Illustration by Eddie Guy
Doctors warn that moving can be one of the chief causes of stress in life, right up there with changing a job or a partner. To move, you have to confront the past. You never know what you're going to find in the garage or the basement. It might be something poignant, like the favorite baby outfit, lovingly put away for the second child you never managed to have. Or something enraging, like the copy of the memo you sent to an abusive boss. When I was packing up to move in December 2006, what I unearthed was a fitness assessment from the day I joined a gym in Cleveland in March 1984, when I was 28.
Talk about stressful. Suddenly, there it was, in black-and-white; the quantification of my physical decline over the previous 23 years. Could it possibly be true that I once weighed only 104 pounds? Leaving cardboard boxes gaping and bits of Bubble Wrap strewn across the floor, I went hunting for the bathroom scale. Part of me hoped I'd already packed it.
No such luck. I stepped on the scale and watched the needle travel in a wide arc around the dial. In the second it took to find its resting place, some very good meals flashed before my eyes. Steaming plates piled high with linguine. Crispy fried chicken and mounds of mashed potatoes. Succulent shellfish glistening with butter. The result of all this culinary indulgence glared at me in big black numerals under the shuddering needle: In 23 years, my petite, five-foot-two-inch frame had gained 19 pounds. And thanks to the careful measurements noted on my fitness evaluation, I was able to ascertain exactly where those pounds had landed. Braving withering looks from my spouse, who wondered why I wasn't getting on with the job at hand, I started rummaging around in the packing boxes until I located my tape measure.
It's not the easiest thing, taking one's own measurements, but this was hardly information I wished to share with anyone, especially a husband. I tried not to cheat by pulling too hard on the tape. Biceps, chest, thigh, and calf...so far, the news was surprisingly good. But that 19 pounds had to have gone somewhere. I slung the tape around my midriff. Ahhhhrrrgggh. Then my hips. Eeeeek.
In 1984 I'd been an hourglass. Now I was a brandy snifter.
In the hourglass days, I'd worked as a newspaper reporter, assigned to The Wall Street Journal's Cleveland bureau. My boss had an aversion to seeing reporters sitting at their desks. He believed, quite rightly, that the news was happening elsewhere. So in those days I'd done quite a bit of pavement pounding. But now I'm a novelist, an occupation that is almost entirely sedentary. In the morning I walk the dogs. In the evening I weed the garden. In between I just sit, on what I now was forced to recognize had become my ample backside. You can't get a novel written without a great deal of sitting. Bum glue, as a colleague once indelicately put it, is a necessary material for the writing of any book. For almost ten years, I'd spent my days staring into space, trying to work out what my characters were going to do next. Now I had to decide what I was going to do next. Going through the rest of my life shaped like a Bosc pear was not an attractive option.
The problem I faced was twofold: I love to eat and I hate to exercise. But all was not lost. The move we were making was taking us from rural Virginia to downtown Sydney for a three-month sojourn in my sun-drenched, surf-splashed hometown before we relocated to our new, permanent place on Martha's Vineyard. Surely, in the sparkling days of an antipodean summer, I could exercise without effort. Regular trips to the beach, pitting myself against the strong Sydney surf, would sweep some pounds away.