Waste/Waist

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English is full of such wonderful sound-alike, but mean-different words. And I pounce on them occasionally when like these–waste/waist–they hit a gong in my head.

ITEM: In my walks around the neighborhood–beautiful evenings, balmy as milk, and scented with phlox–I happen upon cars/riders idling. Most recently, an empty car pulled into a driveway near my house–windows open, a gaggle of people sitting a few feet away who kindly apologized for the car blocking my way. I paused in front of them: “Would you mind if I asked you something?” I said. “Why do you have your car running if you’re not in it?”
     They had the good sense to act a bit shocked that I’d trespass on private behavior (most Americans think the way they drive is private behavior). Then a lovely woman with her arms around a child answered, “If I turn it off, I can’t get it started. It stalls.”
     This was not a lippy brush-off, but it did sound fishy. Yet, who was I to engage about the state of her car repair. OR to question her veracity. “That’s too bad,” I said, and walked around the spewing car toward home. The other two times I’ve tried this tactic this summer–once with a huge SUV idling/spewing in front of a house with a woman in the passenger seat, the other in a noon parking lot, windows rolled up, guy behind the wheel, playing with some hand-held device–I’ve either been brushed off–“OH, he’s coming back in a minute!” or–ignored when I knocked on the window.
     Idling wastes gas and it also spews CO2 into the environment. Gas wastage is a private matter, but spewing CO2 is public. Global warming affects us all.

ITEM: Here’s another spin-off. Many of my mid-level writing students at a mid-level, four-year college which shall remain nameless are single mothers, often African-American, with passels of children. They are often slightly or grossly overweight. They also hold down full-time jobs. When time comes to write their big research paper, they’ve already had an earful and eyeful on the connection between American corn farming (See the great documentary “King Corn), the corn syrup it produces, and the outrageous amount of fast-food/corn-sweetened colas Americans consume, which feeds this country’s epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
     I encourage them to begin their papers with a personal depiction of the problem they’ll discuss. Often what they show is a frantic life-style, a mother at the wheel of an enormous car pulled into a burger drive-up window, and ordering big and bigger burgers, plus tall tall full-strength colas. The food is relatively cheap, quick, and they can eat it on the run, i.e. meaning there is no physical exercise involved.
     This is a horrible syndrome. The documentary movie “King Corn” slyly but effectively shows how devastating to health is the combo of no exercise, inbibing corn-syrup sweetened colas, and corn-fed beef (far higher in fat than grass-fed beef–see the movie to understand why). Yet I understand why it happens, especially with this particular population: the single mothers are desperately trying to better themselves, yet their adult responsibilities stretch across several generations. They are often working full time in relatively low-paying jobs. Their cars are as much their homes as whatever apartment they inhabit. And their lives are so fast-paced they can’t “afford” the time to walk to the store. Not to mention that with busing their children likely do not walk to school.

These two bad bad habits circle like noxious whirl-pools:
      ITEM: suburbanization and lack of urban mass transit put millions of Americans in their cars for long commutes. These shorten their time at home for cooking decent meals, walking in the evening with their children. 
     ITEM: Hours spent “in transit” thins a sense of community, not to mention the faceless sameness of so many suburban developments.Think about it: if most families are working far from home, and spend little time in their neighborhoods, they not only gain weight, but they lose a sense of shared fate. CARS FOSTER A SENSE OF UNIQUENESS, SOLITUDE, and IRRESPONSIBILITY. Forgive me. It sounds as though I hate suburbs, though I spent some of my childhood in one-in-the-making outside Charleston, South Carolina. But we had only one car and my father drove it across the long Cooper River Bridge into Charleston every day. I ALWAYS walked to school, from first grade through 12th. And I was not a thin kid. But there were no fast-food joints in the 1950s and early 60s. No colas ever entered our house. To buy a cola my teen friends and I had to walk blocks to the drugstore. At home we ate peanut butter sandwiches–not lowfat but better fat than corn-fed beef burgers. We drank lemonade by the gallons through those long southern summers. 
     ITEM: During long commutes, cars sit in traffic and idle (unless they’re hybrids which blessedly shut off when they’re stopped). Thus IDLING BEGINS TO SEEM NORMAL, if normal is defined as a norm, a shared experience, an accomplished fact. You stop being aware of it. It stops being something you might question or change.

The ramifications are probably endless. But consider this last tidbit: In the mid-19th century, sharp-shooters took trains across the prairies. From the trains they shot buffalo in such numbers that this practice essentially helped make the animal disappear from large parts of its range. Here’s what I notice: a self-contained, speeding vehicle was used to create enormous environmental damage. The perpetrators came from elsewhere; they were not dependent on or familiar with what they destroyed. And they left immediately as they committed this predation.The sense of using enormous power in a scot-free manner strikes me as quite similar to Americans driving their cars long distances in daily commutes. They “pass through,” they do not immediately or obviously suffer the consequences of their behavior. They feel entitled by their speed (despite those traffic jams) and power. They are, as we used to say, “flying high.”

EXCEPT that lately those car-riders are beefing up. The “chickens are coming home to roost,”
  

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