A couple of days ago I had a knife break in my hand while I was cutting something with it. I wasn’t cutting anything particularly hard or tough. In fact it was a slice of bread. The knife failed at the point in the plastic handle where it met the blade. A metal strap around this point broke as I was pressing the knife down onto the bread.
Isn’t it the case that things always seem to break when you’re using them? I buy disposable lighters which stop working after a while. They make a healthy clicking noise while they’re still working, and they usually stop making that sound when they’ve died. Although sometimes they keep clicking, but don’t produce a spark to light the gas. Sometimes they even keep on clicking and sparking but still won’t light. Or produce a tiny little dimple of flame.
Electric lights of every kind always seem to blow when I switch them on. They often make an audible pop when they die. And quite often they make a buzzing sound shortly before they die. The halogen light bulbs I’m using these days have an 8000x on-off rating. Quite often I turn them on and off only once a day, so they should last for 21 years. But they never do. In fact sometimes they don’t even last 21 days.
I had a motorbike when I lived in London. I used to ride it from Wandsworth Common to Chelsea, where I was working – a round trip of about 6 miles as the crow flies. It worked perfectly well for months and months. Then one day I took it on a round trip of about 70 miles. When I got back, it didn’t sound right, and I found that one of the valves in the cylinder head had a chip knocked off it, and the engine had lost quite a lot of its compression (although it was still working). I figured that the reason this had happened was because I’d given the bike an unusual workout, getting up to speeds of 70 mph that I never ever reached in the centre of London. The valves in the cylinder head must have been opening and closing much more frequently than usual, and perhaps at some point had come in contact with the piston, knocking a chip off one. I got the valve and valve guides repaired, but somehow or other the bike never worked as well as it used to.
Most of the injuries I’ve suffered in my life have been sustained while doing something rather energetic. I cracked the radius bone in my elbow when I came off the above-mentioned motorbike, and slid for several yards face down along the Thames Embankment. I wrecked my right knee recklessly jumping out of a window at school: it never completely recovered. And if I break the little disposable lighters I use, they’re also breaking my hands: they dig into the skin on the palm of my hand as I work them with my thumb, and produce little blisters which eventually break.
I read yesterday that Douglas Adams – author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – died at the early age of 49. Wikipedia:
Adams died of a heart attack on 11 May 2001, aged 49, after resting from his regular workout at a private gym in Montecito, California. He had unknowingly suffered a gradual narrowing of the coronary arteries, which led to a myocardial infarction and a fatal cardiac arrhythmia.
The suggestion there is that Adams died of a heart attack due to hardening of his coronary arteries. But I think he killed himself with his gym workout. That is to say that if he hadn’t performed that workout, he wouldn’t have had the heart attack. Just like if I hadn’t given my motorbike a 70-mile workout, it probably would’ve carried on working perfectly fine.
Douglas Adams was probably a health and fitness freak – something that’s all too common these days, when getting plenty of exercise is regarded as essential for good health. The more of it, the better. These days people are regarded as “healthy” if they’re running around and jumping over things. Sitting still, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, is regarded as “unhealthy”. It’s “unhealthy” because it entails a) sitting, b) smoking, c) drinking, and these are all regarded deleterious to health. And if you’re eating salted peanuts at the same time, that’s even more unhealthy because it includes d) salt, and e) peanuts.
That’s not how I see it. In Idle Theory I often depict idle time with somebody seated lounging back smoking. And busy time with someone digging with a spade.
The green background behind the idle man indicates approved safety, and the red background behind the working man indicates disapproved danger. But modern healthists would invert the colour coding: they’d see the busy, hardworking man as being an exemplar of good health, and the idle smoker as an exemplar of ill health. They think I’m killing myself sitting and smoking. But I think they’re killing themselves with all their exercise and jogging and workouts.
Another way to look at it is to go back to those light bulbs rated for 8000 on-off switches. It could be that hearts have a similar rating, and during an average 70-year lifetime a human heart will perform about 2.5 billion on-off beats before blowing a valve or seizing up. All you may need to do to kill yourself off in a mere 35 years is to double your heart rate by performing lots of vigorous exercise. And in fact this is sometimes offered as an explanation for why small animals with fast-beating hearts die younger than large animals with slow-beating hearts: their hearts wear out quicker. If so, then you’ll live longer if you can lower your heart rate, rather than raise it with vigorous exercise. Advice from the NYT earlier this year:
Breathe in for 5-8 seconds, hold that breath for 3-5 seconds, then exhale slowly. Repeat several times. Raising your aortic pressure in this way will lower your heart rate.
You can’t do that if you’re jogging. But funnily enough, that’s more or less exactly what I do when I smoke. Maybe that’s why I’ve lived 20 years longer than Douglas Adams.