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The Half Pound
Piece of Toast
an excerpt from:
The Imaginary Girlfriend: A Memoir

by John Irving

My time at the academy was marked by two important transitions in Exeter wrestling under Coach Seabrooke. First, the wrestling room was moved from the basement of the old gymnasium to the upper reaches of the indoor track, which was called “the cage.” The new room, high in the rafters, was exceedingly warm; from the hard-packed dirt of the track below us, and from the wooden track that circumscribed the upper level, came the steady pounding of the runners. Once our wrestling practice was underway, we wrestlers never heard the runners. The wrestling room was closed off from the wooden track by a heavy sliding door. Before and after practice, the door was open; during practice, the door was closed.

The other wrestling-related change that marked my time at Exeter was the mats themselves. I began wrestling on horsehair mats, which were covered with a filmy, flexible plastic; as a preventive measure against mat burns, this plastic sheeting was modestly effective, but—like the sheet on a bed—it loosened with activity. The loose folds were a cause of ankle injuries; also, the shock-absorbing abilities of those old horsehair mats were nonexistent in comparison to the comfort of the new mats that arrived at Exeter in time to be installed in the new wrestling room.

The new mats were smooth on the surface, with no cover. When the mats were warm, you could drop an egg from knee height and the egg wouldn’t break. (Whenever someone tried this and the egg broke, we said that the mat wasn’t warm enough.) On a cold gym floor, the texture of the mat would radically change. Later, I kept a wrestling mat in my unheated Vermont barn; in midwinter the mat was as hard as a floor.

Most of our dual-meet matches were also held in the cage, but not in the wrestling room where we practiced. An L-shaped wooden parapet extended like an arm off the wooden track. From this advantage—and from a loop of the wooden track itself—as many as 200 or 300 spectators could look down upon a less-than-regulation-size basketball court, where we rolled out the mats. There was barely enough floor space left over for a dozen or more rows of bleacher seats; most of our fans were above us, on the wooden track and parapet. It was like wrestling at the bottom of a teacup; the surrounding crowd peered over the rim of the cup.

Where we wrestled was appropriately called “the pit.” The smell of dirt from the nearby track was strangely remindful of summer, although wrestling is a winter sport. What with the constant opening of the outside door, the pit was never a warm place; the mats, which were so warm and soft in the wrestling room, were cold and hard for the competition. And, when our wrestling meets coincided with track meets in the cage, the sound of the starting gun reverberated in the pit. I always wondered what the visiting wrestlers thought of the gunfire.
My first match in the pit was a learning experience. First-year wrestlers, or even second-year wrestlers, are not often starters on prep-school or high-school wrestling teams of any competitive quality. In New Hampshire, in the 1950s, wrestling—unlike baseball or basketball or hockey or skiing—was not something every kid grew up doing. There are certain illogical things to learn about any sport; wrestling, especially, does not come naturally. A double-leg takedown is not like a head-on tackle in football. Wrestling is not about knocking a man down—it’s about controlling him. To take a man down by his legs, you have to do more than knock his legs out from under him: you have to get your hips under your opponent, so that you can lift him off the mat before you put him down—this is only one example. Suffice it to say that a first-year wrestler is at a considerable disadvantage when wrestling anyone with experience—regardless of how physically strong or well-conditioned the first-year wrestler is.

I forget the exact combination of illness or injury or deaths-in-a-family (or all three) that led to my first match in the pit; as a first-year wrestler, I was quite content to practice wrestling with other first-year or second-year wrestlers. There was a “ladder” posted in the wrestling room, by weight class; in my first year, I would have been as low as fourth or fifth on the ladder at 133 pounds. But the varsity man was sick or hurt, and the junior-varsity man failed to make weight—and possibly the boy who was next-in-line had gone home for the weekend because his parents were divorcing. Who knows? For whatever reason, I was the best available body in the 133-pound class.

I was informed of this unwelcome news in the dining hall where I worked as a waiter at a faculty table; fortunately, I had not yet eaten my breakfast—I would have had to vomit it up. As it was, I was four pounds over the weight class and I ran for almost an hour on the wooden track of the indoor cage; I ran in a ski parka and other winter clothing. Then I skipped rope in the wrestling room for half an hour, wearing a rubber suit with a hooded sweatshirt over it. I was an eighth of a pound under 133 at the weigh-ins, where I had my first look at my opponent—Vincent Buonomano, a defending New England Champion from Mount Pleasant High School in Providence, Rhode Island.

