I finally got around to reading Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing last week and am still laughing. But she made me think. Nora Ephron and I are the same age, and she’s writing about being old. Ye gods! Having arrested at a mental age of eighteen, I sort of missed out on that awareness, but was spurred by her observations to start looking around.
And she may be right. As the Boomer generation reaches for its first Social Security checks, countless industries, salivating in anticipation, are already in high gear. I hadn’t quite made the connection, but in my computer is state-of-the-art spyware that provides incessant reassurances: “SpyMassacre has identified and savagely smashed 10,472 pointless and irritating ads since dawn, PST.” Yet every day at least one Viagra ad sneaks into my email, some even providing “directions for use” that keep me and the neighbors snickering until well after lunch. These advertising people cast a wide net. And, I now see, with good reason. Even the least vain among us (and I’m not one of them) are prone to that single moment of weakness in which being, or at least looking, less old sounds like fun.
In Southern California where I live most of the time, aging is illegal, a social sanction I’ve managed to ignore by going right ahead and aging without paying much attention. But I now see the task as a challenge, since aging is basically a second adolescence (“What is happening to my body?) only without all the future perks adolescents can anticipate. Perks like getting a driver’s license, a job that pays more than minimum wage, and arthritis. People my age already have arthritis, a discomfort only made worse by having to carry seventy-two pounds of Medicare insurance promotions in from the mailbox every day. These ads feature thirty-year-old models whose hair has been spray-painted silver. They are photographed zealously playing tennis and dancing in nightclubs, secure in the knowledge that they’ve selected from eight thousand incomprehensible options exactly the insurance program that will cover both her gall bladder surgery and his off-formulary gout medication.
In an article sent to me by a friend on the heels of Ephron’s book, a comedian writing for the New York Times had this to say about the elderly: “They look like lizards.”
I saw a pattern emerging, but before racing to the nearest mirror I had to ask myself if I fit the term, “elderly.” The word has such a quaint ring, calling to mind lap robes and frail, spotted old hands struggling to open eight thousand Medicare insurance ads. I was sure I didn’t have a lap robe, and only last week I single-handedly opened a jar of mango chutney sealed with such force it could have survived intact from the tomb of Amenhotep. Still, where I come from we face facts. So okay, I’m probably “elderly” despite having no lap robe, or for that matter, lap, although that’s another story.
But before approaching the mirror I went outside to look at an actual lizard, just for the comparison. There are lots of them in California, unimaginatively named “Western Fence Lizard” because this is as far west as you can go without drowning, and all they do is stand around on fences executing an endless series of pushups. California lizards are fit lizards. They’re also chinless, beady-eyed and the color of fences.
Back inside I looked in the mirror and saw not a regular lizard, but a pink lizard with hair wearing glasses. A lizard who would rather read the back of a cereal box than do a single pushup. A lizard with laugh lines in which the Donner party could get lost (again) and crow’s feet with many more toes than crows really have. But so what. As long as you’ve got your health and all that, I thought. I taped a printout of my last lab report, cheerfully telling me that I barely have blood pressure at all, over the mirror, and went shopping so I could stop thinking about words like “old, aging” and “elderly.
I planned to shop for sensible things like paper towels, clever kitchen gadgets and maybe one of those earth-friendly magazines with articles about how to repair your cracked foundation slab in one afternoon with only a quarter-ton of oatmeal. But once inside the big-box store, the cosmetics section (roughly the size of New Hampshire) emitted a magnetic pull. A veritable siren call. One entire aisle was devoted to… anti-aging crèmes!
Ghosts of Nora Ephron and that comedian in the New York Times pushed me forward toward a number of options rivaled only by the number of possible Medicare insurance plans. Thousands of crèmes, salves and lotions in tasteful little jars, tubes and aerosol cans called seductively from tiers of four shelves on both sides of the aisle. “Flawless skin in ten days!” “Eliminate wrinkles overnight!” “Lose ten years in one application!”
I quickly concluded that in addition to ten years, I could easily lose the equivalent of a mortgage payment as well. One shimmery little item half the size of a baby-food jar promised an end to lip-creasing and went for $80. A teensy metallic lavender tube containing both alpha and beta hydroxy acids (to dissolve those unsightly crow’s feet?) was $63.98. I could purchase something made with mud from the Dead Sea, honey from Hungarian bees or, if I read the package correctly and maybe I didn’t since it was in Old High Spanish, desiccated scorpion spleen. All for less than a year’s tuition at Harvard.
The store was closing by the time I found something to try – a low-ticket knockoff of a generalist product guaranteed to “produce overnight results!” By the time I got home the fence lizards had all gone wherever lizards go at night, but I smirked in the general direction of the fence anyway. By tomorrow the lizards would not mistake me for a huge, weird cousin who defies centuries of evolution by refusing to do pushups.
But they did anyway.
I slathered on the crème that night and by the next day I looked less like a lizard than like Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” If anything, I looked older than Bette Davis, who is actually dead. Fine creases I previously couldn’t even see without my glasses stood out in high relief. My face looked like the topographical map in a department of agriculture report entitled “Desert Gully Erosion: Two Thousand Years of History.”
Panicked, I called my friend January, who after twenty-eight months in a drought-stricken African village with the Peace Corps is an expert on facial repair products.
“You must have accidentally picked up the stuff fourteen-year-olds buy to look older in fake i.d. photos so they can get into bars and sexually-explicit movies,” she said.
I checked. That wasn’t it. I was simply destined to look my age. Which is eighteen only on the inside.
But I try to avoid conspicuous waste, so I took the rest of my anti-aging crème outside and smeared it on the fence where the lizards like to work out. Up, down, up, down, their little reptilian throats soaking up alpha-hydroxies and molecules from the Dead Sea with every push.
By late afternoon they didn’t look any different, but I’m pretty sure one of them waved to me. Without question, it was a cousinly wave.