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Posts Tagged ‘aging’

Arlington

I drove down to Northern Virginia earlier this month to see old friends Richard and Tim. There was a time when we saw each other much more frequently, but distance and family and the circumstances of life separated us. Once we were collaborators in that grand dot-com enterprise called Recipe du Jour that reached many thousands of readers six days a week, but that was then. We are not those people anymore.

We could see the changes in each other – older, not so quick on our feet, though not necessarily any slower of mind. We were there to inter Tim’s mother, Jane, at Arlington National Cemetery, in a piece of ground next to her late husband, Colonel Lee. Tim had brought a vase of her ashes from the lake in North Carolina where he lives. It was a sunny day, on the edge of chill.

A large extended family and we friends walked through the white stones that stretched far off into the distance. A military chaplain of the appropriate faith interwove the facts of Mrs. Lee’s life that must have been provided to him, with thoughts on the military calling and the rewards of heaven. I have been to far colder funerals than this.

It was all handled with military precision as seems appropriate being repeated many times a day amid so many men and women in uniform. The capitol dome was visible in the distance. Tim wore a T-shirt under a new sports coat. I’m not sure he has owned a shirt with a collar since 1995.

Until this visit I had nurtured the unspoken hope that we might renew our collaboration in some new form. But I think that spark has died. We may continue on our individual projects, but we are in another stage of life, one where we look back more than we look ahead. If that sounds too depressing or despondent, it’s only the way all stories end. Hopefully, there were a few good stories –like Richard’s Vietnam vignettes or Tim’s humorous recollections of the many times he maimed himself.

I will remember the way our readers seemed like a large extended family, keeping in touch with cards and emails, birthday wishes, generous comments and contributions. That was why we continued for so many years, and we thanked Richard for the many hours he put in making a place for us to share our stories with the 20,000 strong Recipe du Jour family.

We have been best friends since high school. That’s a long time. Longer than we’ve known our wives, or in Tim’s case, ex-wives. On my drive down from central Pennsylvania to Leesburg, Va., I conjured up memories of some of the best times, moments that I would like to relive for a little while. Like the trip with Tim to New Orleans when we popped the new Stevie Nicks CD in the stereo and watched the gas flares burn off on the oil rigs in the dark. Or driving in Richard’s family station wagon out to Virginia Beach and turning on the radio to hear Richard Harris singing his monumental version of MacArthur Park, everything still unknown and possible.

Did we live up to the promise we saw in each other as teenagers, proud of our brains and creativity and difference from the crowd of high school yahoos? Maybe not. But there are a hundred days and hours I would happily relive again with these guys. Proud to be one of their kind.

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Last night I went to the Pilates class again to try to slow the creep of stiffness and the curve of spine that comes from slouching over a computer all day. The instructor, a woman my own age who can twist herself into a pretzel, quoted Joseph Pilates, the patriarchal founder of the regimen, as saying that you are only as old as your spine. So, quit slouching.

A lot of us, forty million or so, are beginning to look like our fathers, but we are not accepting it quite so gently. We spend around $50 billion a year on anti-aging products. Is it just my faulty memory or did our fathers seem to become middle aged a decade younger than us and grandfatherly by their early fifties? Now we wear jeans to work on Fridays.

When I was younger I was more concerned with dying than with aging. I owe some of that to the 19th century Romantic poets who all expected to die young and often did. You don’t have to worry about growing old if you die of tuberculosis in your twenties. But also there was the plague that was killing young men all around me in San Francisco in the 1980s. That was cause to look at mortality with a shiver. Then there was the great book, Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker, which convinced me that all our culture is based on the attempt to escape our knowledge of our inevitable demise.

But somehow I have survived the motorcycle wreck and the slip on the waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the lung cancer that took my father in his fifties, and the inexplicable diseases that killed off three young friends inside a year in San Francisco. Now I watch my cholesterol and try to sit up straight in front of my computer screen.

