Monday, November 30, 2009

Gordito or Gordita? Obesity: It's Not Just About Looks

Fernando BOTERO Angulo

I was sitting in my car, gazing out at the parade of students rushing to their next classes, and I thought, “These students are really fat.” For the rest of the day, as I walked down the halls, as I watched my students coming in and leaving my classes, I kept thinking, “They are really fat.” 

Until the weather turns so cold that students have to put on layers, there's a lot of flesh on display: Throughout the summer and until it turns too cold to do it, I see young women wearing super-tight tops with plunging necklines (yes, I know, that's a funny thing to wear to class), or short tops that show off their waists so you can see the tattoos on their lower backs. I wonder if the display is deliberate or if they are wearing such tight clothing because they are outgrowing them.

I am no fashion model myself; I have had a serious weight problem against which I have struggled for most of my adult life, and my family members are fat, but I wasn’t heavy when I was 21 and when I think back to my classmates, I can only remember a single classmate in high school and one in law school who were obese.

When I was 22, I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and the transition from walking everywhere to a car culture really made a difference. I started to put on weight. I was working as an elementary school teacher, earning $500/mo. We didn’t have much money and eating cheap was important. Carbohydrates are very filling and I didn't count calories.

Brooklyn pupuseria

Pupusas--I gain five pounds just thinking about them

Maybe it is a characteristic of what I think of as “poor people's food” but the comfort foods that I crave compete for the fattiest food on the planet: pupusas stuffed with cheese or ground pork; tamales made with lard and cornmeal; fried fish or fried chicken; chorizo with eggs; fried platanos with beans and sour cream; yucca con chicharones…fat, fat,fat. Just spread that manteca right on my thighs; I can feel my arteries hardening. I don't know how anyone eating a Salvadoran diet can be skinny; I don't know how they can avoid heart disease. Even though I crave it, I seldom eat it; the guilt is so strong that once I've given in to it, it haunts me for weeks, keeping me away for two or three months until the next time I can no longer resist.  

It's not just about looks. Latinos/as prefer softer-figured women to the anorexic American ideal, but diabetes, high blood pressure, arterial sclerosis don't check to see if your name is Smith or Gonzalez.

I don't know what I would do if there was a Salvadoran pupusa shack on every other corner, distributed like McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy’s restaurants. (In El Salvador or Guatemala, there are pupusa sellers everywhere, on the streets and in public parks.)  Fast food is easy, available and cheap. You can come home exhausted and it takes five minutes to buy it and another five to eat it. But the calories pack the weight on. I resist those fast food hamburgers just by remembering something that happened to my dog. I had been craving a hamburger so I stopped by one of those drive-through windows and bought one. I ate about half of it then gave the rest of the meat, alone, to my dog. This omnivore, with the indestructible stomach who can eat anything without getting sick, gobbled it up then ran outside and threw it up. That is the last time I ate a fast food hamburger. 

Sad to say, most of my Latina/o students, as most of my black students, are well on their way to the dreaded diabetes diagnosis but the problems cut across races and ethnicities. Americans are fat. I wish I could say something to my students but I have no credibility on this matter and it crosses a line that is unacceptable for a professor in any case. My own attempts to lose weight have been erratic. I lose it and then get stressed out or lose my resolve and I gain it back. Sometimes, I just want to say, “You don't want to look like me.” 

Recently, one of the historically black colleges, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, announced that it would no longer allow obese students to graduate without taking a course in nutrition, That's harsh but I can understand the desperation that Lincoln's administration much feel. It is an overwhelming problem for Americans; I don't know how you fix it.

I want to tell them, change your habits NOW. Lose the weight NOW. If you don't, when you're 50 and facing the results of poor eating habits and overweight, including diabetes and assorted other weight-related problems, you’ll be sorry. I am. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The General Education Curriculum, Again

 Green Hall, Home of URI's Administration

We have a new provost who took one look at our general education requirements, declared them a mess, and mandated a complete revision. I have been at this university since 1993 and this is at least the third full revision since my arrival.

