I used to know Duane Michals and meet him for lunch on occasion. He is a world-famous, fine art photographer who also did commercial assignments. He is renowned for hiring models and creating sequences of images that tell stories.

I think we met in the late ’70’s, when I ran the Nikon Photo Gallery, and we were both speakers at some photo event. We would talk about metaphysics, religion, the meaning of life, the Big Bang, whether dreams or waking time was the real reality. I also owned a company acquired in bankruptcy that had published and distributed some of his books.

We had a stimulating, intellectual friendship. I remember he said that only a few extremely rare people made a huge difference over history—leaders like Jesus, Mohammed, Einstein. The rest of us were more analogous to tiny sperms who didn’t reach the egg: we were no longer needed and ended up flushed down the toilet. It was all relative, of course. He wasn’t saying that we ordinary humans should be eliminated or didn’t have some value. It’s just that our contributions paled in comparison to the handful of great changemakers.

In one of Duane’s books called Homage to Cavafy, there is a powerful image of his that has impressed me for decades. I have been thinking about it a lot since my injury this past July.

moment of perfection by Duane Michals

moment of perfection by Duane Michals

The caption Duane wrote under this picture reads, “He was unaware that at the exact moment he removed his undershirt, his body had grown to its perfection. With his next breath, the moment had passed.”

I have always presumed that after that instant of perfection, the body in the picture starts to decay. Just as a flower that has bloomed to its fullest begins to dry, whither and turn brown. The decaying of a human body might last 50 or 80 years until the conscious life is over and we are “dead.” It is a gradual process that we can imagine speeded up by watching flowers or insect lives documented with time-lapse photography. Then come the worms and bacteria to transform the organic residue into dust.

Humans do have second chances. When I was 22 jumping out of military airplanes, I was in fantastic physical condition. As a civilian, my fitness declined. At 29 in a YMCA gym, I took just two private lessons on the high horizontal bar—I couldn’t do it at all, and my younger teacher informed me that I had passed my gymnastic peak when I was 24. I was already on the downhill side of that road.

At 42 I started aikido and capoeira and became extremely fit for a few years once more. But then came another multi-decade relapse, until I began in my late 60’s to play tennis and go to the gym. It’s just three months ago that I was doing 11 chin ups, then 11 pull ups and many other machine and free-weight exercises. My goal was 25 chins and 15 pulls. I was looking ahead, and not imagining that I had just reached the fourth-best condition of my intermittent physical life. Then without realizing I was at a precise, peak fitness moment, I injured myself somehow and started declining yet once again. Now I hesitate to attempt even one chin or pull up.

I like to think about these “perfect” moments in our lives, when things are terrific, we are happy, we are blessed and should be grateful. Yet we are often unaware we’ve reached a height point of our experience. We are too busy—distracted with kids, careers or other responsibilities. We are striving for a promotion or artistic recognition. A perfect spouse or a different house. We are unconscious of how fabulous that sliver of our life truly is…and it passes…and we missed relishing it. We were focused instead on some imaginary “better time.” A fantasy that we might never achieve. A part in a play that will never be ours to act in.

Too bad. A real loss. That is why Duane’s photo of the young man is so very poignant to me all these years. A reminder that I frequently remember. It helps me savor more moments. To appreciate my good fortune and the many blessings I enjoy. I know that good health and fitness are among them.

Now back to making my six-pack…