Posts Tagged aging

What Should You Be Doing, While You Still Can?

Just outside my office is a golf course that provides amusement and distraction during my work day. When the windows are open, I can hear golfers smack the ball. Occasionally, I hear them use interesting combinations of four-letter words to convey their enthusiasm for their performance. I’ve even heard a window or two break.

Though few golfers impress me, I admire all of them, because they are doing what they should be doing – enjoying the opportunity to golf.

I used to be one of them. In fact, I was a varsity golfer on my high school team, mostly because there weren’t very many good high school golfers in my hometown. When I competed, it was best to start at the bottom of the results, if you wanted to find my score. For a while, I thought that I was the inspiration for the term “handicapped scoring.”

In an odd twist of fate, that forgettable golf career earned me a job coaching high school golf, when I graduated from college and became a teacher. Just a few years removed from stinking up the courses in Central Nebraska, I was leading high school golfers, most of them far better golfers than I ever was. Due to no fault of my own, those teams were largely successful, mostly because I was sufficiently self aware to get out of the way. That and the fact that I never drove the van into the ditch were my largest contributions to that success.

Though I was never very good at it, I enjoyed being around golf. When I played and coached, I had an occasional good shot or even a good round, but I almost always had a good time. I envisioned golf being a part of my life for many years to come. Like my grandfather, who didn’t start golfing until he retired and then was never very good, I saw myself golfing into my 80s. Unfortunately, I barely made it into my 30s.

I got busy with kids in my late 20s and early 30s, and didn’t golf regularly. Some years, I didn’t golf at all. I probably could have and should have, but it felt selfish to leave my wife at home with chaos. When I did make it back to the golf course, my body no longer bent and moved like it used to. I backed off and resolved to work on improving my weaknesses in the hope that I could still swing a club. A few months later, it was no better. In fact, it was even more difficult to make contact with the ball, let alone direct it in a safe direction, and the very motion of swinging hurt. I was done.

Like I do with pretty much everything out of my reach, I blocked golf out of my mind. I’ve learned that it’s pointless to dwell on things that are no longer an option. We’re all going to get there eventually. I just got there more quickly. I tell myself that a lot.

But sometimes I don’t listen. Lately, when I catch myself watching the golfers outside my office, those old golf fantasies cross my mind. One day, I even stood up from my chair and attempted a swing without a club. I wanted to see what that felt like, hoping that maybe I could find a way to get back out there. I took one swing that probably didn’t look much like a swing and nearly fell over, much like the last time I tried that on an actual golf course with an actual club. It wasn’t going to happen.

I share this story not to make you feel sorry for me – I don’t even feel sorry for myself – but to make you think about the things that you should be doing and aren’t. I see way too many people wasting opportunities far too often or making excuses that result in lost opportunities.

Perhaps you’re postponing travel, because everything isn’t perfect, when perfection really isn’t necessary. I’m proof that the opportunity you assumed would always be there sometimes isn’t there when you expect it to be. Can you live with the regret of missing it?

Maybe you’re frustrated that age has reduced your physical prowess, and because you aren’t what you once were, you quit trying. Don’t do that. Reduced physical prowess is better than no physical prowess.

If I could travel back in time to 1999, I would make the time to golf more. It probably wouldn’t affect my ability to play now, but I would be satisfied that I squeezed everything I could out of the game before it was taken from me. Do yourself a favor and try to live your life in such a way that you don’t have the same kind of regret.

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Live Like the First Snow Just Blew by Your Window

The first snow of the year arrived on Halloween afternoon this year. I caught it blowing past my window as I worked in my office. Not wanting to believe it, I stared out the window for a minute, trying to wish it away. Defeat conceded, my mind jumped from resignation to panic as I contemplated the implications of the coming winter.

Due to my gait, a slippery surface of any kind is almost always unnavigable. Snow, ice, sleet, rain, rain that turns into ice – any of these elements on any surface makes walking extremely dangerous. In a cruel irony, the treatments (salt, sand and gravel) that well-intentioned people use to deal with winter precipitation are often just as dangerous. Even worse, they stay behind much longer than the precipitation. After a few rounds of snow and the ensuing treatments, I feel like I’m trying to walk across a shuffleboard table, desperately trying to reach spring.

As the snow and winter treatments pile up, my world shrinks. I miss days at the gym, church and lunches. I hesitate when friends invite me over. I quit planning things, because I don’t want to be disappointed when the weather keeps me from them. In particularly bad winters, I might as well be under house arrest.

At this time of year, I know that snow will soon negatively affect my lifestyle, and that’s what makes each day before the first snow a valuable gift that I cannot squander. Never do I appreciate good weather days more than in the winter.

We all do this – maybe not with winter weather – but we all suddenly become more appreciative and mindful of our gifts, when something threatens them. We learn that a loved one has a terminal disease, and we scramble to make up for lost time and lost opportunities. Our children near the end of their time with us, and we finally prioritize family time. Our bodies start to fail us, and we become interested in diet and exercise.

