Last spring I was at a picnic in a park with my wife’s extended family. There was a baseball field next to the pavilion we were in, and at one point my wife’s nephew, about 35, went out there with his kids to play some ball. He wore a mitt and pitched. His three-year-old was the batter. And his seven-year-old, also with a mitt, acted as catcher and resident heckler of the three-year-old every time he swung and missed.
There was nobody else on the field and I thought I would like to join in so I walked out there, without a mitt, and stood in the sunshine between the pitcher’s mound and first base. I’d catch anything this three-year-old could hit. I didn’t have a mitt, but how hard could this be?
Sure enough, the three-year-old finally hit it. It was a grounder that dribbled along in fair territory around three quarters of the way down the first base line and when that happened, the following things occurred one upon the other.
The kid took off toward first after he hit it and I realized it was for me to get, but then I thought this amazing thing.
Perhaps the three-year-old, on his way, will pick up the ball and throw it to me.
Why I thought this is because of my age, which is 74. I make no attempt to lie about it. But though I’m in good health, I have in recent years become more sedentary and used to having things brought to me. I make no apologies. Indeed, I remember when I was in my 60s people looking at me and then bringing things to me, or offering me their seat, or offering to help me carry heavy packages. I was offended by this behavior then. But I’m not now. So here’s the reason for this story. Someday, you will get to be 74, and you will find as I have, that, like it or not, you are slowing down and not what you were.
And now here’s the rest of the story.
So I had this astonishing thought and immediately recognized, as I saw this three-year-old pumping down the first baseline with everything he had, that he was not going to pick up the ball, but instead was going to turn his hit into an inside the park home run.
That, of course, could not be allowed to happen. And so I started moving toward the ball. At first, I stumbled. Then, when I did get there, I fumbled it a moment.
At this point the kid was rounding first and heading for second. His father, meanwhile, was trotting toward third to get to the bag to receive my throw.
What happened after that is I threw the ball as hard as I could, hurting my shoulder, and the ball went just a little ways past the pitcher’s mound and came to a stop short of third. In the end, with a great cheer, the kid completed his inside the park home run.
I was astonished at that point to realize how badly everything was off—my reflexes, depth perception, coordination, strength, stamina, everything—and though nobody said anything, I decided I would not put up with this.
We went home to my wife’s brother’s house at the end of the day and as we came up the driveway, I now saw the basketball hoop and backboard by the garage in a different way. I like basketball. I have a hoop and backboard at my house in East Hampton and when younger would play there from time to time.
Now, the next morning, here at my wife’s brother’s house, I went out again. Boy was I awful. But 20 minutes later, I was still awful but not so much.
A few days later, back home, I began to play basketball every morning, every day. I’d get out there, make moves, dribble around imaginary players and go for layups, fade-aways and one-handers. I made few shots and it wore me out quickly. But I saw further changes in myself.
It’s now six months that I’m shooting hoops in my backyard every morning, both in East Hampton or, the few days a week I’m in Manhattan, at a basketball court in Central Park. It’s a 20-minute workout. I don’t push myself. But everything has come back remarkably.
I won’t tell you how well I do—I keep score how many I make and how many I miss, but I have found that much of what I lost is back. I can gracefully chase and get an errant ball. I have good timing. Reflexes are better. Agility is better. Strength must be a little better. And though stamina hasn’t improved, it’s still a workout where I break a sweat and wind up breathing hard.
The really remarkable thing, however, is that a whole other and very unexpected thing has happened. It’s about my brain. At 74, people have more trouble remembering names of movies they saw or people they knew. You have to write things down to remember them. I’m no exception to this.
But with this routine, I find, it has reversed. I’m a storyteller by trade. Now I don’t have to pause to search for names during a story. Now I stay on point without going off on tangents. Well, I still do, but not nearly as much. My guess is that blood is flowing faster in my head. Sparks are flying in there that had settled down over the years. I’m not kidding. I wanted to share this with you for when you get to be this age.
It may not work for you, but there may be similar things that work for you.
I intend to do this every morning forever, or until they find me on the asphalt under the basket, dead. But happy. At 100.
And yes, I did check with my heart doctor. Go for it, he said. But don’t push it. So that’s what I’m doing.