Monthly Archives: February 2018

You Big Cry Baby!

Growing up I had brief thoughts about pursuing a career in the entertainment industry either as a stand-up comedian or maybe even as an actor (you can stop laughing now). But I realized quickly I had no real talent and no great looks (which might be much more important than talent). I noticed that one thing great actors could do was cry on command. I don’t mean over-dramatic fake sobs, but letting loose with real tears. I could never do that. Once, during a sad situation with a former girlfriend (at least sad for me), I realized crying would be the right thing to do (or at least the dramatic thing to do). And finally, after about ten minutes of trying, I got a few tears to flow.

But the older I get, the more I find myself crying all the time – not so much the uncontrollable, ugly kind of cry, but I tear up constantly. I cry in movies. I cry reading books. I cry watching the news. I cry listening to music. And sometimes I cry just thinking about life in general. Perhaps, as I have gotten older, I have realized more and more that life isn’t fair, that bad things happen to good people, that the world is full of suffering. Maybe I have finally learned some empathy for others. I cry even more when I see ordinary people (or sometimes less than ordinary people) overcome adversity, stand up for the oppressed, or, being an underdog, beat the odds.

Now when I go to a movie, I tear up more often than not, regardless of whether the movie is supposed to be happy or sad. One of my worst movie-crying episodes came after watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower.[i] My nerves were raw due to dealing with circumstances involving a person I deeply cared about that were largely beyond his control and mine. I felt an overwhelming sadness and helplessness. When the tears started to roll, I couldn’t help myself, and the trickles turned into rivers of tears. Like Charlie in this clip, I couldn’t stop crying:

And that’s OK. Crying is actually good for us. Stephen Sideroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at UCLA and director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics, says, “Crying activates the body in a healthy way. Letting down one’s guard and one’s defenses and [crying] is a very positive, healthy thing.” William Frey II, a biochemist at the St Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, has found that emotional tears contain an endorphin that helps relieve pain, and hormones that help relieve stress. A study performed at the University of Florida revealed that crying improved the mood of almost 90 percent of those studied, with less than 9 percent reporting that crying made them feel worse. The fictional character, Lemony Snicket, said it this way: “A good, long session of weeping can often make you feel better, even if your circumstances have not changed one bit.”

Death of a loved one brings out the tears in most of us. As Shakespeare said, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” When I was twelve, my sister died. She was just 17. I remember that experience as if it happened only yesterday, and it brought about one of my first ugly cries. I heard of my sister’s death from my older brother who had picked me up from baseball practice. I was in shock until I got home. When I saw the many friends and family already there, some in tears, but everyone with sad faces, I gave my mother a hug and started crying uncontrollably, not so much for my sister – I knew she was in a good place – but mostly for my mom losing her only daughter, and for my other brother, who was out-of-town and would not be coming home for the funeral. Some similar feelings came to me when I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars.[ii] I was on a plane, flying to I don’t remember where. What I do remember were the tears repeatedly streaking down my cheeks. I did my best to control the sobs and the shudders (I was in public after all), but I let the tears flow unrestrained. I was anxious to see the movie when it came out a short time later. Gus’s eulogy in the movie touched me:

But the movie did not have the same impact on me as the book had. I went back and reread the last portion of it. I then realized I was crying in that plane not so much over the death of Hazel Grace, as sad as that was, but I was crying over the book’s description of the terrible way we often treat each other:

“Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered…. I want to leave a mark … [but] the marks humans leave are too often scars. We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants, … marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths…. We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either. Like the doctors say: First do no harm…. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world but you do have some say in who hurts you.”[iii]

As a sports guy, there is nothing better than watching a good sports movie and having a good sports cry. Who hasn’t felt that sting in their eyes while listening to the crowd yelling “Rudy! Rudy!” in the movie by the same name; or watching Roy Hobbs hitting the home run to win the pennant in The Natural; or cheering for Daniel, as he wins the karate tournament after his opponent’s dirty move to injure his knee in the original Karate Kid.? And every basketball player has felt the emotion of the true story of the 1954 high school basketball team from the small Indiana town of Hickory, led by a coach with a checkered past and the town’s drunk, who find a way to win the state championship against bigger and more athletic teams. Here is the pivotal scene from the movie Hoosiers:[iv]

There is a Jewish proverb that says, “What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul.” The most cleansing cries for me at the movies happen when I’m watching ordinary men and women overcoming almost insurmountable odds of prejudice, hatred, physical obstacles and other forms of adversity. One of my favorite such movies is 12 Years a Slave,[v] the incredible true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is captured, sold and kept in slavery for 12 years at the mercy of slave masters and the emotional and physical abuse that goes with it. After seeing all he went through, sometimes with one eye closed, I watched this closing scene where Northup is finally rejoined with his family:

Can you imagine what that experience would have felt like? It would reduce to tears anyone with any feeling at all. This is why I enjoy movies so much. Done right, a movie can transport us to any part of the world (and beyond), at any time in history, and help us live the experiences of others. We laugh, we cry, we struggle right along with the characters, building understanding and empathy along the way.

