Thursday, April 01, 2010

Sometimes the fat boy wins

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, autobiographies

From birth, Frank Bruni was the best eater in a family of big eaters. All his life he struggled to "just lose that extra five or ten pounds." But as he chronicles in Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, Frank was fighting a losing battle until he got a fresh look at himself, courtesy of a rude brother and a practical doctor.

Though he wasn't the oldest of the three boys, he was the biggest and tallest. And though he'd been called "fat" in school, family stuck up for family. A talent for swimming saved him in his school years. Years on the swim team, and winning meet after meet, made him both more popular and more slender than he expected. Not that he was ever skinny. But even though he was "just a bit wider than the rest of the team" he was fast off the blocks, fast on the turns, and such a powerful swimmer that he won, time after time. So during those years, he comforted himself that though he might be "a little overweight", he wasn't obese.

In his college years, swimming and running, along with episodes of bulimic purging and other desperate "dieting" measures, kept some of his demons at bay, but frequent splurges and binges eventually got the upper hand. Finally, in his early thirties, at a big family event, he and his brothers were teasing one another as boys of any age do. He made one quite telling dig at one of his brothers, who responded, "Yeah, but at least I'm not fat." The bomb had been dropped, the family's conspiracy of silence cracked.

Not long after that, he had to visit a doctor, for the first time in many years. At the scale he said, as he always did, "Don't tell me. I don't want to know." The doctor looked right at him and said, "It's 268 pounds." He could do the math. He'd weighed under 190 just ten years earlier. He didn't have a "five or ten" problem; he needed to lose more than seventy pounds! (Strange, though, he claims his pants size at the time was 42. He must not carry much around the waist; I wear 40's and 42's, and I weigh 220, and I am taller.)

Fortunately for him, he was making the kind of money that he could afford a good trainer. He was writing for the NY Times, on a political beat, and spent 3-4 weekly sessions with a trainer at $70 per hour, plus running, plus learning to eat more sensibly. But training, training, Training was the key for him. By the time he was sent to Italy to be Rome bureau chief, he was in much better shape.

Italy! The land of Food! How would he ever stay this side of 300 pounds? No longer hiding from himself, and not willing to accept his proclivities as fate, he observed the Italians. They ate such great food, yet they weren't fat. In fact, most of them were downright skinny. Portion control was the key. They would have one of something, where he'd been contemplating three or four. A few ounces of a pasta dish, not a few pounds. Smaller portions and continued training brought his weight nearly down to 200, and really bucked up his confidence.

He needed that confidence when the Times called to offer him a post as restaurant critic in New York city. Whatever will a born fatty do when he is being paid to, even required to, eat at the finest restaurants seven or eight times per week? So far, for the most part, he has done just fine. It takes a couple of trainers, one Pilates and one more traditional, plenty of running, and the discipline to eat just a bite here and there of the many dishes he must sample daily.

You know how, at a wine tasting, you take a sip, swirl it in your mouth, and spit it out? Well, he doesn't spit anything out, but most of any dish is left uneaten. He's hot hiding from himself any longer. He knows what he is, and he also knows what he has to do about it. His grandmother had a proverb, "Born round, you don't die square." I guess it is the Italian version of "round peg, square hole." He observes that it isn't fate. He sees how one of this brothers has changed over the years, and it heartens him as he continues to do what he must to stay in the "big, but not obese" category.

He is just over forty, having lived about half his life. Maybe in twenty years or so, he'll update us on his progress in the "middle years."

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