Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Age and I

Enforced idleness is one of those things we might have looked forward to (in some distant future) when we were in our twenties, but now I, for one, find the concept debilitating. Far more debilitating than being more than three-quarters of the way through a century! I’m not accustomed to sitting, or waiting, or vegetating, I can tell you.

For more than a few months in the last year (between injuring myself and the consequences of the surgical repair and rehabilitation necessary) I was reduced to inactivity and dependence on others. Neither of those conditions are normal for me. I’m used to working hard, working every day, working and enjoying the work and getting pleasure from the accomplishment of any task. For some weeks I could barely do even simple things. Slowly I regained the ability to dress myself, and prepare some food, and feed myself, but even at its worst, the injury (to my shoulder) didn’t really prevent me from accomplishing basic things. And any time I began to think I couldn’t (for the moment) do something, I remembered people I’ve known who had far more difficulties in life than being unable to reach into a back pocket and extract a handkerchief (or put it back).

In my twenties I knew a man about my age, born with no right hand. We both owned sports cars and participated in "club racing:" competitive, but not NASCAR death-defying contests, by any means. This guy owned a rare custom-made car, an Arnolt MG, with a powerful 4-cylinder engine and a 4-speed manual gearbox. Sports car racing is not one of those circle-left-and-put-your-foot-down auto sports. It consists of left turns, right turns, straightaways and chicanes that require constant up- and down-shifts until you cross the finish line. Easy, if you have a right hand, but think about driving without one: steering the car with the stump of the right hand on the wheel, reaching over with his left and maneuvering the shift lever, and keeping up both speed and braking while avoiding the half-dozen or so other cars in the race. Yet my friend did it, and did it well. And in between, his "day job" was as a mechanic. Ever try working on a car with only one hand? He did.

And then there was another racing buddy. He drove an Austin-Healy, again with a manual 4-speed. Jim had lost his left leg in an accident as a kid, and wore a heavy prosthesis (not like the ones today), and used it without thinking about it. His only comment to me was that, because he couldn’t tell if his foot was on the clutch pedal or not, he tended to "ride" the clutch, and wore it out faster than most. But he kept on racing.

Over the years, making films about military medicine, I met others who had lost body parts in war and accident. I learned about prosthesis design and manufacturing, orthopedic surgery, about physical and psychological therapy. One young man I filmed actually worked for me while he was recovering after having his right hand blown off. The camera he was using (as an army photographer) was hit by a sharp-shooter’s bullet. He couldn’t wait to learn how to hold and manipulate his Nikon with the prosthetic hand he was given to replace his own. And he was a good photographer, as well.

All of those experiences and exposures have given me a more positive view of my own condition, of course. And I recovered and returned to my usual activities in just a few months. So why did I even think about those things?

It’s a preview, I see. I will, given time, add more and more things to a list of activities I can no longer pursue, no longer accomplish. And I wonder: will it only be physical things? I noticed (after taking powerful pain meditations) that my word list seemed smaller: I would search for the word I wanted, discarding one after another until I either stopped and looked up the word in a thesaurus, or changed what I was trying to say or write. Was this permanent? No. Not then. But I know that it is possible; that skills I depend on will diminish, perhaps even disappear. I hope not. I write something every day, if for no other reason than to exercise my brain as I do my body.

It’s easy to dismiss these thoughts as simply unnecessary concern about what was a temporary condition. It wasn’t the first time I had to modify my routine or temporarily seek help from others, nor will it be the last. I know that. I had been given a preview of life lived into old age.

I hope that movie doesn’t play on my screen.


  1. It is the little things that will get you down - as I age, the straight sturdy back chair becomes more of a necessity - a lot easier to rise up and get out of when wanting to go to another room.

  2. In the book, "Blue Nights" Joan Didion speaks to that issue, akin to you never think it will happen to you and then it does. I really recommend it for that, as well as its poetic and powerful prose. Enjoying your musings...