A high percentage of those reading these words are still of an age where you correctly observe about yourself that you are indeed “bulletproof.” You can fall off a cliff and your only concern will be if the one-hitter in your shirt pocket managed to survive the impact.
A high percentage of those reading these words are of an age where, despite the fact that numerous parts of your body are trying to subtly inform you that you are becoming less bulletproof, you can still limp you way through a rugged outdoors life in blissful physiological denial.
A high percentage of those reading these words are on an age where the message is coming through loud and clear: You are not as young as you once were, but, still, you’re not as old as you’re going to get and, therefore, while you may no longer be bulletproof, you can still pretend that the fall off the cliff didn’t cause any lasting damage that you’re willing to admit in public.
Then there is that percentage of the people reading these words — likely while donning glasses with very thick lenses — who have arrived at what many could argue is a liberating point in life: When you throw in the towel and admit, to others and even to yourself, that you no longer have a bulletproof corpuscle in your entire body. You can injure yourself in a way that lasts for the rest of your goddamned life carrying a load of laundry down to the basement.
This, as those of you who are at that point in life know, sucks.
If you don’t believe me, read this story by my buddy Alan Stark — a long-time Mountain Gazette contributor — which appeared recently in the New York Times.
This is a point in life where your adventures are no longer traditionally defined, where you think less about the vistas you will see once you drag your tired ass up the mountain or about the exhilaration you will feel once you make it through Nutripper Rapids mostly in one piece. You get to the point where you wonder, even as you are driving to the trailhead or put-in, whether you will even make it to the summit or to the take-out, whether some piece-of-shit part of your aching body will give up the ship and cause you to limp in shame back to the car. This is one of the main reasons why senior hiking and skiing clubs exist — so those of us who fall into this age/physiological-train-wreck demographic do not embarrass ourselves in front of those still young enough to be bulletproof, or young enough that they think they are or can still fake that they are.
When you get to that can’t-even-fake-bulletproof age, you learn a harsh lesson: That one of the biggest adventures you will face for the rest of your days is the trip to the doctor for your annual physical. There’s always this pregnant moment when your doctor is slowly shuffling the results of the multi-page blood test, when you’re trying to read his facial expression the same way someone on trial tries to read the expressions of the jurors when they file back into the courtroom.
And, of course, the doctor does not immediately blurt out that your have terminal brain cancer and that you will likely not live long enough to egress his office. No, there is an order to things, as he prods and pokes and asks you to cough and then finally puts on the latex gloves and tells you to assume what surely must be the most undignified position known to humankind.
And the entire time, he’s asking seemingly vapid questions about how well you’re sleeping and how your balance is, and the whole while you’re wanting to grab him by his stethoscope and yell: “Just go ahead and tell me what horrible malady is wreaking havoc inside me?”
We finally get to that point. He’s eyeballing the results of the blood test, and I’m trying to read the two-point type on the document upside-down, while trying to pretend that I’m not trying to read the two-point type on the document upside-down. He goes through all the arcane shit that’s NOT wrong with me — hmmm nanoserabellum (or some such) is well within normal parameters — which, thankfully, outweighs the shit that is wrong. Until, finally, he clears his throat (they always clear their throat when they’re getting ready to tell you, sorry, we’re going to have to amputate your testicles right here and now) and says, in something of a positive letdown, if there can be such a thing, that my vitamin D levels are way down. This, he says, might have some effect on the low energy levels I told him about right before the latex gloves came out.
And here comes the sun.
Apparently, the entire world is suffering from what is now being described as an epidemic of low vitamin D. I mean, I always thought an epidemic was when something palpable affected a sizeable population, like a virus or some kind of nasty bacteria with a 14-syllable name. But, no, here we have an epidemic defined by a decided lack of something.
Turns out there are an estimated billion people in the world suffering from a vitamin D deficiency. My doctor told me that fully a half of all his patients are likewise afflicted. I talked a couple non-traditional health-care professionals I know, and they said the same exact thing.
My doctor said the cure is simple enough: Eat 5,000 mg of vitamin D a day.
But, what, I asked, is the root cause? After all, everything from yogurt to Lucky Charms these days boasts colorfully upon its label how fortified with vitamins and minerals the food item is, to the point that one wonders if there’s enough room for all the vitamins and minerals advertised on the package and the food item that’s supposedly also in that box.
Well, my doctor said, he’s read numerous studies that indicate many manufacturers simply overstate, misrepresent or blatantly lie about the vitamin content of their products. Apparently, parents thinking their kids are ingesting 400 tons of vitamin D every time they down a glass of bovine juice are often being deceived.
But there seems to be a more insidious culprit at play: a lack of exposure to sunlight. If memory serves, D is the only vitamin the body is able to manufacture on its own. By way of some form of inexplicable magic, exposure to sunlight upon the naked skin causes the vitamin D glands to start purring along. Thing is, we’ve all been programmed over the course of the past few decades to believe that the slightest exposure to sunlight causes instantaneous skin cancer. So, we cover up and slather on sunscreen by the bucketful. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of us live in cold climates, places where, for half the year, we do not expose our skin because of concerns about frostbite, rather than skin cancer.
