Nonfiction: Karen Craigo
Fat Race Marshal
I’m just here for the donuts.
That may be the fattest thing I’ve ever uttered, but it’s okay. You have to own your body when you’re at the 6:30 a.m. registration for a 15K race, and all around you, very fit people are engaged in walking lunges or the dynamic pigeon pose. There is a table filled with healthy fruits and granola nibbles, but I opt for a glazed donut. Okay, two glazed donuts.
The university where I teach English is hosting a run today, and I volunteered to serve as a race marshal. My assigned spot is at the corner of Hampton Avenue and Locust Street, around the ten kilometer mark.
The race coordinator greets us volunteers and then turns the mike over to a man I know as a prominent local citizen, a university board member, and, fascinatingly, the brother of a movie star—and not just any movie star, but the person anyone would list first if asked to offer a quick tally of the most breathtakingly handsome stars in Hollywood. I admit it—I eyeball him and look for the resemblance, and it’s there. The guy may be one of the best-looking men in town, but I doubt he gets much satisfaction from that fact. Each day he is forced to compare himself to the five-time “most beautiful man” and two-time “sexiest man alive.” At any rate, this creditably handsome man—like a dim photographic double-exposure of his sexiest/most beautiful sibling—tells us that he’s glad we we’re giving our time to make the day go smoothly for the runners.
After receiving a brief set of instructions at race headquarters, I get to my post by seven for an event that starts at seven forty.
There is a sign at my corner with an arrow pointing right. I am a human arrow; my job is also to point right, only to do it in an orange safety vest covered in little crystals of donut glaze. If an arrow and a pointing human aren’t sufficiently helpful, I suppose the runners could just follow the person in front of them, or the very first runner could follow the bikes that go first to establish the route. Whatever method they choose, I can assure you, by damn, that no runner will get lost on the corner of Hampton and Locust.
Plenty of people think that if you’re fat, you’re lazy. I don’t know. It seems like if I were lazy, I’d be home in bed on a Saturday morning before the sun is fully up. I wouldn’t be sitting on the damp grass of the tree lawn, wondering why they had me get here so early that the race hasn’t even begun. I think it’s best not to compare oneself to others. You’ll either look ugly by comparison or you’ll look ugly by the act of comparing. My body, my face—it is what it is, and I have a fondness for both.
There is plenty of time to think while waiting for signs of a race. The corner of Hampton and Locust is not the cleanest corner in town, and as I sit cross-legged like a race-day Buddha, all around me bloom lotuses of fast-food wrappers, an empty nitrous oxide canister, and even a purple plastic tampon applicator. It seems like everything we do or don’t do leaves its trace somehow, and race day just brings that fact home.
I need to ask myself why I put myself out here where I am almost perfectly superfluous except as a study in contrasts. There are many opportunities to perform service, and were I to help with, say, a literacy-related project, I’d be in my element.
I don’t walk around all the time thinking about how fat I am. The thought seldom crosses my mind, unless I have to consciously condense myself to avoid eye-rolls from aisle-mates on an airplane or worry about the relative strength of a rickety chair. Maybe other people do think about that—I know they do—but I’m long past believing I can reliably tell what people are thinking, or seeing any profit in the activity.
Strangely, the bikes take me by surprise. I’m sitting on the tree lawn and picking at the grass, trying to think of a good name for my only friend, the tampon applicator (maybe “Hank”?), when two bikes round my corner. I scramble up in time to point the first runner in the right direction. The second runner is a whole block behind him, with several other racers close behind. The first runner is beautiful. His long legs reach, reach for more pavement, and he springs down the avenue like a rubber ball bouncing carelessly away.
Funny. The only people who could have used a helpful finger-point glided by without any prompting from me. There is literally no one who needs what I am offering, although I do have a phone in my pocket for emergencies. I have a sense that I’m meant to be more of a witness than a guide.
The reality of standing on a corner and watching a race is that there is no activity more human. I’ve had sex that felt less intimate than seeing someone round a corner while barking out hard breaths. There are a couple of runners whose thoughts I think I can read as vividly as if they were emblazoned above their heads in a running LCD display: “THIS WAS A BAD IDEA. THIS WAS A BAD IDEA. THIS WAS A BAD ….”
The leader was impressive as he breezed by, and he was far out in front of the pack. In the way that experts do, he made it look natural and effortless. He smiled and threw me a wave as he ran past. Plenty of the runners act like I’m not here. A few of the poorer runners act like they’re not here, and they shrink in on themselves and barely notice my helpful pointing.
I wish they would look up. While they may feel awkward about their performance in what may be a first-ever 15K, I feel nothing but admiration for the efforts of the best and the weakest among them. It all starts with getting up—with lacing one’s shoes and heading out the door to see what you can do.
I recommend carbs for the attempt.
At bedtime, we all pile in.
The double bed just fits my husband and me, but my older son has squeezed in since he was small—his whole life, in fact, and he is eight. There is also a spot for the cat—one spot for the night, and whatever happens, we work around him.
My younger son is one, and he has a crib in our room. But in the dead center of sleep, halfway between our turning in and our rising, he quite reliably screams, sobs—he is so alone, five feet away, and he is scared by it.
We get him then; we make a place.
Maybe you’ve seen any Cubist grouping by Picasso—think of his various treatments of The Women of Algiers or his iconic Three Musicians. In those paintings, it is hard to tell the boundaries of a person, and there is a sense that some shapes may be doubly claimed, that this triangle that seems like a foot may at the same time be another one’s hand.
