Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Fat Chance

It has become a habit of my later years to deal with the inevitable existential hangover that comes with the passing of another year to look outside myself for some form of inspiration to assist in the process of surviving yet another year. As I've got older and wisdom has been increasingly been replaced by cynicism, finding something or someone to act as a source of inspiration has become harder and harder, but this year I think I've come up trumps in the substantial shape of Mr Steve Vaught aka The Fatman Walking who I heard interviewed on RTE today.

Mr Vaught a former US Marine, set off in 2005 from his home in California to walk to New York. When he set out Mr Vaught was morbidly obese, weighing somewhere in the region of 400lbs and suffering from chronic depression. It took him the best part of 15 months to complete the walk but he managed it without any major sponsorship, support team, and most importantly no motive other than, in his own words 'to break out of a negative rut lifestyle and find new meaning and resolution to life drama that I felt was holding me back.' Whatever that means.

Steve Vaught: The 'before' picture

Over the course of the trip Vaught had acquired a documentary team following him, a personal trainer, a book deal, a website which received upwards of 100,000 hits during his cross country stroll, and a huge media reception on his arrival in New York City. On his site he described his arrival like this:

So as I crested what turn out to be the last spectacular vista of the trip, a view of Manhattan, I really knew that I was there. There were a ton of photo ops there and I continued on. After a hill and a couple of turns I am ambushed by Inside Edition and as they were following me I was greeted by a bunch of kids that had poured out from their school onto the front lawn to cheer me on, Stopping periodically to get a “good background” or to answer a few questions, I actually missed a very important turn off. Route 46 becomes impassable up ahead and I needed to turn off and follow along side streets to get to Ft. Lee and the George Washington Bridge.

Now I can almost hear the cynics amongst you muttering 'So what, just another Oprah moment.' That would normally be my own response. Another media myth perpetrating the bogus ideology of individual redemption through a struggle against adversity leading to 15 minutes of fame and an example to us all. Hollywood couldn't have scripted this guy's story better. He kills 2 pedestrians in a car accident, gets depressed and fat, and seeks and finds existential redemption along the highways and by-ways of America. He returns home healthy, wealthy and wise to a loving wife and children. Fade to titles and wait for the Oscar nominations to roll in.

But there were 3 things struck me as I listened to Mr Vaught. The first was that I'd never heard of him, the second was that he sounded like a well-grounded, decent and honest human being and, finally, that unlike the Hollywood version, Vaught's life had not been fixed by the journey in a way that would get him on Oprah. If anything, by the standards of western materialism his life has got worse. He's still fat, around 320lbs, the book deal fell through, the media turned on him, he and his wife divorced and he's now working nights as a tow-truck driver and finding it hard to find the time and resources to sustain the collective redemptive process that began with the fatman walking.

Steve Vaught: The 'after' picture'

Prompted by the radio interview I went to his website and read his journal of 15 months walking from coast to coast. It's no picturesque travelogue, there isn't much Brysonesque wit or knowingness about it. It's a sincere, serious, sometimes humourless account of a self-obsessed struggle to come to terms with, well something, everything, and nothing. There is no Hollywood story here. He doesn't start fat and end slim; he isn't discovered as a poet through lyrical descriptions of passing Americana; he's not a model or an inspiration to anyone and, this is why I really respect the man, he doesn't really want to be. What's more, and I may be mistaken, but I suspect he knows he didn't have to do the walk at all to find out whatever it was he found out.

In my view what he accomplished on his long walk was something that can't be bartered for 5 minutes in the media or the quick fix moral economy. No-one was going to make money or ride his coat-tails to fame. No-one is going to be selling the Steve Vaught weight loss programme to hapless fatties. He did what he felt he needed to do in the hope that something good might come of it, but this was definitely not the career move that others, less honourable, might have made of it.

This is the true story of a common humanity in an seemingly uncaring self-obsessed world. It's not about eating or buying or selling yourself to a happiness that is at best transitory and usually illusory. It's not about finding or becoming a guru. It's not even about the search for a true self. As the man himself said:

You see, once you open a door, even a metaphorical emotional one, you night not be able to close it again and instead have to stand and face what is on the other side. This is exactly what occurred in my case, I found an awakening and now I need to pursue it.

Well, Steve, if you ever read this, all I can say is I wish you well.

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