Lifting Weights

One of the things I liked so much about William H. Gass’s A Temple of Texts was his returning to the analogy of literature as both food and exercise. At one point, he describes how a passage by the estimable John Hawkes “nourishes more certainly than lunch”, or at another says that a passage from Dickens is “like a meadow, there is so much that is tender to be chewed”. And this, from the first essay in the collection, was what really drew me in:

“The healthy mind goes everywhere,” he writes, “one day visiting Saint Francis, another accepting tea from Céline’s bitter pot—ask for two sugars, please—and hiking many a hard mile through Immanuel Kant or the poetry of Paul Celan—a pair who will provide a better workout than the local gym.”

Books have been my food, sustaining me through empty mealtimes when the coins have been in short supply. They’ve been my booze, as intoxicating as any wine (“Books,” Gass has remarked, “need to breathe, too.”) . But, alas, they’ve also taken the place of actually getting up off my arse.

Then

Me in about 2006.

There was, not so very long ago, a time when actively participating in sport was a regular part of my life. I used to play football daily, and rugby for a team. Then, as I became a reader (and a drinker), it became football monthly, perhaps, and rugby not at all.

Oh, I joined gyms, took up running and swimming, but never for long. The only thing I ever kept up for any sustained period was lifting weights – big weights, lifted for not so many reps, so my 6’4″ frame was supplied with large, but very undefined, muscles. But in my second year of university, illness, firstly physical and then mental, meant that even the time on the benchpress ebbed away to nothingness. I still play football, but in the spring and summer, and I never instigate it; only follow along when others organise it.

My only workouts have become mental ones rather than physical. I am constantly seeking out more and more challenging books, whereas once I might have saved some of that ambition for keeping in some kind of shape. It’s one of the reasons the quoted essays by Gass resonated so much with me: they’re, to a degree, justification. I’m completely projecting, of course, but on some level, I think my subconscious suspects that the same thing that happened to me happened to Gass.

Whether or not the man is making excuses for himself with these seductive turns of phrase, as I am for myself, though, I wouldn’t be so rude as to speculate. And I’m absolutely not saying that reading or writing or being clever makes you fat. But there’s something about fat writers or intellectuals that seems somewhat endearing, isn’t there? G.K. Chesterton was the size of a small moon, and who could imagine him otherwise? As Hemingway’s prose became leaner, his belly grew in response. I’d cuddle Umberto Eco as I wrap my mind around his brilliant essays. Stephen Fry was of a morbid corpulence around the time he did his In America programme.

Me in 2009

Not that I’m comparing myself to such men; simply wondering if they shared my predicament, just like when I was an asthma suffering child I was heartened by the news that Ian Thorpe also had it (I was a competitive swimmer once upon a time). Perhaps, also, I’d subconsciously wished to emulate them. At my peak weight, a little bit after the photo above, I was around 21 stone (294lbs), the same weight as Fry before he heroically lost 6 stone in as many months. A similar crash diet dropped this to 17 (238lbs), but I still wasn’t happy with my appearance. I’m one of these people who is constantly checking themselves out in mirrors, which probably seems obscenely vain to others. Whereas, in fact, it’s simply because my self-image is extremely fragile. I feel fat, constantly, even now as I type, as well as ugly, ungainly and uncouth.

I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant to say that my appearance and my intelligence have correlatively had an inversely proportionate relationship. Because it’s also the case that my self-confidence and my joie de vivre have generally gone the same way as my looks. In that 2006 above, I was cocky, brash, self-confident. I had things to prove. I was nervous, sure, and frightened; very, very frightened, as only teenagers can be. But I was yet to suffer real heartbreak, betrayal, loss, or the dull banality of lengthy major depressive episodes…

…God, this has all gone a bit LiveJournal.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary about any of the above. Most of us get lazy, intellectually or in day to day life. Most of us aren’t happy with our appearance, but feel like we’re banging our head against a brick wall when we try to change it. We all have identity crises to some extent. I had – I hope I had – my quarter-life crisis a year or two early, but that’s not unusual. All of us, especially those of us in our mid 20s, idolise our late teens with rose tinted spectacles – I remarked to a friend recently that I even miss the enemies I had then! Alan Moore’s superb spoken word piece, The Birth Caul, is some of his finest writing for this reason:

