Tuesday, August 16, 2022

America's Little Problem

Last week's column for The Villager.

Canvas and cocktails, manicures and mojitos, beard trims and bourbon, soccer practice and sangria – is there anything American adults do these days without having a sip? Let’s face it, Americans have a drinking problem. When young parents can’t have an afternoon playdate without it being accompanied by a glass of wine, there could be a problem. When adults can’t go watch a baseball practice or lacrosse match without slipping a Truly or White Claw in their purse or pocket, there might be a problem. When supermarkets offer beer and wine on tap to sip while you shop, there’s definitely a problem.

The increasing and ubiquitous imbibing by the American public was recently investigated and reported on by Kate Julian, an editor for The Atlantic, who published her findings in an important article entitled “America Has a Drinking Problem.” According to Julian, per capita drinking has increased nearly 10% in the past twenty years. That rate is not all that surprisingly considered the overwhelming presence of alcohol marketing that has come along at the same time. Whereas advertising of hard spirits was once tightly regulated and forbidden on television, the beverage industry has been all too willing and able to flood the market with promotions.

The pandemic certainly didn’t help. I know I placed a few Drizly orders and attended Zoom happy hours when we were all stuck at home for months at a time. However, the latitude the nation allowed itself with drinking during the lockdown has turned into habits many people find difficult to let go. And as I noted earlier, even at a time when the number of bars and drinking establishments has gone down over the years, the number of places where it’s become acceptable, fashionable, even expected to imbibe has increased dramatically. From hair salons to Starbucks and spas, it seems every business is applying for a license to serve these days.

I remember the first time I realized movie theaters were selling booze. My first thought was well, that’s kind of nice. I might enjoy a glass of wine or a beer while watching a flick, just like I might do at home. My second thought was, uh-oh, this could be opening a door that is going to be tough to close. I mean the extra butter on the movie popcorn was already an indulgence. The cocktail might be worse. For, it’s not news that drinking alcohol is simply not healthy or good for anyone. Granted, there are always stories and studies that suggest red wine lowers cholesterol, and that an occasional cocktail can lower stress. But every beer or glass of wine or seltzer is extra empty calories packing on the bulging waistlines of middle age America.

Now, to be clear, I’m no teetotaler. Nor am I scolding mature people for enjoying adult beverages. Growing up Irish and Slovakian, I come from cultures and traditions that appreciate fermented drinks of many kinds. In fact, my parents enjoyed an evening ritual of gin and tonics along with a tour of their garden, and there was often beer or wine with dinner. It’s actually a wonderful time to be a drinker, especially in a place like Denver – craft cocktails from niche distilleries, brewpubs on many corners, a booming wine industry – heck, Colorado has even been called “beer’s Napa Valley.” As Edward Slingerland explains in his book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, human beings enjoy drinking, always have and always will.

And, of course, America has already had its battles with going on the wagon nationally. At numerous times from the moment our earliest settlers began drinking pumpkin ales after the booze they brought from Europe ran out, the country’s tolerance and intolerance has waxed and waned. Various temperance movements have restricted access, the most significant being the colossal failure known as Prohibition from 1920-1933. No one will ever pass that kind of legislation again. However, on an individual and even small community basis, Americans are starting to wake up to the fact that there might be a problem.

Drinking is obviously most problematic if people are using it to self-medicate. Recreation is one thing – drinking to relieve stress and anxiety is something altogether more problematic. In Colorado more and more places want to sell booze, and as communities are being asked to approve increased access to alcohol consumption, it might be time to consider saying, “Thanks, but we’ve had enough.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Generation Xercise

I've published a similar version of this column before, and this version was my column last week for the Villager. After yesterday's news of the death of Olivia Newton John, I was rattled by having just written about her. However, the column still has value, maybe even more sow, and so I'm reprinting here.

In the early fall of 1981, the kids of Generation X were enticed to get in shape, or just pay attention to fitness, or at least entertain our adolescent selves watching others get sweaty. Oh, sure, we had the first two Rocky movies to get us up and moving, and the third film revolutionized the training montage for sports films in 1982. But it was the early days of MTV that first got us going, or at least thinking about going. For that September featured the release of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical,” and both music videos and adolescent boys were never the same.

Now, as the forgotten generation makes their way through their fifties and approaches retirement age, perhaps it’s time to remember that Aussie’s advice. Everyone should make health and fitness a daily priority, but for Generation X, it’s time to get serious about getting physical, to become Generation Xercise. I hate to say it, my friends, but we’ve gotten soft, and fitness is no longer optional. This is mandatory. We’re running out of time, and our waists can’t wait. Recent studies predict Gen X may live longer than the Baby Boomers, but their overall health will be poorer. Living longer, but in pain and sickness, is a cruel trick of the contemporary age, and we need to flip the narrative. Remember the dean from Animal House: “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.” Well, overweight, out of shape, lethargic, and generally grumpy is no way to go through retirement.

