56 and Counting (Down)

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From Eclipse Day last month: this is not the forehead of a young man.

Old wounds are coming back to haunt me.

Sixteen years ago, when I was a young man of 40, I drove up to Mt. Hood Meadows for a day of cross country skiing. I went alone, as I did for most of my adventures in those days. It was a beautiful January day, the sky clear, the snow powdery and not too slippery, just the way I like it, and as I clipped on my skis, I knew this was going to be a fine day. I had decided to start my workout at a different location than usual: rather than the single-wide mobile home that served as the Nordic lodge, I was parked at the main Meadows lodge that the chairlift started from. The trail down from the lodge to the easy track I had chosen for my warmup was a short hill, but as I said, I was feeling confident.

Fifteen seconds into that run, I realized I was going much faster than I had expected. On top of that, I was going to have to execute a sharp turn at the bottom of the hill, and I had no idea how to do it. I braced myself to collide in the snowbank, and fell forward. As I hit the snow, I felt something crunch in my right shoulder. Suddenly I didn't feel so well.

I went into my crisis zone, focused on a step-by-step plan to get up off the snow, unclip my skis, and trudge back up to the lodge where I would ask for help. As I did, I was careful not to use my right arm anymore than I had to. At the lodge, I went to the information desk and told the person there that I'd had an accident and needed help. She called up to the main lodge, told me to have a seat, and get me a cup of hot chocolate.

The ski medic who came for me was a paragon of a powderhead. He was tall, lean, dressed in technical gear, and had on a red knit cap with a white cross. He asked me to take off my sweater so he could get a look at the shoulder. As I lifted my arms to comply, I felt my shoulder slip back into place. The nausea passed quickly; now I was just in pain. The medic concluded I should get an xray at the ski clinic, but he didn't want to call an ambulance. Instead, his plan was to take me up on the chair lift, put me in a sled, and pull me down to the main lodge. This was a very different adventure from what I'd expected, but I was game for it.

I took my first, and thus far only, ride on a chairlift unable to hold on with my right arm. Every jerk of the chair would make me flinch, resulting in more shoulder pain. Once we were at the top, and I was strapped into the sled for the ride down the other side of the hill, I experienced my first--and again, thus far my only--downhill ski run, all of it facing backward.

The ski doctors x-rayed my shoulder, confirmed that it had, in fact, been dislocated, and recommended I get someone else to drive my home to Portland. The logistics of that were complicated, but doable, and about two hours later, I was in the passenger seat of my Celica, my right arm in a sling, being driven back home by my housemate Steve, who chided me for not asking him along in the beginning.

I should've learned a lesson from that, but there were many more solo adventures awaiting me, including an 18-mile unequipped wilderness hike in the Sawtooth Mountains that was almost the end of me. I don't go to such lengths anymore, though I still take my bicycle on long solitary rides, and should I ever get myself back into anything approximating running shape, I still have hopes of training (mostly by myself) for distance races, perhaps even another marathon.

I'm acutely aware, though, that I need to be much careful than I used to be. Lately, that sixteen-year-old ski injury has been coming back to bite me. Small physical tasks I would normally take for granted are becoming difficult: is it really worth helping my principal put away chairs after Back to School Night, when the price is acute shoulder pain for the rest of the week? I'm having to rearrange my classroom, including a number of large instruments, using just my left hand. I push as much around with my foot as possible. Anything that involves reaching over my head has to be done intentionally, reminding myself to use my non-dominant left hand.

Yesterday, I'd had enough: I went to Kaiser urgent care, and was seen by a doctor who appeared to be several years older than me. I immediately found myself trusting him more than the younger doctors I've been seeing lately. Not to be ageist or anything, but this doctor had some experience of age-related aches that won't go away. When he said things like "at our age..." I knew he'd been through the same things I was experiencing. Younger doctors know protocols; this guy knew my pain. When he told me surgery was for young athletes, not mature men like myself, I felt both relief and resignation: the idea of doing without my right arm for as long as it takes to recover from shoulder surgery is extremely unappealing to a mostly ambidextrous musician and writer like myself. On the other hand, was I to be stuck with this pain--which sits right on the borderline between 4 and 5 on the scale that was posted in the examination room--for the rest of my life? How much would I have to medicate it?

Don't worry, the doctor said, and went out to get a large syringe filled with prednisone. The injection was no fun, and twenty-four hours later, the shoulder has been, if anything, more painful than before; but he did tell me it would take a few days for the swelling to go down, and the healing to begin.

So here I am, medicating the pain until the steroid does its work, teaching myself to be left-handed for as many over-the-head things as possible, wondering if this is just the first of many signs that my body is on the decline. I have, it must be admitted, fallen badly while running three times since June 2016, losing many months of exercise as a result; absent the exercise, I've gained about thirty pounds. Meanwhile, my hair continues to gray and thin. Getting out of bed is still easy, but I'm not waking up before my alarm like I used to.

Those last four words are significant: there are a lot of things in my life that I don't do like I used to. I'm not as wakeful, energetic, or alert as I used to be. Where for the last four years I've had no problem waking up at 5:15--in fact, I don't think my alarm had the chance to go off more than a handful of times in that period--I'm now needing it. Getting out of my car at the end of my afternoon commute is also a challenge: I find my energy so tapped out that I can't seem to get myself to open the door and walk up to the house. When I run, I have to take walking breaks every five minutes or so, and I worry often about falling. I feel much more guilty about spending mindless time on my phone: the clock is ticking, I've only got so many minutes left, and should I really be spending so many of them solving crosswords, playing Star Trek Timelines, and thumbing through Facebook?

Speaking of better things I could be doing: this was the week I finally got serious about retirement planning. We had a financial advisor over Wednesday night, and dumped statements for all our existing pension and IRA plans on him. He'll be back in two weeks to tell us what he discovered, and recommend things we could be doing to secure our future. This is something I've put off for a very long time. I've had excellent excuses--job instability, joblessness, high essential expenses--but none of those excuses applies anymore. Coupled with this decision to plan for retirement has been my first awareness that it may actually come--that I won't always be working for a living. I'm talking with colleagues who've recently retired or cut back to part-time, seeing how many of them continue to be available as substitute teachers, or to find ways to work with children that don't require as much planning or energy as full-time teaching does. The irony for me is that it feels like I've spent most of my teaching career trying to get to where I am, a full-time music teacher with a rewarding, challenging job I love that won't go away on an administrative whim--and I'm thinking retirement.

When I told Amy the title of this essay, her reaction was that it seemed depressing. In fact, though, I find I've finally found the zen approach modeled by teachers, pastors, and mentors I've long looked up to: human development doesn't just stop at 21. Human beings continue to grow and change through stages. Embracing the process, I don't have to dread it. Yes, aches and pains are unpleasant, but compared to the economic uncertainty and emotional upheaval I endured through my 20s, 30s, and most of my 40s, the thought of trading 56 for 26 is revolting. I'm in the best place I've ever been as a partner, parent, musician, educator, writer--really any of the things that matter to me except the one that my shoulder is involved in, physical fitness. With help from modern medicine, I can get that back in balance too, though I'll never again run as fast as I could at 40.

What I can do is appreciate every moment of life for what it is, and take none of it for granted, making sure that none of the gifts of maturity is wasted on this old man.


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