Category Archives: The Fountain of Youth

On Fitting In

There used to be a clear distinction between the generations, or at least between the generational behaviors and those faddish words and phrases that successive groups coin to make their signature statement. But of late there’s been a shift due in part, I believe, to the way the current crop of parents, and possibly the one before it, have raised their children. The result is greater dependence and narcissism than ever before that sometimes continues long after their teen years are behind them.

The natural progression from childhood to teen, to young adult, to mature adult, with its responsibilities of jobs, homes, and children, is not exactly the way it works today. Many adults still act, think, and talk like teens long into their 30’s and sometimes beyond – a lack of maturation that takes a variety of forms.

Parents have children, then abandon them. Or parents choose to be buddies instead of role models. They want to be liked rather than establish boundaries that they would have to then uphold. There are today’s “helicopter parents” who hover over their children and never cut those umbilical cords but continue to fix (or try to) their children’s lives for them instead of stepping aside and letting them work things out for themselves – or letting them fail, if necessary. Failures have advantages and learning from one’s mistakes and finding ways to cope are but two of them.

Many parents today make threats but fail to follow-through with them, trading their credibility so their children will like them better.

 

Each generation, from the previous one to the one next in line, coins words that both mark and distinguish it from the others, like a logo. When I was a teen, things were “a hoot”; they were “neat” – today they are “rad” or “rave,” even “bad” which also means good in today’s teenspeak. Talk about a word that twists back on itself!

Lately, I’ve heard several people (all over 50) use the phrase “my bad,” another slang expression popularized by today’s youth, and I wanted to ask, your bad what? Your bad ankle? Your bad cough? What?

“My bad” is akin to “my fault” or “my mistake.” Hearing my students say that is expected but anyone over, say, 25 should give it a pass. We don’t need to twist the language back over on itself to fit into someone else’s version of being “with it.”

One of the most difficult things about being a teenager is trying to fit in, to be like everyone else to gain acceptance. To feel less alone. The different varieties of teenspeak are an effort to distinguish themselves from others while at the same time forming a collective sense of belonging – conformity vs. individualism. Which of these concepts is the oxymoron here?

 

We were them once. And we had our own slang, too. But times change, we grow older and adapt accordingly. Or we should.

As teens reached their 20’s a few decades back, graduated from college, and started their adult lives, they stopped using “teenspeak” and started acting and talking like grownups. The difference these days is that when kids become teens and develop their own generation’s slang, their parents start using it, too, in an effort to be seen as “hip” – the generation to which “hip” belongs is, what? Back in the 70’s or 80’s?

But we can be “with it” without being copycats and without trying to sound or act like people 20 years or more younger than we are. Hearing older adults trying to sound like teenagers, thinking that will make them more relevant or help keep them young, rings artificial to me, like someone is trying too hard.

 

Granted, our society has cultivated a dissatisfaction with the self, but we, the gullible public, have bought into it. Nobody wants to get older so we botox the wrinkles from our faces before that’s even needed – even some teens do this. They nick and tuck here and there while pumping their lips full of stuff that puffs them out to keep them from becoming slits as we age. And instead of being a compliment, “what a beauty” can flip itself over, taking on a totally different meaning.

We really can have fun without dressing like our great-grandmothers used to – or like today’s 15-year-olds. We can feel young and express that without a display of jumping up and down with our arms around each other, giggling like a bunch of high school girls at a football game. And we can actively engage in what’s going on around us without co-opting the linguistic patterns of this season’s favorite word or phrase as if they belong to us.

They don’t. Each generation develops its own nomenclature. This season’s in phrases don’t belong to us, so let’s step back and watch this new game from the sidelines. We played our own word games – it’s time to let others play theirs.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Front Page News

What happens to too many of the elderly in their waning years is they get pushed out of their homes into assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Kicked to the curb, out of sight, out of mind. It used to be that families took care of their own, the youngest learning valuable lessons in patience and caring from the oldest.

But times are changing and the Baby Boomer generation, just beginning to march into its final decades en masse, is not going there quietly. They are staying young longer, intent on playing Kick the Can to the end of their days. As a whole, they are more vital, more engaged, more “with it” than any group to approach life’s final stage before them. And as a group, they are healthier and more active, too – no going gentle into Dylan Thomas’s good night for them.

Still, if we live long enough, our children will likely assume the parental mantel as far as we are concerned. It’s inevitable.

