Instant Expert — not

Written By: sherridaley - • •

instant expert


INSTANT EXPERT (A visual guide to the skills you’ve always wanted)
By Nigel Holmes
Publisher: Lonely Planet 2015
OK, so the title is misleading. Reading this book will not make you an expert in anything, nor is it crammed full of skills you’ve always longed for. But then the title of GONE WITH THE WIND didn’t seem to have anything to do with Rhett or Scarlet or the Civil War or anything else for that matter.

PAGES AND PAGES OF GREAT ILLUSTRATIONS AND USELESS INFORMATION is probably a better title for INSTANT EXPERT but that was probably rejected by the publishers as too long and not very marketable.

Well, they were wrong. After over 200 pages of said useless information and great illustrations, I wanted more. This little book, published by the world’s largest travel guide book company, is entertaining, addictive, funny, downright clever, and has nothing at all to do with travelling anywhere. It will, however, make you a terrific party guest.

After reading this book, you can hold a valuable conversation about how to read those annoying little laundering tags sewn into the seams of your clothes. Careful translation of those mysterious symbols means you – and your dinner companion – will no longer end up with dresses the size of Barbie doll clothes or a load of pink underwear.

After reading this book, you will be able to make dependable weather predictions by looking at cows, impersonate a fitness trainer, explain the art of caber tossing, comment intelligently about climate change, tie a bow line, and meow in a dozen languages.

Imagine how you will charm your boss’s insipid wife with your knowledge of oriental rugs, the handsome man sitting next to your host with how to out-brake a Formula One race car, or the stunning Asian girl with what you know about the essence and grace of a tea ceremony. You will be everyone’s favorite dinner companion.

But let’s not forget the great illustrations. They are bright and clever, clearly drawn and informative. Much like a very good children’s book with a grown-up twist … which makes it a perfect bedtime experience for you and your children. They might like to learn about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, shooting stars, the best methods for building sand castles, games for long car rides, origami, how to play a bagpipe, meow in several languages, or how to brew beer.

No, that would be you. You might want to brew beer. Or how to pair wines with your meal, make a crepe, or build successful sushi.

In either case, INSTANT EXPERT is a pleasure to own or bring as a gift to that dinner party where you will be scintillating.

No, on second thought, don’t give away your secret.
INSTANT EXPERT is written by Nigel Holmes, who was born in England and made a career in graphic design on both sides of the pond, creating graphics and illustrations for, among others, Apple, Fortune, Nike, The Smithsonian Institution, Sony, United Healthcare, US Airways and Visa. He also continues to create illustrations and graphics for Harper’s, The New York Observer and The New York Times.

He has his own Wikipedia entry which warns readers not to confuse this Nigel Holmes with Nigel Holmes the UK photographer of nudes — or Nigel Howard Holmes, a research scientist specializing in nano-particle coating technology research scientist.

INSTANT EXPERT Nigel Holmes lives in Connecticut with his lovely wife Erin and he always wears round eyeglasses with blue frames. He has twenty

Sometimes winter in New England is nice

Written By: sherridaley - • •


Jan 24,, 2015

I woke up with a strange feeling of having missed something. When I opened my eyes, my bedroom was bright and shadowless and the sky was white. Had the sun come up?  Is that what I missed?

At 3:30 in the morning, the sun wasn’t even nearing the horizon. It was the moon that was lighting everything up, making a low cloud cover glow.  Snow had fallen, covering everything with a couple inches of virginal white which softened corners and tree branches and made the shrubs in the garden look like like huge flowers. It was pure Hollywood.

Kimo, the little cat, gets what she wants. She pushes stuff off shelves and the sound of glass shattering would propel me out of bed to let her out. I lost a few bottles of cologne this way until I got smart and kitty-proofed the place, setting only unbreakables where she might reach them. The sound still gets me up because she’s relentless, and I’m pretty sure she’d figure out how to open the kitchen cupboards and shove glasses into the sink.

But this morning, she hadn’t done any damage. She only pushed at the covers till she found me and then stared at the side of face until I opened my eyes so I could share what she had already discovered. The world was beautiful.

Lately, I’ve been a little unhappy, although not unhappy enough to declare myself depressed.  Just disappointed in the way the days go. Not much happening, and when I get home, there’s nothing to do.  Sometimes I even make ridiculous lists of things I could do to fill the hours: take tap dance lessons, learn to weave – you know, get an actual loom – buy a keyboard and play the piano again.  None of this takes place, however.

