The Count of Monte Crisco: My Life Escaping Food

I wrote this on my iPhone on the exercise bike and Stairmaster to capture my psyche at the gym. The photo here was my view.

I am in the gym on a sunny Saturday, pumping away on an exercise bike. Only two-dozen of us regulars are sweating it out in the cavernous hall of machines. The piped music throbs absurdly across the vacant expanse. People are out living.

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In front of me is a whippet of a young woman in her uniform of spotless white ball cap and tight gray running bra stretched across her taut, tiny torso. Her spine bulges off her etched back muscles like a tanned hose pipe. She’s churning on the elliptical, earbuds in, eyes front.

The whippet is my spirit animal.

Four out of five Americans don’t exercise enough, the Centers for Disease Control says, and partly as a result, two-thirds are overweight or obese.

I have always had a problem with food, and I have tried to escape it with exercise.

Among my earliest memories are butter-and-sugar sandwiches on white bread: I can taste the cool butter slice and feel the sugar’s sweet crunch. Don’t blame my mom. It was the late ‘60s in The South.

So I was fat. And ashamed. “You can’t even feel this under all that fat,” a kid said at elementary school recess, punching me hard in the little-kid rolls of my stomach. He was right — not that I couldn’t feel it. I felt it plenty. He was right to punch me for being fat, I thought. It never would have occurred to me to tell an adult. Why? So they could think, “Well, you are pretty fat, kid.”

The TV screens above the whippet’s head show three women’s midriffs demonstrating amazing weight loss. The skinniest is Rubenesque compared to hers.

It was not correct for a male to be fat, to hate that, and to try to change that. That was my belief growing up. Girls worried about their “figures.” Guys whipped their shirts off with no qualm of circumspection and worked in the sun bare chested. That’s what men do.

Unless you’re me, I thought into the bathroom mirror, where a disappointed and guilty me provided habeas corpus.

The whippet is off her elliptical, doing curls in front of a 50-foot-wide wall of mirrors. She finishes a set and trades a long barbell for two dumbbells. I am impressed.

When I was 16, I discovered jogging, as the world called it then. P.E. never had any impact on me except chafing my thighs and self-esteem. After-school sports were a bit better — at least slightly fun. But I was the slowest, always the slowest. It’s hard not to feel alone with your body when you’re watching people leave you behind.

Running, as the world calls it now, was a revelation. Could I literally flee my obesity? I tried, running through our tree-lined neighborhood at night, alone but in motion, my heart beating with a rhythm of determination, and in step with something big. Nature? Or just endorphins?

The whippet marches from the crunches area, past me, and into the ladies locker room as my exercise bike rolls past an hour.

Adulthood has often been a dungeon of food, and me in a body cast of shame, a Count of Monte Crisco.

Adulthood has often been a dungeon of food, and me in a body cast of shame, a Count of Monte Crisco. And exercise is a rescue party avenging my true nobility, over and over. In the dungeon, sprung free; in the dungeon, sprung free. Daily.

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Me in 2004.

And I seek to avenge food with exercise in longer-term metabolisms. I am currently fleeing my body and gaining a slight lead. I am down two belt sizes from a month ago, and around 100 pounds from my highest weight, a dozen years ago. Don’t congratulate me yet. I am still pumping, at 77 minutes on the bike at my precious level 14. Twenty-three minutes to go. Everything after two hours is extra credit.

I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I eat.

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A friend also goes to this gym. We are very close, and discuss our jobs, partners, families. And food. In nightly emails we compare notes. “Toxic day physically, with coffee, sweets,” I wrote him in July. On St. Patrick’s Day I wrote him that I was cutting out carbs, something I never thought I could do.

Yet I am doing it, at my doctor’s near insistence. And it’s working. Someone needs to tell my head this.

For I am still a small child with a butter-and-sugar sandwich in a beefy little fist. I am still a fat kid hurting from that playground punch. I am still a teen-ager running after redemption in the night.

The whippet has disappeared, perhaps out into the sunny Saturday to live.

I have switched to a Nautilus SC916 Stairmaster. Level 2. Wrapping up hour 2 of cardio. The red digital numbers say I have 12 minutes to go. My deliverance is ticking away, but I have not arrived and sense I never will. I always want to do so much more to try to get ahead. To get some kind of comfortable lead on food and my body and my thoughts.

But it is better. It is so much better than it was.

Written by

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist working in the blogosphere. Once sold books to Johnny Cash. My Medium post about that was praised by Paris Review.

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