Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Things That Can Kill You (i.e., Everything)

My mother and I had an argument today. This is not all that uncommon--we always start off well enough, and then she manages to say something that pushes my buttons. I was at a business lunch the other day, and somehow we got on the topic of families. When I described my conversations with my mother, everyone at the table agreed that we probably have the same mother. Which means Mom isn't telling me everything.

Honestly, though, it bugs me that as a rational adult, I will explode at my mother over things that I would be tactful and diplomatic about with everyone else. More than likely it is the bond--when you're a child, you need your mother to manage things for you. As an adult, you want to manage things on your own. My Mom loves to help out, which is very generous--but she frequently overdoes it, and it ends up grating on my nerves. And I look like a jerk, because my sweet mother is "just trying to help". But I'm an adult, and wouldn't look kindly on a friend taking that kind of control, either. But she's Mom, and I can't tell her to bugger off. Hence, the fireworks.

Today's argument was about my cat's litterbox. Seriously. I have a waste receptacle upstairs that doesn't have a proper lid, but is still covered, for cat waste, and about every other week I replace the bag in it and dispose of the full one. My mother thinks it is not covered well enough. I told her not to worry about it. She responded by buying me a new receptacle for waste, and then insisted that she only wanted me to "look at it", and was not imposing it on me. But let's get real--if you bought it, I'll look ungrateful if I don't take it, right? In the end I agreed to take it, but not before we had a stupid argument. I think I get more mad at myself for getting caught up in the whole thing.

Here is the gist of the argument--if there's a trash can with cat waste in my house, then I am undoubtedly breathing in those fumes, and one day they will give me lung cancer, or a horrible disease, or injure the unborn child I'm not (and never will be) carrying. I reminded her that having a litterbox in the house at ALL exposes you to fumes, but she insisted that I was wrong, and having a box with a better lid was going to make all the difference in the world. It won't, but whatever.

It does lead me to today's topic, though, which is spending half of your life worrying about things that might kill you. Now, to be fair, man has a basic survival instinct--all animals do. We have automatic responses to situations that are designed to keep us alive. But we live in a culture that is particularly obsessed about health. We worry about diet, about exercise, about the environment, and about stress. While it's good to be sensible with regard to these things, and there are a certain number of things we can change--in the final analysis, it really doesn't mean squat.

I recall a conversation with a colleague of mine who is a microbiologist, and is a very pre-planned person, right down to the last second of his day. Last winter we were discussing the shortage of flu shots. I have never gotten a flu shot, and never plan to do so. My colleague said to me, "Oh, but I thought all intelligent people went for flu shots." I guess I was flattered that he counted me with the "intelligent", but the conclusion was amusing. I said to him, "I've never needed one, and people who get them tend to get the flu, or have a perpetual cold that keeps them from getting the flu. There's nothing wrong with getting sick, and one day we'll all die when we're supposed to, so I'm not worried about it." I think he was rather scandalized by that answer.

I feel this way about food and drink, too. I'll eat and drink whatever strikes my fancy--I usually pay attention to calories, as I don't like to exceed a certain number every day, but beyond that, I don't really care. I don't care about fat content, about carbohydrates, about sugar--whatever. If I stress myself out eating nothing but rabbit food, I'll be dead sooner rather than later. I do believe that stress plays a bigger role in illness than any conventional wisdom on food. Most food is preserved by suspicious chemicals, and those that aren't are half eaten by suspicious bugs. So, all of our food is suspect. Additionally--the air we breathe is bad, the water we drink is problematic--and my question is, what exactly do you propose to do about it on a daily basis? Stop eating, drinking, and breathing? Ironically, that would achieve the result you're fighting to avoid--death.

Comedian Lewis Black seems to share my view on this; he did a very funny monologue about the oldest living man in New York. (I haven't fact-checked this one, but he swears this is a true story). This man was 115 years old, in perfect health, and had all his senses about him--no dementia, or anything like that. He was interviewed by the press, and inevitably, the question came up about his diet. He said from the age of 93, he had narrowed it down to bread fried in fatback, and a quart of Thunderbird wine a week. When they asked him why he didn't fry his bread in bacon fat, he said it was too lean. Lewis Black also went on to point out--and I would agree with this--that if the man went to a doctor and told him his diet, the doctor would say he was crazy, to stop eating that and get on a diet of fruits and vegetables. And the man would have listened, and would have been dead within a week.

I'm not advocating gluttonous or ridiculously unhealthy eating. But I do think that every person is different, and your body tells you what it needs. You will crave the foods you need to get the nutrients you need. You can't make blanket statements about what is going to make a person healthy. As I've noted before, I would die if I was forced to become a vegetarian. I have a serious aversion to most veggies.

In general--I think the more focused people are on avoiding death by trying to live according to conventional wisdom about "healthy", the sicker they tend to be overall. If something seems out of whack, I'll see what needs to be done to correct it, if anything can be done. But otherwise, I'm not going to live my life worrying about what I'm eating and breathing. As another colleague once said, "What happens if I skip on that piece of chocolate I really want and then get hit by a bus?" Worry about living your life--it's going to end whenever it's going to end, and you can't do a damn thing about it.


CJL said...

I kind of know how you feel. Here in Japan, EVERYTHING is sanitised. There is (and has been long before any flu scares) always an alcohol wipe available to clean things. I'm now terrified that my immune system has been weakened so much by this "support" that any microbe is likely to disfigure me permanently!

Brigid N. Burke said...

@Chris--yes, and that's another problem I didn't even get to talk about--weakened immunity by over-treatment. I know people who run for antibiotics at the first sign of a sniffle, and then wonder why they're always sick. Leaves the door open for newer, more evolved microbes to take over...it's funny how it becomes a game with Nature, which is going to kill us no matter what...whatever we do to protect ourselves just makes it worse at some point, if it's overdone.