53 Is The New 38

belly photo“Middle Age is where your broad mind and your narrow waist begin to change places.” – John Crossman

I never really took a regular medication for a condition before I was in my forties. My mother did not believe in pills. She was one part Christian Scientist and two parts Inuit Darwinist subscribing to the notion that sick children, like old people, should be just set outside the igloo at night and if they were still alive in the morning, they were allowed to rejoin the family. Illness and chronic conditions were things that plagued other people, like old man Norton who lived across the street. At 85, he suffered from heart failure and diabetes and it seemed like every other week they were lopping off one of his appendages as a sort of burnt offering to his disease. It was a preview of a movie I hoped to never see.

As a kid, you averted your eyes from the vagaries of aging, not so much out of denial but out of some misguided sense that old age only happened to other people. Deep down, you knew it would be waiting for you, like that German Shepherd that sometimes chased you on your bike.  On sunny afternoons, I occasionally glimpsed Mr. Norton and he would wave to me from his wheel chair – all two arms, one foot and a half leg. It freaked me out and I made a pact that I would never succumb to old age. I would cheat it and commit to a life either so reckless or physically vigorous that chronic disease would simply shrug and pass me by. I would go out in a flash, perhaps spontaneously combusting on a rock and roll stage or slowly asphyxiating on the side of Mount Everest after rescuing a dozen Sherpas trapped inside a crevasse on the Khombu Icefall.

Despite my best efforts to remain a juvenile, middle age finally collared me. I am now bemused by my own denial – a self deception that seeps in like lugubrious fog obscuring moments of self reflection. I prefer to see myself in a certain light and favor friendships with people who conserve electricity — their “energy-saver” bulbs have a sort of muted Blanche Dubois quality that fails to expose my true age. I prefer pleats, spandex, “comfortable” levis, and larger versions of everything. I wear my shirt outside my pants and tend to avoid stripes which turn me into a large Faberge egg. My wedding day 33” inch waist has eroded like a Florida sinkhole, widening to 38”, a metric that is really only meant to define the circumference of old trees and an athlete’s vertical leap at a football combine. A protective shell has formed near the top of my solar plexus. It feels like a muscle but I am being told it is fat — presumably being stored in the event the Food Emporium ever goes on strike.

Global warming has begun. The canard that only women get hot flashes could not be less accurate. When you are large and in charge, you feel warm all the time. In a single winter day, you are both sweating and freezing as you go from windy, frigid streets to offices hotter than an Indian sweat lodge. In summer, you advocate the notion that thermometers should be calibrated by weight not by temperature as you would prefer to set the air conditioner to a cool 235 pounds each night instead of the balmy 105, favored by your wife who has not gained a pound across three children, two continents and a quarter century.

You start driving a nice sports car because it reminds you of a time when you could sit comfortably in the middle seat of an airplane and not feel like a human smore. People start to whisper when they see your new ride, “Tsk, tsk. He’s having a middle-aged crisis”. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you that in 1986 when I did look good enough to actually drive my own convertible, I did not have two dimes to rub together and drove a puke green Renault Alliance that not unlike the French, would routinely sit down in the middle of a job and go on strike. We sports car drivers are not compensating for anything. We’re just enjoying the fruits of our hard labor and perhaps hoping not to be as invisible as we feel.

At 53, the body starts paying you back. The knees went first. Years of sports and running coupled with a pathetic version of stretching that involved making one effort to briefly touch my toes, gave me a bulging disc and hamstrings as tight as a cat-gut mandolin. The shoulders followed. Years in the weight room with poor technique, a mediocre baseball career as well as annual trips to the emergency room after countless injuries in Turkey Bowl football games, rewarded me with clicking joints reminiscent of a playing card hitting the spokes of a bicycle tire.

