A Bowlful of Reading Glasses
In his 1988 essay “Heaven and Nature” Edward Hoagland writes, “Nobody expects to trust his body overmuch after the age of fifty.” I am only forty-eight, but as a devoted pre-crastinator, I always try to stay ahead of deadlines. Several weeks ago (or maybe it was a month? Time keeps slipping, slipping, slipping . . .) the arch of my right foot began to inexplicably hurt when I was taking a walk. It felt a bit like the house furnace: working great one moment and then utterly broken the next. My eyes went in precisely the same way. In the span of about twelve minutes, my arms were no longer long enough to hold my phone far enough away from my face to read anything. Now I have a bowlful of reading glasses.
I have begun to snort like a wild boar in the middle of the night. My wife has politely resorted to using a white noise generator to keep my nasal outbursts from waking her. When I rise in the morning, I slide my legs over the side of the bed and take an inventory of what hurts. It’s hardly ever not nothing anymore. In his New Yorker essay entitled, "Why We Can't Tell the Truth About Aging," Arthur Krystal writes, "There is, of course, a chance that you may be happier at eighty than you were at twenty or forty, but you’re going to feel much worse."
Not trusting my body is disconcerting, but not recognizing myself feels even stranger. I remember my body at five and twenty. I looked great.
Looking at myself in the mirror now (glasses on, of course), I wonder, "Who the hell is that?" Mostly, I look like I'm turning into pizza dough. I started doing yoga about six months ago to combat this phenomenon, and the effect has been profound: for every week of yoga, my body looks about five seconds younger. If I can keep it up till I'm eighty or so, I will look about twenty-five minutes younger on my deathbed than I would have looked otherwise.
Sometimes at night, I notice my hands while holding a book in bed. They are the hands of an old person—dry, wrinkled, spotted with age marks. They are my father’s hands.
Why do we struggle to understand the passage of time? Days slide into years into decades and still we think, “I am the same person.” Is it cruel that we remember ourselves as all the ages we have ever been, even though the physical evidence tells us otherwise? All my life I have strived to know myself better, and with each passing day, I recognize myself less and less. Are these really my feet? Like old growth forest, they mostly blend in with the hardwood floor.
I don't feel less emotionally alive than I did twenty years ago. I still have the same quantity of frustrations, desires, and (if I'm honest with myself) ambitions that I used to have. Middle age does not manifest like the robot toy in the back of the closet whose chirps wither and crackle as its battery slowly runs out. I may be headed to the dustbin of cosmic insignificance on my half-dead Duracell, but life is still playing loudly in my head.
But the evidence of my vulnerability mounts. Coronavirus is here, and it threatens to destroy the old. The young still want to go to bars. "Fuck 'em," they say to themselves as they hinge straight-legged from their waists all the way to the ground to slip on their party shoes before calling an Uber, ignoring pleas to stay home for the sake of their grandmas.
I stay home, not quite old, definitely not young.
"Will you die if you get the disease?" my twelve year old son asks me.
"Fifty-fifty," I think to myself. Such is the limbo of middle age.
I am suspicious of the idea that advancing age brings increasing levels of benign contentment. Does irrelevance make anyone feel better about themselves? A few weeks ago, before the world went bananas, my family went to a newly developed part of town—bars, restaurants, condos, chic stores —and everyone seemed younger than me, and 18% happier. "Why does everything have to be new all the time?" I said to my wife.
"I like it down here," she said, but in a tone that suggested I make a choice to get busy livin' or get busy dyin'. At work it's no better. It didn't occur to me before becoming a school teacher that I would be trapping myself in a time-loop where I'm the only one who ever gets any older. Year after year, the students stay young and full of promise. The fresh faces just keep on coming.
But now, thanks to this virus, we're all stuck at home in our proverbial rockers, wondering what the future will bring. With the prospect of imminent disease and death on our minds, there's plenty of time to read. I'm tucking in to The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch. He writes, "Suppose it were general knowledge that satisfaction with life tends to increase right through old age . . . that the losses brought by aging are paired with compensating gains; that late adulthood is a natural time for renewal and repurposing, rather than a time of banishment to idleness and of preparation for death." That's a wonderful thought, especially since idleness and preparation for death is pretty much everyone's full-time job as the moment. But I like his notion that despite the certainty of increasing decrepitude in our physical bodies, our minds can stay light as air.
After all, the times call for staying in the moment, focussing on what's still in good working order. It's true that I have a painful brick-sized knot between my shoulder blades that appears to be my own physical embodiment of our collective existential peril. But I'm also looking at my beautiful daughter on the couch engrossed in writing a short story about gooey-green monsters. We are healthy, we are home, we are anticipating a brighter tomorrow, or at least the day after tomorrow, or surely the day after that. Some things can be appreciated at any age.