NOTE: I wrote this piece for the Dallas Times Herald in 1985. I was 31 years old. I’m now a healthy 67-year-old struggling to do all the right things during a worldwide pandemic. After reading this, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m fully vaccinated and wear a mask.
LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE
Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse — (John Derek in Knock on Any Door, 1949)
I want to live slow, die old and go to my grave with my own teeth.
This shocks my friend David, who moves as soon as his magazine subscriptions catch up with him and eats most of his meals at 7-Eleven. When David comes over for dinner, I try to serve a vegetable he’s never eaten before. This is easy: He doesn’t know a green bean from an asparagus spear.
Life in the slow lane, that’s for me. I’m convinced that if I touch all the bases — if I do everything my mother and my doctor tell me and if I avoid all the carcinogens on the market — I’ll live forever.
My friend Leon, who washes down his chocolate-covered doughnuts with hot cocoa in the mornings and hasn’t flossed his teeth since 1947, says I won’t live longer, it will just seem longer.
Sensible living comes naturally to me. Sleeping was something I did well from birth and so I’ve done a lot of it. At 31, I’m still waiting to get old enough for coffee to taste good to me.
My parents taught me not to smoke by putting me in the back seat of the family car and chain-smoking with the windows rolled up. On long trips at Christmas, with the car heater blasting and my folks smoking in tandem, I silently vowed to put them in a nursing home one day.
To be fair, my parents also taught me some lifesaving habits: I never use someone else’s comb or allow my insurance to lapse. My grandmother, who belonged to the Howard Hughes school of preventive medicine, believed Mentholatum would cure anything and so, in winter, kept me slathered in it. She told me Dr Pepper had medicinal properties, something I gladly accepted. And when her feet were cold, I had to wear slippers.
Today, far removed from parental influence, I turn to the media for guidance. When some health reporter tells me flossing will prevent gum disease and allow me to eat corn-on-the-cob till the end, I floss. I avoid the sun between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., cross streets at the corner and never drink wine in a hot tub. I try to eat a piece of fruit a day (though I’ve been known to count a strawberry PopTart). I don’t watch television in a dark room, and I keep a smoke alarm in the hallway.
When people link the words “alcohol consumption” and “moderation,” it’s me they’re thinking about. When I have to drink, I order something with fruit juice in it, then allow the ice to melt so the whole thing is diluted. I skip the alcohol altogether if I’m taking antibiotics or driving. Friends know this about me: My hosts will serve wine all around and offer me club soda. This consideration makes me feel like a stout British matron having tea at Harrod’s.
My search for safe and sensible ways to conduct my life became obsessive when, as a consumer reporter, I received regular missives from that harbinger of household hazards, the Consumer Product Safety Commission. After each new warning, I’d cast a critical eye at my home and find something potentially lethal lurking there. My gas space heater blazed threateningly near my Christmas tree; some oily rags underneath the sink released potentially fiery fumes.
At one point, I took the CPSC’s advice to unplug all small appliances while away from home. I weaned myself from the government’s warnings after returning from a weekend trip to a house full of staring digital clocks. When I reconnected my timepieces, they winked and blinked at me in what I took to be electronic amusement at my foolishness.
The business with soft drinks, with the Food and Drug Administrations and the soft-drink makers slugging it out, really confused me. They took the sugar out of colas and put in something that gives rats the Big C. Later, the caffeine went and something called aspartame showed up. Now, when I drink a caffeine-free, sugar-free soft drink, I wonder why I bother.
Still, I’m hooked. I embrace the dictates of every do-gooder with a health and safety manifesto. I jog and refuse red meat. I’m a stranger to sugar and salt. I sleep on a firm mattress, wear flat heels and buckle my seat belt. I’m doing everything I can think of to ensure my immortality.
I’m beginning to see contradictions in what I’m doing. Dairy products clog the arteries, so I stopped eating cheese, whole milk and butter. Now, I hear, I need the calcium to prevent osteoporosis. And aerobic exercise — something I started doing despite a lifelong aversion to sweating — may cause cancer, a new study reports.
So, I’m thinking I’ll give up the fight. I will brazenly neglect to wash before meals. I’ll plug in the toaster with damp hands and fall asleep with my contacts in. I’ll eat rare pork and sit on public toilet seats.
Yes, I’m going to join my friend David in the fast lane. But, knowing me, I’ll signal first.