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I was reading an interesting excerpt from Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker PhD about how our sleep patterns are the key to a much longer life. According to him, we are not sleeping the way our distant ancestors  did, the way Nature intended us to.

Walker states that in olden times, in hunter-gatherer societies, people enjoyed a biphasic sleep pattern, seven or eight hours in bed at night resulting in about seven hours of sleep , along with a 30-60 minute nap in the afternoon. Furthermore, the nightly slumbers usually began 2-3 hours after dusk, around 9pm and lasted until dawn. No doubt, this was because those early cultures did not have the benefit of electric light and even firelight represented a drain on scarce resources.

Nowadays, in the post industrial age, we have been forced into a mono-phasic sleep pattern in which we sleep  for less than seven hours a night. Typically, this begins late at night though we still wake up quite early. And ,of course, modern office hours don’t permit the taking of an afternoon nap.

In support of his argument, that this enforced monophasic pattern is harmful to health, Walker points to a study of people who had to switch from a biphasic to a monophasic sleep pattern. Previously, they had office hours that incorporated an afternoon siesta but  were then forced to fall in line with the rest of the world and work regular 9 to 5 shifts. This study showed that over 6 years, these people suffered a 37% increased risk of death due to heart disease. Another statistic: People on the Greek island of Ikaria were four times as likely  to reach the age of ninety as Americans did.

When I began to read this excerpt, I did so with an open mind, but the more I read the more my doubts began to mount. Firstly, even if a biphasic sleep pattern is ” natural”, most of us never enjoyed it once we started our working lives. So how could we feel deprived of something we never had? Just as some factory workers, medical staff and others  get used to working the night shift, is it not likely that a monophasic pattern is becomes the new standard for us? In any case, what choice do we have? There is no way we will be able to shift back to a biphasic pattern. Even nations that enjoyed a siesta are switching to a 9 to 5 schedule.

As for those people in Ikaria who have a four times greater chance of living to the age of ninety, can this be attributed solely to their biphasic sleep pattern? These people are mostly farmers or shepherds; they work hard, live in an unpolluted environment,  eat a healthy Mediterranean diet and have a less stressful lifestyle. Is it not likely that these factors all contribute to their longevity?

I think so.

I also think that , as long as one gets a minimum of seven hours of sleep daily, it doesn’t matter if it occurs all at once or in two or more installments. When the mind and body need rest, the person craves sleep. As long as that need is satisfied, you are fine. I find that, with  most of my friends who are retired, an afternoon nap is an imperative, partly because they tire more easily and partly because they no longer get seven hours uninterrupted sleep at night. One of my friends who is in his eighties wrote me to say that the day’s activities are now accomplished ” between naps”.

So… never mind about terms like monophasic or biphasic.  Just listen to your body and all will be well.

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Yesterday, I got from the library a beautiful book Aging Gracefully, Portraits of People Over 100, by the German photographer/ writer Karsten Thormahaelen. The book contains 52 portraits of men and women who have already celebrated their 100th birthdays. On the pages facing their photographs, they tell us briefly what makes them tick. The author had a wonderful relationship with his grandparents when he was growing up and his passion is taking photographs of old people. He has traveled all over the world to bring us these portraits. And what portraits! Just looking at them makes us feel good. Most of these centenarians are smiling and happy; their faces exude a quiet strength and contentment. They are from all over the world (France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Italy, the United States, Peru) but many are from two places known for the longevity of their inhabitants: Vilcabamba( Ecuador) and Okinawa ( Japan).

After enjoying the photographs, I tried to mine the capsule biographies for clues to the longevity of these people. What was it that enabled them to live long and, more importantly, to remain engaged and happy? At first they did not seem to have much in common. For instance, many of them had long and happy marriages but then there was Henriette Cathala, a Parisienne and former hotel staff manager. She had never been married and is happy with her lot. “No husband, no children, no problems”, she says with a smile. Sometimes, people contradicted themselves. One, a Dutchman, advised “Go to bed early, don’t smoke and don’t drink – although you can make an exception now and then for a whisky, And for gin, too.” That hardly makes him an advocate for abstinence.

Surprisingly, only a few mentioned prayer and of the five who did, two were priests.

