Monday, July 21, 2008

The Best Advice

For some time, now, I've been concentrating on my writing. Fiction writing, that is. I've joined a couple of critiquing groups, one of them in what can be referred to as "Real Life," "Meatspace," or "First Life," and one of them in Second Life.

I've had several of my stories critiqued now by insightful people—most of whom are themselves unpublished—who have uncanny ability to point out any problems I have.

I'm about to attempt to get something published. Toward that end, I decided that I would use Ralan to find markets.

Late last week, I discovered a writing contest. It was for a literary magazine, and the idea was to write a 750-word essay on the best advice you ever got. Two possible sub-themes are "...And Took" and "...And Didn't Take."

It truly is amazing what having a word-limit can do for your ability to edit your own work. I wrote it, and it was hugely over 750 words. So I edited it, honed it, tuned it, cut it mercilessly, and finally got it down to precisely 750 words.

And only then read the requirements again and realized that it was supposed to be writing advice. Ah, well.

So...what to do with a 750-word non-fictional account of the best advice I ever got and took? Why, post it on my journal, of course. My "serious" journal.

In 1999, I had been working at a job I loathed for nine years. It had been great for four of those years, but by then I dreaded going to work each morning. Phil, the man who had hired me, had moved on to another opportunity in 1997, but we still kept in touch by e-mail.

One morning I got an e-mail from Phil. His new company was looking for software developers. He thought immediately of me. He knew I was dissatisfied, knew my work, knew he could trust me, and knew I would be a good asset for his team.

At last! A light at the end of the tunnel! For the first time in years, it wasn't an oncoming train.

But the job was in Atlanta, Georgia. I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, within 35 miles of my mother and grandparents. This nearness was important to me. I had been raised in the same small, rural town where they now lived, and where my father, David, had lived his entire life. He had died young of lung cancer twelve years before.

I also wasn't sure I could hack the position Phil was recruiting me for. After nine years in a place that didn't value me at all, would I be able to make it somewhere else? Had my programming skills atrophied? Was I doomed to stay at a job I hated because I was suited for no other?

Still undecided, I drove to Atlanta and interviewed with Phil's company. The interview went well. They liked me and I liked them. An offer arrived in the mail the following Monday. The salary was a substantial increase for me, and they wanted me to start ASAP. I had one week to decide.

I lost sleep. I didn't eat well. The decision gnawed at me constantly.

On the Thursday before the deadline, my mother called. She knew I was wrestling with the decision, but knew I had to decide for myself. But as a mother, she wanted desperately to step in and make it all better. To tell me what I should do.

"I know you're struggling with this decision," she said, "and I think I know which way you're leaning. Before you make a final decision, I want to tell you a story about your father.

"David majored in Accounting at the University, and he was very good at it. Before he graduated, he received a job offer for after graduation. The firm was in Crossett, Arkansas. It was a very good offer, but he knew that if he accepted, we would be comfortable, but you would grow up in a bigger city and likely never know your family.

"You knew your father; he would have been miserable away from home. He was uncomfortable with change.

"David turned down that offer. He started working for Uncle Wilson and lived here all his life.

"I thought you should know what HIS decision was before you made yours."

It was crystal clear to me what she was telling me. On top of that, I felt closer to my father than I ever had. He had been faced with a similar dilemma, and he had chosen family, the simple life, and safety over money, big-city life, and risk. He had been happy.

I faxed my acceptance letter the next morning.

I called my mother. "I've decided to accept the offer," I said.

"Oh, I'm so glad!"

We talked for a few minutes more. Then I said, "You know, that story you told me really helped me make up my mind."

"You're so much like David, I was afraid you were going to give up a chance at happiness because you were too comfortable. Change is uncomfortable, but I think you made the right decision."

I still live in Atlanta. I've never regretted the decision I made for a moment.

Years later, telling this to some friends, I realized that the story she had told me could actually have been interpreted either way. I had interpreted it to match the decision I had already made—but didn't realize—in my heart.

I called her on it.

"You're right. I figured you would interpret it however you needed to, but I was really hoping you'd do what you did."

"Why didn't you just say that?"

"Because it wouldn't have been your decision."

