American Bodies, Cuban Cars

I make no claims to being anything other than a complete and utterly insufferable asshole, and so it is with this in mind that I’d like to declare that if you’re a grown man in your 30s, you shouldn’t complain about having to walk up several flights of stairs because the elevator is out.

It’s a very strange thing to be in the presence of, if not entirely surrounded by middle-aged adults who have adopted so cavalier approach to their own physical health and appearance such that the prospect of climbing a relatively small number of stairs is cause not just of note but loud declamations of protest.

As America and the rest of the Western world continues its onward march toward a society in which everyone realizes their inborn right to cardiovascular syndrome and early onset type 2 diabetes, perhaps it’s time to pause for a moment and reevaluate our approach to our bodies. And what better way for Americans to reevaluate this than through a lens of materialism, specifically our automobiles?

Imagine that at age 16, upon receiving your driver’s license, you were then given a car. A nice car. Nothing particularly fancy, but one with a solid chassis and some impressive German engineering. It’s certainly nothing you’d be embarrassed to be seen driving around town, which is to say it’s certainly not a Nissan Cube.

Now imagine that this car was to be the only car that you would and could ever own. No trade-ins, no replacements, no leases, nothing—just one car for the rest of your life.

How might you expect your behavior toward your car to change?

My guess is that you would probably treat it better than a rental. You would probably treat it better than you did your parents’ car when they lent it to you on prom night. You would probably treat it better than Paul Walker’s Porsche 911, and you would probably take care not to lend it to female celebrities like Nicole Richie or Brandi.

This is all intended to illustrate to you, America, that your body is essentially that: the only vehicle you’ll ever own, and it is all you will ever have to escort you through this life. As such, you might want to consider making some attempt to keep it looking and running a little better than a Pontiac Aztek.

Speaking of the Aztek, also known as the Trump wine of American car manufacturing, this particular automobile demonstrates how Americans have a very difficult time with aesthetics and forward-thinking. We are, after all, the nation that brought you the fanny pack, hipster beards, and Jon Gosselin.

And while we used to be criticized for the short attention spans required to watch a music video, today Van Halen’s three-and-a-half-minute video for “Hot for Teacher” seems decidedly quaint in comparison to the emergence and rapid ascendancy of Vine videos, to say nothing of Van Halen’s unapologetic sexism for having the audacity to posit that (gasp!) some adolescent boys may daydream about beautiful, scantily-clad women and fast cars—something that Michele Bachmann only wishes her husband would dream about …

Americans’ shortsightedness and disregard for aesthetics extend to our shockingly corrupted eating habits, which like Vine videos and prosaic superhero action movies are similarly geared toward instant gratification and not just a lack of concern but outright contempt for the future. Michelle Obama’s suggestion that perhaps children shouldn’t consume Lunchables and Cool Whip for breakfast, for example, is probably not the nanny-state, socialist propaganda that food manufacturers and their cohort of paid congressmen and A.M. talk show hosts would have you believe. Which is to say that removing vending machines from public schools probably isn’t the equivalent of the government gang-raping your daughter at a pool party, either.

Of course, Americans’ shortsighted approach to food and our collective craving for instant gratification is something that food manufacturers rely upon in their quest to satisfy investors and line their pockets with money that, whereas an estimated 90% of circulated American currency in the 1980s may have contained trace amounts of cocaine (100% of the currency in Lindsay Lohan’s wallet right this minute), today that cocaine has likely been replaced with traces of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil.

Americans today approach food not just as a value calculation (how much can I get for as little cost, irrespective of quality?) but also as a heroin addict approaches a good hit—how good will this make me feel for the next hour-and-a-half?

Except that American processed foods don’t make you high for even that long—it’s really only a matter of minutes or even seconds. Our designer processed foods trigger immediate endorphin rushes that actually subside with each subsequent bite of the product. As Sade once poignantly said, it’s “never as good as the first time,” and while she may have been referring to sex (certainly not with me), she may just as well have been referring to Americans’ processed food culture.

In particular, I’m referring to the sugar that now permeates nearly every corner of Americans’ diet in the same way that xenophobia pervades every Trump rally or that Mexican feces pervades Chipotle’s meat selection. And just as sugar, like a carefully crafted Vine video, provides that surge of instant gratification, it also facilitates the production of lipids necessary to increase one’s waist size so that it equals the circumference of a hula hoop. No doubt hula hoops will soon be sold in Kentucky as a fashion accessory to hold up one’s pants once Wal-Mart runs out of extension cords.

And so, like the short-sighted Americans who once saw shag carpeting, Yahoo Serious, and Gangnam-style as the wave of the future, the American diet, as obsessed with sugary gratification as Bill Cosby is with incapacitated actresses, fulfills our immediate desires while forfeiting our future in exchange for obesity, diabetes, and grown men who cannot see their penises outside of a mirror (also known as middle-aged Star Wars fans).  

