I am at that point in my life when the next ailment could be the one that kills me. This is the most distressing part of the frontier I seem to have crossed at some indiscernible time in the not-too-distant past. It is not the only cause for distress. An organization that caters to the interests of a group of former peers who have moved into retirement used to send me a magazine every month. It was filled with suggestions to help me through my advancing age. These included ads on stand-up entry bathtubs and “simple” phones with big numbers I could stare at wishing I could remember my grandchildren’s phone numbers. I don’t have grandchildren, but I could. It’s possible I need a phone that is simpler than the one a three-year-old can use. Maybe if I had bigger numbers on my phone I would actually be inclined to use them instead of simply asking a digital assistant to call someone from my contacts. I believe I have been offered membership in AARP. I don’t know for sure; I can’t remember. I do throw away an amazing amount of colorful paper that is still delivered to a box in my neighborhood by an actual person (his lack of accuracy is one reason for the dwindling utility of this “service”). I no longer get the sideways glances and second looks from young women—the kind that offer, for a fleeting moment, the possibility of entirely new worlds of experience. In my job I walk by hundreds of thousands of people over the course of several months. My newfound anonymity is not simply due to the tyranny of small numbers; I am clearly less attractive to what is now the largest age demographic in the country than I was when I could still have been considered their peer. Come to think of it, this may be the most distressing part of my new frontier.
I had pictures taken the other day as a prerequisite to some proposed orthodonture. It was hard to reconcile the photos with my impression of how I present to the world. My impression of myself is an inviolable imprint I want to impose on the cosmic background, but inviolability is an impossibility as long as we continue to grow older. It’s a tradeoff. People used to ask if I was old enough to do what I had trained my whole adult life to do. My wife and I, in our early thirties and dressed for a formal military occasion held at a Las Vegas hotel, were accused by an old couple of being out for “our prom.” These things no longer happen. As one of my long-time friends said to me after we had set a rendezvous with someone we didn’t know for a meeting we were required to attend but had failed to get identifying information, “don’t worry; we look exactly like who we are.” He was right. The person responsible for retrieving us pulled right up in a busy parking lot and called us both by our title and names. It was comforting at the time to be recognized for status and stature. That was not the impression I had looking at those photos. I looked like Nick Nolte’s mug shot minus the dastardly-professor hair. What, that doesn’t ring a bell? Right…because I may be a product of another era. Nick Nolte is not dead, by the way (I looked it up), but he could be. Maybe he should be, given that he lived the life of Nick Nolte, but then couldn’t that be any of us?
Just over a year ago, my best friend and the one I have kept the longest (he is not technically my “oldest” friend) felt a lump in his throat during, what, a routine throat exam? No, there isn’t any such thing in the general knowledge. Somehow he felt something odd. His wife, a doctor, thought it was odd too. He had throat cancer. Throat cancer! What the fuck? He’s a year younger than I am. It’s the kind maybe 5% of people with a particular virus get. Or maybe it has a 5% mortality rate. I’m not exactly sure. He threw some numbers at me when we talked about it. All I was thinking was, “he has fucking throat cancer.”
He had it excised. He’s aggressively observing it now. He’s braver, and probably smarter, than I. I would have had every known supposed remedy thrown at my neck had this been me. He’s observing. And going mountain biking and skiing. He started a new career teaching physics to high school students. He just decided to continue doing what he’s always done. He just decided to keep living. I don’t mean he has a choice about whether he lives or dies. I am convinced, in the universal roulette game we are all a part of, our choice means very little, and I’m fairly sure he feels the same way. What I mean is that he simply decided to live.
My cousin’s wife wasn’t so lucky. And let’s be honest, it is mostly luck. The chance alignment of nucleic acids; the random, though structured, interactions of passing electrons. She’s been gone for nearly a decade now. She was, I think, younger than I when she was diagnosed with a cancer that was particularly aggressive. She decided to live too. She decided to fight it with all that modern medicine had. I never met her, but I know I would have liked her. She changed my cousin’s life, made it immeasurably, perhaps infinitely, more full. Her cosmic imprint is now inviolable. She is, and forever will be, exactly as she was. It will eventually happen to us all.
