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Top Hat, White Tie and T-Shirts

Mary and Alfredo Martinez in San Francisco, circa 1920.

The only obvious trait I inherited from my mother, in addition to short legs and a pot belly, was a tendency to worry about my health. The difference between us lay in her unique approach to staying healthy. She dressed up.

I can still see her at 4 o'clock in the morning with no place to go, wearing a dark dress, heels and a box hat with a veil, wandering our house, humming and waiting for the sun to come up. I have no idea why she arose at 4 a.m. Perhaps to get her makeup right.

She didn't live with us but often stayed overnight, and when she did that was the way she dressed. She never left her own home without, for instance, some kind of hat with a veil, even if it was just a trip to the grocery store.

Her philosophy was that if you looked good, you felt good and it was reflected in one's general health, especially the heart's. She knew nothing about nutrition (her favorite vegetable was a potato fried in lard) or exercise, but she did know a little something about dressing to the nines.

She lived with a bad heart until she was 80, which was pretty good back in the days before the general use of cardiac bypasses, stents, pig valves, blood thinners and medications that had nothing to do with staying healthy by looking good.

This was brought to mind the other day while I was half-listening to a New Age shrink on NPR saying that feeling good about one's self was important to a state of physical well-being, and looking good was important to feeling good.

I have had heart problems for 25 years and am rarely seen in anything close to being formal. I have suits that I have never worn because in L.A. dressing up requires only jeans and a T-shirt with, in exceptional circumstances, a dark blazer. That is known as formal attire for men in Hollywood, and I have always believed that if it was good enough for Brad Pitt it was good enough for me.

But then again, I have had to endure open-heart surgery twice, I have several stents in me, I wear a pacemaker and I take enough heart pills to awaken Lazarus. While I am naturally reluctant to consider that my mother might have been right, from now on I am going to try to look a little neater when I leave the house. None of the top hat, white tie and tails that once characterized Fred Astaire's dance attire, but maybe a more consistent use of my blazer.

Mom would be proud.

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