Listening to Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan I laughed so hard I almost fell off the elliptical machine.
There are many things in the world that I hate. Abortion, starving children, everything that comes out of Amy Schumer’s mouth (sadly, that now includes Old Navy), finding ants in the kitchen, taking the metro to the airport (I always end up exceptionally sweaty), the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons. A year ago I would have added “working out” to this list.
I played sports when I was young. I swam and played basketball. I was outside for a great deal of my childhood. When my father died I gave up all of this. He died in the parking lot of a state park after we had finished a hike. He fell over dead in front of my mother, my younger brother, and me.
In my heart both nature and exercise had betrayed me. After a “holy shit how have you not already had a heart attack!” hospitalization and surgery, my father did everything he was told to do. He took his medication, changed his diet, swam everyday, and lost weight. One of my most vivid memories of my father is that at 4:30 in the morning he would grind coffee beans in our blender (we didn’t own a coffee grinder) to make his coffee before he went to the pool to swim before work and I would come downstairs to glare at him for waking me up. (For his birthday my mom had helped me buy him a coffee grinder. He died the day before his birthday, and she returned all the presents. I have never owned a coffee grinder and I never will. Whole bean coffee in my home is not a part of my life.) Despite all his effort he died two years later. Add to the fact that he died after we had been spending time “marveling at the glory of God’s creation” and getting some cardio (both of which I was complaining about loudly without cease, because I was sunburnt from my swim meet the day before) like good people should, and basically this is what my (almost) twelve year old brain came up with:
FUCK THAT EXERCISE AND EATING WELL BULLSHIT. DOCTORS ARE LIARS. NATURE IS A HIPPY LIE. STAY INSIDE AND EAT WHATEVER THE FUCK IS IN FRONT OF YOU.
My twelfth birthday party happened to also be my father’s wake. (I always win the “I hate my birthday” contest!) There was cake for the wake, but my aunt also bought me a special birthday cake. It was a chocolate cake with chocolate icing from the most expensive bakery in town. She didn’t make me share. She let me keep the whole thing for myself. My extended family is a minefield of hurts, rivalries, misunderstandings, and grudges, but of this aunt I have never had one single unkind thought.
To add insult to injury, my father’s death (which was smack in the middle of an 18 month period which also saw the demise of my grandfather and grandmother) and my subsequent renouncing of all forms of movement happened to fall just as I was entering puberty. Middle school kids are awkward. All of them. There is no exception to this rule. Puberty does not discriminate based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or how adorable you were as an infant. Seemingly overnight I became both uncomfortably tall and stout. I became the equivalent of a potato with two toothpick stuck on the underside. In the spring of 7th grade, about 9 months after his death, a boy in my class named Kevin followed my friend and me out of school one day. I was taken out of class for mandatory counseling 3 times a week and this irked him that I didn’t have to be as bored as he was. He was following us spouting some nonsense and I was crying. Finally my friend turned to him and shouted “leave her the fuck alone her dad died!” (I love that girl to this day. She was the best.) He laughed and replied “what did she do? Sit on him?” In not the last rage black out of my life, I swung my backpack at Kevin and knocked him on his ass. Guess who ended up in mandatory counseling 5 days a week?
This incident taught me two lessons. One: guys are horrid. Two: there is no excuse for being fat. (I didn’t say they were good lessons.) I was already convinced that a combination of systematic lies and my complaints had killed my father, and now I was discovering that being fat was proof of my guilt. This whole mess of dysfunction has taken this last 20 plus years to untangle. (Still a work in progress.)
I started to deal with that “outside” thing first. A few years ago, in the second conversation I had with my AHM, I ended up telling him some of the details of my father’s death. It is an unfortunate occurrence that our workshops are at the end of August, when I am the most maudlin about death and grief and my birthday. I didn’t mean to be so chatty with a stranger who was suddenly my boss, but, things happen. Sometimes, you talk because someone needs to tell you something.
AHM: “Did you ever go back to the state park?”
Me: “No. I probably should go back.”
