Here’s Looking at You, Kid
In the space of twelve months I’ve lost my ass and I don’t want it back. No, I’m not celebrating a spectacular investment loss, either. In January 2020, after an injury to my ankle and complications, I topped my bathroom scales at 85 kilos. Twelve months later, January 2021, I’m a slimmed down 72 kilos.
And there’s no magic formula, no carbohydrate massacre, no graveyard of grapefruit husks nor empty gallon jugs of Organic apple cider (with the mother). I’ve continued to eat well and indulge my other favourite pastime, drinking beer and wine. If there’s any blame or praise to be apportioned, look no further than Humphrey Bogart.
It began January 9, 2020 when, inspired by a conversation I’d had with a few friends in which I’d discovered none of them had ever seen the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman I hosted a Casablanca-themed, post-Christmas doldrums dinner party to rectify the situation.
I devised a Moroccan meal of Lamb Tagine served with saffron infused couscous and side orders of flatbread, mixed olives and assorted nuts. Everyone was invited to turn up in costume and, on arrival, were served a champagne cocktail, fashioned straight from the list of Sascha’s bar in Rick’s Café, brandy poured over a sugar cube infused with bitters and topped with champagne. It was strong and set the scene for the rest of that evening of romance, regret, anger and tears. And that was just the movie.
Two of my guests, the men, arrived without costume which was disappointing. But the women made the effort and raised the tone of the evening while the cocktail raised the spirit.
I, their host dressed in dark jeans, a pink shirt and a Panama jacket, fancied myself as Humphrey Bogart.
In Casablanca, Rick Blaine gives his measurements as 40” chest, 15.5” collar, 34” sleeve, shoe size 8b. In his socks, Bogart was 5’8” (173cm) and probably weighed in around 11 stone (70 kg). His dimensions reflect my height and happy adult weight along with shoe and collar size. Unfortunately, my girth straining paunch made me look more like Sydney Greenstreet’s Signor Ferrari than Bogart’s Rick Blaine.
Bogart died in 1957. I was born in 1956 and I’ve always felt an affinity with him and the cynical idealists he often portrayed in movies. I was shocked when I got on my bathroom weighing scales that morning. I was 85 kilos and almost fell off the scales, not with shock I’ll admit, but with the effort of having to lean over to peak past my paunch so I could see the scales. In truth, I felt as shocked as Captain Louis Renault was to find there was gambling at Rick’s Café.
The following day, as I cleaned up and reviewed pictures of the previous evening, I vowed to be a shadow of my Casablanca night self, slimmer, trimmer and healthier by the same time next year.
There was a slight complication to the whole get fit kick… I’m a diabetic, first class. Sorry, macabre insider joke, I have Type 1 diabetes. That means my body is an insulin free zone, my pancreas has taken a time out here. Or so they claimed..
To get my body back to its happy weight days, I considered, requires a regimen of healthy eating and exercise. Yet to achieve these, for someone overweight with diabetes and osteoarthritis, the planning would have to be even more exacting to avoid injury or diabetic sickness while shedding pounds.
So a two-pronged attack was required. Any diabetic will tell you a good rule of thumb for a healthy diet is low fat, no sugar and plenty of roughage. The latter involves the dreaded carbs, the dietary bête noir of the 21st century.
I set out to devise a recipe for a wholesome bread that might fulfil my carbohydrate needs in the most efficient way, without processed products. But first I had to teach myself how to bake. It didn’t take long to discover organic wholewheat spelt flour and, after much heartbreaking toil over a hot oven, I found a balance: spelt flour, an organic egg to bind it, organic milk to seal it and a variety of seeds — sesame, chia, sunflower and watermelon, plus crushed walnuts and pistachio, to arrive at the bread that has sustained me throughout the year.
A frequent breakfast favourite, with a pot of freshly brewed Sumatran coffee, is a couple of slices of the bread, coated with Harry’s Nut Butter and slices of fresh fruit, preferably banana or conference pear.
