Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Friday, March 15, 2013

Refreshing the Soul

—this commentary offered by the Professor—

For Christians, the season of lent is proceeding and we have just observed what in the Episcopal tradition is referred to as “Refreshment Sunday”:  on the fourth Sunday of Lent, one is given dispensation to relax one’s Lenten discipline a bit.  In other words, it’s essentially permission to change things up a bit, to note the passage of time, and to remind convince oneself that lent will soon be over.  It occurred to me that “refreshment” is what many of us desperately need on a regular basis—especially through a workplace environment that has become increasing  electronic, impersonal and time-conscious.   Alas, refreshment seems to be what we’re NOT getting.

Far more common than we like to admit. 
An article in the morning paper recently confirmed something that I had long suspected from talking with various people about the nature of our workplace environment.  It’s described as a situation in which “most” employees working in an office environment either “regularly” or “frequently” eat lunch at their desks.  It went on to describe a subcomponent of workers  (the study estimated 10%) who “occasionally” would eat all three “meals” of the day at their desks. 

As the saying goes: this is wrong in so many ways.  It’s not refreshing, and it isn’t healthy.
The issues of work hours in the United States  and the general level of pressure in office environments might be a good topic for another discussion, but what strikes me about this above information is that it give further evidence that something is wrong with the way we conceive of and execute feeding ourselves (in the good old days of this geezer, we occasionally called it dining.)  There is something amiss in our eating habits, and all you have to do is take a walk with a mental measuring tape and observe the prevailing girth of those around us (hell, us as well!) to verify this; but to begin to unravel some of these interrelated challenges, we need to step back in time a bit.

There was a time, deep in our agricultural past (and to some extent in our manual labour/manufacturing past,) in which three full meals a day were essential to replenish the sheer numbe of calories we burned off through our daily tasks.  Back close to my permanent home in Pennsylvania, the Amish still live such a lifestyle (or should we say “work such a “workstyle?”)  They are on what is sometimes called the “Amish Diet”: take enough steps a day (in traditional communities they average up about 18,000 steps per day) and you can pack away as many meals as you’d like.  In typical American cultures, however, we average less than 8,000 steps per day, and office workers as a subgroup average significantly less than that.  The “Amish Diet” of three full meals a day is—technically speaking—a gastro-intestinal mismatch with how most of us live and work.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a day with, say, only one meal in it, isn’t it?  While it would with little doubt provide us with enough calories to replace those we burn staring at a computer screen and answering e-mails, it would seem to be a component of a pretty grim existence.  Put more directly: we might not need additional calories, but we can’t be expected to grind away for 8, 9 or 10 hours with no breaks in the day, with no contour or shape to our work day.  For that  ideally is what  meal should provide in our day of limited physical activity: a break (most importantly mental); a time to shift one’s attention; a time to interact with colleagues as people rather than co-workers;  a time to take a breath, to think about the many reasons you do what you do in life, and then get back to work.  It’s the same reason we have a Sabbath in the week or holidays in the year or take time out to note the changing of the seasons: we want and need our lives to have some shape.

Hemlock for the body AND the soul. 
And this is precisely why eating at our desks is so bad.  In a similar way, it’s why that peculiar American phenomenon of the “drive-through window” is so reprehensible.  In both of these activities, we get EXACTLY the opposite of what we genuinely need.  We get plenty of calories (especially in the drive-through, but also in the vending machine products that often form the basis of our desk-centered “lunch”), but we get no real tonal, spatial, interpersonal or psychological break. 

The result: in an hour or two, we find ourselves heading for the coffee room again, to perhaps score some leftover birthday cake or grab a quick packet of crisps.  We don’t do this because we are technically hungry: someone who hits the drive-through while on the road gets nearly enough calories in just a burger and soda to power them for an entire day.  We are hungry in a more poetic sense: hungry for the mental break we didn’t give ourselves earlier; hungry for a shaping ritual that our day unconsciously needs.  Yea, I say unto you: the road to hell (and to a wider circumference) is strewn not with sinners, but with fast food drive-throughs!
A better approach to refreshment, don't you think? Lovely. 
I got to thinking about all of this after observing how a cup of tea here in England forms the basis for just what we need in this arena.  The Brits love their tea and tend to feel quite strongly about its restorative (or they might also claim curative) powers.   There’s little you can claim is wrong with you for which  the English won’t first suggest: “you just need a good cup of tea.”   Mind you, they don’t mean that you should dash out to the corner convenience store,  get a Styrofoam cup of tea and gulp it down as you drive down the road or return to your office.  The how and when of tea being prepared, served and consumed is a relatively well defined social ritual which, in turn, provides the social and psychological benefits we crave when we in the workplace decide it is time for “lunch.”  

The English will consume coffee in a purely functional way, grabbing a quick cup to help get the day started, but tea is much more—it is a way by which one’s progression through the day is marked.  When it is tea time, work stops; often people will gather together (since “elevenses” and four o’clock tea time is fairly standard); the tea will be prepared in the proper way (or as close to that ideal as practicable, but always carefully and consciously); and the tea is consumed sitting.  One other ritualized element is essential: after the first sip of tea, invariably, the description “lovely” is uttered serially by all present, with others nodding and hmmmming in affirmation.  This need not take long; sometimes this ritualized break in the day takes less than ten minutes.  But the important thing has been achieved: a true break in the day has occurred; a mental reset has been facilitated, and a moment of appreciation for the simple and familiar things which make up most of our modest lives has occurred.  We have been refreshed. The fact that tea is a virtually no-cal beverage is an additional bonus (let’s not count the milk and biscuits.)

Surely we American are innovative enough to develop an effective approach to refreshment; we can’t expect to eat our way into that feeling without some accompanying thought.  For myself, I have vowed to avoid: eating while doing anything else; eating while walking or standing; and eating without taking a moment to pray or offer thanks in another manner.  The key is in ritualizing our behaviour sufficiently for it to become an activity that is both habitual and significant.  A way to refresh ourselves that would be meaningful, social, relaxing, predictable, cheap and low calorie?  Wouldn’t that be” lovely?”


  1. I sheepishly must acknowledge guilt to the sins enumerated here. I far too often skip lunch or grab a bite while answering emails with the left hand. And I've been guilty of the drive-through behavior so rightly derided here. I fortunately have never eaten three meals a day at the desk though, and there certainly are many days when I'm wise enough to not eat any there.

    I'm inspired to change my ways based on your challenge, though. American culture has taken workaholism to much too extreme level. Time for us to stop.

    But why stop with the English model? The Spanish habit of a full two-hour break for siesta or "nooners" strikes as the more desirable model.

  2. The idea of the mental reset is of enormous value. I appreciate your thought about not eating while doing anything else. There is a kind of grace in that. I was guilty of eating at the desk for many years. It was the norm unless I was at a business luncheon.
    The exception was Friday when I insisted on taking my senior staff to lunch and a glass of wine or two. That was a kind of oasis in the blur of the work week and a way of turning the switch toward the refreshment of the weekend.

    My grandmother and her sisters were from Warwick and carried the idea of daily Tea to their American home in the midwest. As a kid I thought it was a grand thing and remember experiments with lemon, Milnot, sugar or cream until I achieved what I thought was a pretty neat little cup of sweetness.

  3. Preach it. I need to hear it for I have eaten many times at my desk (but I generally prepare my own meal at home which is healthier than fast food, but still...) Ralph, an old friend of mine who died a couple of years ago and of whom I wrote about many times as we would take long trips together exploring the desert, always insisted that we stop and sit down to eat (whether in a restaurant or under a tree or rock out in the wilds). It is good advice.

  4. Excellent advice. I must make a concerted effort to follow this more closely. I'm not as bad as the picture you paint here, but I could always do better. Thanks for the wake up call.


  5. You've done a public service, alerting us to the need for scheduling a break, a refreshment, that is psychologically satisfying --not simply physical. The British tea ceremony you describe is exceeded in ritual only by the Japanese who, despite their awesome work ethic, are among the longest-lived people in the world.

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