Sunday, September 17, 2017

People Watching at the State Fair


I attended the state fair not long ago, and my fellow fair-goers opened my eyes. It's a self-selecting group, those who attend the fair. Minorities are vastly underrepresented, as are people from big cities. The small-town and rural poor were there in force.

And they were fat. As someone who went on her first diet at age twelve (what would I give to weigh 121 again?) and has struggled with her weight all her adult life, I empathize. Knowing what you ought to eat and how much doesn't come built-in, and not everyone knows what a reasonable portion size looks like. Eating healthy foods can be hard do to if you don't grow them, can them, or shop where they're always available--if you can afford them.

Still, I saw teenage boys who had no necks or ankles, whose shoes were not tied because that would cut into their fat legs and blobby feet, who wore gigantic T-shirts with the shoulder seams nearly at their elbows in order to encompass their girth. I saw their sisters, usually somewhat thinner, sporting a thick roll of flesh sticking out four or five inches between the waistbands of their skinny jeans and bras that did not fit.

I saw their parents everywhere. Men with bellies the size of expedition backpacks which sat on their laps when they seated themselves. Women whose breasts rested on bellies which reached their knees. Some were ambulatory, although their discomfort was evident. Many used canes. Quite a few had rented scooters at the fair for $55 a day.

More than once, obese people on scooters lined up to purchase food that was overtly bad for them--deep fried Oreos; fried mushrooms, zucchini, or pickles; french fries; fried blooming onion.

My own search for a healthy snack or meal was fruitless. The best I could identify was half a chicken, skin on, served with a white-bread roll and butter plus salt potatoes swimming in butter-flavored oil.

I don't quite believe many of those people who were so heavy it impeded their ability to enjoy the fair indulge in a fried-food fest only once a year. Food that's bad for us is cheap, readily available, and sometimes tasty. The size of so very many suggests making terrible choices about what to eat and how much is the norm for a significant portion of the people of this state.

This is their right. I do not intend to shame them. But my eyes are open. We are not a state of people who are big, or heavy, or carrying some extra weight. We are a state of people who are so fat our lives are limited both in terms of activities we can do and how long those lives are.

What are we going to do about it? For starters, I'd like to see the state fair have a great many selections of foods that are genuinely healthy choices. I'd like to see grocers and growers in the state present displays on preparing healthy meals. I'd like to see vendors selling apples, frozen bananas on a stick, fruit salad cups, and smoothies with little additional sugar. I'd like to see a broad selection of healthy foods vying for fair-goers' attention alongside the everything-fried offerings. And most of all, I'd like to see more people making food decisions which will serve them well during a long and healthy life.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It Broadens the Mind

In the last few years, I've traveled more than in all the preceding years combined. As promised, travel has been eye-opening in ways I had not expected. Here are some of my observations.

Everywhere you go, if you smile at someone the chances are very good they'll smile back. This seems especially true of women smiling at women or their children. Yeah, I know you're supposed to avoid eye contact in big cities, as a way of giving one another privacy and avoiding the crazies, but sometimes I smile anyway. Sue me.

Just like in the movie "10," people in The Bahamas really will cornrow and bead the hair of white women, and cheap. But they don't really want patrons with hair well past the waist. Not that it would have looked good anyway.

The soldiers patrolling the area around the Eiffel Tower with automatic weapons and grim expressions look about seventeen years old.

The poor in other countries make the American poor look well-to-do. Many live in shacks they built out of whatever was at hand, without running water or electricity or even a locking door. No need; there's nothing inside but sleeping mats made of old newspapers.

American tourists who are polite, wait their turn, don't talk too loud, and don't delay or get in the way of others with their picture taking are not disliked anywhere I've been. People who are rude, don't wait their turn, are loud, and inconvenience others are disliked whether they're Americans or not.

Young men wearing suits for work have a certain panache--if the suit is cut well and fits. A good suit can elevate an ordinary looking guy with a not-great body into something special. Suit up, guys!

People in England, both the locals and tourists from all over the world, all wear American brands of athletic shoes. It's quite unusual to see a brand that's not familiar.

The movie stereotypes about surfers are true. Their deeply tanned skins look more like hides when they're only in their 30s, and the way they talk sounds silly to an outsider's ear--which is probably the intent. Amazingly graceful, though, and some determination and grit is required for minimal proficiency.

A man in Bermuda does not look foolish in a suit with shorts and high socks. He looks adorable. Especially if he's over forty.

