Middle age snuck up on me. You might think I should have known it was coming, and I can’t disagree. There were certainly signs–grey hair, slower thoughts, it started to hurt when I fell down stairs–but one night in particular it struck me that I could no longer do certain things as I had in the past. (Habitually falling down stairs is an obvious but irrelevant example.)
The lesson felt a bit like getting clubbed in the legs by vicious bat-wielding thugs. I don’t mean to say that that the learning itself felt that way. Rather, I felt that way after playing volleyball one night, and that’s how I learned it.
At the time I was a high school teacher, and a complicated assortment of scheduling troubles had left about a dozen students as the only ones at school one day. Naturally the few teachers who were there tried to make it fun for them–teachers are the most fun sorts of people when we get the chance–and at one point someone suggested a teachers-versus-students volleyball game. I couldn’t refuse; I adore volleyball. They couldn’t have enticed me more without promising to give me superpowers and cake.
I’m not the typical sort of volleyball player though. For example, I don’t like spiking the ball, or even trying to make the other team miss it, because that seems mean-spirited. I think I mostly enjoy keeping the ball in the air, as though both teams are working together in a colossal game of keep-away from the ground. (The ground cheats and uses gravity.)
Also, most of the time I probably don’t look like I’m playing at all; I don’t have an aggressive stance for readiness. Usually I’m whistling to myself and dancing a little bit. In short, I play “Volleyball: the Musical.“ (I’m always a little disappointed that my whistling and clapping don’t turn into a choreographed dance number involving the other players, all the people in the stands, and probably a Muppet.)
Nevertheless, I’m really good at volleyball, much better than anyone like me has the right to be. I’m fast, accurate, dedicated, and all sorts of other things that seem incompatible with goofy gangly nonchalance. Additionally, excessive clumsiness in my formative years gave me a willingness to dive on hardwood. Falling on my face is almost nostalgic even, right up until the point when the aching starts.
Whence cometh the lesson.
While I was playing, none of the jumping, sliding, or diving bothered me. My body worked just the way I always remembered it working. I felt pleasantly surprised, because by that point I’d begun to suspect that something was amiss: the most recent stair-tumble had left me sore for two weeks. In contrast, I left school that afternoon feeling invigorated and wishing that most of the students would be absent more often. (Teaching is hard under-paid work, whereas volleyball is magic.)
I felt amazing right up until the point when I sat down on our couch at home. Apparently, survival in middle age might require me to manage my body tyrannically. When I accidentally gave my body parts a chance to think and form opinions, they unionized and went on strike. Something about long hours, poor working conditions, and unreasonable expectations offended them, so they refused to get me off the couch. Or to do anything aside from hurt, actually.
That’s how my wife found me when she got home from work. I think I greeted her with that most romantic of phrases: “Honey, I’m stuck!” (Sadly, I have to say that a lot, but I’ll tell those stories another time.)
I should pause to say that I married a very caring and sympathetic woman, but she does a masterful job of camouflaging her sympathy so that it seems like laughter. Or maybe she just likes to get the laughter out of the way before sympathizing. It’s true that I find most things to be funny in retrospect; she finds them funny immediately. For example, the first time I fell down the stairs in our old apartment, while I lay at the bottom trying to remember how to breathe, she lay at the top laughing too hard to breathe.
Thus, when I explained my situation to her, she got all of her laughter out of the way up front, so that then she could take care of me. Well, she got a lot of her laughter out of the way. She actually laughed at me for most of the night. I can’t blame her though; what sort of person forgets his own age and turns perfectly functional legs into useless achy noodles? The same sort of person who makes the following mistake, I guess.
As the evening went on, I decided to take a hot bath in an attempt at appeasement. It seemed like a great plan, except that my wife spent that time finding a fancy heat rub which she had left over from her martial arts days. It didn’t occur to us that the soothing warmth of the bath might not be the best preparation for the application of high-powered chemicals.
To put it another way, heat rubs added to open pores feel a bit like electric napalm delivered by fire ants wearing poison ivy. I had only thought that my legs hurt before. Suddenly, just having them in contact with air was painful, but nothing else was better. I couldn’t even squirm because they went on strike again. I think I contemplated trying to gnaw them off, only to discover that I was too old to be that flexible.
I did feel better a few hours later, but something about nearly receiving chemical burns on top of muscle soreness soured me to the therapy. I haven’t even tried to play volleyball since. I learned a valuable lesson though, in the event that I ever do: let the teenagers win. They’ll feel good and I won’t feel bad. Also, we’ll all be able to walk afterward.