Frankly, it’s a bit scary to contemplate that possibility as the numbers rack up one year after the next. One minute a vibrant, youthful figure stares back at you in the mirror. The next – you recognize nothing but the eyes – and in them what you thought would always be. It’s a cruel trick someone has played on you – some kind of voodoo magic in a scene from The Skeleton Key where a young women finds herself trapped in an old woman’s dying body (a scary metaphor, good movie). Look what happened to you when your back was turned.

To demonstrate the ease with which this happens, let’s consider the man with a comb-over. The most egregious example of a comb-over is the one belonging to Donald Trump. Can’t he see what he looks like? No, because it has happened gradually, over a long period of time. A few missing hairs here, a few empty spots there. Growing the hair that’s left longer and combing it over the bare spots to cover them up. More hair falls out. More gets combed over. Pretty soon – Voila! You’ve become your own version of “The Donald.” He has time to accustom himself to his look and sees nothing extraordinary, but those who see him infrequently think, Whoa – when did that happen?

Role reversal begins in small increments, too. Slippery throw rugs get tacked down or removed so Mom doesn’t slip. Handrails are added to outside steps so Dad has something to hold on to for stability. Parents, moving slower and hearing less, forget to pay the electric bill, and their forty-something kids freak out. After a couple of “close calls” with the car, Janie threatens to take away the car keys and buy her parents a bus pass. Mom falls. It’s no biggie, she tells her Johnny, but he says she was lucky. Nothing broke. But what about next time? He suggests a cane, or maybe a walker – just for around the house because she won’t let anyone see her this way. The burner on the stove is left on, and it’s a miracle the house didn’t burn down. Your parents say it’s just one mistake; they say it every time “one mistake” happens. They’re in denial.

Aren’t we all?

One’s grown children begin to take over, help parents wade through the medical issues some of them begin to face, and goad them into wearing some life-alert-thing around their necks to connect them to help 24/7. It’s going to happen to us, too, but our day is a quite a way off.

It is, isn’t it? Yes, of course. A long way off.

All I know is I can still zip up my jacket and button my own coat, and will do that myself, thank you very much – though I do have Bill buckle my dance shoes for me if the polish on my fingernails hasn’t fully dried. I move the porch furniture into the basement and garage when fall comes and carry it all back out in the spring, and periodically rearrange the furniture, on my own for the most part. My efforts at the gym have not been wasted.

My advice? Never stop playing Kick the Can – it made the elderly young again, literally, on The Twilight Zone.  Leave people thinking of you as always having been young by being as active as you can and saying yes to every opportunity that presents itself. Maintain old friendships and make new ones with younger people, too. Stay on the front page, not relegated to the bottom corner of the back pages of some obscure and antiquated text.

Baby Boomers are front-page news. They are kicking that can down the road, moving into old age and beyond with a fire to learn and do more than any previous group of senior citizens, ever.

They have options – and they are exercising every single one of them.

 

 

 

A Modern Day Frankenstein

Looking at my fourth grade self, forever caught in the moment, I’m reminded of Picture Day at school – the fifth of 19 between Kindergarten and my senior year in high school – and how if your hair got mussed up before you sat down in front of the photographer, your teacher would run a comb, her own if you didn’t have one, through your hair. The photographer’s equipment was set up in the lobby of Santrock Elementary where we sat around the Christmas tree every December singing carols.

 

The photographer cajoled little Tommy or Susie into just the right position, adjusting his big lights for the most expedient shot. His camera was a big contraption with a long stretched neck around which he sometimes wrapped his arms and behind which his face disappeared. Issuing a cheery “smile and say cheese,” he’d say “look at my hand,” raising it in the air, then, “hooold it” so the picture wouldn’t blur.  Your smile remained frozen – like that familiar Cheshire cat’s – until “that’s it sweetie” signaled it was over.

 

The art of photography has come a long way since the 1950s, and even farther from its original debut in 1839 with Louis Daguerre’s introduction of the daguerreotype in

Polyorama panoptique par Louis Daguerre, Bry-s...

Polyorama panoptique par Louis Daguerre, Bry-sur-Marne, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

France. One of the earliest photographic processes, the daguerreotype produced an image on iodine-sensitized silver that developed in a mercury vapor. Its surface was solid, made of .999 pure silver and photons of light that acted on it at the molecular level, and created an image unequaled in detail – provided preparation of the plate, which could be easily scratched, was carefully monitored. It involved a lot of steps and processes that not many professional photographers, and even fewer amateurs, have practical knowledge of today.

 

 

The picture I hold in my hand is passé. Its image is fine and clear, but the paper on which it is printed is curling and cracked in a few spots – though that could have been a Photo on 2013-08-11 at 11.51consequence of the shoebox in which I found it.

