Friday, August 31, 2012

The Motherboy Dance

Both of my kids still eagerly anticipate the arrival of summer. I have grown out of this myself. Still, Labor Day always comes with a kernel of sorrow that the promise of another summer has gone unfulfilled. Joe College packs his stuff, five boxes of vinyl records, a turntable and a few garments, and returns to school. He has discussed the possibility of living off campus. He is intrigued but Himself and I tell him that he will have his whole life to worry about running a household so there's no reason to rush into it unnecessarily. I struggle all summer not to lash out in disgust at his indolence but when I return from work the day he's left, I weep a little. He is indeed returning home this weekend for a music festival but nevertheless, I get caught up in the symbolism and the knowing that each leaving brings me closer to the final one.

The night before Joe College returns to school I tell him that the dinner plan is up to him. Instead of dining out he requests a steak (which no one else in the household eats) and mashed potatoes. I sear the steak to a perfect medium rare. I press the potatoes through a ricer until my hand aches. My mother taught me to melt butter and then gradually heat it with whipping cream and I present a big bowl of perfect fluffy spuds. Spuds (the son, not the potatoes) needs to rush out and Himself is working. This leaves Joe College in charge of clean up. I sweat in a hot kitchen making foods I don't eat, so last night or not, he can clean the friggin' kitchen. Despite the obvious pleasure he has taken in his repast, he is not enthusiastic about the attendant KP. He has inherited from his father an uncanny ability to convey disgust through body language and facial expression. I mention that his distaste for kitchen chores is perhaps a good example of why he's not ready to live off campus. My recollection of this comment is that it is stated mildly but perhaps my irritation at his monopolization of couch and television all summer has seeped through. The boy explodes.

I am so gobsmacked that I am unable now to accurately recount the entire profane exchange but the gist of what the boy says is “Do not mother me!” and my fumbling, inarticulate response is to the effect that this is my job and that he will be better for it. The words “fuck” and “lazy” figure in the conversation but I do not recall the exact context. The boy stomps off to the basement and slams the door. Our plan has been to watch Breaking Bad together. I watch it by myself but crank up the volume extra loud so that he is well aware that I am watching without him.

He calls before he hits the road the next day. He says it's been a rough summer, returning to the parental home after a year of quasi independence. The “mothering” thing is troublesome he says but he doesn't want to leave with ill will. It's not me, he says. He apologizes. I acknowledge the weirdness of this in-between time. I am proud of him for reaching out. I am disappointed in myself for behaving so childishly.

While writing this I get a call from the boy in Redlands. His debit card has mysteriously disappeared from his wallet. He is broke and his meal plan doesn't kick in for a few days. I give him the number to call the credit union so he can cancel the missing card and order a new one. I tell him there's nothing else I can do and that he'll have to borrow some money from one of his friends until his card is replaced. He's waiting for me to yell at him but I don't. My calmness unsettles him more than if I'd gone off.. I refuse to remonstrate him so he makes himself feel more like an asshole than I ever could have. Undoubtedly there will be more screw ups but his reaction suggests some maturation and the experience perhaps will lead him toward increased mindfulness.

I recall a humiliating incident that never made it into the manuscript I am completing. I am sitting at the special 6th grade table, under a big umbrella at Riverside Drive Elementary School. The conversation is lagging so I mention that my mother has just been prescribed glasses. One of the girls snarls, “Who cares? You're always going on about your mother.” The other girls taunt me. “Mama's girl! Mama's girl!”

I was at the center of my own kids' universe for so long. They are becoming themselves now. More and more they will be called upon to take on the adult world. I shift from the role of dictator to adviser but they're at an age when any authoritative voice can feel grating and belittling. There is huge internal and external pressure not to be a Mama's boy. The inevitable detachment is always fraught. The summer is really over and in less than a year Spuds will leave us too, most likely for the East Coast. My boys will require less of me and fend more and more for themselves. It takes real maturity not to conflate dependence with love. I'm working on it.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Blubber Soul

