Be Reasonable

Summer came and went in a blur. Here it is Labor Day already, and I realize I never did write about the undergraduate course I took in summer school: Introduction to Nutrition.

I was probably more excited for this class than for any of the 7 nursing prerequisites I am acquiring in anticipation of possibly, maybe, blowing up my professor life to go back to school. I know a lot about nutrition, but I nonetheless eat like crap. In fact, this afternoon, I am considering having microwave popcorn for lunch.

And dinner.

[Ed. Note: I did indeed eat microwave popcorn for lunch.]

My hope was that by immersing myself in the study of nutrition, I would develop a mindfulness that would in turn help me develop better eating habits. Unfortunately, I ended up taking a 6-week course that was Tuesday-Thursday, 9 AM to 12:45 PM, with two big projects and an exam every fourth class. It was like shotgunning nutrition facts without pausing to digest, or even chew, them. I learned a lot, but absorbed little. Almost nothing has changed in how I take care of myself.

I took the class at my local community college, and my fellow students were fairly typical of the up-by-your-bootstraps ethos of that school. There were a few “returning adults” in their late 20s or 30s, including the guy I sat next to, who wasn’t interested in nutrition so much as he needed an “easy” science class. He thought nothing of purchasing a Coke and a pack of Welch’s Fake Fruit Gummi Garbage Chews to eat during the second half of class from the front row. This would be like taking a class in oncology and having a big snack of cancer right in front of your professor. Or taking an environmental ethics class and wrapping your textbook with the pelt of a baby seal. But our instructor never said a word.

There were also several students for whom English was a second language, including two North African Muslim women who never did quite learn how to understand a nutrition label. “No,” they asserted firmly about the package for some kind of imported salty-carby bits. “Salt is for all package.” No, hon, I looked myself. Those things contain enough salt in a single serving to give a rhino a heart attack. But, no, our instructor never corrected them, so convinced they were of their native cuisine’s inherent healthfulness.

There were also a couple of effortlessly beautiful young women who were on the nursing or physical therapy track. One of them rode a motorcycle and perpetually looked like she had just walked on a beach, in an influencer-pushing-green-tea-on-Instagram kind of way, not the got-bit-by-sandflies-and-my-hair-looks-like-a-kelp-nest way that I have when I return from the beach. This girl wore breezy, off-the-shoulder jumpers, see-through peasant blouses that made you want to thank her for the view, and badass, black lace-up ankle boots. Her skin was luminous, and her vintage-inspired motorcycle helmet said, “Fashion first, safety second.” Or maybe “’70s-Era Bond Girl.” I wanted to be her so, so bad. These young women constantly asserted the merits of juicing, acai berries, and coconut oil–pretty much any fad that Dr. Oz has jumped on in the last five years. And always, our instructor answered in even tones about the fiber benefits of whole fruits, the peer-reviewed science behind healthy oils, and “everything in moderation.”

Behind Motorcycle Girl sat an obese woman who cracked wise and answered questions with tremendous confidence, though she (clearly) didn’t know much about nutrition. Over time, her worldview became clear: “One’s weight is unrelated to one’s food consumption, and besides I’m not that fat anyway.” One of the case studies we worked through as a class involved a middle-aged woman who was 5’2″, 165 pounds, and struggling to find healthy options given her jam-packed schedule. The obese student disputed that there was any urgency in helping this imaginary client, because “165 pounds isn’t that big.” Ouch. Everyone in the class silently did the mental math, and the instructor stammered out a reply, taking pains not to say what we were all thinking: “You only think that because you weigh twice as much.”

As I look back on the class, I remain fascinated by the professor, whom I’ll call Mrs. Bland. I never did quite pinpoint her age, because while she seemed physically well preserved, her mien was of an old woman for whom every decision–every word uttered, every sartorial choice, every unfathomable sexual act (yeah, I’m the kind of rude, daydreaming student who tries–and fails–to picture her professors having sex) was governed by intense adherence to practicality and reasonableness.

