LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART SIX

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[…continued from previous five posts.]

Gathering clouds obscured all traces of sun as I traveled north to meet my friend Emily in Ogunquit – first on a train from New York to Boston, then on another train to Portland, Maine and finally on a bus. During the long trip I mused pleasurably on what the next two days might offer. Cozy confidences while Emily’s new friend Kit was otherwise occupied? Confessions of wrongdoing? Appeals for help? Less pleasurably, I was also quite hungry by the time I reached the Ogunquit bus terminal where they were waiting to pick me up. Emily looked glad, but Kit was merely polite, which made me suspect my presence was some kind of peace offering to Emily.

The weather was both cloudy and cool; beach was out of the question. Not to worry, said Kit, there were plenty of other things to do. Since they’d already had lunch, we stopped at a grocery for two apples I could eat in the car. Then we went from art gallery to sculpture workshop to arts-and-crafts gift shop to seafood restaurant. The proprietors of all these establishments seemed to know Emily and Kit quite well; they were soon engaged in warm conversations about local people and events to which I couldn’t contribute. I smiled whenever anyone looked at me, which was now and then but not often, until I realized smiling was unproductive of anything but a return smile.

There was no private time with Emily; she participated fully in all this Ogunquit-based chitchat. After dinner at the seafood restaurant, I pleaded I really wasn’t up for anything more. By then it was actually true. Kit agreed it was probably time for bed. My mother had been wrong about the house. It was an A-frame, with an open area that served as living room, dining room and kitchen. There was only one bedroom — with a double bed, I noticed as we passed by the door. “Will I be using the sofa?” I asked when we got back after dinner.

“Oh, no. You’re going to have a place of your own,” said Kit, as if this were wonderful news. “We’ve fixed up a bed and lamp in the barn. I left an extra quilt out there, too.” What was wrong with sleeping on the sofa? Their bedroom had a door. If they were very noisy doing whatever they did, couldn’t they refrain, just for this one weekend?

I let myself be led to the barn. An oval braided rug had been laid down in a corner and a few minimal furnishings arranged on the rug. Kit lit the lamp. The light showed the rest of the barn floor to be tramped-down dirt with bits of straw scattered on it. They showed me how to bolt the barn doors from inside. “Now let’s go back so you can do whatever you need to do in the john,” said Kit. “As you can see, there isn’t one here.”

After hurrying into pajamas in the cold barn and burying myself under the blanket and quilt, I tried to imagine for a few moments what might be going on in the main house. Had I been sent out here because they preferred doing whatever they did in front of the fireplace? Just what did they do, anyway? Absent factual knowledge of such matters, my thoughts soon faded into sleep. I awoke to dim cloudy light filtering in from a skylight at the top of the barn and checked my watch. Morning. Very early to be sure, but time for the bathroom. If they weren’t up yet, I would sneak in quietly.

I scuffled into my ballet slippers and opened the barn doors. There was the A-frame, just down the path. I walked around the house in the damp grass to reach the door and set my hand on the cold doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It definitely wouldn’t turn. It was locked. They had locked me out. How could they!

Back in the barn, I rocked on the bed, really a camp cot, holding in pee but not rage. If there’d been anything to eat within range, anything at all, I’d have gobbled it up. But the barn held nothing edible. Why should it? It belonged to Kit, who pushed food around on her plate as a prelude to smoking.  An hour later, I returned to the house. The door remained locked. Now it wasn’t too early to knock, and I certainly did.  Nothing.  I put my ear to the door. Nothing. I knocked more forcefully. Nothing. What were they doing in there?  I picked up a rock from the flowerbed by the door and pounded. Still nothing.

What choice but return to the barn? This time I found a crumpled piece of Kleenex at the bottom of my purse, took off my pajama bottoms, stepped off the rug onto the dirt of the barn floor, set my feet wide apart and let go with a vengeance. Only a little dribbled down my legs, and the Kleenex took care of that. Then I put on the pajama bottoms again and slid between the sheets to brood. If the whole barn stank of stale urine when I was gone, what did I care?

