He could be most any 11-year-old boy in America, but for the purposes of this column we’ll call him Sam.
His picture, along with his real name and the name of the town where he lives, appeared in this paper on July 5 in an Associated Press photo. Sam sits cross-legged on a blanket on a patch of grass near his apartment building, a napping toddler stretched out beside him. His town, located in northeastern Kentucky just a stone’s throw from the Ohio border, was one of many where summer storms knocked out electricity for days.
But Sam was okay. He may have been hot but he wasn’t bored. Because someone was ingenious enough to hook up a big screen TV to a running car engine so that Sam could play video games.
I am not making this up.
Now, guess what Sam looks like. If you said he’s a wiry little boy with knobby knees and knotted arm muscles and dirt beads around his neck, you’d be wrong. Sam is big and soft. He has a round face and a double chin and slumped shoulders. His chest sags onto the voluminous spare tire around his middle. If there are muscles in his arms and legs, they’re hidden under layers of fat. The only thing that looks even remotely strong about Sam is his thumbs, which—no doubt–get an intense workout all day long.
There are millions of children in America just like Sam. And we adults wring our hands and wonder what in the world we can do about it.
I’m no rocket scientist, but I can’t believe the solution to childhood obesity is all that complicated. What we expect the generations behind us to do, we must do also. Starting with throwing out the junk in our pantries and refrigerators. Foregoing the drive-thru. Drinking water when we’re thirsty instead of anything else.
Just as important, we need to take a good long look at our addiction to electronic devices. Maybe we need to spend a portion of every day pretending that a storm really has knocked out the electricity. Meaning no television. No computer. No X-box or Playstation. No way to charge the battery on the cell phone or the iPod.
What will we do then?
For starters, we might look each other in the eye and have a real conversation. Play cards. Tell a joke. Sing a song. Read a book. Write a letter.
And after we’ve done those things, maybe we’ll get up out of our chairs and move around a little bit. Walk. Run. Skip. Climb. Jump. Skate. Ride a bike. Hula hoop. Throw rocks. Throw a ball. Catch a ball. Hit a ball. Kick a ball. Take the elevator instead of the stairs.
If every able-bodied person will unplug and do just a few of those no-electricity-required things every day, pretty soon there won’t be so many fat kids in America. Or fat adults. And I’m willing to bet it won’t take long until children discover that playing jump rope or Capture the Flag or kickball or Red Rover or hopscotch is every bit as much fun as whatever the newest video game might be.
While the kids are outside playing, maybe the grown-ups will take a few minutes to lobby their elected leaders in support of public parks and swimming pools and streetlights and sidewalks and bike paths and ball fields and physical education every day in our schools.
Perhaps before long, we can put the picture of big, soft Sam in the history books. And under it, these words: Here’s what Americans looked like before we decided to stop killing ourselves.
(July 15, 2012)