Numbers Game

Numbers Game

When people say “Age is just a number”, I usually don’t respond. Because I do not agree. And in a mere few seconds I cannot possibly convey the degree to which I do not.

Age is represented by a number, and that number tells a whole hell of a lot about you, no matter how you spin it. You can have the most youthful, energetic presence in the world, but still – seventy-five is not thirty-five. Period.

I don’t mean to sound snarky. But then again, maybe I do. Sometimes snark is what it takes to get folks’ attention. And if you’re willing to go there for a moment, I invite you to see things from my perspective….

Crazy 45 was of the opinion that, like a battery, a person is born with a fixed amount of energy which is depleted over the course of a lifetime. For as much as we laughed about his ridiculous theory, the basic phenomenon which he was trying to express is real. We are physical machines living in a physical world, and physical shit degrades. You simply cannot do the same things at the age of eighty that you could at the age of forty. Everyone has a shelf life.

Numbers are the benchmarks by which we mark change – good or bad. We need to know where we stand in order to know what needs improvement.

Back in the day – say in my mid to late twenties, when my body was in its finest natural form – I began working out because I wanted to finally present to the world as the badass I’d always secretly felt myself to be (in my school years I’d always carried a few extra pounds and I wanted to change that). I hefted my own equipment numerous times a week and never accepted help from anyone, it was a point of pride. I would routinely lift very heavy amps and keyboards in and out of the trunk of my car with a good degree of ease.

At the time, I’d thought that working out in a gym was helping me to maintain that strength (as well as helping to define my arms for sleeveless stage wear), however the truth is that it probably didn’t matter all that much. I was young; I was already fit and strong. I coulda carried that stuff around all day with the same amount of effort whether I worked out or not. And regarding the weight, although I might’ve lost a few pounds thanks to aerobic activity, for the most part in my twenties I stayed within the same five-pound range. And if you were to have told me what my new acceptable baseline weight would be several decades hence – I woulda thought you were crazy. I am now what I would’ve termed then as huge. But numbers change. New normals emerge….

Skip ahead a few decades, and I have actual proof on paper of the benefits of exercise. These days it seems my exercise is in some ways making up for the natural vitality of youth. I can see an advantage which I did not in my twenties. Numbers, apparently, do matter. And it seems the older one gets, the more they matter.

I’ve had an emotional rollercoaster of a ride over the past year – figuring out what would define me after mom duties ceased, wondering how on earth I was going to make a living post-child support while also dealing with depression and panic attacks – and so my health-related numbers have been all over the place. My blood pressure has historically always been good, so when it spiked this past year, my doc was concerned. What was to blame? Had anything changed? Yes. I was incredibly stressed. I’d begun to drink a lot, and I’d ceased working out almost entirely on account of an injury. She pointed out how different all of my numbers had been when I was working out – and how they’d all gone up since. It was shocking.

And so I began a restored campaign to take back my health. After a few months of greatly reduced alcohol intake, an almost vegetarian diet and routine exercise, my numbers – chiefly blood pressure and cholesterol – were back within the normal range. My arms didn’t look like the ones I’d enjoyed in my youth, no matter how many pounds I could curl (in my current natural state I cannot lift the weight I could two decades ago, proving that age really does affect our latent physiology), but the numbers now definitively proved that exercise was indeed making a difference.

The older I get, the more important these markers become, because my biological reality reminds me that my life is on the physical downslope now, and I mean to optimize my experience for the remaining trajectory. Please, don’t protest. It will likely be an enjoyable time, and there may be wonderful adventures still ahead, but I am on the other side of the hill. Quite likely you are, too.

Youth is something of a guarantee that things will be on track for optimum health (if one doesn’t struggle with eating disorders, substance issues, disease or depression – those situations change the game entirely). If you’re in your twenties or thirties, you’re most likely in a nice, stable zone. Trust me. If you’re there now, don’t fret too much about improving yourself. Nature is on your side for the moment. But add on a few years, and you’ll have to re-define what being “normal” means. It might mean ten or twenty extra pounds. It might mean higher blood pressure or increased cholesterol. It might even mean that getting through winter seems to take more out of you than it used to. And eventually, if you want to keep those numbers healthy, you’ll have to take some action.

