When he was in his eighties, my father would introduce himself to old friends by saying, “I am what remains of Connie Culberson.”
That humorous introduction helped my dad manage the obvious effect of eighty years on his classic “chassis”. Many of us, however, seem to obsess about both our appearance and our bodily functions, and then we engage in graphic conversations that are just not suitable for advanced cultures.
Recently, my wife and I were having dinner with two college friends. We are all in our mid-fifties. We had hardly begun eating when the topic of digestion came up. But the conversation did not focus on the benefits of probiotics or whether kale is a good source of iron. Instead, we talked about colon-esque issues that would send a younger person fleeing to the bathroom, dry-heaving the entire way. But, the four of us continued to enjoy our delicious meal without even flinching.
What is wrong with us?
I have a theory. I think there is a filter in our brain, similar to the air filter in a car, that screens out inappropriate anatomical information which might be harmful. And until we reach the age of fifty, this particular filter will not allow us to publicly discuss any biological function that occurs below our shoulders. However, when we turn fifty, or 100,000 miles whichever comes first, the warranty on our filter runs out and it no longer functions properly. After that, comments about abnormalities between our navel and our knees just spill out into conversations with family, friends, and that unfortunate young mother in the grocery store line.
And it’s not just biological functions that spill out. Undergarment issues can also slip through these filters.
When I was a teenager, my mother would often come home from work, remove her girdle and place it in the center of the dining room table. She made no attempt to hide it or protect anyone from seeing it (namely, me). And back then, a girdle wasn’t made of the wonderfully sheer material found in Spanx. Instead, it was made of industrial strength rubber that smelled like the soles of my Chuck Taylors and kept its shape long after it was taken off. My mother’s girdle sometimes sat upright, all by itself, like something from a low-budget Martha Stewart centerpiece design. I’m just grateful our pastor never dropped by on one of the girdle days.
In hindsight, I realize that my mother had arrived at her fifties and the warranty on her filter had run out. She no longer worried about the impact of a tabletop girdle. I, on the other hand, was so affected by the display that if I hear the word “girdle” today, my neck breaks out in hives.
Similar to our bodies, as our cars get older, it’s hard not to notice every little problem. The steering is off, the seats are worn, and the ride is just not as smooth. It’s the same with our bodies. So how can we enjoy this aging journey without obsessing about every bump along the way?
I used to be quite athletic. I was known for my speed and agility. I routinely used my physicality to impress others. I also used my body as a prop to make people laugh through fake falls down the stairs and pretend head-on collisions with lockers. Recently, I shared my regret about these attention-seeking antics to my physical therapist. Apparently, my neck, back, and knees are getting even for the torment I caused them in my youth.
Today, a game of tennis leads to swollen knees. A bike ride requires two Aleve. And the only way I can dunk a basketball is with a ten-foot ladder. If I were a car, however, these imperfections would be reminders of great experiences. The scratch on the fender would represent that time we bumped into a garbage can at the beach house. The cigarette burn on the seat would remind us of our cross country trip after high school. And the squeak in the suspension would be a result of the annual trip over the mountain to cut the Christmas tree.
We live in a culture where it’s more common to look at what’s wrong than what’s right. The news reports are constantly focusing on the most recent crime, natural disaster, or idiot who said something, well, idiotic. The stories of beauty, success, and wisdom are buried under the noisy rubble of negativity.
The same is true as we get older. Most of us no longer say, “I’m fine” when someone asks, but instead we say, “Well, my elbow’s been acting up lately.” Maybe we feel that we’ve lost our sense of purpose and the only way to compensate is to get sympathy from others. Maybe we are bitter about losing our mental and physical sharpness so we spread the misery around. Or maybe we’ve just realized that aging is no fun and we want to commiserate with those who are similarly discouraged.
I wonder if, instead, we can look at sore knees, sensitive digestive systems, and squeaky suspensions as signs of a life well lived. Perhaps they are not battle scars but medals of honor. Maybe we should be focusing on how great the journey has been rather than how rough the road has become.
I think I’m going to try.
From now on, I’m going to make a commitment to reduce the amount of time I refer to my aches, my pains, and my colon. I’m going to focus on the fact that I can still play tennis and can still run to the bathroom more quickly than my wife. I want to focus on the many things I can do rather than the few that are no longer possible. And if I successfully manage to refocus, perhaps I will actually enjoy this amazing ride we’re on.
And the next time I see an old friend, I’m going to smile and say, “I am proud of what remains of Ron Culberson.”