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Old Dog New Tricks

A few years back, in a vain effort to expand my prefrontal cortex, I agreed to join My Lovely Wife at a series of French classes. This required that we purchase several texts that promised idiomatic magic and actually spend time studying them between our weekly class sessions.

We were surrounded in our class by young people with enlarged prefrontal cortexes and a knack for conjugating verbs that somehow all sounded pretty much alike to me. MLW is a natural scholar and persevered, while I soldiered through as best I could, deflecting each volley of public humiliation with the one phrase I had mastered through repeated use: Je suis désolé (I am sorry).

Like most kids raised in the 1950s, I was taught that “practice makes perfect.” Six decades later, though, the more apt cliché has more to do with teaching old dogs new tricks. And that could be a problem, says Gerald Marzorati.

Carpe Diem

In his new book, Late to the Ball, Marzorati, 63, a former editor at the New York Times Magazine, warns geezers like me to keep pushing ourselves to learn new stuff if we want to keep the Grim Reaper at bay and, more urgently, “seize time and make it yours.”

He’s not talking about spending more time at the library. He wants us to recreate the feeling we had as kids, when we were actively developing new skills that required hours and hours of intense practice. Here’s how he explains it in an excerpt from the book that ran last week in the Times:

“I am talking about improving at a demanding skill or set of skills — a craft, a discipline. I have in mind something that will take years to get proficient at, something that there is a correct way of doing, handed down for generations or even ages, and for which there is no way for you to create shortcuts with your cleverness or charm. Playing the cello, maybe. Or cabinetry. Or, in my case, tennis, serious tennis.”

To his credit, Marzorati doesn’t present this as yet another switch you can flip to guarantee a longer life. The benefits, he argues, are more subtle than that: things like self-knowledge, humility, and a sense that you’re moving forward rather than in reverse. “You counter the narrative of diminishment and loss with one of progress and bettering.”

What he’s really getting at here is the danger of settling as we age — falling into routines that promote comfort over challenge, or assuming that we should live a certain way when we reach a certain age. Rest, as it were, on whatever laurels we’ve managed to collect.

I love this as a concept more than as a real-life aspiration, to be honest. Marzorati made a serious commitment to tennis, at one point even traveling to a tennis academy in Florida to sharpen his game (and practice extreme humility across the net from opponents decades younger than him). Not many geezers are going to follow in those footsteps — no matter how much they might learn about themselves in the process.

Until a couple of years ago, I played basketball once a week with a mix of Boomers and 20-somethings. What I learned about myself was this: A 62-year-old guy has no business on the same court with 20-year-olds. At a certain point it becomes not just depressing, but downright hazardous. I managed to escape the last few games with my body, if not my pride, mostly intact.

So maybe I’m settling in a way that Mazorati isn’t. My golf game is gradually improving, though I can’t say I’ve ever taken it very seriously. And my weekly yoga classes remain more sociable than substantive. We do the best we can.

One of the things Mazorati says he has learned about himself through his commitment to serious tennis is that he’s a pretty good loser. So am I. But at least I can apologize in French.

Thoughts to share?

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