Monday, June 09, 2008

The Best Kind of Popcorn

My life tends to be inelastic; the more things I try to change, the less my life seems to ultimately change in the long run.

If you watched old Tom & Jerry cartoons and ever saw Jerry run under the carpet and create a bump, and then saw Tom press down on the bump, only to have the bump pop up elsewhere, so Tom pressed there, too, and it kept on going like that until you got bored and turned the channel, you know kind of how my life goes. I, too, change the channel a lot. But also, when I press on one part of my life, it just bulges back up somewhere else.

Here's an example from my actual life: Way back, when I first decided to get in shape, I switched a lot of my snacking habits, as you have to do. I ate a lot fewer snacks, and when I did eat snacks, I tried to make them slightly-healthier kinds of snacks.

I know that sounds silly. A "snack" is about as healthy as "NASCAR" is "interesting" or "Jessica Simpson" can "sing." I make that point periodically to the kids, who will ask something like "Which is healthier, a bowl of ice cream or a Snickers bar?" to which I'll reply "Carrots," and then I go get a bowl of ice cream and sprinkle Snickers bars on it, because that sounded good.

But I tried, in the past, to have healthy snacks. I switched, for example, to popcorn, which is one of those foods people are always talking about that is a lot healthier than you think, like lettuce or, lately, bacon. I wish I'd been the guy to think up that diet where you can eat as much as you want of any food you want, except noodles, and still call it a "diet." That's where American society really crossed the line.

We used to be a country that thought that "fat" was admirable, because "fat" meant "successful." If you were "fat" that meant you could afford food and you had a job that didn't include hard labor. Food + not working = American success story. That all began to change with the Baby Boomers -- changed for the worse, as with so much of the Boomers' legacy -- and their obsession with getting "in shape" and being on "diets." They began jogging and jazzercizing (combining jazz with exercise... pleh. The only good thing to say about that is it made it easier to avoid two things I didn't like by putting them in the same place, like locking spinach in a closet with that guy Dean who used to beat me up in fifth grade) and watching their weight, and it all caught on.

Suddenly, fat was out and skinny was in as the new hallmark of success, which made a kind of sense because in the 70s and 80s and 90s, if you were skinny that meant that you had the kind of money you needed to belong to a health club and to shop at organic grocery stores, and had the leisure time to exercise, so skinny was the new sign of success.

Then, America got smarter as newer, more intelligent, lazier generations came along. Why, we asked, should we work so hard to be skinny? How great is skinny, after all, and is it a goal to which we should all aspire? After all, if everyone was skinny, who would be the good-looking people, i.e., the people we should look up to and admire? We'd all end up like the Sneetches, unable to tell who was really skinny/worthy of our love. (Most good life lessons can be demonstrated by re-interpreting it in a Sneetchly way.) But we'd get there, to our confusing all-encompassing skinniness, by working really hard.

Skinniness was yet another in the long list of things the Boomers got wrong. Earlier generations knew that success meant no longer working hard. Make a lot of money and then relax for a while and wear a top hat and monocle. That's how it used to work. Then the Boomers decided that if you hit a life of leisure, you had to work even harder to prove that you were living a life of leisure; the richer you were, the more you have to belong to a tennis league and volunteer on school boards. Presumably, if you were to win the lottery you'd have to spend the rest of your life running ultra-marathons.

Americans looked at that, smart ones did, and thought there's got to be a better way. They-- we-- thought I'd like to be considered successful and good-looking but not do all that work. Since we could not all afford liposuction, we hit on this other method, instead, and the new method was this:

Let's just all say we're healthy and skinny and on diets and go about living our lives the way we did before.

We, as a society, just all decided to be that one lady at the office who makes a big production of bringing in a salad every day, who talks endlessly about her tae bo class she takes four mornings a week, who cuts off 1/2 a doughnut when someone brings them in and says "Well, I shouldn't" when the birthday cake gets passed around... yet who never ever ever loses a single pound.

That's America for you nowadays: We are all on a diet, we are all working out, we are all wearing the pedometers we got with our value meal from McDonalds and counting our steps and our calories and getting "right portion" sized meals at TGI Fridays -- and we're all buying pants with that Secret Elastic band in them.

That's how the Atkins diet was born: Eat a pound of bacon with ice cream for breakfast -- and still be on your diet. That's how "walking" got defined as "exercise," that's why we have videogames that are called a workout, and that's how I can consider popcorn a healthy snack: because we say things are healthy and then don't care if they are or are not.

Popcorn was among the first of the "new" healthy snacks. In the buildup to the cultural revolution that lets me order a chicken sandwich with liverwurst as a condiment, people began laying the groundwork for our new society by taking away old "healthy foods" like carrots, and replacing them with foods that seemed healthy, like "popcorn." "Popcorn" sounds healthy, right? It's got corn right in the title, and corn grows in a field, so it's like a vegetable, right?

We needed, though, to get around the fact that glowing yellow mountains of popcorn were sold at movie theaters as treats, right next to the "Goobers" and malted milk balls. So we modified popcorn, slightly: Popcorn is healthy, we reasoned if you don't put all that butter and salt on it. And away we went.

That's what I did, anyway. My diet way back when consisted of snacks like "unbuttered popcorn." My diet also found room for entire pints of Ben & Jerry's "Wavy Gravy," but despite that, it worked. I lost a lot of weight. I lost over a hundred pounds and got in great shape, and I owed it all to eating "healthy" snacks.

I'm no better than anyone else, though. I began to slide, just like society did. I continued my popcorn-snacking ways, but I reasoned my way back to good old-fashioned bad-for-you popcorn. Well, it's not the salt that adds the calories, I'd figure. If I put margarine instead of butter, that's better for me, I'd tell people. If I just don't use so much butter, it's not bad for a snack, I would tell Sweetie.

Then a guy at work told me about "Kettle Corn" and it was all over. They found a way to turn popcorn into candy but keep it being popcorn. Now, I could buy microwaveable packets of "Kettle Corn" and eat them, telling myself it was a healthy snack while simultaneously ignoring and loving the sweet, buttery flavor that was so addictive I was tempted to turn the bag inside out and lick it after I was done.

"Kettle Corn" was the last straw in the beginning of my long, slow slide back to where I began. It's popcorn covered in sugar and honey and butter and salt-- so, far from being a "healthy" snack by eliminating some or all of the unhealthy parts, Kettle Corn takes all the bad parts, and adds more bad parts... but I can still tell myself it's healthy because it's popcorn, and popcorn is a healthy snack. Just look, it says so right on the package:

With "Kettle Corn," my horizons were de-limited once again, and I could eat other healthy snacks... like ice cream (which has milk in it!) or doughnuts (which are carbs... carbs are good because they're energy, right, and our body needs energy) or Mystery Flavor Doritos because... because... how's this: because the mystery flavor is probably lettuce or something that's good for me?

You may think I'm kidding, but do you really think we're that far away, as a society -- or that you or I are that far away, as individuals -- from saying If I don't know what's in it, it must be healthy, right? That's the natrual And once we hit that stage, we'll be classifying "Mr. Pibb" as a health drink.

Which is how I ended up owning a couple of my own pairs of pants with Secret Elastic in them. My life may be inelastic, but my pants aren't. And I owe it to Kettle Corn, The Best Kind of Popcorn.

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