 

 

Early photographic inventions were slow, large, lumbering things. Processes took time. But as with the inception of the automobile and manufacturing industry’s assembly lines, medicine’s quick march in search of vaccines, NASA’s lengthy reach into outer space’s great beyond, and the lightning speed with which technology, particularly in the computer field, is currently advancing, it seems our history is in danger of being forgotten.

 

A lot of things, little things, are getting left in the dust, and some of us are forgetting how we got where we are.

 

It was 1826 when the first permanent image used pewter plates in a technique called heliography; this was known as “sun drawing.” And in 1839, Daguerre, a French painter, chemist, and inventor, became the first photographer to capture a person on a photographic plate. The Paris street scene Daguerre tried to capture using this daguerreotype, with people moving in and out of his camera’s lens, took too long to coalesce, movement he failed to capture on the plate. But a man who was having his shoes shined in that same street scene remained still long enough for his photograph to be “taken,” and a new era in photography was born.

 

 

The world of photography, like so many of our worlds, has undergone many metamorphoses since Daguerre’s time, and today those changes are accruing at an exponentially quickening pace.

 

Yet the little girl in my hand remains the same – a bit cracked and curled, her tones slightly faded, but her eyes and her smile haven’t changed. Looking beyond her, everything else has. Old-fashioned photography like this might not be around much longer.

 

We’ll still have pictures, of course, but they won’t be the same. No. They’re not the same even now. Digital technology has changed all that. The-school-of-the-perfect-face employs methods like air-brushing that wipes away flaws, prettifies, sanitizes – like spin doctors whose words do the same for politicians. And with the advent of this newest photographic age, we don’t even need a photographer to fix our faces, highlight our cheeks, lift our heinies, erase the rolls around our middles, color out the zits, wash away the bags under our eyes, or surgically eliminate the sagging jowls, figuratively speaking.  One finger on a computer button will do that for us.

 

Photo-shop is the new fountain of youth.

 

We can crop, cut away, minimize, enhance, turn upside down, foreground, or background our best or worst attributes, then put our revisionist, best selves out there front and center. Or for fun, we can create a chimera and put a friend’s head on it, adding bits and pieces of other people for greater affect.

 

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein will have to make room for the competition.

 

In the 1880s the English physician and photographer Peter Henry Emerson was of the opinion that photographs should reflect nature by offering “the illusion of truth.” He eschewed the use of retouching techniques, recombining multiple prints, or utilizing staged settings, models, or costumes. He believed that the unique qualities of tone, texture, and light inherent in photography made it a unique art form, rendering embellishments unnecessary.

 

Too bad he’s not around now for the staging of senior picture days that include multiple props and changes of clothes, and different poses in “unnaturalized” settings. The seniors’ pictures in my yearbook offer a prism of clones on the same blank canvas, wearing the same black wrap on their shoulders, all stiffly posed to the left or right – the Gen-C (Clone) generation. Appointments were made for us with one photographer set up in the gym. No variations and only one theme.

 

The girls in my granddaughters’ classes made their own appointments in professional studios of their choice, took lots of clothing changes, and draped themselves over a variety of props. Their pictures were taken with a more traditional camera, then downloaded using modern methods, producing disked-proofs which would be “touched up” using the digital equivalent of air-brushing, minimizing, or wiping out altogether. 

 

This current crop of seniors would be turned out perfectly. Looking like movie stars, every one.

 

 

In 1946 some Johns Hopkins applied physics researchers strapped a 35mm camera to a German V-2 missile which snapped one picture every second it was in space.

 

In 1991 the first digital still camera arrived on the scene. Only professional photographers were able to afford its steep price tag, but within five years they were more affordable to the public.

 

And now…well, you know.

 

We learned to burn our pictures onto computer disks and view them on our own monitors. Then we bypassed the disk in favor of an umbilical cord that transfers those pictures from camera to computer, and now there’s an itty-bitty wireless knob that downloads everything from your camera, or your camera-phone, as it passes, unseen, through the ether, directly to your computer. And there’s nothing you can’t do, with enough pixels.

Everything is forever, even Frankenstein – in multiple, computer-age versions.

Facing the Consequences

I was wearing the past few sleepless nights on my face when I woke up this morning. Fatigue, worry, stress, even flashes of anger at myself and at the neighbor’s dog (not his fault) had etched itself into lines that had settled into the tissues around my eyes.

Baggage. I was carrying it around in generous pouches stuffed with problems, both real and perceived, under my eyes.

