Clash: Conversation between the wealthy and the poor at the dawn of a new class war

I love cultural experiences and I've joined a lot of different groups in order to understand different perspectives.

Recently I had a conversation with a group of wealthy intellectuals who I had come to know and enjoy, though their culture is quite different from mine. Yet in this case the clash of cultures and understanding proved too great for much accord and the divide worries me. 

Creative Commons image by Hamza Butt (

Creative Commons image by Hamza Butt (

I will not use names or other identifiers here because the point is not to call anyone out but rather to show a crucial gap of understanding that is developing in our society, due to different groups living inside social bubbles of their own race and class. Because in this particular conversation there was little or no variation between members of the group, I will use an agglomeration of real statements to both shorten and clarify the discussion.

As such, this is a recreation of a lengthy discussion I had with a group that is essentially a foreign culture to me. We are all either Americans or Western Europeans. We are all intellectuals and significantly educated. Most of the group previously had expressed support for the US Democratic Party and/or liberal-leaning views. So we share a great deal, yet I was an exception in the group because I am not of the same economic class. 

I will call one side in this discussion Wealthy Liberal Intellectual (WLI) and the other side Scraping-by Progressive Intellectual (SPI) to illustrate where the divide is, although I was the only person in the latter group at this time. 

Here is how the discussion went:

WLI: Trump's attack on health care is unfortunate. We should be compassionate on health care. However, I doubt the media reports about people in the US being denied essential health care before the ACA are entirely true.  I have certainly never encountered a real person who was denied essential health care in the United States.

SPI: You may not have previously encountered a person who was denied essential health care, but now you have.. I can give you several specific examples in as much detail as you would like. About ten years ago, for instance, I was injured in a fall in the US. My shoulder was partially dislocated, two ribs were broken and one punctured my lung and the lung collapsed 10 percent. I was driven to an emergency room and eventually had an X-ray that showed these issues. I was given a sling and proscribed pain killers. This cost was $3,000. I couldn't pay all of it right away and some was paid for by an emergency fund. However, I was not kept in the hospital for observation. My shoulder was also not repaired but left to heal badly and crooked in a way that causes permanent deformity, pain and weakness in that shoulder. When I later sought advice for the pain from doctors in Europe, I was told that A. the shoulder needed to be operated on immediately to prevent long-term harm and B. the lung issue was life threatening at the time and I was lucky to have survived without adequate medical care. Those interventions would have been extremely expensive and they were beyond what I could pay at the time. I was told that my lung was in a dangerous condition and that I should probably stay in a hospital overnight, however, it would take months to find out if an emergency fund would cover it and I would have to risk putting my family in serious debt to stay. I was not informed at all about the need for an operation to my shoulder. I can give other examples from just my own life and that of my nearest family and friends. This is the reality of the majority of people in the United States before the ACA.

WLI: I'm sorry that you feel life has served you so poorly. You were given health care. You probably shouldn't be complaining about it. And as you can see there was an emergency fund. that you benefited from.

SPI: I didn't say life had served me poorly and I am not complaining. I'm merely presenting the facts of a case. According to medical doctors in Europe this did not constitute "essential emergency medical care." It resulted in long-term harm and deformity. My shoulder is still not the right shape and it never will be because the surgery cannot be done once the injury has healed poorly. There was a very small and inadequate emergency fund. These are simply facts. I have been very fortunate that I did not have much worse complications. In fact, I was fortunate to live and not lose the rest of my sight due to that particular accident. I am also fortunate to have access to European health care, something most Americans don't have. Far from saying life served me poorly, I'm saying I am one of the lucky ones who survived this disastrous system. These problems affected at least half the US population and still affect some. It is immeasurably worse for families with serious and chronic illnesses, such as cancer. 

WLI: This is, if anything, an isolated case. I wonder what you're trying to prove and why it is so important to you to go on about this.

SPI: I read your statement saying that you had not encountered a real person in this kind of situation. I wanted to give you this information and experience outside of your previous experience, because it is the experience of a great many people in the United States.

WLI: Many people still come to the US for health care from countries that have universal health care. Many of our members live in countries, like the UK or Canada, with universal health care. There are major problems there and the United States is still the world leader in medical technology. We would not be able to provide this technology if it didn't offer significant profits. 

SPI: I have experience in a country with universal health care as well, in the Czech Republic, which is not even a particularly wealthy country. I'll admit that health buildings here are often a bit spartan and hospital rooms can be small or if they are large they are shared by multiple patients. But the quality of actual care both in terms of human care and technology is sate of the art. Last winter I had high-risk eye operation to save my residual sight. There have only been about 500 similar operations in the whole world and it is one which requires very specialized technology and a precisely skilled surgeon. 

