If we had to identify the chief attribute that separates The Exceptionally Bright from The Sporadically Astute — and, need we add, The Invincibly Ignorant —it would have to be that they truly get the futility of rushing into anything as life-changing as Fasting half-assed. They know that understanding and arguing out all the pros and cons – appreciating the sacrifices as well as the benefits –is work that must be done before coming up with a plan, setting a goal and setting dates to accomplish that goal. If that strikes you as brutally simplistic, here’s what they also know: what questions they need to ask to find out what questions they need to ask. Or, as former US Secretary Of State Donald Rumsfeld so elegantly put it: “ …there are known knowns, there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns –the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
I fasted regularly for twenty years without ever thinking of it as a way to lose weight . If this sounds odd I had an iron clad excuse : I really enjoyed eating and loved to drink .But I also had a valid reason . During those 20 years I had writing deadlines which I ignored until notes were slipped under my door threatening serious unpleasantness. It was then –and only then—that I forced myself to cut out all distractions –including food, and thinking about food—until I finished the assignment.But after a few times of enduring the sweats , weakness and discomfort of untutored fasting , I discovered something truly amazing.
After the initial hunger pangs—which I accepted as just punishment for my procrastination ( I was educated by Jesuits/ Christian Brothers)— my appetite disappeared completely . But the real benefit was the ability to focus completely on the task at hand. I simply produced better work, faster and with more energy. In time , fasting became my secret weapon . Another reason to procrastinate , unfortunately , but something I knew I could pull out of the hat when needed. But the reason why it worked didn’t occur to me until years later when I absolutely had to do something after nearly dying and decided it might be worthwhile to at least research the subject . Here’s What I found :
Humankind has been suffering from lack of food since Eve ignored the terms and conditions of the first Apple contract , but our ancestors—we are obviously all descendants of the survivors of famine — didn’t just weaken and die. They became focused , energetic and their brains operated at maximum efficiency to come up with the fastest , most efficient way to get food. And brutal truth to be told , that often meant killing the folks in the next village for their food. In short , their minds and bodies didn’t weaken , they became combat ready. But the reason I did not associate fasting with weight loss, can also be found in the ancient lore of survival. And made equally good sense :
Yes, I lost weight. sometimes as much as 15 pounds over a four or five day period –especially if the increased energy and frustration with the task at hand caused me do pushups , jumping jacks and sprint around the block. But I also knew that once I completed the task I would gorge myself and gain all the weight back. And then , sadly, even more . But again , there was a good reason:
In the historical grand scheme of things, our bodies are built for feast and famine. When food was abundant we needed to store fats for the inevitable lean times to come. This went double for women who needed to protect the home turf when the men were out hunting , foraging and killing . A tribe’s success was measured by its fat women because its ultimate survival depended on how long they could go without food If this sounds like some New Age pop-anthropology to you, observations of this simple feast/famine phenomenon have led medical practitioners for at least 5000 years to conclude that fasting is the key to health and vitality –but much more on that later. In my case , the need to fast and keep the weight off came as the result of a deep personal tragedy.
Not Hamlet or Macbeth type tragedy , obviously , but it did follow a classic plot line because Act One opened with the protagonist enjoying great good fortune , mostly undeserved. One of my schemes had actually paid off against all odds and suddenly I discovered I did not have to take on any harrowing life or death assignments –at least not for a time. I fantasized that at long last I had time to write the novel which would at the very least alter the course of Western Civilization . Plus if my name happened to replace Aristotle’s in the intellectual firmament , that wouldn’t be too bad either since I had at long last—and against all odds—had attained the maturity to handle , say, a ticker tape parade without getting a swelled head. . However , since this all coincided with the Great Snows of Winter 2015 when going outside was treacherous and the only reliable deli delivery was Juan & Won’s Grease Emporium at the corner , not only did my head swell but almost every other part of me did as well. But that was only a prelude to the tragedy :
Act Two : In May I went for my first annual physical in five years, mostly due to shooting gas pains whenever I tried to put on pants and vertigo whenever I bent to pick up a cigarette. My doctor took one look at my form, duly blanched, and sent me down the hall for a stress test . This was depressing on a number of levels , including the comment uttered sotto voce in Spanish by one of the technicians , roughly translated as : this pant load is going to break the friggin’ treadmill. My blood pressure quickly skyrocketed above massive stroke level and most depressing of all : I suffered a heart attack–on the machine! I was immediately taken to intensive care where it was determined a major artery was blocked and soon after a team implanted stents. Other than briefly considering having my ears pierced in college , this was my first operation
A day later , a no nonsense MD told me I was going to probably going to die soon –or worse suffer a stroke and become the drooling guy in the day room wearing the propeller beanie screaming for the Flintstones channel—unless I lost 60 pounds , took 18 different pills daily, stopped smoking, quit drinking alcohol or soda blah, blah,, blah But I stopped listening Here’s what I knew that this obvious hysteric did not :
First off , I had run 6 marathons –each under 3 ½ hours. I play singles tennis almost every weather permitting day in the summer. I could easily give up smoking –I had done so each year for 40 years. Only rarely these days did I find it necessary to sit in the dark sipping Vodka out of a bottle with a straw listening to Dinah Washington records . But beyond all that—here was the kicker : I am an expert on diets. At the age of 25 I was part owner of three diet clinics in and around Boston and had written a popular syndicated column on diets for suburban newspapers. Piece of cake . Or so i Thought
Act Three .September 25, 2015 Central Park.Pope Francis was visiting New York and a procession was planned through the park later that day. Fire and EMS trucks were lining Central Park West, news/ police helicopters were flying overhead . The noise was deafening. It was a sticky hot September morning .But this being the third month of my slow weight loss diet I felt renewed –almost like a 12 year Roger Federer playing a fiercely physical game of tennis against the infamous “Dr. Slice and Dice” aka “The Spin Master” aka “The Killa From Manila” – in real life a medical researcher from the Philippines who worked at Mt. Sinai. And , if one is to be painfully forthright , also a man of 78 years old who’d gone under the knife at least twice for double and quadruple bypass heart surgery .
