age


My friend Rollie has died. He had an amazing life and taught me a lot. I am not the right person to describe his life and I’d decided not to describe any of his adventures here, but a quick look shows that there is really nothing online about him. So here’s a very short version of one of his typical adventures: In his mid-70s, he climbed K2. The sherpa didn’t want to let him come because he was too old, “But I was not the one who held us up… Not once.” On that trip to Nepal, he caught amoebic dysentery, which he cured himself of with a gruesome regimen involving coffee, hydrogen peroxide, bifidus, and enemas.  “That was not fun, let me tell you, but I got rid of that bug. I went back to the doctors and they said it was completely gone.”

Right now I’m thinking most about what he taught me about getting old. He was still on an intellectual and spiritual mission when I last saw him, a week before he died. (In fact, the moment I learned he’d died, I was on my way to his house with the King James Bible on an Excel file–something he’d asked me to find to help with a scheme he had for decoding the Bible.) His memory and his mind were still strong, though his body was failing. Almost a hundred years old and he would tell me to “google” stuff, like, “Oh, just google ‘swansons’–they’ve got good deals on B12.” You can continue to learn and grow for almost a hundred years. I’ve seen it in Rollie. And you can keep your body going, too, but it’s work. He would say, “Nature is basically on your side until your 70s. In your 70s, you’ve got to work at, get it down to a science. In your 80s, it’s full-time. It’s an art and a science to keep going. In your 90s, it’s between you and God.”

He’s got me thinking about isolation in old age. He had a lot of friends in the community, but he spent most of his time alone and he told me several times that the loneliness was hardest part of his life. He had no family left in the time of his life when he needed pretty constant companionship, someone to notice when he fell. I suppose there is only so much planning you can do to head yourself towards an old age full of care and companionship. There’s a lot of luck involved. But I am thinking about it. It makes a big difference

Rollie was also one of my grandfather’s best friends over the last 60-some years, and the most poignant part of a poignant funeral for me was seeing my grandfather cry. He doesn’t generally cry, and never like that, sobbing. I felt the power of that moment and realized I haven’t known anyone for 60-some years, and I don’t know what that’s like, the depth of a 60-year relationship, the kind of hole that would leave in your life. But that’s how you want it to be, right? You want to have good enough, long enough, deep enough friendships that leave you heartbroken when they die. But you also want to have a lot of other dear relationships around you to take up the slack. My grandfather has that, and I want that, too.

Thanks for everything, Rollie.

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

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I’ve been working seriously on changing my posture for the last six months. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor, a massage therapist, and a physical therapist. On normal days I do about two hours of stretching and strengthening exercises–postural reprogramming stuff that they have assigned. On super busy days I do about an hour’s worth.

I’m strengthening the muscles that hold my shoulders and head back and up. I’m lengthening the muscles that pull them down and forward. I’m decreasing the exaggerated curvature in my thoracic spine (called kyphosis), especially focusing on the top few thoracic vertebrae. I’m increasing the twisting range of motion in my thoracic spine and ribs. I’m learning to relax muscles in my legs and butt, back and shoulder blades. I’m learning how to sit differently, stand differently, sleep differently, and especially walk differently. I have an alarm set to remind me about posture every 20 minutes that I’m awake.

The thing is, I’m almost 40 and I don’t have kids yet. I need my body to stay fit for at least another 20 years, and preferably more like 50 more. But nearly three years ago I started having some serious pain in my body–after 37 years of being as athletic as I pleased, I was suddenly limited in how much I could run, lift, swim, and sometimes even walk. One year I could go to a Lindy Hop event and dance all day and all night, and the next I had maybe two hours, maybe 15 minutes in me. Unacceptable.

And it turns out it’s because of my posture. Joints, muscles, and their connections do not work properly if not in the optimal relative position to each other. The habitual position of my joints had put enough strain on my body that I started having intense pain.