The best advice I've ever gotten, and I find out it didn't actually say what I thought it said. That's a mother for you.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

On Being Abrasive About Atheism

I composed this as a response to a post on a freethought forum I belong to. It got long, and I decided to put it here, as well.

There are a good number of nutjobs on both sides of the fence (and probably a few who sit on the fence, too). I mean, Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly are almost in a class by themselves for the amount of truly offensive crap they spew into the environment.

But one thing about them is this: people talk and have opinions about what they say. They are brash, harsh, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, and completely and totally in-your-face about what they say and believe. They don't give a rat's ass about who they offend. Their job is to be that person. To be the total nutjob who takes things that extra step, who says things that no sane person would believe, but who make people think and react and talk about them, and perhaps examine their own viewpoints more closely than they ever would have done without the provocation.

And Hitchens and Dawkins are doing the same thing for "our" side. Dawkins says that bringing a child up in any religion is child abuse. Do I agree with that? Maybe a little, in principle, but I wouldn't go that far. The same goes for some of the things Hitchens says. But it got them noticed. People know who they are. People talk about what they say. They are brash, harsh, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, and completely and totally in-your-face about what they say and believe. They don't give a rat's ass about who they offend.

A lot of parallels get drawn between the "rationalism movement" and the "gay movement." It must be working at least in part, because gay people are less reviled by society as a whole, now, than atheists are. If you believe the polls. And what did it take? A lot of people decided they'd had enough of being marginalized, put down, and discriminated against for something they couldn't control. They became brash, harsh, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, and completely and totally in-your-face about what they said and believed. They didn't give a rat's ass about who they offended. Don't want to see two men or two women dance together, hold hands, or kiss? "Then look away," they said, "because we're not going to go away."

Love them or hate them, Dawkins and Hitchens (and others) are doing something that needs to be done just to compete for air time. Do you think Ann Coulter would get the kind of recognition she gets if she was polite but firm about her beliefs? No! Making that quip about how she'd have to go to therapy if she called Senator Edwards "gay" was one of the most successful things for her career that she's ever done. It was offensive on so many levels that almost everyone out there had an opinion about it. And it got talked about. And people thought about what she said and why it was offensive (or wasn't). If Bill O'Reilly were anything other than the asshole he is, no one would know his name, because he'd be some third-rate reporter working in some podunk market instead of Fox News. But as it is, very few people don't know his name, and the ones that do have an opinion about him one way or the other. Again, because of the way he says what he says, he makes you think about why it offends you or doesn't. I could include Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and even Keith Olbermann in the same category, but on different levels and with different goals.

I guess my point is that we need MORE people like Dawkins and Hitchens. Maybe people in general really do instinctively understand that for every complete nutjob you see out there saying outrageous things, you have a legion of decent, honest people who believe some of the same things, but aren't so in-your-face about it. Penn & Teller come part of the way on their show on ShowTime, but they aren't mainstream enough, yet, to get the kind of reaction that the other guys do. Randi mostly takes on people that the majority already know are charlatans. In the big scheme of things, the Sylvia Brownes, Uri Gellers, and John Edwardses of the world are small potatoes compared to the issues that Dawkins and Hitchens and a few others are taking on. I hope Roseanne Barr is an atheist. I think Kathy Griffin is. Maybe we need a few more abrasive people out there making an issue out of it so that it gets in the public's craw and makes them a little uncomfortable. "Gee, what if the neighbors are atheists? Does that mean they're suddenly bad people?" (Maybe I'm giving the public too much credit, but maybe not.)

I'm not overly fond of some of the things Dawkins says, either, to be honest. I think he goes too far. I'm not as harsh as he is, but I make no qualms about my atheism, either. I've laid it pretty raw on my other journal a number of times, and I've lost a few friends over it, but the majority of them stay even though the vast majority of them disagree with me. Because even though I rant and rave, I try to do it in an entertaining way, at least, to get across the message that I have my passions and my windmills, too, and I'm not all that different than they are.

