blue life

pigeon feather in bus bench, Portland, June 2014

This summer, I opened a letter from my mother, and a newspaper clipping fell out. (How quaint does that sound?) My hometown paper had reported the local Friends of the Library honoring my first-grade teacher for 35 years of volunteer service. And the kicker? Mrs. Sharp is 94 years old, pictured with her two children (probably in their 60's) and looking just as I remember her: tall, with short wavy red hair and an amused smile. In the photo she looks alert, active, and healthy. In contrast, my own grandparents died in their late 70's or early 80's, one with Alzheimer's, one (a diabetic) from a stroke, and the two lifelong smokers from heart-and-lung disease. My longest-lived great-grandparent, a church-going Mormon who'd grown up on a farm in Colorado and spent her life cooking and cleaning for a large family, who never learned to drive and walked up and down a steep hill into her early 80's to buy groceries and then often fell asleep in front of afternoon soap operas in an otherwise quiet house, died two days before her 94th birthday but had been in diapers with dementia in a foster-care facility for years prior. None of that is how I want to end life. And since it seems less and less likely that I'll ever be able to retire, all the more reason to actively pursue good health now.

newspaper clipping

Two authors read recently offer important insights on healthy living and argue for societal-level change. The first book is Dan Buettner's Blue Zones, mentioned on the blog way back here (which means I've been mulling over these themes for months). Buettner, a National Geographic writer-explorer, put together teams of demographers and other specialists on aging and researched global pockets of longevity in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Ikaría, Greece; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; and, perhaps most surprisingly, Loma Linda, California, in the U.S. (home base of the Seventh-Day Adventists). What they found was that the centenarians in each distinct, far-flung community lived a holistic set of practices enabling them to exercise naturally, sleep well, eat a plant-based diet, and enjoy the mutual support of a close circle of friends, family, and neighbors that allowed them to socialize and de-stress daily, while regularly accessing spirituality and sustaining a sense of purpose. Incredibly, twin studies prove genes only factor about 25% in longevity, lifestyle practices the rest. Buettner's goal is to proselytize modifying the 75% under human control—which could save billions in health costs and improve quality of life for millions of people.

vintage globe

However, the reading-between-the-lines conclusions drawn from Buettner's reported Blue Zone research were that the oldest healthy people in the world tend to be bean-eating extroverted traditionalists with supportive children who live in mild, warm, sunny, typically hilly climes with vegetable and herb gardens to tend and thus plenty of regular outdoor activity, who have few stressors (including no bosses), little, if any, technology, few possessions, and who meet together daily to drink and laugh with peers, enjoying a breezy communal life full of hard physical work in societies with minimal wealth disparities (meaning everyone in the community is fairly poor but can meet basic needs and also help each other out). Being a childless teetotaler introvert who works and commutes long hours at a (surprisingly) stressful job for inadequate pay in an overpriced overcast American city, who has no chance for weekday napping, no garden anymore, and few friends, half of whom live in different states and even countries, I'm pretty much screwed, unless I make some major changes. The Blue Zones Web site offers a Vitality Compass that predicts individual longevity based on current habits, but so far, I've been afraid to take the quiz.

Buettner's team compiled "Nine Lessons," or commonalities shared between the disparate Blue Zones cultures:

Move Naturally: Choose inconvenience, meaning less automation and more walking, especially stair-and-hill climbing, biking, gardening, house cleaning, yoga, swimming—any regular activity but especially what's personally enjoyable and done with friends, foregoing forced exercise like gym-going or running unless the person happens to like running or working out at a gym.

Eat Less: Eat on small plates till 80% full, with no second helpings or between-meal snacking, with food bought in smaller packages, chewing slowly and mindfully while seated, eating communally with others, and with the smallest meal of the day being in the early evening.

Eat Plants: Consume four-to-six vegetable servings daily, with meat limited to no more than twice weekly and instead eating lots of legumes and nuts, as well as largely homegrown or locally grown food.

espaliered fruit tree, Irvington Neighborhood, Portland

Drink Red Wine: Buy quality, darkest red, e.g., Cannonau, and enjoy a daily Happy Hour time with friends or a partner, limited to one or two glasses a day.

Find a Life Purpose: Have a reason to get up in the morning, to feel needed and useful, continually learning new things and having new experiences to keep the mind sharp, e.g., a new language, instrument, hobby, etc.

De-stress Daily: Slow down, meditate, nap, and reduce media's "aural clutter" to quiet the mind and protect the heart.

church magnolias, Portland, spring 2014

Share a Spiritual Community: Worship within some kind of religious community at least once a month, if not weekly, while becoming more involved, e.g., in a choir or leading a group.

Prioritize Family: Spend more time with family—children, spouse, parents—aided by living in a smaller dwelling and creating enduring family rituals.

NE 7th Avenue condos, Portland, June 2014

Build Social Support: Tend a large social network with a trusted inner circle, "be[ing] likeable" (to draw others), and carving out daily time with the inner circle for simple meals, walks, and other enjoyable mundane activities.

