by Flynn Washburne, November 29, 2017
I would like to get one thing straight before I get rolling, lest someone get the wrong impression and take me for one of those tiresome geezers who think somehow, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary and beyond all semblance of reason, that the travails, woes, and general ugliness of advanced or advancing age and its effect on them is interesting to the general populace or even just their readership. It's not even interesting to their immediate families, who collectively groan, slap their foreheads, and find something else to do once Pops starts in on the general unfairness and vindictive nature of senescence daring to get its claws into one such as him, who he naturally assumed was exempt from time's ravages by virtue of having a blog or newspaper column.
Like those smug first-time mothers-to-be having the world's first baby and pitying the rest of the world for not being privy to the secrets of the human continuum, writers, assuming themselves to be the first person ever to succumb to decay, love to compulsively catalog the various indignities they suffer and distrusting milestones they reach on the rocky road to Death. Blah, blah, ear hair, bad knees, wrinkly face, substandard boners, receding gums, yadda yadda. Got it, you're old and gross and women don't find you attractive anymore. Congratulations, this is the payoff for a lifetime of being careful and eating right and exercising — falling apart. Good one, right? Gotcha!
I should qualify this by saying it's exclusively men who indulge in this kind of pathetic introspection. Women seem to grow old more gracefully, or at least more quietly, and thank you for that.
Not to say that I won't be touching on some of the unpleasant aspects of aging, but it’s incidental to the theme and not my primary focus. Yes, my knees hurt, and I despise Youth with a passion I can barely contain and hardly describe, but I'll save that for my Curmudgeons Anonymous meetings.
Some sage or wit or pundit or someone — I disremember the source and exact wording of the remark, or even the tone — compounded an aphorism to the effect that one's relationship to mirrors changes significantly on reaching middle age. I find this to be true, for the most part. Myself, I never was one for lingering at my reflection, not since my teenage years when my extravagantly feathered and swoopy hairstyle required constant maintenance and I could barely make it through a class without darting to the boys' for some touchup. I'd sit there cursing the unfair system that allowed the girls to freely employ a pocket mirror and perform major facial reconstruction while if I so much as removed my giant purple comb from the hip pocket of my corduroy bells it would be confiscated. Since then, though, I'm usually satisfied with a brief check to ascertain a general condition of sartorial coherence and an overall absence of major blotches, wounds, or parasites. Lingering, I find, leads to an unhealthy obsession with perceived flaws, more particularly so as the ravages of age begin to assert themselves. It's not something I worry overmuch about, but as far as mirrors go, I look at them like I do cops and surgeons: acknowledging their necessity without wanting to become personally involved with them, except at the most superficial level.
This is pretty easy in prison. They put up stainless-steel rectangles above the sinks, where you'd usually find mirrors, though they have roughly the same reflectivity as oatmeal and act primarily as an attractive surface upon which the magnets backing the small personal mirrors available at the commissary can find purchase. These ones are plastic and become easily scratched, so it's easy to pick up used ones for free as the younger, vainer convicts discard their old ones.
Which is perfect for this old one, because I can perceive my general outlines well enough to shave without getting too intimately involved with the actual close-up topography of my phiz, which can be unsettling. It's like an extremely primitive, analog face-smoothing app.
However, I recently, in an effort to more effectively locate, target, and eradicate the rampant fuzz infesting my ears and nose, bought a shiny new mirror and now pretend-time is over, unless I take it to another level entirely and convince myself l'm some kind of moon-landscaper or something.
I have a female friend, in Fort Bragg, who loves mirrors and will tell you so. "I love mirrors," she'll say, and why shouldn't she? If every time you looked in one you were rewarded with a glimpse of a face like that, you'd love them too. She is luminously beautiful, doe-eyed, olive-skinned, bow-lipped, and it is her primary stock-in-trade, being usefully engaged in nothing more than being beautiful, reaping the benefits that entails, and child production.
The continued fact of her beauty into her late thirties is a little startling, considering she does nothing but drink beer, snort speed, smoke cigarettes, and eat junk food, and has sustained herself thusly since junior high. One wonders what, given an alternate reality of clean living, good nutrition, and less parturition, what extremes of pulchritude she may have reached. The notion is staggering, but this is not what makes her situation worthy of my notice and column-inches. The world is full of women who exploit, squander, and ultimately lose their beauty, rendering them effectively bereft of marketable assets, but this one happens also to be whip-smart, quick-witted, and possessed of a rare and fine sense of humor. Not surprisingly, these less reflective, intangible gifts, requiring their own “mirror” of similar qualities to be perceived, go largely unappreciated by her friends, family, suitors and admirers. Her “hotness” is much discussed but little attention is paid to her wit, charm, and conversational gifts. I am 100% certain that given more favorable geographical and/or familial circumstances, she'd have developed into one of those spectacularly accomplished and dazzling women whom we mortals can only admire from afar, and I find it puzzling that no concerned onlooker recognized this nascent jewel in her formative years and intervened. Of course, she did begin obeying the biological imperative at 15, so it was a small window. But still. I suppose the immediate gratification of exploiting her outweighed the ultimately more rewarding but deferred pleasure of mentoring and development.
Observing the dead-end mugs to which she attaches herself and the utter indifference with which they regard her gifts, except of course in the most primal way, makes me sad. Knowing that this is a person who — given, granted, a lot of if onlys — could have held her own anywhere in the world is frustrating. Grasping the irony of bemoaning someone else's wasted potential during the waning days of my fourth prison term — priceless.
Every burnt-out husk you see skulking through the shadows at night had their story interrupted and rewritten, had all their various possibilities dwindle gradually down to one, progressively severed all the connections attaching them to the universe of infinite potentiality until all that can happen to them is bad things. One imagines, when hearing of war dead, what those young people might have accomplished given the opportunity to not be blown up in a squabble over (insert really good reason to slaughter innocent people here): the children they might have borne, the friends and lovers they'd have been and made, the things they might have created. One is staggered by imagining all the myriad possibility left mouldering in the sands and jungles and seas of distant battlegrounds. You can do the same for the tweakers and junkies and wet-brains, once you get past your disgust and judgeiness. We're not all beautiful babes who could've been movie stars or fashion designers, but most of us probably could've contributed something worthwhile to the general well-being of humankind, given a different path. Our war may be only with ourselves, but the human toll is equally devastating. And consequential.
I imagine that the real indicator of comfortabililty with one's reflection is how one feels about oneself, and my own reticence to linger at the looking-glass says more about my dislike of myself as a person than an unwillingness to confront the realities of age. I think all I and the world would, could, or should expect from me to be able to fearlessly inspect my mug is the confidence that I'm being the best (X)year-old I can be.