Thursday, February 27, 2014

Holding back the 12-ton dump truck.

I have received a few comments about the word "old" in the title of this blog. I thought it might be a good idea to address my take on the subject.

Did you ever have one of those cars that kept accumulating "character", but just kept running?

In 1995 I bought a 1982 Toyota station wagon with 160,000 miles on it. I got it off a "buy-here/ pay-here" lot in Albuquerque. It carried all my stuff, which consisted of two backpacks stuffed with camping gear, a duffle bag of ropes and climbing gear, and a couple of bags of clothing, boots, and a few random artifacts of a previous life. Since it was a Southwest Car, the body was in good shape, and the engine sounded solid. It sported a nice 33 mpg. It fit my needs perfectly.

That car took me across the country for over four years, through mountains and canyons, dust and mud, and even outran a Kansas twister or two. On one of those trips across Kansas, the hood latch said "screw it" and walked off the job. I was staring at a large brown sheet of metal, driving 75 mph, and Roy Orbison was warbling "...a love so beautiful..." at about 95 decibels. Thankfully I was in the western end of the state, where traffic is sparse. I pulled over, using my side windows and mirrors to navigate onto the breakdown lane. I opened the back end, found a climbing sling, and tied down the hood well enough to make it to a truck stop. From that point on, the hood was tied on the inside with the sling, while two rubber trucking tie-down straps, the kind with the giant "s" hooks, criss-crossed over the hood to hold it flat to the rest of the car.

When it needed a new starter, I chugged along for an extra six months with a hammer at my side. If the starter wouldn't engage, I unstrapped the hood, cracked it with the hammer a couple of times, and off we went. After this stopped working, I tried to replace it myself but to no avail. When the mechanic tried to remove the old unit, he broke a mounting bolt off of the engine block. He had to weld a new bolt in place so he could attach the new (rebuilt) starter.

A red plastic report cover, the kind we used in school that you could see through, lived under the passenger seat along with some red electrical tape. When "things happened" to tail lights and brake lights, they were covered.

I resisted the urge to connect the stars (chips) on the windshield to form constellations.

And so it went, and so it went, the little things accumulating, but the car ran great. I expected, with good reason, to easily get to 300,000 miles before I would have to think about a replacement. 

I ran an evening and continuing education program at the University of Cincinnati throughout the late 1980's and all of the 1990's. One fine spring day in 1999, I pulled to a stoplight in Clifton, near the university. The odometer read 230,003 miles. A truck pulled up behind me, and stopped. The light turned green, and before my foot even left my brake pedal, I was slammed violently from behind. The driver of a twelve-ton dump truck had let his foot slip off the clutch. His truck lurched forward and crushed my car. 

The End.

I buried it in the back of the parking lot of an apartment complex known for towing off even the kindest of visitors. I hugged the hood, took my straps with me, and said goodbye.

And, so it is with my body. As Indiana Jones said at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it ain't the years, it's the mileage.

I will preface this by saying, this is not a bitch list. It's a fact list. I am not complaining.

I have a hearing aid for my deaf right ear as a result of a whitewater rafting mishap. My "good" left ear has age-related hearing loss, known as presbycusis.

Years of guiding and teaching at high altitude placed me in more than one situation where replenishing sunscreen wasn't a feasible option. Thus I have a slightly-off-color skin graft on the end of my nose from a basal-cell skin cancer lesion. I'll have more lesions removed this spring or summer.

I wear bifocals, and I changed to a multi-vitamin with lutein to slow the macular degeneration taking place in my eyes.

I have been a drummer, guitarist, ice cream scooper, carpenter, and rockclimber. Arthritis is settling into my hands.

My right ankle was surgically fused to reduce discomfort and to allow me to regain some sense of fitness. 

I take medications for high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which have more to do with my weight than my age, but those things are not unrelated. Weight and aging are indeed intertwined; being fat has made me older faster. While I don't obsess about my history, it looms in the rear-view mirror.

It's time to put some distance between myself and the twelve-ton dump truck. I have no desire to sit around until I am crushed from behind.

My body has lots of mileage-related quirks. It's fine; like the Toyota, they have come on slowly over the years. I have adapted. 

I have a great deal of clarity about my strengths and weaknesses.

I'm not one who feels sad or wistful about any of this; it's all a sign of a life well-lived, and one that is still vibrant. My son challenges me to grow every day, and can imagine nothing that will help me stay off the "Frail Trail" more effectively than my days with him. 

I don't have the negative emotional attachment that many people have to the word "old". I choose to own it, to be proud of where my years have taken me, and where they have led me. When people say "Jeff, you're not old", I guarantee you in the world of parenting, I'm in the 99th percentile. Look it up. For first-time dad-hood, I'm old.

What it comes down to is our own definition, and the emotions we attach to the word.

For me,"old" is wisdom. "Old" is experience. "Old" is having no regrets. It's having more to offer my son than I ever could have at 24, or 34 years of age. "Old" is having stories to tell my son that he'll find hard to believe. I'm glad there are boxes of slides in the basement to back up my words. 

It means knowing that my days to dance with my son aren't as plentiful as they once were, so I savor them more. It means understanding that my job is to prepare him for life without me. As his independence grows, so must my awareness that he still needs me, even as his words and actions say otherwise. I can say that because at age 54, I know how much I still need my parents. A younger me might feel more resentment, might not recognize how his needs would be expressed tacitly.

"Old" means having to pay attention to what I eat and what I do. Old is being aware of mortality, and doing what I can to forestall it. It means that I need to take action now to remain vibrant and youthful, within the limitations I have already added to my body. It means continual reinvention. 

For me, "old" is having 230,000 miles on the engine, rubber straps on the hood, stars on the windshield, a few extra pieces bolted/ welded/ taped on to help out with the necessary functions, and knowing there is still at least a good 70k or more left in me. 

So long as I stay ahead of the dump truck.


  1. I've tried to put these same thoughts into words before but I've never come as close as you have here. Nice job kid.

  2. Jeff it is truly wonderful to follow this blog! You are quite eloquent and as gifted in your ability to express your thoughts as you are with capturing a moment with your photography! Keep writing Jeff - it is purely a joy to read this.

  3. Thanks so much to both of you. It's a great time to be a dad, even as time gets shorter by the day.