WLI: You should respect the experience of those who know more than one system. I have heard of there being long wait times for critical procedures in some countries with universal health care. I wouldn't want to give up the benefits of the American system.

SPI: You dismiss any facts I present. When you won't look at specific cases, it is no wonder you haven't noticed any person who was denied health care in the US. Ignoring the facts and continuing to promote this system, when you have said you are for human rights... It's disgusting. It is a life and death issue for a great many people. I have experience with more than one system, in the US, in the Czech Republic and in Germany, even in Zimbabwe and Ecuador. Why is my experience invalid compared with the experience of others? And can you give any specific examples of problems in countries with universal health care? I have never encountered long wait times in countries with universal health care, except for transplants which always entail a wait. 

WLI: You need to apologize. You just won't listen and you want everyone to feel sorry for you. I don't see why we can't all contribute to society, why you seem to think some people should get everything for free. 

SPI: I think it is important to gain experience from beyond your own circle of friends and your own bubble of experience. This is why I'm presenting these facts. I can give details and other cases if that would help. 

WLI: You just honestly don't get it, do you? The group feels you need a time out. 

SPI: I have been considering leaving this group. I have noticed in the past that this group is very dismissive when I post about climate change, even though you claim to be concerned about these types of issues. However, I enjoy other parts of this group and I like to know people from beyond my usual circle as well.

WLI: I have no doubt that our children will have it easier than we do, just as we have it easier than our grandparents did. That really isn't an issue worth worrying about.

SPI: Climate change is already having a devastating impact. You are intelligent and you have seen the data. You know that we have incurred ecological debts that someone will have to pay in the end. 

WLI: There will be other resources in the future. Once it was coal and iron. Now it is oil. In the future it will be wind and solar. Each generation uses different resources, so each generation will be better off than the one before. There is no ecological debt.

SPI: I am not sure the endless resources theory will work in practice, but even if it did, this is more about human-induced climate change, which is already impacting a great many people and making life, let alone business, much harder. It is growing year by year. Do you still say that the next generation will have it easier?

WLI: My son and daughter are successful in business and my granddaughter is looking into modeling. Sure, I think they will have wonderful lives. You think you are the only one who has had a difficult life and had to struggle to get somewhere. That isn't the case. It's just that you talk so much about how rough you've had it. 

SPI: It takes my breath away and makes me sick to my stomach to read this. I don't think I've had it bad. I am much more concerned about the next generation.

WLI: I've had enough of your insults. You're blocked. Have a good life.

What kids need during the holidays

I woke up one winter morning in middle childhood to the sound of gunshots on the other side of a thin wooden wall. The light coming through the window was eerie, pale and wavering like a cold candle. 

I jumped out of bed and searched for my parents, who slept in the bed next to mine. Their covers were rumpled and they were gone. I raced to the loft where my brothers slept. My little brother was sitting up in his blankets while my older brother struggled quickly into his shirt.

"What's that noise?" I cried. 

"Pa's shooting his gun," my older brother said.

The front door to our cabin slammed and I could hear Mama coming in below. We scrambled to the railing and demanded to know what was going on. Mama explained with a tone somewhere between resignation and reassurance that all the deep heavy snow we had thought was melting the night before had frozen solid as a rock over night and Pa was shooting clumps of ice out of the giant fir tree next to our house... so that it wouldn't fall and crush our house. 

This memory, one of the clearest I have from childhood, is oddly tinged with brilliant sparkle. There is almost no fear in my memory, as if I thought all this was terribly exciting. Beyond the first shock of waking up alone with the frightening noise outside, I seem to have been in a state of giddy delight. Pa was like Pa in Little House on the Prairie. There was no natural or human threat to big for him in my view. We were clearly safe in his hands.

While we were getting dressed in the loft there was a tremendous crash that shook the whole cabin and the sound of wood grating against metal. Something had clearly fallen onto our tin roof. It was prevented from crushing us only by a few beams, some insulation and a couple of layers of plywood. 

Excited to see a fallen tree and glad that the house had apparently survived, my brothers and I pulled on our snow gear and scrambled up the steps cut into the ice outside the front door to get outside. Pa was still out by the large fir tree to the north of the house and it had clearly not fallen. We told him about the crash on the roof and suggested that it must have been the tree on the south side of the house.

He told us to go check, so we ran around the front of the house... or attempted to. I got to the front yard where the ground sloped gently downhill and my feet flew out from under me. My head struck the sheer sheet of ice under me with a loud "crack!"

My brothers went down a bit more gracefully and scrambled back across the ice to help check on me as I groggily shook the stars out of my eyes. 

We'd had several feet of heavy snow the day before. But in the evening the temperature had climbed and the whole mass had started to melt, water running across the surface and down onto the county road below. But in the night a cold snap had come, so hard and fast that the melting slush had turned to ice, a thick, rock-hard layer covering everything for miles around us. It did not have the crusty appearance of old snow with a frozen top layer. It was slick, shiny and impenetrable. 

