On the struggles of being a big man

Tommy Tomlinson at the top of the hill toward Hadrian's Wall in northern England.
Tommy Tomlinson at the top of the hill toward Hadrian's Wall in northern England. Alix Felsing

Jason Isbell came to the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte not long ago and put on a great rock show. I’ve been listening to his new record, “Southeastern,” since the day it came out. Every song is touched with power and grace.

A few 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 “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’m 49 years old and 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.

I learned a long time ago not to make role models out of musicians (or athletes or actors or writers). 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.

The next day

A couple months ago I mapped out a walking route through our Charlotte neighborhood, Plaza Midwood. There’s a hill over on Nassau Boulevard 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 one 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 walked 37 days in a row before missing a day. Now I’ve got a new streak going.

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.

All that walking had another purpose besides just losing weight. In July my wife and I went to England and Ireland for our 15th wedding anniversary. We planned lots of walking every day. There were things we wanted to see that involved climbing hills. I was trying to get ready.

We walked around London and Dublin. We saw Stonehenge and the mysterious Irish mound called Newgrange. I was worn out at the end of every day. But there was one more thing we wanted to see.

In northern England, back in the days when the Romans ruled, an emperor named Hadrian had a wall built all the way across the country. That was almost 1,900 years ago, but a lot of Hadrian’s Wall still stands. One of the historical sites where you can see the wall is called Housesteads. We took a bus out there. It dropped us off at the visitors’ center. It was at the bottom of a steep hill. The wall was at the top.

I looked up there and thought, I’m not gonna make it.

But that little hill on Nassau prepared me for the big one. I had to stop a few times. We were climbing through a sheep pasture, and I swear the sheep looked at me funny. But I made it to the top. It looked like you could see all of England from up there.

I could hear Jason Isbell in my head as I looked back down the hill to see where I’d come from. There’s a man who walks beside me. He is who I used to be. But I’m slowly going to make him disappear.

Tommy Tomlinson spent 23 years at The Charlotte Observer, including 15 years as a columnist. Most recently, he wrote for the website Sports on Earth. This column is adapted from a piece on his blog at