I’m Old – and I Don’t Like It: Narcissistic Reflections on Aging, Cosmetic Surgery and the Grim Reaper
It was in KL that the rot set in. We had just boarded the monorail at the start of a self-conducted sightseeing tour of the city. There were no available seats. Passengers were wedged together hanging onto the rails and straps, gently swaying en masse from side to side of the carriage. A young man sitting reading what looked like a mathematics text book suddenly stood up and gestured to his seat. I assumed he was offering it to my wife Judy. But he was offering the seat to me.
The scene was re-enacted without any significant change to the script during a brief stopover inBangkok. Monorail again. Packed. Young man offers seat to elderly gent.
And again on the Metro inParis. What made this particularly galling was that the offer came from an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. Perhaps in some sad attempt to show I was not merely still virile but gallant into the bargain, I declined and gave the seat to Judy. The beautiful young woman looked distinctly miffed. In her mind my wife was quite clearly capable of standing. I wasn’t. Her kindly gesture had been scorned.
Without any supporting evidence at all, I rationalised these experiences as expressions of foreign cultures. Asians clearly held their elders, as distinct from old people, in respect. Young French women were clearly attracted to the savoir faire of stylish, foreign older men. Offering me a seat was just this young Parisienne’s way of saying, ‘Bonjour you ‘andsome dog.’ (Deep down I knew this was a bit of a stretch.)
Home and determined not to yield to the corrosive influence of mere numbers, I stubbornly refused to apply for a Super Gold card until I was almost 70. But my resistance made little difference. Bus drivers, apparently assuming that someone my age was likely to be deaf in at least one ear, would inquire in stentorian tones, ‘Senior, Brian?’ or worse, hand me a senior ticket without even bothering to ask.
For a time I decided to avoid public transport altogether and went everywhere by car. The car is not merely a private realm, it is a cocoon of fantasy and self-delusion. Behind the wheel a man is never less than everything he wants to be – attractive, successful, vital, cool.
Some months after we got back fromFrance, I bought myself a Smart Car. Two-seater. Elegant black and grey panels. All the rage inParis. Vroom, vroom! The pretty girl on the Metro would have been impressed.
Driving into town on the Southern Motorway, I was tailgated for several kilometres by a young man in a late model BMW. When he finally went past I gave him a ten second blast on the horn. ‘Blast’ is probably not the right word for the warning noise made by a Smart Car. ‘Toot’ would be closer. But I’d made my point. I was mad as hell and I wasn’t going to take it any more.
We found ourselves side by side at the lights on theNelson Streetoff-ramp. I glared at him. He smiled back at me and started to wind down his window. I reached across to wind down the window on the passenger side of the Smart Car. Let the war of words begin. He was still smiling.
‘What’s the problem, old man?’ he said in a tone so solicitous it bordered on pity. I wound up my window and drove off without replying.
I’m old and I don’t like it.
About eight years ago I was sitting in aWellingtoncafé with my granddaughter Jessy who is the apple of my eye and was then 12 or 13. It was a hot summer day and I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt.
‘Granddad,’ she said, ‘What’s happened to your arms?’
‘What do you mean, what’s happened to my arms?’
‘They’re all wrinkled. It’s like your skin’s falling off.’
I explained in my most reasonable and grandfatherly tone that as your get older your skin loses its elasticity and doesn’t cling as tightly and smoothly to your frame.
‘Yuck’ is what I feel when I look at my arms in the mirror today, eight years yuckier than when Jess reviewed them in the café. The arms of an old man – skinny, wrinkled, limply hanging.
If I do a head-to-toe assessment, it’s the arms that let me down. The rest isn’t too bad. I’ve kept most of my hair. The face is OK, except for the string lips and the turkey neck. I had a beard until 1981 when it was shaved off by Kenny Everett during a telethon to raise money for abused kids. When I returned to the make-up room and looked at my face, I was horrified. My lips had disappeared. I was only 45.
I read somewhere recently that lips lose their plumpness and redness as you get older. Full, red lips indicate youth and sensuality and are a sexual attractant in both sexes. That is why women for centuries have worn lipstick and why women today use dermal fillers to get the Angelina Jolie look. So the disappearing lips must have meant that, at 45, nature was already finished with me at as an object of desire.
