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Couch-22

In America, it's just fine to be past 70.

By From the September 2013 issue

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"THE DAYS OF our years are threescore years and ten,” or so said the Psalmist. If he’s right, then for almost a year, I’ve been, as George Will once put it, playing with the house’s money. So far 70 hasn’t been so bad.

The Psalmist, not a jolly fellow in the best of his time, allowed that things might stretch to 80 years, but this bonus would be full of sorrow. My orthopedist and my urologist might supply some supporting data for this thesis. But even considering that the Psalmist wrote before pain-free (almost) dentistry, the author of 90:10 was gloomier than he needed to be.

No denying, there’s a starkness to 70. One can no longer, as one could in one’s 50s, even a chunk of the 60s, claim to be in late middle-age. Seventy is old. But not, as most of us thought in school years, beyond hope and prayer.

At 70, the horizon is shorter. Mortality is not as abstract a concept as it was when the sap was rising. I now not only understand but feel what Prospero meant by “Our little life is rounded with a sleep.” But when I go to memorial services for yet another of my high-school classmates, as I sometimes must these days, I don’t get the feeling that the undertaker is mentally taking my measurements and including me in this year’s cash-flow projections. Most of the time I feel fine. I’m no longer young, but not shovel-ready either. 

There are even benefits to this age and stage beyond reduced-priced tickets to ball games and movie theaters (too bad the latter came along for me after Hollywood quit making movies for grownups). By 70, if one has been paying attention, one knows a few things. The view is long enough to put things in perspective, though many mysteries remain. (Who would have it any other way? How much fun could a life without mystery be?) By now, things like striving, competing to the max, worrying about and yearning for so many things that turn out to be of little account can be conferred on younger strengths. And welcome to them, boys and girls.

OKAY, BUT IF time is so much shorter, why spend, some would say waste, so much of what remains watching competitive sports? A fair question, and one I’ve been asked by some of my culture-vulture friends (but not, I’m happy to say, by my tolerant wife, who is content to have me watching Rays games of an evening on my office TV). The short and somewhat wise-acre answer to this question is, “Because I can’t play them anymore.”

As a younger man I was often in the game myself, though only at an amateur or playground, pick-up level. I haven’t been benched. But thanks to a gaudy number of birthdays, I have been couched. I now watch younger men do ever so much better at the games I sweated at for years. I declare this time well spent.

I’m a polysport. Baseball is my favorite. It’s the game, with its many complexities, subtleties, and its demand for long and laboriously honed skills, that most repays the attention of the intelligent observer. But I’ll watch football, basketball, boxing, even hockey for a bit, though this game was absent from my Southern youth and still strikes me as a bar fight on skates. I draw the line at golf, which I accept is very popular but which I find narcoleptic.

There are reasons for knowing and talking about sports in a society where they are part of the social fabric. Sports talk can grease many a social and business situation. But I’m not into the games for such utilitarian gain. I watch them because they bring me pleasure and aesthetic gratification, as does a well-acted Lear or a well-sung Magic Flute.

Sports impose a clarity that almost nothing else in life does—at least on the field. Defense stipulates that the sports-industrial complex is a moral and financial dog’s breakfast (with apologies to some fine dogs I know). Skill and craftsmanship are rewarded on the field, as is grace under pressure. This is all the more impressive as these virtues feature in fewer and fewer phases of public life. Literary awards go to hacks, academic promotions to humbugs, journalism awards to toadies, and, too often, big business scores to sharpies. Let’s not even talk about politics.

The game may be our last meritocracy. Who you know is of no utility between the lines. Daddy, the PR department, Navy Relief, or the League of Women Voters can’t help you sink a free-throw with the game on the line. Being on someone’s fast track won’t help you hit Mariano Rivera’s cutter in the ninth. There are no affirmative action touchdowns (yet). No social promotion three-pointers. All the individual athlete can call on are his skill, craft, conditioning, preparation, game-smarts, and ability to deal with pressure, which there is a great deal of in sports at the highest level.

It’s doubtless true, as a friend helpfully pointed out, that in the thousands of hours I’ve spent watching sports, I could have learned to play the piano or read hundreds more books. But I already read more than I watch sports, and what’s another mediocre keyboard rendition of Bach against the thrills of those ’80s Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals, the Ali-Frazier fights, or the ’75 World Series?  

So, fellow patriots and couch potatoes, do not be bullied. What you’re doing has aesthetic and moral value. And if you’ve mowed the yard and cleaned the gutters as you promised before manning your couch, it does no harm. Banish the guilt. Enjoy the game. 

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.