The only things worth talking about are sex and death. – Jean-Paul Sartre
I’m supposed to be in Italy right now. Should have been there a week already. But something sinister grabbed me by the lungs three weeks ago and hasn’t let go. All the tests say I’m healthy enough to kayak the Colorado, but my short, panicky breathing tells me otherwise. Taking a deep breath has become harder for me than ordering a vegan pizza.
I’m not exactly bedridden, but a twelve hour plane flight was more than my anxieties could bear. More specialists are on the horizon; we shall see.
In the meantime, I’ve had a lot of time to wonder why the stars have aligned to turn this into my personal Summer of Suck.
Mother dying? Check. Wicked sinus infection that laid me up for most of June? Check. Remember my busted toe? Walking was a pain for almost two months, but that’s small potatoes at this point.
Just when the physical pain, body aches, and soul-crushing loss of a loved one all seemed to be subsiding, I awoke in the middle of the night not being able to breathe. Haven’t spent a conscious minute not thinking about breathing ever since.
Many people close to me (The Food Gal®, my sister, the last sommelier who poured me a glass) think the whole thing may be in my head. With that in mind, I thought I’d explore a few theories about why this is happening. More specifically: what could be weighing on me to the point where a fundamental, automatic bodily function now feels like a daily challenge. Some of these are pretty obvious, others unique to me. Collectively they might supply some answers. Writing them down helps me take a deeper breaths while I’m typing. So there’s that.
GETTING OLD SUCKS
Who knew? It is such a cliche to say that youth is wasted on the young, life is too short, and you never really appreciate someone (or your health) until they are gone. But as you age, the import of these phrases comes into sharp relief, and their meaning weighs on you like a ghostly specter, always there whispering terrifying realities to you.
It’s a given that we always take good health for granted until some affliction grabs us. (You have no idea how much you take your bung hole for granted until hemorrhoid surgery turns your aching anus into the focal point of every waking second. DETAILS UPON REQUEST!)
The list of things that fade with age are too numerous to count. I’ve been blessed with good hair, decent skin and a great memory. (My memory is so good I sometimes wish it wasn’t. There are many events from my past, some many decades old, that I still cringe about when I remember them in excruciating detail.) My eyesight has been shitty since I was six, so aside from those annoying floaters inside my eyeballs, I can’t complain there, either.
Of course I’m heavier than I once was, and losing ten pounds seems like a Sisyphean task, which also describes my sexual performance. (Note to young men: enjoy those heroic erections while you can. After sixty, even with pharmaceutical help, you’re lucky if your penne ever gets to al dente.)
LOVE AND DEATH
“I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
Losing your last parent is another reality that comes to us all. They were there at your beginning — bigger, stronger, wiser than you could ever hope to be. Then, over the decades, the roles reversed. They begin to decline as you ascent, and in their advanced years they look to you the way you once revered them: as a tower of strength, love and protection. If you’re lucky like I was, at least one of your parents will not go gentle into that good night, fighting back and forestalling their inevitable disintegration, retaining their mobility and their nobility right up to the end.
My father faded more quickly than my mom, dying at 80 of a blood disease, but neither of them ever lost their eyesight, their hearing, or their joie de vivre. I still remember my dad sitting up in his hospice bed, fading in and out from whatever pathogens and chemicals were coursing through his veins, but lighting up like a kid at Christmas when I brought him a plate of barbecue. Mom used to joke about his hearing: “I wish it didn’t work so well – whenever we’re whispering in the corner about his condition, he hears every word.”
So I’ve got that to look forward to: being keenly aware, through sight and sound, of every chink in the armor and leak in the machinery which is certain to befall me.
I’m dying and I know it. All of us are. The great Oliver Sacks, while literally on his deathbed, wrote a book “Gratitude” about what kept him going through his terminal illness. As a (part-time) writer, I can see how absorption in one’s craft can supply an important diversion from the reckoning we face.
Sacks, famously, did it with his obsession with science (he was a neurologist and a total Periodic Table geek). As he put it:
“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.”
