The Laments of a Silverback

Reprise… I keep hearing Paul Simon singing, “Why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle? The rest of my life is so hard.”

Though males bear much, much less burden than women, we have entered the same territory women have occupied a long time, a land of ubiquitous physical perfection. No male has to look far to see washboard abs, taut pecs, chiseled arms, and alluring half-smiles on perfectly stubbly faces.

I can overcome the imagery. As a reality of my middle aged life, being a little bit “thicker” is fine with me. It’s what the few pounds tell me that’s challenging, that maintenance will have an escalating cost. Most of a younger man’s life I’m happy to have left behind, but I miss worry-free eating. I must have had different woes—ones I’ve set aside and forgotten—but I can’t help being nostalgic. I walk around with a chip on my shoulder, thinking, “Look how much harder I have to work just to keep up with you younger guys.”

Adult male mountain gorillas are called “silverbacks” because of their broad graying width. For them, weight gain is an emblem of gravitas. No one wants to meddle with a 500 pound gorilla, and needing fewer calories is an adaptive advantage. They rely more and more on younger members of the group to see to their needs. Their insular calm says, “I’ve out-survived everyone and will continue to do so.” Food? I can take it or leave it.

Oh, to be a silverback. Considering how gray I am now, I should have already earned my membership. I think I might enjoy sitting still waiting for the world to approach me. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could find a Buddha-calm to match my experience, if my stature insisted on respect instead of having to strive to earn it afresh every day?

But I have miles to go before I sleep. It’s 15-20 years/pounds too early for me to retire. As people continually remind me, “You have many productive years ahead. Your current age is the new your-current-age-minus-fifteen.”

Hardly heartening. In dark moments, when I awaken at three in the morning, I worry I may need a world that will accommodate slowing down. We don’t acknowledge age quite the same way anymore. The down side of a perfectly equitable workplace is that experience matters less than productivity, innovation, and pure labor. Even if, to an older person, the labor of co-workers looks inefficient, you still have to work hard, and be seen working hard, to hold your place. I see older co-workers—men and women—playing by new rules, ones that continually say, “What have you done for us lately?”

And I hear myself asking if the few pounds I’ve gained over the years are my fault, proof I’m undisciplined, no longer able to run with the first pack, unwilling to make sacrifices necessary to go, go, go, and keep up, keep up, keep up.

A real man would hide these doubts. A silverback certainly would. And, perhaps when I put a few more workouts between the weekend and my next weigh-in, I’ll feel better and stop regretting growing old. I hope so. In the meantime, I’ll check myself in the mirror, searching for signs, trying not to look like the silverback I’m becoming, but acting as cool as one.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Work, Worry

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