 When I was growing up there weren't many other fat teenagers. Now I see fat girls all over. Fat jokes are still OK. Obesity, in popular culture, seems to be one of the few human conditions that is exempt from the rules of political correctness. Still while there's lots of evidence of fat bashing on TV, real life seems more accepting of the overweight as there are so many more real fat people. The obesity rate in the U.S. was about 17% in 1962. It's over 35% now. Fat teens wear the same fashions as thin girls, have boyfriends and get knocked up even. During high school I yearned for anything other than the matronly apparel that was available in large sizes and for a boyfriend. I would have known better however then to get knocked up. Because nearly 1/3 of teenagers are obese these days it's sort of Darwinian that sexual proclivities have adjusted to compensate for the mathematical imperative of lowered standards. Sadly, my own aesthetic,shaped by a lifetime of self hatred, hasn't evolved. When I see a fat girl I think exactly the same unkind thoughts that I always suspected people were thinking about me. Especially if she's wearing shorts.

The why of skyrocketing obesity is controversial, as is the cause of obesity in general. I know intellectually that karma is not a factor but have trouble accepting this on an emotional level. Genetics, brain chemistry and lifestyle all make good cases. In 1962 however there were indeed far fewer fast food franchises, portions were smaller and there were no drive-thrus. I drive home past a big McDonalds on San Fernando Road. Usually the parking lot isn't very full but the drive-through line overflows into the street. Gas is more than four bucks a gallon but people will idle in line for twenty minutes rather then get out of their friggin' cars. I managed to get fat without drive-thrus and supersizes but I imagine that these luxuries would have made me even fatter.

Theoretically, I laud the fat acceptance movement and find much of their work affirming and comforting. Unfortunately, my own life as a very fat person has conditioned me to look at a fat person and feel pity, revulsion and moral superiority. When I see a fat woman at the supermarket I always sneak a judgmental glance at the contents of her shopping cart. “Coke! Ben and Jerry's! Milanos! Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. What a weak and pathetic person you are. I bet that jumbo bag of M&Ms won't even make it home...” I suspect too that very few advocates for the Fat Acceptance movement, despite their professions of being fat and happy, would reject a magic thinness pill.

I have not been thinner in my adult life than I am now. I am about 15 lbs from reaching my Weight Watchers' goal weight. I've been dicking around with the same five pounds up and down for about three months though. Weight Watchers encourages you to track what you eat and ascribes a point system. I am lazy about tracking. I don't eat anything, except perhaps a taste from someone's plate, blatantly junky but I sometimes overdo it with “healthful” food. Weight Watchers has also introduced a sophisticated sort of pedometer called an Active Link which tracks activity level. The device costs about $40 and the monitoring service is $5 a month. It's been quite hard sell. I attend a weekly meeting with a group of girlfriends, all of whom have had life long struggles with weight. We have all decided, for different reasons, that we are not interested in purchasing the Active Link. Meetings however for the past six weeks have revolved around the product and the minutiae of operating it. I walk for at least 8 hours every week. I don't want the damn contraption buzzing at me every five minutes to remind me that I have a weight problem. I've wasted enough of my life on that already.

I like our Weight Watcher's leader. She is smart and funny but she toes the party line,  an employee but also a sincere and true believer. She reminds us frequently that we can eat as much fruit as we like. I don't buy this and weight gains on the weeks when I have overindulged are a testament. I am shot down when I mention this at a meeting. Our facilitator has lost only 30 lbs. Chump change. She has no idea how very much fruit a person with a history of super obesity can consume. I know that the Weight Watchers Points Plus Plan is based on scientific investigation. I suspect though that research subjects were overweight but not morbidly obese. I further antagonize our leader, when after endless discussions about the Active Link, she asks the group if anyone has any questions about the device. The room is silent. I gleefully high five my girlfriend. The leader's peripheral vision is way better than I'd estimated. My punishment is another twenty minute spiel about the Active Link.

One might wonder why I pay for my Weight Watchers membership and slavishly attend the weekly meetings if I don't fully adhere to the program. I go back and forth on this myself. I admit that breakfast with the girls after the meeting is one of the major selling points. I walk a lot. I consume, and enjoy, for the first time in my adult life, breakfast. I eat what I like and eat frequently. I am not completely cured but I have made headway with regard to mindless eating. I may or may not buckle down for a couple of months to reach the higher end of what Weight Watchers considers my ideal weight range.

