Role Play

Sometime in the mid-90s, I rediscovered Arby’s.

Money was tighter back then so any eating out we did was either on Sunday after church at a buffet-style restaurant like Bonanza or a drive-thru fast food joint like McDonald’s or Fargo’s own Burger Time. Arby’s was just too damn expensive and not very family-friendly; there were no pastel-colored climbing tubes or ball pits, and the kid just didn’t like any meal that didn’t come in a cardboard box with a Disney toy. Then one day, after we moved to the Twin Cities and I began driving around on my own more and eating out frequently, I swung into an Arby’s on a whim and ordered the most fattening, expensive bag’o’grub I could think of – a Big Montana with Potato Cakes and a Jamocha Shake. Roughly 1350 calories that probably set me back about seven bucks.

Not exactly a value meal. No matter – I leapt over my shifty dietary threshold into junk food paradise with a smile and sesame seeds on my face. Drug addicts talk about relapse using words that ring fanatical and orgasmic. Food was my drug of choice and the high was no less intense.

So an Arby’s Big Montana seemed like a natural choice when Graeme, Johnny Rock, Big’un and I went shopping for the perfect sandwich to feature in a commercial we were shooting for a video production class at Brown. The concept was simple: a one-minute spot in which Graeme, this scrawny kid with gapped teeth and an Army Reserves haircut to match his thrift store fatigues, goes on a murderous binge, with shots form Reservoir Dogs interspersed throughout for atmosphere, in search of the mightiest-most-awesomest sandwich with which to quell his wide-eyed hunger. Brown sat near downtown on Lake at the time so fast food restaurants were a dime a dozen. We loaded the equipment in Johnny’s car and set off to film night shots of neon signs and drive-thru encounters, stopping at a Burger King to pick up a squashed little cheeseburger – our prop for what not to eat when you’re famished. Our final stop before heading back to the studio was the Arby’s right next to the campus. Stacy greeted us by name and with a smile, her big eyes shrouded in heavy mascara under her brown, greasy cap. She hooked us up with a double Big Montana oozing horsey sauce and cheddar cheese, the perfect monstrosity over which we could lay Samuel L. Jackson’s famous line from Pulp Fiction: “Mmmmm . . . this is a tasty burger!” The final scene of the spot features Graeme hoisting the über Big Montana before his gaping maw, a time-lapsed cutscene of the spinning hands of a clock, and then me, sporting Graeme’s medium-sized t-shirt and ball cap, polishing off the last bite, throwing down the soiled napkin in triumph and giving a big thumbs up. Mission accomplished. Hunger abated. Sandwich conquered.

The role of the big fat guy suited me fine. Big’un was, well, big, but more of a “tall” big, without the gut. And playing to my natural talents, like eating, making it look like fun and hanging out all fleshy and gross in all the right spots, came easy. I’d been doing it for years. Whenever anyone needed a solid mass to hike the ball and pummel anyone trying to reach the quarterback, they picked me. When our church needed someone to play a wrathful God, complete with concealing white robes and a booming voice, no one tried out against me. I served as the mushy pillow of comfort to many a high school friend’s tearful sob story of heartbreak and woe. And when someone needed to step up and break the ice at this or that social gathering, I did my part and did it well. Much like Steve Martin’s character in Roxanne, I could take an uncomfortable situation and turn it into a time of joy and release. Sure I was the butt of my own joking but, to wax cliché, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And I came across as a person comfortable in my own albeit stretched out skin.

With the dawn of the new millennium came a desire to lose the gut. At one point, through the encouragement of a local pastor I met via my job at a Christian radio station, I joined a support group for folks trying to lose weight the old fashioned way – will power and accountability. Knowing I loved to write, Jerry asked me to start a listserv offering daily encouragement to the flock. I called it “The Next Step” and sent this piece out on May 1, 2001:

This past Sunday, my family carried forth the tradition of eating lunch at Ryan’s Steak House. We sat in our usual spot and enjoyed a great meal together. Sitting next to us was a table full of people who were dressed really nice and, judging from the gist of their conversation, appeared to be of a Pentecostal persuasion. They were “buffeting” their bodies and whooping and laughing at the jokes and antics of one guy in particular. He was a young, heavy-set, boisterous man, and he spent much of the meal dominating the conversations not only at his table, but causing many who sat around him (us included) to pause their own dinnertime chatter and listen in. He was quite funny, sharing many humorous stories from a recent youth trip, and revealing all the details of how he and his young, thin, attractive wife met and got married. When he got up to imitate how a member of the youth group, a handicapped boy, walked when he got mad, the table erupted with laughter as they shared their own “you-have-to-know-him” joke. This guy was the life of the party! He accented his every move and word with a mix of bravado and braggadocio that seemed to impress everyone around.

Everyone except me.

About halfway through my meal, I realized that what I was witnessing was me ten years ago. I remembered many gatherings with family and friends when I displayed the very same kind of attitudes and actions and antics. I was quite funny, and I didn’t care whom I hurt to get a laugh. If I stepped on your toes during a conversation, it was your fault for not keeping up or stepping aside. I belittled others and carried on as though my opinion was the only one worth hearing. Heck, the guy even looked like I did back then. It became pretty scary and set a pall over the remainder of my day. Why? Because I regret many of my actions from that period in my life. I regret that I didn’t learn to keep my trap shut and give others a chance to be heard. I may have learned a few things had I just shut up once in a while.