At ten o’clock, I finally heard voices outside calling “Wake up, sleepyhead.” We had brunch, prepared by Kit, who now seemed in exceptionally good spirits. Of course, she ate none of it and neither did I, since it was fried eggs and bacon, followed by pancakes with syrup – a meal that could have undone a week of fast walking up Forest Hills Boulevard and down Austin Street. Like Kit, I had only cigarettes and black coffee. Emily, who’d never dieted in her life and had apparently worked up a tremendous appetite overnight, was glad to eat my share as well as her own.

The meal over, we cleaned up and read the Sunday Times and went to a summer playhouse matinee of Harvey and had another early seafood dinner. I read more of the Times in the evening while they went through the local paper. There was no talk, except about the play and what was in the news. Before I again retired to the barn, I asked them please to leave the house door unlocked so I could get to the bathroom. They professed surprise they hadn’t done it the night before. “Force of habit,” Emily explained.

And that was the whole visit. Next morning, after more black coffee and cigarettes for me and Kit (and eggs benedict for Emily), we all three exchanged hollow thanks for how great it had been and I embarked on the long trip home. Reading furiously without remembering a word of what I read, I tried not to think how much I had wanted Emily to be my friend again, how hurt I felt and also how starved. I remembered when I reached Grand Central I could buy eight or ten candy bars to eat on the subway ride home to Kew Gardens.   But it was Labor Day, and the newspaper stands were all closed.

When I returned to college a week later, the bathroom scale did indeed read 128. Despite my own subterranean (and not so subterranean) urges, I had finally managed to succeed. By anyone’s definition, I was thin.  For now.

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART ONE

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As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a major part of my adult life losing fifteen pounds. It wasn’t always the same fifteen pounds. But I did it over and over again, until I probably had lost nearly a cumulative thousand of them. And then when I was already collecting Social Security, which was many decades after the first loss (and re-gain), it began to seem a foolish preoccupation. If every year there was less and less life left to live, why spend so much of it agonizing about how much of me there was or wasn’t, when I could spend more of it actually living?

That was when I invaded my savings to join a non-pretentious, non-judgmental low-profile gym that cost quite a bit of money, which made it clearly counterproductive to comfort myself with chocolate cake when things didn’t go my way. As they used to say in the old country, we grow old too soon, and smart too late.

It began long before, of course, with the well-known “freshman fifteen.” Except in my case, I arrived at college an unnatural fifteen pounds down from the comfortably rounded weight I carried through high school. Once I learned I had won a full scholarship to a prestigious girls’ college my parents could never have afforded on their own, I went into serious training to take complete social advantage of this opportunity, guided by visions of the slender and narrow-boned models who appeared every year in the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. I myself had peasant bones, but that didn’t keep me from limiting my daily nutritional intake to a spartan 750 calories divided between breakfast and dinner, with a vigorous hour’s walk during lunchtime to speed the fat-burning process.

I arrived on campus successful: I looked properly emaciated, with my hipbones jutting out in my narrow new college clothes. I was also starving, and soon began to eat back the lost pounds – aided by starchy college food, coke and candy machines in every dorm, and a disinclination to get drunk on disappointing dates, preferring food binges by myself in my room when life let me down. The first time the fifteen pounds came back, I panicked. What would my mother say when I got home? (It was she who had invested her household savings in my fashionable new college wardrobe, dreaming no doubt of potential wealthy son-in-laws.) In the three weeks before the end of the college year, I drank unsweetened tea, swallowed amphetamine-laced diet pills from the local drugstore, and savored only two thin slices of roast beef for dinner (250 calories?) until my new clothes fit again.

Coping mechanisms tend to be habit-forming. I also gained and lost a “sophomore fifteen” between September 1949 and June 1950 and gained them back during my junior year. That spring, alas, I had two major papers to write – one on “All’s Well That Ends Well” and the other on the minor novels of Dostoevsky; I needed nourishment right until the end. I came home in June 1951 without a summer job and with my skirt held together by safety pins.

My first college summer I had worked and had a serious boyfriend. The second summer I went to Europe on the money I’d saved to go to college and now didn’t need for that. But this third summer, the boyfriend was gone, my father was working in Texas, my mother was all alone in the apartment, it seemed too late to look for temporary work, and so I decided to make it my full-time job to get rid of those fifteen pounds for good.