What I don’t want to do, and it takes a great deal of will power not to do it, is what Mother did the last few years before she died.  She had boxes of old photographs and she emptied them out on the kitchen table and sorted through them for hours. Remembering her girlhood, mostly, before she married dad, before my brother and I came along.  I thought it was the saddest thing I had ever seen, those little piles of black&white photos, some with their edges curling up, reminding Mother that she was once young and pretty and laughing a lot.

I have a photos of my own, of course. Scrapbooks in the attic, and collages of  dozens of happy photos, framed. I used to have them on the wall of my office at home because they made me happy, but finally I took them down and put them in the basement. Those good times were too long ago, and I am not that girl any more. I need new photographs.

We all need new photographs., but when I rolled over this morning – or more accurately at 3:30AM, which frankly, I don’t consider morning – the silent beauty of the snow and the sky was, for the moment, all the photograph I needed. For a quiet moment or two, I wasn’t pressured by a need to do something and take a picture of it. I got up and walked around the house, looking out all the windows, and then I went back to bed.

And I was happy.





Put Your Underwear On

Written By: sherridaley - • •

Nothing says, “I mean business.” like putting on a bra. I am surprised that men have not noticed this and adopted this strategy themselves. On any random morning, men all over the country have watched their women transform from plushy, sleepy-eyed females into get-it-done, don’t-get-in-my-way, all-business sharks, sweeping half-dressed toddlers into strollers, dirty dishes into the sink, and husbands who can’t find a pair of brown socks out of their way. I am woman; hear me roar.
The minute a woman snaps that bra into place, she is focused and sharp. If men were to do this every morning, they would not be nodding off into their newspapers on the train or half-heartedly elbowing people out of the way to the coffee machine at the office.

I know this bra theory to be true because I have tested it. For example, I promised myself that I would do yoga every morning when I wake up, but the problem was I slept in a nightgown. Pretty, yes, but no one can do Pigeon in a nightgown. Getting up and changing into yoga clothes and then again into work clothes meant a lot of wardrobe decisions and some serious waffling. I’d drift from breakfast to thinking about yoga, to changing my clothes, to reading the newspaper, to checking my email, back to thinking about yoga, to changing my clothes again, until the time before I had to leave for work was all used up. And I hadn’t done Pigeon. Just a few minutes of Child’s Pose, and if you have ever been to one yoga class, you know what that means.

So I started wearing comfortable yoga pants and a tank top to sleep in, thinking I’d get up and get right on my mat and bloom into Warrior One. However, feeling comfy was not an inspiration to be a Warrior or even a Pigeon. It made me want to stay in bed longer because I knew I had saved serious minutes changing clothes. Then I had no time for yoga when I slobbered out of bed.

Sleeping in my yoga clothes didn’t work. So I gave up on yoga in the morning. Now I get up, put on a bra, get dressed, and go to work. Sometimes I look at my yoga mat.

Now let’s examine my bra-wearing habits when I go to the gym. A form-fitting Lycra tank top does the job of containing breasts for moderate exercise like walking and yoga. However, dressed like that, I feel good and healthy and calm and rested, so therefore, I do not have the animal spit it takes to lift weights, and most certainly I cannot run on the treadmill or jump rope wearing a pretty little tank top with spaghetti straps. Any woman knows this.
However, wearing a sport bra, I am girded for battle. Ready for the treadmill and Nautilus machines. Ready for anything. I am woman; hear me roar. When I take that extra minute to struggle into a sport bra, I head straight for the free weights. I know that I and my breasts are ready for a serious workout.

It’s the same at my job. I am a schoolteacher. I cannot discipline obstreperous students or command respect if I am not wearing a bra, no matter how many layers of undergarments I am wearing or how thick my sweater might be. Sometimes I don’t wear underpants, never when I am wearing leggings, and my verve and authority are not compromised. I am competent and at ease with myself. But if I want to go that extra mile, I always fasten on a good bra before I stride out into the fray.
There are women out there reading this, and they are nodding their heads. They know.
Regarding men and bras, on second thought, we ladies should keep this our little secret. Men don’t need the extra advantage. They’ve got the upper hand in too many arenas in our culture. We cannot let them go around wearing bras and herding more successes into their bank accounts.
Nope. Bras are for us girls.
Us powerful girls

Lone Survivor: the Book not the Movie

Written By: sherridaley - • •

lone survivorBecause that’s the kind of chick I am. I read books.  I want good stories and great writing, preferably together, and I almost didn’t finish Lone Survivor because the first third — almost half — of the book is not particularly good writing. It’s repetitive and ordinary, all about training to become a Navy SEAL: grueling, unbelievable, inhuman training which made me wonder if these men were really from this planet.  I have always admired Navy SEALs, but “admire” is not a big enough word now. I am in awe.

