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The Supermarket Connection
April 28, 2003

A question for you, but not about you:

How many people on the streets going about their daily business really think about their body? But for our thoughts, there is nothing more present and indelible. Our body contains all we are, holds us together and transports us about the earth’s surface. We are in many ways our body and I assume everyone on not infrequent occasions flashes on his or her flesh.

Are they concerned about its shape primarily, what it looks like to them and to others? How well it performs, its condition, strength and durability, do these matters cross their mind? Do they wonder, worry and wince, shrug their shoulders and move on?

I take risk and submit that smiles of contentment are rare among the thoughtful. An uncomfortable and inadequate feeling must periodically seize many of them as they walk past a reflective window at the mall and catch themselves off guard. Who they really are looks back in despair, a wide drooping figure lost to its own devices, gracelessly pursuing its errant footsteps or a crooked construction of flesh-covered bone, broad in the middle and soft at the edges. Written within a cloud of thought above the sad character in this cartoon depicting today’s dilemma are the words, “But I’m not yet 35.”

A sad condition, indeed. Neglect is personal rejection.

Moving the couch to make room for the big screen TV reveals more awkward truths. The ensuing struggle between you and the material world is humbling. You stub your toes, strain your back, push, lift and pull and nothing moves up or forward including your opinion of yourself.

  • Approval by one’s peers is limited by approval of one’s self.
  • Confidence is one’s personal security system and requires continual rewiring and upgrading and attention.
  • Well being engenders cheerfulness, enthusiasm and creativity and the energy and desire to sustain them.
  • Responsibility and respect are not free gifts nor can they be purchased; they are the most precious of possessions gained by discipline, long practice and a kick in the pants.

Dubious personal qualities, they, like the couch and TV, appear to be nailed to the floor.

I’m a rusty old bucket of bolts as I cross the parking lot to the supermarket. I see from the colorful banners decorating the windows that the price of shampoo is slashed, feeding your dog is a bargain this week and vodka in half-gallons is cheaper than fresh-squeezed orange juice. 20 years ago the latter would have been my foremost target. Today, my mind is on skirt steak, all I can stuff into two or three of those plastic bags that come in a roll at the end of the meat counter.

It’s late afternoon in Aptos, my hometown of 25 years, and I make this pleasurable pitstop after another day at the gym in neighboring Santa Cruz. Laree and I have 15 years of reps and sets, chins and dips in our gym stashed in the corner of a quiet, tree-inhabited industrial park, ball fields and community pool just across the street. No foot traffic and a word-of-mouth membership account for its hometown appeal and less-than-packed training floor. Cool, in the world of me, me, crush, crunch and more, more… very cool.

The last thing I did before leaving the iron palace was biceps and triceps, not a shower and manicure. My sweats are presentable and, though torn free of a strangling neckline, my T-shirt is not exactly a rag. I mean, I’ve seen a lot worse at the downtown mall. I’m carrying a little red basket, checking my pockets for my wallet and viewing the aisles for emergency items as I hastily head toward the meat department. I pass the sugarcoated puffed and toasted cereals, the canned vegetables, frozen desserts, beer and wines, the pastry and donut section smelling of lard, and racks of magazines, some advertising 14 days to a shapely and muscular body. There’s a row of candies in bags and boxes and bins next to the stacks and stacks of colorful soda pop.

Where’s the beef?

I’m not alone in this popular food emporium. Everybody’s here all the time it seems, 24-7. The men and women -- an American cross-section -- fill their baskets with lots of stuff resembling real food. I feel like a glutton with my sacks of meat, couple-dozen eggs and bags of red peppers and tomatoes, my favorite vegetables. I notice the difference in supplies chosen by those around me and those chosen by me. Like observing a fellow shopper with five screaming kids grabbing toilet paper off the shelves, tossing them at one another and passersby, and doing wheelies with the shopping carts, I try not to feel superior or condescending or outraged. However, I am relieved.

Someone is looking at me, I can tell. It’s a fellow in his 40s carting bread and butter, 20 frozen TV dinners, a bottle of red wine, a quart of soy milk (soy milk?) and one of those crappy info mags. I’m grabbing handfuls of cheap canned tuna for Mugsy and feel compelled to tell the guy they’re for my cat, not me and that I eat Dave’s Albacore. I realize this is silly -- let him think what he wants to think -- when I note he’s looking at my arms. They may not be great, but they are different, veins and all. The man with the TV dinners also has a large stomach and his arms hang like plumpish threads by his sides. “Good stuff, huh,” he says. I smile brilliantly and nod, “Good stuff.”

