Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ruminations on aging

Damn it. I was writing this post on old age and stopped for a few days to go to the Bear's lair in Baltimore. We watch a Louie C.K. comedy special and he did a bit on old age. And, it was pretty funny.  I'm funnier than Mitt Romney (who isn't?), but not Louie C.K.  I had no intention for this to be funny and now I have to follow him.  It's not that everyone who will read this will have seen it. But, for me, it now feels kind of dry in comparison. Too bad. It's like getting old, I guess. Which brings us to my ruminations on it, starting with

. . . one of my favorite myths, which is about Thor, the mighty Norse god of thunder, who, accompanied by the trickster Loki and a very speedy god you likely never heard of, went to the halls of Utgard-Loki, who was one of the giants the Norse gods were always battling. There the gods were humiliated in competition. Thor, who first lost a drinking contest (or so he thought, not realizing he was drinking almost the entire ocean), challenged anyone there to wrestle him. The giant ridiculed him and called upon his nurse, Elli, who proceeded to outwrestle Thor, forcing him onto one knee, when the match was called.

Only after the gods had left did they learn the truth. Elli had not been a simple nurse, but the personification of old age, and, Thor had deeply impressed the giant that she was only able to force him onto one knee. What the point of the myth is, is not  especially clear. Maybe it's that even the gods are subject to old age, or, maybe that Thor was so powerful that even old age could not completely defeat him. Maybe both.  Or, maybe it's just that old age is even more powerful than an immortal (the Asgardian gods by the way, like many other gods, gain their immortality by eating special food).  It's an unusual myth in that it has been found in only one source, The Prose Edda, a collection of myths written by 11th century Icelander Snorri Snurleson. Unlike with his other stories, he cited no sources for this one and so some scholars think he made it up.  I have no idea, nor do I care very much. After all, all myths are made up by someone at some time. If he did make it up, it's still old enough to satisfy my sense of ancientness.

I'm 53 and no Thor.  Not only does that make me more than a half century old, but, I realized not long ago that I was more than 1/4th the age of Abraham Lincoln. Doesn't that blow your mind? Doesn't it seem like he should be ten times my age? 

53 is not very old by many standards. Though I probably feel better than I have in many years, I still feel kind of old. Some of that has to do with a bum leg, but I can see the sagging on my body and feel the loss of strength.  I go to the gym as often as I can stand to, usually between 3 and 5 times a week.  I'm also physically stronger than I was at most times of my adult life and my arms are physically larger than when I was a kid. Nevertheless, I was definitely stronger back then.  The loss of strength, it seems to me, is not so much because of weaker muscles so much as it is the tighter, more brittle ligaments, tendons and less oomph.  Less oomph may just mean I produce less testosterone than I used to.

There's all kinds of people in this world and maybe there are people who actually like getting older, just like some people claim. I have trouble believing it just like I have trouble believing people really like lettuce.  Getting older means decay. You slowly start dying. Thanks to modern medicine, food, safety rules and other benefits of modern life, we live a lot longer than we used to even a half century ago and much more comfortably. But, no one has found the fountain of youth yet.  Though there are those who are marvelously welled preserved, all of us are still aging, and once you get passed a certain point, it's all downhill. Sometimes, if an old person falls or otherwise injures themselves, it is downhill very, very quickly.  

But, I have no doubt that the vast majority of people do not like getting older. Let's face it, whoever said first "I'm not getting older, I'm getting better" was probably 22 years old. If you are a man, your testosterone slowly starts reducing when you are about 30. Less energy, less arousal, pretty much less everything.  If you are a woman, well, don't kill me for this, but your menopause is terrifying to others - both men and women. We understand, we sympathize, but we just hate it. I guess it can't be fun for you either, so - sorry.

Perhaps you want to say that older people have more wisdom, but one's man wisdoms is another man's just plain crazy. As my great, great spiritual grandfather, Henry David Thoreau said - "I think that no experience which I have today comes up to, or is comparable with, the experiences of my boyhood."  He also wrote something much rougher:
"Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about."

