I’ve got to talk fast if I’m going to get through this, through enough of the history behind all of this that maybe you’ll understand what this is about. I am doing the plank—a yoga position recently co-opted by the exercise world. I’m stretched out almost parallel to the ground, my elbows and toes the only points of contact. I’m holding my body rigid, flat—as if I were a plank.
Hence the name: The Plank.
I grew up wearing Husky-brand jeans. I once cried to my mom that I was the fattest kid in the third grade. That isn’t true, she told me, saying that this other boy was heftier than me. Sitting on the edge of my bed I held my stomach in my hands. My mom told me everyone’s stomach looks like that when they’re slouched over. If I was so worried about it I should just suck it in.
When I was in the fifth grade I had a twenty-pound barbell and a workout routine that I plowed through three days a week. Snacking, I stuck to pretzels, and lost ten pounds. My mother and I also started going to the park to play tennis in the morning.
When my family went out to eat (which wasn’t often), we went to Pizza Hut. It was so delicious and I would shovel it in, eat so fast, eat as much as I could, which was a lot, since I have a bottomless stomach. Then once, I was sitting next to my dad and we were waiting for the pizzas to arrive and I was so antsy and so hungry and I was going on and on about how much I was craving that sweet melty cheesy greasy taste and finally he looked at me and said, “When that pizza gets here you’re just going to eat it until you’re full, and the pleasure of eating it will only last for a few minutes and then it’ll all be over. Learn to enjoy this, the waiting for it. All that pleasure is still ahead of us, and this here is as good as it’s ever going to be,”—and this probably isn’t exactly what he said, but whatever he said, that’s what I took from it, that there can be a uniquely powerful pleasure in withholding, in denial—pleasure from pain.
I think we must be in minute three of the plank now. As you can see, it’s not so bad. My abs are burning slightly but the strain is invigorating, and at this point I feel so strong and steady that I want to push things a little further: the trick is to do this on a semi-slippery surface, like tile, or linoleum, or finished wood. That way it’s more difficult to hold your body in position and your muscles will work harder. And keep your heels pushed back. And like I’m doing now, edge your elbows forward an inch—or two inches for the full effect.
Now I can really feel it— We must be coming up on the fourth minute—
I admit, about now the doubt kicks in and I wonder if I’ll make it, if I’ll be able to finish what I’ve started.
At some point I realized that if I didn’t eat anything after, say, eight at night, I would wake up in the morning with that great empty thin feeling that made my pants feel like they fit better, and made me walk taller. Sometime in high school I stopped eating lunch, except, occasionally, for some candy. I was a fan of those big chewy Sweet Tarts in particular. And I did a lot of calisthenics, and ran most days after school. Somewhere in there I grew into a model’s body, densely muscled but lean. And maybe you think I’m arrogant for saying that, but I’ll say it anyway, because it’s important to the story: I had a real model of a body—
My girlfriend told me again and again that I would always have that body, because I would never let myself go. My non-charm had never gotten me anywhere with the girls before, and around this time, occasionally, at parties and concerts, girls would walk up from nowhere and start making out with me. I was shy enough that the only thing this ever led to was my thinking of this body as my single greatest asset.
In college, I found hunger to be a great pain. I’ve never fasted, as such, but skip a few meals and sit through a fifty-minute lecture on thePhilosophy of Community and inevitably the hunger comes at you, and all you can do is embrace it because you won’t be able to focus on anything else until that fireball pain passes. Your vision might blur; sounds might fade. A great white light hits your face but you can’t look away—it’s so intense, it holds you. And then suddenly the world reappears, the professor’s voice fades back in, fuzzy, then clear, and you remember where you are and recognize those around you, and wonder if they noticed you’d left and only just returned, and just like that the hunger pain is gone, replaced by an extraordinary, hollow, empty feeling, as if the black hole at the center of the universe is somehow in you, holding everything precariously together. It feels so good. You feel great—truly.
So I wasn’t eating breakfast or lunch, but I was playing rugby then and I worked out a lot, and after practices, when I was totally spent, feeling so righteously tough and tired, I would eat four-thousand calorie dinners. I also limited my caffeine consumption, rarely smoked, and only boozed on the weekends—I was so wary of forming any sort of addiction—