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.

The Great Wellness Revolt of 2011

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The scene opens with a fit, thirty-something man running down the hallway of an office building.  His white shirt is stained on right side by what appears to be orange juice. He frantically looks behind him to see if anyone is following him and knocks over a female colleague – spraying papers into the air.  He spins, tumbles, hesitates and then runs through a door marked, “ Human Resources – Compensation and Benefits”

He bursts into an inner office where a 50ish woman is on the phone – laughing.  She frowns glancing at him as he shuts the door and peers between her Levolor blinds.

Carol: (Covering the phone) What the hell are you doing, Johnson ?  Aren’t you supposed to be downstairs conducting the annual benefit enrollment meetings?

Johnson (Terrified, turning to show his stained shirt) : Are they coming?  Did you see anyone?  Those five women – you know the ones who go walking every day at lunch – one of them threw an orange at me right in the middle of my presentation.

Carol: (Swivels in her chair, turning her back on Johnson and is about to speak into the phone when she sees all her phone console lines blinking at once. Her cell phone begins to vibrate in her purse. She speaks into the phone)

Tim, let me get back to you.  Something seems to be going on here at Corporate. (she hangs up and let’s her phone start to ring. )

Cindy grab those calls will you?  (she glances at her cell and sees it is her West Coast HR representative. She holds up her hand to Johnson who is about to say something) Shhh! I have to take this cell call. (She answers the cell)

Phil, I hope this can wait.  I have a …..

( She listens intently as a barely audible voice is whispering on the other line )

Phil, I can barely hear you.  (frowning again) You’re where?  The women’s bathroom – – in a stall?  Phil, I don’t need to tell you that.  What?  Who is after you?  Well, did you call security?  What do you mean, the elevator is not working? The security guard says it’s too far to climb eight flights of stairs?

(She listens and stands up.  She looks out her front window and notices that several employees in suits are doing push ups and jumping jacks in the parking lot.  There are signs being removed from the back of a truck that read, “ Lower Your Cholesterol, Lower My Cost for Health Insurance”, “ That Donut You’re Eating Just Cost Me $50.00”, and “Cut Your Risk Factors, Not My Benefits.”

What the hell is going on?   What?  No Phil, I was not talking to you.  What happened? At your enrollment meeting? Flesh mob? Flash Mob? What did you….Vending machines?  A glasscutter?….Only the candy bars and chips? Apples?  How the hell did someone smuggle 500 apples into the office without us seeing them? Every desk? What?  ‘An apple a day, keeps your colon okay?” Who the hell wrote that?

A flustered secretary opens the door and Johnson hides under her desk with his butt sticking out of the narrow opening.  Carol looks down and barks.

Johnson, for God’s sake get out from underneath that desk.  Cindy, WHAT IS IT? “

Cindy (talking very quickly): Every HR representative is calling from the field.  Apparently, during the open enrollment session this morning, there was a coordinated protest over our raising premiums and decreasing benefits. Several people removed their business suits and were wearing workout clothes.  They started exercising and chanting inappropriate slogans about how this company does not care about employee healthcare.  Someone turned over all the vending machines in St Louis.  A group of CSRs in Dayton who conduct Zumba classes every day at noon have demanded that we do biometric testing on all the people working in the call center.  They seem to have somehow figured out that all of our big medical claims came from several people who have not seen the doctor in years.”

Carol looks out the window and sees an overweight security guard trying to take a sign away from a younger, much thinner man in a track-suit.  The young man is taunting the guard and running just ahead of him until the guard stops and places both hands on his knees and throws up.

Carol (talking to herself): This is getting out of hand. Ok, has anyone been hurt?

