Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fat Chance

In the past two years, there has been a lot of attention focused on the obesity problem. Generally this is discussed as being an American problem. But obesity is showing up in Asia and other areas where our diet habits are creeping to practice.

At first it all sounded like overreacting. But more Americans are becoming overweight.

To complicate matters, in this "politically correct" world everyone is afraid to offend someone who might be overweight.

Go to a shopping mall, grocery store or any place that crowds are gathered. The physical size of such aggregations is astonishing.

In the 1950s, most of us knew some kids who were "chubby," "big-boned," "chunky," "husky" or "large." Growing up often meant carrying a little leftover weight until our metabolism caught up with our growth spurts. Most kids slimmed down over time.

Yet for every ten "large" boys or girls, there was one of the crowd left with significant extra weight. The other kids were quite aware of the difficulties they experienced. We saw how red their faces turned during kickball and on hot spring days. We realized that it must have been hard for them to find clothes or a desk/chair large enough to be comfortable.

During the intervening decades, various methods evolved to help weight loss. Drinks like Metrical and Sego were among the first. Entire diet programs followed, some still popular like Weight Watchers and Atkins. Fad diets included the cabbage soup, liquid protein and grapefruit diets. As we became a nation more aware of style and health, gurus came forward with exercise programs, gym memberships or other concept to offer. By the mid-1990s, there were many options available to anyone who seriously wanted to lose weight. Whether we took the advice seriously or thought the mere purchase of the device would somehow magically melt away the fat is another issue. Most of us who really wanted to lose weight found help available.

Somewhere during this period the scale was tipped and the obesity storm swept in.

Now we have "reality" television shows about 700-pound people who are seeking help. On other shows, contestants compete to see who can lose the most weight. No doubt these folks merely woke up one Monday morning to find out they had gained 100 pounds over the weekend. How shocking! How did that happen?

Obesity is a serious health concern. Associated health risks include diabetes and high blood pressure. As we get older, the old joints that have kept us moving have a tendency to wear out or break down. Not only have the hips, knees and feet supported extra weight for years, they are still very much needed to keep us moving and help us lose the weight. It is a vicious cycle.

And yet, we are still afraid to confront the issue head on. Most spouses and friends would never suggest to an overweight person that the person might want to decline a second plate of food or skip dessert. It is also doubtful that doctors would mention the weight of his patient as a possible cause of other health issues, which can also include digestive ailments and sleep apnea.

If everyone is too timid to confront the issue in others, it's time for each of us to buy a large mirror and spend sometime honestly looking at it. After all, you are the only one you can rely on to help monitor your own health.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Bug

I'm running a bit behind this week because I caught a bug.

A bug? You mean a ladybug or a gnat?

No, I mean a bug which put me in a whirlwind for about three days. Call it what you will, it was horrible and devastating and nasty. Turns out it was probably a mild strain of food poisoning and, if you have suffered through such an episode, it is fairly disconcerting.

I am fairly certain about its origin which was likely a local eatery. But these things are had to pinpoint exactly, apparently, because the dormancy period can be weeks (imagine that) so people have to scour their memories about anything suspicious they may have eaten.

Most of what I eat, I cook myself. In the past week, there was one exception and that was a lunch shared with a friend late last week. When it came time to order, I remember the waiter asked if I wanted beef or chicken. When I said chicken, he had a rather puzzled expression and repeated my order.

"Is that a problem?" I asked.

"No. No problem."

I don't know if that request set into motion unusual circumstances. I'd rather not know. The food was eminently forgettable but acceptable. After all, it was lunch with a friend. It was almost certainly the culprit or at least the catalyst for what was to follow.

On Monday morning, things began to happen. I was sick all morning but made it to an appointment. When I returned in the afternoon, worsened sickness put me in bed where I more or less stayed for two days. Today I am settled and with the help of buttered toast and ice tea, will stay that way for a while.

At the very least, I have to think -- thank goodness! -- I have lost a couple of pounds and certainly am turned off of food for the present.

