Miracles, merkins and meditation
(no. 11) Some of us will be on the stairway to heaven longer than others, by Stephen P. Williams
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People get stuck in elevators; take the stairs instead. Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
~~ But first: watch two old guys wondering if they’ll live long enough for science to save them from the terrifying uncertainty of the great beyond. Tonight on the old persons news hour, 60 Minutes! ~~
One afternoon when I was about 45, my neighbor, Lillian, joined me on my NYC stoop to watch the jaunty parade of eccentrics that always passed by on summer evenings. Lillian was then in her late 70s, and we’d known each other since I first moved into the neighborhood in 1988. Her house was an old-school Bohemian museum of the artist’s life of the 1950s -- her husband had been a well-known painter in his day. I considered her to be wise, and moderate and thoughtful, and I valued her counsel as I was going through a divorce. I pulled out a pack of American Spirit cigarettes (the helpful delusion of organic tobacco) and she asked for one. I was surprised, as this was a woman with a Georgia O’Keefe aura who liked whole grains and had never taken an antibiotic in her life.
“I like to have a nice cigarette every long once in a while,” she said to me, her bright eyes getting mischievous.
I had been smoking quite a bit, for a few months, after having quit for years. The breakup up with my wife, and worries about my kids were my excuse. Though really, I knew there was never a valid excuse to smoke.
We inhaled, and Lillian told me that she’d smoke more if her bedroom wasn’t on the fifth floor of her very narrow townhouse. Smoking would make it too hard to climb to the top.
“Those steps have kept me healthy,” she said.
I figured that was true. The UPS driver had learned to wait patiently on the stoop for her signature as she made her way slowly down that gently curving 19th century stairway. Lillian continued to walk up and down those stairs (and an outdoor circular staircase to her garden) until the last year of her life, when she was in her late 90s. That’s the year she also took her first antibiotic.
I think about Lillian and her stairs often, because 8 years ago I moved to a fifth floor apartment. I also smoked my last cigarette, which wasn’t too hard, because I wasn’t a regular smoker. That last cigarette was in New Delhi, where I’d gone to research a book. It was a rough, unfiltered cigarette and it knocked my lungs into submission, and afterwards I could barely breathe. I realized that my body had become incapable of processing even occasional puffs of a cigarette. These days, I can’t imagine having one. Especially when I’m beginning my ascent of the stairs to my aerie.
Like Lillian, I believe that this casual, forced exercise has helped me stay more fit, and kept my lungs and heart in better shape than all the visits I make to the gym to run, swim or lift weights. This is an easy way to stay sort of fit, but I’m aware that many people in the US, especially in suburban or rural areas, don’t have the opportunity to walk much, or climb stairs. For them, exercising can mean a time-consuming trip to the gym. For me, in NYC, movement is part of daily life, but I think if I lived in a single floor house in an area where it is hard to walk, I might resort to dancing at home. Even by myself.
This guy above is 91: Dick Van Dyke dancing on a piano.
Below, Dick Van Dyke dances with Mary Tyler Moore and Sylvia Lewis in his younger days.
We all can make little changes that decrease the effects of aging, and it is a good idea to start when we are in our 20s. These are the self-help exercise cliches: choosing stairs, parking on the far side of the lot, skipping the moving sidewalks. But they work. Even being conscious about the way we walk down the stairs. Every time I touch a railing or adjust my angle going down steps I think about this interview with actor Dick Van Dyke, in which he offers his secret to being fit enough to dance at age 90. His advice: never turn your body sideways going down. Even though it might feel easier, doing that hurts your body, while walking straight down builds your knees. My advice? Spend your days building.
Further information about this story
A portrait of my neighbor, Lillian Ben Zion, with mention of her husband, a well known artist.
Good news: Exercise rates are rising for Americans who live in rural areas.
News from the streets for all of us:
Merkins, aka “Kitty Carpets,” first appeared in the 15th century, when bald pubic areas were a sign of lice or venereal disease. These days, with everyone living longer, hair loss down there is also a common sign of aging in both men and women, meaning there’s still a market for merkins.
This salt and pepper merkin is for sale online.
Pete Hamill has been around the block and written about it in tabloids, novels, magazines and movies. You’ll enjoy this loving profile of an 84-year-old with a variety of health problems who is still building every day.
If someone you know starts making bad financial decisions in mid-life or later, pay attention. Eric Chess, MD, of Denver’s Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, has found that impulsive and irrational financial decisions can be early warning signs of Alzheimer’s. Maybe it’s time for financial advisors to watch out for potential dementia while they are siphoning fees out of our money.
From the Department of Startling News: Experts say phones aren’t conducive to deep meditation
Scholars of Buddhism say that meditation apps mask anxiety and increase tech addiction.