I think the biggest compliment I've ever gotten on that front is a passive one. My father's family--almost all of whom are devout Southern Baptists--have no idea that I'm an atheist, except for a couple of cousins. I don't make it a secret, but most of them don't see it because...I'm nice. I'm pleasant. I don't eat babies, worship Satan, or murder and rape indiscriminately or any of the other horrible things they've been taught that we nasty ol' atheists do. I don't chant Latin backwards while they're saying grace before Thanksgiving. My hope is that as the knowledge of my atheism trickles through the family (and it will), they'll be able to look at me as a positive example that you can be an atheist and have morals, be a nice person, support charities, and even--gasp!--love your family, all without God being necessary.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Positive Steps

Years ago, I was lying in my dorm room one Saturday morning, enjoying the fact that it was Saturday and I didn't have to get up to go to class. My roommate was already gone to some ROTC thing, so I had the room to myself. I started to introspect about life and what I was doing with it, and right there, lying in my twin bed on a Saturday morning in May, it came to me: I need to get in shape. I was maybe 20 years old and weighed over 200 lbs. It was time.

So I went out that day and joined a gym. Had my first work-out in two or three years. And it felt good. I went religiously. I didn't eat all that much better, so my progress was slow, but it was steady, and even though I didn't lose a lot of weight, I put on muscle mass. I was benching > 200 lbs. I could do 400 crunches (and still didn't have washboard abs, dammit). I felt better, certainly looked better, and at least had the knowledge that I was doing something about a personal goal.

I don't know why I stopped going. I honestly can't recall it. But stop, I did. And let my membership lapse after two or three more aborted attempts at regaining the momentum I'd lost.

Several years later, I'd graduated and was in grad school. I had watched my father get sick with lung cancer and die over a nine-month period. During that same nine-month period, I gained 50 lbs. I gained the weight so fast, I got stretch marks which I still have to this day. And then I had another epiphany. Well, it was the same one, really. I needed to do something about this weight. So I began to look around Tuscaloosa to see what was available. I didn't want some namby-pamby "lose 10 lbs in 10 weeks" nonsense. I wanted real results. I weighed 260 lbs and that was ridiculous. Then I saw and ad for Physicians Weight Loss.

Their whole thing is, basically, starvation. And they examine you medically every time you come in, which is three times per week. You take massive doses of vitamins and minerals (especially potassium), and you eat protein supplements to maintain muscle mass. The goal: remain in ketosis so that you know it's fat that's burning and not muscle mass.

I was restricted to 500 calories per day for something like two weeks, then 750 calories per day for the next four and a half months. I lost a total of 88 lbs, and honestly, I felt wonderful about myself. And will power just dissolved. During those months, I'd go to restaurants with my mother and her friend Peggy and literally watch them eat and then go home and eat my 200-calorie dinner and my 50-calorie bedtime snack, and somehow I managed not to cheat...very often. I was in ketosis and the fat melted off me, yet I wasn't starving all the time. I got down to ~180 lbs, which was ~23 lbs shy of the PWL-set goal. See, PWL relies too heavily on those ancient charts that say, unequivocally, that someone of my height, gender and age was to weigh between 150 and 157 lbs. Period. And PWL won't let you set a goal that is above your "optimal" weight. So my goal was 157. But...

To get to 157 lbs, I would have had to start cutting things off me. The measure of my wrist circumference doesn't take my barrel chest into account. I may have had a 34-inch waist for the first time since high school, but I still had a 50-inch chest. And that's without working out, which you can't do on PWL because you don't get enough calories. So I couldn't remain in ketosis anymore, and without ketosis, I started to get hungry.

And 750 calories per day wasn't going to cut it. So I dumped PWL against my mother's wishes and tried to maintain my weight.


By 1990, I was up to 270 lbs. Over the next 9 years, I worked one job at a local steel mill. I tried a few more times to lose the weight, but it was no good. I slept irregularly, ate irregularly and poorly, got little to no short, I was a couch potato. The only diet I ever maintained without any will power was The Zone, but unfortunately with that one, you have to eat at the same time every day and sleep at the same time every day and...I was on call 24 x 7. I might stay up 36 hours at a stretch or sleep 15 at a time. The Zone was doomed to failure, even though it had just started to work when I had to give it up.