It would be nice if religion or (C12H14CaO12)n (calcium alginate) gave me a boner (or helped me sleep at night), but that’s not the way I’m hard-wired. Losing yourself in abstract principles is difficult when you have the attention span of a housefly.
I used to be great at rebooting myself, and reviving my energies, no matter how badly I crapped out at something (marriage, career setbacks, money troubles, etc.) “I never worried too much about you, you’re a survivor,” my mom always said, and I guess she was right.
For 60+ years I was great at springing to my feet and avoiding the standing eight count. Whether is was something good for me (golf, cooking, writing, work), or self-destructive (women, ego, partying like it’s 1999, all the time), my attentions vacillated from the compelling to the insatiable. (One thing that never motivated me was money, much to my ex-wives’ chagrin.)
But times have changed and age has caught up with me. As Garrison Keillor recently remarked: “In your seventies, you lose your ambition.”
Boy do you ever. And when someone like me loses his motivation to prove himself (whether in the kitchen, the bedroom, or the courtroom), the wattage within has dimmed and you can feel it.
Younger people do not know this feeling. They still have mountains to climb, and an entire world of commerce exists to trade on their hopes and spurious dreams: selling them everything from cars to clothes to entertainment — each sales pitch aimed at trying to convince us how important something fungible is to our well being.
Amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it, anesthetizing ourselves in the service of mindless consumerism. The smarter among us suspend our disbelief and indulge ourselves with these perquisites of purchase, while ultimately realizing how little they mean. But you don’t realize this until you’ve drifted into old age, and one day realize how little joy you actually get from everything competing for your attention.
As I age, I have become less and less interested in: politics, the economy, global warming, abortion, culture wars, gender identities and education battles. These are future concerns; at my age, you become a man of the present.
FOOD WRITING FUTURE
Through divorce, professional pressures and numerous ups and downs, my food writing has sustained me since 1994. Kept me level and focused when (sometimes) all I could see was despair and chaos.
For all those years, no matter what was going on, there was always a script to record, a television appearance to make, or a review to write. Thus did the world of food and restaurants become woven into the fabric of my daily life. Even with the advent of the internet, this website provided us a nice blank canvas (and a bigger microphone) from which to pepper the landscape with our opinions. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)
Social media, as it slowly eats our brains, has only made things worse. “Everyone’s always sellin’,” my dad used to say, but until a dozen years ago, the only ones selling were those with something to sell, as in: an actual product. Now, everyone is their own brand, and woe to anyone under forty who isn’t constantly promoting themselves. The whole thing is exhausting, and definitely a young person’s game.
I understand why businesses do it, but long for the old days when restaurants slaved away and hungered for a little recognition in traditional media, rather than constantly bombarding customers with promotions, food porn, and chef’s lifestyle pics. I yearn for the undiscovered gem and hidden treasures — not the umpteenth video of pizza goo, advertising disguised as influencing, or whatever the f**k this is:
You may find this hard to believe, but a dozen years ago, I was begging, BEGGING, restaurants to get on social media. Now my Instagram feed is nothing but a tsunami of selling, and all social media is one gigantic marketing platform.
What you gain in information, though, you lose in the romance of discovery and the seduction of surprise. Where’s the fun in knowing the whole menu, and what the food will look like, before you step through the door? By the time you get to most restaurants these days, you know everything from the brand of olive oil they use to the names of the chef’s children. God bless Chinatown, where a bit of modesty is still practiced, and they let the food (and not shite like this) do the talking:
I NEED A HOBBY
For forty years I’ve been obsessed with food. For almost thirty I’ve been writing about it. But as I’ve said since 2014: people are not interested in reading about food anymore (see above).
Something is needed to fill in the gaps of more free time which you and I will inevitably have in our later years.
My wife calls it something to propel me forward. Something which is decidedly lacking in my world right now.
