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The Sweet Month of January

I’ve looked back at it and have to say, this is a slightly dull Fortnightly: a mostly personal slice of life, deep in the Third Act. There are two excuses: First, it will indicate to some (who may have doubts) that life can be remarkably good, almost all the way to the dear old waterfall.

Second, it goes to the point that EVERYTHING YOU DON’T USE ROTS, and it happens faster as you get older. BUT YOU CAN OFFSET THAT ROT TO A HUGE DEGREE IF YOU JUST DO STUFF… IF YOU “USE” YOURSELF. USE YOURSELF PRETTY HARD.  This note is mostly just personal nonsense,  but it also demonstrates those truths. Which still matter, after all these years.  Rather a long note, I’m sorry to see, but some of it may interest you.

This year got off to a nice start, thank God. Because last year was not so hot. Harry’s death in March, of course; the mysterious “widow’s heart attack” that followed; other, weird heart stuff (a mild dose of A-fib, whatever-the-hell that is); followed in late July by that dopey young woman driving into me at 35 miles an hour as I peacefully walked my bike across a country street. Happily, I more or less walked away from the car crash, and my mild version of A-fib has no consequences. Mostly because of all the nut-case exercise I do. Harry? That was a different story. There was no answer to that.

I confess that all that bum luck last year made me wonder for a while if, maybe, the Great Good Run of my life were coming to an end and that now Bad Shit would be my portion. One knows that at some point Bad Shit has to come; was it now? Let me cut to the chase: No. Not for a second. Take a look.

On the bum here in Aspen

We went out to Aspen early this year, because I had a speaking gig (arranged by Jeremy James, co-author of the terrific Younger Next Year Back Book, due out this summer) to talk to 55 titans from various fields. Billionaires, men who are doing amazing things. It would have been daunting, if you’re susceptible to that kind of thing. But I’ve been hanging around these guys all my life – my life as a lawyer anyway – and find them surprisingly like the rest of us. Okay, more driven, maybe smarter and more focused, but not scary.  And they are every bit as interested as all the rest of us in a good Third Act. So they were a serious audience but a fun one. They like to laugh for one thing, and that helped (they should be giggling, shouldn’t they? With all that dough in their pockets.)

A confession: I love giving talks. I have a little gift for it, for one thing, and I like to see it work. Like to soak up all that yummy praise, for which I have a bottomless appetite. Pathetic.

Jeremy spoke part of the time. He is still feeling his way as a speaker, but he is an authentic genius on back pain, and they were fascinated. Everyone has back pain and everyone wants to lose it. Jeremy knows more about it than just about anyone, and they were fascinated. Some mighty powerful men have gone to remarkable lengths to help Jeremy and me get BackForever (his video protocol which you’ll hear about very soon) up and running. Because he fixed their backs and they are so damn grateful.

I did another gig, later in the month, that was, if anything, more fun. The audience was 300 women, down in Fort Worth, Texas. Their group puts on six talks a year (been at it since 1935), so they could have been a tough audience. They weren’t. It was a love fest. I particularly like talking to women’s groups. This one was every bit as interested in aging as the zillionaires, but they laughed more. And I got more hugs when it was over. I do love a hug, man. Have I mentioned before that I mostly grew up with women (three much older sisters)? I did, and it gave me a deep well of affection and respect that will never go away. This group maybe picked up on that.

Okay, back to the “lessons” in all this. I mention these talks because – as much as I like them – they are risky, they are hard work, and they require you to put yourself out there, big time. Which means that – at a point when a lot of folks your age are doing a lot of daytime TV – you are using your “limbic machinery”, the emotional wiring that gets you through your social life, at the high end. You use everything you can access, and it refreshes and strengthens you. Just as surely as doing intervals refreshes your aerobic base. I come out of these things – especially when they go really well – on a terrific high.

Think about the “exercise” you get. I don’t use notes or slides, so I ad lib all the time. With deeply familiar material, of course, but I still have to decide what to say, when, and dig it out of my brain-pan. That is a serious, cognitive work-out. I think it makes me smarter for a while. May be nonsense, but it feels like that. Same on the emotional side.

It helps that it’s hard. It helps that you’re standing alone, in front of  a bunch of zillionaires. Or 300 serious Texas women. There is a challenge and you have to dig down. You have to go for it. Okay, you have to use yourself, at the high end. I am absolutely certain that it makes you functionally younger.

So what? you may say. Not many of you are going to start giving speeches in your 60’s or whatever. Fine, but the lesson holds. You can do new stuff… things that are hard. Things for which you have to take a chance and put yourself out there some.  You can use yourself, at the high end. What kind of activity does that mean for you? I don’t know but I bet you do. Give it a shot.

All right, here is a much simpler, more accessible limbic exercise. Hard for some, easier for others.