My chiropractor once told me, “You are the most compliant patient I’ve ever had.” My PT and massage therapist have said similar things. That is exactly what I’m aiming at–the most compliant patient. I do not just show up. I do not intend to waste my money or my life getting care and then not following through with the recommendations of my providers. If you tell me not to ride my bike for 3 months, I start walking or taking the bus. If you show me how to walk differently, I will walk differently. If you tell me to do 45 reps of some new, super-awkward exercise every day for the foreseeable future, I will do it. I am your perfect patient. I do it because I’m hoping you know what will help. I want to make you look brilliant. And I do it because if, after a couple of months, what you do and have me do has not helped noticeably, I will find someone else to work with, because I have tried you and your ideas out to the letter.

As I approach it, the exact day I enter middle age has become more salient. Reanna routinely refers to people in their late 30s as “middle aged” and I feel taken aback. Since I’ve been thinking about such things, I’ve thought of the 30s, at least, as just plain old “adult.”

I am 39, a couple of months from my 40th birthday. When do I hit middle age?

Ah, that’s what I thought. I turn middle-aged at the end of this September.

Funny, the same website gives five more years, just by adding a “d.”

  • Middle age is the period of age beyond young adulthood but before the onset of old age. Various attempts have been made to define this age, which is around the third quarter of the average life span of human beings.  – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_age

I first misread this one as “middle third,” somehow, which liked–very intuitive. For men in the US like myself, however, whose average lifespan is 75.6 years, it places middle age between 25 and 50 years old. That means I’ve been middle aged since 1996. And that Reanna, as a Canadian woman with an average lifespan of 82.9 years, has been middle-aged since six months after her 27th birthday.

As my friend Julian pointed out, though, it actually says the third quarter: For men in the US from about 37.8 until about 57.7. It’s less intuitive for me, but lines up better with what people seem to mean by middle age.

I like that one as well. It may be the most accurate. Or perhaps this one:

  • middle age – (1) when every person you meet is only a composite of other people whom you have met. (2) a time when you’ll do anything to feel better, except give up what’s hurting you. (3) later than you think and sooner than you expect. (4) when a narrow waist and a broad mind begin to change places. – www.theabsolute.net/minefield/tmdict.html

Leaving my last doctor visit, I had a chance to check myself on their eye chart. It was not official–I just backed up 20 one-foot floor tiles and looked at the chart. For the first time ever I was not able to make out some of the letters in the bottom, smallest row. That means my eyesight is now 20/13 instead of 20/10, or however small the denominator was before I started grad school. (The numerator is distance in feet (in the US) and the denominator has to do, in a way that I don’t quite get, with the size of the letters.) If you can see better than 20/10, you generally never find out: 20/10 is good enough. And so is 20/13–I am not complaining. Not much, at least.

I’m more concerned with my focal length, which has moved out at least an inch during the last four years, to a solid 8.5 inches. This happens with aging, of course, but I am willing to bet it is accelerated by reading 30+ hours a week. It is inconvenient not to be able to see my spoonful of food clearly while I am blowing on it. It is also inconvenient that Reanna and I have no overlap in clear vision. When we are looking into each other’s eyes, we have to choose who gets to see clearly, or else she has to wear her contacts. I know it will someday be inconvenient when my focal length exceeds my reach, and I will need glasses to read a book. Ah, aging. As my friend Robert says, “Getting old is very inconvenient. It is better, however, than the alternative.”

Fair warning: This post is kind of gross.

I went swimming with Akira tonight and in the locker room I saw an elderly man with shocking feet.  This guy’s feet were crusted with fungus. His toenails were thick and white, and extended way past the ends of his toes. His skin was briney and cracked, and the cracks were bristling with fungus.

