Learning

I started writing this on my birthday in November. I am over-late completing it, so I’ve decided to adapt it into a New Year’s missive. It is not a retrospective as much as a reflection on a few things I’m learning. It is also an experiment: I will attempt to avoid the use of the second person pronoun or the urge to offer recommendations. By the end, a reader should feel no need to cope with moving cheese, feel younger this year, or be inspired to onerous resolutions. Self-help writings are a double misnomer. On one hand, the reader takes in the experience of another, so he’s not alone anyway. On the other, the chance of actually changing for the better without in-person guidance of real people in real life is, in my experience, nil.

I turned 57. It did not have the feel of a great crossing the way 30, 40, and 50 are advertised. As a longtime adman, my brain naturally looked for a way to ascribe a significance to the number. I freely admit that I sometimes spend time thinking about my age. Mainly on days of the week ending in the letter “Y.” Sometimes in the morning. And the afternoon, yes. Oh, and at night, if it’s dark.

I wonder if other people who are aging think about it as much as I. It’s scary. I have been told that it is impossible for me to actually really remove my own fears; I must ask a higher power to lift them. This lends credence to a conceit of the immature, that spirituality and higher powers are a crutch for older people as they contemplate mortality. Yes, well. I have to ask to not be terrified every time I put my keys in the microwave.

The number 57 is halfway between 55 and 59. Here is a picture to help see a point:

 

Visual readers will readily see that on the big ski slope of maturity, it’s now a downhill run to the big 6-0.  That sounds like as good a reason to fiddle with the notion of spirituality as any. I can no longer say I’m in my “mid-50’s” with an earnest, crinkled face. It’s late 50’s. I am getting used to chewing on that with my high-fiber cereal, trying not to get milk on my chin. I am now three years removed from the broad advertising demographic of 25-54 year-olds, the group of Americans said to be in the full flower of robust consumerism. On web forms asking my age group, my demo is now next-to-last, before “65+.” Everyone on TV looks young and annoying. I receive AARP direct mail and newsprint coupon circulars. Market research says I shop at LL Bean, WinterSilks, and wear rag socks with Merrell sandals. When I walk into Posh, clerks assume I’m looking for clothes for offspring and ignore me, or address me with a curious vocal inflection of upspeak and condescension.

I have decided that people over 50 who say they don’t think much about their age are lying, or they have achieved a level of serenity reserved for monks and Hindi. Me, if I drop my keys while walking across a parking lot, my first thought isn’t “Pick up your keys” as much as, “Shit, is this how it starts?” Meanwhile, I have begun to realize how precious sex is. I hasten to add that I am quite hale, and my lady friend is happy with my performance. (Hmmm. See how I felt a need to say that?) Still, I cannot pretend to be unaware of being at a place where younger people are uncomfortable with the thought of me getting blowjobs or going down on Ms. GF. They now shudder and follow it with interjection. “Ewwww!” Young people think they invented sex.

I can go on and on. Writing age jokes is as easy as tipping wheelchairs or ordering gutter guards, but as I said, I have more important fish to fry. Despite a cordial dislike of advice columns, I am going to share some stuff. This is the other thing that happens at a certain age: a compulsive need to explain things that everyone is going to have to learn the hard way. My burgeoning wisdom, like my bladder, requires an outlet.

Here are five things. Shit. After all that, I’m doing a list blogpost.

It’s not what I think.

What I think doesn’t matter one whit to my happiness. I am regularly shocked by this, that my big brain cannot divine the answers I need to chill the fuck out. As a society, we are often told that happiness will come from a better mental attitude. Clearer thinking and better knowledge will win the day. There’s another part: a better mental attitude comes from doing rather than thinking. Just being the best thinker is a cartload of poo. This is ironic, since I am a partner in a company called, with typical modern entrepreneurial whimsy, a “thinkery.”

In school, I went out of my way to be the smartest person in the room, and I will still go there in a New York minute. I show my ass every time. Then I think more knowledge will help avoid looking bad, so I read and read and read. I go see a shrink. I meditate. The clouds whoosh by. I wind up back in the middle of vague discontent. Know why? I’m not doing right.

A friend put it this way: “They don’t put people in an asylum because they’re crazy. They put ‘em there for acting crazy.”

I have to do the hard shit.

