The Years Before Bodily Reality Set in
For three years during high school I wore 5 pound ankle weights every day. This odd attachment corresponded to three hour workouts at the downtown Buffalo YMCA during summers where I relentlessly ran and pumped iron to take my paltry upper body into a realm in which I could actually be competitive on the field with the other teenaged Neanderthals who wanted express their youthful rage. In so doing, I discovered that I had the anomalous lower body strength of a world-class weight lifter (as many reps as I could do for as many sets as I cared to do of leg presses at well over 600 lbs – the “full stack” on a 1960’s era Universal Gym.) If I attempted anything like that today, I’d end up zooming around in one of those mass-marketed motorized wheelchair-cum-scooters.
It was only through these efforts in the service of my football career, the concurrent early teen growth spurt, and the imposition of some desperately directed dietary regimens I’ll describe later, that I achieved human proportions amid the culinary nightmares I gobbled up.
Leaving Buffalo to attend college meant that all of my food would now be prepared completely by others. I relied entirely on the nutritional values of 1970’s higher education dining halls and a college town’s all night purveyors. Going to a university out in the country actually meant that there were unfrozen vegetables to be eaten. Being at a university meant there was ethnic (Chinese!) food. I actually ate healthier food there than at any time previous for 3 whole meals a day….
But in college there turned out to be a fourth meal. – The After Dinner Dinner – usually a tasteless pizza, or a foot-long white bread torpedo encased mélange of meatesque products slathered in simulated cheese, plus quarts of cheap beer and baskets of bar popcorn all consumed at some post-midnight hour…and all of which, of course, created unprecedented weight gains.
Even in the “Why Not?” era of the 1970’s, a blobby body did not encourage others to engage with me in God’s original aerobic activity. Since even Ivy League football was far beyond my natural abilities, the dramatic dieting methods I used to get down to playing weight became my method to gain visual palatability when I went to college. Besides, I could not afford to buy larger clothing.
Since competitive dating abated when I graduated, I resumed a “normal” diet and an almost instant bloat overwhelmed my diminished body. After I temporarily de-massed for my marital photo-op, I fully embraced early career intensity and volunteered as an assistant football coach. I was having fun bashing around teenagers, working my butt to the bone, and eating what I wanted. I gained weight, but massive bulking up was forestalled until my 30’s.
So when my coaching stint fell victim to adult career focus, there was just too much to do to spend time thinking about my bulk. Predictably, as my post-20’s metabolism slowed and my food intake crept up, my body inflated. This did not happen instantaneously, but the occasional stunned look from friends and relatives who hadn’t seen me for a while would indicate to me that I was indeed changing. My own personal threshold of vanity being fairly low, I really didn’t care much about what people thought of my body. The extra mass didn’t in any way inhibit an aggressive pattern of living that involved extreme gardening, fully engaged child-rearing, and a career that ate up between 60 and 70 hours a week 51 or 52 weeks a year. I was literally fat and happy.
But not happy enough that I didn’t occasionally try to lose weight, although always in the self-sabotaging ways many men employ. After actually being entranced by, believe it or not, an infomercial called “Raising Your Fat Thermostat”, I boldly jumped into a regimen that involved eliminating refined sugars and fats, but eating all that I ever wanted to of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, etc. The guiding principal was “use meat as a spice” – which I did. However, that light spicing was applied to pounds and pounds of complex carbohydrates that, despite my trying to be physically active, allowed me to realize exactly zero weight loss over a three-month period. Other temporarily ardent “missions” included no lunch, no desserts, no breakfast, joining a gym, and any number of other modified limited hang-outs which resulted in one simple fact – I gained perhaps 100 pounds over 25 years of trying half-heartedly to lose weight.
By the time The Simpsons came on the air, I had begun to look like Homer, but I rationalized that I really wasn’t quite like him. I refused to butter anything — not vegetables, breads, or potatoes, let alone bacon), I eventually eschewed ordering fried foods in any restaurant, and I never let a restaurant put salad dressing on my salad, virtuously putting on the minimum amount necessary myself to add some flavor to the vegetation. I never ate white bread (except at restaurants), but always opted for any brownish version – a puritanically unbuttered guilt-freeing carbohydrate claiming to be “whole wheat. All eating was washed down with skim milk, diet soda or seltzer. No sugars or fats need apply. All of these reactions to my inflating self, effectively giving myself plausible denial of my obvious condition, were backed up in later years by working out 5 or 6 days a week in a desperate attempt to give moral cover to an obviously delusional eating plan.
How the hell could I have been so diligent in simulating reasonable eating and exercise and get a result that was so stupid and self-destructive as a double decade of bulking up? This result is especially odd given that I was never a “junk food junkie” – my post-childhood household never had the Little Debbie and Hostess products that have taken refined sugar to a new level of biohazard, let alone the chips and M&M’s that were anathema to my childhood table of fare.
I may have been distracted, but I sensed that there was an essential disconnect between what I valued (being a physical force) and what I ate – the very fuel that I used to support the body I used and abused so dramatically. Rather that deal with it, I opted to treat it much like visits to the dentist – it I could function, there was no need to take drastic action like having someone actually look into my mouth or step on a scale.
So in adulthood I never weighed myself, but instead gauged my size by my clothing. After my height stopped increasing and the clothing still kept getting tighter, I opted to move the goalposts continually by buying larger and larger clothing — until one day a couple of years ago I realized that the jig was up. I could no longer pretend that I was just “a big guy”.
My in-denial status should not be too surprising given its genetic precedence. One of my oldest memories is waking up to the hard and hacking cough that would occur between 6:15 and 6:30 every morning as my father prepared for a new day and was compelled to clear the throat that had been caked in the byproducts of his Kents from the day before. He never connected the coughing to the cigarettes until about a year before his death (expedited by emphysema). So within me was the same capacity for denial that allowed the physical reality of my fatness to be eclipsed by the psuedo-reality of my “healthy eating” and exercise.