It would be my last chance before I had to contend with “Real Life,” a last chance to have the glamorous college year I hadn’t had so far. I therefore embarked on training for this final year as seriously as I had trained for the first, except that then I hadn’t anticipated the possibility of eventual failure. Now, with several dietary defeats already under my belt (I speak metaphorically; the belt itself was in a drawer, pending a smaller waistline), I was not only determined but desperate. I had already learned my worst enemy was me.

[To be continued…..]

HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

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Misery.

NOT FUN.

For those of you somehow coming upon this post while looking for something else, perhaps I should summarize, if everyone else will just bear with me for a moment.  I took a vacation from blogging, tactfully called “Time Out” in the post just prior to this one, in order to follow through on an invitation from a literary agent, an event so rare and unexpected in the lives of aspiring writers (one of which I guess I must be) that to ignore it would have been gross stupidity.  

He wrote in response to having seen a memoir of my thirteenth summer (“Falling Off the Roof”) which was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review. (Note: That issue is still available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon for $4.99, in case anyone who hasn’t read the piece is interested.)  Here are the relevant parts of our e-mail exchange:

From him:

Dear Nina Mishkin:

I very much admired your story “Falling Off the Roof,” in The Iowa Review and thought that you might enjoy hearing from a fan of your work who is also an established literary agent. I don’t know if you are even at that point in your writing to start exploring representation, but this story made me feel that you have the talent to write a publishable book.

 If you’re at work on a novel, one of my colleagues in the agency or I would be pleased to read the opening chapters. We can tell, with a brief synopsis (1-2 pages) and around fifty pages, if we are engaged by the material. If so, we’ll encourage you to keep going. If not we’ll explain why. These days, many editors never read further than the opening chapter or two of most novels before rejecting them. That’s how overloaded we all are with reading material. You must grab our attention, early on, either with plot or characters.

 If you are assembling a short story collection, or undertaking a non-fiction book, visit our agency website ….for our submission guidelines and suggestions. In the current market, publishers are unlikely to take on a short story collection unless the author can provide a novel to follow. If you do not have at least 50 pages of a novel ready, it’s worth waiting to put both book projects together, believe me. You may find our submission guidelines helpful whether we ultimately represent you or not. Or you may write us an e-mail describing the book you are working on. We can then let you know, quickly, our response. Please indicate that I have read some of your work in that letter.

 If you already have an agent please excuse this approach, as our agency does not take on previously agented writers. If you are unagented and would like to discuss your writing before sending me anything, give us a call. The author/agent “chemistry” is vital in a long-term relationship. If you don’t have anything to send us at this time, hold onto this letter. My invitation to read more of your work is open-ended. Recently we sold a first novel to Knopf by a writer I originally contacted ten years ago after reading his story in The Georgia Review.

 Because we offer editorial work on all the projects we take on, at no additional fee to the writer, we do ask for one month exclusivity of your submission but generally respond sooner. We do not send out  form rejection letters on work submitted, but try to provide a fair evaluation of the work, including any editorial suggestions we may have.

 Looking forward to reading more of your work.

 Best wishes.

I suspected this was a form letter, with the first sentence tweaked to make it personal for me.  [Later, in an online chat room for writers I found corroboration for my hunch:  same letter from same agent sent to another writer, who was wondering how long he needed to wait for a response to his synopsis and fifty pages.]  Nonetheless, that was quite a letter — for which I was entirely unprepared.  So here was my reply [edited for brevity, never my strong point]:

Dear _______:

Your email was most welcome, especially its first paragraph. And no, I don’t already have an agent. On the other hand, I’m not sure how to respond. Am I ready to start exploring representation? Perhaps you can tell me.

 Although at seventeen I declared I was going to be a writer when I grew up, I am now nearly 83 and have spent all of my paid working life in other professions, of which the most recent was practicing law.  It may be that I haven’t grown up yet.  As a result, I have only dabbled.  Banged “things” out over four-day holiday weekends. And then fiddled with them whenever there was time.  It’s true that in the past couple of years, I have become more serious about it. But in any event, I note that your letter references novels, short story collections and the undertaking of a non-fiction book. How do I fit my “things” into those categories?

