When the pickles say you’re getting old

Abstract: Science provides evidence when you are getting old – a jar of pickles.

There are several things no father wants to hear from his teenage children. There are those that are obvious because they’re harbingers of serious emotional disruption: “Dad, I’m pregnant”, “Dad, I think I crashed the car” and “Dad, I want to play for the Blue Bulls”. Some, on the other hand, are less obvious, and invite only a little discomfort: “Dad, did you just buy a Carpenters CD?” and “Dad, what are those handcuffs doing next to mom’s side of your bed?”

But there’s one thing that you really don’t want to hear from the lips of your teenage child, even though it is often said with the most profound love and deep respect.

The first time I heard it I was trying to open a jar of pickles. They were not for me, I hate the things; they were for my wife. Evolution may have spared me the bother of downing a live animal with a spear, but the hunter in me still felt anthropologically obliged to be the provider of nutrition.

Foolishly, I had bought a house brand of pickles, and so the lid had been jammed on with brute force by an over enthusiastic machine, as if it were sealing in nuclear waste. Suffice to say, I couldn’t twist it off. Watching me grow red-faced with exertion and listening to me hurl abuse at all those who make and ever ate pickles, my 19 year-old son reached out his hand and uttered those frightful words: “Dad, do you need a hand with that?”

So what’s wrong with the offer of help from your son, I hear you ask. The answer is wrapped up in a mix of broiling machismo, and the wretched realisation that one is aging.

For most of your life, aging is a gradual thing. Granted, when you’re young you eagerly anticipate and celebrate those benchmarks that are part of the race to adulthood: the hairs sprouting on certain parts of your body spring to mind. Then you hit the adult plateau and things seem to just tick over in the day-to-day grind of fully-grown life. Aging isn’t really an issue.

But then a time comes when it is. Popular belief is that it arrives with a birthday, generally a 40th. But in reality, even that’s still too early. At that age you’re buoyed by the youthfulness of your children; and, besides, the signs aren’t really there yet.

When they do come, there’s no denying them. There are, in fact, three main signs that it’s time to take retirement annuity seriously: the body goes, the memory fades, and I forget the other one. OK, so that’s a joke; but it’s not too far off from reality.

Geriatrics – that branch of science that deals specifically with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and symptomatic conditions that affect the aged – focuses on two main areas of study: neurology and general physiological functioning; and it’s here where you should look for the signs.

Neurologically, aging is normally manifested in disruptions in cognitive functions such as memory and problem solving. Forgetting where you put your car keys is generally a symptom of a highly pre-occupied mind. Forgetting to put your pants on before you go outside to greet the world is a sure sign your bungee-jumping days are over.

Physiologically, life has a habit of letting you know a little earlier when you’re well travelled along your inexorable passage towards termination. These include not seeing your socks because your tummy is in the way, finding bruises above your navel where your breasts flop into place when you undo your bra; or finding less hair in your hairbrush because, well, there’s less hair on your head.

Eventually these become more serious, and manifest themselves in various skeletal, cardiovascular and muscular impairments, such as, yes, the inability to open a simple jar of pickles.

So, after realising that this was it – I was now officially standing with one foot hovering over my own grave – I passed the jar of pickles to my son to open. I threw my hands up in defeat, but drew some measure of recompense from the recognition that, physically, he did indeed tower over me, and that his natural athleticism and devotion to his sport had earned him a vice-like handshake.

But then something very interesting happened: he couldn’t open the jar of pickles either. “It’s no use, Dad,” he said, passing the jar back to me, “you won’t get that open”.

I took it back, calmly retrieved a tablespoon from the cutlery drawer and, with a subtle air of ceremony, gently tapped the edges of the jar lid. Grabbing the jar in my left hand and the lid in my right, I twisted them and, with a telltale pop, the lid came off in my hand.

My son looked at me with a mixture of amazement and surprise, and then, with a wry smile nodded his head with respect. I waved the spoon like a magic wand and gave him a sagacious grin.

There was still plenty of life left in this old goat.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 21 October 2012