Some of the aging process comes on slowly. I think of two particular incidents. In the first, I applied for a New Jersey driver’s license about eight years ago.
“Hair?” the examiner asked me.
“Brown,” I said.
The examiner looked up.
“You’re kidding,” she said.
“Gray,” went down on the license. I didn’t realize. I had been used to gray tips, but they always disappeared when I got a haircut. No more.
In a hospital some years later, an admissions nurse asked me my height.
“Five nine and a half,” I said.
My wife, at my side, snickered.
“What?” I said.
“Better measure him,” my wife said.
Which the nurse duly did. Five-five. Osteoporosis.
I got mine back on that one, however. Obviously, I can’t swing standard length and lie golf clubs any more. So I got my first fitted clubs. Really nice.
SOMEBODY ONCE SAID THAT WHEN YOU’RE 70, you feel just like you did when you were 18 — “except that something is really wrong.” Until three months ago, I was still doing my twice-daily stretch routine, proud that I could reach beyond my toes, tie my legs into yogic pretzels, lace my hands behind my back, and so forth.
I have always been a prideful old cuss about such things. At my sons’ taekwondo classes, I would outstretch my boys, let alone the adults. Overweight? Not me, not ever. Strong? I could pick up anything. Even when I was very sick a couple years back, I moved a double bed upstairs by myself.
But my history has begun to catch up with me. In particular, 30 years of prednisone use for kidney transplants has exacted its cost in weakened tendons and porous bones. I’m prone to annoying little injuries and pains. Mostly they go away after a while.
Then a few months back, while doing an exercise prescribed by a chiropractor, something went “spang” in my right buttock. For the next six weeks I had to deal with a blazing sciatic pain. Before that pain was solved, I had surgery to repair an old rotator cuff injury. Result: No stretching or exercise for a period of weeks. Enforced immobility for a month with one arm in a sling.
The worst part of an arm in a sling? It’s not tasks. You can learn to compensate for reaches and grasps. It’s balance. You use your arms unconsciously as you move around to keep your center of gravity in order. With one arm fixed (and, for a period, painful), you bump into things. You stumble. You feel like a clumsy fool.
And exercise — well, now that prideful smirk is gone from my mug. Let alone not being able to touch my toes, for several weeks, I couldn’t even reach my knees. It hurt. It still hurts. With pain comes discouragement, and with discouragement comes, all too easily, despair, the feeling that maybe this is it, that nothing is left but the long slide down.
Routine exercise scratches the same sort of psychological itch as practicing a musical instrument. And, like musical practice, the habit of exercise is easily lost. Happily, I have a long history of working out (and practice) to call on. I like noodling around with physical skills, analyzing them, improving them, observing them, and then doing it again the next day.
So I am exercising again. But oh, the humility. Last year, I could shoot a jump shot. This year, I can’t open a child-proof medicine bottle.
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