I suppose it would not speak well of a new provost if he were to approve the general education requirements as they are. Someone might think he was not doing his job. How could he put a line in his curriculum vitae reading, “Revised general education curriculum,” if he had merely studied them, spoken to the faculty leadership about the process, and decided that they were reasonable and worth keeping? No; that would not do at all. Who would hire him in the future?

There is nothing like revising a general education curriculum for keeping faculty busy and out of the administrators’ hair.  It may be the number one time-waster for faculty members. We continue to work on it dutifully, believing in our hearts that it matters; that this one will be the definitive one for our generation.

These continual revisions make no sense. It isn't like we are testing one educational method; giving it time to mature and see the results. It's more the Louis XIV-approach to the flowerbeds at the Palace at Versailles: If he looked at a bed of flowers that bored him, he'd order it replaced. The gardeners had to have full greenhouses to be ready to change a bed of mature red flowers for a bed of mature other-colored flowers on a whim. The result had nothing to do with taste or elegance. 

We should have known that the years spent working diligently on the general education requirements would be wasted the minute a new provost appeared on the scene. It has nothing to do with educating our students; it’s just being ready to throw out, willy-nilly, everything we've worked for, at the king's whim. And yet at the heart of this process is the sincere desire of the faculty to prepare our students for life-long learning. I don't know what the provost wants but I know that what WE want, which is why we will jump through all the hoops yet again. The sad thing is that the students will never realize how cynically their teachers have been manipulated. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

2012: The End of the World?

Tradition says that the Maya cycle of time will end on December 21, 2012. Should we prepare ourselves for the end of the world?  The Maya calendar is slated to end on that fateful day but does it signal the end of time as we know it? The next presidential election is due to take place in October of that year—could the Maya have had a presentiment? Are the Republicans coming back in November 2012? Argh!! On the other hand, look on the bright side: if the world is coming to an end on December 21, they’ll never get a chance to actually come to power.

Not to put too fine a point on it, ancient Maya tradition also required human sacrifice for the sun to rise every morning so I wouldn’t place much faith in fear-mongers selling 2012 as the end of the world.

All kidding aside, I have been wondering where the deep desire for apocalyptic disaster comes from. The United States is one of the most religious countries in existence; over one-quarter (26.3%) of our population is made up of Christian Evangelicals who believe in the literal truth of the Bible including the visions of the Apocalypse and the coming Rapture; that is a huge number of Americans waiting eagerly to catch the train to the other world.  While Evangelicals make up the the largest single group of believers in the United States, Roman Catholics come in at 22% and mainline Protestants are 16% by comparison. 

However, one could hardly expect them to be spreading the word about ancient Maya writings; the ancient Maya represent the most “pagan” of cultures to the Evangelicals; would they give any credence to such a prediction?

The noise about “the end of time” is coming from some of the New Age believers in our midst. They combine religious beliefs cafeteria style, including whatever catches their fancy and they imbue them with significance. Religion in the United States tends to be an exercise in cherry-picking in any case because the traditional barriers between religious groups do not exist here. There are no ghettos confining the Jews; the RC Church may still preach hell and damnation but as many Catholics admit to having abortions as non-Catholic even though it is a practice strictly forbidden by the church on pain of eternal damnation; there are intermarriages between members of just about every religious group you could imagine. 

Jews come in Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and atheist varieties. But you will also find “JewBu's” who are those born into Judaism who still have some identification with Judaism yet incorporate many Buddhist practices and beliefs into their lives. 

Atheists and agnostics are allowed to live in peace in this country (as compared to Europe in the days of the Spanish Inquisition) and even to publish obnoxious screeds about all the religious groups surrounding them. (Though if, like Salman Rushdie, you publish something that is perceived as anti-Muslim, you will be in deep trouble.)

Some of the authentically ancient cultures of this hemisphere, the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, Olmec, and Toltec cultures (most of which were virtually eradicated by the Spanish), have been adopted by some of the New Agers, even if they have only a very slender reed on which to fasten that belief. We know next to nothing about Toltec culture, one of the oldest of the pre-Columbian societies, for instance, and scholars argue about the little we do know. Most of the New Age interpretation of these ancient cultures is, in my opinion, nonsense. 