A lot has been discovered in recent years in regard to aging. The diseases of aging are being attacked and the errors that pile up in the cells over time are being studied and soon may be erased. Another generation, probably not my own, may live to a healthy hundred and ten.

Aubrey de Grey, the long-bearded prophet of long life, lists seven causes of aging, which, when cured, will let us live as long as Methuselah, which is about a thousand years. Many scoff, but some stay to pray at his Methuselah Foundation. None of his seven types of damage have a treatment yet, though various fruit flies, mice, and worms have been induced to increased lifespan in the lab.

My generation seems to have traded a longer life for more years of decrepitude, the worst of both worlds. We live longer but are sicker, with obesity and diabetes as the main culprits. A study done a few years ago shows that our parents were healthier at a similar age, though at least we smoke less. We also exercise less and eat more.

I ignore the elevator and walk up the long flight of stairs to my office, hoping I am holding off the time when I will hobble to the elevator with my walker. I square my shoulders in the approved Pilates way and straighten my spine, but still my faulty cells decline.

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If you are twenty years old, you may believe the time between ages twenty and sixty is forty years. If you are sixty, you probably know that it is only forty seconds. Now I am sixty, and I know my own past is only a few moments long, and as I get older it compresses faster, especially the years from twenty onward.

Only childhood retains a curious timelessness. In my memory it is all one seamless moment, a golden bubble floating above the stream of time that I can take in my hand and stare into, seeing the long ago – the eternal green trees, the grasshoppers caught in my fist, and the rain bouncing off of the blue-topped driveway stretching out to the distant road.

In childhood, time was expansive; there was enough of it to fill each moment with a little left over. Time grew like mangoes on the stems of the trees, full of sweet juice. It was not yet a river in a mad one-way rush to dissolution.

The metaphor of time as a river is a compelling one in the modern world. The rush of events, the magnitude of change, leaves us like rowers in a clumsy boat with a single oar, plowing into the rapids, fending off rocks, fighting to stay afloat while the river flows more swiftly. Time, like a river, flows only one way, and we cannot step out of it or float backward on it, except in memory.

But that is the modern mind looking at time. I don’t believe less driven cultures would recognize our metaphor as valid. I remember a long ago course in anthropology that examined the beliefs of the Australian Aborigines, the original inhabitants of Australia. I was struck by the way they still live, when allowed to, in a timeless world where the dead live on in different form, and the ancestors, the Dreamtime heroes, give instruction and offer guidance. The Dreamtime intermingles past and present, waking and sleeping, as well as life and death.

Of course the Aborigines did not build any great bridges and did not launch rockets to the moon, and they will probably not even exist as a culture by the end of this century. So, in the Darwinian scheme, they were a noncontender. But I like the Dreamtime, and I suspect there was something powerfully satisfying about living in it before it was ruined, like living in the mystical world of childhood, surrounded by wiser beings, speaking to kangaroos and stones, taking a part in creation.

If cultures are like individuals, and I believe they are, then ours is like a disappointed man at mid-life who has taken on the responsibilities of adulthood but has missed out on the joys. We thought that if we gave up the timeless world of childhood play, bought a wristwatch, and clocked in at work for forty years that we would be rewarded for our labors by the appreciation of our bosses, the admiration of our children, and the respect of the younger generation. We would have a warm interior sense of well being and satisfaction, and would look back on a life of contribution to a larger goal, building the safe and sane society.

I believe that particular dream has about come to an end. We look around us and see a society we barely recognize, see our lives spent in commuting to places we do not want to be, see our jobs disappear with one silly euphemism or another – belt-tightening or down-sizing. Our spouses look at us and wonder what is inside, not realizing that we have lost everything in the insane rush of the river.

Maybe it is time to bring the Dreamtime back into our lives, pluck the mangoes filled with time, speak to grasshoppers and trees. Let us cultivate the interior garden so our spouses can find a place to walk with us, and our children find some nourishment. Let’s live a little more than a forty second life.

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