“You Look Marvelous!” Worry About Looking Good and Worry About Feeling Good

Knock on Any Door Poster[7]

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.

Ursula Andress and John Derek

Ursula Andress and John Derek

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.

Bo Derek in the 1979 movie 10

Bo Derek in the 1979 movie 10

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.

High School Reunions

So you have a high school reunion coming up. And, perhaps you are a bit uncomfortable with the idea of attending. I’ve heard quite a few reasons that cause people to hesitate to go to just such events:

  1. No one will remember me.
  2. Everyone will remember me.
  3. I’ve gotten ________(fill in the blank here with such things as: fat, bald, wrinkled, or the physical defect of your choice).
  4. I haven’t accomplished anything or I haven’t accomplished enough.
  5. I’m divorced.
  6. I’m_________(another blank to fill with such things as: living with my parents, an ex-convict, dreadfully boring, etc).
  7. I never liked those people when I was 17, so why would I like them now?

I imagine there are other reasons, but you get the idea.

Let’s see if I can counter some of these excuses:

  1. Lots of people believe that they won’t be remembered. It is unlikely that no one will know your name. But even if you are recalled by few others, a reunion is actually an opportunity to get to know some of the people who you didn’t know well in high school.
  2. Apparently, you believe that you were well known as a social outcast or as an obnoxious teenager. But perhaps you will be surprised to discover that people are pretty forgiving after 10 or 20 years. If you are no longer on the outside looking in, you have nothing to worry about — people will take you as you now are. And, if you were a bad guy, maybe you need to apologize to a few people. They will almost certainly be gracious.
  3. Do you really think you are the only person who changed physically since your graduation? Unless your classmates live in a jar of formaldehyde, its likely that they haven’t escaped the aging process. It’s true that people age differently, and a lucky few are pretty well-preserved (or have been cosmetically altered to give that appearance), but only one or two have made pacts with the devil to remain ageless.
  4. In the midst of the “Great Recession” more than a few people are out of work or under-employed. You will hardly be alone in this either. Indeed, the reunion might be an opportunity to network.
  5. You are divorced? Look at the reunion as a chance to encounter a new love. Many of the divorced people in attendance are looking for just that opportunity. You might be the person they seek.
  6. OK, living with your parents is not something to brag about. Unless, of course, you are taking care of an aging parent, in which case it tells your old friends that you have a heart. And, if you have a criminal record and are reformed, good for you. Unless you made the front page of the Chicago Tribune, its unlikely that anyone will know this. As far as being boring, you have some time to think about what you might say to the people you meet at the reunion. Work on it. Think of some good questions to ask them. And remember what notable or amusing events you’ve lived through since the last time you saw your old friends.
  7. So you didn’t like your classmates. You didn’t get along with the snobs, the jocks, the brains, the preppies, the druggies, the burn-outs or all the above and more. The good news is that some of these people have changed and are now much more approachable. More good news: some of the people who seemed stuck-up were actually just as shy as you were, and you mistook their distancing for disdain.

A few more observations about high school reunions. The closer in time to your graduation, the more people will resemble their high school avatars. The first reunions, certainly including the 10th and 20th, do involve a certain amount of social comparison among people.

But, by the time you reach reunion 40, almost anyone who comes is just glad to see you and likely to be unconcerned with anything to do with your social status, bank account, or beauty. The feeling of good-will is pretty palpable by the time you are reunited in middle-age: you know that not everyone from your class is still alive, and you are likely to appreciate old friends more than ever.

There is something about being with people who lived in the same place as you did, had the same teachers, in the same moment in history, at precisely the same age as you were when you achieved many of the “firsts” of your life: first kiss, first love, learning to drive, taking your college board (SAT/ACT) exams, and so forth.

You (and your old classmates) had all the same anxieties, worries, hesitations, and learning experiences as you tried to figure out who you were and what was the best direction for your life. It’s likely that you’ve made good friends later in life, but these high school friends were the people you walked with in the formative moments of that life, the people who knew your still relatively young parents and your siblings, and the almost brand-new version of you. Nothing can replace that shared background and knowledge.

So, if your not certain about attending your reunion, I hope you will think about what I’ve written. You might be pleasantly surprised by the experience.