Just this weekend, we had dinner in Lakeville for fourteen. Not as serious as giving a speech but a serious, limbic undertaking. The hard part was easy: I do the shopping and cooking, Hilary does the table, the wine and the seating. We both host. The latter is the part that makes these nights work: it is a matter, I think, of showing a lot of people that you are mighty glad they are there… that you care what they’re up to, and that you care what they think of what you’re up to. The quality of the night does not depend on the quality of the Faroe Island salmon, it depends on the quality of your caring. And on the quality of the caring that you – and your pals – manage to draw out of the guests.  Done right, you put yourself out there, you use yourself when you entertain. Hard for some of you, I know. Hard for Hilary, it turns out. Bone easy for me. But when you do it, it feels good regardless. Probably feels best for those who find it hardest. Maybe.

Let’s move on to “using yourself” on a physical level. Let’s talk about the fooling around we did.

The rest of the month was some writing and a lot of  fooling around. The fooling around included skiing, and I am thrilled to report that that continues to be a central joy in my life. The snow was lousy by Aspen standards but I loved it. Had to stay on the groomers, most of the time, but a few black diamonds were open and I did those too. Lots of ice and rocks on those; lots of falling down.  That’s all right.  The good news  is that I can still do it, by heaven, at the tender age of 117 or whatever I am… do it with a turn a speed, a teeny bit of grace and a world of pleasure. Pleasure was the big pay-off, of course, but there was also the nice sense of using yourself. I am going to try to go into a touch of detail here; prepare to be bored.

I know that I love skiing too much and that most people don’t do it, but there are real lessons here, whether you ski or not. It is a physical (and mental) activity where you feel and use your whole body hard, all the time. Once you’ve learned how, the miracle of muscle memory does a lot but not all. You still have to consciously lean out over your skis and downhill (a deeply counterintuitive movement that feels suicidal). You have to know there is a sweet spot, and you have to find it, just so. You want precisely the right amount of pressure on your shins, as you lean into your boots. Get that just right and you will ski like a God at almost any age. You know when you hit the sweet spot, there’s a click that feels amazing. You just hang out there and go flying along. You go tearing down that dangerous, snow-covered and bumpy hill, riding your solid quads and your balance as if you were on steel rails. Think that feels good? Oh, yes. And you are using yourself. You are refreshing and renewing both the signaling system and the muscles and joints. You are getting better at it, at your tender age, because you are doing it.

Here’s something  from the new back book. One of the lessons of the book – and Jeremy’s amazing video protocol, BackForever –  is that you need to keep your core lightly tensed, almost all the time, when you exercise. Sounds impossible, but in fact it turns out to be automatic, in a lot of situations. Skiing, for one. I noticed for the first time that I automatically held my core taut all the time, as I skied.  It was a key part of skiing and I had picked it up, long ago, before I knew it was an issue. Same with biking, I now learn. And rowing. And lots of other stuff. You get used to moving right, and that includes a taut gut. You refresh and renew that gift when you use yourself. Just saying….

Let me drone on for a minute longer. Think about turning. Whether on a groomer or the moguls. Again, a lot of it is muscle memory, but now strength plays a larger part. Your legs have to be strong enough to swing you through the turns, and hold you up and flex you through these bumps. Again, you listen hard to your body. You want to feel just the  right amount of pressure on your edges as you swing around. You want to feel your quads as you go down deeper…as you flex to soak up the bumps. You use a basic ski rule that is also a basic back-safety rule: You rotate with your hips and lower body, not your back and shoulders. Your hands and poles point aim straight downhill and do not move. While your hips and legs go nuts…they are dancing. Like lunatics. You are flying down the hill – maybe in and out of these treacherous moguls – and you’re light as a feather because you’re dancing. But you are using your body, too… at the high end. And your body loves it. End of lesson.

The gym in Lakeville

Back in the east for the rest of the month, it wasn’t so dreadful either. I do love this cozy old Victorian we’ve wound up in the Berkshires. Love the big, yellow living room, the book shelves, the many paintings and fire. Love the big kitchen where people hang and drink, while Hilly and I do our work. Love the gym out in the barn, and the amazing cross-country skiing, when there’s any snow. We did a bunch of that but we’re not going to draw those lessons now.

This is not in any of the books, but I think that finding a good place to live… a house or apartment with good feng shui… is also an important limbic feeder. I feed on this house, I really do. I feed on the study where I’m sitting now, because the proportions are just so… the pictures and the long windows. Does that count? I think it does. Build yourself a good nest; it will nourish you.

This is the last word. I saw a Ted Talk yesterday, ranking the influences behind living longest. Exercise and diet  were right up there, as we’d expect. But by far the most important were the presence in your life of 1) friends and 2) caring. Huh! Cuddle up, kids; we’re mammals.

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Chris Crowley
Chris Crowley

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