Sunday, July 17, 2011

Modern Eating

Paris Hilton eating a burger, presumably from the Carl's Jr. ad campaign
A week or so ago I went to see Fellini's Roma, made in 1972.  Awesome movie.  A great moment from the movie stuck with me.  In the opening sequence, two Italian people are walking together off camera and chatting, and one says to the other something like, "Did you know Americans eat food out of cans?"

So funny and so true.  What is up with modern American eating?  There are obviously a lot things to say, and the topic is hardly original.  But for whatever it's worth, here's The Kramer Is Now perspective.

If you're eating out, portion sizes are too small.

Portion sizes of actual food, that is.  Portion sizes of caloric items in general are, of course, through the roof.  But when it comes to actual food -- like cucumbers, or broccoli -- your typical American meal is positively anemic.

Suppose you want to go out to lunch.  Your typical lunch out in America gets you a sandwich or burger, with potato chips or fries, and a drink.  The bread, the chips or fries, and the drink:  all empty calories.  The only food is whatever is inside the sandwich or burger:  a bit of meat, some hummus maybe, a leaf or two of wilted lettuce, and a tomato.  A tiny amount of food!

You really appreciate this when you start trying to eat only actual food.  You think to yourself, OK, sure, there's a lot of empty calories here.  But I don't have to eat it.  I'll just eat the food.  And lo, it's like 300 calories and two hours later you're starving.  You need a snack.  And American snacks are, if anything, worse than American lunches, consisting mainly of sugar, flour, and salt.

In fact, you have to act like a freak to get a normal meal of actual food in most restaurants.  A recent study found that potato chips were the number one contributor to weight gain, and that french fries were second.  The morning after the study results were announced, I happened to go out to breakfast.  I ordered an omelet with various vegetables, and told the server I didn't want any home fries or toast, and asked, Is there something else they could substitute? 

You'd think I'd asked for ketchup with my apple pie.

Food technology. 

I don't know what it is with Americans and food technology.  When you think "food" do you think "technology"?  No.  But there it is.

I've never looked at processed foods in the same way after reading this incredible 2009 New Yorker article about companies that make processed edible substances.  The author, Raffi Khatchadourian, explains that about ninety per cent of money that Americans spend in the supermarket goes toward processed food, and that this food is the product not of normal food companies but of "flavor companies" -- people that mix chemicals and materials together to try to make edible stuff.  Money quote:
"'Most of the food-and-beverage companies have become marketing-and-distribution companies,' a flavor company executive told me, only half in jest.  I understood what he meant when, in one of his laboratories, I saw a number of his colleagues working on a tasteless "slurry," consisting largely of starch, oil, and salt, which a client was hoping to transform into a marketable product."
A "tasteless slurry!"  To be "transformed" into a "marketable product" by the addition of chemically produced compounds that mimic "flavors!"  How disgusting is that?  Will you ever look at Doritos in the same way?

We don't care about food?

I'm always amazed when I travel Air France, and along with the quite good meal, I am offered a truly delicious and fresh mini-baguette.  And I always think to myself, how can it be that if Air France can provide wonderful fresh bread on every flight, other airlines can't even manage a passable muffin or sandwich?  I mean, the flight from Toronto to Paris on Air Canada has the same access to the same suppliers and ingredients as the flight from Toronto to Paris on Air France.  So why is our food so bad?

Do we Americans just not care about food?  

It may be so.  You often hear that people buy crappy food and empty calories because it's cheap.  And for some people, this is a perfectly understandable reason: if you are poor, for example, you don't have a lot of options.  But people were buying as much crappy food during the economic boom of the 1990s as they are now.  You always hear that people don't have any disposable income any more, but obviously there's something not true about this, given that the people who make GPS devices are doing fine, and who really needs a GPS device?

It's no secret that the US spends a smaller percentage of disposable income on food than other countries (see interesting chart here).  It's sometimes suggested this is because we have such excellent and efficient production, and certainly high income is part of the story.  But clearly it is also true that you get what you pay for.  And in this case, what you get is french fries, more french fries, and the occasional flavored slurry.  Yum!

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Guy Walks Into A Lingerie Store ... Studies In Gender Miscommunication

The other day I was in a kind of fancy bra and lingerie store, completing a complex transaction.  Unfortunately it was not a "complex transaction" as in "Oh, but don't you have this in the chantilly lace in Tequilla Sunrise Orange?" It was just a complex transaction in the most boring way, as in "I'd like to return this and use the credit to order these other things you don't have in stock."

It was one of those situations where the woman who knows how to do the transaction was in the dressing room providing some Excellent Customer Service of the kind you get in these kinds of stores, and the woman at the register was a little befuddled.  I wasn't in a rush though:  the afternoon was broiling and the store was air-conditioned.

As we stood there together, me the model patient customer and she the increasingly nervous sales person, a guy came in, alone.  No big deal, but this guy was wearing mirrored sunglasses, responded to an offer of assistance with a gruff "no," and went on to . . . well, I'd have to say he went on to fondle the panties in a box that was sitting on the cashier table. 

