Lessons in Antifragility


As a kid I spent summers in the forest, crouching to stroke the turkey tail mushrooms that clung to dead trees like kaleidoscopes of stuck butterflies, each wing frozen mid-fan. Turkey tails grow a different psychedelic layer for every season. They divine the coming of rain.

I wasn’t fat as a girl, but nubbins of poor nutrition ossified under my skin. Lacquered cereal for breakfast, gluey white bread sandwiches for lunch and an apple, rarely eaten. Shake ‘n Bake dinners, defrosted broccoli smuggled to the toilet in a napkin: an era of American life before we knew that if your grandmother doesn't recognize it as food, it's not. Correction: someone else’s grandmother. My Grammy Bet made casseroles with Velveeta and French’s Fried Onion Strips. In college I was the only one of my friends who couldn’t identify a fig.

Freshman year: skinny.

Antecedents: the first boy I loved, the time on the bus to see him, and sex.

The turkey tail has a pore surface: a net of holes used not for breathing or eating, but for sex. They could have called it a spore surface, but they didn’t. The boy kept my chemical exchanges brisk.

Sophomore year: fat, after he moved on. I joined Crew but it wasn’t enough. Four-thirty a.m. in a coating of frozen spandex, carrying a boat into water that was so cold it was gelatinous. Many calories died on the lake every morning but dining hall waffles paid retribution. The dining hall was a wonder. Any time after twelve you could get ice cream in a cake or waffle cone.

I groped for filaments of connection, but like the turkey tail I had no interconnected community, only a humus of clichés that didn’t help—generations of broken-hearted girls had leached them dry.

I adapted alcohol as a primary decomposer to keep the growing nubbins in check.

After graduation, I listened to NPR in the parking lot during lunch breaks at the medical records office. NPR made food sound exotic. It taught me that grandmothers were the canaries in the warrens of consumption these days.

The turkey tail creates white rot in deadwood but pays back a new fan of color every season. Note that while the turkey tail feeds on death, it is not parasitic.

  • A move to Minneapolis with no job and some savings: skinny in borrowed interview suits, saving calories for wine. Bright contrasts fissured my new personality. I was a living agate.
  • Minneapolis with a new boyfriend and a job, sprouting vivid cocktail dresses.
  • The boyfriend solidified into husband, a promotion, a budget unrestricted except by lack of time: my trunk increasing in girth, finds anchor in a shady dell of fixed rate mortgages.

I quit my job to stay home with the baby. Browny maroon fringes spread along the carpet—all stalky new growth and no blooms. In the mirror, leathery concentric circles.

Chablis in the morning between diapers. Vomit, shit, and shards of glass are the detritus of many species of terrified mother. A casual observer diagnosed self-destruction, but I was merely one of a common subset, scrubbing the Monday floor in a patch of light.

Silence when my husband came home, or a great deal of noise.

Without infection the immune system will turn on itself.

Crates of wine from the discount club proved less and less effective.

Three dormant thin years. Fat is unthinkable for mothers of a certain ecology and neighborhood. Thinness is clean survival, refusing anything but the basement price deal from Age.

I spread out to look for new sapwood when I lost two uncles to alcoholism. In managed forests, decay is tidied, turkey tails search for new fuel. Alcohol evolved into three AA meetings a week, coffee, and cigarettes. Swaths of time erased by Lysol before the baby came home from preschool.

Cigarettes and coffee gave way to breath mints and coffee. My brown fringes tufted into white mycelium, a web of tiny filament. We see the phenomenon in post-traumatic growth.

My daughter’s school lunches: a whole wheat cheese sandwich, a banana, and a cup of yogurt (only 10 grams of added sugar to get her to eat it). It’s not perfect, but it’s not Capn’ Crunch. “You’re too skinny,” my mother says. We’re video calling. She sits in my childhood backyard. Behind her I see new saplings tottering on gawky legs at the edge of the woods. These trees are new since I last visited, and I have a stupid thought: maybe the saplings evolved from the mushrooms.

“Are you listening, honey? I said, your grandmother wouldn’t recognize you.”

I smile. “Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that always the point?”  

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