Book re­veals the colum­nist even loved ones didn’t know

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY DANNYE ROMINE POW­ELL dpow­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

You think you know some­body.

Then that some­body writes a mem­oir about the most in­ti­mate de­tails of his life.

You re­al­ize you didn’t know him. Not re­ally.

Le­gions of Char­lotte Ob­server read­ers be­lieve they know Tommy Tom­lin­son.

He wrote a prize-win­ning col­umn for 15 years, from 1997 to 2012. He wrote about fall­ing in love with his wife. He wrote about his mom and his sis­ter and grow­ing up in Brunswick, Ga. All sorts of things that re­vealed the big heart of the man be­hind the photo.

But you won’t fully know him un­til you read his de­but book, “The Ele­phant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get

Smaller in a Grow­ing Amer­ica,” which will be pub­lished Jan. 15.

Here, in prose hon­est enough to raise blis­ters on your own skin, Tom­lin­son, who now hosts WFAE’s pod­cast “South­bound,” tells what it was like to grow up fat, and how frus­trat­ing it is try­ing to lose weight.

As he puts it, telling a fat per­son to lose weight by ex­er­cis­ing and eat­ing less is like telling a boxer: Don’t get hit.

“On top of that,” he writes, “some of us fight holes in our souls that a box­car of donuts couldn’t fill.”

You’ll love Tom­lin­son’s prose. He’s been a Pulitzer fi­nal­ist in com­men­tary, and his work has made two ap­pear­ances in “Best Amer­i­can Sports Writ­ing” com­pi­la­tions. He spent a year at Har­vard as a Nie­man Fel­low.

No mat­ter his ac­com­plish­ments, Tom­lin­son, 55, says he’s al­ways “crav­ing an emo­tional high.” So this isn’t a diet book. Not ex­actly. It’s a book about grow­ing up, about strug­gle, about frus­tra­tion, and, yes, about com­ing to terms with your­self, your re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, your life.

He will come to Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. to talk about his story.

Q: “New Year’s Eve, 2014: 460 pounds.” The hard­est words, you say, you ever had to write. No­body knew that num­ber. Not your wife, Alix Fels­ing, not your doc­tor. What did it take to put that num­ber out there?

A: I told my­self that if I was go­ing to tell this story, I had to tell it right – I couldn’t hedge. In some ways, that num­ber was the hard­est part. It was some­thing no­body knew about me, but I’m sure a lot of peo­ple won­dered. So I treated it like a big old Band-Aid. I grabbed the edge and took a breath and yanked it off right there at the be­gin­ning.

Q: You give many rea­sons why you fell again and again into the sweet clutches of Lit­tle Deb­bie and Wendy. Lone­li­ness. Shame. That USUCK-FM sta­tion that played in your head. Yet you grew up with lov­ing par­ents in a peace­ful home. What first caused the bad feel­ings that you learned to soothe with food?

A: I don’t know. I was al­ways fat but I’m not sure when I first re­al­ized what that meant for me out in the world. The first re­ally strong mem­ory I have of when that made a dif­fer­ence was those re­lay races I write about in the book. We lined up and raced one an­other in el­e­men­tary school, and in that mo­ment it was ob­vi­ous how fat and slow I was, and how much the other kids mocked me for it.

Q: You could, in­cred­i­bly, read and write by the time you were 2 1/2. As lov­ing as your par­ents were, they were not ed­u­cated, and they worked long hours. Any chance you craved a kind of nour­ish­ment and com­pan­ion­ship you weren’t get­ting, mak­ing you feel like a lost soul?

A: I do re­mem­ber feel­ing lonely. I’ve felt that a lot in my life. Part of that, I think, was be­ing the only child in my par­ents’ mar­riage. My brother and sis­ter were way older than me and so they were out of the house by the time I re­ally re­mem­ber any­thing. I grew up to be an in­tro­vert, but I don’t know if that’s the chicken or the egg.

One of the main things I learned from my par­ents was the dif­fer­ence be­tween ed­u­ca­tion and in­tel­li­gence. As I’ve got­ten older, I’ve be­come sad­der and more out­raged that my folks didn’t get a chance at a good ed­u­ca­tion. I think that’s why I’m gen­er­ally not im­pressed by aca­dem­i­cally in­tel­li­gent peo­ple — of­ten they took ad­van­tage of luck or cir­cum­stance. What I’m drawn to is emo­tion­ally in­tel­li­gent peo­ple. That, to me, is a more valu­able skill. And I’m sure that in­cli­na­tion comes straight from my mom and dad.