Johnson ( muffled, still under the desk ): I told you that this was a problem.  I told you.  Just look at Safeway.  They found that 66% of their diabetics were not compliant with their own treatment regimens. They cut premiums for people who engage. raising premiums for people who refuse to make lifestyle changes. Driving employee engagement.  Remember that note I brought you that someone had left next to all those cookies in the lunchroom? It was a warning from this, whatever they call themselves – wellness terrorist group.  It said, “If your LDL is over 130, don’t even think about it.” Remember, you thought it was some kind of a joke?  Well, what about the sticky note on Larry’s (the CFO’s) door: “Dear Larry, ever thought about the relationship between a lap band operation and operating income?”  Think about it, Ms. Whiffler. It all makes sense. This is a wellness rebellion!

Carol: (disgusted) Get a hold of yourself, Johnson.  This is not the Russian Revolution.  It’s a coup of those exercise nuts we see running and walking every day.  They are trying to get us to spend a lot of time and energy on something that can’t be proven to show an adequate return on investment.  I mean have you seen the call center staff in New Hampshire? Do you really think we are going to change these people’s lifestyles and get them to stop smoking and overeating? Have you ever seen what happens when we put any free food in that lunch room?  I mean I could put dog dirt on that table and if it said ”free”, someone would eat it.

(Carol suddenly remembers the king-sized Butterfinger bar she has in her desk drawer. She sighs and thinks: what I would not give to eat that baby and take a nap. The phone rings.  Cindy looks at the console.  She glances up)

Cindy: It’s Mr. Lawson on line one (the Chief Financial Officer )

Carol: Ok, nobody panic. (looks at Johnson and hisses ) and no more talk about fitness mutinies and exercise insurrections. (Picks up the phone and composes herself) Hi, Larry.  What can I do for you?  (A loud voice penetrates the entire office out of the handset) What? Oh my. Well, yes, I….No, I did not know someone left that note on your door until a few days ago.  What?  What did this one say? (she stops and tries to suppress a smile) A manatee? Oh, yes, now I remember – the large, endangered mammals in Florida?…..No, I do not think they were threatening you by choosing to compare you to an endangered species…..Absolutely, we will fire the person on sight if we can find them. Yes, yes, ok…I will circle back to you in a few hours.  We seem to have some issues with the employees around the benefit plan cuts and premium increases.  (more yelling)

Yes, I think they understand we have a new private equity owner who expects us to improve earnings. Yes, better cutting benefits and increasing contributions than reducing the workforce.  No, I don’t think they know how thankless our jobs are. (She glances at Johnson who has now emerged from under the desk. He is rolling his eyes and sticking his finger down his throat and pretending to gag. She gives him a sharp disapproving look. ) Yes, yes, right away.

Johnson: You know he could stand to lose about 50 lbs. I bet he thinks BMI is a kind of foreign car and that a Statin is a Borough of Manhattan. He’s the one who stopped us from reducing the PPO network and implementing some of those changes that would have redirected people to lower cost, higher quality hospitals – all because his doctor was not in the narrower network.

Carol looks out the window.  Over 50 people are engaged in an impromptu Zumba class.  Three overweight security guards are seated watching them in a golf cart.  One is drinking a Coke and smoking.

Carol: Well, he is the boss.

Johnson: Yes, a boss that dropped on our heads like a 300 lb wrecking ball.

Well, boss, what are you proposing we tell everybody around the country?   We have HR reps hiding in bathrooms. The “Fitness Taliban” in control of a half a dozen offices. I can count the lawsuits now from our overweight employees claiming a hostile work environment. (Imitating Keifer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer  in “24” ) Well, Madam President, what is our next move? Your team is awaiting further instructions.

( Silence. Johnson continues) You know, if we had just dug in our trainers around biometric testing, penalties for smoking, incentives for wellness and compliance based rewards to make sure people adhere to their chronic illness medications, we could have prevented this mutiny.

Carol: (Irritated) Quit using that word.  Who the hell is going to do all this testing and keeping track? You?  Me? We just fired four HR reps. We have cut our budget and we now have the lowest ratio of HR/Benefits staff to employees in our industry.  The sad truth is, Johnson, it’s easier to pay the increased costs and then pass them on to all employees then try to get them to change.  We are in the business of selling HR and payroll administration systems, not the business of trying to get someone’s spouse from eating Oreos.

