The Thing I Like About …

The Biggest Loser: the episode in Washington, D.C.

In that episode, the contestants travelled to Washington, D.C., to address the government about the dangers of obesity. Throughout the week, the contestants worked out in the streets and in unfamiliar gyms and on hotel stairs; they ate out and were busy with things outside of their physical training. It seemed likely that at the weigh-in they would not have been able to lose the kind of weight they were losing on the Biggest Loser campus.

The contestants gathered for the weigh-in on the lawn in front of the Lincoln Memorial; they all filed up to the scale discussing their struggles and how daunting everything had been. And then the camera shows a close-up of the statue of Lincoln.

It wasn’t that I poo-pooed the struggle of the contestants. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to work as hard as they do, or to be faced with the prospect of losing the weight they need to lose to be healthy. They’re often facing an early death and a limited life if they don’t succeed, and I honestly don’t know how I would do in their place. It wasn’t that.

It was that the image of Abraham Lincoln evoked companion images of so much struggle and hardship – the brutality of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War. On one hand, we saw this strong reminder of dark times, of death and worse than death, of sacrifice and loss … and on the other hand, we saw this group of people consumed with a personal struggle that had challenged most of them for their entire lives. On one hand, we saw this image of the end of slavery, and on the other hand, we saw people living in the modern world who wanted to free themselves from self-induced punishment. Were these two entities being offered to the audience as equal in intensity and importance? I hope not. That would be, at the least, insulting to the fallen.

But the contrasting images showed an important aspect of the Biggest Loser journey – and any journey, really: we are affected directly and immediately by our experiences, and because of that , those experiences become larger than life … and larger than ourselves. We care about other people; we know our problems aren’t (for the most part) the worst problems in the world. But we can see biggest and best the things closest to us – all of our problems and challenges and doubts and fears – and it’s so easy to get lost in all of that, and to forget the larger perspective outside of us.

Should we wander the earth ignoring our troubles and focusing at every turn on the horrible things that others have endured? I don’t think that would accomplish anything, and I don’t know why that would be expected. But if we can take a step back from our troubles, we can see that they aren’t necessarily big at all, or incredibly significant, or insurmountable; they may, upon more distant examination, not be problems at all. Most importantly, if we step back far enough to be able to compare (for example) the Civil War with our weight-loss struggles, we will certainly be standing in a place that makes us bigger than the challenges we face.

Will that perspective put money in your pocket, or pull the pounds off your body, or get you a promotion, or bring your ex-partner back into your life? No. But all of that stuff will be much easier to handle. You will be at the center of your universe, and all of your experiences will be floating around you at a distance, and you can figure out what to do with them and how to feel about them without trauma. By putting your troubles in perspective, you become the focus. You become important. You become huge. And from your new vantage point, you can see better all the people and good experiences that were obscured by your pain and fear.

You can see how much success you had all along … and start living the kind of life that honours yourself and all those who have come before.

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One-Page Stories

Garbage

The little girl burst into tears.

“But I never get to play the games I want!” she wailed. “Tommy gets to play in his room, but I don’t have any games. Can’t I ple-e-ease play in the living room?”

“No, Madeline!” Selena snapped, searching in her bag for the wad of bills that she was sure she had thrown in there. “Don, where’s the change?” she asked her husband irritably. “Didn’t I put it in my purse?”

“I don’t know,” Don answered. He picked up Madeline and pushed her hair away from her face. “Did you put it in the bag with the food?”

“Why would I do that?” she barked, scowling, still rummaging in the bag with increasing agitation. “It was, like, twenty dollars!” she complained. “Madeline!” She turned and glared at the girl, who was still wailing. “Stop that! You know I don’t like playing games in the living room; there’s not enough room. Everything’ll get knocked over.”

“Can’t we just move the furniture back?” Tom asked, rolling his eyes. “What’s in the living room that’s so important? It’s all just weird stuff from a long time ago.”

Don reached out and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You know that’s stuff that Grandma left for Mommy. It’s all she has left.”

Madeline kicked a foot out at her brother. “Yeah,” she said. “Don’t say mean stuff about Grandma!”

