The Rarefied Few

I overshot yesterday based on what I thought was fast returning vim and vigor. After barely eating for days I prepared a “normal” lunch- scrambled eggs with blue cheese. Ate it with relative ease (remember it was agony to swallow water two days ago). Topped things off with two glasses of ice water. This is more food and water than I ate all three days previous.

I felt pretty good! Took a shower, changed my clothes, got my three year old bundled up so we could fetch his older sisters from school. Then… a proverbial truck hit me. I was suddenly shaky, weak, horribly nauseous. I managed to get the two of us into the car and preemptively brought along a metal bowl.

I sat in the parking lot watching the minutes tick by like molasses; normally I enjoy this small hiatus, waiting for the doors to open. I pressed my face against the cold window willing myself not to throw up. When the kids began to trickle out I walked back and forth in the courtyard, found my older daughter and whispered (I have completely lost my voice) in her ear I was sick, could she bring her sisters to the car? I made a beeline back to the car and started puking my guts into that metal bowl.

As all this unfolded I reflected I was joining the rarefied few of humanity who have vomited in church parking lots. Really, how often could this happen? People don’t use church reception halls for weddings like they used to. It couldn’t be many of us.

I kept puking and puking and puking. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of my daughter’s friend’s mother- I dearly hoped she couldn’t see what was going on. When all was said and done I had three girls plus my three year old staring at me aghast.

Mommy… asked my oldest daughter. Are you okay? 

Uh not really I managed in hoarse whisper, staring at the bowl brimming with vomit. I looked around blinking. Where to dispose of it? To my right was the grotto of the virgin mary; people leave roses and other flowers there. Nope. To my left was the backyard of the convent, modest snowbanks abutting the chain link fence. That might be a good spot? I’m sure the nuns would understand.

Bowl in hand I made my way through the exiting cars and neatly poured my stomach contents into the snowbank. I was surprised how watery it was; I must chew my food really well.

Back at the car I wiped my face with a towel, then wrapped the bowl in that towel, carefully placing it in the trunk. We drove home in silence… I guess the girls were in a state of shell shocked disgust.

Once home I dragged/ carried the uncooperative three year old up the stairs, asked my older daughter to man the ship and I collapsed into bed. Three hours later I woke with the song “Anthem” from Chess in my head.

So what happened? The penicillin doesn’t make me nauseous, I’ve repeatedly taken it on an empty stomach with no ill effect. Did I experience a mild version of refeeding syndrome? When a person goes a long period not eating, food must be reintroduced gradually or they can experience a nasty assortment of symptoms ranging from vomiting to edema. Or maybe I drank too much water after days of dehydration?

I guess it doesn’t matter because today I AM on the up and up! I can swallow food and water with minimal pain. Thank god for antibiotics.

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I L L I D I A N and S T O R M R A G E

Yesterday I was watching TV with my husband- or rather I was re-re-rewatching Game of Thrones while he was buried in his iPad, periodically giving gleeful play by plays of the latest sex scandals plaguing hollywood- when my 6 year old daughter trotted into the room.

Her: Mommy, I just fell in the lava.

Me: Can you talk to the angel? (running back to her body is, as of yet, too complicated)

Her: But I didn’t die.

Me: Oh… [pondering advice. Find the ramp to climb out? is there a ramp? I’ve never fallen in Ironforge lava. But Undercity has ramps and steps to climb out of sludge. Jump? Jump really, really high (slamming the space bar)?]

Uh… I finally said, Just click your hearthstone.

Okay! she said brightly, and trotted off.

My husband looked up from the iPad, blinking. That has to be the strangest conversation I’ve EVER heard.

I laughed because you know what? He’s right. Say what you will about the game, but once within the warm embrace of World of Warcraft, no matter how amateur or deep your involvement, you have migrated to a different dimension with its own lingo.