These are the things I did find that many of them shared.

  1. Many of them were born poor and had led very difficult lives. Several had begun to lose their faculties. Some were suffering loss of hearing, one had lost the use of her legs and another was blind. Yet all of them accepted their lot and retained their positive attitude. They did not let their handicaps cramp their style but worked around them.
  2. They were still independent to a surprising degree. They lived by themselves, cooked and cared for themselves with only occasional help from the family or from caregivers. Many of those from Okinawa and Ecuador grew their own vegetables in little family plots.
  3. Many stressed the importance of walking or otherwise being active. One Norwegian described how he takes short walks every two hours throughout the day.
  4. Many had hobbies or interests which they enjoyed. Common hobbies were music, singing, working out, reading, knitting, gardening and watching TV. One man from Los Angeles took up metal sculpting late in life and had his first exhibition at the age of 100!
  5. They were very social and maintained close relationships with family, friends and neighbors. A lady from Okinawa said that it was important not to stay at home but to do things with others.
  6. They were moderate in their habits.” Never go to extremes “as one put it.
  7. Lastly and most importantly, was maintaining a positive attitude, avoiding stress and trying to do good. This was expressed by several people in different ways. “Enjoy, be happy, laugh”. “Give love to others. Be noble”. “Live and work in harmony with yourself and others’.

Perhaps the attitude of these centenarians is best exemplified by Edward Palkot of Long Island who still plays golf at age 102, lives on his own, tends his garden, eats out frequently, reads, does crossword puzzles, chats with the neighbors and loves doing the polka.

I admire the vigor and zest for life that these elders have but what I appreciate even more is the serenity and sense of fulfillment they possess. One gentleman from Okinawa, who is very much at peace with himself and his life, says that if he ever met a kind hearted fairy, he wouldn’t know what he could possibly ask  for.” I really have everything I need.”

What a wonderful thing to be able to say.

 

 

 

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I was in the checkout lane at the local supermarket and the cashier was ringing up my purchases when she hit a snag. One item had her stymied . She held it up and asked the girl at the next lane,” Do you know what this is?” The other girl knew the answer.

“THIS” was a cauliflower.

This was many years ago. It would not happen today, mostly because every item has a bar code that can be scanned. Cashiers don’t need to know what the items they are checking out are. Otherwise … who knows?

At the time this incident happened, I remember being astounded. How could she not know what a cauliflower was? Then I realized it was not surprising when you consider how few vegetables most Americans eat. Even today, the American diet is heavily meat-centric. When I’ve been invited to dinner at the homes of my friends, the meal has consisted of a salad followed by roast chicken or steak accompanied by potatoes( boiled, mashed or French Fries) and a vegetable.  “Vegetable” usually means carrots, green beans or green peas. This I believe is the standard fare in most American homes. BTW, this comment does not apply to families living in the big metropolitan centers and to first generation immigrants ( particularly Asians) who still eat the cuisine of their native countries. I know this is true when I look at the laden shopping carts of fellow shoppers in the supermarket: Meat, frozen entrees and pizzas, pasta, tomato products, very few vegetables, bags of chopped salad, cereals, eggs, desserts and soda. Though, nowadays the soda has been replaced by bottled water. When I took my friend to an Indian supermarket he was amazed at the number of vegetables on offer, many of which he had never seen and did not know the names of.

Why is this so? Why is the American diet so meat oriented? I don’t know the answer but I have observed this fascination with meat in other countries too. When we were in the Dominican Republic, some years ago, I went to a local restaurant to see what the local food was like. There on a steam table were mostly meat dishes, the only difference with high end hotels being that they were stews and casseroles made with inferior cuts of meat, what we would call ” organ meats” or ” offal”. Vegetables( except for potatoes, onions, tomatoes and carrots) were conspicuously absent and I later found out that vegetables were in short supply and relatively expensive.

Even among the poor, there is a hankering to eat more meat. I remember reading about a riot in Egypt where the rioters marched on the luxury hotels in Cairo shouting slogans, among them ” We eat bread while they eat meat!”

