The other day, a woman I have known intimately since birth suffered a bout of what can only be diagnosed as self-loathing. This is not, I assure you, a common condition in her life. It only comes occasionally, unexpectedly, rather like an attack of hypoglycemia.
During these bouts, she is unusually vulnerable to the hawkers of self-improvement. I will not embarrass her by reciting the list of leftovers from earlier self-loathing. Let's just mention the exercycle and the 10-pound bag of brewer's yeast and leave it at that.
This time, she found herself at the checkout counter of the bookstore with Jane Fonda's mid-life missive on health and well-being, "Women Coming of Age." Mind you, the woman might have been suspicious of any author who opens a chapter with the following line: "In the course of writing this book there have been times when I've actually hoped I'd have a hot flash."
But it turned out that the advice therein was written in the sensible, home medicine, everybody-up-for-volleyball style that she had come to know and love from her other attempts at healing. To wit: "We all have to work a little harder if we want to burn rather than store fat, if we want to be fiery furnaces rather than cold storage."
On the whole it was a solid, even convincing, manual for the care and maintenance of mid-life. Which, of course, made it worse.
You see, this woman figured out that if she followed all eminently worthwhile plans and prescriptions written by Jane, it would take a minimum of two hours per day. This did not include the time to drink the requisite eight glasses of water or to put the recommended wet tea bags on her puffy eyes.
This veteran of so many literary excursions into self-health decided at this moment that health has become the ultimate consumer industry of the middle-aged. It consumes more and more of the time of the middle-aged.
The major portion goes to what is called fitness. The most modest program of back and heart maintenance involves no less than five hours a week, if you skip the shower. You cannot do your "abdominals" in the car on your way to work, the way you can, for example, learn French from tapes. You cannot lower your blood pressure running for the bus. That you know.
Today there are any number of other regimens, each requiring only minutes a day, which are added one by one along with each birthday until you are into holistic overtime. By 40, the admonitions to keep your body together are a bit like the old warnings to keep your marriage together by applying makeup before hubby gets home. It's a grand idea, but you can only get the time if you tie the kids to the bedpost.
Fast food, for example, has been condemned by the nutritional board of health. That leaves slow food. This is the era of shop and chop. The cult of hi-fiber and low fat and fresh everything has increased the number of trips to the market, not to mention the cooking and chewing time, by an estimated 30 percent.
Add to that the care of the eating machine, i.e., the teeth. The woman in question has arrived at the stage of life where dental hygienists warn, "Your teeth are fine but your gums will have to come out." The average American hygienist, a major stockholder in floss, today prescribes a salvage plan, a middle-age evening ritual that has become the new national vespers.
This is to be followed by an elaborate skin-conservation program designed to roll back the tide of wrinkles. There are as many steps to the procing the human face as there are products to be sold.
Of course, we have not yet added to this health and beauty clock the time required for meditation, biofeedbacking, memorizing the entire list of polyunsaturates, and deciding which sunscreen to apply when you leave the building to do required running. No doubt there is some time to be saved in this health regimen, such as the moments you used to spend brewing coffee, for example, or shaking salt on your food. But the overall principle is very simple. The older you get, the more time you are expected to spend on preservation. All this leads to a peculiar set of choices. The woman in question figures that she can spend her entire mid-life in a full-time effort to extend that life. Or she can live it.