In 1999, I left that job and moved to Atlanta to work for the same guy who'd hired me at the first job. It was a huge thing, moving out of my "safe" world into an unknown territory, but I did it, because I thought it was the best move for me. And then after I'd been at this little dotcom startup <ominous chord> for about a year and a half that I had the same epiphany yet again: I needed to do something. I'd been hearing about the Atkins diet. A lot of people swore by it, and it sounded like it was something I could handle. I was massively overweight and rapidly approaching 40. So I gave it a try. I lost 50 lbs before the Unholy Allure of Sugar™ coaxed me back to the dark side. But I was determined to keep the weight off. So I took the advice of a co-worker and joined his gym: LA Fitness. I even sprang for the extra bucks to get a personal traininer through Body of Change, which is basically also LA Fitness.

From the get-go, I should have known something was wrong. The trainer they saddled me with wouldn't listen to a thing I said about taking it slow, and he made me work out on his schedule. When I asked about other trainers, there were none available at the times I wanted to work out.

While all this was going on, I bought a house using some of the proceeds from the sale of my first house in Alabama.

You can see what's coming by now, I'm sure. But maybe not. Before it had a chance to become a problem, the startup dotcom I'd quit my stable-but-soul-destroying job in Alabama for decided that it could not sustain the number of developers it was paying for a product that was too expensive for people to actually own. So it laid off 22 of us in one, fell swoop. They fired me over the phone while I was moving from my apartment into the house I'd closed on just days before. I had to leave moving to drive in and collect all my belongings.

I kept working out--it was one of the few constants I had--for about two months, when it became apparent that I was not going to just bounce back and get a job immediately. I called LA Fitness and Body of Change and told them the situation. I was told to send in a letter of cancellation and LA Fitness would cancel me, no problems. However, Body of Change would not. I had signed a contract, they insisted, and that contract said I owed them a certain amount of money each month for 12 months, and if I didn't pay up, they'd take legal action.

I begged and wheedled, cajoled, yelled, and threatened legal action myself. None of it did any good until I went to a different gym, explained my situation to the management there, and had them call in and intervene on my behalf. My "regular" gym? Told me to get lost, basically. My "trainer" was nowhere to be found. He wouldn't return my calls.

Body of Change "graciously" "let" me out of my contract, but only at the cost of paying half of it as a penalty. I vowed never to darken the door of LA Fitness again after the way their lapdogs Body of Change had treated me.

So now we come to the present. I'm 280 lbs. That's over 100 lbs overweight. Morbidly obese doesn't even begin to cover it. The weight is causing health problems that are getting worse and worse. It's time to do something about it. Again. I'm sick of diets. I want to just eat what I want, but in reasonable amounts. I mean, the minute you tell me "You can't have," whatever it is you've told me I can't have is all I want to eat. Atkins would never work for me, now, nor would The Zone or even PWL. I don't want to buy supplements or pre-prepared food, so it finally lit a fire under me.

I started looking at local gyms. I found one that sounded great, but the cost is prohibitive. They had a pool, which would allow me to swim again, but is a pool really worth $60/month and a $200 fee to join? Not really. LA Fitness is close by, but...never. Never, ever again. But they're the cheapest alternative around, unfortunately, and they're also the only ones my company has any sort of deal with. And have you ever visited a gym? The salesmen there rival car salesmen for sliminess and weaselhood. Several gyms I visited actually turned me away because of the hard-sell bullshit they tried to pull on that initial visit.

But then I saw an ad for Fitness 19. A new, small gym that opened just three weeks ago about a mile and a half from my door. Closer than the other two. $20/month, no contract, no joining fee (a special because they just opened), and a one-time processing fee of $30. So for something like $68, I got membership in Fitness 19, and they'll charge me $20/month until they receive 60 days notice to stop. The woman who was there when I visited that first night greeted me warmly, showed me around the place, and wasn't the least bit slimy. So when she said, "Does this sound like something you'd want to do?" I said, "Sure. Why not?"

They're a small place. It's one large room packed with some of the nicest-looking equipment I've seen. There's no pool, or steam room, or sauna, or even locker rooms. It's two small, unisex changing rooms, bathrooms, and a big room full of weight and cardio equipment. There's no towel service, no trainers, and they aren't selling high-priced supplements or water at every turn. I love it. :)

I've been once, and I'm going again today. For the first time in a very long time, I feel like I've made a decision I can feel good about considering my health. It's going to take a while. But considering that I can go to this gym for five years on the same amount of money Body of Change/LA Fitness made me pay them to break my contract, I think it's one I can afford even if it does go bust or something.