“It’s not Grandma!” Tom protested. “She told Mom to get rid of it!”

Selena felt close to tears; they swam in her eyes. “How can you be so cruel!” she hissed at her son. “Don’t you want me to remember my mother?”

“You’re not going to forget her!” Tom argued. “Plus you’ve got photos and home movies. It’s creepy to have all that stuff when she’s gone now.” He pushed his sister’s foot away from him. “We can’t ever just relax and enjoy anything. Jim’s family just enjoys things! Why can’t we be like them? His mom doesn’t get so upset all the time!”

Don looked distinctly alarmed. “Tommy, don’t talk to your mother that way,” he said firmly, hoping that Selena wouldn’t let this upset her any more than it already had. “Our house is good enough. Not everyone is the same.”

“But we’re not even normal!” Tom shouted. “We don’t even get to just sit and watch TV without a whole bunch of weird rules!”

Selena began to cry, and to feel both anger and a strong anxiety. “I can’t believe you’re comparing me like that,” she said in hurt tones. “I guess since it’s such a big deal, we’ll just get rid of all the game systems, and the TV, and everything else! Then maybe you’ll learn to appreciate things!”

Don, praying that she could be talked down from this plan, tried to put his arm around her, but she brushed it away. She dropped her bag on the ground in frustration, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I must have put the money in the bag with the food,” she decided in despair. “The bag we just pulled all the food out of and threw away!” She looked down the street, toward the alley dumpster they had passed on their way back to the car. “Why couldn’t we just eat it at home?” she asked, as though this oversight were her family’s fault. “Now I have to climb into a dumpster!”

“I’ll do it,” Don said. “I’m taller anyway.” He headed toward the dumpster, but Selena pulled him back.

“No,” she said glumly. “It was my fault; I’ll do it.” She stalked away from her family and over to the dumpster. It was as tall as she was, but there were some boxes beside it … she stopped abruptly, staring into the alley.

A man stood there. He had just pulled the used sack out of the dumpster; he had two french fries hanging out of his mouth, and in his hand – a gnarled and dirty hand with a worn-out glove wrapped around it – he held the wad of bills that she had carelessly thrown out. His clothes were filthy and full of holes, and all of them added together didn’t seem like enough to keep him warm. His eyes as he gazed in absolute awe and gratitude at the handful of cash were lit up as though he held a million dollars instead of twenty. He had already felt fortunate to have found the discarded fries.

Selena blinked at him for a moment in silence. Then, as a thousand emotions passed through her heart, she felt the anxiety and anger melt away from her. What the hell have I been doing? she asked herself. What the hell is wrong with me?

She turned back to her family waiting for her on the sidewalk, all of them looking resigned and none of them looking happy. “It’s gone,” she said. She put her arm around Tom’s shoulders. “Let’s go home,” she went on, her tone somber but pleasant. “We can push the furniture out of the way, and we can all play games. ‘Kay?”

The others stared at her in apparent confusion. “Really?” Madeline asked, her eyes filling with hope. “We can all play in the living room?”

“Yeah,” Selena said with a small smile. She didn’t say how ridiculous it sounded to her now, to have been doing things the way she had been doing them; she didn’t reveal how stupid and horrible she felt about it. “But I’m probably just going to watch, ‘cause I’m going to start sorting that extra stuff and getting rid of it. It’s time, I think, and other people could probably really use it.”

“Really?” Don asked. “What –?” He looked behind him toward the alley. “What happened back there?” He was staring at her as though he had never seen her before.

She took his hand. Everything, she thought. “Nothing,” she said. “Let’s find the car and go home.”

The Thing I Like About …

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: the part where she’s explaining why she’s angry at Mark Darcy.

