NOVEMBER: The Dumpster Project
"Says I to myself " should be the motto of my journal.
-Henry David Thoreau, November 11, 1851
As a sixty-fourth birthday present to myself, my plan was to rent a Dumpster, park it in the driveway, and clean out the house and garage. Toss in the accumulated clutter-unwearable clothes, dead appliances, bicycles, skis, car tools, decades of abandoned projects. A ton of paper. It struck me as an appropriate way to start off my sixty-fifth year: as if preparing for a move, although we weren't going anywhere. It's a foolish dream, I suppose, to catch up with the mountain of stuff we seem to keep pushing ahead of ourselves. Clearing out the trash of youth and middle age. I'd yearned to do it for years.
It was the birthday, of course, and not the clutter that was driving this extravagant if not hysterical plan. I'd recently watched a friend turn sixty-five, receive his first Social Security check, and sink into depression: the government had officially declared him an old man. Seeing him struggle was instructive. It had entirely sneaked up on him. I hadn't given sixty-five much thought either. I don't like being blindsided any more than the next guy.
Not that age wasn't already landing the odd sucker punch. I had begun to find winters, for example, harder to take. A writer's days are insidiously sedentary, and in winter it becomes far too easy just to sit still. Brooding ensues. The previous winter had been a severe one in New England, not in the least conducive to physical activity other than perhaps shoveling snow. I couldn't run, or didn't want to, and vegetated instead-and took a serious hit from the aging process as the price.
Sitting still is the specific winter problem: how to obtain sufficient movement? I used to ski, and have known skiers who continued into their dotage, but the thought of a ski slope now makes me shudder. I guess I got tired of being really cold. Age does exacerbate that. ("When you're old, you're cold"--the late Dr. Benjamin Spock.) I swam through several winters, in indoor pools, and really enjoyed it, but overdid it, developed overuse injuries, and had to quit. It's a quandary, lack of movement. By the time last spring arrived I was startled to find myself feeling, for the first time in my life, positively frail.
Well, I thought, I'll get that right back, and plunged into a hashed-up exercise program, almost immediately reaggravating the bum neck that had made me quit swimming in the first place. Weak spots do have a way of quickly turning painful, particularly as we age. Getting strength back took longer than seemed right, and it didn't all come back. My wife, Chris, and I love wilderness canoe trips, but the previous summer's expeditions had been shockingly hard. Ordinary household tasks seemed to leave me unnecessarily tired and sore. I was suddenly not so bullish. A lot of plans, professional as well as personal, looked due for revision--downward.
The high point of the summer, on the other hand, had been some exquisitely enjoyable lake swimming in the Adirondacks, after my neck had quieted down. I decided I'd try swimming again as winter exercise. If I eased into it maybe I wouldn't have problems. Only a couple of days a week, swim a quiet thirty minutes or so, and see if I couldn't manage to keep moving a little more consistently over the winter to come.
A friend, hearing of my Dumpster plans, referred me to Walden
. Thoreau attends the auction of a deacon's estate, and, not uncharacteristically, is mockingly aghast:
As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to accumulate in his father's day. Among the rest was a dried tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again. When a man dies he kicks the dust.
The customs of some savage nations might, perchance, be profitably imitated by us, for they at least go through the semblance of casting their slough annually; they have the idea of the thing, whether they have the reality or not.
Aha, casting our slough--that's what I had in mind. (And look, they seem to have had the equivalent of garage sales back in the 1850s.)
Digging out the Thoreau was an entertaining exercise. He's long been an interest of mine. Another of the winter's projects was to read his journals, all two and a half million words of them. I'd bought them in a two-volume set years before, but had lost momentum about a quarter of the way through. Maybe, I thought, I'd get going on them again. Whatever he wrote, his entire life, concerned the one central question: how to live. I figured I could still use advice on that subject, even in my sixty-fifth year.
