'The Urban Hermit'

In the mid-’90s, while enrolled at the Connecticut university, Sam MacDonald was a one-man Animal House.

"Party school" is probably not a term most people associate with Yale University (tweed party, maybe, but not keg party). But in the mid-’90s, while enrolled at the Connecticut university, Sam MacDonald was a one-man Animal House, seemingly on a mission to help Yale break onto the annual “biggest party school” list.

Though he was unsuccessful, his high jinks did not go unnoticed. At graduation, the master of his residential college suggested that perhaps MacDonald could trade in his diploma for a six-pack. This was Sam MacDonald’s legacy, and he had earned it.

The problem was he carried this party mentality with him from college to the “real” world. And a few years after graduation, MacDonald’s lifestyle had manifested itself physically—his waistline had ballooned from 32 inches to 44—and he had basically drunk himself into debt. He was on the fast track to becoming a professional barfly, and he might have been seen as a big fat broke loser.

OK, so I’m inferring the part about being a loser, but in his memoir, The Urban Hermit, MacDonald does not paint himself in the best of lights. He was, by his own admission, a “booze-soaked idiot who loved drinking and spending money.”
But how did he let his life get so out of control? He was not from a broken home. He was not so stupid as to be duped by crafty advertisers into eating too many McRib sandwiches. He was in good shape when he entered college, and he was a Yale graduate, for crying out loud. He should know better. And yet, by his own doing, he was fat and broke.
The key word here, though, is “was.” Past tense. And it is this transformation—from fat to thin, from broke to free of debt—that is the focus of The Urban Hermit.

Around the turn of the new millennium, MacDonald realized he needed to do something. This was a self-inflicted quagmire, one he was determined to fix himself. He needed to do something drastic, and he needed to do it quickly.
Thus was born the “Urban Hermit Financial Emergency Rotgut Poverty Plan.” The plan: live on a budget of $8 a week and 800 calories a day for an entire month. That’s right. No more fun. No more expensive nights out at the bar. And most important, no more food—at least none of any substance or variety. The menu would be nonnegotiable: two hard-boiled eggs for breakfast; one serving of lentils for lunch; and a tuna sandwich, boiled cabbage and another serving of lentils for dinner. MacDonald would have to survive on his body’s deep reservoirs of fat and tenacity—and failure was not an option.
As MacDonald is quick to point out, this plan is not for, well, anyone, really. The book’s cover is adorned with a disclaimer, and the epilogue is titled “Don’t Try This at Home.” This is not a Hollywood diet. Demi Moore and Cameron Diaz will not be pitching the Urban Hermit diet in Us Weekly. The contestants on the “The Biggest Loser” will not be urged to partake in this weight-loss experiment. This is not a get-rich scheme. There will be no late-night infomercials preaching the wonders of this plan. This is a desperate plan created by a desperate man trying to escape a desperate situation.

This is a book full of wit, candor and self-deprecation. This is the opposite of the fast-food-filled documentary Super Size Me—it’s an experiment in temperance instead of indulgence. This is a book that, whether intentionally or not, illuminates the repercussions of our culture of mass consumption and economic decline. This is a book full of drama, adventure and redemption. This is a book about a man waging a year-long battle against hunger pains, faulty transmissions and an adult-video store; a man working for libertarians; a political journalist traveling to post-civil-war Bosnia and to a drug-addled hippie festival in Montana; and a man emerging on the other side anew—a man with a job (teaching creative nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh), a wife and minus 160 pounds.

This is a book about one man, bettering his life one belt notch at a time.

The Urban Hermit by Sam MacDonald; St. Martin’s Press; $24.95 (Hardcover).

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