Some followers of the Toltec Way for instance, revere the writings of the late Carlos Castañeda, a 20th century anthropologist who went into rural Mexico during the 60s and not only studied their ways but became a bit of shaman. His use of the word Toltec, to mean generic sages or "spiritual warriors" contributed to the confusion over the culture. He died in the 1990s, to the shock and disappointment of his followers who could not believe that he would die, especially of something as pedestrian as cancer. His modern followers have taken up and expanded his practices. These gurus have quite a following. 

I actually had a brush with Castañeda through one of his followers. I met NuryAlexander in the elevator at UCLA where she was in the same graduate program I was in. She was very elusive but eventually she told me that she was Castañeda’s daughter; I discovered that many of my classmates knew this fact. This was in the late 1980s and I was quite impressed by this information, particularly when she brought him around to UCLA for lunch on my birthday in December 1989. He gave me an autographed copy of his “Power of Silence.” I never questioned that she was his daughter; after all, who else would have been able to convince the secretive Carlos Castañeda to come with an autographed book to the birthday of a total stranger?

I knew Castañeda’s writings: Everyone of my generation did. I found them curious but had never been drawn into doing drugs beyond briefly sampling marijuana, and was less enraptured of him as were others I knew.

I remember at the time being tickled with the gift but disappointed that I was not invited to attend one of his circles. Nury told me that he said I was too “of the world.” I was not sure what that meant but I chalked it up to my dogged grounded-ness—I have never been in the airy-fairy crowd. Indeed, I studied history because I prefer things that are down to earth.

I lost track of Nury; she was very hard to keep in touch with. Then last week, things took a strange turn: As I was looking into "the Toltec Way," in preparation for this entry in my blog, I Googled “Castañeda”; the first entry that came up was a Wikipedia article about him. I read this passage:

A real girl was brought forward at various public sessions Castaneda and Tiggs and introduced as the Blue Scout, and Tiggs was referenced as her mother. This is strange because that girl was someone named Patricia Partin who had real, known biological parents other than Castaneda and Tiggs.

The remains of Partin, sometimes referred to by Castaneda as Blue Scout, Nury Alexander and/or Claude, were found in 2003 near where her abandoned car had been discovered a few weeks after Castaneda's death in 1998, on the edge of Death Valley. Her remains were in a condition requiring DNA identification, which was made in 2006.[6]   

Nury Alexander? Our Nury Alexander, my classmate?  I am still in shock. I was so taken aback that I simply shelved this blog entry as I absorbed this news about my old friend.

I am deeply saddened that Nury was drawn into a cult that led to her untimely death.  I knew her as Castañeda’s daughter; the truth is far weirder: She was his legally adopted daughter but also his lover. We, her classmates and professors at UCLA, did not know her real name nor did we know anything about her real life, neither as Nury Alexander nor as her previous identity, Patricia Partin. Reading all of the articles about her involvement with Castañeda, I feel a sickening sense of shock and disgust. How could have been going on so close to us and we never knew? 

I have never given much thought to the members of my generation who were lost to drugs and cults; bad enough that 58,200 were lost in the jungles of Vietnam. I have known people drawn into the Moonies, and to Scientology, which is regarded as a cult by some people.  Now that I consider the so-called gurus selling the Toltec Way as a mystical ideology, I am angry.  How many more will waste their precious lives while making snake-oil salesmen rich?

Atheists see little difference between organized religions and cults like Castañeda’s but there is a difference. Traditional religions, while they are not without their problems, seek to answer the basic questions people have about life, to preserve a set of traditions and practices, and to sanctify familial relationships. They are not inherently destructive but rather, life-affirming. All cults cannot be lumped in the same pile but among the things they have in common are that they separate families and create a set of practices that isolate them from their families and native cultures.

I always wondered what happened to Nury. In a way, I wish I’d never found out.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Not All Scars Are Visible

Wall of Remembrance, El Salvador

Teresa* showed me a picture of herself in a book about the Salvadoran civil war. It shows a group of guerrillas, seated at a table, their faces concealed behind bandanas. How do you know it’s you, I asked. “Because I was there; I remember my compañeros,” she says. Looking carefully, I recognize her eyebrows.