We all like to think that our looks aren’t the most important part of the life equation. That it’s our quality of life that comes first. But it’s a vain world in which we live; our looks are inherent to our quality of life. Our mental health – our very outlook on life from the moment we rise out of bed in the morning – is very much defined by how we feel – and look. It’s been said that Queen Elizabeth I had all of the mirrors in her chambers removed as she began to look older. Wisely, she did not wish to waste her precious energy in fretting about the heartbreak of the inevitable.

In my recent trip back home to Chicago I visited a few nightclubs and heard some bands play. I wondered, as I looked out at a sea of aging musicians and concertgoers, just how were these folks all feeling about their aging process? I saw men who dyed their hair just like I do, and this time I give them a pass. Cuz there is no doubt: gray hair signals to the world your true age; it implies a certain feebleness and infirmity. (Sure, there are a few lucky souls whose looks are even improved by silver tresses, but they are in the minority.) And we live in an ageist culture here in the US. You get old, and the younger population can’t help but see you as somewhat irrelevant (if they even see you, that is). Argue against this if you like, but I believe it to be true.

Having been gone for almost twenty years and returning without benefit of having seen these folks in the interim, I noticed the changes more keenly. We were all older. It was almost shocking. I’d left when I was young, and I’d returned in late middle-age to a roomful of men whom I once knew but now could no longer recognize at a glance. For me, every visit, every party or reception required I make a little internal adjustment at the new countenances of my old friends. I couldn’t help but wonder if all of them were doing the same for me. After all, I wasn’t thirty-eight either.

Believe what you want, but I assert that getting old and remaining physically attractive are directly at odds with each other. And I think we can all agree that youth and beauty signal power and relevance to the world in a deeply visceral way. On some level, I think most older people pretend that we aren’t truly aging (because in our minds we still feel young) or at least we try to downplay it. Hell, I know I’m still pretending. And I might yet give in and choose the needle. I might. Why not? I color my hair….

In assessing the path ahead of me, I plan on having one more relatively active decade left. And I mean to play the game of life as best I can. My feelings on this may change as the years pass, but at this writing I am committed to doing what I can to temper the reality of looking older as best I can.

I know my age, and every infirmity related to it. And even if I should choose to lie about it – the numbers definitely won’t.

Wait for It…

Wait for It…

I mighta known that the woman who ‘reminded me of Queen Elizabeth’ in the previous post was not in fact, Marylou Whitney, as I had declared her to be. I chose to ignore the tiny voice that kept nagging this woman just doesn’t seem glamorous enough to be Marylou. And in addition to that hunch, this woman’s silhouette actually looked slightly familiar. The photo I had tried to enlarge showed instead Jane Wait, and son Charlie (president of the Adirondack Trust Company) sitting beside her. Jane was on the board of my father’s Festival of Baroque Music for years. I too was on the board with her. In fact, Jane Wait figured prominently In the summertime world of the Conants for over a decade. She did everything from pen checks to the Festival to help arrange tea and cookies for the intermission refreshments. When I was young, I didn’t see Jane in the larger, social scale of our town. She was just a kind, older woman who showed an interest in dad’s music.

Some memories, unrelated bits of the past come back to me… I remember attending a party at their lake house once, where I met actor John Houseman. I remember he wore a purple jumpsuit and kindly gave me an autograph. I remember learning that Mr. Wait had died in a fire in that house not many years after. I remember that Mrs. Wait also had a daughter my age with whom I got together a few times. I was never able to get into a groove with the girl, in spite of feeling as If I had given it my very best (and the distinct feeling that she had not met me half way). They had a summer house just a couple miles down our road. And I remember I once played piano for Caroline and her mother at their place; it was a blues tune of mine with a little hook in the chorus and a repeating, catchy riff. They insisted I didn’t write it, they both insisted that they’d heard it played before. As an adolescent girl I didn’t have the language to articulate that they were mistaking the form and style for the song itself. That this, being a blues song, shared a common structure and tonality with other blues songs. The moment even got a tiny bit confrontational. My emotional take-away is that Mrs. Wait just knew me to be lying. It changed the feeling in the air between us all. Hey – to be fair, they might not have thought about it another second, but for me, it was insulting, and it showed me I’d been diminished somewhat in their eyes. That afternoon may have been the last time the young Wait and I hung out. We were fundamentally different people.