But as I wallowed in my misery, I got to thinking about what it would be like to be really ill, battling something truly scary. It was one of those moments we should all keep in mind -- that no matter how bad things look, they could be a heck of a lot worse.

We have become so used to resolution that we often lose sight of the big picture. TV dramas are resolved in an hour. Some people like to know how a book comes out before they read it just so there are no surprises. We like it when the bad guys get arrested and we can all move on with our own petty worries again.

When I was quite young, I remember my mother going to see our doctor (which, indeed, was rare) because she had shingles. Another patient was waiting for an appointment, a young, vibrant mother of several small children.

"Oh, hello," the lady said to my mother. "I see you are visiting with the doctor today."

"Yes," my mother replied. Despite being an extremely private person, she whispered, "I have shingles."

"Oh, dear. I hear that is a dreadful condition."

"I'm improving." My mother said. "Hope all is well with you."

The other lady smiled but said nothing. Soon afterward she died of leukemia which she had been battling quietly.

My mother used to reflect on that exchange. If only she had known what the other lady was suffering from. Why would someone so seriously ill give sympathy to someone suffering from a more treatable condition?

Sometimes suffering in silence is a courageous act.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Today we are surrounded by methods of communication. Cell phones are small enough to be kept at hand, allowing instant connection. Text messages can be easily and quickly sent. We can share information in seconds.

So why does it seem that inter-personal contact has come to a halt?

You are meeting a friend for lunch. He arrives, sits down and immediately places his phone on the table. When his phone rings, see how long it takes him to see who is calling. Will he continue his conversation with you? Is the caller someone with whom he would rather speak? Will the person across the table even offer a phrase like, "Excuse me" or "I need to take this." More likely he will just pick up the phone and start talking as though you weren't present.

Chances are the exchange underway at the table was less than a two-way conversation. People used to interact over a meal, discuss issues, listen to what other folks had to say and pay attention. People involved in this activity were said to be "talking," exchanging ideas and points of view.

Conversations rarely exist in that form today. More often than not, one person says what he wants to say, continuing on until he is either finished or out of breath. As he drones on, the other participant may nod and make eye contact, but has ceased listening. Instead, he waits off stage like an actor in the wings, anticipating what he will contribute should an opening present itself.

When did this transition occur?

I believe it began in the mid-1990s, approximately when cell phones became prolific. People learned to speak on their phones while also performing some unrelated activity -- walking, cooking, even driving -- and without the restriction of eye contact. This freedom brought with it the ability to contact people for no apparent reason and to share momentous events such as "I'm going into Walmart now" or "Was it the large or small olive oil you needed?"
I've actually heard people ask, "What did we do before cell phones?" The answer is: talk to each other. Truth is we used to function just fine, thank you.

Talking isn't the only victim of modern technology. When was the last time you received a personal letter? (Email doesn't count.)

In past decades, people used to take the time to write letters. It was the only way to express how you felt or to adequately describe what you had seen in another part of the world. Writing a letter required time and craftsmanship. Many of the letters written to and from home during the Civil War were beautifully worded and carefully structured. Despite the fact that many writers had minimal education, they prepared eloquent correspondence.

Doesn't a well-educated population result in more literate correspondence? Not exactly. Few people even look at what they write. They hurriedly compose a few sentences in an email and then send it without even the benefit of Spell Check.

Because technology is so "modern," it may have interrupted the age-old process of talking to one another. Sad.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Recently a friend and I were examining a calendar. She remarked, "Seems like there are a lot of holidays, doesn't it?"

A glance at any calendar reveals numerous small notations inside the monthly pattern of squares. What qualifies a day as a holiday? Is it because something happened on a particular day? It appears there might be a blurring of the selection process.

When I worked in a government office, there were only two months with no "real" holidays -- March and October. Those two months are charming enough but there is no "real" holiday in either, meaning that if government workers wanted a day off in March or October, they had to use a vacation day.

