Jumping Jacks, Prunes, and Powdered Eggs: Breakfast of Champions.

This day and age, it’s perfectly normal for parents to focus on and even obsess over their children’s nutrition and fitness. Somewhere between general health awareness and the swooping blades of helicopter parenting, it has become a thing.

In the sixties and seventies, it wasn’t so much a thing. Parents fed their children because failure to do so resulted in a lot of noise and poor behavior. They also expected their children to get their butts OUTSIDE to play or braced themselves for in-home destruction during inclement weather in keeping with kids’ natural activity levels as a means of “fitness.”

In this sense, I guess Dad was ahead of his time. First, I must say, even when we were very broke, we never went hungry. Ever…even if our fare was bread and cream gravy (which rocked, by the way), Mom always ensured we ate. 

Dad, however, in the dips and curves of his massive mood swings, managed to touch about every area of our lives (some more intimate than others, as you now know); food and fitness were no exceptions. 

Unlike the earlier referenced helicopter parents of the 2000s, however, Dad’s on-again, off-again infatuation with our food intake and/or fitness levels had zero to do with health and everything to do with his need to dominate and ensure we fell in line. Even if it hurt, even if it made us want to throw up, both of which were natural phenomena for us when he would suddenly become Jack LaLanne (for you spring chickens, replace that name with any male Fitness guru you follow on YouTube or whatever media you use that I’ve never heard of), or Julia (Julio?) Child (again, young ‘uns, choose your favorite Food Network chef).

These things always happened when he wasn’t working due to his issues with being a responsible adult. Thus, he compensated by overcompensating on the home front. I assure you, to a kid, we would have preferred he just got a job like the other dads.

I personally remember the fitness spinning to life when we lived on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico when I was somewhere around the 3rd or 4th grade. My sister specifically remembers that he made us a massive mandatory breakfast on Memorial Day, then dragged us on an 8-mile hike. I don’t remember the breakfast (that one, anyway), but I definitely remember the “family hikes” among the desert mesas. Erase that lovely Sound of Music family-up-the-mountain hike scene; this was not a candidate for a Family Weekly feature story. We had to be nearly in rank and file as we moved out into the desert. If we lost our minds and acted like children by running ahead or falling behind to look at a lizard or something, we were immediately chastised for “not wanting to be part of the family” (by the guy who would hole up in his bedroom for days on end, go figure). My brother remembers a few other things about one hike in particular, which is not shareable. Dad would have been thrown off the parenting helicopter by enraged socially conscious moms and dads, and rightfully so.

So, let’s stick with fitness before we bound into the serious Olympic breakfast spells. In New Mexico, he became entranced with running in place and jumping jacks, in addition to military-style hikes. No kidding, he’d make us line up and run in place, time us and, with his apparently calibrated eyes, ensure our knees were high enough as we huffed and puffed, praying for an end, fantasizing about being in some other home, or even the Bates Motel, for that matter. I’m sure Norman didn’t have to do counted jumping jacks or timed runs.  

Flip ahead in the 70’s calendar till we land squarely in our first home in Boise, Idaho, the sixth grade for me, which put the others in junior high and high school. Here we wound up on Welfare since Dad was on another stay-at-home-and-hide binge.

Because this was before food stamps, we had to go to a big warehouse and get “commodities,” i.e., generic food provided by the government. Good stuff…it included the only “canned bologna” I’ve seen before or since, thank God. If you didn’t slice it very thin, it was pretty vile. But I digress (what a surprise!). Of course, Dad wouldn’t set foot in the commodity warehouse because that’s where poor people went, so Mom would have to find time around her work schedule to go with one or all of us kids. Other than the gross bologna and weird not-cheese (this stuff made Velveeta seem gourmet), the food really wasn’t bad because it consisted of basic staples…bread, rice, dry beans, flour, sugar, butter, hot cereal, canned chicken, powdered eggs (blech!), etc. Oh, and prunes; oh boy. We tolerated the powdered milk because we were basically nice kids (and we would have been issued capital punishment on the spot if we complained).

What we were less grateful for was the fact Dad read somewhere that breakfast was not only the most important meal of the day but apparently must be multi-course and in battalion-sized quantity. Or maybe he made that part up. Either way, our commodity haul ensured he could thus provide for us, by force, if necessary.

Ready for this? And I assure you, I checked with my older sibs for accuracy because my memories of these epic before-school smorgasbords were so absurd, I needed to fact-check. Our memories (and gag-reflex responses) were intact and identical.  

We started out with stewed prunes (as soon as your nausea passes, you can keep reading). Then, we had to eat a brimming (and I mean brimming) bowl of whole wheat hot cereal.  Then, in he came with the scrambled previously powdered eggs and pancakes and toast. If there was any bacon to be had, that would come in with the last course too.

Stop rolling your eyes! I’m serious here!

Of course, we had to eat every bite and wash it down with the tastily hydrated powdered milk and, as my sister reminded me, whatever delightful juice facsimile we had from the warehouse. Almost all the products from there were in white packages with black print, so flavors are hard to recall since the flavor was mostly sugar. If we didn’t eat every bite – what am I saying?! – we ate every bite because there was zero tolerance for disobedience.   

Please understand, I am not complaining about being provided for. Nor am I complaining about the blessing of Welfare, without which, we might have gone hungry. I am not complaining about an overabundance of food (okay, maybe a little bit, because it really didn’t need to be 4000 calories all at once!). But in fairness, I was absolutely complaining about that nasty-ass bologna; as a card-carrying LOVER of Oscar Meyer baloney, I have to draw the line with that canned stuff, free or not.  