But I didn’t put the book down. I wanted that story, but frankly, I was exhausted running to and from the mess hall, swimming with combat boots on, climbing and crawling and shouting and rolling in the sand, and then running and climbing and crawling some more in wet gear and sandy underwear.  Their commitment and fervor stunned me.

And their talent with weapons and maps and military technology, radio transmitters, strobe lights and lasers. These men could find their way out of flooded catacombs, hog-tied and blindfolded, I am sure.

But I had to cut through some of the training chapters to get to the 24-hour  battle in the brutal Afghanistan mountains which led to the deaths of three of the Navy’s most well-trained, focused, and fiercely patriotic men. I wanted the story.

I’ve seen great war movies before, we all have, but none had exposed what the Geneva Convention, the Rules of Engagement, and the free world’s media have done to make it all but impossible for the United States military to win a war in the Middle East. Men who are risking their lives to protect us here at home, reading books and eating bad carbohydrates, must consider whether or not the American media will portray them as murderers before pulling the trigger in a situation where they KNOW they should kill.  Never have I read anywhere how acutely aware are soldiers of their vulnerability to their own country.

Luttrell, the lone survivor of Operation Redwing, explains that the enemy knows this, and they send their bombs and ammunition on the backs of goats, shepherded by unarmed men, knowing that even though our soldiers know that is a military convoy, they cannot shoot — because the goat herders look like ordinary peasants. And they have no guns.

It was the uneasy awareness that their own country could ruin their lives, that they could go to prison for doing their job, that made Luttrell the deciding vote to let a trio of goat herders free, their goats’ bells tinkling, when chances were good that the goat herders would give away their position.

And they did.

The resulting kill-fest was bloody and fast, 200 or more Taliban against four men. And one survived.

Lutrell also wrote about the unsettling hatred that he saw and felt there, and the lack of regard for personal life. Their own as well as for their enemy.  I did not come away with a feeling of kindness for my fellow man, despite the Pashtuns who risked their own lives – the lives of every man, woman, and child in the village – to rescue, harbor, and get Luttrell to safety. They did not do it because of the love of their fellow man; they did it because of an age-old tradition, older than rocks, older than hate.

I want to see the movie to see if Luttrell’s story has been white-washed, if the producers/writers took out the excoriating of the media and the Rules of Engagement.

And I wonder how many police officers, should they read this book, are feeling a teeth-grinding empathy.



I can’t believe all this happened in one summer.

Written By: sherridaley - • •

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Please don’t miss this book. The only reason I got it was because I love Bryson.  (If you haven’t read A WALK IN THE WOODS, do so immediately and be prepared to laugh your butt off.  I love this guy.)

But I’m not big on history, baseball, or aviation, so what happened in 1927 was just about last on my list of things to give a shit about.  I told myself to not bother, but thank God I don’t listen to myself.  First of all, baseball. This is not your ordinary history of baseball.  Much like PERFECT STORM, where the author made a bunch of weather reports riveting and suspenseful reading, ONE SUMMER snags its readers with unexpected connections and details. I’ve always been impressed with Bryson’s research, but this time, he’s outdone himself. The book drips with incredible statistics and little-known juicy facts – and not just about Babe Ruth, although Babe would have been plenty.

Just when I started to think that this was the book for my Yankee-obsessed friends, straight-laced nerdy Charles Lindbergh shows up and steals the plot away from Ruth, and I think I must tell my friend Kevin about this book because he will love all the aviation stuff. Even I am amazed that early pilots actually flew in those rickety contraptions made out of balsam wood and paper which often went up in a ball of flames.

But then somehow, Bryson manages to bring in Henry Ford and the sketchy transition from the Model T to the Model A (Those letters mean nothing, by the way.), the execution of Sacco & Vanzetti (They may not be as innocent as we have been led to believe …), the advent of the “talkies”, and the original Ponzi scheme. Did you know there really was a guy named Ponzi?  He built his house of cards with postage stamps.

It all coalesces into a completely understandable combination of fascinating stories, interwoven into a solid experience that sent me back to the library to get a couple of his older books that I missed.