It’s time to make peace with the church of fitness. Research shows the primary target of the fitness industry is people in their fifties, with age 55 being a prime consumer. So, it’s time, and Gen Xers literally can’t afford to not get moving. In our fifties, we should be hitting the U-curve in terms of overall well being and satisfaction. The kids are older now, we’re settling into the sweet spot of career arcs, and we have time again to pay attention to ourselves. So beyond sprucing up the house and taking some well-deserved vacations, it’s time to get fit. Try a daily 9-minute workout, or heck, even a 7-minute workout, both of which were featured in the New York Times health sections. Walk for thirty minutes a day. Get your stretch on. Take the pushup challenge, or just do some pushups every day. It doesn’t matter what we do, as long as we’re doing something. If the Covid pandemic did anything, it hopefully made us want to get moving, get out of the house.

Granted, people of all ages and generations should prioritize regular exercise. However, Boomers and the Greatest Generation probably won’t pick up new routines, while Millennials and Gen Z still benefit from youthful vitality. But there won’t be a better time for people of a certain age to get back in shape. Reminders are everywhere, and as the parents of Gen X hit their golden years, we have a good view of where we’re headed healthwise. Being the sandwich generation facing a generational tug of war is not easy amidst midlife crises and the stress of caring for growing kids and aging parents. A commitment to physical and mental health and wellness can help. It will help. At this point we need all the positive endorphins we can get, and we’ve known for years about the link between exercise and mental health.

Thinking forward, the finance of fitness cannot be discounted either. We should not ignore fiscal arguments for physical fitness, especially in an ever increasingly perilous health care environment. The greatest burden Americans put on personal, state, and federal budgets is the rising cost of medical care. And many health costs for people past age fifty are lifestyle based and entirely preventable. Thus, the best thing we can do for our country and ourselves is to spend as little money as possible treating illness because we invested in health instead.

Olivia Newton John looks and feels amazing at the age of seventy-three, even as she battles breast cancer again. And Jane Fonda is still as stunning and fit as always, and still working out, at the age of eighty-four. So, let’s do this. This is not a drill. This is not optional. This is what has been waiting for us. As we move out of child-rearing and career-building and into our Act III, it’s time for Generation Xercise.

Let’s get physical.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Slow-Brewed Beauty of Sun Tea

This week's column for The Villager is a nostalgic look at the culture of sun tea. It was inspired by a tweet from writer Amanda Fortini

“Does anyone remember sun tea?”

While scrolling through Twitter the other day, I ran across a question with that nostalgic sentiment. I was immediately flooded with memories of summertime in the 1970s and 80s when it seemed like every house in the neighborhood had a Lipton Sun Tea jar on the back porch. And memories of that commonality was kind of the point of the question. While sipping iced tea in the summer is as American as apple pie, and while I’m sure many people enjoy their tea leaves kissed by the sun, the tradition of sun tea seems to be of another time and place with a specific way of life tied to it.

I’m “country” enough to know well the traditions and culture of sweet tea, which was memorably called “the house wine of the South” by Dolly Parton’s character in Steel Magnolias. Sweet tea is an institution for many people, reminding them of specific people, places, and times linked to a special recipe. Its identity is inextricably connected to regional culture, captured in the phrase “as Southern as sweet tea.” And that tasty beverage is truly wonderful in all its syrupy sweetness. But sun tea is something else altogether. It’s not only about the taste, but about the ritual. Sun tea is about a sense of patience and understanding of the slow process. The sun tea jar is prepared and set out in the early morning, and it works its magic while we go about our daily business. And then it’s enjoyed in the afternoon when the work is done.

Sun tea brews slowly, steeped in the warmth of the sun and the gradual passage of time. Time and warmth, those are the keys. Time and warmth are also two qualities which contribute to a meaningful life and a sense of community. And, let’s face it, time and warmth are qualities and virtues that are too often lacking these days. Far too often we are unwilling to give each other our time. Too often our interactions fail to include our warmth. Sipping an ice cold glass of sun tea on the porch with friends and family while we listened to a baseball game on the radio seems like a bygone tradition. Sun tea reminds me of a simpler time in my life, in this country, in the world. Sun tea is slow, and it’s easygoing, and it’s special for the ritual and the image.

A friend of mine was living and working abroad in Australia a few years ago, and when I visited him, the culture and lifestyle of the land down under reminded me a bit of the culture of sun tea. As we spent time in Sydney and then up on the Gold Coast, we noticed and reflected on how easygoing and homey the Aussies seemed. From people watching rugby at the neighborhood pub to the regulars at the local bakery, everyone we met made us feel welcome, like we’d been living there for years. My buddy told me that living in Australia reminded him a bit of growing up in America in the late 70s and early 80s, back when the world and our society seemed a bit less manic. It was the time before mass commercialization and twenty-four hour news and social media and nonstop marketing and politics. Businesses were more local and independent before franchising changed the face of small town Main Street. Everyone felt a bit more familiar and connected. That was the time of sun tea.

As a lifelong iced tea drinker, I must admit I haven’t brewed sun tea in decades. I generally make my iced tea in the teapot on the stove, and then let the leaves steep overnight. In the morning, the tea goes in the fridge. So, the waiting is the same, but the process lacks some of the quaint culture of sun tea. Additionally, in these days when it seems like everything good is also bad for you, some health experts advise against brewing sun tea because the water never gets hot enough to kill the bacteria in the water or on the leaves. Boiling the water solves that problem. That said, I don’t ever recall getting sick from sun tea, and distilled water is available to mitigate the risk.

Savoring sun tea is savoring summer is savoring life. “Does anyone remember sun tea?” I do, fondly.