Many of us seem to make a connection between meat eating and upward mobility. In Shanghai, we were dining in a half empty restaurant on some the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. Next door was a jam packed McDonalds with a line of customers snaking out the door. Our guide remarked sadly that Chinese never had a problem with obesity until the American fast food chains came to China.” Now”, she said ” kids want to eat hamburgers and fried chicken all the time. They don’t want to eat Chinese food anymore”. The results were not difficult to see. Shortly thereafter, I was looking at the Guinness Book of World Records and noticed that the world record for heaviest child was held by a Chinese boy of 14 who weighed in excess of 350 pounds( I can’t remember the exact figure). I also saw the record for the maximum weight loss was also held by another Chinese boy.

And yet, all this meat eating is not good for the body. My wife had been to a talk by a nutritionist at the public library. After talking about the desirability of a balanced diet with plenty of fiber and lots of grains and vegetables, he mentioned how they aid digestion and bowel movements. Going to the toilet at least once a day was a must, he declare; otherwise retaining this waste in the body for longer periods could lead to illnesses such as colon cancer, besides being highly uncomfortable. One lady in the audience was amazed. ” But I go only once a week !” she said. I don’t know what else was said in response but I can’t help thinking she must have been perennially constipated. What a horrible condition to be in. If I miss going even for a day, I feel terrible and I know I’m difficult to live with. To be in such a condition for a week, week in and week out, boggles the mind. No wonder I see so many TV ads for extra strong laxatives and stool softeners.

I want to make it clear that I am not a vegetarian. I do eat meat, all kinds of meat ( beef, pork, chicken, fish), though in much smaller quantities. I do not eat it at every meal though I have some protein every day. When I eat meat, it is the supporting, rather than the main, component of the meal. While I occasionally will have a steak or roast chicken, most of the time I eat meat in the form of curries, casseroles, stews or chili. And , of course, plenty of vegetables, sprouted grains and legumes. To my mind, the Japanese and the Chinese have the ideal diets; small quantities of meat or fish in almost every dish and plenty of vegetables, often raw or par-cooked. Perhaps a strict vegetarian diet is best, as some diet gurus aver, but it is not for me. I like the taste of meat and to satisfy my  body’s protein needs entirely from vegetarian sources would be difficult and too much of an effort.

 

 

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The New York Times recently had an interesting article “Does Your Doctor’s Age Matter?” It was authored by Dr. Haider Javed Warraich, a 29 year old Fellow in Cardiovascular medicine at Duke University Medical Center. In the article, Dr. Warraich states that, when it comes to choosing a doctor, patients place a premium on age because they equate age with experience. Dr. Warraich argues that “In medicine, a lack of experience may actually not be a bad thing” and to support his opinion he cites a Harvard research study which says that patients treated by younger doctors are less likely to die. The study concluded that younger doctors are less likely to 1) order unnecessary tests 2) to face disciplinary action and 3) be cited for improper prescription of opoid painkillers and controlled substances. It also found a positive correlation between lack of experience and better quality of medical care. Younger doctors were found to be more likely to use innovative practices, learn new procedures and be free of relics of the past.

Now, I have the highest respect for Harvard University but I find it difficult to accept these findings. For one thing, I have no idea how pronounced the results were in favor of younger doctors. How strong was the correlation between lack of experience and better medical care? Furthermore, some of the conclusions seem contrary to what common sense tells me. It seems to me that younger doctors, because of their inexperience, would be less confident and thus likely to order more tests rather than less.

I prefer to trust my own experience with doctors even though it is anecdotal.

To begin with, let’s agree that age and competence are not mutually exclusive. There are some good young doctors, some bad ones and many in-between. There are also some good old doctors, some bad ones and many in-between. I would not choose a doctor solely based on age. If a good friend strongly recommended a doctor (and if that doctor accepted my medical insurance), I would want to be his patient regardless of his age. I will admit that if a doctor was very youthful, I would be a little uneasy about his skills and I would definitely be uncomfortable dealing with him because of the generation gap. Contrary to the Harvard study, which said that younger doctors are “more likely to place the patient on a pedestal than themselves”, I have found younger MDs to be brash and less respectful. Sometimes, I also feel they are less interested in older patients, an unspoken vibe that “You have had your innings already.”