I love the journal form. I keep one myself, for practical rather than literary purposes. Thoreau used his mostly for observation of the natural world. You don't find much detail about his daily life, except for where he walked and when. But he did sprinkle his pages with new understandings, new awakenings, from his ongoing self-education. He was certainly obsessed with that--Walden
is in a sense a record of his own development-but he usually chose to conceal this self-involvement. Occasionally he let it slip. "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well," he famously says at the outset of Walden
. Much later, in 1860, he wrote his friend Harrison Blake a more mature version: "--whether he wakes or sleeps, whether he runs or walks, whether he uses a microscope or a telescope, or his naked eye, a man never discovers anything, never overtakes anything or leaves anything behind, but himself. Whatever he does or says he merely reports himself."
That's what I'm doing here. What follows is not a journal, exactly, but a record of a year nonetheless. Actually, like Walden
--to which in no other way does it bear the slightest resemblance--it is two years compressed into one: the year in which I turned sixty-five and a year of attempting to assess that turning. Thus I write of one November while experiencing the next, a handy reminder. Thoreau's journals cover twenty-four years, giving me roughly an additional twenty-four Novembers to refer to, if more are needed. So broad a reference seems appropriate in talking about age. In a sense I'm trying to cram as many years' experience as possible into one--the object of the aging game being, as well as I can judge, to acquire as many years as possible. Make that good years.
If you have no interest in what it's like to grow old, what follows is not for you. However, if it's going to happen to you (and it is), and the outcome is ultimately going to be negative (and it is), then finding a way to make the process as bearable, even as enjoyable, as possible might be worth a little attention.
According to the World Health Organization I'm already "elderly," a category I find insulting enough. WHO considers that category to span ages sixty to seventy-five. I'd prefer just to be "old," but don't reach that designation until seventy-six. Most geriatricians consider their practice to start at seventy-five. Over ninety, according to WHO, is "very old." At the end of the year, on my sixty-fifth birthday, I can actuarially expect fifteen more. That will put me well into "old," the last category I have much interest in.
If I make it into "very old," I hope to do so with my sense of humor intact. We have a ninety-four-year-old friend who writes, "The event of the week is that, passing the vision test, I have a renewed driver's license for five years. I would need the genes of a swan to live that long."
Call him Pierre; he is senior in my cohort of ancients, the other old men I know, from whom I am trying to learn about aging. By "aging" I am really saying "aging/ dying," but will try to avoid saying that as long as possible. Mention either aging or dying, however, and you get my attention. It comes with age. Pierre has prostate cancer but doesn't seem to be dying of it, at least not in any great hurry. A retired professor, he claims to derive wry amusement from steadfastly outliving his remaining faculty colleagues. There are two still to go, whom he visits in a nursing home regularly.
He lives alone--he nursed his wife through Alzheimer's--and is self-sufficient still. A lifelong outdoorsman, he took care of a couple of nature preserves into his eighties, until he could no longer perform the trail maintenance. As a postretirement project he took on a massive legal battle for the public good, and won it. He doesn't want to be identified, so I won't say what that battle was, but it will be his very nice monument.
I am trying to ask him and my other older friends about their aging, but I'm not sure I know what the questions are. A while back I did ask Mike if he'd been noticing any physiological changes from aging. Mike is Chris's adored and adoring eldest brother, a year and a half my senior. He's a former Canadian naval aviator who, with fifty-four-year-old mate Jo, recently built a house--I daren't call it a "retirement" home--in Nova Scotia. He's an avid birder, a fellow canoeist who has cycled all over Europe, a vigorous person.
"I certainly don't have any physical problems," he cheerfully denied by return mail.
The old body just ticks along doing whatever I want it to, when I want it to. It's just as serviceable as it was thirty years ago. Well, except for the right shoulder. There is a more or less constant ache in the upper arm and shoulder area which pretty well prevents me from throwing anything overhand with any force. I buzzed a small rock at a red squirrel on the feeder two days ago, and the stabbing pain is now receding slightly. This minor ache also causes me to wake in the night when I roll over onto my right side. But that's the only problem I have. And I guess it's the same problem which makes driving in reverse painful. Turning my head to get a good view out the rear window hurts like hell. Frustrating ... but lots of younger people have this, so I don't think it's an aging thing.