It's likely that anyone forty or over from the Pacific Northwest will know what I'm talking about. It is still generally referred to as the Great Ice Storm. Electrical lines were down for days, phones and water pumps didn't work, every branch and twig was coated in a thick layer of clear ice, a snow plow was broken trying to clear our county road and we were completely cut off from the outside world for three days. 

My brothers and I didn't know the extent of the "disaster" yet but we already loved it. We were on an important mission from Pa to check the south side of the house, so despite the ringing in my head and the large knot swelling behind my ear, my big brother helped me up and we staggered the rest of the way around the cabin, joking about how my head was so hard that it cracked the ice. 

As it turned out, it was a disappointingly small branch that had crashed onto our roof and made such an enormous noise. But by midday Pa had finished shooting ice out of the trees and he had time to pull us on our giant toboggan. We slid our way over to our nearest neighbors, to make sure everyone was all right. Then we slid home again. 

It is ironic that while our parents' generation remembers it as a natural disaster, my brothers and I remember those days of candlelight and ice as some of the best moments of our childhood.

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

We spent our days sliding on the snow or helping our parents with the tasks of daily survival, such as cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen slush to heat on the wood stove. (That was our only source of water with our well 60 feet deep and the pump out of operation.( And we spent the long winter evenings, playing games and telling stories by candlelight. 

Anyone who remembers a night without electricity as a child can probably relate to some degree. Without the TV, computers, oven, food processor or phone working and with the roads closed, the one thing we children had was... our parents' attention.

We often feel that the past must have been simpler and by extension better, because in those times they did not have electricity and all of those things on a regular basis. So, we envision it like an endless snow day. But in reality, the children of the past did not have their parents' attention because their parents' daily routine did not require electricity. 

The truth is that we cannot really give our children an endless snow day. We cannot always give them our full attention. We have to work and cook and keep our lives together and that takes up the majority of our time and energy. Most of the time, what is left for real attention to children is the crumbs. 

But this is still what I think of during the holidays and when facing the week of winter break. Our children can remember the holidays as a magical time of sparkle, even if the reality is that we are stressed out and the extended family is fighting and money is tight and crises loom. The key to it is amazingly simple. Times of comfort and attention. 

We can create it for our children, by declaring our own great ice storm. It doesn't actually take a disaster to make a time that children will remember forever. 

Here is a recipe. It need not be every moment of the holiday season, but as much as possible, as often as possible, allow and if necessary schedule family times with these elements:

  1. Nothing urgent that adults must get done.
  2. Nothing urgent that the kids must get done.
  3. No set schedule or a very simple schedule
  4. Few or no visitors outside immediate family, who are very familiar to children
  5. A pleasant and familiar environment
  6. The attention of adults being at least partly on things of interest to the child
  7. A low level of excitement for something in the future or an understanding of this as a special time
  8. A balance of sugar versus protein in food.
  9. Low use of electronics by children and adults alike
  10. Opportunities for activities like playing games, reading, building things, coloring, crafting, cooking, playing in nature, moving around
  11. Any conflicts that arise expressed and handled with mutual compassion

Number ten--the apparent activity involved--is actually the least important thing on the list. It doesn't really matter what you're doing as much as the environment is good, necessities are taken care of and there is no urgent agenda. It is almost like magic. This really will create the most memorable moments for children without anything special or flashy added.

Certainly we also want to do special, fun and meaningful things with our children but doing them one at a time and allowing for spaces without a schedule in between will matter most. 

Passing through change

I woke up from anesthesia with the sensation of having slept a long time, though it was probably no more than an hour and a half. My left eye was covered with a hard plastic circle taped very securely to my face. I had oxygen tubes in my nose and various things on my arms. My mother, who came all the way from America to help me with the kids while I recover, said I looked like the Borg. 

For nearly twenty-four hours, I wasn't allowed to take off the patch or even peek at the world. My husband joked that the surgeon had probably removed my eye for experimentation. I could see after images pulsing in the eye for hours.

Creative Commons image by Lolaa of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Lolaa of Flickr.com

Then late at night, after all the nurses had gone away and my hospital roommate had finally gone to sleep, my left eye began experiencing flashes of light at the lower periphery. That is one of the major signs of retinal detachment. 

For a moment, I was seized with terrible fear. I thought of calling the nurse, but these were general nurses from a hospital word specializing in nose and throat disorders. I had told them before about the throbbing after images and they were kind but expressed no interest or knowledge about eye conditions or warning signs. I knew they would not do anything before morning. 

