Jason Isbell and lessons for a fat man

Jason Isbell is in town tonight. I’ve been listening to his new record, “Southeastern,” for a few weeks now. Every song is touched with power and grace. He’s from Alabama, I’m from Georgia, and the people he knows and grew up with are like the people I know and grew up with. It’s like the first time I read Larry Brown and thought, that guy understands my people. But with Isbell it’s more personal. A couple of lines from one of his songs have stuck in me like an implant. He has put words to the greatest struggle in my life.

The song is called “Live Oak” and these are the lines:

There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be

And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me

The character in the song has led a wicked life and is trying to start over. Isbell himself spent a lot of years drinking too much and is now trying to live sober. Here’s what he told NPR about the meaning of those words:

That started as a worry that I had when I cleaned my life up, decided to be a grownup, you know? I worried about what parts of me would go, along with the bad parts. Because it’s not cut and dried. It’s not like you made the right decision and everything’s great and you’re a better person for it. … there are some things that are lost forever and that’s just the fact of it.

I have thought far too much about this notion over the years, for a different reason.

I’m a fat guy. You can say obese or overweight or heavy or one of those other words if you want. Fat pretty much covers it. I have never been anything else. I’ve gone to bed a thousand times — ten thousand times — believing I would start getting in shape the next morning. Sometimes I hang in there for a while. I’ve always backslid. There are a lot of reasons. Here’s the one that makes me sound a little crazy.

I worry that when I lose all this weight, I’ll also lose some essential part of myself. I worry about the good parts going with the bad parts.

This is terrible logic on a bunch of different levels. I’m fully aware of that. But when you’ve been one way all your life, there’s no way of knowing how it’ll turn out when you make a big and permanent change. I love my life, except for being fat. I don’t want to screw up the things I love in the process of getting rid of what I hate.

It means something to me to hear somebody confront this same thing, and deal with it, and live a better life on the other side.

I learned a long time ago not to make role models out of musicians (or athletes or famous actors). I don’t know Jason Isbell except from his music, and some interviews, and his Twitter feed, where I found out we share a love for the Braves. But I do draw inspiration from somebody who pushed his way through the door I’m headed for.

A few weeks ago I mapped out a walking route through our neighborhood. There’s a hill a couple blocks away that I’ve avoided ever since we moved here. It’s not much of a hill for somebody in shape — I saw a woman running up it the other day, pushing a baby stroller. But it’s a haul for me. The first day, I had to stop about a third of the way up. The next day I got a little farther. And the next, farther still.

I don’t always go up the hill. But I started a Seinfeld chain for walking. I’m up to 25 days.

Those of us who have one addiction or another, or just people who have a little something about themselves they want to change — there’s no way of knowing what that new person will be like. Some people might like the old one better. That’s life. One thing I know is this: Jason Isbell made himself a new man and then made one of the best records I’ve ever put in my ears. That gives me hope.







25 thoughts on “Jason Isbell and lessons for a fat man

  1. Tommy – please read this.

    First read this book: “Fat Chance” by Dr. Robert Lustig. This is what’s going on in your body.

    Then read “Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It” by Gary Taubes. This is the science behind weight loss. The science is there, but it is ignored and obscured by the weight loss industrial complex.

    And for practical ways to apply it, get a copy of “The Protein Power Life Plan” by Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades.

    Everything you think you know about weight gain/loss is probably wrong. I was fat from childhood. In 2002 I weighed 225 lbs. My average weight over the last 10 years is 172 lbs. You have to change your mind first. Then the rest is easy.

    Always Brave,


  2. Thanks for writing on this aspect of change.

    Around Christmas time, when I was about ten, I did something – or didn’t do something – that caused my grandmother to lament “Why can’t you be a good girl?” Whatever it was I had done, it was one of those things children percieve through a different lens: I was being creative, imaginative, playful, independent, not “bad”. I remember pondering “But I won’t be myself if I am a good girl.” I didn’t want to be someone passive, defined by the behavioral needs of the adults around me.

    I write about school and education. It seems to me that in all the hullabaloo over how to raise scores, and behind battles to ban books or circumscribe curriculum lurks the realization that education changes people. Education is an amazing, wonderful thingm, but it involves loss – of innocence, of certainty, of the comfort of the things one knows. The ones who are afraid of this change are more honest than the ones who dismiss the losses as trivial or hide them behind the curtain.

    Loss changes us, even when it includes something better left behind. Thanks for point this out.

  3. Over 20 years ago a physician placed me on medication that ended up with my gaining over 125 lbs. with virtually no supervision. What this did to me was to make almost a hermit of me as I was so ashamed of how I looked. It kept me from largely participating in and enjoying so many of my son’s school years as I felt everyone was looking at and judging me, thinking I must live with a bag of cookies in my hand when in reality I ate very little. It damaged the relationship between my husband and I, kept me from accepting invitations to friends’ home, prevented me from the active life I had always led. Happily a few years ago this same medication was found to be damaging my kidneys, I was immediately taken off it and the weight practically melted off me. I am such a happier, more outgoing individual now, never really realizing how I had allowed that excess weight to affect me and looking back am ashamed of myself for not taking control away from the doctors and insisting they change the medication rather than acting like a trained monkey. I would encourage people, particularly women, to be more pro-active in their medical care and to do their own research on any meds given them, the side effects, reactions, etc. I am a different person, but oh, so much better! I purchased an entirely new wardrobe, eliminating the color black from it, have picked up the wonderful life I lived beforehand, resumed my gardening and socializing. Life is good and I intend to wring the last drop out of it. I have also developed an affinity for the elderly and made friends with many whom, if I can’t visit, at least try to call frequently. You’d be amazed at how often they’re forgotten even by their own families.

