THIS IS 40
I’ve only just arrived at that delightful time known as my forties, and already my hair is looking like the half finished, latch hook art piece your mother has hanging in the basement, and the bags under my eyes are roomy enough to use as pockets. Overnight, I went from a svelte, careless young person clutching a pitcher of vodka lemonade while munching on cheese curds to a melting Christmas-tree-shaped candle coddling a glass of sugarless iced tea. Do get to 40 everyone; it is a delight to behold.
Just like that, I am a human person who gets to shave his ears. Beyond a bit of unsightly body hair, it really hasn’t been all that miserable. It could be worse, that’s what cheerful and optimistic people like to remind you. Yes, your pop culture references make Millennials think you’re elderly and you can’t eat more than a child-sized ice cream without knowing the location of all the restrooms for the next eight blocks, but it could be worse.
Tell me what is worse than fearing an iPhone upgrade? What is worse than not being familiar with the “stars” on Dancing with the Stars? It could be worse. “It could be worse,” means you’re supposed to be happy to be alive. Grateful for the slow and unavoidable breakdown of your outer shell, as you watch it slowly dissolve into the floor. It’s a passive-aggressive, Midwestern way of saying, “yes, you’re 40, have back hair, and a predilection for afternoon naps, but cheer up, you could be dead.”
I had always pictured death as something for old men and Nazis; you know, people in history books. It wasn’t something for me to bring into focus. Then 40 happened. Strange body aches, vision problems, vitamin deficiencies, food allergies, anxiety, sugar sensitivity, insomnia, eczema, high blood pressure, and hot flashes all surprised me at the stroke of midnight on the last day of my 39th year. I started having weird headaches that laughed at Advil.
One of them was so severe I went blind in one eye while standing with a cart full of discounted Halloween Candy at the grocery store. It scared me. Dropping dead at a suburban Jewel would be humiliating, but nothing compared to the shame of having my funeral clouded with the discovery that Smarties and Pixie Sticks are my favorite candies.
Once my vision returned I spent the rest of the day trying to ignore the panicked feeling of a visit from the Grim Reaper. This is a tall order if you’re someone who googles everything. Sudden and temporary blindness, at least according to mayoclinic.com, is not normal and should not be ignored. Did I have brain cancer, a brain tumor, or did my eyeballs just have a small stroke - which, by the way, is totally a thing that can happen. Obviously, I was about to die and the World Wide Web - with its endless list of possibilities - was not trying to help me survive. If I had a brain tumor I should probably know as soon as possible, so I pulled myself away from the internet and scheduled a physical with my doctor.
Somewhere near the top of the list of phrases a healthy person should never shout at a doctor are the words: “I have a brain tumor.” Consequently there are also specific phrases a doctor should never say to a patient. “You’re fat,” is probably somewhere on the list. To be fair, I’m not completely certain those are the exact words that came out of his mouth, but that is definitely what I heard when he told me I needed to lose weight. I smiled and nodded the way you’re supposed to when a doctor says something unpleasant.
He is a doctor, so he knew by magic I didn’t have a brain tumor, brain cancer, or an eyeball stroke. My hysterical blindness was something called an ocular migraine. They’re apparently harmless, but Dr. Smarty Pants saw the episode as my body crying for help. Everyone in my family dies of strokes caused by high blood pressure and diabetes. If I wanted to avoid a kidney transplant or waking up dead, I had work to do.
The trouble is, I am inactive and lazy - preferring reading in the bathtub to almost any activity. But the doctor with his apocalypticism scared me. The only thing I fear more than physical activity is death; so, soon after my appointment, I forced myself to go for a run.
By no stretch of the imagination am I an athletic person; I’m gangly and uncoordinated. To satisfy my gym credit in high school, I walked the track each day. That’s not a euphemism for anything. I walked slowly, without breaking a sweat. Every. Single. Day. Of freshman year. I didn’t know how to play basketball, softball, dodge ball, or whatever ball. So, I did the only sporty activity I was sure enough to do: I walked in circles.
Not much has changed since my high school days, so you know exactly how successful that first run was. It was a half-hour act of self-terror, if there can be such a thing.
There was enough friction between my thighs to spark a fire, which is indeed what my legs felt like when I completed my little insanity exercise. My whole being was ablaze in one way or another. I looked like a drowned cat covered from head to toe in my own juices and was barely able to muster the strength to crawl back inside my apartment.
It was the worst. Brain cancer, a brain tumor, or even an eyeball stroke would have been easier. The only remarkable moment from that first run was a visit from the spirit of Maya Angelou. For whatever reason, she was jogging alongside me wearing a purple wind suit. Maya had nothing to say, she only offered an arched brow as she sped past me. Come to think of it maybe I do have a brain tumor after all.
Who cares if that was actually her ghost, it was enough to scare me into getting serious. Six months have passed and I am both disgusted and horrified to report that I have been running three to five times a week ever since and sometimes as much as two hours at a time. I’ve lost 35 pounds and 2 pants sizes. That wasn’t a goal when I originally started, but it has me feeling powerful and in control of my body in a way I never have. I am now what Richard Simons might call a runner, but don’t get too excited. I’m not going to pretend that I enjoy it. I’m not some born again running junky who wants to talk to you about plantar fasciitis or how fast my mile is. I don’t want to run a marathon, and I hate most of the people who do. Running is awful. I’m only doing it to try avoiding death. Funny, since death is precisely what running feels like.
Though, it is also strikingly similar to life. I have to drag myself kicking and screaming to the sidewalk when it’s time to run and then convince myself to move. Running has taught me how to be uncomfortable for extended periods of time and to keep moving, keep pushing, keep going one step at a time no matter how afraid or weary I am, no matter what. My feet are now busted. I’ve lost toenails, the bones in my legs hurt, my ass is sore. I’m passed by young people with their bouncy ponytails and enthusiastic gaits, actual old people and their abundant experience, muscular people, slow people; I am passed by everyone. For the first time in my life, that feels OK. I feel time now. Maybe my hair is going to fall out, maybe my face is going to sag to my knees, but every labored breath, every painful step reminds me that all I want is more.