I struggle to straddle the line between being comfortably full vs. too full. A lifetime of radical dieting makes this really challenging. I worry sometimes about going completely out of control and gaining back weight. My current regime is tolerable. I don't have ESP but it seems realistic for me maintain my current exercise and diet routine indefinitely. Because it's been a life long pattern, I'm concerned that an even stricter routine might make me snap. Maybe if I can keep it together within a five pound range I shouldn't waste additional physic energy on my weight. So much of what I lost out on in life was because I was fat and maybe it's OK to accept a few extra pounds and get on with it.

The editor revising a manuscript advises me to downplay the family saga and focus on the degradation I was subjected to as a fat person. I tell him that I hate writing about this which convinces me that he is right. Tapping out this current piece makes me uncomfortable. Before my enrollment in Weight Watchers I ate a protein bar mid-morning, in lieu of breakfast. The Think Thin is reputedly developed by a bariatric surgeon. The bar is very low in calories but loaded with enough protein power to produce a feeling of almost uncomfortable fullness. The bar is filled with a coarse powdery substance that tastes like glue and carob and coated with an emollient intended to resemble chocolate only in appearance. I forced one of these down every morning. I figured out pretty early on that that filled me but didn't satisfy me and that as soon as the fullness wore off I'd do some serious damage. Unfortunately they were purchased at Costco so I had to choke down the whole big box before swearing off the disgusting things. I see a mom, and her teenage daughter who appears dangerously anorectic, at the protein bar section of Fresh and Easy. The teen points her spindly arm at the Think Thin bars. “Those are absolutely fantastic.” Anorexia was never my problem but I used to wish it were. I have no worries about becoming too thin. I do relate however to all of the girls and women who undergo surgery, starve, binge, purge or exercise themselves into a coma because they hate their bodies.

I've lived most of my life knowing that the first thing about me people would register is “fat.” Now I am only about fifteen pounds overweight so this is probably not the case. Of course, now for the first time in my life when the quick read on me isn't “fat,” it's “old”. This makes the quandary, about if staying thin will seize as great a hold on my life as being fat did, even more poignant. Obesity, I try to tell myself is not a due to a deficit in character but a disease. But will being a slave to managing the symptoms guarantee the best outcome? Will I really live longer if I start tracking my food meticulously and hang a device that measures my activity around my neck? Or will it just seem longer?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Writer's Splotch

I face the blank page at 11:18 Thursday morning. Except for two or three vacations a year I post at least 1000 words every Friday before I leave the office. In an interview, a writer I admire was talking about motivation. He said that he completed his first novel by setting a deadline and deciding he'd commit suicide if he hadn't finished the manuscript on schedule. Personally, I won't eat dinner until this piece is posted, which for me, is just about as extreme. Usually by Thursday morning the lightening bolt has hit with the topic for my week's musings. Now however I am forcing myself to write about not having anything to write about. It is hot and my office is not air conditioned or even ventilated. We are prone to blown fuses so I use only a tiny personal fan clipped to my desk that blows hot air in my face and causes the images on my computer screen to vibrate a bit. I have a heat rash, and despite frequent colloidal oatmeal treatments, the itch at times becomes unbearable. My body is a lattice work of red splotches and scratches. The only place I am comfortable is immersed in a cool bath with a thick paste of fine oatmeal slathered on my skin.

Because I correspond weekly with three prison inmates I feel obliged to appreciate how fortunate I am not to live my life behind bars. I slap myself around when I begin the descent into self pity. Often when I'm in the middle of a soul deadening task it occurs to me how many others would envy my drudgery. Now though even this sense of obligation can't lift me out of my morass. I have another uncontrollable fit of scratching and find tiny dots of blood seeping through my white top. I long to go home and take a much higher than recommended dose of Benadryl and crash but my colleague is on vacation so I'm stuck at the office. Unfortunately it seems that everyone who might need stock footage is on vacation too so there is nothing to distract me from writer's block and unbearable itchiness. Plus there are no witnesses around the office, except Rover, to prevent me from scratching and ruining a perfectly nice peasant blouse.

I haven't been a student or even a teacher for decades but I still get wistful and disappointed at summer's end. In childhood the anticipation of summer is so blown out of proportion that the fulfillment of expectation is nearly impossible. Now summer means only not making the boy breakfast, yet as I see kids return to the neighborhood schools I still sense the sad undercurrent of unrealized promise. Spuds still has two weeks off and is working on college applications and preparing to take the ACT test again. He's returned to his tutoring job and is co-writing a play. Joe College is in night owl mode, socializing with other home from college kids into the wee hours. He returns to school in a week. I resent his indolence now but when he goes I'll miss him something fierce.

