Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies
If you’re a fan of pretty much any professional sport outside of golf or bowling, you’ve probably heard announcers lamenting the increasing age and declining skills of once-great athletes. Recently I read an article about a Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback, referred to in this instance as “the aging Terrance Newman.” According to Newman’s Wikipedia entry, he was born on September 4th, 1978. That means that in roughly three weeks from the time of this writing, he will turn 33 years old.
Randy Couture and Dan Henderson are considered exceptional specimens in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, not just because they have won multiple championships in multiple weight classes but also because they both competed at high levels into their 40s. Couture finally retired in 2011 after losing to former Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida via front kick to the face (think Daniel-san’s crane kick in the original Karate Kid, a move heretofore thought to be purely fictional). Couture is in his late 40s. Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion who is likely headed back to the UFC, is around 41.
Sticking with the MMA world, for a moment, we should consider the case of Rashad Evans. Until his recent TKO of Tito Ortiz, Evans had been out of action for 14 months. Most people thought he would struggle with so-called “ring rust,” the condition stemming from long layoffs. Train all you want, the philosophy goes, but if you aren’t actually competing, you don’t know how your body or your mind will respond in the heat of battle. Dana White, the bombastic UFC president, said of Evans, “He’s 31. He’s not 26.” You’d think that Evans had turned gray and wrinkly overnight, that he used a walker or a wheelchair, that he might knock over the glass containing his dentures on the way to his fifth bathroom trip of the night.
The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that running backs decline sharply after their 30th birthdays. Gymnasts and swimmers enjoy an even shorter shelf life.
All of this has always seemed patently ageist to me. But at the same time, it seems to be true. For every Randy Couture or Brett Favre, there are thousands of athletes who never play past their mid-30s, when their “advanced” age and allegedly declining skills make them unappealing at best, completely disposable at worst.
Yet, for all of my grousing about the ageist trend in athletics, I also can’t exactly argue with its logic. I am currently 40 years old and no longer an athlete. And even I suffer from aches and pains that my 20-year-old self—hell, even the 35-year-old version of me—did not believe in and had never experienced.
I often tell my students that I have the perfect evidence of life’s unfairness, and it is this: at 40 years old, I get both gray hairs and pimples.
Oh, I’m no silver fox, at least not yet. But every day I find more gray hair—in my beard, at my temples, even on parts of my body that had always been covered with downy dark hair. Everything seems to be bleaching out, slowly but inexorably. Yet as I look at those stray gray hairs, I often find new zits in my hairline, on my head, even on my face, as if I were still a teenager readying for a date. It’s just not fair. If you have gray hair, you should be too old for pimples, and if you must regularly use Clearasil, you should be too young for gray hair.
My goatee is probably the most startling evidence of my hair’s transformation from young person’s to that of someone who might reasonably expect a recruiting letter from the AARP. Once it reflected all the aspects of my heritage. Mostly the hairs were dark, almost black, though in some cases they looked blonde or red. My beard epitomized America: democratic, diverse. Walt Whitman would have been proud of it. Now, though, it consists mostly of two colors: dark brown and gray, with the gray quickly gaining prominence. If I still have it at 50, it will probably look like I just stepped out of an arctic blizzard.
Athletes’ faces undergo similar transformations. It happened to Brett Favre. About the same time that gray began to appear on Favre’s hair and on his chin, his face got a little more wrinkled every year, and for every interception he threw, more and more people questioned how much longer he could compete. Never mind that he kept taking teams deep into the playoffs and breaking records; because he had passed some tipping-point age, he would forever after be suspect.
Of course, part of the reasoning was that he felt the hits more than he used to, that it took him longer to recuperate. And again, here is where I cannot argue with the logic of the age factor.
Before I reached my mid-30s, I had undergone surgery on a diseased appendix. I had had perhaps four cavities. I could engage in pretty much whatever physical activity I wanted and move reasonably well the next day. But around my 36th year, I suddenly started feeling pain in places where I didn’t know I had places.
I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Though they had come in years before, they had never really bothered me. Suddenly they made my jaws ache. I had two very minor procedures to remove a surface-level basal-cell carcinoma from my chest. I discovered that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, though not the highly embarrassing kind that plagued poor J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers; it bothers me just enough to make travel uncomfortable. My ear, nose, and throat doctor discovered that I needed a septoplasty and a turbinate reduction. After that procedure, I could breathe normally for the first time in my life, which is when I began to snore. A trip to the neurologist and a couple of sleep studies revealed that I had mild-to-moderate sleep apnea.
None of these conditions were serious or life-threatening. But they piled up in a relatively short time, and after a life of good health. They were particularly disturbing in light of my family medical history, which includes cancers of various kinds, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One of these days I expect a Riley newborn to skip all the preliminaries and just spontaneously combust.
I’ve taken precautions against these and pretty much every other major issue that my doctors and I can think of. But there’s only so much you can do to prevent health problems as you get older. It’s not really fair. Most of us go from never having to think about our health, or exercise, or what we eat and drink, to worrying about all of it all the time. It’s like being in a car that goes from zero to near-death in five years.
Then there are the aches and pains that accompany getting older. Right now, my right shoulder inexplicably hurts at the joint, especially when I raise the arm above chest level, and most especially when I have to raise it and lift something, or even remove a tight pull-over shirt. I’m not sure if the problem lies in the bone or the muscles or the ligaments and tendons, but something’s wrong, and time—plus lots of exercise or the lack thereof—hasn’t helped. My neck is stiff most of the time and pops painfully when I turn it too far to the right. And now even my jaw hurts a little on one side. Where do these problems come from? What did I do to cause them, if anything? It’s all a mystery, and the only way to solve it is to go to the doctor yet again, to undergo even more tests, and/or to take even more medication.
Speaking of which—I currently take a pill that lowers my cholesterol. I take another that helps my stomach and my poor sleep patterns. A third helps regulate my triglycerides. And I also take over-the-counter medication for joint pain. I fondly remember the days when all I needed was a Tylenol or a BC powder.
When I look at how my body has changed regardless of circumstances, I believe that it’s a miracle that athletes last as long as they do. If I had to spend every day getting punched in the face or body-checked into the boards or feeling my ribs crunch under a linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure that I could get out of bed at all. And I’ve been pretty active most of my life.
What must aging be like for those who were never in shape? Or those whose lifelong medical conditions have prohibited them from even trying to exercise? In this day of medical miracles, why can’t we all live long lives free of pain and discomfort and, yes, the gray hair-pimple combination?
Still, I’ll take aging over the alternative every day. I’d rather be gray-haired and above-ground than a young-looking corpse.
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