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Hand me the oil, I’m off to Sardinia

I’m at the recreation center, doing one of the most inane and unsightly things imaginable: I’m riding a stationary exercise bike, pedaling for all I’m worth.

Think about it: The bike goes nowhere. Sure, I can imagine I am peddling to Bayfield and back; I can see the fictional mileage displayed on the control panel. The bike will even produce the illusion I am traveling at a certain rate. Oh, look, I’ve biked seven miles and I am whipping along at a brisk 12 miles per hour.

Ours is a sad species, is it not?

But, I remind myself, stripped of motivational illusions, the activity has a purpose: better health. With every fantasy mile, I tell myself I am a better physical being, a healthier guy.

A healthier, older guy.

In truth, my activity is fueled at a deep level by the reality of age and is part of a poignant, losing battle to forestall the inevitable.

I am helped along this particular day by a magazine article I read as I pedal. After all, the blunt idiocy of the activity is unavoidable if you flail away on one of these machines with no significant outside input — something to read, a television to watch. Without the distraction, time (oh, that cruel, elastic thing) stretches, the clock on the bike’s control panel seems to slow to a crawl; one inevitably begins to wonder if there aren’t better things to do. Many things.

I am reading a begrimed copy of one of those snappy guys-only publications, learning new things about what it is to be a man.

I’ve ripped through a couple articles concerning the “perfect” outdoor vacations, pausing only long enough on a piece about kayaking in Vermont to fortify my resolution to remain indoors whenever possible.

My idea of a sporting vacation involves a short walk between blackjack tables at a Vegas casino or a brief hike to a favorite restaurant — preferably one in the same hotel where I am staying. I would be up for a stroll in Amsterdam or Paris, but not without frequent stops for intoxicants.

I breeze through an article touting the best SUVs on the market (I am cautioned to never be misled by “air conditioning, stereos, or a soft ride”) and a profile of a ruggedly handsome country western music star I’ve never heard of and whose music will never grace my iPod playlists. There’s a comparison of several brands of trail mix but, since I don’t include Styrofoam and tree bark in my diet, I am not interested.

I turn the page.

What I then confront is an article purporting to reveal “how to live longer.” I am promised “New longevity secrets to keep you young and healthy.”

As I’ve noted, the fact I am on a stationary bike that provides me with Platonic mileage and speed readouts indicates I am capable of profound delusion. Why not add staying young and healthy to the list?

I dive into the article and I want to share some things with those of you who have passed both the “I’m bulletproof and immortal” stage of adolescence and early adulthood, and the “I don’t need to worry about it yet” phase of middle age. I need to share what I gleaned from the article with those of you who have moved on to “Oh no, this doesn’t look good; I better devote more time to Scripture.”

According to this article, if you want to prolong your life, you need to live in Sardinia. Moreover, it helps if you are a shepherd.

Apparently, such folks have low cholesterol, thin-walled and supple arteries, a stunningly low incidence of diabetes, the kidneys and sexual appetite of a teenager and a resting heart rate in the low 60s.

How do they do it? And what can we do to mimic their somatic success?

There is heartening news.

One detailed survey reveals that an optimistic attitude has nothing to do with longevity. In fact, say the scientists who studied these Sardinian shepherds, being grumpy might be an advantage. I like this. I’ve always believed an abundance of false joy and a fake smile get you nowhere and instead, are signals of enormous insecurity. It’s encouraging to see a blow struck for low expectations, to know that being pessimistic can prolong your life.

A second clue: Fire up the grill and toast some flesh. There’s nothing wrong with meat. While you’re at it, enjoy a hunk of dry sausage. Have some cheese. But also load up on fresh vegetables.

Things get better.

Drink wine, reds in particular, ideally grown at an altitude of more than 2,000 feet.

Some other tips: marry well (a bad marriage can kill you and/or your spouse); be conscientious and dependable (memorize and repeat the Boy Scout Oath); drink coffee; get rich (how a shepherd manages this is beyond me); be religious (see above, re. Scripture of your choice); make friends (with friends like mine, I need to concentrate on improvements in this area); take some aspirin; enjoy frequent sexual relations (the author of the article is unclear as to whether or not this requires another person).

Don’t exercise too much, says the author. After I read this, I get off the exercise bike. I don’t need much of an excuse.

Cut back on the amount you eat by 10 to 20 percent. Makes sense. Unfortunately.

Finally, make liberal use of olive oil.

I am definitely in the groove with this one — not just for health reasons but because I value the rich, wonderful taste imparted by a good quality oil. Toss out all but some top-grade vegetable oil for higher-temperature work and cruise with the nectar of the olive, You can’t go wrong.

I keep two grades of olive oil handy in the kitchen. The first is a cheaper, lighter oil often labeled “pure” and the result of a second pressing. This oil is best suited to stove work.

The better oil is labeled “extra-virgin,” comes from a first, cold pressing and contains less acid than the lesser product. It’s easy to spot the top-shelf oils at the market: they are often darker, frequently green in tint, and they cost a lot more than the lower quality oil. Bite the budget bullet and buy a bottle. Open the bottle, take a swig. If you’re timid, dip a small piece of bread in the oil and eat it. Fruity, isn’t it? A food in itself. It’s the wine of oils.

When I saute meats and/or vegetables, there are many times I ignore expense and use the highest grade olive oil to take advantage of the greater flavor. The oil provides a strong foundation for dishes, a depth that lighter, ordinary cooking oils cannot give you.

As an example: There is a galaxy of variations available when you play off a pan-roasted chicken breast in which the seasoned meat is caramelized in a sheen of olive oil in a heavy pan on the stovetop then finished in a hot oven for 12 to 15 minutes.

Once roasted, the meat is removed to a heated plate while a bit more of the high-grade oil is added to the pan with aromatics and herbs and spices of one kind or another (to which compass point on the taste map do you want to travel — tarragon, oregano, basil, cumin, caraway, chiles? Onion, garlic, celery, tomato?).

The pan is deglazed with a liquid paired with the choice of aromatics — wines and/or stocks. The goodies produced by the roasting process are scraped up into the liquid and the amalgam is reduced to a near syrupy consistency. The flame is extinguished. Back in goes the chicken and — instead of butter — more of the extra virgin olive oil is added and it emulsifies as the seasonings are adjusted.

Oily, olivey good.

And for dressings, break out the extra-virgin oil. Sure, there are other flavorful oils that can and should be used in some dressings, but it is hard to beat a vinaigrette with a top-of-the-line extra virgin olive oil as the base.

Heck, to top off the oil level you can imitate those restaurants that puddle some super balsamic vinegar in a pool of extra virgin, salt it a bit and dip into it with bits of bread.

You guzzle the oil, you live longer.

Me, I intend to follow the guidelines in the article as closely as I can.

I will use more olive oil.

I’ll double my cheese consumption and chase each wedge with some high-altitude wine.

I won’t ride that ridiculous stationary bike again.

I can’t afford a ticket to Sardinia at the moment but I’ll put 5 percent of each paycheck into a special account and, when there is enough cash accrued to book passage, I’ll call a travel agent. I’ll hook up with a Sardinian real estate broker via the Web and start looking for some land, preferably with verdant rolling hills.

In the meantime, does anyone have sheep for sale?