It takes a couple nights of quality sleep for the puffiness to subside so I can look normal again. Each time this happens, though, I worry that one day I’ll remain puffy no matter how much sleep I get.

That day is bound to come. Will I be able to handle it when it does? Adjust to the new look? Or will I hide behind what my daughter refers to as my “bug-eye” sunglasses even on the darkest of days?

Not long ago I was cleaning out a closet and rediscovered an old Mr. Potato Head box tucked in

Mr Potato Head

Mr Potato Head (Photo credit: Stuart Bryant)

a back corner under a pile of stuffed animals no one wants anymore. The wide variety of eyes, ears, noses, mouths, teeth, moustaches, and even hair made of felt, got me to thinking. As my features begin to change, albeit in small increments, I wonder if I should start piecing my old self back together before I need an entire overhaul all at once. Should I replace my parts, update the aging version of myself and deny chronology the dictatorship it craves? Effect a coup?

Maybe I should tape a picture of my younger self on the refrigerator to remind me what I used to look like. What I still want to look like.

The kids had fun with Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, changing their appearance so often we almost forgot which face we started with. But when you make one change, the whole thing kind of mushrooms and a domino affect takes place. I could use a new nose, higher cheekbones, thinner eyebrows and thicker hair. Maybe larger eyes and fuller lips, too. I could have a new face, but it would be counterfeit, wouldn’t it?

A counterfeit face.

I’m not talking about a Tammy Faye Bakker face with makeup so thick it must have taken a chisel to remove each night. Nor am I referring to a featureless countenance with every shred of authenticity botoxed away or scraped off and cut out with a scalpel.

And what about genetics? They play a huge role in what we look like and how we age. Other factors figure into this equation, too. Pain, for one. Stress, for another. Illness (yours or someone else’s), anger, disappointment, and the list goes on.

As we age, our tissues become thinner, and heavy, opaque colors we use to enhance our features take on weight. Lips begin to shrink, and our faces have greater difficulty handling the weight of, say, a heavy red, a purple, or a black. Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes continues to wear a heavy red lipstick that bleeds into the powdered grooves around her mouth. Does she do this thinking that the bright color coupled with its application outside the natural lip-line imparts a more youthful look? It brings to mind a commercial where an elderly woman is touching up her lipstick in the airplane’s restroom as the plane experiences turbulence. She returns to her seat, none the wiser, with lipstick all over the lower half of her face. She reminds me of Leslie Stahl, oblivious to the discordant note she strikes by painting a bright red outside her natural lip-lines, and not always carefully.

Enhanced lips are considered more youthful, and many women, celebrities in particular, turn to lip injections of varying kinds to beef them up – Angelina Jolie, and daughter Shiloh, are the exceptions here, having been born with lips other women can only aspire to. Meg Ryan’s lips are so bloated and misshapen, she’s almost unrecognizable as the perky, beautiful woman who played in Sleepless in Seattle. Ditto Melanie Griffith who was gorgeous in Working Girl but whose features have taken an unnatural turn for the worse since then.

The gradual appearance of wrinkles poses another problem, developing over time into weighty folds of brocaded drapery, pulled downward by gravity. Two words: Mick Jagger, who has thus far shunned the plastic surgeon’s knife.

Skin tone changes, too, becoming lighter as the aging process moves forward. If you don’t want to adopt the look of a corpse, or a vampire, you’ve got to modify your hair color as you age – a softer brown makes a better frame than a harsh “shoe-black” against a pasty white face.

But the fact is we just don’t see ourselves as others see us – and herein lies the biggest problem. Changes occur incrementally, each small change almost unnoticeable from the one before. It’s easy to adapt to smaller changes coming one at a time over a period of months or years, so we miss what strikes others as obvious. Look at Donald Trump – a man desperate to avoid baldness in an attempt to remain young. Hair loss is gradual. You comb over a few hairs here, a few there, then a few months later, a few more. It happens so slowly, you can’t see how ridiculous your “comb-overs” have begun to look.

You become a joke you don’t get.

The same thing happens with weight gain. This explains girls wearing jeans so tight that rolls of fat are forced up and over their waistbands. If this change occurred overnight, the problem would be obvious even to them. It might encourage the purchase of jeans that fit properly, smoothing out the rough spots instead of opting for jeans that accentuate them. Size does not matter as much as a good fit does.

We deny what’s obvious to everyone but ourselves until we stand in front of that unforgiving mirror in the department store. Department store mirrors are hateful things, their harsh lights magnifying every single flaw. Even so, we continue to deny what we see.

