A Steady Diet of March Madness

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on March 24, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

As the NCAA Tournament begins its second week today, so does the March Madness diet that accompanies the basketball marathons I watch on TV. With my bracket on one knee and bacon cheese dip on the other, I watch my picks implode as I wolf down an entire bag of nachos. It’s Pavlovian, an annual rite of spring that inevitably leaves me with indigestion and extra five pounds by the time they crown a new champion. Each year, though, I promise that I won’t do it again.

After two months listening to my home scale groan under my weight while it answered only with an endless series of error messages, I knew it was time to tuck my tail between my legs and return to the local gym. Like most gym memberships, I kept mine because not paying for it would be an admission that I’d given up. However, other than flicking the card out of the way each morning to find my house keys, it wasn’t getting much of a workout. Unfortunately, it seems this year’s “New Year’s resolution exercisers” are still hanging in there and clogging the gyms with the same regularity the bacon cheese dip is clogging my arteries. I needed something new.

On my lap this afternoon is something called the Beach Body P90-X, and the box states that Tony Horton (whoever he is) is going to provide me with two “extreme workouts” using “the science of Muscle Confusion.” It will get me absolutely ripped in 90 days.  While it sounds painful, the people on the box look really happy. Evidently, if I’m good, I’ll also get a chance to buy Tony’s Ab Ripper. Granted, when you’re as overweight as I am, “extreme workouts” seem like a one-way ticket to the emergency room. Ripping your abs loses its appeal when you’ve already ripped a hernia through your stomach wall.

This box comes courtesy of my older brother, a well-meaning attempt to “confuse my muscles” into losing some weight. It’s the latest in a long line of boxed hope that has blighted my doorstep over the years. When it comes to yo-yo dieting, I am the Duncan Glow-in-The-Dark Deluxe Yo-Yo.

The Zone Diet promised to retool my metabolism with a balanced diet that would hold off heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It left me pining for carbohydrates and so hungry between meals that people began looking like big hot dogs. The Atkins Diet promised to change my body from a carbohydrate-burning engine into a fat-burning engine, albeit an engine evidently fueled by incessant constipation. Dr. Phil’s Diet Solution promised to change my negative thoughts to positive impulses, but he lost me when he said to substitute old habits (like eating pizza) with new ones (a nice shower or a good book). Doc, if I showered every time I wanted to eat ice cream, I’d have scraped off all my skin by now. My mom even tried to send me her old copy of “Sweatin’ To The Oldies” with Richard Simmons. I sent it back; I have my pride.

Dieting is a big-money industry that keeps the B and C-List celebrities working well past their prime. Dan Marino and Tori Spelling hawk Nutri-System, Rachel Hunter sells Slim Fast, Valerie Bertinelli pushes Jenny Craig, and Jenny McCarthy shills for Weight Watchers. Of course, Trim Spa had Anna Nicole Smith, but that partnership was not quite as wildly successful as either party hoped.

In the end, those of us fighting our weight are fighting to take some control of our lives. However, the control offered by fad diets is both elusive and illusory. In the process of following the latest trend, we often give up what little control we have. Rather than taking responsibility, we are allowed to blame our genetics, our food, our surroundings, or our past. There isn’t a magic pill, protein/carbohydrate ratio, or root extract that provides a short cut to good health. Even Oprah learned this the hard way, and she can afford to avoid the hard way at all costs!

I’ve stopped looking at the flashy packaging and the fancy book covers. I’ve learned it’s not just the diet, it’s the person suffering through the diet that needs to be switched up. It’s not the newest pill on the market that will transform me, it’s lacing up the old running shoes that sit in my closet like forgotten change. Most importantly, my waistline doesn’t benefit from hours of watching basketball—it might helped if I actually picked one up myself.

What I need is a non-surgical gastric bypass, something that slaps a hand over my mouth after I finish the first helping. That would really confuse my muscles!

Retarded Progress of Language

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This piece was picked up by the Special Olympics and used on their website “Spread The Word to End The Word” on March 9, 2011. This meant a great deal to me after years of volunteering for the Special Olympics while in school. Posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on March 10, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

“That is so retarded!”

It’s a phrase I hear all too often in my position as a middle school teacher, but much more worrisome is the frequency with which I hear it said by adults. The Black Eyed Peas scored a hit a few years ago with their song, “Let’s Get Retarded.” I hear colleagues and friends refer to the “retarded” actions of others or themselves. “I was such a retard last night,” I overheard one woman say while waiting in line at Stop and Shop.

Most of us realize that cursing and racial epithets comprise the language of the ignorant and fearful. We are all familiar with the words we are supposed to avoid: few hear the “n-word” without a twinge, and the use of “beaner,” “dago,” “jap,” or “mick” have mostly been purged from decent vocabulary. Somehow, though, the misuse of the word “retarded” often manages to slip past the filter of acceptable society.

The irony is lost on those who use it. Gradually, the word “retarded” has developed a new connotation, often used a synonym for “stupid.” More intelligent people realize that the actual definition of the word “retarded” is that which occurred or developed later than expected. Since the turn of the twentieth century, it’s referred to the state of being mentally underdeveloped, medically defined as having an IQ below 70. However, the term has been turned into an offensive slur by those too dim to realize that its use accomplishes the opposite of what they intend.

In the process of someone trying to say that forgetting to take his briefcase off the hood of his car was a dumb thing to do, calling the action “retarded” implies that he was mentally underdeveloped for the task; in fact, he is unwittingly implying it wasn’t his fault because it was beyond his capacity to begin with! Rather than declaring his neighbors made a poor decision when failing to warn him before he drove off, he instead lets them off the hook by calling them “retards.”

Why not just call both actions “stupid”? More importantly, why do so many continue to turn a medical condition into a pejorative term? Do we still call those in wheelchairs “cripples”?  Would we so easily dismiss it when someone referred to “wetbacks” or “guineas”? The shame that one would expect at the mention of such words is conspicuously absent when using the word “retarded.” Sadly, sometimes it takes a while for the American lexicon to catch up with American ideals. In some cases, organizations see the need to escape these terms completely; in 2004, the Special Olympics International Board of Directors officially stopped using the term “mental retardation,” replacing it with “intellectual disabilities.” On October 5, 2010, President Obama signed bill S. 2781, which removes the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor policy, into federal law.

More importantly, anybody who interacts with the mentally challenged knows that the mental designation of “retarded” should never be associated with negativity. Imagine that you were challenged with the following characteristics of mental retardation: delays in oral language development so that you couldn’t communicate effectively with others; deficits in memory skills that caused you to forget important information to operate in your world; difficulty in learning social rules that cause you to struggle to fit in; delays in the development of adaptive behaviors so you could learn to take care of yourself; lack of social inhibitors that would allow you to sense when your actions are inappropriate; and finally a pronounced difficulty with problem solving skills that prevent you from being able to overcome all these obstacles. Now imagine that these same difficulties will not only challenge you to find your purpose in this world but also be seen as a joke to others. Can anyone find the logic in this?

On the other hand, those of us who have been lucky enough to have these special people in our lives know how truly generous and courageous they are. Free of the petty motivations and masks most of use engage in daily, those with intellectual disabilities are often incredibly inspiring in their work ethic and earnestness. One need only volunteer at the Special Olympics Games or visit the Kennedy Center to see this firsthand.

In short, the only thing “retarded” to which we should refer is the sluggishness with which we eliminate the hurtful and senseless misuse of this word. To be blunt, it makes us sound “stupid.”