So, you've gotten old. (If you are young, please disregard; clip this column and place it in the family Bible where you're likely to come across it in your dotage as you search for solace, or if you're reading it online, paste it into a virtual time capsule with instructions to be opened when AARP begins its ritual bombardment.) This is a significant accomplishment in itself, never mind whatever heights you've attained in your chosen field or material goods you've been able to amass. You have managed, through either skillful maneuvering or blind luck, to avoid bullets, deadly viruses, killer bees, tsunamis, lightning bolts, runaway trains, mad dogs, poisoned apples, disgruntled former employees, and all the other zillion-and-one things trying to kill you. Life is a minefield, and you have negotiated it with the grace and aplomb of a prima ballerina. Give yourself a pat on the back, if your joints will permit it. They probably won't. Ask a grandchild to do it; they already think you're crazy.
And what is your reward for this intrepid journey you've made? Well, pain, for one. Chronic, unremitting pain. It may be only vague aches and twinges (so far) or it may have bloomed into full-on agony, but it's there. As we age and certain somatic departments shut down or scale back production, like hair growing or boner generation, the body's pain centers ramp up their own output, gaining strength and influence and hammering willy-nilly on nerves for the sheer joy of it. Who among us has not been sitting comfortably and feeling all is pickles and daube, when out of nowhere BAM! some random organ or joint, unheard from your entire long life, all of a sudden erupts into white-hot agony without the slightest provocation or warning. Sometimes it's your body showing off its ability to stop you in your tracks and make you say uncle*, and just as often it’s a harbinger of some horrible and deadly disease come to close up your shop for good. You could go see a doctor when these flare-ups occur, and he'll tell you one of two things: it's nothing, you're just getting old, or, you're going to die. This is why I never go to doctors unless I need a bone set or a cut sewn up. That sort of nuts-and-boltsy stuff I'm fine having them perform, but once the speculation and imaging and probes come out I figure I'd be just as well served by a shaman. Magnetic resonance, chicken entrails, six of one, half dozen of the other. Either of them will say the same thing, which I already know. When I'm sick or in pain, one of two things is going to happen. I'm going to get better, or I'm going to die. Doctors like to claim that their intervention has a degree of influence on this outcome, and while I admit that the power to prescribe OxyContin is awesome and magical, I happen to disagree. I prefer to let my body work things out on its own, and so far that's worked out just fine. Some may say I've been blessed with good health; I say that medical diagnoses are self-fulfilling prophecies and that my body, in the absence of interference by the medical establishment, is free to repair itself utilizing its own built-in disease-fighting regimen.
It's important not to coddle your immune system. I keep mine robust and active by deliberately exposing it to every germ I can identify or even suspect of existing. As a result, it would take a government-engineered shifting-antigen supervirus with laser sights and jet propulsion to penetrate my defenses — mere rhinoviri cannot horn in nor influenza exert any influence.
As to the heavyweights, the big guns, cancer and the like — I laugh at them. If the Big C ever comes for me, I'll tie it in a knot and ship it back from whence it came. My cells do as they are told, and unchecked growth will not be tolerated.
This does not, however, mean I am exempt from the usual pains associated with advancing age. My knees sing like a coloratura whose toe was just stepped on by the baritone and pop like bubble wrap throughout my waking hours, and my sciatic nerve likes to keep things interesting by becoming a fiery bolt of pure agony lancing down my backside eight or nine times a day. Various injuries from my invincible youth periodically reassert themselves, as if to reminisce about the good old days when war wounds were a source of pride and healing was rapid and certain. These pains, along with a raft of random, unexplainable twinges, pangs, and aches that pop in to say hi several times a day, I've learned to live with as a new paradigm emerges: life + pain. It's no picnic, but it does make the pain-free moments that much sweeter.
Another unfortunate byproduct of aging is Knowledge and its acquisition. Not the good kind, the understanding of taxes and escrow and the federal reserve and the electoral college and all the other boring stuff that Youth can't be bothered with but does occasionally need information about and so comes to us for it, but behind-the-curtain demystifying stuff.
When you're young, you believe in all sorts of magical bullshit and lofty abstractions, the primary one being Love. Eventually you realize it's just an elaborate ruse cooked up by your genetic code to get you to replicate it, and you've gotta hand it to evolution for having arrived at such an enjoyable and effective way of doing it, but I do long for the hormone-clouded days of youth when love ruled. That's a genie that definitely won't go back in the bottle, though. Like Santa Claus, Bigfoot, UFOs, and democracy, Eros gets tossed onto the waste-pile of discarded beliefs, there to rot in a fetid, steaming pile of cynicism as the miasma of reality wafts upward.
There is one aspect of aging that really scrapes my undercarriage, though, more than the random aches, more than my grizzled (albeit distinguished) locks, more than the occasional pain and humiliation of sitting on my reproductive apparatus (made doubly so when someone asks "Whadja do?), more than all these god-damn kids and that screeching and banging they call music — and that's the Unsolicited Celebrity Comparison.