Moving on I ignore the string of stainless steel dairy coolers, deciding to withdraw milk products from my diet, again. Thick skin and mucus (s’cuz me) are the determining factors in this periodic menu modification. In two weeks they -- cottage cheese, milk, cheese and yogurt -- will be back on the table. It won’t be long before I miss the protein and bulk building they provide. They’re a very convenient meal and I’ll long for the texture and taste. Meat, fish, chicken and broccoli washed down with water get old fast.

A 30-something man and a woman are riffling cartons of ice cream looking for an extra special flavor. They stand over a cart with two six-packs (Dos Equis) and a carton of cigarettes (Camels). What? No soy milk? Hot dogs and luncheon meats in cellophane are strewn amongst bananas and string beans of all things. Weird. They look at me looking at their basket (I’m caught) and I want to apologize and make an excuse for the stunned or sorrowful or horrified or resigned expression on my face. The moment passes and we exit the scene in opposite directions, they without the ice cream. They’re still young; there’s still hope and I fight the urge to make my plea.

Down this aisle I go with my basket too full for further purchases, loop around the cut flowers and small indoor plants, past the pharmacy and, at last, the exit lines. What pleasantries have the tabloids to say about the celebrities today? Almost in line I see Mr. and Mrs. Thirtysome pushing their cart brimming with color and variety, the well-buried ice cream in half-gallons peering innocently through the steel mesh. I daydream about introducing myself and offering advice -- exercise, eat right, be happy -- and they see the light and correct their ways and pass them on to their children and the world is saved. Next thing I know some youngster at the register is asking them if they need help carrying their packages to the car. Not today.

Almost forgot. Bran muffins. I seldom freak out in my eating habits, yet sometimes I lose control. I return to the bakery and scour the pastry section until I find a package of freshly baked bran muffins. I pretend they’re still warm, oh boy. Into my overflowing basket they go and I catch myself grinning. Where did all this merchandise come from? I came for skirt steaks and I’m buying the kitchen sink. I’m being paranoid or there’s another man glancing my way repeatedly. Security? He’s a big guy. Older. Retired cop maybe. I feel guilty about something but I’m not sure what. I ate a grape. No. I took every package of skirt steaks. No. It’s the bran muffins. No.

The guy behind me asks if I used to lift weights. I want to drag him out to the parking lot and ask what he means by “used to,” but catch myself in the nick of time. This fellow has very long hair and painfully placed decorative stainless steel hardware in unlikely places about his face and neck. A shiny hex-head bolt bobs up and down as he swallows. I blink twice, maybe three times, pass him a card and invite him to the gym for a week, when he gets the urge -- exercise, eat right and all that stuff. He blinks. Cool.

Now the older cop type is uncomfortably close in the next line, “15 Items or Less”-- Top Cop will not louse up my merry shopping spree, I vow. I have 16 items and wonder where they all came from and which one I can ditch so I can squeeze in the shorter line. This becomes too difficult and I scan the Enquirer instead. Susan Sarandon, it seems, is having a steamy affair with Yashir Arafat.

The older guy grabs me by the shoulder and says in a deep loud voice that reaches the produce department in the far corner of the huge supermarket, “Hey, where’d ya get all the muscles?” Everybody looks at me and they’re waiting for an answer. Hardware Head tells him I own a gym and I’ll give him a free membership if he asks me. Mr. Thirtysomething, returning his shopping cart like a good citizen, assures the forming crowd that it’s not from eating ice cream.

Where do they come from? The man of plumpish thread-like arm fame rolls on by, his cart half-full of the cheap tuna and bereft of TV dinners. I duck, he keeps going.

No, I don’t need any help carrying out my packages to my car, thank you.

Bombers. The secret is you know the secret. I have discovered nothing new since we visited last. Train hard and don’t miss. Eat right, protein-high and sugar-low, without starving yourself. Be thankful and happy you know the truth and be confident that it is working for you.

Where do we go from here, iron-hearted, steel-spirited high-flyers? Skyward, of course.

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