"A man cannot free himself from the past more easily…
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
We were for many years blessed at the high school where I work with an excellent security officer, Mr. Dana Eaton. Dana was tasked with the sometimes unpopular job of being the authority figure who helped keep order. When I was in high school, the security guy on campus was a jerk plain and simple. Nobody liked him. But Dana could be “the heavy” on campus and enforce the rules with teenagers while at the same time enjoying a positive rapport with them. Dana would walk around the campus during lunch and talk with and get to know the students, while still keeping an eye on things. Dana would read the announcements each morning and end with his signature sign off which was – “Make it a great day…. or not. The choice is yours!” This quote became a school mantra during the seventeen years Dana worked with us. It is no exaggeration to state that Dana was an institution at our school.
Now Dana is gone. On the first day back after summer vacation we were informed that for medical reasons Dana was “on permanent disability.” I knew he suffered from “alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency” (AAT) and “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” (COPD), and that his health was precarious and worsening. I, along with many others, contributed online to help Dana pay for a liver transplant. (How many school security officers have students long grown out of adolescence and into adult life giving money voluntarily to help cover medical bills?) Dana then officially retired, and early this week they were shampooing the carpets in Dana’s old office and removing his gun manufacturer stickers and Marine Corps emblem from the door. There is no longer any physical sign that Dana had ever worked here. He is gone.
This fact saddens me beyond words. Walking by his empty office almost brought me to tears this morning, and I took out my iPhone and snapped a photo of it – and it was a good thing I did, too, as an hour later another employee was moving her things into his place.
This brings me to the subject of this essay: change.
You work long enough anywhere, or you simply live enough years, and you will encounter real change. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus claimed that everything is in process, in flux, and always changing. According to Heraclitus, nothing ever remains the same. He wrote that “one cannot step into the same river twice,” since it flows constantly, fresh water replacing the old. (Parmenides, in contrast, claimed that nothing ever changed.) Modern management consultants talk about “change management” in companies, and preach that while change cannot be halted it can be channeled in positive directions.
Octogenarians often have seen so much enormous change in their lives that they can come to feel like strangers in their own countries. They feel that they have outgrown their time. They are pretty much right.
Everything changes. It is a cliché. But it is true. Or does nothing change? As I turn 50 years of age the former seems more likely.
For example, I worked for a decade with Mr. Josh Dinkler at Foothill Technology High School. We taught freshman English together, and I was Josh’s professor in graduate school at Azusa Pacific University. We had children at about the same time, and we commiserated about having babies and never getting any sleep. He is just about the best man I know. Then suddenly he was hired by the Defense Department school system (DoDDS) and moved mid-year to Bahrain with his family. It happened quickly and unexpectedly, but it was a good move for Josh and his family. For many years he had expressed his desire to travel abroad and raise his children overseas, and he had a DoDDS app on file for God only knows how long. Out of the blue the DoDDs hired him and he was gone. On his last day of work, Josh came into my period seven class and walked down between the rows of my students and gave me a final “goodbye” hug. Josh was quietly crying. By the time he walked away out the door, so was I.
And with that, Josh was gone.
Josh made a video for a competition to get President Obama to come visit our school. I think of Josh, Wendi Butler, Anthony Villa, Melissa Wantz, Chris Prewitt, Cathy Gaspard, Robin Houlahan, and others who have since left our school when I see that video. And then there is Dana saying, “Make it a great day… or not!” at the end. The passage of time, and the change of our school culture. The departure of co-workers and friends. I grow nostalgic. Melancholic. Where did the time go?
But then I remind myself that I have worked in my present school for some eighteen years, and that change is going to happen over such a long period of time. What should I expect?
My mother, for example, has been dead for almost 21 years now, as I have written about elsewhere. Life continued apace after her death. My webpage has been extant and online for over two decades. It has also changed over time.
And this year in May I turned fifty years of age. My body is changing.
My fiftieth birthday brought me a number of medical tests and procedures. First of all, my health insurance company sent me the strangest communication ever brought to me by the U.S. mail service: I received a small box which instructed me to take a bit of my poop and mail it back to them in a test tube. This was a “fecal occult blood test,” which would look for blood in my stool. “They want me to do what?” I said to myself when I first received the small box in the mail. Some people send birthday cards when you turn 50. My health insurer sent me this? There were also somber warnings on the package about health and early detection of colorectal cancer. I dutifully followed the instructions and did the test.