On the bright side, I made a very good risotto this week which made me happy. I learned to make risotto from Marcella Hazan (in person) and that makes me proud. Maybe I’ll turn this into a cooking blog. Heaven knows the world needs more of those…
I kid. I kid. The world needs another cooking blog like I need another ex-wife. Showing off your kitchen skillz is something for which social media is beautifully suited. I think I’ll confine my creations to those venues. Maybe that’s what I should do on Tik Tok, when I’m finished looking at young women lip-syncing in their underwear.
I SUCK AT GOLF
…but not as much as this guy:
Golf was once my go-to therapy for everything from business pressures to a broken heart. I started playing when I was twelve and played a pretty respectable game (10 handicap) for about twenty-five years. My best golf came in my forties when I could break 85 on a good course without breaking a sweat. (BRAGGADOCIOS? YOU BET!)
Then, I gave it up….for twenty years! Many things conspired to end my love of golf: a divorce, the expense (playing became criminally expensive during the Tiger Woods era), losing a well-paying job in a big law firm, re-booting my career as a solo practitioner in the early aughts, and finally (and probably most important): the food thing taking off at the same time. Put them all together and my golf bag became a forlorn, discarded symbol of another me in my garage; so starved for attention that when the clubs were eventually stolen, it was probably a year or two before I even knew they were gone.
But all golfers are secretly gluttons for punishment. So against all odds, I decided to dust off the old irons about a year ago and have been diligently pounding balls at the driving range at least once a week — fully aware that my best golf is like a long-gone ingenue whose beauty will never be recaptured…even if an old diva like yours truly won’t admit it:
There are many reasons for this: 1) Golf is hard. 2) Golf is really hard when you have a twenty-pound gut on you that wasn’t there twenty years ago. 3) You’re way less limber. And finally, 4) your bifocals wreck havoc on any attempt to focus on the ball — either just sitting there, waiting to be whacked, or anywhere it happens to go in flight (usually sideways).
In other words, I’m not as strong, or as flexible as I once was. I can’t see the ball worth a shit whether it’s right in front of me or flying through the air. (The skulled grounders I hit I can follow just fine, thank you.) My coordination has faded and my swing now flows less like syrup and more like a busted jalopy constructed of spare parts.
It makes NO SENSE whatsoever for me to put myself through this humiliation, but am I going to stick with it? You bet!
At this point, golf is like sex: something I used to be fairly good at that still beckons me, even though my performance falls woefully short of my previous standards. The benefit of golf is there’s no one balefully staring up at you when, once again, your putter comes up short. But I continue to chop away, taking comfort in the words of three-time Masters champion Jimmy Demaret: “Golf and sex are the two things in life you don’t have to be any good at to still enjoy.”
The late Christopher Hitchens once said that when you turn sixty, you start looking back. I’ve delayed that process for ten years, but am now reckoning with it. But It’s hard to turn a rose-colored gaze on the gauzy memories of the past when sadness lays heavy on your breast and and you have trouble taking a breath.
I have too many pictures, too many books, too many menus, and too many memories to cull through. Things that once comforted me, now feel like a burden. The thought of looking through decades old albums of times both good and bad, should bring a smile to my face. Instead, I think of them with dread, as if revisiting the past diminishes the present, or reminds me of the person I will never be again.
Some people (like me), love to go whistling past the graveyard — feigning nonchalance with the confidence of a teenager — but we know we’re only fooling ourselves. The Boogeyman under your bed may be in your imagination as a child, but the Grim Reaper is all too real, and standing at the end of your personal cornfield as an adult — ready to reduce your sentient stalk to a pile of dust.
Maybe the cure is simple for my summer of suck: to find meaning in the simple pleasures and tender mercies of everyday life. It has been very hard for me to do that over the past two months, but keep trying I will, because giving up is not yet an option.
Growing old will not make me a better person. (Turning fifty and settling down with my wife did that.) I intend to be the same feisty, not-suffering fools dude I’ve been for my entire adult life. There will be no religious conversion, no new leaves overturned, and no kinder-gentler persona adopted. By my age, your personality is pretty much set in stone, but the stage upon which my performance occurs doesn’t have to be. I may fit the official definition of an old man but I am not ready to be one.
Something has to change.
I need to find another mountain to climb.