A thirty-something woman whose cell phone features a pink cover with rhinestones is going to keep talking loudly in a quiet public place despite the looks everyone is giving her. Corollary: During her conversation she will say things that reveal she's stupid poorly educated.

You can't go wrong with visiting a museum wherever you travel. Major cities have world-class collections, the original items pictured in history and art books. Even the small, quirky museums can be quite wonderful if you let them.

It rains nearly everywhere, yet an astonishing number of tourists apparently do not pack rain gear or an umbrella. The mark-up on umbrellas in tourist destinations when it's pouring is worse than on wine in restaurants.

Teenagers and young adults from all over the world really do walk around with their cell phones in front of their faces rather than noting their amazing surroundings, whether a vibrant city or a volcano.

Tom Wolfe's "social x-ray" women in New York City are the real deal. As a group, Manhattan has the thinnest women I've ever seen--and many clothing stores there don't even carry anything over a size 10 or 12. How dare a healthy-weight size 16 enter their shop? She really ought to try anorexia.

In Hawaii, the native culture is far more accepting of trans individuals than any other I've observed. I saw quite a few and the only shocked people were the tourists.

Black leggings are made for women of every shape and size, but they certainly don't flatter women of every shape and size. Yet they are the urban uniform in sophisticated cities.

In the UK, there are a whole lot of blond and redheaded people with many of the less desirable traits, like multitudes of freckles, invisible eyebrows and lashes, and very pink faces.

If you personalize your transactions with people whose job it is to ring up your purchase, serve you food or drink, clean up after you, transport you, etc. whether it's a restaurant, a store, a cruise ship, a bar, a taxi, or a tour, you will get better service and usually a smile. Everybody likes to be recognized as a person. Duh.

Any restaurant at which all the visible male employees wear their hair in a man bun will be overpriced for what you get. Hip doesn't taste all that good.

In London, during theatre intermission they bring individual ice cream cartons into the theatre for sale to patrons. They stand at the front of each aisle, near the stage, and block no one. It's overpriced and usually sells out. Pay attention, Broadway!

It's hard to think of a place you cannot go wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It's easy to think of places you shouldn't go dressed like that--cathedrals, weddings, funerals, live theatre--but nobody will stop you at the door. When you travel outside the US, being inappropriately underdressed gives people the wrong idea, not just about you but all Americans.

There's a definite Hugh Grant type in London, men over forty with good suits and tousled hair.

Blue and bright navy suits for men are okay with tan or golden brown shoes rather than the black that was once the only acceptable color. I'm not sure when this happened, but it did, in big cities at least.

Even if you're all speaking the same language, you can't necessarily understand everybody. Accents of real people are a lot more pronounced than accents on TV or in movies.

People in large cities tend to dress far more warmly than the temperature demands. You see wool coats, bulky knit scarves, and high boots, sometimes hats and gloves, when it's in the upper 50s and low 60s. My guess is they're prepared to be outdoors, walking or waiting for public transportation, way longer than people who drive to their destinations--but it still looks odd to me, out there in a thin sweater and perfectly comfortable.

The UK has a lot of people with cheeks so rosy they look like they've been slapped.

When a woman smiles at a woman of cover, she smiles back. You can see her eyes creasing at the corners if her cover leaves nothing else exposed. I make a point of smiling at them.

I never see a nun in habit in the US, but they're elsewhere.

Restaurants that have crystal, linen tablecloths, and some female servers tend to be better than their all-male counterparts. And I've never had a female server who seemed snooty and superior, which is not the case with their male counterparts.

I have enough T-shirts to last a lifetime. Why don't shops in tourist areas carry something unique to the area that's pretty or useful, in as wide a variety as the T-shirts? No matter where I visit, the tourist shops are 85% T-shirts, and many are not area-specific. ("Ask Your Doctor if BEER is Right for You!") Sell me books about or set in the area. Sell me maps pretty enough to frame. Sell me DVDs of movies with area connections. Sell me prints or comic books by local artists. Sell me the work of local artisans.

The portion sizes in restaurants outside the US are substantially smaller, and they don't automatically bring bread to the table. They tend to have no reduced-sugar or low-fat options (although they can accommodate gluten-free and vegan diners), and you leave feeling sated on far less food.

Hawaiians accept that fat people can be attractive far more than other Americans do. Many of the native people there are thirty or more pounds heavier than is healthy, yet they exude confidence in their appearance.

European restaurants don't offer much that's low-fat or reduced sugar, although they have selections for vegetarians, vegans, and those who don't eat gluten. Although the portions are smaller, with sufficient fat and sugar, you get enough--and I suspect it's fewer calories than the American way.