Easy never works. Sooner or later, every easy satisfaction turns to sugar and gives me a spiritual toothache. I am wired for candy, too. I like sitting and thinking, with occasional standing and a mouth full of chocolate trail mix. I am less wired to go to visit my mom, run five miles, write in my journal, or respond thoughtfully to my girlfriend when she tells about her day and I’m tired. In a meeting, I am perfectly content to sit and listen and think critical shit instead of offering a positive suggestion. I’d much rather tell everyone what a dumbass thing so-and-so just said.

I don’t know why doing the hard thing never gets easier. I am miffed by that, sometimes. Take running. The idea that running will get easier as I do it more is poppycock. It’s running. I get out of breath, and I want to quit EVERY TIME. My shrink says, “Your people didn’t raise you right.” That seems a little like a blame shift, but hey, he’s the shrink. He’s telling me I don’t naturally default to doing the difficult, right thing. He’s right. On the rowboat of life, my most reliable channel markers are feelings of avoidance. The shoals and stumps are plain to see. They have the words “fear” and “resistance” on them in dayglo spray paint.

I never understood what “being tired” really meant until I realized this never ends. I have to keep rowing. This reminds me of another thing my shrink says: “White people don’t get to be tired.”

People can change.

This is my favorite thing. It means hope. It means I can, in fact, rewire, that my hard-coding need not be permanent. To anyone who believes, “People never change,” I offer my middle finger and my awesome 57-year-old abs.

There are plenty of people working very hard to justify their own inertia, so “people don’t change” makes them feel better. Surprise: inertia changes them, too. I’m going to be mean a second: when I go to a reunion, I wonder how everyone got to be so tubby, jowly and conservative. They didn’t all start out that way. They changed. The hardest thing about attending my last reunion wasn’t wondering why the kids I once thought were cool are now watching Fox News. It was wondering if I’ve changed as much to them as they have to me. Answer: yes. Here’s my brain while attending a reunion: “Hi, Toby. You look like hell, but I fucking look great, and I still hate guns. Hi, Cheryl. Wanna see my abs?”

Let me give some positive examples. Churches and nonprofits and AA meetings and schools and kickball teams and chess clubs are chocked full of people who have changed. They used to be assholes, misers, drunks, ignoramuses, poor kickers and shitty chess players. Now, they aren’t. Guess how that happened? They surrounded themselves with helpful people, began to act differently, and changed.

Change happens. It is a combination of action, circumstances, and environment. There also has to be some sort of grace involved. I know I’ve benefitted from a ton of it.

Many people who behave badly and appear to stay that way are in shitty circumstances surrounded by others who don’t know how to change for the better. Their grace is gone. Who knows why? It reminds me of the scene in Pulp Fiction when Samuel L. Jackson says, about the overweight Samoan: “He got a weight problem, what’s a brother gonna do, except eat some mo’?”  This makes me think of jails. I will soapbox a minute. Jails are full of people changing for the worse. It is not society’s best, when we put people who have grown up in poor, terrible environments into even uglier places full of other people who also make a lot of mistakes, take away their freedoms, then act hateful to them. Aside from those with serious mental problems, almost no one in jail was born a lawbreaker or social miscreant. What happened? They changed. Their circumstances were usually so terrible that everyone assumed they’d start misbehaving, and when they did, they got put in the pokey. People said, “See?” and talked about “making poor choices.” Only people in pretty good circumstances talk about folks having choices. People in jail who get better are very rare, and they do because of relationships with compassionate, kind people. Grace again. Folks who work with incarcerated people are very high on my list. They help people change for the better.

When someone says, “People never change,” I think what they ought to say is “People won’t change for the better if their circumstances are so bad that they don’t have any help, or if they don’t know how to start. They need some grace.” I see lots of people staying with devils they know. I know I did for a long time.

Fear is not necessarily the root of sin.

This may sound religious and off-putting for some. It was for me. Words like “sin” were a switch that turned my brain off to all sorts of good ideas. I had to substitute “being an asshole,” “doing bad things,” or “character defects” to understand. Most self aware people realize that when they do bad things, fear is at the root of it: “I took his money because I’m terrified of not having any.” Well and good, but that’s not all of it. It works in the other direction, too. Pride, lust, envy, sloth, and general assholery don’t require fear to become operative. They’re there for me all the time, and easy as pie to activate.

Here are two reliable ways I can turn them on. One is to be idle and alone. I can decide I have nothing to do and take a stroll in the bad neighborhood that’s my lonely mind. Pretty soon, I’ll have a big idea. Next thing, I’ll do something stupid with a dire result, and the cycle is off and running.

