11.19.2008

Measuring Life in Coffee Spoons

On the subject of personal betterment, I read an article awhile back in Vanity Fair called “On the Limits of Self-Improvement,” by Chris Hitchens, an author and journalist " known for his love of cigarettes and alcohol - and his prodigious literary output." Contrary to the usual political focus of his writing, this time he chronicled his attempts at embracing life through relinquishing vice.

I bought the magazine for a flight out of interest in the cover story on Carla Bruni and le président bling bling (what was she thinking? I know, president. But what was she thinking??). But it was this article that burned itself in my memory and left me chuckling out loud that day. This might have annoyed my window and aisle companions if aisle's snoring and window's mini-speakers-disguised-as-headphones-blaring-techno hadn't provided such stiff competition. Anyhow, here are Part I, Part II and Part III of the article.

It's worth the read, but if you're not up to it, some highlights follow~~~

A description of the subject:

The subject has good genes on both sides of his family and has been mercilessly exploiting this inherited advantage for some decades….

Matters are hardly improved on the lower slopes, which feature a somewhat grotesque combination of plump thighs and skinny shins, the arduous descent culminating in feet which are at once much too short and a good deal too chunky. This combination, of ratlike claws and pachydermatous-size insteps, causes the subject to be very cautious about where, and indeed when, he takes off his shoes. There have been unconfirmed reports of popular protest whenever and wherever he does this….

At all times, the subject gives off a scent that resembles that of an illegal assembly, either of people or of materials, in the hog wallows of Tennessee or in the more remote and primitive islands of Scotland. He becomes defensive, and sometimes aggressive, when asked about the source of this effluvium. It is considered by me, and by the rest of this committee, and by the subject's few remaining friends and surviving family, a medical mystery that he can still perform what he persists in referring to as his "job."


On the above description:

I'd noticed a touch of decline here and there, but one puts these things down to Anno Domini and the acquirement of seniority. A bit of a stomach gives a chap a position in society. A glass of refreshment, in my view, never hurt anybody. This walking business is overrated: I mastered the art of doing it when I was quite small, and in any case, what are taxis for? Smoking is a vice, I will admit, but one has to have a hobby. Nonetheless, when my friends at this magazine formed up and said they would pay good money to stop having to look at me in my current shape, I agreed to a course of rehabilitation.

On his toofs:

And to make the smile, which currently looks like a handful of mixed nuts, a little less scary to children.

On the after-effects of a workout:

Now, I don't know about you, but with me a feeling of fitness and well-being always lends extra zest to the cocktail hour. And what's a cocktail without a smoke? And what else gives you a better appetite for dinner? The Bella Vista restaurant at the Biltmore is justly renowned, and I thought that perhaps if I tried the tasting menu Chef Martin Frost had prepared for me, with just a little morsel for each course … And a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine, as they say in France.

On attempting yoga:

Not to be outdone by some tempestuous and tawny Californian, I attempted to balance and extend myself in the same way, only to find that I was seized by the sensation that I might die or go mad at any moment.

On starting exercise at 58:

The trouble with bad habits is that they are mutually reinforcing. And, just as a bank won't lend you money unless you are too rich to need it, exercise is a pastime only for those who are already slender and physically fit. It just isn't so much fun when you have a marked tendency to wheeze and throw up, and a cannonball of a belly sloshing around inside the baggy garments.

On stress:

I also had to admit what I have long secretly known, which is that I positively like stress, arrange to inflict it on myself, and sheer awkwardly away from anybody who tries to promise me a more soothed or relaxed existence. Bad habits have brought me this far: why change such a tried-and-true formula?

On quitting smoking:


[They say] "smoking doesn't really ward off boredom and stress; it only appears to do so, and it actually increases stress." Well, appearing to do so isn't bad, as illusions go, and if I find that a smoke and a drink help to make other people even seem less boring, then to that extent I have found an ally for life. Plus which, stress works for me and I wouldn't be without it.

That evening I had dinner at an organic restaurant where everything was made out of vegetation, just to see how that would feel without a cigarette, and drank about three pints of cold sake to make up for it. Didn't light up until well past midnight.


On his new pearly white gnashers and nail-biting:

But, once Dr. Lituchy had whitened and straightened and bonded my teeth, I no longer had the crooked and jagged snaggle-fangs that enabled me to get a purchase on my fingertips and to work the jaws in that nice crisp and crunchy action that makes all the difference. All of a sudden I was buying nail files at the pharmacy and buffing away at oval extremities that for the first time in half a century looked as if they belonged to a human. (Tiring of this rather feminine activity, I now go to a gay Vietnamese manicurist in my hood and fight to keep the expression "handjob" out of my mind as he fusses away over my paw-like mitts.)

On expensive workout equipment:

Then I started to hear about the rom. This device—the initials stand for "Range of Motion"—was the perfect "no excuses" invention for slothful mammals. It promised to give you a workout in just four minutes. No: it was better than that. It insisted that you never give it more than four minutes. The catch was that it cost well over $14,000, but, hey, remember that great slogan for Stella Artois beer—"Reassuringly expensive."

Hitchens mentions how he'd have to measure his life in something much more licentious than the coffee spoons used by T.S. Eliot's Prufrock. Like Hitchens, coffee is hardly my most menacing vice. Though the worst of them have long since passed through my system, I imagine they've left a bit of an imprint on my timeline. If I were to measure by an increment of something, I supppose it would be by glass of wine or shot of vodka or slice of cheese or puff of smoke... or dollop of ranch. I could go on, but I best not be too candid. And you?

2 comments:

Startickler said...

I think I'd have to go with my tongue. And now I won't need to go any further.

Ooh la la

figment said...

ooh la la indeed! i hadn't even thought of that, but go on and add it to my list as well. i swear there's little hope of me making it past 50. not w/o all sorts of ailments, anyway. i already have consistent pain of the knee and neck. it cannot be a good sign.