“17 is like gold, slow and hot in the warm drunken blur of the crowd, in the heartbreak and sway, and we dream we’re the people in songs, suck our cheeks in like filmstars with walk-on parts. We wear our moods like t-shirt slogans: garish, confrontational… but quickly dated, easily discarded. Everything is possible, a glorious potential deep inside our chests. Nothing’s decided yet. We could still turn out to be anyone.”

But that potential, whilst not as raw and unshaped, never goes away, and it’s a shame when we lose sight of that. I’m sure it’s the case that anyone who is obese now as I have been, or much older than myself, or suffers from a more acute or manic depression, would read this and tell me to count my blessings.

Now

But that sounds a bit complacent to me. So, back in early April (it’s mid-May as I type), I decided to, at the very least, lose a bit of the fat that still seemed to define my appearance.

The course I began was one of those 8 week boot camp things. To motivate myself, I told people I was doing it, so that when they asked about it I’d have to have something to tell them.I didn’t exactly follow it to the letter – I was too large and out of shape to actually complete some of the workouts. In my defence, after the very first one, the instructor, who is a martial artist, was sweating and out of shape; I could feel the sweet touch of death approaching.

Nevertheless, I bore with it, and energy did return to me. Unfortunately, I did two and a half weeks of it before the black dog descended, which I told everyone was “an injury” (there are maybe a handful of people in my life who know I’m depressed – I’ve never had the courage to “come out”). I think partially it was the routine, which is something I’ve never had much endurance for. Other factors I won’t discuss now also played a part.

I did stick to the diet, however. The results thus far:

5th April                                   19th April                                 15th May

It’s not a dramatic change, and I’m certainly slouching in the first two pictures (though this wasn’t any sort of pre-emptive attempt to emphasise any weight I did lose: like a lot of tall people, I slouch out of habit). Really, all I’ve done is cut a bit off the beer belly and lost some jowly flab. Nevertheless, I am pleased. I feel better. You can clearly see that the muscle I gained in the second picture has wilted away, but I never particularly wanted to be big.

I’m also pleased to report that my reading hasn’t died off as a result. I finished Wittgenstein’s Nephew yesterday, enjoying every word of it. I hope this balance can be maintained, perhaps by adopting the Fry method of listening to audiobooks whilst walking. I’ve rediscovered LibriVox in the last few months, so it’s certainly an option. The above is a flattering final photo and I’m still not exactly thin, but it’s shown to me that a change is possible. It could well be that, like I have in the past, I let it all fall apart again, but I think the key thing has been making lifestyle alterations I feel I can stick to, rather than just going mental for 8 weeks and then letting myself go afterwards.

The diet, for the record, is dead simple. If anyone wants to try it out, (not that you’d be consulting a book blog in lieu of a nutritionist or anything), here are the things I’ve allowed myself to eat:

Carbs: Whole grain pasta, brown rice, vegetables, brown bread. Avoid: syrup, dairy products, white bread, white pasta, white flour, table sugar, honey.

Protein: Oily fish (tuna or wild salmon), skinless chicken breast, poached eggs, beans, lentils, almonds. Avoid: red meats.

Fats: Peanut butter (brilliant, eh?), avocadoes, olives (and cook with olive oil). Avoid: saturated fats, such as red meat, poultry skin, butter, cream, whole milk.

Superfoods!: Citrus fruits; berries; green tea; a handful of either walnuts, brazil nuts or pecans; oats; spinach; tomatoes.

Avoid the bevvy, and drink lots of water.

I realise all of this has been a bit of a nonsequitur in a blog that’s primarily about literature. I don’t normally like talking about myself, but getting all this out and putting it up online is cathartic for some reason. At the risk of sounding Cartesian (or just pretentious), it’s the psychological weights that are the hardest to lift.

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