31 July 2013

The Weight of the Matter

[Many thanks to Kasey Edwards, whose post on the website Role Reboot "When Your Mother Says She's Fat", got me thinking and largely inspired this post.]

I'm going to take a big leap here into some dangerous territory. I'm going to talk about weight. This is dangerous territory because we live in a society that pervasively demonizes heavy people, calling them gluttons, lazy, lacking in self-control, or what-have-you. I don't want to admit to you that I am overweight. No one wants to be judged by the way they look; it's the content of our character that matters, right? Wrong. Fat people are judged every single day, in every way, even by the most well-meaning of us. (Just yesterday, an otherwise kind and gentle friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of some overweight strangers at the beach and complained that they were ruining her view of the ocean. All her friends, except probably me, thought this was hysterically funny. I thought it was sad. Those poor people probably run a soup kitchen or adopt orphans or work for social justice or do something else amazing, and they will be immortalized forever as the butt of some stranger's ugly joke.)

I never weighed more or less than I wanted to when I was growing up. I ate what was put in front of me, I did what kids do (riding bikes, climbing trees, running around), and I never gave my weight a second thought. I learned in school about metabolism. If you take in the same number of calories that you burn every day, you will never have a weight problem. If you increase your food intake and decrease your exercise, you will gain weight, and vice versa. This was a universally-accepted formula, backed up by all kinds of medical research. It was taught to all of us as scientific fact.

Then, like many women, I found my weight creeping up after I had children. Having children did not suddenly make me a voracious eater or keep me from getting any exercise. To the contrary, having children affected my eating habits for the better. I followed all the nutritional advice my doctor gave me during pregnancy and afterwards. I avoided junk, empty calories, and unnecessary sweets, and I focused on lean proteins and whole grains. As for exercise, there is absolutely no workout like the workout one gets chasing around three children who are not quite four years apart. But still, that small number on the scale, the one I'd gotten used to seeing, became elusive.

Once the kids were in school for most of the day, I worked diligently to get the excess weight off. I kept it off for a while. But after I turned 40, it started coming back, and no amount of dieting and exercise seemed to make even the slightest difference. I knocked myself out over it. I joined a gym and hired a personal trainer, getting up at 5 every morning so I could burn 800 calories on the elliptical machine before work. I swam laps on my lunch hour. I followed Weight Watchers to the letter. Years went by without sweets or desserts. My kids had pizza; I had a salad. I chose carefully, even between good and bad fruits, and starchy and non-starchy vegetables. (Back in those days, Weight Watchers assigned a high value to bananas, calling them more fattening than other fruits. So I eschewed bananas for years, thinking for sure that if I was good, I would also become skinny. The two were synonymous, right?)

But I never got skinny, and I never felt good. My weight didn't budge. At least it didn't budge downward. All I got was a huge gym bill and a herniated disc in my neck from lifting too-heavy weights at my trainer's insistence.

When I express concern about my weight, friends are quick to suggest all kinds of remedies. The South Beach Diet! Yoga! Yoga in a really hot room full of sweaty people! Mountain climbing! Dust off your bike! Swim more! Walk more! Train for a 5K! Stop eating bread! Stop eating pasta! Stop eating rice! Stop eating!

Do I have to endure judgment and stares for the rest of my life, every time I eat a mouthful of rice or steal a cookie? What kind of way is that to live?

I have friends who work out obsessively. They run marathons and post about their times and distances on Facebook for everyone to admire. They hire babysitters so they can spend the larger part of their day at the gym. They bike ten miles to work and back every day and spend their lunch hours jogging around the block. They lift kettlebells and take punishing boot-camp classes. All to avoid the stigma that comes with being overweight.

The thing that's really tragic about this is not that I myself am constantly struggling with it, but the fact that my daughters are learning something from observing all this. They are learning that carrying around extra pounds is bad. It's naughty. It is the result of bad behavior, a contemptible lifestyle, or a complete lack of self-control. They could be the smartest, most talented, most beautiful-on-the-inside people on earth, but unless they control their weight, they are worthless, ugly, invisible.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing good nutrition and with trying to be active and healthy. No one should take more than his or her share, and focusing on the quality of the food we consume is a very good habit. But when we judge and shame ourselves and others based on body types and body shapes, we are teaching our children to do the same.

It's time to teach ourselves, and our children, a new lesson. The pounds you carry on your frame do not make you a good person or a bad person. Food is food, and exercise is exercise. Neither carries with it any sort of built-in morality. To paraphrase a famous saying, it is not what goes into your mouth that makes you evil; it is what goes on in your heart.

I'd like to teach my daughters to focus on what is going on in their hearts, and in the hearts of others. How about you?