I had also been told that stress, including fear and anxiety, was the surgeon's primary warning in terms of risk factors. He wanted me to stay calm and stress-free to avoid dangerous inner eye pressure for two whole weeks.

Somehow I lay still in the darkness. I thought about my conviction that I must go through the the dark time, including the fear. Once I got up to look out through a slit in the blinds at the super moon with my very blurry, unoperated, right eye. Then I lay back down. And finally I slept, mainly thanks to the after-affects of anesthesia. 

In mid-morning, I was able to talk to the surgeon again. The light flashes had subsided and he was not concerned. He tore the tape off of my face and I blinked my sticky eyelashes open.

This surgery was not meant to cure my vision impairment, but rather to keep it from getting worse. It entailed getting rid of cataracts and implanting a lens--much like my high powered contact lenses but inside the eye--making contacts no longer necessary.

My first impression was still blurry and then strangely shortened and squashed. The surgeon's fingers were unnaturally wide and stubby as he held them up for my inspection. But eventually the image stabilized a bit... yes, clearer than before.

As a child I used coke-bottle-bottom glasses that let me see a bit more clearly. Then when I was nine, I was introduced to contact lenses in a doctor's office. The contacts had much greater optical power than can be had with glasses and I was startled to find that the wall on the other side of the doctor's office was striped, rather than a solid color, as I had always believed. 

This wasn't exactly like that. I could see no further than I had before with glasses or contacts, but this was without such aids. I could see the broad smile on the surgeon's face, at least enough to know he was smiling. Though I noticed that even after the picture acquired reasonable dimensions, everything still looked a bit blue. 

At first I wondered if they had given me a tinted implanted lens. But when I turned and saw the sky through a window, the difference became more clear. The bright light and the motion sent twinges of pain into my left eye, but the sky outside was a pale, sparkling blue.

The other eye--the one that had not changed over night--saw an ugly grayish yellow haze, like the smog of a Bohemian winter, in fact, it was bad enough that it reminded me of the first time I came here in 1992 and the Communist-era coal plants were belching out soot and coloring everything that same sickly grayish yellow.

I tentatively asked what color the sky was and was told that it was white--high clouds. Both of my eyes were wrong.

I was sent home to lie in bed and recuperate from the poisons in the anesthesia and from the surgery itself. I have a lot of time to ponder the color of the sky. 

The grayish yellow was likely caused by the cataracts. The sky was also dimmer in that eye. The blue... well, it is somewhat of a rule that when you suddenly see things from another perspective or through another filter--whether that is physical or, say, the psychological filter of a major political change--you tend to lean extremely to that side in your perception. It has to do with what you consider to be "normal."

In the world of optics and photography that is called white balance. It's the concept of "normal."

Until the moment the patch was taken off, I had seen one way for so long that once the window was clean, my brain no longer knew what normal was.After several days the effect is fading. My brain has adjusted the white balance for each eye separately, so the world looks pale gray again--the ordinary Prague winter of 2016. 

I light a candle on the window sill and sit up in bed. The evening light is dim enough that the light of candle and the dusk don't hurt my eyes. I see two candles now, one almost a real candle, a little spark outlined against the gray, dancing just a bit with the movement of the air.

The other candle is the one I have always seen in the early morning or late evening, when I don't have contacts or glasses on. It is a fuzzy fractured ball of blur, mashed to the left a bit with a break in the middle and several times larger than the actual candle flame. 

That candle, the candle only I have ever seen, will be gone forever soon. Whatever comes, if the surgery takes hold or if--by some unexpected chance--delayed shock causes retinal detachment, either way after the second surgery, I will never see in that old way again. 

A small pang of sadness rises, inexplicably inside me. I have no great love for my extremely blurry vision. I don't see that way most of the time anyway, because I wear some form of correction almost every waking moment. But I am surprised at the associations I have with that soft, squished and fuzzy world. It makes me think of rest, nighttime waking and comfort when I'm sick. This is probably because it is only when I'm in bed that I didn't wear glasses or contacts. 

Now I feel a niggling reminder in the back of my mind. The clearer eye makes me think I need to take out a contact lens. Somewhat clear sight in bed was always a sign that I had forgotten something important.

I am sure I will learn to be comfortable with these different eyes. There are many things that will be easier. I won't have contacts to take out when I go swimming. They won't itch. I won't have to religiously schedule the hours when I can safely wear the thick contacts and those when I have to wear the inferior glasses to protect my corneas. It is not hard for me to explain to my inner self why the new way is better.

And yet it is still there, the little sadness for a way of seeing that will soon be forever beyond reach. 

People have often asked me how I see. It is hard to explain how I see with contacts, because that is the best I have ever seen. To me the answer is that I see clearly. It looks clear to me. I simply don't understand how other people can see things at a distance that I can't. Ten feet is just how far clarity extends. Sure, I know in theory--from physics that other people can see further but it is hard to imagine.

