The Things I’m Learning From Getting Older

Today I was at Sports Authority buying a bicycle, which I hope to ride for exercise and lose weight.  I have a bad back because of spinal stenosis and arthritis, and can’t walk for exercise, so the idea is to bicycle instead.  My theory is losing weight will help my back so I can do more, which is really a wish to be younger.  We all want to turn the clock back.   But, those delusional desires are so instructive.

I think women want to look younger, and men want to act younger.  While waiting for the salesman to prep the bike I bought, two strikingly beautiful young women came into the store.  Is there anything more educational about aging than envying the young?

I try hard not be be resentful.  I don’t feel bitter.  I pretty much laugh at the failures of my brain and body, but there is a fair amount of resentment of having to grow old.  I try to keep it wistful, but sometimes it gets heavy.

I noticed that most of the people in the store were young, and obviously pursuing different physical activities, activities I can’t pursue anymore because of my age and condition.  It really made me feel old and crippled.  Although I’m only 60 and can still walk to a degree, I feel very limited physically, but I know plenty of people that have far more limitations, so I can’t bitch.  At 60 I can see the future of doing less and less.

By writing about my growing list of age related restrictions, I hope I’m being philosophical and not whinny.  At 60, I’m only getting a hint at what it means to be really old, so I think I need to psychologically prepare myself for being a decrepit old dude that can’t remember shit.

While waiting for my bike to be tuned up, I found a kiosk with this film for extreme sports advertising the GoPro Hero video camera, and it really made me think about being young again.  The youth in these films below are pushing the envelope of youthful vitality.  It would be totally pointless to wish I could do stuff like this, but I’ve got to ask, what are the activities that I could pursue that would push the limit of my fading vitality?

What if I strapped on a helmet with a HERO 2 camera, can I do anything worth filming?

I highly recommend you play these videos in full screen at the highest resolution.  I love these videos.  They’re dazzling, beautiful, and exciting – a cruel reminder of all my resentments about getting old.  It’s also a reminder of my own personal failings, and the limitations I’ve imposed on myself.

This doesn’t mean I’m ready to call it quits, I’m just hard-pressed to imagine doing anything Hero 2 worthy.  But what if I was 90 watching myself write this blog while listening to music, would I impress my older self with an activity I won’t be able to do then?

Now, I know few people pursue these extreme sports – I think these people must have a gene for thrill-seeking which I obviously don’t have.  I also assume they have a lot more money than I ever had.  I think we all resent beautiful, rich, jetsetters, unless we’re beautiful and rich, so that’s not the resentment I’m talking about.

I’m sure there are plenty of twenty-five-year olds that would envy the folks in these films.

My issue is with myself, for not trying harder, for not making more of the time and the opportunities I had when I was young.  I have the genes to be a bookworm that loves quiet indoor life.  I think if I magically got to live life over I think I’d trade TV and movie watching for several hours a week of being active outside.  I’d still keep books, writing, science and computers – in a do-over I’d just try to find a balance, maybe two-thirds geek and one-third jock, instead of 100% geek.

Most of my friends who are my age think I dwell on getting old, and that I just need to act younger.  They tell me I’m getting old because I think I’m old.  They think they are still young because they believe it to be so.  I think they’ve forgotten what it’s really like to be young and are refusing to accept the reality of aging.  But then I’ve always been a Puritanical Buddhist Atheist that’s enjoys the grimness of reality and acceptance.

I think age is relative, but until your body starts failing in some serious way, you can continue to believe that youthfulness is a state of mind.  Once you experience real body failures then you know youthful state of mind is bullshit.  Getting old is so goddamn instructive of how reality works.  This is why one of my all-time favorite stories is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany.  It’s a multi-level story where we get to see the limitations faced by each character as they struggle to fight through their own personal barriers.

Getting older and learning about the value of youth is like that old saying, “You don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone.”  We all feel immortal when we’re young.  We all feel like we’ve got plenty of time, time enough to waste.  You won’t sense the reality of getting older until that sense of immortality goes away, and you realize time is running out, with none to waste.

Now, I don’t mean this to sound like, “Oh no, poor pitiful me.”   No, what I expect is to scare the crap out of you about getting older.  Don’t waste time, you have less than you think.  Fight through the barriers you face because when you get older you’ll resent you didn’t try harder.  What I’m learning about being 60 is I wished I had known what it would have been like when I was in my teens and twenties.

What I need to do now is imagine what being 90 is like to inspire me at 60.  At 90, 60 would be an envious youth, and a 90’s mind would know how I wasted my time in my 60’s.

My back pain limits how much I can do.  And my memory is also going, and I’m realizing the limitations that will mean too.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still functional, I just function differently.  I’m getting some insights on what it means to get old and frail.  My next door neighbor is 93, and can’t walk much because of a stroke.  She spends her days sitting in a chair watching TV.  I can now see a path from where I’m at, to where she’s at.  I know I’ve got to be prepared for a lot more limitations.  Maybe it’s lucky that I have all that practice at watching TV, because if I had been an extreme sports kind of guy it would have been much harder to give it all up.