I don't like to stereotype, but I shall. In London, Paris, and New York, many men from the Middle East demand the center of a sidewalk, the path through a busy restaurant, or doorway, expecting women to cede their own space to allow them to pass. (They make way for other men.) This pisses me off, and I sometimes refuse to give way, allowing shoulder collisions, then glaring at them with my nice western blue eyes.

Housekeepers in hotels work hard for lousy wages. If you tip them daily, most will do what they can to please you--leaving you more coffee of the kind you used, extra towels, spare travel soaps or lotions, like that. If you can afford an urban hotel room, you can afford to tip.

When seasoned travelers tell you everyone in Paris speaks some English and you'll be fine without French, they're mistaken. Many people working in businesses whose patrons are nearly all tourists (museums, hotels, nearby restaurants, etc.) speak no English at all. We were often surprised by what we'd ordered at dinner.

Shoes you can walk in matter more than shoes that look good. Girls and women would serve their traveling selves well to own a pair of attractive, comfortable flats other than athletic shoes.




Monday, December 19, 2016

Be Careful What You Wish For

When my sister-in-law called to tell me my big brother had died, I was--well, surprised isn't a strong enough word. Thunderstruck, maybe. He was 68, but as far as I knew, he had no health problems other than arthritis, which was sometimes pretty bad but manageable. She didn't offer a cause of death and I felt like I couldn't ask. She'd just lost her husband of nearly five decades, and she had a lot more calls she wanted to make herself.

A few weeks after he died, I learned the sad and ugly details. Through careful planning and some good luck, my brother had been able to retire quite young, about fifteen years earlier than most. He and his wife had the financial security and the time to renovate their home, to travel, to exercise regularly, to seek live entertainment, and they did.

My brother, an engineer with a PhD and extensive management experience, volunteered at the California Railroad Museum, the Computer History Museum, and the Society of Industrial Archaeology. He treated them like jobs until they either phased him out or he burned out, losing his original enthusiasm. Sometimes he grew bitter at the direction in which the enterprise was going and thought he'd have run it better. Maybe he was right, maybe not.

He had little sense of purpose and knew he was depressed but refused to tell his doctor. No mental health professional need apply, either. He self-medicated with alcohol, usually an unassuming California wine from a winery he'd visited. On the infrequent occasions my sister or I spent time with him, it was usually brief and over a restaurant meal, where all of us enjoyed our wine. He'd get a little tipsy, but so did I, and since neither of us was driving, where's the harm in a little family celebration? It was so good to see him.

His arthritis worsened and he couldn't take the prescription-level pain medication and drink, too. He opted for the physical pain and being able to drink for the depression. His alcohol purchases were now by the case and with increasing frequency. He developed peripheral neuropathy, possibly due to alcohol abuse, which had two negative consequences, a loss of balance making even the mildest exercise unsafe, and memory loss issues. He was aware of both and the latter infuriated and further depressed him.

That meant heavier drinking. Still, he was able to stop drinking through an in-hospital rehabilitation program in order to be healthy enough for surgery to remove a kidney tumor. The operation was a success. Post-op treatment was a course of drugs that did not mix with alcohol, so he was sober for about three months. As soon as the doctor said he could safely stop the medication, he returned to drinking.

There was another crisis, a fall at home, another hospitalization and rehab, this time revealing a seriously inflamed liver. He entered an outpatient dependency recovery program, but on the trip home from his third session, he bought a case of wine. He did not return.

I can only imagine the pleas, the arguments, the utter frustration of his wife, his adult daughter and her husband, all to no avail. What they said and how he reacted are none of my business, but it had to be maddening that this smart guy would choose alcohol, which made him less unhappy, over treatment for depression and people he loved and who loved him.

My guess is that like a lot of men of my generation, needing help was a sign of weakness, of not being man enough. It's the thinking behind many men's refusal to see the doctor for obvious symptoms, and it's worse for mental health issues. Manly men suck it up, tough it out, play through the pain.

It worsened the loss for me to understand he'd deliberately chosen to hide all this from me and my sister, pretending during phone calls that he was happy, busy, and everything was fine. Only his immediate and local family knew how deeply he'd entered the downward spiral.

In a fairly short period of time, his wife explained, he was sleeping way too much and drinking while awake, often watching TV without changing the channel, or just staring off into space. When his wife noticed jaundice and edema, she called 911. The hospital treated his acute alcoholic hepatitis in multiple ways, with no improvement. He went from there to the hospice, where he died.

