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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Oh yes – that other photo...

As I said in a previous posting, I’ve been going through old photos and documents. So far, after a week, I’m up to two photos only. Pathetic, I know. This is about the second one. This one upsets me.

   I’d love to use her name and publish the photo, but I won’t, because there’s a chance her children might read it, and I don’t really want them to stumble across it. If they do, I won’t apologise as I’m not sorry, she was a loyal friend, and it’s for the greater good.

   She is no longer alive. No, not because of cancer. Her son managed to track me down via the net to tell me of her death. Then we lost touch again.

   I was at Teacher’s College in 1964 when someone in my Group piped up.

   ‘I’ve been given two names for people in America for penfriends. I only want one. Anyone want this other one?’

   It’s just occurred to me how the concept of a penfriend must be totally alien to many these days, but then I suspect most people who read my ramblings will know the concept fairly well. I had ones in various parts of the world as a teenager, and it was great to see those red and blue trimmed airmail envelopes arrive, and find out a little how people lived in Norway, or Japan, or Taiwan.

   Alien worlds to a farm kid from Central Queensland, but fascinating. Photos and letters enabled me to build a picture of their life – no doubt quite a false one, but with some slightly better understanding of their world.

   'I’ll take it,' I said. I wasn’t all that interested in the US to be truthful, but then I didn’t know much about the place either, or the people. Maybe they weren’t all like those in I Love Lucy and Perry Mason that I’d seen on our newly acquired TV.

   So began a long correspondence with the girl from Philadelphia; the one with the Italian family name. Her first name was nothing remotely connected with Italy. I’ll call her Sophie. In the time I knew her, some forty years, we had stayed with her and her family twice, and she and a friend of hers visited us once here in Australia.

   Her continuous stream of letters told of finishing high school, going to college, teaching, marrying, having children. Mine would have been pretty much the same. It was a very regular correspondence. Occasionally we sent small reel to reel voice and music tapes; later, cassettes. I’d love to hear some of them now, but they’re long gone. They’d be highly amusing - to me, anyway.

   Her first photos were of a slim, shy girl, though daringly once she sent me a photo of herself in a swimsuit. She would have been 17 then, slim and dark. Her Italian ancestry showed through, no doubt about that. (No, not through the swimsuit – you know what I mean!)

   The photo I am looking at now shows a slightly chubbier Sophie in the early years of her marriage. We didn’t meet until I took my former wife and daughters to the US thirty years ago, while I was researching at the University of Pennsylvania. That would have been sixteen years after our first exchange of letters.

   I’m doing my best to keep this story tight but there’s so much that could be said. Focus on the point of this story! No telling about the 48 hour horror plane journey from here to their doorstep in Pennsylvania with two tiny kids. Just focus.

   The point is that by 1980 when we met for the first time, Sophie was no longer chubby; she was seriously overweight. Food habits in the house were scary. Apart from the sheer size of servings, the type of food was destined to stack on kilos. There were practically no fresh vegetables served. Even the potato was reconstituted. There was lot of red meat on the dinner table and some fresh fruit in a bowl, though more often than not the latter ended up in the waste disposal unit. It was more for display than to eat.

   Her husband was addicted to Pepsi Cola. I mean addicted. He drank litres of the stuff daily, though he didn’t eat that much food otherwise. He smoked like a chimney. As a result, he was comparatively skinny, but with an odd pot belly. Playing quite a bit of sport saved him from worse. He drank no alcohol; probably a good thing in his case. Their kids led an active lifestyle and that shielded them from the worst effects of the fat, salt and sugar ridden 'foods'.

   After each meal, large though the portions were, what wasn’t eaten was simply thrown away. Mountains of it.

   The irony was, you can get the most beautiful food in the US; any type you like – a wide variety of healthy, wholesome, tasty, and at that time at least, not expensive foods. I don’t think there’s a place in the world where you could live a healthier lifestyle, if you chose, than in middle class America.