And today, the Wait’s world and ours intersect in only the very tiniest of ways. Knowing Jane to be ‘getting up there’, I wrote her a Christmas card last year just to reconnect, and to let her know that while dad is losing a bit of his short term memory, he was still very much himself and retained that certain, recognizable twinkle in his eye. And that he sent her his warmest greetings. Jane, as a wealthy pillar of this community is something of a local celebrity, so I didn’t expect to hear back – but at the same time she’s also a real person whose day might be cheered to hear news of an old friend. It made me feel like I’d done something kind; sending the letter warmed my own heart.

Now I can replay the memory of Jane and son Charlie on Friday night, waving from their carriage to the throngs of onlookers, and it makes sense. They are a much more conservative-looking duo. And then when I saw the super-wide brimmed hats trimmed in flowers in that other carriage on the front page of the Saratogian, I got it. Yeah, now that’s Susan Lucci. Now that’s Marylou. And man, they look great. Good Lord, Marylou is 88! (Ms. Lucci, 67). “Hey dad” I said, pointing to the photo of Marylou on the front page, “this woman is your age!” My mother reacted with great agitation. “No she’s not!” she said, almost angrily. Then she began her version of ‘math out loud’… “eight from ten is two….” Sheesh. I looked at her, waiting for the punchline. “Your father is seven years older than me, and I’m 78” she said, her tone still vaguely angry. She clearly thought she was imparting new information. ?? “Yes, I know” I said, still confused. “Marylou was born in 1925!” she emphasized. Still confused. “She’s three years older than your father”. “Yes, I know that too.” I answered, still not seeing her point. “So yeah,” I continued, “she’s about his age. We’re talking three years’ difference.” She went on to demystify her emotional response…”You’ll come to to the point in your life one day when every year counts. You want to be given credit for each year you’ve made it.” She went on to explain with a smile on her face (I just hate it when she smiles when she’s clearly very upset. Ich, it makes me queasy) that when you’re a young child or an older person you cannot make such generalities about age. “When you’re your age, it’s ok. But not when you’re older. Absolutely not.” There was a distinct tone of martyr in her voice, as if she meant to impart that she’d worked and suffered on this planet for seventy-eight years, goddam it and she’d paid her dues… It was rather fascinating to see my mom get so worked up about such a seemingly tiny thing. Hm. Interesting. I’ve been called any number of ages with a good two decade spread, and don’t find it offensive either way. Why mom should find offense at this tiny generality was news to me. “I just mean she looks damn good. That’s all”. (Yeah, and now she looks three years better! I thought to myself.) I shrugged, indicating dad with my eyes. In his pajamas for the umpteenth day in a row, I’d hoped Marylou’s image might serve as motivation for cleaning up a bit. But this is a tired, old and oppressive household. No one’s putting on their Sunday best anytime soon.

I look back at the two beautiful faces on the front page of yesterday’s paper. Honestly, it’s hard to believe their ages. I’ve been told it’s all about the fillers – you know, the tiny injections to keep faces inflated… and man, if the technology exists to create such quality results, sign me up. I admit it, I’m one vain-ass woman, and I don’t wanna be an old lady! After a recent mid-life battle over ‘to color or not to color’ I think I can just end that discussion right here and now. Color. And filler up, too while you’re at it. Do what ya got to do. I realize I may not have the bankroll for the job, and my life isn’t exacatly fodder for the society pages. So I probably shouldn’t hold my breath. But I probably won’t go the conservative, poofy old-lady hair direction of Jane Wait either. I’ll probably end up somewhere in between. But that’s still a ways off. I can wait…