Johnson: Well, I’m telling you that our costs have increased 50% in the last three years and we have passed on 80% of those increases to our people.  Wages have increased by about 12% in that same period.  My guess is most people’s take home pay has been consumed by our new high deductible plans, increased cost sharing and new drug plan formulary.  They are pissed off.

Carol: So, what do you propose, Mr Bleeding Heart?

Johnson: Actually, my heart is in great shape. Cholesterol? 145.  Triglycerides? 110. Fasting glucose ? Less than 80. I run three days a week and I have given up dairy. Cherie (his girlfriend ) has just turned vegan.

Carol: ( Rolling her eyes) You sound like one of those P90X terrorists.

Johnson: Well, if the shoe doesn’t fit, then you can’t wear it. Look, I say, we immediately circle back to all employees and tell them that we have heard them.  We can easily launch a voluntary biometric plan for our renewal and offer to hold premiums flat for those who participate.  For those who choose to not get tested, they will pay the increased cost of coverage.

We can get our insurer to pay for the testing and use the penalties to offset the partial costs of the increase.  We then meet with Larry and Ron (the CEO) and show them a five-year pro forma of our current medical trends and the impact of us reducing medical trends by 3% each year. Those guys understand profits.  Every dollar saved times a 10X multiple is money in their pocket when we go public.

We pay over $ 15mm in claims.  The savings of a lower compounded medical trend, reduced catastrophic claims, improved productivity and morale will more than make up for the “hassle factor.” Quite frankly, those that consider healthy living an imposition are probably the same ones back at their desks today eating Krispy Kremes while the healthy employees are protesting. If we can just find people who are sick and don’t know it and stabilize those that are chronically ill by reducing financial, physical or mental barriers to care, we would be a great shape. (He smiles) No pun intended.

Think about how we nickel and dime our people on travel and other administrative costs, yet we completely ignore these rising costs because we find it easier and less “disruptive” just pass to them on to the employees.  Well, guess what?  They are telling us, enough is enough.  We have to do something different and be more responsible.  You cannot engage employees if your management is not engaged.

Carol: (looking out the window.  One of the security guards has joined the Zumba class while the other two have left the parking lot on foot leaving the golf cart behind) Okay, call all the reps and let’s have an emergency follow-up meeting this afternoon.  Dust off that proposal from the insurer and our broker and let’s put some numbers around it.

Johnson smiles approvingly and leaves her office.  She shuts the door and falls back into her chair.  A button pops off her blouse and she shakes her head, feeling sorry for herself.  She remembers the Butterfinger and opens the drawer.  She glances at it and then picks it up.  She stands and goes to the window. She tears open the wrapper.

She turns and decisively walks out to her secretary’s desk.  She drops the candy bar in the waste can.

Cindy, hold my calls. I’m going outside to do some Zumba.

Ear Today, Ghoul Tomorrow?

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Ear Today, Ghoul Tomorrow?

I don’t plan to grow old gracefully. I plan to have face-lifts until my ears meet. – Rita Rudner

Life, for most mortals, is a zero sum game. As one enters middle age, you begin receiving physical past due notices requesting payment for every  act of vanity, gluttony, sloth and stupidity.

Having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, I became accustomed to enduring a permanent state of sun burn.  My delicate adolescent epidermis was in a perpetual cycle of burn and tan – always followed by a reptilian peeling of the skin. In the days where dermatologists existed to treat teens for acne and ancient beachcombers for melanoma, parents did not force kids to lather up with SPF 50 sunscreen. When overexposure to the sun produced second degree burns, mothers would simply apply a greasy, white industrial ointment known as zinc oxide to the afflicted area and hustle you back out into the sun.