And don’t knock video games for little kids! My now 18 year old learned to read playing WoW. As a young child she struggled for years with reading. Despite our coaching she could barely sound out words, much less understand what she was struggling to pronounce.

Anyway… I think she was 8 or 9… World of Warcraft entered our house. She was transfixed!  Mesmerized! And absolutely desperate to read those darn quests.

It took a while but within 6 months she was, for the first time in her life, able to read with meaning. By age 10 she could read with complete fluency and tore through books as though they were going out of style. She read through the entire young adult section of one library branch (just as my son read through the entire adult history section) necessitating that we switch to a different library branch.

All my kids learned to read at different ages. My oldest son could read before he could speak, and could read fluently by age 5. We caught him reading Money Magazine over my husband’s shoulder at that tender age of 6.

My two next youngest daughters learned to read around age 5 with fluency. Then the next daughter- she struggled terribly and couldn’t read at all until age 9 or so (Minecraft, not WoW was her inspiration) but once up and running she too burned through books with alarming speed. The next daughter after that struggled, not quite as much as her older sister. She prefers graphic novels and draws her own snarky comics depicting the horrors of math class.

This 6 year old appears to be in the “struggle group.” She developed an aversion to books and refused to let us to read to her.

Recently I decided to renew my subscription to WoW. Not sure why- I mean I’m two expansions behind, don’t have much free time, and I occasionally find the game tedious. But the 6 year old took an instant liking to the game- as her sister before her, she was absolutely mesmerized and desperate to understand what exactly was going on.

She can now read and spell a number of emotes- you know, /sleep, /dance, /sit- meticulously typing them out at the keyboard. She listens intently as we read the quests, copies down server names (imagine I L L I D I A N and S T O R M R A G E penciled in cute little girl handwriting) and has learn to navigate the maps. She began asking about other words outside the game. How do you spell “look?” What does c-l-i-c-k spell? She no longer has that aversion to books, spelling, or even her homework. Yesterday she was pestering me midday to hit the books- usually homework with her is a last minute, teeth pulling enterprise.

So if your kids love video games, don’t panic. Look for games that are language heavy, require map navigation, and make sure to have a little faith. As far as my WoW subscription, can you say CLASSIC SERVERS??? I’ll gladly hand over my non-existent paycheck for that.

Escape From New York

Yesterday I left Staten Island for the first time in nine years. That’s right, I hadn’t stepped foot off the island, even for other boroughs, in nine long years. Actually that time went by rather quickly.

The drive was surprisingly non-horrific. With two and five year olds in tow I braced myself for the worst. A couple older kids came along for the ride and Mom did the driving, which was heaven sent- I dislike highway driving to the point of phobia.

We went over the Goethals, the turnpike, various parkways. We stopped for lunch at McDonald’s; I had a double quarter pounder sans ketchup and I threw out the bun (not before offering it to the rest of the family, they declined). It was awkward but doable eating the floppy hamburger patties with my fingers, the meat was terribly overcooked. It was edible, but barely, to the tune of $5. My little guys shared french fries and chicken nuggets, mom had a salad, older kids had an egg mcmuffin, more nuggets and fries. For drinks we had water (me), lemonade, mocha latte and diet coke.

I was surprised how many black people and hispanics are now north of NYC. Nine years ago non-asian minorities faded out a certain radius beyond the metro area with the exception of Springfield, MA. Most of the diners at that connecticut McDonald’s were black or hispanic, and it didn’t turn all/mostly white until Vermont.

After five hours we reached my hometown; I didn’t move here until age seven but it’s essentially my hometown. I wondered if I would start crying after all these years. But it was anticlimactic. There were the gorgeous mountains, lush green rolling in distant landscape. There was the guns-n-ammo shop. More lush greenery, an auto shop. Some kind of manufacturing plant (the sole one in the area, industry here has been decimated). The veterinarian where our sick pets were euthanized so long ago. Pretty colonials and victorians, many but not all in disrepair.