Strange days indeed.
Then they had me endure a colonoscopy. For years I had known this was coming on my fiftieth birthday, and it was as unpleasant as expected. As everyone warned me, the process of clearing my colon was worse than the actual procedure. The doctor found a tiny pre-cancerous growth and removed it and ordered another such exam in five years. Not looking forward to it.
Next, I was sent for comprehensive lab work where they would record numerous benchmark levels in my blood. The fiftieth birthday is a big one for such benchmarks, my doctor told me years earlier. Finally, we are here. They took my blood and I received the results and went over them with my doctor. I have had “elevated” blood sugar for a few years, and this is something I watch like a hawk. Diabetes runs deep in my family, and I want my blood sugar to remain in control. For some five years I have eschewed nearly all desserts and sugary food, and my blood sugar levels have not gotten any better but have not worsened. “Let’s watch this,” my doctor told me. This was unsurprising. My doctor has long told me that even with a healthy diet my blood sugar would remain “elevated,” mostly due to age and genetics. What did surprise me was my cholesterol score, which had never been a problem before. It was also “elevated,” but the formula they used to calculate my cholesterol was so confusing I was not sure what to think. My doctor tried to calm me down and said there was no need (yet) for cholesterol medication or anything of the sort. She advised me to eat more of a diet of bran wheat and vegetables.
I wanted to laugh bitterly. That is exactly the diet I eat, almost to a fault! I eat bran cereal, peanuts, apples, brown rice, chicken, and copious amounts of spinach. That is pretty much it. Most dinners are a bag of spinach and some peanuts. Raisin bran for breakfast. I eat almost no red meat or eggs or other such food that would contribute to high cholesterol, and incredulous at the blood test results I told my doctor this. She nodded her head sagely and told me to continue with that diet, and she again intoned that age and genetics probably had more to do with this than diet. I was fifty years old, after all.
When I had my first “elevated” blood sugar test, it threw me into a low-level funk for a week. The same happened recently with my first unhappy cholesterol benchmark. My father has taken statin medication for his high cholesterol for decades, and it looks like I might follow him.
I have had tinnitus (ie. ringing in my ears) for a full decade. My father, and both my grandfathers, had hearing aids. For sure I will be the same as my hearing continues to decline.
Sigh. I am aging.
And if I did not need a reminder, I received a letter in the mail on my fiftieth birthday from the “American Association of Retired Persons” (AARP) inviting me to join their organization. How did they find out my birthday and mailing address? I had never communicated with them before!
But I am fighting it. I eat much better and exercise more vigorously now than I did when I was thirty or forty. Maybe it it precisely because I am fully ensconced in middle age that I am so much more on top of my workouts and diet. At thirty a person can workout or now and it can seem a bit like vanity in improving one’s appearance; at fifty one has to workout just to maintain one’s health. It is no longer really optional. If you want to feel comfortable in your skin, earn your appetite for dinner, and help get yourself a good night’s sleep — then you have to exercise. In youth a faster metabolism could help to process unhealthy foods,, but if I eat that way now my stomach and everything else will angrily rebel. I can only eat a heavy food like lasagna nowadays if I have exercised long and hard beforehand. Only then can my body process such heavy food.
I sleep less now. I could sleep solidly twelve hours straight when I was seventeen. Now I can sleep only seven hours and I never need an alarm clock. I just wake up when the sun comes up. But I sleep less soundly at night. And I get much more tired in the afternoons and can easily take a nap; I am never as thoroughly rested but my body and brain seem to need less sleep. Similarly, I need less food. I eat less and less as I age. My body has slowed down. Instead of the rapid, feverish building up of adolescence and and young adulthood, the body declines ever so slowly for decades afterwards. Maybe it was precisely when I could sense physical performance declining that I began to take staying in shape so much more seriously.
Now this could be taken too far. (My father, 27 years older than me, would laugh in my face if I told him “50 is old.”) Many have told me — since Americans today tend to take better care of themselves than in previous eras — that nowadays “50 is the new 30.” There is truth in that. I don’t smoke and I drink alcohol sparingly. My maternal grandparents were at death’s door by sixty due to abuse of tobacco and alcohol. They lived similarly to many of their post-WWII generation: they drank socially every night, smoked cigarettes promiscuously, and exercised hardly at all. This was not a problem for decades, but then suddenly (as they aged) it was a problem and a fatal one. They did not age well at all; retirement was followed closely by death. In contrast, I have a different lifestyle. Overall, I am in good health and am in excellent shape. I predict more of this for the foreseeable future, God willing.
