Now that youth has blown away with successive winds, it feels imperative to try to preserve some sense of vitality, of stamina — some recognition in the present of what had been the enthusiasm in the past for a vibrant life, especially as talk about illness and dying is endemic among the elderly.
I’m not frail; I exercise at the gym three times a week. But after 30 years of smoking from my mid-teens to early middle-age, I have lung issues. Modern medicine has kept them under control, but I’m limited in what I can do. Take, for instance, the motorcycle course I failed. The lightweight Japanese bikes proved to be too heavy for me. It’s disillusioning and disappointing when the body can’t follow through on what the mind wants it to do.
That was eight years ago, when I turned 70 — a terrible time because I viewed it as a transition from middle to old age, which I was convinced would lead only to increased numbers of doctor checkups, more pills and fewer adventures. Hence, the motorcycle. My only previous experience on a motorized two-wheeler was on a Vespa motor scooter in Bermuda in 1989, when I was 49. Piece of cake.
So, in my desire to try something new, I learned that I indeed was an old man. Did that mean my future lay in chair-bound activities such as plein air painting? Maybe I could mold clay into something useable, like when I was a kid in camp at the arts and crafts shop, or seek out other chess players. Perhaps I could get back to stamp collecting or possibly risk blindness and piece together 1,000-word jigsaw puzzles. Getting back on a horse and risking being thrown was out — elderly bones can break as easily as fine China — but I might be able to handle building Revell plastic model warships and fighter planes, like when I was a teen.
No, thank you.
At 78, I’m choosing to recognize my age, finally, and set my sights lower than a motorcycle, but higher than origami folding. Another opportunity to experience something different and exciting came along recently, and, in a way, it is chair bound: in the driver seat of a BMW convertible.
Cars have been in my bloodstream since my earliest memories, harking back to when I was a little boy and sat on the corner in front of my Bronx apartment building, my back against a lamppost, watching vehicles pass. I was fascinated.
And now fascination has captured me again.
Heck, if President George H.W. Bush can skydive on his 90th birthday, I can swing into a blinding white 2006 BMW M3 convertible with a black interior and top with a 3.3 liter, six-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. I’ve never experienced such a powerful torque. It’s like a motorcycle on four wheels when the top is down and safer than a two-wheeled Harley. And the throaty growl of the exhaust, just standing still, elicits a smile.
The car nearly ran away from me at the get-go. And that’s without having pushed the little button on the dash signaling it to upgrade into Sport mode. The car takes getting used to even though I learned to drive on a stick shift and have had several in my life. But this BMW will lurch forward if the clutch is let out too fast in first gear. The brakes grab like the jaws of a bear trap, causing abrupt stops.
But the excitement of driving such a machine — I now better understand the fervor of Porsche owners — makes it all worth it. The learning curve eventually flattened, fortunately.
It’s said the 70s are the new 50s or 60s, depending on whom you talk to, but that’s fodder for argument. One’s health, a favorite aunt was fond of saying, is everything, regardless of age.
Just live the dream while you can.
Richard C. Gross, a journalist at home and abroad for more than 40 years, is a former opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.