Still Not Dead Yet

One morn­ing a cou­ple of days before my 74th birth­day, I stepped on some­thing par­tial­ly buried in the dirt in my horse cor­ral. I picked it up and turned it over in my hand. A porce­lain round wafer the size of a lol­lipop mount­ed on a five-inch-long met­al rod. Etched in black let­ters on its off-white sur­face: “NOT DEAD YET.”

I don’t know the sto­ry behind its wry mes­sage, who lost it in the cor­ral, or what its intend­ed pur­pose may have been, but its serendip­i­tous dis­cov­ery right before a high-num­bered birth­day seemed a good omen.

I took it home, staked it in the cen­ter of a saucer-sized pie, and post­ed a pho­to of it on Face­book under the com­ment, “Birth­days at this age are fun, ain’t they?”

It seemed to hit a chord, espe­cial­ly with the “mature” crowd, gar­ner­ing a bunch of likes and birth­day wish­es. Some weren’t so encour­ag­ing. One of my for­mer Lath­am law part­ners wrote, “You have to won­der how many are bewil­dered you are not dead yet.” Anoth­er Lath­am guy said, “Keep doing these birth­days long enough and you will be dead.”

High-pow­ered lawyers can be a pain in the butt. Why I left Lath­am to become a cab­bage vendor.

Undaunt­ed, I ate the pie and stashed the porce­lain lol­lipop in my desk drawer.

Dr. Zeke

On my 75th birth­day, I used it to save mon­ey on birth­day-cake can­dles. That year I also dis­cov­ered an arti­cle by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a renowned oncol­o­gist, bioethi­cist, and health­care advis­er to Pres­i­dents Oba­ma and Biden, enti­tled Why I Hope to Die at 75, in which he argues the world would be a bet­ter place if he and the rest of us kicked the buck­et at the three-quar­ter-cen­tu­ry mark. Accord­ing to him, at age 75 most of us head into a steep phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive decline. No longer capa­ble of mak­ing valu­able con­tri­bu­tions to soci­ety, we live on only to inflict crush­ing emo­tion­al and finan­cial bur­dens on our loved ones.

As a fresh­ly mint­ed mem­ber of the 75 club, I took offense and wrote a blog try­ing to rebut Dr. Zeke’s premise. See Stay­ing Alive at 75.

My 76th birth­day rolled on by this month. One year past Dr. Zeke’s sell-by date, I haven’t plunged into a steep phys­i­cal decline. In fact, I’m in bet­ter shape now than I was ten years ago. Back then, I expe­ri­enced a sud­den weight gain. My rate of metab­o­lism slowed with age to the point that a banana slug could crawl over a field of jagged boul­ders faster than I could burn calo­ries. I could gain ten pounds inhal­ing the fumes com­ing off a hot pizza.

Jab­ba the Hut

My doc­tor told me to go on a diet. Diets for my age group fol­low three basic prin­ci­ples: If it tastes good, you can’t eat it; if it tastes bad, you can only eat micro-por­tions of it; and if you drink any­thing con­tain­ing alco­hol, sug­ar, caf­feine, salt, mer­cury, lac­tic acid, fruc­tose, gluten, or arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers, it’ll kill you. You can eat lim­it­ed amounts of raw let­tuce, card­board-fla­vored sug­ar­less oat­meal, organ­ic non-fat plain yogurt, and noth­ing else. The good news is you can wash it down with as much water as you want, as long as it’s dis­tilled or boiled.

I couldn’t do it. Sug­ar-glazed donuts, fam­i­ly-sized bags of Dori­tos, Big Macs with large fries, and six­packs of Coors Light called out to me with siren songs I couldn’t resist. I went back to the doc­tor and con­fessed my eat­ing binges.

“You’ll become Jab­ba The Hut,” she said.

Weight Train­ing at 76

“I don’t care. I can’t eat piles of green leaves and bowls of por­ridge for the rest of my life. There has to be anoth­er way.”

My only alter­na­tive, she said, was to burn off the calo­ries. She pre­scribed a rig­or­ous exer­cise program.

I set up an in-home work­out area with an exer­cise ball, bar­bells, dumb­bells, ket­tle bells, resis­tance straps, and a weight bench. Three times a week, I jumped around, sweat­ed, and grunt­ed a lot. A few pounds came off, but the scales wouldn’t budge lower.