The pain in my leg could be a clot that will eventually stick somewhere in my brain and turn out my light. I can see veins in my ankles that I had not seen up until a few years ago. There are pains in my knuckles that I have previously only known when I broke a finger or toe playing some fast-moving and violent sport. I strain ligaments with increasing frequency. I don’t know if this is the beginning of some new long-term malfeasance my body has inflicted on me or if it is simply a new reality of biology marching in time.
Perhaps the most telling sign of my advancing age is that I am, I won’t have to tell you, discussing my infirmities. The overriding memory of my childhood, when my mother would get back together with her mother and sister after long absences, is this very idea. My Granny had eleven brothers and sisters. My mom had more than 100 first cousins. Working through health and demise among all those relatives took the better part of a week in constant and very loud conversation. I don’t know how it didn’t drive my father to drinking. It might have me.
I have at times availed myself of the opportunity to, in the words of the communion of my youth, “partake of the fruit of the vine” and also of the fermented bounty of the field. I don’t recover well anymore when I drink too much. This has become increasingly rare. It seems I am finally executing a consequence management process I heretofore applied poorly. A manifestation of the alleged wisdom of age, I suppose. It isn’t all bad.
At a certain age, invasive—though non-surgical—procedures must be performed on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why do we not call it the CDCP? Unlike the one done in my mid-thirties due to the irrational fears born of historically late fatherhood, there seemed to be a larger non-zero chance that something might be found. My brother-in-law, only a few years older, was recently declared cancer free from the ailment a doctor, who surely did not think when he dreamed of medical school that he would be working to and from this end, was now looking for in me. When you are pronounced healthy in this regard you are given a ten-year respite from the indignity. Ten years. It’s a long time. Didn’t I mention all these other aches and pains I was having? What about the leg pain, doc? I know; it’s not your specialty, but since I’m here…Seriously, I could actually be dead in ten years.
We’re cutting down on “unnecessary” preventative procedures to “streamline” our healthcare system and provide “better service” to a wider range of individuals. Or we are better using science. I’m lucky that I will have healthcare no matter when it truly does become “necessary.” Let’s face it, in this political environment it is luck. Either that or it is a well-deserved product of my individual productivity which can be solely attributed to my hard work and involves no other entity, particularly governmental, whatsoever. Believe what you will. If you believe the latter you surely are a practitioner of exquisite faith (before you take that as a compliment, you should see 2b in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary). Of course in my case—as in the case of every member of Congress—my luck is wholly attributable to governmental entities. While the lack of it is terrifying for others, my half century of government-provided healthcare and the knowledge that it will be there in the next half century of my life is comforting for me. It isn’t going to allow me to live forever though. The question is, what to do about this creeping mortality? As I so often have in the past, I think I’ll take a cue from my great friend.
Just as we all have done when confronting international terrorism, or the scourge of random gun violence, or far more acutely, the possibility that someone’s text will interrupt life in a jarring crush of bone and metal, we must choose to go on with the living. I’ve been thinking of how to go about this for the last several months. Call it combating my next midlife crisis, which if I continue having in coming decades may be a strategy in and of itself.
For one, I am recommitting to reading. Since I found Tom Swift and dreamed that I could be a juvenile space traveler and hero, I have always been a reader, but I go through phases. I’ve read plenty of non-fiction over the years. Now I am trying to read more fiction. I’m trying to read different sides of scientific debates. I am reading about quantum physics and the politics of Brexit and Venezuela. These are (mostly) unrelated depending on your view of free will, determinism, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. I subscribe to three newspapers and journals. I can name at least five print sources where I get my news (I’m therefore overqualified for a losing vice-presidential bid or being a soldier of liberation in the “war against Christmas”). I sometimes read academic papers or think tank pieces. I like reading financial forecasts and outlooks. Come to think of it, I’m not very good about committing to more fiction.