To be clear, I haven’t been back to that particular state park. But, it pushed me to rethink my stance on the great outdoors. A niggling feeling had been creeping up on me that I shouldn’t shun all outdoor pursuits, that maybe there was something to see that I would be sad to miss. My AHM’s question was what I needed to realize that I didn’t have to be consumed by that feeling, but rather that I could change it. Nature didn’t have to be tainted by my grief.
Over the last two years I have developed a true desire to be in nature. I’ve come to look forward to camping and hiking. I take my students on hikes, even though my sweating and labored breathing puts me at a serious power disadvantage. Through sheer force of will I convinced my mother and sister that they wanted to spend part of their summer camping as well. I’m researching what I would need to do to take a 6-week hike on the Appalachian Trail. I don’t always freak out when confronted by a giant spider.
Consistent physical activity in order to improve my health, now that has taken a bit longer. I’ve gone through little bursts of “I’m going to lose weight!” These periods last a few days, usually include a purchase of shoes, and after a couple humiliating trips to the gym, end with tears and ice cream.
10 months ago two thing happened in the same weekend. I went to my 10 year collage reunion and my friend Andie got engaged. In order to make it to my reunion I had to fly from DC to Dallas. Trying to take my seat I realized that I didn’t fit. I mean this. I didn’t fit in the seat. So, while internally panicking and thanking my past self for buying the upgrade to be in the first boarding group, I braced my hands on the overhead bins, aimed my hips, and shoved my ass into that seat. I had to do the same thing on the flight home. It was a nightmare. Almost as soon as I touched down a group message came to me from my name-twin in Seattle. Her boyfriend proposed and they’d be getting married in a year. The confluence of these two events spurred me to take a new approach.
I contacted my friend Dan about advising me on a workout plan. His wife, my dear friend Alissa, had told me he’d done this for his sister and she’d been really successful. It was only the burn of humiliation I felt on the plane that allowed me to overcome my embarrassment in asking for help. I was half convinced Dan would laugh at me and say “you’ll never be better than you are.” Of course, he didn’t. He came up with a plan. I came up with a hashtag. (#DanFit)
I hated it at first. I felt stupid. My belly kept hitting the tops of my thighs. I just wanted to eat everything. (And I did!)
For a while nothing seemed to change. I didn’t lose any weight. I was starting to move a little easier, but I really looked about the same. But I didn’t want to tell Dan that I was giving up. There was this bit of public knowledge about what I was trying that kept the shame part of me from admitting that I would just rather be fat. Slowly, and I mean slowly, it got easier for me to climb the stairs, my pants got looser, I started to see some muscle definition in my arms. I still didn’t not-hate working out, but I didn’t hate hate it. It was working.
I was trying on a dress about a month ago. In the dressing room I took off my jeans and shirt, slipped the dress over my head, and immediately thought, “yikes, I need to shave my legs.” I turned in the mirror, went up on my tip-toes to see what heals might do for me, and took a picture of myself. I was redressed and paying for the dress before it hit me. I had had no anxiety in that dressing room. I wasn’t angry or sad about the way I looked or the size of the dress. I hadn’t turned away from the mirror while undressing. I hadn’t wondered what I could skip eating to make the dress fit better. I was a bit stunned. I couldn’t remember a time when trying on clothes was anything but an embarrassing and stressful task. I smiled to myself. Maybe I could get behind this working out thing.
Today I was sweating like a beast. My arms were in so much pain, because I’d taken about 3 (read 6) weeks off while I was at home visiting my mom and sister. Yesterday I’d lifted for the first time since June, so each push and pull on that damn elliptical was a struggle. Even so, I was so absorbed in listening to Jim Gaffigan talk about the difference between being a foodie and an eatie that I completely forgot to hate working out. I wasn’t screaming in my head “this is the worst and I hate everything so fucking much I want to barf!” and there was enough space in my brain to follow sentences. Apparently, if you just keep at it long enough, you can both struggle to stay upright and laugh at the same time.
I guess I could say I like working out. (Almost.)
(4 Years, 10 Months, and 22 Days Sober)