Had we forfeited the weight class, we could not have done worse: a forfeit counts the same as a pin—six points. It was Coach Seabrooke’s hope that I wouldn’t be pinned. In those days, a loss by decision was only a three-point loss for the team, regardless of how lopsided the score of the individual match. My goal, in other words, was to take a beating and lose the team only three points instead of six.

For the first 15 or 20 seconds, this goal seemed feasible; then I was taken down, to my back, and I spent the remainder of the period in a neck bridge—I had a strong neck. The choice was mine in the second period: on Coach Seabrooke’s advice, I chose the top position. (Ted knew that I was barely surviving on the bottom.) But Buonomano reversed me immediately, and so I spent the better part of the second period fighting off my back, too. My only points were for escapes—unearned, because Buonomano let me go; he was guessing it might be easier to pin me directly following a takedown. One such takedown dropped me on my nose—both my hands were trapped, so that I couldn’t break my fall. (It’s true what they say about “seeing stars.”)

When they stop a wrestling match to stop bleeding, there’s no clock counting the injury time; this is because you can’t fake bleeding. For other injuries, a wrestler is allowed no more than 90 seconds of injury time—accumulated in the course of the match. In this case, they weren’t timing my nose bleed; when the trainer finished stuffing enough cotton up my nostrils to stanch the flow of blood, my dizziness had abated and I looked at the time remaining on the match clock—only 15 seconds! I had every confidence that I could stay off my back for another 15 seconds, and I told Ted Seabrooke so.

“It’s only the second period,” Seabrooke said.

I survived the 15 seconds but was pinned about midway into the third period—“With less than a minute to go,” my mother lamentably told me.

The worst thing about being pinned in the pit was the lasting image of all those faces peering down at you. When you were winning, the fans were loud; when you were on your back, they were quiet, and their expressions were strangely incurious—as if they were already distancing themselves from your defeat.
I was never pinned in the pit again; the only other loss I remember there was by injury default—I broke my hand. When the trainer offered me the slop bucket—I needed to spit—I saw the orange rinds and a bloody towel in the bottom of the bucket, and I promptly fainted. Aside from that misfortune, and my first-ever match—with Mount Pleasant’s Vincent Buonomano—I associated the pit with winning; my best matches were there. It was in the pit that I wrestled New England Champion Anthony Pieranunzi of East Providence High School to a 1-1 draw. I was not so lucky with Pieranunzi in the New England Championship tournament, where he beat me two years in a row; despite two undefeated dual-meet seasons, I never won a New England title.

My years at Exeter were the final years when the winner of the New England tournament won a truly All-New England title; 1961 was the last year that high schools and prep schools competed together in a year-end tournament—I was captain of the Exeter team that year. After that, there were separate private-school and public-school tournaments—a pity, I think, since high-school and prep-school wrestlers have much to learn from each other. But, by ‘61, the New England Interscholastic tournament, as it used to be called, had already grown too large.

I remember my last bus ride with the Exeter team, to East Providence—to the home mats of my nemesis, Anthony Pieranunzi. We’d checked our weight on the scales in the academy gym at about 5:00 in the morning; we were all under our respective weight classes—in some cases, barely. The bus left Exeter in darkness, which near Boston gave way to a dense winter fog; the snow, the sky, the trees, the road—all were shades of gray.
Our 121-pounder, Larry Palmer, was worried about his weight. He’d been only a quarter of a pound under at Exeter—the official weigh-ins were at East Providence. What if the scales were different? (They weren’t supposed to be.) I’d been a half-pound under my 133-pound class; my mouth was dry, but I didn’t dare drink any water—I was spitting in a paper cup. Larry was spitting in a cup, too. “Just don’t eat,” Coach Seabrooke told us. “Don’t eat and don’t drink—you’re not going to gain weight on the bus.”

Somewhere south of Boston, we stopped at a Howard Johnson’s; this is what Larry Palmer remembers—- I don’t remember the Howard Johnson’s because I didn’t get off the bus. A few of our wrestlers were safely enough under their weight classes so that they could risk eating something; most of them at least got off the bus—to pee. I’d had nothing to eat or drink for about 36 hours; I knew I didn’t dare to eat or drink anything—I knew I couldn’t pee. Larry Palmer remembers eating “that fatal piece of toast.”

Just the other day, we were remembering it together. “It was plain toast,” Larry said. “No butter, no jam—I didn’t even finish it.”

“And nothing to drink?” I asked him. “Not a drop,” Larry said.

