We return to Denver this morning after three days visiting Casper, Wyoming, where my wife and I met 27 years ago and lived till moving to the city in 2000. I’ve never really enjoyed the outdoors, to tell you the truth, so city life suits me fine. But being back here in Wyoming and reconnecting with old friends seem to have updated my operating system. I’ll see if I can explain what’s new in this version.
The issue of physical health kept butting into my consciousness yesterday as I did the rounds. One old friend’s body has been ravaged by stroke, lung condition, and a fall down a flight of stairs. I had not seen him for nearly 10 years before lunch yesterday at the Casper Petroleum Club, one of my old haunts. He was on oxygen, and his left arm was bruised and taped. He’s in his early 80s, just as full of piss and fire as in the old days, when he was a state senator, and my job was often to lobby for things he opposed and to kill things he held dear. It was an odd setting in which to form a friendship, but that’s what happened. I enjoyed my dealings with Tom more than my encounters with so-called allies, because he was fierce, principled, and irreverent. He was always a one-man lightning bolt with thunder, and he still is. I saw it in his eyes yesterday as he clawed at his sandwich and laughed at our reliving of the old battles.
Another friend, about the same age as Tom, just returned from a trip to Israel and is planning trips this year to Denali Park in Alaska and the Galapagos Islands. He plays two rounds of golf each week and goes to the nursing home each noon to feed his wife, who has advanced Alzheimer’s. I don’t remember Jack working out or eating tofu, but for some reason he’s reached his early 80s relatively intact. He’s cranky as ever, in a playful way that always makes me smile.
As if I were being led around Casper by a cosmic tour guide, my visit with a friend who at 57 is a year younger than I am included a moment in his office when he nearly leaped out of his chair, he was so excited to recommend a book he’s reading. It’s Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (click here for Kindle edition) by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D. The thesis is that you can, by exercise and sensible diet, dramatically improve your chances of good health in your eighties by getting ready in your 50s. My friend said the diet boils down to “don’t eat crap.” That and 45 minutes a day, six days a week, of aerobics and core strength exercises are, the book, claims, the Rx for an old age barely worth surviving for.
Last night I was a warmly welcomed visitor to the men’s group that I helped organize in 1990, inspired by Robert Bly and the then sure-to-change-the-world Men’s Movement. Well, not so much. But this particular group of men has been meeting uninterruptedly for nearly 19 years. My old drum was still there in the upstairs meeting room, along with the talking stick I decorated with feathers and leather. There were seven us there last night, and a couple of things had changed: not as much hugging, and no junk food. Had they read the book? Back in the day, each of us would bring a bag of something crunchy and harmful, and there were lots of back-slapping hugs that always felt a little awkward, but okay. Since I’ve been gone, the awkwardness seems to have prevailed, and the hugless greetings last night seemed more natural.
The drumming was fantastic. It went on for a good 15 minutes, a din of rhythmic energy and thrumming mind. “I guess you can’t do that in your condo,” one of the guys said afterward. At Men’s Group, whoever holds the stick talks, and the rest of us listen. It’s a brilliant mode of conversation. As the stick made its circle a few times before being passed in silence for a full rotation, I kept hearing about the body, and the land.
One guy is gearing up for yet another commitment to work out regularly. But on his first day of jogging, he pulled a muscle. This provoked an instant roar of knowing laughter. Another guy’s work with concrete countertops provides him days of physical effort that leave him happily spent. Another is enjoying an orgy of healthy outdoor activities during his summer break from a job at a high school – biking, hiking, and hockey. He glowed with physical well-being. I heard stories of elk hunting, rodeos, and trespassing on a local landowner’s ranch spread outside of town. The latter came with a question about whether to ask the owner’s permission. “I recommend against it,” one of us said. “If he says no, you’ll probably need to avoid his place, and if he says yes, it won’t be as much fun to go there.”
At one point, after I’d asserted my preference for life indoors and online, William did not mock or contradict me when the stick arrived in his grasp, but his passionate recounting of the joys of being oudoors in sun, blizzard, rain, and all other conditions almost convinced me I’m missing something.
I do plan to read this book, and I do plan to get serious about whatever might help me arrive in my 80s as healthy as Jack, or as my father, for that matter, who at 82 strides a mile to his office each day in Cambridge, Mass., frequently whistling a happy tune. I don’t have to love exercise to embrace its obvious benefits. The land here in Wyoming does know something. It is relentless, and the people who come and stay here are originals. Even those who live here for a decade or two and then return to the city, leave changed. It was good to be reminded of that during this visit to Casper.