Like the Aztecs of ancient Mexico, we were a society of sun worshippers. A tan was considered a healthy measure of a man’s cultural, physical and financial prowess.  Stars like George Hamilton and Robert Wagner personified the benefits of melanin and masculinity. Despite my light eyes and County Kerry skin, I was constantly in search of the savage tan. As with all the seven deadly sins, the Fates never forget to remind you of your deal with the devil.

At the ripe, young age of 35, I noticed a small patch of flaking skin above my left eye that never seemed to heal.  It was no larger than a thimble top. It had a predictable six to eight week cycle of itching, peeling and healing.  I mentioned it in passing to my physician during a rare physical. As a precaution, he sent me to a dermatologist who, after conducting a biopsy, surprised me with a diagnosis of basal cell carcinoma.

My skin doctor further unnerved me by sharing that the basal cell’s removal would require the assistance of a plastic surgeon as the particular area in question had little skin to suture the quarter-sized area that would need to be excised. He went on to describe a Frankenstein type of procedure that would graft skin off my temple by twisting clockwise over open eyebrow.

Only in my mid-thirties, the notion of plastic surgery unnerved me.  I assumed that the only people in real need of plastic surgeons were public enemy number one criminals attempting to alter their physical appearances, aging celebrities and of course, Joan Rivers.  I instantly recalled the Frank Capra Halloween classic, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, where a sociopathic murderer played by creepy Raymond Massey, returns home to threaten his family after being disfigured by his drunken plastic surgeon, Peter Lorre. My active imagination transferred his scars on to my face – a face that not even my dog could love.

I endured the surgery but developed am embarrassing post operative complication when excessive scar tissue accumulated underneath the incision. It appeared as if I was growing a small horn. Since it had been several centuries since horned, pan flute playing fauns were in vogue, I was eager to receive a “horn-ectomy.” Yet, an infection would require that I wait six months for this critical second plastic surgery. In the interim, I learned a lifetime of insights about my own vanity.

The “horn” incident left me with a strong motivation to return to my dermatologist every six months to be probed for suspicious moles, foreign freckles and dubious discolorations.  If the doctor found anything, he would deploy his trusty canister of liquid nitrogen and proceed to “freezer burn” the cells gone wild. Aesthetically, my doctor never seemed to consider the fact that I had a social life. Perhaps he assumed I was a research librarian. You see, a man with freezer burns across his nose, cheeks and forehead looks like someone in the early stages of leprosy. It was inconvenient but I did finally come to realize that the person who most noticed my burn marks– was me.

Fast forward to October, 2010. It had been years since I had been diagnosed with any epidermal irregularities. I was beginning to think that I had finally gotten the skin cancer monkey off my back when the doctor found a small patch of flaking skin on the inside of my ear. What was thought to be a patch of eczema was instead, an aggressive squamous skin cancer that needed to be immediately removed.

The excision surgery called Mohs, involved removing the lesion and any surrounding tissue that might have been corrupted by the cancerous cells. The doctor essentially keeps expanding the radius of his incisions until the adjacent skin is cancer free.  What might start as a laser thin surgical bore can grow into the Grand Canyon. While preferable to the more medieval skin surgeries of the past which usually resulted in pieces of one’s body being removed, Mohs was still invasive surgery in an area comprised predominantly of cartilage – which is slow to heal, quick to infect and impossible to disguise.  I was not quite ready to go Van Gogh.

After a seemingly uneventful surgery, my ear was wrapped and I was sent home to convalesce.  The bandage looked like a battlefield medic dressing and screamed out to anyone passing by, “look at me!”.  It was enormous and came to a rather unattractive point at the top of my ear appearing as though I was either preparing for a journey to Modor or readying for a Star Trek convention. My spouse did what all good spouses do – she lied to me saying, “You – – can hardly notice it.” She was so confident of its total invisibility that she suggested we go to the local Varsity football game to get my mind off the surgery. I was reluctant to appear in public as I knew two-thirds of our entire community would be gathered to socialize and stare at my ear. I could already envision four-year old kids coming up to me and handing me scribbled notes asking me if I would not mind “giving their list to Santa.”