(Lately, we’re in the habit of getting together at least once a year. Larry Palmer is Professor of Law at Cornell Law School; one of his kids has just started wrestling.)

On the scales at East Providence, Palmer was a quarter-pound over 121. He’d been a sure bet to get as far as the semifinals, and maybe farther; his disqualification cost us valuable team points—as did my loss to East Providence’s Pieranunzi, who was tougher at home than he was in the pit. In two years, Pieranunzi and I had wrestled four matches. I beat him once, we tied once, he beat me twice—both times in the tournament, where it counted most. All our matches were close, but that last time (in East Providence) Pieranunzi pinned me. Thus, the two times I was pinned at Exeter—my first match and my last—I was pinned by a New England Champion from Rhode Island. (Exeter failed to defend its New England team title in ‘61—our ‘60 team was arguably the best in Exeter history.)

Larry Palmer was stunned. He couldn’t have eaten a half-pound piece of toast!

Coach Seabrooke was, as always, philosophic. “Don’t blame yourself—you’re probably just growing,” Ted told him. Indeed, this proved to be the case. Larry Palmer was the Exeter team captain the following year, 1962, when he won the New England Class A title at 147 pounds. More significant than his 26-pound jump from his former 121-pound class, Palmer had also grown six inches. It’s clear to me now that Larry Palmer’s famous piece of toast at Howard Johnson’s didn’t weigh half a pound. Larry’s growth spurt doubtless began on the bus. We were so sorry for him when he didn’t make weight that none of us looked closely enough at him; in addition to gaining a half-pound, Larry was probably two inches taller by the time he got to East Providence—we might have seen the difference, had we looked.


Levi and John

Dear Readers, I rarely take breaks in my workday but when I do, I spend them with my office dog, Levi. The photo here was taken shortly after my assistant, Levi’s owner, told me I’ve written more than 85,000 words in the third (and final) act of my novel-in-progress. That brings the word count in Darkness as a Bride to 221,264 words thus far. The manuscript has already surpassed my most recent novels, In One Person (~170,448 words) and Avenue of Mysteries (~182,713 words), in length. Levi and I weren’t celebrating — I still have four or five more chapters to write. I’ve had dogs my whole life, but I find it difficult now that I live and work in an apartment building, in the middle of a busy city. (As I said, I rarely take breaks during the day.) It’s a treat to have an office dog. Levi is a rescue from Texas; he and I both became Canadian citizens last year. — John

This story by John Irving
and stories by other authors
previously published in the
Metaphysical Times can be found in
the Stories, Essays and Poems at:





Gluttony and Food Issues

(Guest editor) All You Need

• PETE WETHERBEE Introduction to and translation of: The Pardoner On Gluttony
by Geoffrey Chaucer

Possum Food

Desert Island Dining

The Half Pound Piece of Toast

The Life and Diet of Jim Worms

My Father the Clamcake

Blood on the Dining Room Floor

Little Round Things

Dull Ny Thinger

Eating With the Ancestors
– Curds and Whey



Where Food Goes

Helium Dogs


by Annie Campbell

I’d always had a sweet tooth, but about twenty-six years ago I suddenly developed absolutely insane cravings for desserts. I’d mix double batches of chocolate-chip cookie dough and eat half the batter raw. Then, I’d eat a bunch of mouth-singeing cookies minutes after taking them out of the oven. Harley was lucky if there were a few cookies left for him.

When I went grocery shopping in Wegmans, I’d fill a small bag with cookies and chocolates from the bulk food section, pay for my groceries and devour everything in the bag before I got home. Sometimes I managed to resist and didn’t buy any crap in Wegmans. But then, on the way home my cravings would overtake me and I’d stop at the little store where I usually bought gas. I’d buy myself horrible things like stale cookies, or cup cakes with gross icing on top and goopy-crap inside them, and eat all of it before I pulled into our driveway.

(go to story)

EatingWith the Ancestors

by Nancy Vieira Couto

            Those milk bottles, with a generous amount of cream at the top, reminded me of the milk of my childhood, but I should say right from the start that milk and I have always had a difficult relationship.  I remember that we had three kinds of milk in our tenement: chocolate milk, coffee milk, and plain milk.  Chocolate milk had some sort of cocoa powder stirred into it, while coffee milk was made with Silmo Coffee Syrup, a long-gone product that was once a staple in the New Bedford area.  Of the three, plain milk was the one I liked the least, although it was the simplest to prepare.  My mother would remove the orange cellophane from the top of the milk bottle, rinse the top of the cardboard cap, and give the bottle a vigorous shake.  Then she would remove the cap, pour some milk into a saucepan, and start warming it up.  Of course when my mother poured the warm plain milk over my breakfast Cheerioats, they immediately turned to mush. Truth is, I didn't like Cheerioats much either, and changing the name to Cheerios didn't make them any less mushy.  I didn't know then, and didn't learn until I was in college, that other people enjoyed their cereal with cold milk.