Himself and I spent some time up north but neither kid has been anywhere this summer. The air conditioning in the house isn't worth a damn so I decide on a weekend escape. My criteria is cheap and well air conditioned and I find a great bargain in Palm Springs. We stay at a Holiday Inn that's done over in Pantone colors with retro desert flair. The air conditioning is great and there is a poolside d.j. The kids swim and Himself and I read in the room. We have a couple of good meals and no family drama. I slaughter the kids at Scattagories and number one son accepts his defeat rather ungraciously. “You just win because you're so old.”

L.A. is just as hot when we return as when we left. There is no maid to make my bed and leave fresh towels. There is no restaurant in the lobby. I itch like crazy and the oatmeal bath product I use leaves the tub gray and crusty. I spend two hours in the steaming kitchen preparing a casserole with salmon, kale, potatoes and onions. Himself gets a stricken look he gets when he tastes something he dislikes. He says he can't control this response but I'm skeptical. Number One son says, “You didn't actually think we would like this, did you?” Spuds is silent but takes one bite, silently rises and nukes for himself some leftover chili.

Joe College has been commanded to at least put an appearance at the office daily to help defray a bit the expense pertinent to his education, transportation and existence. This bores him although I do not take it personally, as this state reflects his summer experience as a whole and not just the being stuck at Mom's office part. He blows in and announces that his old Volvo has failed the smog test twice. He is irate at having to take it back to the mechanic and then for another smog check. I start to say that this is a small price to pay for having a car, such as it is, all expense paid. I stop myself. I wouldn't like going back to for a third smog check either. I don't want to have a fight. I just want him to get out so I can scratch in peace.

I am preparing to close the office and return home to my gritty bathtub when Spuds calls. He's on his way to his tutoring job and his car is acting up. He manages to make it to the mechanic around the corner from my office and takes my car to his job, stranding me at the office for another couple of hours. I try to force myself to write instead of scratch. I actually make some headway on a big manuscript I am struggling to revise. I come to a natural stopping point and text Spuds to find out when he's coming to fetch me. “Another hour,” he responds. I decide to comfort myself with a New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle but find they are no longer available free to subscribers of the paper. I switch to the L.A. Times puzzles which are still free but you have to watch a 30 second commercial for Ford Taurus before the crossword opens. The L.A. Times puzzle only takes about 5 minutes. A new spot of rash erupts on my back and I slide a ruler down my blouse.

Facebook seldom provides more than a minute or two of distraction but this week I've been logging on way more than usual. Writer Michael Santos was released, after 25 years in prison, on Monday. Miraculously he has mastered an iPhone and is posting pretty regularly from the free world. He's in a San Francisco halfway house. He describes the sensation of walking down the street as a man and not a prisoner for the first time. The wait at the DMV office is three hours but the office closes before he has time to take the driver's test. A Burger King Whopper is his first restaurant experience. I know Santos only from having read his writing but still I get a physical rush reading each of his postings.

The heatwave can't go on forever. I imagine my itchiness will subside in a day or two. And if not, it's the weekend so I'll have no compunction about altering my consciousness. Maybe if I'm real doped up the kids will play Scattagories with me again. If nothing else, Michael Santos is starting an office job today and I can't wait to hear about how that goes. Plus dithering around I've managed amass about 1314 words so I can eat dinner.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 10, 2012

Found and Lost

My friend Alan, an inmate at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi writes that his life is so monotonous that it is challenging for him to think of topics to write me about. I send letters to him and two other inmates weekly. It is difficult for me too sometimes to dredge up letter material because, although by design and not circumstance, my own life is just about as uneventful.

Michael Santos has been incarcerated in federal prison for over twenty five years. He is due to be released on Monday August 13. He was twenty three when his term began. He is 48 now. Santos has written eight books and is a contributor to the Oxford Handbook on Sentencing and Corrections. He's completed two masters degrees and was thwarted in finishing his PhD by prison red tape. His wife posts his writings at the website Santos chronicles his day-to- day activities, the daily prison menu and his extraordinary exercise schedule. He runs more than 20 miles daily and hasn't missed a day in many years. In addition to his seminal writings about the criminal justice system and guidance books about surviving incarceration he meticulously chronicles every facet of prison life. These accounts demonstrate an amazing self discipline that he's harnessed and enabled himself to grow and flourish during twenty five years of confinement.