We arrived home to my very grouchy father. Grouchy is my dad’s version of happy, it only goes downhill from there. My little guy was all over the place while we unpacked- I tried to lock him in a playroom via baby gate but he howled pitifully so I let him escape.

My parents had dinner but I told them I would eat later. I went for a walk around local roads and hopped briefly into the woods, climbing a steep incline padded with pine needles and thin weeds. Pine trees towered overhead like solemn angels. I sat under one and patiently slapped mosquitoes as they landed on my skin. Later I ate some salmon and semi-raw hamburgers. My mother was horrified as she packed them out of sight into the fridge, asking wasn’t I worried about eating rare beef? Nope.

This morning I went to walmart. I needed shampoo and razors, my five year old requested pretzels. My mom warned me: the town looked worse than ever, but as I drove it looked the same. There was a new CVS. There was an abandoned something or other. There was the middle school where I was mercilessly tormented by my peers. I peeked down the street to my childhood best friend’s house- I considered driving past but that would feel stalkerish. I have no idea if her parents are even still living, and she has long since moved away.

Walmart… it looked exactly the same as nine years ago, except the shopping carts were in terrible shape (nothing irks me more than lousy shopping carts) and the walls were dinged up, in need of repainting. Two women said hello and politely asked how are you? This jarred me. They don’t do that in Staten Island, not that Staten Islanders aren’t friendly in their own way.

I am here for my aunt’s funeral. It’s all very sad. She should have lived a good twenty, thirty years further. God gives and god takes away.

Zootopia Looks Like Staten Island

After all the hype, after my mother raved about it, after my children raved about it– including my 19 year old nerd son with ice in the veins– after my daughter put the dvd on view for her psych ward– I watched Zootopia once it was on netflix. I’ll reserve my observations for a future post, but I could not help but notice that the city of Zootopia greatly resembles Staten Island.

zoo1

zoo2

staten-island

I’ll note this: if having a tiny bunny on the police force is novel, how does Zootopia police its rodent population? That doesn’t make sense.

Vikings Better than Vikings

When I wrote my review of BBC’s The Last Kingdom I had not yet finished the 8 episode season. Binge watching is difficult with so many kids nipping at my ankles, my four year old being the absolute worst in this regard. When she’s awake she asks for something or requests my audience at regular 1-3 minute intervals. Sometimes she just wants to stare at me like a creepy stalker, or press her face against my stomach. It may sound cute- and it is, for the first few hours- but after 14 straight hours of being followed, demanded upon, and clung to, I’m ready to lock myself in the bathroom with shaking hands. Then she crams her hands through the space under the door, like the clever velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Anyway, while in the midst of trying to watch The Last Kingdom in three minute intervals I recommended it to my 14 year old daughter who is the one who clued me in to Vikings (which she watched while in Game of Thrones withdrawal). I warned her it wasn’t as good as Vikings and seemed much lower budget. However, like Vikings, it includes a wonderful bromance- between Uhtred and Leofric. She managed to burn through all 8 episodes in 24 hours and returned the next day with the pronouncement: Mom, it’s better than Vikings!

But what could be better than Vikings when it comes to vikings? Maybe I just wasn’t ready to be unfaithful to King Ragnar, but by the time I did finish The Last Kingdom I realized she was correct. The Last Kingdom is far more cerebral, nuanced, and sophisticated in terms of characterization than is Vikings. I’m going to assume this is because the book series it’s based on is well written- next time I place an order on amazon I’m going to buy it.

King Alfred (played by David Dawson) comes to the fore in brilliant manner as the season unfolds, both while in exile and in a decisive battle against the viking hordes. While my husband kept accusing me of watching yet another viking series to ogle the hunky danes, King Alfred is by far my favorite character in the series and is beautifully played by Dawson.

the-last-kingdom-alfred-david-dawson
world conquest in his eyes

A surprise close favorite to Alfred is his nephew Aetholwold. I won’t give anything away, but Aetholwold is faced with a moral crossroads that could have altered the course of human history. And the scene where Aethelwold deflects attention from Uhtred during their dual punishment is priceless and not to be missed.