On the other hand, I can explain a bit how I see without contacts, because that too me looks blurry, soft and distorted. But now it will be only something I explain to others, not something I see. Over time, I will forget the way the world looked from there.

There are some in the disability community who argue that "disability" should not be called that at all. It is only a difference and should not be considered lesser or a lack. This is strongest among the deaf, who have their own language and community and as long as they don't have to deal with the rest of us, they are quite happy and don't feel dis-abled at all. They don't miss sound. 

In that way of thinking, my vision could be considered just different. It does in fact have a few--if minor--technical advantages. My extremely nearsighted eyes before the cataracts and the operation, could read very tiny print, inspect finger prints and so forth. I would sometimes take off my glasses in order to use my eyes as a natural magnifying glass.

But the cataracts put an end to my excellent close vision and made it easier to part with that blurry and fractured world that meant comfort, drowsiness and rest.

I am ready now, ready to move forward and to change. I have truly acknowledged what I am leaving behind.

Comment

Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Smrak 3: Gender specific toys and media that promote either ditsy

When my daughter was a baby I thought it would be simple. I would scrimp and save and buy her the best and most beautiful dolls on the market--the big ones with all the accessories, the ones made of good quality materials and none of that cheap plastic that releases toxins. Then she would never want Barbies. End of problem.

Creative Commons image by Thomas Hawk

Creative Commons image by Thomas Hawk

Right…

Where I live cheap Barbie knock-offs are the most common gift given to children, after candy with artificial coloring. My daughter was given one by the organizers of a nature walk we joined. She has been given these horrid bits of soft, easily breakable, toxic plastic with extreme body-image issues, by relatives and visitors to our home on a regular basis. 

And of course, her friends have real Barbies, which are slightly less likely to fill the house with carcinogenic clutter, but are no better for girls to play with. And that’s usually all they play with. 

Why do I have such an issue with Barbies? You might ask. My daughter is incredibly slim with a perfect figure. She’s not one of the girls in most danger of poor-body-image problems. She’s the type others will envy after all. 

My issue is only partly to do with ridiculously long, skinny legs and waists that look like a pulled taffy. Those are problematic. But the feet permanently bent into the shape of shoes that are harmful to kids’ feet and require women to tiptoe through the world are worse. The focus on clothes, clothes, clothes, shoes, shoes, shoes, makeup, makeup, makeup, hair, hair, hair is simply nauseating. Girls should have other interests as well. 

I know the company has made some Barbie firefighter outfits and other less impractical garb, but these outfits are invariably extra baggy and ridiculous looking. Face it. Anything that actually fits on that doll well wouldn't allow for much freedom of movement in real life. Little girls don’t actually use the firefighter outfits and the focus remains on clothing that obviously allows for no activities beyond primping and attracting sexual interest.

That’s my problem. I have given in to everything being pink. What I can’t abide is the fact that the girl’s section of any toy store is entirely focused on appearance and primping, as if that is the only thing girls can be interested in. Some girls resist it. But my daughter doesn’t. She has a natural knack for these things and I want her to have fun learning to do her hair and dress up. Who doesn’t? It’s fun. 

Creative Commons image by Fortune Cookie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Fortune Cookie of Flickr.com

But I also want her to sometimes do other things. 

On top of toy stores, there are the girl-oriented TV shows. Disney has done a relatively good job with some of their princess movies, despite the close resemblance between Disney princesses and Barbie dolls. At least some of them do things other than primp and they usually use fairly normal voices. 

But these are never the videos my daughter and her friends want to watch most. I made the terrible mistake of buying a Lego Friends DVD to take overseas with us because it claimed to support “diversity” and “friendship.”  The videos make me nauseous. The “friendship” promoted is only that within one’s own little clique and is not open to others. The girls in the video are constantly focused on primping and will often dash back home in the middle of an “adventure” to change clothes or make sure they look dazzling. This is all spelled out in detail and presents such an unhealthy message that as far from English-language videos as we are, I’ve had to disappear it.

The worst part of the video and many others I’ve seen are the little vocalizations that the girl characters emit. There are constant “Ooo!” and “Eeeeh!” noises as if someone is making fun of the women of the 1950s. Except that this is done in all seriousness and presented as girls being pretty and attractive. My daughter now imitates these noises for hours on end.  

Junk food and people who feed it to my kids: Smrak 2

One day in Oregon, my kindergartner got off the school bus all hyped up with excitement. Her teacher was sweet and my little girl rode the bus with her best friend. It was lovely to see her doing so well.

She told me they had eaten green Jello at the end of the day and she loved it. Then I was worried. She often has adverse reactions to food coloring. 

