Can We Not Have A Teachable Moment Just This Once

You’d think after that eruption I had a couple of weekends ago I would have stopped following the “Time” magazine health blog. But apparently my idea of fun is hitting myself upside the head with a 2 x 4. I kept getting their posts on my reader, until yesterday. So what pushed me over the edge?

Last Wednesday evening when I heard James Gandolfini died of a heart attack I was at first sad; although I was not a big fan or anything, he was a great actor who happened to be very famous for creating an icon (in my humble opinion, famous people who act for their profession are often NOT very good at it, but he was, let’s get that distinction out there, clearly—and also acknowledge that the best actors are often not famous). Bottom line, I did admire his work if I saw it, but gave him little thought otherwise. I hated the thought I had a split second after hearing the news: oh man, when are they going to start talking about his weight, relating it to his death?

Sure enough, a few hours later talking head doctors are all over the news programs like flies on shit. The next morning, all the morning shows (why the hell do I keep turning these things on? I could remove my risk factor for stroke and nervous breakdown by not watching these shows) had their on-staff health reporters talking about Gandolfini’s past with substance abuse and of course, his weight. I started writing this post on that day, but luckily, all the chatter died down (or I was just outdoors enjoying summer more, out of touch with TV and internet), so I put it aside. Then yesterday I check my WordPress reader and I see a post from “Time” tying Gandolfini’s weight, and his death, with the concept of “the Family” (read: mobsters), and how everyone has the obligation to take care of the self as a part of taking care of their own family/”Family”; a humorous (I guess) nudge that even the mobsters reading the post need to get fit, for the sake of others, you know, if they won’t do it for themselves. The post was weak and silly and said nothing new.

The worst part of the post, however, was a claim that all the other coverage of this event ignored Gandolfini’s weight, contending that commentators sidestepped the topic, saying if an anorexic starlet had been the dead person in question, the health concerns of being too thin would’ve been talked about immediately.

Say whut?

The blog post’s author was apparently not watching/reading the same stuff as I, in which THE WEIGHT was a BIG talking point. No one was being “coy” (author’s word, not mine). In fact, one of the points I wanted to make when I started writing this post—before trashing it last week and reviving it now—was the subtle implication that when someone dies of heart attack (or gets some other disease, like cancer) and they are the least bit overweight, well, gosh darn it all, they’re just asking for it, and they got themselves into this fix because they are fat lazy slobs. Just the fact the on-staff medical reporters were immediately dragged in front of the cameras the morning after to talk about heart disease prevention was, to me, a quiet indictment of Gandolfini, a gentle finger point: this could have been prevented had he eliminated his risk factor (as in, slimmed down). Oh sure, they make sad faces and express sorrow over the treasured celebrity’s death, but in saying “you can prevent this from happening to yourself” while they pull the sad face, they are saying/not saying, “he brought it on himself”. One talking head doctor actually said the phrase “if any good can come out of this” when saying this event is an opportunity for viewers to start becoming aware of their own risk factors. The insensitivity shocked me, but why? Having cancer my own self taught me that some people, when confronted by the sick person, start calculating their own risks, assuring themselves that their diet is better than the patient’s, so they’re “safe”, all the while expressing sadness and comfort to the patient’s face. I remember practically being able to see the wheels in some folks’ heads turning this idea over and over, while they spoke to me, and asked me about my sugar intake.

So you may be thinking to yourself, why is the ol’ Curmudgeon bitching about this? Of course heart disease, being overweight, and substance abuse are dangerous and we all need to take care of ourselves. I get it, being overweight causes problems; I don’t need convincing arguments. I’ve no quarrel with any of this. Yes, we do need to take care of ourselves and I have no objection to creating new healthy habits and taking better care of their bodies—I’ve done it myself. My stupidest example? I LOATHE tomatoes but eat them anyway because they are supposed to be great at preventing cancer.

