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Sunday, October 26, 2014

3 Aging Body Betrayals

The great tragedy of aging is the subtlety of the betrayals  Despite the portrayal, in pop culture, of age milestones as instances of sea changes in your body and mind, the reality is far more subversive and slow-moving.  Like any effective betrayal, you simply don’t see it coming.  The person in the mirror always looks familiar – until they don’t anymore.  To make matters worse, your mind is a stubborn and reminiscent bastard.  After all, identity is far more about who were were than who we’re going to be.  And you’re always the last person to realize that you’ve changed.  I expect that at some point in this long and winding road, my mind will give way to some measure of dementia and reduced cognitive capacity – but until that time, the only part of me that’s really fading is my body, and it’s almost worse than if the whole of me was disintegrating.  Because now my mind and body are in constant conflict.  Despite being in the best position to be aware and apprised of each and every physical limitation I have – my mind seems determined to imagine my physical capabilities as they were in my days of wine and cheese – when I was, at least in small measure, a superhero (or so I would have appeared to my adolescent self).  So, as a reminder to myself (because I appear to need it), here are 3 ways in which my body is betraying my mind:

1. Turn and Cough. The vast majority of physical limitations that I’ve experienced have been, at some point, recited to me by comedians, sitcoms or other columnists – but there is one that has come without any warning: the extended battle now involved in coughing. You see, coughing has always been somewhat innocuous to me – I swallow something wrong, drink something too fast or even just a random mix-up between my lungs and my gut – a few coughs later, all is well. But, nowadays, what starts as a small little hiccup becomes a full-blown emphysemic fit that is measured in quarters of hours instead of seconds. Strangers begin by offering water and end up dialing 911 without pressing “Send” – just in case you don’t pull out of it.  Worst of all, you literally have to stop whatever you’re doing and deal with your body seizing up your breathing mechanism – and by “deal with” I mean endure it helplessly and try to avoid eye contact with strangers.  I have fairly good cardio-vascular health, running 2 miles a day around 4 days a week, but nevertheless, I appear to have the esophageal health of an eighty-year-old man.  I’m scared to think what coughing will look like when I’m 60.

2.  The Morning After Pills.  There was a time when I was convinced that a good night’s sleep could cure almost any ailment.  And I was convinced of this because it was true.  I would go to bed with injuries, illnesses or just feeling a bit off and wake up like I was Clark Kent watching a Metropolis sunrise.  These days I have a strong suspicion that not only am I sleepwalking, but that I’m sleeping into the local Fight Club (please forgive my violation of Rules 1 & 2 if this is the case). This is only slightly more plausible than my original theory that someone was sneaking into my bedroom at night and kicking my ass while I sleep.  Why all this pugilistic paranoia?  Well, I’ve started waking up to a Russian Roulette of sports injuries that simply don’t have any other explanation – and I’ve now got a bottle of anti-inflammatory that I can rightfully consider a fifth food group.  I remember watching television commercials for these types of over-the-counter medications, and wondering why anyone would need to take them every day. Now I just wonder why they haven’t figured out a way to get them into my my morning coffee (can you hear me, Starbucks?).

3. Sweet Little Lies.   I’ve always felt that an essential element of anything you can rightfully call a “lie” is intent.  After all, if you didn’t mean to misinform someone, at worst you’re reckless and the real explanation is likely far less sinister.  As a result, I don’t like to think of they way my mind talks to my body as “lying” – just very well-intentioned misstating.  You see, my body is keenly aware of its current limitations – and as a testament to the wonder of this biological machine, keeps finding brilliant ways to work around them.  My mind, on the other hand, had no idea that my body has changed from say around the turn of the century (no, smartasses, the 21st century).  If I have it in my mind to run or jump, my mind sends the exact same signals to my muscles that it did fifteen years ago – expecting similar results.  Needless to say, while I am very much still capable of running and jumping, I now understand why recreational sports leagues have “age groups” and exactly why pro athletes in their 40s are rare and wondrous beings.  That said, I’m happy to weather a little disappointment if it means not “acting my age” – because I’d rather be carried off the proverbial field for the last time than to slowly skulk into the crowd.

* * *

In the years to come, I suspect that my legs will slow, my arms will shrink and my joints will begin to have more in common with an old house than a powerful engine, but that’s completely ok with me.  Like an old home, my bumps and bruises tell a story than I’m nearly incapable of telling myself, even with my most well-considered prose.  It tells of my triumphs and my defeats, my good decisions and my bad ones.  It is a story of self-destruction, but in the most beautiful and meaningful ways.  Just like the old saw told to encourage people not just to save for savings sake, you similarly don’t get to take your body with you when you “go” and you should similarly endeavor to use it in the best possible ways.  My youth may be gone, but it surely isn’t the past.  My body tells a story – one where I didn’t take shortcuts and how I did the very best with what I was given – stories of which I am immensely proud.  It tells of chances taken and failures endured.  But most importantly, it tells the most important story about me – that then, as now, I’m far too stubborn to listen to my body tell my mind what we can’t do – and that had made all the difference.  


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