 I don’t think I could write a novel, or a shorter piece of real fiction, if I tried. The “story” you say you admired was memoir. Most of what I’ve written apart from that — which I am about briefly to describe — is in the first person. And even when it isn’t, it’s really about me and my life, thinly disguised. On the other hand, I have a “voice” that has been generally admired.  (Several “voices,” actually.)  And at my age, I’m very likely in a (marketable?) niche all by myself!

 So. There is an unfinished first draft of a possible book: 183 pages of typescript, in the first person, tentatively titled “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” If rewritten in the third person, which might be a good idea, it could present as a sort of “novel” about the development of a binge eating disorder (“BED”) in the days before there was a name for it. On the other hand, maybe it should remain a confessional reminiscence.  As I have no idea what to do with it other than burn it, a thought plainly indicating ambivalence, it has been sitting around for about ten years.  I have cannibalized bits of it from time to time for short pieces.

I then described three short stories, besides the published one, and the categories of short pieces — all taken from this blog — that together could constitute a collection of work.

…. Well, would it help to talk about all this? Would it help to talk in person? I am not so far away; New Jersey Transit can bring me into Penn Station from Princeton whenever there’s a reason to come in.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Nina Mishkin

His response came back within the hour and was not a form letter, as you can see from the typing:

Dear Ms. Mishkin,

I think y6ou write well. Let’s take a first step by sending me the pages of “Eating Behind Closed Doors”.  It’s never too late to start a new career, if you are talented.

Best,

To which I replied:

Dear Mr. ______,

I appreciate the immediate response. Give me four to six weeks to reread “Eating Behind Closed Doors” and clean it up a bit before sending it on to you. (I don’t want to embarrass myself unduly.) I’ll be getting back to you then.

Many thanks. And be well.

Best,

 What happened next?

1.  I read “Eating Behind Closed Doors” as far as it goes (for the first time in ten years), shuddered a bit, and then spent a few days reading some WordPress blogs from bloggers with eating disorders. (Yes, they’re out there if you look).

2.  I decided whatever I had already done should stay in the first person, for two reasons.  The first is that there’s an audience of people (at least in the United States) enduring much of what I went through and more, who would probably read a short book about a binge eating disorder if true but maybe not if it presents as “fiction.” The second reason is that what I’ve already written takes place so long ago, it has become social history of a world that doesn’t exist anymore — and that makes it interesting apart from its purported “subject matter.”

3. I also decided I shouldn’t try to finish writing it until I hear what the agent thinks about what I’ve already got.  For one thing, it would take too long. For another, his letter suggests it would be unnecessary at this point.  Moreover, whether or not he decides to work with me, his comments could be helpful in determining where and how far to take it. (I would prefer a quick, clean forty- or fifty-page conclusion — and done!  But we’ll see.) That meant my summer job was to focus on tightening where I was prolix, clarifying where I was unclear, eliminating fine thoughts, unnecessary verbiage, duplication of word usage and my own verbal tics.  And also changing the names!  In addition, I would have to write a one-or-two page synopsis — not so easy with a plotless narrative which still has no conclusion. And I also wanted to write a possibly dispensable short “Author’s Preface,” explaining (1) what the book is not about; (2) why it’s not about that; and (3) why I wrote it.  Which I have done.

4.  Then I posted “Time Out” on July 10, and went to work.  

 ******************

The fourth go-round of the edited manuscript, plus synopsis, plus cover letter, plus a copy of all the prior e-mails went out by UPS Express on August 21.  I wish the contents of the box were something recently written that I really cared about. I have extremely mixed feelings about what’s actually in it, which is why I abandoned it ten years ago and why the summer spent reading and re-reading it was so not fun.Considered just as a piece of writing, I also feel that although it starts out strong, it does sag, structurally, somewhere around page 70 and despite some funny bits afterwards never quite recovers, even after all my tightening.  On the other hand, I may just be too close to judge objectively. If someone with knowledge of the book market thinks there are enough potential readers for something like this, then perhaps it’s a kite that will fly after all….and pull a collection of Getting Old Blog pieces after it!  I always was a dreamer.  Stay tuned….