March is home to several activities, some of which involve the consumption of food and beverage. On St. Patrick's Day nearly everyone pretends to be Irish. March also includes basketball mania as people try to predict which teams will make it to the Final Four. It also includes the first blush of spring. But none of these events qualifies it as a holiday.

October includes the glory of fall weather, sweaters, pumpkins and trick-or-treat. Mums bloom and the leaves of red and orange swirl in yards. It stirs thoughts of football. In some areas of the country, Columbus Day is observed as a holiday complete with parades. (In others areas, it is merely a notation on the calendar.)

The other ten months of the year are generously sprinkled with "real" holidays in which most government offices, schools and businesses (like banks and the post office) are closed. From New Year's Day through Christmas, "real" holidays include a mix from Martin Luther King's Birthday to 4th of July and Thanksgiving. Check any calendar for more details.

Members of certain religions also observe their own traditional holidays. Countries outside of the U.S. observe additional days, some of which have spilled over into our observance. Employees of Canadian businesses are off work on Boxing Day, the day following Christmas and traditionally observed in the U.K.

As noted above, there are also regional differences. In Illinois, Casimir Pulaski's Birthday is often observed. California and Ohio observe Rosa Parks' Day on February 4. The third Monday in April is observed in Maine and Massachusetts as Patriots' Day.

There are several other days which are not celebrated as "real" holidays but which are nonetheless important. Earth Day helps expand our awareness of earth and environment. Arbor Day causes us to stop and recognize problems of de-forestation and the vital role played by trees. It would seem appropriate that we should respect both of these days.

Many national holidays are remnants of a bygone lifestyle. Mother's Day and Father's Day are fine traditions. But many homes today do not contain both parents. On these occasions, families are confronted with commercialism and the proverbial hard sell.

It seems odd that two holidays days celebrating birthdays of Lincoln and Washington were morphed into one day just to provide another Monday holiday. These national holidays were re-invented for our convenience.

Everyone can benefit from personal time to spend with family and friends. But if the creation/observance of a holiday is focused on forced criteria such as visiting the local mall because it's having a "[insert holiday name here] Day" sale, then something has been lost.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I Love/Hate Computers

I love computers -- most of the time.

In the late 1980s the office where I worked was "easing" into computer use.  Management wanted to see if the computer fad lasted for a while.  Our office prepared numerous, lengthy documents and the "new" technology obviously fit our needs.  At the time, the firm had a "data" office which utilized punch cards (Google it!) for such projects.  Data use was designated to a few specifically trained women. 

The conversion began with a few secretaries being trained.  This was a revolutionary step and separated those willing to try new technology from the IBM Selectric (Google it!) die hards.  Some people in the office actually lost their jobs when they refused to convert.  Progress is not always pretty.

Between 1990 and 1992, the majority of businesses seemed to jump on the computer bandwagon.  Computers were efficient despite the initial costs involved in training and equipment.  Some of us secretly balked at the change. We didn't like feeling awkward and clumsy with new-fangled "machinery" but took comfort in the fact that this was all new to us at the same time.  We looked to each other for support, asking one another how to shift from single to double space and other basics.  Supervisors may have agonized over the slow learning curve, but this was a period beneficial to many of us as shortcuts were shared.  It was the end of any era.

In those days, there was also the issue of "which" program one used.  There was DOS and WordPerfect (Google it!) in various versions with fans for each, along with other programs which seemed to emerge weekly.  Each system was somewhat different and employers were hesitant to hire someone that didn’t know the current in-house favorite. 

Times have changed.  Programs in various offices have morphed into a general format that is adaptable and easily implemented by new hires.  Of course, a few variations remain.  But no longer is there the need for retraining and with a rudimentary understanding of computer use, most people can quickly pick up necessary techniques. 

We now peck-peck away our days, staring at flat screen monitors without little real  mental activity.  After all, supposedly if you put a group of monkeys in a roomful of typewriters (Google it!), eventually they will type something worthwhile. 

Sometimes I miss the rhythmic sound of a typewriter and the feel of its keys as they strike.   I recently read that typewriters are actually making something of a comeback, mostly for nostalgic reasons.   