I think, “Darn. Not a good day to forget my flip-flops. I have to walk on the same floor as him.” I’ve been pretty rigorous about wearing flip-flops in locker rooms ever since I caught a fungus in the Eugene YMCA many years ago. (At least I think it was at the Y. How can you really tell?) It was a crappy case because it was exacerbated by sunlight, which is unusual. I could not go barefoot in the sun for years without it flaring up. And I love going barefoot in the sun. I went to a dermatologist in Springfield who said, and I quote, “I have never heard of that. I cannot help you with that.” I eventually cured it last summer with this wearying routine: I bought every topical antifungal I could find (tolnaftate, clotrimazole, miconazole nitrate, terbinafine hydrochloride, and butenafine hydrochloride) and used them twice a day, morning and night, rotating the medication every four days, until there had been no symptoms for 30 days. No flare-ups since then, even barefoot in the sun.

So I was walking around the locker room, feeling creeped out about invisible fungal spores everywhere, and it hit me that the place was teeming with people who were not wearing flip-flops. No one was wearing flip-flops at all. And I imagined that no one else was thinking about fungus, just running around, taking showers, getting dressed. Locker room stuff. I think, “These people are probably not going to go home with a fungal infection, and I’m probably not either, but this guy did at some point, and so did I, and what’s the difference?” Did that guy have feet like that because he’s old and has had a long time to collect crazy fungi with them? Is it because his immune system is not functioning in some way? Is it because his skin is extra-susceptible for some reason? Why him and not these kids? Why him and hopefully not me?

Last term I took a class called Wellness and Spirituality Through the Life Cycle. It was a good class. I learned a lot about how people in different spiritual traditions think about and cope with illness, death and dying. It was also depressing. Maybe it was that it came on the heels of Medical Family Therapy, which is another relentless 10-week focus on illness, death and dying. Ten weeks got me down, but 20 weeks had me hitting some pretty strong existential angst: My parents are getting older and are going to die one day. So am I. My grandfather is 91 and doing great but was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Man, am I going to miss him one of these days.

One day in Wellness and Spirituality we had a guest lecturer–Jonathan Stemer, a transpersonal therapist from Looking Glass, the clinic where I now have an internship. He read us a poem from Mary Oliver and a quote from Rilke. Both of them hit home. It’s hard to describe exactly how, but something about the brutality of death and the possibility of an open mind and heart in the face of it. I try to live an open life, but I think that a stance of openness can be an illusion if not in sight of hardships like illness and death. It can be a game of frivolity or superiority – charming but weightless.

“When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

And here’s the Rilke quote:

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

I once heard an interview on NPR with a woman who had been born a slave in the US. What struck me most about it was that it had been recorded after I was born, in 1971. I had never even considered the possibility that my lifespan had overlapped with anyone who had seen the Civil War! One lifespan between me and the Civil War–that means two lifespans between me and the Declaration of Independence. A 90 year old could have seen both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and a 101 year old could have seen both the Civil War and me. I’m about halfway through my life, so that makes the US about two and a half lifespans old.

This was my first taste of what a young country the US is. When I learned about it in school, the Civil War seemed so long ago. People dressed funny, talked funny, and so many of them still thought slavery was a good deal. But that stuff just goes to show how fast fashion and ethics can change.

Before this experience, racism always seemed like this inexplicable anachronism: Where do these backwards idiots come from? We figured this stuff out ages ago! But the last Americans who actually owned slaves, bought and sold people, died only about 20 years before I was born.

My second taste was when I house-sat for a family who were Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatics. I re-read some of her books and watched a bunch of Little House on the Prairie episodes and started researching her life a little. She was born in 1867, just after the Civil War ended, had her log-cabin, covered-wagon young life, got married in 1885, and died in 1957. Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t just around for Manifest Destiny and the destruction of the last Native American societies. She saw cars, radio, television, airplanes, and  the Jazz Age. She saw World War I, World War II, the atomic bomb, communist revolutions, Fascism, the Great Depression, Hitchcock movies, nuclear submarines, the Korean War, and DNA.

Even if Kurzweil and company are wrong about an exponential change trajectory, linear change would be dizzying enough. If Laura went from covered wagons to nuclear submarines, what am I going to see as an old man in the 2060s? Let’s hope for sustainability, teleportation and compassion, not creepy geo- and bioengineering disasters!

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