"The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once."
-- Albert Einstein
I met a 92 year-old woman shortly before my father turned 90. When I told her my dad's age, she sighed, "Aaaah, to be 89 again."
There's little correlation between how old we feel and our chronological age. When I was nine, I had a bad case of the mumps and felt ancient. Fifteen years later, when I was running a company but wasn't old enough to qualify for its insurance plan, I felt like a teenager. Fifteen years after that, having quit a torturous, exhausting job and about to turn 40, I felt borderline decrepit. A few years later I was back in the saddle with my whole life in front of me.
The quest for a youthful appearance reaches back thousands of years. George Washington University expert on aging Dr. Gene Cohen points out that in 1500 B.C., people ingested "tiger gonads to rejuvenate them." The appeal of mythical wonders like the Fountain of Youth -- which restores the youth of anyone who drinks from its waters -- and Shangri-La -- the magical land in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon, where people live for generations and look far younger than their years -- underscore these primal human cravings.
Normal desires are one thing, but American culture is ablaze with media and advertising that concern themselves solely with how we look. Images of manufactured youth dominate movies, TV series, news broadcasts, ads and magazine covers, stoking the allure of trumping the inevitable process of aging. And speaking of Allure, that magazine just published its "Anti-aging" issue, complete with all-but-nude pictures of 43 year-old Cindy Crawford, guaranteed to make her contemporaries make a beeline for botulinum toxin, er, botox.
The publishing business is awash with books like Robert Jones's Looking Younger: Makeovers That Make You Look as Young as You Feel and, taking a negative route, How Not To Look Old by Charla Krupp. Even Joan Rivers gets serious with her Guide to Beauty through Plastic Surgery. (Note to Joan: face facts, not facelifts.)
Men are not immune. There's How to Look Younger (For Men) (Weight Loss Not Required) by Mary Gonzalez -- Have your teeth whitened professionally! -- and the repetitive Men -- Look Younger with Face Exercises for Men! by Joey Capone. And the Internet is a never-ending font of wisdom-of-the-ageless, with bloggers on websites like ehow.com exclamatorily focusing on how to "look ten years younger in ten minutes." (Robi717: "Write a letter to yourself!")
A sliver of a silver lining of our "decession" -- worse than a recession but not quite a depression -- is that it's forcing Americans to cut back on extravagance. The plethora of ads for nose jobs and vaginal rejuvenation in papers like LA Weekly are all but gone, and statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reveal that in 2008, even before the financial meltdown hit with full force, procedures ranging from breast augmentation to liposuction to tummy tucks were way down from 2007 levels.
There's obviously nothing wrong with trying to look youthful -- proper diet, regular exercise, satisfying work and healthy relationships will make almost everyone feel and look younger. If you peer into the clear eyes of many a regular meditator, chances are you won't care about whether the lids have been tucked.
The clashing of these forces can be confusing, and funny. Seventy-something sex bomb Mamie Van Doren, who won the Miss Palm Springs beauty pageant over 50 years ago, relies on regular visits to a Newport Beach plastic surgeon to make herself look artificially young; and on Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to teach her to love herself despite the leftover wrinkles.
The renowned LA-based psychoanalyst Hedda Bolgar, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday, maintains a full schedule of patients, teaching and continuing her own education. She counsels her patients, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s, to accept aging gracefully and with gratitude. Hedda doesn't look young, but she glows with more vitality than decades-younger people who've had work done.
Space travel may be the ultimate refuge for those who want to outdo the rest of us, youth-wise. Take a round trip to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star outside our solar system, at a speed approaching that of light, and you'll be back in around four years. Upon your return, Einstein proved, everyone on the ground will have aged ten years. You'll look younger, but think of all the parties you'll have missed.