If catching rays is harmful, what's left to enjoy in life?
August 07, 1988

More and more I'm beginning to feel like Alexander Woollcott, who said, presumably after a hearty lunch with his cronies at the Algonquin Round Table, "Everything I most enjoy in life is either illegal, immoral or fattening." Woollcott is lucky he didn't have to deal with today's fitness crowd, most of whom would make Bernarr Macfadden or any of the other health nuts and prohibitionists of his time look like so many porcine voluptuaries.

We are told now that if we drink, smoke, eat red meat, use salt, sugar or butter, or, for all I know, play the banjo late at night, we are inviting the Grim Reaper to our doorstep. The new health nuts' idea of a good time is to pop out of bed at an hour most sensible people are getting into theirs and run a marathon before breakfast. That's all right with me, as long as they don't set the dogs to barking. And I can live with their finger wagging as I push myself away from the old groaning board, but I think they've finally gone too far with their interminable "don't" list, for now they're saying we shouldn't go out in the sun anymore because that, too, is bad for us.

Well, that about cracks it. I have put up with these people coming into respectable saloons in their jogging costumes and ordering Perrier. I've put up with their lecturing and hectoring poor smokers in public places, making of them an abused minority. Come to think of it, has there ever been a more obnoxious company of self-righteous boors than the reformed smokers of this country? I have never smoked, but I find myself requesting seats in the smoking sections of airplanes just to avoid these bullies. Being right doesn't give them the right to browbeat others.

My live-and-let-live philosophy has allowed me to coexist almost peacefully with these visionaries who would make us all the same—skinny, sober, smokeless, pale-faced bores. They want a fault-free society, and lotsa luck, guys. But when they tell me I can't go out in the sun on a summer day, they've overstepped.

Indeed, there are few times when I am more at peace than when I am reclining on a sandy beach in the embrace of the warm sun, a good book in my lap and a wary eye out for suntanned beauties, who I hope will be walking, not running, when they pass my encampment. I might even, when the thirst is upon me, take a sip or two from a cold beer. Mostly, I will read Proust or Tolstoy, and contemplate the meaning of life. I suppose the very sight of someone so contentedly in repose might suggest to our fitness freaks mealtime at Henry VIII's, but to me this is health at its best. True, I could be out running with a hat shading my face from the sun, but then what would I have to talk about during the cocktail hour?

I have been lying on beaches more or less regularly since puberty, and I suppose there is a fair chance I'll be lying on one when the final call comes. I might even be lying on one as you read this. But I am not a year-round beach bum. I was reared in northern, not southern, California, and in my part of the state the weather is not always suitable for tanning. In San Francisco, my city, the middle of summer is generally shrouded in a dense fog, so I have had to pick my sunning times with care. And in winter I am hardly the bronze god you see before you now, but rather a sallow and subdued sort in coat and tie. Only when I break away from my crushing responsibilities to this publication do I feel free to collapse by the side of the sea. And now I am told this is wrong.

But it was encouraging to read a recent article in TIME that quoted medical authorities and psychiatrists as saying that worrying too much about being healthy is unhealthy, that Americans in their undying quest for skinny bodies, clear lungs and fat-free arteries are killing themselves with anxiety. In fact, says one shrink, Dr. Arthur J. Barsky of the Harvard Medical School, the compulsive dieters, long-distance runners and nay-sayers of this country are "living the life of invalids," because no matter how healthy they are, they're worried about their health. Here's real irony for you: In striving, presumably, to live forever, the fitness folks are driving themselves to an early grave. And these are the same people who don't mourn at funerals anymore, but criticize the deceased for not having taken better care of themselves.

Far be it from me to launch a crusade against health. I'm all for it, in moderation. I exercise fairly regularly, and if I don't watch what I eat, my wife certainly does. It's just that those nags who every day seem to find something to condemn as life threatening are getting on my nerves. They are the new Puritans, the latter-day bluenoses who proclaim that anything fun must be harmful. They may well be right, but life, even with jogging and salads, is too short to waste time brooding about it. Besides, I've got to get down to the beach.


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