So I'm at the dawn of what I hope is a new day. My doctors, my mother, my friends, and even a co-worker or two has expressed concern about my weight. So even if it takes me a year to drop 50 lbs, I think this is a good thing. I can feel the commitment, but I needed something more. I don't like to announce things to the general public, but I know only one or two people read this, so this is a good place to mention it and still have that...accountability. To at least one friend and maybe two. The commitment to take charge and do something about my weight rather than allowing myself to get unhealthier and unhealthier and become one of those statistics you read about. A man in his 40s who dies of a sudden heart attack or a stroke. "Fat bastard," people reading it in the paper would say. "Why didn't the guy just lose some weight? Drop the fucking doughnut and eat some broccoli? Do a few push-ups?"

The fact that my doctor has said I need to lose weight but has not made a single mention of any sort of "diet" was confusing, but I think maybe she figured out right away that I'm not a "diet" sort of guy. "You can't ever eat doughnuts again" is translated in my mind to an intense desire for doughnuts, even though I normally don't eat one but maybe once per week.

So, here's the thing. I'm going to get into a routine of working out. I haven't found an optimal time, yet (I've only been there twice, and one of those was to sign the agreement). But once I do and I'm in that routine, I will begin changing my diet a bit at a time. I've already started a little. I eat more vegetables, and instead of having breakfast, several days each week I drink an Ensure. I'm diabetic, and I do have to have some food to maintain my blood sugar, so fasting is out of the question. I stopped eating Mexican out because it encourages overeating by putting that huge basket of chips on the table. And because I simply no longer can handle it without acid reflux. I stopped eating Italian a while back for the same reason. I've been eating at Subway for lunch most days instead of whatever the cafeteria at work has, because it's usually something unbalanced and unhealthy, and at least with Subway, I know what's in it.

I keep a supply of really good chocolate here at the house and a supply of good cheese. And as long as I have the option of having some of either or both, I find that I don't crave it like I do when I don't have it around. I've had a block of Valrhona chocolate for over two months, and it's almost gone. I slice off a chunk about once or twice in a three-week period and eat it. I have a chunk of cheese and an apple instead of opening a bag of chips.

So I'm trying. I just...need to stick with it and not get discouraged if the results aren't instant. Which intellectually I know they won't be. But we all know how much the conscious intellect is really in control of the body. I'm also under no illusions. I'm 43. The days of my having a metabolism that would allow me to eat everything in sight and not gain much weight are gone. My chance of looking like any of those models in magazines is 0%. I will never have washboard abs. I don't want to be a hulking behemoth with muscles out to there. I just want to be healthier and look better. And at 43, that's a lot different than it would have been at 20. And I'm okay with that.

I didn't mention this on my "What I had for breakfast and pictures of my cats" journal because...there are too many people I know personally over there to be accountable to. Too many people who will pester me with questions like "How's the diet going?" or who will say insincere things like "You look like you've lost weight!" because even though they can't see any change, they think they should say something because they think it'll be encouraging. It isn't. Not for me. All it does is underscore any perceived failure. I didn't go to the gym last night because I was tired, and now here's this asshole asking me how it's going. Guilt is the last thing I want. I want this to be positive. I want....

What do I want to get out of all this?
  • I want to feel better about myself.

  • I want to wear smaller clothes.

  • I want to fit in an airline seat.

  • I want to go into a restaurant and not have to say "I prefer a table instead of a booth, please."

  • I want to walk into a decent clothing store and not have the staff look at me pityingly and try to find a less obnoxious way of saying "We don't sell clothes your size."

  • I want to not get acid reflux (although this may not be weight-related).

  • I want to stop taking some of my medication.

  • I want to feel confident enough about my body to go swimming in public, again.

  • I want to stop snoring (again, this may not be entirely weight-related).

  • I want to wake up in the morning without pains (although this may be age- instead of weight-related).

  • I want to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without having to rest at the top.