The one thing that I will agree with is that younger doctors are likely to be more innovative and open to new procedures and techniques. I remember that when my wife was considering a knee replacement we were very impressed by a local surgeon who had performed thousands of such operations and received the highest accolades from his patients. Then, a close friend told us of her experience with a surgeon in his forties who used new techniques that resulted in less invasive procedures, smaller incisions and a much reduced rehabilitation period. My wife doesn’t need the surgery anymore but, if she did, I know which one she would prefer.

On the other hand, medicine is not only a science but an art. Med school is only the beginning of a doctor’s education. The greater part of his education occurs later as he hones his skills on real world patients, real life situations. I remember a doctor who used to practice in Rahway. He was not impressive in his appearance or manner but his diagnostic skills were phenomenal. He was able to accurately diagnose what was wrong merely by listening to a patient’s description of symptoms and by asking the right questions. His patients loved him and valued him highly. His office receptionist once said to me, “If I ever fell ill, there is no one I’d rather have as a doctor than Dr. M.”

Insofar as choosing a doctor for myself is concerned, I would opt for the one who was strongly recommended, regardless of his or her age. Wherever possible though, I’d choose one who was in his or her fifties or younger but that is for a practical reason. I want a doctor who is not close to retirement age, one whom I can rely on for the next several years.

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I love Thai food. I love the soups, satays, crunchy spring rolls, green papaya salad,  curries ( red, green, yellow and Masaman), stir fries flavored with basil, noodle dishes      ( Pad thai, flat noodles , glass noodles), the desserts. I have been eating at Thai restaurants for the better part of fifty years and on occasion, even cook it at home. I think I know a little bit about it. I was surprised therefore to read an article in the New York Times magazine complaining that Thai restaurant food in America has become too sweet. This couldn’t be true, I thought. I remember Thai food as being predominantly spicy and sour, not sweet.

In the past two months, I’ve been to three Thai restaurants, two in New Jersey and one in Henderson, Nevada and guess what… the food, especially the noodle dishes, was too sweet. At one of those places, the pad thai was so sweet it could have passed for dessert. When did this happen? Was my memory playing tricks or had Thai food always been sweet?

A little internet research showed me that complaints about Thai food are not new. Ten years ago, one commenter sagely declared ” When you ease up on the heat, the balance goes wrong”. Another groused ” I hate this creeping sweetness thing. ” Yet another implored ” Don’t cater to the American sweet tooth this way.” As far as that last comment is concerned, I am glad to inform you that we are not solely to be blamed. Similar criticisms were voiced by restaurant goers in countries as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Apparently, Thai food was not always sweet. But when did it become so?

To answer this question, I looked up several Thai cookbooks and found that while many recipes did call for sugar or palm sugar, the quantities varied widely. In cookbooks published in Thailand and in blogs based in Asia, the quantities of sugar specified were appreciably smaller. I next looked up pad thai recipes in several blogs and cookbooks. I found that for the same quantity of noodles, the amount of sugar called for varied from a low of 1 teaspoon to a high of 1-1/2 Tablespoons  (more than four times as much). One recipe in the N.Y. Times  even specified 1/3 cup of honey.

It looks as if Thai food was made sweeter over the years to suit the Western palate. Many Westerners can’t handle spicy food and rather than drive them away, restaurateurs added sugar, lots of it, to their dishes while also cutting back on the heat. I confirmed this by speaking to my daughter who has spent a month in Thailand. She agreed that while Thai recipes, particularly the noodle dishes, did often include sugar the food was not overly sweet.

One final thought: In all the neighboring countries of Asia ( Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) the food is always spicy and often sour. Does it make sense that only in Thailand it is sweet? No way.  The New York Times article was right. The food in many Thai restaurants in America is too sweet and  it is inauthentic.

 

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Tipping or service charges are so much a part of eating out in America that it is strange to be in an environment where tipping is not the norm. Five years ago, on a trip to Tokyo, we were taken aback to find that tips were not expected, where they were politely returned to us. We learned quickly and did not repeat our mistake. It was a practice that I wish existed elsewhere.