A half an hour later she was shaking all over and screaming desperately, “I can’t stop! I can’t stop!” I held her on my lap, cursing inside. It took three hours before she could stop shaking and sobbing.

"Candy!" - Creative Commons image by  Jeff  of Flickr.com

"Candy!" - Creative Commons image by Jeff of Flickr.com

When I say my child has allergies to food coloring and preservatives, most other parents sniff and change the subject. It’s like ADHD. Parents supposedly make up food-coloring problems to cover for bad parenting… or so they say. If I protest, they demand a doctor’s note, knowing full well that the medical establishment doesn’t look into this type of issue. 

One parent I know does understand though. He has a child with even worse reactions to food additives. His daughter had debilitating eczema as an toddler and they had her tested for allergies but the tests came back negative. Doctors told them it wasn’t allergies and they wanted to proscribe a pharmacy full of random drugs that “might help.” But the parents started to notice a correlation between the child’s problems and packaged food. 

After a consultation with a naturopath, they cut out all processed food and all non-organic food from their family diet. They went extreme. They make their own cheese, bread, crackers, cereal, sweets… everything. They buy only organic raw materials. It’s a huge amount of work. 
And their daughter is free of eczema. 

Scientists know that pesticides, chemicals released from packaging, preservatives, additives and food dyes are not good for us, but they are only a “little bit” not good for us. We can supposedly handle a certain level of toxicity. But some children are like canaries in a coal mine. They fall first, showing us that the concentration of harmful substances is accumulating. Every chemical has it’s maximum safe limit of parts per million, but no one has studied the effect of the maximum “safe” level of a hundred different somewhat toxic chemicals at once. 

Add to that the fact that our bodies evolved over millennia in which simple carbohydrates were hard to come by and most people today naturally crave sweets and other simple carbohydrates. Sugar acts on the body much the same way as an addictive drug. 

Then we are asked by the modern parenting movement to engage in “child-led feeding” because that is supposedly the “humane” way to parent--leaving children on their own to deal with dozens of unseen toxic chemicals and carbohydrate cravings programmed into their DNA during the Stone Age.

I keep a pretty good kitchen, not spectacular but decent—tortillas, chili, enchiladas, soups galore, spaghetti, curry, lasagna, stir fry, pizza, stew, salads of every description, dumplings, gravy, potatoes, baked fish… And sweets? Famous chocolate cake, pies beyond count, cookies, muffins and even homemade ice cream. 

My kids complain of course. They don’t like food that isn’t beige or sweets that don’t come in a shiny package. Like every other kid. But they are used to the fact that I win in the end, so mostly they eat it—while putting their approved least-favorite foods (mushrooms, olives, eggplant) on the edge of their plates.

That is most of the time, when they haven’t recently been at a friend’s house or had a discussion with other kids at school about food. At those times they refuse to eat and then engage in screaming fits when they aren’t allowed desert after not eating dinner. 
The situation isn’t any better on the other side of the world where we now live in the Czech Republic than it is in Oregon. I put a lot of effort into obtaining and growing food that isn’t saturated in chemicals. Then my kids go to friends’ houses and return full of chips and candy. 

Another reason their friends don’t come to our house: cookies, hot chocolate, homemade ice cream and popcorn are “stupid” and “boring.” Oh, and they “don’t drink water or juice.” Ever. According to the neighborhood kids, the only liquid they consume is pop. 

Creative Commons image by Felix M of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Felix M of Flickr.com

I tried volunteering with the school to put together a play day for the kids. They wanted me to run the refreshment stand, which consisted of handing out the Czech equivalent of Twinkies to the kids. I suggested I could bake some brownies, but the others all frowned at me and shook their heads. One of the mothers lectured me, “The whole point is to have snacks that the kids will actually eat. We know they’ll eat these.” 

Despite this, many parents do actually talk about healthy food but their most common phrase about food is “just this once” and every day is an exception. Some parents strain the vegetables out of soup before even giving it to their kids. They have given up on any semblance of healthful meals, because that is the only way to avoid conflict.

I’m less judgmental about what others do than you might think, given that I really do care about the health and my daughter has sensitivities to some additives. The thing is that I know how much conflict it causes. Who wants all that conflict in their dinner table? 

But here’s my question. Why is there conflict? 

Kids will eat vegetables—and quite readily—if they are fresh and appetizing and the child hasn’t been surrounded by unhealthy peer pressure or addictive sugars. I had absolutely no problem with my kids eating until they started attending preschool and seeing more of other kids. Adults were usually astonished at how well they ate even as stubborn toddlers and the fact that they would ask for salad when they had the nibbles.

If kids are told that “vegetables” are overcooked lumps of broccoli and brussles sprouts, of course they won’t want to eat them no matter what their environment. But neither will anyone else. 

