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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: Aging In Front of Everyone

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The only thing worse than aging -- is watching others do it.

Betty Friedan identified the rumblings of feminism as the Problem With No Name. I would submit that assessing one's aging process is the Judgment With No Name. This is the Boomers' national pastime as we watch films and TV, as we come face to face with those we haven't seen in awhile. They Look Old! (TLO)

I just saw the new film The Company You Keep, and you could literally feel the collective, though silent, gasps emanating from the audience as soon as Robert Redford fills the screen. HLO! Hopefully, our next emotion is deep respect for this icon's courage in letting every one of those well-earned lines show. Redford doesn't help matters by frequently showing photos of a younger him, which only makes it more difficult to forget Sundance, the Candidate, and Watergate's Woodward. We gulp and move on.

To Julie Christie! And Susan Sarandon! This is a TLO fest. Let's be brutally honest: one can't quite concentrate on what these still-glorious actresses are saying for awhile. We are too busy calculating their ages, considering work-or-no-work. And asking ourselves, if TLO, how must we look? Now, we are too depressed to watch the rest of the movie...at least until Nick Nolte comes on which at least evens the gender score.

We return home to turn on the television and catch the stars of The Mary Tyler Moore Show together again. It becomes almost impossible not to be taken aback by the appearance of our dear former Mary Richards. (Not to mention Laura Petrie.) Especially compared to a truly lovely Valerie Harper, whose ugly-duckling Rhoda finally got the last laugh, so to speak. Betty White, of course, remains one of the world's wonders and I was just getting myself somewhere near acceptance and pride in such brave women, when my husband walked in the room and said, "Wow, they look old!"

I feel nothing but sympathy for aging, if beautiful, celebrities. But sometimes, they ask for it. There, for example, was the perennially adorable and uplifting -- and lifted -- Goldie Hawn on Katie Couric's talk show. There was Brooke Shields, interviewed at a theatrical opening, tight, puffed and expressionless. Both are classy ladies who are clearly facing these damn demons, and inadvertently causing us to say SLO.

It's easy to point out the famous folks, of both sexes. Like the rest of us, it's probably better if they not go away for long. Somehow, if we are with them every step of the way, the process doesn't seem so insidious. Those TV reunions and movie sequels must be killers, and kudos to all the men and women who show up.

This is more challenging for them, but in other ways, it is not so different from our own reunions, our own lives. There is the horrid sense of comparison and computing each time we run into someone we knew when. Words are being spoken, information exchanged, hugs shared. But there is the undercurrent beneath it all as we explore one another's faces, bodies. And we can feel their assessments coming our way. SLO.

They say surrounding yourself with younger friends is healthy. It keeps you youthful and may hedge against loneliness later on. Granted, but it's never easy to be the oldest person in a room. You know they may be thinking SLO, and they know that you know that they know. I have put myself in the ultimate such scenario, in that I am back in college after 35 gap years. On the other hand, how many people can get into museums half price by choosing either a senior pass or a student's?

Aging in front of everyone is a bitch, but doing it in front of our kids is especially tender. Every time we slip on the stairs, or momentarily forget a phone number, a child exudes concern and fear. I remember feeling exactly that when my mother was in her frail years, and how we all laughed off the lapses and the falls -- as much for ourselves as for her.

What our kids probably don't care about -- bless their hearts -- is whether we look our age, whether we look better or worse than our friends. The great challenge is to resist judging others -- and perhaps mostly -- ourselves. Maybe we just LO -- er and that's okay.