Friday, June 21, 2019

my words

Today was the girl's forth birthday.  She's big now, and she knows it.  For dinner, she refused the booster seat that lifts her head above the surface of the table.  Without it, she remained half hidden, but she enjoyed her new status as one of the big ones.  Teaching her useful chores should now be on my list.

The birthday was jam-packed with presents, activities and merriment.  It started early when the boy decided the night was over and demanded his milk.  The girl was the only one left sleeping, but she got up soon enough to discover song's sung in her honor and a living-room floor full of boxes wrapped in pink paper.  She had her own milk and then tore through the paper with delight.

Flucha had prepared and organized everything.  Not every detail but all aspects of the day – from the food over the activities and the presents to the cake.  She had also planned the party that will gather four of the girl's friends with their siblings and parents and the extended family of a neighbor in our backyard.  To say that my contribution had been humble is a bit of an understatement.  I had brought two little presents when I visited my mom the other day and assigned another one to my dad.  And yet I expected the day to follow a pattern I'm familiar with.

Here's what I remember about birthdays from when I was young:  I couldn't sleep the night before and got up early to discover the presents.  They were humble back then but made me happy.  I would leave them on the small sideboard where they had been waiting for me and come back periodically – and certainly the next few mornings – to make sure they were still there.

At breakfast there was always a cake with candles.  We didn't sing.  I blew the candles and we ate the first pieces of the cake before finishing the rest off in the afternoon with grandma.  I don't remember any big activities or trips taken on the occasion of my birthdays.  They were largely normal days.

Things are different now, more opulent, with countless elements coming together to build a beautiful whole.  Beholding these changes – driven by time and culture and abetted by my passivity – I suffer pangs of loss and disappointment and cannot always be as elated as I should be about my daughter's birthday.  This frustrates Flucha and me in almost equal measure.

There are a few obvious answers to questioning the elements of my daughter's birthday.  I had never realized this with such clarity up until now, sitting in the quiet of a half-empty living room, the entire family asleep with complete exhaustion.  It's really not difficult and the key to happiness in other aspects of my life as well.

Flucha organized everything, prepared everything, took charge and took care.  Without saying much, I judged her as overdoing it and absolved myself of involvement – trying to compensate for her high energy with apathy.  We didn't discuss the day except in the broadest terms.  Most presents were as much a surprise to me as they were to the girl.

There's a better way, and it's really quite simple:  We need to talk about what we do together.  We do too little of that, and it's mostly because of me.  I'm not much of a communicator, especially of things I don't like or consider unwise.  I hold back too long and often burst out aggressively or negatively.  How Flucha and I have remained together for more than ten years is a mystery.

I don't take the time for considered and constructive discussions, but that's really what is needed.  I need to speak about my wishes and tastes, not with an eye on imposing my will or rejecting Flucha's ideas but with the aim to understand her reasons for preferring one thing or another and make her understand mine.

The boy's second birthday is coming up in just about four weeks.  I've got something to work on until then.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

aging gracefully

During one of the laboratory rotations during my first year of graduate school in Utah, just about 20 years ago, doing real-time PCR to determine expression levels of some genes implicated in aging, Bernadette, the senior graduate student or junior postdoc who took me under her wing, told me she felt the first ill effects of old age when she turned 25.  At 23, I considered this utter nonsense and indeed, turning 25 didn't change my life.

Thirty didn't have much of an impact either.  The day I reached that milestone, after a journey on the night train down from Grenoble where I was by then living, I rode my bicyle up the Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees, the Tour de France hot on my wheels.  I had never felt better physically.

Forty didn't bother me either.  Among my friends, only one had deemed this birthday worth a grand celebration.  He invited his companions over the years to a bash in Jena where he and I had gone to college together.  I didn't see anything special in the date.

This was four years ago, and what a difference four years can make!  I was young back then, relatively independent, accountable to no one and responsible for nothing. Life flowed, and I let it take me with it.

Since then I have acquired two children - amazing creatures that no one and nothing could have prepared me for - and a woman that might very well be my wife.  I share responsibility for my little family, am a teacher to my children, a hero in their young lives.  I have aged in the process.

Riding my bicycle to work this year has been an exercise in pain.  My average speed is more than 3 km/h lower than in earlier years.  When I go running on business trips, I hardly ever faster than five minutes per kilometer.  Sometimes I take more than six.  I might as well be walking with a cane.

Dashing up the stairs at work, I can quickly exhaust myself, as if doing Olympic-level interval training.  When I played football for the first time in many years the other day, I was rewarded for my animation on the field and the goals I scored with a sustained back pain so piercing that it felt like being perforated with knives.  I lay in ruins for more than a week.

Maybe this shouldn't surprise me.  Aging is nothing to complain about or bewail.  The arrow of time flies one way only.  But it is frustrating nevertheless.  I'm falling apart physically.  Forty-four is my personal tipping point.  Halfway through my statistical life expectancy, the forces of destruction are gaining the upper hand.

How do I live with this?  Will I finally break down and buy a car or even a TV to support age-appropriate listlessness?  Probably not immediately.  The new flat, which we'll finally move into this weekend, is much closer to work than the old one.  Cycling won't cause me to break a sweat.  I could even jog.

A friend of mine who sensed impending doom a few years back signed up for CrossFit and reached the best shape of his life at the age of forty.  He put more hard work and suffering into this than I'd ever be able to sustain.  With some regular exercise, I could probably also raise my fitness levels and feel better when I move, but it's more important that I learn to live with the inevitable.  I might be able to slow down my decay, but I know that it is unstoppable.