What's essential about all the Blue Zones, says Buettner, is that they each exist as an ecosystem, with all parts crucial for the functioning of the whole, like an interconnected web: if any one thread breaks, the entire system is compromised. That said, to emulate Blue Zone lifestyles, Buettner recommends making the easiest changes first and then building on that foundation. How effective, though, can individual changes be without the support of the larger society—the ecosystem? For instance, consider Denmark.

Director Park scene, Portland, summer 2014

Brigid Schulte in her recent book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, details the current state of American quality of life issues, claiming Americans gain "ideal worker" status from nonstop busyness in contrast to citizens of countries like Denmark who gain status from leisure pursuits. The American bourgeois compete over who's most busy, who works the longest hours, who takes the least vacation time, whose kids attend the most extracurricular activities, who gets the least sleep, and so on, while the Danish take the opposite approach to life, enjoying widespread, enriching adult education classes, taking six weeks of paid vacation time a year as their due (on top of 12 public holidays), splitting a whole year of parental leave paid at 80-100% of salary, and as a culture producing the lowest gender gap in the "second shift" (i.e., working women's traditional second job of unpaid domestic and childcare work) in the entire world, all while cultivating the coziness of hygge.

No wonder Denmark and other countries with wide and deep social safety nets consistently rank high in United Nations' surveys of top "happiest countries," while the U.S. keeps dropping in rank because of increasing income inequality. And how telling—of what Schulte calls a "human rights" problem rather than merely a "mommy issue"—that Americans seem to need articles like Apartment Therapy's recent post titled "How to Really Enjoy a Day Off," an apparently unnatural and emotionally ambivalent context.

I-405 evening traffic, Portland, Oregon, April 2014

Schulte cites a range of recent research showing today's "knowledge workers" only have about six good hours of brain work in them per day, and that the best work gets done in no more than 90-minute chunks of focused concentration with significant physical breaks between sessions, allowing the brain time to "rewire." (For a real-life case study, consider Finland's methods of classroom lessons combined with 15-minute breaks per hour while producing stellar educational results.) Schulte says the long-established American norm of 40-plus-hours a week of office face-time, regardless of actual production, equaling good worker status needs revolution, that people can indeed "work smarter" and be as or more productive in fewer hours, thereby reducing turnover and health costs from the stress of overwork while simultaneously increasing employee health and creativity as well as company profits. Danish employees, for example, Schulte says, don't waste time at the water cooler or on Facebook but instead concentrate on actual work to finish up and leave by the late afternoon to go pick up their kids from day care.

Schulte also argues for changes in "family" policies to better match the Scandinavians, meaning more paid leave, shorter and more flexible hours, decent part-time jobs with benefits, and quality, affordable day care. She discusses research similar to Blue Zone findings that claims people need a "sense of purpose" at work, as well as personal time to "do nothing," to play and create, meditate, try new things, simplify to-do lists, be present and grateful, and regularly engage in states of flow—all of which is nearly impossible to fit into a day when running on a hamster wheel.

empty park chairs on a Sunday morning, Pearl District, Portland, May 2014

I have no desire to become a centenarian, and the statistics wouldn't be in my favor, in any case. But I would like to be healthy and happy as I age. Martin Smith in the recent Frontline documentary, "The Retirement Gamble," reports that retirement is no longer even an option for many Americans in the post-baby-boomer generations (and even for many baby boomers themselves), after the virtual elimination of pensions in favor of risky and less productive 401K's. That means staying healthy when old is even more of a necessity than ever before for Americans lacking the vast social safety nets of Social Democratic Europe or even Canada. So that's what an individualistic society founded on maxims of Every man for himself and Pull yourself up by your bootstraps will get you: imagine an old man or woman trying to walk along a high wire with no net underneath—now there's a cultural recipe for disaster. It makes me wish my great-grandmother's ancestors had stayed in Denmark, rather than joining up with the Mormons and immigrating West back in the mid-1800's.

overpass graffiti, I-405, Portland, April 2014

The facts are out there, the fountain of youth only a distracting chimera, while the reality—inevitable aging with its wrinkles and gray hair and creaky joints and hardening arteries (if lucky)—no more and no less than a complex, interwoven fabric of daily acts and communal choices. For healthy aging to matter at all for more than a few isolated cases, the community, more than the individual, must choose holistic health, creating a supportive ecosystem for members to thrive within. Instead of 40-plus-hour workweeks, why not 20, as Bertrand Russell argued in his 1932 essay, "In Praise of Idleness"? Instead of cars, why not more bikes and walkable neighborhoods? Instead of steak and hamburgers, why not more lentil salads and hummus? Instead of the fascist-sounding Department of Homeland Security, where's our Department of Napping, Ministry of Gardening, Commission on Small-Plate Eating, Bureau of Biking, Army Corps of Red Wine, Administration of Meditation, and Advisory Council on Beans? As philosophically polarized (red state, blue state) Americans steeped in the stressful, competitive Kool-Aid of technological progress, industrial development, consumerism, and lion-on-top individual success, will we ever as a group choose, like Denmark, simpler living—to resist the racing corporate current, to slow down, seek purpose, gather with loved ones, have more fun, learn new skills, find our feet again, feel more breezes, smell more roses—or plan to watch in diapers while spooning Jell-O the flickering screen images of (ir)reality television?

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