The latest manifestation of mortal decline occurred at Halloween while sucking on one of the many Tootsie Pops that I appropriated from my youngest son informing him that he must pay “a toll to the troll’.   He might as well get used to being taxed now. As I succumbed to the inevitable urge to bite the hard candy, my right molar broke off like the Antarctic Ice Shelf. It would turn out to be an $1100 piece of candy and the birth place of my first crown. Thinking back, I’m sure old man Norton had his fair share of crowns but I had always assumed my teeth would be indestructible – at least I thought so in college when we opened beer bottles with them.

Middle Age now means moderation – another profane word. The whole diet thing is a touchy subject in any marriage where there is a weight imbalance. Yet, she tolerates me and often travels great verbal distances to find just the right word for self improvement. I listen in amusement wondering how my spouse might segue from ISIS to my losing ten pounds. It’s diplomatic genius. She ought to work in the UN. She uses code words to hint at lack of restraint – patronizing placeholders like “ healthy”, “balanced” and my favorite “portion control”.

Gratefully, the dog does not seem perturbed by my slow disintegration. He moves at my speed – an adoring shadow that has fallen in love with my insides and considers my outsides, merely a coat of extra fur. The dog and I agree on the true definition of “portion control”: eat until you are going to be sick. Normally, when he overeats, he goes outside, munches on some grass, returns and throws it all up on a nice rug. I just lie down and moan, informing my wife that I think I have the stomach flu. Meanwhile my son comes in the room to incredulously ask, “who ate all the cupcakes?” I try to blame the dog but he is in the other room throwing up grass.

I am suddenly noticing now that everything in the fridge is “low fat”. I search for sweets at midnight and the cupboards are filled with healthy things like nuts, dates and dried apricots. This is no longer my house, it’s a spice market in Baghdad. I search her favorite hiding places including the most clever default– the microwave. I am mildly insulted at our passive aggressive war of weight and wits – but hey, game on. She is Holmes and I am her arch enemy Professor More For Me. The dinners are very healthy with portions smaller than a French restaurant. Like Oliver Twist, I keep waiting for seconds but she has cleverly prepared only enough for one serving. “More? You want…more?!”

It’s not like I don’t try. The problem is the majority of calories I consume occur between 7PM and midnight. Night eating is a problem. It hits every man — the day arrives where you go to bed on a full stomach and wake up coughing with the sensation of napalm in your throat. My first thought was I was turning into a dragon and that perhaps I just needed to light a match to give birth to the fire in my esophagus. The next thing I know I am exchanging proton pump inhibitors like Zantac and Nexium with another middle aged stranger in a late night diner like a couple of crack heads.

Family photos also become an issue. It’s always subtle – one of your kids or your wife will say, “Here’s a good one of you, Dad!” with profound encouragement. This is code for you look like the Hindenburg or a human manatee in most of these shots but this photo (where we can’t see your face), may meet your denial criteria. I now find myself fighting over Christmas photos more than the kids. “Jesus, if you are going to use that one, at least tell everyone my due date.” “Oh great, we don’t need to tell them where this was taken because from this angle, I look like Asia Minor.” In the end, we decide to feature only kids and I finally concede to one couples photo that will be on the inside of the card. She looks great and in this one I look young enough that at least anyone who does not know us will assume she is my second wife and not my daughter.

I can almost hear the Christmas Card comments, “Wow, she looks great!” Pause. “ And he looks…um, prosperous!” The absence of praise should be construed as criticism. Yes, 53 has become the new 38. 38’s are everywhere: 38” waists, a maximum of 38 push-ups, 38 minutes jogging before the knee feels like you have been swatted by Malaysian riot police, 38 ways to hear someone say, “I would not wear that if I were you.”

Life has turned quickly from “do’s” to “don’ts”. The new regulations: Don’t eat fatty foods. Don’t eat after 7pm. Don’t eat meat, Don’t eat fat. Don’t eat refined sugar. Don’t eat gluten. ( I’d actually like an extra helping of gluten please, waitress and can you fry it into a little fritter so I can drizzle honey on it?”

It’s a losing battle in a three front war – with those who conspire to fix me, with my own lack of restraint and with Father Time. Winter is coming and the stakes are increasing.

Did someone say, “steaks”?

