Every month I run about 100 miles. 100 miles! 100 is a magical number, isn’t it? I only started running, though, about 12 years ago. Last week I realized that this means I have finally been running for as long as I once smoked cigarettes. Kids, if you are reading this, I’m sorry I lied to you about my smoking… but cigarettes are terrible. Terrible. And perhaps a better strategy for encouraging you to never have one would have been to tell you that if I’d been a little more aware of my body as a young person, if I had cared about it the way I see that you do, I would have felt myself dying just a little bit with every puff and put them down sooner. Hopefully, now that there is one good year for every bad one, it is all cancelled out. And, don’t smoke. Just don’t. It’s terrible. But you are infinitely smarter than I was at your age so I’m not going to worry too much about it. Besides, former smokers can smell a cigarette in a closed car in the northbound lane on the turnpike from the southbound side a mile away. If you smoke, I’ll know.
It’s crazy how one thought strings itself through days, connecting itself with other thoughts, other realizations and observations. The same day I thought about those 12 disgusting, smoky years and the 100 miles I can now run every month after quitting them, I read Jane Brody’s fascinating article on Centenarians. Accompanying the article is a beautiful photo essay, along with audio interviews, on eight people who have lived to 100 and beyond. The secrets to their longevity are the things we all know are good for us: some kind of daily exercise, healthy foods, a strong network of friends, things to do and a positive outlook. Optimisim, it would appear, is key. Go take a look at these people and see what I mean. Listen to their voices. Their lives were not, and are not, without hardship and problems, but it seems that, perhaps, along with fortunate genes, they have found the mind-body balance that keeps them here for that magic 100. To me, anyway, a lot of it seems to have something to do with their optimism.
Now, I am all for cynicism, trust me, and I am no Pollyanna. But, there are plenty of studies that prove that generally optimistic people are healthier and live longer. It’s the old suitcase-half-full-or-half-empty philosophy (I know you’re thinking GLASS half-full, not suitcase, but bear with me). The day after Brody’s article, a friend posted the trailer for a documentary about the oldest living Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer. She will be 107 in about 3 weeks. The movie, Alice Dancing Under The Gallows, comes out early next year. Alice still leads a full and active life, her mind is sharp, she plays the piano every day and her joy in this world is breathtaking considering she spent two years in a concentration camp. Talk about a suitcase that is half-full.
Then I ran across Neil Pasricha’s TED talk, “The Three A’s of Awesome.” What can I say? It was awesome. And optimistic. Last week, optimism was really becoming the theme. If you’re having trouble seeing your own suitcase half-full, check out Neil’s blog, 1000 Awesome Things, for some inspiration. Awesomeness is sometimes right there in front of us and we don’t even know it. Turns out, it can be as easy as a pair of clean underwear or hearing a stranger fart in public.
Now, I have a real problem with clutter. Shows about hoarding really freak me out and I almost can’t watch them without simultaneously walking around the room straightening things and putting stuff away. A couple years ago we did a kitchen renovation and, because of it, we had a dumpster in the driveway for weeks. I loved that dumpster. I found it amazingly liberating to begin throwing stuff into it in an exhilarating attempt to zen-infy my life. Over the years I have truly purged several versions of my household. I have very little angst in throwing or giving things away (and, lest you think I am a total enviro-slacker and landfill-filler, know that I am an avid freecyler, OK?). Strangely (and strangely metaphorically), however, there is one item that I cannot jettison.
It’s an old, leather suitcase that used to belong to my dad.
I’m really not sure why I have it. When I asked him about it recently, he told me he bought it at Gimbel’s, where he worked in the advertising department, in 1957, at the age of 22. I believe that I must have acquired it from him somewhere in the late 80’s when I am certain that the brightly-colored, synthetic, streamlined Samsonites were way cooler than your dad’s old hand-me-down luggage and that no self-respecting 19 year old would be caught dead schlepping a bag like this to Florida for spring break. I have never used it. I have never packed it for any trip, anywhere, though I cannot throw it away and keep it in a corner of my basement where I pass by it every time I go to my studio to make art.
My dad is now 75 years old, 3/4 of the way to the magic 100, and he’s a really optimistic guy so I have a feeling that one day I’ll be asking him what it’s like to be 100. I think, though, that there is something very poetic about imagining him as a young man in 1957, going out into the world with a new, leather suitcase. We all know how quickly personal baggage fills up our lives and how heavy, heavy, heavy it can seem, how sometimes it seems like just too much to carry. It can be discouraging to remember how light things were when we were younger and all the world was in front of us. We had a brand new suitcase and everything seemed possible… Then we grew up and and began to wonder why our suitcase is so heavy but is always half-empty.
It’s funny sometimes to encounter people who don’t exercise. They can be a really pessimistic bunch. They’ll say things to me like, “Well, just wait until your knees go bad… wait until you turn 50… wait until your back starts to bother you… wait until… blah, blah, blah.” You can get the eye rolls for talking about weekly miles or for being 5 minutes late because you tried to squeeze in a quick workout before a meeting. People will ask me things like, “So, what are you gonna do when you can’t run anymore, huh? Then, whaddaya gonna do, huh? Whaddaya gonna do then?!” If I think too much about these kinds of thoughts, I’ll admit, I can get a little pessimistic and begin to think, yeah, I mean, really, why bother? You know, pass me the remote control already!
But, here’s the thing: I want my suitcase to be half-full, not half-empty. The way I figure it is, I know I can’t throw the dang thing away, but I think there’s just enough weight inside of it to make it useful for the tricep kick-backs that are keeping those middle-aged batwings at bay. Just enough weight in it to hold over my head for some squats to keep the derriere in check. Just enough weight inside of it to remind me of the 40 lbs. I began to lose 12 years ago when I started running. Back then, I couldn’t even run a half a mile, but I tried to anyway. And when I can’t run, I’ll walk. When I can’t walk, I’ll ride my bike. When I can’t ride my bike, I’ll swim. When I can’t swim, well, by the time 2068 comes around, find me and my suitcase and I’ll tell you exactly what I’ll do.
It was frosty this morning! Winter is on the way and it’s going to be beautiful. Just ask Alice: “Every day in life is beautiful… every day. That we are here, we can speak about everything… huh? It’s beautiful.”
TRY THIS WEEK: Swimming, biking, walking or running your way to 100.