For lunch I might have a plate of pasta like aiglio, olio e pepperoncini (garlic, oil and chilli) or Arrabiata, a pasta sauce made with anchovies, capers and tomatoes. That was enough to sustain me until my primary evening meal.
Evening meals concentrated on fish, which I sometimes ate as much as five times a week. These dishes would be accompanied by grains like bulgur wheat, couscous, quinoa and frequently rice.
Fresh vegetables were an important complement to all of this and while there was a good greengrocer and an organic farmers’ market within easy reach, I decided to dedicate my balcony to the production of fresh tomatoes, string beans, garden peas, chard, chillis and spring onions, including a complementary herb garden made up of curly and flat leaf parsley, oregano, basil, thyme, sage and mint. Caring for plants is an exercise in its own right. Apart from the frequent shifting of heavy weights, there’s the equally important shift of attention from yourself. It kept me busy and not so inclined to self-pity under the circumstances.
I continued along my gourmand ways. Buying fresh and eating healthy doesn’t mean your food will cost a lot but it does mean you’re working to minimise the intake of things your body probably doesn’t need while maximising the benefits you derive from them.
But as good as a change in diet is, all of this would be of little use if not joined to a rigorous and comprehensive exercise training program. Again my options were limited by both my physical issues and the pandemic.
First, I bought a bicycle. Okay, it was an electric bike but the return of my ankle to something resembling full fitness would take a year or more, I’d been told, so a low impact exercise like cycling a pedal assisted electric bike got the thumbs up from my physician.
That gave me cause to board a train west, fully loaded with camping gear, to tackle a portion of the Wild Atlantic Way A 2500 kilometre cycling route along the west coast of the island, from Cork in the far south to Derry city in the north. I lasted two weeks, in which time I visited two remote islands and trekked the length of Mayo through spectacular mountain cycle routes in rain and sunshine. But I’d underestimated just how inadequate my amply upholstered frame was for the task so I returned home, slightly bowed but determined to have another go, once I’d tackled the obvious problem: getting in shape.
That was in 2019.
In 2020, I took a very different attitude.
With astonishing naivete, I’d dreamed of taking on the Wild Atlantic Way again that summer, but within two weeks we were in a lockdown of indeterminate length, fighting a virus for which there was no cure. Travel beyond five kilometres of your home was prohibited, social distancing became a common phrase and everyone was wearing pyjamas.
Under the changed circumstances, it occurred to me I needed an exercise program suited to a septuagenarian with a bloated belly and arthritis. My muscles, if they hadn’t withered away, were at least in hibernation. Waking them was the first step.
A quick perusal of what’s on offer on YouTube led me to conclude people my age don’t exist in this cyber-world of instant answers, particularly in yoga where, were I to attempt the most basic stretching exercise described therein, I’d surely be lifted from my home by crane and rushed to hospital for an untangling surgery.
It started with Tai Chi. Well, almost. I’ve always been an advocate of keeping mind, body and spirit in harmony, and as a diabetic and with other medical complications in my baggage, keeping things in working order is of primary concern. Tai Chi had appealed to me since the day I saw hundreds of people of all ages gather in a public park in Shanghai before their work day began. Businessmen in suits, pensioners, ladies with their children or on their way to work, all moving with a graceful soothing ease.
Except the Tai Chi exercises on YouTube appeared to be boot camp training for an unspecified but apparently imminent Armageddon . I persisted, seeking that balance of yin and yang, the stress relieving movement and gently muscle stretching internal martial art of Tai Chi, until I found it in Judy K. Young’s Eight Pieces of Silk Brocade, a deceptively simple set of calisthenics lasting twenty minutes of your day. I needed to ease my body into a state of healthiness and to do that I needed something to wake up my body while simultaneously relieving my mind.
Soon the Eight Pieces of Silk Brocade became my daily routine. In April, we were in sunshine and every morning I went to the roof of my building and carried out the eight movements. Soon I was breathing without thinking, moving and awakening muscles long lost and unused, stretching out and up beyond the limits my body had set for my ailments.
