I did sports in high school—to say I was athletic would be pushing it, but I ran distance on the cross country and track teams, even wrestled my freshman year—and because I was young and naturally toothpick skinny, I got away with eating whatever I wanted. My brother and I used to make a contest of seeing how many plates we could polish off at the local Old Country Buffet; nothing less than a meat and two sides was the regulation definition for what constituted a plate. For the simple fact that it tastes like nothing, I considered water a waste of time. And even with the buffet dinners, the cookies and cakes, the root beer floats and peanut-butter-cup shakes, the mountains of cereal and pancakes and Belgian waffles, the late-night trips to Wendy’s, not to mention the endless kegs of beer and gallons of jungle juice, I was still lean, even muscly, chiseled. I looked goodt, if I may say so myself.
But once I left high school and went to college, with no more practices after school, and no P.E., I started gaining weight, my beer belly pressing tighter and tighter against my shirts—till one day I realized that the huge gut I usually got after a big meal was now permanent. Even worse, I had love handles!
To get back in high-school shape, I figured I would do what I did in high school: hit the gym three times a week and run as much as I could. (I had quit cross country my senior year, telling Coach P. I didn’t want to leave for college—get this—too skinny.) I made a half-assed attempt to eat better, or at least eat less fatty foods, though I assumed the food part of the equation wasn’t nearly as important as burning calories and putting on muscle. Yet, no matter how much I lifted, or how many miles I ran—granted, I didn’t lift or run that much, not like I was training for anything—I still couldn’t get back in shape, hauling around with 200 pounds on my 5’10” frame. And so it went for years, me thinking that I would never have the body I once had, that being a chubby, lumpy schlub was part of becoming a full-fledged grownup.
Then, when I was twenty-eight, after years of never seeing a doctor, I went to get a physical. Even with the gut and love handles, I expected, since I was working out more than the average citizen, that the doc would give me the usual clean bill of health. But, “You’re cholesterol’s pretty high,” he says. “Borderline. But it shouldn’t be that high for your age.” I was unnerved, and he could see it on my face, I guess, because he adds: “It’s probably your diet.”
My what? I didn’t think I would be talking about my diet with a doctor till I was at least forty, at which point I would have to start eating the regular, sugarless Cheerios like dads did in commercials. I had always been rail thin, up until high school when I started lifting weights and tripped through puberty. Since then I had thought of myself as having what they call an “athletic build,” regardless of how out of shape and unathletic I actually was. The possibility that I might be eating too much, or too much of the wrong stuff, even after I’d cut back—a lot, I thought— wasn’t in any pocket of my mind.
But after giving it some thought, I realized the doc was right: I was eating like a piggy. I ate meat with every meal, for one, because I had been trained to believe that no meal was complete without the flesh of an animal, preferably chicken or pork, smothered in a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce. I ate a lot of bread because, according to the old food pyramid, bread was the foundation of a good diet, along with pasta, which I also ate a lot of—with a cheesy garlic bread, of course, and spicy Italian sausage. I worked at Olive Garden for almost two years, during which I must’ve eaten 500 plates of chicken alfredo—with broccoli, for my health—and maybe a thousand breadsticks. About once or twice a week I tucked into a burrito as big as my foot, loaded with cheese and sour cream and guac, usually around three in the morning when I was stumbling back from the bars, to lessen the hangover the next morning. If I wasn’t in the mood for a burrito, I’d have a torta de milanesa. I washed it all down with a large horchata, then slouched home and passed out like a baby filled to the ears with his mother’s milk. And in between meals I’d scarf down bowls of cereal, a few cookies, a slice or two of cake, a handful of chocolates, a bag of Funyuns… whatever felt right. I was, and remain to this day, an infamous midnight muncher of all things savory and sweet. Plus I was still drinking like a frat boy, though I’d never gone Greek.
As soon as I took my diet seriously, cutting out cheese, sugar, and bread, I got down to 160 pounds, some weeks lower. Now I walk around at about 165; I still struggle with cheese and bready things, but especially sugar—my first true love, and the bane of my existence.