There is something comforting about fingers dancing across the typewriter's keys.  And typewriters don't quit mysteriously.  If a typewriter stops working, it's because of very few variables.  The typist has stopped typing.  There is no paper on the roller.  The ribbon needs to be replaced.  Several keys are stuck together, requiring a finger to ply them apart before continuing. 

Computers, on the other hands, can have countless problems.  A virus.  A loose wall plug.  Who the heck knows what else?  And the trouble can only be solved by talking to a computer whiz who understands what goes on inside the mysterious contraption.  I am willing to pay someone smart enough to diagnose the problem just as long as it is resolved.  Because when my understanding of modern technology is interrupted, I want to set my hair on fire and run down the street.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring is in the Air

It looks like spring is on its way.

Daffodils are growing tall. The greening grass is splattered with crocus blooms. Signs point to warmer weather despite the fact that one morning this past week we woke to a dusting of snow. Even though the snow quickly melted, we were reminded that Nature calls the shots.

Spring is a pleasant reward after months of chilly weather, although everyone will agree that most of the Midwest this year was spared deep snows and prolonged cold.

I always enjoy the change of seasons. Many Midwest residents are fearful of the winter and flee each year to locations such as Arizona and Florida, proudly deeming themselves "snow birds." They begin to panic in early fall, opting to pack and leave before the first chill. Some of these folks actually maintain two residences, either renting an apartment or keeping a house all year at a location where they live for a few months. This has never made much sense to me.

My parents lived in southern California during its golden heyday in the 1930s. The unpolluted air and pristine beach and parks remained in their minds even after family demands caused them to return to the Midwest after two years. They knew someday they would move back to warmer climates and in 1960, our family moved to Arizona.

Living in Arizona in the 1960s was fun and refreshing. The state hadn't yet grown to bursting and the air was still fit to breathe. Since then, things have certainly changed. None of my family and only a handful of friends remain in Arizona, the rest having fled to more normal lifestyles elsewhere in the country. New Arizona residents must be folks who never lived there when the state and its conditions were warm, clean, welcoming, peaceful and sophisticated. They must not be aware of the desert's grander days. They missed the boat.

Despite all that Arizona had going for it decades ago, there was always one thing it was missing -- the change of seasons. Perhaps it was because I had spent my childhood in the Midwest, but the Arizona climate is boring. We used to laugh about living at a location that had two seasons -- summer and not summer. Air conditioning has made life possible during months when the temperatures rarely dropped below 100° . There was a sameness to the desert weather that drove some people to the edge. We used to drive north to the Mogollon Rim for a different weather experience in fall when leaves turned, to see the snow or to feel the breeze through the pines.

It is nice to see the seasons change. The transition sets the rhythm for many facets of life. Kids play in the summer, then return to school for nine months. People wait for summer to plant gardens and take vacations. Fall offers a chance to slow down, enjoy football and cookouts, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Winter means the holiday season, cold nights, fireplaces and sweaters. Then spring returns bringing flowers, house projects, returning to the outdoors and renewed enthusiasm about fitness and long walks.

What's not to like about having four seasons?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

One of the great lines in American drama was spoken by Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" when she uttered the phrase: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Tennessee Williams knew how to reveal Blanche's personality clearly and concisely.

Perhaps it's a good thing that Blanche was a fictional character. She might have a hard time trying to find kindness around her today.

Kindness is defined as 1. ABILITY TO BEHAVE KINDLY the practice of being or the capability to be sympathetic and compassionate 2. COMPASSIONATE ACT an act that shows consideration and caring.

Life today is nearly devoid of personal acts of kindness between individuals. When was the last time someone demonstrated even the smallest "random act of kindness" toward you? Difficult to remember, isn't it?