But let my experience this summer with the Marine Corps explain my dilemma. I participated in a “Marine Corps Educator Workshop” in July of 2017. The idea was to take teachers and put them through a mini-boot camp so as to help them understand what students might experience when they left high school and entered the Marine Corps. They brought out drill instructors, barked at us, explained the idea behind boot camp (and the Marine Corps generally), showed us military training, and had us participate a bit. We spent long days watching 18 and 19 year old recruits with shaved heads run around the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego while being yelled at by dyspeptic drill instructors. The whole time passenger airliners would take off at the adjacent major civilian airport and nobody could say anything over the deafening jet engines. (Once as a USMC full colonel was talking to us a plane roared overhead. The officer smiled, stopped talking, waited for the noise to die down, and then said, “That is the sound of freedom!” He meant the sound of recruits temporarily free from being screamed at by drill sergeants because all speech had been drowned out by overhead aircraft.) The drill instructors had us do some of the obstacle courses, “problem scenarios,” and other physical drills recruits do. The idea was to give us a taste of what recruits experience in Marine Corps boot camp.
I did well. With drill instructors yelling at me at the top of their lungs, I sweated and groaned and gave my best. (Most of the other teachers did poorly, and many declined to participate at all.) In many of the drills I managed to achieve the minimum score for Marine Corps recruits. Many of my fellow teachers were surprised and impressed. The drill instructors, less impressed, merely gave me a small nod of acknowledgement. I was unimpressed. A good chunk of my daily life’s energy revolves around exercising and staying fit, and I could only just qualify at the minimum score? My mind tells me that I was doing these exercises for the first time, unlike the recruits who do them for weeks. My mind tells me that I am fifty and in middle age, and they are in young adulthood in the prime of their health. But still I hear myself damned by faint praise: “Pretty good for a fifty year old!” It reminds me of fraternity rush at UCLA back in 1987 when a guy from the Jewish fraternity bragged to me the following: “We have the best basketball team in the six foot and under league!” I performed admirably in these boot camp exercises, for a fifty year old educator. But the truth was also this: after a week of sweating in the noise of the Recruit Depot and the dust of Camp Pendleton, my body was beat up. I was sore of muscle, sunburned, and scraped up. I was exhausted.
I went home the weekend afterwards and slept much of it. My lasting memory of Marine Corps life will be rivulets of sweat combined with desert dust rubbed into my clothes by an old flak jacket and steel helmet to produce a nasty odor. (Months later I think I still have some of that powerfully pungent smell in the clothes I wore that week. One of the drill instructors laughingly called it the “‘BST smell’ — blood, sweat, and tears cologne!”) My strongest take away from Marine Corps week: it is hard life, physically, best left to the young. A 30 year old Marine is already a pretty old Marine in terms of kicking in doors, living in a foxhole, and walking for miles with a rifle and a pack.
Maybe this is all just a blow to my male vanity. The middle aged guy pines for the virility of his youth. Well, I would never want to be nineteen years of age again, not really. But I would like my body to respond better. I am the captain of my 4.5 men’s tennis team, and I find myself often playing against former college players or the coaches of high school teams. It is a big step above the usual 4.0 hackers that make up the majority of “recreational players.” But competition at that level has me almost constantly injured, or on the verge of being injured.(I figure if you are not always ALMOST injured, you are not playing enough tennis to IMPROVE — not really living up to your potential to be the BEST PLAYER YOU CAN BE.) Playing the sport of tennis gives me enormous joy and even fulfillment, but it is equally true on almost a daily basis I spend much energy worrying about injuries or trying to manage/rehabilitate injuries. Then there was the torn rotator cuff and surgery a couple of years ago, and thinking about the time around that injury still brings me low. I need to put a laser sight on my handgun because “presbyopia” and progressive glasses (ie. bifocals) means I can’t see or aim as well anymore.
