Lying on my back this morning, struggling through the core exercises that supposedly will cure the pain from my spinal stenosis, it struck me that getting older reminds me of wading into a rough surf at the beach, ducking or jumping the waves as you wade out until you reach the point away from the shore where you can have some fun gently riding the waves.

The first few waves can shock you: the realization that your life is probably more than half over (my 46th birthday was a tough one) – you’re on the downward slope; the accumulation of assorted sports injuries and minor surgeries – knees, Achilles tendons, shoulders and rotator cuffs; the mandatory back pains.

As you move away from the shore, the waves may get bigger and more threatening – heart problems and cancers of all flavors, thankfully often now curable with meds that exact their own toll on your aging body; the end of your career is in view and fear of the unknown horizon sets in. You stop playing in the over-40 leagues – forget sliding into second in a weekly softball game; or playing one-on-one basketball games against your teenage kid, who can beat you in just about anything. But you learn to jump those waves – and see that beyond the shore, there’s a good life.

For starters, aware that the time remaining is limited, I no longer feel obligated to do things I don’t really want to do. 

I have no qualms these days putting down a book after 50 pages if it’s just ok but not great. I can spend time with the people I really enjoy seeing. I can avoid the events I didn’t enjoy but used to attend solely for business reasons.

And I can do the things I choose to do just for fun. When I was first interviewed for a job at my law firm in 1977, the first partner I met asked me the most obvious question: “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” Coming from a family in which the only lawyer was a long-dead communist, I was utterly unprepared for the interview and had no ready answer. Accordingly, out of my mouth popped the words: “If I were 6’8” I wouldn’t be here.”

Fortunately, the firm represented the NBA Players Association and I was not summarily ejected. Much to my surprise, I proceeded to spend the next 39 years at the firm. I now no longer worry about becoming a 5’9” (now shrunk to 5’8’’) NBA star. I can play tennis and pursue hobbies without laboring under any pressure to be great. And, with the same attitude, I have taken on new hobbies – for which I never would have had time in earlier days. To the sometimes dismay of my wife and kids (who’ve had to endure my daily practicing), I began taking jazz piano lessons shortly after a bone marrow transplant in 2013 – understanding, more with each passing day, that I will never be anything but a beginner.

Adult ed programs these days, too, are amazing. As supply responds to demand, colleges are opening their arms to baby boomers, offering the opportunity to take courses in every conceivable field – with no tests or papers. It’s like getting to gobble any Ben & Jerry’s flavor – without the calories or guilt. For me, this has included writing classes at NYU and Hunter, and music classes at Julliard. It’s all very liberating.

Here are a few things I tell myself as I continue to play it by ear and strive to make the most of the coming years…

  • I wistfully recognize the things I can no longer do, and then try not to waste too much time bemoaning their loss (for me there are many, starting with my daily runs with friends; and the list continually grows). The operative words here are “try” and “too much.” I sometimes fall off the wagon.
  • I try to focus on what I can still do, and especially what I want to do. For some of us, that will involve deciding what we want our “legacy” to be when we leave this world – and actively pursuing it (for me, this includes making more of a contribution to people in need). For others, it may be achieving even greater business success or just squeezing the most enjoyment out of life – whether that entails traveling, fishing, or some other hobby. And for many of us, it will be both: working to leave some mark on the world and having fun at the same time. It’s taken me a few years – including a lot of internal turmoil, vacillating, and whining to my wife – to feel close to having made these decisions. And a big part of the process has been thinking about things I had always wanted to do but had never gotten around to doing, at least in a serious way, as I was engulfed by my career – and to then get going. The realization that my remaining time could be short was one hell of a motivator.
  • Finally, while people vary widely on this point, I’ve always needed some structure to help me avoid floating aimlessly through the years. Without the regimen of a full time job, that’s become even more important. For decades I made a habit of taking an hour or so once a year to write down what I wanted to work on during the upcoming year – with separate categories for my professional and personal “lives”. I’d then take stock of how I’d done with respect to each of those goals over the past year – noting where I thought I’d done well and where I hadn’t. My lists these days are less detailed and perhaps less lofty – re-dedicate myself to my public service work; continue the battle to get back into shape; travel more with Melissa and go fishing more often with friends; take time to practice my piano; continue to work on my writing. Looking back at my lists from time to time, especially when I’m down, helps keep me on track and feeling like I’m moving ahead.

I wouldn’t give myself an “A” for my performance over the past year.

But spurred by the cancer wake-up call, I do try to try to make each day count – to do something,  however small, to advance the ball with respect to one or more of the goals on my list.

My wave jumping analogy is plainly imperfect.

Let’s not kid ourselves – on the whole we all know that this “getting old stuff” is not fun or, to put it more bluntly, it su*ks. But however you want to frame the picture, the bottom line for me is that for those of us who are lucky enough to be financially stable and sufficiently healthy, albeit diminished, life beyond the shore can be liberating and rich despite all the blows we have to absorb and changes we must make along the way.

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