The Sweet Smell of Excess

If the US is too bright for Karen, it’s just too much for me.

Sure, we all know that the US is a land of excess. One person commuting to work in a Humvee. Four-thousand-dollar dog weddings. Would you like to super size that bacon double cheeseburger?

What could be better than 1808 calories and 101 grams of fat?

It’s easy to shake your head at those broad strokes. But returning to the USA made me notice the less-obvious excesses all around us. Death by a thousand cuts.

The day after we got back, I found myself at burger chain Red Robin for a family dinner. I engaged in some intentional and long-awaited excess, ordering a juicy teriyaki burger with fries, while my nephew Nelson chose pizza.

Then it began. The waitress plopped down a huge pile of extra napkins, “just in case.” Without thinking, I reached for one. Then I reflected that across Asia, the typical restaurant napkin is about the size of two squares of toilet paper… and you save that napkin to use as toilet paper, since there won’t be any provided near the toilet. This is not convenient, but it is certainly self-regulating: you never use more paper than you need, and air-drying your hands is preferable to using up precious paper.

The most napkins we ever saw in one place (Nepal)

Quick, what’s the USA’s number one export? Nope, not corn or software or fighter jets. It’s garbage, mainly paper and scrap metal (much of which is shipped to China, recycled, and sold back to us). Add in all the other stuff, and we Americans lead the world in trash, with each of us generating 7.1 pounds of it per day, according to the new book Garbology. We’re #1! We’re #1!

How many times have you unwrapped a purchase and wound up with as much packaging as there is product? (Try buying an SD card some time.) Have you noticed that manufacturers are reducing the amount of breakfast cereal in the box… but not reducing the size of the box?

69% of our trash is deposited into landfills, which have to be monitored to keep the methane from exploding and the toxins from contaminating the groundwater. Despite our recycling efforts, we landfill most of our plastics– and they never rot. France puts just 32% of its garbage into landfills. Germany landfills less than 1%ach du lieber!

Back at Red Robin, our waitress offered us free refills on fries, but we declined. She brought my brother Paul the drink refill he requested… then one he didn’t request… and would have brought yet another if Paul hadn’t talked her out of it.

As Karen said, Americans looked huge to us when we got back, and indeed, one-third of our fellow citizens is obese. As we’ve settled in, we’ve heard the siren call of the drive thru and free refills. It’s difficult to remember that the smaller portions of a Cambodian meal were enough for us, water was our only beverage on many days, and if we found a Maxibon ice cream bar once in a while it was a mind-blowing treat.

Speaking of ice cream, is it cold in here? Yes, it is. Everywhere we go, the air-conditioning is cranked. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the US: when I saw The Muppets in Singapore, I almost froze my googly eyes.

Oddly, one of the biggest offenders we’ve encountered is our local library. We’re often there browsing magazines and mooching wi-fi, all the while nearly freezing our Dewey Decimals.

I’m not advocating switching off the A/C on 96-degree days. I’m just wondering why it’s 68 in Walgreens when the EPA suggests 78. Can the most pampered people in the world endure a temperature of, say, 72? When it’s 72 outside, we call it a beautiful day.

China opens a couple of these each week

We’re not #1 in energy use per person: there are several Middle Eastern countries way above us (something tells me they’re cranking the A/C too). China just surpassed us in total energy use. They look like the bad guy in total numbers (they consumed 4% more energy than us last year), while we look like the bad guy per person (each of us consumes four times as much as each of them). Match us up with a developed country with a robust economy- Germany again- and we’re using 1.7 times as much as them… nicht schon wieder!

We couldn’t wait to experience the excesses of home, and that teriyaki burger sure hit the spot. Now the challenge is to achieve some balance. The 24-hour convenience store across the street can be a lovely thing. But do I really need that overpriced, over-processed ice cream bar? Sure looks tasty… but not every day is a Maxibon day.

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6 Responses to The Sweet Smell of Excess

  1. Margaret Trissel says:

    When we visited the Hershey plant this summer, we were told that the products in their store weren’t necessarily fresher than the stores since they got their supplies from distributors too…but that the quality was achieved by maintaining the needed temp and humidity levels to maintain the products…so in the interest of vendors, I’d guess there are specs that are suggested to maintain product quality…but yes, we use too much.

  2. Marjory Betchkal says:

    I have been following you since you started this trip, Oh my god, I love you guys. Your journey has been so much fun and I love your writings. Thank you so much, I totally enjoy it.

  3. Henry says:

    Have you read “The End of Overeating?” It’s a great book about how the deck is stacked against us at restaurants like Red Robin. ZOMG fry refills.

    And…..one reason that the library might over air condition is because places like that are perfect for the elderly or poor without air conditioning to head to when the temperature rises.

    • Karen says:

      Not sure I have to read a book about over eating….I do that well on my own. Glad I have never stepped inside a Red Robin.

    • Ken says:

      I’m all for the library as a respite for the elderly and poor… and people who can’t seem to get Time Warner to come over and hook up Internet (that’s why I was there).

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