Holy Ab-Roller

Seeing The Lite At Lent.
By Tom Danehy

I'M WRITING THIS on Ash Wednesday, that day of the year when Catholics get an oily, black smudge of burnt palm ashes smeared on their foreheads, and then spend the rest of the day explaining to the pagans that no, they don't have really bad hygiene; they're actually in a state of grace.

Danehy Ash Wednesday starts Lent, the 47-day period leading up to Easter, the holiest day of the year for Catholics (as opposed to Christmas, which is the holiest day of the year for retailers).

Almost everything you read or hear about Lent refers to its being a 40-day period. This has caused a great deal of confusion over the years, since all one need do is count the days on the calendar to see that there are 47 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

(Actually, Easter is determined first. It falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. Then they count backwards to Ash Wednesday. This year, Easter comes rather early, on March 30. That means that Ash Wednesday comes before St. Valentine's Day, causing quite a dilemma for some people. Should I give up candy, except for St. Valentine's Day? And what about when those Girl Scout cookies come in?)

Getting back to that 40-day thing, the Official Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Sundays aren't officially part of Lent, since they're already holy days. Alas, some Catholics, who have a tendency toward a cafeteria-style approach to religion--I'll obey this commandment all the time, that one most of the time--see this Sunday thing as a loophole, a Church-sanctioned way to fudge on their Lenten sacrifice.

I've always found it much easier to suffer all the way through Lent, rather than looking forward to Sundays. Especially since we're supposed to be, ahem, looking forward to Sundays, anyway. Right?

As is often the case with Catholics, I'm combining the practical with the spiritual this Lent. I'm using it as a start for my final push to get down to my college-basketball-playing weight in time for a special occasion.

Why, everyone from the Essenes to the Druids have used this time of year to cleanse their spirits and get their bodies ready for swimsuit season. Now it's my turn.

Those of you who have been unfortunate enough to occupy a room with me know that I take up more than my share of space. It hasn't always been this way; I used to be even bigger.

Actually, for the first half of my life, I was smaller than average. When I played football in high school and college, I was always one of the lightest people on the field (and not just in skin tone). I ate a lot back then, but I was so active I never gained weight.

I should have been more careful. I had seen pictures of my Italian grandparents, who both died before I was born. My grandmother, Justina Vicoli DiMarco, was about 4-foot-9--in all directions. I should have realized I was genetically predisposed in that direction, but darned if those cheeseburgers and fries didn't pull me over to the Dark Side.

Besides, I was always underweight for football and just right for basketball and everything else I played. Why worry about it?

I went throughout the first 30 years or so of my life thinking the four major food groups were sausage, fried chicken, tortilla chips and then everything else, most of which I avoided. I was never much of a sweets eater. (Thank God for that, otherwise I would have exploded long ago, like some grotesque character in a Monty Python movie.)

My horrible eating habits caught up to me in my 30s. I was staying home all the time, taking care of our young children, and my exercise dropped precipitously. The weight went on in leaps and bounds. Without boring you with numbers, let me say that my weight just about doubled.

About three years ago, I wrote a column about Daryl Strawberry and his ongoing drug problem. I wondered why, with all that money he was making, he didn't hire somebody and pay them $100,000 a year to walk around behind him and slap that stuff out of his hand.

One irate reader wrote me a letter and said, "How dare you criticize Strawberry for his drug problem when you obviously have a food problem?" I laughed it off, saying, "Sure, I'm heavy, but I'm not going to eat a whole bag of Doritos and then go out and kill a family of four while driving impaired."

I said that I could lose weight anytime I wanted. I talked to my kids about it, and they both (very nicely, in such a way so as not to hurt my feelings) said that they wouldn't mind if I lost a few pounds. Or a few score, for that matter.

And so I set out to lose weight that summer in 1994, and I lost a ton. Again, I won't bore you with numbers, but it was enough to cause some people not to recognize me. I was actually disappointed because I didn't get all the way down to my college weight. I just hit a plateau and couldn't get any closer. But the weight stayed off for two years, with minor fluctuations.

Then, this past fall, the weight started creeping up again. Over the holidays, the creep turned into a gallop. I haven't gained it all back; nothing close to that. But I am heavier and headed in the wrong direction.

This coming October, my daughter Darlene turns 15. We want to have a traditional quinceañera for her, meaning a Mass and a nice little reception for her afterwards. (The quinceañera has become so grotesquely overdone in some Hispanic communities that many churches won't be a part of it. It's not uncommon for some parents to spend many thousands of dollars on fancy dresses, huge dance halls, music, food and drinks.)

I told Darlene that, without doing anything stupid and/or dangerously unhealthy, I'd be as close to my college weight as is humanly possibly for her birthday. That way when I dance the traditional first dance with her, we can both be in the same room at the time.

I'm going public with this the same way Pat Riley guaranteed the Lakers would win back-to-back titles. Public pressure keeps one focused.

It begins with Lent, that time of year when I eat like Johnny Appleseed and feel like I have the strength of Johnny Mathis. Gotta start somewhere. TW

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