ONCE AGAIN WE slide seamlessly from the holiday season, with its requisite debauchery in all things regarding food and drink, to this, the Season of Guilt.
You're too fat, is the gospel of this new season. Look at you. God, you've really let yourself go.
In the Season of Guilt, magazines are filled with "Before" and "After" ads featuring hefty women inexplicably allowing themselves to be photographed wearing unflattering halter tops and short shorts while seated in groaning lawn chairs, only to be magically transformed a few weeks later into size-8 vixens in black cocktail dresses with cascading hair and flawless makeup.
The TV bombards us with commercials for Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, LA Weight Loss Centers, for this gym and that health spa, flashing images of lean, fit men and women who appear to work out 10 hours a day and have the nutritional habits of Nepalese monks.
Then there is John Basedow.
You must have seen John Basedow. His commercials are on every six seconds or so. He's the hunky (um, according to some women I know) 30-year-old "fitness celebrity" with muscles on top of muscles and a stomach so hard and flat you could play handball against it, the guy who pushes a video called "Fitness Made Simple" and another called "Six Pack Abs."
"Find out how to stay so ripped that you can see your abs 365 days a year," his ads say.
Boy, he really ticks me off.
At least, he used to.
In this Season of Guilt, I saw him as the point man for unrealistic fitness expectations, a snake-oil salesman suckering all these flabby, gold-chain-wearing mopes in their teens and 20s into thinking they'll get a chiseled bod like his simply by shelling out $29.95 (plus shipping and handling) for a video.
Then I got him on the phone - he was calling from Long Island, N.Y., headquarters for his promotional company - and grilled him about all this six-pack-abs business, and he didn't sound snake-oily at all.
John, I began, how many crunches a day to get those abs? Five thousand? Ten thou? What, you start doing crunches at 6 in the morning and wrap it up around 11 at night?
"Nah, I do a little 10-minute ab routine," he said.
"No, really. Ten minutes a day, six days a week."
OK, but you must eat like a parakeet. What do you live on: a little shredded lettuce, a couple of sips of water?
"Anything I love, I don't give up," he said. "Because life's too short. Like, I love dark chocolate. But I eat it in moderation."
Well. During a 30-minute conversation, John Basedow sounded like a decent sort, earnest, soft-spoken, self-effacing.
He's a relative newcomer to the fitness game, too. A communications major in college, he lived with his parents as recently as three years ago and worked nights as on-air talent and producer for a cable TV show on health-related topics. It was a time in his life he calls "the White Castle days."
"There wasn't a night I didn't stop by White Castle for a 10-pack," of its little hamburgers, he said.
Big Macs with special sauce, chocolate cakes from Entenmann's, brownies from anywhere, he nailed a lot of those, too.
Still, even then he wasn't exactly a fat tub of goo.
"No, no one would say: 'Hey, look, there's a fat guy walking," he says. "But I had to [announce] I was working out. I had no [muscle] definition."
Then, two and a half years ago, he began "an amazing transformation," as they say in the fitness biz.
In eight weeks, Basedow says, he cut his body fat levels from 14 percent to 5 percent. He tightened up to a 31-inch waist and "even developed the tight six-pack of abs I'd always wanted but had never been able to see before."
He did this, he says, without killing himself in the gym, but by using selected muscle-building workouts and an easy-to-follow fat-burning nutrition plan.
Gone were the fast-food burgers and the other rot-gut foods, replaced with chicken breasts, vegetables, oatmeal, egg whites. He embarked on a diet of high protein, low to moderate carbohydrates, low to moderate fats.
When his girlfriend took him out to dinner a few months later and showed him a snapshot from the "White Castle days," he was floored. What a big, bloated fool I was, he thought.
These days, he says, he does a daily 30-minute cardio workout on the elliptical glider. As far as weight-training goes, he does an hour in the gym, four or five days a week.
OK, fine, I say as I listen to all this. But those abs of yours are inhuman. You could stop the 7:30 Amtrak with those babies. Isn't it unrealistic for others to think they can get those kinds of abs just by buying your video?
There is a sigh on the other end of the line, a weary sigh, the sigh of someone struggling to explain a concept that should be obvious.
"People come up to me and say that all the time. They say: 'You look amazing! I could never look like that!' But they're saying that so they have some solace when they fail.
"I didn't always look like that. I don't consider myself genetically gifted, either. The bottom line is, yes, people can certainly look like that."[Anyway] the point is not to look like me. The point is for you to have the best body you can have -- at any age."
With that, John Basedow said goodbye. He promised to send me his videos, which you can get only by mail-order. (Baltimore is his fifth-largest market, behind New York, L.A., Chicago and Philadelphia.)
The videos arrived yesterday: "Awesome Hour - Upper Body Home Workout," "Fitness Made Simple - Unlock Your Potential" and "Six Pack Abs."
I haven't seen my abs since I was 6.
But I didn't have the heart to tell him that.