WHO WOULD I BE FOOLING?

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For many years, whenever what I saw developing in the bathroom mirror displeased me I would think: “Oh well, I can always make all that disappear with plastic surgery.”

Somehow that didn’t happen.  I hate pain, even if temporary. I also hate the pain of writing any check containing the word “thousand” after a single or double digit number, a pain that isn’t so temporary. The sum of money indicated on the check vanishes from your possession forever and then you can never again think about spending it, if you really wanted to, for something you normally would never spend money on.

In my early sixties, when I was once more between husbands, I did consult a plastic surgeon in Boston about something unrelated to my face.  (The consultation was free.)  He seemed not only a well-trained fellow with unusually attractive patients in his waiting room, but also turned out to be sensible and realistic. He was easily able to persuade me of what I had suspected all along:  what I had sought counsel about was neither feasible or necessary.  However, he was so nice I was sorry to part with him.  “So isn’t there anything you could do for me?” I asked.

He regarded me thoughtfully for a moment and suggested perhaps a partial “procedure” to restore my youth from nostril to neck. (That’s not exactly how he put it.)  But he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. After a moment he also added:  “It isn’t necessary either, you know.  A man who really loves you won’t care about the firmness of your chin.”  I did wonder how he kept his waiting room filled if he shared that wisdom with other prospective patients.

Fast forward to my eightieth year, when a brownish three-dimensional  “thing” began to sprout from my upper left cheek.  Wrinkles and sag I had learned to live with. But not this intruder (extruder?), if I could help it.  Again I sought professional help. This time she was a woman here in Princeton, accredited up the wazoo, who assured me she could remove the “thing” and at the same time smooth out the surface of my skin with a “deep peel” as well.  This appeared to be a package deal. It was summer and I was both lazy and innocent in the ways of dermatologists and plastic surgeons.  I said okay.  But then, since it was another of those free consultations, I asked how much a one-time, first and last, face lift might cost. I know, I know: nobody asks such questions without harboring a secret yearning to look young again.

Her face lit up.  (Now for the profitable stuff. ) She whisked me over to a seat in front of a mirrored wall and stood behind the chair. Then she lifted upwards with both her knowing gentle hands. Voila!  The face of my thirties greeted me.  In my real thirties, I had kept finding fault with this face.  Let me tell you, it looked pretty good to me now.

“O, what cheekbones!” she rhapsodized.  (Really?)

I left not only with an appointment scheduled for “thing” removal and a deep peel, but also with pricing for facial surgery alone, facial surgery plus eye lift, cost of hospital stay, cost of anesthetist for four hours general anesthesia, the memory of the face in the mirror and  — pain be damned! — a trembling desire,  as the copywriter in me would put it, “to roll back the years.”

Bill, the man who eventually loved me despite my unfirm chin, sat up with a start at the news and remembered his years in medical school sixty years before.  “Four hours under general anesthesia for elective surgery?  At your age? Absolutely not!”

My internist agreed.  At eighty? Not wise.

Several acquaintances whose opinion I sought had heard there was a slight risk of loss of mental acuity.  Meaning I might lose some smarts.  (Some of what’s left, that is. There’s plenty gone already.)

I lost faith in the doctor over the next few months anyway. She did get the “thing” off. But let me tell you a deep peel h-u-r-t-s, no matter how expensive it is. (She never mentioned that, or that I would have to spend the summer smeared in Eucerin — greasy! — under widely brimmed hats.) I never went back for a yearly re-do, as recommended if you wish to retain your supposedly fresh and dewy look.

So if the subject of facelifts had come up after that in any dialogue, real or virtual, you would have found me almost entirely on the side of being oneself.  In moderation, of course.  What I don’t spend on Manolos or Louboutins (because I’d fall on my face if I tried to walk in them) goes to my hairdresser, who owns his own eponymous shop and therefore costs more. (Although no tip because he’s the owner.) There —  pain-free and hence without general anesthetic — I get Keratin straightening twice a year, and coloring my roots every eight weeks, and partial “highlighting” every sixteen weeks, and the obligatory double cheek-kissing at the end of every visit.  (He’s Moroccan, French-speaking and Paris-trained.)  I also have a bathroom full of Bobbi Brown products, which somewhat mask the absence of continued dewy facial freshness, and I smell (if I may use the word) of Hermes. (On Perfume.com it seems it’s nearly always 15% off.)  Which fragrances? Caleche for day, 24 Faubourg for evening and specials. (Don’t ask what the specials are; I know one when I see it coming.)

