I’m with my family at a motel to be near my mom’s house during a visit. When I’m traveling on business I find hotels a bit depressing; something about them makes me lonely. With my family here, this feeling is absent, giving me an opportunity to investigate the institutional setting from a fresh perspective. This post delivers my findings. In short, it is precisely because this utterly satisfactory motel is completely typical of its kind that I worry for the American people. The people’s tractability is a cause for alarm, as they blindly accept certain amenities that ought to repulse them.
My eight-year-old and I are on day four of a tradition of getting up before her mom and her sister and sneaking out to the lobby, she to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and I to write. Alexa’s eagerness to read brought about this morning tradition: she is forbidden to read her book if anything or anyone else (e.g., my brother’s family) is reasonably competing for her attention.
There’s no TV in the lobby, but I can hear the blather from the one in the adjoining breakfast room, seeping in like second-hand smoke, with phrases like “mysterious murders at the resorts,” “won’t press charges against the quarterback” and “illicit sex with a minor” and nauseatingly upbeat ads for things like Zyrtec, whatever that is. Other than the TV noise the lobby is a fine place: it features a faux-ornate picture frame surrounding a “painting” of flowers so innocuous they are incapable of being looked at for more than a couple of seconds; big dark-red armchairs that are surprisingly comfortable, their underlying foam structure being utterly pristine, as though we’re the first ever to sit in them; the carpet a red and gold and green pattern of diamonds and stars and curlicues trying and almost achieving fleurs-de-lis, made of fabric a bit plusher than Astroturf; and fake plants minimally convincing, at least at a distance of four feet or more. A giant baseball trophy (“Father’s Day Tournament Champions 2009”—I’ve just dispatched Alexa to read the plaque for me) is the only décor element not obviously chosen by the home office.
I have no need for aesthetic elegance in a motel, and this lobby is a great place to get some writing done while Alexa enjoys her book. But in addition to the TV, the breakfast room next door exerts another negative influence, which persistently threatens our arrangement: Alexa has known the pleasure of the simple starches it offers, and they exert a powerful attraction for my kid which I must periodically combat. For now I’ve bought some time by letting her have a Danish.
You may be wondering, why not just bring my daughter in there and give her breakfast? For one thing, I’d rather have breakfast with the other half of my family, and I like to get some writing done while I have the chance. But the main thing is, if we wait long enough, the breakfast room will clear out and I can silence the TV. I’m not some lunatic who thinks TV is pure evil and cannot tolerate it at all, but I have a big problem with its presence at meals. I won’t even read while eating if I have my family to talk to, and a blaring TV is hard to ignore. Meanwhile, in the breakfast room we aren’t even free to choose the program.
Another horror of the TV-afflicted dining area is the spectacle of other guests eating while watching. Of course I shouldn’t look at them, but it’s like a train wreck—you can’t not look. Yesterday an old white-haired couple, presumably not in town on business and thus here on vacation like me, completely ignored each other while watching the “latest” “scandal” on the screen, their jaws working mechanically on their meal, their gaze never leaving the screen. The “scandal” in this case was the unimaginative media’s attempt to wring yet more morbid fascination out of the Tiger Woods story. I guess the media have become so addicted to this story they’ve lost track of what is truly scandalous; this time it’s a Nike ad that—gasp!—is using Tiger’s late father’s actual voice, from a recording made before he died. Without his permission! Imagine!
Now, I’m sure the ad agency that handles Nike’s marketing is savvy enough not to commit a single misstep, so it’s doubtful they did anything truly scandalous or even questionable. I cannot imagine the voice-over of Tiger’s father was anything like “Go ahead and cheat on your wife, Tiger … you’ve earned it.” I’m sure the sound bite in question is something life-affirming that will help rebuild Tiger’s image, as Nike attempts to recover their substantial investment in this sports icon. So where could the scandal come in? Pure fabrication I’m sure. (I can’t comment with precision because I was trying my best to ignore the broadcast entirely. I can say that it somehow managed to span two segments, each bracketed by ads. Unbelievable.)