Now consider the last time you encountered someone who was rude, abrupt, uncaring, even aggressive. I'll bet recalling that example was easier. Each of us encounters rudeness on an amazingly frequent basis. A driver pulls in front of you for a parking space. Someone steps in front of you to reach the checkout line. You telephone a business for help only to be put on hold, then transferred through a labyrinth of instructions: "Press 1 for more options." My personal favorite is being on a lengthy telephone hold which is then interrupted while a mechanical voice reminds me that my call is very important to them. If my call is so important to you …

Several months ago, I was in a fast food store in a small, nearby town when a young man approached the door ahead of me, paused, smiled and said, "Sorry," then let me enter the door first. Earlier this week, I selected a single item at a grocery and when I got to the checkout line, the lady ahead of me stepped back and said, "If that's all you have, go ahead." Such events are rather insignificant and would have gone nearly unnoticed a few years ago. But unfortunately these examples now seem extraordinarily generous given the current circumstances in which we live.

We have become a society of pushy, impatient folks, each of whom believes his/her own existence and responsibilities are being restrained and imposed upon by everyone else.

I recently saw a news feature about an ivy league college of impeccable prestige that is offering students a brief course in social etiquette. Students with high IQs and boundless potential are being shown the how-tos of such topics as proper table manners, how to greet strangers and conduct a conversation. (These were primitive suggestions, too, such as close your mouth when chewing!)

Needless to point out that the rigid structure once mandated by Emily Post has eased in modern society. At the same time, it seems a shame that common sense may have slipped completely off the chart. It is good to acknowledge that we need a refresher course to basic manners and the methods by which to demonstrate respect toward others. But it's a sad comment that a large percentage of the public is so clueless as to how to behave that it needs to be taught in college workshops. What does that really say about us?

Friday, March 2, 2012

It's Show Time

I have always enjoyed watching good films. Movies were designed to entertain the viewer and expand his/her outlook. What a marvelous concept.

Last weekend's Oscars telecast brought to an unofficial end this year's string of awards programs. For the big night, the most glamorous celebrities in Hollywood gathered to congratulate each other, along with the wannabees and some never-weres. But the real stars of the evening were the films. Like many facets of life today, newer and splashier doesn't always mean better, although exceptions usually occur. I just haven't seen any of them yet.

Having lived in a small town when TV was still a novelty, my family often went to the movies. Not only were the movies imaginative, they were fun and affordable. We watched romances and adventures with adult themes (by the standards of the 1950s, at least) along with cartoons and movies designed for kids. The world was far tamer then and little content was included about which parents should have been concerned. Our Midwestern world was expanded to include outer space, historical epics, even the old west.

By the mid-1950s, TV began to bring movies right in our living room. What an exciting development! These were not so-called "new releases" but who cared? In our family -- like many others -- theatre-going began to dwindle. People were busy during post-war years, raising their families and attending to careers. Being able to kick off your shoes after dinner and watch a movie at home was great. Occasionally, newly released blockbuster movies created a lot of interest and could still pack the theatres. But TV definitely took a toll.

That was long before the advent of VHS tapes, DVDs and cable. Today the competition to sell tickets to newly released films is enormous. A film must have ready viewers quickly or it soon fades away in a matter of days or weeks. Missed seeing a movie you planned to catch? Not to worry. It will be available for rent, purchase or on demand in a couple of months.

Unfortunately, it must be that 30-something executives are deciding which movies make it to production. That is the only way to explain the quantity of drivel that debuts in the theatres. It's pathetic that movie producers and directors have such little faith in the audience. Instead, they are aiming for the lowest common denominator.

The key to a "classic" film is whether it will endure despite the passage of time. Movies like "Citizen Kane," "The Godfather," and "The Wizard of Oz" are all set in the past, making their style and cinematic design somewhat outdated. But in each instance, there is something compelling about the characters, the direction or subject that makes the films hold up. How many of the current films will become classic? Likely few and certainly no buddy movies laced with jokes about bodily functions.

Next time you are struck by a film trailer and think perhaps a movie might be worth watching, ask yourself how badly you really want to pay the price in time and money involved. After all, the same movie will probably be released for home viewing by the time you can find a place to park the car.