We need an easy fix for this, one like Sesame Street once offered its Muppets. “Vendaface” – the machine that offered a variety of noses, ears, mouths, lips, and hair – was the answer to the Muppets’ self-image problems via machine-dispensed facelifts. For a small price they could change the parts they didn’t like, try out entirely new faces, or replace only what had worn out or gotten old. Wouldn’t it be great if it worked like this for the population in general? I guess it does if you have loads of money and can find a good plastic surgeon. Self-esteem at the end of a knife or the point of a needle.

My mother was blessed with good skin tone and her face still doesn’t look like it belongs to someone who just turned 88, but she had a jarring moment a few years ago after cataract surgery. Looking in her mirror afterward, her first words were “Oh-my-god, I’m so wrinkled! Why didn’t you tell me?”

I thought she looked pretty good for her age, but she didn’t view it that way.

Then there’s Joan Rivers whose expressionless face is immortalized in something akin to seamless plastic. She wears the same expression for every emotion. Well, it works for Barbie, I guess.

Fewer people than we think are satisfied with who they are – if it’s not hair, it’s weight, a bulge here, a spare tire there, crow’s feet, laugh lines. And plastic surgery has become big, big business. So have tanning booths, despite the cancer warnings, and tattoo parlors – all are designed to cover up, minimize, or eradicate and replace the things we view as deficiencies because we want to feel better about ourselves.

Why aren’t we good enough the way we are? Why aren’t we comfortable in our own skin and with the faces we’ve grown into by virtue of our experiences?

Maybe Dorian Gray had the only answer that works. If words could make wishes come true, we’d each have a portrait of our younger selves tucked safely away in a closet somewhere – a portrait that would do the aging for us. We’d never have to bother with counterfeit faces again.

But we don’t really want to go there, do we?

The Name of the Game

In an episode of NCIS called “Enemy on the Hill” (October 11, 2011), the landlady of an apartment building is asked for the key to an upper floor apartment. Bringing it up the stairs, she places it in Jethro Gibbs’ hand, holding on to his hand just a bit longer than necessary. Playful banter ensues. She is

Actor Mark Harmon during NCIS Filming

Actor Mark Harmon during NCIS Filming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

definitely older than Gibbs but still presents a lively version of the younger woman she once was, wearing fitted jeans that quietly suggest a still decent figure. Gibbs unlocks the door and he and Tony DiNozzo enter, the landlady only one step behind them. In a verbal sparring contest with NCIS agents Gibbs and DiNozzo, Mrs. Roach, the feisty, silver-haired landlady obviously interested in the aloof-ish Gibbs, refers to him as “Boss,” as she has heard DiNozzo do. She thinks it’s cute. When they decline the need for her further assistance, she turns her back to them and steps through the door to the landing. Then she decides to go for it – her hand grabs the door-frame and her face comes back into view. Leaning her cheek coquettishly against her fingers, Mrs. Roach peers up into Gibbs’ eyes.

“You wanna come with me Boss?”

He turns his face to her thoughtfully, gives his usual sort-of-a-smile and says, not unkindly, “I’ll wait here.”

We hear her bouncing down the stairs, her finely-tuned feathers unruffled. It was worth a try. Dinozzo snickers. That’s what they call a “turkey vulture” he says.

A few years ago I took my young granddaughter, Kearsti, to the Oktoberfest in Brimfield. It’s put on by the German Family Society and is a weekend of fun, folk dancing, and singing – and of course, lots of home-cooked German food – schnitzel, homemade sausages, cabbage rolls, and delicious German pastries. They have an indoor dance hall, outdoor entertainment pavilion, dining tent, and the pièce de résistance – an outdoor biergarten. What’s not to like?

There’s an admission fee collected as you pull in, then you are directed to a parking spot – it would be mass chaos otherwise. As I waited in line, I heard the teenager tell the driver of the car in front of me that it would be $4 each, so I readied myself with $8 and waited. She came up to my window and holding a large wad of bills in her hand, looked in, and said it would be $2. Don’t you mean 8, I asked. No, it’s 2 for you and she (nodding in Kearsti’s direction) is free. I pointed out that I’d heard her say 4 each to the person ahead of me, and I didn’t want to cheat her. That’s when she said that it’s only 2 for senior citizens.

I was a bit taken aback, but in a spirit of teasing I asked, “Do I look that old?” “I’m sorry,” she said, “but your hair…” [which already had lots of naturally evolving white highlights among the fading dark brown] “well, I thought…anyway you don’t look like one – but two bucks is two bucks.” I laughed and thanked her for the discount.  She was probably afraid I’d be angry.

