Body

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I was a bright child. I think I scared my parents a little. They were always reacting with a mix of surprise, delight, and wariness to my ideas. My father, a natural introvert like me, was more comfortable with my precociousness than Mom. I remember watching Mom try to stay ahead of me and keep me busy. I never wanted to do what she thought would be appropriate (women’s work in the kitchen or around sewing equipment). Instead she had to find advanced books and number exercises to keep me quiet.

I knew I was smart. I saw it in the reflection of those around me. Parents were impressed. Teachers did double-takes and then either found extra credit projects to keep me busy or suffered my disruption until they sent me out of class so they could teach their crowded rooms without me. Most of the other kids left me alone. They didn’t tease me unless I blew really hard (I learned the meaning of the term “blowhard” in elementary school). They didn’t bully me. I think they appreciated it when I mouthed off in class. In fact, I got so much practice at it that I was precocious in sarcasm as much as in science, math, and language.

I was proud of my intelligence. And I was relatively sedentary. I didn’t like team sports. I wasn’t particularly coordinated. I had endurance, but I wasn’t fast and I couldn’t throw a ball far enough to make a difference in a game. The only PE I liked in elementary school was kickball and square dancing. I didn’t like any PE after elementary school.

I might as well have been in a full body cast. Except…

I got lucky. My dad was a posture freak. I was the firstborn so he paid attention to me (he didn’t ignore my younger brothers but when they came along he didn’t have new-parent plans and he was further into his career and less at home). He used to insist that I stand up straight, even to the extent of having me back up to a wall while he measured the air space between me and the plaster, and making me balance a book on my head while walking and stooping to retrieve items from the floor. My mother, in her dashing around to keep me busy, watched me watching dance on TV and enrolled me in ballet at five. Four years later when I fell in love with horses, she set me up with riding lessons, English style. Anyone who has done ballet or equestrian exercises understands that they’re mostly about posture.

The final inadvertent blessing was how much I enjoyed walking. When I was a young teen, it got me out of the house, away from Mom and to the library. When I was older it was my mode of transportation. I had skipped a grade and was too young to drive when my classmates all got their licenses; a year later I was into walking and just never got around to joining the car culture.

But it was all about my mind. I didn’t think my body was the important part of me. I didn’t admire kids whose talents ran to the physical. It was like I was severed at the neck, and what was below simply carted the important part around.

The change came when I was 35. My body broke and I couldn’t get around for a few weeks. I learned how important automobility is to me. Before then, I thought the worst that could befall me, after losing my mind, would be to go blind. After that I knew I could learn Braille. I could acquire sightless skills if necessary. The second worst thing that could happen would be to permanently lose the ability to move my body around my environment.

I recovered. And I started to exercise. It began slowly, with twenty minute sessions on a stationary bike, at home, after dinner. I added a book holder to the bike and allowed myself to read whatever I wanted while I pedaled. The habit was rewarding. Not only did my stamina and muscle tone improve, but I loved the quiet time to myself, with a book, amid a house full of family (I was on my second marriage then, and between us we had four kids, two businesses, and plenty of stress).

I stepped up the biking to every day. I moved the habit to morning, when I was more awake and when it set me up for a better day. I increased the time to thirty minutes. I bought light barbells and added some weight-bearing reps. I continued to walk and I looked for opportunities to increase my rambles.

And I acquired compliments. Strangers would comment on my excellent posture and my impressive stride. It happened wherever I walked often: my own neighborhood; the Lido deck on a cruise ship; the grounds of a destination spa or resort.

Those early posture pokes had been good for me. Thanks to Dad’s book and Mom’s lessons, I have muscle memories about alignment and balance that make it easy for me to walk and stand without weariness.

The older I get, the more I collect the compliments. Believe me: it isn’t that my posture is improving.

No. I’m looking good because the rest of my cohort is not. My fellows never stood or walked very well. And they haven’t used it, so they’re losing it. Sure we expected the hair to thin and gray to whiteness. Yes we anticipated that bruising would get easier and healing would take longer. Of course we were prepared for the loss of skin elasticity that makes us appreciate the fact that skin is in fact an organ, and makes us wish we had cared more for it. But I don’t think any of us were ready for the way our bodies are condensing and retracting toward earth. Most of the people I know are hunching more every year. Their shoulders are curving down, their necks are bowing as their faces dip, there’s a hump of fat or bone building around their napes.

The fact is: I’m not standing taller; they’re bending.

People used to believe that the fingernails and toenails and hair continued to grow for a while after death. They based the belief on their observations: the nails and hair DID add a little length.

But there’s nothing to posthumous growth. Instead, the skin around the nails and hair retreats. It’s one of the first acts of decomposition. The dermal retraction makes the illusion.

My fellows are like dead skin. Retracting around me. Making me seem bigger. That’s all.

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