Late last fall, I abandoned my signature close-cropped hair for a look that I thought would be less severe and more forgiving to a man of a certain age. Outgrowing the modest tonsorial skills of my partner, David, I retired the home clippers and sought the aid of a professional. And so that is how I found myself in Dustin’s chair.
My directions to him were simple enough — “Take five years off and I’ll be happy with whatever the cut.” Dustin, with his generous head of black hair, carefully styled to look as if he had just gotten out of bed, kindly proffers that he never aims for less than 10. I was wrong to have been put off by the tattoos scrolling up his arms, across his shoulders, and peeking out again just between his shirt and his jeans. He’s a professional and knows his clientele.
My first barbershop foray in nearly a decade was part of a yearlong effort to prepare for a birthday that signaled an indisputable transition from middle age to what sociologists call young-old age. I had watched friends pursue far more ambitious undertakings than my own — from Botox to facelifts — to stay the passage of time. I confess to having been tempted.
At my semiannual checkup with the dermatologist for seriously sun-damaged and cancer-prone skin, I insist he remove at least a few harmless dark brown age spots. They remind me of my parents and their flagging attention to matters of appearance. I want, but am too embarrassed, to ask about the more extensive and costly procedures — the chemical peels, laser treatments, microdermabrasions — advertised so alluringly on his website.
Although I ultimately concluded that such interventions, always temporary, never without risk, were not for me, even considering them suggests the way this birthday was bringing to light my own internalized gerontophobia. Gerontophobia? Yes, I found this graceless word — fear of growing old and of the old themselves — increasingly useful as I grappled with my ambivalent feelings about the event on the horizon.
My good friend James, still luxuriating in his mid-60s, offered words of solace: “You are not an accountant. You don’t have to live by the numbers.” He reminds me that age is a matter of mind as well as body, of how we see ourselves as well as how others see us.
This reminder doesn’t quell the proliferating questions. Am I still living a socially relevant life? Is it really okay to have been me? I decide to confront the challenge by telling friends and colleagues, anyone who will listen, that I am about to have a “big birthday.” And not surprisingly, this bit of coyness invariably solicits inquiries about my definition of “big.”
“Oh I don’t believe it. That can’t be. You look 20 years younger,” the listener replies when I reluctantly divulge the heretofore unsayable number.
At first I tell myself these premature announcements of the birthday to come are part of a strategy to pre-empt the clock, by saying the words before their time. But increasingly uncomfortable with the responses — however flattering and complimentary — I’m forced to acknowledge that this carefully orchestrated pattern of call-and-response is really a setup, a way to seek external reinforcement for what is ultimately an internal task.
I read the generous remarks of others as expressions of their own anxieties about aging. How else can I understand my 60-something G.P., who, upon perusing my chart on a recent visit, insisted on calling in his young colleague from the adjoining office to view the new kind of medical specimen in his examining room: that would be an embarrassed and completely objectified me. I am thankful that my ophthalmologist was a bit more tactful when reviewing his records. Confiding that he is about to turn 50, he hopes that in two decades he will look as good as I do.
I don’t mean to be ungrateful or unappreciative. But summoning the courage to look in the mirror, I barely recognize the drawn face I see there. How did this happen, I ask myself even as I note that the face in the mirror is fast becoming the face of my father and his five siblings, three of whom lived into their 90s. This patrilineal resemblance, less frequently glimpsed when I was younger, was once a source of curiosity, belonging, even reassurance. Now it elicits equal measures of disbelief and resignation.
I don’t linger at the mirror. My feminist self tells me to appreciate beauty in all its diverse forms, including the aging body. My less confident self finds it hard to stave off a culture in which most seek to be younger or, at the very least, to appear younger than their years. Cosmetic adjustments proliferate, hours at the gym escalate, and gurus of style management abound.
While driving to the East Hampton RECenter I hear Joan Rivers, icon of the ageless society, opine on the car radio: If we can feel better about ourselves, younger and more self-assured, then why not make the purchase, undertake the surgery, succumb to the treatments? Encouraging us to seize every opportunity to indulge the fantasy of living longer but never aging, Rivers, like others, does not stop to ask why we might feel bad in the first place. It’s all about the answer, the solution, not the question or, more critically, about how the problem itself was manufactured in the first place.
In calm, reflective moments I remind myself that a postindustrial consumer society creates a constantly escalating set of needs that we experience as our own deficiencies. These supposed deficiencies, read as personal failings, can be rectified only through the consumption of new goods and services.
When roaming the aisles of my local Gap store or perusing the latest issue of GQ in the dentist’s office, I find it hard to resist the products that promise to make me look and feel even a few years younger, hipper and of the moment. When trying on a new pair of summer shorts I carefully assess their age appropriateness. Too trendy, too stodgy — how young can I go? How old do I feel?
This year my internal dialogue also included a new refrain — “You can’t take it with you.” In addition to numerous small purchases, I gave myself a series of more expensive gifts — a visit with my niece in Hong Kong, a longed-for new computer, and sessions with a personal trainer to counter my preference for aerobic exercise at the expense of strength-building routines.
Cushioned by all these preparations, the formal passage from middle age to young-old age was, dare I admit it, pleasurable. The day itself, marked by a small surprise party, lovingly organized by David and a lifetime first for me, was pitch-perfect.
From my new vantage point, I can even see the country of the old-old with far less apprehension than previously. The difficult decade of caring for my frail parents is finally receding into the past. And I look with greater equanimity on the future, less a time of decline and despair and more practically a period for which I will need to prepare. Most of all I suspect that this birthday, my 70th, has given me renewed confidence in my ability to manage life transitions, to meet the moment and make the most of it.
Jonathan Silin lives in Amagansett and Toronto. He is the author of “My Father’s Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents.”