Why do we do this? Each day and each experience is a gift, and those gifts shouldn’t have to be threatened for us to appreciate them, but that’s what we often insist on doing. Imagine if we lived every day and seized every experience with the urgency and appreciation that we feel when the end nears.

I spent this last weekend deer hunting with my dad. Though every deer season since 2003 has found me in the field, I had planned to skip this year. My son left for college this summer, and it didn’t seem worth the hassle to hunt without him. I could spend the weekend lounging around my warm home and catching up on projects, instead of driving for hours and subjecting myself to the cold. All of my lame excuses almost won, but one thing changed my mind: how many deer seasons do I have left?

By the time my son graduates, I’ll be over 50, and my dad will be a few years past 70. Things typically don’t get any easier physically when you pass those milestones, and none of those years are guaranteed. That realization was like the snow blowing by my window, awakening my appreciation of what I can do now and prompting me to act.

My reward was a trophy buck and an incredible experience. Though I’ve taken nice deer before, since I didn’t start big game hunting until my 30s and my dad isn’t a big game hunter, I had never taken a deer with my dad. It was an experience I almost missed and probably would have missed had the prospect of impending snow not awakened me.

I pray that God will give me a few more days or even weeks before the first substantial snow, and I plan to do my part by enjoying all of them. The bigger challenge is to sustain this attitude when spring arrives, and the next winter seems so far off.

Think about and appreciate your life’s gifts. Don’t wait for the snow to rattle you awake.

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What Aren’t You Seeing?

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I’m cheap, and adversity doesn’t scare me. This means that I often choose dollars over comfort and convenience – a tendency that drives my wife nuts in a number of areas, like kitchen appliances. My coffee maker has been threatening to quit for nearly a year now, but I refuse to buy another one until this one has sputtered its last drop, and I still miss the dishwasher my wife replaced last year after she made an impassioned plea that included images of flooded floors.

Sometimes though, I accept imperfections that affect the quality of my life, when I don’t need to. This tendency is likely the result of dealing with less-than-ideal physical circumstances for a very long time. Living with a disability has conditioned me to focus on things within my control and to shrug off things that aren’t. Occasionally, I underestimate the control I have over the things I shrug off.

I recently saw a glaring example of this. For years, while the rest of my body was a deductible waiting to happen, I had tremendously healthy eyes and teeth. It has been a very long time since I’ve had anything other than a check-up at the dentist, and until just recently, my visits to the optometrist always culminated in reassurances that everything was working correctly.

I knew that I wasn’t seeing as clearly as I should, but I’m in my mid-40s, and those older than me consistently tell me that weaker vision is part of the aging process, so I shrugged off my failing vision as just another inconvenience to which I would need to adapt. As my eyes worsened, my glasses got in the way at least much as they helped. At first, I couldn’t read the newspaper while wearing glasses. Then, I couldn’t read the television screen or scoreboards at sporting events. My glasses rode on the top of my head as much as they did the bridge of my nose. I figured that was my future, but my wife pressed the issue, as she usually does, and convinced me to see the optometrist.

My last eyeglass prescription was just two and a half years ago, and before that, I was able to go nearly ten years without changing the prescription. It just didn’t feel right, but I also knew that my vision was becoming an increasing inconvenience, so I relented and agreed to the appointment. A week or so later, when I looked through the new lenses for the first time, it was like someone shined a bright spotlight on everything I had been missing. I went hunting a few days later, and saw turkeys that others could only see through binoculars. I realized, in dramatic fashion, that I had been needlessly denying myself a better, crisper view of the world.

How often do we do the same thing with other facets of our lives? Do we accept and excuse negative attitudes from ourselves and those around us, when we could be trying to spread optimism? Do we let coworkers, managers, friends, family or spouses treat us in disrespectful or demeaning ways? Do we accept less from ourselves than we should? Do we miss the chance to say: I should be doing better, and I deserve better?

It cost me less than $200 and a lunch hour to start seeing the world and all of its bright, vibrant potential, the way God intended. What would it cost you to improve your view?

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Swallowing a Wheelchair

When I went hunting in Africa last year, I did something that I’d never done before: I requested wheelchair assistance when booking a flight. I’d always gutted out airport walking, and with my wife’s assistance, it wasn’t easy, but it was possible. My wife wasn’t going to be with me at the end of my 17-hour flight to South Africa, and I knew that my legs would be tight from sitting so long. The wheelchair worked perfectly. I sacrificed my ego to save my legs.

This month, I did it again – not the safari, but the wheelchair. And this time, I didn’t borrow it; I bought it.

I can’t remember a more gut-wrenching buying experience. It took me more than six months to hit the “Buy” button, because every time I saw a wheelchair on my computer screen, I recoiled. Guys like me aren’t supposed to be in wheelchairs. I might as well have been shopping for a coffin, because my mind wouldn’t let me see myself in either.