ONE SUMMER is a perfect perfect book for guys, full of machinery and gore, kidnapping, explosions, speed, competition, politics, sports, booze, and lust.  Actually, I like all those things myself.  Except for baseball.  I don’t much care for baseball.


Woof Woof (book reviews)

Written By: sherridaley - • •

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Usually, I hate short stories.  Just about when I get involved with the characters, the story ends.  However, I just finished two (yup, TWO) short story collections that I loved.  Really loved.  Enough to go back to the library and get earlier books by both authors, who happen to be women … another oddity for me.  There once was a time I didn’t read any women except Doris Lessing and Anais Nin. But I was stupid back then.

BARK by Lorrie Moore is her first collection  since Birds of America fifteen years ago, which I didn’t read only because I didn’t read the New York Times’ review which called it “fluid, cracked, mordant, colloquial …” adjectives which would have sent me screaming to the bookstore with my pocketbook. BARK had me at the page right after the dedication – you know, that page where authors put their favorite quotations lifted from obscure books which seem to have no connection with the book at hand.  Moore quotes Amy Gerstler, “Don’t be gruff. Anything that falls on the floor is mine.”

These stories deal with love, lack of it, longing for it, remembering it, creating it … you name it. Each story closes in on itself like a fist, separate, powerful, and fierce.

The stranger of the two books  is THE UNAMERICANS by Molly Antopol. Here, whatever love and discord talked about is set in faraway countries.  Well, far away from America, that is.  There’s war, there’s dying, there’s pain and nausea and hopelessness.  No need to know anything about these countries – people are people, no matter where they live – but the foreign settings bring a sort of brilliance to the plots, something unexpected, maybe a little strange, so that something which may have seemed ordinary on a street in, say, Pittsburgh has a poignancy, a loftiness, and sometimes grittiness.  The book jacket calls the characters “deeply sympathetic” and they are.

My advice.  Read them both. ASAP.


DETROIT by Charlie LeDuff (I know what you’re thinking.)

Written By: sherridaley - • •

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I was thinking the same thing.  Who wants to read a book about a city of smoldering detritus, where you are advised by hand-written signs to not gas up your car after dark?  (Once you step out of the driver’s seat, someone will deftly get in it and drive away.) Square miles of abandoned buildings. Dark streets where even the natives don’t venture out. Where residents are begging the city to bulldoze the houses next door. Drugs, coyotes, unemployment, deserted factories, and acres of weeds.

But I recommend this book for two reasons.

1.  It is a riveting, rollicking good read. LeDuff, long a journalist for the Detroit Free Press and for the New York Times, a Pulitzer-prize winner, and current television journalist for Detroit’s Fox 2 News, writes a damned good book.  Although the book flap says that the book is not a hopeless parable, I have to admit that I was convinced of Detroit’s hopelessness when I quit reading.  LeDuff is the quintessential, stereotypical, cigar-chomping, whiskey-drinking,  gruff-speaking reporter – perfect for a prime time TV series.  What makes this unsettling is that his stories are all true.  Throughout the book, you keep thinking, “They couldn’t have got away with that.”  Or “It can’t possible be that  bad.”    But they did.  And it is.

2. It’s a cautionary tale that I wish everyone would read and take note. What happened there can happen elsewhere.  Perhaps not in your town, but nearby.  Too nearby.  Somebody – maybe you and me – has to do something.  But I don’t know what.

I’m from Michigan.  My grandparents lived in Detroit in a beautiful brick house with French doors that opened out onto a rose garden. Grandpa owned a dairy, and my brother and I spent summers on the farm a few hours away. They were comfortable, if not rich, but maybe they were.  I was just a kid. Detroit was a beautiful city back then, with canopies of trees and elegant stores, restaurants, and wide boulevards. Going to Detroit was a special outing.  The Fisher Theatre. The Ford Rotunda. Joey Muir’s Restaurant. The London Chop House.

I remember the 12th Street Riot of 1967. It didn’t have a name back then.  We just knew that they were burning down Detroit, looting and shooting people. Mom and Dad and my brother and I lived about 5o  miles away, and I remember standing on the porch looking in the direction of Detroit, terrified.  I remember I could see the glow of the fires burning, but of course now I am sure we could not.  That’s just my memory making up things because my mind and heart could see the fire very clearly. Someone was burning down my grandpa’s  noble city.

If you have a minute, go to the internet and see how Hiroshima rebuilt itself. And then go look at before-and-after photographs of Detroit.  Detroit has never, ever recovered.

