tell ’em i’m at the club

Tell ’em I’m at The Club

by Ed Collins/February, 2012

I’ve spoken with others about this aging thing, and some respond with a blank, don’t-think-about-it-much look, others confide that reaching a certain age is, how should I say, worrisome.

Fred (name changed because he may read this) turned 40 and his wife Fredricka (also changed, but she wouldn’t care), said he showed signs of being depressed. “I’m worried,” she confided to me at his wingding of a birthday party. But that was years ago, and Fred seems like the Fred of old now (only there’s more of him).

Mary Lou (real name) said she hasn’t thought much about any milestone year-turning––40, 50, 60, even 70 came and went without dismay. But now, at age 79, she says she can’t help but think about the big 8-0. “Eighty is old,” she said to me. “I can’t believe I’m about to be 80.” This, coming from a gal, who, from a reasonable distance could almost pass for a teenager (no kidding). She has spent a lifetime taking care of herself––playing competitive tennis and softball, exercising and eating healthily. “Eighty!” she says with a look of disdain. But then she gets up off the bench and proceeds to the court, determined to improve her backhand volley. “It sucks,” (turning 80 and her backhand volley) she might say, if indeed she was a teenager.

Me, I’m prompted to address this subject because I’m a freshly turned 65. I haven’t given much thought to any age number, but these days I’m pondering this one. And not because I recently took a walk at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, and I couldn’t help but notice all those headstones where the numbers subtracted added up to 60-something. Oh, wait; now that I think about it, I did give some thought about turning 40, because I had an out-of-body experience. It happened this way:

Kevin came down from where I can’t recall now, and, together with my wife, took me out for a birthday dinner. When he said we were going to a phony Mexican/American/El Torito-like restaurant whose name I don’t remember, I didn’t saying anything to him, since the choice was his, and he was, I assumed, paying. Anyway, we walked through the faux hacienda entrance, me following Kevin and Judy, who entered a banquet room, and that’s when I lost it. I actually don’t remember what happened, but witnesses (about 30 of them) said that I stopped for a moment, then, with a startled or blank look on my face, took three steps backward. It wasn’t until people yelled “Surprise!” that color returned to my face and I regained my normally semiconscious state of mind.

What happened was that all of the celebrants held perfectly proportioned masks of my face in front of their faces. When I looked up, and saw all those faces of me, apparently I couldn’t process––so I retreated. For the rest of the evening people tried to describe the look on my face to me (I can’t remember what they said).

So, back to the subject of my successful entry into what the American Association of Retired People (the ever-more-powerful Washington lobbying group now known as AARP, which is pronounced one letter at a time––ay ay ar pee, or pea, if you like) calls the “golden years,” which, every time I see/hear this expression, I picture an asterisk and a footnote. The asterisk comes after the “years,” and the footnote says, “Providing you stay healthy and free of behavior-modifying pain.”

So when Jerry what’s his name sat me down in our den, spread papers into every corner of our circular dining room table, and explained the need to supplement my Medicare insurance… Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I should explain what it felt like to unburden myself from Blue Cross or Blue Shield (I was never sure which, since I never saw one of their statements since I didn’t want to know how many weeks of each month I had to work just to pay it which I’ve been working to pay for the past 16 years, ever since I retired from working at the University, which, if I remember, was preceded by weighing the unpleasantness of recruiting and fund-raising against the what-turned-out-to be the ever-rising cost of being an independent employer. On one hand I was unburdened with the daily task of making after-dinner phone recruiting calls, on the other hand, I had to listen to my wife grumble nearly every time she opened the Blue Cross/Blue Shield envelope and saw that our health insurance had gone up).

So, anyway, in January my monthly health insurance fee plummeted to $115. When Jerry circled the number on a page in front of me, I must’ve let out a gratifying sigh. That’s a reasonable number, I certainly thought, as he explained the modest co-pay figure, the discount on optometry services (appealing, since I have single-lens frames, bifocals, trifocals and sunglasses), hospitalization (and anywhere, should I step on a nail in Belize or eat a parasitic mango in Honduras), etcetera, etcetera. But the etcetera that intensified my attention was his mention of free membership at 24-hour Fitness (“You can go to any club, anytime.”) “Wow,” I probably said––but not because I need another exercise venue (I have a lifetime facilities-use card at USD, and I’m a member of the Robb Fitness Club, which is modest in size and amenities, but just a few steps away from the court)––but because it’s free. All I gotta do is pay my quarterly United Healthcare bill, which Judy would do anyway.

It’s true what they say about your body––that you’ll lose it if you don’t use it. When I first quit coaching (to teach), my body responded daily by asking me if I was qualified to do so. It seemed that every joint registered a complaint. It was obvious from the get-go that if I were going to spend 25 to 30 hours a week on the court, I’d have to reinforce my foundation. Then I read somewhere that when a person runs, for each extra pound he carries, it adds 10 pounds of pressure on his knee joints. So I reduced my weight. Simply standing on a slab of cement had a negative effect on my back, so I started strengthening my “core,” is what exercise physiologists call it. Not to be ignored, my wrist and elbow and shoulder threatened to shut down the whole operation if I didn’t give them some attention. So I did. Body parts ceased complaining, and, were it not for the loose and weathered skin, my body looked and functioned better than its age. I had, it seemed, decelerated the aging process.

Everything was going more or less well until the accident.

