Sunday, May 16, 2010

Living Well: Enjoying the Simple Pleasures

There are certainly prudent and reckless behaviors we can participate in throughout our lives.  As a result, there are currently groups of people on both sides of the political fence who endeavor to prevent others from enjoying many of what I believe are some of life’s simple pleasures.  This often results in pressure not to participate in and even condemn a variety of activities: drinking, smoking, spending time the sun (unless you’re wrapped like a mummy and slathered with the strongest sunscreen), and even eating grilled or fried foods or using salt.  In some cases laws are passed to prevent various activities.  In at least one state in the U.S., the state government is considering banning all smoking even on private property in the name of good health.
As a man, this strikes directly at the heart of sitting with other men to enjoy good company and conversation, accompanied by fine cigars or pipes of tobacco, and complemented by glasses of old scotch. 

As I’ve chewed on this over time, several years ago an interesting item caused a flurry in the news when the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study suggesting the English are healthier than their American cousins.  A press release included the following: "Middle-aged to older U.S. residents have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, lung disease and cancer than their English counterparts, according to an article in the May 3 issue of JAMA." (See for a synopsis.)
I’m not suggesting JAMA is encouraging smoking or drinking.  This wasn’t the focus of the JAMA article, but it seems even though people in the UK eat the "wrong" things for breakfast, enjoy their pubs, and are more inclined to view beer as well as the first and second hand smoke associated with the pub environment as a matter-of-fact part of their lifestyle, they're healthier.  It appears the English don't suffer from as much stress as a part of their lifestyle. Somehow they deal with it better.  In an associated handful of reports that followed on the television news about the JAMA article, reporters discussed how Americans are too fat and how second hand smoke continues to plague us as a health issue. But the English eat worse, smoke more, drink more than we do and yet we Americans have sicker hearts and lungs.
When I was still in high school, I remember someone telling me "common sense isn't so common any more."  It was probably my dad.  The longer I live, the truer this seems to be.  Could the folks putting out the news, as well as many others who are like-minded, be missing the obvious?  It literally struck me as funny that JAMA published research that says our cousins in England are healthier than Americans even though the English smoke and drink more, with these activities being more entwined in their broad culture and lifestyle.  I’ve traveled through most of Europe, including parts of the Mediterranean.  It’s blatantly obvious that casual drinking is much more an integrated part of the cultures there, and a noticeably greater number of people smoke.  This is still true today.  I live in Europe and although smoking is on the decline, it’s still obvious that more people smoke here than in the U.S.  If you live in Europe and don’t smoke, you're still most likely a quality second-hand smoker.  Ironically, for years the European, and specifically the Mediterranean lifestyles have been touted in the U.S. as "healthy."
Again, I’m not suggesting, nor was AMA that smoking and drinking are healthy.  But I think we’re missing (or denying) a greater obvious point for the sake of another subtle one.  To use an old metaphor, we might be missing the forest for the trees.
Maybe living a healthy life is more than just having a physically healthy body.  Clearly, being physically fit and healthy is better than being unfit or sick.  But health is more than physical.  I hear arguments all the time that we’re to avoid certain activities, foods, or certain simple pleasures to add years to our lives--it’s stated like a guarantee.  I believe these people mean our physical lives will be longer.  Will they?  No doubt that minimizing or eliminating certain things that introduce physical risk will set the conditions for a longer physical life.  Potential illness aside though, if these theoretical extra years are added, will they be years we enjoy?  Will I avoid lung cancer only to discover some other unrelated illness brings down my body, or live into my 90s only to find I spent so much time “doing the right thing” that I never actually enjoyed the time I spent?
I'm not talking about or advocating smoking as a rule, or excessive drinking and certainly not a lifestyle of hedonism.  I’m a true champion of moderation and common sense.  When it comes to certain activities such as smoking, I'm also absolutely a champion of gentlemanly conduct and respect for others.  Activities like drinking, smoking, or eating certain foods regularly will certainly have some impact on the body, but we might have something to learn from our English cousins about living life, and what it means to set the entire stage of life to enjoy it from the early years into the sunset years.  In the end, life can't simply be about living a long time.  The quality of life beyond just the technical or scientific length of physical life, has to be a part of what were about.
Maybe it’s really about control.  The reasonable man doesn't want life to end, yet we grow old and our bodies begin to fail.  We end up wearing glasses and hearing aides.  We walk with canes and our minds slow down.  Even the most physically fit person will eventually suffer from age.  Perhaps we’re struggling with this.  Its understandable that we desire to cling to what is good and pleasant, but we’re not really in control--we all age.  The history of man proves as much.  To truly enjoy life we have to acknowledge this fact.  Otherwise we'll work in vain to preserve something we can't, and in the meantime miss out on an amazing number of life's most magnificent and simple pleasures.  It would be sadden me to realize in my sunset years that I spent so much time trying to prevent something out of my control that I never really enjoyed what living was about.
I hope to model this for my son.  I want him to grow up seeing a few genuine things about me as a man.  First, that I enjoy living a full life, one that involves lots of things woven in and balanced.  I want him to remember me as strong and busy, and never lazy.  I also want him to see that times of rest, relaxation and leisure are an acceptable and smart part of living a full life.
Related, I want him to see me enjoy time with fellow men, not just at work, but also socially; not in a manner that’s competitive with time I already jealously guard with Stephanie, but in a manner that adds richness and fullness to living life as a man.

On occasion, that time will involve sitting out back in a chair, quietly enjoying a good book, a glass of scotch and a pipe.  At other times it’ll also  involve sitting around a fireplace with other men to enjoy each other’s company and talk about any number of things, perhaps with our sons and even grandsons in attendance.  Don’t turn me in, but in these moments of relaxation and leisure, we just might enjoy a few drinks and a few cigars or pipes to accompany our manly conversation.  Life is a wonderful thing.  Living it fully is even more wonderful.
Guys, we must be men and enjoy manly thing: the things that add fullness to our lives and allow us to be happy and healthy men.  Some of these things introduce physical risk and so, we enjoy them in moderation and in the company of adults who accept that risk--not to make a political point, but to make our lives fuller.  We live.  After all, life is risky, and living risk-free isn’t really living.  We must enjoy the company of other men and model manhood in front of our sons and daughters.  It’s good to be a man.
And it’s great to be a dad!

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