It’s like we can’t win for losing.
“Would you rather risk skin cancer or eat some vitamin D supplements?” my doctor asked, smugly and rhetorically.
Here’s the thing, though: I am a sun person who dwells in a sun state. I mean, my ass is flat-out photovoltaic. Even in the dead of winter, rare is the day when I do not spend several hours outdoors. And it has to be mighty chilly indeed for me to totally cover every square inch of exposed skin.
Still, sun worship notwithstanding, my vitamin D levels are low.
As if all of that wasn’t enough to cause me to ponder mortality in a context that includes the undeniable realization that we were never meant as a species to live as long as I already have lived, there was more sun-related enlightenment to come. I have been an enthusiastic table tennis player for many years. We have a group, mostly old farts, who get together to smack balls twice a week. Unfortunately, the facility that the county government graciously provides to us is extremely dimly lit. I have long suffered from poor night vision, and I’m definitely one of the players most negatively impacted by the lack-of-luminosity in our low-rent ping-pong emporium. One of the other players, who likewise does not see in dim light as well as he once did, told me about a supplement that supposedly helps restore night vision. As soon as I got home, I researched it and learned that, indeed, there are numerous herbal concoctions that advertise themselves as being beneficial for senior citizens who have trouble honing in on orange three-star 40mm Nittaku balls coming their way at 50 mph.
Upon further reading I learned something else: Poor night vision among Americans is also reaching epidemic proportions. The reason (or at least one of the reasons): We have become addicted to sunglasses. Same drill as the vitamin D deficiency epidemic. We have been, I don’t want to use the word “brainwashed,” so let’s just say sufficiently convinced by eyewear manufacturers that, if you so much as venture forth into the great outdoors to pick up your newspaper off the ground at dawn, your corneas and pupils will instantly start frying like a pan full of sausage.
And I have been a lockstep adherent to that perspective my entire life. If I’m outside anytime besides dead of deep dark night, I’m wearing my prescription Oakley blades. The piece of gear I fear losing more than any other — to the point that I rarely travel without backup — is my sunglasses. When my dog was a puppy and she chewed a pair of sunglasses up, I seriously considered selling her to a pet laboratory.
And here I learn that my sunglass mania has likely resulted in a degree of night blindness that is impacting my ability to hit a cross-table topspin forehand slam.
Even understanding that there are circumstances where you can’t function without adequate, and generally stunningly expensive UVA/UVB sunglasses — like skiing in the High Country on a sunny day — this information caused a certain amount of teeth-gnashing and mental cud-chewing. The various websites I perused in my quest to help restore some semblance of ability to see in dim light outlined some exercises and strategies, not the least of which being to spend time outside sans sunglasses. There was even a suggestion that you stare at the sun with your eyes closed for several 10-second periods per day.
Great. There’s hope.
Still, my mind wandered from vitamin D and poor night vision to other aspects of our health and well-being, or lack thereof. There are those who believe that we have become so focused on cleanliness and sanitization that we have negatively impacted our ability to fight infection. I have heard the same thing about our fear of tainted water, that, by consuming sterile H20, we have made it so, when we do ingest water-borne maladies, we are less able to wage war against them.
In all four examples — vitamin D, night vision, cleanliness mania and fear of water — it seems an argument can be made that we have come under the sway of companies that are fiscally well served if consumer society fears the thing their products supposedly protect us from. Our (some would say justified) fear of skin cancer has made it so we buy sunscreen. Our fear of the effects of UV rays on our eyes makes it so we invest in pricy eyewear. How many products are marketed to us to kill household germs? There are many bottled-water companies telling us that what flows from our taps is lethal. We have many companies telling us that, if we drink so much as a mouthful of untreated water from a pristine mountain stream, we will soon find ourselves writhing in agony on the side of the trail as our intestines are being devoured by some horrible microscopic creature.
The argumentative problem here, of course, is that there’s enough veracity to those concerns to make them real. Or at least real enough. People do get glaucoma. People do get skin cancer. People so shit their brains out because of giardia. These concerns are not made up. But neither are they ubiquitous or automatic. We can sit in the sun. We can eat food that has touched a kitchen counter that has not been sanitized in the past five minutes. We can drink water out of a mountain stream.
Of course, we may die in so doing. But we may also die in not so doing.
Now, excuse me, but it’s a nice day here in Gila Country. I’m going to sit shirtless and sunglass-less out in the sun. Maybe even smoke a cigar. Maybe even pick up a handful of deer-dung besmirched dirt off the ground and stuff it into my mouth. And I’ll wash it down with water from a mud puddle. I’m feeling bulletproof today.