Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

I was having a sandwich with a friend last week at Glory Hole Park. It was a quiet weekday, and we had the park to ourselves, which made for a rather bizarre episode.

My friend and I were talking, as people in our advanced years do, about health issues. My friend had his cancerous prostate removed six weeks before, and he reported good progress on his recovery. “How is your abdominal incision healing?” I inquired.

“It’s healing well,” said my friend. “You wanna see?” Sure, I answered. He stood up, tugged up his shirt, scrunched down his pants, and revealed a long, red welt that ran vertically from just below the navel to the top of the pubic bone. “Wow!” I said, studying the incision, “that is healing well.” Suddenly, the situation felt rather awkward. “Jeez, I hope nobody’s watching,” I cautioned. “This might look kinda strange.”

Studying your buddy’s pubis is kinda strange, but our societal preoccupation with medical and health issues is typical. In part, we’re curious about the plight of our friends. We feel sympathy, but also relief, at not having been vivisected ourselves. Conversely, some take pleasure in another’s suffering because, by contrast, it enhances their own healthy good fortune.

Granted, this is a perverse way of looking at life, but it’s a pardonable human trait given our base natures. Perhaps that’s why I felt a sense of elation the week before during a desert reunion with old friends from Crested Butte.

Back in “The Day,” 25 years ago, we used to convene at the Needles in Canyonlands for awesome hikes and rigorous mountain bike rides. We gloried over the rite of our annual “Death March,” an all-day biking/hiking crucible that tested our youthful limits. I had been longing for a renewal of that spirit this spring, but our gathering proved far too geriatric to gratify my youthful longings.

One friend had a sciatica inflammation that kept him in camp the entire weekend. A formerly active couple had moved to Denver years before, where they surrendered their fitness edge to paved urban bike trails. Another stalwart buddy had simply slacked the pace over the years and now struggled to keep up. That left just two of us to complete “Death March II” in a hubristic tribute to our Darwinian supremacy.

As one of the few “old-timers” who can still go the distance, I felt rather pleased with myself. I’m closing in on 60, and I can still march nine hours over challenging terrain, with pleasure. Later, I scolded myself for a lack of charity in my unenlightened celebration of stamina at the cost of separation from the plodding group dynamic.

One of my still-youthful, but aging, friends has, in the past five years, been ratcheting up his time outdoors on the pretext that his mobility in the wilds is limited and narrowing. “I’m fifty-six. I could be dead tomorrow. I’m going to get it in while I can,” he says in a self-serving rationale based on a sense of urgency.

As cancer and infirmity ravages friends and family members in an ever-widening circle, I cling to my fitness like a shield against the inevitable, fending off the aches and pains of life by hiking, biking and skiing through them. Meanwhile, the clock ticks and the odds increase against me.

Examining my friend’s battle scar in Glory Hole Park gave me no great comfort, other than knowing that one can recover from most cancers and resume a more or less normal life. The truth is that we’re all reliant on the luck of the genetic lottery, whether good or bad. Attitude is all-important on both ends of the spectrum.

I am sympathetic with anyone who undergoes physical trials, but I will exult in my health, my fitness, my gray pride, grinning in the face of mortality until one day it bites me in the butt. Then it will be my turn to convalesce, to heal, to remake myself … perhaps even to reveal a telltale scar to a friend on a spring afternoon in the park.