I stopped boycotting things. What a ridiculous endeavor unless you are attempting to force change in an industry where your cohort holds a monopoly of consumers. I actually gave this up ages ago, but it bears discussing now, don’t you think? What is your current outrage? Isn’t it terrible how free people choose to exercise that freedom? Sure it is. As a result of my apathy for personally costless activism I have seen several amazing athletes performing their craft, shopped at will at places like Target without a single androgynous bathroom scare or the foreboding feeling of civilization crashing down all around me (to be fair, I don’t linger in the TV section if Fox News is playing), eaten the best fast food chicken (not on Sunday) and even been served by someone attracted to her own gender who managed to be hired there, seen Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon perform incredible parts in meaningful or simply entertaining movies, still have several pairs of tennis shoes that have not met conflagration, occasionally listened to a female trio who (oh, shame!) said while they were in a foreign country they didn’t particularly like a past president, and sometimes I will even drink a Yuengling. For the record that female trio had their CDs shot through with arrows or shotguns by people who, just a few years later, actively believed another president was illegitimate based on birth or religion…or, some might say, race. I’m guessing they would assure you that was different. Right. I will admit I don’t shop at Hobby Lobby, primarily because I’m not often in the market for Styrofoam balls. If I am, there is always Michael’s. I don’t worry about Hobby Lobby. There are plenty of evangelical Christian consumers and voters who always stick to their principles. Mostly. They’ll be fine (Hobby Lobby, I mean…).
I’m going to theater again, the live kind though I will never spell it “theatre.” This has been a mixed result. Some is high art. Some is mediocrity pretending to be high art. Some is the accidental caricature of complete drivel being presented by those who believe they are performing high art. I’m saddened because of the willful conspiracy perpetrated by those who propelled such self-delusion. Think of the real and meaningful art these people could have created had someone told them to drop this or that project and just move on. I point you to the comment block below; no one should have to suffer such a sad fate.
I am trying to get on my mountain bike more often (it is possible I should have done that this morning instead of writing this). I am trying to write more pieces of meaning. I am no longer sure I can continue to comment on politics though there is no greater urgency than attempting to illustrate the nature and consequence of policy. Who will read it, though? Who is interested in meaningful discussions, devoid of partisanship, on the coming effects of our leaders’ various actions and inactions? This piece will be more than 2,000 words. American policy and Senate Judiciary Committee hearing decisions are put out in fewer than 241 characters. What chance do long-form journalism, personal essay, and those longer pieces of cogent thought called “books” have in this environment? I don’t know, but I remain committed to all those forms. For all my commitment, I am failing miserably so far. I have long lists of things I should be writing, but I am having difficulty bringing them to the page. Maybe this is the piece that breaks the dam. If not I can always go mountain biking.
I’m trying to learn the guitar. I know three chords. Six if I concentrate. This has also been a mixed result, probably filled with the aforementioned self-delusion. If so it seems to me to be of the particularly self-aware kind.
I have been hiking on several of my many days off trying to get the lay of the land. The other day I scared the hell out of three fishermen who thought I was from the Department of Natural Resources when I asked what they were “catching them on.” Sometimes maybe I don’t look like exactly who I am. There is hope there. I don’t recover as quickly from several miles on the trail, by foot or wheel, as I used to either. I take Motrin before I exercise. It is unclear whether it helps or not. I may be immune.
There is something to making the mental commitment to live. You have to think about it. You have to consider whether what you are doing now is enough to sustain you. You have to reevaluate the status quo. These explorations of self-reflection, as much as anything else, may themselves be the things that push back against the incessant inevitability we all face. Just do something, the new Nike ad might say, even if you have no desire to sacrifice anything. Maybe just decide to live. Read. Relax your outrage. Take a hike. At least after jaunts into the woods you’ll have a reason for the pain in your legs. It probably isn’t the thing that is going to kill you. Probably.