But why does it take a celebrity event for the public to become aware of health threats? Is there really anyone out there thinking, “OMG, James Gandolfini can die of a heart attack, so maybe I might too?” C’mon, do you really need Dr. Pretty Hair Know It All On TV to tell you this stuff? I learned about health and nutrition in school and high school graduation is now an over 20-year-old event for me, so it’s not like teaching it is new. Are they no longer going over this stuff in school? Was it not covered when the Boomers were in school? But somehow I doubt Boomers are still ignorant of basic health knowledge. I mean, look at the cover of every periodical in the grocery store, rambling on and on about this protects you from cancer, this causes heart disease, yada yada. Info about weight, exercise, not drinking, and all the usual suspects, is the topic of so many news items on TV, so many daytime programs, on the cover of so many magazines, to me it seems impossible to avoid knowing the basics (this is not to say the headlines and abbreviated segments on the news really give in depth coverage of these health topics, I’m sure misinformation and misinterpretation thrives, but the basic message–lose some weight–is there). Messages about proper diet and exercise are everywhere, how the hell are people missing it? Why are talking heads acting like this is all brand new info?

I guess there are a few reasons I’ve not thought about until now. First and foremost is that since the health messages are so plentiful, they have become white noise. I know I tend to tune out every time I hear about some new health property about a mundane food…I’ve heard it all before, and if I hate that food, it could make monkeys fly out of my butt, I still ain’t gonna eat it. (Ha ha, that is a lie, I just admitted to the tomato project. But still, you can tell me yogurt could turn me into the Queen of England, and I won’t eat it. That crap might as well be flavored snot for all it doesn’t appeal to me). I probably register only about 10% of the messages that bombard me; yet the few I do hear annoy me enough to write this post, (maniacal laughter)!! Maybe everyone is distracted by shinier topics: who cares if blueberries can prolong life, because OMG, a Kardashian did something and Miley Cyrus is smoking weed with Snoop Lion! (That sentence alone should make one realize that celebrities should NEVER be role models). Maybe everyone in my demographic already HAS the message, but the messengers have yet to figure out how to reach the other target audiences (yes, I’ve covered this issue before), so they just keep repeating it into the ether, hoping the message will land on the right ears, eventually. And maybe, just maybe—and listen up, this is my favorite idea—we know what is good and bad food, and we just keep eating the bad food because it is yummy. Ooooo, that topic is a whole other blog post (stay tuned).

Side note: I recently ingested a tidbit, not sure where or how (read it, heard it, saw it on YouTube), about how doctors don’t discuss healthy diet and exercise with their patients, and that is going to change in the future. But given the messed up state of health care, not sure how it will help since the people most in need of hearing the message can’t afford to go to the doctor unless it is an emergency type deal. Just sayin’.   


The other problem with weight is that it such an easy target for those people who get attached to a concept I call “The One Thing”. Allow me to channel SNL’s Stefon for a moment to explain “The One Thing”:

It’s that thing, where people get all hung up on one idea and think it’s the only thing causing all the problems. This concept has everything: simplicity, the luxury of ignoring other ideas, single-mindedness, DJ Baby Bok Choy.

Ha ha, just kidding on that last one (if you’re unfamiliar with SNL’s Stefon, give yourself a time-out laugh and look up one of his sketches).

The best/worst example I saw of “The One Thing” kind of thinking was in some comments about AJ’s Big Announcement. The commenter thought AJ’s action unnecessary because according to this person, the root of all ills, especially cancer, is second-hand smoke (not even, you know, just smoking, whew!), and went on and on and on for several loooong paragraphs about that and ONLY that, to the exclusion of any other idea. My reaction (and I bet others did this too) was to kind of back away, going “ooookkkaay”. Kind of like another SNL character, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started Talking To At a Party (or whatever her name is). Guess that BRCA thing was just incidental in this person’s mind. Weird. But the catch is, some health or medical professionals get into that rut too, and I get a little worried that by focusing on “The One Thing”, other factors are getting missed. It seemed as the day after Gandolfini died wore on, I heard progressively less about his past substance abuse, and eventually only heard about the weight factor.

created by bogswallop
created by bogswallop

Back to the guy who inspired this post: Gandolfini. I never again want to talk about him (or any artist), in combination with heart disease, health, risk factors, or drug abuse or especially weight. I want, from this moment on, to always and only, talk about him like this: great actor, great contributions to art, to the American cultural landscape, to pop culture, his portrayal of that most American of icons, The Mobster. I can’t learn any lessons from his death because it did not teach me anything I did not know (read this in Frankenstein’s voice: “overweight—bad, smoke—bad, exercise—good”). Just this once, can we honor an artist without making an example of the life outside of art? Do we always have to learn an important health lesson?

Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

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