We stood there aware of his fondling as we tried to sort out the transaction.  I found myself feeling creeped out and nervous, but initially unable to explain to myself why I felt creeped out.  I mean, if you're going to buy some panties, touching them to see how they feel, checking the texture and size, is completely normal and appropriate -- whether you're shopping for yourself or for a gift for some woman.  What's the problem exactly?

What was the problem? 

Well, part of the problem is the way certain guys sometimes give you a feeling like they are going to fly off the handle.  Sometimes you get a feeling from a guy that even though they're acting very patient and nice for the moment, something is going to make them snap and when they do it's going to be bad.  One of the things that makes guys snap, it seems, is rage over sex -- I mean, the feeling that they want to have it with someone and no one wants to have it with them.  So a guy with mirrored sunglasses on, experiencing who knows what mood, in this lingerie store with all these women -- is he going to fly off the handle somehow?

This is the sort of thing that you'd think statistics and empirical facts might help you assess, but for me, somehow it doesn't really.  I mean, it might be statistically uncommon for a guy to fly off the handle in that particular way, but somehow that fact -- it doesn't make it feel different.  For me, I just sometimes get the feeling like a certain guy is going to fly off the handle at a certain moment, and I get scared.  And I'm a relatively fearless person, generally.

You often hear women say "I was scared to say No."  And you might wonder:  why exactly?  Did someone threaten you?  Was there a history of violence?  Often the answer is Yes. But even when the answer is No, guys can be scary.  This feeling one gets from them when they're angry may be part of the explanation for why they can be scary, and especially in those kinds of contexts.

On this occasion, the guy was perfectly patient and polite; he waited 'til we were done, then paid for his panties.  And he was probably just shy and nervous.  But honestly, mirrored sunglasses indoors?  It sure makes you think a guy has something fishy going on.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fathers In The Public Eye

Han Han, this week's Mister Interesting, and a father
Do you ever have this experience?  You're reading something about a "Mr. Interesting" -- an art guy, or a surfing master, or a crazy world traveler, or a double-agent.  Maybe in a magazine. And you're thinking, Hm, wow, that's kind of an interesting guy. Pretty crazy life that dude has, though.

And then smack in the middle of the story, or even toward the end, you read something like "Mr. Interesting has two daughters who live with his wife in Southern California."  And you're like, Wait, this man has children??

Because, really, whenever you read about "Ms. Interesting," either she doesn't have kids, or the whole article is about Wow, how do balance being The Most Interesting Woman in the World with being A PARENT?? And indeed, the answer is always pretty complex and detailed, because being Interesting and being A Parent are things that it's not easy to combine.

So you'd think now with the whole, like, feminism and equality thing going on, that being Mr. Interesting and being A Parent would also be pretty tough.  Like, who is picking these kids up from daycare at 5?  Who is making sure they eat five servings of vegetables every day?  Who is cooking dinner, washing dishes, all that crap?  Who is watching over the endless piano lessons, soccer games, and swimming classes that characterize modern childhood?

But somehow with Mr. Interesting, it doesn't come up.

I was just reading the great story in The New Yorker about Han Han, who -- I just learned -- is a writer, activist, general famous person, creator of magazines, extremely popular blogger, AND successful race car driver.  Race car driver! And he's only 28.

Halfway through the article you learn he is married and has a daughter.  The daughter is maybe a year old.  There isn't the tiniest suggestion about how Han Han is able to make all this work.  The reporter never asks, "Ooh, how do you juggle it all!" There's no information, and no suggestion that the lack of information is strange. 

The only time the daughter comes up later is when the reporter asks about her, before the start of a car race, and Han Han says, "I've accomplished my job as a human being ... I don't feel any pressure any more, even if I knew I was going to die in this race."

Well, WTF? I mean, I'd have thought when the kids a year old you're just starting, not finishing.

But I'm willing to give Han Han the benefit of the doubt, that somehow the reporter twisted his words or took them out of context.  Who knows?  The weird thing is there's never any, Wow, who is taking care of her while you travel around to car races?  How often do you get to see her? Do you miss her?  Questions that, if Han Han were a woman, would have been the first eight questions and the last ten questions with just a few things in between.

I had this same experience reading about Julian Assange.  You're reading along and you're like, Wow, hacker, then political guy, travels around in deep secrecy, geez, Mr. Interesting. Then outta nowhere you find out Assange has a kid, that he had a huge custody battle over.  I mean, doesn't having a kid get in the way of being Mr Super Secret Government Rabble Rouser?  And most importantly, if not why not?  

Often when things are different for men and women it's the way it is for women that is weird.  But in this case I think it's weirder not to ask Mr. Interesting these questions than it is to ask Ms. Interesting.  Because really, you got billions of people out here, trying to live interesting lives and trying to raise their kids.  Any practical tips you got on doing them both effortlessly, inquiring minds want to know.