When you’re a kid all the old people ask you what you want to be when you grow up.  As a kid, you feel you have this potential to be anything and it’s a really hard decision to make up your mind what to do.  Well, it feels the same way when you’re older.  People ask you what you’re going to do when you retire, and you think of all the possibilities.  Whether you are young or old, the key is learning to deal with reality and it’s limitations.  Those dark-haired beauties I saw at Sports Authority today would never have given me the time of day, even when I was their age.  And there’s never been an age that I could have been an extreme sports guy.  If you’re going to be regretful, you need to be realistically regretful.

Don’t resent what never could have been real.  Resent what you failed to do that you realistically could have achieved.

JWH – 4/29/12

The mood for this essay was provided by Donovan and “Ferris Wheel.”

8 thoughts on “The Things I’m Learning From Getting Older”

  1. “Don’t resent what never could have been real. Resent what you failed to do that you realistically could have achieved.” I love that! Great post as always Jim.

  2. Wow, Jim. Great post!. I can relate totally as I as I head into 56. Stiffness and achiness, less flexibililty….What kind of bike did you get? Bill and I bought recumbent trikes 2 yrs ago and we totally love them. I especially get a kick out of them because riding a bike has always been on my bucket list but I could never balance myself on just 2 wheels. We’ve taken them on all our vacation trips and have incorporated out-of-state greenlines and bike trails into our vacations. That has been an enormous boost to my non-athletic lifelong personality—now I am doing 25mile rides and even some bike-a-thons. Recumbent trikes aren’t fast on the straight-a-way, but going downhill…lookout…scared myself a few times. Bill bought me a stationary stand so I can also ride it on the deck if I don’t feel like biking. I think you will love biking. It’s funny how different things look from the speed and height of a bike vs a car. Life seems to slow down–which at our age is a wonderful thing. I am not adventuresome on my bike as Bill–get nervous around zooming cars–so riding my bike to bike to work day is not my cup of tea—but doing the greenlline and biking around pretty neighborhoods definitely is. I stopped watching tv about 3 yrs ago, Bill and I watch a movie about 3 times a week—-I’d rather read or garden, either way, I like to be outside as much as possible. I figure that’s what I’ll have to look at when I can no longer leave home. It will just be reruns anyway and tons of commercials. LOL.

    1. I got what’s called a comfort bike. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a recumbent trike. I thought of getting a trike. I feel bicycles are dangerous at my age, but I’ve very careful. I want to ride on the greenline.

      I gave up cable TV a couple years ago. I mainly watch Netflix now, some DVDs. I do watch a lot of PBS over my rabbit ear TV. I loved Downton Abbey.

  3. Looks to me like you/re going through pretty much what I went through. I wasted about 5 years being really pissed about getting old. I’m still not too thrilled by the idea, but I’m slowly getting used to it, and I just turned 70. I think the process (and it IS a process) is much like culture shock, or maybe the 5 stages of grieving. Recognizing it for what it is has helped me adjust to the fact that I need twice as long to recover from strenuous exercise as I once needed. Illogical as it may seem, I have also been volunteering as a mentor to students in the gerontology program at Kansas State Univ, and find that the knowledge I’m gaining in the classes is helping a lot. I’m not saddled with any physical conditions that keep me out of the weight room or off my bike, but I too am realizing that I’ll never ski the back country again. I do take a great deal of joy from watching extreme sports videos and marveling at what some people are capable of doing. Bottom line: buck up and ride it out. You’ll be fine. Eventually.

  4. When I was still in high school and I first started looking at colleges I remember my older sister telling me I wouldn’t really even know who I was until I moved away from my parents. She was trying to convince me to go to college away from home. And I did end up going away to school. And she was right.

    Then the next thing my older siblings told me was that I should study abroad for a year during college. But, I didn’t listen because I had a girlfriend at the time and I didn’t want to leave her for a whole year. I figured I’d just go abroad some other time. BIG MISTAKE. Another year later and I’d been dumped and it was too late to study abroad and it’s 8 years since I graduated and I never did make it overseas.

    And now I’m married and just had a kid. And I already long for the days when I had the freedom to just jump in the car and go somewhere on a whim for the weekend.

    All I’m trying to say is that what you’re experiencing is fairly universal for any age. We all go through various stages and it’s human nature to look back or look forward instead of just enjoying where you are right now. But, that’s what you really should be focusing on, right? Getting the most out of the stage of life you’re in right now.

  5. i agree. Old age isn’t an illusion you can just think away. Still, there’s lots of things you can do when you’re older that you didn’t when you were younger, because you were too busy having sex or looking for sex or doing extreme sports or whatever. Like opera. And ancient Greek.

  6. Jim, just remember that scientific axiom – a body in motion tends to stay in motion. I’m guessing you were a little overweight first, then it became pretty easy to do nothing at the end of the day – then the aches and pains started, and it became difficult to do nothing at the end of the day, which caused you to gain weight – and the vicious cycle begins. Good news is, by buying a bike, you can start to reverse the cycle – do what you can, watch what you eat, and you’ll drop a few pounds, which means you’ll have more energy, fewer aches and pains, and you’ll be able to do more – and there will be a reverse of the snowball effect. I’m betting that if you stick with it, you’ll feel better at 65 than you did at 55. Best of luck!

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