Walking has always been a popular activity for me. When others caught a bus, a taxi or drove their own car, I’d walk. I’d do it to think, to clear my head, to distract me from daily stresses and observe the real world I lived in. With a five kilometre limit and living in the oldest part of the city, I began by setting myself a destination and walking there and back, occasionally pausing to stop but mostly absorbing my city’s history, the public parks, the coastal beauty. It didn’t take long before I began researching the historical spots on my outings and taking photographs so my journeys became not just part of my physical training program but a daily class in local history and topological geography.
The next stage, I thought, was to move from Tai Chi and walking to daily cycles, a return to the gentle pedal action of cycling but this on a real bicycle, not a pedal assisted electric bike. This time I needed the challenge.
At home, I devised a program of daily exercises to complement what I’d already achieved. So began Operation Ned Kelly. No, I had no plan to walk around in a self styled mask or helmet of cast iron. No, Operation Ned Kelly was my plan to, in the words of rhyming slang, tackle my Ned Kelly: my belly. Years of beer, wine and fine foods, accelerated and exacerbated by my sojourn on a couch for three months while in plaster, saw me burst from the 32” jeans I’d worn for close to 30 years to a voluminous 36”, straining for release.
I began with a simple routine. Standing comfortably, upright with legs apart at shoulder width, I wrapped my arms around a broom handle and began to turn my hips 90 degrees left, then right and counting each 180 degree rotation as a single unit, until I reached 100.
To this, I added a warm up set of 50 squats, holding the rail of my bed. It was a start and, before long, I was repeating the same routine, every evening.
After two months the accumulated impact of this regime made itself felt. Strained muscles give me aches and pains but gradually I could feel my body strive to do more. I couldn’t imagine myself doing star jumps but I did get hold of two weights of equal size, five kilos in total and replaced the broom handle with the weights, for my 180 degree rotations, swinging a combined weight of 5kg.
I took to sitting on the ground, legs outstretched and, with the weights in either hand, twisting, until right hand touched left foot and left hand touched right foot. A hundred of those became my daily target. Then I added other exercises, variations on a theme, like the rowing a boat movement with arms and legs free of the ground so, like a rower, I’d gather my knees to my chest and then stretch legs and arms for the forward rowing motion. I settled on 50 of those for the daily workout. Then I added 50 full sit ups as well as 50 crunches.
All the well being and fitness in the world, though, could not relieve the accumulating and debilitating stress of confinement, the stir craziness of pandemic lockdown.
With the mid summer easing of restrictions I took up a friend’s welcome invitation to a week in a remote corner of North Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. We broke the rules by one week, travelling to North Mayo for the St John’s bonfire, an ancient tradition with, like many others in Ireland, Christianity (St John) grafted on to Midsummer and its bonfires, known locally on the Erris peninsula as Tine Cnáimh or the Fire of Bones.
It marked the shortest night and longest day of the year and was considered an auspicious time to employ and perform rituals that might have importance for one’s future welfare, so courting couples leapt through the flames hand in hand and farmers tossed the embers of the fire on their own land the following morning to improve the yield in the impending autumn harvest.
And as we sat on the shoreline in the gathering dusk, guests of a local family at their bonfire celebration, observing social distancing, drank wine and beer, exchanged stories of ancient lore and local gossip, pandemics and lockdowns, politicians, local and international. As the evening progressed into the early hours — it is tradition to see the bonfire out from sunset until the following dawn — the notion of my own quest was tied as much to these times of the ancient, pre-Christian Irish calendar as it was to Humphrey Bogart in a war time drama set in North Africa.
My quest began at Imbolc — the Gaelic, i mbolg, meaning ‘in belly’ — a time when animals and plants hibernated but farmers began to look to prepare for a new year of birth and growth. In my own way, I felt I was emerging from the previous two years of stupor, waking up and preparing a type of renewal and rebirth.
This had begun in earnest by the Spring Equinox when my exercise regime of Tai Chi and calisthenics was evolving. By Bealtaine, I was cycling and feeling the first benefits of my daily routine, most particularly I could swing my leg over the bar of my bike without the use of stepladders or mechanical hoists. So Midsummer and St John’s Eve or Oíche Tine Cnáimh (Night of the Fire of Bones) was my time, by this analysis, to begin to reap the benefits of my efforts.