I still don’t understand why that should be. Even at 71, my body’s not too bad unless you’re turned on by firm flesh or turned off by ‘man-boobs’. (Thanks a lot, Trinny and Susannah!) I’m tall and reasonably slim. People keep saying to me. ‘Gosh, you’re looking great.’ I ignore the tone of surprise and the implication that I really ought to resemble one of the un-dead. Never look a gift horse in the mouth is my old man’s philosophy.
That reminds me. I must make an appointment with the dentist to get my teeth whitened. Our builder had his laser-whitened but you had to wear sunglasses when he talked to you. His apprentices were treated for snow-blindness. I won’t make that mistake. I want to look good, but I don’t want people saying, ‘Oh, you’ve had your teeth whitened. How much did that set you back?’
To the disappearing lips, turkey neck, skinny arms, melting flesh, man boobs, sagging skin and less than pearly whites, you have to add liver spots and hair retreating from the top of your head while it sprouts luxuriantly from your nose and ears. If one believed in God at all, one might grudgingly admire the wonderful perversity inherent in this arrangement.
‘And don’t forget to get your eyebrows trimmed,’ my wife gently reminds me as I head off to my hairdresser whose name is Lisa and who is young and beautiful and has a wonderful line in reassuring chat for old geezers.
I am not reassured. It’s true that I’ve kept most of my hair but it’s not evenly distributed. The back and top are fine, but the front is starting to place unreasonable demands on Lisa’s ingenuity. The mirror truth is most brutal just after the hair has been washed. It’s then that one most resembles television’s ‘Baldy Man’ as the wet strands, made darker and more lank by their wetness, criss-cross the pallid scalp in a pathetically inadequate attempt at camouflage.
Research into ‘male pattern baldness’ reveals that men are more frightened of losing their hair than they are of becoming impotent. It was probably the same research team who discovered that a majority of women would rather give up sex than chocolate. As a chocolate lover and the husband of a chocolate lover, I don’t consider the second finding surprising. But one might have thought that impotence was a greater bane than baldness.
One explanation for this curious result may be that everyone can see you’re bald, whereas your impotence will be revealed to only to a few. (We won’t discuss the actual number.) Alternatively, bald men may feel their lack of hair makes them so unattractive to the opposite sex, that they will never again get the opportunity to prove their sexual potency. Women insist that men worry needlessly about losing their hair, that baldness, partial or total, does not make a man less attractive. They’re lying of course.
So to all the other disadvantages of aging, one must add baldness and the prospect of loss of sexual prowess.
I’m old and I don’t like it.
They say you should age gracefully, but it’s not easy. Your vanity takes a hiding. You still want to be attractive and not just to people your own age. There’s a period between 40 and maybe 55 when that greying-at-the-temples look can still draw admiring glances from women young enough to be your daughter. You’ve still got it. Or so you think. ‘No fool like an old fool,’ women say. They’re probably right, but women feel, perhaps justifiably, that nature deals them an unfair hand in the aging stakes, and are not objective on the topic.
So what is it that turns sensible young men into ‘old fools’ or worse ‘dirty old men’? The answer is quite simply that men’s brains do not age at the same speed as their bodies. Body and brain are out of sync. Inside every 70 year old is a 17 year old waiting to get out. We still harbour the thoughts, desires and lusts of the sex-crazed adolescents we once were. And we still have the same insecurities, the same self-doubts, the same need to be admired and desired.
Looking back on my life, I conclude that, despite 71 years of socialisation, I am really very little different to the person I was at 17. I know more. I understand more. I have greater self-awareness. I am perhaps less selfish. But the drivers of my core personality are largely the same. We don’t change very much.
So lust may slumber among the old, but it never sleeps. Nor should it. The foolishness of the ‘old fool’, the error in the thinking of the ‘dirty old man’, lie not in having lustful thoughts towards younger women, for that in my submission is little more than instinct, but in the expectation that those thoughts might be reciprocated or that it might be appropriate to translate them into action. I understand that very well.
