Discover more from Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg
Vol. 41: ‘Age is just a number’
Role models (good and bad) for senior citizens
“You still bike to work?” someone asked me the other day.
It’s true. I’ve bicycled to and from my office since I moved to Philadelphia 51 years ago. Then, as now, it’s the fastest way to get around town; it’s good exercise; it’s non-polluting; it costs me nothing; and I don’t worry about parking. If I weren’t occasionally reminded that I’m 81 years old, I wouldn’t think twice about a commute that’s become a daily habit for decades.
Ditto for the 60 crunches I perform on my bedroom floor each morning. They serve no real purpose except to reassure myself that I can still do them. Sometimes this regime even seems easier than it used to, just because I’m so accustomed to it.
To be sure, I’m a piker next to Dorothy Hoffner of Chicago, a retired telephone operator who went skydiving four years ago at the age of 100. She did it again this month, at the age of 104, jumping out of a plane from 13,000 feet.
“Age is just a number,” Ms. Hoffner told a cheering crowd moments after landing in Ottawa, Illinois (and just eight days before she died).
Yes, I know— genes have a lot to do with how well we navigate our senior years. But I want to suggest that at least part of the secret is to keep on keeping on, regardless of your age.
Basketball at 70
You may recall Alice Kahn Ladas, the psychotherapist whose 1982 book, The G Spot, sold a million copies and transformed women’s perceptions of their sexuality. Ladas was 61 when that book was published, but she didn’t coast on her celebrity. Instead, she embraced the theories of her mentor Adelle Davis, a nutritionist who championed organic foods and the importance of exercise. Ladas snorkeled and played tennis into her 90s and played the piano even after she turned 100. Two nights before she died this past August at age 102, Ladas and a friend went to see the movie Oppenheimer. And, oh yes, she continued to see patients at her home office right up until the day before she died.
Or consider Hugh “Hank” Aberman, who was the sixth man on the University of Pennsylvania’s basketball teams in the late 1950s. After graduation, he made his living as a psychologist and conflict mediator, but he continued to play basketball. At age 70, Aberman and two teammates won their third three-on-three state championship in the Pennsylvania Senior Olympics. When I ran into him at a Penn reunion a few years ago, he told me, “My goal now is to become the world’s greatest 85-year-old basketball player.” Last week, having turned 85, he acknowledged that he’s abandoned that goal— but not the larger goal of staying physically and mentally sharp.
“I do 20-25 minutes of stretches every morning and always take a 20-25 minute walk every day,” he e-mailed me. “For mental sharpness, I still work four hours a day as the senior marketing advisor for a textile recycling company. Having to remember customer names, load pickup dates, and order details is good mental exercise, and I love it.”
My father, a classic Type A personality, was 75 and well into his second career as a folk-dance impresario when he went for his annual physical exam. “You have the body of a 45-year-old,” his doctor marveled. “But your vertebrae don’t know that. So, try to go easy on them.” The following day, Dad’s dance troupe had a performance several hours’ drive from their New York base. At 6 a.m. Dad went to retrieve some costumes from the troupe’s van, only to find the parking lot locked and no attendant in sight. So what did Dad do? Of course: He climbed the chain-link fence. All those years of folk-dancing presumably paid off.
By contrast, when I was 46, I got into a half-court basketball game without having played in 15 years or even engaged in rudimentary stretching before stepping onto the court. In the aggressive manner to be expected of a former co-captain of my high school team, I went up for a rebound, only to twist my knee when I landed. My leg swelled up and I could barely walk for days thereafter. There’s something to be said for regular daily exercise.
On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of rediscovering physical skills you haven’t used in decades. I offer two examples.
My late friends Marty and Helen Schwartz owned a prosperous paper manufacturing business in Muncie, Indiana. In 1992, when they were both in their 70s, they traveled to Boston for Helen’s 50th reunion at Wellesley College. To honor the occasion, Helen acquired a glass sculpture as a gift to Wellesley. Because the sculpture was both expensive and fragile, Helen carefully packed it and sealed it in a carton, which she intended to carry under her arm. They planned to take an afternoon flight from Indianapolis, then spend the night in a Boston hotel, so Helen could present her gift at the reunion lunch the next day.
You can guess what happened. At the airport, the security guards insisted on examining the contents of Helen’s carton. That would have meant dismantling the package that Helen had so carefully assembled. When Helen declined to let anyone touch her precious carton, the Schwartzes were offered the option of checking the carton along with their luggage; again, they declined, rather than put the carton at the mercy of airline baggage handlers.
They seemed to have reached an impasse. But at this moment Marty looked at Helen, and Helen looked at Marty, and they simultaneously uttered words that probably hadn’t escaped their lips since their college days: “Road trip!” Retrieving their luggage, they jumped in their car and took off on the Interstate toward Boston, a 14-hour-plus drive away.
By now it was about 4 p.m.; they had about 20 hours to get to the Wellesley luncheon. Most of the way, they alternated driving every hour or two so the passenger could sleep. Somewhere in Connecticut, around 3 a.m., they pulled their car off to the side of the road, where both of them nodded off for two hours.
They arrived at their Boston hotel in mid-morning, barely in time to shower and change and appear at the reunion lunch— slightly bedraggled, but with a sense of exhilaration that no airplane flight could ever provide.
An urban mugging
The second story I pass along here with mixed feelings: Some 20 years ago, two retired suburban New York couples in their 70s drove into the city one Wednesday afternoon to take in a Broadway matinee, followed by dinner. Afterward, as they walked back to their car, they were jumped by two teenage punks. But the two husbands, it turned out, were not merely septuagenarians; they were also ex-Marines. In the ensuing brawl, one of them got one of the muggers in a chokehold and choked the kid to death.
How do you feel about that? I like the notion of senior citizens summoning presumably forgotten physical skills they acquired decades earlier. On the other hand, those ex-Marines, having already made the most of their allotted Biblical three score and ten years on the planet, denied the same opportunity to a kid whose synapses— the key to connecting actions and consequences– hadn’t yet grown together. We seniors owe our succeeding generations more than fitness lessons.
(Something similar happened to me 19 years ago at age 62, when I was jumped by two teenagers outside my house in central Philadelphia. I fought back and, with the help of my neighbors, chased the kids away. For their trouble, the would-be muggers got nothing, and I wound up with one of the kids’ bandanas, which I framed on my office wall as a souvenir. But had someone died in that scuffle, I would not be recounting it here so glibly, if at all.)
The author Roger Rosenblatt, who is 83, recently contributed a charming op-ed essay to the New York Times about the unexpected gripes of old age, i.e., “Who ever expected that getting out of a taxi would be so momentous an issue that one is a bundle of nerves planning exit strategies halfway through the ride?” (Read his full column here.)
To Rosenblatt I say: “Roger, why are you taking taxis? Why aren’t you biking?”
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Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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