October 17, 2023

A beautiful day in the woods.


Old age is no place for sissies.

-Bette Davis

Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.

-Phillip Roth


When you get old, things you used to take for granted no longer apply — things like strength, endurance, moderate exercise without pain, and improvement with physical training.  At my age, activity without some level of pain, although usually still minimal, does not happen.  The worst part is that you have to watch a slow deterioration of your abilities happen over an ever-shortening period of time.  Your body wears out and there is no going back to the way it was.  The best you can hope for is good enough to keep going.

A friend of mine in college once defined life as a constant battle against degeneration.  This seems obvious when viewed in terms of the second law of thermodynamics which states the amount of disorder in a system must always increase, it can never decrease.  We are, all of us, always, on an inexorable path to dissolution.  But, as I get older, the truth of it is not only undeniable, it’s unignorable.  My spirit is more than willing, sometimes even eager.  But the flesh, it is old and tired after a lifetime of stress and strain, being pushed too hard for too long and having too many unreasonable expectations made of it.  “Go ahead, if you must,” it says.  “But, trust me, it’s gonna hurt…”

A couple of weeks ago, the arthritis in my low back came back to bite me.  It was bad enough that I had to forego the walks that Waldo and I do on the rail-trail.  For five days, I couldn’t tolerate the distance.  Oh, I bit the bullet and we still walked around the apartment complex, but only at the rate of about 2.5 miles a day instead of our usual 7.5 miles.  It was a pity, because the days were dry and cool, without being cold.  Still, we were able to explore the ever-changing microcosm of our tiny corner of the universe and watch the Norway maples turn purple, the flowering boxwoods turn red and a rapidly increasing number of acorns accumulate on the ground.

The problems I have in my low back can be traced to four small facet joints where I somehow developed severe arthritis bilaterally at L4 and L5.  There is no good solution (as is often the case in life), just amelioration.  Through extended use (and who can avoid using their back?), inflammation ensues and that’s what hurts.  Twenty-first century medicine has a therapy for it – cortisone injections.  It dampens down the inflammation and pain for a while (this time six months) and makes walking the rail-trail possible.  So, I called my physiatrist (a specialist in pain management) and arranged for the shots.  While waiting for that to happen, rest eased the pain somewhat, and we got back on the rail-trail, but at a much slower pace.

Waldo adjusted to his relative lack of exercise quite well, as he always does.  He’s just friskier than normal because he hasn’t had the opportunity to burn off all that border collie energy.  After 5 days of rest, we made it back to our usual trek and he was obviously a much better entertained puppy.  His attention was out in front of his nose with the squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, pee-mail and, of course, sticks.  But our pace was still slow, more than 26-minute miles, compared to our usual 22.  I would say Waldo’s happier, but it’s hard to tell.  He’s such a happy dog anyway.  Still, I’m sure we both longed for a return for more or less pain-free walks.

Another aspect of aging is that your immune system’s strength wanes.  Diseases that used to be mostly a nuisance become potentially deadly – diseases like flu, RSV and Covid.  That means I have to make sure that I get all the vaccinations necessary to protect my health.  Those diseases are more active in the fall, so this is the time of year to get poked.  You got it, more shots in addition to the cortisone injections.  In addition, because of my exposure to ticks out in the woods, I joined a Phase III Lyme vaccine trial.  I got the flu and RSV vaccines together, then had to wait two weeks to get the Lyme, then another two weeks for the Covid.  Add to that the cortisone shots that I got two days before the Covid shot and you can see why I now think of fall as being not the season for colorful falling leaves, but for getting sharp pointy things jabbed into my flesh.   Worst of it is, the most common reaction I have to vaccinations is mild muscle/joint pain, which confuses and slows my recovery from the arthritis.  Argh…

While all that was going down, my dermatologist found a small basal cell carcinoma on my left cheek that had to be excised by mohs surgery.  That’s a simple office procedure, but it does require sutures that have to be left in for a week.  More pokes and even some slices.  I had to walk around with a big bandage on my face that must have freaked out the kids we pass as Waldo and I do our constitutionals.

This is what old age has become for me – a battle to keep at bay those forces of nature that are trying to disrupt my lifestyle choices.  Right now, I’m out here in the woods with much less pain, watching Waldo romp and cavort.  I feel the cool breeze ruffle the small hairs on the skin of my arms and cheeks, smell the fall air with just a hint of wood smoke from some neighbor’s fire, hear the rustling of leaves as they dance on tenuous stalks, readying their inevitable fall, and I know I’m not here solely in denial of my age — this is where I should be.

And I’ll do what it takes to get me here.


Waldo agrees.

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