I haven't logged anywhere near the mileage that Santos has but walking is integral to my own health and sanity. I walk daily except I usually skip every 10th or 11th day. I take the same 3 ½ mile route Monday through Friday. Our street becomes a dirt trail. I follow it to the end and then ascend a steep incline to what the kids used to call “the top of the world.” It's actually known as Kite Hill and once in a while there really are kites. The view from one side is downtown L.A., the rail yards, Dodger Stadium and the palms that surround it and the Hollywood Hills. The panorama of Mount Washington, green and dotted with cantilevered homes can be taken in from the other side of the street. The ground is usually strewn with trash because, despite the no parking signs, this is what my parents used to call a “make out” spot. Most mornings there are beer bottles, marijuana detritus, used condoms and fast food wrappers. I have mixed feelings when I see discarded used condoms. I also scratch my head when some of the empty beers are actually decent brands. You'd think someone with a discerning palate and the wherewithal to buy good brew would know better than to throw crap around, particularly in such a pretty spot.

There was a decision to isolate Mount Washington proper from the riffraff that assembles late at night on Kite Hill. An iron gate has been installed. For the twenty years we've lived in the area, the gate has been chained open, some free thinking Mount Washingtonians unwilling apparently to create a gated community. This shady street leads to San Rafael, the main drag. I pass the stately Self Realization Fellowship Center, which used to be the Mount Washington Hotel. Originally there was a funicular that ran from there to Figueroa Blvd. SRF adherents wearing saris or long skirts of the Orthodox Jewish persuasion sweep the sidewalks every morning. The sweepers are always women. They do seem very peaceful and self realized.

On the other side of San Rafael is the Mount Washington Elementary School. There is a large modern library and community center on the campus that was financed by neighborhood efforts and named in honor of Jack and Denny Smith. Jack wrote for the L.A. Times for 37 years. His daily column marked my transition from kiddie to adult reading material. Based on his description of his neighborhood, the verdant, quirky Mount Washington I decided at age seven that this is where I wanted to live.

During the week I turn around in front of the community bulletin board which usually has a lot of pathetically optimistic fliers (coyotes...) about missing cats. On Saturday and Sunday I continue on to the Seaview Loop. I pass a number of modern case study houses, and also some unfortunate new construction, to reach a trail that skirts the hillside. In clear weather, Catalina is visible from several vantage points.

I recognize dogs and walkers. I notice new cars and home improvements. Tuesday is trash day and I know which neighbors are boozers or are slipshod about recycling. There are people with shopping carts who trudge up the steepest hills and rummage through recycling bins for cans and bottles. The dogs nearly pull my arm out the socket when they see other dogs but are indifferent to possums, skunks, and squirrels. Once I spot a deer. I remind myself of my own good fortune, the childhood dream of living in such a rustic area, just spitting distance from downtown, realized. I do not vary my route for safety's sake. Sometimes I am hyper-alert to my surroundings but often the rhythm of my steps lulls me into a trance-like state and it is good that my route remains on auto pilot.

On New Year's Day I find a laptop in a case several yards from the top of Kite Hill. Halfway down the next block there is a canvas bag with books and clothing. I assume there's been a car break in and lug the computer and heavy bag of books back home to do some forensic work. I find some invoices and business cards in the laptop case and some bank statements in the bag with the books. I surmise there was no car theft involved, just two separate incidents of New Year's Eve drunkenness. I'm not home when the laptop owner arrives to fetch it. Spuds says he's an old weird guy with a ponytail, still befuddled at how the laptop ended up in the street. He gives Spuds $10 which I let him keep, although I am the one who dragged the thing home. The book bag has tacky coffee table books with wizards and unicorns, and ever judgmental I procrastinate about taking it back to the address on the bank statement. If had been art I liked I probably would have been Johnny on the spot about returning it. Walking one morning I notice a sign on a telephone pole. “My book bag with art books was left beside my car. Please return it. No questions asked.” I make Spuds leave the bag on the door step at the crack of dawn, lest I be caught, despite the promise of no questions.