LeDuff’s book, unsettling as it may be, is a great read, even if it were fiction.

In fact, I wish it were fiction.

Tag. I’m it.

Written By: sherridaley - • •


I’ve been asked to take part in a game of writers’ tag where one writer answers a set of questions, posts the results, and then tags another unsuspecting writer.  My co-editor of WHAT WE TALK ABOUT (the book will be out this month and I expect you all to buy several copies) tagged me… and I am targeting the next victim.

Here’s mine:

How did it all begin?

I don’t count writing for the high school newspaper a beginning, or writing soppy poetry in college, or unsent love letters when I thought I was a grown-up.  I believe it all began when the man I was in love with committed suicide in 1982.

It was like something was torn asunder and there was no way to repair it. I know that if I had not been a new mother at the time, I would not have survived the insurmountable grief.  I could say that there were no words to describe it, but there were. There always are words.

I didn’t want him to be dead, so I started writing down all the wonderful and awful moments from the day I met him in 1976. It helped.  I felt like I had made him immortal, because each vignette made him alive again.

But it had to be read by someone else other than me, so I took the stack of writing to Gordon Lish, the editor of my favorite writer, Raymond Carver. I dropped it off at Alfred Knopf on my way to work.

Lish called me at 9:05AM.  Said he’d been on his way to wastebasket with it when he read the first line and decided otherwise.  I sold the collection of vignettes as an unfinished manuscript at WW Norton within two weeks. I was rich & famous (in my estimation!) for a little while, but it wasn’t about me; it was about keeping that man alive.  And even now, if anyone ever finds HIGH COTTON at a yard sale, on Amazon, Alibris, or some musty library shelf and reads it, he’s alive – over 30 years after his death.


What’s my writing process?

That depends on what I’m writing.  Nowadays, I mostly write for magazines and I am deadline-driven.  I have to work in my office at home. My brain knows I am at work when I go in there. I think it’s pretty great that I can get paid for writing.

People ask me why I haven’t written another book like HIGH COTTON and I tell them that I haven’t another dead boyfriend to write about. I’m like Margaret Mitchell, maybe.  One book in me.  I content myself with freelance work.


What am I working on?

I just finished co-editing a collection of writing from women over 60. My old college roommate asked me to work with her on it, and I think it’s a wonderful book of things we all talk about. In fact, that’s the name of the book WHAT WE TALK ABOUT, a title I stole from my idol Raymond Carver’s iconic short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Other than that, I write for magazines about anything they want me to write about. Gives me a chance to write about anything from Buddhists to motorcycles.  Love it.


How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I like to think that I have a distinctive voice among magazine journalists. I like to think that.  Slightly tongue-in-cheek, sometimes self-deprecating, always respectful of my subject matter, and sometimes, when the moon is full, downright hilarious.  Or so I’m told. When I have an assignment, I have three goals: to educate, entertain, and motivate.


How does my writing process work?

I have no process, but I cannot write an article or a blog entry or in my journal until I have an opening line. I write in my head for days before I type one word. Then I often write the whole article in one sitting.  I can’t, however, maintain that focus for much more than two hours. White wine helps. And having one cat on the desk, swatting her tail over the keyboard. Something about cats.

Semi-Sleep – a collection of poems. Read them.

Written By: sherridaley - • •

It’s been a long time since I sat and read poetry for the pure joy of reading poetry.  TS Elliot in college, of course, and e.e.cummings, and more recently Billy Collins, but none of that was anything like the gritty melancholy of Kenneth Baron’s verse.

 Kind of like “guy poetry” – about “guy” stuff.  The mysteries of fatherhood, drinking at a dim bar in the afternoon, chasing sex, chasing marriage, losing marriage, looking for a job.  Even building a deer fence becomes material for a poem.

 He tosses in golf, baseball, jogging, Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Ravel. There’s poetry written for his daughter, an unborn son, a college professor, and of course, for his readers.  He writes about clothes dryers and France and his evening commute. Baron finds something to write about everywhere.

 I think that is the mark of a good writer. One doesn’t sit down and make time to write; he is writing all the time. That’s a good thing for us, and I recommend you discover him immediately.



my body or my life…

Written By: sherridaley - • •

My Body or My Life

A long long time ago, I noticed I was getting fat.  I mean, a LONG time ago.  This is a story of something I did once…. when I noticed that I was getting fat.

