Thursday, July 12, 2012

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Weekend Warrior

Tonight, I was browsing the well-lined hallways of an online database on American history (see reference at bottom) when I discovered a delightful manual by Oliver Wendell Holmes (Senior, that is -- poet, physician, and daddy to the Supreme Court Justice of the same name) on how to handle the indignities of what was then called, rather amusingly, "Old Age." The piece was written in 1858, when Holmes was 49 -- one year older than me.

Far from being put off by musty language and staid Victorian advice, I found myself wishing I could call the guy up for a ride. He's one of us. And my man can write!

I have excerpted some of the essay here for your delectation:

As to giving up because the almanac or the family Bible says that it is about time to do it, I have no intention of doing any such thing. I grant you that I burn less carbon than some years ago. I see people of my standing really good for nothing, decrepit, effete, la lèvre inférieure déjà pendante [the lower lip already hanging], with what little life they have left mainly concentrated in their epigastrium. But as the disease of old age is epidemic, endemic, and sporadic, and everybody that lives long enough is sure to catch it, I am going to say, for the encouragement of such as need it, how I treat the malady in my own case. 
... I have found that some of those active exercises, which are commonly thought to belong to young folks only, may be enjoyed at a much later period.
...For the past nine years, I have rowed about, during a good part of the summer, on fresh or salt water. My present fleet on the River Charles consists of three rowboats: (1) a small, flat-bottomed skiff of the shape of a flatiron, kept mainly to lend to boys; (2) a fancy “dory” for two pairs of sculls, in which I sometimes go out with my young folks; (3) my own particular water sulky, a “skeleton” or “shell” race boat, twenty-two feet long, with huge outriggers, which boat I pull with ten-foot sculls, alone, of course, as it holds but one — and tips him out, if he doesn't mind what he is about. 
In this I glide around the Back Bay, down the stream, up the Charles to Cambridge and Watertown, up the Mystic, round the wharves, in the wake of steamboats, which have a swell after them delightful to rock upon; I linger under the bridges, those “caterpillar bridges,” as my brother professor so happily called them; rub against the black sides of old wood schooners; cool down under the overhanging stern of some tall Indiaman; stretch across to the Navy Yard, where the sentinel warns me off from the Ohio, just as if I should hurt her by lying in her shadow; then strike out into the harbor, where the water gets clear and the air smells of the ocean, till all at once I remember that, if a west wind blows up of a sudden, I shall drift along past the islands, out of sight of the dear old statehouse — plate, tumbler, knife, and fork all waiting at home, but no chair drawn up at the table — all the dear people waiting, waiting, waiting, while the boat is sliding, sliding, sliding into the great desert, where there is no tree and no fountain. As I don't want my wreck to be washed up on one of the beaches in company with devil's-aprons, bladderweeds, dead horseshoes, and bleached crab shells, I turn about and flap my long, narrow wings for home.
When the tide is running out swiftly, I have a splendid fight to get through the bridges, but always make it a rule to beat, though I have been jammed up into pretty tight places at times, and was caught once between a vessel swinging round and the pier, until our bones (the boat's, that is) cracked as if we had been in the jaws of Behemoth. Then back to my moorings at the foot of the Common, off with the rowing dress, dash under the green, translucent wave, return to the garb of civilization, walk through my garden, take a look at my elms on the Common, and, reaching my habitat, in consideration of my advanced period of life, indulge in the Elysian abandonment of a huge recumbent chair. 
When I have established a pair of well-pronounced feathering calluses on my thumbs, when I am in training so that I can do my fifteen miles at a stretch without coming to grief in any way, when I can perform my mile in eight minutes or a little less, then I feel as if I had old Time's head in chancery, and could give it to him at my leisure. 
Oliver Wendell Holmes " On Old Age," Annals of American History. <>

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