Sullen, dreary, dark shadow afternoons. Cold front door mornings that slap like a locker room towel and the endless layers of clothes thick enough to hide a rocket launcher. Comfort foods abound and whisper – hearty soups, breads, pastas, cookies — a universe of simple and complex carbohydrates designed to raise your blood sugar and your mood. It is a never ending battle between good and non fat.

At 53, my superhero outfit is a little tight. I think I popped a button off my lederhosen but its my job to be a “roll” model for other middle aged manatees. You want us on that wall. You need us on that wall. We just all can’t climb up on it at the same time or it might break. We have our purpose. We make the skinny people feel good and aren’t afraid to be the “before” picture in some ad touting self improvement. But inside our 38’s, we’re 33’s busting to get out. We need a little more restraint, a little more sunshine, a vanity based event like a wedding, reunion or family vacation where posing for a photo or removing one’s shirt is a requirement to keep us on the straight and calorie free path. It’s not too late. You may be middle aged but inside your fifty-three is a thirty-eight and underneath that it is a thirty-three. You know, sort of like a burrito. Yeah, that’s it.

Man, I’m hungry.

The Hulk

The Hulk

 

At a prepubescent 10 years old, I happily still sported baby fat and had no issues with my body image.  My innocent lack of self consciousness was shattered one fateful summer afternoon at the local community pool when it became very obvious to me that my breasts were larger than the 16 year old female lifeguard who I secretly admired.  Like Adam and Eve after eating the apple, I was suddenly aware of my pear-like physique. I could not deny other signs of my flagging vitality. The annual Presidential Fitness Test that was visited upon elementary school coach potatoes each fall was an embarrassing reminder that I did not possess the ” right stuff”.  The test revealed in a very public setting my most carefully guarded secret : I could not do a pull up. My inability to hoist my 130 lb, 5′ body over a metal bar that was less than 18 inches above my chin, was devastating.

 

My thirst for strength and fitness led me into an amusing phase of self obsession.  I became keenly aware of physically fit athletes.  I  marvelled at Olympian weight lifters.  I obsessed over the Mr Universe contests as Austrian Schwartzenegger and American Lou Ferrigno competed for the most perfect body.   I worshipped NFL defensive giants Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene and Dick Butkis as they prowled offensive backfields breaking quarterbacks like dry kindling.  In Pro Wrestling, Freddy Blassy epitomized the brash bravado that came with pectoral muscles.  He denounced all “pencil neck geeks” and made it clear that no bully would kick sand in your face if you were sporting biceps that could crush walnuts.

 

As with many seemingly benign adolescent obsessions, there was a dark secret leavened in with my enthusiasm, energy and determination. This closet shame led me to develop a secret gymnasium in our garage – fashioning weights from paint cans and broken rakes, dumbbells from sledgehammers and a pull up bar from a spare curtain rod.  My first workout was a train wreck as my 50lb bench press of paint cans slid off my makeshift bar and dented my Mom’s Ford Pinto.  I attempted a bicep curl with the hammer and dropped it over my back, barely missing my dog Max who had come to watch my covert self improvement with confused amusement.  He fled the garage yelping.  The final indignity was taking the spare curtain rod and fixing it between the beams of the garage rafters.  The wooden ladder creaked mockingly as I climbed to attempt my private chin up.   I grasped the narrow rod and hung for a moment in the air.  I squeezed every ounce of energy from my arms, arching my back  whipping my legs for momentum.  The rod bowed for a moment and then slowly lifted me to eye ball level.  My first pull up was within my grasp. I strained and heaved. I did not notice the strain on the metal until it snapped, catapulting me into a lawnmower which ripped a foot long tear in my new levis. The mower’s leaf catch was crumpled beyond repair as was my fragile ego. I was convinced that I was forever ” fat boy”.

