Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Oldest Guy in the Room

Reading a blog by a guy I know recently, and came across a posting on growing older. He was speaking to the notion that he didn't have a lot of role models for aging–where he grew up, folks tended to arrive at old age battered and worn, if arrive they did, and that realization, all things must pass, was beginning to come home to him.

As a serious, if aging and battered jock, he was looking around and wondering how to make the transition from where he'd been to where he was going.

The saw: "If I had known I was going to live so long, I'd have taken better care of myself ..."

I knew guys who lived fast and hard and expected they'd die young. Some of them did. But against the odds, some of them who assumed that, instead, somehow survived. Woke up one morning gray and wrinkled, tired and aching and pains every whichwhere, looked around, and said, "Son-of-a-bitch! Now what do I do?"

Well, start from where you are ...

It's all relative. You know the story of the ninety-year-old man who goes to see his doctor?

"Doc," he says, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I just don't have any energy these days. I mean, I do my morning three-mile walk, hit the gym, make love to my wife, and I'm exhausted. I hardly have enough energy left to get through three games of bowling after dinner at the steakhouse. What  can I do?"

"You can get the hell out of my office. Go write a damned how-to book!"

I'm not the guy to hold myself up as the example here, but I do have some thoughts about it. 

First, don't give in and assume that you are over the hill and there's no hope. You can almost always improve your situation. If you have long-standing injuries that can't be fixed, you can learn work-arounds. Nobody has invented the forever pill, and no matter what you do, gravity always wins, but you can effect changes until you get there.

You have two great, cheap tools you can use: Diet and exercise.

If you are twenty-five and still bulletproof, now is the time to start down that road. You won't believe it, but trust me here, you aren't bulletproof. What you do now is going to come back to haunt you. Ask anybody over sixty.

If you are sixty, beat-up and creaky, now is also the time to start down that road. It's not too late to make a difference. There are all kinds of studies that show you can take a sedentary eighty-year-old and start him working out and eating well and make dramatic improvements in his strength and overall health.

Being a fit eighty-year-old might be kind of like being the world's shortest giant, you won't be able to run with the fit young dogs, but you can still beat the couch potatoes to the fridge. There are eighty-year-old guys out there in better shape than I am. Better shape than you, too.

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can be a vegetarian, do yoga every morning and tai chi every evening, meditate, and still get cancer or fall over dead from a stroke or heart attack at thirty-five. It happens. You can smoke like Satan, drink a bar full of Irish workmen under the table, and party at the House of the Rising Sun every night until dawn and live to be a hundred, too. If you chose your parents carefully.)

You could get hit by a bus. A big meteor could fall on your house. The Mayans might have been right. No guarantees. 

Working out and eating less crap aren't going to amount to a panacea; however,  like being a card counter at the blackjack table, they can help you stay in the game. Yeah, the house wins in the long run, but you can shade the odds your way. You might not be able to change the quantity of your life, but you can certainly change the quality. Are seventy-five good years better than a hundred crappy ones? Are thirty great years better than seventy-five good ones? Decide that for yourself and see if excess or moderation is the route you want to travel. 

You do have to recognize that you won't be the man (or woman) at seventy that you were at twenty-five. That if you had peaks, you were the strongest guy in the room, the fastest out of the blocks, the unbeatable bad-ass at the bar, you are going to have to let those go. Nature of the organism. You know what happens to the boxing champion who sticks around too long, don't you? 

All things must pass:

A forty-year-old NBA pro is on his last legs. There are a couple active ones almost that old. Are there any who are forty-five? No. Oldest one ever made it that far, but the game was different sixty-five years ago when he was playing it.

You aren't going to the Olympics to win the hundred meter dash at age thirty-five, no matter how much you want it.

You can, however, start to take care of yourself at whatever age you are, and be like the ninety-year-old guy complaining to his doctor.

It's all relative.


Justin said...

Sage advice, Steve.
I'm planning on living to be 125, by the way, so I am very wary of any LA metro buses I see.

Subrata Sircar said...

Jaime Moyer is still pitching in the majors - he's not great, but he's still one of the 250 best starting pitchers on the planet, when all his age mates are out of the game.

Time is undefeated, but taking it to the final bell is possible.

Rory said...

The role transition is the one that I don't have a good answer for. Imagine that writing at your level-- a working professional-- required some tangible thing that decreased over time. When the 'right stuff' decreases to either the point that you can't do it or can't do it to a standard you are comfortable with, you'll have to do something else. Long before that stage, you start looking at the writers older than you and find:
A) Ones pretending nothing has changed and they keep writing, not just no longer good but actively injuring themselves and shortening their lives or
B) Former writers drinking themselves to death.

You hear that there are some natural transitions, like teaching... but what you love is writing.

It was never about the body wearing down.

Steve Perry said...

But writing does require something that fades over time, just like most things. The wits dulls, the fingers ache, the ideas stop coming. And just like anything else, if you want to keep doing it, you learn to fight smarter and not harder, nor even as hard as you once did.

There are older writers who have lost it, but some whose skills, even in deterioration are still better than most. Just like there are older fighters out there who can kick a lot of young asses hither and yon. Only they can't do it the same way, so they have to come up with new tricks.

And of course it's about the body wearing down, at least partially. The gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven who laments, after catching a fly in his hand that once he would have caught both of them? He's lost a bit of speed. Nature of the equipment. It runs slower and eventually, stops ...

Joe said...


Thanks for the article. I'm printing it out and giving it to my wife who was recently diagnosed with a kind of age-related disc degeneration in her spine. The doctors have recommended all sorts of exercises to help strengthen her core muscles to lessen the symptoms. Her attitude is pretty much "why bother?", since the sports she loved doing are no longer possible for her.

Again, thanks.


Mike Byers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SM said...

Sprague de Camp had a comment to that effect: "If only I could have the ideas I had 20 years ago today! I could turn them into much better stories." Keith Laumer had his stroke and tried to keep writing after. He could still sell, but it was never quite the same ...

Its not hard to find examples of people who kept violent, physically demanding jobs after 50 (William Marshall, half the Diadochoi, Donald McBane if one trusts his autobiography) but they seem the exception to the rule.

Steve Perry said...

For me, the notion is simple: Make the best of what you have. Probably you have more than you think, but because it doesn't look like the stuff you used to have, it can get lost in the shuffle.

There are all kinds of examples of people who had handicaps but who figured out a way around them. Half the martial arts out there seem to have a one-armed guy from back in the beginning and who managed to make do.

Rory's comment, (which I deliberately misunderstood in my response) goes to looking for models and not finding them. If you are trying to find a way to get from the mountain top to the river and you can't see anybody who has managed it, it can be discouraging.

I wasn't a fighter, so I didn't have that to lose. I was never a world-class anything, save maybe with a yo-yo, and so there's no great height from which I've fallen.

At some level, I think I instinctively began looking at the long run, and decided not to peak too early. I got out of hard-style martial arts and moved toward the softer side. I never pushed really heavy weights. And I learned to augment things.

I wear glasses, can't see the big E without them. I wear hearing aids. I use sound suppressors when I vacuum the rugs or run the weed eater, too, to protect what little hearing I have left.

These days, when I work out, I wear neoprene braces on my knees, and I'm not above using mouthpieces, tape, wraps, or whatever. There was a time when I thought only sissies went there. I got past that ...

I think as a result, I was fitter at forty than at twenty, and pretty close at sixty. But the clock is winding down and the legs and lungs aren't what they were; even though I'm fitter than most men my age. If I can keep that going, it's a reasonable goal.