At the football game, I skulked in the shadows like Boo Radley convinced everyone was fixated on my head. I lasted two quarters and declared that it was time to leave.  Later that evening, under a bright vanity mirror light, I surveyed the bullet hole wound and the exposed cartilage. I felt like “Massive Head Wound Harry”, a disgusting character made famous by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live.  I started second guessing whether I should have asked the doctor for an appointment with a plastic surgeon.

As a healthcare professional, I had philosophical reservations about elective plastic surgery. Americans spend up to $13B a year on non-essential procedures. What was once a medical profession designed to improve the quality of life for those unfairly dealt deuces in the card game of life, had now become a multi billion dollar industry catering to the insecurities of a society that glorified youth and whispered promises that physical perfection led to personal happiness.

As an addictive personality, I could easily see myself getting caught up in the body image spiral. Despite a regimen of rigorous exercise, there remain parts of my body that categorically refuse to recognize me as their sovereign. These untamed regions of my legs and arms resist my periodic offensives to tame them. As I survey my wobbly inner thigh or stubborn love handles, popular culture chips away at my self-confidence. I  am a failure for somehow not bringing these rebellious bands of bagginess under heel. Perhaps getting my ear fixed would create more problems – like buying that new couch and then suddenly waking up convinced that I needed to remodel the entire house.  Within a few years, I would end up looking like a 15th century samurai.

I do not know what it is about middle-aged men and denial. While men generally age gracefully, they cannot always see the dignity of their salt and pepper patina. Take for instance, my hero Olympic Decathlete Bruce Jenner who now resembles the illegitimate offspring off an orange orangutan and an iguana. Bruce, who should be a star in a TV special, “When Good Facelifts Go Bad”, presides like a eunuch over a harem of micro-celebrity Kardashian women.  He spends his day playing with toys and sleeping while his B-list step daughters disrupt various public places across the US. Bruce is not the only sad sack of surgery. Have you seen singer Kenny Rogers, aka The Gambler, lately? Old Kenny has been stretched more times than salt water taffy and looks as if he is permanently walking into his own surprise party.

And do not think I would forget the ladies!  Ironically, these nymphs of the knife who spend tens of thousands each year to look “different” have actually become increasingly interchangeable.  Between their collagen injections, Botox, liposuction, tummy tucks, forehead lifts, chin contouring and implants – they have created their own subhuman race of taut, buxom human carp. The lists of cosmetic casualties that refuse to go gently into that good night include Janet Jackson (She and Michael are the same person), Meg Ryan, Donatella Versace and Melanie Griffith. Between the collagen gone bad, shifting saline and sagging facelifts, these Brides of Frankenstein are walking warnings of the price paid for listening to that nagging inner critic that keeps whispering that your butt looks big.

In the end, my ear will heal.  I’ll eventually stop worrying that I look like Evander Holyfield.  The bandage will come off revealing a scar and gasp, more imperfection.  It may detract from my physical appearance but in the end, it will be another unique brush stroke on my canvas – a flawed Dorian Gray portrait replete with scars, gray hair moments, crow’s feet and laugh lines.  I will play the cards God gave me, and continue to wage conventional warfare against those untamed physical regions that seem immune to my best intentions.

Who knows, in the end, I may look back and find that the only real terrorist that existed in my life – – was my vanity.

Tom and Steve’s Most Excellent Ab Venture

The word “personal training” came about when the gym instructors got together and said, “If we’re going to charge $100 an hour, we can’t call it jumping up and down.”  ~Rita Rudner

I am watching my 14 year old son with his POW ribs and washboard abs as he meanders into the kitchen and in the span of 10 minutes consumes about 15,000 calories of junk food. I am in awe of his metabolism.  I am certain that if he did not keep eating all day his body would simply turn on itself and he would be gone by midnight.    It is so depressing.  It is also highly unfair – – this shiny race car they call youth.  I mourn my own sputtering 1961 engine.