But I’m still old and I don’t like it.
I observe that old people – old men at least – talk a lot about their health. There seem to be two categories of health-talkers: those who want to share their illnesses and those who want to boast of their physical fitness. We’ll call them Group A, (’Ailing’) and Group B (‘Blooming’).
Both groups are seeking reassurance. Group A operate on the principle that a problem shared is a problem halved, quartered or decimated. They turn lunch with the boys into a symptom swap session. They want company in their suffering.
Group B haven’t had a day off work in living memory and can kill viruses and bacteria with little more than a withering look. They’re in tip top shape and have the Med-Lab reports to prove it. They want you to say, ‘Gosh!’
With Group A I present myself as having one foot in the grave. With Group B I am the very picture of health. I like to be one of the gang.
On the whole I prefer the company of Group A. Our favourite subject is arthritis, one of the few ailments that can be regarded as a badge of honour. No shame attaches to it, rather it is testament to the incomparable longevity of the human body. The arthritis sufferer is akin to an elderly Morris Minor, her pistons creaking and groaning from decades of wear and tear, but still running, still with a few good years yet.
Diabetes is another popular topic for Group A. I particularly like this topic because I am myself a diabetic and can play doctor. Thus everything from tiredness to thirst to loss of sexual appetite to getting up in the night to go to the toilet to numbness in the big toe I interpret as a sure-fire indication that blindness and the amputation of at least one limb are just around the corner. My diagnoses have been sufficiently persuasive to send several members of the group hurrying off to see ‘a real doctor’.
Diabetics are either tediously obsessive about diet and exercise or refuse to let the condition rule their lives. I like the refuseniks better. ‘OK, so what if I cark it at 75 instead of 80?’ they say, tucking into the sticky date pudding, ‘Those last five years are no good anyway.’
The refuseniks generally belong to Group A. The Group B diabetics arrive at lunch having done 50 lengths at the pool, run a half-marathon or at least walked 12K from their home to the restaurant, carrying a heavy bag of groceries for that night’s high-fibre, low GI dinner. Despite these exertions and their advanced years, their blood pressure, they tell you, is 112 over 63, their total cholesterol just hitting four and their fasting blood sugar in the normal range for a 19-year-old Olympian.
Honesty is impossible in this company. One’s only option is to declare oneself ‘fit as a fiddle’, whatever that is. But I am tempted to tease. ‘112 over 63? Not bad, I suppose. Mind you, with the deadline for your novel looming, you’re probably pretty stressed. That would account for it.’
‘Diabetic’ is one of very few words in the medical/forensic lexicon that can be used as a noun as well as an adjective. As an adjective it merely describes – diabetic symptoms, diabetic specialist, diabetic treatment and so on. But as a noun it defines. When someone says, ‘He’s a diabetic’, as distinct from, ’He suffers from diabetes’, it’s as if the diabetes were the person. Like ‘hypochondriac’ or ‘haemophiliac’ or ‘kleptomaniac’ or ‘alcoholic’. My name is Brian and I’m a diabetic. (Applause!)
I’m an old diabetic and I don’t like it.
Though Group A and Group B both talk openly about their health and general well-being, two subjects appear to be taboo. The first is impotence. Among guys in their sixties and seventies, someone must be having trouble getting it up. The stats say most men over 50 will experience erectile dysfunction from time to time. The groups’ reluctance to discuss impotence probably isn’t that hard to understand – loss of virility is a source of shame, a marker of declining usefulness and fodder for tasteless and wounding humour. So, even among highly intelligent men, who are close friends and used to talking about everything under the sun, the chances of anyone, -including the diabetics – admitting to even occasional failure in bed, are probably slim. Or maybe it’s just that the words ‘erective dysfunction’ are so harsh and ugly on the ear that men of delicate sensibility simply can’t bear to pronounce them.
Death is the other taboo topic. This doesn’t entirely surprise me. In the 70’s I hosted a late-night talk-show called Edwards on Saturday. It was high rating – until we decided to do a programme on the mechanics of death and dying: what happens to the body; what the embalmer does; a brief introduction to corpse cosmetics; and a no-holds-barred tour of the local crematorium. Our ratings plummeted. Audiences love the violent termination of human life, both fantasy and real, but they can’t face the drably disturbing reality of their own eventual fate. They/we don’t want to know.