Now, here I am ten years older. Wiser? Perhaps. I have learned to be quiet. But the price has been high. I’ve hurt people with my arrogance and loudness and pushed many a friend away by being insensitive to their needs. It may be in my personality to be loud and interactive, but I’m not too naive to recognize that many of my antics were just defense mechanisms to keep me from growing and thinking and being stretched beyond what was comfortable and easy. Now, I am being stretched and my wineskin is breaking.

Just over a year later I had my weight loss surgery. And to say the least, I am continuing to break. I now see that the one I hurt the most was me. Sitting at that table, eating a Big Montana, the camera rolling, I’m smiling. I’m playing an all too familiar role. But something in me was screaming.


Lost Hours

Tuesday, April 22, 2002. My wife’s parents arrive from Minnesota to spend a few days watching the kids and the house while I’m in Carmel. The kids are so young, their lives so full of fun and frolicking, that they won’t remember “fat dad” beyond the few pictures stashed away in scrapbooks and one wobbly video recording made the previous Christmas in which we hang popcorn strands amid twinkling lights, sing along with Bruce Cockburn’s “Mary Had A Baby,” and wrestle on the couch.

We crowd into our faithful white minivan with its brown leather seats stained with watermelon Kook-Aid and tinted windows spotted with “Have A Grrreat Day!” stickers courtesy of the smiley bank teller and drive to a local buffet – Minnesotans love buffets – and I eat heartily: fresh baked rolls piled high with scoops of honey butter; little meatballs smothered in barbecue sauce; a thick, hand-carved slice of glazed ham; long, steamy uncut green beans; a bowl of vanilla ice cream with Gummi Bears on top. I eat like I always have, fast and furious, talking with my mouth full, bellying up to the heating tables again and again, all the while pushing down the truth that keeps rising in my gut like so much swallowed breath and bile. . . I won’t ever eat like this again.

The next morning I kiss the kids goodbye. They’ve spent the night in mom and dad’s tiny bedroom, a sanctuary in our tiny home, good for bedtime stories about what Brown Bear sees and what Polar Bear hears, where dreams are filled with things-not-scary and grandma’s quilts and stuffed, smiling bears and bunnies are always within arms reach. They rouse enough to give clingy hugs and receive butterfly kisses, and then settle back down as the early-morning light peeks through the worn cotton curtains with flowery patterns that sometimes look like faces, caressing their rosy, smooth cheeks.

Details come easy when one is not heavily sedated.

I’m dressed in one of those too-thin hospital gowns as they wheel me into the surgical suite at 10:30 A.M., 120 miles from my baby blue front door. Pastor Neil goes out of his way to stop by and enlist the guidance of the almighty upon the assembled medical professionals. I like Neil. He’s the only pastor at our church who isn’t all pretentious smiles and pious small talk. His spiritual house is made of splinters and grungy carpet with nary a stained glass window for keeping things docile. He lives . . . truly lives . . . in a world of honesty, bristling amidst the mayhem, and I am grateful for his hand upon my trembling shoulder. A nurse dispenses with the small talk and asks if I’m ready to take a nap. I wonder if I have a choice. “Let’s do it,” I eventually manage and the drugs are pushed into my arm and I close my eyes.

It will be nearly two days before I’m deemed recovered enough to get a room of my own among the general population of patients.

Two days . . .

Like Neo in the real world, just after unplugging, my memories of those hours are patchy. I can’t pull focus on any one moment. A thought: God, I’ve been hit by a truck! I can’t move my arms. Every breath feels like I’m fighting against a pile of rocks on my chest. Someone tells me to take a deep breath and then breathe out on the count of three as they pull a tube, crusted red and then slimy and rotten-smelling, out of my nostril. A young female clad in white and sporting a long braid is guiding my morphine pump behind me as I shuffle to the toilet behind a curtain in a darkened corner. A series of slow-mo laps around the hexagonal nurses’ station, a smile upon my cracking lips and waiving a punctured hand as the nurses prod me on with encouraging words that bounce around inside my reeling head. A large black man in stunning white scrubs challenges me with a mock drill sergeant edge in his booming voice to just try and stop him from pulling me out of bed for another lap. A purple Popsicle melts on the bed tray next to the ice chips and Ensure.

All these images and words shrouded in a fog of timelessness and pain.

For my wife the hours drag by bringing their own burdens. She worries yet prays when a doctor comes out during surgery and says they are waiting on biopsy results from a dime-sized tumor found on my liver. Our faithful white minivan throws a tie-bar in the middle of a busy Indy intersection as she’s driving to fight boredom and loosen her stiff neck, scrounging for something besides hospital food for breakfast. Some old friends, a relocated couple from our church, answer her plea for a helping hand with grace and compassion, picks her up at the dealership and treats her to “the best doggone eggs and hash browns on the planet.” She scrapbooks away the hours trimming picture after picture after picture but not really accomplishing anything. She misses our kids and longs to spend time with her parents but she stays near me until the fevers fade and my mind clears and they wheel me upstairs.

Where the hours aren’t so lost anymore.