Rant 63 February 2012: In Praise of Older Women

Esteemed Stumpfans, I present you with this unalterable truth: I ain’t gettin’ any younger. And neither are you.

But unlike the chronophobic youth fetishizers who have an existential crisis when they hit 25, or the media who think that adolescents with partially formed frontal cortexes should drive the bus of cultural currents, I’m cool with aging. After all, as challenging as aging can be, it sure beats the hell out of the alternative.

For one thing, many of us are getting smarter.

Forget all that bullshit about how infants are learning geniuses while old people cling to their timeworn ruts like paranoid cat ladies of cognition. Have you seen babies lately? C’mon, they still crap their pants and think Barney is cool. I can beat a baby at chess at least 50% of the time.

Yes, we do lose brain cells as we age. But here’s the cool thing: when it comes to brains, size doesn’t always matter. OMGBFFA used to have a couple of tiny Yorkshire terriers. Each one weighed about 4 lb. Now, these things have brains the size of a chickpea. Yet somehow, everything dog-like was condensed into these little cranial legumes. Those dogs, fruity as they were (especially when wearing little sweaters), could still execute all the dog-required tasks that, say, a German shepherd could.

Let me go one better. Consider the octopus. That thing doesn’t even have a “brain” in the way we think of it; it’s really more like Jello and rubber formed into an amusingly creepy prehensile shape. But octopuses are freaky smart. And those cephalopod fuckers beat me and the baby at chess 100% the time.

Hell, even fungi can be brilliant. Check this weird shit out.

I digress. The point is that thanks to neuroplasticity and the ability of our brains to form new connections, we’re getting smarter despite fewer neurons. And often, cleverness and cunning mixed with a good ol’ age-related dose of cynicism beats vigour and brute force.

Just like every boxing gym has that old dude with the porkpie hat that speaks in vulgarity-laced proverbs, nearly every traditional martial arts school has that ancient guy who looks and talks like Yoda, and claims his knees are no good, but who can still kick you in the face from every possible angle.

I remember when I first started judo. I did some classes with an instructor who got his black belt in 1958. By now he’s like a zillionth-degree black belt, so black belt he’s gone right into red belt. In person, he’s not very scary. He’s a kindly, affable short guy who moves slowly and creakily, and talks about how he’s not very good at throwing these days. Yeah right. All he does is stand next to you, and you fall down. He scratches his ear, and your face slams the mat. He wiggles his toe, and you end up with your kidneys smashed into your nose, wondering why you didn’t take up competitive shuffleboard instead of judo.

That’s the power of age-related skill and smarts.

Aging gives us context and the big picture. Ideally, you start to realize that little things don’t matter.

  • Got a cold and can’t train for a few days? Meh. It’s a drop of water in the ocean.
  • Gained a pound? Meh. In a body that has, say, 150 of those pounds, does one more here or there really matter?
  • Didn’t make my squat PR today? Meh. There’s always next week.
  • Crap workout? Meh. I’ve got a thousand workouts under my belt; this isn’t the workout that makes or breaks me. I know what matters most is that I just kept showing up to the gym.

Having context makes victories that much sweeter. And smaller. Which means there are more of them.

  • Knees don’t hurt today? Great!
  • Got upright and achieved bipedalism? Super!
  • Shoulders moving happily in their sockets instead of creaking like old hinges? Awesome!
  • Able to sneak a few pieces of artisan cheese or a glass of vintage malbec past my digestive system sensors? Hoohah!
  • Didn’t squeak out a fart while deadlifting? The world applauds!

Shit, every day is the friggin’ Olympics when you start realizing what’s truly important and get smacked around a little bit by the universe. Aging gives you perspective and cuts your grandiosity down to size. You build healthy humility and life becomes a wonderful little charm bracelet of tiny magical moments and banal pleasures. You stop being in such a goddamned hurry.

100-year-old shot putter Ruth Frith

Aging also helps us grow into ourselves. We start to know what we like and don’t like. We stop giving a fuck what other people think of us.

Imagine, younguns, a world where you just don’t give a shit about looking stupid or what your friends think or falling down in public or impressing the Joneses or having to go along with the crowd to do things you hate. Imagine how awesome that would be. The liberation. The joyous freedom. The glorious sense of possibility. Well, if you’re lucky, that’s what getting older is.

Now, this magnificent state of karmic bliss doesn’t come without a price. Humility is rarely inherited; it usually must be earned. Unless you’re one of the lucky folks that learns from other people’s mistakes, you’ll have to endure some experiential skill building. Which is to say you’ll have to go through all the fuckups and falling-down on your own.

The other cost of the passport to Zen is that your physical body makes its presence known much more clearly when you age. Stuff starts to hurt. Stuff starts to creak. Stuff starts to grow hair (or lose it). Stuff stops making some stuff you do want, and starts making other stuff you don’t want. And gravity isn’t just a theory, it’s the law.

Bodybuilder Ernestine Shepherd, in her mid-70s

Now, these changes don’t mean that things get worse. They simply mean that things change.

Frinstance, I’ve built more muscle in the last few years than I think I’ve built in my entire lifting career. (Thank you, Dan John, deadlifts, and the good folks down at the all-you-can-eat churrasquiera.) And I intend to keep building more muscle, at least until normal clothing no longer fits me and my ass looks like two cannonballs being absentmindedly twiddled by a rock giant.

And after years of training in a variety of activities, I have exquisite body awareness and muscular control. Any new activity I take up is speedily and easily integrated into a deep and broad physical practice. (Although I did kick my salsa partner in the ankles last weekend, but hey — that’s the price of an enchufle doble with a ninja, my friend.)

My body shape has changed as my hormones have changed. I can get all pouty faced while throwing out old bras, or I can simply shrug and go hit the January sales for something new. Neither better nor worse; just different.

Still, there are some not-so-great consequences. One of those is that our bodies simply can’t endure the abuse we used to throw at them. We might develop weird digestive intolerances. (Oh red wine and cottage cheese, how I mourn your loss.)

As we age we have to train smarter. We have to think about sustainability. The long haul. Tomorrow. Next year.

We have to be willing to tap out early and walk away — thus we live to fight another day. We have to foam roll and do our mobility work. We have to take days off and mix things up. We can’t go balls to the wall (which, by the way, has nothing to do with testicles and everything to do with engineering) all the time. We can’t pump till we puke… ever. We can’t do dumbshit things, because an injury today might mean weeks or months of recovery, instead of days. We should nap more.

We have to keep it real, be authentic, and both live and lift with integrity, self-compassion, and optimistic humility. We have to stop looking for the magic solution. There is no fucking magic solution. We are already magic. We are already stupendous. Aging merely gives us a ticket to the greatest show on earth — the wizardry of our own survival. If you’re smart, and think sustainably, that show will be magnificent until you croak.

Enjoy. And pass the prunes. (For more inspiration, check out AgeOfChampions.org.)

95-year-old sprinter Ida Keeling