Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Biggest Loser: Exploitation or Enlightenment?

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then maybe feelings of pleasure are as well. One person’s enjoyment viewed with disdain by someone else. I can imagine it harking back to our earliest communities, a caveman sketching on rock walls being chastised by contemporaries who felt he should be hunting and gathering, laying a “guilt” trip on him for drawing stick figures when there was work to be done. Similar to how some people today might view musicians, poets, or, dare I say, writers, who wile away the hours “expressing” themselves for no apparent reason other than self-gratification. Driving them to practice their craft at night or in the wee hours of the morning while spending the rest of their waking hours working socially acceptable day jobs. Perhaps that ostracized caveman artist was the first individual to engage in what we now call a “guilty pleasure.”

Of course “guilt” is in the eye of the beholder as much as beauty. Sexual mores, for example, have evolved to the point where we openly discuss activities on afternoon TV that would make our grandmothers blush (OK, maybe great-grandmothers.) As for beauty, what we now term “plus-sized” women were the epitome of desire centuries past and the subject of innumerable paintings. Even today in certain cultures, what we would consider an overweight woman is viewed in a positive manner, being fat a symbol of sexual maturity, wealth, strength and wisdom.  Ditto for overweight men. Their girth a sign of financial success and the ability to provide.

In American culture not many positive attributes are applied to heavy people. There are exceptions, a few folk who are attracted to overweight partners. Some entertainers, like Queen Latifah, celebrate their size and encourage others to come to terms with their body type.  But for the most part the definition of beauty in this country is tied to being thin. You have far more celebrities, Marie Osmond, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Alexander and Dan Marino come to mind, touting weight loss programs as opposed to body image acceptance.

The irony of our quest to be thin is that we have never been fatter. For Americans over the age of 20,  34.4% are considered overweight and 33.9% obese. Overweight is defined as a body weight  1 to 20% more than medical guidelines, obese, 20% or greater. Thus, in America today, over 60% of people 20 or older are carrying too many pounds.

It is the nexus of these two societal constructions, the notion of guilt and our standards regarding weight and beauty, that make Reality TV shows like The Biggest Loser intriguing to those who study culture. For some, Reality TV, regardless of the subject matter, is considered voyeurism and/or an exercise in schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in the troubles of others.  The “maybe my bad habits/lifestyle/personal choices aren’t so bad, look at this schmuck” rationale.  Seeking enjoyment from the trouble of others is not something to which most people will admit. So when the discussion of Reality TV comes up, many will say they do not watch such programs despite the fact that the shows garner high ratings and generate millions of dollars profit for the networks. Our lies about watching Reality TV are similar to the “I usually break even in Vegas” line. Really? Is that why the drinks are free as long as you’re gambling? Because everyone’s “breaking even?”

I’m not a regular gambler or overweight. But those times I’ve been to Vegas, I’ve lost money (while enjoying the free drinks.) Second, I like watching The Biggest Loser.  But it’s not because I take pleasure in watching overweight people sweat.  It’s because I admire what they are doing, fighting to regain their health and redefine their self-image.  While I understand that people come in all shapes and sizes and some are genetically predisposed to be heavier, the overwhelming evidence is that most people get overweight because we eat too much and exercise too little.  If you’re fifty or older like me, picture yourself, friends, or family in their twenties and compare their body size to today. Were all the currently overweight folks as heavy then as now? If not, I think we can toss out the “genetic” rationale and focus on diet and exercise.

If you watch a show like The Biggest Loser you realize that being overweight is not something people consciously choose. Some have always fought the battle of the bulge, others only as they aged. But almost all say they use food as a substitute for things they feel they lack like love, friendship, family, or acceptance, and they fill that gap by eating.  Their desire to lose weight is rarely about looking better. It’s about attempting to regain control of their emotions, health and lives.

That said, I cannot deny the show can be exploitive. That sometimes the camera should be turned away, the producers appealing to the schadenfreude contingent in the viewing audience. And, yes, there is a $250,000 prize to the winner. Yet, from my point of view, there are far more uplifting moments than negative. For those willing to dig deeper and look into their own heart, those positive moments engender empathy and understanding. As for the prize money, I’ve yet to hear an eliminated contestant moan about not winning. Rather, they are grateful for the opportunity to make a significant change in their lifestyle.