I’d never be angry. Crushed, maybe. But not angry.

These days it’s hard to tell a lot of bona fide senior citizens from those who aren’t quite yet. AARP’s definition, 50, is a throwback to a time when the average lifespan was probably 60 or so, making “middle age” somewhere around 35. We have got to change our nomenclature, move into the 21st century. If you’ve been paying attention, the chronologically named senior citizen has moved over the years, at least in the physiological sense. With the advances in medicine and technology, people are living longer, healthier, and more active lives. More and more people are reaching their 90s, some even beyond, a significant number of whom do so with their mental faculties in better working order than some of the rest of us. And some of these 90+-year-olds are not doing too bad physically either, keeping fit as they age rather than taking up the knitting needles or becoming television zombies and never leaving their sofas. I even see some people in these age groups at the gym.

Official retirement is also on the move – to 66, 67, and perhaps will reach 70 in no time at all – a change not simply due to the politics involved, either. People who enjoy the work they do keep on working – and why shouldn’t they if it keeps them engaged. AARP’s determinate “50” should be considered middle age now, perhaps even only its early stages. Most of us don’t, and won’t, retire until at least one or two decades beyond this. And some of us never retire in toto.

When I was a kid, a senior citizen was someone who had not only retired but someone who did nothing but watch their grandkids play and engage in minor gardening or knitting. No heavy lifting after 62 in many cases.

When did all that change?

The “Senior Citizen” branding iron has lately been replaced in some circles – at least the movement is afloat and gaining strength – with “Mature Person.” Older people are now “mature people.” Does that suggest that maturity is something achieved chronologically? Is that “mature” as in “ripened,” like a pear? Is that akin to having gained wisdom by virtue of your “number”? What, then, do you call the 25-year-old who has had, and successfully managed, a lot of responsibility, made sound decisions, wise choices, and conducted him-/herself responsibly? Yes, there are mid-twenty-somethings out there like this, even if not as many as there used to be. Is there another word for “mature youth” now – some new quirky thing like matouth? – The matouth was in charge of an organization responsible for overseeing four major organizations with offices nationwide, a loving husband, a hands-on father of two, and a highly respected member of the community at the age of 27. If you’d care to offer some suggestions for new, hip terms for people falling into this category, we’d all be glad to hear it.

But chronology is not the equivalent of identity, at least it shouldn’t be. It is a word, though – and words do count, particularly in this uber-sensitive age of political correctness. But what’s even more important is to remember that we are not the stereotypes our numbers suggest.

Mrs. Roach certainly couldn’t be mistaken for your typical senior citizen.

“A turkey vulture is 20 years past a cougar,” DiNozzo tells Gibbs, “still likes to hunt, but is too old to take down [her] prey.”

Then the voice of this cougar-like turkey vulture calls up from the bottom of the stairs, “I wouldn’t bet on that,” she says.

The Inevitability of Change

Not too long ago I turned a corner and found myself entering the sixth decade of my life. The words themselves stand in stark contrast to how I felt at the time, or how I feel even now. When my brother-in-law, Mark, asked how it felt to have crossed that threshold, I said I felt like I always had. Fine. Younger than I was. No different from yesterday or from the day before that. Nothing had changed as far as I could tell.

Mark and I share the same birthday, but his response to that same question was colored by a torn rotator cuff that wasn’t healing properly – he’d chosen not to have surgery and was paying the price. Missing was the youthful attitude, funny banter, the hilarious stories, and his laughter. Not a function of chronology or mind-set but a result of on-going pain that, over time, can alter the map of one’s relatively unmarked face. With the passage of time and the ability of the body to heal (even if it takes a bit longer as we age), the Mark we all know and love returned, along with the attitude and demeanor of his customary younger self.

His big brother Bill is a mix of old and young. On one hand, he’s determined to talk himself into old age and has been doing so for as long as I’ve known him. Yet he doesn’t act old. He has a determined gait with long, purposeful strides. Standing with his shoulders back and spine erect, he does not engage in slumping or looking at the ground so as not to stumble, and while his words exit his mouth at a snail’s pace, he thinks and reacts in rapid-fire fashion when required. Neither he nor Mark are seriously marked by some of the telltale signs of aging: wrinkles, sagging skin, heavy jowls, age spots. They’ve been blessed with good genes. This is what DNA can do for you if you’re lucky. None of the four siblings looks their age, which proves one thing – if you’re calculating “old age” by chronology, the age-o-meter is not an entirely reliable measure.