(go to rest of the story)


Where Food Goes
by David S. Warren

So we bought a fruit crusher and new, larger press to use on our pears when they ripened last summer: a mixture of sweet and tart, mostly Asian pears. Some of the cider was consumed when still fresh and sweet, and most is now in the later stages of fermentation.

Meanwhile we had realized that a cider press is about the same thing as a cheese press. Being big cheese eaters,we ordered the basic tools, the coagulants and the fermentation cultures to make most any cheese.

Of course cheese making doesn’t always require a press, or need to be a lot more complicated than letting raw milk go sour. I heard on the radio that in prison, where improvisation is necessary, determined cheese-addicts use Real Lemon concentrated juice to coagulate non-dairy creamer. And there it is: easy cheesy.

We have now read so many recipes for cheese making that we are dazed and confused or maybe confused and dazed. The biggest cheesiest site on the internet has hundreds a recipes - new ones all the time, including some for mozzarella, one of which claims to be an easy thirty minute mozzarella, perfect for kids.

Don’t be fooled. The thirty minute mozzarella took a day and a half; we nearly scalded our hands in the process and never got the stuff to be stretchy as pizza dough, like it is supposed to be. So we don’t suggest you make it your first cheese.

You might want to begin with the prison cheese version, or better than that: try making the simple Portuguese kitchen cheese that Nancy Vieira Couto writes about in this issue of the magazine.

(read the beginning of this article)


Dull Ny Thinger

by Gabreal Orgrease

“Hey, sonny doy, dull ny thinger.”
 “Granpa, no.”
 “I’m not yer Granda ya little tord. Now dull ny thinger.”

 Aubergine Bawcutt, the talking eggplant, is the infamous Catskill ventriloquist Lorne Surlingham’s most famous dummy. Which is not saying a whole lot for dummies or back alley ventriloquists. A fat purple eggplant poked onto the top end of a broomstick, fastened with brass thumbtacks -- white eyes of radish slices with red peel rings, a petite carrot nose and a thin white-green slice for a mouth. The Chef’s Dummy they used to call her in the good old days on the underground circuit. A sort of Ubu Roi take-off in the vegetable and janitorial kingdom that never translated well to television but was a backstage hit at a thousand and twenty-three catered birthday parties.

 “Oh man, grandpa, do you really have to do that? It isn’t funny any more.”

(read this story in its entirety)



Possum Food

by Sue-Ryn Burns

One Saturday shortly after July 4th, when it was fairly quiet and we had released most of the first-litter squirrels and had most of the waterfowl in outside pens, the phone rang. In what can only be considered a moment of temporary insanity, I agreed to take 11 baby Opossums, rescued from a very busy roadside after their mother was killed by a car.
I was of course immediately charmed by the cute little babies. They look like they're wearing opera gloves and their tails are like a fifth hand. Their big pink scalloped ears have black stripes. They each had a widow's peak! They seem to be always in some kind of physical contact with each other – piled up to sleep, sitting on each other, holding paws, or keeping their tails entwined.

(read this entire story here)

by Don Brennan

Sharing food with family and friends, while appreciating life’s blessings, can be a form of mindfulness that allows us to receive more energy from our food.

While enjoying food with Reiki practitioners, it’s not unusual to see people holding their hands above their food to fill it with Reiki before they eat. Most people seem to have the right attitude that this is a blessing and an enhancement of the food. But it’s clear that some are worried that the food might have negative energy within it.

When we experience fear, worry or anger, we cannot practice mindfulness. These feelings disconnect us and take us out of the Now. We feel unloved and unsupported. “Be Grateful,” the third Reiki Principle taught by Usui Sensei, serves as advice to help us become centered. Being grateful means nourishing gratitude in your heart, for no specific reason. It means being grateful for the gift of existence. Gratitude brings you here, into the present moment. When you are present, you are connected with all of life, with all of creation. And all is well.
All is as it should be.
(read this entire article here)


Helium Dogs (go to)

(You may view the complete print version here)
(Click to Purchase as a print magazine


The focus of our next Metaphysical Times will be
"Significant Dreatures"

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