Bridget has found herself in a Thai prison. All the other women in the over-crowded jail cell are telling her about their boyfriends – the men who beat them up, got them addicted to drugs, forced them into prostitution and other crimes, and treated them like expendable property. And Bridget starts to tell them about her boyfriend (sort-of-ex-boyfriend now because of his heinous behaviour); she tells them how he doesn’t always listen to her, and that he ignored her at a party. She … tells them … how he doesn’t always listen to her … and … he ignored her once at a … party. She looks around at these women who have endured so much, and she realizes how stupid she’s been. So she stops what she was saying, and fibs, “And beating me and forcing me to take drugs and stuff.” And all the other women nod their heads in solidarity and accept her into their fold.

But of course Mark Darcy had only ever been wonderful to her, and now that she sees that, she can’t wait to get back to him – this person who had been so “horrible” a moment before that she could barely stand the sound of his name.

It’s not that people should put up with things; if two people are going to be in a relationship – any two people, in any kind of relationship – it requires give-and-take, adjustments, copious amounts of respect and kindness, and a true honouring of one another’s boundaries. It isn’t that people should put up with things. It’s that people don’t seem to have any perspective anymore.

We don’t think two people can find a way to compromise about housework, so we quarrel and fight and walk away from love. We don’t think we can meet halfway, because we don’t think others really value us that much, so we quarrel and fight and walk away from love. We feel horrible for people who end up in abusive relationships, but we know we’ll never be in one of those, because we’re taking a stand and drawing a line! … at what brand of peanut butter the other person eats, or what movies they like, or whether they need more alone-time than we do. And we walk away from love.

Thanks to Bridget, though, we don’t have to wind up in a Thai prison to figure out how stupid we’ve been. We can follow her example, and say our complaints out loud to the empty room, and if we find upon hearing them that they are ridiculous, we can laugh and change our minds. No one need be the wiser, and we can just make our way back to love.
Thanks, Bridge.

The Thing I Like About …

Groundhog Day: the part where he keeps trying to save the guy who dies.

Phil is a reporter sent to cover the groundhog seeing his shadow on Groundhog’s Day.  For some reason, he enters a time loop and relives the same day over again .. and over and over and over again.  He starts trying to make small changes – to himself, of course, but also to the old man who dies in the gutter at the end of that day.

He tries to save him every day.  He tries CPR.  He tries encountering him earlier in the day, getting him a hot meal and some warm clothes.  He tries everything he knows how to do, but no matter what, the old man dies at the end of the day.

For me, this is the turning point for Phil, more so even than the meaningful connections he makes that eventually break the time loop.  He has to accept that he cares – something he had not been able to do before – and he has to accept that, no matter what he does or how hard he tries, he can’t control everything.  Not even an important thing.  The most important thing in this world – whether we’re dead or alive – is actually entirely and completely beyond Phil’s ability to change by even a moment.

In the film, Phil has to grieve for the old man; he has to come to terms with his “failure” to save him.  But actually, he learned the one thing that was stymying him when he arrived in Punxsutawney, and the thing that tends to stymie all of us:  whether the old man lives or dies is irrelevant.  It’s not the saving of the old man that Phil was being asked to do.  He was being asked to care.  He was being asked to involve himself with another human being, and to help make that person’s life as happy as possible while he’s on this planet.  Maybe the old man died anyway, but Phil had turned what could have been a sad ending in a cold gutter into an evening with a new friend, a full tummy and a warm bed.  Basically, Phil didn’t fail at all.

We all die.  What matters isn’t that we die, but what we do before we die.  Who have we fed?  Who have we clothed?  Who have we befriended?  Who have we loved?  Did we make the people in the world happier with our actions, or not?  Who did we hold, and who’s holding us?  Phil needed to learn to see the world from this perspective, and so do we, I think … but unlike Phil, we only have the one chance at it.  Let’s not mess it up.

Bit O’Blog

Revisiting The Road

If you watch The Road … well, you might cry a lot.  You might walk away sad or uplifted or both.  If you have children, you may feel differently about it than if you don’t have children.  You may feel strongly about The Road’s message, or you may not be able to relate to it at all – it may seem too farfetched to get emotionally involved. It’s an intricate piece, with a wide range of messages and meanings to offer.  But at the end of it, as I posted a couple of weeks ago, The Road doesn’t seem to be about the post-apocalypse at all.  It’s about a father and his son, and the passing of the world from the older generation to the younger one.