So let movies help you have a good cry. I certainly do. I close with this fabulous quote from Washington Irving: “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

[i] The Perks of Being a Wallflower

  • Production Company: Summit Entertainment
  • Director: Stephen Chbosky
  • Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky
  • Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller
  • Release date: October 12, 2012

[ii] The Fault in Our Stars

  • Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment, TSG Entertainment
  • Director: Josh Boone
  • Screenwriter: Scott Neustadler and Michael H. Weber (based on the book by John Green)
  • Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort and Nat Wolff
  • Release date: June 6, 2014

[iii] John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, Dutton Books (2012), pp. 310-16.

[iv] Hoosiers

  • Production Company: De Haven Productions, Hemdale
  • Director: David Anspaugh
  • Screenwriter: Angelo Pizzo
  • Starring: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
  • Release date: February 27, 1987

[v] 12 Years a Slave

  • Production Company: Regency Enterprises, River Road Entertainment, Plan B Entertainment
  • Director: Steve McQueen
  • Screenwriter: John Ridley (based on the book by Solomon Northup
  • Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender
  • Release date: November 8, 2013


What’s For Dinner?

My wife and I and some friends spent last weekend in Las Vegas, which I always find an interesting place. As a city that never sleeps with thousands (millions?) of lights everywhere, I often wonder what the combined electricity use of the city is. I find particularly fascinating the juxtaposition of the city’s opulence to the dozens of street people lining the city streets with signs asking for help – some clearly with mental challenges, some homeless, many hungry, and a few, I suppose, just trying to make a quick buck. I am especially partial to the musicians, playing everything from drums to guitars to flutes, who at least “earn” my handout. As we enjoyed the weekend together with our friends, our most pressing question was, what’s for dinner? What nice restaurant were we going to choose to eat at that night (or morning or midday)?

But for many, the choice of eating is not one of where, but what. Hunger kills more people in the world than aids, malaria and tuberculosis put together. The new term for the hungry is “food insecure,” and is defined as those people who are unsure where their next meal is going to come from. In America – the richest nation in the world – 50 million people are classified as food insecure. That’s one person in six, or almost 17 percent of us. And of that 50 million, 3 million are seniors, and 17 million are children. The United States ranks dead last among the IMF’s “Advanced Economy Countries” on food insecurity. How can this be?

When I think of people being hungry, I think of one of my favorite movies, Slumdog Millionaire,[i] which is set in India. Here is a great scene from the movie that illustrates the conditions in which millions of the people of India live each day:

To get an idea of how bad the food crisis is in America, I turned to some documentaries. A Place at the Table[ii] and Hunger in America[iii] are full of statistics about hunger. Here are just a few of them:

  • The state of Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity. It also has the highest rate of obesity. That sounds contradictory until you realize the price of fruits and vegetables has risen 40 percent since 1980, while the price of processed foods has decreased by about 40 percent during that same period. Three dollars will buy you 3,767 calories of processed food, but only 312 calories of fruits and vegetables.
  • Crazily, 84 percent of government farm subsidiaries goes to crops and grains used for clothes (cotton) and processed foods (wheat, corn, rice and soy), but less than one percent goes to subsidize fruits and vegetables.
  • But, you say, we have government programs that take care of our hungry – the Federal Food Assistance Program (i.e. food stamps). But to qualify for that assistance, a household income must be less than $24,000 per year, and if you make one more dollar than that, the assistance is taken away completely. Even with food stamps, the average allowance is $3 per person per day. Sadly, one in every child born in America today will be using the Federal Food Assistance Program sometime during their childhood.
  • To help those children, the Child Nutrition Program provides funds to school lunch programs (sometimes breakfast, too), but school lunch budgets average only $2.68 per child per meal. When you subtract administrative costs, there is less than one dollar left for the actual meal. Not surprisingly, then, the typical school lunch has too much fat, too much sugar, and too much salt, which leads to childhood obesity. Only 25 percent of our nation’s youth ages 19 through 25 are fit enough to serve in our armed services.
  • The funding of the Child Nutrition Program is reviewed every five years. At the last renewal, Congress granted an increase in funding of $4 billion. That might sound like a lot, but on a per meal basis, that translates into a whopping six cent increase. How did Congress pay for this increase? Half of it was funded by subtracting food stamp benefits.
  • When you compare that $4 billion increase to the bank bailout (TARP) of $700 billion, or the Bush tax cuts to the top two percent of the richest Americans that totaled $1.3 trillion over ten years, it appears to me that our priorities are not quite right (or maybe it’s just a question of who has the best lobbyists).
  • We often think poor Americans are just lazy, living off welfare, but 85 percent of families that are food insecure have at least one working adult in the family.
  • Forty percent of food produced in America is wasted. That’s right, 40 percent of all the food we produce is thrown out, yet people go hungry.