Absence of death talk is unsurprising in the young. It’s simply a matter of distance. Dying is a long way off, so distant at 10, 20 or 30 as to be barely within view. But in your forties it may occur to you that you have probably already lived as many years as you are going to live. That realisation provides you, perhaps for the first time, with a practical measure of the human lifespan. Almost inevitably, it is less than you thought.
And you may also have begun to understand that time does not pass at an even pace, but in a process of continuous acceleration. The markers – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, festivals, the arrival of grandchildren, the deaths of friends, colleagues and famous people you’ve never even met – come closer and closer together. More and more, when people’s names come up in conversation, you find yourself saying, ‘He/she’s probably dead by now,’ when once the thought would not have occurred to you. After the passing of several friends, my lifelong pal, Ivan Strahan, wrote to me from Donaghadee, ‘We are in the death zone.’ I put the thought aside.
Putting the thought of death aside seems to be the norm among older people, which may explain why it so rarely comes up in conversation. Even Group A – the ailing – never talk about death, though the connection between sickness and kicking the bucket could scarcely be more evident or direct. As we get around to the grappa, I’ve got almost enough confidence to ask, ‘So who’s afraid of dying then?’ I don’t of course, in part because I don’t really want to talk about it myself, in part because I suspect they’ll all be staunch and pooh-pooh the idea of death as something frightening.
I find it frightening. As an atheist I don’t have the comfort of religion. My logical position has to be, ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead. End of story.’
It’s not the dying that scares me, it’s the non-existence. Death is first and foremost an affront to the ego. How dare the universe go on without me! And what was the bloody point of it all anyway?
I sometimes think about death when I’m sitting in the Koru Club eavesdropping on the conversations of the businessmen (and occasionally the politicians) sitting near me or talking loudly on their cellphones. It’s all about meetings and deals and sales targets and profit margins and leverage and the dollar and colleagues who aren’t pulling their weight and rivals who are and prospects and promotion and the company’s brand image ‘going forward’. And their flight is called and they knock back the rest of the warm pinot gris and put a quick call through to mum to say they’ll be home by nine and not to bother keeping dinner and they turn off their blackberries and grab their black brief cases and stow their black laptops and head for the door with the final call ringing in their ears. And they’ll do it all again tomorrow. And I want to say, ‘Excuse me, have you ever asked yourself, “What’s the bloody point of it all?” when you’re going to be dead in twenty years or maybe twenty seconds? What will have been the point then of all this ‘going forward’?’
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas. Death makes nonsense of personal ambition and success.
I don’t say it of course. I set the thought aside and read the paper. Or I rationalise. My best rationalisation is that I’ve non-existed before and it’s nothing to be frightened of. Why worry about a repeat performance? It’s really not such a good argument, like saying, ‘You never missed chocolate macaroons before you first tasted them, why worry now (that you’re a diabetic) that you can’t have them any more?’ It’s the same with life. I’ve tasted it and, on the whole, I like it. Nobody, other than those in physical or mental pain (and suicide bombers), wants to die.
And here’s another thing. What’s the point of memorial services where everyone says nice things and tells funny stories about you, when you’re already dead and in the coffin and can’t hear any of it? Recently people have been having memorial services before they die. I think this is an excellent idea. Not only do you get to hear all the nice things and the funny stories, you can also correct any misinformation and deny any fault or error you may have been accused of. Best of all, you get a pretty good idea of how many friends you really have… had. There’s nothing more annoying than to be dead and not know how many people came to your memorial service.
Why all this death talk? Because I’ve one foot in the grave and I don’t like it.
On the other hand, if I had my teeth whitened, a few Botox treatments, my lips pumped up, hair implants, liposuction, a body lift, did a thousand ooh-eek exercises a day for the turkey neck, took steroids for the skinny arms, exfoliated and moisturised daily, I’d probably feel much, much better. After all, you’re only as old as you look.