Even this past week my kids were sure they wouldn’t like beet salad with nuts, kale, tomatoes and feta cheese in it and there were plenty of other good things for them to eat, so we didn’t waste it on them. But after a weekend without anyone pushing junk food, they asked for the beet salad and ate it eagerly. (It really is a treat. Bake the beets in thin strips and add lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil. Yum.)

But when addictive foods and junk are too prevalent they will refuse even their favorite meals, like spaghetti. They are still children and it is hard enough for adults to stop and realize what your body really needs. Children are not magically “more in touch.” In fact, amid the frenzy of play and the confusion of learning the social world, the opposite is often true.

My son now likes to say that at least he can have food coloring, because he doesn’t have the same sensitivities as my daughter. I attempt to explain to them both that it isn’t a question of one kid who can have them and another who can’t. It’s harmful to both of them, but one has more immediate reactions. 

It’s more difficult when my kids ask why their friends can eat chips and candy for lunch and then have white noodles with ketchup washed down with pop for dinner and they can’t. I don’t like to be negative in front of my kids and I don’t think their friends' parents are “bad” which is how my kids would interpret the full explanation with their childish ideas of absolutes. But in the end I have to tell them that part of the job of being a mother is making sure they are protected from harmful things, even if others don’t do the same.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Ridicule at your own risk: Do you really want to decide who "deserves" to be called fat?

The newlyweds went on a honeymoon to an island. They posted glowing photos on Facebook--enormous smiles, silly t-shirts, beaches, big hats. The sister of the bride woke up in the morning and the first photo she noticed showed her sister wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon character on the belly and her grinning husband was pointing at her slightly plump abdomen. 

Delighted and amazed, the sister typed, "Congratulations! I can't wait to be an aunt!" Within hours the Facebook wall was flooded with good wishes and congratulation for the soon-to-be parents. All was joyful...

Except that the bride was not pregnant.

What followed was the utter humiliation of the sister who started it all. She was terribly embarrassed. The couple had to post notes stating that they were not pregnant. The bride cried at length because the notion that she was " fat"  had been broadcast to all their friends and family. It didn't make for a nice honeymoon. 

Okay, it happens. Some women carry all their extra weight on their tummies. I do. I'm not very fat in conventional terms, although I'm no feather either. I carry almost everything on my belly and I've run into people who wrongly assumed I was pregnant, so I can see how this could happen. The sister in this anecdote was telling the story as her "most embarrassing moment,"  and she didn't mean to be hurtful. She ended with her concern about how the incident had truly harmed her relationship with her sister. 

But the reactions of those reading the story were shocking.

Most comments agreed with or paraphrased this one: "You shouldn't be embarrassed. Your sister deserved to be called fat if she gained weight. It's her own fault." (There was no picture included, so the people commenting had no way of knowing what the bride actually looked like. They were simply assuming she "deserved"  to be called fat.)

As I read the long list of comments, my chagrined laughter over the well-written anecdote of apology and personal responsibility quickly switched to a state that could best be summed up by one of those cartoon images where smoke starts puffing out of someone's ears. Most, but not all, of those comments were by men. Many implied that it's a woman's responsibility to have a flat stomach. 

Sure, partly it's the anonymity of the internet. People will write more overtly rude and cruel things online than they'll say in person. They don't think about the fact that this sister was partly trying to make amends and that the bride in question might well see their comments someday. They don't think... and they don't much care either.

But just because the comments are on the internet, doesn't make them less problematic. They are in fact a truer indication of people's thoughts and beliefs about others than the polite smiles of society. I often turn to internet forums to understand how people truly think. 

And I find it disturbing that most of the people commenting felt that a woman deserves to be publicly humiliated in front of her family and friends (even by accident) because her stomach is rounded. 

I'll lay out the issues:

