How to keep your old tail wagging
Are we old yet?
Sure, age is just a number; sure, it’s relative; sure, you’re as young as you feel, and all those other clichés that, when applied liberally, work much like salve on dry and wrinkly skin.
But feel-good truisms aside – those truisms are, after all, nothing more than Botox for the brain (and generally not true, either) — the answer is yes, we are. I may do all in my power not to act like it in public, and not to admit it, often, to myself, but old age is not-so slowly and ever-so-slyly creeping up on us.
During our year of travels across America, Ace and I became the same age. For six years, he was the youngster and I the elder. Then he caught up, as dogs do, and while I stayed 57, he passed me – at least according to the mathematical formula we’re basing all this on.
I don’t need math to know I’m getting old. There are reminders everyday – like the day I tried to open the front door of my apartment by pointing my car key at it and pushing the unlock button, like the day I put Preparation H on my toothbrush, like all those times I’ve been enjoying the smell of coffee brewing only to realize I neglected to place the pot in the machine.
On top of these golden moments of mental lapse, on top of the physiological ones, such as hills, or stairs, that magically get steeper each time you go up them, there are visual reminders, too, and they may be the most painful of all – those mirror moments when your generous perception of yourself and harsh reality collide.
A couple of weeks ago, driving down the interstate with my son, I saw a truly hideous sight. My window was open; my left arm – you remember my left arm – was resting on it, forming an “L,” my hand on the roof.
Did you ever see your grandma, in a sleeveless outfit, screw in a light bulb? Remember how the underside of her upper arm, that pasty part that never gets any sun, became something of a kinetic miracle — excess skin in perpetual motion, like a slowly swinging hammock, or perhaps a pendulum would be a better analogy?
This was worse than that.
When Ace sticks his head out the window, the effect is something like a facelift — his loose skin is pushed back, giving him that tightened-up look, like Joan Rivers has. The same cannot be said of my arm.
The wind, at 65 miles per hour, was not just sending my skin to flapping, almost audibly, but transforming my arm into an entirely different shape, stretching it out like Silly Putty and yet, at the same time, accentuating all the leathery wrinkles that I’d never noticed before. It seemed an alien appendage. I stared at it in something close to horror. “Look what’s happening to my arm,” I told my son. “Let’s turn the air conditioner on.” (It occurred to me my left arm would be less flabby if we still had roll-up windows.)
If you’ve been following the continuing adventures of Marshmallow Man and Wonder Dog, as we’re thinking of renaming our saga, you know that Ace is six, going on seven and that, in recent months, he has been slowed by some back troubles. He seems to have gotten over them, though he’s still using the ramp to get into the back of the car. (That’s him in the first three photos, young Ace on the top left, current Ace on the top right; these others are other old dogs I have known and loved.)
You know that I am a not-particularly-buff, not-particularly-health-conscious 57 — about the same age John Steinbeck was when he set off on his trip across America with his poodle, Charley.
You may realize, too, that Travels with Ace has been — in addition to a modern-day retracing of Steinbeck’s route, in addition to a search for dog friendliness and human friendliness, in addition to seeking out America’s dog-loving soul — a quest for identity. (At least for me; Ace seems comfortable with his.)
Being a newspaper reporter without a newspaper, an author whose book was finished, a workaholic without work, I think that, in addition to showing my dog a good time, I was trying to find my new self. My old self – a newspaper reporter, for 34 years – was gone, ever since I left my last job in 2008, departing an industry that was sickly, desperately searching for a cure and not aging gracefully at all.
I left to write a book and, even though it has been published, I have trouble proclaiming myself an author. Maybe you’re not an author until you’ve written two books. “Rambling Man” was a great identity, and a great time, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Being a “Blogger” doesn’t pay the bills, either, or work for me as an identity. Everybody in the world is a blogger.
As an adult, I’ve always identified myself – rightly or wrongly — through my occupation, probably because it was what I was most proud of. I’m less proud of the industry now. And I’m not sure what to make of myself. I’m nearing retirement age but in no position to do that. The uncertainty, the trepidations, the lack of confidence are similar to the feelings I had when I started my first real job in Tucson, even as I approach “senior” status, though I’m not sure when that kicks in these days.
In some ways, Travels with Ace has been a coming of age story. Unfortunately, that age is 57.
Fifty-seven has its advantages – I just don’t remember them right now — but to be honest (OK, there’s one of them) it is not the prime of life, for either man or dog.
I think Ace and I concur on this point.
When we gaze into each other’s eyes for extended periods of time, as we are wont to do, having wordless conversations that somehow sum up the sum total, and then sum, of the shared pain, joy, uncertainty, contentment, confusion, gratitude, respect and love that make us us — I get the feeling we are on the same page, and the same paragraph. I get the feeling that, being peers now, age-wise, we are even more bonded and syncopated.
In those silent conversations, we encourage each other to live in the moment, because our hips could go out in the next one.
As best as I can figure, it was somewhere around Fargo, curiously enough (for one actual winter there seems like five years) that our aging arcs intersected. It most likely happened in a Motel 6 (which in dog years would be Motel 42).