The vikings are given less screen time in this series, though The Scariest Viking Award goes to Skorpa (played by Swedish actor Jonas Malmsjo). For some reason he always has blood on his mouth and a deranged look in his eyes.

skorpa
someone had a low carb breakfast

So, if I haven’t yet convinced you to watch Vikings, I better have convinced you to watch The Last Kingdom! On that note the four year old just woke up. Like Skorpa, I think she would eat me for breakfast if she could.

Barbie Heaven

Yesterday we had the incongruous family outing of heading to the beach– the psychiatric facility is right by the one I take the girls to. So I dropped off my husband at the psych unit, then continued to the water with three girls in tow: the 14, 12, and 4 year olds.

“If there’s no garbage in the water,” I announced [you know you live in NYC when you have to preface statements with if there’s no garbage…] “I’m going swimming.”

The older ones took bets on how far I would go (to those unfamiliar with the beaches around here, the water can be chilly). “I bet she’ll go up to her knees,” said Dea, the 12 year old.

“Waist at the most,” quipped the overachiever.

Well there was no garbage in the water so I took off my sunhat and waded in. It was chilly but not unbearable, I dove underwater to the accolades of my girls still on the sand. I swam back and forth, dove under again, did a backstroke. It dawned on me I couldn’t remember the last time I went swimming.

“Hey mom!” shouted the overachiever. “I didn’t know you could swim!”

I wanted to tell her– I had forgotten I could too, but I dove back under, surfaced like a seal and floated in the gray waters of the Atlantic. There was the Verrazano; there was a passenger jet heading to JFK; there was the gaggle of fat russian men, lounging in lapping water (I don’t know if it’s a Staten Island thing, but it’s mainly men who go in the water at the beaches). They chatted to and fro in Russian while I dove under again. Salty water streamed down my face when I resurfaced; I wiped droplets from my eyes and pushed back my soggy hair. This was paradise!

My 14 year old got the 4 year old on her back, piggy back, and waded in to her waist. I shouted Mommy shark! went under, and grabbed at their ankles to the 4 year old’s sheer delight. Dea darted in and out of the ocean, looking like a starved, wet rat.

I don’t wear bathing suits. My reasoning is, I wouldn’t walk around in public in my underwear, so why would I walk around in public in a bathing suit that probably shows more than my underwear? No thanks! So I wore leggings, a skirt to my knees, a tank top and a long sleeved shirt for good measure. I figure if nothing else it will protect me from UV rays. I may have gotten a few curious stares but didn’t care.

The girls either followed suit or were too lazy to find their own bathing suits. So there the four of us were, fully clothed, horsing around in the water.

Later we went to the playground where the 4 year old misplaced her Barbie. Back in the car, noting Barbie’s absence, Dea gibed She went to Barbie heaven. This satisfied the 4 year old who spared us a torrent of tears, and she fell sound, sound asleep on the way home, her cheeks flushed bright red from sun.

 

Dance Moms

I’m ashamed to say I’ve been watching Dance Moms on netflix. I tried watching it upon first airing, but found it painfully boring and mind-numbingly shallow. So why I can stomach it now, I’m unsure. Perhaps, armed with the power of streaming, I can skip the worst parts. As my daughter Amadea intoned: it’s so horrible it’s mesmerizing.

For those who don’t know, Dance Moms is a reality show revolving around The Abby Lee Dance Company, her lead team of dancers, and those dancers’ mothers. Here are my thoughts.

