The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.
Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.
After the holidays lots of people resolve to lose weight, get fit, and feel better. At the gym yesterday I was surprised by how many people around me were sweating, breathing hard, and not appearing to enjoy themselves very much. The place was full.
Last summer, when I joined and signed a membership contract more intimidating than any mortgage I’ve ever signed, there were very few people around. I never had to wait for a treadmill, stair climber, or rowing machine.
On a hot afternoon in July I counted exactly one other person in the gym, and in addition to gray hair we both had the self-assured look of men our age, a look that says, “You know, with only two, maybe three, days of training I could have my 18–year–old body back again.”
Sadly, I haven’t had my 18–year–old body since the day I turned 19.
In spite of my best efforts—heroic efforts, actually—I have been on a steady and unforgiving physical decline. But I stay with it. I have run several marathons, climbed a few mountains in Switzerland, and pedaled my bike around most of Idaho. At the moment I am getting ready for a 500–mile trek across northern Spain, known as the Camino de Santiago. If you see someone in the next couple of weeks trudging through your neighborhood with a fully–loaded backpack, please don’t call the police. That will mostly likely be me getting ready for my next challenge.
And yet, I am not getting any stronger—or younger.
With all of my hard work over the years (and expensive gym memberships), I’m not sure what I have to show for it. I’ve lost an inch in height and gained a full shoe size to what were already large feet. Please don’t ask me about my weight. And anyone brave enough to look at my bare feet would have to turn away in disgust. My five–year–old granddaughter recently pointed to something on my face and asked what it was. I had to introduce her to the term “skin tag.” I’m a wreck.
The person who cuts my hair told me last week that I “have nice hair … for a man my age.” I should have been flattered, but I wasn’t. “You should have seen my hair when I was in college,” I wanted to tell her. “There was so much more of it.” And there was. An unbelievably full head of hair, grown to shoulder length with the most glorious waves. Today I keep my hair short, which befits a man my age.
And yet, here I am, still trying, still giving it my best effort. I suppose I have my father to thank in part. He set a good example. He exercised throughout his life. He played racquetball every noon hour until he was 70, often—to his delight—against much younger men. But one day he suspected that his much younger opponent was giving him points. And it was then that he quit playing racquetball, though he continued to exercise.
Until his late 80s he would walk daily around the neighborhood, and if there was snow on the sidewalks, he walked laps in the living room. I’m glad to say that I inherited his determination, which has mostly been a good thing.
People who walk the Camino de Santiago, which is what I plan to do in March, are often asked, “Why are you doing this?” And I have been told by others who have made the same pilgrimage (it began centuries ago as a religious thing) to be prepared for the question. Why am I doing this? What am I hoping to achieve? If there is a goal, what in heaven’s name is it?
To be honest, I don’t know the answers. I’m certainly not trying to recapture the way I once looked, though losing a few pounds wouldn’t be a bad outcome. What I feel at this point in my life is an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I’m grateful for the work I was able to do for nearly 40 years. I’m grateful for the family who put up with me all those years. And I’m grateful for the good health that allowed me to do that work, plus those adventures I mentioned.
The truth is, I will walk the Camino because I can. I get up early on Saturday mornings and fill my backpack with 20 lbs. of stuff and then walk over to the state park because, well, I can, because God gave me these legs. I am amazed every time I think about them.
I walk, and I keep walking, because I am grateful for what I have been given.
Photo: If you see this man walking through your neighborhood, don’t be alarmed. He’s mostly harmless.