Aging: The Challenges of the Back Nine


So: We started joking about “playing the back nine” when we turned 50.  The half-century mark is no trivial milestone in our brief animation on Earth. After all, while it represents exactly HALF a century, actuarially speaking, the odds increase that it could be 100% of an entire lifetime.

One of my best friends died a few years after we both celebrated the half-century mark. He was 52. He died with his boots on, literally. He was backpacking in Pisgah with a group of guys that could easily have included me. It was a horrible experience for them. He would have wanted to go that way.

Meanwhile, I have hung on another 17 years, and the back nine is moving on towards the 18th hole. And frankly, here lately, I feel it. If I started riding the golf cart for a few holes instead of carrying my own clubs at 50, I’m about ready for somebody else to do all the swinging and taking the ball out of the cup at the end.  After all, the ground gets farther from my fingers every year. Ya know?

The Way We Were: 1973

At 50, while we joked about being old, honestly, we were not touched noticeably by age then.  At 51 we undertook the remaking of this old house over the course of a year. We held down our regular jobs all day and came over here from Walnut Knob every night and worked three or four more hours–scraping paint, burning demolition debris, doing the heavy lifting–whatever needed doing, and doing it without limits until it was done.

Ah, limits. They loom large now. And it’s the simple things–raking leaves, splitting firewood, even putting dishes in the high cupboard–stuff I could have done for hours on end–where I notice the quick ramping up the fatigue curve that used to come late or never for these menial tasks. What’s going on here?

I used to tell Anatomy and Physiology students that “things we say about our SELVES are really statements about the condition of our CELLS.”

When you say “I’m hungry” you’re reporting from your cells that they need more fuel.

When you say “I’m cold” it isn’t your SELF that’s cold. You’re cells are saying they need more heat to work at their best efficiency.

When you say “I’m tired” you’re giving an account of your brain and muscle cells’ using more energy than they can get from your blood, and when you say you’re exhausted, your cells are saying stop! The lactic acid is making us gag!”

So maybe–if I can muster the energy and finish the job–over the course of the next little bit  I will take a look, organ or organ system at a time, at what’s going on as these personal Goose Creek clumps of cells play through the 9th hole and work their way towards the clubhouse.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Love the Physiology lesson! Aging and keeping your sense of humor go hand in hand. Although some days, trying to do those mundane little things that used to be so easy puts a strain on our ability to laugh!

  2. On the other hand, to switch metaphors, just because we may face the afternoon of our lives does not mean the sun has to set any time soon. There’s still life in those cells!

  3. Hey Fred, you need to think not of the back nine, but more of the first round. I didn’t even think of approaching middle age until I passed 50. I already have plans for picking a tomato and a few peppers from my garden on my 100th birthday so that I can enjoy a sandwich and glass of wine while watching the sun set over the Buffalo. I’m only a few years behind you and I still don’t think of myself as old.

  4. I too can relate to this (except for the golf metaphor). All the intentions in the world to stay ‘young’, but some of the body cells don’t seem to agree. Still, as the book ‘Younger Next Year’ suggests, there are ways to stay as ‘young’ as possible. Read it if you haven’t.