After three games I was barely able to breathe and was sweating profusely chasing his spins and drop shots .More than anything I wanted to know immediately one thing : how the hell was he able to keep it up. He couldn’t possibly be taking the same physically draining and stomach churning pills I was taking—could he ? Had he discovered some secret elixir of youth in his lab ? His reply amazed me :
“Take the drugs! Eat every vitamin you see!” he said with a fanatical gleam in his eyes . He then went on to point out he was physical proof of their efficacy . The heart drugs we were both taking were plainly miracle cures. Drugs prescribed only five years before , he assured me , were already regarded as from a primitive era –like the original computer prototype Steve Jobs’ built in his garage compared to the latest IPhone. My confidence in pharmacological R&D soared as he assured me that my body would soon adjust to my drug regimen and I too would soon discover how to slice and spin a tennis ball. “Just kidding about the tennis. You’ll always be shit player. ” He said with a chortle , then a gasp . And with that : fell straight back on his head and died . Not kidding . True fact. The man I was speaking to died right before my eyes.
I panicked . I screamed for help. My blood pressure must’ve added a degree of temperature to the city and parts of New Jersey . Within moments players from the other courts—there are 26 –began gathering around . Two medically trained individuals –a psychiatrist and an orthodontist –chugged over and joined me and the others in doing what seemed to be the only thing we could do : jump up and down and continue screaming for help. At the club house I could see the Park staff , now roused from their morning torpor , begin to move about in different directions looking for first aid equipment .
So your probably thinking this was my big Come-To Jesus moment ? Hardly.
Act Four : Back on earth , the Spin Master was sheet white and dead. The Park employees were now busily reenacting a Laurel & Hardy skit : bumping into one another, awkwardly rushing out with heavy equipment they had no idea how to unpack much less use , shrieking profanities and popping people who dared criticize in the eye. And what made this more ludicrous still , was that we were within blocks of the most famous medical institutions on the globe and practically within calling distance of ambulance squadrons lined up less than two blocks away on Central Park West . This is exactly how it would end for me, I thought. Surrounded by unforgivable incompetence while mere blocks away municipal rescue workers would be playing lutes or grab ass or sitting in the shade picking nits out of one another’s crotch thatch …
So that was the then and there when I finally realized I needed to change my life ? Of course not .
If you know anything about calling NYC first responders –NOO YAWK’S BESTEST , according to a succession of mayors and many other confirmed idiots- –who also insist on calling the cops THE FINEST, Firemen The BRAVEST , Garbage men The STRONGEST , Corrections THE BOLDEST –is that while it may take 20 or 30 or 40 minutes for them to arrive , but when they do finally show , they come in battalions and bring all of the above with them, plus gawkers. Approximately 22 minutes after the Manila Killa’s head hit the turf the area was jammed with cop, fire and ambulance vehicles , news and police helicopters hovering overhead. Finally there appeared in the midst of all this a huge man with a bullhorn who began barking commands .
With clockwork efficiency , an oxygen tank and a defibrillator were wheeled out and a pair of no-nonsense , square jawed Marine types began administering to the lifeless form . And then ….. a spasm , a cough , a deep retching noise and then a barely perceptible overlay of pink and blue appeared on his ash white face. And quite suddenly Dr. Slice And Dice came back from the dead
And witnessing this miracle it was then and there I sank to my knees and thanked God and the Pope for answering my prayers , adding that as an added bonus I would immediately become wafer thin and ascetic and devote my life to alms giving and good works etc. And if you believe that , you simply haven’t been paying attention.
I stood there slack jawed , noticing for the first time my hand was so tightly clenched on my racket grip that actual fusion might have taken place …
BUT THEN IT HAPPENED :
The big fat guy on the bullhorn came striding over and asked the crowd who was with “the victim” when “the event” took place. I raised my hand bravely and formed an important expression on my face—what I imagined to be what a stoic , dignified , intelligent imparter of vital information might look like and said “Here” in a voice that charitably one might label : Tweety on Helium
“GO ASK THE FAT GUY IN THE BLUE SHIRT WHAT HE SAW”
From what I can recall , the rest of the day was like living in a 1930’s black and white Fellini film with art direction by Salvador Dali . Every time I saw my reflection in a window, or worse, in the revolted gaze of faces, all female, in passing crowds, a great white cartoon cloud formed over my head and in Bold German Gothic script FAT GUY IN THE BLUE SHIRT
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