The HP Diet, Week 2: Diet Coke

Second installment of weekly "Harry Potter Diet" series.

There's a McDonald's between our home and our daughters' school. This probably comes as no surprise to you as there is at least one McDonald's between EVERY home and EVERY school, even if your home is on the actual school grounds, but there's a point here. I used to wake up and -- not every morning, but a lot of them -- the first thing I thought about was the breakfast I would pick up at that McDonald's on the way home.

Steak bagel.

Hash brown.*

Diet Coke.

*That looks wrong to me -- it seems like it should be "hash browns," plural, but as you McDonald's breakfast people know, the McDonald's hash brown is quite singular; it's a thing, like a single shoe or one potato chip. In fact, I like to think of the McDonald's hash brown as a combination of a single shoe and one potato chip.

Now, if this meal at 7:30 a.m. sounds absolutely disgusting to you, well, right, you probably could have fit into the Harry Potter shirt that started this whole thing. And truth is, I didn't ALWAYS go to McDonald's for breakfast. Sometimes I went to Panera. That meal would be different.

Steak bagel.

Chocolate croissant.

Diet Coke.

There's also a Manhattan Bagel place nearby. That one required actually getting out of the car -- Manhattan Bagel doesn't have a drive-through -- so I was much more judicious about it. My meal choice there was:

Bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon (Lox! Healthy!)

Some sort of danish.

Diet Coke.

Looking back on all this with some shame -- though I would eat any of those meals RIGHT NOW -- I realize that I might have been fooling myself slightly when I used to think, "I don't know WHY I'm gaining all this weight. I'm not THAT bad an eater." I really did say this to myself with regularity.

I had a three-pronged argument.

  1. I don't drink. I never like the way this sounds because it suggests that I have some aversion to or intolerance of drinking, and I do not in the slightest. I'm just never in the mood to drink. I'm fine with a beer or a glass of wine or whatever if the situation is right, but for whatever reason that situation rarely comes along for me. So I guess "I don't drink," covers that.

  2. I'm not a huge sweets guy. Oh, I LOVE sweets, I'm a chocolate fiend, but I usually have the self-discipline to say no to desserts.

  3. I drink Diet Coke. The word "Diet" is in the name.

I've tried many diets before -- I've even written about some of them -- and in every one of them, Diet Coke was my salvation. I cannot begin to describe to you how much I love Diet Coke. But I will try. I love it, as you can see above, first thing in the morning. I love it at night. I love it with meals, and I love it straight, and I love it on planes, and I love it when I'm driving, and I love it when I'm parched, and I love it when I'm sated.

Let me tell you something I love: I go to meet a friend for lunch. Could be an old friend or someone I only recently met. I'm running a few minutes late. I come in all apologetic, my friend is thoroughly understanding, and I sit down. And there, waiting for me, is A DIET COKE! My friend knows me so well (even if we only just met) that she or he has ordered me that Diet Coke before I ever even got there. That's love, my friends. It's almost enough to bring me to tears.

Oh, here's something else I love: There's a wonderful Viet-Thai restaurant near my home -- introduced to me, oddly enough, by baseball writer extraordinaire Keith Law, who found it during his travels to Charlotte -- and I probably have lunch there once a week. They all know me. And when I walk in, they know exactly what I'm going to order, but first thing they do is say, "Diet Pepsi? Sorry." That's because they don't HAVE Diet Coke, and they know how much I want one, but Diet Pepsi is OK as a substitute, and I love them for caring that much.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm not only addicted to Diet Coke -- lots of people are addicted. I also LOVE Diet Coke deeply, truly, thoroughly, unconditionally. Sure, I know all the bad stuff, the health stuff, the headaches and various other things that come with breaking the habit. I've been told by doctors that the Diet Cokes may have contributed directly to my kidney stones, and as we talked about in Episode One, kidney stones are the worst. I'm not dismissive of these things. I just love Diet Coke that much.

And that's why Step 1 of the Harry Potter Diet was the hardest step.

I quit Diet Coke.

* * *

In the end, it came down to two things. One, I had multiple doctors -- but one in particular -- tell me that there would be no way for me to maintain any real weight loss if I continued to guzzle Diet Coke by the liter. This upset me for various reasons. It's just one calorie. It has no sugar. As mentioned, the word DIET is in the title. This doctor explained to me in painstaking detail how Diet Coke creates hunger cravings and interferes with various body sensors that are supposed to help us keep our health balance.

"But," I said, "I've lost weight even while drinking Diet Coke before."

He then made a sort of sweeping gesture that indicated, "Um, yeah, you didn't keep off that weight, did you?"

That was pretty convincing. As I looked at the Harry Potter shirt, I came to the same conclusion. I could try one of the crash diets that have worked before for me. I could do the no-carb thing. I could do the Mediterranean thing. I could do the windowing thing where you eat all your meals in an eight-hour window. I could do the Weight Watchers thing. I could try one of the exotic diets that do wonders for people in the infomercials.

But, realistically, it would be just like the rest. Maybe I'd lose enough weight to wear the shirt ... but for how long? Putting weight back on after a moderately successful diet is soul-crushing; I lost 25 or 30 pounds a couple of years ago. It came back in agonizing slow motion -- three pounds here, five pounds there, now it's 10 pounds back, now, oh what the heck, get me a banana split.

So, that was one reason to get rid of Diet Coke.

But there was another. I'm 51 years old. I'm not healthy. I'm ... well, all right, I'll tell you a quick story. A few weeks ago, we went to the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. I don't know if I mentioned this, but I've written a book on Harry Houdini that will come out next year. As part of this, I got to go to the Magic Castle, which is basically America's magical clubhouse. It's a wonderful place, I'll tell you all about it later. But for this story, I was there with my wife and a couple of friends. And we went to a show.

