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My summer of self discovery

In chaotic times, professor tells of taking control of his life

By Burnham Holmes
On September 11, 2018

Castleton professor Burnham Holmes poses next to his son, Ken, during a break from scaring people at a  haunted house in Lake George this summer.

Writing about what I did last summer seems to be an assignment for Snoopy of “Peanuts” or Brian of “Family Guy.” But after suffering through the daily assaults by the Trump administration, the uncertainties at Castleton University and my ballooning weight, I decided to take action.

Instead of buying a red “Make Russia Great Again” ball cap, I traded my old license plates for United States Veteran plates to honor our country, my fellow veterans, and my students who have been in the military.

This has been a long process. Decades ago I almost didn’t get my first job in New York City because I listed 1LT US Army on my resume. My employer thought I might be a “wackadoodle.” I quickly dropped my military experience from my resume and didn’t even tell my co-workers in publishing and teaching. In later years, I refrained from getting veterans’ plates because I thought this might be interpreted as being pro-war. No, I’m pro-country and pro-veteran. As John McCain recently wrote in his farewell address: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse patriotism with tribal rivalries….”

I have been a college teacher for over 37 years (School of Visual Arts, Queens College, Green Mountain College, and Castleton University); perhaps it was time to consider trying something different. My son, Ken, is an actor who for several years has had summer employment at a haunted house and this would be his last. Having appeared together in 20 productions (plays, musicals, movies), this was probably my final opportunity to act with him before he takes the next step in his career and moves to New York City. So, this summer we made a daily trek together to work at a haunted house in Lake George.

It was confusing at first; I couldn’t even figure out which way to go in the darkness. But little by little, things fell into place: the scares, the sequence, the script. However, the unexpected always loomed large.

Without the fourth wall of traditional theatre, you sometimes have to suffer the slings and arrows from audiences ranging from children to oldsters, who are sometimes in various states of high, sugar and otherwise. This calls for a different type of acting. When you are onstage, audience members don’t talk directly to you, but that is not so in the dark rooms of a haunted house. Also, with a play you usually only run it once a night. During a Wednesday in August, we ran through 38 tours. Granted, there were two teams of two actors and the tours were only 12 minutes long, but the effort remained the same.

And that brings me to the weight issue. Having felt ineffectual about the state of the country and the difficulties that higher education is facing, this is something I actually am in charge of. It is also something I’ve been trying to ignore for years, hating to see the evidence in photographs and listing a more desirable weight of 260 on my driver’s license. But at my zenith last holiday season, the grim reality was 315. I remember many years ago a doctor saying that I was overweight at 215.

Although 315 was a winter overindulgence and I soon settled in at 285, breaking the 280 barrier proved formidable. I had tried Weight Watcher’s and suggestions in diverse diet books, but nothing seemed to help. Over the years I have taken philosophy courses about Buddhism with Jim Hagen and even journeyed on one of his tours to India two summers ago. I mention this because I have developed an innate reverence for life that has now led to vegetarianism, a choice made considerably easier because my son has recently become one, too. This summer, that has been a treat with all the open-air markets selling fresh vegetables. I also have developed a keen liking for water. It started out with checking how much sugar was contained in each bottle of soda or juice I picked up, but this has now changed into a preference for fresh cold water. A diet of mostly vegetables and water has made the weight loss possible.

After a long time of trying, I cracked the 280 barrier, then got stuck in the 270s. I found new plateaus and then my body was ready to dip down again. One morning in July the scale read 269.2. It got easier as my desire for food and snacks changed. I no longer ate a box of Cheese-Its on the drive home; heck, I didn’t even buy Cheese-Its anymore. Lots of former favorites no longer appealed to me. A juicy hamburger is a thing of the past. I remember how much I used to like it, but that’s true of a lot of things. Life is change and this is just another one. The weight loss came more readily and steadily. A morning not too long ago, I hit 259. I know because I document the reading of the scales every morning with my cellphone. It’s a part of my getting-up ritual. On Sept. 1, the reading was 250.

I feel like that old cliché, if I had known how easy this was going to be, I would have done it years ago. But I guess you just have to reach that point where you experience enough is enough. You realize you don’t want to live a certain way anymore. It’s not fun, you’re not enjoying it, you’re tired all the time, you get up in the morning and want to take a nap. And then you recall how you had felt when you were a high-school track athlete.

One night in Hannibal, Missouri, you ran a 48.6 quarter-mile at the end of a medley relay, passing everyone on the track. The exhilaration, your heart bursting with joy, during that victory lap under a full moon. For years now, you have been stuck in traffic, fighting horns and exhaust, laboring under two overstuffed suitcases. You had almost forgotten that extraordinary feeling of being light and nimble, zigging and zagging through life with a smile and a song. Oh, it’s good to feel good again.

I’m no longer going to spend hours reading and watching the latest affronts to our democracy by the Trump administration, I’m just going to vote in November and encourage everyone else to vote, too. But after watching Senator McCain’s funeral service at the Washington Cathedral, it seems like a corner may have been turned.

I’m no longer going to worry about working. I once worked in a plant store in between teaching gigs and I’ve recently finished up a summer of scaring tourists. What’s next? Who knows? Life is a banquet of opportunities. Working at the haunted house this summer was fun and partnering with Ken was the best part of all. My summer job showed me other options are possible, but it also affirmed how much I still love teaching and working with students. And after the start of our new semester, it seems like a corner may have been turned here at Castleton University.

After bouncing around in the 250s, I will soon turn another corner into the 240s. How many more pounds will I drop? Will I go down to 215? Maybe. I think I’ll know when enough is enough.

And perhaps I’ll even start running again. Bursting from the blocks, lowering my chin and arms and lengthening the stride on the back stretch, then back up on my toes to see what’s left for the finish.

Burnham Holmes teaches Freshman Composition and Effective Speaking in the English Department.

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