Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Wastrel's Lifestyle

I have known of Hugh Laurie as an actor long before he became well-known as the stubbly, mentally disturbed and gruff Dr. House on American television. In fact, my first experience with him was as the dim-witted, jovial, and light-hearted  Bertie Wooster in the BBC's Jeeves & Wooster T.V. series (based on the P.G. Wodehouse books). The setting for those stories was the 1930's and depict the lifestyle of a privileged young man of that era.

For me, one of the interesting things about the series, besides watching the chemistry between Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as their energies bounced off of one another, was the lifestyle of that time as represented in the show. Bertie is a wastrel, which is to say he's pretty useless and unproductive, but he does indulge in healthy lifestyle habits which have fallen by the wayside in modern living. He takes a constitutional (a walk) after dinner. He plays golf, tennis, and other sports on a regular, but not obsessive, basis. He does these things for amusement and socialization, not because he feels he "should". He takes baths rather than showers, drinks tea frequently, and reads the newspaper. He walks a lot when he talks to people, when he's not busy hanging out at a club drinking alcohol and playing pool.

I was reminded of the lifestyle on the show recently because after many years of being unable to take baths, I've been able to take them again. I told myself that the tub in my apartment was unusually small and that's why I couldn't fit in it. The truth is that it is short and deep, but is no less wide than a standard American tub. In fact, it may actually be a bit wider. It wasn't that the tub was too small, but simply that I was too big. I've been taking the baths mainly for therapeutic reasons, but another dimension has been added to the experience.

Back before I gained so much weight, I occasionally took a bath in that tub and never really liked it anyway. The reason for this was that I was bored sitting in the water and could not quiet my mind. I had something else I should have been doing or would have preferred to do. This experience has greatly changed. Now, I sit in the tub with the lights out and three candles lit and just enjoy the feeling of being in the water in the dim calm. Occasionally, I'll work on painfully flexing my problematic knee (as I'm trying to do some self-rehabilitation with it to improve flexibility and perhaps reduce pain), but mostly, I just drift mentally.

I realized how relaxing a bath can be if you know how to take one without allowing your thoughts to stampede over the experience. I also realized that part of what contributed psychologically to my weight gain was not laziness, but being too stressed and overwhelmed to even take 20-30 minutes and zone out in the tub on occasion. My mind was chaotic and overwhelmed then. Now, it's much more relaxed and orderly. I attribute that as much to age as my psychological conditioning and the resulting changes in my thinking, but I think it is something I built rather than fell into. 

The wastrel's life of leisure and having free time is one that we can't choose to have, but some of the things old Bertie did are possible and good for the soul and body. I already like to take a walk after eating dinner (and lunch, if I have time) and think that this is a good choice for anyone capable of doing so. It likely speeds metabolism and prolongs digestion (as it redirects blood flow from digestive organs to the leg muscles), which means you're fuller longer and burning more calories. The old-fashioned habit of a "constitutional" is a good one, but we're so busy being busy that we don't set aside the time for one. 

I think that a walk is a better choice in many ways than a rush to the gym. This is both because it is an emotionally better experience and because I personally think that we improve our physical condition more by engaging in real and natural activity than using hamster-wheel like machines. Note that I don't think that "burning calories" is the end-all and be-all of physical activity. I think overall condition (stamina, muscle fitness without stress that causes damage, etc.) is more important than focusing on fat burning alone. 

I also now think that the occasional bath is something that should be prioritized as much as any other lifestyle change. It's good for circulation (just don't make the water too hot or you'll have an increased risk of orthostatic hypotension) and muscle relaxation in addition to providing time to clear your head. I'm not talking about some girly bath salts and bubbles thing, but just a tub of clean warm water after a shower that you can soak in. Don't soap up and wash yourself in the water because then it is associated with cleanliness instead of relaxation (and you can be distracted by the dirty water floating around you).

When it comes to food, meals are taken at a table and are satisfying and approached without judgment. Bertie eats bacon and eggs for breakfast, has white bread with the crusts cut off with butter on them, and eats meat without fretting over the nutritional content. Food is just food, but it is also confined to meal times rather than obsessed over all day. Of course, that is easier for the wastrel whose food is always taken care of for him, but most people who are trying to lose weight think about food whether they are required to do so by their dietary concerns or not. 

Finally, one thing about the wastrel's lifestyle is that it isn't focused on productivity. It's a life of single-tasking. To that end, turn off the T.V., the computer, and the cell phone. Be in the moments fully when you have free ones. Like my moment's in the tub, I want to focus more and more on being in the experience fully without distraction. Before we had the possibility of being mentally in two or three places at once, we could relax into and fully inhabit the one at hand and I think were the better for it. Instead of everything in our lives being a component of an experience, it was the experience, and I think that's something we could all benefit from in many areas of our lives.

People talk so much about "lifestyle choices", but only in order to criticize. We should be talking about them as a way to improve the quality of our existence, not dissect and improve it in ways that others measure as subjectively better. I think we should toss all of that out the window and simply find a way to live which contributes to a sense of happiness and peace, and the wastrel's lifestyle may have a lot to offer in that regard.