The TV itself and the fact that people choose to watch it are two separate problems. If the TV were like a swarm of mosquitoes that everybody complained about, that would be one thing. But I have to face the fact that people have actually learned to need (if not enjoy) the TV at mealtime. A stat-shot in the “USA Today” I glanced at during our stay here showed that of all dinnertime behaviors, the most popular—36% of the total responses—was watching TV. If I were to grab the remote and turn the set off in the breakfast room, these fellow guests would be as taken aback as if I suddenly snapped off the lights. They actually want the TV to be on. I can generally live in a state of denial that this is the case, until I’m faced with the squalid spectacle of people actually giving this box—and a program as intellectually bankrupt as this—their full attention. This slap in the face and the TV itself are, though intertwined, two discrete annoyances.
Breakfast room fare
Like the TV in the breakfast room, the food offerings are attuned to a clientele that has lost its way. Perhaps as a general rule, food that makes children wide-eyed with anticipation is on the wrong end of the charisma/wholesomeness scale. The Danishes looked tasty enough and weren’t grotesquely oversized, which is nice, but I instinctively avoid the muffins. During a multi-week business trip some fifteen years ago, I enjoyed a large breakfast each morning at a hotel in Pasadena, and one morning I didn’t have time to finish my muffin and brought it along to my meeting, perched on the dashboard of my rental car. When I got to the office and grabbed the muffin I saw that it had left a large grease spot on the dash, right through the paper cup. (I associated the grease with with the ten- to fifteen-pound weight gain I observed during that trip. The weight gain itself didn’t much bother me, but the suddenness of it did.)
So at this place, not because the Danishes would actually be lower in fat than the muffin, but simply because I was indulging an irrational desire to avoid an unpleasant association, I initially steered Alexa toward the Danish. I was thinking of having one myself, and exacted my standard parental tariff from hers. Normally my kids cooperate very well with this process, but Alexa was really protective of her Danish. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “I shall be merciful and swift.” One small bite was enough to change my mind about having my own Danish. It was cloyingly sweet, strangely springy, and left a waxy, powdery grease residue on the roof of my mouth. How do people eat these things?
The presentation of these items does nothing to increase my appetite. There are Plexiglas domes, with hinged doors, over trays of innocuous items like English muffins, biscuits, and bagels; what’s unsettling here are amateurish labels stuck on each saying “Please use tongs.” Somebody at this motel, or from the home office, had to go buy a label-maker and make all these labels because something was happening in these breakfast rooms the dome manufacturer never anticipated. In theory, tongs wouldn’t be necessary, if you only touched the pastry or bagel you took. Had there been complaints of people fondling the pastries? Poking and prodding them like produce? Or something even worse?
There’s a giant juice dispenser that seems to work awfully hard. When you dispense juice—which really ought to be poured to begin with—there’s this amazing turbine sound, like something serious is going on within the machine. Of course what comes out of the spigot is scarcely drinkable so it’s not like actual oranges are being squeezed or anything. Even when the machine is not in use, it hums and throbs much louder than any fridge (and I’ve had some loud ones). What is its deal?
On a tray, covered with nested Plexiglas domes that swivel so you can line up their apertures as necessary for access, are six or eight peeled hard-boiled eggs. The eggs are eerily small, suggesting that they either came from unhealthy chickens, or that more than just their shells have been removed. Surely labor costs are too high to have a human peel these. Is there some machine that does it? What would that look like? Each day, at the tail end of the breakfast hour, there have been plenty of eggs left. Does the motel staff put these in the fridge overnight and then put them out again tomorrow? If so, is there a system for tracking the age of an egg, or could some loss-leaders have been recycled in this way for weeks or months?
I learned through bitter personal experience that the biscuits-and-gravy offering was horrific. I never meant to try it. Lindsay had asked for a biscuit with just butter, and since the biscuits were cold I cut one in half and toasted the halves for her. This took surprisingly long; they must have been really dense. By the time the biscuits were hot, my mind had wandered and I found myself unconsciously ladling the lumpy, chunky, slightly congealed gravy over them. It was just one of those totally brainless motions—I had biscuits on a plate, there was gravy, so I put them together. “What are you doing?”
There is fruit. But the apples are shrink-wrapped. Why?!
