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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 23, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Drowned Fish and Shaming the Obese

Two weeks ago, the birds were chomping down the birdseed so fast I could hardly keep up. The huge sunflower-seed dispensers were emptying at the rate of three inches a day, which means ten-pound refills every three days.

So I made sure to fill all the dispensers to the brim just before I left on two weeks of nearly constant travel.

When I came back on Saturday, the two sunflower-seed dispensers had gone down less than an inch. The finch-food tube had not gone down at all -- after it had been emptying every five days.

Spring can be the hardest time for wild birds, because with all the plants sprouting, few of them are putting out new seeds. Seeds come at the end of most plants' growing season, so spring offers seed-eaters little more than hope.

But apparently that hard time is over -- something is putting out fresh new seeds so that our only regular visitors are pigeons, which eat whatever I put on the ground, and crows, which keep coming back in hopes I'll have a stroke on our patio and they can peck out my eyes. They really like the juicy bits.

Even the squirrels have abandoned the food I offer them. When squirrels give up on your birdfeeders, you know that something's wrong.

Then my wife made another guess about the cause. "Maybe when the fish in our pond died, word got around that our yard was a Dying Ground."

Our poor koi. We had several huge old carps that had lived through the last drought, when we were down to a foot-and-a-half of badly aerated water. They had survived snow and ice, pump failures and power outages.

What finally killed them? Rain.

That's right, last week's "killer rain," combined with an intense drift of pollen that fouled our pumps, overfilled our pond and radically changed the pH of the water. So four rainy days after our pond guys had certified that our pond and our fish were in perfect condition, my wife went out to feed our finny friends and found them all floating belly up.

All. A one hundred percent kill-off. Curse you, rainclouds!

I had spent the past two weeks bringing rain to places that wanted it. When I arrived in Los Angeles two weeks ago, they got enough rain to make the dry Los Angeles River shine with a half-inch of water. When I arrived in Tulsa this past week, the Arkansas River was a murky drift of stagnant pools (the runoff from the snowpack in the Rockies hasn't melted yet); but I brought two days of intermittent rain.

Los Angeles and Tulsa were grateful for the rain. But that's because, except in El Niño years, "rain" in  Los Angeles usually means a few minutes of sprinkling at a time, spread out over about six hours. There's no reason to wear a jacket or hat, or to carry an umbrella.

Tulsa's two days of rain consisted of those same sprinkles spread out over two days. Again, no jacket or hat required. No umbrella. It was rain you could read a book in.

The rain this past week in Greensboro should give lessons in raining to the clouds in Los Angeles and Tulsa. No huge cloudbursts, just a steady soaking drizzle, relentlessly falling for forty-eight hours, till our yard was saturated and our fish were dead.

I remember when I first moved east of the humidity line, back in 1981. My dad was driving with me (my wife and kids flew to South Bend a couple of days later) and in eastern Nebraska, I ran into the first real rainstorm I had ever experienced in America.

You know what I'm talking about -- hour after hour of rain falling so fast and hard that you can't hear the car radio and your windshield wipers can't clear the water long enough for you to see the road.

By the time we realized that driving was impossible, all the spots under overpasses had already been taken by drivers who knew this kind of rain. We just had to pull to the shoulder and sit there while the rain stripped the paint from the car.

There are two Americas: Dry America, where I grew up (except for the Washington/Oregon coast), and Wet America, of which North Carolina isn't even the wettest.

As I like to tell the desert dwellers of the western prairies, the Rockies, the Great Basin, and California, the part of America east of Grand Island Nebraska is the part of the country that God finished creating. He added the water.

So hey, thanks for all the rain, and sorry about the drowned fish.


"Looks like you've been putting on some weight!"

This statement is invariably said with cheerfulness bordering on enthusiasm, even though it cannot possibly cause anything but pain and embarrassment to the person to whom it is addressed.

There is a reason for saying some potentially embarrassing things: "Your fly is open." "You've got some mustard on your cheek." "I think you may have sat in something." "The back of your skirt got tucked into your pantyhose."

The reason is simple: The person you say it to can do something about it right now, and thereby saving them further embarrassment later.

The tactful friend -- or stranger -- will offer this statement softly and discreetly, and then will immediately drop the subject and say nothing more about it.

But when there is absolutely nothing that the person can do about the situation at this moment, then courtesy requires that everyone else say nothing at all. You simply pretend that you don't see it, and continue to relate to them as if they were a human being worthy of respect.

Because they are.

It's a mark of immaturity and lack of a decent upbringing for people to call attention to or ridicule things that can't be helped or immediately corrected.

We are not surprised when children make fun of somebody else for wearing glasses, corrective shoes, or braces, or for having acne or scoliosis or a limp or a speech impediment. But we also form a low opinion of that child -- and of the child's parents.

I have a friend who, though she loves her father, shakes her head in consternation when she talks about how, during her teenage acne-bearing years, her father caught her eye, raised his eyebrow, and tapped his own nose several times -- in order to call her attention to an enormous pimple that she had woken up with that morning.