When you're young and someone says to you, "You know who you look like?" there's generally a 50/50 chance it'll be a favorable comparison, depending on what you look like and the motives of the comparer. Oftentimes people will use this gambit as either a flattering lever to wedge themselves into your affections or a demoralizing flail to whack away at your self-esteem. Say you and a friend are chatting up the same girl and he says, "Dude, you know who you look like? Steve Buscemi!" and she says, "Oh my god, you do! You look just like him!" You're finished. Walk away.
In my younger days, the comparisons I most often heard were to David Bowie, Kiefer Sutherland, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Sting. I realize these people look nothing like one another, or, in fact, me, but there was apparently some dimension of my youthful aspect that evoked these gentlemen. Now, though, it's "You know who you look like? A skinny Wilford Brimley." "You look like that guy from Cocoon." "You look like my grandma." "You look like Mr. Furley from Three's Company." "John Malkovich." "Gandalf." "Gollum." "You look like the host of that one show (Please say Johnny Carson!). You know, the scary one. Creepshow! That's who you look like, the Cryptkeeper."
This is why, when someone says to me, "You know who you remind me of?" I say, "Nope. Uh-uh. Don't wanna know, don't wanna hear it. I look like me, for better or worse.”
"No, but seriously, dude, you look just like—"
"What part of 'Uh-uh' did you not understand? The 'Uh,’ or the 'uh'? Stifle."
As you know, there are three choices for groceries in the greater Fort Bragg metropolitan area, one ghetto, one plebeian, and one hoity-toity. I will sometimes travel to the Boatyard to patronize the latter, solely for the lush and inviting bounty of their produce section. One day I was pushing a cart around that store and enjoying the rarefied ambiance when I passed a young, attractive woman going the other way whose smile and glance at me lasted visibly longer than the standard second or two. I wasn't fooling myself as to her intentions — she was way out of my league and clearly in different age, economic, educational, and social demographics — but apparently something interested her about me. I smiled back, hoping she was impressed by my daikon radishes and bulk quinoa, and moved on down the aisle. A little later I was agonizing over the relative merits of competing brands of EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) — mother's milk, really — when she passed by again, this time giving me a long and slightly quizzical gaze as she rolled by. I had a startling realization. She was probably a victim of or witness to one of my stupid, inept, half-baked capers who thought at first she recognized me from shopping but then realized I was the rascal who stole the peat moss from out in front of the gardening store, you dolt! This is what comes of trying to mingle with the quality. Maybe now you'll learn your place and go back to shopping at Purity, where they adorn the walls with the hands of shoplifters rather than their photographs.
As a responsible citizen she probably wanted to make absolutely sure of her identification before she called in the authorities. I probably had a few minutes, so I grabbed a bottle of Bertolli and headed to the front to make my purchases. I dared not look behind me but I could feel eyes accusingly following as I hied registerward.
Once outside, I kicked on the afterburners as I headed out to my car. I tossed my bags in the back seat and heard the chirp-thump of the Lexus next to my rusted-out hoopty unlocking. I looked up and it was her, again smiling at me. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to be rude in there, but you kept reminding me of someone and I couldn't figure out who it was. Finally it dawned on me."
Great, I thought. This is it. The end of my tenure as a sexual being. The moment this hot, rich young woman tells you what antediluvian fossilized relic you favor, it's over. You have now become so shot out, busted up, worn down, and stove in that strangers on the street are now stopping to remind you of it as a public service so you don't do anything stupid like trying to participate in the mating rituals of the young and attractive.
"You look like Dale Earnhardt Jr. You're a little older, but you look just like him!"
Huh. Alright, I'll take that. "You don't look much like a Nascar fan," I said.
"My dad," she said. "He loves it and Dale's his favorite driver."
"Alright then. Shake and bake!" I said, waved and drove off.
I looked up Earnhardt when I got home. He was 14 years younger and not a bad-looking guy. Maybe she required ophthalmic adjustment, maybe the lights in la-di-dah land were engineered to flatter, or maybe — just maybe — I still had it. I aggressively downshifted as I blasted down the hill and turned on to 20, and heard some ominous clunky sounds from the tranny of my '93 Toyota POS. Careful, boy, I told myself. This thing's older'n you in car years.
I dropped the hammer when I hit the straight and fancied myself No. 8 racing toward glory at Daytona. Funny how a casual remark from a stranger can make or break a day, I thought. If she'd said I looked like Hume Cronyn I'd probably be driving into the ocean right now. Ultimately, though, I am what I am and all the praise or criticism in the world won't change that. I understand that emotionally evolved, mentally healthy people esteem themselves to a degree which does not require outside reassurance and are confident enough that their self-images can withstand assault without collapsing. Must be nice!
(*Ed note: We were reminded here of Richard Pryor’s famous re-enactment of his heart attack. Pryor said it was as if God reached down and grabbed him by the sternum and wrenched it hard throwing him to his knees in agony. As Pryor prayed desperately, God wrenched him again and said, “Remember that PORK you ate two years ago!”)