The Sweet Spot: On Middle Age and What to Look Forward to
Believe it: it’s not all easy, but some things do get better with age
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I AM AT one of those ages. Indisputably no longer young, still not truly old. Inadvertently, I seem to have memorized the disclaimers shoehorned into the continuously looping promises of ever ready erections and the reborn joys of peeing like a racehorse. In fact, the legs are what I would most like to have back.
At 45, a slip on the ice during my daily run shredded my left hamstring and, with it, my belief that each time I stepped outdoors I could run as far as I pleased. When would that illusion otherwise have dissolved? I’ll never know, because at 51 an out-of-nowhere autoimmune condition rendered me, for a while, barely able to walk around the block. Aggressively medicated, I recovered. Then, just in time for my 58th birthday, I bought myself a hastily scheduled angioplasty and a couple of coronary stents, a bargain-rate down payment on an undetermined number of future birthdays.
The exact circumstances of recognizing, for the first time, one’s mortality turn out to be largely a matter of chance, but the response is a matter of choice. I bought a road bike and, after decades of trash-talking gyms, joined one. In mild weather, I ride 10 or 12 miles—but not 20. Come spring, I get back on the bike with the confidence that I’m going to start out slowly, then steadily get… less slow. When it occurred to me that I should be showing up at the gym more regularly, I enlisted a trainer, aptly named Dominick, who twice-weekly obligingly dominated me. He long ago moved on; I’m still there. And still here.
What’s changed along the way is my perception of time, which I came to regard as a gift rather than an adversary. At an age when my contemporaries with children contemplated the emptying of their nests, I became a dad again—my fourth go-round. (“Mark’s having his own grandchild,” my father said at the time.) When my son Paul was still small, I had my first health scare—which, once I gathered my wits, yielded a wonderful unburdening. Winning no long mattered; now the goal was to stay in the game as long as possible. My erstwhile competitive urges I subcontracted to Paul, now 15 and a soccer fanatic, and to his older brothers, who do marathons, ultramarathons, and triathlons. I turned my attention to fishing, to my friendships, to saying yes.
The thing I always loved about running was its simplicity, literal and metaphorical: you put one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. And you moved forward. Now, on a treadmill or stationary bike, I put one foot in front of the other and gratefully hold my own. This keeps me fit enough for the good stuff—to venture into a rocky river, fly rod or spinning rod in one hand and wading staff in the other, where I feel my way along the bottom with the same concentration I used to reserve for a five-foot putt. If I get skunked, I still deem a day of fishing a success if I’ve spared my companions the sight of me yet again dog-paddling by in my bloated waders.
My hero, an octogenarian fishing buddy—call him Quixote—spends several days each July on a river in eastern Quebec, wooing Atlantic salmon on their spawning run. He took this up at 71. Since acquiring his first fly rod, he had waited only 60 years to engage with the evasive Salmo salar—those 20-pound ball grabbers with the habit of staying on the line for an hour or so.
Quixote also rides a bike 2,000 miles a year. Four winters ago, he fell off and landed hard on his casting shoulder. The next August, I asked how he’d made out in Quebec that year.
“Four in the net.”
The year before?
The year before that?
Standing in a guided, anchored canoe, he would cast a ten-weight line a modest distance toward the bank and let his wet fly drift with the current 45 degrees. Stripping a few feet of line from the reel, he lengthened each successive cast until he reached the limit of his range, and then it was time to move downstream.
His longest range was about 50 feet. But to manage the pain as his shoulder healed, he improvised a two-fisted cast, and the fly flew 25 feet farther, evidently with salutary results. Thus:
More range = more H2O
More H2O = more fish
Viz: four fish > one fish
Was the fishery getting better, I asked, or was he?
“I’m getting better,” spaketh Quixote.
Mark Singer is the author most recently of Character Studies.