Essay slider — 17 November 2015


Walker Rowe

OK, I’m not going old, but at 54 I’m growing older, and more quickly each day.

For young readers, I want to tell you what to expect as you grow older. The gory details are a bit shocking, but you should know this. Your body gets slower, you mind might work faster, and the music grows too loud. It’s all true, like Billy Crystal said. Let me tell you how it plays out, so you can make yourself ready.

Yesterday when I climbed up on my horse I overshot the saddle. You’re supposed to step in the stirrup, swing your leg over, and drop down in the seat. But I sailed over the seat and landed on her rump. As I flopped around trying to get into the seat the saddle slipped and dropped me hard on the ground. The horse looked lightly bemused at the saddle hanging upside down and me splayed on the ground.

When I was in my 20’s I would have bounced right back up. Instead I lay there a moment thinking how much that really hurt. Had I been younger, I might have even run around behind the horse and leaped high up over her rear and landed squarely in the seat like Kirk Douglas did in a Western I recently saw. But I can’t do that. I can hardly reach the stirrup with my boot because either the horse is too high or my leg has grown less supple. Obviously, the reason is my leg is less supple.

This is what happens to you as you age.

As I type this my finger hurts because I sliced it with a knife over the weekend. I was cutting meat from a pig that we had butchered and barbecued over the weekend. What’s different about that today is that the wound is still raw. A teenager or adolescent would have healed already.

When I woke up this morning, I had an erection. That’s a good thing. I can no longer remember if that happened every day when I was 20, but I read some novelist recently say that a young man always wakes with an erection. So whether I am flaccid or erect when I wake up I have taken as a gauge of my health.

A retired rodeo rider and taxi driver told me a few weeks ago that his 42 year old son could barely walk. He had eaten red meat and fatty foods too much. Now he suffered gout. That’s a painful blood disorder that comes from good living.

I have overeaten as well. But not anymore. The doctor told me last year that I had fat on my liver. But that situation is reversible with diet and exercise. Shortly seeing her I moved to the country, out of the crowded city. I lost weight and grew healthier, not because I planned to, it just happens to you when you have no car and pedal to the grocery store instead of riding in your car and you live on a farm and spend much of the day outdoors in the garden.

We live much longer today because of statins. These are the miracle-producing drugs that lowers cholesterol. That prevents heart attacks. Most everyone I know my age takes statins for cholesterol and high blood pressure medicine. Lots take drugs to control their blood sugar; I don’t.

I don’t have a problem with my blood sugar, but just barely. When I took a blood exam last year my glucose read 100. If it had been 101 that would have sent me across the threshold.
All of these problems can be fixed by losing weight and giving up fatty foods. The doctor said I could only eat red meat once per month. No shrimp, ever, but clams are OK. Eat more fish. No egg yolks, but the white part is OK.

So I have done all this. Eighteen months later I assume some of these problems have corrected themselves as I have lost a lot of weight and radically changed my diet. To find out for sure I would have to go back to the laboratory which would mean taking the bus to Santiago for the exams, not all of which you can take on the same day, then going back to retrieve the results and then going to the see the doctor. That’s a lot of going back and forth.

But I must be healthier as today I awoke with a boner.

You can expect other changes as you grow older, especially your mood and you vision.
I have always been very nearsighted. That might have come from too much reading. Not sure. What happens to everyone as they reach about 45 is their eyes become less elastic. You have a harder time focusing. So about 100% of people at that age need reading glasses.

My situation was worse. I was one of those 1 in 300 people to suffer a retinal detachment. Two years ago a hole suddenly appeared in my vision. My nearsighted eye had grown so elongated that it literally tore itself apart. The surgeon glued it back in place by slipping in a needle and freezing it in place with liquid nitrogen or something like that.

Fortunately I am self-employed freelance writer and work from home. And I publish a website Southern Pacific Review. I don’t know how someone with a job could suffer something like that and not lose their job. For weeks I had a bandage over one eye. When I look it off I could not see out of my left eye clearly. I obviously could not work, at least for a while. The problem was my prescription had changed so I needed new glasses.

But since my eye was still changing shape it would have been a waste of money to get new glasses right away.
So for 9 months I limped along with one good eye and tried to avoid driving my wife’s car as there was a real risk of running down a pedestrian.

The doctor said not to worry. A cataract would form in that eye in a year. Then he could cut out the cornea and replace it with an intraocular lens. When that finally happened I took a hammer and smashed the left lens in my glasses. I no longer needed that since the lens in my eye corrected my vision.

But it did not correct it to 20/20. As I wrote a few moments ago, older people need reading glasses. So if my vision had been corrected 100% in my left I would have been able to see in distance but not be able to read a menu or, worse, read a book without holding it out a really long way. So the surgeon focused my eyes at about 1 meter distant. I went back to the eye doctor and optician and got a $1,200 pair of multi-focal lens, with each lens having a different power.

No I can see fine.

The other thing I can report would be of interest to you who suffer some kind of anxiety. For 30 years I have taken a cocktail of pills having suffered a breakdown from the stress of running a business with 10 employees and constant business travel when I was about 35 years old. The worst part of this is I have become totally addicted to the narcotic clonazepam. When I tried to quit taking it my arms cramped up just like a heroin withdrawal and I had severe panic attacks.

