Once you get beyond a certain age, say around twenty-two, you avoid doing things that might harm yourself. An understanding of risk develops in your mind and the teenage sense of invincibility dissipates. You’re done with the threat of driving the car off the road at 90 mph after the high school graduation, and it will be another fifty years before you find yourself driving to Burger King when you can’t see well enough to set a clock. In middle age we get a welcome break, entering a grace period from risk and self harm. This is what the developmental psychologists tell us.
Don’t believe these people. They are wrong.
Like most kids I went through an innocent self-harm phase. My earliest recollection of injury involved learning to ride a bike. My teenage sister put me on a one-speeder and, like a burnt out flight attendant tired of conveying emergency procedures, forgot to cover braking. I launched from the top of our long driveway and sailed down toward our suburban street. As I rocketed into the road I heard my sister screaming “Brake!!” I lurched into a wide, wobbly turn and held on for dear life. I didn’t know it at the time but I did have a plan to stop, which involved the sole car parked down the street. I slammed into the bumper, flew off the bike, and used my lower lip and the rear windshield to stop.
To this day I still creep through residential neighborhoods when driving.
Later events pretty much followed this precedent. The five rusty, metal trash cans I tried to clear barefoot would never gouge a hole in my foot. The wasps in the nest I mangled would never cover me like a beekeeper, sending me fleeing into the house and landing me in a freezing cold tub filled with baking soda. A full day under the Florida sun would never make me look like a bubble-wrapped mannequin ready for shipping. Racing a Camaro down the Berlin Turnpike at rush hour was actually a great idea. And so on.
But by age 43, if you don’t smoke, do heroin, box, work in a Chinese mine, or find yourself married to an angry person bent on revenge, you’re supposedly in the clear. You’ve structured your life to keep self-inflicted physical harm at bay. Then again, at roughly my current age, my law-school-graduate father suffered a grueling accident on the ski slopes in Vermont. Most of the snow had been skied off to the sides of the trail, so Dad instructed me to follow him in skiing along the trail’s edge. I was following him down the slope at a safe distance when suddenly I saw a flurry of white and the fuzzy image of a body hurtling into the woods. From my perspective it looked like one of those COPS episodes where a felon attempting to elude the police loses control of his car and sails off the highway in a series of nasty rollovers. I heard the sound of small branches snapping before a human-uttered “uggh” broke the cold mountain silence.
This episode never entered my mind yesterday as I found myself entering a rope gate that led into a small gully at my local ski hill. As an advanced but also safe skier I proceeded with caution, gingerly side-stepping down to the entry point. I then saw sheets of blue ice covering the slope and a nasty drop off, so I started to back track. Twenty years ago I would have just gone for it, full steam ahead, but I was wiser now.
I had just about made it back out when my left ski snagged a pole holding the rope behind me, out of sight. I panicked and struggled to break free. Then I lost my balance and went down. In a flash I was sliding on my back toward a rock face with a steep drop-off. I stared to my right like a potential plane-crash victim looking through the window for signs of land. Time slowed to a crawl and my mind filled with fear as I waited for the ground below me to disappear, replaced by empty air. I envisioned my neck snapping.
The launch never came for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe it was the dollar I gave to a homeless guy the day before, maybe the contours of the land happened to break in my favor. When I realized I was beyond the rocks I went limp with relief. I didn’t even try to arrest my slide, I just bounced through a series of moguls like a small boat on the sea. I let friction end my slide and lay in place motionless. A few people on the lift, who had witnessed what must have looked like an unconscious guy tumbling down the hill, leaned from their chairs and shouted “Are you all right?” I gave the crowd a thumbs up like an aging politician who has just fallen off the stage at a rally. Then I started looking for my gear.
So don’t be fooled by middle age and the cautious wisdom you think you’ve attained. You might be beyond fatal joyrides in an apartment tower trash chute, but you’re not in the clear. There are still dangers out there, and they are you.
It’s something to think about as you pry that stubborn piece of toast out of the toaster with a metal knife. Or take up motorcycling to cure a midlife crisis. Or try to save money by doing electrical work on your house. Or…