Sometimes, of course, considering age is unavoidable – filling out forms for Medicare, for example. But chronology is only one factor. Problems arise when we put the numbers first – numbers and words weighted with negative connotations. They can make people age quicker than time itself. You hear people say “I’m getting old” all the time, an attitude suggesting they probably are. Those words become a self-fulfilling prophecy and too often dictate how we think, then how we feel. We all have days when we feel like this, but attitude is key. It doesn’t take care of everything, but it goes a long way to holding the hands of time steady on the clock. Look how long Jack Benny was 39.

Then, of course, there’s how we look, or think we look, which may have the greatest impact of all on our emotional and psychological well-being. When I look in the mirror, I see the changes that have taken place over time – a little puffiness under the eyes, a few lines around the mouth, yet I don’t feel any differently from the way I felt yesterday, last week, or five years ago. I still go ballroom dancing, occasionally put on my ice skates and whirl around the rink to the latest tunes, and belt out a few songs with Laura, though I think she’s reluctant to let me karaoke with her anymore, or maybe I’m the reluctant one. And my students at the university have always kept me sharp. If you don’t stay one step ahead of them, they’ll render you irrelevant in the classroom.  My granddaughters, too, (Kearsti and Megan) keep me from dating myself with archaic vocabulary and indicate, often with a look or a groan, whether what I wear will draw sneers or high-fives.

And I’m no slacker. I do my best to “keep myself up.”

Still, it comes as a shock to find the occasional wrinkle here or an age spot there – if only we’d known what damage the sun does when we were younger. The disparity between the things you see and those you feel can be jarring. My hip hurts when the weather turns cold, the result of a car accident in the late ’90s, and I limp sometimes when I rise from the chair or the floor where I often sit Indian-style. I tell myself this can’t be me. Isn’t me. Won’t ever BE me. But who else is it? No, I’m not immune to the affects of aging even if I’m not entirely at their mercy. Not yet, anyway. There is, however, the subliminal fear that I will be subjected to the ravages of time in their supreme wrath one day when I least expect it.

I don’t mind being ravaged – but not that way.

My father’s dark skin (Native American ancestry) was weathered by a two- to three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He smoked unfiltered Camels all his life, his addiction obvious in the deep, leathery grooves in his cheeks, and the severe lines carved across his forehead and around his eyes and mouth, and those sliced into his well-tanned cheeks. Some of the worst skin I’ve seen belongs to smokers and sun worshipers. If you’re worried about how you look when you stand in front of the mirror, you can take steps to change those inevitable kinds of outcomes. And you’ll live longer, too. There is help for you out there. Look for it. Ask.

But it isn’t just about how we look. Sometimes it’s what we come to believe because we say it over and over. Will saying it often enough make it true?

It can. Sometimes.

There are changes I’ve had to make to accommodate the things I have refused to openly acknowledge. In my mid-fifties I was still riding roller coasters at Cedar Point, stopping only because the jerking and bumping brought on severe migraines. I miss the rush, but then I get a bad headache and remember why I gave up the coasters. At 62, I was still doing cartwheels across the lawn – to make sure I still could.  Good ones, straight ones – until I tore my hamstring. My fault for failing to stretch beforehand. A few months later I sprained my ankle on an icy step, and it took seven months to fully heal. Why? Because I’m not an athlete. Because I’m not twenty, or even thirty, any longer – a fact my doctor tactfully reminded me of as I hobbled off to physical therapy. Yes, I recovered, but not with the swift indifference of yesteryear. So now I console myself by getting to the gym at 5 AM, just like always, and working out on the machines two or three times a week and alternating a treadmill with a non-stop mile in the pool usually twice a week. I can’t walk around the lake every day when it’s too cold or too hot, the way I have for most of my life adult life, thanks to a heart issue, so I altered that which I used to do, filling that time with whatever I still can.

Bill doesn’t do the workout thing. Nor Mark. A few years before he tore his rotator cuff, Mark went

English: Mt.Camelback Ski Area Febr.2006

English: Mt.Camelback Ski Area Febr.2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

snow-skiing somewhere in the Poconos, I think. It was his first time skiing, ever, and he fell, seriously breaking his leg. He’d never been one to let chronology stand in his way, at least not before this. Now he says his skiing days are over. Bill swore off skiing long before Mark, having had a near-miss with a snow fence at the end of long, steep slope on his first practice run some twenty-odd years back. Bill’s mantra – why take chances?

I want to age gracefully, but I will not simply acquiesce. Wishing the mirror on my wall were magic, I ask that question one more time. I know I’m not “the fairest in the land” but am I doing okay? Am I managing change gracefully?