In north Mayo, it is easy to believe you’re walking in ancient times. The nearby Céidi Fields mark evidence of 6000 year old Stone Age settlements with stone marked fields for cultivation and ancient tombs. Gneisses rock formations on the coasts of the nearby Mullet peninsula and particularly Erris Head suggest they date from 1.8 billion years and match similar rocks from Eastern Canada and point to a time when the two subcontinents of Europe and North America were joined.
Walking there is to walk in some very old footsteps and walk we did, every day.
My day began with my Eight Pieces of Silk Brocade then calisthenics before departing on a two mile hike of a deserted beach followed by a bracing Atlantic dip. Then the long walk back and breakfast.
Mid-afternoon, we’d set off on a preordained walking route, either by car first, northward to the Erris Head Loop, for example, a rugged trek through blanket bog, stony climbs and precarious cliff side paths to hidden and spectacular Atlantic blowholes.
Westward, we could walk to the Atlantic side of the peninsula, pass an ancient stone circle on the return and drop then to the tiny port on the southern end where, timed to the arrival of the boats, we could buy fresh fish and shellfish for our evening meal, after the long trek home to the lee side calm of the peninsula ’s east coast.
It was then I became aware I no longer fit my clothes as I pulled the drawstring of my voluminous swimwear to prevent us parting company in the frequently turbulent Atlantic swell. But before any vain notions could intrude, Peter, my travel companion remarked on ‘the arse sticking out of my trousers,’ his prosaic interpretation of the belly of flab hanging from waistline. And I had to admit, it did look like one of those butt crack memes, reversed.
Undeterred, for one blissful week in glorious sunshine and empty beaches, we trekked, we swam, we ate, we drank and I began to feel that, perhaps, I had tossed my old bones on the bonfire and might look forward now, in the approaching harvest season of Lughnasa, of reaping the benefits of my efforts. On my return home, I vowed to return to that magic place.
I got the chance sooner than expected and was on the train west on June 22 with a friend from Argentina who I suspected would become enchanted by the Mullet Head wilderness. Our trip, unfortunately, was just a short two days in length but we packed in long beach walks, Atlantic swims and treks through the Erris Head and Mullet peninsula wilderness.
When we got back to Dublin I had to make a wardrobe change by dropping down two inches on my waistline. I also had buy a suit for my daughter’s impending wedding in November and that meant getting measured and fitted.
On the weighing scales at the beginning of September my weight, that had long since the initial drop recorded in April hovered around 80 kilograms, now began to show signs of slipping into the 70s.
By the end of September, I was back on the Mullet peninsula and this time the morning swim became more rigorous and the walk to and from, longer. It was the same for the daily trek as the terrain became more challenging, my new flexibility could accommodate whatever it threw at me.
By October, visits to my bathroom scales registered a regular 75 kgs.
And so it continued, even through the somewhat isolated excess of the December festive season, until December 22, the night of the Winter Solstice, the scale registered my weight as 71 kg or 11 stone and 2.5 pounds or 156.5 pounds.
Goodbye, Sydney Greenstreet. Hello, Rick Blaine.
I remember cracking open a cold bottle of beer and swigging, thinking it had taken me 12 months to lose 14 kg or 2 stone and 2.5 lbs or 30 lbs.
How? Eating sensibly, healthily and for the long run, not fad dictated. Exercising to the limit of my capabilities so I could expand those capabilities. Living moderately so I could enjoy a beer or a glass of wine without worrying about the calorie intake since everything else is designed to keep that in check.
How do I feel? Healthier, lighter, more flexible, confident and hopeful, too.
And, just as Captain Renault and Rick Blaine strolled across the wet tarmac of the Casablanca airport strip, silhouetted by North African moonlight, at the beginning of their beautiful friendship, I embrace my holistic exercise program as another beginning of a beautiful friendship, one to last a lifetime.