 Not so’s you’d notice it or anything. Just a little thick around the middle.  I started buying loose clothes, not a size bigger, but with elastic waistbands or no waists at all, long skirts and big sweaters. I wore a lot of black. I looked good in black.  I did not look good in a bathing suit.  Or sleeveless dresses.  Or jeans. I looked – in a word – fat.

 This caused me much unhappiness. I had never been fat before in my life.  In high school, I was actually too skinny. My hipbones jutted out. I liked being skinny.

 I hated being fat. It was harder to shop for clothes, I felt guilty when I ate, and I was filled with self-loathing every time I got dressed or undressed.

 I wanted to be skinny again. I wanted the confidence that comes with knowing men are ogling your butt, women secretly hate you, and your mother thinks you are too thin.  But to get even close to that meant losing at least twenty pounds and firming up parts of my body that I hadn’t looked at in a long time.  Creating such a body would take grit and determination. Frankly, I have neither.

 I hired a trainer named Debbie, who is blond and perky, and she showed up with a bag of sports equipment and a clipboard.  “What’s our goal here?” she asked me.

 “I wanna be skinny.”

 “That’s it?  Just skinny?”  She took out a pair of calipers and pinched at me. “Well, there’s only one way to do that.”  Pinching my underarm flab, she steered me onto the scales. At 5”7 I weighed 151 pounds.  This is more than my high school boyfriend weighed in tenth grade. My body fat calculated out at 27 percent, about the same as liverwurst. 

 I told her I have a hard time dieting and   poked myself in the belly a few times.  Then I looked at myself sideways in the mirror. If  sucked in my stomach and held it, I didn’t look so bad.

 “You know you need?” she said. Debbie, on the other hand, has no fat whatsoever on any part of her body.  You could bounce a dime off her stomach. “You need a measurable goal.  Have you ever thought about competing in a body-building contest?”

 To my credit, I didn’t bust out laughing.  She asked as though it were a perfectly reasonable thing to do ask, when in my opinion, she might as well have asked me what I thought my chances were for the Pulitzer this year.

 I had visions of sweaty, broad-shouldered women hoisting 220-pound barbells over their heads while crowds hooted at them. I didn’t want bulging muscles and hair growing out of my forehead.  I just wanted to be skinny.

 She had to explain the difference between weight-lifting and body-building.  They’re two completely different sports.  Body-builders are more interested in the beauty and symmetry of their bodies than in how much muscle they can sport.  Body-building is making your body taut and strong.  They build muscles evenly all over their bodies, and then they diet down so there is little or no fat to hide what they’ve worked so hard to develop.  Weight-lifters, however, care only about how much mass they can heave up over their heads, and as you may know, many of them do not have particularly attractive bodies.

 “You don’t have to enter,” she explained. “But you can set the date as a goal, and then we’d have some parameters.  And body-builders,”  she added, “are skinny.”  

 It was her delivery, I guess.  It all seemed so, well, reasonable.  So I said ok.  And she said there was a competition in March.  This was October.

 It’s not as much work as you think, she told me.  It’s mostly diet and exercise:  70 percent diet, 20 percent cardiovascular exercise, and only 10 percent lifting weights.  This sounded do-able to me.  The diet part was going to be hard, but I like cardiovascular exercise.  I used to run marathons.

 So the first thing she does is tell me I can’t run.  My body is too used to it. I have to do something different, challenge my body, exercise muscles I’ve been ignoring. The Stairmaster, for example. She wrote that down on a little card she had snapped to her clipboard.

 I was still thinking about the competition itself. I already regretted having told her I’d think about it, and I most certainly did not intend to wear one of those stupid little bathing suits. Debbie was rolling out barbells and talking about diet, but I was thinking, “Wait a minute. I can’t run? I love running.”

 “Protein,” she announced.  “No carbs. Lots of water.” 

 Here’s a list of things I couldn’t have:  bread, pasta, egg yolks, milk, butter, cheese, sugar, fruit, carrots, salad dressing, salt, egg yolks, red meat, bagels, muffins. French fries.  There’s lots more. “In fact,” she laughed, “just think, ‘Chicken and broccoli.’ You can have all the chicken and broccoli you want.”

 But no wine.

 I nearly walked out.  Alcohol inhibits the body’s ability to burn fat, not to mention the peanut butter and Bacos binges at 3 in the morning.  “You can have decaf coffee – black – and diet soda. Iced tea.”  She was chipper.  She curled a 30 pound dumbbell with her right arm and the muscles popped out.  I realized that I was glaring at her and thinking bad thoughts.

