One of Mark Twain’s many bon-mots concerns smoking cessation. “It’s not hard to quit smoking,” he said. “I’ve done it hundreds of times.” Well, I feel the same way about dieting. I don’t know what happened. When I was a little kid, I was rail skinny. My parents were so worried they consulted with the pediatrician. How could they fatten me up? By the time I was 11 or 12, though, things had changed dramatically. They were now taking me to Barney’s, a men-and-boys clothing store in New York City that specialized in garments for the big and stout. Awe, as the Hawaiians say. It’s the Polynesian equivalent of Oy Veh! Now my worried parents were calling the pediatrician about something quite different....
I never dieted as an adolescent. At boarding school, which I started soon after the Barneys expedition, I was physically active, playing soccer, swimming competitively, and participating in track and field. I lost weight naturally while gaining muscle. But I was never again a bean pole. I remained slightly over just right, which felt pretty good. The threat of Barneys was now history.
As an adult, I became a regular jogger and tri-weekly tennis player. That helped a lot. Indeed, it served as a dike against the tidal onslaught of my sugar addiction. Still, I was consistently overweight though not obese. I managed to hold Barneys at bay, but my pants were often a bit tight. It was in this period, my thirties, that I began a series of diets. Generally, they were successful. I would lose 10 to 20 pounds. Suddenly everything fit better. My pants were even loose. And I had to tighten my belt by several notches to keep them up. But the joy was always short-lived. All my good dietary habits—lessening or even avoiding sugary treats—were left behind. I was in good shape now, right? So why suffer, let’s celebrate! In a lot less time than it took to shed those pounds, I gained them all back, generally with a few extra for good measure. My heroic self-discipline had again been in vain.
Now, at 82, my wife and I get annual visits from a United HealthCare nurse practitioner to make sure we are in good health. They always reward us with little branded gifts, from umbrellas to shopping bags to potholders, plus a $15 Visa card that arrives a few weeks later. This year I checked out fine on everything except—you guessed it: For my height, down 2 ¼ inches from my prime, I was too heavy. “Mr. Feldman,” she said. You really need to lose some weight.” So, I decided to use this year’s Lenten discipline to that end. Starting this Ash Wednesday, I’ve given up sugar, starches, bread and crackers, and alcohol. And importantly, I’ve decreased my portions markedly. As I write these words, it’s eight days and 6.5 pounds later, with 17 to go. This time I’m intent on not falling back into my old habits. Losing has never been my problem. Yet the momentum of history is strong. It’s not getting there but staying there. Of course, there’s always Barneys. Sorry. It is now out of business.