The other way is to just act bad. (That sounds obvious, but I like to imagine complexity where my own spirituality is concerned.) Take greed. Sometimes I buy footwear and clothing I don’t need for the hell of it, all while feeling perfectly secure. I just want some more. Or laziness: I can blow off writing and screw around on Facebook, full of confidence in my dazzling wordcraft. Trouble is, I don’t write anything but headlines.

Inevitably, fear follows. What if I can’t buy any more shoes? What if my company fails? What If I lose my house? How will I keep the other homeless people from taking my Cole Haans? Why am I so guilty I didn’t write today? I have so many good ideas. What if I forget how to write? My life will pass and I’ll never have written anything but stupid blogposts. My granddaughter will never know how cool I was after I die. Fuck! A sleeve of Oreos is just what I need. I don’t want to have experiences today. God, cancel my experiences, I just want to go home. What’s that sound? Is that my phone? I don’t feel like talking. Is that policeman following me? He better not pull me over. I’ll have something to say to his ass.

When I act like a doo-doo it triggers fear, just as much fear triggers me acting like a doo doo. They are two sides of the same toilet seat.

Exercise is great.

This is the last thing I’m going to share. No one likes a happy gym person except other happy gym people, but I am one. Mark Twain said of exercise, “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away.” I love that quote, because I said it for years to justify my own lollygagging. I could never see how all that sweating and grunting could possibly improve my favorite pastime, which is thinking about me. I believed that most of what was making me unhappy was in my head, not my muscle tissue. Turns out they are related.

Of course, I knew I was supposed to exercise. I tried all manner of things. I thought if I found a “fun” exercise, I wouldn’t notice how hard it is or want to go lie down. That’s an empty sweatshirt.

I biked for about three years. I did it my way, with predictable results. I started with a sensible, inexpensive bicycle. Next, I started thinking that the hills were steep because the bike was cheap, and I needed better gear. I bought some spandex, even though I swore I wouldn’t (you know, for the seat pads in the shorts). I worked on getting used to how dumb I looked. I think this is why cyclists ride in groups, to help with that. In my case, I didn’t want to be seen with a crowd of yellow geeks, so I rode solo.

Things got expensive. I bought pedals, shoes, and a new helmet. Bike socks. Of course there are bike socks. Then another bicycle. And a third one, custom built. The bike shop guy said, “This bike has a carbon fork so you’ll save .00002 of an ounce. The difference is huge.” He only started being friendly after I’d already bought a bunch of other shit. Bike shops guys are like that. They mostly employ snobs who pretend they only drink Campari and ride Campagnolo.

Finally, I had two beautiful bicycles and one ugly one, like a strip club proprietor. I gave away the ugly one, and I now have two gorgeous urban sculptures hanging on a wall of my garage. One was custom built by a descendant of Richard Schwinn in a shop in Wisconsin. Mark Twain said another thing: “Get yourself a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” Biking is exercise, which means it is vigorous, or you’re not doing it right.

That’s where it gets tricky for me, exercising alone: the word “vigorous.” My brain translates this as “to exhaustion, every single time.” One, cold New Year’s Day, I almost passed out riding Radnor Lake. Exercise trainers have a less encouraging name for this physical state, which they write on their clipboards: “failure.” They cross their arms and misuse first person plural, saying, “We are going to do pushups to failure.” I have learned it is unwise to correct them. They just add more repetitions until I beg for mercy.

I know all this about trainers because my shrink made me hire one, four and a half years ago, when I was so nuts he called me a horse’s ass right there in his office. Sometimes it takes a personal bottom. Taking his advice was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Training in a gym beats biking hands down, and it disposes of the notion that I am having fun. It’s just me vs. failure. Lunges? Squats? Deadlifts? You think those are fun? OK! My guy asks, “Do you think you can do 15?” after some demonstration of a strong thing. I say, “One of two things is fixin’ to happen. Either I’ll be able to do it, or I won’t.” Fixin’. Then I try not to throw up. Four and a half years later, it’s still one set at a time. My lungs burn and my brain tells me to stop, my muscles invent phantom pain, and my head gets little circles of stars whirling around like in an old Warner Brothers cartoon.

I would never have stuck with any kind of a routine without the help of a real person. I see guys in the gym all the time going it alone. Good for them. Me, I’d have destroyed my body or my will long ago. Now I can run six miles, do a Turkish Get-Up with a 44 pound kettlebell, and deadlift my weight.

Being 57 is all right.

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