Really, my body is just what it has always been. Except perhaps for my right knee. The orthos had a go at it three years ago, and I've kept recurrent soreness at bay with medication, not daily but whenever it flares up. Which is usually following a day with lots of stooping and lifting, or when I overdo it in the running line. Which I haven't done now for months, have I?
Actually, though, apart from those few minor items, I hum along perfectly. Though I have begun to enjoy afternoon naps. But look, even kids take naps. I'll look upon it as an age thing when I drop off and miss the official cocktail hour. And I don't suppose it has anything to do with the body, but my lower jaw and my brain do get out of sync after one good, stiff belt, which is why I very rarely ever have more than one martini anymore. But that's just an exhibition of the common sense I have had since youth but didn't bother applying. Nothing to do with the aging body.
As for jiggy-jig, I do have to confess to a falloff in frequency. But that has absolutely nothing to do with my body, mind you. It has to do with having a partner with whom I am in complete harmony, thus making it unnecessary to leap into the sack at every opportunity. Nothing to prove pretty well sums it up, I think. And in my view it's better than it ever was, probably because one learns to be less frantic and to take one's time. I do note that the member has altered as well. I was never one of those guys with a real hose, who liked to walk around the locker room on display; I suppose it was average. But in its relaxed state these days it is a piddly, odd, insignificant, almost comical item. I note that young guys peeing into a toilet produce a near thunderous sound. My stream is closer to your classic tinkle--no authority in its tone.
So I guess this answers your question, but the answer is probably disappointing. I'm sure you were looking for signs of diminution of activity and wear and tear on the body. Since I haven't experienced any, apart from a couple of small non-events I've mentioned, I guess you'll have to find some real old guys to ask. Sorry to disappoint. P.S.: Don't let my sister see this. She doesn't even know I've Done It.
Aging isn't all
loss. The Dumpster project--a lust for throwing things out--is only the latest of a set of rapidly developing new appetites, which we began discovering when we gave up media for a year. That was a rich, if flawed, experience. Our rather lofty notion was to imagine the house and land as a kind of yacht, which we would sail on a one-year voyage around the sun: one year out of reach of the buzz. It was a noble plan, although we couldn't resist peeking now and then. (It did, however, allow us to skip the 0. J. Simpson matter almost entirely.)
One of its surprises was to show us how much else in our lives we preferred, upon examination, to do without. That too is probably an effect of aging. We noticed a certain urge toward divestiture--of goods, obligations, capacities, not to mention an acquaintance or two. We began talking about gutting the interior of the house, remodeling for space and light. We were looking for ways to get a little more air into our daily lives.
"Withdrawal" sounds negative, and that's the opposite of how this feels, but I suppose it's what it is. It is admittedly easier for us than for most. We're longtime urban dropouts, working at home, living extremely quiet lives at the end of an exceedingly rural dead-end road. Our families are scattered, our social obligations minimal to nil. As writers we've tried to keep up, electronically, but we are not, for example, on-line. Tried it, didn't like it: ate more time than it saved. We're not that heavily engaged in day-by-day intercourse with contemporary culture anyway. What was most startling about giving up media was not the loss of information and entertainment but the gain in time. We had no trouble filling it.
That in fact was the most impressive thing our media experiment had to teach: that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our time. It's a simplistic little truth, but not so easy to live by, and it too is exacerbated by age. As time becomes more precious, one tries to slow it down. Curiously, this makes you more patient. It's a development I seldom think of when old folks--older folks, I should say--are impeding my progress in store aisles, parking lots, on rural roads. Maybe the patience thing is what makes them so poky.
Improving one's time is a concept right out of the Victorian Age, but it is infectious. We began thinking harder about how we were spending our days. We planned an extensive Adirondack canoe trip for our thirtieth wedding anniversary, and another for northern Canada the next summer. The truth was, we could begin to see an end to larks like that, and figured we'd better stock up on them. It was time, in other words, to start planning an endgame.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from On Turning Sixty-Five by John Jerome. . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.