 She sent me off with the workout card and a notebook.  I was supposed to eat four to six meals a day.  The body is like a fire, she explained.  If you throw on one big log, the fire will almost go out before it manages to catch and burn the log.  But if you throw on bunches of kindling, the fire is bright and burns quickly.

 This is great in theory, but actually eating six meals a day is time-consuming. You’re either eating, or preparing food, or cleaning up, or shopping for food, or thinking about it, all day long.  Debbie told me that I can mix up a protein shake in lieu of a meal when I am in a hurry.  I won’t be hungry. Water is filling, too.  I have to drink about a gallon or two a day.

 The workout schedule is demanding: forty-five minutes to an hour of cardio every day, plus an hour or more of lifting.  Debbie suggested I spend two to three hours a day in the gym.  This is hilarious. I have a job, plus I write freelance, run a household, raise a child, and try to have a little fun once in a while.  Something would have to give.

 But not drinking or eating real food freed up a lot more time than I gave it credit for.  I was  bright-eyed and bushy-tailed late into the night because I was always and forever sober, and I wasn’t wasting time at Happy Hours after work or late-night lollygagging over a scrumptious meal in a dimly lit restaurant. Frankly, I had more time, not less.

 I was up and eating my breakfast of black coffee, cream of rice, and fried egg whites by 6AM, out of the house by 6:45, and at the office, charged up and already productive by 7:30.  I drank bottles of water and protein drink, snacked on canned tuna, and practiced isometric ab exercises at my desk.  At night, I hurried home for my fourth or fifth meal of the day, changed clothes and hit the gym.  I did an hour on the Stairmaster, twenty minutes of ab exercises, lifted, stretched, and did push-ups until closing.  I was averaging about two hours a day in the gym. I went late because I wasn’t supposed to eat after 6, and if I was at the gym, I wasn’t eating.  At home, I got bored. I ate.  I tottered home around 9:30 and went to bed.

 About two months into this, I started to get mean. Sometimes I’d get mad at a chef because there was nothing on the menu that didn’t have oil or butter in it. Sometimes I’d get mad at my friends who were walking around FAT and they looked perfectly happy, fat.  But mostly, I was mad at things like air and Teflon.  No rhyme nor reason to it.  I was jealous of gym rats and trainers because working out was their whole life.  They weren’t giving up anything to look the way they did.  They loved dieting and working out.  It would be like if I could lose weight and get fit by drinking champagne, eating croissants, and reading best-sellers.

 At Thanksgiving I had dinner with friends. The hostess brought out a splendid, steaming turkey and all the fixings, and I realized that there was nothing on the table that I could eat. She’d left the skin on the turkey and it was oozing with fat and juices.  Everything else was cooked with butter and brown sugar and cream and bread crumbs and sherry wine and salt and egg yolks and cheese and God only knows what else. They served champagne, too.  My favorite.

 I snuck out into the kitchen with a slice of breast meat and pressed it between two paper towels to get the fat off. I came back with a glass of ice water.  Then I picked some broccoli out of the vegetable platter.  It didn’t help that everyone said, “Ah, go on. Have some stuffing and gravy and buttered yams. It’s Thanksgiving!”

 You don’t realize how much fat and carbohydrates we eat until you spend a couple of sessions with Debbie talking about nutrition.  Learning how the body works takes a lot of the fun out of eating, believe me.  Things I had always considered good for me were loaded with surprises: fruit contains an amazing amount of sugar; fruit juice is almost pure sugar. Margarine isn’t any better for you than real butter. Adults don’t need milk; our bodies have a hard time processing dairy products.  Egg yolks are cholesterol bombs. Eating became more than a dining experience.

It was as if I had slipped into another dimension. Everything held danger and temptation. I peeked under sandwich bread, and sniffed my salads.  Did that have oil in it?  I  taste cheese in this.  What time does the gym close? And since none of my friends were obsessed with working out like I was, I was lonely.  I was mean, and I was lonely.

But I looked great.  After a discouraging 3 or 4 weeks where I ate nothing but chicken, broccoli, yams and egg whites and didn’t lose a pound, I suddenly lost weight.   My stomach flattened out, my arms bulked up, my skin glowed. Debbie upped my weights, I worked out twice as hard, concentrated on my abs, which I hated, and my workout sessions stretched out into three hours.