When selecting breakfast on the first day, Alexa pointed at the Froot Loop dispenser and asked if she could have them. I told her, “Absolutely not.” She begged me, and demanded to know why she couldn’t. From the parenting standpoint, I considered Alexa’s appeal to be entrapment: by not blindly accepting my decision, she brought a long lecture on herself. Here it is, as close to verbatim as my memory can achieve:
“Well, Alexa, let me explain to you how the food industry works. Food companies buy produce from farmers. If they just sold this produce directly to consumers, they wouldn’t make much money. But if they do something to it, to make it more convenient or tasty to eat, that’s called a ‘value-add’ and means they can charge more money for their product. So a company will take something like oats—when’s the last time you sat down to a plate of oats?—and turn them into Cheerios, which are easy to eat and which, due to the ring-shapes, are fun.
“Now, if the food producers want to make even more money, they need to either sell more of their product, or charge more for it, or both. In the case of Froot Loops they add tons of sugar, so that the cereal ends up having more sugar than oats, and they add food coloring. Do you think food coloring is good for you?” (Alexa answered, “No,” which suggested that she was actually paying attention.) “You’re right, it’s not. But kids like the bright colors. And all the sugar enables the manufacturer to sell more, because sugary foods actually make you feel even hungrier. And so they can charge more, they give the cereal a fancy name, Froot Loops, and advertise it during Saturday- and Sunday-morning cartoons, so the kids will beg their parents to buy it. If the parents don’t, the kids whine—and you know how I hate whining.
“So, the sugary cereal is basically poison, and the advertising is poison, too—poison for the mind. So if I let you eat this cereal, I’m basically rewarding this company for poisoning both your mind and your body.” (As you read this, you may decide I’m some sort of fascist, or hugely overstating the case with my synopsis. Both may be true. But I cannot combat blatant marketing to my kids with subtlety and restraint.)
At the same time, I felt conflicted. I had the impulse to reward my daughter for having the attention span and open-mindedness to be inculcated, in dribs and drabs, into a worldview resembling mine. So I decided to throw her a bone. “But you know, Alexa, I did get to try Froot Loops as a kid. In first grade, we used them to make abacuses. (Perhaps abacuses represent the only truly valid use for Froot Loops.) And of course I was curious what they tasted like, having never had sugary cereal, so I decided to try a few. I had about five—and I got in big, big trouble for it. The teacher was furious at me and sent me to the corner so I couldn’t continue with the project. To this day I can’t figure out why she was so angry. Anyway, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you have five Froot Loops. And you won’t even get in trouble. That’s a better deal than I got!” Alexa acquiesced to this.
Of course, dispensing the Froot Loops was easier said than done. The cereal dispenser struck me as something you might feed cattle with. It was literally impossible to dispense a small amount. A massive pile of Froot Loops spewed forth, as from a grain silo. This gave me plenty of Loops from which to select a pair of each color (one each for each of my daughters). The rest I threw away. I’ve always exhorted my kids not to waste food, so I explained, “I’m not wasting food, because this isn’t food.”
The encouraging fact that Alexa seemed responsive to my lecture gave way to another compromise: she asked for a waffle, and I capitulated, though I knew the batter probably doesn’t have a single thing going for it nutritionally. I was relieved that there was no aerosol anti-stick product involved, as there had been at other motels. That non-stick aerosol is pretty wicked stuff: scanning the ingredients once, I noted that it contained both butane and propane. Why is there an allowable amount of butane and propane the government lets food companies put into our bodies? It seems insane to me. I don’t know what’s in the latest version of Golden Malted batter that makes this spray unnecessary, but I suspect it’s not a petroleum-based propellant. That gives me some tiny sense of progress being made. (The waffle-making process isn’t immune to further criticism, of course: the alarm that sounds when it’s done is an incredibly loud, shrill shrieking tone, like the hotel elevator sound that has replaced the simple tinkle of a bell. Why do people put up with this?)
When Lindsay arrived, and I offered her Raisin Bran, Cheerios, plain oatmeal, or a waffle, she accepted, without reluctance, unsweetened plain oatmeal. I added milk and she said “when.” She proceeded to eat it, despite the fact that it wasn’t ultra-refined, artificially colored, artificially flavored, and highly sweetened. That Lindsay can still gratefully accept simple fare, and Alexa will give me her attention for a long lecture on why she can’t have Froot Loops, gives me hope for the next generation. I’m up against a giant machine that is trying to turn people into the mindless automatons that blindly ladle inedible gravy on their biscuits and then eat this while watching monstrously mindless TV, but at least within this tiny sphere of my family, at least for now, I can beat back the flames. Perhaps tractability itself isn’t always a bad thing, so long as a person can be guided in the right directions. dana albert blog