Again, I back up a bit:

Among my favorite things is the beach but, despite my appreciation, when I worked at USD, I never went. So consumed with my job (winning, actually) was I, that the idea of taking a break, any break, never entered my mind. But now my job is nearly at the beach (a hop, skip, 2 jumps). I started taking advantage, but only during the late spring to early fall, when the ocean water temperature is moderate. However, the past few years I’ve made the beach part of an almost daily lunchtime ritual: First, after wrapping a towel around my waist, I remove my pants and slip on my trunks. Then, with beach chair, beach towel, iPod and lunchbox in hand, I find a semi private spot to drop off my stuff. Then I walk boldly into the surf, taking care not to let a wave splash on my belly. When I’m in up to my waist, I plop in, lingering only to feel the welcoming chill of the water. Then I get to my feet and walk straight to the outdoor shower (which, depending on the air temperature, is more of a challenge than the surf). Then I return to my little beach chair, dry off, fire up my iPod, choose a podcast, open my lunch box and settle in for what’s often the best 45 minutes of the day.

Anyway, that’s how it usually goes. A couple years ago, my (stupid, now I know) habit was to enter the water by diving into a wave. That ended with the accident.

I dove into a wave, and instead of landing in more water, I landed in a … sandbar––headfirst. “What the hell,” I recall saying, when I (fortunately) emerged. I had landed directly on my forehead, on my receding hairline. My neck hurt. My back hurt. I saw stars. I stood there, motionless, dripping salt water and sand, afraid to move as I took inventory of the feeling and mobility of my arms and legs. “I’m OK, I’m OK,” I remember mumbling to myself. “I coulda drowned,” I said, again to myself, as I stood there, looking, I’m sure, like a punch drunk fighter. Then I walked step by cautious step back to my little beach chair, which I carefully, slowly, lowered myself into. I leaned my head back and tried to relax my body, figuring that tension would extend the recovery time. For 20 minutes I sat without moving a muscle.

A week later the only thing that still hurt was an occasional twinge between my shoulder blades that came only when I moved a certain way. The neck pain had subsided. “You’re lucky,” people said. “You coulda drowned,” they quoted me. Nobody, I’m grateful to say, told me how stupid I was for diving headfirst.

I don’t know if my accident precipated what followed, but a year later I pinched a nerve in my neck (L3, I believe) that resulted in a cessation of backhands and serving, and some painful accordion playing (for me and reluctant audiences). Gary diagnosed it as incorrect office ergonomics, so, besides lowering my mouse, I purchased an office chair that cost an embarrassingly high amount of money (on Craigslist). And then, about the same time I started feeling tightness in my sacroiliac joint. I know it was my sacroiliac because I went to the doctor. And then he said, “It may be common wear and tear––part and parcel of getting old.” I wasn’t inclined to hit him (I am a non violent peacenik product of the ’60s) but I was thinking that he could probably tell from my facial response that (I didn’t want to) agree. I assumed he did, because he prescribed a course of physical therapy. In fact, I doubled down by soliciting the help of an ex-student’s mother who’s a sports injury rehabilitation specialist. I tripled down when I wasted $75 on a chiropractor, and another $115 on a Chinese herb-peddling acupuncturist (liked the aroma and massage though).

Nothing seemed to help––much. Still, the stiffness and occasional pain persisted. That I might have to deal with this (forever) was, in a word, unacceptable. Teaching tennis is fun, in no small part due to the good feeling of running after a ball with the hopeful intent of hitting it somewhere, somehow. More and more the courtside chair was calling my name. That is, until Cindy made a suggestion.

“Why don’t you try swimming?”

She went on to explain what a gentle non jarring form of total body exercise swimming is.

My office at USD was a few steps away from the pool. I walked its length many times every day on the way to and from the administration office. In nearly 20 years, only during one period of time did I use it. And six lengths of swimming (fighting the water, actually) were about all I could manage before exhaustion set in. The expression “like a duck to water” did not fit me.

So I asked Dave for a couple lessons. Dave swam and played water polo in college, and I made a tennis-for- swimming lesson trade.

“I think the problem is that I don’t float,” I said to him before the first lesson. He told me to put my face down, extend my arms overhead, and push off from the wall. I did.  When I stood up, he said, “You float.”

I learned that I didn’t know how to swim.

Several times a week, at least, I went to USD to improve my swimming technique and stamina. In a few months I was swimming 24 lengths––without killing myself. Middle-to-late middle-aged ladies were lapping me, but I had learned a relaxing rhythm of stroking, kicking and breathing that made the whole thing pleasurable, and indeed, relaxing.

My back started feeling better.

I bought goggles, earplugs and a silicone swim cap. I even purchased a (skimpy) Speedo swimsuit (figuring that that was contributing to me getting lapped). I swam before tennis, after tennis, under the lights, even in the rain––whenever I could fit it in my schedule and around the USD swim team’s practices.

Then Christmas vacation came and USD closed their pool. My sacroiliac was feeling better but I felt I couldn’t, shouldn’t, quit for two weeks. So I looked on line to see if there was a pool at a 24-hour Fitness club.


There was a pool at The Club at Imperial Marketplace, which is on Imperial, off 805, a half-mile south of Highway 94. We’re talking Southeast San Diego––in the “hood.”

I drove down to check it out.

Boy was I surprised. First of all, it’s huge––two stories, enormous, big as a Wal-Mart, it seems. Dozens of state-of-the-art exercise machines (digital readouts of time, calories, heart rate), a basketball gym, an exercise room, free weights, mirrors, HDTVs, piped-in music, showers, lockers, more TVs. Everything spacious, clean, inviting. Besides the (indoor) pool (four lanes), there’s a sauna, a jacuzzi and … a steam bath.

A steam bath!

I love steam baths.

So, after all this background material, here’s the punch line: After my first 24-Hr. Fitness experience, I come home giddy. “It’s so cool, I say to Judy. “It’s a dang melting pot––tattoos and tank tops everywhere. And it’s free!” I exclaim. The next morning, as I walk out of the house, I look over my shoulder, and in my best movie star impersonation, say, “If someone calls, tell ’em I’m at The Club.”  ¥