  • Abby Lee. I actually like her. She’s tough and no-nonsense. It’s not unusual for her to tell a crying child to suck it up and deal with it. We need more adults like this in the world, because children these days are coddled. I often think my worst mistake as a parent has been being too easy on my kids. Abby is also really fat, which is weird for a dance coach presiding over stick-thin little girls. But it doesn’t seem to bother her; she dresses well for her weight and has success with speed dating.
  • The moms. The “dance moms” provide the bulk of drama in the series.These women are so unbelievably brassy, catty, shallow, back stabbing and emotionally vicious that I had to wonder if it was all scripted. But I honestly don’t think it is, at least not entirely; these ladies are genuinely horrid. They wear thick layers of makeup such that they appear to be sporting masks, and while not fat, they’re all chunky and dumpy. They drink loads of alcohol. The moms remind of Kate from Kate Plus 8. In fact many of them look like her. Is this a Pennsylvania thing? Nasty personalities, and harshly dyed hair?
  • The girls. The dancers are sweet, hard working little kids. I felt bad for them being caught up in this web of vicarious living at the hands of their crazed mothers.
  • The dancing. The dancing and dance techniques are subpar. They would be laughed out of town by a real dance school such as ABT or the Kirov. Their dance style is best described as stripper routines plus gymnastics, and even the best dancers are not that good. Which leads us to:
  • Hypersexualization. The costumes they put these little kids in are insane. I think every pedophile on earth must be glued to this series. A typical costume looks like underwear with a sprinkle of sequins. What the heck? I can’t imagine putting my girls in these outfits. What is everyone thinking? And it’s not just the costumes; the dances contain more bumping, grinding, and booty shaking than an evening in Atlantic City would provide. Except these kids are nine years old.

dancemoms
you thought I was exaggerating

However, in watching this series I got the same feeling I derived from Toddlers in Tiaras. As crazed as the parents might be, they’re deeply involved with their kids’ lives and make sure the children are always busy with life outside the home. Again, if I were to fault myself as a parent it’s that I’m entirely too checked out. I feed them, I bathe them (the younger ones anyway) but beyond that they do their thing and I do my thing. Am I supposed to be ferrying them around town to a myriad of extracurricular experiences, watching their every developmental move? Maybe, but I don’t. I’m not nearly the helicopter parent these dance moms are. The closest I come is doling advice out to the the overachiever, who practically begs for it. Quite frankly I feel I deserve a medal for getting them to school on time for three years in a row. I do deserve that, don’t I?

The Dark Side of Breastfeeding

Having had kids over a span of 17 years, I’ve been privy to changing attitudes toward breastfeeding over that period. When I gave birth to my almost 18 year old way back when, the hospital was barely tolerant of breastfeeding and you had to put up a fight to make sure your baby wasn’t given bottles. Lactation support was nonexistent and you generally felt like a weirdo every time you bared your chest. 15 or so years before that it was almost impossible to breastfeed in a hospital- I had one woman describe to me how nurses threatened her with social services if she didn’t give her newborn a bottle. So I began having children right on the cusp of the Breastfeeding Enlightenment, where mothers were encouraged to breastfeed, hospitals are now plastered with pro-breastfeeding posters, and lactation consultants give out their cell number with an invitation to call anytime.

I nursed all of my children anywhere from 12 months to nearly 2 years. That’s a lot of breastfeeding. I once sat down and calculated how many calories of breastmilk I’ve produced just based on infant weight gain, and it was in the 400,000 range. While I don’t regret breastfeeding, and I’m currently exclusively nursing my 8th, I wish I’d been better informed on the difficulties of “the womanly art.”

1) It hurts at first, and for some women (like me) the pain can be excruciating the first few days or even weeks. The pain fades over the first month and usually disappears by the 4th or 5th week.

2) You may be prone to plugged ducts and mastitis. In some women any kind of upper body exertion (like carrying groceries, or slinging your baby) can trigger plugged milk ducts which can quickly turn into mastitis. And speaking of excruciating pain, mastitis is horrific.