There are various formulas for converting dog years into human ones. Under the traditional view, one human year equals seven dog years. That would make Ace about 45. But that formula has been all but thrown out the window by experts. According to most recent research, which incorporates a dog’s size into the equation, your big dog is probably older than you think he is, and aging at a truly frightening clip.
Based on the formula we’re inclined to believe — you can see the chart we’re using here — Ace and I converged at the age, in human terms, of 57. By the time I’m 60, Ace will be nearing 70. By the time I’m 65, Ace, if he’s still around, while 13 in actual years, will have passed 100 in dog ones.
It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all – and by that I mean aging in general, and the fact that dogs age more quickly, and the fact that a big dog ages so much more rapidly than a yappy little one.
A yappy little one – and we know all little ones aren’t yappy, and love them even if they are – lives much longer. When Ace turns 100, a little one, on earth for the same amount of time, would only be 60.
My hopes are that, being a certified mutt, Ace might outlive comparably sized purebreds, and that if we both drop 10 pounds or so, we might buy some extra time, which we can spend whimpering and groaning about our aches and pains.
As near seniors, though I am running ahead in terms of my fur turning grey, I think we are both a little crankier, more easily annoyed. We both sleep more and grumble more.
We heave more sighs, and utter more harrumphs – getting down on the floor harrumphs, getting up from the floor harrumphs, getting resituated harrumphs, and sometimes harrumphs that have no apparent reason at all.
We both walk more slowly, and only rarely see cause to run.
We both take more pleasure in consuming food, and in voiding ourselves of it. One attaches more importance to digestive issues the older one gets, leading to our motto: Stay regular, but be exceptional.
We both have energy spurts. I’m not sure where his come from. He uses them to chase something briefly, chew a stick, get some human attention, or to just joyfully romp for a couple of minutes. I get mine from coffee, and use them to write things like this, or clean the house.
John Steinbeck, when, 50 years ago, he took the trip we emulated, was 58. He was chronically cranky by then. He missed the “good old days” and wondered “what’s this world coming to,” like old men do everywhere. Were it not for his poodle, who he took along as an afterthought, “Travels With Charley” – in addition to just being “Travels” — would have been one extended, ponderous, but well-written downer.
Steinbeck seemed seething with impatience at times, stuck in the past a lot and not an entirely happy camper, on those occasions he actually camped, or at least alleged that he did.
The most glorious moments in the book, the most graceful moments in the book, Steinbeck’s most patient and whimsical moments in the book, all revolved around Charley.
As with life, the book’s best moments centered on the dog. I am of the opinion there should have been much more Charley in the book, and that there should be a dog in the life of every person nearing 60, or above it.
That’s not just because they are exemplars of growing old gracefully. It’s also because it’s good to have a dog around when we grow old, especially if one is growing old alone, and even though the dog is growing old faster.
A dog helps us fight the crankiness, avoid an all-too-somber and serious outlook on life, keep the mind open and the legs moving, and, I think most important of all, maintain the whimsy.
Some people lose the whimsy way before they get old. Life, they seem to think, is too serious a proposition to waste time doing something spontaneous, or outlandish or just plain silly, something that doesn’t further their personal goals. It’s a terrible thing to see an old young person. It’s a wonderful thing to see a young old person.
Whimsy, I think, is the key, and if you don’t understand what I mean by whimsy look at it this way: It’s the human equivalent of a dog’s wagging tail. It states “I’m up for it,” “I’m open to suggestions,” “Let’s take a trip with no destination.”
It says, “Guess which direction I’m going to go in?”
It says, “OK, I’m going to do something really goofy now.”
It says, “Even with all that life has thrown at me, I’m still happy. Haha.”
The whimsy is easier to maintain when you have a dog – it being a whimsical creature itself.
Getting tied to a routine, and making that routine the most important thing in the world, is part of getting older. It’s also a whimsy-killer. I think an underlying reason we set off on our trip in the first place was the feeling that we — and using the editorial “we” when I mean I could be another sign of aging, I never used to do that — had fallen too far into a routine, and were sinking into it like quicksand.
Now that the trip is over, now that we’re settled down, at least for now, it sometimes seems like something’s gaining on us.
What do you think that might be? Actually, I don’t much care what you think. (Not caring what others think is often described as another benefit of being old, but in truth I haven’t fully reached that point yet.)
The biggest downside of getting old, of course, is death. I find myself thinking about it more, but that could be because, for my book, I spent a year immersed in the topic, at least as it applied to dogs. Part of it, too, may be spending more time at the retirement community in which my mother lives, where at least every month there’s a reminder of it.
But probably the biggest part is the simple and steady tick tock of advancing time, that swinging pendulum, mechanically and monotonously dancing towards what’s inevitable – despite the best efforts of doctors and scientists, drugs and cosmetic surgery.
The only real way to combat it is with a wag of the tail.
My brother says he once asked my mother how she would like her remains disposed of after death – if she wanted to be buried or cremated.
“Surprise me,” she said.
Now that’s whimsy.
(Tomorrow: The kudzu dogs return)
Posted by jwoestendiek July 14th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
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