Q: Your beloved older sis­ter Brenda died at age 63 of weight-re­lated is­sues. You and Brenda had the same mother, dif­fer­ent fa­thers. What fac­tors — other than South­ern bis­cuits and corn­bread — played into your shared strug­gle with weight?

A: The main rea­son — for me and a lot of peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion — was the cul­tural shift from blue-col­lar to white-col­lar work. My folks worked in the cot­ton fields when they were kids and did man­ual la­bor of one kind of an­other un­til they re­tired. They could eat what­ever they wanted be­cause they burned it all off ev­ery day. By the time my brother and sis­ter and I came around, we were able to work desk jobs. But we still ate like field­work­ers. That’s how we got fat.

Q: You didn’t con­sider surgery for your weight be­cause it felt like giv­ing up. Did you con­sider a 12-step pro­gram such Overeaters Anony­mous? Or talk ther­apy?

A: I went to a cou­ple of OA meet­ings, but they felt creepy and de­press­ing to me, and I never felt like any­thing there helped me get bet­ter. Maybe If I had gone more it would have been dif­fer­ent.

Q: Over and over you say the thing (overeat­ing) that soothes the pain of be­ing sad, lonely, down, ashamed — you name it — also pro­longs it. You de­scribe how loathing will boil up like acid re­flux when you’re alone in a fast­food park­ing lot, plow­ing through a burger. “Trapped in the loop of plea­sure and hate.” What is the first step in break­ing that plea­sure­hate cy­cle?

A: Two steps, re­ally: Find other plea­sures, and fig­ure out ways to hate your­self less. The first part was not bad — there are lots of other things I can get ab­sorbed in. The sec­ond part re­quires a deeper un­der­stand­ing of WHY that self-loathing is there. That’s a big part of what I ex­plore in the book.

Q: To­ward the end of 2017 and into early 2018, you and Alix had a few bru­tal months. Your best friend, Vir­gil Ryals, died of a heart at­tack. A month later, Alix’s dad also died sud­denly. Then in late Jan­uary 2018, after a long ill­ness, your mom died. How did all that stress af­fect your diet?

A: I gained a good bit of weight back dur­ing those months — maybe 25 or 30 pounds. (Tom­lin­son doesn’t want to dis­close how much weight he has lost; he wants peo­ple to read it in the book.) It was stress, mostly, and a lack of ex­er­cise. The good thing about it is that I had been tak­ing good care of my­self, so I knew I could do it. We’re still not over those few months, but the fog has cleared enough that I’ve been able to work my way back down the scale. If I hadn’t had that suc­cess be­fore all those things hap­pened, I don’t know where I’d be now.

Q: Your hon­esty in this book of­ten felt like tape be­ing ripped off my own skin. The shame over play­ing bas­ket­ball with­out a shirt. Cov­er­ing your lap with a blan­ket on a plane be­cause you couldn’t buckle the seat belt. Ar­riv­ing early at a restau­rant to nab a seat that would fit you. That hon­esty draws read­ers to you. But how hard was it for you?

A: Alix and I were talk­ing the other day about my writ­ing rou­tine, and she re­mem­bered it bet­ter than I did. She said I’d get up, have break­fast, go write for sev­eral hours, have lunch … and then take a three-hour nap. I was emo­tion­ally drained just about ev­ery day. I’ve been do­ing the au­dio book re­cently, and even though I’ve lived with these words for a few years now, some­times it was still hard to say them out loud. But in the end, if I was go­ing to do this book, I felt like I owed read­ers an hon­est ac­count.

Q: This book is not so much a diet book as a man­ual on how dif­fi­cult it is for some of us to meet adult­hood half­way, even into our 40s and 50s. Why do you think you came some­what late to adult­hood?

A: One main rea­son is that my weight kept me from go­ing through a lot of the rites of pas­sage of child­hood. I never learned to ride a bike. I can’t re­ally swim. I was never wild and feral phys­i­cally in the way a lot of kids are. So it never worked its way out of my sys­tem. I think there’s al­ways been a lit­tle kid in­side me who was pissed off that he didn’t get to do the things ev­ery other lit­tle kid got to do.

Q: Fi­nally, please share your three-step for­mula for di­et­ing.

A: No. 1: Find some way to mea­sure the calo­ries you eat and drink.

No. 2: Find some way to mea­sure the calo­ries you burn.

No. 3: Make sure that ev­ery day, No. 1 is smaller than No. 2.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Tommy Tom­lin­son, a for­mer re­porter and colum­nist for The Char­lotte Ob­server, has chron­i­cled his strug­gle with his weight.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Tommy Tom­lin­son writes with sear­ing hon­esty in his new book “The Ele­phant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to get Smaller in a Grow­ing Amer­ica.”

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