I thank all of you who wrote such warm and encouraging comments to the “Time Out” post.  I really appreciated them, even though I took Diana’s advice not to answer while I was working on the book manuscript.  I was a real sourpuss for most of the summer anyway, and didn’t want to spoil the glorious send-off you gave me by bitching and moaning all over the comment section.

I also thank the twelve people who decided to follow this blog while I wasn’t writing it.  I won’t ask what you were thinking. Welcome, welcome anyway.  If you’re still patiently waiting for something to read, here it is:  a bit specialized for non-writers, but maybe a thought-provoking peek at how one part of the commercial world turns.

If you want a short post on how to tighten up your own prose writing, speak up. [Before I forget what I did.]  Otherwise, I guess the next one is up to me.  Cats, anyone?

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT AGE

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[I’ll be away from home and computer for a while, visiting Bill’s new baby granddaughter in Los Angeles. I should be back online with new stuff no later than February 16, and maybe earlier.  In the meanwhile, I am re-running some earlier pieces that newcomers to the blog may not have seen, and others may not mind seeing again.]

[Re-blogged from November 19, 2013]

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT AGE

It’s quite easy to forget about it.  The age thing, I mean.

Having a medical checkup is one of the times it’s not.  Like most of my contemporaries I seem to have acquired various specialists over the years, each of whom has staked out a little fiefdom in some part of me that he — curiously, there is no she — wants to test at regular intervals.

Yes, I know it’s to be sure there’s nothing bad coming down the pike.  On the other hand, letting all these specialists have their way with me involves  euphemistically styled “procedures”  – like CAT scans — that would expose me to more radioactivity than I care to think about.  Also I don’t like to spend what life may be left reassuring all those white coats that there is some life left. It chews up a lot of time.

So I don’t see them as often as they might like.  I stall, delay,  reschedule.

Another reason I don’t like going is that when I finally do show up, some impossibly young medical assistant ushers me into that little windowless room with the examining table and a scale, weighs and measures me (to see if I’ve shrunk since last time), then looks at the chart and exclaims, “82?  You’re really 82?  I’d never have guessed!”

She means it as a compliment.  I can’t even deny that part of me  – the frivolous foolish part — is pleased. But what she really means, even though she doesn’t say it, is that “82″ is bad, younger than “82″ is better.  And much younger is much better.

How could she help thinking that in the age of Miley Cyrus?  (All right, you can go as far as Gwyneth Paltrow. But stop right there.) Is there an impossibly young medical assistant anywhere who exclaims to a thirty-something, “35?  You’re really 35?  I’d never have guessed!”

The very young are less judgmental. They’re just dismissive.   In 1978, I took both children west to visit my parents, then living in L.A..  My father was 76.  My younger son whispered to me, “Did Grandpa know George Washington?”  For him, anyone noticeably older was history.

The thing is, people like me (or my 76-year-old father, a youngster, relatively speaking) who’ve been around longer than the medical assistant so surprised to see me erect, functioning, and highlighted by my hairdresser — or than my little son when he began to learn American history in fourth grade —  people like me are not yet history, long-ago birthdates notwithstanding.

We may gradually become slightly or somewhat or significantly incapacitated by what is happening to our bodies. But we are still living our lives and making plans and enjoying ice cream (when we let ourselves have some), and trying to be happy as best we can.  Just like you.  Especially if we lower our eyes towards the sink every morning while brushing teeth, so as not to notice that increasingly wrinkly person who always appears in the bathroom mirror when we stand in front of it.  (What did you think?  That I wouldn’t like to look like Gwyneth Paltrow, too?)

Fact:  if you who are reading this are lucky enough to be able to hang in there, one day that “we” in the preceding paragraph is going to include you.  And most of the time you’re not going to feel a whole lot different than you do now.   What differences there are will have come on so imperceptibly, and your adjustment to them will have been so gradual, that you will seem to yourself to be the same “you” you’ve known all along.

Which is why it’s so hard for me to remember I’m “really” 82 unless I see it in writing, or someone — like the wrinkled person in the mirror or the medical assistant with the charts — reminds me.