By January, I had lost 10 pounds; by February, 15 pounds. I flexed my arms and watched the veins stick out. I bought new clothes, posturing and admiring myself in the mirrors.  I strolled through the grocery store catching glimpses of myself in the freezer case. Not only was I mean and lonely, I was conceited.

And boring. I told everyone about what I had learned about nutrition.  I poked at people’s abdomens and explained about body fat.  I went on and on about the benefits of drinking water and the havoc alcohol wreaks on our bodies.  People, even my dearest friends, began to shrink from me.

Or I imagined they were shrinking from me.  The lack of carbohydrates also made me a little paranoid.  “You should have a little sugar now and again,” said Debbie. “This diet over an extended period of time could make you a little moody.”  No kidding.

By this time I was glad Debbie had talked me into the body-building show because I had a goal.  I was going to hone this body into a work of art, and I was going to haul it up on stage, and people were going to judge it.  I would get graded on my work.  As a grown-up, you seldom get graded, really.  You have to rely on self-satisfaction which really never worked for me.  I like reward, I like applause, and an auditorium full of people would be clapping and hooting and hollering and maybe I would get a trophy for all my hard work. I mean, I never expected to WIN or anything. …

Something had snapped.  I was actually looking forward to the show. I was getting excited.  I invited everyone I knew to come, and I planned a big celebration afterwards. Two weeks before the show, I was obsessed with my body. I tanned it, I exercised it, I rubbed moisturizer into it.  I looked at it in the mirror a hundred times a day.  Except for the gym, I never went out for fear of being tempted to eat something poisonous like a dinner roll or a pretzel. I drink distilled water and gave up eating canned foods to avoid sodium which would cause my body to bloat.  At night, I jacked up the stereo to about a billion decibels and practiced my routine, prancing around my house in a bikini. 

The night of the show, I was so pumped up with adrenaline, I imagined I could actually see my heart beating against my rib cage.  This wouldn’t have been too farfetched, as I had lost 23 pounds and there was hardly enough fat on my bones to qualify as real skin.  Muscles popped out like hard knots of rope; I was diesel, I was buff.  Hell, I was ripped. The music and the screams of the audience rushed through my chest like steam. I was light-headed and charged up.  When I walked out onto the darkened stage for my 90 seconds of fame, I had never felt so good about myself.  I was drowning in self-satisfaction.  Body-builders, like marathon runners and Ironman triathletes, are an incredibly small percentage of the world’s population, and I was one of them.  Damn, I felt good.

Afterwards, I entertained like a diva in her dressing room, and then I tossed on a size 6 dress (I have never worn a size 6. My ARM was a size six.) and went out to EAT.

I had a martini.  I had two.  Then I had escargot drenched in butter and I sopped up the butter with bread. I ate veal chops and baked potato with butter and sour cream. I had champagne and white wine and cognac with a slab of chocolate mouse cake for dessert.  The next morning, I met friends for bagels and cream cheese, and I poured salad dressing all over my salad at lunch.  I had a margarita.  With salt.  I skipped workouts.  I went straight to hell in a handbasket and within 3 weeks I gained back ten of the 23 pounds I had lost.  In six weeks, I had gained back 15.

But I was happy.  I had my life back.  I mean, sure, I looked great, but who was looking at me?   I got a trophy, which was real nice, but it didn’t buy me a new house or get my taxes done or seed my front lawn.  Guys turned around to look at me, but they didn’t rush over and ask me to run off with them to Fiji. Truly nothing changed.  It was a great experience. It showed me what I could do if I wanted to.  I learned things, I had fun.  Now I’d been there, done that.

There are women out there who are a size six or a size four naturally.  They can eat chocolate cake and pasta with cream sauce all the time, and still wear a halter top without arm flab squeezing out the arm holes.  But that’s not me.  Those women are not even my friends.  I think they should be hunted down and killed like animals. For me being a size six was a whole lot of work.

I still work out almost every day, and I watch my diet and alcohol consumption. According to any height/weight chart, I’m in pretty good shape even though I have gained back almost every pound I lost while training for the show. I occasionally dream about doing it again, but the pleasure of blowing off an occasional workout or having a slice of pizza or a darn beer once in a while is just too good.  I’ve got a bottle of decent champagne in the refrigerator and a long lazy Saturday planned this weekend. I’ll read a cheap novel and meet a couple of girlfriends for lunch.   Maybe I’ll go to gym, and maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll go to the movies and have popcorn and a couple of Twizzles.  What the hell.

 Life is good.