Hanging in there

Hi, all. Quick link is all I have a moment for just now. This was a little observation in the Seattle P-I, our local, now more than virtually virtual news organ.


Middle age is a pain in the butt. This is not a figure of speech. Roll over wrong, sit up sideways just once, and pain stabs across the back of my pelvis, shoots across my rear end. The “owies” squinch through my left hip and flame all the way down to my knees and sometimes into my feet.

The VA rates this little malfunction at ten percent disabling. VA doctors cheerfully prescribe painkillers that are about 70 percent disabling to daily function. Fifteen hours after taking one, I still can’t successfully navigate the adjoining suburb of Mountlake Terrace, even though by then I’m ready for another pill. Every clutch pedal depression lights up my hip, and even settling into the Toyota is problematic.

“Why don’t you give it a rest?” is Pretty Wife’s reasonable question. “You just hurt yourself more.”

She’s probably right, you know. And anyway, there’s no special need for rugged preparedness around here. We live in Shoreline. While we may get the occasional bear here and coyotes are practically house pets, there aren’t any predators breathing down my neck, slavering after my inevitable slowdown — and if there are, we have a cops and firefighters and a whole army for that. And a navy, and an air force, et al. I don’t need to do those jobs, or even prepare for them. Those jobs are for other people. Younger people. Stronger people.

Except it’s not our way. I sprang from the confluence of hardheaded tributaries.
When my mother’s grandfather, a rancher in The Dalles, was told by his doctor that he had to lose weight and quit drinking or he’d be dead in five years, he trotted over to the Wasco County courthouse and ran up and down the stairs a few times just to see if he could do it. Then he lived ten more years, long enough to raise his sons and see that doctor interred.

One of his sons experienced a sharp pain in the side on a hot day during harvest. A tall 13 year-old, John was scything wheat by hand close to the hedgerows. Harvest is important work, so he just kept going until his appendix exploded poison through his guts. They found Big John lying in the sun and dragged him off to a hospital where that same doctor opined that he would surely die. The doctor was right about Grandpa, but not for another 77 years. Disability and death are consistently safe diagnoses.

My family respects doctors, listens to them; occasionally, we even produce one. We just don’t allow them to limit our futures.

My pa’s pa, a cattle rancher, went to see his doctor when he could no longer raise his right arm over his head without pain. He received the time-honored medical answer to “it hurts when I do this.”

“Well, don’t do that.” It’s like “duh,” right?

Apparently the doc rolled his eyes one too many times. Charles stomped out of the doctor’s office and set about learning to fly fish, practicing casts day after shoulder-burning day, until he could fish the Idaho creeks for six hours solid. Years later, Grandpa could still loft me high in the air and catch me, sure-handed and laughing.

We don’t have much medical wisdom. We have gut instinct. We have the pride of peasants and hunters, Swedish farmers and Welsh highwaymen and my Injun-lookin’ Grandma (but no one talks about that).

Dad failed his Learjet check at 70. Though now restricted to single-engine puddle jumpers, he still flies. I asked him why a proud old fighter jock would still mess around with little bitty aircraft. He looked at me like I was (still) the slow student of the family.

“I’m not dead yet, am I?” Nope, not you, Pop. Not by a long shot.

Diagnosed with congestive heart failure, Mom was ordered into a Portland hospital. After deciding they were wasting her time with too many tests, she asked her husband to bring another set of clothes, walked out without waiting to be discharged and went back to dragging home sacks from the feed store. Two years later, her cardiologist told her she didn’t need to come back until it was time for her annual checkup.

Soft city boy, scion of our diminished age, I pliantly attended the VA’s Back School to learn how to manage my deteriorating skeleton. As the sprightly physical therapist explained how to pick up small items using a fey golfer’s leg swing, I heard my forebears snicker quietly up their Pendleton sleeves.

That day, I came home very quiet. I stayed that way for a while, digesting information designed to define (im)possibilities.

Tattered rotator cuff with shoulder impingement? No more snowball fights — unless I’m willing to throw underhand. Degenerative disk disease? No more weightlifting, and it’s time to think seriously about the kind of slip-on shoes advertised in the VFW magazine next to the expanding trousers. PTSD? Go visit Canada every Fourth of July.

They know so much, the doctors and nurses and physical therapists. I should listen better, because they’ve seen it all.

Except they don’t know that my dad broke his back when he was nine, then grew up to be a fighter pilot; broke both his knees backward at 38 and learned to ski five years later; broke his back again at 50 and walked uphill to the snowy road. They don’t know that my brother fought spinal meningitis by spending his work days lying flat on the company conference table.

They don’t know that my orthopedic surgeon told a teenaged me that I’d probably walk pretty well but insisted I’d never run, and that my ophthalmologist told me my eyes weren’t correctable to 20/20, and that these magickal pronouncements somehow failed to prevent carrying rucksacks, running a hundred or so 10K races, and shooting Expert with the army’s rifle.

Sampling the forbidden fruit is how we remind ourselves we’re human. In my family, free will is strangely more important than actual results — it’s less important what we accomplish than that we chose it.

I don’t run 10Ks anymore — even I’m not that hardheaded — but I scramble around out front with our puppy. I don’t go to fireworks displays on purpose, but I shoot once in a while at a range where hearing protection is encouraged. It’s my life, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let the likes of me (of all people!) stop me from living it.

Yesterday we went to pick up a truckload of wood. It’s how we heat our little home (note to environmentalists: please shut up, as the stove is frankly more energy-efficient than that bicycle you’re so proud of). At the woodlot, I made concessions to reality by picking up very few pieces.

Only the big ones. Bending over to pick up a dropped screwdriver can put me on painkillers for a week, but I can still pick up an engine block if I’m careful. In fact, I can do that several times. For me, that math works out to picking up a few of the things that are (hah!) still too heavy for our teenager.

Because I can. Because the “middle” of age shouldn’t be the “end” of sweet, juicy life. Because a pretty woman is watching.

And because I’m not dead yet.


  1. Tony needs to read this!

  2. Well… You have at least one reader who knowa what you’re writing about…

  3. Aye.

    Not. Dead. Yet.

  4. At 72 you have spoken and written my mantra. Thank you Jack.

  5. Great piece and a good looking blog. I’m glad I saved this link until I had time to sit down and read this through. Thanks for sharing it!

  6. Bernie Mortensen. says

    Jack, I enjoyed reading some of your writing here.
    Thanks. I will read more.

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