Mrs. Bland was trim, not thin, in a way that suggested well-planned, healthy meals and sensible exercise like water aerobics, walking, and perhaps occasionally some 3-pound hand weights. She was always dressed tidily in either beige or black slacks with a modest cotton blouse whose neckline and princess seams were generously proportioned to conceal any hint of bosoms or décolletage. With the black pants she wore a black slip-on walking shoe, and with the beige pants she wore the same shoe in brown. Two colors for the shoes and slacks, five colors for the blouses, mix, match, repeat. She wore a bit of blush, applied no doubt by the tiny brush that comes with the compact, and the same lipstick every day–a burgundy too dark for skin so pale and creamy, I’m guessing she never left the house without sunscreen. Her hair was short, dark, and monochromatic, suggesting a dye job, but not an expensive one. Maybe Nice ‘N Easy?

“Nice and easy.” It’s a way to color the gray, but it also suggests a practical way to go through life–a little luxury, but not too much.

I appreciated Mrs. Bland’s thoughtful approach to student questions, even when they were mind-bogglingly stupid. Her answers were always seated in a place of reasonableness: “Here is what I can tell you the peer-reviewed research says.” She affirmed every conceivable dietary choice, from vegetarianism to veganism to low-carb diets designed to trigger ketosis, but always with emphasis on seeking out the healthiest option. She never raised her voice, never got flustered, never made an off-color joke, and never denigrated a student’s facts, not even the 500th time someone started a moronic assertion by saying, “I heard that…”

Coconut water boosts metabolism. Garlic cures cancer. Honey boosts the immune system.

No, no, and no.

As a fellow professor, I was in awe of Mrs.Bland’s even keel. As a student, I appreciated her sensitivity, even if we didn’t always deserve it. But as a person, I wondered, “Is this lady going to lose it some day?”

Mrs. Bland reminded me of the Barbara Hershey character in the 1990 TV movie “A Killing in a Small Town,” about a repressed housewife named Candy who brutally murders her friend Betty, striking her 41 times with an axe–28 blows to the head alone. Based on a book that’s based on a true story, the film (now streaming on Amazon Prime under the book’s title, “Evidence of Love“) follows Candy through the crime and trial, at which she pled self-defense. [SPOILER ALERT!] Turns out, Betty had come at Candy with the axe in anger over an affair with her husband, but Candy wrestled it away and then snapped, turning her friend’s head to mush while her baby cried in the next room. Based on a psychologist’s testimony about Candy’s mental state, the jury acquitted her of the murder.

4878-2
Barbara Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her terrifying portrayal of blandness and internalized rage.

The last lines of the film still haunt me, because they raise questions about the secrets that live inside all of us, even people who seem entirely composed, dull, and reasonable. What are they hiding? What are they capable of?

The film ends after the acquittal, with Candy speaking to her therapist (voiced by Hal Holbrook) in a room filled with shadows. The therapist encourages her to forgive herself while the camera focuses intently on Candy’s plain, pained face.

“I’m not innocent,” Candy says wearily. “I killed her. I’m a monster.”

“No,” the therapist counters earnestly. “You’re just like the rest of us.”

“Is that supposed to comfort me?”

Smashcut to black! Yeah, no, that is fucking terrifying. It’s been 26 years since I saw that movie, and I still don’t trust bland women.

At the same time, I admire them. Mrs. Bland was ever in control, never flustered, as even and relentless as a gently ticking clock. She caused no offense, she created no drama, and she inspired no strong responses. If she were a meal, she would be 4 ounces of grilled chicken (no skin), steamed broccoli, and half of a baked potato with a spritz of that low-cholesterol liquid butter spray. Well balanced, nutritionally satisfying, and remarkable–but only for how easily it’s forgotten.

Yes, I learned a lot from Introduction to Nutrition: common vitamin deficiencies in the elderly, coconut oil is bullshit, there is no vegan source of B12 because it’s synthesized by critters. I did a research paper on the consumption of nuts and glycemic control. My dietary analysis revealed that I eat too much protein.

And also: There is power in being reasonable.

People listen to you. They take you seriously. The ideas you offer them come unfettered by visceral reactions to your person. If you can keep it up for a lifetime, more power to you!

But I’ll never be that way. I’m too volatile, too many jaggedy edges, too many strong opinions I can’t quite contain. Sometimes I hate myself for it, because I know it holds me back.

Then again, I’ll probably never axe-murder anyone, either.

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