How to stay alive, part one
My mother’s best friend was married to an American ambassador, who, whenever they came to visit, used to make a beeline for the kitchen, where, wreathed in smiles, he would immerse himself in domestic tasks such as defrosting the fridge, polishing the silver or washing up. ‘you have no idea,’ he would explain, ‘how tedious it is having everything done for you all the time.’
It doesn’t sound much, but, if I say so myself, I used to work it up into quite an amusing story: the diplomat who enjoyed skivvying while his security detail and chauffeur waited outside. I would draw a comparison with my own family, whose motto ought to have been Numquam absque servis suis (Never knowingly understaffed).
I would also weave in descriptions of various eccentric Self servants: my grandfather’s batman who, as soon as I was five or six years old, used to give me racing tips; a dog-mad nanny who would pop the children into her dachshund’s basket when it was time for their afternoon nap; and our son’s housekeeper who, for some reason, believes he’s called Greg (she is prone to gnomic pronouncements, such as ‘Music is music, Greg’) and can’t understand why there is so much post for someone called Jack.
I was on the verge of telling the story again to some new friends (longstanding friends being wont to complain if they hear the same tale too many times) when it occurred to me, for I am currently in a pensive frame of mind, that I had been missing the real point, viz. it’s always the small things in life that bring the greatest pleasure.
This is hardly an original thought. Marcus Aurelius, for one, pointed it out almost 2,000 years ago: ‘Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.’ It is quite one thing to think it and quite another to feel it, however. At the moment, I am feeling it and the reason is, I am sure, that my beloved first cousin, Bess, died suddenly a few days ago. She had been battling cancer on and off for 15 years, but I had become so used to her beating off each attack that her death has come as a terrible shock.
Now, the major events of the past week—selling my home in America and a new book deal, to name just two—seem wholly insignificant. Instead, it is what I would otherwise have considered minor, congenial but unnoteworthy activities that have been bringing me real joy: singing my favourite hymn, Morning Has Broken, in church on Sunday morning; lying on the grass and staring up at the sky (even though the dogs kept dribbling all over my face); making cinnamon toast for the twins.
The cinnamon toast warrants special mention, incidentally, because I’m slightly afraid that it is about to become a forbidden indulgence. For several months, I have been avoiding a thick, serious-looking book entitled How Not to Die. It hasn’t been easy, as there are three copies in the house—all gifts— one by my bed, one in my study and one in the kitchen. There have been times, frankly, when I felt it was following me around. This seemed to be the right week to tackle it.
The main premise of How Not to Die is that the 15 top causes of premature death—everything from heart disease to iatrogenic disease (I had to look it up, too; it means when you peg it as a result of a medical procedure or medication and is the third biggest killer in the Usa)—are largely caused by our diet.
It’s backed up with extraordinarily convincing evidence to show that it’s not just meat and dairy that are shortening our lives, but all processed foods. Oh, and alcoholic beverages, with the exception of red wine (phew). In a nutshell, and nutshells are on the menu big time, the best way to ensure a long and healthy life is to eat a wholefood, plant-based diet.
The thing is, I am quite convinced that the book is right. In fact, it’s fully my intention definitely to make the complete switch over by the next, um… Well, soon, anyway. My one reservation can be summed up by an old, but relevant, joke. How can you tell if there is a vegan in the room? Don’t worry, he or she will let you know.
I’m almost as terrified of becoming that vegan as I am of shortening my life through excessive consumption of cinnamon toast and its ilk. Still, as John, Viscount Morley said: ‘The great business of life is to be, to do, to do without and to depart.’ The plan, then, is to do without and thus delay my departure. Well, that’s the plan.
‘I’m slightly afraid that cinammon toast will become a forbidden indulgence
Jonathan Self is an author and raw dog-food maker (http:// honeysrealdogfood.com), who lives in Cork Next week Joe Gibbs