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Sunday, December 26, 2004

Chuck E. Cheese weight loss plan!

Moscow, July 2003. Yup, I was on my 'vacation' then, about to hop a train to visit the wife's folks somewhere in the Urals, or 1200 miles north east to be exact. Strangely, except for an inexplicable alphabet that read like the DaVinci Code, the place seemed as normal, busy, and nondescript as any large American city. One thing that caught my eye was not the architecture (Soviet New Deal mainly), traffic (bad, and getting awful), or billboards (Givenchy in Cyrillic), but rather the people. For a folk who ate too many carbs, drank and smoke too much, and had a life span of 60, they looked remarkably buff. The population was lean, mean (well at least serious looking), and remarkably fit. It was as if the obesity 'disease' which had been sweeping the western world stopped short, like Napoleon's armies, before the gates of Moscow. It was only after I had spent a night or two in the Moscow apartment of a friend of my wife's family that the cure was painfully revealed to me. To get anywhere, Moscovites had to walk all over the damn place. Up stairs, down stairs, to the subway, to the store, crossing streets in zig zags to escape cars coming at you like cannonballs, and repeating this all endlessly. A recipe for an America soon running out of gas? I'm not so sure.

To make getting your exercise a bad or glad part of your day's routine, you need either a dose of the Russian specialty of bad government, or the American specialty of good marketing. But how does one provide this magic recipe for good abs and good times?

Enter Chuck E. Cheese.

It was a revelation really. It's a pizzeria, with a disco dance floor (led by an animatronic Chuck E. Cheese, who is a friendly five foot rat), plastic tube mazes hanging from the ceiling like plumbing, and a scattering of electronic and other interactive games that whirred and clicked like slot machines. About them was a swift current of little feet and shrieking noise, manic children mainly, circling about like ravenous piranhas.

Naturally, my four year old daughter had to be part of this. Taking at turns a bite of pizza, she was off to the disco floor, up a plastic tube, and running about with the mob. I marveled at this joyous cacophony. Chuck E. Cheese was a restaurant where you eat and run, literally. No need for exercise when it was rolled at once into your play and dining experience at the same time. Unfortunately, what Americans have learned is to divest them from each other. We work separately, dine separately, play separately, and exercise separately, and since we don't have time for all four, we tend to drop the running around bit, and end up resembling human zepplins.

I believe it's all because we misunderstand play. Starting from school, play is something that is separate from learning, separate even from exercise. It is idle meandering in a denuded play ground, divested from the marketing smarts of Chuck E. Cheese. In our schools, play is eliminated as we focus on more serious things, and recesses are replaced with study hall, play with sport. So we learn to watch people play, and our participation is limited to pressing the remote control or twitching on a joy stick. Everything becomes virtual, and our bodies respond by bloating out of control, and our minds wither along with our muscles.

So here's my unoriginal recipe. Start with kids, and have them play. Make their culture one of pick up sports, spontaneous groups who have to climb the plumbing, hit the dance floor, run up and down chasing and throwing balls. Eliminate school sports, expand recesses, and populate playgrounds with the tools of play. Chuck E. Cheese knows this, laughing I think all the way to the bank. And perhaps if we let marketing types control our schools rather than educators, we would learn a lot, play a lot, and life would be a blast.

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