So is there a lesson here, besides "Don't drink too much"? Yup. Whether we admit it to ourselves or don't, all of us need to feel valuable or needed. For some people, a loving relationship or a circle of friends is sufficient. Others invest themselves in a hobby or interest which keeps them busy, happy, and often benefits someone else. But for my brother and those like him, it's the challenges we face at work, no matter what we do for a living, that give us purpose, and to a degree the paycheck that proves we are valuable, even if we don't need the money.

When my brother retired early, to the envy of family and colleagues, he effectively cut himself off from the feeling of accomplishment that comes with working for a living, the camaraderie and sometimes admiration of colleagues who came together to meet the goal, the knowledge that he was an integral part of a process. His sense of self-worth took a hard hit, and whatever level of depression he might have suffered as an adult increased to a level which was no longer manageable without help.

Like too many men (and not a few women) his age, he refused to seek treatment until his problems were so serious health professionals recognized he was well along the path that led to his death. Like every addict, he wanted what made the depression better more than he wanted anything else, including the love and respect of his family, his health, or a future in which his young grandchildren would even remember their grandpa.

There's the lesson. You may not like working, but be careful what you wish for.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Death Comes to the Archbishop--and Everybody Else

My brother died this week.

We weren't terribly close, as children or adults. We saw one another infrequently and phoned irregularly, although when we were together we had a lot in common. I didn't just love him; I also liked him.

While it's sad in and of itself, my sorrow is compounded by the realization that the people I care about who are near my age do not still have plenty of time left. Our earnest efforts to eat healthy, take our medications as ordered, get some exercise, keep our minds active, the endless denial of our slothful candy-crunching, steak-chewing urges doesn't stave off death for long.

I suppose in a way my brother was luckier than most. He was born to a white couple who valued education. They were able to live where it was safe, where the schools were good, where everyone seemed to have everything they needed and much of what they wanted.

Because he was both driven and smart as well as lucky, my brother was able to get a good education, marry a fine woman much like himself, have a series of good jobs that paid well, buy a nice home in Silicon Valley before it got so crazy-expensive, have a child, pay for her education, see her enter the Peace Corps, meet a good man, marry, and have children of her own.

This is so very much more than many people get, yet it seems unfair. He was 68. He took care of himself. And he's gone.

All of us accept on some level that we'll lose our parents. They're old. Then one day, you lose a brother. You realize that it could have been your long-time friend. Your sister. Your spouse. Yourself.

And with the new understanding of how great loss can be, you realize how deeply each of those losses will slice. Your tears aren't just for the brother who's gone, the sister-in-law who is alone now, the daughter who's lost her dad, the grandchildren who won't even remember Grandpa, but for your own connections who will one day feel this way when you yourself are gone. This is going to isolate my husband, devastate my daughters...

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Celebrities, Politics, and Fat Shaming

I went on my first diet in sixth grade, using the Seventeen magazine's diet book, where I dutifully recorded my height, weight, measurements, and everything I ate for a period of literally days. I was not especially fat, I realized many years later; I had physically matured into a classic hourglass shape. Tipping the scales at 121 pounds was just fine.

It didn't seem fine at the time, not when the popular girls were slender waifs fretting over how fat they were at 102.

That was long ago, of course, but I have battled my notion of being Fatty McFatpants ever since. There have been periods when the adult me was nearly as slender as the sixth-grader, and there have been times of pregnancy and personal crisis when I approached twice that size. Most of my life, when I lose weight has been the carrot on the end of a rigged stick. I'm overweight but healthy, reasonably active, and if I don't care for the way I look in a bathing suit, show me anybody my age who does.

So I was surprised at the sting of a recent Twitter comment I saw from a celebrity of my vintage. I'd been a low-key fangirl since he was 21, playing teenagers on TV, and I was a college sophomore of 18 with a good eye for pretty boy-men. (Since I prefer not to direct any backlash at him, I'll just call him Alan, which isn't his name.)

Ordinarily I like Alan's tweets. He's politically aligned with my opinions, doesn't self-promote all that much, and has a lot of flashback tweets to his career. I imagine I might like Alan if he was just a guy rather than a celebrity.

Or not, since Alan noted that it was not possible to vote for anyone who wasn't a fat head--and body, too.

Oh, Alan! Are you so stupid and shallow to think appearance matters? I mean, you and I were both kids when Kennedy was elected, but I already knew the mother of a friend who voted for him because he was handsome was an idiot. You don't elect people to lead your nation because they meet Hollywood's standards.