We are that way, too, all of us angling to fit precisely in the canvas of the bed without spilling off to the side and mostly without overlapping. The cat, the center of the composition, may occupy any section—that is a given; he is not to be disturbed—and the rest of us must find a place where he is not.
Throw in an instrument and you’d swear we were a Cubist figure study, Woman With a Guitar, our outlines fractured and messy.
Three of us snore—the cat, worst of all, and the grownups. My husband wears earplugs, as if I’m the problem, and in truth I have awaked to find my older son’s hand on my face, trying to close some noisy valve. The younger one likes it, though. Sometimes when I wake I find his cheek touching my mouth. In sleep he found the source of the rumble and he drew himself to it, as close to it as he could get. There is something called not-being-alone, and it is a machine that sputters and gives out warmth.
Yesterday I woke up with his finger hooked into the hole of my ear—caught. I was his great fish, too big to discard.
Maybe it is a function of being a large woman in this society, where sometimes we are complicit in the illusion that we don’t exist. Even in sleep, though, I am acutely aware of my outline. I find the edge and claim it and am still. I make room. I may go the whole night in the exact same pose.
My older son is not like that. In sleep, he will kick the toddler awake, or throw a leg across my windpipe, or steal my husband’s pillow from under his head. He is the variable. I am fixed, the constant.
I remember how I used to sleep with my husband alone, both of us deliciously centered and so soft; we alone could be all the cushion the other required, and sometimes the blanket, too.
These are the years we are given to be together—pajamas and breath, skin and hair, one person’s dream spilling over into another’s. Last night in sleep we all pictured a gentle beast, huge and purring, off to the side, just happy to be part of the abundance.
Hang out with writing teachers long enough and you’re bound to hear some nonsense.
I’ve been a compositionist for a dozen years, and many of the people I know best manifest this affliction. Don’t split infinitives. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. And don’t write a skinny paragraph.
Ask a room full of writing teachers how long a paragraph is, and from some, you will receive a very precise response: five sentences. I met one recently who said three. That one was unusual—she didn’t say “at least three.” She just died in the ditch with the claim that a paragraph must be three sentences long, amen and amen. I tried to imagine her students’ papers, tercet after tercet marching down the page.
I grilled her on the matter. What about a single sentence of dialogue, I asked. What about interrupted dialogue, wherein a speaker gets out only a part of a word, perhaps followed by a dash? It seems to me like part of a word can be, and often is, a paragraph on its own. I can even envision a piece of punctuation as a paragraph, to express emotion, like surprise. What did she think of that, I asked her.
She didn’t really reply with an exclamation point, as much as I wish she had. Instead, she told me that fiction is different. Different than what, she didn’t say. Different, I suppose, than what she had in her head. But we were talking about writing in general, and we did not specify a genre. The rule was so engrained in this teacher that she couldn’t see past it.
I’ll admit it; in general, three sentences in length doesn’t seem quite sufficient for an average paragraph in an expository, academic essay. I don’t direct my students to count their sentences, though. Instead, I have them hold their index fingers in the air, and I ask, “About how long is a paragraph?” They hold up both hands and place their fingers yay-far apart. The first time I ask this, they posit that a couple of inches would suffice.
“Nobody likes a skinny paragraph,” I chide them.
Their fingers move farther and farther apart, and finally I offer a nod. A good academic paragraph may run half or three-quarters of a page. More than a page, I suggest that they may want to break things up for the ease of their readers. That’s not a rule, though, I hasten to tell them—more of a rule of thumb.
I would never suggest that a paragraph must have a minimum number of sentences. That strikes me as nuts.
I do wonder what gets into people and makes them throw out rules as though they are holy writ. This particular rule, though, I kind of get. People enjoy fat paragraphs.
I’ve been the fattest person on a beach. I’ve been in stores where none of the clothes go up to my size. I’ve been a fat date and a fat job applicant and a fat pregnant lady and a fat (but beautiful) bride. I’ve never felt that fatness got me any particular acclaim or appreciation, except maybe a few grade school field days when I was a fat member of the tug-o’-war team.
In prose, a fat paragraph looks like a developed paragraph. At a glance, it seems dense—thick with ideas and insights. Without reading a word, the audience knows that the subject has been given extensive thought.
No one looks at a fat English teacher and thinks that she has any particular substance, aside from corpulence. In fact, the thinking is that to develop an actual human body, one should chisel away at it until it is taken down to its essence.
As a poet, I sort of feel that way about writing—the more a writer takes away, the more room there is for resonance, and for what the reader brings to the endeavor. I have always felt that the reader half-creates any piece of writing, be it poem or treatise or term paper. Trimming the verbiage—going on a word diet—makes more room for the reader at the table.
I will not complain, though, about the widespread love affair with fat paragraphs. Keep your fairly unnecessary topic sentences, your sources and explication, your use of personal experience or anecdote. Heck, keep your concluding sentences that recap everything you just said and set up the paragraph to follow. No one really writes that way after they make it through their college composition class, but I can’t see where it does much harm. The real writers in the room figure this stuff out. Everyone else gets a basic sense of how to get by. They’re probably just going to buy their essays online anyway.
But which plagiarized essay should I purchase? What looks healthiest, the most likely to garner me an A?
Obviously, it’s the one with the fat paragraphs.
An isolated fragment?
I started to tell you right there: “Paragraphs should be fat.”
And allow me to add that it’s quite all right if the writer is, too. There is substance here.
Karen Craigo is the editor of The Marshfield Mail newspaper in Marshfield, Missouri. She is the author of the poetry collections Passing Through Humansville (Sundress Publications, 2018) and No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016).
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