The second magician was a hilarious woman who goes by the stage name of Lucy Darling. She opens her act by talking about how beautiful the crowd is. She looks at a guy on my right and says, "You're so handsome." And then she looks at a guy to my left and says, "You're so handsome."

Then she looks at me and says, "And I'm sure you have a lovely personality."

She then torched me the whole show. Just torched me. I loved it, I really did, because it was hilarious and I have no qualms about who I am or what I look like or any of that. That's high school stuff. I'm entirely secure because, let's fact it, I won the lottery, I know that. I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful kids and a dog who thinks he's pretty much the greatest thing on earth. I have spent a lifetime writing sports and chasing dreams, and I wouldn't trade my life for anybody else's. After the show, Lucy Darling came over to give me a big hug and tell me how great I was -- and I kind of was great. I'm a pretty good straight man.

But here's the thing: There's more to it than that. The jokes worked because I was the fat guy in the front row. And maybe I don't want to be the fat guy in the front row. Maybe I don't want to age badly, to have unnecessary health issues, to breathe hard when I climb stairs, to struggle to the finish line.

I had to do SOMETHING bold. I had to make a statement, a declaration. There's so much out of our control. But dammit, there are some things within our control. I want to wear that Harry Potter shirt. I want to feel different. I want to sit in the front row at a magic show and get picked out because of stuff outside of my control, because I'm bald and goofy-looking and have thick glasses, but NOT because I'm fat.

And so I quit Diet Coke. Just quit, cold turkey. I have not had anything but water since.

* * *

The headaches stunk. They came ... that first week ... into the second week. Caffeine headaches. They stunk. I had people tell me, "Take some caffeine pills or drink some coffee, those will go away."

I didn't do that. In a weird way, I kind of wanted the headaches. I wanted to feel everything. I wanted to get through them so that one day I would wake up and the headaches would be gone, and I would be through the first barrier. That happened, I think, on the eighth day. That was a pretty good day.

What else can I say about quitting Diet Coke? I sleep better. It's funny, I never felt like I had any problem sleeping, even when I drank a Diet Coke just before bed. But I apparently did, because suddenly I was not waking up at 3:06 a.m., groggy and dazed but alert enough to see the clock.*

*The weird thing is I kind of LIKED waking up at 3:06 a.m. because my mind very quickly calculated how many hours I still had to sleep, and it always felt like a nice amount of time. It was waking up at 6:19 a.m. with a 6:30 alarm that stunk.

What else? I miss Diet Coke. Not every day, but pretty often. I'll see a Diet Coke fountain at a restaurant or a movie theater or a convenience store, and it hurts how much I want one. That horrifying "One won't hurt you" temptress sings again and again in my mind. But one is never one, not for me.

* * *

OK, before ending this thing I have to talk about a commercial. They show it at the movies.

I think about this commercial pretty much 24 hours a day now. I suppose that's what commercials are supposed to do, but I don't think Diet Coke wants me thinking about it the way I do.

First, I think about it because I know I've seen that actress before, and yet I'm constantly assured by my wife and kids that I've never seen that actress before. They seem to think I'm confusing her with Anne Hathaway, and she does look a little bit like Anne Hathaway.

But THEY ARE WRONG. I have seen her before; that's Gillian Jacobs, she's from Community and a bunch of other things, and it makes me very happy when I make a pop culture connection that my kids do not.

But much more important, there's the commercial itself, which is titled, "Life is short. Have a Diet Coke." Is that really the message that Diet Coke wants to go with? We're all going to die anyway, so have a Diet Coke? That doesn't seem too great. And the lines she says, they're baffling to me:

"Look. Here's the thing about Diet Coke. [She drinks.] It's delicious. It makes me feel good."

OK, I'm with you.

"Life is short. If you want to live in a yurt, yurt it up."

Yurt is a funny word.

"If you want to run in a marathon, I mean, that sounds super hard but ... OK."

She raises her Diet Coke to someone else drinking a Diet Coke. Neither of them seems likely to run a marathon.

"I mean just do you, whatever that is. And if you're in the mood for a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke."

Wait, here comes the big kicker:

"Diet Coke. Because I can."

This commercial disturbs me on so many levels; I can't even begin to climb all those stairs. But I'm going to tell you the biggest thing: Did they do this commercial specifically for me? Because, yeah, it seems like they did it specifically for me, like they're following me around, cataloguing my habits and then meeting with the marketing people and saying, "We need a commercial for the 50-something guy who has just quit Diet Coke and now needs to be enticed and sweet-talked back into the arena by an actress he knows that he knows?"

I mean -- who else could this be for? Who else out there is asking for PERMISSION to drink a Diet Coke? And more to the point, WHY would anyone be asking for permission? Could it be because Diet Coke is SO bad for you? Think about that sentence, "If you're in the mood for a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke." Would it make sense to replace the words "Diet Coke" with anything that wasn't terrible for you? Like would you say, "If you're in the mood to have a salad, have a salad?" "If you're in the mood to walk for a cure for cancer, walk for a cure for cancer?" "If you're in the mood to volunteer at a soup kitchen, volunteer at a soup kitchen."

No, this is more like permission to do something you know you'll regret later -- "If you're in the mood to eat the entire chocolate cake, eat the entire chocolate cake." "If you're in the mood to skip out on the check, skip out on the check." "If you're in the mood to cut out your partner in a business deal, cut out that partner." I've been trying to figure out where I've seen this method before and it's obvious: this is how the devil acts in movies and television shows.

And then there's that amazing last line:

Diet Coke. Because I can.

I don't know. Using "because I can" as the reason for doing anything seems pretty shaky.

Next week: Breakfast.