Teaching an old dog new tricks: I may not be the Marine I once was but I’m cool with that

Since becoming a dad, there’s been a running joke among my friends and family about how fatherhood is making me soft. It’s a fair observation to make: I do spend a lot more time watching animated animals sing nursery rhymes now, and words like “cute” and “adorable” are now a part of my day-to-day vocabulary… but the truth is, I’ve been getting soft for a long time.

This morning, I poured myself a cup of coffee with a beautiful kiddo on my hip and walked out onto my back porch. As may be the case for many of you, my porch is a sacred place. It offers privacy, seclusion, a view of the turn off for my road a half mile away so I know in advance if anyone’s coming to visit… and most days, it serves as my weatherman.

“Welp, looks like it’s gonna be a rainy one,” I said to my wife through our kitchen window this morning. It was already raining, but I like to pretend the screws in my knees and ankles provide some kind of weather-based clairvoyance. The truth is, they hurt all the time, they just hurt different on rainy days.

My daughter is still new to the world and the strange ways it replenishes and sustains itself. Water falling from the sky, bugs zipping from plant to plant, it’s all foreign, and sometimes frightening, unless she’s got a handful of dad’s sweatshirt. Rainy days have been fewer and further between than sunny ones around here lately, so this morning’s rain added a new element to her confused uncertainty. She’d reach a hand out, trying to grab at the water pouring down from my clogged rain gutters (yeah, yeah, I know, I’ll get to them). When the water refused to be contained within her tiny fingers, she turned to me with a newly learned indignance: this water isn’t cooperating, Dad.

As I stood there quietly sipping my coffee and watching this tiny person with my wife’s good looks and my father’s eyes grow angry at water’s refusal to do as it’s told I realized what a different man I am than the one I still see myself as. It wasn’t that long ago that a rainy day like this meant soaked boots and chafing. It wasn’t that long ago that I was putting extra socks in zip lock bags to keep them dry. It wasn’t that long ago that I’d be grateful to the rain for keeping me cool and for not being snow.

We all lose a step or two as we get older, but lots of us work to keep that number from growing. We spend time in the gym and at the range. We read articles, talk to others with similar interests, push ourselves to improve but as I stood there holding my daughter under the protection of my porch roof, looking out at the falling rain, I knew that I’m not the same man that led Marines through terrain more treacherous than my steep backyard I lament mowing. I knew that I now lack that “whatever will be, will be” attitude about my environment. Now, I have comfort on my side.

The title of a column I used write for SOFREP called “Old Man Fitness” was born back when I was coaching high school football. I was a young kid in my early twenties, but already far stronger and more physically dominant that the students just a few years my junior on the field – something they attributed to “old man strength.” I laughed it off, but as I got older, I also got stronger (through a great deal of work) and I began to recognize the truth in their jokes: old man strength is real, or at least, it seems like it is. But if that’s true, why do I feel so soft from my vantage point on my back porch on rainy days like today?

Well, to be honest, i think it may be because old man strength isn’t real but something better is.

During my years playing football for the Marine Corps, playing rugby in college, fighting in bars and in cages, I was young, proud, and studious. I prided myself on the effort I put in to learning the proper form, the right execution of my steps, my shooting, my striking… always sure I’d eventually face some adversary that was larger, stronger, and more capable than I was. I always felt like the underdog, even when I was the clear favorite, and I credit that mentality for my undefeated (but short lived) career as a fighter, the stack of football trophies on my mantle, and the scrapbook full of newspaper clippings I keep tucked away in my office closet.

Now, with age on my side but much of my youthful vitality stripped away by injury and time, I feel like I could still probably kick that guy’s ass. Why? Well, because he was an idiot.

And a pretty cocky one at that…

Twenty-something me relied on his training and form in all things he could; he was a good student and a pretty decent athlete too… but when the going got tough, he was all about one thing: just f*cking smashing his problems until they stopped moving. It worked most of the time, and when it didn’t, young Alex healed fast.

I don’t heal like that anymore, but what I lack in recovery I make up for in experience. I know how to fight that younger, stronger opponent because I felt him lose, I watched him adjust and change, shifting styles, techniques over the years to become more capable, more efficient while exposing himself to less risk. I got soft because I got better at not getting hurt.

Now, I know that young buck from a decade and a half ago could out-run me. He might even be able to out-lift me, but he sure as hell couldn’t out-smart me.

And, if that didn’t work, I haven’t forgotten how to just f*ckin’ smash stuff. We all get soft eventually… but as far as I’m concerned, I earned it.

Images courtesy of the author