Like the DMV, middle age carries its own rules of the road.  Do not eat after 9pm unless you want to wake up feeling like someone has just poured hydrochloric acid down your throat.  Don’t drink or consume anything before you exercise or you risk sounding like one of those bus doors belching your way down South Avenue. Do not eat Fiber One bars prior to interaction with any human being. Watch your salt intake. Eat a big breakfast.  Eat only protein.  Eat only complex carbohydrates.  Eat 6 -8 helpings of vegetables every day. (Are green cupcakes a vegetable?)  Take Omega 3 fatty acids.  Take 5000 grams of vitamin C. Eat nutrient rich greens. Eat kale (Kale is the name of an ex-con from Alabama not a leafy green)   Eat like a caveman.  Eat at South Beach.  Eat like a Southern European living on the Mediterranean. Don’t eat.

Food is now fuel and not a source of pleasure, medication or escape. How many grams of fat does that have?  I don’t know.  It says it has only 100 calories per serving. But, wait! Damn, there are 144 servings in this bag.  My mantra of “more is better” has been supplanted by “less is more.” The answer to every question is always the same, “exercise and moderation.”  It is the definition of hell for an obsessive personality.

For the last several years, I have been waging a battle of night and day – faithfully going to the gym each day to engage some militant muscle group with a regimen of weights and cardio. I then drive home and eat everything that is not nailed down.  As a creature of habit, my workout routine became a highly regimented and predictable series of exercises that helped me build strength and in the right light, delude myself into thinking I was still worthy of becoming a second string tackle for a local junior college.

My self deceit included multi-tasking while presumably “pushing myself to the limit”. I found I could actually write on my blackberry while using the elliptical which allowed me to cover multiple priorities at the same time.  I mistook sweat for physical fitness. and of course, discovered my appetite had increased. I was just a bigger monster to feed.

One day rumors began to swirl around the Smith Press. “Our” Fitness Club was getting a new owner, management and a much needed facelift.  I was secretly distressed.  I was a privileged member of a dying tribe  – many of whom had joined NCAC when Reagan was in office.  My workout partners and I would have never met except for our masochism in refusing to quit a club whose facilities had not been updated since Jack Lalanne was in spandex knee pants.  We were a union of odd bedfellows that was as hard to get out as the stains and marks that tattooed the club’s ancient ash gray carpet.

The gym had been frozen in time, inconsistently managed and finally, unable to pay its bills.  A week did not go by that something did not break, snap, burst or explode – including a few wobbly  patrons who faithfully arrived each day to curl 15lb dumbbells and then fall asleep in a stained leather armchair that even my dog would not sit in.  No one really actually knew who was a member as anyone in spandex could wander in off the street and begin using the equipment. My friends extolled the virtues of other clubs with their progressive hours and contemporary fitness equipment.  I was too stubborn.  My club was like an old tattered shirt that one refuses to throw away.

Then, everything changed.  Someone from the spinning group confirmed that “we have been bought.” The new owner was a triathlete and fitness author named Tom Holland.  Tom’s success as a triathlete, trainer and fitness motivator made him an ideal candidate to breathe some spontaneity back into our rigid routines. Tom’s business partner,  Steve “Baz”, an ex-martial arts specialist, looked equally conditioned and possessed that unnerving gaze of a sculptor when he is first examining a mound of useless clay.  I was not sure if Steve was a former Special Forces operative or a spy.  However it was clear both men had boundless energy and spoke in a strange dialect of physiological, biochemical and psychological terms. They used clinical terms like “body composition”, “basal metabolic rate (BMR)” and ” hypertrophy”.  While it was apparent that we had been ” liberated”, this was one POW camp that was not sure it wanted to be found.  Within days, it was clear that these fitness gurus had come to save us – whether we wanted to be or not.