I’m not the first person to learn the long and delicious way that a clean diet is key to strong health, along with exercise and regular sleep. You meet so many people trying to get in shape who pay so little attention to what they’re putting into their bodies. They sweat up a storm at the gym, put at least half an hour in on the bike or treadmill every day, then celebrate afterward with nachos or rib tips and a couple chelas, and they wonder why the needle on the scale hasn’t budged.
It’s the same with voting in a democracy. So much emphasis is placed on elections, as if they were the end-all and be-all of maintaining a healthy society. And when, after so many elections, society doesn’t look to be getting much better—when, in fact, it seems to be getting much worse—people get discouraged and start telling themselves that voting is useless. Yet how many people show up to protests? How many call their members of Congress, or send them letters? How many read books, or even just newspapers? How many citizens take it upon themselves to learn and understand the history of their country? How many volunteer for community service, instead of being ordered to it as part of their punishment for breaking some law? How many people have democracy at their job? We, as a society, have to take a holistic approach to democracy if we want it to work the way it should.
I bring this up because we are about a month away from another presidential election, one that, like all the ones before it, is supposed to decide the fate of America: what it wants, what it will be. And yet, just like all the elections that have come before, this one offers us a choice between two awful candidates—awful to different degrees, sure, but awful still. In America, no one is asked to vote his or her conscience, or even allowed to. No, all we’re expected to do at the polls is decide which of the two names—always two, the way we do it—is the lesser evil. Which name threatens our lives, our country, and our world, less?
Plenty of political theorists have spoken on the futility of voting for the lesser of two evils, and their arguments can be summed as follows: choosing the lesser of two evils still leaves you with an evil. Yet, if we face the truth, evil is as much a part of the world as goodness is, isn’t it? We will never get rid of evil, which stems from human ignorance and various other features of our nature. So we will never get rid of evil unless we get rid of human beings, which would be an evil thing to do. Sounds like a contradiction, I know, but such is the nature of reality itself.
Maybe you’re psyched about voting for Biden, and if so, then consider yourself one of the lucky ones. I, on the other hand, and a majority of our fellow citizens, aren’t too thrilled about it. Yes, Trump is offal, as far as people go, and as a president he poses a clear and immediate danger to the health and happiness our little project called America. But Biden is, as the Democrats are generally, a clear threat too, albeit a longer-term one. He’s basically what a Republican used to be when I was a boy: tough on brown people, not sweating the environment, pro-Wall Street, pro-insurance companies—pro-the powerful, really, as politicians are forced to be, it seems.
Politics is about who should have power and why, and being a politician, especially under a rich man’s system, means merely doing what power wants, to be power’s representative and agent in government, all while making empty promises to different slices of the electorate in order to maintain the façade that the people hold the power. It’s a happy lie; I hope it’ll be a happy truth someday, and soon enough for me to see it.
But until that day, we’re forced to contend with rotten people, and we have to do our part to keep the evil they do to a minimum. We do that by voting, but not only. Democracy isn’t just what we do on Election Day, but what we do every day. Democracy is, as a Puerto Rican martyr once put it, arming yourself “with the weapons of knowledge”—because knowledge is power, too, as much as money is. Democracy is being a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good friend. Democracy is trying to be as good as possible, in all areas of life, so as to give evil less room to do its dirt.
To those voters out there who, like me, haven’t been excited about an election in a long time, and may never be excited about another one as long as they live: chin up, chest out, eyes straight. Go to the polls and vote for the less awful candidate, and do it knowing that this is but a tiny battle in a much greater war against evil, one that has been going on since the dawn of human history, and one that won’t be won so long as we live.
To be a good human, and a good democrat (small D), is to fight this war against evil—to be Sisyphus, rolling that huge boulder up the hill each day, just to see it roll back down every evening, and having to start all over again in the morning. Because to accept the alternative, to give up fighting and let evil have its way with the world, would be the greatest evil of all.
Featured image: Samuel Corum/Getty