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A toast to what keeps the heart healthy

Albany’s great Man of Letters, William Kennedy, just turned 95. That’s worth celebrating. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur “genius grant,” -- and, thankfully, the guy is still writing.

The other evening, we went out to his place in the country, but it wasn’t to celebrate his birthday – and it’s not Bill Kennedy that’s our topic here today. He just gave me the inspiration… when he poured me a glass of Irish whisky.

But this isn’t about drinking, either, really. I can explain.

We went to see Mr. Kennedy, my wife and I, on the day that we lost Russell Banks, another great American writer and Mr. Kennedy’s longtime and dear friend. Russell was only 82, but he ran into a pretty aggressive cancer, and that’s what felled him, at his home in Saratoga Springs. It’s hard to imagine. I mean, the guy climbed Mount Everest in his 70s. He was a force. And his writing – 14 novels, nonfiction books, and poetry and short stories – well, it was muscular, and inventive, and provocative. As The Washington Post wrote the other day, Russell Banks’s work reflected what the critic called “the scale and scope of what’s at stake for beings burdened with a conscience.”

So losing Russell Banks was a big deal, and so we went out to the Kennedys’ place in Rensselaer County to commiserate. And Bill got behind the bar in his big living room, and pulled out a bottle I’ve never seen before, and that he said he didn’t really know – an Irish whisky called “Red Breast.” He poured us a couple of glasses on the rocks.

Now, I’m not usually an Irish whisky fan, and Mr. Kennedy is more inclined to red wine, usually – though this wasn’t the first time we had turned to a brown liquid together, and, by God, I pray it won’t be the last. We talked some about Russell, and what Bill was doing – about the book he is working on now. Somehow, there were refills of our glasses. It was really quite good, that Irish whisky; Mr. Kennedy assessed it as “creamy,” which isn’t a word usually associated with whisky, you know, but I must say that I think the man was right.

Or maybe it was the occasion. Sitting there away from the winter cold, thinking and talking about literature and friendship, about what we cherish in life, well, I felt quite blessed. That’s what this little radio essay is about.

Not five days later, The New York Times tried to spoil that for me. I know, it was nothing personal, but what are we to think about this headline: “Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health.” That’s what it said, right there on the front page of The New York Times. My first thought was of the new bottle of, yes, Red Breast Irish Whisky in my own liquor cabinet, which I had bought the day before.

So, about that article: Right up at the top, the writer labeled it a buzz-kill – true, that – and then the piece went on to tear apart all those comforting articles over the years about research suggesting that, you know, a little bit of drink is actually good for you – especially red wine. Doesn’t that raise your so-called “good” cholesterol? Doesn’t it protect your circulatory system, and your heart? We’ve read that kind of thing for years, right?

Well, this turned out to be a pretty detailed piece, and it laid out the arguments that, as one expert put it, “Alcohol is harmful to the health starting at very low levels.”

I tried to find fault with the piece – you know, I spent 30 years as a newspaper editor, so I’m entitled to critique journalism. But this was written by a very smart young science journalist who happens to have a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, and she was Phi Beta Kappa at USC – yes, I checked! – so you have to respect the reporting about how alcohol damages your DNA, and prevents your body from repairing the damage. This reporter – named Smith, like my name – wrote this: “Light daily drinkers would likely benefit by cutting back a bit.”

Then, down at the bottom of the piece, she wrote this: “None of the experts we spoke to called for abstaining completely, unless you have an alcohol use disorder or are pregnant.” The final quotation of the piece went to an expert who said, “Drink less, live longer.”

OK, I can handle that. And here’s what I’d like to say about what matters: Not just living longer. Each of us makes judgments about what enriches our lives, and choices about what we do to make our lives better – not just safer. We have to make those choices with eyes open – and hearts, too.

You know, 46 thousand people die each year from auto accidents, but I get behind the wheel of my car every day, anyhow, knowing that risk – and doing my best to not add to that tragic statistic. I’m at risk when I’m on my bicycle, too, and surely I would be better off if I would eat less ice cream, and forswear bacon altogether.

But we don’t live by the actuarial tables alone. We live not just to enhance the circulation in our heart, but to grow the warmth there, too. We balance the sensible and the sensitive.

We don’t always make the right judgments. Maybe I cut off a couple weeks of my life as I downed more than one glass of Irish whisky with Mr. Kennedy. But as we toasted the vigorous and productive life of Russell Banks, we were reminded of how lucky we are to live fully, and how important it is to embrace love and warmth when it comes our way. So let’s raise a glass to that.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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