Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), "Greenland Swimmer," 1932
Working Out

Ragged Sails

If I could see my butt I would probably spend more time in the gym. I have reached an age at which my pants, if unbelted, will sag. They do so for reasons not of fashion but of anatomy, the result of the slow retreat of the natural barrier that once sat high and proud between waist and thigh.

This retreat is but one sign of a more general geotropic movement of the flesh. The skin below the chin droops, the gums relax their high embrace, the torso slouches. It is as if my body, exhausted by its decades-long struggle against gravity, has bowed in surrender and begun a slow descent earthwards. Perhaps it is nature’s way of telling me where I am headed.

But I can’t see my butt most of the time, and so I don’t do squats or lunges as often as I would if I had the view of my rear that other people do. Besides, I have reached the fuck-it point of working out.

You know this point, there’s one in most things of fickle value that need daily care and a good measure of self-discipline, things like tight buttocks and the perfect garden and proficiency in a foreign language. In each there is a point of diminishing returns in which effort begins to outpace rewards and thus, out of boredom or competing desire, one realizes how content one can be with results that are only just good enough.  There are many things worse than the ragged sail of a drooping ass, as Auden might have said.

I’ve swum and run and biked for most of my life. After Matthew and I split up, I got more serious about training. I suppose it was a way to fill his absence. We did so much together that when he moved out, I was left not only with an empty bed but with countless hours of empty time. The bed I filled with pillows, the hours with working out.

I would spend hours and hours each week biking, swimming, and running, with a few weight-training sessions, lunges included, factored in. Eventually other men would come to my bed, but I still trained, year in, year out. I had a nice butt and a resting pulse of 41 beats per minute. And then I was sidelined, first by the appearance of a hip impingement and then by a shoulder injury, ironically from a fall while walking along a level campground path (granted, it was a spectacular fall).

A year later I still haven’t yet recovered the full range of motion in my shoulder and have resigned myself in the meantime to short jogs and long walks. It’s good enough, and there are other things, rewarding in quite different ways, that I do with the extra hours I now have free. I walk more in the city, the same one I used to run through, though now I pay more attention to what I see. I see more art and write more. I miss the endorphin highs of triathlon training, but, as I said, fuck it.

I have not quite fine-tuned the way I eat to accommodate the gentler and much shorter workouts I do. A flap of soft flesh now hangs over the rim of my trousers. I’ve stopped patting my stomach; the drum has turned into something squishy and foreign, and I don’t like touching it. For the first time in my life I will buy a pair of jeans in a size larger than I one I have worn since high school. This will take a bit longer to get used to. But, as I said, well, you get the point.

The shoulder injury was an accident but the hip impingement, an abnormality in which the ball and socket of the hip do not fit perfectly, could have been precipitated by decades of cycling or running or both. Or not.

If I were suddenly given a clean slate and found find myself in the body of my 20-year-old self—with his and not my life expectancy, but with whatever wisdom I have acquired in my life recorded in a series of epistles to a younger self—I am certain I would mess it up in roughly the same way I did the first time around. I have no illusion that the next time around I would be more self-disciplined and make wiser choices, even knowing what I know now and bearing the consequences of the choices that I did make. I probably wouldn’t even finishing reading the letters.
I would probably run and bike, and fall in love with the wrong men (and a few very right men, too), and pursue studies in subjects I flirted with but was never in love with. Earnest and seduced by the seeming invincibility of my youth, I would against waste time trying out and discarding identities, enchanted by the melody sounded by a promised self that I soon discovered I could not sing.

I would do it all again. What is youth if not the time of ill-made choices? A time for inappropriate lovers and unreasonable hours, when the blindness of passion is a matter of poetry and not stupidity, and a lover’s despair a drama to be savored and the stuff of long and oft-repeated talks with friends. When a night of intemperate drinking is followed by a stack of butter-slathered pancakes with bacon on the side, and paid for with a hangover, though not with the loss of sleep.

I would once again be impatient with imperfection, in myself as much as in others. If at 45 I would leave a lover or project often only after having invested too much, at 25 I did so before I invested enough. Young lovers break up in the embers of passion, not in their ashes.

The young have their own fuck-it point. It is one reached much faster than we who are older reach ours, but it, too, is prompted by time. The older will abandon the unpromising because we realize we don’t have enough of time, the young because they believe they will never run out of it.


The title of the post is lifted from a phrase of a poem by W. H. Auden, “Under Which Lyre”, the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem that he delivered at Harvard in 1946. “… And those who like myself turn pale/ As we approach with ragged sail / The fattening forties.”

Image: Rockwell Kent, “Greenland Swimmer”, 1932

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5 responses to ‘Ragged Sails

  1. Rage, rage, against the sagging of the arse. — Dylan Thomas (ish).
    Brilliant post, especially ” Perhaps it is nature’s way of telling me where I am headed.” I speak as a forty-something who is half way through losing twenty pounds and trying to reinvent something of my earlier fitness… It is a fine line, that balance. Do we slave away and retain what we can for as long as we can. or do we put on purple clothes and learn to spit? No idea, but did love your post. Good luck with the gums!


    • Thank you! Funny you should bring up the Dylan Thomas poem. It was on my mind when I wrote this. Yes, it’s a very line. I don’t know what the balance between indulgence and discipline should be either, a tricky ratio at any age (and one that I imagine changes over time). I’ll consider myself fortunate if when I am old I won’t have or feel the need to make up for an excess of earlier sobriety (as the poet of purple-and-spit might say), or the obligation to pay for an excess of folly. Good luck with the remaining ten!


    • Thanks for the feedback and the encouragement! I think there’s a fine line between giving up and accepting loss, and I hope I’ll tread it well. Because getting older does seem to me to be a long apprenticeship in loss. A head of hair, a deeper sleep, the higher frequencies of sound — all surrendered in a slow march of dispossession (so slow at times one hardly notes the incremental loss), gracefully one hopes, and in the recognition that there is still ample territory in which to work and play and love.


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