The number 54

I don’t know how it came up, but yesterday at the dojo one of the women in class was saying, “I’m the oldest person who comes here.” “Really?” said Sensei Nolan, “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “How old are you?” “53”. And I said, “Um… 54.”

I’m pretty sure in fact I am the oldest student at the DeWitt dojo. There’s a cluster of us early-fifties, though — at least four of us, maybe more, and I think one of the white belts is 49. A while back there was a white belt in her sixties, but she didn’t last long.

It’s a little disconcerting, sometimes, training alongside (and sparring across from) kids a half, a third, in some cases hardly more than a quarter my age. Even the senseis are way younger — in fact one of them turns 30 on Monday. Then again, I do what the other students do with rarely the necessity to reduce or modify the workout; there are much younger students who have a harder time than I do with sit-ups and medicine ball tosses.

The possibility of being the oldest student bothered me a little when I first signed up, which just goes to show you can be as old as I am and still be somewhat stupid. There’s a cliché that says “age is just a number”. Like so many clichés, including “it’s a cliché but it’s true”, it’s a cliché but it’s true. Kind of.

Shortly before I started training I read a news story about an 88 year old man who was making his stage ballet debut with a community troupe. Sports Illustrated had last year an article (posted in our dojo) about Arthur Webb, who has run in twelve consecutive Badwater Ultramarathons, a 135-mile race through Death Valley, consistently finishing in under 48 hours and once coming in fourth; he’s 67 years old. Recently I learned about Bill Tapia, a guitar and ukulele player, who performs regularly and last year did a tour in Japan, at age 101. (He remembers playing for the troops going off to World War I.) These guys are extraordinary, and despite what certain motivational speakers may try to sell you, they don’t prove you can do anything if you put your mind to it. They do prove there’s no such thing as “too old”.

Look, obviously there’s a statistical correlation between aging (beyond a certain amount) and decrepitude. A randomly chosen 20 year old is more likely to be capable of earning a black belt than a randomly chosen 80 year old. But I’m not a statistic (there’s another cliché for you), and the question is not, Am I too old? but Am I, and Deb, and Mark, and Ivan, too far gone? And so far as I can tell the answer is, no, we’re not.


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