Work wears you down. When people go to the office, it’s like going to war, depending on what you do. The conference room is where computer programmers like me, go to battle with their ideas. I imagine other professionals do that same. In the conference room you have to advocate for your position so that your solution comes out on top. I was quite good at this process of pure deductive reasoning and debate. Logic is the only way to approach the computer. So if you argument is succinct and your presentation convincing your idea will prevail. That’s how aggressive people behave and the best systems are built.

But I am really a sensitive person who hides his pain behind a mask of jokes. Humor rids pain, at least for a moment. As you grow older you become riddled with guilt and ashamed of what you have done in the past. These ghosts haunt you and overshadow all that what was good. So instead of thinking how great it was that I have two kids who I sent to college, I still cringe when I think how I almost scalded my oldest by putting him in a bath of too hot water and how I almost burned him with grease when frying him eggs.

A couple of years ago I realized that I couldn’t work in an office anymore. Most computer programmers move into management with others their own age. But I preferred to writing code and solving problems. So I was still writing code three years ago but doing so with people half my age. My ability to think deeply has improved with age and so have my computer skills. But I work slower. I was clashing with quicker younger people and older ones too. I made the mistake of rewriting my client’s code to provide a more elegant solution. She was offended and I got fired from that job. At another job I believe my boss had grown jealous of the code I was writing. He was supposed to be the manager, but every computer program I wrote he wrote again for the purposes of teaching himself. So I got fired again. Then at a 3rd job I took on the role of the mentor and leader of the younger programmers, only to find myself clashing with them. I got fired for a third time. That time the client said that I did not know the computer language they were using. That’s true, but to learn one if you know another is not so difficult. Here in Chile that company hired me only because I could speak English and knew other programming languages.

Looking back at all of this I realize that the adage “all change is good” is true. All of this forced me to assess my situation. I realized I had to get out off the office and work for myself.
So, having given that background, I can now circle back to the topic of anxiety and medicine. I’m still a broken soul as far as mental health goes. I suffer anxiety attacks all the time, but they have not been debilitating for 20 years now. But now having moving to the country, where one exchanges one set of problem for another, I can suffer anxiety without also having to carry the burden of going to work. So it’s easier to live with.

So I have taken his occasion to cut back on my medicine. I dropped clonazepam from 2 mg to 1.5. I backed off my SSRI citalopram from 20mg to 10mg. These are major milestones for me as I have grown weary of being an addict and spending so much money and time trying to secure medicine.

My aunt died this week. Like my father and grandmother she died from cancer caused by smoking. I had been thinking for a long time now that my mom’s aging siblings might die one day as they have reached 70 years old. Sue was the first to go. She fell into a kind of dementia before she passed away. My grandfather simply keeled over with a heart attack. My father went out in a blur of morphine to dull the pain of cancer. My grandmother was tethered to a breathing machine for two years and suffered horrible pain. When my eldest son went to see her for the last time, while he was still a little boy, he touched the ring on her finger and she bled.

That thought makes me suffer still.

So you can see that souls are made to suffer and bodies wear out. Your mind is supposed to fade as you grow older, but mine has gone in the opposite direction, plus I am not so old as to suffer brain problems. But I cannot remember what happened yesterday and cannot control racing thoughts.

For five years or so I was unable to finish a novel. I kept picking one up and putting it down and picking up another before I finished the first one. The problem was my powers of concentration had been disrupted. But that situation is changing perhaps by reducing anxiety drugs and having left the office. Just in the past few months I have read more books all the way through. This includes difficult books like Pynchon and Faulkner, which is what I like to read.

The other thing that has changed is my ability to think deeply. I used to program the computer as a hack making one line of code work and then using brute force to move into another, hence the term “hacker.” That meant I used the ability of the computer to assist me writing code, sort of bumbling along. Now I can capture an idea in my head more easily and not use the brute force approach to problem solving but doing so in a more mental way, which actually saves time and effort.

The other area where I can see my growing cognitive ability is I study mathematics. I studied maths in college, earning a solid C for my efforts. When you studying math you can literally see the limits of your intelligence. There are concepts you can grasp and those you will never grasp because driving home to the proof of a theorem requires holding aloft a whole sequence of deductive steps. Not everyone has this ability. I certainly did not. I was OK, but no genius like a few in my classes.

But now I study maths for fun. I find I can understand calculus, geometry, and statistics much better now than before. Working through such mental gymnastics at an older age is said to stave off Alzheimer’s. I think that is true as I can feel my brain growing more powerful as I push it to its limits. I feels good to do that. I can also cause great frustration and anxiety too.

So, this is some of what you can expect as you grow from a young adult male to an older one. I cannot tell women what to expect, as I am not one. But I can tell the women this: an older male can only ejaculate perhaps once a day. Many lie about that. As for sex, I am years away from reaching what Picasso called sexual peace when one’s sex drive falls off to nothing. But mine has definitely faded away. My 3rd wife left me a few months ago, but it hardly matters as I am not longer a slave to my penis. I was never really a an animal in the sack, but today I can feel my virility fading away. Your genitalia change as you age. A man’s testicles grow larger and the valve that cuts off the flow of urine when you pee does not work so well. So you find a few minutes after you have urinated you have wet your pants. I am not yet at the point like my 76 year old friend who pees sitting down and wears a diaper. But that is what is in store.

So enjoy your youth. I miss mine not at all. Because while the body begins to break down as you age, as do so at an increasing rate, your mind reaches a more relaxed state even if your emotional scars haunt you even more.


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