When the Dad gets angry – understandably – at the man who steals their food, the Boy argues with him, as he had once before about the old man with whom the Boy wanted to share their dinner.  The Dad has reason to be wary of strangers – it’s not that his advice isn’t spot-on – but in each situation where the Boy argues with his Dad, it turns out the Boy is right.  The Dad is always in charge and the Boy always respects him, but when the Boy argues with him about these ethical matters, the Dad relents.

So what’s the point?  Well, weirdly, I don’t think it’s particularly about the ethical matters.  The Boy is justified in trusting people who have done him no harm, and in forgiving people whose reasons for stealing from him he readily understands.  He’s justified in thinking that “the good guys” do good things.  The Dad is justified, though, too, in setting boundaries and in keeping his son safe from harm based on his greater experience.  He’s justified in his anger at thieves, and his mistrust of strangers in such a harsh world.  Both make compelling arguments, and the Dad prevails in some things while the Boy prevails in others.  Just like, you know, real parenting and real growing up.

Is the point that the Dad learns from his Boy? – that he learns something about faith, and forgiveness, and compassion from this little kid?  That’s an excellent point, to be sure, and I have learned more from my children than I can say.  Of course the Dad learns from his Boy, because he’s a good Dad and is willing to listen to his Boy … and in the real world, that happens all the time.

In the literary context, though, I think it’s not so much about learning as it is about realizing.  The Dad realizes that his son is making his own decisions about people, about danger, about the rules – not because he’s growing up, but because it’s the Boy’s world to make decisions about.  From the Dad’s perspective, everything he knew is gone, but from the Boy’s point of view, it’s just the world, and the things in it are the things in it.  It’s the Boy’s world, and he prevails in all the arguments that revolve around defining that world, until finally the Dad sees that the world he knew is in the past, and that the future belongs to the next generation.

It doesn’t matter if our world is getting better or worse, or if it’s changing or staying the same.  What matters is that we grow old and die, and new people come to replace us, and it will be their time just like it was ours – they have to build it, and, while we can guide them with a few overarching principals – the “good guy” stuff – it’s really not something we have any say in.

The Dad realizes that, whatever their post-apocalyptic world will become, it is the Boy’s world to shape and define.  When the Dad accepts that he has given what he can, and that the rest is up to the Boy, he is able to find some faith, some trust, some future for his son.  He’s able, in that moment, to put down a great burden.  I think that’s what parenting is all about, and what society is all about, and what The Road is really all about.

The Thing I Like About …

Reign of Fire:  the part where the dragon is leaning into the castle as though it were a bowl of soup.

In Reign of Fire, dragons have awakened from some centuries-long slumber and have begun terrorizing villagers again – laying waste to whole cities and bringing humans to the brink of extinction.  Some few survivors remain in fortified battlements – castles, for instance – and they stay inside and underground as much as possible.

But eventually a dragon finds them.  He lands next to the castle tower, and his massive claws grip the edge of the tower, and he leans in breathing fire on everything inside.  Next to this dragon, the tower – ordinarily a giant structure dominating the landscape – seems small and vulnerable.  It seems like a toy.

I think humans should be (for the most part) pleased and proud of what we’ve accomplished.  We’ve built great things, and devised many cunning schemes, and climbed both physical and metaphorical mountains that have brought us farther than our ancestors could ever have imagined.  But out of this success and ingenuity has grown the absurd notion that we are indestructible.  And out of that notion has grown an increasing lack of perspective: we forget very easily what is important, because we forget how easily what is important can be taken away.  We allow ourselves to feel that there will always be one more day, and that good ol’ hard work will always triumph over any obstacle – maybe even without the hard work.

It’s better, I think, to focus on those things we didn’t build – and therefore cannot re-build if they are taken from us – our children, our friends and family, our connection to one another as a species.  It’s better, too, while feeling pleased and proud of our accomplishments, to remember that they are finite – as are we.  If we put our faith and attention in these transitory things – however strong and permanent our castles may seem – we’ll feel pretty ridiculous when one blast of draconian fire blows it all away.