I have always struggled with my weight. Losing it didn’t mean winning.
I remember standing in the shower, in sixth grade, feeling disgusted with my body – grabbing a handful of my flabby belly and thinking, “That’s not who I really am.” I recited, unconsciously, the cultural scenario. And so, at 12, I called on my willpower and started jogging. By the end of middle school, I was quite thin. In high school, I was a good athlete. In retrospect, I think what really made me slim was the hormones and the growth spurts. But that realization became a pillar of my teenage identity, a story I loved to tell about myself: I was a fat kid, a kid living under a genetic curse – but then, through the miracle of will and self-discipline, I overcame .
Or have I actually overcome? What diet stories tend to omit is that following a restriction, people almost always regain weight. The story of a life is much longer than the story of a diet. Over the decades, my weight fluctuated a lot, I oscillated between the poles of excess and restriction, appetite and control, abstinence and snacking. Or, as my grandfather might say, flavor and nutrition.
I have one alter ego whom my wife calls, with loving wonder, Fat Sam. She first met him on our honeymoon. We had been driving all day, rolling through the high desert near Santa Fe, watching huge thunderstorms flicker over black mesas, trying to get where we were going – and when we finally did, in the middle of at night, hungry and exhausted, the only restaurant open was Denny’s. And the only thing that crossed my mind was to merge, body and soul, with the first cheeseburger that passed by.
The moment my meal arrived, the universe seemed to crack in two, like an eggshell in the hands of a line cook – and a whole new character crawled out: Fat Sam. Fat Sam attacked the food in front of him with wild urgency. While I was eating, my wife kept trying to say something, start a conversation, but I was chewing, or near the end of chewing, or just at the beginning of chewing , and I raised a finger as if to say, yes, wait, just a second, I have an answer for you – but then at the moment of swallowing, when my mouth was briefly clear, when I could have spoken, I Immediately put the cheeseburger back in my mouth and take another bite. I was in a sort of trance. I was like a horn player doing circular breathing. At one point the waitress came over and said, “How are you?” and with my mouth absolutely overflowing, looking like a drunken man, moaning with almost sexual ecstasy, I shouted, “Oh, that’s REALLY REALLY good!” — and everyone in the room realized at the same time that she wasn’t even talking to us but to the table behind us. Fat Sam didn’t care. He kept cramming the universe into his face.
This sudden, lumpy palimpsest – the absence of her body, the presence of mine – struck me, at that moment, as outrageous and weird and sad and embarrassing and funny.
The classic diet slogan that impressed me so much as a chubby kid – “Inside every fat person, there’s a skinny person waiting to come out” – should, in my case, be reversed. No matter what my body looks like at any given time, Fat Sam lives inside me. I recognize now, in fact, that Fat Sam represents some of my best qualities: curiosity, joyful appetite, lust for life, satisfaction in the moment. Fat Sam’s mission is to consume the world in giant sips of joy. It doesn’t even have to be food: it could be naps, video games, jokes at a party, walks, free throws, reading or petting a dog. Anything that satisfies a need, anything I’m hungry for. And in this transfer, in this passage from outside to inside, in this radical appropriation, there is a validation of existence, a proof of being, which I refuse to reject. Fat Sam, in many ways, is valuable and good. It is a funnel into which the universe pours, the pinch in the hourglass. It reminds me that all of life is, in a sense, appetite. Even restriction satisfies a hunger – the hunger to restrict. When I have chosen to deny myself something, it is Fat Sam who feeds, greedily, on this denial.
One of my My favorite photo is a selfie I took 10 days after my dad died. It contains a strange paradoxical energy: mourning and joy, comedy and grief, end and continuation. I took it from the guest bathroom at my dad’s when, while rummaging through his old stuff, we discovered a treasure trove of vintage jogging shirts. My dad was an avid runner – he moved to the hotbed of jogging Eugene, Oregon during its heyday in the 1970s when the local shoe company, Nike, was booming and legend Steve Prefontaine was running in the streets with his famous mustache. My dad had a mustache like Pre’s, and he used to run those same streets. Year after year, he amassed a huge collection of T-shirts from Eugene’s annual Butte to Butte race. Going through them was like stepping back in time: wild colors, outdated designs, fonts that morphed to follow the styles of different decades.