It wasn’t my mind making this decision. Within the last ten years, my legs decided they needed a wheelchair for long or slippery walks. I was just too stubborn to listen. Instead of swallowing my ego, I sat at home while my family went to church and sporting events in inclement weather without me. In Las Vegas recently, I sat in a hotel room and watched TV while Lynda and the kids went exploring. My world was shrinking, and while I can accept that some things are beyond my reach, I have to make sure that my ego doesn’t handicap me more than my legs do.

So I bought a wheelchair.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. More than thirty years ago, I sat in a doctor’s office and heard him tell me that I would likely need braces, crutches and even a wheelchair as I aged, and my joints began to show the effects of my awkward walking motion. At the time, I was running hills and bench-pressing nearly 300 pounds. I heard him, but convinced myself that my physical regimen and resolve would prevail. That was the hope I clung to as my joints stiffened.

Ironically, I’ve never been stronger or more muscular. That part, I could control. Stiff, aching joints are a completely different story. Like the doctors said, you can’t walk like I do and not damage your joints. With further irony, all that running and bike riding I did hoping to play high school football likely accelerated the damage that slows me down today.

So I bought a wheelchair.

Now, instead of worrying that it might snow during one of my son’s football games or my daughter’s basketball games, I know that I’ll be there enjoying these irreplaceable experiences that are passing way too quickly. Neither snow nor my ego will keep me from that.

It’s still not easy. Riding in a wheelchair is a humbling experience. You feel apart from the world of the walking. Very few strangers give you more than a glance. You wonder what others are thinking. Riding in a wheelchair tests your self-worth, and I’m finally at a point where my self-worth trumps my misplaced pride.

So I bought a wheelchair.

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Yeah, I Don’t Do That Any More

Some of my greatest childhood memories are of the experiences I had trudging through the snow in the woods behind my childhood home. If you saw me now, you would shake your head and think that I was delusional – that I spent too much time in the sun, but it’s true. My body has never been perfect, but it was once a lot better.

As a kid, I rode my bicycle for miles, just to prove I could. I snow skied, water skied and golfed. I delivered newspapers on foot, through all kinds of weather. I climbed trees, rode horses and ran, although I never liked running, even when I could do it.

The doctors told me that my future was grim. That, as my body aged, it was going to be difficult for me to be as active. That I’ll probably need crutches, a cane, even a wheelchair. I shrugged my shoulders and went hunting in the woods behind my house. They didn’t know what they were talking about.

That was a long time ago.

I went snow skiing as a senior in high school. I took the ski lift all the way to the top of Keystone Mountain in Colorado’s Summit County, where a long easy run lay ahead of me. In prior years, I had flown down that run time and again, knowing where to hit my marks to maximize my speed and excitement. That day, however, I crashed in the first 100 yards, struggled to get up and crashed again just a few yards farther. My dad trailed behind, stopping just upslope to make sure I was OK. I shook off the first crash as the consequence of not skiing in the past three years, but he and I knew. It was the first crash of many, and, when I finally reached the bottom of the mountain, I took off the skis for the last time.

I experienced a similar reality about a year later while hunting pheasants in a corn field. Every downed stalk seemed to grab my legs, and my feet found all the holes. It was the last field I ever walked. When I swung a golf club three years ago, I learned that golf too was something that I could no longer do.

Most of us are fortunate enough to sail through most of our lives with nearly all of our physical and mental abilities. Sure, maybe we can’t run a five-minute mile any longer, but that doesn’t keep us from going on a run. Because it we are able to do most everything we want to do, we don’t fully appreciate everything we can do. That’s unfortunate.

When something or someone is taken from you, your world narrows and your attention focuses on only the most important things. It’s why family and friends gather at funerals, and renew relationships. It’s why amputees run marathons and soldiers form life-long friendships with each other. They’ve felt loss and realize it can happen at any time.

In loss, there is life. Loss hurts. It’s supposed to hurt, but we recover, and we recover stronger, because we learn that life goes on, and though it might not be as easy as we want it to be, it’s as beautiful as we make it.

A few weeks ago, some longtime friends invited Lynda and me to join them for dinner in Omaha’s Old Market. The Old Market is an incredibly vibrant and exciting place to have dinner and socialize, but I typically avoid it, especially on the weekends, because it invariably involves an uncomfortable amount of walking for me. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. With those very friends, I went up and down the streets and through crowded bars, never really letting my handicap get in the way.

That’s not an option any more. Even with Lynda dropping me off before parking the car, I had to walk farther than I wanted and then climb some stairs to get to the restaurant. There wasn’t going to be any bar hopping for me that night or any other night for that matter. I’ve accepted that and choose to focus on the things that I can do, like having dinner with treasured friends from the past.

With a healthy set of legs, the incredible dinner would have been just part of a night that would have involved stops at other clubs and restaurants. I would have enjoyed that night too, but I probably wouldn’t have appreciated just being there as much.

Too many of us assume that life will always be easy, and that allows us to take simple things for granted. It’s easy to skip that evening walk with your wife, but what if you were to lose the opportunity tomorrow or the next week or the next year or the next decade? Will you look at the missed opportunity with regret?

Don’t let something be taken from you before you appreciate it.

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