But deep down, have I still yearned to look young(er)?  Um, yes. It would be great to look the way one sometimes feels.  Then sappy young waiters wouldn’t dare be patronizing, and maybe medical assistants who never saw me before would stop with the kindly, reassuring first-name business,  and  — here we’re really getting to the nitty gritty — I could still flirt with strangers, which used to be one of the major fun parts of everyday life.

Don’t be too concerned, though. The yearning has always stayed deep down.  Until a few weeks ago, when it may finally have gone away for good!  I recently took a commuter bus instead of the train to New York (just to see what it was like) and went to the rear, hoping if it didn’t fill it might be quiet enough back there to read.  It did fill, though, and three ladies who got on north of New Brunswick sat down in the row in front of mine. The two directly in front of me were likely in their early sixties. I could give you a wicked description of their haircuts and what they had on (I can be truly evil when the spirit so moves), but will leave them in peace because they had smile lines around their mouths and little crinkles around their eyes and the kind of chin lines the men who love them — and I’d be willing to bet they each have such a man — don’t care about.

But the third lady, sitting one row in front of me and across the aisle, immediately attracted my attention for the dewy white unblemished freshness of her complexion.  She couldn’t have been young — she came with the other two and her straight hair was that of an aging woman, the sort of hair a hairdresser can only cut short and then color a desperate shade of straw, to try to conceal its wispy thinness. Despite the hair, however, her skin had not a single line at all,  anywhere, and it couldn’t have been just Botox.

Moreover, her blue eyes were open very wide throughout the entire seventy-five minute ride, as if she had just seen something that startled her and her eyelids had frozen high in the eye sockets. There was no indentation at all between her nostrils and mouth; that part of her face had been stretched so wide it was absolutely flat. The stretching had thinned her lips into a long straight line, as if if she were perhaps about to smile but had thought better of it.  No smile lines framing the mouth, though.  But what was most startling was her chin and jaw — both sharp and clean and raised up as if she couldn’t lower them. And perhaps she couldn’t.  I took my gloves off and pulled my own face and throat back with thumbs and fingers as tightly as I could and then, without letting go, tried to lower my chin.  I couldn’t.

Was it a terribly botched job?  A third or fourth or fifth facelift? Somehow I think it was repeated, and intentional.  Perhaps the unbelievably babylike texture of her skin made her feel young. This lady was at least in her seventies. She wore a black Persian lamb coat, and who wears those anymore? Her hands were bony and had some brown spots; there was a slight osteoporotic hump beneath the back of her Chanel-copy jacket; she took a sucking candy out of her handbag and sucked it in the front of her mouth with closed (stretched) lips, the way old ladies often do.  (Except her chin stayed jaunty as she sucked.)  Occasionally she made a comment to her friends across the aisle; she had what my eight-year-old grandson would, with the blunt outspokenness of childhood, call an “old lady” voice.

So who did she think she was fooling? Who would I be fooling if I had insisted on tinkering with the passage of time? I don’t have the hump, or the coat, or the sucking candies, but my hands are a dead giveaway and when I have phlegm my voice cracks.  With her jaunty chin and startled eyes, she slowly made her way down the aisle of the bus in front of me, her feet set wide apart to keep her balance, her pocket book full of those candies dangling from her Persian lamb-covered arm. The driver gave her a hand off the bus. Despite the dewy freshness of her complexion, he knew she’d need his help.

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VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

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A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am.  Which means she was about seventy-one when she called.  It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed.  But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading Lydia Davis or War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked.  However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind.  Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery.  Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.)  “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed.  “It’s, um, about your arms,”  she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more.  The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before.  Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin.  And the last time I had seen her upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world, especially as they had curious cellulite-like indentations in their probably softening flesh that I have never seen on the arms of a young woman, no matter how plump.

Wow!  Didn’t think I could be so judgmental?  Then you sure thought wrong.  I make judgments all the time (including about myself).  However, I mostly keep mum about them.  As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill.  Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman, if somewhat round, who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh?  Awnings of loose skin hanging below when the arms are raised?  A generally wrinkled surface?   “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question.  ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really?  Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go.  You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully.  “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up.  Or if it’s a sleeveless dress  — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly.  “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to.  You can still look good.  A different sort of good.  And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.”  But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could.  I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie.  Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly.  My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up.  Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby.  But then I never did my post-partum exercises.  Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes.  You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out.  I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness.  Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young.  Even Diane Keeton, who at 67 still looks great, has just come out with a new book that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.”  Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments.  If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen,  go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons.  It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.”  It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much.  All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his.  But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead.  If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!