Letter from London
Right or Wrong
"HO HO HO! That's rich! You think
us Amer'cans are too fat? You
limeys are so darn funny!"
You CAN go home again, but be prepared for shocks
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Coming home to the United States recently for one of my rare visits, I found myself struggling to connect with the culture in which I had been raised. Twenty years in London can spoil a body, and after several days of info-drought in the suburbs of Boston, I was dying.
My most exciting moment was accidentally tuning my car radio to the BBC World Service relayed by NPR at 0800. It saved me from brain death. British broadcast journalism crackles with intelligence, a welcome relief after too many hours of watching Katie Couric flick her hair and blind me with her big white choppers. About which more later.
And yet the culture clash was not as frightful as I had feared. The terrorist hysteria seemed strangely contained and Bushs buildup for an attack on Iraq was as unpopular in Massachusetts as it is in Europe. There is some hope.
Still, a returning American is brought up short by a plethora of odd behaviors. For instance, the promiscuous friendliness among strangers--human relations a mile wide and an inch deep, the opposite of personal contact rituals in Europe. I was startled by the manager of a small supermarket when he strode up to me and yelled in my face, Hi there, buddy, how ya doin? Whatta day, huh? I thought, does this guy think he knows me? I looked at him as if he were mad.
"Good morning everyone. I'm
Katie Couric and this is
NBC, No. 1 in TV News!
I will now flick my
hair for you while someone reads
the AP newswire. But I'll be
back to play some games with
fat people on camera after
this word from our sponsor."
I was in the Boston area to visit my two daughters and their families. This was my most representative field trip in years because I was in the comfortable suburbs where the young professionals live their private lives. Large, blonde women glide about in their SUVs (I had never heard the term before) at about 20 miles an hour, waving indiscriminately at interlopers and neighbors alike. The eerie peace on the empty streets makes one wonder if everyone died during the night. One morning on a one-hour walk with the grandchildren, I saw five other people: four hired gardeners and a young woman in a red nightie sprinting barefoot out to her beige Mercedes to retrieve something, probably her makeup.
And then there is the fat. What makes Americans so huge? I asked my son-in-law, a doctor, who cited three converging trends.
Restaurants, he said, have expanded their portions steadily over the past 15 years in an unspoken rivalry with competitors, and customers have been programmed by their mothers to clean up their plates. The more they eat the more they want.
Secondly, hydrogenated vegetable oil, which occurs in most prepared foods, contains fats that are very difficult if not impossible to work off. As these oils are not ruled out by the FDA, the food industry uses them freely and the consumer cant wait to ingest more.
It doesnt help that breakfast in many homes today consists of a very large Coca-Cola and potato chips.
To which I would add, fourthly, a disturbing laziness has settled over the population since I last lived there. I thought Americans were crazy for fitness.
We have long known that daytime soaps have destroyed the women, but now there is ESPN for the men. Most men find non-stop baseball a powerful summertime drug at any time of the day or night. They doze off and wake up in a new park and a different league. Even advertisers have to fight this indolence. I heard a real estate agent on the radio on Saturday morning rallying the menfolk to get up off your couches and come on down to visit our beautiful homes today.
The obesity came into focus most sharply when we visited the public kindergarten where my elder daughter plans to send her children. The grossly overweight principal and teachers were very pleasant, but all were physically deformed, limping and waddling among the toddlers. Average weight must have been 250, with some topping 300. It was like a nightmare version of "Gullivers Travels" played out for real.
Other random impressions defy conclusions, so it is perhaps best to make a list:
VIAGRA--The wonder drug has wiped out the taboos on public discussion of tumescence, something I thought unlikely to happen in my lifetime. Bob Dole sold his soul to Pfizer several years ago, but a full page ad in Newsweek featuring Rafael Palmeiro in full Texas uniform comparing the stuff to his baseball record? I take batting practice. Over 450 home runs. I take Viagra. Lets just say it works for me. Surely this was an ad intended for National Lampoon. Or does Raf have a problem? And do we want to hear about it?
"Hello, I'm Bob Dole's nurse. He has
taken so much Viagra lately that
he's driving us nurses crazy
chasing us around the ward. I'm now
about to give him a shot of salt peter,
which is marketed under the brand
NEWS--A mixed picture. The New York Times seemed a fabulous resource, but then there was no competition in the Northeast. News comes in mainly through the tube, and the television girls and boys, dressed as if for a movie about the news business, deprive the medium of all credibility. The bleached streaks, the hairspray, the lighting, the pastel clothing, all contribute to a Hollywood look. How can the redoubtable Katie Couric be allowed to perform her third-degree on the likes of the King of Jordan in Amman on Saturday, then on Monday conduct some silly outdoor game for a bunch of fat visitors to Manhattan? We knew it was coming, but now its here--a total blurring of news and entertainment.
TED WILLIAMS--Boston had gone bananas over the fate of Ted Williams remains, which his son John Henry may have already turned into a human Popsicle. A Boston Globe investigator emailed back home a photo of the stainless steel tubes used by a cryonics lab in Arizona and fretted in print over the morality of it all. And the patients are hung upside down, too. The classic headline said, Some paint son in harsh tones. I had to read that one a couple of times to figure it out. Its up there with the Globes all-time winner on a story about a Jimmy Carter speech: More mush from the wimp. (And why Arizona, where its always so hot? Why not Anchorage. Think of the savings on air conditioning.)
LITIGIOUS SOCIETY--This is another old saw, but heres a new excess worth noting: A Florida man is suing a lap dancing establishment to force it to provide wheelchair access so he can get in on the fun.
WINE--Where did all the Merlot come from? Someone suggested it hit the market big after Jerry Seinfeld mentioned it a couple of times. On one menu in the burbs, I counted five Merlots out of a total of 14 labels on the red wine listing. Could it be that finally Americans have found a French wine they can pronounce?
CELEBRITY BOXING--This I did not witness, but my boxer daughter speaks with horror of the matching up of non-boxers to go at it for a few one-minute rounds, or until one of them starts crying, as Paula Jones did when Tanya Harding whacked her on her expensively reshaped nose. And then there were the grown-up stars of The Brady Bunch and Welcome Back Kotter, and a forlorn Joey Buttafuco, who grimaced in disbelief when the announcer declared him defeated by a woman and said, You must have learned SOMETHING in jail. To the credit of the American public, Celebrity Boxing scored as the fifth-worst TV show of the year. But still everyone seems to have watched it.
GBH--Bostons pride is WGBH, and with good reason. Great programming, especially the shows bought from the BBC. A Londonder is struck however by the British legal professions translation of GBH: grevious bodily harm. Okay, that was a cheap joke. But all the rest is serious.
© 2002 by Michael Johnson. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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