Cultural Phenomenon. The phrase itself seems to be an oxymoron. How can we honestly be amazed about something we are all apparently involved in as if we have no control over our choices? It only works when talking about the past and every once in awhile American culture takes a very quick step back and looks at what it has created. We have defined decades in our history by trends in fashion, fads, music and politics. As each decade has come and passed, we often think of how crazy the times were and how odd our preferences had been. To me, that makes sense. Every generation of adults should look back and reflect on what made it an odd generation of kids. What were our cultural phenomenons of the past? Maybe you were foolish enough to buy a pet rock despite the fact the planet is littered with free ones. Perhaps your accountant coworkers laugh at photos of you with long hair singing songs about hugging trees. Or maybe you’re a guy who spent the better part of a decade switching back and forth between wearing pastels with dock shoes and teasing your hair while borrowing your sister’s eye liner. No matter what odd preferences we have had in the past (mine includes owning an entire outfit made of parachute material), they are the past. It is now safe to look back and be amazed at what bizarre choices an entire culture seemed to be making only because we have rid ourselves of them. In my opinion you should only be allowed to say, “What the hell was I thinking?” if you have stopped using the expression “totally tubular” when you get excited.
The problem with assigning decade identities is that we have now created a culture desperate to find one before its time is done. It’s a culture suffering from only-child syndrome screaming, “Look at what I’m doing now!” Trying to identify ourselves from the inside looking out can only lead to one of two things: We create the most incredible time period ever or the hundreds of failed attempts at creating a cultural identity becomes the identity.
One shade of our colorful tapestry of American life that forced me to address our bumbling efforts through contradictory trends is fast food. It is the ultimate symbol of Western culture that in recent years has never failed to cater to our ever growing demands of it. Like a kicked puppy it has taken recent blame and abuse for growing health concerns in this country only to come back and still offer to lick our faces. Perhaps this multi-million dollar pooch keeps crapping in our homes because we keep feeding it.
We learned in documentaries and news investigations of how serving sizes have changed (if you hadn’t already noticed for yourself). New larges were created, old larges became mediums, mediums became smalls, and smalls became the free cups for water for customers like me who find paying for soda to be a major scam. We’ve added more bacon, more cheese, more beef, more things that were never on a burger in the first place. America panicked. We were told this was too much. We were told this could kill you. And of course we denied it was ever our fault it got to this point. We have even sued fast food for making us obese! But despite the horrific thought of my children’s history teacher ever having to discuss the implications of Mayor McCheese v. Fat Guy, fast food took the abuse and came back to lick our faces again. Well almost everyone’s face.
Somewhere around the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s, the fast food empire picked a generation and stuck with it. I can remember a time when there were just as many commercials for fast food toys as there were for other toys. Fast food was a child’s domain. As these kids got older, humongous playscapes were built for their adolescent exuberance. Fast food became an afternoon trip. When these kids became young adults, fast food sold out the next generation of kids by making an “adult” menu. Soon these young adults became middle aged, cholesterol fearing adults who still enjoy a good game of monopoly. And to show that fast food was still by their side, they agreed to make every child’s nightmare come true. Healthy alternatives became available. People were hired to find fifty different ways to mix lettuce and vegetables. And somehow we all agreed that nothing will compliment our kid’s cheeseburger like an orange. Once upon a time, fast food mass marketed toys for kids, but now they’ve turned their Happy Meals into Moderately Content Meals.
American culture celebrated. The healthy era had begun and generations to come would look back one day and thank us wondering how anyone in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s ever lived long enough to reproduce. That is until one day apparently a hungry man was waiting impatiently in line at the drive-thru and realized that it only takes about 15 seconds to put fruit in a bowl and that he has both fruit AND a bowl at home. An age of wisdom was on the verge of taking place. The logic wheel was spinning and then he thought, “If I can make this in half the time and at a third of the cost…” The 21st century enlightenment was beginning! Angels were revealing themselves to commence singing in chorus when he continued, “If I can do this, I clearly wasn’t meant to eat it.” Right then the hamster on logic’s wheel died and the fast food canine picked up the scent of death.
Out of nowhere, burgers were on the rise again. Actual restaurants began competing with fast food to see who could make the most ridiculously unhealthy slab of meat and toppings. Somehow America, including myself, kept it’s blinders on while grease made a comeback. Blinded, that is, until I saw a commercial for something new. Something I could no longer deny was ending an era. A hamburger that was four stacks tall of beef, cheese, bacon,
and good ol’ fashioned fatty mystery sauce. This wasn’t the old way of pushing the limit by adding an extra slice of cheese here or perhaps an onion ring there. Oh no, this was an all out, NFL tackling, cold-cocking, send-a-letter-home-to-the-limit’s-mother demolition of the limit. Here was a burger that only snakes and the toothless could possibly eat. I had no doubt this thing would register on my bathroom scale. Very calmly I looked at my friend Mark who was watching with me and asked, “What happened to America’s health kick?” And just as calmly, Mark responded without looking away from the monstrosity, “I think it just got told to go f@#$ itself.” Needless to say we immediately made plans to go buy one.
I can’t honestly say I’m surprised to witness the slow demise of healthy living. It is America’s phoenix. It spontaneously burns itself out but continuously reemerges from its ashes to make a comeback at a later date. People need a chance to forget the number of lose-weight-quick schemes that flood our late night infomercials and DVD shelves before they have the confidence to foolishly try it again as if it were their fault it didn’t work the last time. There are health issues to consider when weighing out cures for health issues. I don’t know if anyone else is alarmed that every weight-loss product, pill, diet, or workout video recommends that you consult with your doctor before trying, but that causes me to put a different spin on slogans like, “It’ll change your life forever!” Maybe you have pre-existing conditions, or you’re taking other medication that will mix as well as bleach and ammonia, or maybe you’re like me and allergic to running.
Ok. So maybe that last one hasn’t been scientifically proven, but I know that I hate it. The funny thing is that after a decent amount of time has passed, I forget that. And what do I do to remind myself? I go running. It’s not the running itself I hate. It’s the feeling when I’m done (or collapsed) like someone just finished attaching one of those vacuum bag sealers to my mouth and sucked out whatever it is that keeps my lungs from simulating the sensation of fire. How could this possibly be a sport let alone a leisure activity? I’ve been to cross-country meets before and watched kids cross the finish line crying and throwing up. I think to myself, “They’ve been training for this and they’re miserable! How am I ever expected to enjoy this?” While parents are cheering on their misery, I’m secretly begging them to stop doing this to themselves.
Of course people will tell you what a grand tradition running has. We even get the word “marathon” from the location of the great Persian War battle from which Pheidippides ran 25 miles back to Athens to report the victory. We commemorate this historic achievement by reenacting scale versions of it year after year in location after location, yet does anyone remember what happened to him when he got there? He died! I suppose death does in fact constitute a “life change.”
Being in my mid-thirties will eventually have something to do with my choices on fast food and exercise. Like a Chinese calendar, I think America is heading back into the Year of the Fruit and Vegetable anyway. But for now, the only “running” I’ll be doing is to the store for more burgers for the grill.