A few weeks ago there is money, fives and singles, scattered willy-nilly down middle of San Rafael. There is no wallet or anything nearby to identify the possible owner of what turns out to be $28 so I pocket it. My friend tells me that once she found $500 on the street. She left a note on a nearby car saying that if they'd lost some money they should contact her. A caller soon reported having lost $500 and the money was returned. I tell her she should have asked for the denominations because $500 might have been a lucky guess. As hard as I try to convince myself otherwise, I'm almost certain that I myself would have kept that money too.

A few days later amidst the leavings of what appears to have been a particularly raucous party night on Kite Hill I find the California I.D of a young woman from El Monte. I mail it off to her and don't bother with a return address. That she may have moved or already replaced it is really of no concern to me. I like to think that she is delighted to have it returned and therefore avoid a long line at the DMV but I'll never know how it played out. Addressing an envelope and springing 44 cents for a postage stamp isn't as noble as returning $500 but I hope this made the girl's life a bit easier and that if she returns to Kite Hill that she cleans up after herself. Condoms and all.

Sometimes when I walk I am hyper-aware of my surroundings and other times this is eclipsed by the voices in my head. The route doesn't change and whatever my mindset, I strive to keep the overwhelming vastness of the world at bay. Michael Santos has run thousands of miles and I presume that the voice inside, bidden by the rhythm of his feet, has led his mind to soar beyond the confines of a prison camp. On Monday he will step out into the vast world for the first time in over twenty-five years. I have never met the man but I am elated and frightened for him. While it is self imposed, the confined existence I've crafted for myself comforts me. Freedom, the infinite vastness and possibility overwhelms me. I wish Michael Santos all the best as he steps out into a the big world that I struggle to keep small. From prison camp to infinity. I pray he keeps on running.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Reality Blight

At a dinner party I confess that I love the reality show Teen Mom. Eyebrows go skyward and the host's college sophomore daughter goes “ewww,” and then, “ick.” She seems completely repulsed although when I go on to describe the tribulations of the young, fertile and unwed it becomes apparent that she is more than a little familiar with the show. Embarrassed, she confesses to seeing bits of the program when her “roommate is watching.” Himself, who thoroughly excoriates me for my addiction to reality shows, weighs in that, yes indeed, Farrah is a bitch to her mom. Himself reddens when the assembled turn to him in shock. The professional intellectual squirms and mutters, “I hear it when she has it on.” The word “she” is pronounced with a derisive edge. After making eye contact with Himself and enunciating a request that he perform a small household chore, I assume he is hearing impaired. I usually end up doing it by myself. Nevertheless, he is not a auditorilly challenged when it comes to the trevails of Maci and Amber.

There are so many reality shows that there are sub-sub genres. From a production standpoint and in a rotten economy with a zillion channels to fill, these shows are cheaper to make. But they are indeed made because we do indeed watch.  It started back in the 70s with An American Family. I loved the show but there was a Margaret Mead quality and PBS provenance that relegated it outside the realm of popular entertainment. During the writer's strike of 1989, the show Cops, the first successful mainstream reality show debuted and opened the floodgates.

There are very few facets of society that haven't been realitized. Even the technology shunning Hutterite sect has its own show. It's on the National Geographic Channel. The erstwhile bastion of intellectual edification has become quite the bottom feeder. The Hutterites don't have televisions although some of the sects, called colonies, have some cellphones and limited Internet access. The young folks have uncannily nailed the reality show convention. Nineteen year old Claudia is the colony rebel. She wants to wear modern clothes, date “English” (as non-Hutterites are called) boys and not be manacled to woman's work. She is sort of the Hutterite Paris Hilton and she plays to the camera. The older colonists are stiff and wooden. They repeat a mantra flatly. “You can't work with the men Claudia” More fascinating to me than the video of the Hutterites interacting in front of the camera is the obvious cynicism of the show's creators.