    Tommy, I am delighted to have found you. I miss your newspaper columns dreadfully as you have a marvelous sense of humor. Now I have located this blog and a lot of reading I can catch up on. I do hope you are able to lose weight only as a health issue so you will be with us longer and most likely you will feel ever so much better. As with most things, it takes a level of determination and commitment on anyone’s part but the end result is worth the struggle. As talented and gifted as God made you, I feel surely you…and everyone…will be quite happy with the end result.

  4. Just read this article in TCO and felt compelled to seek out this site. I read your wonderful column for so many years. Still miss it. Glad to find this spot. Good luck on your journey.

  5. Hi Tommy, I’m collecting stories about weight loss turning points (for a Masters project) and your is one of the best. Keep up the good work! –Amy G.

  6. I am glad to find you again as well! You’re so insightful….I miss your column in the Observer. So anyway, I had the exact same fear, but related to counselling…I was afraid of losing the things that make me unique. It’s funny though, I don’t remember who I was before…I DID lose that person, I guess, but I like myself and my life light years better now. And for losing those creative parts of myself? Not at all….life is better. Good luck to you!

  7. Tommy, when I read your posts about your job and losing weight, it was a bit like deja vu for me. I’ve thought a lot about that man walking beside me too, he is tired of being in the shadows. Literally. Good luck to you in both journeys. Know that persistence pays – don’t get discouraged – I lost 40 pounds before anyone even noticed. LOL.

  8. This column ran in the Charlotte Observer today. In the first place it is great. Thank you, but the best thing is that through it I found your blog and that you have a Facebook page! You can’t imagine how much I have missed your column in the observer. You always gave me something to think about.

    • Mimi — glad you found me! Pretty much anything I write will show up here or on that Facebook page at some point.

  9. Thank you for putting into words what many of us feel, but often do not know how to express. God bless you on your journey. ~ Carolyn ~

  10. Tommy I just want you to know I am going through the same journey as you are. Mine is not weight but of something else I have stuggled with for a long time and am not sure what I will be like once I change. Anyway I am just writing this to tell you thank you for sharing your story and feelings because it lets me know that there are other people out there worried about the same thing. I wish the best for you and god willing we will both come out of this a more improved version of who we are today. I can’t wait to hear the album you taking about either. God Bless.

    • William — I’ve heard from a lot of people these last couple of days who are struggling with something. In a way, we’re all in this together. I’ll be thinking about you.

  11. Great article I know the challnege of being overweight for a long time as well. Ran my first 5k trail run last week. I was at the end of the pack, but I finished! Keep up the walking!

  12. Tommy,

    You will come out different….better probably, certainly with more energy, but way way different. You have no idea. You are an amazing writing talent, and that talent will change too. You are right, Everything will change. Some of your friends who love you because you are overweight will be jealous of the skinny you. You may become an even better writer, more empathetic, more visionary, more willing and able to speak truth to power. You are already fantastic. But you will change, because so much of who we are is shaped by what body we walk around in. Trust this, you are a tall striking man with a big heart and a genius of expression that is rare and refined. It’ll all work out, but not how you think and plan and hope. You can’t control this, and you have to give up the attachment/romance to sweet tea, friend chicken and other southern lies and trust the divine. None of them help you, they are all killing you. And when you romance them, you kill your readers too.

    With great admiration for your journey!

    • Thanks, Patrick — this is smart and thoughtful and, I’m sure, correct. I’ll keep referring to it on this journey.

  13. Tommy, you’re a great man. Just found your blog, thanks to Ann Helms. Great to hear your voice again.

  14. Chris V. told me about this article, Tommy. I’m proud of you. I’ve always been proud to know you and now I’m especially proud now because you are willing to share part of this journey with me, and countless others who you’ll never meet. Thank you being courageous and helping us all learn a little bit more about being human. I’m going try starting a Seinfeld chain of my own and will think of you when I cross the days off. Let’s check back.

  15. Great article. Brings me back to The Loomis Fargo Gang article you wrote.

  16. Tommy, I have been there my friend – fear not! Its ok on the other side, because theres only one side. (You can only know that later.)
    You have my respect and admiration for the good man you are: your heart and soul have nothing to do with appearance. They won’t change. Weight goes up and down, and its all good. But I do think those of us that the world may have judged as not lovely enough have an edge on BS detection, and we get to keep that.
    Watch this video if you have a minute. (Watch to the end.). It gave me great respect for Dustin Hoffman. And it’s really the same issue – judging others by appearance. http://m.wimp.com/roletootsie/
    And know you are loved with a great love by your fans! All will be well.
    Southern Child

  17. Once again, I sit here clapping! When I was 13 years old my grandmother and aunt embarrassed me in front of all of my friends saying that I looked as if I was 6 months pregnant and they should be ashamed to be seen with me and that if I didn’t lose weight soon I would never find anyone to date or love me. Thus
    began a three year bout with anorexia.

    I ate as little as I possibly could and got down to about a size 8 or 9. I got sick when I was 16 and my doctor put me on antibiotics and from that point on, I caught up on eating whatever I could. I have had several bouts of it during my adult life but, for the most part, eat what I want when I want. Life is too short to worry about what anybody else thinks. What you think about yourself is all that matters. It doesn’t matter if you are overweight or stick thin.

    The people who love and admire you the most could care less about physical aspects and see you for the beautiful soul you have inside. It has taken me almost 52 years to figure this out. My grandmother was the same exact size I am now, a 12-14-16, so I don’t know where she got the idea I was so hideous.

  18. Walking is good for thinking, too.

    I have a friend who is clearly OCD but she will not take meds because she believes her condition gives her an edge at her work. Maybe it’s really about knowing yourself, rather than a matter of using terrible logic. That’s something right handy for a fine writer such as yourself.

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