My boyfriend Pete always preached it. ‘’Moderation.’’ The word would curl off his tongue in slow motion.

The first sermon was delivered over Sunday dinner at our favorite brew pub. I was halfway through my third glass of chardonnay; Pete was still nursing his first pint of Amber.

I’d gotten the news a week before: my cholesterol was 240. Inconceivable. Unbelievable. My blood boiled in its clogged arteries at the injustice. I was doing everything excessively right: running 60 miles a week, lifting weights three times a week and eating complete protein dinners of black beans, brown rice and corn.

Pete — a man who lunched regularly on thick crust, extra cheese, pepperoni pizza and who hadn’t lifted a dumb bell in a year — registered a measly 170 on the cholesterol meter. ‘’Genetics,’’ my doctor had explained. ‘’Read these pamphlets, cut your fat intake, and we’ll retest you in six weeks.’’

So, being the kind of person for whom running less than eight miles doesn’t seem worth changing clothes for, I made it my mission. I resolved to watch every morsel, read every label, eliminate every inkling of fat from my diet. No coconut oil, no palm oil. No cheddar, no Swiss. No Skippy Super Chunk. No double-stuff Oreos. Six weeks of deprivation. I’d trained for the Big Sur Marathon in less time. This should be easy.

It was with this fat-free mind set that I perused the dinner menu while nibbling on unbuttered beer bread. Maybe the spinach tortellini — without the creamy Alfredo sauce. Or the Caesar salad — without the croutons, the Parmesan or the dressing.

But I had run 15 miles that morning. I didn’t see why I should deprive myself. I knew exactly what I wanted: the juicy quarter-pound charbroiled cheeseburger, well-done. Topped with bacon and avocado. With a heaping side of double-garlic fries.

My sensible and selfish selves battled it out. Rabbit food or cheeseburger? Deprivation for a greater good or immediate gratification? Life or death? Faced with this titanic struggle, I did what any immoderate person would do: I burst into tears.

‘’What’s wrong?’’ Pete asked.

‘’I can’t find anything to eat. I really want that cheeseburger but I know I shouldn’t eat it. This isn’t fair!’’

A slight exaggeration

And so began the sermon: ‘’Do you think you might be overreacting? One little cheeseburger isn’t going to kill you. Now, if you ate one every day for the next five years you might have something to worry about. Just remember: mo-der-a-tion.’’

Upon hearing the little ‘’m’’ word my body tensed as it does just before a nurse plunges a needle into the crook of my arm.

Previews of my moderate future began rolling on the movie screen in my head. I’d be eating six small meals spaced evenly throughout the day, just like Glamour magazine advised. There’d be no more starving all day on a triple cappuccino and a sesame bagel in anticipation of a four-course, three margarita Mexican dinner.

Watching ‘’Melrose Place’’ with my sister Andi would never be the same either. Midway through my pint of non-fat chocolate frozen yogurt, I’d put down my soup spoon and confess, ‘’I can’t possibly finish this — it’s too rich.’’ There’d be, of course, no more dashing off to 7-Eleven for a second pint at the commercial break.

Never again would I have to worry about messing up my hair hurtling down the freeway with the sunroof open. Inching along at 55 mph in the slow lane, I could leave my hairbrush at home.

At Starbucks, I’d start ordering half-cupfuls of lukewarm decaf. Involuntary 50-blink-a-minute eye twitching would become a distant memory. As would third-degree palm burns from cheap paper cups. I might even sleep through the night.

When the practice of moderation is suggested to me, I feel like a little kid being told to color within the lines. ‘’Make the sky blue, the grass green, the trees brown.’’ To live a life of moderation is to carefully balance the scales. Avoiding the summits and valleys. Rationing out my ecstasy and agony like drip irrigation.

All or nothing

But in the skyscraper of life, I don’t want to be stuck on the fifth floor listening to elevator music. Give me the penthouse or the parking garage, the Rolling Stones or total silence.

I want to drive with the top down in the dead of winter. I want to blanket my Thai chicken pizza with enough crushed red chilis to make a Clydesdale sneeze. I want to overdose on a new man every day for a month and then drop him like a postcard if he isn’t deemed worthy to father my 12 children. I want big, messy goodbye scenes at airports. And sob uncontrollably at the end of ‘’It’s A Wonderful Life,’’ even if it’s the 63rd time I’ve seen it.

And yes, I want to eat cheeseburgers, one each day for the next five years if I so choose. No more sobbing at restaurant tables for me.

But please, don’t get me wrong. Moderation does have its place in my life. In fact, I ran into Pete on New Year’s Eve and told him one of my resolutions — to start practicing what he had always preached. Struggling to control his smirk, he asked, ‘’So, what’s your first target?’’

‘’Mo-der-a-tion,’’ I beamed back. ‘’In getting my cholesterol level in check.’’

published monday, january 8, 1996, in the san jose mercury news
copyright 1996 jessa vartanian . all rights reserved
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