Perhaps our culture is so uneasy around people who are past their pull date in the workplace, and are now in the eighth, ninth and tenth decades of their lives, because most of us don’t live near our grandparents or great-grandparents any more and therefore lack familiarity with people who have acquired a lot of life experience and look it.

Alternatively, maybe it’s that there’s so little out there from which we can learn about, um, what it’s like to be old.

You can certainly find plenty to read, online and elsewhere, about how to deal with aging parents.  Or, if you yourself are the aging parent, about how to provide for yourself so you’re not a nuisance to anyone else. Much unwanted literature arrives in my postal mailbox almost every day, urging me to join the happy old who no longer have to worry about keeping the lawn neat and the boiler working because they’re now living in an establishment with an arboreal or very English name and lots of staff — the purpose of which is to cater to the increasingly decrepit and inept:  ”The last move you’ll ever have to make!”

Then there are the writers who hold your feet to the fire, such as Susan Jacoby.  Her very fine and bracing book, “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of The New Old Age,” will tell you that one out of every two people who make it to eighty-five will develop Alzheimers.  I believe her.  However, focusing on this not-very-good statistical risk doesn’t help me enjoy the life I still have to live.

That’s why I try, most of the time, to sidestep thoughts of age, illness and death, even though I know I am being involuntarily transported in that direction.

Denial?  Perhaps.

But testamentary documents executed, and modest savings placed under the conservative management of a kindly financial guru in Boston — how else am I going to really live until I die?

“THE NEXT STEP” BY RONNI BENNETT

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[I ‘ve mentioned Ronni Bennett before.  She’s the administrator  and principal writer for a blog called “Time Goes By: What It’s Really Like to Get Older.”  Although “only” 72, she is also far more serious about the age thing confronting us both than I am (or than I permit myself to be online). Which makes her a good antidote for “The Getting Older Blog” when it gets too fizzy.  I especially liked her post on December 6, so I am re-blogging it here.  This post was called “The Next Step in My Old Age.”  You can read her every day if you like at http://www.timegoesby.net  ]

All we know for sure is that life is short. Or, more likely, it’s only old people who know that.

When I was young, in my 20s and contemplating my future, to be 70 someday felt like an eternity, even two eternities – so far off that there was no reason to wonder about it.

But from where I am now at 72, I can close my eyes and feel 20 as near in my mind’s eye as yesterday. I have grown old enough now to “grok” that life doesn’t last very long.

Yet I am not so old – nor sickly – that death feels close by as I expect it to feel in ten or 15 years should I be given that much time (or will I be as wrong about that as I was at 20 about the nature of longevity)?

And unlike the callow youth I was half a century ago, so cavalierly certain there would be so much time for everything that I didn’t need a plan, now I want to consider the best possible way to use the rest of my life.

I don’t mean anything as simple as a bucket list of destinations, events or experiences. If there are to be any of those, they should grow naturally out of what I am working to decide now.

The question – a question, anyway – is this: on what information or knowledge or notions or convictions should I base my choices? There are only two or three things, in addition to the brevity of life, I know for sure:

• Yielding to the truth of what lies at the end of everyone’s life journey gives me the freedom to live as fully and intensely as I want.

• Even as death closes in, there is no reason life cannot be made pleasurable and productive.

• We are each of us on our own which is the reason we must take care of one another.

• If I live longer than another year or two, I will need to revise these choices as life pulls me in directions I am still too young to imagine.

This is as far as I’ve gotten. Interim goals elude me for now but I know that when the last of my days are nigh (I would consider it a blessing to be aware), I want to believe I have done the best I could manage, and be comfortable knowing it is time to go.

Although I don’t know what “grok” means, Ronni and I are probably both singing the same song.  Preaching from the same pulpit.  Only the style is different.

I just thought it might be good to hear it from somebody else for a change.


A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT AGE

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It’s quite easy to forget about it.  The age thing, I mean.

Having a medical checkup is one of the times it’s not.  Like most of my contemporaries I seem to have acquired various specialists over the years, each of whom has staked out a little fiefdom in some part of me that he — curiously, there is no she — wants to test at regular intervals.