I think my beloved Thoreau, who seems to as wise a writer as I've ever read, and possibly the one who has had the biggest impact on my life, stumbled there, taking his point too far. It's not that all old people have good advice; he's right, much of it is terrible and based on their own.failures. What passes for wisdom is often just the voicing of regrets, bad luck, resignation or fear.  And sometimes the perception of wisdom is just acquired material wealth that gives the appearance of it,  as one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite musicals tells it - "When you're rich, they think you really know!" 
And sometimes it is just the appearance of venerability that passes for wisdom 
too.  I have to admit, since my hair has gone gray, I get treated with more respect by some strangers and definitely juries. Sure, when you have gray hair you just think you are getting the respect you deserve, but it probably is just the color. And sometimes it is also true that experience, perhaps seeming to bring with it the ability to see future risks, stands in the way of flexibility to meet new challenges. Sometimes.

But, it is petulant to argue as Thoreau did. Sometimes experience really is good, even great. I don't know what we'd do without it. Everything we know with the exception of some instincts and things we can know by reason, are based on experience, no matter what centuries of philosopher's have told us. And let's face it, the young are often idiots. Not because they are literally stupid, but because of lack of experience; they don't know what to expect and think their dreams are reality. It probably is not going to be that way for the great majority of them. Do you know someone even at 30 who doesn't say, or at least think - if only I knew then what I know now. Of course, mostly guys say that with respect to getting over on women, but the principle is the same whatever the goal.

Some few things don't seem to change at all as people age. I still remember my father's strange behavior a few years after my mother's death.  When I asked him why he was acting so strange, he said that when it comes to the opposite sex, nothing changes. He was in his sixties then, but in my 50s I notice that is true of many people I know in their relationships.  Again, it's never everyone, but it sure is a lot of people.

Not only does age make you physically more decrepit, but I have already noticed in the last few years a greater tendency to crankiness and lack of patience, even among friends.  It is particularly true with noisy children, of course.  I can't pretend that I haven't felt this too, more and more as the culture seems to have changed that it is now okay - yes, okay - to have your little kids cry in public places without removing them.  Grrrrr.  But, it's not just with kids. I haven't indulged in it, but I am far more likely to get into a fight now than I ever was as a kid. At least verbally.

And memory - oh my God, has it affected the memory of some of my friends and acquaintances. Sometimes I want my entire life to be recorded so that I don't have to have endless conversations about who said what (always with the same people though).  It's one reason I'm so glad for email. Anything important I have to say to someone, I want it electronically recorded.

And as for weight loss, it's just sad. At my age, gaining weight is like blowing up a balloon. Losing weight is like carving Mount Rushmore with a tooth brush. Even when older people have lost weight, they often discover that their skin has lost its elasticity so that the skin just hangs on them, toneless,  curdled and, you know, all yccchy and stuff. The bags under my eyes seem permanent, far as I can tell.  And that little soft line under my chin is a constant focus of my attention.  Oh, I did the phony-bologna chin stretching exercises for a while with hopeful expectations, but short of a sharp knife or more likely today - ultrasound, nothing is going to change.

Of course, some people do cover up their age with surgery and I have no problem with provided its reasonable (we've all seen the cat lady). Others use steroids, which is a substitute for testosterone. Not just a substitute, but a super duper substitute. I've personally seen its use explode over the course of the last ten years. When I started going to a gym about a decade ago there was one body builder who readily admitted using and another guy there who didn't publicly acknowledge it.  But no one else was all that big. Now, you have to stop and count the steroid users. You can't even call them freaks anymore because there are so many.

One night I counted 20 men and 2 women in my gym that I was certain were using them. You can pretty much just tell. If their muscles look unbelievably cut or huge or both, they probably are. It is especially easy when their heads are small.  Lots of teenagers and some septuagenarians are doing them too. Yeah, 70 something year olds with faces like your accountant but absurdly muscular. To me, it looks creepy and unnatural, but I don't expect they'd care what I thought. 