3) Once you get mastitis, you’re at greater risk of getting it again. Some women will get it recurrently with it returning every few weeks.

4) The health and social boons attributed to breastfeeding may not in fact be a result of all that breastmilk. Correlation does not imply causation. For instance, it was widely reported at one point that breastfeeding increases child IQ. Researchers eventually realized smarter mothers were choosing to breastfeed, and thus their children were genetically prone to have higher IQs. Other benefits attributed to breastfeeding probably follow suit, like the lessened chance of obesity and higher socioeconomic status.

5) Once a baby acclimates to the breast they may well refuse a bottle, even a bottle of expressed breastmilk. This leads to a very scary situation where your physical presence is a fragile infant’s sole source of sustenance. Where you go, he must go, which makes things like going to the dentist, running out to the store, or having needed surgery increasingly complicated. Same goes for if the baby needs extended medical attention. While it’s nice to be joined at the hip to your cute newborn, it’s also frightening to contemplate what exactly would happen if he lost access to your boobs.

6) You may not be able to pump. Some women, despite having good supply, cannot pump. Even with a hospital grade rental I get almost nothing. So if you ever are faced with separation from the baby (such as a medical emergency, a career outside the home, or a shared custody situation) and people tell you “just pump,” it may not be so easy.

7) If your milk takes more than 48 hours to come in, your baby may become dehydrated and calorie deprived, which can lead to jaundice, which can lead to your being separated from him while he’s under lights.

8) You may not lose weight while breastfeeding. For every woman who claims to reach a size zero while nursing her baby, there will be another woman who gained. In theory body fat should metabolize into breastmilk, but anecdotally I have encountered countless women who describe having to eat like a horse to maintain an adequate supply, or whose body simply won’t shed weight until she weans.

9) You may not be comfortable nursing in public, and/or, your baby may refuse to nurse in public, or may otherwise be picky about nursing conditions. A couple of my babies simply wouldn’t nurse in public, too distracted by the noise and activity around them. Another wouldn’t nurse unless I was completely topless (not happening in public). This will further constrain your movements since you’ll have to time outings between when the baby is hungry.

That’s about all the negatives I can think of. In fairness I should point out the light side of breastfeeding (yes, I watched the new Star Wars trailer yesterday-can you tell?).

1) It’s free.

2) Baby poop produced by breastfed infants doesn’t smell.

3) Breastfeeding protects the mother from breast cancer to some degree, but whether this is due to suppressed menstruation, exposure of breast tissue to breastmilk, or some other factor, is unclear.

My Kids Love Pop-Tarts

poptarts

In a recent post I mentioned the remarkable self-regulation my kids have when it comes to pacing food intake. It dawned on me then, that I couldn’t recall a single argument they’ve had over food, despite being a large family with a sometimes limited dessert supply. It’s not that my kids don’t argue. They’ve had endless arguments, shouting matches, even years-long feuds over stuff like:

  • plagiarism and character theft. God forbid one kid writes a story or draws a comic that remotely resembles someone else’s story line in any way, shape, or manner.
  • access to books. One kid gets a book for their birthday and all the kids want to read it. Horrible fights ensue.
  • who gets to hold the remote.
  • what to watch on netflix.
  • chairs (“I was sitting there!!”)
  • space on the sofa
  • pillows- some kids hoard 5 or 6 pillows for themselves while expecting the other kids to sleep with just one.
  • access to the computer. This is probably the greatest source of conflict between the girls (my son has his own computer). I have to admit, ever since my 12 yr old got her iPad for school, the tension has lessened on this front.
  • lack of participation in chores compared to the complainer’s valiant efforts.

But there was never arguing- or even tension- about food. Until pop-tarts entered our household.