I have not let myself go, but there are some things I still need to let go of.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall…

Do you remember what Snow White’s wicked stepmother considered most important? Right – that she be known as “the most beautiful of all.” And how was that kind of ‘beauty’ defined? Right again – looks. So how did the mirror answer the Queen’s question: “Magic Mirror on the wall / Who’s the Fairest of them all?

Queen (Snow White)

Queen (Snow White) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You, my Queen. You.

Queenie was insecure and needed validation. How little times have changed.

I thought the hard set of the Queen’s face and the sharp angles in the original animated version bespoke her evil nature.  The ugliness underneath couldn’t be contained. No matter how often she asked, she could never achieve the beauty Snow White possessed without even trying.

Despite how we feel about it, we are all destined to age. When you’re young, “older” signals maturity, responsibility, privileges, the ability to drive, vote – the list goes on. We welcome those aspects of getting older – at least until we get that unsolicited mail that says we’re now eligible to join AARP. What? At 50? When did 50 become equated with “old Age,” turning us into “Senior Citizens”?

When I hit 50 and found an invitation to join AARP in my mailbox, I unceremoniously tossed it into the wastebasket. I wasn’t “old” – as in the traditional image of a senior citizen that came to mind, the one from my childhood that looked like my own beloved grandmother: shorter than she once was, with wrinkly skin, short graying hair, minus a well-defined lap, never without an apron and her arms up to her elbows in flour and dough, and always singing me lullabies and reading me stories. No, I was not about to “go there.” Not at 50. I was a grandmother, too, but went ice-skating and ballroom dancing with my granddaughter. I read and sang to her, and we did lots of mother-daughter kinds of things, too. There was no line between between Kearsti and me that said, Hey you’re a grandma; you can’t do these things anymore. No line that said “you’re old now, give it a rest.”

But the invites kept coming, and around 60 my husband, Bill, reconsidered that membership offer on my behalf, without my knowledge. Discovery that I had joined and was now a card-carrying member came with the arrival of my official AARP card in the mail. Was Bill trying to push me over that demarcation line because he wanted company on its other side?

Membership in AARP does have some advantages – saving money on all kinds of things from meals to hotels. And we do like to travel. The more we can save, the more we can go. But still – a card-carrying member of an organization of seniors – at 50? I recently refused an invitation for a potluck picnic at the lake because it was for “The Over 55s.” Frankly, I do not see the need for people to label themselves in this way. I might be there, chronologically, but I don’t feel any differently than when I was, say 40. And if you must know, yes, I am clinging to that. And I realize that AARP has no small measure of clout in the political arena either, though I don’t exercise my rights as a member. I’m still a busy person – still busy, like I was at 40.

I guess I still pretty much ignore the whole thing. Denial – pure and simple. Ok?

 

No one that I know really wants to “go gentle into that good night” and, in fact, Dylan Thomas tells us not to. It sounds good on paper, and it might be psychologically better for us to do so, but the fact is that many of us find ourselves kicking and screaming, fighting the inevitable changes that come with that long runway to the end of our days. And many of us fight them every single step of the way.

I never thought much about the changes that come with aging and even now, on the low end of my sixties, that hasn’t changed. But it doesn’t mean I’m blind to a few subtle changes when I look at my own reflection in the mirror – nor that I don’t wish I actually were 40 again.

 

But one thing is certain: if you’re constantly fighting the changes that come as you get older, acceptance of this stage of the lifecycle will elude you. And so will some of its benefits – hard to believe, but it does have benefits. Acceptance heralds peace of mind that allows you to appreciate not just what life offers at every age, but who you are, and what you have to offer others by virtue of the experience you’ve accumulated over the course of those years.

Of course we “rage against the dying of the light” – who wouldn’t want a few more minutes, more days, more years? Minutes, days, and years, that is, spent with beautiful faces and bodies to match. Minutes, days, and years that would still allow us to do what they did before – and still feel good afterward. It would be nice to have “the face that launched a thousand ships,” even after all this time, but to invoke an old cliché, time marches on.

Yeah, well, it takes prisoners, too, dragging new wrinkles, increased fatigue, and more aches and pains along with it with each new year that stampedes past us.

Acceptance is key – the fact that you are aging, and accommodating the changes in your body, finding a way to accept and work with “that which [we] can not change,” your life and the lives of those around you will be all the richer for it.

And when you ask that question the wicked Queen asked, in her search for reassurance –

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Who’s the fairest of them all?

You may find, in the end, that the fairest of all might just be – you.