  • I want to be able to go with friends to someplace like Six Flags or the Zoo or walk around doing touristy things without holding them back because I'm so fat I can't keep up.

  • I want to be able to shave off my beard. I'm told if I did I'd look younger, but if I do, my face is so round, I don't have a jawline. I look ridiculous. So...I keep the gray beard even though it makes me look at least 10 years older than I am.

  • I want to be able to clean my house without it taking two days.
I just want to feel like me again, and not some fat slob.

So...we'll see. I've told "the world" (all both of you) I'm committed.

So...we'll see. :)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Tyranny of Fourteen

I used to love to swim as a kid. Love it. I was afraid of learning at first, but once I got past the fear of having my head underwater (about two weeks into lessons the summer after I turned 6), I immediately flip-flopped over to the other extreme. Instead of swimming "properly," like we were being taught, all I wanted to do was swim underwater, frog-kicking and blowing a steady stream of bubbles out my nose.

The Eutaw municipal pool was up the street from my house, so I could walk there starting in June when it opened, stay all day at the pool with my friends, having fun and engaging in general mayhem, and then walk home, barefoot, my towel slung over my shoulder, tired, sunburned, smelling of chlorine. Marco Polo matches lasted hours, or so it seemed at the time. Chlorinated water would be in my ears pretty much permanently from the crack of June through the last, bitter days of August before school opened and the pool closed for the last time that year.

I guess I've always been a little chubby, but as a child—or at least in the 70's as a child—it wasn't a big deal. We ran around all day, rode bikes, swam, climbed trees...all the normal things kids do when they're being kids. But eventually, you get older and that kid-stuff isn't so much fun any more. It actually hurts to fall out of a tree or off a trampoline. It's boring to swim all day long or ride bikes over streets you've seen every day for the entirety of your young lives. And homework gets harder, and social lives get more complicated...

...and at some point in there, it suddenly starts to really matter what you look like. What other people think of you. What they say about you behind your back.

I was a naïve child. I can admit that. I was twelve before I had the first inkling of what sex was, and that everyone in my class was changing around me. I was changing, too, but I hadn't really noticed. My voice changed early, and it went two octaves down in one weekend and stayed there. My skin got oily, and I was the first boy in my class with greasy hair and pimples. So I was changing, but it was slow enough that I didn't really notice.

But they had. The other kids. I was now not just chubby. I was fat. Not obese, but fat. And they never, ever let me forget it. During PE, I was literally the last one chosen, no matter what the activity was. It would always come down to me and Willis. Willis had the distinction of being the shortest person in class. At an age when most of the girls were six inches taller than the boys, most of them were a foot taller than him, or more. So it would come down to a choice between whether the team had to take the fat kid or the short kid. The fat kid was usually the last chosen, and, kids being kids, no one on the team felt the slightest twinge of guilt that I heard the remarks they made. "Oh, God! We'll never win with him on the team! He can't run, he can't hit...Hey, Gary, play right field. That should keep him out of trouble. Kel, catch the fucking ball if it looks like it's going into right field."

So, really, what was my motivation, again? I wasn't being taught anything; I was being purposefully excluded from everything. In baseball, I could hit the ball, but never right where they wanted me to. I couldn't run fast enough to catch a pop-fly. I couldn't throw hard enough to get it all the way to home. In basketball, I had no clue what the rules were—I still don't. From my point of view, the goal of the game was to elbow me and get me off the court, preferably in the first two or three minutes. But it was always my foul, not theirs. I never did and still don't understand that. In soccer, I was completely hopeless as a goalie because I couldn't jump to catch the ball, and refused to hurt myself for a game. I never quite understood any of the positions on the team, so they always put me back by the goal with the other "weird kids" and we talked until the action came back our way. All I learned from soccer was not to get in between two players who both wanted the ball or you'd get kicked hard on the shin. Track? Forget it; not fast enough. Football? No way; not willing to get hit. Golf? Not good enough. Tennis? Hopeless. The only thing I was ever any good at was warball, which is a version of dodgeball played with two balls initially, and then that increases as more and more people get knocked "out," so that the people who are left are constantly having to dodge balls from every direction and thrown at random times. What was my secret? The guys delighted in trying to hit me really hard, so I learned to dodge really well. I was almost always one of the last people in the inner circle, although I never actually won. The coaches never bothered to actually teach me any of the stuff I didn't know. I was never going to be on their teams, so I was beneath their contempt. I was "the smart kid." It was clear that athletics wasn't my forté.

