An Old Man With Too Much Time on His Hands

Scientists tell us that exercise is so good for us that it can reverse the course of aging.  In my heart I don’t believe them, but I persist in the exercise anyway.  I’m a little like the kid who wouldn’t say anything bad about God, just in case God really exists, and is listening.  So regarding exercise, periodically  I feel like I’ve fallen behind in my efforts and decide on some Herculean effort to make up for past sins.  Not the wisest course, I’m told.

Last Sunday morning was one of those times.  Franny was away.  I had no plans.  I had some thinking to do.  The whole day yawned in front of me like an empty vessel, and a long walk, maybe a very long walk, seemed the perfect antidote to my lapsed practice.

I’m going to walk the Boston Sports Club, about 5 miles away, work out on the weight machines, then walk back.  I’ve long had a romance with the idea of covering distances on my own steam.  Being on the trail, especially in the high mountains of California and Colorado.  By the time I’ve walked a mile or two, I’m absorbed in the scenery.  I stop thinking and I lose myself.  A delicious time for me.

The walk along Lexington and Winter Street is not quite as pristine as the High Sierras but 10 to 12 miles and a workout at the midpoint offers its own, funky excitement. And I am using the word “excitement” literally.  I don’t know why.

The walk begins well.  My muscles feel good.  The arthritis in my knees and ankle feel manageable.  There’s a jauntiness to my stride.  At least that’s the inner experience.

I love the cool air, even when a light rain begins.  I promise myself to be mature.  If the rain intensifies, I’ll duck into a store and call an Uber — the St. Bernard of the Lexington wilds.  At the moment, though, I am calm.  A man of No Mind, as the Buddhists say.

After a few miles, though, thoughts intrude:

“What kind of nutty thing are you doing, Barry?  You’re 77.  Are you trying to reassure yourself?  Why?  Aren’t you more mature than that?  Is this one of those crazy, old man dares that leads to trouble?”

Then another part of me responds:

“Don’t be silly.  I’m not climbing Everest, for God’s sake.  I love the freedom of walking.  And OK, I do want to check myself out, see how well this old machine is working. Will it hold up?  Do I still have my stamina?”

The walk is becoming a doctor’s appointment, and I’m the doctor.

I’d like to say that the argument ended there but it went on for a mile or more.  In fact, I do reassure myself:

“You’ll be fine.  You might not be able to play basketball anymore, but you can walk.  You’re strong enough.  You’ll probably walk this way into your 80’s…

“Yeah but You’re going to be sore and, by the sixth mile or so, you’ll be pushing, pushing.  It’ll stop being fun.  You’ll start worrying about injuring yourself.  This whole gambit will end up a disappointment.”

By now, I’ve heard enough of this grumbling.  I remind the damned pessimist in me that science is on my side.  I had just read a research article about how exercise slows cognitive and physical decline and relieves stress.

“Sure, sure, but if you push hard enough, you’ll cripple yourself.  You’ll live longer but it won’t be such a pleasure.”

I’d like to dismiss the whole argument but, as I walk, it fades in and out of consciousness.  For the most part, I walk on, feeling good even during the steep climb to the gym.  There, after some weight training, I decide not to call an Uber. The rain has stopped.  The training has given my legs time to rest.  Why not walk home?  There’s only about 5 miles to go.  By the end, it will have been a grind but a virtuous grind, the kind that makes you feel great when you’re done.

After about a mile, the refreshed feeling is gone.  The steps are slower, more effortful.  There’s very little rhythm.  I begin to wonder if my old friend, will power, is there for me.

I could still call an Uber but I don’t.

During the last several years, I’ve not wanted to push myself too hard.

“What for?” I say.  “I’ll never be in great shape again.  I’m never going to write my novel.  I’m not going to build another organization.”

“Relax, man! Enjoy the easy life,” I say out loud.

“Bullshit,” I reply.

But I have always gotten something from pushing myself.  A sense of satisfaction.  A sense of moving beyond my ordinary self.  I keep walking.

I’m content with the grind for another 15 minutes — until I begin to wonder if I might have a heart attack or a stroke out here on the street.  All alone on the street. People my age do, after all.   Franny would be mad at me if she knew what I was doing.  She’d say I’m being irresponsible.  “Why do old men keep challenging themselves in this way? Besides, don’t you understand…other people care for you.  You are being  selfish.”

Of course, I’ve got an answer to that critique:

“I’m not in the desert or above tree line in the mountains.  I’m walking in the suburbs.  Don’t be a sissy!”

And so it went until I was home, cooling for a bit and listening to Duke Ellington play Mood Indigo.  Then a shower to end all showers and an easy chair with a book. There’s no interior dialogue that I can hear now.  I am exhausted.  And I am pleased with my day.




8 thoughts on “An Old Man With Too Much Time on His Hands”

  1. Barry, I’m 3 years older than you and I can relate with your story, but I don’t push myself like that any more and it feels very good not to. I do exercises of all sorts at least several times a week, but none of them cause me to have the kinds of thoughts / worries that your long walk and weight lifting caused you……My suggestion – keep moving, keep exercising, but stop pushing yourself so hard.


    1. Steve, don’t worry. I wrote the essay not to encourage myself or others to wander great distances–unless, of course, it works for them–but to illustrate the kind of interior dialogue that it stimulates. I’ll be keeping to my far more moderate exercise campaigns.


  2. I don’t know if you intended humor but you got a chuckle from me. Seems to me the brain was the problem not the body!! None of us can predict what will be the thing that does us in. You can as easily die on your couch as in a good walk I think. so you might as well enjoy the walk. Seems to me its always worth trying if we have the desire. and if we get hurt, as you said, there is always Uber!!


    1. Thanks, Diane. You were probably saner than I throughout your life. I spent many a week above tree line, backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and other wilderness areas, where I saw nary a person for days on end.


  3. Hi Barry…This post reminded me of my recent challenge…My daughter asked me to run a race with her while we were on vacation…”only a 5K”…I thought why not…A push, but I can do it…After we registered I notice the give away T shirts were imprinted with a 5 mile logo…My last 5 mile run occurred before cardiac issues…Assured by my RN,NP daughter that I could do this, the gun shot and we were off…At the 5K mark I wanted to sit by the side of the road and cry…I truly was exhausted, convinced of my irrationality…My daughter had programmed fight songs for my inspiration during the run…Whitney Houston’s song “Give Me One Moment In Time” was filtering into my fogged, exhausted brain…I was going to have that moment in time when I was capable of more than I thought I could be…I will chase destiny… If I feel eternity, the worst scenario: my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren sharing the story of my last race, my last moment of time, over Thanksgiving Dinner …I finished my last 5 mile race…Exhilarated…Fulfilled…Convinced that I was indeed a little bit crazy!!!
    Privilege of Aging…


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