A Groundhog Searches for His Winter Shadow

KarlThe New England winter doldrums have descended and life has slowed to a twilight drift across denuded woods and frozen ground. It is at this time of year that I revert to the ancient ways of my ancestors – – avoiding the cold weather and socking away calories like a hoarder collects stuffed animals. December through February is a dark turn of a page where prolonged periods of inactivity fuel the need to overeat. I am now disturbed by the man I see in the mirror. He is a strange, lumpy changeling – a human ground hog that hardly resembles the dashing young mammal that used to amble so easily across the green grass of my youth. I prefer not to make eye contact with him and view him only in certain light – preferably a Blanche Dubois 25 watt bulb or even better, complete darkness.

Winter weariness is normal and brought about by deprivation from the sun, the lack of Vitamin D and in my case, resentment of growing up in a land where winter used to mean warm Santa Ana winds heated by high deserts and spectacular days of eighty degree weather. I have yet to join the fraternity of “hearty” New Englanders and routinely mumble rhetorical questions to myself as I scrape ice from my windshield. “Why did I ever leave Los Angeles?” “I could be having my colon cleansed right now. Whose stupid idea was this?”

When I get depressed, I eat. Having given up the traditional vices that often medicate many in Northern latitudes through dreary winters, I turn to food. Each night I engage in mindless foraging and revert to a newborn’s feeding schedule where I awaken hungry every two hours.

My spouse always recognizes when I have overindulged. Perhaps it is the trail of Nature Valley granola bar wrappers or empty wax paper tubes of Ritz crackers. The dog swims under me like a pilot fish hoping for seconds. Any pale morning might reveal a hastily opened bottle of Rolaids or an opaque glass of water with baking soda congealing at its bottom.

I have already betrayed my paper tiger New Year resolutions around weight, diet and food. Each year, I bargain with the cosmos promising extraordinary commitment to health and human service in exchange for modest metabolic change. By mid-winter I am once again a portly Prometheus with my insides devoured by a great eagle of heartburn that attacks each night.

I eventually act on my own disgust and return to the gym. In my latest spasm of fitness, I run four miles and lift weights to feel the reassuring burn of my metabolism. It will be spring time soon and with the first crocus, I may be required to go “skins” by a public pool or at a beach. The ache and perspiration of my work out gives me permission to feel better about myself – so I go to Tony’s Deli and celebrate my improving self esteem with an egg sandwich, potato cones and hot sauce. As I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass door, it appears as if I am hiding two midgets in the rear of my black sweat pants. A woman glances at me and seems suddenly inspired to tell her friend about her recent half stone weight loss. I feel compelled to tell her that I have found her seven pounds and am eager to return them to her.

It is Super Bowl Sunday – the last major winter milestone where food is a centerpiece of the celebration. Tomorrow, I must diet. I will soon be staring at my summer shadow and would prefer not be known as the human eclipse. What I really need is a high school reunion or some vanity based event that compels me back to Jenny Craig and salt less portions no larger than a thimble.

I am soon standing over a buffet offering more fat than an August Sunday on Coney Island. There is something comforting about a family party with its endless conveyor belt of pot-luck food and homemade desserts. I do not discriminate. I eat everything. I challenge the structural integrity of my flimsy paper plate piling it high with a Devil’s Tower of reflux — chili, mozzarella sticks, sushi, chicken wings, jalapeno poppers and of course, carrots to help me see each bite more clearly. I crown this massive culinary surge with a tiara of baked ziti and then skulk toward a dark corner to devour the monstrosity. I put two forks on my plate to give others the illusion that I am sharing with an invisible partner who has only momentarily left me to find a towel to serve as our napkin.

What is it about free food? I notice this same lack of self-possession when I leave leftovers in the office lunchroom. I watch in fascination as people who have just finished lunch eat an entirely new lunch because the sandwiches are without charge. Yet, I am strangely reassured by this behavior. This ravenous herd of unrestrained eaters are part of my tribe.

Yet, as in all of nature, there is another group on my island – The Others, an ensemble of odd aliens who can leave half a dessert on their plate or half the wine in their glass. These unfortunates are cursed with moderation. They chew each bite like a cow and only selectively pick at the bonanza of food found at holiday buffets.

I watch from my private alcove of indulgence as skeletal, thin wristed women with dark form fitting jeans meticulously grab celery and cherry tomatoes from amongst the jalapeno poppers, calzone and Italian sub slices. These cadavers turn sideways and for a moment I cannot see them. They will be the first to die in a famine. Their restraint haunts me.

I return to the dessert table to eat several cookies and sample a brownie that is disappointingly bland and cakey. I eat it anyway. Somewhere someone is starving. It does not matter that I am full. I notice macaroons which have been advertised as “gluten free”. I am uncertain what gluten is but the term troubles me – as if I will be missing something if I eat it. But the coconut puck does have the word “free” in its advertisement, so I stuff it in my mouth. In my haze of sugar and simple carbohydrates, a child cuts in front of me. She looks up at me and smiles. I give her a gentle shove with my knee – the way I lovingly push my dog back when he is crowding me.

I survey the cornucopia of sweets and wait impatiently for more room to form in my stomach. Behind me a kitchen light casts my silhouette across the dessert tray and like Punxsutawney Phil, I look down and suddenly see my shadow. It is a bad omen.

Normally, only four more weeks of winter would be welcome. However, the way I see it, this means there’s only one month of winter before this ground hog may have to remove his hair shirt in public.

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