But Americans do this in part because our bodies are programmed to crave sugar. Throughout our evolution, sugar was rare (the sweetest foods we would encounter throughout most of prehistory were carrots and, occasionally, honey), and sweetness was also a good indication that a food was safe to eat (bitter plants were more likely poisonous). Natural sugars also provided a valuable source of energy when our survival relied upon the thinnest of margins, and don’t forget that natural sugars (or those consumed with their fibrous counterparts) mitigated the sugar’s absorption so that eating an apple does not result in the same insulin spike as eating a bowl of Apple Jacks.

Apart from our evolutionary predisposition, Americans also likely eat like prepubescent children in part because we believe that science and medicine will save us from any deleterious effects, and that is in spite of most Americans’ vehement aversion to science (read: detox cleanses, colonics, acupuncture, etc.).

Because surely, regardless of our ailment, there will come some pill to suitably offset the adverse health effects of a diet consisting of Carl’s Jr., Wheat Thins, Easy Cheese, and Hawaiian Punch. And in truth, there often are. For all of our healthcare system’s flaws having mostly to do with both health insurance policy and pharmaceutical companies’ undue influence over university research, Americans still have access to some of the world’s most advanced and life-extending medicines.

However, most people fail to appreciate that medicines do not “cure” an ailment—they merely treat a symptom, and treating a symptom is roughly the equivalent of turning off the TV every time that Big Bang Theory comes on—it may avert your gaze from shitty script writing, but it won’t change the fact that there are still plenty of mouth-breathing shit-eaters out there who continue to be assaulted with trite, warmed-over dialogue and cookie-cutter plot lines.

Regardless, while medication may extend your life, it won’t necessarily improve its quality. Medication won’t magically remove the extra weight that limits your ability to both fuck and ride a bicycle, at least well, and it won’t reconfigure your metabolism so as to give you the energy and comfort your body, every human body is inherently designed for. Unfortunately for those seeking a ready-made solution in the form of a pill or, pun intended, of having one’s cake and eating it too, nature just doesn’t work that way.

This is because evolution didn’t provide for agriculture and large-scale civilizations predicated on a division of labor. Instead, evolution provided only for small hunter-gatherer groups, and civilization and agriculture arose more as a side-effect of the attendant cooperation needed to survive the harsh environment out of which homo sapiens emerged. This need for cooperation among our ancestors is at least why nature saw fit to risk the development of our enormous prefrontal cortex in exchange for the risk of death to mothers during labor.

And so we find ourselves struggling against an unfortunate reality: resist the manufactured foods that exploit nature’s design or confront the prospect of an unhealthy, unattractive life. Because the other unfortunate reality is that these bodies, our vehicles with which we’ve been blessed to navigate the entirety of our lives, cannot be replaced or traded in for newer models, in spite of what you may you may have gleaned from Parts The Clonus Horror.

However, as unfortunate a reality as that may seem in light of so many people who have succumbed to our industrialized food culture, the often overlooked silver lining is that we can, in a sense, upgrade these vehicles at least insofar as we can keep them running in mostly near-peak condition for about as long as we would like.

All it takes is a proper diet and exercise, and it doesn’t ever require all that much exercise. I’m not here to lecture you on that proper diet and exercise regimen because I’m not that specialist, although Vinnie Tortorich is an excellent place to start. My point here is to draw a clear analogy between our bodies and cars, and I would submit that there is a real-world example where this analogy is made explicitly manifest: Cuba.

In Cuba, for at least the last 50 years, trade embargoes have made it necessary for many Cubans to keep their ‘57 Chevys in working order, and they’ve done so with more than modest results. In fact, they’ve been so successful at it that walking some streets of Havana does sort of feel like being transported back in time, or at least the Universal backlot for a 1950s period piece.

Because when you have no choice, when the alternative to not maintaining your car’s engine is that you no longer have one, you magically start paying closer attention to that check engine light (do ‘57 Chevys have a check engine light?) and checking the oil a little more frequently, to say nothing of the myriad other required maintenance protocols needed to keep a car running for more than 50 years. And apart from the necessity of maintaining the car’s working order, this attention to detail also extends to the appearance of the car because while you’re maintaining its mechanical functioning and so long as it’s the only car you’re likely to ever have, why not take pride in its exterior as well? Polish the chrome, refresh the paint, add those cool-looking mudflaps with the chick in a bikini riding an 8-ball?

The point is, there is a lot that Americans engulfed in processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle, and its attendant obesity can learn from our Cuban neighbors, including how to regard our bodies as they do their cars. And of course, we might also take a page from their music catalogue and fantastically endowed women, but let’s at least start with translating their approach to their automobiles to that of our bodies.

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