Is it any wonder that I hated sports then and today? As an only child, I never had siblings to play any of those sports with, and most of my friends were already athletic and didn't want to play those games with me because I sucked. And I just couldn't ask them to explain the rules, because it seemed to me that they had all just picked it up by osmosis, and so I must be an idiot or something.

At the time, I wasn't aware of withdrawing, but when I look back on it, now, I started to pull a little shell around me. I was smart, which didn't help. I consistently got A's and won spelling bees and science fairs and made high scores on tests like the PSAT/NMSQT or the NEDT. I was never without a book, and it was usually science fiction or fantasy, with pictures of spaceships or dragons on the front cover.

Then in the 7th grade, it started to really hurt during PE. My legs would just ache. Naturally, no one believed me. They just thought I was trying to get out of playing whatever sport it was. (Gee, I can't imagine why I'd want to get out of being ridiculed, being laughed at, and being the person the last team was forced to take.) But my mother believed me and took me to the doctor. "Osgood Schlatter," said the doctor. "Your bones are growing too fast for your tendons and muscles to keep up. That's why it hurts when you run, jump, or bend excessively." He prescribed several weeks of abstinence from physical activity.

It was as though the warden signed a reprieve. The coach was disgusted, but let it go. I knew the other kids made fun of me as I sat reading during PE, and often they yelled some really awful things at me, but I ignored them. The shell got tighter. My homeroom teacher, seeing the predicament, took pity on me and asked me to be her assistant for that period and help out in her classroom, which I gratefully did. It got me out of PE and away from the taunting.

Well, this went on for a lot longer than the doctor actually recommended. And after 6 weeks or so, I got an "I" in PE. The worst grade I had ever received. The coach told my parents what had been going on and I was in deep trouble. I was back in PE with a vengeance. Only now it was worse. The coach was awful, my classmates were relentless, and as an added bonus, the upper classes were now in on the taunting. I remember walking through the gym once with my bag slung over one shoulder and suddenly there was this enormous BANG! right behind me. I jumped half out of my skin and probably yelped in fear. A football had hit the wall inches behind my head, leaving a hole in the wood paneling. A high school junior had thrown it at a 13-year-old. If it had hit me in the head...well, I don't know what it would have done, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been pretty.

About this time, the kids noticed that my name—Gary—could be perverted into "GAY-ry," and took great glee in shouting it across the school to try to get me to acknowledge it, and thereby give it power. I never once answered anyone unless they pronounced my name correctly. I was the only kid in school who never had a nickname; I simply refused to accept anything they picked, because everything was cruel. Just ask "Limp" or "FrankenMoon" or "Skeeter-Bites."

By the way, have I mentioned that my school had a total of 150 kids in it? From Kindergarten through 12th grade? My class was never much more than 20 in number. We had all the same cliques the big schools did, except smaller. I was in the weirdo clique. Population: me, my cousin/friend/classmate Kathy, and a girl named Belinda, who it turned out later was a drug addict. Fun, huh? But back to the story.

My ostracism from pretty much everything was complete. Not that my attitude helped. I was either oblivious to the effect my constantly being the one in class who had the answers had, or I didnt care. I was the butt of every practical joke, every stupid remark, every insult, so I learned to feign disinterest and to pretend that I didn't hear any of it.

One effect this had was that after the summer before I entered the seventh grade—this would have been 1978, I believe—I never went to the pool again. I knew I wasn't wanted. I was picked on constantly—even by a parent or two—and not just about my weight. Anything they found was fair game. My hair wasn't cut right or was too greasy, I didn't walk right, I didn't carry my books right, my bathing suit wasn't right.... That last swimming summer I made a new friend who was a new kid in our class. Steve and I struck up a friendship that lasted exactly as long as the pool was open. By the second week at school, he was exactly like the rest of them. And then couldn't understand why I didn't want to hang around him.