She stood before my class, a diminutive, vivid figure who looked much younger than her 54 years. Thirty years ago, she was a guerrilla in El Salvador’s civil war. She lost her husband, a guerrilla leader, when a shell tore off his shoulder and part of his face; a brother was killed; and a sister was disappeared. Another sister was kidnapped, gang raped and tortured; she won asylum in Canada but the scars of war did not fade; she now lives in an institution for the mentally ill. All of them were casualties in a war that killed 75,000 of her countrymen and -women. Her voice thickened with emotion as she recounted the losses in her life. 

While my students were touched by her losses and her passion, a few were particularly stricken. One young man spoke of his parents’ escape from Liberia during their civil war. They never speak of the horrors they endured or who they left behind. He said that hearing Teresa tell her story, he understood for the first time the sorrow in his mother’s eyes. Still another sent me a note thanking me for bringing her to the class. 

A student of mixed Dominican and Salvadoran parentage had a similar reaction. His mother came here during the civil war; she will not speak of her ordeal. Yet another student, a Cambodian, talked with Teresa for a long time after class ended, about his parents’ flight from Cambodia after the terrible secret bombing by the United States. These things have never been mentioned in his history classes before, he said. It was as if the whole world was keeping a secret. 

Reviewing her talk a few days later, one young woman asked about Teresa’s anger towards the United States for having funded the dictatorship that killed so many of El Salvador’s people. It was so “over the top,” she said; was she exaggerating? If you were born and have lived your whole life in this country, you might think so. 

United Statesians live in a kind of bubble and feel very put-upon when we incur the resentments of the world. Do we deserve this anger? Does the United States really do things like that? After all, people brave all sorts of terrible trials to come into our country illegally; if we were so bad, would people be dying to come in here?

There are two different issues here: One is U.S. foreign policy and its execution; and the other is the image of wealth and prosperity that we project to the world. 

Most of us barely are aware of what happens within the halls of Congress unless it affects our lives directly. The debates about health care momentarily raise our consciousness but most of our compatriots cannot name their U.S. Senator or Member of Congress. Only a tiny percentage has ever written a letter to any national official for any reason. Congress goes about its business largely undisturbed by citizens’ protests except when the media have whipped them into frenzy over an issue and when they do, it’s over an issue that is close to home.

Even though we may be unaware of it, Congress passes hundreds of bills in a session on many foreign issues, some of which offer nothing benevolent to the world. For example, we have been following the coup in Honduras. Did you know that last year we appropriated $44 million in aid, and an estimated $47million in FY2009 to Honduras? $47 million to the fourth-poorest country in the western hemisphere? What is the money being used for? 

We have 725 military installations outside the US territory. How do they stay in operation? Congress appropriates funds. What are they doing? Good question. The C.I.A. has operations all over the world, and it has a history of funding covert wars and all sorts of military dictatorships. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was involved in coups and military actions all over Latin America. How were they funded? From your taxes and mine; in most cast cases, secretly. What would happen if they appropriated all those funds to our schools, or for universal health care?

We participated in the coups in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973), among many others; and funded a Contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s. When Congress did not appropriate the amount that President Ronald Reagan wanted, he bypassed Congress and obtained arms in an illegal scheme called the Iran-Contra Affair. He then apologized sweetly and was not impeached as he should have been for it. 

How many billions of our tax dollars go to military, C.I.A., and illegal foreign activities? There’s no way to know but the people against whom these forces are directed feel the effects, and a rich vein of hatred against the United States is the result. It is the reason that you sometimes hear foreigners distinguish between our government and our people. The secrecy is the reason that most Americans do not understand why people hate us. But ignorance and inattention play a role as well.

So why are all those foreigners trying to immigrate to the United States? In Mexico, half of the population lives in poverty and one-fifth live in extreme poverty. According to an IPS (Inter Press Service News Agency) report, “Nearly half of the country's indigenous people have earth floors in their homes, and nine out of 10 have no separate kitchen areas, while 40 percent of indigenous households have no clean water.”  

El Salvador has the fifth-lowest per capita income in Latin America and suffers from extreme environmental degradation and water pollution, in part, because of the defoliation of its landscape during the civil war. 

Why do you think they want to come here? 

*not her real name.