Though I always add tips when paying restaurant tabs, it is something that leaves me feeling either foolish or parsimonious. Did I tip too little or too much? Sometimes, I am not sure. Years ago, 15% was the standard tip, then it became 18%. Now , we are told it should be 20%, even 25% for exceptional service. Why? Why do these standards keep changing, always going up? Also, initially, the percentage was supposed to be calculated on the food and beverage cost; then it switched to a percentage of the entire bill, including tax. Finally, with the hefty markup on wines and drinks, the expected tip increases out of all proportion to the service being provided.

Tips were supposed to be optional, not mandatory. Now, they are expected as a right. They are even suggested and encouraged where they should not be. At the coffee shop where I pick up a bagel and coffee, there is a tip jar on the counter. What exactly is the tip for in this instance? For ringing up my order and handing it to me? I don’t buy it.

Service charges are not the answer. They merely mean a mandatory tip, whether the service is good or not and just take the guesswork out of figuring out what is appropriate. Besides, one has way of knowing how much of the service charge actually goes to the wait-staff and how much is skimmed off by the management, something I suspect happens a lot.

By not including the service in the basic cost of the meal, restaurants are doing what the airlines do. Keeping the stated price low and then socking customers with extras. Airlines do it to hide the true cost of a flight; restaurant owners do it to pass on the cost to diners and to avoid paying employees a living wage.

I’m glad therefore glad to read that some restaurants ( many of them owned by Danny Meyer) in New York City have abolished the practice of tipping. The prices listed on the menu ( plus tax) are the total cost of the meal. No hidden charges. This way, I can look at the prices on the online menu and decide whether a particular restaurant is worthwhile or whether it is too rich for my blood.

P.S The above might make me seem a curmudgeon but I don’t think I am. I am careful to tip ( and quite generously too) at ordinary restaurants. At low end restaurants, I tip more because I know the servers don’t make much. What gets my goat is the outsize charge for service at the upper end restaurants that I occasionally eat at.

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The Tasting Menu

The tasting menu has been all the rage at upscale restaurants for the past decade. Instead of  selecting from an a la carte menu,  diners enjoy smaller quantities of an assortment of dishes from a set prix fixe menu. It is an expensive option, often running to $250 or over, per person ( without wine). Now, even as more and more restaurants offer these tasting menus, there seems to be a backlash against them.

Not only are the meals very expensive, they are marathons lasting three or four hours, and they leave diners feeling bloated  and bored by the experience. As the succession of dishes arrives at the table, one feels like throwing in the towel and crying ” Enough!”

I haven’t much experience of such menus. I’ve only eaten from them three times at Morimoto, the last occasion  eight years ago. The dinners were hosted by my brother-in-law and namesake, and each was a memorable experience

I will never forget the first time at Morimoto. Each dish was a revelation, an explosion of flavor and what made each course special was the presentation. The dishes they were served in were beautiful and different from each other, unique, works of art. The artfully designed food was almost jewel- like in appearance, a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Each dish elicited ” oohs” and “aahs’. I wish I could describe how beautiful it looked but words fail me as does memory. ( This was, after all, several years ago.) There was also a “layering” of flavor such as I had never experienced before. Just as I thought, I knew what a morsel tasted like on the tongue, the taste buds detected another underlying flavor. ( Was  that a hint of yuzu? And that hint of sweetness…where did it come from?)The wait-staff was solicitous and efficient and we diners felt pampered. The first time is always the best but the second and third time were almost as good though the sense of expectation and wonder was somewhat dulled.

There were only two shortcomings to this luxe meal. One:  So many different flavors that, by the end of the meal, I was overwhelmed. Scant hours later, I did not have a clear idea of any of the dishes. I liked all of them but I could not tell you what they were. There were many different ingredients in each dish that I couldn’t tell you what they were without referring to the menu. Second: though there were many dishes in the multicourse meal, the quantities were small and at the end of the meal, even though I do not have a big appetite, I was not quite full…. which, when I consider how much it must have cost, was troubling. (Anticipating this problem, the host also ordered two dishes from the a la carte menu so that we did not feel peckish at the end of the meal).

My last words on tasting menus: They are an experience to be savored once or twice, if cost is no object, but they are not something I would enjoy regularly.

 

 

 

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