Because my friend was well-bred, she did not respond as she might have: "Oh, thank you! All my mirrors went on the fritz last night -- there must have been a power outage -- so I didn't know that I had a zit the size of Nebraska on my face. Now, thanks to your helpful pointing, I can put a brown paper bag over my head so nobody will know it's there as I go about my business for the rest of the day."

Instead all she said was, "Thanks, Dad." Not even sarcastically.

He never understood that the real message he had conveyed was: "Even though you've tried to cover it with makeup, the only thing anyone will notice about you today is that blemish on your nose. Your shame will be continuous and unredeemable. Have a nice day."

If that's true about a pimple -- which is, after all, only temporary, and can often be concealed -- think about what it means to have someone trumpet (and no one ever says it softly), "Wow, you've really been packing on the pounds!"

Now, it may be true that in the weeks since you last saw this undeserving person, they have put on a shocking amount of weight. It may be true that it really changes their appearance and it's all you can think about for several minutes.

But if you have any compassion or respect, you will say nothing until you are able to speak to them without any mention of their weight, without looking them up and down, without any little hints like, "Are you sure you want dessert?" or "Maybe there's some low-calorie snack you can have while the rest of us eat cake" or "Are you sure you wouldn't rather sit in this chair?"

Because the moment you say anything about their weight, your message is, "All that anybody notices about you is that you're fat -- and we don't respect you enough to leave it unmentioned."

"Oh, but I'm just trying to encourage them to return to good health!" protests the innocent person who says unspeakably rude things.

Here's a clue, kids: Fat people all know they're fat. No, let me rephrase that: We fat people all know that we're fat.

We know it every time we sit down in a chair, and get up from a chair. We know it every time we try to fit between the table and the back of the seat in a restaurant booth.

We are reminded whenever we put on clothes that can no longer be fastened around the waist. Whenever we bend over to put on or tie our shoes; whenever we try to pick up something from the floor; when we try to squeeze out of our car in a crowded parking lot; when the airplane seat belt can no longer be fastened; when we no longer have a lap large enough for a baby to sit on; when a flight of stairs leaves us out of breath for twenty minutes, or we have to stop and rest several times while climbing -- oh, believe me, we do not need you to tell us that we need to lose a few pounds.

Even when we can go upstairs, there are unfortunate side effects. When you've gained weight, your waist measurement begins to get near to your hip measurement. That means you have to cinch your belt pretty tightly to keep your pants up.

But climbing stairs has an odd effect that thin people have no idea about. When you extend your leg -- as you do when climbing a stair -- it gives your hips a smaller circumference, while at the same time tugging firmly on the back of your pants.

The result is that climbing stairs can very quickly pull your pants down. Not a problem if you have one hand free to hitch your pants up. But this means that you can't climb stairs while carrying a burden that requires both your hands -- or you end up trying to climb with your pants around your ankles. (Please don't tell me about suspenders -- I wore them for years, but they have their own drawbacks and discomforts.)

There is no comfortable sleeping position. It becomes increasingly difficult to clean hard-to-reach body areas in the shower or elsewhere. Pulling on stockings is an Olympic event.

Carrying all that extra weight makes aerobic exercise far more difficult. Imagine doing perfectly normal exercise activities, like jogging, or riding a bike up a gentle hill -- with a hundred-pound bag of water strapped to your back.

While in motion, no fat person ever forgets that he's fat. In fact, the only time we're not uncomfortable or in pain is when we're engaged in conversation with interesting people. That takes our minds off our bodies. It also gives us the comforting message that despite our body's dysfunctionalities, we're still interesting human beings with value to our family and friends.

Until somebody's loud, cheerful comment reminds us that, in fact, these people don't value us as humans, they only see us as enormous talking blobs that somehow got into their house and must be watched constantly until we can be chuffed out the door.

Yes, we sometimes break chairs by sitting on them -- or by shifting our weight, or twisting around. At such moments we do not say, "Why did you offer me such a cheap, poorly made chair?" Instead, we endure the laughter or the pained silence with which such moments are greeted.

Laughter? Oh, yes. When attractive people fall down, others show concern and leap to their aid. But when a fat person falls, it's so, so amusing -- to people with no compassion.

But it isn't funny when we fall. A normal-size person can hurt himself in a fall -- but not as badly as a 350-pound person making the identical fall. No, the "padding" does not compensate for the greater force of impact when we hit the ground.

And because of our greater weight, we're less likely to be able to catch ourselves and prevent or mitigate the fall. In fact, our arms are likely to suffer the worst injuries, since they simply aren't strong enough to bear our weight.

American culture right now has decided that you must be circumspect to the point of lunacy about any other "difference." We love diversity -- except the diversity brought about by the presence of fat people (and/or Christians, the other group you can hate while still calling yourself "tolerant.")

Instead of celebrating diversity, people who have never had to worry about their weight say compassionate, tolerant things like, "Just eat less." "Take in fewer calories than you expend." "Stop eating when you've had enough." "Why did you let yourself go?"

These comments show that (a) you are stupid and (b) you've never been fat. The very people who are so understanding about other people's irresistible sexual desires ("men will be men," "the heart wants what the heart wants"), are often brutally judgmental about other hungers.