14 July 2013

Sorrow, Shame, and Shaking My Head

I'm thinking about the George Zimmerman verdict in Florida. Who isn't? For a few weeks, many of us have been watching the trial, closely or in passing, word-for-word or in highlighted bits on the evening news. Zimmerman, an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, patrolling his housing complex one evening, spots a young man named Trayvon Martin, who appears not to belong. (Martin, as it turns out, does belong; he is visiting his father, who lives in the complex.) Zimmerman calls the police and is told not to get out of his vehicle. He does anyway, and a confrontation ensues. Zimmerman is injured, and Martin is shot dead. Zimmerman is white, and Martin is black.

Zimmerman was tried for murder in a Florida state court. He and his lawyers claimed self-defense, and he was ultimately acquitted. The trial was televised. I don't usually watch a lot of television, but for a number of reasons, I followed this one. I watched bits and pieces as I could, and I took in some of the commentary (my husband is a legal commentator, so I watched him whenever possible). I am interested in race relations in America, though I certainly don't consider myself an expert or even particularly knowledgeable about the issue.

We have a young woman visiting us from Belgium this summer. She is a friend of a friend, here to work on her English and see some of the sights. I took her and my oldest daughter to Washington, DC for a couple of days last week, and the three of us toured the Capitol, biked the Mall, and visited the Smithsonian museums. One night, alone in my hotel room, I turned on the television and saw the evening report of Anderson Cooper, one of CNN's news anchors whom I particularly like.

Cooper, that night, was covering the day's testimony in the Zimmerman trial. He replayed some of the testimony of a young mother who lives in Zimmerman's housing complex. As I watched, open-mouthed, she recounted a harrowing incident in which her apartment had been burglarized by two young African-American men. She had hidden in the closet with her infant son, ready with a pair of rusty scissors in her hands to defend herself. She was unhurt, and the burglars were never apprehended.

And I, open-mouthed and alone in my room at the Marriott, and reasonably schooled in the general law of evidence, thought to myself, One of Zimmerman's neighbors is afraid of young African-American men because she was burglarized by two of them. How is that relevant, admissible evidence in Zimmerman's trial? How on earth is the prosecution just sitting by listening to this, and not objecting? How is the judge allowing the jury to hear this?

And then I thought, I'm not admitted to practice law in Florida. I don't know their local rules. I have not been following this story closely enough to understand. Cooper explained that this woman was on the stand as a character witness on Zimmerman's behalf. He had comforted her after the event and had instructed her as to how to defend herself against future attacks. She wanted the world to know that he was a good guy, a hero, a neighborhood helper, and this unfortunate incident in which he had been forced to shoot a black kid did not change any of that. Black kids are a danger, and people like Zimmerman protect against that danger.

I still don't get it. I probably never will. My Belgian guest doesn't get it either. I can't explain to her the consequences of being White and Not White in America. I find it as baffling as she does. We are born with a skin color. The amount of light your skin reflects or doesn't reflect has no inherent bearing on your character. But in the United States, darker skin seems to carry a rebuttable presumption that you are prone to crime, and that you can therefore be stopped, questioned, and searched at any time.

And the fact remains that if Trayvon Martin had been allowed to complete his walk to his father's home that night, without being stopped and questioned, he would still be alive. If Zimmerman had followed the police's instructions on the telephone that evening, none of this would have happened.

I'd like to make some sort of broad pronouncement, or to issue a rallying cry. The prosecutors messed this thing up! No justice, no peace! Guns out of the hands of civilians! Get the feds involved!

But I can't. I'm still numb, open-mouthed, shaking my head. I'm saddened, and I don't have any answers to the very difficult questions that have haunted the American public for generations. Why are we like this? And what do we plan to do about it?

03 July 2013

About Yesterday's Post

Yesterday, after I posted my three little stories about the post office, I was flooded with e-mails, text messages, Twitter messages, and comments asking me, "Why don't you just cut the metal clasps off the envelopes and tape them shut?"

This is, of course, the obvious answer to the "problem" with the metal-clasped envelopes, and I absolutely appreciate the feedback. I go through long periods of time thinking that no one ever reads my blog, because I get almost no feedback. So the idea that someone read that post and thought about it - a lot of people, actually - makes me happy. On the other hand, it appears that a lot of those people think I am a ranting idiot, and that does sadden me a little bit.

It did occur to me to surgically remove the clasps from the envelopes, though I admit I have never done it, because I want my work to arrive at its destination looking professional, not like a third-grader's art project. And sometimes I pay for things I don't really need to pay for, because it's easier not to argue. I admit I came close to just paying the $12 to ship the rain jacket, because I wasn't really in the mood to argue with the postal clerk or repackage the jacket, but an extra $6 (as opposed to the extra $1 to ship the metal-bedecked envelope) was, I guess, above my tipping point. And not caving in gave me the opportunity to go home and rant about my experience.