And are you so mean-spirited that you think it's okay to mock people for their weight? I know in your line of work, that's the kiss of death to a career, whether you're Val Kilmer or Marlon Brando. But politics has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with mind and character. And I'm sorry to see that yours isn't up to my standards.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Two Families

We went to an air show, and while I enjoyed it, the people-watching very nearly eclipsed the Blue Angels. (Sorry, guys.)

In front of us was an extended family group, two parents, two small children, and two grandparents. They spoke Spanish, so I understood only a word here and there. But one didn't need to comprehend to see how they worked as a unit to make the experience good for everyone, including little children. They'd brought water and hats, snacks, chairs and a blanket spread out to play on, and toys from home including planes. They purchased souvenir toys (although why an inflatable hammer larger than the child is sold at an air show, I can't guess) and snacks the group shared. Most of all, the children had frequent adult attention keeping them happy and engaged while some of the adults went off and did their own thing, like checking out the helicopter or viewing the show from a different vantage point. The little ones played until the planes were about to fly by, then one of the four adults directed their focus to the reason they were there. The whole family seemed to enjoy the air show, and the pride in Dad and Grandpa was a pleasure to see; it was obvious they'd served.

To the left was another extended family group of two parents, five children under six, and two grandparents. While the men strolled off, bought beer, and made the experience good for themselves, no one did the same for the children listless in the heat. There were not enough chairs for everyone to sit, and when the baby slept in her carrier and a sibling dared to sit in the stroller, there was scolding and threatened swats. The family may have eaten before we arrived, but there were no snacks and no water for the kids, although the adults had beer. No one had brought toys or pastimes; the older children kept busy playing in the dirt with a bottle cap and a stick which had missed the nearby trash can. No one attempted to engage them in the air show or anything else. The boy was threatened with physical violence twice, and it was obvious that he recognized the risk of a beating as genuine.

At one point, Grandma mentioned she was 36, which suggests two generations of women having a child at 15. I'm sure that's not easy, but I didn't see anything suggesting the parents or grandparents were doing everything they could to make these children feel valued or happy to see the planes. The kids were young, but the older three had good mastery of being half-invisible, shoulders hunched, heads bowed.

We were not perfect parents--who is?--but I wanted to grab those adults and force upon them a crash course in parenting. I can't get the hopeless eyes of those kids out of my thoughts. It's way too easy to imagine all four girls seeking attention and approval from others any way they can get it, thereby repeating the cycle of early parenthood, while their abused brother eases his misery with drugs or alcohol. I'd really like to be wrong on that, but I don't think I am.

And what does this have to do with writing? I'm getting there. The bottom line is that good writing isn't going to do itself, any more than those neglected kids are going to raise themselves to be fine adults. Like those parents to my left, the writer faces many, many days when other things are more important, when writing is too damned hard, when you want to have some fun for once like everybody else, when it seems pointless to try, when you're so exhausted or despondent the energy to do your very best just isn't there.

The result won't be as tragic as those kids' futures, but the point is, you have to try, hard and consistently, to have a genuine shot at success. Be the family in front of me at the air show.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Wig and a Shoe

Ah, Buffalo, the butt of dying-city and blue collar jokes! While it does have its problems, much of it isn't a bad place to spend an afternoon. Passing through or going there as a destination, I've enjoyed Buffalo's zoo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Erie County Botanical Gardens, and sports and rock concerts at the First Niagara Center and Shea's Theater.

So I didn't hesitate to visit the Convention Center recently. The immediate area was parked up, although I couldn't say if it was because of the event we were attending or just the usual parking of people working in the area. We had to walk a half dozen blocks through a neighborhood short of seedy but not especially appealing. It was broad daylight, with nothing to fear.

But the night before, it had been cold and dark and someone had plenty to fear: in the gutter I saw a dark wig with long curls and a high-heeled shoe with its size visible inside the heel, a 12.

There's a story in that debris, and I fear I know what it is. Who wears a wig and a mighty large shoe? Trans women. I watched the news for reports of an assault, but there was nothing. That saddened me further. If a trans woman was walking along minding her own business and was assaulted, or a trans prostitute attacked by either her competition or a (potential) customer, wouldn't that have been on the news?

No. The trans community in Buffalo may have learned the ugly truth of so many cities: trans women need not apply for equal protection under the law. Especially trans women of color.

It made me sad, not just for the person it happened to, but for all the women who are attacked and feel there's nothing to be gained by calling the police.