When my father turned 80, I organized a surprise party so that he could celebrate while being surrounded by what mattered most to him: family, friends (including fellow tennis enthusiasts), good food, and a grand piano. As he walked into the room full of lifetime friends, he put his hand to his wrist and with a wide smile joyously proclaimed, “My heartbeat is slow and steady.”
My father immigrated to the United States from Israel when he was twenty- five. Having spent his youth under British colonialism and then the nascent country of Israel, he had minimal exposure to American culture prior to his arrival to study at NYU. As he built a stable home for his family in Minnesota, he remained proud of where he came from and maintained many of the habits, customs and interests of his upbringing.
I remember that when I was a kid, my friends viewed my father as an anomaly. He had a funny accent and wore unusual hats. More strikingly, he seemed impervious to many aspects of American popular culture. He never touched a baseball or football. He didn’t listen to popular music and he rarely watched TV. Playing chess was a favorite pastime.
While he didn’t develop a passion for most American sports, my father regularly made an effort to stay strong and mobile. Every morning he enthusiastically did calisthenics on the bedroom floor. He taught himself to play tennis by hitting a ball against a wall for hours on end. He took lunchtime runs long before jogging was popular in Minnesota.
His eating habits were and continue to be similarly anomalous. My father continues to be unaffected by advertisements for popular foods and drinks. I don’t ever remember him drinking Coca-Cola or eating at McDonald’s. He has never cared for potato chips or French fries. At the same time, dieting is anathema to him and he thoroughly enjoys eating. When I asked him if he would like to eat junk food—just once in a while for the enjoyment of it—he told me that he simply doesn’t like how it tastes. However, when presented with a piece of chocolate cake, he eats it with carefree abandon.
As I reflect on the popular American approach toward health and well-being, I realize that my father never connected food or exercise choices to his appearance. He never eschewed Coca-Cola to control his weight. He didn’t exercise in order to have ripped abs. He simply maintained these habits because they felt good. More strikingly, my father never judged his moral worth based on his habits. He never said he was bad when he ate chocolate or good when he ate spinach. He ate both with joyful enthusiasm.
In a society where so much emphasis is placed on appearance, often equating it to our inherent value and success, my father has healthy habits solely because they make him feel good and allow him to do the things he loves. In hindsight, I’ve come to appreciate that the influence of my father’s unknowingly subversive habits was a worthwhile tradeoff for not learning how to throw a football as a kid.
Now, at what he calls the heroic age of 83, my father is happy, healthy, creative, funny and thoughtful. He has an infectious smile, plays a mean game of tennis and can practice piano for four hours at a stretch.
Slow and steady has served him quite well.