The poor, the really poor, and the overfed whiner

Physical map of Africa

LAST WORD: The poor, the really poor, and the overfed whiner

Lexpert, February 2008

by Marzena Czarnecka

I’m reading Richard Kapuscinki’s Shadow of the Sun, a collection of essays and memoir-like reflections on his four decades of traveling through and writing about Africa. It’s a humbling, almost painful experience that drives home a few unwelcome truths for me. First, that I’d never go driving through the Sahara and Sahel in search of a story. Bribe a pilot of a two-seater to fly me into a forbidden war zone? Na-ah. And at the first sign of cerebral Malaysia―I would be out of Kumpala as fast as my shaking and quaking legs could carry me.

Second, I’ll never write that well (especially in Polish, the language Heban, the Polish version of Shadow of the Sun, is written in. But I can fool myself on that a little―he’s so much older and experienced than I am at this point! Maybe in another 40 years… maybe if there comes a topic that inflames me and consumes me as Africa did him… it probably won’t be law firms, though, will it…)

And third… Kapuscinki takes me on a tour of war zones, post-war zones, in-between wars zones. Areas in which drought has brought starvations. Refugee camps raided by war lords. And everywhere, I meet people who are hungry at best―starving at worst―and for whom staying alive is an act of such will, courage and effort, my Canadian-raised mind can barely fathom its scope.

I put away the book, and click on a news site. And I read about a Health Canada report on the state of the use of transfats in Canadian restaurants, finding out that, among others, Burger King hasn’t reduced transfasts in its products at all and Tim Horton’s has… but it’s also replaced them pretty much in full with saturated fats.
A series of comments by readers follows, the gist of which is that 1) fast food is gross 2) but they can’t help eating it because the outlets are everywhere.

Maybe it’s because my head’s just been in the Ethiopia of the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994 and present day Sudan. Maybe under other circumstances, I’d just laugh―I’m good at that. Right now, I can’t. I’m angry, and I think our hedonistic, decadent culture with no sense of self-control or self-responsibility absolutely deserves to wither and perish.

I try to shake it off. I go play with my children. Who, by the way, are lean, well-fed creatures who dearly love a donut but have never eaten at McDonald’s or Burger King, despite the prevalence of fast food outlets throughout Calgary (and the prevalence of obese Calgarians―according to a recent survey by the Government of Alberta, disturbingly more obese than Edmontonians, the result, the survey suggests, of more fast food outlets in Calgary than the province’s leaner capital city). (In the interest of full disclosure: my children have had baby burgers at A&W. Transfat content unknown.)

As my playing machines run, swing, jump, wrestle, summersault, climb and otherwise expand huge amounts of energy, I think about the paradox of today’s “successful” life. I mean―it’s going to kill you, right? In North America and Europe, the professions and jobs to which most people aspire are, for the most part, sedentary jobs that involve exercising the brain and letting the butt get soft and fat. Take your average lawyer.

A successful lawyer is a busy lawyer. Right? And busy how? Bent over books, the computer, the telephone, stretched out in a boardroom chair. Sure, a litigator spends some time on her feet pacing to and fro before a judge―but not so much. Even most of the time in court is spent sitting still―or standing still. And flapping gums don’t work off that many calories, and strengthens very few muscles. (I well know this. From first-hand experience.)

(Interlude: if someone has the ear of Health Canada, Statistics Canada or another such organization, I would very much be interested in a study that compared the health, as measured by pounds over ideal weight and myriad other factors, between litigators and corporate lawyers. Oh, the fun we all could have with that!)

I live near a popular jogging route neat downtown Calgary, where I periodically encounter panting lawyers (as well as accountants, investment bankers, engineers, the occasional VP and CEO―although these folks tend to prefer treadmills, I believe there’s even a StatsCan survey to that effect―as well as all sorts of other hapless office workers), all running for their lives. That’s what they’re doing―trying to stay alive. That’s what I do, every time I step away from the telephone and computer to get the blood moving through my sedate body, get my heart pumping and my lungs gasping, and remind my muscles that they have functions other than keeping my behind comfortable in an ergonomic chair.

And Africa and Kapuscinki intrude again. What a whiner I am. Poor, overfed, underexercised me. Poor, overfed, underexercised urban ruling class. Poor all of us, unable to find the self-control and planning skills to choose to eat something other than a burger and fries when our stomachs rumble in-between meetings.

Whiners, all of us. But I no longer think we all deserve to wither and perish because of our clay feet―or is that clay stomach? But we’ve really got to take some responsibility for our health, for our lives.

And maybe then for our world?

Marzena Czarnecka isn’t always funny.

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