My family doesn’t have a lot of Christmas traditions. We open presents on whatever day everybody can get together. Mama has always had an artificial tree. The ornaments are whatever’s on sale at Kmart. But we always had my sister Brenda’s peanut butter logs.
Nobody remembers exactly when she started making them, or where the recipe came from. We’ve had them at Christmas for as long as I can remember. Every year Brenda and Mama would coat them together, getting chocolate all over their hands and the stove. They’d pack the logs in cookie tins. We’d get them out after the big Christmas meal. If you wanted to take some home, you had to hide them. Otherwise, they’d be gone by dark.
But then, on Christmas Eve 2014, Brenda died from a leg infection caused by her excess weight. She was older than me, but I was even bigger than her. On New Year’s Eve that year, I weighed in at 460 pounds. I had always known I had to lose weight and get in shape or I wouldn’t live much longer. But Brenda’s death set that feeling in stone. I went to her funeral and saw my future.
I set out to find a way to lose weight in a steady, sustained way. No crash diet. No fad of the month. Just make sure my calories in were less than my calories out. Little victories, every day.
I craved a Big Lebowski life. Drift along, hang out with friends, keep a cocktail in hand at all times.
A year later, not long before Christmas 2015, my wife found Brenda’s recipe in our recipe box. We decided to make some and take them to the family as a Christmas surprise. I was worried about two things with this plan. One, we might ruin Christmas. Two, I might eat all the logs before we got to Georgia.
That’s the kind of thing the old me would have done. Most years, over the five or six days around Christmas, I’d eat 25 or 30 peanut butter logs.
In 2015, I had four and a half.
Years ago, I saw the author Tom Wolfe speak. His novels tend to be about people who let their lives get way out of hand. In his speech, he criticized the “loose life” he saw so many people trying to get away with — shaky morals, bad habits, ready-made excuses. Problem was, the loose life sounded great to me. That’s what I’d always hoped for — a life I could live however I wanted, without any real consequences. I didn’t want to murder or pillage or cheat on my wife. I didn’t mind working — I’m a writer and I love to write. But otherwise, I craved a Big Lebowski life. Drift along, hang out with friends, keep a cocktail in hand at all times. Skip the White Russians. Give me bourbon over ice.
The loosest life I wanted was with food, because food has given me more pleasure than anything else. That doesn’t mean I like food more than sex. It just means I haven’t had sex three (or four or five) times a day for 51 years. I’ve eaten too much of too many bad things for the cheap thrill of it, trying to stay one step ahead of paying the price, like a grifter kiting checks. I knew how much it would cost me later. But I craved that moment of joy, now.
That’s the way a child thinks.
My wife Alix and I started using the word adulting around the time I got serious about losing weight. When we would wash the supper dishes right away instead of waiting until midnight, we were adulting. When we filed away papers instead of letting them pile up in a stack, that was adulting, too. I’d come to realize that adulting is the only way I can beat my addiction to food.
My childhood didn’t give me a great start. I was a sedentary child who grew up on the normal Southern diet for people who stayed on their feet all day. I learned to love all those calories as friends when I didn’t have many. As I got older, my choices made things a whole lot worse. I gravitated to salt, sugar, and fat (and the fourth element: alcohol). I never cared enough about myself to think it mattered. My approach to life sent me off in the wrong direction, and it took me forever to turn around and head back. I don’t know how close I got to falling off the cliff. It’s foggy out there. I could slip and fall. All I know is that I’ve finally walked away from the edge.
I wrote up a little guide to my adulthood:
- I have to lose weight to have a longer, healthier, more meaningful life.
- I have to do it in a way I can live with tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
- I have to find other sources of joy and solace, especially in hard times.
- I have to accept delayed gratification.
- I have to mute the self-hating voice in my head.
- I have to believe that I’m worth saving.
- I have to do all this not just for myself, but for the people who love me.
I had resisted those things all these years because it felt like so much work. It is work. But the loose life — the life that looked like so much fun — turned out to be a fraud. It got me to 460 pounds. It made me an actuarial disaster. It threatened my life. It limited me more than a disciplined life ever could.
Let me tell you what it felt like to lose just 25 pounds. That may not sound like much. We see the stories on the cover of People, all those women who lost 150 pounds in a year. Judged by that standard, you might think 25 pounds barely matter. But go to the gym and pick up a 25-pound dumbbell, or go to the hardware store and lift a 25-pound bag of mulch. Hold it for a while, let it be part of you. Think about the load you have to carry. Now set it down and walk away. That is how it felt for me.
Food will never be just a quick, cheap pleasure for me. Sometimes it’s a path back to the best moments of my life with the people I love. Maybe I kept eating because I kept trying to find those moments. Only now do I realize they can be small and sacred. A peanut butter log and a sip of sweet tea wouldn’t pass for a church Communion. But here, now, it’s enough.