Scientific research now indicates that obese people often lack that brain switch that says, "I'm full. Any more food would be icky." Instead, they often feel intense hunger at a level that thin people just don't experience. It's not because they have mommy issues or some other freudian nonsense. It's because their body is telling them to eat or die.

It can be really intense, that non-hunger need-to-eat. Think of times when you suddenly realized that you really, really needed to find a toilet -- like, fifteen minutes ago. Now imagine that instead of needing a toilet, you have the same level of intensity with your need to find a table with food on it and a nice, sturdy chair.

Most thin people only feel hungry when their body needs calories. So they have no reason to resist hunger, to ignore it and try to live with it. Instead, being hungry, they eat. Or being a little but not very hungry, they can easily wait till mealtime. Kind of like realizing, Hmm, I could use a bathroom but I can easily wait for another hour or two.

If hunger is something you can indulge without a qualm because you only feel it when you actually need calories, or if you feel hunger without any particular urgency, then take a few moments and imagine what it would be like if you felt really urgent hunger even when you know you've had enough.

How well would you be able to concentrate on other tasks while feeling, but not satisfying, that urgent need?

Now let's add a little more factual information. There are a lot of people who really can't help it that their body put on extra poundage. It is not because they started eating more or exercising less.

For instance, pregnancy makes most women put on considerable fat -- a good plan for our less-civilized ancestors who lived in the wild, because what if there's famine in the seventh or eighth month of pregnancy?

Now, some of those women shed those pounds almost immediately after the baby is born. But some women don't. Or they lose the weight with the first couple of babies, but child number three persuades the mother's body that fat-bearing should be her normal physical condition.

It's also simply a fact that regardless of the level of dieting and exercise, most women shed extra weight very, very slowly -- if at all. Many women exercise to exhaustion and starve themselves mercilessly. They expose themselves to the dangers of dehydration and malnutrition -- but they don't lose the weight.

There are also people whose bodies start doing bizarre things -- like storing extra water in every fat cell. Fat cells can expand to a very large size, and they aren't necessarily full of lipids. I know several people who have never overeaten, yet who ballooned up as if they were stuffing themselves with bon-bons and eclairs all day.

Yet I've heard comedians say, "You're not retaining water, fat boy! You're just a pig!" Ha ha. Heard any Polish jokes lately?

The message of our society is very clear. Whereas a century or so ago, carrying extra poundage meant that you were well-to-do, so you always had more than enough to eat, now it means that you are a moral cripple who can't exercise ordinary self-control.

And this moral condemnation often comes from the very people who declare that "if it feels good, do it" -- eating apparently being the only exception.

So if you notice that somebody has gained weight (or failed to lose it as soon as you would have expected), you have to decide: Do I actually wish to remain or become friends with this person? Do I care whether this person is happy or not? Does this person have value apart from their physical appearance?

You also have to decide some things about yourself. Am I unable to leave ugly things unsaid? Do I have the delusion that if I say a cruel thing cheerfully, it becomes "funny" and stops being cruel? Do I judge people's value based entirely on their physical appearance? Am I a person who mocks other people for things they can't do anything about?

Because even if a particular fat person really can lose the weight -- and many of us can, myself included -- at this moment there is nothing I can do that will make my fatness go away in the next few minutes, or hours, or days.

Being morbidly obese is painful, embarrassing, awkward, dangerous, and expensive. Nobody enjoys it. There are no "jolly fat people" -- only "fat people who have learned to be (or seem) happy in the midst of suffering and pain."

Nobody is unaware of their overweight condition. Nobody needs public shaming in order to encourage them to lose weight. In fact, shaming fat people is more likely to lead them to avoid other people's company, and will cause them to seek more of the only comfort they have readily available to them. (The exact comfort varies with the individual, but Haagen Dazs is often involved.)

Shaming a fat person is like putting another bullet into someone who is already badly wounded.

By the way, some of you may be bothered by my use of the word "fat." You are probably among the group that hates using any plain or direct word -- like "blind" or "crippled" or "deaf" or "victim."

But euphemisms aren't much help except to people who specialize in being offended. That is especially true in a society where the words "fat" and "ugly" are even more closely linked than "rich" and "famous" or "high" and "mighty" or "down" and "out" or "hot" and "bothered."

So I deliberately use the word "fat" in reference to myself, during those times in my life when I have been morbidly obese, so that it doesn't become or remain a "bad word." If we try to hide the word in the naughty-word list, the place in our brains from which some Tourettes Syndrome sufferers draw their shock words, then I think we're also hiding fat people there, as if they should not come out in public.

Instead, I think people with a lot of body fat should join me in calling ourselves fat, so that it isn't a shocking word anymore, but rather a perfectly logical term for one of the physical shapes that good people can have, and still be valuable.

And this above all: If you see a fat person eating ice cream, or dining out, or chomping fast food, or pushing a full cart through a grocery store, don't you dare look at us with disapproval. If you can't smile cheerfully, as you would to a person you liked, then look somewhere else, and leave whatever ugly thing you're thinking unsaid.

Don't even say your disparaging observations to the next thin person you meet. Because your anti-fat remark may reveal to them how small and hard and empty your heart really is. That's something a good person should be ashamed of.

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