We pass invisible markers on the walk along the shifting sands of life. The signposts signify three stages:
- 1. The total unself-consciousness of a little baby, who only knows that he feels good or bad, but has virtually no concern about the impact that his appearance makes on others.
- 2. The period where appearance and impression matter. Comparisons are all around. Are you as pretty as she is? Does your hair look right? Do you have enough muscles? When are your boobs going to show up? Are you tall enough, handsome enough, thin enough — just simply “becoming” enough to beat out the competition; for the people you’d like to think well of you, that is?
- 3. The third stage. It isn’t that you don’t care at all about how you look as you get past mid-life, but how you feel becomes much more important. If the pants are comfortable, who cares if they aren’t fashionable? Why try a new hair style when the one you’ve been using since 1974 seems so much a part of you? When did it become hard to get a restful night’s sleep? When did the aches and pains begin? And then there are the dreaded medications that make one symptom feel better and give you three side-effects that require their own medical solutions. Your doctor visits become more frequent and your conversations change from “How about those Cubs?” to “What did your doctor say?” And the doctor isn’t talking about your appearance, he is talking about how you feel.
None of this is good news. You are paying for your diminished vanity with augmented, expanded, supersized preoccupations of a different kind. As the famous and elderly pianist Menachem Pressler once said from the stage of the Ravinia Festival:
I have a friend who says that if you wake up in the morning and your over 80 and you’re not in pain — you’re dead!
There’s got to be a bright side to this, right?
Well, for one thing, less vanity isn’t so bad. As long as you still take a regular shower and put on deodorant and wear clean clothes, there is no possibility that you will be arrested by the “Vanity Police” for offending the sensibilities of those who live to be seen. They spend their lives trying to look like models in Vogue or GQ or Elle. These same people waste their life savings on hair stylists and new suits and the best looking shoes. They are the kind of folks who buy new glasses with every passing season because fashions have changed even if their eye prescription hasn’t.
There is freedom in liking yourself for who you are on the inside rather than who you please by your outsides. A little more confidence and a little less insecurity go a long way to a happier life. If the crowd’s applause means less to you, you’ve figured out something pretty important about contentment.
Ah, but the downside. I will use myself as an example. I am reportedly in very good health for a man of 125. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that. I mean, for a man my age who falls into the category of the “young old” or just a little bit beyond. I’m doing just fine. Who thinks up these categories anyway? Are there job listings in the newspaper and on Monster or other Internet sites for people who make up names like “Generation Y” or “Baby Boomers” or “Millennials?” Then, of course, there are the “old-old,” the “preposterously-old,” the “disgustingly-old” and the “better off dead.” At least, I think so.
When he was 88, my dad said he wanted to live to be 100. Of course, many years before, he said that if he could get to 70 he would have had no cause for complaint on the time that had been allotted to him. I do not know when he started to push the goal posts back, but I do know that a week after he made his new target public he stroked-out and never regained consciousness. It was the kind of event that my good friend Dan Morrison likes to call a “clean get-away.” No muss, no fuss, no lingering and best of all, no great pain. The kind of death that most of us are hoping for.
Feeling good yet? I know that it is unseemly to talk about these things. They are the kind of subjects that seem morbid and don’t exactly lift the mood. And yet there is at least one advantage to feeling somewhat less good as we age: it makes the ending a little more attractive. No, I’m not talking suicide here. What I’m saying is that if you are in the prime of life at age 92, feeling just as fine and fit as you did 70 years before, the idea of your demise will be much more horrifying than if various body parts are starting to fall off and you’re wondering if maybe living forever is not exactly desirable. You begin to think that perhaps John Derek was right when he said “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” in the 1949 movie Knock on Any Door. And remember, John Derek knew a bit about what it meant to be good-looking. This handsome actor/director married Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, and Bo Derek in succession. If there had been a Presidential Cabinet post for the evaluation of pulchritude, he would have gotten the job.
Here’s the bottom line: We want to live forever but we don’t want to get old. A contradiction, for sure. Best to accept the nature of things, concentrate on what you still can do rather than what you no longer can do, and make the “clean get-away” my friend Dan describes. In the meantime, do some good for young people, live “in the moment,” and enjoy the sunshine. I’ve heard it’s a lot darker in the Underworld — the afterlife described by the ancient Greeks.
Have a nice day. Really.