Yes, I know it’s to be sure there’s nothing bad coming down the pike.  On the other hand, letting all these specialists have their way with me involves  euphemistically styled “procedures”  — like CAT scans — that would expose me to more radioactivity than I care to think about.  Also I don’t like to spend what life may be left reassuring all those white coats that there is some life left. It chews up a lot of time.

So I don’t see them as often as they might like.  I stall, delay,  reschedule.

Another reason I don’t like going is that when I finally do show up, some impossibly young medical assistant ushers me into that little windowless room with the examining table and a scale, weighs and measures me (to see if I’ve shrunk since last time), then looks at the chart and exclaims, “82?  You’re really 82?  I’d never have guessed!”

She means it as a compliment.  I can’t even deny that part of me  — the frivolous foolish part — is pleased. But what she really means, even though she doesn’t say it, is that “82” is bad, younger than “82” is better.  And much younger is much better.

How could she help thinking that in the age of Miley Cyrus?  (All right, you can go as far as Gwyneth Paltrow. But stop right there.) Is there an impossibly young medical assistant anywhere who exclaims to a thirty-something, “35?  You’re really 35?  I’d never have guessed!”

The very young are less judgmental. They’re just dismissive.   In 1978, I took both children west to visit my parents, then living in L.A..  My father was 76.  My younger son whispered to me, “Did Grandpa know George Washington?”  For him, anyone noticeably older was history.

The thing is, people like me (or my 76-year-old father, a youngster, relatively speaking) who’ve been around longer than the medical assistant so surprised to see me erect, functioning, and highlighted by my hairdresser — or than my little son when he began to learn American history in fourth grade —  people like me are not yet history, long-ago birthdates notwithstanding.

We may gradually become slightly or somewhat or significantly incapacitated by what is happening to our bodies. But we are still living our lives and making plans and enjoying ice cream (when we let ourselves have some), and trying to be happy as best we can.  Just like you.  Especially if we lower our eyes towards the sink every morning while brushing teeth, so as not to notice that increasingly wrinkly person who always appears in the bathroom mirror when we stand in front of it.  (What did you think?  That I wouldn’t like to look like Gwyneth Paltrow, too?)

Fact:  if you who are reading this are lucky enough to be able to hang in there, one day that “we” in the preceding paragraph is going to include you.  And most of the time you’re not going to feel a whole lot different than you do now.   What differences there are will have come on so imperceptibly, and your adjustment to them will have been so gradual, that you will seem to yourself to be the same “you” you’ve known all along.

Which is why it’s so hard for me to remember I’m “really” 82 unless I see it in writing, or someone — like the wrinkled person in the mirror or the medical assistant with the charts — reminds me.

Perhaps our culture is so uneasy around people who are past their pull date in the workplace, and are now in the eighth, ninth and tenth decades of their lives, because most of us don’t live near our grandparents or great-grandparents any more and therefore lack familiarity with people who have acquired a lot of life experience and look it.

Alternatively, maybe it’s that there’s so little out there from which we can learn about, um, what it’s like to be old.

You can certainly find plenty to read, online and elsewhere, about how to deal with aging parents.  Or, if you yourself are the aging parent, about how to provide for yourself so you’re not a nuisance to anyone else. Much unwanted literature arrives in my postal mailbox almost every day, urging me to join the happy old who no longer have to worry about keeping the lawn neat and the boiler working because they’re now living in an establishment with an arboreal or very English name and lots of staff — the purpose of which is to cater to the increasingly decrepit and inept:  “The last move you’ll ever have to make!”

Then there are the writers who hold your feet to the fire, such as Susan Jacoby.  Her very fine and bracing book, “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of The New Old Age,” will tell you that one out of every two people who make it to eighty-five will develop Alzheimers.  I believe her.  However, focusing on this not-very-good statistical risk doesn’t help me enjoy the life I still have to live.

That’s why I try, most of the time, to sidestep thoughts of age, illness and death, even though I know I am being involuntarily transported in that direction.

Denial?  Perhaps.

But testamentary documents executed, and modest savings placed under the conservative management of a kindly financial guru in Boston — how else am I going to really live until I die?