The first pop-tart came into our lives many years ago when my son’s friend gave him a piece. After a lot of begging from him, I bought a few boxes here and there but they were too expensive, and not even really food, so I stopped. Fast forward to last year and my oldest daughter began buying them individually during her debate team away trips. Upon her return she talked about those pop-tarts to her sisters as though describing an exotic vacation to faraway islands, and occasionally saved slivers for them to taste. When I finally got a membership to Costco, that same daughter immediately noticed they sell pop-tarts, and cheap. A huge box is $8, that box contains four smaller boxes, and each smaller box contains 12 “pastries.” She offered to buy them with her own money. I agreed as long as she shared with the rest of the kids (I imagined her eating through all four boxes in one day.) She readily agreed and the pop-tarts came home.

There was pandemonium when those pop-tarts crossed the threshold. We may as well have been holding the holy grail; they tore open the boxes, determined who wanted which flavor and did the math, based on that, to see who got how many. Despite their joy I felt guilty feeding them something so distinctly unhealthy. At least with their horrible lunches, I have the excuse of needing it to pack efficiently and be appetizing during the rushed lunch period. So I steered clear of pop-tarts for a while until their begging reached such a fever pitch that I gave in. I bought what I thought was an ample pop-tart supply and laid it out on the table like Agamemnon offering up Iphigenia. They descended like wolves.

Costco offers but two flavors: strawberry and brown sugar and they have to be purchased together. Strawberry is a solid favorite with the girls while my son prefers brown sugar. This leads to a surplus for him and a deficit for the girls. This morning Amadea, who never eats breakfast no matter how much I plead, pulled a chair to an upper kitchen cabinet and began scrounging.

“What are you doing?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. I’ve never seen her scrounge in any cabinet, ever. She barely eats.

Oh,” she said nonchalantly. “Just looking for something I might want for breakfast.”

She skulked away empty handed only to return a few minutes later, climbed back on the chair, and began digging anew.

“Did you find something to eat?” I asked.

“Ah!” she said with clearly feigned surprise. “What is this glint of tinfoil I see?” Lo and behold she extracted a sealed strawberry pop-tart packet from the back recesses of the cabinet.

“Wow,” I said. “Someone must have squirreled that away.” Ever slow on the uptake, it didn’t occur to me until later that “someone” was her.

When my six year old caught wind of Amadea eating a strawberry pop-tart she grew hysterical. “It’s a strawberry one!” she howled piteously. I told her she could have one when she got home from school, but there was no time for more breakfast now. Unassuaged by this she kept howling, and I later found her slumped in the back staircase, head buried in her uniform skirt while she wept. Her speech was garbled but I could make out “… strawberry… strawberry… strawberry.” Well this had reached emotional heights I hadn’t anticipated. I unwrapped one of the few remaining strawberry pop-tarts and handed it to her, advising her almost apologetically she could eat in the last few minutes before they needed to leave for school.

HBO: The Weight of the Nation

The Weight of the Nation is a 4-part 2012 documentary, free to watch on HBO and youtube, detailing the health and policy implications of skyrocketing obesity in American adults and children. Part 1 looks in graphic detail at the health consequences of obesity, complete with an examination of post-mortem hearts from normal and overweight individuals, and close-ups of diabetic foot lesions. Part 2 looks at weight loss methods and profiles weight loss success stories. Part 3 looks at the obesity crisis in children, and Part 4 examines the general psychological and physiological triggers for overeating: our hunter gatherer stomachs have not caught up with the first world environment of food excess, and we sit around staring at screens while our ancient ancestors were scrambling up trees and fleeing from wolves. This last segment also pushes fruits and vegetables as a weight loss boon (even though neither makes you lose weight) going so far as to suggest corn and soy stop being subsidized “so broccoli can be on an even playing field.” One farmer “guarantees” people will buy broccoli by the boatload if it were cheaper (for the record, broccoli is already cheap- I can buy a a huge bag of florets for $5 at Costco, frozen florets are even cheaper).

