So who knew? 56 really is the new 26.
This revelation occurred to me a few weeks ago when I noticed my confidence suddenly increasing. I couldn’t fathom the reasons for my brighter outlook. The rather urgent financial, professional and existential pressures in my life were largely the same. Yet, my conundrum felt oddly familiar.
That’s when I took a good look at my life. I work two jobs, one in the food business and one as a freelance journalist. I live in a great New York City neighborhood that is a little over my head financially but I lack the resources to move to a cheaper one. The best short term outlook is to increase my journalism revenue.
That’s when it hit me. This is the exact same scenario I faced 30 years ago. At that time, I worked in the specialty cheese area first of Bloomingdales then at a fine, long lost store called Petak’s. I was writing for an African American news and cultural affairs paper called The City Sun and a daily newspaper, Newsday. Motivated in part by a rent increase that put “leaving New York” on the agenda of possible outcomes, I began shopping clips to bigger outlets and in the next few years my byline began showing up in Rolling Stone and Vogue among other publications.
Today, I work in the specialty craft beer area of a fancy grocery store near me called Westside Market, and I write for the Wall St. Journal and an African American news and cultural affairs website called The Root. The best way forward is to advance the journalism career.
Small wonder I felt my confidence start to brim. In a lot of ways it’s déjà vu all over again.
In a lot of ways it isn’t. But it seemed like the basis for a series of posts that parse the vagaries of the new middle age. I don’t know that I ever had a solid vision for what I wanted my late 50s to look like, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it. I do love what I do for work, but I absolutely hate the quantities that I do it. When I was 26, I could pretty easily work 60-70 hours a week and work out regularly, bike a lot and have time and more importantly enthusiasm for an active leisure life. At 56, I finish work and run home to listen to music or watch sports or other sedentary activities, deadly fearful that my sands of energy are about to trickle out of the top half of the hourglass.
But if I’m going to enjoy the same success I did in my late 20s and early 30s then I’m going to need to summon the energy of that 26 year old self, even if it’s in the middle aged iteration. That’s the key. I know a lot more than I did 30 years ago, but I’m physically capable of a lot less. In my mind’s eye, I still am a bit of a fitness fanatic, well into my 30s, it was commonplace for me to do a rigorous yoga class and bike 10 miles a day. Even five years ago, I routinely took two spinning classes and two yoga classes each week. Then I spent much of the years from 52-55 on a cane, suffering from a variety of chronic lower body issues related to going back to full time retail after the journalism career crashed in 2011. As my physical issues mounted (there were some days that simply going down the steps of my building wasn’t possible) my self-esteem went into freefall. At 51, a physical challenge meant lifting into forearm stand slowly, then lowering into scorpion with equally deliberate pace and holding it for a couple of minutes while the instructor highlighted my abilities and the form that enabled me to do it. At 53, a challenge was getting out of a chair and hobbling across my shoebox sized Manhattan apartment to go to the bathroom. Except for a couple of days this summer, after bruising my knee in a nasty spill, the cane has stayed in the closet, and bit by bit, the fitness regimen is returning. I know I need the sense of ambition in my body to energize my mind to tackle the challenges ahead.
These days yoga doesn’t mean inversions—it doesn’t yet mean inversions—but rather a series of seated poses to limber the torso and a series of standing forward bends, twists, and standing balances. On particularly good days, it also includes sun salutations and some core work, but lately a wrist issue acting up is keeping downward facing dog, plank and side incline plane off of the agenda for now (age is such a charming phenomenon in that regard, I roll out of bed every morning and take stock to make sure that all my joints and muscles work the way I’d like them to; I took such matters for granted 30 years ago). I do bike a lot again and hopefully spinning classes aren’t too far down that road to being back in my schedule.
Last Sunday, I got the best indicator of why I’m confident. That Saturday I’d biked close to five miles in the name of running errands around lower Manhattan. Sunday, I worked in retail running around for seven hours. Then I biked another coupla miles. I got home and realized I was out of milk, which I need for coffee in the morning. I shrugged at headed out, taking some trash with me. As I emerged from the trash porch, Frank a musician burst through the front door of my building and all but assumed I’d help him carry his huge upright bass up to his apartment on the sixth floor.
Oh, I’d suddenly found my forearm stand level challenge, and I was exhausted. Frank explained that his girlfriend usually helps him but she has a new phone and wasn’t answering it. I shrugged. All he really wanted was me to carry his luggage rack up to my floor, three, and he’d take it from there. I put it in my mind that I was going to help him to the sixth floor, and up we went. He impressively talked while he carried his instrument up the stairs telling me that he’d done a brunch gig in Pennsylvania before doing another gig in the neighborhood in the evening. I got to the fifth floor and needed to catch my breath for a second. Frank realized it was well past my floor and in a flash, he thanked me and grabbed the luggage cart and headed up the final set of steps alone. Through my huffs and puffs, I was saying “but…but…” I wanted to finish the job. I could finish the job. I knew I could. I didn’t know that when I emerged from the trash porch.
During my hobbled era, my constant fear was that my energy would run out and not immediately refresh. Back then, it didn’t routinely refresh without running out. I had persistent nightmares that I would crumple in the middle of the street and cars and buses would whiz by me while people around me would wonder aloud “doesn’t he still go to yoga.” In that moment on the fifth floor landing, I had exhausted my supply of energy and yet it refreshed in a matter of seconds.
I bounded down the steps and out to get milk. I was so energized that though exhausted I had to work at it to fall asleep. I awoke Monday morning even more energized. Sure, I face daunting challenges but yeah, it really is déjà vu all over again.