Weird accountrement started appearing at newly renamed Tom Holland Athletic Club — elastic ropes, harnesses, long flexible rolling pins, colored metallic handled orbs called “kettle bells” and a massive vibrating lectern called a “Power Plate” which resembled the personal hover-craft of George Jetson.  I could see how all these gadgets might improve your sex life but was skeptical of their fitness value.

Our new owners prowled the floor and engaged members with seemingly innocent questions about routines, goals and physical histories.  When they were not getting to know their new clients, they were running, biking and sprinting in very public places with their clientele. I was wary.  I did not trust anyone with a 5% body fat.  It’s unnatural.  How can I depend on them to vouch for me when I was really at Dunkin Donuts?  The answer was simple – I could not.  Yet, my own curiosity finally got the better of me and I requested a private session with Steve.

He handed me a jump rope.  I had not seen a jump rope since the third grade. I rolled my eyes and  balked, “When do we get to bench press? ” Steve smiled.  “Let’s warm up and jump rope for 30 seconds. You then rest for 30 seconds and then jump for 30 more.” It was insultingly simple.  I rolled my eyes. After ten seconds, my legs started to tighten and heart did the conga.  After 20 seconds, my chest appeared to be giving way to an alien trying to escape.  My heart rate monitor indicated that I was now a human hummingbird.  About 35 minutes into my first Steve workout, I started to experience sensations similar to the bird flu.  At the end of the 50 minute routine, I was reduced to a quivering mass of jello and allowed to fly home. The following day was an eight Advil affair.

One brutal session led to another.  I determined that my new coach was engaged in the most deceptive of all practices – turning my own body weight against me.  Suddenly I was not lifting 235lbs on a benchpress.  I was lugging my own 235lbs through push-ups, pull-ups, bear crawls, squats, box jumps, and running.  Seemingly benign household objects became part of sinister drills designed to induce total muscle failure.  A piece of string, a ten pound weight, athletic tape and an elastic band could be combined to burn 2000 calories and my self esteem . Running was soon reintroduced as a precursor to the weekly work out. “Let’s do three miles and then come back, work your core and finish with 5000 meters on the rowing machine.”  I looked at him as if he was in league with Satan.

“Why” I asked.

“Why not?” he replied.

I now understood why they call it muscle confusion. My glutes did not if they were coming or going.

I met Charlie, a 6’6” ex-athlete who was determined to get back to his football playing weight. Charlie and I became Professor Steve’s experiments.  We were perfect lab rats – middle aged men carrying excess baggage, nostalgic for days of fast cars and fast metabolisms and highly responsive to praise and punishment.  Eventually, we were pitted against one another like gladiators. One day, we would be pulling each other across a floor using a massive tug boat rope.  The next day, we would be jogging three miles and then racing on rowing machines.  We were clearly a source of amusement for many in club.  I am sure Tom and Steve considered developing a video called the “The Paleo Workout: So Easy A Caveman Can Do It – foreward by Jane Goodall.”   In a span of ten weeks, Charlie dropped an amazing 40lbs discovering he had ribs, feet and even a third child.

We started simply referring to our rehabilitated habitat as Holland’s House of Pain – – “When you finally decide to get serious about being sore.”

I am now months into my routine and as a serial masochist, I pay for the privilege to enter the House of Pain. It is an addictive and never ending assault on my metabolism and dignity. Yet, I love it.  I have not lifted a heavy weight in months but am more fit than I have been in years.  Yet, Steve is not satisfied.  He wants my BMI under 20 and my body fat percentage in the teens.  He argues that I have only begun my journey  – – one that will extend my life, improve my stamina and best of all, keep me ensconced as alpha male in my pride.

For any Turpin teen who crosses the proverbial line in the sand, I am considering a 50 minute workout with Steve in lieu of grounding, loss of cell phone or confiscation of the personal computer.  This will be the Marine Corps equivalent of  “drop and give me twenty!”

The best part about it is I will probably join them.