Likely grade 10, perhaps 11. Sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed, door closed, using the ‘private’ phone. The ivory one that did its best to match the brocade bed spread; and distinguished it from its black companion in the busy kitchen. The call likely didn’t last very long, extended only by the awkward, adolescent silences. Angie had accepted my tentative and self-conscious invitation of a date and, enough accomplished on call one, I’d signed off with the promise of a contact in the few days following with details. As much surprised as cheered by her response, I marveled a bit at what passed for teenaged enthusiasm on her end of the conversation. She wasn’t the most attractive girl in the class. But still this had definitely been easier than expected as I’d rehearsed my dialogue before dialing. Call two: ‘Oh. I thought you were Larry.’ ‘No, I’m David.’ And that was that.
Not sure if there’s a best before date for one’s ego. A number of direct hits that the self tolerates and from which it, phoenix-like, will rebuild from the ashes of the moment — with the usual support from well meaning parents and such — before it simply shrugs and calls it a day. Mid-adolescence morphed into the university years. A putting behind of my small, southern Ontario town and its associated coming of age pains (along with Angie, of course); and enough validation to keep said ego afloat in the meantime. Various identities took shape and thrived — largely. The parent, the practitioner, the runner, the mentor, the partner. Time spent aging in the barrel seemed to vary. But eventually they were all ready to be bottled. People seemed to listen. And, with age and a certain reputation for crustiness, even defer (or duck).
There is, however, an arc. You’ll know the one. It’s the function that describes most everything. It starts low, builds to a peak. . . then descends, sometimes gradually, sometimes a little more precipitously. In the parlance it’s dubbed the ‘inverted U’. And it’s universal. . . and inevitable.
It’s difficult to say when I began to feel less resilient, less substantial. Perhaps scurrying across the cobblestones of Venice, vainly attempting to catch a train to the middle of nowhere. And falling twice. Time was when such a tumble would have called for a shoulder roll — and back on one’s feet. Nothing broken (this time) — but the damage ran deeper than the scuffed elbow. Or it could have been that Sunday morning ‘run’, mercifully out of sight of most, on the nature trails by the river. The moment when the belief that the two intervening decades of ‘staying fit in other ways’ was put to the test — and failed. The shuffle that passed for a stride was hard to rationalize. Harder still to ignore.
The universe can be a relentless old thing. Never content to rest at one or two reminders of which side of that ‘U’ one is occupying, the messages continued to arrive — usually unbidden, certainly un-welcomed. Following a challenging ten days cycling in the mountains and feeling that, to quote a younger member of the group (that would be anyone else), ‘I’d done well — for someone my age’, I was particularly unnerved by the ‘Venice experience’. Old, out of shape guys in Tilly hats trip on pebbles. Not me.
And so hatched a resolve to address the long-neglected ‘upper body fitness’ (no doubt the villain) at the local Goodlife. Spin class success and a serviceable level of cardio fitness aside, truth be told, I’d become a ‘one trick pony’ — without even realizing it. The fantastic array of hyper-specialized machines, whatever their expressed purpose, is even more adept at finding one’s achilles heel … and bicep, and quad, and. . . Who knew? Nothing worked as expected. The defining truth: tipping over, mid split-squat and feeling every inch a turtle rolled onto its shell. No darkened streets or shaded trails to mask the event this time. No cobblestoned culprits. Just a warehouse full of fellow ‘Goodlifers’ to mark the moment.
With physical ‘slippage’ so come the reminders of one’s level of relevance in other domains. Perhaps prophetically, we had decided to downsize in recent months, when the ‘little bungalow around the corner’ came up for sale — and some coincident interest was expressed in the home from which we’d sworn previously to leave feet first. Offering up for public appraisal the domicile shaped and stamped with one’s taste and identity is a humbling exercise, not for the faint of heart (and certainly not for one mid-self examination on other fronts). Gone (evidently) are the days of a few quick Brownie Instamatic shots in the local weekly. Past too is the era of shoveling the snow, cleaning up after the dogs — inside and out — and making sure most of the dishes are out of the sink. Then list. Or even in the reverse order!
Multi-media ‘exposure’, with its overhead drone shots, video of every room, even the ones no one was ever intended to see, and descriptive text so flowery that the perfumed smell lingers for days put one on display for all the world to scrutinize — and judge. Staging is now de rigueur; with its clear (oh, so clear) subtext that one’s furniture is frumpy, one’s art collection is just a small step up (maybe) from superhero posters and Kleenex reprints, and one’s color choices are, well, just so ‘last year’ … or century. Lose what’s made a home yours, euphemistically described as ‘neutralizing’. Small solace that the exercise is to allow the potential buyer to ‘imprint on a blank canvas’. The final bits of self are shipped out to the storage locker, displaced by tasteful rentals. And this is all before the ‘appraisers’ plunk a bargain basement sticker price on this final bastion of who you are.
So maybe Erikson had it right. Stage Eight (of eight!) is about, in the man’s own label, ego integrity, the ‘post-narcissistic love of the ego’, a time of reflection (not competition or self-aggrandizement or acquisitiveness or comparisons) and making sense of what is — not despairing of what is no longer; all that stuff on the other side of the ‘U’. And ‘downsizing’, in a completely different tradition, has this egoless state (Sannyasa, if you’re interested) pared down to the absolute essentials: a pot, a flask, sandals, trousers, a blanket, and a staff. How good is this. I get to have a place to pee, keep my single malt, my Birks, my Levis, and my four season sleeping bag — and even a cane, as I wobble across Piazza San Marco!