to meat and stop eating
pretend-meat products. Carnivores don't try to make their meat taste like vegetables, after all. They don't go to rib joints
and ask for shredded pork slaw or salads made of giblets.
I also refused to buy vegan lip balm.
"What's vegan about this lip balm?" I asked the proprietor, a handsome Asian man with a slicked-back ponytail and a white
T-shirt pulled taut over his muscles.
"No beeswax," he said, which failed to enlighten me.
"What's wrong with beeswax? Is it bad for you, or are the bees being maltreated? They're not free-range bees? Is that it?"
"It's a vegan thing," he said, mysteriously.
And then there was this bottle of tablets for dogs, made of spirulina, whatever that is. The product billed itself as "the
natural alternative to eating grass."
"Look here," I said to the proprietor. "Grass is natural— you can't say that it isn't."
He shrugged, indifferent. "Spirulina is probably better for them." Fair enough . . . I guess. But my dog only ever eats grass
when he wants to throw up, in which case he could just as easily eat rancid mutton as a ten-dollar bottle of substitute grass.
As a matter of fact, my sister's futon-size golden retriever, Biscuit, recently ate a tub of margarine, a container of peanut
butter, and a Toblerone chocolate bar, all in the same afternoon, and vomited most commendably for hours. But each to his
I finally stopped walking around the store in bafflement and focused on the selection of organic waffles for sale. The problem
with them, I found, is that every brand on the shelf was not only organic but also milk-, egg-, and wheat-free, and therefore
composed entirely of hemp.
I don't understand why wishing to avoid pesticide residue and lead should prompt me to abstain from recognizable food. What's
wrong with making waffles with organic milk, organic eggs, and organic wheat?
I wanted to ask the proprietor this, but I was afraid he'd accuse me of badgering him. I bought a pack of Nature's Path Organic
Optimum Power Waffles and slipped out of the store.
For the time being, I see myself as being in transition, or recovery. If anyone peers into my larder and notes the intriguing
admixture of Minute Rice, Jell-O, and organic soy risotto, I explain with a vague, embarrassed wave of my hand that my standards
of nutrition are changing slowly, bite by bite.
I note that a new outreach project is under way in New Hampshire to rope bucking, struggling men in to see their doctors.
At least once in a while— for an annual checkup, if nothing else, which sounds like an attempt to address the age-old quandary:
Why do normally bold, forthright men turn into Siamese cats hiding behind the drier when faced with the prospect of seeing
In my house, the scenario generally plays out like this:
"Ambrose, your head is falling off."
"Oh, is it?" Cursory glance in the mirror. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Well, don't you think you should go to the doctor?"
"I will, yeah."
Two days later:
"Ambrose, your head remains connected to your neck by one sinew. Did you phone the doctor yet?"
"Uh, no, I was going to, but I had to go to the hardware store to get some widgets to fix that old paint-shaking machine I
found in the basement."
"Well, why don't I make an appointment for you?"
One week later, addressing husband's fallen-off head on basement floor: "Ambrose, did you go to the doctor this morning?"
"No, I rescheduled. I had to download the B-side of Mike Oldfield's
"So when are you going to go?"
"Well, either next Thursday, if I can, or probably never."
My husband successfully avoided the dentist for fourteen years until his jaw started exploding with pain, forcing him to go
for one visit. I had to drop everything I was doing to drive him— after which he never returned, preferring to grit his teeth
rather than treat them. Why does he do this? Because this is the manly thing. Even for men who don't put much stock in their
masculinity otherwise, who happily diaper their babies and cook supper and listen attentively to their wives. As soon as their
wives say "Go to the doctor," they go deaf and inexplicably morph into James Bond.
In New Hampshire, the project coordinator Chuck Rhoades is bringing men together at their workplaces on the understated theory
that men won't go out of their way to visit doctors. He plans five weekly group discussions on health, hoping to eventually
elicit their specific, personal concerns. (When men do show up at a medical facility, according to Rhoades, they don't tend
to mention specific ailments to the doctor unless the doctor specifically asks, which means that men must visit clairvoyants
at the local Psychic Expo before receiving effective treatment.)
My father and my husband get along very well because at the end of the day, they're just two fallen-off heads sitting on the
floor together in front of the TV, watching golf. My mother and I relate in a different way, which is that we pester each
other incessantly with developments in health news, contacting each other by cell phone with snappy, tersely worded updates
like a pair of FBI agents working a case. My mother sends me the Brown University health research newsletter every month,
and also magazine and newspaper articles on new drugs for yeast infections and anxiety disorders and hangnails, while I report
to her on what I've heard about colon cancer and conduct disorder and moles.
I find most of my news on the Net. Most women, I think I can safely say, are totally done in by the Internet when it comes
to exploring their concerns about health. Let us say that one evening, after spending an hour in the bath washing the hair
of eleven Barbies with my shampoo, my daughter Clara complains of "a pinchy feeling" in her bum. My first impulse will be
to say, "Oh, I'm sure it will go away shortly" Because such things do. But then I'll get to thinking about it, and be up in
my home office checking my e-mail, and just start Web surfing a little bit on the matter of pinchy bums, and quickly lose
touch with the space-time continuum. A study reported in 2004 by C & R Research in Chicago found that American mothers are
now spending more than twice as much time on-line as they are watching television, and we all secretly know why this is. Officially,
mothers report their Internet use as a timesaving measure. They need to cut to the chase. They need to Google
playing when?" and "Internet banking" and "old boyfriend from college: where now?" in two seconds flat.
But go on, just set "Dr. Mom" loose on a computer database that can access every medical library on the planet and see if
she doesn't get as obsessed as any adolescent playing multi-player Dungeons & Dragons for thirteen days straight. One innocent
symptom, like itching, can lead into a haunting catacomb of demonic illnesses and all of their prognoses and treatments. By
two A.M. you're phoning a doctor: "My daughter is itchy— could she have this disease I've just learned about called onchocerciasis?"
All mothers become the woman played by Susan Sarandon in that movie
who single-handedly researched her son's ultrarare condition until she found a possible treatment. But none of us other mothers
actually have a plausible illness to tackle; what we have is "eye aches" and "pinchy bums," and we can't figure out how to
end the heroic maternal struggle and triumph with a conclusion, rather than Web-surf into infinity. So eventually, bleary-eyed,
and fully aware that our husbands are watching golf with our fathers with their fallen-off heads on the floor, we throw up
our hands and return to the Googled query: "Ex-boyfriend, where now?"