  1. We're all concerned about obesity. It's a serious health risk and spreading dangerously. Its worrying how many children aren't given the opportunity to grow up with healthy bodies, due to poor diet and lack of exercise. I'm all for educating people about the health risks of obesity and what can realistically be done about it in ways that don't shame or ridicule.
  2. There are many reasons for the rise of obesity in recent years--cheap food is almost always the unhealthy, packaged and obesity-causing food; urbanization gives people less access to the space for natural exercise; the rise of eating disorders and depression, as well as childhood trauma, are linked to obesity; animal growth hormones in food are likely to cause humans to gain weight as well even though scientific research on it has been vehemently suppressed by industry; and the increase in passive entertainment such as TV and video games plays a role. Certainly, we can control some of these impacts in our lives but not all. It takes significant effort and money to ensure that your food doesn't contain growth hormones and poor people don't stand a chance. The idea that obesity is primarily about a lack of effort and self-discipline has been scientifically discredited.
  3. Many people struggle with self-discipline. I may be pretty good at setting my own work schedule and sticking to it. But I do better when exercise is part of my life (like walking everywhere instead of driving) or part of a sport (like Aikido). I can control what I eat pretty well, but I've been known to have emotional outbursts. (I'm sure that's hard to imagine. ;) ) So, I have some sympathy for those who struggle with self-discipline. It isn't a shameful thing. It's a struggle based on in-born temperament and brain chemistry. We do not all start on equal footing here.
  4. Anyone who believes that we all get the same hand from genetics in terms of our body shape hasn't been paying attention to real life. Yes, if you have lots of time on your hands, you can almost always make a significant difference. It may take intense exercise and rigorous diet restriction, but most people can lose weight. For some it has to be a major focus of their life, the equivalent to a primary hobby, while for others it's a matter of a little regular effort. This is not a competition on a level field where those with motivation and discipline naturally win slim body shapes. 
  5. Most women gain body weight after the age of 25. It is part of our hormonal and biochemical makeup. I have traveled in places where people lived by subsistence farming and the standard diet would not sustain a person of my size. The people in such places usually don't grow to great height. But their middle-aged women are still mostly stocky, as well as incredibly tough. 
  6. I have met people of all ages and genders who can eat anything and not exercise at all and remain slim and slender. I have met plenty who can achieve a slighter shape by regular exercise and dieting. And I have met others who will always be solidly built, unless they are literally starved to the point of ill health. Just as with a disability, you cannot tell by looking at a person, if they are naturally built to be stocky and plump or if they are unhealthily overweight. A doctor may be able to after a thorough examination, but you certainly can't tell from a photo online. 
  7. In today's society it's exceedingly difficult for poor people to get the time to do regular exercise or cook from scratch (which is the only way to eat healthy on a budget) or the extra money to buy the foods that truly contribute to good health. You can't tell by looking at someone from the outside what challenges they are facing and negative commenting is more likely to be unjustified and hurtful than not.
  8. Fashion models and TV actors have a lot of influence on what  we consider to be "normal" today. And most of those models are starving themselves to a medically unhealthy degree. And then their agencies are trimming them further with Photoshop. The effect is that what we see in magazines and on TV are unhealthy, fantasy images of women. And yet that is what our eyes have been trained to see as "normal." 
  9. Broadcast television only arrived on the island of Nadroga, Fiji in 1995. At the time anorexia and other eating disorders were completely absent. By 1998, ninety-seven percent of the population watched some TV and 11 percent of teenage girls were anorexic and had unhealthy eating habits that didn't exist before. The unhealthy images of models do impact us.
  10. Even assuming that you are concerned about someone's health because they are overweight, it is worth  considering that research has found shaming to be extraordinarily ineffective in changing human behavior. Calling someone "fat" or otherwise ridiculing body shape is often excused by those who claim that they are only trying to help people become healthier. I don't actually believe that's the true motivation but even if it was, this bullying is misguided.
A Nepali woman who can best all the skinny models for eating lean, exercising and living healthy -  Creative Commons  image by PACAF of Flickr

A Nepali woman who can best all the skinny models for eating lean, exercising and living healthy - Creative Commons image by PACAF of Flickr

I look around at my friends, most of whom were slim as young adults and teens. Now we're pushing forty and we're all different shapes. A few have health problems related to weight. A few are slim but almost all of those actually have lifestyles with less exercise and more unhealthy food than mine. Most of us are a bit chunky. Of those I know who are careful of their weight and spend a lot of time and energy on it about half show little slimming even so. 

Among the older women of my childhood, I notice that many share a similar barrel-like shape. There is the one who has been a volunteer wildland firefigther for 30 years while raising foster and adoptive kids in the mountains, there is the one who is a rancher out working physically every day and the one who cycles all over the world. I have huge respect for these women, the role-models of my life. They have shown clearly how women have value beyond the age of twenty-five and how women's shapes are truly varied. 

When I hear comments calling women who look like these hard-working heroines "fat," I'm not just disgusted, I'm furious. There's just one thing I want to say before I shut down such a conversation: "One of those tough women of the mountains is worth more than a thousand shallow bullies!"

And yet I have to remember that the writer of the story that started it all also made an insensitive comment--unintentional but nonetheless hurtful. We can all make mistakes and be embarrassed by our own hurtful words. She was admirable for the way she took responsibility and made amends.

In the end obesity is still a concern for me, but I personally don't want to decide who "deserves" to be called "fat." I know I don't have enough of the facts from just looking. If someone thinks they do know and they are qualified to call names, I say, "ridicule at your own risk," because many of those who gather at my hearth can be ferocious when roused.

I love your comments on these posts. Add your own story from real life. Feel free to disagree. How should people react to comments about their body shape? Share this article using the icon below and help spread a valuable discussion.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.