(My husband's tipping point, I might add, is far lower than my own. He would have fixed the envelope before he would have paid another cent to ship it. My high tipping point is probably one of the many things about me that make him crazy. If I make you crazy, too, I apologize. Look at it this way: he's stuck with me. You, dear reader, on the other hand, have a choice.)

The thing about ranting blog posts is that they are hit-or-miss. Either you identify with them, and say, "Oh yeah, that's hysterical - it happens to me all the time!" or you say, "That woman is an idiot. This is a problem that is completely within her power to fix. Why doesn't she just fix it and move on?"

The post, as I suspect most of you understand, wasn't really about my inability or unwillingness to fix the envelope problem. It was about the fact that every time I go to the post office, I get frustrated because their rules are arcane, ever-fluctuating, and inconsistently enforced.

But no one said, "I totally get it. That happens to me all the time." So I'll chalk my post office post up to a miss and leave it at that. With any luck, I'll have something more intelligent to say next time. But please keep reading, and by all means let me know whether I'm hitting the mark or just sounding moronic.

02 July 2013

The Post Office's Big Problem

Every once in a while, I mail out a manuscript from our local post office. I do this from time to time - never with good results, mind you, but it's become a part of my routine. I always mail it in an envelope that looks like this:

I bought these envelopes in bulk some time ago, so I have a big stack of them in my home office.Until recently, this was no big deal. Though it's an oversize envelope, the size is 8.5 by 11 inches, fairly standard, and the contents aren't too thick.

But the last time I tried to use the envelope, I was told it would be subject to a surcharge. Why? Because of the metal clasp on the back.

I had never given the metal clasp any thought at all. It's a standard sort of thing that has been on business envelopes since time immemorial. It's an institution in institutions, as it were. But it apparently wreaks havoc with the Postal Service's new automated mail-processing machines, and any envelope that bears such a clasp needs to be hand-stamped by a Postal Service employee, doubling the mailing cost.

My choice: pay the surcharge, or replace a big stack of perfectly good envelopes with something a little more modern. I hate to waste office supplies, so for the time being, I have been paying the surcharge. Not without a grumble, though.

Yesterday, my daughter wrote from summer camp that it had been pouring, and she had forgotten her rain jacket. Could I please send it? I dug her rain jacket out of the closet and dashed to the post office. There, I grabbed a Priority Mail Flat Rate box from the display. The counter attendant gave me some free tape stamped with the "Priority Mail" logo. I stuffed the jacket inside, hastily addressed the box, and taped it closed.

I stood in line to mail the box. When I got to the front of the line, the attendant told me that it would cost $12 to send my box. If I had used a regular Priority Mail box, it would have cost $6.

"What's the difference?" I asked, momentarily confused.

"This is a Flat Rate box. It costs $12 to send, regardless of the weight of the contents. If you used a regular Priority Mail box" - he gestured to the Priority Mail display a few feet away, which, I now saw, contained both Flat Rate and regular boxes - "you could save half the price."

The boxes were identical, except for the legend "Flat Rate" on the more expensive one. "Can I just cross out the words 'Flat Rate?'" I asked.

"No. You have to repack it in a regular box. Do it - it will save you money."

"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," I growled.

"I don't make the rules," he said.

I stormed over to the display, took a plain box, and repackaged my daughter's jacket. The Flat Rate box was destroyed and unusable - it had to be recycled. A waste. But the man at the counter didn't care. All he could see was that he was saving me $6 - a grand gesture on his part. He didn't understand why I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

Then, today, the same daughter's monthly Archie comic book came in the mail. Knowing she'd want it right away, I headed for the post office with a metal-clasped envelope, prepared to pay the surcharge.

This time, inexplicably, they charged me the regular rate. I guess they didn't notice the clasp, or they didn't care.

But the young woman in front of me in line was sending out wedding invitations. They were oversized (though smaller than my envelope), and they were on heavy card stock. The postal employees gathered around the bride and made tut-tut noises. They adjudged the invitations "inflexible" and told her she'd have to pay for them as though they were small parcels. That meant - did I hear correctly? - a whopping $9 apiece - and each one going overseas would need a separate customs declaration.

The bride began to grumble, but then she squared up her shoulders and said, "What am I going to do? They have to get there." She gathered up her beautiful cards and walked over to the side counter, where she began filling out the customs declarations, one at a time. She was still there when I left.

Now, don't misunderstand. Unlike my dog, I love the Postal Service. I am happy to support it. There is no other service on earth that will deliver a letter door to door, anywhere in the United States, for less than a dollar. But when they complain that they are being put out of business by the electronic revolution, I always pause and think for a moment. I suppose I could submit manuscripts by e-mail. But there's no way to send my daughter her jacket or her comic book electronically. I think, sometimes, that the Post Office is in danger of going out of business not because of the availability of e-mail, but because of their inconsistent and sometimes baffling rules and customer service.

Is it me, or have you had similar experiences?