 

Years later, despite stretching to 6′ 2″ and playing competitive sports at all levels, I still winced at those memories like a loose rock in my shoe.  Like so many paintings in the private galleries of our lives, we sometimes circle back to complete unfinished works.  At 43, I decided to reattempt body building in hopes of defying nature, gravity and Kelloggs food products.  As with all my obsessions, I attacked my new regimen with relentless gusto. I did not realize it but excessive weight lifting does odd things to a person’s body.  New muscles appear in unintended places.  The odd hump forms on your right shoulder.  Success is very uneven. New undiagnosed aches and pains play tricks on your mind.  Clothes do not fit.  Buttons pop off pants and dress shirts at an alarming rate. Yet, despite the Kafkaesque symptoms, everything feels a little more in control.  Your inner twenty-something begins to stir but struggles to escape its forty something prison of padding.

 

I found myself at the Fitness Club of New Canaan every day. I bought a lycra garment that squeezed me tighter than an English sausage.  I fell deeper into the abyss of self obsession. On business trips I found myself asking if the hotel fitness center had free weights.  On vacation, I would scour the area for the only gym within 100 miles the way others drive for hours trying to find an espresso drink in the Adirondacks. I was hooked.

 

I began to feed the obsession buying shirts one size too small. This fashion detour caused my spouse to wince with embarrassment. “It’s just a phase,” she kept repeating.  Despite my promotion back to size LG shirts, she continued to buy me XL clothing.  Did she not see what was happening to me ?  The guns ?  The pecs? The hump on my back ? I sensed her distain for my new found passion but ignored it figuring it could be worse.  I just knew that if I kept up my routine, it would be impossible for her to mock me with here black belt diminutives.  I was not lifting “little” weights at a “little gym”.  I was no longer a “little” obsessed. Nothing about weight lifting is small.  It is big.  You are big.  Everyone should be big.

  

I wanted to be even bigger. I was too afraid to try steroids as they were a) illegal, b) known to cause severe health problems and c) drive you insane once you run out of things to lift.  All I could think about was what were these exercise leviathans in Flex magazine eating and where could I get some of it.  If I could replicate their diets, I would be flexing well into my 90’s. It was on a routine visit to a fitness club retail store that I got my answer and had my eyes opened to a vast universe of nutritional supplements. As I walked the aisle of power powders and amino aids. I was confronted with grand promises and testimonials to the ultimate power of these products.

 

The first row of items trumpeted the amazing powers of whey.  What the heck was whey ? Didn’t Little Miss Muffet eat the stuff ?  Perhaps, if she had just eaten “Mega Isolate High Performance Whey” or Whebolic” she would have smashed that intrepid anachronid while in a whey rage and then followed his drooping silk thread back to wipe out his 2000 other family members.  There was an entire shelf of items that should be regulated  by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Musl Blast clearly targeted extreme athletes and soldiers of fortune. After two scoops of their powdered stimulant I could be a rippling machine of destruction,  climbing Mt Everest in the morning and perhaps toppling an Asian junta in the afternoon.

 

Nitro protein drink should be illegal in 12 countries.  It’s explosive combination of natural and synthetic supplements can transform even the meekest of weaklings into a time bomb of testosterone. This lean muscle maximizer utilizes Chernobyl strength doses of protein and induces anabolic insulin production for maximum creatine saturation.  Wow! I want that. Each serving is the nutritional equivalent of eating nine bison. Freak Fix, Pit Bull and Anabolic OD were my favorites.  I mean we’re all adults here. You are a freak and you need a fix. Drink this and go personally move your house to that new lot on Weed Street or get picked up by the police for chasing a UPS delivery truck. It’s your life.

 

At this point, I was becoming a supplement junkie in a creatine haze. I then had my moment of clarity.  The obsession with weights stemmed from my inability to do one stupid, lousy pull up.  I drove home and grabbed the chin bar that regularly bumped my head as I entered my son’s room.  I hung low and hesitated.  My body started to raise. The biceps strained and my back arched. My chin rose above the metal finish line and a lifetime of “fatboys” fell away.

 

Somewhere in the weightlifter universe, the Force shuddered.  Another potential “juicer” had just gone to the Dark Side.