I try to train smarter, if not more, understanding that less exercise can be more. I work out in the gym and swim laps in the pool to “cross train” and reduce overuse injuries. I focus on “prehabilitation” training with the core muscles and flexibility, so as to reduce the need for “rehabilitation” because of injury. But as an athlete I know, despite successes on the court, that I have lost a step from when I was 40 and will lose another step or two in the next decade. (“Age-related muscle loss, called ‘sarcopenia,’ is a natural part of aging. After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% per decade. Most men will lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetimes.”) I am already thinking to myself that I have only about another decade or so of competitive tennis before performance really declines. I wish I could be 40 again.
I had a most curious conversation at dinner with friends while celebrating my fiftieth birthday. Several mentioned to me that they gave themselves testosterone injections, and that it gave them renewed vigor and libido. One friend also took, in addition to testosterone, expensive “human growth hormone” (HGH) shots. He said as a result he had “powerful sex dreams” like in his youth, and also aggression and “violent dreams where prison inmates were trying to shank me.” Both recommended testosterone to help me feel younger. I thought about it. I did research. And I totally would like my body to recover from hard exercise more quickly so I could do it again. I would appreciate a physical edge on the tennis court that would help turn back the clock and increase lean muscle mass and bone density. Maybe I would spend less time and energy on injuries and the body feeling beaten up. I would trot off the tennis court, not limp off it.
But something did not sit right about going to the extraordinary length of getting a doctor’s prescription and injecting myself with testosterone. First of all, I did not think I really had a problem that needed remediation. Physical performance is fine and I have no complaints with my libido. Why mess with my endocrine system if there is no real problem? Secondly, I concluded that I wanted to age gracefully. I decided I wanted to go with the process, more or less, without taking drastic measures to counteract it. Physical exercise and healthy eating were the keys, I suspect, to health in my fifties and beyond. Testosterone injections were not. I have always thought ridiculous this practice of dyeing one’s hair or having surgeries to make oneself appear younger. Evidence of America’s vanity and obsession with youth and appearance. Was injecting testosterone any different? I would choose differently.
But this is much is clear: I hate the way I look. But if I hate looking at photos of my face now, that photo will look better than a new photo in five years. If I have pain and medical problems now, they will be worse and more numerous in the future. It is hard to get old. Look at the struggles of Dana Eaton, may God preserve him!
I often tell my students it is a good year when a person never has to see a doctor or a lawyer. My father, at 78 years of age, is generally in good health. But his life is a series of going to the doctor for this issue or that condition. I will be there soon, too. Twenty years is not so long.
And I have less intellectual curiosity now. Less openness to the world in general. In my twenties I taught myself Spanish and traveled much and was interested in foreign cultures. My mind and heart were open to the wider world. I used to enjoy PRI’s “The World” radio program. Now I hear feminists or human rights activists argue for changes in patriarchal Afghani or Pakistani culture or some other problem in some other place and I think, “Yes, I agree with you. I am on your side. But that is a long way away and they have their way, we have ours. Good luck in your struggle. But I am not paying much attention.” Wars and rumors of war — another bumptious person with an opinion — “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — “where ignorant armies clash by night.” Angry persons raising their voices. Or raising their fists.
In this, I am weary.
And it is not only flash-points in foreign affairs — I have less and less interest in the debates in my own country, the endless bickering among my fellow Americans — the dissatisfied and the demanding — the pointing of fingers in all directions.
Live and let live, I say. If at all possible.
All I care about at this point are my two daughters, their futures, myself and my wife, and immediate friends and family. Then come my students and others in varying degrees. After this, I have little energy and less time.
And hello sixth decade of life!
So let us return to the initial Heraclitus/Parmenides (“change versus continuity”) dialectic I posed at the beginning of this essay. After fifty years has my life been uninterrupted change? Yes. Clearly.
But this much is also true: if I have changed greatly since I was seventeen, I am still much the same. So if Heraclitus was correct in claiming that everything changes, is Parmenides also correct in saying nothing changes?
Case in point: in high school I was famous for the three mile cross country races where I would run so hard I would collapse at the finish line. (Once in extreme heat I was almost taken to the hospital for suspected heat stroke.) Is that so different from the fifty year old guy who seeks to play tennis all the way up to the point where he becomes injured?
Today, as I write this, I am greatly changed from my earlier days. The trials and experience of fifty years. How can it be otherwise? But I am also essentially the same person. My internal essence remains unchanged. I will be the same when I read these words in my last days. I constantly change, but I never change.
“We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.”