Since I turned sixty in 2013, a few new throughlines have defined my life. Here is one of them.
What on earth does it take to master something? Do I HAVE to master anything? What does incremental progress look like?
With any luck I will give you a window on that. I’m a 68 year old woman who happens to love adventure travel. Didn’t always do that. Nor did I always pick up new skills like kayaking or bungee jumping.
When I turned sixty I utterly retooled my life. I took up all kinds of sports, failed spectacularly at most of them, and pressed on anyway. The “press on anyway” piece is precisely what gives me the gravitas to talk about this. People who are naturally gifted physically — that would be the men in my family and NOT me- often find that because they don’t have to work as hard, they can slide. That’s not always the case, but too often it is.
The flip side of that is societal conditioning. Particularly as we age, we can buy into the death spiral of “I’m just getting old.”
Kindly, that notion can just go spit.
Every year I take up something new. Every year I bruise, bust something, make an unholy and ridiculous fool of myself. And I have more damned fun doing it, while also keeping my brain and body elastic, challenged, lively and engaged.
Youthful, in other words.
To that, there is solid science:
From the article:
The brain is a complicated little thing, but if there’s one thing we know, it’s that it LOVES to learn. So much so that it quite literally grows to “make space” for the learning process.
This idea is known as neuroplasticity. The theory states that the brain alters its structure to accommodate developmental changes and learning. Research has shown that when you’re learning or practicing a new skill, your brain expands in volume in the areas relevant to what you’re doing. This expansion is theorized to lead to an increase in grey matter, which translates to growth for extra neural resources (like neurons, synapses, or glial cells).
….Basically, just through learning a new sport or movement patterns, you could promote positive brain growth that typically wouldn’t change otherwise during adulthood — pretty nifty, right? It’s practically like having a hand in your own brain development.
So kindly, I’m about as foolish as a fox. For those who bark at me to slow down, my response is KEEP UP.
This year, having finally gotten my aging butt settled into Eugene, my house projects largely under control, I got established at my gyms. When we finally got permission to walk around I leapt at the chance, as well as at the opportunity for something totally different. I wanted new challenges. I was researching three things: dance studios, hiking clubs, martial arts. Then I stumbled on aerial silks.
Well hell's bells. That is ridiculously appealing. Why not?
I went to the website. Barely twenty seconds in I had paid for my four Absolute Beginner classes. Four forty-five minutes classes on a Tuesday night.
Here’s how I looked first night out:
Clumsy, awkward, sloppy, feeling stupid. That’s precisely the point. That is what you are supposed to be feeling. Like a major DORKO. Age doesn’t have a damned thing to do with it. Being a beginner is a monumental gift. What I have at 68, nobody else in the class has. I don’t care if I flop, fail, fall or faceplant. I WILL. Absolutely, positively.
And I don’t care. Because in the meantime my brain is so damned busy growing to accommodate the demands, expanding and working hard to figure out what the f*ck I’m trying to and keep me from dying in the process.
From the article:
As a result, all these positive feelings and efforts to learn are believed to contribute to one’s overall longevity. Generally, learning is thought to help keep your mind sharp, so the chance to learn a new sport may improve some of your cognitive abilities, like thinking strategically, having coordination, or developing a better reaction time.
The biggest challenge for me on the first night was figuring out how to plant my left foot on the silks so that I had a solid base. Having done that, by the end of class, I could do this (pardon the lights, no way around them):
Now look. There’s a terrific line out of Venom when our resident parasite asks the hapless Eddie, “You want UP?” and in the next moment our musclebound hero is leaping skyward on the side of a building.
That ISN’T me.
If I want up I have to master this myself. I have considerable upper body strength but this is technique, and learning how to control your body while in midair to get those goddamned silks around your feet so that you don’t slide south and scorch your hands.
Which I most certainly did after getting here on class II:
My instructor took this shot, put my phone down and walked away. I’d forgotten how to dismount. Well of course I did. And promptly scorched the holy shit out of my left hand, leaving me with bright red skin and two big angry blisters. Two minutes into the class. I laughed so hard I cried.
You cannot, cannot, cannot do this without being present. This is precisely why I am doing it. I wrapped my hand and got to work. We did drops. You get into this position and let go backwards. Yes. Backwards:
It’s actually a lot of fun after you vomit a few times. Going forward, I slammed my heels into this big mat and hyper-extended both knees. Ow. Damn. Shit. Piss. Corruption.
So, braces. Ice, walk, walk, walk. Lunges. Squats. Ice. Walk. Walk. Walk.
I knew it was coming, and I didn’t care. I had signed up.
You should see the waiver. YOU CAN DIE. Sure! Sign me up Sparky!
But wait. That’s not all. There are highly strategic reasons I don’t limit myself to just one sport. Again from the article:
… studies have shown that multisport athletes often have better neuromuscular control relative to athletes who focus on only one sport. The development of coordination and control in a variety of sport-specific movements helps prevent form errors during sports performance, thus directly reducing the chance of injury.
Aging Americans, for far too many reasons than I want to get into here, die by the thousands from falls.
From the article:
- About 36 million older adults fall each year — resulting in more than 32,000 deaths.
- Each year, about 3 million older adults are treated in emergency departments for a fall injury.
- One out of every five falls causes an injury, such as broken bones or a head injury.
- Each year at least 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures.
- More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling — usually by falling sideways.
- Women fall more often than men and account for three-quarters of all hip fractures.
So if you don’t mind, I’m not in the market to be a statistic. I might injure myself from falling, but it’s going to have one hell of a funny story to it. AND I will likely get right back up, as I have done time and time again.
So we’re moving along, I now have blisters on my hands, and braces on my knees. Of course I showed up last night.
Did I mention that I have severe CMC arthritis in both hands? Sure I do. Why not do this?
Class three. By the end of class, here’s where I got:
Clumsy, awkward, funky, sloppy, hilarious. But here we are. For one brief millisecond I feel like a queen of the air and then I slop down like an addled anteater.
But there it was.
We have one more class next week. I’ll be signing up again. I have shoulder surgery in November and will, Covid allowing, be back in Africa for five weeks.
I am not now, nor will I ever be this:
That’s not the bar I’m trying to reach, nor is it the point. The point is to develop skills, body confidence, balance, stories and joy and laughter all at once. There’s nothing super-geezer about this at all.
I have no clue what I’m going to do with this other than the sheer challenge of mastering these small tricks one by one and some semblance of grace (BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA) is how I train for my eighties and beyond. You might think me a fool, and you’d be right. But I am fooling my way into mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Should you do this? Didn’t say that. And before you bark at me that I am implying that you’re stupid or a slug for not finding your local MMA studio, kindly. I am asking you to consider: What might taking on something like ballroom dancing do for you? It’s one of the best of all late-in-life exercises, providing activity, social engagement, pure fun, play and a whole lot more wrapped up in one sparkly package.
Look. I can’t speak for you or anyone else. I am willing to hang my aging butt from the ceiling, throw myself onto a spicy horse, leap off cliffs, bridges and out of airplanes. That is not most folks’ thing. However, the way I see it, finding your way to a healthier and more elastic body, brain, spirit and youthful attitude is available to all of us. It might be as easy as finding your local Arthur Murray studio or Tai Chi course. Doesn’t matter.
What matters is the joy you get out of life in the process, the people you share that joy with, and the unbelievable ways that being willing to risk learning new things gift you with a youthful attitude about life.
For my dollar, that’s what aging vibrantly is all about.
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