In a society that increasingly rewards image over substance, that encourages us to applaud the superficial and vain, that’s no small accomplishment. I feel no guilt and experience genuine pleasure as I root for real people who lay it on the line in front of God and a national television audience in an effort to reclaim control of at least one part of their life.

For me, that’s a beautiful thing.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Beauty, Exploitation, Guilty Pleasures, November 2011, Obesity, Reality TV, Schadenfreude, The Biggest Loser

Empty Nesters

It was two years ago, September. My wife, Yolanda, and I lay in bed talking before going to sleep. Our oldest child, Michael, was in his first weeks of college. He was out of the house and, to a certain degree, out of mind.

“You know,” Yolanda said, “this hasn’t been as tough as I thought. I mean, I miss Michael, but actually I’m OK. I feel guilty that I don’t feel worse.”

Now this is coming from a woman who, after we left Michael in his dorm (I’ll never forget my last image of Michael that day as he sat alone, fingers drumming the dorm desk, gazing out the window at the campus below) broke down in tears minutes later in a booth at a nearby restaurant.

“We should’ve made him come to lunch with us,” she said between sobs, “he has to be hungry.”

“Mom,” our daughter, Anissa, said sliding an arm over her shoulder, “he’ll find food. Look, you can see the dorm from here. He’s only a hundred yards away from a restaurant.”

Yolanda dabbed her tears. The three of us smiled, then laughed, reassured that with the school cafeteria and a number of restaurants and grocery stores within a mile of campus that Michael would find food and survive the day.

Of course Yolanda was not worried about Michael getting fed.  Nor was she, that night weeks later, saying she no longer thought about her son on a daily basis. She was just expressing the contradictory feelings that most parents encounter as our children leave home. In our case, the transition was eased by the fact that Anissa was with us for another two years before she scampered off to college. So it has only been the last ten weeks that Yolanda and I, along with our Sheltie, Sammy, have had the house to ourselves.

“How’s it going, you empty nesters?” folks say, eyebrows arched.

“Pretty good, overall,” I respond,  with a wink, “although Sammy misses the kids. Yolanda’s paying more attention to him since they left.  Plus, she’s speaking in Spanish to him. That’s never a good sign. Heck, in human years, the guy’s fifty some year’s old, I think he’d like his space.”

A bitter pill to swallow, but yes, even our dog wants some separation from us.

Some people deal with the empty nest transition better than others, with a few sinking into depression, experiencing a lost sense of purpose. There are miles of articles, advice columns, academic studies and even support groups available for parents to utilize in assisting them to navigate through this period of life.

I do not foresee such circumstances for Yolanda and I because we have raised our children to leave. That is, after all, one of the main objectives of this whole parenthood exercise. Sure, we miss them and sometimes wax nostalgic. But we know it is time for them to venture forth and for us as well.

“Honey,” I said to Yolanda that fall night two years ago, “you don’t feel bad because you know Michael is where he’s supposed to be, doing what he should be doing. He’s happy, you’re happy.”

Years ago, before the kids arrived on the scene, I watched reruns of the Andy Griffith Show on a regular basis. I particularly like the black and white version with Don Knotts. There are many hilarious scenes that come to mind. But one moment that has stayed with me occurs when Andy tells Aunt Bee that she should not feel compelled to marry a man she does not love because she thinks it will be best for Andy.  In Aunt Bee’s mind she is freeing Andy from what she sees as a burden: her presence.

Andy tells her: “Among folks that love each other, like we do, nothing can be best for us unless it’s best for you.”

Yolanda and I are empty nesters. Sometimes the house seems deserted.  Sammy may need therapy, or at least Spanish lessons, but he’ll survive. Our kids are content, so we are content. What’s best for them is best for us.

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Filed under 21st Century America, August 2011, Baby Boomers, Don Knotts, Empty Nesters, Family, November 2011, Sheltie Dogs, Situation Comedies, Small town America

Of Minivans and Memories

“Dad,” my eight year old daughter, Anissa, said, “are we ever going to return to civilization?”

It was August, 2001, a month before the world as Americans knew it changed forever. My wife, Yolanda, and I along with our two kids, Michael and Anissa, were speeding along in our tan Ford Windstar minivan on a two lane highway in North Dakota. On either side of us were endless miles of wheat and bright yellow sunflowers. Our only company farmers harvesting wheat, air-conditioned combines cruising effortlessly up and down the rolling hills. Their grain truck drivers, beds brimming with the golden harvest , tooted horns and gave us a wave.  I was grateful for their presence, knowing that if we broke down help would be quick in coming.

