The unsurprising un-retirement of Michael Phelps – who’ll compete April 24-26 at the Arena Grand Prix in Mesa, Ariz. – has set off a spate of he-was-too-young-and-too-passionate-about-swimming-to-retire-anyway columns.
“If Roger Federer can play on quite respectably at age 32, why can’t Phelps head to a fifth Olympics at age 31 and try to add a medal or two (or more) to his uniquely large collection of 22, including 18 gold?” Christopher Clarey wrote in his “Why Not?” column.
Surely, Ryan Lochte – Phelps’ great friend and rival who will also be swimming in the event – isn’t throwing in the towel, even though he’ll be 32 in 2016. But why not compete? Why not do what you love as long as you want to do it? (That’s what Daniel Reiner-Kahn, one of the swimmers at the heart of my new novel “Water Music,” thinks when his father wonders what he’s going to be doing with the rest of his life. As far as Daniel is concerned, he has a career. He swims.)
I suspect , however, that the columnists are not just talking about Phelps or Federer. Athletes have always been poignant metaphors for ourselves.
We live in a world that is aging, in better ways than ever. (I love to watch ’50s films like “Marty” and “Sunset Boulevard” to realize how young I am today at 58.)
But that’s just it: I am getting older, along with everyone else. And it’s scary to watch your mind and body changing – the panic-inducing, am-I-getting-Alzheimer’s? memory lapses, the turkey neck – particularly when you see these changes reflected back in the mirror. Boy, if there’s anything we hate more than getting old, it’s looking old. I suspect we’d all be happy to be 150 if we could look 40. How else to explain our deathless love affair with vampires? (I am so there, by the way, for the new Jim Jarmusch neck-biter “Only Lovers Left Alive,” starring Tom Hiddleston, as well as the new Anne Rice Lestat novel this fall.)
The truth is – and the real reason we may love vampires and vintage athletes – is that we are obsessed with age. (Particularly the boomers, the last of whom are turning the big 5-0 this year.) Sure we like the trappings of youth. But to be very young forever – with all the insecurities and anxieties that are part and parcel of becoming – is sad and frightening. Growing up, growing wise, if not growing old, is what we were made for.
Then again, maybe it’s just me. I always wanted to be an adult. There was nothing I loved more as a child than reading adult books like the James Bond novels (until Aunt Mary came along and snatched them out of my hot little hands) or watching adult shows like “The Untouchables.” Even now with Aunt Mary gone, I am still happier in myself, still a better self than I was when I was younger.
Nevertheless, age reminds us of death, which we are in deep denial of – even though death cares nothing for youth or age and old men send young ones off to die, as I wrote in the poem “The Court of Mercury." Indeed, if you’re lucky, you’ll live to be old. But old age is not without its challenges and heartache. And the older you get, the nearer you are to the end. And so we fear age and root for the Phelpses and the Federers to hang on a bit longer, to preserve the illusion of when they were first starting out and we were, in the words of the Beatles’ “Help,” “so much younger than today.”