I hired a phys­i­cal train­er. She ratio­nal­ized my weight-lift­ing rou­tine and intro­duced me to bal­ance exer­cis­es. Falls are the lead­ing cause of injury and deaths for my age group. Every sec­ond of every day, some­one over 65 falls; 36 mil­lion falls per year; 32,000 deaths. Prac­tic­ing bal­ance reduces that risk, but it also gives you a good work­out. Try stand­ing on one foot for six­ty sec­onds. If you can do it with­out tip­ping over (most peo­ple over 65 can­not), your leg mus­cles will feel it big time.

Bal­ance Exer­cis­es at 76

My train­er incor­po­rat­ed a reg­i­men of chal­leng­ing bal­ance exer­cis­es into my rou­tine, but I still couldn’t hit my tar­get­ed weight. We added dai­ly walks. Walk­ing thir­ty min­utes burns 150 calo­ries and improves car­dio­vas­cu­lar health. I walk with my dog, P.D. Along with its weight loss ben­e­fits, stud­ies show dog-walk­ing is relax­ing and reduces stress. Appar­ent­ly, P.D.’s approach to walks was not includ­ed in these stud­ies. He has two gears, sub-low, where he stops to pon­der a scent for three hours, and for­mu­la-race-car high, dur­ing which he runs like the wind, jerk­ing my arm out of my shoul­der sock­et and drag­ging me on my bel­ly through bri­ar patch­es. Nev­er­the­less, when my walks with P.D. don’t esca­late into a near-death expe­ri­ence, they burn fat cells.

Dog Walk­ing at 76

In the mid­dle of all this, I took up horse­back rid­ing. I didn’t turn to rid­ing for weight con­trol, but it turned out to be a big help. Groom­ing the hors­es, tack­ing them up, and work­ing around the barn shed weight, and rid­ing works the core, abs, pelvis, legs, and arms. Rid­ing at a walk burns 300 calo­ries an hour. You can burn 700 calo­ries at a gal­lop, but gal­lop­ing can also kill you. I ride most­ly at a walk.

With all that activ­i­ty, instead of expe­ri­enc­ing the phys­i­cal decline Dr. Zeke pre­dict­ed at age 75, my phys­i­cal con­di­tion improved greatly.

On the cog­ni­tive front, I’m in rea­son­ably good shape, too, although I’ll admit I’ve noticed a few minor issues. Vex­ing ques­tions I nev­er con­sid­ered a few years ago now con­sume an ever-grow­ing amount of my time. Puz­zling impon­der­ables, such as “Why did I walk into this room?” And “What day is it?”

Horse­back Rid­ing at 76

I also tend to lose more stuff. Some­times in plain sight. Like the time I searched high and low for my cell phone when it was in my left hand, or the occa­sions when I couldn’t find my read­ing glass­es while they were perched on the end of my nose. But hey, these inci­dents are rare, occur­ring on aver­age less than once an hour. (I don’t include in this count all those times I lost my car keys. After all, it’s not my fault some wise-ass keeps sneak­ing into the house and hid­ing them in the refrigerator.)

And the rumors that I’m los­ing my mar­bles are flat-out false. It’s true I talk to P.D. So what? I’ve always talked to dogs, and I know I’m not nuts because no dog has ever talked back to me.

Talk­ing with Jackson

Okay, so the hors­es talk to me, but that doesn’t mean any­thing. It’s not a crazy Mr. Ed thing. The hors­es don’t vocal­ize. They con­verse tele­path­i­cal­ly, and they only express sim­ple con­cepts, like “You brought the car­rots, right?” And, ”If you didn’t bring the car­rots, why are you here?” I’ve nev­er had an extend­ed com­pli­cat­ed con­ver­sa­tion with a horse. Except that time when Jack­son asked me what was wrong and I told him I lost my car keys and he told me to look in the lit­tle refrig­er­a­tor in the tack room and so, of course, I thanked him when I found them in there and he said you’re wel­come, but there’s noth­ing strange about that because Jackson’s an excep­tion­al­ly intel­li­gent horse, and it only hap­pened that one time.

No Thanks Dr. Zeke

So, no thanks, Dr. Zeke! I’m not buy­ing what you’re sell­ing. Here I am at 76, a full year beyond your drop-dead date, and I’m in great shape phys­i­cal­ly (although gen­er­al­ly exhaust­ed and some­times seri­ous­ly injured), men­tal­ly as sharp as a razor (even if I don’t always know where I am, why I’m there, or why my car keys are in the refrig­er­a­tor), and plan­ning to bank a ton of mon­ey I’ll save on birth­day can­dles with my lol­lipop wafer over the next quar­ter cen­tu­ry, when at 101 I will remain dogged­ly and defi­ant­ly Not Dead Yet.