“Yep,” I reassured Anissa,  Yolanda and I smiling, “soon enough. So enjoy the view.”

I do not consider myself a car guy. I’ve never dreaded trading a car or longed for a certain type. We bought the Windstar new in 1998, but since then we’ve spent our money on a solid, if unexciting used Buick Century and a leg-room loving Lincoln Continental with 70,000 miles.  None of these cars evoke “zoom, zoom” excitement, yet get us from point A to point B relatively hassle free.

But it’s the Windstar that has stood us best. Over the years we’ve strapped a bulging canvas carrier to the top, loaded the back with suitcases, wedged a cooler in between the seats and taken off to see America.  Twice to the aforementioned Dakotas, the second time a few weeks before Michael went off to college. There was the summer we spent a week in Minnesota, one of the nicest family vacations ever, with a friend of mine whose father built a cabin for us to stay in. There was the trip to the Carolina’s with a couple of families, rolling the van off and on ferry’s, the kids thrilled to be “In a car, on a boat!” as we skipped the interstate and island hopped up the outer banks to Kitty Hawk, Jamestown, and into Washington D.C.

We trekked to Niagara Falls via Michigan and across Canada. Michael, new driver’s permit in his pocket, lead in his right foot, causing his nervous old man to shout: “It’s go time. HOLD ON!” as we barreled toward the back bumper of a car which had slowed to a crawl on a congested highway outside of Detroit.  One spring break we traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Windstar stalling out on a steep grade, coasting into a driveway where we cranked her up and went on our way.   The longest journey we took was to South Padre Island, Texas, 3,000 miles roundtrip, the passage through a deserted King’s Ranch the desolate flip side of the fertile Dakotas.  Add to this soccer games, swim meets, football games, birthday parties, piano recitals, band concerts, weddings, first communions and graduations where we filled the Windstar with family and friends, enjoying their company and the ride as much as the events themselves.  With the kids in college, the Windstar has slipped into semi-retirement, rolled out for tailgating at Illinois games or hauling stuff home from the hardware store. Back seat removed, it’s like a pickup truck with a roof.

A week ago, Yolanda and I drove to Anissa’s college to bring her home for fall break. She asked us to bring a futon with us, so we bought one at Walmart, hoisted it into the back of the Windstar and headed out. On the way, however, the “Service Engine Light” glowed an ominous orange on the dashboard.

Yolanda and I exchanged uncertain looks.

“I don’t want anything to happen to my van,” she said. “Take it in as soon as we get home.”

The local shop we’ve used for years ran a diagnostic test and determined that in order to stop that orange light from shining we needed a part that would cost $500 plus labor.

“What happens if we don’t install it?” I asked. “The car has 153,000 miles on it and is probably worth $1,500. Will the engine be damaged? The orange light stay on?”

“You’re not gonna hurt anything except gas mileage. She may start rough, sometimes. That light’ll stay on, though. Lots of cars have been driven lots of miles with that light on. But, well, you know, it’s an old car.”

“That it is,” I said.

The next morning was Saturday. We were scheduled to drive to Normal for parents weekend with our son, do some tailgating, see a football game. A tailor-made trip for the Windstar, so we loaded her up and took off.

It was a sunny, crisp, college brochure picture of a day. We pulled the van into the last spot of a crowded lot, hauled out the grill, table, coolers and canvas chairs and left the hatchback open.  We met Michael’s girlfriend’s parents for the first time, grilled fajitas and drank beer. A buddy of mine from high school dropped by. We leaned against the Windstar and caught up with one another. It was a perfect day in every way. The home team even won. After the game we piled into the Winsdstar.

I glanced into the rear view mirror as we drove along the two lane highway that leads to our little town.  A now eighteen year old Anissa was asleep in the back, her face as untroubled as if she were still eight, snug and secure in the reclined seat.

Empty, harvested fields stretched across the horizon on either side. Winter approaching, the farmers are tending to their equipment in  machine sheds, already preparing for spring planting.

I patted Yolanda’s knee and we swapped smiles. I turned my attention to the open road and nudged the Windstar up to cruising speed, doing my best to ignore the orange light glowing from the dashboard.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Baby Boomers, Canada, Carolina Outer Bank, Family, Favorite Cars, Football, Friends, National Parks, Niagara Falls, November 2011, Road Trips, Small town America, South Padre Island