That last statistic especially caught my attention. Fifty million Americans are food insecure yet we throw away 40 percent of our food? It just doesn’t make sense.  But it’s true. So I looked a little deeper and found another documentary entitled Just Eat It,[iv] which follows a couple who pledge to eat nothing but discarded food for six months. Here is the trailer:

This documentary points out some of the aspects of our unique relationship to food. As consumers, we won’t buy anything that is imperfect. We check for cracked eggs; we reject bruised bananas; we pass on irregularly shaped fruit and vegetables. In fact, 20 to 70 percent of the fruit grown never makes it to market, depending on the type of fruit. Yet wasting food is not particularly frowned upon any more. We shun litterers and those who don’t recycle, but say nothing to those who waste food. There is waste all along the distribution chain from farm to households, but a study done in New York found that 15 to 25 percent of all wasted food comes directly from households. And 97 percent of wasted food ends up in a landfill.

According to the documentary, 60 percent of consumers throw away food because of the date on the label. But those dates are “best used by” dates, not expiration dates. In other words, they are for quality, not safety. In fact, the only product the government requires a date on it for safety reasons is infant formula. All other dates are put on by the manufacturer or distributor in an effort to ensure quality. Accordingly, I am perfectly okay eating foods past their recommended date unless the can is bulging, the food smells rotten, or there is green, white or black stuff growing on it.

Part of the problem is the size of portions. At restaurants, due to the size of most meals, we are given the choice of wasting food or overeating. We often do both. At home, we are no better. Julia Child’s cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, was first published in 1931. Most of the recipes in today’s edition are the same as the original, except the amount of servings per recipe has been cut, often in half.

Wasting food hurts us in ways we don’t normally think about. For example, the amount of energy needed to produce just the food we waste equals four percent of our total energy consumption. The water used every year to grow just the food we throw away could supply the household water needs of 500 million people! That’s more than one and a half times the entire population of the United States! In fact, the water necessary to produce a single hamburger is the equivalent of taking a 90 minute shower. And we are contributing to climate change by throwing away so much food. Most of the wasted food that ends up in the local landfill decomposes into methane gas, which is 20 times more toxic to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

During the six months of their experiment, the couple in the documentary found the challenge was not finding food to eat, but to not waste it again. They ended up with so much food they gave much of it away to friends and family. Even so, the husband gained over ten pounds during the six month period. At the end of the experiment, the couple had paid a total of less than $200, but had collected more than $20,000 worth of food.

The problem then, is not lack of food, but getting the food into the hands of those who need it. So what can you and I do relieve the suffering of the hungry, while at the same time slowing down the waste of so much food? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be aware, and help others be aware, of the problem.
  • Donate food and money to, and volunteer your time at, the local food bank.
  • Teach your children that food responsibility is at least as important as recycling and not littering.
  • Let people who are food insecure know they are valuable.
  • Advocate for the hungry with federal, state and local governments.
  • Compost food you would otherwise throw out.
  • Don’t throw food out just because it is near or slightly beyond the date on the label.
  • Be aware of your family’s and neighbors’ food needs and share your abundance with those in need.
  • Use your freezer more.
  • Shop smart. Plan your meals ahead of time, starting by looking at what you have on hand and supplement that with a trip to the store rather than shopping for what you want to eat and then trying to supplement that with what you have on hand. Use a shopping list and stick to it. Buy only what you need. I love Costco and Sam’s Club, but buying in bulk often just leads to waste. If you can’t help buying, for example, a twelve pack of yogurt because it is such a good deal, but you know you won’t eat them all before they spoil, give some of them to a shelter or a food bank.
  • Buy funny-shaped produce; a crooked carrot tastes just as good as a perfectly straight one.
  • Add a bin to your refrigerator marked “eat me first.”
  • Take a doggie bag from restaurants and actually eat the leftovers.
  • Buy locally grown products; on average, they will have a longer shelf life.
  • Buy overripe fruit at the supermarket and use them in smoothies or baked goods such as banana nut bread.
  • Designate one meal a week as a use-it-up meal.
  • When eating out, consider splitting a meal. With portion sizes what they are today, often a single dish is more than enough for two people.
  • Adopt a first-in, first-out, refrigerator and pantry. Rotate your food so you are sure to eat first the earliest items you bring home.

You can find many more ideas through a simple search of the internet. I am grateful to live in a country that has such a rich abundance of food and other necessities. But with such wealth comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Let’s be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

[i] Slumdog Millionaire

  • Production Company: Warner Bros, Celador Films, Film4
  • Directors: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
  • Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy (based on the book by Vikas Swarup)
  • Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Saurabh Shukla
  • Release date: December 25, 2008

[ii] A Place at the Table

  • Production Company: Motto Pictures, Participant Media
  • Directors: Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
  • Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tom Colocchio
  • Release date: March 1, 2013

[iii] Hunger in America

  • Production Company: Skydive Films, Indiewood Pictures
  • Director: Zac Adams
  • Screenwriter: Zac Adams
  • Starring: James Denton
  • Release date: May 7, 2014

[iv] Just Eat It

  • Production Company: Peg Leg Films, Knowledge Network
  • Director: Grant Baldwin
  • Screenwriters: Jenny Rustemeyer, Grant Baldwin
  • Starring: Grant Baldwin, Jenny Rustemeyer and Dna Gunders
  • Release date: March 4, 2015