“You can live to be a hundred if you give up all things that make you want to live to be a hundred.” —Woody Allen
I had a very slight hangover this morning. Because I have only rarely had a hangover, I had been at work an hour before I realized that my headache and slight nausea were probably from a girls’ night out that lasted longer than usual–the fact that we skipped supper in favor of appetizers probably accounted for the impact of the wine.
In other words, the list of crimes I committed against my body last night include drinking alcohol, not eating vegetables or fruits, sitting for a prolonged period, exposing my hearing to loud background noise, staying up way past my bedtime, and relishing fried cheese sticks with an amazing dip. When I consider the entire day,… well…unless a leaf of lettuce on a grilled chicken sandwich counts as a veggie serving, I went the entire day without vegetables. My step tracker accuses me of walking fewer than 6,000 steps yesterday, too, which is almost certainly accurate; I spent my day at a desk. It also points out that the previous night, I got about five hours of sleep. I had lost track of time while reading, so yes, I went into my day of debauchery without a good night’s sleep.
I think yesterday was a very good day–except for my body. I engaged in work that I find fulfilling, I spent time with friends, I laughed and chatted, I texted flirty things to a receptive partner, I sang along with music as I did a bit of housework, and when I did go to sleep, I slept well. That’s a win, right?
Maybe. It depends on who I listen to. Three years ago I decided that I wanted to adopt a healthier lifestyle, so I researched how I should change my eating and exercise patterns (or lack thereof). Even though I was good at research, I understood credible sources, and I had friends and family with professional expertise, I was overwhelmed with information overload and conflicting advice.
The process of sifting through information to figure out what worked for me and the seventy pounds that I have lost (and maintained) is a different part of this story, but it does influence my attitudes and fears as I consider my reaction to entering a new decade of living–one that feels like a threshold (at least symbolically) past middle age.
Or, as Woody Allen implies, do I need to give up everything that makes life enjoyable if I want to live a long life? Some of the most reputable information I can currently find urges that I cut sugar as far out of my diet as possible to lessen the chance of Alzheimer’s (which runs in my family), and other information suggests I can keep my arthritis at manageable levels if I am devoted to an anti-inflammatory diet. In other words, the way I eat is antithetical to a long, healthy life.
I grew up believing mashed potatoes and red meat were required at every supper, and that adding pie to the menu qualifies as fine dining. That is not how I eat now, but I have never made a meal out of steamed fish with a kale salad. If I ever start a church, communion will be brownies and whiskey. Eating like the experts (whichever experts are popular at the moment) tell us to does not come easily to me.
The pile of supplements my parents take daily are their talisman against poor eyesight, arthritis, dementia, stroke, and high cholesterol. My mother used to love both tea and chocolate, but at the recommendation of a magazine article decades ago, she completely gave up both in hopes that she would avoid breast cancer–something no one in my extended family has suffered from. She seems to accept Allen’s premise that living to one hundred requires giving up everything that makes living that long worth it.
Or does she? My elderly parents both have hobbies that they are devoted to, family that they engage with regularly (constantly, some grandchildren might claim), and love going on the occasional weekend getaway, although they hobble around for a few days after overdoing it. My father’s quest to find the “dark web” both horrified and amused the rest of the family–and his browser history suggested that he found at least a few corners of the internet that probably are better left alone.
If I define “the things that make life worth living” in terms of sugar, wheat, and other “vices,” prevailing opinion says that yep, Woody Allen is a herald of wisdom. Popular belief does not account for variables, though, including basic genetics. Stories of ninety year olds who chop wood and smoke cigarettes make the news every so often, and my Facebook feed has more than once brought news of a younger, health-conscious friend who passed away suddenly. Simply eating right and exercise is not a guarantee of a long, healthy life.
I have fifty-nine years of making some good choices, some bad choices–living deliciously and living deprived. When I was in college, a friend explained to me why he had become a vegetarian: when he reached old age, he wanted to be as vibrant and active as his eighty-five year old great grandfather. I knew plenty of eighty-five year olds. They were the “gripe about young people and go to prayer meetings” type of old, not the type that spent Saturday evening dancing at a Detroit Jazz Club with his grandson. Since my friend knew a different type of elderly person than I did, he may have made better long-term choices than I did, thus creating a completely different old age than the one I anticipated. Maybe.
This is the point where I could have a heart-warming, inspirational epiphany about starting today to make the rest of my life active, happy, and healthy. I could make a color-coded plan to hop out of bed every morning to do yoga and cardio, eat a plant based lunch, and do some strength training before going home for a small dinner of legumes and veggies. (Confession: I have created plans like that more than once, and yes, with full color-coding. It can be a good re-set, but I’m not the type who can make that a lifestyle.)
Experience says that I could follow the plan with enthusiasm and gusto for…um….three days. Maybe five. Then I would start feeling guilty when I fell short, and a deprivation mindset would take over. At that point, the Woody Allen paradox would be in full force. That is not the way for me to create the type of life that makes me happy to wake up.
Part of my fear of old age includes my assumption that I am likely to experience physical and/or mental decline to the point that I will not find joy or meaning in life. Typing that sentence was almost physically painful as I pulled the words this way and trying to hide the depth of my fear in big words and complex phrasing.
Here’s the basic truth: in the last decade, I have made previously unimaginable changes–both rediscovering parts of myself and reinventing myself. As I watched the TED Talk about the Blue Zones project, I got excited as I considered ways Dan Buettner’s research might apply to my life.
And that excitement, more than any chart of goals, intentions, and restrictions, shows me that I even though I’m uneasy about tiptoeing towards sixty, my future is not about depriving myself of things that make life worth living. It’s about maintaining excitement about something. Balancing my intake of vegetables to sugar and exercise to sloth becomes more important–and probably more instinctive–when I know there is something worth living for. Allen’s quote might have the right idea if the causal relationship is flipped: If you can find a compelling reason to live to one hundred, the specifics about how to do that are easier.