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My birthday is tomorrow as I write this, but I don’t feel old. Do you? I’ve come to the conclusion that we are all somewhere between the age of 18 and 33 in our minds. Our bodies inevitably age, but our minds remain in the same space, wondering what on Earth happened. Years run together; memories run together. Mental images of high school and college friends are so crystal clear that we are shocked to see how they’ve changed in the decades since. And, of course, it stands to reason that we ourselves have changed. When did that mole appear? What percent gray am I? When did my metabolism decide to go on strike?

Last week, I took a real vacation for the first time in about two years – one that didn’t completely involve academics or a conference or any sort of obligation. It was much needed and much appreciated, and also very odd. I went to Florida seeking sun, sand and sea; these I found, but in the context of rain, wind and a high of 64 degrees. In such a scenario, what is there to do but enjoy indoor pursuits? These included indulging in fresh seafood and Cuban cuisine, and talking to the myriad fellow travelers who were similarly relegated to culinary pleasures in the absence of beach adventures. This was an education in itself.

Here is what I learned from those serendipitous conversations:

  1. You will run into Pittsburghers wherever you go. Pittsburghers find each other without fail, as though we have inborn homing beacons. I ran into at least two Pittsburghers or ex-Pittsburghers each day, despite all having lost the accent and the sports regalia. You can pick them out because they will be the ones who will offer to hold your water bottle so you can take a picture with both hands, or volunteer information about where to get the best café con leche or how to avoid traffic on the way to Key West. We also are complete nebnoses, including yours truly, as you will see below.

  2. People will surprise you. Over an oyster dinner, I ran into a big, genial, brash 60-something man from Boston and his lovely wife, both from a devout working class Italian Catholic family. For some reason, he told me all about how he met his wife (he shielded her from view while she relieved herself in the woods during a Patriots game in Foxboro; she was impressed by his chivalry – only in Boston), and went on to tell me how his daughter is engaged to a woman and hesitated to come out to him. He was angry at her, but not for the reason I might have suspected. He didn’t care that she was a lesbian; he didn’t care that she had decided to marry a woman. He was upset that she had hesitated in telling him and had thought for even a minute that he might ever *not* accept her for who she truly was. “She’s my kid, and I love her. I like her fiancée a lot, but if she hurt my daughter, I’d throw her down the stairs just like she was a guy, you know. I just want my little girl to be happy.”

  3. People will motivate you. At breakfast, I met a 78-year-old man who fixes chimneys for a living in Minneapolis but winters in the Florida Keys. His wife is a dentist 20 years his junior; they met kitesurfing on one of the many lakes in Minnesota. He is living the life of Riley in the Florida Keys, while she is still slaving away at work in the frozen tundra and visits occasionally. Together, they raised two straight-A students who are finishing master’s degrees. He looked like he was about 65. “I try to stay away from carbs and sugar.”

Despite five brothers who all died of alcoholism-related complications, our hero managed to survive without falling prey to the disease, or so he told me. His secret? “I drink exactly one beer a day, between the hours of 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. It’s the same beer. I just put it back in the fridge in between sips. It’s really only always that first sip that’s so satisfying, because it’s so cold and so fresh. If I can have 15 fantastic first sips, why drink another beer?”

He swims, boats, fishes, jogs and gets up on ladders in the summers much to the dismay of his invariably younger clients. He credits his health to staying active but admits that a friend of his of the same age who kept up with him in every activity and who often boasted he’d live until 100 just succumbed to the third illness he developed in under a year.

His best takeaways?

  1. You have to keep moving, or you’ll die. Physically, mentally, intellectually – keep moving. Try to keep working, but if you’re not, stay as active as you can.

  2. Never boast about your good fortune or good health.

  3. Ultimately, you can try as hard as you can to overcome your genetics, but it may or may not work.

  4. Discipline is your friend.

  5. Whatever your vice may be, it’s only that first sip that you really enjoy. Remember that.

  6. People will inspire you. Things went wrong during this trip, as they are wont to do. Excursions were cancelled, plans were changed, the weather soured, and the rain and wind and cold descended. Everyone was disappointed.

I met one person who refused to have his balloon burst; he introduced me to the idea of the “anglehop,” a term invented years ago by a charismatic old acquaintance of his, Blake Musselman. The idea is that one should expect one’s plans to fall through. This way, when they actually do, one is not overly dismayed. Instead, one should instantly start looking for an “angle,” or a way to “hop” diagonally and upwards to a perhaps radically different but invariably better situation. Enter the “anglehop.” When you expect things to go wrong and are prepared to quickly seek out a different but better situation, it increases your agility and decreases your emotional trauma. Anglehopping also turns potential frustration into creativity and fun and can salvage a terrible situation. What a great concept for life, when it works!

Happy spring – keep moving, try anglehopping, and stay safe from COVID-19.

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