June 8, 2003

Fashion Dos and Don’ts

I have been reduced to doing fashion makeovers in the subway. On our morning ride downtown, a man, about 35, took the seat directly across from me. With my daughter taking a commuter’s snooze on my lap I was just casually looking around. And my eyes rested precariously on his rather large shoes.

They were mottled burgundy oxfords with a wide, rounded toe and thick soles. The shape of the toe, their color, and their rather large girth had “clown shoes” written all over them. Not as big, of course. But the vision of those oversized bulbous foot coverings only seen under the big top refused to leave me. I began to look elsewhere but I couldn’t help myself. I kept returning to those shoes.

While I am an observant fellow, an artist and photographer with a decent sense of style (in my svelter days I wore vintage clothes from the 1940s and still collect men’s neckties from that period), fashion makeovers are not my usual modus operandi. Since my recent weight loss, however, (a 20 lb./9 kg. sack around my waist) I have noticed I am more conscious of my own dress. Obviously I had now moved on to critiquing others’ with a particularly odd vengeance.

In my defense, my family routines have been totally out of kilter for the last month. My wife went away for two weeks and I became sole parent to my two young ones: a gratifying, yet stressful state of affairs. And right after her glorious return my sister came to visit us for a week. Playing tourist and constant talks about old family craziness were not only exhausting, they left no time for my own internal processes.

Despite our normally overextended family life, I usually can find respites for myself and my creative urges. Without these moments of solitude I had been dreaming heavily and vividly for the last five nights. This morning’s aberration must have just been an extension of these basic human needs. If I had no control over my life, I seemed to be attempting to control a complete stranger’s. But I digress.

Were his shoes an aberration as well? I gave him the total once-over. Yes, men do look at men on occasion. He had a very long oval face. His haircut, short on the sides and longer on top, along with his below-the-ear sideburns, only emphasized his head’s length. No doubt about it. It was the wrong haircut for him. More bizarrely, I wanted to tell him so. Luckily, my daughter’s own head anchored me to my seat and I nonchalantly put my hand over my mouth to prevent any outbursts. I had prior convictions interacting with subway audiences.

• • •

The most expensive clothing I ever bought was a beautiful Hugo Boss double-breasted suit I wore with one of my vintage ties to my wedding 10 years ago ($1200 in 1993 dollars). I took it out of my closet to admire its clean lines and silky worsted wool. Is there any hope I will ever be able to wear it again?

As a child I was, to use the period vernacular, husky. My family used to laugh when they viewed a particular home movie of me waddling out of Sunday School at age seven (Quicktime, 435K). To this day, my sister still chuckles. I would too if the echoes of being called “fatso” by the resident bullies weren’t such a distant yet unshakable memory.

When I went away to college I decided my 5’9”, 184 lb. frame could stand a makeover. My first semester away from home I lost 35 lbs. When I stepped off the plane for Christmas vacation, my mother almost fainted right at the gate. I’d not only lost the baby fat around my waist but from my face as well. I was no longer the angelic cherub of my youth. It was a most triumphant return.

By New Years I was standing buck-naked in my doctor’s examining room. Mom made me do it. Every year since puberty he’d begin his examination with “Still gaining weight, huh Jeff?” This time he decided my newly reconfigured 149 lb. chassis was a bit too thin and I heard the words I’d never thought would come my way: “I think you’d better gain a little weight.”

• • •

The intervening years saw me stabilize at a nice 32-inch waist and a reasonable 160 lbs. I started working out after college and belatedly discovered I wasn’t the athletic half-wit I had been led to believe. I kept the weight off with a little exercise and a set of house rules, the most important of which was I could eat whatever I wanted outside my home but no junk food would be allowed within. With my pocket book limiting my outside entertainment, I became a “fiscal vegetarian.” Not governed by any emotional or social attraction to the cause, my motivations were purely financial. Tofu and beans were cheaper than meat.

Ironically, I married a real vegetarian. So my eating habits didn’t change much at first. However, over the years, snack foods seemed to sneak back into my life. Living alone, I had total control over my diet. Group dynamics, however, allow alien goodies full of hydrogenated oil and lard to show up on our kitchen shelves. And my willpower seemed to melt in my mouth as easily as those yummy morsels.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I started to resemble my former self. And age only hastened my return. I continued to exercise but its holding power became less and less as the years progressed. As my children got old enough to ask for the edibles they craved (or saw on TV), the lure of those demented foods became stronger and stronger.

Suddenly I woke up heavier than I had ever been. Yet, much like Martha Stewart, I tried to hide my gains. It wasn’t a good thing whatsoever. I never had the typical beer belly most middle-aged men acquire (whether they drink or not). My extras appeared just a little lower and around the other side. Thirty-two inches grew to 36. And I found myself meticulously cutting the Levy’s labels off new pairs of jeans so as not to advertise my size to the millions I encountered every day.

My weight-conscious fashion sense prolonged the agony. I wore sweater vests in the winter and polo shirts hanging out in the summer to hide my waist. When I finally decided to go on a diet, coworkers voiced surprise. “You don’t need to lose weight,” they chorused. But I could easily grab that hidden truth. My old doctor would surely have known. And certainly my present one did. The initial weigh-in at my annual physical was always the most excruciating experience of the visit.

• • •

My wife and I decided we would slim down together. She went to Betty, the nutritionist and I went along with the diet she gave her.

Breakfast and lunch were no problem for me. I never overate nor ate poorly chosen foods at those meals. It was after I came home from a long and bureaucratic day at the office when I lost it all.

Carbohydrates were my friends. They made the day melt away. I was a cracker and pasta lush. “Thy Rigatoni, thy Spaghetti, they comfort me. Thou preparest a well-stocked table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou annointest my head with garlic and oil; My cup runneth over.” I couldn’t stuff them in my mouth fast enough. If I could only eat sensibility after work I could beat this thing.

Betty’s suggestions were simple and logical: reduce our carbohydrate intake after 2 pm. Don’t overeat and cut the hidden sugar. She gave us a list of no-nos and highly nutritional foods. The one exception to the carb rule was sweet potatoes, “God’s vitamin pill” I think she said. Veggies and protein bars were to become our snacks for those in between munchies.

Not to be mistaken for the Atkins Diet, this seemed sensible and doable. There was no calorie counting and no portioning. Substituting better foods for the crap we were eating was really the key. I was never hungry. I started to lose weight eating nuts and avocados (despite their high calories) instead of crackers and pretzels. It took me about five months to drop the 20 lbs.

As my waist diminished my shirttails found their way back inside my pants. And sweater vests are now a thing of the past. I’ve gone on a pants shopping spree. Baggy jeans are making way for more businesslike slacks. And people have started to notice. Last week a coworker said she thought I might be losing too much weight. I smiled and I thanked her for her concern. I was far from my record low. No need to worry.

• • •

After taking a few deep breaths, I was able to accept my fellow commuter, his shoes, and his haircut. But when he pulled out that Twinkie, I covered my eyes and got off early at the next stop. Bad fashion sense is one thing but bad eating habits, why that’s an entirely different story. Fashion makeovers? I’ll just keep them to myself.

Of Note: This story marks the 100th post I have written for Life Outtacontext. As my repository grows it brings up many interesting questions about my writing (which I started as a fairly accessible and portable way of being creative, given my time constraints with a full time job and my full time family), my readers, and the particular nature of writing for a blog (as opposed to say a newspaper article or a novel). Steve brings up some interesting ideas about the specific character of blog writing.

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