Wrinkled Wisdom

It must be about 15 years ago now when I first noticed it. I'd just gotten into a cab at SFO, on my way home from yet another long and gory business trip, when I caught a glimpse of my neck in the rearview mirror. There, staring back at me right above my Adam's apple, was a small, shadowy crease, which I was sure had not been there before I left on my trip. One day my neck was smooth and wrinkle-free and then one day, boom, as that irritating guy in those Liberty Mutual commercials would say, it had a dent in it. Goodbye youth, hello middle age.

15 years later the crease is on its way to becoming a double chin, and while I can't say I've never had those self-indulgent fantasies, I've long since given up the idea of trying to fix it. Or even hide it. Not just because I don't like scalpels and turtlenecks, but also because the struggle to hold on to a youthful appearance is ultimately a losing battle. And so tiring. Actually, I've come to appreciate those annoying surface signs of aging that seem to have increased exponentially after I turned 50. Definitely not because they make me look "distinguished" -- which is exactly how you don't want to look when being interviewed by a hiring manager young enough to be your son or daughter -- but because each new wrinkle, gray hair, and exposed millimeter of scalp is an anatomical post-it reminding me that the clock is ticking. And that life, contrary to what the bathroom mirror would have you believe, is not about your looks. It's about living, and while you're at it, living as fully, richly and healthfully as you possibly can for as long as you possibly can. One of those timeless truths that is so basic I'm embarrassed to even bring it up. Yet here I am writing about it.

I'm writing about it because I'm amazed at how easily it gets lost in the shuffle of our youth-obsessed culture, where a pretty face, buff bod, and drum-tight skin are subliminally offered up as the key to a "happier you." Well, in my gym anyway. Nothing wrong with looking your best and keeping in shape at any age, but cultivating the outside can distract from cultivating the inside, and at some point it dawns on you that maintaining a sense of well-being over the long haul depends more on the latter than the former. Better it dawn on you sooner than later since life, as we all know, even if we would rather not be reminded, is short. Sure, it's not just the subtle and not so subtle messages we are bombarded with every day exhorting us to look "fabulous," cost what it may, that makes contemplating our own unstoppable decline and death so jarring and, at least while we're in the "prime of our life," whatever that means, so seemingly irrelevant. Busy careers, and the day to day business of managing families and friendships, focus our attention squarely on the here and now, and can delude even the least narcissistic among us into thinking that the present and future will never intersect. Until one day, boom, they do.

At 50 something I am no closer to accepting the laws of nature that will determine when and how I'm going to die than when I was at 30 something, and for now anyway I plan on going kicking and screaming all the way to the end. But I've at least acquired a bit of wisdom since my body started wrinkling up on me, which is helping me let go of the skin deep and focus more time and energy on things that really matter and will endure long after my hair falls out. Above all, family and friends, of course, but also all those little pleasures that make me feel connected with my inner core, not the cover of Men's Health. Like losing myself in a good book, in the middle of the day no less (oh, the guilt), something the California Employment Development Department would surely frown on. Yes, I am "in-between jobs," as I euphemistically tell folks who ask about my employment status, and at some point I really do need to figure out what to do with the rest of my life now that the long and gory business trips are over. But for now I plan to spend more time smelling the roses and rediscovering some of those timeless truths that got lost in the shuffle of my own youth. The rest, I'm sure, will fall into place..