I have never gone to a pool since then. Never. I didn't realize that until the other night. Swimming was once my favorite thing to do. It was something I was fairly good at. In the water, I was somewhat graceful. All that mattered was making to the other side of the pool the fastest, and if I did it underwater instead of on top, that was fine.

I declined to go on our senior trip because it was to the beach, and I made some lame excuse, but the real one was that I didn't want to be the butt of every joke yet again. I turned down invitations to class parties at the houses of some of my classmates that had private pools (and this was in the 70s when that was actually not commonplace). Same reason.

As time went on, I came out of my shell a little, some of the other kids grew up and started treating me like a human again, and I was able to be a little more accepted into the class. I helped design the decorations for the senior prom. I played the lead in the senior play. I had a date for the prom. I went to the after-play party at Allison's house. I went to the after-prom breakfast at Lisa's house. And finally, we graduated and went our separate ways. But yet....

I have never gone back to a pool again. Never. All through college, there was an olympic-sized pool open and free for any student to use. And I longed to use it. But I couldn't make myself go. Now my excuse was that I was "too embarrased" for anyone to see me in my bathing suit. My fat was my solace, my shield, my all-encompassing excuse. "Want to come with us to Gulf Shores for the weekend?" "No, I...don't like beaches, that much. And I sunburn too easily." I love the beach. I burn once and then tan in spite of my red-hair gene.

I even got so far as going to that Olympic-sized pool once. Late at night when no one else was supposed to be there. I got there, and there was a small group of guys there who were apparently on the swim team. I took one look at them, their tight, flat stomachs and tanned skin, and beat a hasty retreat before ever changing into my suit so none of them would have to see my pasty-white flab and to keep them from having an excuse to laugh at me.

After I graduated from college and got a job, my first boss once invited our whole department over to his house for a pool party. I was the only one who declined, citing some lame excuse that I was going to be out of town or some such thing. I wasn't. I sat at home, wishing I could go, but hating the thought of being seen in my bathing suit. One of my co-workers—who is to this day one of my best friends—caught on to what was going on and tried to reassure me, but he's a rail. So was our boss and the others in the department. Once again, I was the "fat kid." No one was making fun of me or playing cruel jokes on me or talking about me in front of me anymore. And they genuinely wanted me to come. But once you've been the fat kid that no one likes, it's very, very hard to overcome it. And I'm sorry to inform the general public, but one person saying "Oh, come on, no one cares" is a lie. Everyone cares. If you're fat, the entire fucking world feels like it's their business to care.

I may be 43 years old; I may have a decent job where I'm respected and valued; I may have a group of good friends who like me for who I am and don't care what I look like; I may appear to be well-adjusted and happy and at peace with my size. But...deep down inside, there's a 14-year-old who has been beaten down by years of constant ridicule and taunting and just downright obnoxious cruelty. And he would desperately like to go swimming, but is terrified of looking like a freak when people see him in his trunks.

The little kids too honest to know not to stare who then pull on Mommy's sleeve, to which she replies, "That's what happens if you eat too much sugar!" The adults who probably have their own 14-year-old inner self who see the vulnerability of mine and somehow know exactly what buttons to push. "Hey, big-guy! When's it due?" <insert stomach pat followed by uproarious laughter here>. The store clerks who say, "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't have anything in your size," before you ever start shopping. The people who roll their eyes when you buy a diet drink, because it's obvious that you drink pure gravy at home, or you wouldn't be that size. The thousand little ways every single day of your life that people have of letting you know that you're fat, as though you weren't aware of it.

Otters are one of my favorite animals. I can watch them for hours. How I long to be able to just...let go and have that much fun, again, swimming and splashing and cavorting in the water just for the sheer joy of it.

That inner 14-year-old has woven a tight shell around himself to keep from ever being hurt again. And the only one doing the hurting is him. Because he has given up a very special part of himself. The part that didn't care what he looked like and just swam because it was fun.

I want to get that inner kid to let go already. It's been 30 years. It's time to move on. I want to be the otter, not just watch them. I want to enjoy the thing I once enjoyed more than anything else. I want to enjoy exercise rather than having to do something that's boring.

Thirty years is long enough to be fourteen, don't you think?