While interesting to watch, this is a “just okay” documentary. Often the most engrossing parts of the films are the quirky obesity experts who deliberate the issue. It’s also very long- it took me days to get through all four parts- and different experts in different sections contradict one another. For example, in Part 1 we’re told that a calorie is a calorie, but in part 3, childhood obesity is blamed on “unhealthy food” including the ever-evil corn and soy (predictably we see a “teaching breakfast” where junk food saturated children are exposed to fruits and vegetables). In part 2 we are told that exercise is ineffective for weight loss, yet in Part 3 the lack of a federal gym requirement is faulted for children’s expanding waistlines. There are also a few assertions I’m not sure are true, or at least have not been definitively proven. One claim is that two people of identical weight and height will have different caloric maintenance levels if one person started out at a heavier weight. This doesn’t make sense to me and I’d like to know how the studies concluding this were conducted, because self-reporting of food intake is notoriously inaccurate, particularly in people who have a tendency to overeat. In fact there’s a TV series based on this phenomena, the BBC Secret Eaters (which is available on youtube if you’re interested).

The Weight of the Nation delves into one facet of obesity I’d never considered: there is a lot of profit made off the obese, and not much financial incentive to solve obesity. The care for obesity related diabetes alone reaps billions for the healthcare industry; the diet industry rakes in billions, and the food industry would lose billions if people ate less. That’s a lot of billions resting on the status quo! So while we may give lip service to solving the crisis, who, beyond the individual, would actually benefit from doing so?

Even more sobering, many of the obesity experts and policy makers featured in the film are overweight themselves. For example, the eminently intelligent and thoughtful Kelly Brownell appears to be morbidly obese. You have to ask yourself: if the best educated and most aware of the risks can’t manage to stay within a normal weight range, what hope is there for the rest of us? This dovetails with my theory that your average person simply cannot not be overweight in an environment of food excess. We’re biologically programmed to eat, eat some more, and maybe more on top of that!

By the conventional wisdom presented in this documentary, my own children should be overweight. Except for the occasional bite of lettuce they don’t eat vegetables (yes, I’ve tried, a lot!); only a few like fruit. They eat much maligned kid foods like chicken nuggets, french fries, pizza, potato chips, and fruit juice. They’re not athletic in the least and spend too much time on video games and TV. But not only are they not overweight, they’re slightly underweight or on the low end of normal. Even my oldest daughter, who gained weight when she started corticosteroids, is on the low end of normal BMI.

I have no food rules and never limit how much of what they can take. They don’t even have to eat meals if they don’t feel like it, or can opt for something different from what I’ve cooked. The only real rule is “no wasting.” There are a few foods I never buy- like soda or heavily processed foods- but there is plenty of junk and borderline junk in the house. And after packing healthy lunches for much of last school year only to have it returned home uneaten and the kids starving, I gave up and began packing foods that fly in the face of new USDA school lunch guidelines.

One thing I’ve noticed with my children is that, for whatever reason, they are amazingly good at self regulating food intake. For instance they love the huge, decadent muffins from Costco but will only eat a fourth at a time.

costco muffins
two fourths to go

I normally don’t buy candy but we have a box of Hershey bars in the house. After a month, and between 7 children, it’s only half gone. When I do try to get them to sit down for dinner they take a few bites, announce they’re full and leap up from the table. This is maddening when I have fantasies of a pleasant sit down meal with my kids, but I guess it’s good for their health and future weight. As for why they are like this, I wish I knew; then I could share my secret with all the parents out there. Perhaps they are genetically predisposed to have small appetites because as much as I love food, I can only eat a little bit at a time unless I make a conscious effort to stuff myself. Maybe my complete lack of food rules allows them to be “in touch” with their true hunger signals. But I really don’t know.

As far as the documentary, if you have five hours to spare I definitely recommend it though it’s not the best food documentary I’ve seen. It does come with some fascinating scenes (like when cardiologists illustrate heart disease with actual human hearts) and people, both those struggling with their weight and the clinicians trying to help them.