A lot of reality programming capitalizes on hard economic times. There are at least two shows that are set in pawn shops. Storage Wars is about the auction of lockers that have gone into rental arrears. Most of the units are chock a block with possessions, lost to auction speculators, because the owners are unable to keep up payments, which run about $50 per month. There is never a nod to the irony that this default on personal belongings has spawned such a profitable hit show. Operation Repo stays on only when I have my hands in meatloaf and am unable to change the channel. The show, by the way, has become a huge international franchise. It's such an enormous hit because the vehicle is never wrested from a mom driving her kids to school or some poor schlemiel trying to get to work. Cars are taken from the reprehensible, snotty debutantes and arrogant Hollywood types. Justice is served. Schadenfreude apparently translates well into every language.

The thirst for immersion into the lives of every day people seems insatiable. Movies and fictional television are escapist entertainment. Actors are more beautiful, better dressed, wittier than any creature of the real world. People spend far more time on-line or in front of the television than engaged in social interaction. The digital age has fomented a pervasive loneliness and we yearn to connect with real people. And it is comforting to companion with those who are less beautiful, less well dressed, highly stupid and who appear on camera to be staggeringly bereft of self awareness.

Which brings me to two favorite shows and a pending spin-off which are controversial, and I guess despicable because they involve children. Nevertheless, when channel surfing, Dance Moms and Toddlers and Tiaras trump all. I haven't watched any of the real housewife shows but I presume the boozing, sniping dance moms are cut from the same cloth. The daughters study at the Abby Lee Dance Studio, Abby Lee herself being a 300 lb harridan who heaps abuse on mothers and dancers alike. We forgive the mothers a bit for forcing their daughters to endure this. When the moms aren't going at each other they unite against Abby. On every episode the moms exact a comeuppance and Miss Abby is somehow humiliated. Nevertheless, Miss Abby's girls almost always beat the rival Candy Apples in competition so her tyranny is endured. While the moms on Toddlers and Tiaras are more low rent than the dance moms, the show actually springs for some music rights. Miss Abby's girls go through their paces to public domain production music while the toddlers rock it to Beyonce and Madonna tunes.

There are about ten reality shows I keep an eye on. Even though TLC ostensibly stands for “The Learning Channel” Toddlers and Tiaras is lower on the food chain than even Hoarders, perhaps even Animal Hoarders. This week though I learn of a spin-off that will make Toddlers and Tiaras seem like Proust. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo focuses on kiddie pageant queen, Alana Thompson, a stand out out on the last season of the show. The pudgy contestant swills a concoction of Mountain Dew and Red Bull that her mom refers to as “go-go juice” and is animated, to say the least, for the judges. Mom defends her use of the energy beverage. Most of the other kids get Pixie Stix, which are referred to as pageant crack, but Alana, it is reported,consumed fourteen with no sign of improved vivacity.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo follows not just Alana, but the whole family. Certain motifs seem to be effective for reality show success. Poetic justice- like when the mean girl gets her corvette repo-ed-is is good. People also like to watch fat people. Really fat people. This makes other really fat people feel less freakish and less fat people feel thinner. I don't know how Honey Boo Boo is going to employ the device of justice being served but this family gives Biggest Loser a run for the money. As insurance that the non-severely brain-damaged viewers will feel superior to the Honey Boo Boo family, there are lots of arm farts, butt jokes and genuine mud wallowing.

I wish that this genre of television hadn't early on been dubbed “Reality TV” My kids frequently instruct me that the shows I watch are all faked. What kind of moron do they think I am? Maybe we wouldn't look down our noses so much if it were called“Manipulative TV” It's real life playing out a fantasy of itself in front of a camera. Everyone is acting. Most of the characters aren't very good actors. But it is fascinating to watch people create characters based on their selves. The choice to indulge in such exhibitionism is very telling. Who, with an iota of decency, would attempt to convince a fat family to wallow in mud? What, short of the threat of torture by starvation, would convince a fat family to wallow in mud?

There is a self righteous gratification that comes from being embarrassed for another human being. I am embarrassed for myself, having typed here several times. "Honey Boo Boo." Despite the association with ickiness, this genre's day will come. There is an art to this manipulation of reality. No cover is blown when we acknowledge the cunning, relying on non-professional actors no less, this manipulation requires. It takes is a special editor to manipulate the manipulation to its best effect. Just like in fictional TV, it's about character, tone, arc and setting. Even the most naïve viewers see the artifice. There's karmic justice and beau-coup blubber. Still, reality TV studies will inevitably become part of the cannon. Then maybe my family won't give me so much grief about watching crap.