Actually, come to think of it, other than that, I’m not complaining at all. As always, I’m telling you a story of not-uncommon dysfunction, of four kids who somehow did well in school during periodic food comas. Four kids who, for intermittent times in their childhoods, probably could have succeeded in Marine boot camp although they wouldn’t have understood the first thing about playing on a real sports team. 

I guess it was a mixed blessing; if Dad had been consistent with our home “fitness,” we might have become true Olympians. However, if the mega-meals had been the norm, we would have all been candidates for Biggest Loser before we even graduated high school. But as it was just a random thing, we didn’t end up being morbidly obese. 

Wait! There’s the silver lining! I knew if I typed long enough, I’d find it!

And that concludes the ill-advised Ron Seley parental approach to nutrition and fitness.

What did I learn? If I was going to run, I should actually move forward; it’s much better on the shins, not nearly as boring as running in place, and I wouldn’t have someone yelling at me to “get those knees up!” And learned not to do jumping jacks, mostly because I just really hate jumping jacks. I also learned to get a job and keep it, so I wouldn’t have to eat canned bologna, powdered eggs, and plastic cheese.

The end.

And Then There’s the One about The Lord’s Prayer and the Killer Table Saw

When I was a kid, we started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance.  Not so strange, right?  Except where I went to school in the second grade, we followed it with the Lord’s Prayer.  I honestly thought it was all one spiel.

Imagine, if you will, a shorter, rounder version of me randomly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at home (for no particular reason, I’m sure).  I linked the pledge and the prayer with no fore- or afterthought; “…with liberty and justice for all. Our Father, which art in heaven…”

You don’t need to imagine what happened next, because I’m fixin’ to tell you, and here it is. My Dad, a man with zero social conscience (you’ll have to trust me on this one, I could fill pages with supporting evidence), a rebel without a cause, a sometimes-employed ad salesman, instantly transformed into a man so incensed by the mixture of church and state that he began a great debate with my school. But let me be clear, he did this by sending written notes through me (arguably the shyest child on the planet) to my school administrators.  How’s that for backbone?  He demanded they stop the practice which violated my constitutional rights – he was incorrect, by the way, as it is not specifically addressed in the Constitution, it is instead a philosophic and jurisprudential concept – but even that isn’t as important as the fact that I didn’t care about this supposed violation of my rights as much as I cared about the unbelievable position I was in as a terrified new kid forced to fight my dad’s battles.  I think that even as a little girl I understood it had nothing to do with the man’s core beliefs and I like to think that if it had, I would have sensed it and been a little less humiliated, and that, of course, if he really believed it all, he would have wielded his own sword and not handed it to an unwitting, stupefied kid.  I think I knew it had less to do with principles than audacity as he had few of the former and lots of the latter.  What?  Oh, the story, the story.  Sorry.  So, here’s what happened next.

The compromise between him and the school was that every morning, I had to step outside the classroom (which in that particular school was OUTSIDE) while the rest of the class droned out the pledge-prayer, probably not getting the meaning of either any more than I had, but they and I “got” the fact that I had been singled out.  And not in a good way.  I realized much later that if Dad truly believed his assertions, that this “solution” did not solve anything and that it created a very real problem for his bashful daughter, but that somehow never factored into his short-lived need to make the world a better place.  He never followed up, never sought to see if my later schools did the same thing, never asked me how I felt about it.

Of course, I survived the incident which, in the big scheme of things of Seley-life under a microscope, was really very, very minor.  But wait!  There’s more!  Of course, there is.  He was nothing if not predictable.

Fast forward to me in seventh grade (another town, another state, of course) and I had signed up for wood shop.  I had already started class and was getting into it when Dad slithered from beneath the rock he’d frequented more and more over the years, long enough to suggest that it was grossly irresponsible of the school to put me at the helm of potentially life threatening wood-working equipment; I guess I missed out on the news reports of hundreds of children being maimed and killed in the time-honored junior high wood shops of America.  Anyway, yes, you guessed it, with me as a deeply humiliated carrier of his ranting notes, he challenged the practice, insisting that they guarantee my safety or a fat check to cover the medical bills if they failed to do so (he had his priorities, after all).  If they didn’t agree, I was to be transferred immediately from the class.  I’ll never forget the look in the eyes of my very respected, very experienced shop teacher, Mr. Staack, as he signed off on my transfer and I fought back tears of embarrassment.  I later realized that, as before, if my father was genuinely concerned about the school policy, my removal from the class would have only been the beginning.  But, as before, it was the end.  I was ashamed, didn’t understand the fight, and Dad could beat his chest in victory from the safety of home.

In retrospect, considering the scope of his other actions, these incidents were so small, they hardly mattered.  I wasn’t hurt, I was safe (as always) from his most vile behaviors, and no one really cared but me.  And, I assure you, I got over it.  But as I looked over my list of much crazier ideas to share in this blog, these events stood out because I suddenly asked myself why he did this stuff.  And the answer was swiftHe did it because he could.  It was low hanging fruit for a control freak whose self-interest trumped all else, and these things must have popped up when he was feeling otherwise impotent. 

He did it because he could.  And that’s why I’m telling this story.  Because I can.  And now I have. Neener, neener, neener!  Immature, perhaps, but soooo gratifying!

If you’ll excuse me, now I’m going to go recite the good ol’ Pledge of Allegiance and tack on the dang Lord’s Prayer.  And I’m going to do it as I use a table saw — unsupervised!  Why?  Because I can!