It is even obvious with the young men who you might expect to be more muscular. I grew up in an era when many kids were constantly on the go playing sports, running about and lifting weights. But, the most muscular kids I knew then did not look like so many young men today, with melons for biceps and shoulders  that would make professional football players from the seventies  jealous.  Are some of these muscles natural?  Rarer and rarer.  There is just no way training has gotten so much better in just a few years that muscles like these are popping out of people. Thankfully, there are far fewer women doing it than men.  The other day I saw a young woman at the gym not only with a body builder physique, but with a predatory look to her walk and glance. I'd say there about 4 women in my gym I regularly see who are into it to one degree or another.  There are a few women there who are just in great natural shape, but, again, you can almost always easily tell the difference.  

If there were no side effects to taking steroids, who'd care, but there are. This isn't a post about that. If someone doesn't know it, they aren't paying attention.

I know, I know. You are not supposed to say any of this stuff (except about the steroids - if you don't do steroids you pretty much know it is crazy). Many people don't want to feel old, look old or acknowledge it at all.  I can hear it now - you are not "positive."  I get that sometimes from people. In my view, they just don't like the truth and substitute fantasy for reality.  I do understand, of course, that my view of what is positive and what is just pretending to be positive, and ultimately negative, is skewed from most people. That's part of the reason I have a blog. Because, apparently, I upset a lot of people when I talk in public. If talking about aging is not positive, then I'm not positive. I think it is.

And, it's not like I invented shaking my fist at aging.  Even in enduring and favorite works of legend and fiction immortality is a predominant theme, sometimes the main one.  The authors of The Old Testament granted long life to the patriarchs - though not immortality! Perhaps that was a result of Adam and Eve's fall. Earlier still Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, desperately sought immortality and failed! In The Iliad and Odyssey constantly reference mortality and the wasting away of the elderly.  In The Lord of the Rings, it's creator could have resolved the problem in his new mythology, but does not. Some characters are described as virtually ageless, and few show much sign of it. The elves, if not destroyed, last thousands of years retaining great beauty. Gandalf and the wizards came to Middle Earth as elderly men, but age little over a great length of time too.  Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the countryside - "Oldest and Fatherless," seems immune to it.  But, eventually, they must leave Middle Earth. Arwen, who remains, is long lived, but eventually diminishes and dies. The dwarves are long lived by our standards. The  span of time given to the favored Numenorian kings, even down to Aragorn (who saw 210 - not bad) was extended, though not immortal. And, of course, the Ents, Treebeard perhaps almost as old as Bombadil, are not human and may have approached it, but only to an extent .  And, of course, long life, but without preserving powers, accompanies the One Ring - but the toll it takes is horrifying.  Tolkien is one long tale of the fight against aging, even after temporary success. It seems almost his primary theme that immortality cannot survive.  "The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli," says Legolas, after all is said and done and all the "magical" creatures leave us.

I'd like to have a more conventional ending for you today.  Something like - "But in the end, we . . . " or "There is yet hope. . . "  I could talk about positive thinking and of course, many people turn to religion to help them with the process. Not for me. There may be, for our children, the possibility of greatly lengthened life and greater peace at the end.  Perhaps for our descendants a pleasant longevity beyond our imagination is possible.  But, it must all end the same way until we become something else - part human and part something else, and that I do not think any of us will be around for. Nor am I sure what the trade off might be either. All I can recommend at this time is flossing, as much exercise and moderate eating as we can stand, a certain amount of stoicism and to try - just try to enjoy life and health while you can. As is sung in Fiddler on the Roof "God would like us to be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor/How much more can we be joyful when we really have something to be joyful for."

Wait a second --Thor, Thoreau, The Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Bible, Fiddler on the Roof and The Lord of the Rings. It happened again. This post is just another excuse for me to talk about some of my favorite things.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .