Simple pleasures

For me the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a re-evaluation of life’s big questions. One of my discoveries is how the simple pleasures contribute to my quality of life. Here are the little things that have come to mean a lot to me:

The Wallace family play a card game sitting around a wooden table in their kitchen.
Laughter around the table is a simple pleasure that happens frequently when we play a family game.

Cup of coffee. I drink coffee twice a day. I have a cup when I first get up in the morning, and I have another cup around 3 in the afternoon. I drink coffee black with the rare exception of adding a flavored creamer to a cup of decaf on winter nights. I joke that I drink coffee for its medicinal effects rather than the taste, but the fact is, I have come to appreciate strong, smooth coffee. I like it hot, not warm and never iced. The experience is best when it’s quiet, and my brain sparks to life as the warmth of each sip washes over me.

Hot shower. I confess: I take long showers. When the weather is cold, I take even longer showers. Even if my skin is pruning, and I risk being late for work, it’s harder to get out when the temperature differential is greater than 10 degrees. Our house has a tankless hot water heater, and for the first time in my life, I can take a 20-minute shower without running out of hot water. It is a luxury I enjoy. When I have to cut my shower short, it’s an inconvenience that influences my mood negatively, as much as I hate to admit it. Relaxation and deep thoughts make the hot shower a daily ritual that contributes to my well-being.

A nap. I function best on eight hours of sleep. I rarely get seven. My best compensation is a 15- to 20-minute power nap, which I typically only get on weekends. If office culture every changed to embrace a post-lunch quick snooze, I’d be great. Instead, I rely on that afternoon cup of coffee to get me through the workday. It’s a great feeling to wake up refreshed after just a few minutes of sleep, and I am never tempted to stretch a nap. Those longer naps interfere with my night’s sleep and disrupt my circadian rhythm. I nap best reclining rather than prone, and I enjoy being able to nap warmed by the sun.

Going for a run/walk. In my heyday, I ran 6 miles five days a week with a long run one day a week. I was out the door by 5:30, and taking the 45-50 minutes before my day started felt essential rather than extravagant. Over time, injuries and aging forced me to alter my routine. I ran every other day and mixed in cross training and strength training. Various injuries since turning 40 like plantar fasciitis and hip flexor pain prompted prolonged layoffs, but I was eventually able to resume running. Two years ago, though, was the permanent end to my running for fitness. Knee pain from March to July sent me to the orthopedist, and an October diagnosis of a meniscus tear was finally cured with arthroscopic surgery in November. When I fully recovered, I wasn’t able to hit the roads with the same speed and endurance. I eased back into walking, which includes a two-mile walk on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and a five-mile walk on Saturdays. I it less exertion but it still helps me clear my head. The slower pace has the added benefit of helping me notice more about my surroundings and conditions. I see and appreciate the sunrise, feel the breeze and smell the honeysuckle. I have learned not to take pain-free movement for granted, and the mental and emotional aspects outweigh the cardiovascular benefits now that I’m over 50.

Conversation with Carla. Having an uninterrupted conversation with my wife was one of the most elusive activities during the lock-down phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. We spent more time at home and around each other than ever before, but so did everyone else in our house. This deprivation illuminated just how much I value and enjoy our talks, no matter the topic. Whether it’s planning the next household project, dreaming of the next vacation, working through our worries for our boys or planning for our future, these dialogues fuel our relationship in a way that draws us closer and connects us. They tend to happen when we’re on a date at a restaurant or on the balcony of the beach condo on vacation. Getting away was difficult under quarantine, but it showed me the acuteness of my need for it. I am my best self when I’m grounded in my relationship with Carla.

Laughter around my table. The best antidote to the pressures of life is the tension release brought on by laughter. When bickering is replaced by heartfelt laughter, all is right with my world. No matter who induces it, laughter injects my spirit with a hopeful enthusiasm. It gives me perspective. It helps me see the blessings rather than the challenges. It washes the negativity out of my system and clears the air in the relationships in our household. I find that humor gets harder with age. I’ve heard it all at this point, and I’m harder to impress. Refining the comical helps me appreciate the deep, authentic laugh more and makes its effect on my mood more dramatic. Laughter is truly the best medicine for keeping my family positive and supportive of each other.

There are many other moments that bring me joy, but these are the simple pleasures I find most meaningful at this stage. If I have these in my life, I am truly blessed.

Things I can’t live without

Survival depends on very little – food, water, shelter, clothing. Fulfillment requires healthy relationships, meaningful work and serving others. Convenience is more complicated.

Reflecting on what I cannot live without is an examination of convenience. Everything on this list contributes to my comfort, productivity, or entertainment, but it isn’t necessary for survival. That said, this list says a lot about me.

Lance wearing a blue vest and red checked shirt clutches a white mug of coffee
My drug of choice requires a machine that I cannot live without.

Coffeemaker. I had my first cup of coffee as a sophomore in college in 1989 at the appropriately named Coffee Kettle restaurant in Troy, Ala. I drank coffee then as now – for its medicinal benefits. Then, I relied on the caffeine boost to power through all-night study or paper writing sessions. Now, it helps me wake up in the morning and it fuels me past my afternoon lull. When I first started the habit, I was like a lot of newcomers to the beverage. I added copious amounts of sugar and cream or creamer to my coffee. That changed in the fall of 1991 during my journalism internship at Knight-Ridder Newspapers’ Washington Bureau. On a crisp fall morning I was at the office coffee station filling my cup with sugar and creamer when the bureau’s office manager came in to get her morning coffee. A refined and attractive middle-aged British woman, she always struck me dumb when she spoke to me. She looked at my coffee accessories and declared “That will kill you.” Internalizing her disapproval of my doctoring, I ceased at the moment to add anything to my coffee and learned to drink it black. When I set up housekeeping for the first time in the summer of 1992 at an apartment in Macon, Georgia, I purchased my first coffeemaker. It wasn’t top of the line, but it got the job done. Even when I go on camping trips, I make sure to bring along a kettle and the easy “boil in a bag” coffee. It’s a dependency and a creature comfort not required for life, but it’s an addiction I choose not to forsake at this stage of my life.

Hot water heater. I have taken cold showers in my life, and with the exception of the time I was in Lake Wales, Florida, helping my parents clean up from the damage of hurricane Charley, I did not welcome the experience. Even during the summer, I like to take long, hot showers. I think deep thoughts. I have good ideas. It’s relaxing. But the temperature really matters. One of the best amenities our current house possessed when we bought it in 2013 was a tankless water heater. Only when the power is out do I have to forego hot water, and in those rare instances, I have chosen to postpone showering until the water is hot enough to turn my skin pink.

Air conditioner/heater. My father-in-law, Lanny Barron, believed the most significant culture-changing invention to impact life in the South was the invention of air conditioning. It’s hard to argue. Air conditioning has turned us into indoor people, lowering our tolerance to temperatures that in the past would have been ideal for outdoor play. Lately, my preferred indoor temperature is a higher than it used to be. I can live with 75 or 76. When the AC goes out completely, it quickly feels unbearable when temperatures reach 82 or 83. A couple of years ago we replaced the main AC unit in our house. Supposedly more energy efficient, the new system controls the humidity indoors as well. That’s a welcomed innovation that adds to our summertime comfort. Of course, these days the air conditioner is dual purpose and has a heat pump as well. As I age, I find that I am more susceptible to cold and probably need the use of the heater as much or more than the air conditioning. The lower range of comfortable temperatures for me these days is 71 or 72, and I confess to having to wear a fleece pullover and sit under a blanket while watching TV at night from fall to early spring.

Refrigerator. Whenever thunderstorms render us powerless, we must contemplate the question of whether the food in our freezer will thaw or the contents of our refrigerator will spoil. In those cases, my under-appreciated fridge takes on greater importance. We have leftovers after nearly every nightly meal. I rely on the bounty of the Tupperware-enclosed morsels tucked away in the refrigerator for my lunches. Our refrigerators allows me to get the most mileage out of our meals and feel thrifty in the process. I have a simple standard for selecting my lunch menu: the food in the fridge that is oldest and will spoil first. I eat that, racing the clock (or calendar) to consume the substances quickly deteriorating, When going to the office, I carry a large lunch bag with the plastic ice blocks to keep my plate of leftovers safely chilled before warming them in the microwave. 

Microwave. Speaking of microwaves, it goes hand-in-glove with the fridge. The bounty of leftovers cannot be properly enjoyed without a microwave. I still remember the late 1970s when microwaves started appearing in people’s kitchens. It was an unfathomable innovation that reduced meal preparation times to minutes. There are a still some dishes better heated up in the oven, but if I’m honest, I will often sacrifice quality for timeliness. There are a few foods that are improved by a few seconds in the microwave. At my age, I try to limit my carbs, but occasionally, a pastry or doughnut warmed for 10 seconds or so in the microwave really hits the spot.

Smartphone. As much as I hate to admit this, I am dependent on my smartphone. Not only do I make use of myriad apps for daily conveniences, if I have a moment of unstructured time, I look at it for no good reason. On the plus side, it serves as my alarm clock, and the time function comes in handy with my workout routines. Speaking of working out, the Run Keeper app and an app from the physical therapist helps me track my fitness and rehab from recent knee surgery. The calorie counting app has helped me maintain a healthy weight for more than two years, and the weather app is the first one I open each day. I use my notes app for keeping up with my “to-do” list, movies to watch on family movie night, TV shows to enjoy with Carla, and other essential data I need to keep at my fingertips for odd moments, like my license plate number. The texting function keeps me connected with family and friends, especially during the isolation of the pandemic, and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) app means I never have to wonder where I’ve seen that actor before or if this movie will have inappropriate content for my children. I can “doomscroll” through the news and fake news, wasting time, or, on occasion, see what my friends and family are up to. The ESPN app lets me see the scoreboard of whatever sport is in season, and my podcasts are never far away, giving me hours of good content to absorb. On the downside, my phone also has my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Reddit accounts just a click away. I recently deleted all of the time-wasting games, and I really have tried to cut back on the amount of time I stare at my phone. I am glad that I now only have to carry one smartphone having ditched a separate work phone. I can’t live without my smartphone, but there are many days I fantasize about trying.

Toothbrush. Last but certainly not least is a device so simple and basic, I take it for granted most days. Good dental hygiene has been instilled in me since childhood, and with the combination of my mother’s good dental genes and my dad’s insistence on brushing and flossing, I’ve managed to live 50 years on this planet without a cavity. On those rare times I’ve been without a toothbrush, I’ve resorted to using my finger, but nothing beats the plain ol’ toothbrush at keeping your teeth clean and healthy and your breath fresh.

There are a lot of climate control, food storage and preparation, and hygiene-related items on this list. I’m sure there’s more I could include, but for now, let’s leave it at that.