   After dinner, we generally watched TV down in the den, and then before bed, pizza or some other takeaway was delivered as a late snack, enough for a full evening meal for us all.

   Don’t get me wrong now. Most of this food, except maybe for the whipped cream out of an aerosol can on the frozen desserts, was kinda fun. It was rather like party food all the time, and I think that while we were there we put on kilos, in spite of an attempt to be as active as possible.

   Such activity was impossible for Sophie. She had almost gone past the point where exercise was an option.

   About ten years after this, she, a friend of hers, and the kids came to Australia for a visit. I have to say, I was shocked. Overweight had turned into obesity. Not the worst in the world, but – and I am very ashamed to admit this – the point at which I felt embarrassed to be taking them anywhere in our little town. People stared at them as if they were freaks. Both of the women were the same size and shape. The car springs groaned when they got in.

   Both were pretty miserable. Food was their only pleasure, and it was the sort of junk food you can get on just about every block in every city in the USA – or so it seemed to me. I know that each had extra supplies of choc bars while here that they could dip into when alone.

   This is hard to write. These were salt of the earth people, good hearted and as generous as you’d get anywhere. I’ve always found that with Americans I know personally. And let me not give the impression I am Mr Perfect physically. Enforced limitation of physical activity and months of steroids keeping inflammation in my brain away have ensured that pot shouldn’t call kettle black.

   I’m just sorry, because Australia, like many other parts of the world entrapped by unhealthy fast foods, is suffering the same epidemic of obesity, with all its attendant problems. And the very same fast food chains are making a fortune on this addiction, promoting it, pretending that they care by donating to charities, schools and sporting activities.

   They don’t give a damn. Aided and abetted by the conscienceless advertising industry, it’s simply essential PR, and if it didn’t serve its marketing purpose it would be dropped in a flash. (It’s OK, after watching episodes of the Gruen Transfer and Mad Men, who expects the ad industry to have a conscience?) Costs are cut by exploiting cheap labour, undercutting the price of healthy foods. The strategy works like a charm. People – and the state – pay a very heavy price for it, in every way, and the longer they live, the heavier that price is going to be.

   Sophie died in her 50s, from health problems associated with her obesity. This should not have happened. She’s just one statistic in the millions that are coming; disguised attacks on the health of 'First World' inhabitants – another blight along with powerful illegal drugs and abused legal ones. Ironically, the so-called 'Third World' poor may be eating better with their fresh but sparse foods than many of us are, and may live longer.

   I am immensely saddened to look at this photo of a bright, optimistic girl, half of whose life was made a misery by the most dangerous addiction the prosperous have. Terrorism? Hah! The real danger comes from within, with the junk that we stuff down our throats. 


  1. Exactly, how tragic. And a news item tonight about 7 year old children having 'body image' issues. But if any caring politician wants to restrict advertising, the cry is 'nanny state', to denigrate the idea. Oh we must not lessen the profits of big business ,even if it means that the community pays the cost in medical care and dysfunctional society (apart from human misery and waste).

    And what's more!!! She cried angrily! I hear this morning that some towns in the US no longer can afford to have police ,so they are overrun with crime (burglaries etc) Bridges are falling down over there -all because the word 'taxes' has become so demonised. It's beginning to happen here too. Insanity! No money for schools, but plenty for prisons. How dumb is that!

  2. Yup, the 'disease' that will crush our civilisation is greed, the parasites responsible are the vested interests who undermine our democracy with their so called "lobbying", and the infection is though mass media, mainly commercial TV. Obesity appears to be one of the the most obvious symptoms, and it has to be said the prognosis is not looking good.

    The cure seems to me to be, chuck out you TV and reconnect with the real local world outside your front (and back) door. And use your shopping powers for good, not evil, to reduce the influence of the far too powerful corporations. Not sure how to solve greed though, seems to be an inherent human failing? I'm pretty sure less TV would help though.

  3. Just don't watch those crappy commercial channels :)


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