The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
On the best of days, it’s a little like falling in love; like opening a stuck window inside yourself; like taking a drug — one that’s perfectly legal, dispensed by your own apothecary, your strange and marvelous brain. I don’t understand it. I just know I blaze more brightly, my senses keen, my mind and body in communion. Running, I’m a boy again, bolting out the classroom door — not a man behind a desk, a weight upon the world.
I had just returned from a run when a friend dropped by. We sat outside and talked, the air tangy with autumn, the sunlight so bright it seemed to illuminate things from within. When my friend mentioned that her husband was depressed because he’d just turned forty, I said I was surprised. Why did he imagine that getting older was something to be feared?
Surely he didn’t believe that middle age was some kind of betrayal? I certainly didn’t. At forty-four, I rejoiced in my health, my work, my friends. Time hadn’t robbed me of anything, except a few bad habits. I didn’t smoke; I’d given up junk food long ago, and I’d cut back on coffee; most nights, I even got enough sleep. I didn’t neglect my emotional health, either: I stayed close to my innermost heart, to the feelings that made sense and to those that didn’t. I ran, but not from myself.
I told her something the poet Robert Bly said when he turned fifty: “I know men who are healthier at fifty than they’ve ever been before, because a lot of their fear is gone.” I, too, felt stronger each year, less burdened with worries and guilt, and my body showed it. How much our bodies reveal, after all — announcing, like billboards, the most intimate things about us: how we insulate ourselves, with a few extra pounds, from the emptiness we don’t want to feel; how we keep our shoulders hunched, to ward off the blow that’s always coming, but never comes.
Yet my friend’s husband knew this, too. He was a thoughtful man, healthy and vigorous. Why would he be deceived by negative images of aging; by the slander of an advertising industry that glorifies youth as a peak experience, compared to which the rest of our lives are an inevitable decline we try vainly to deny or delay? In some cultures, older people are venerated, and aging is seen as a sign of growing maturity and strength. Here, aging is feared, or ridiculed. Think of the jokes we make about birthdays, once our friends are past thirty; the growing apprehension about our looks, our sex appeal; the anxiety about accomplishing something before we become “too old.”
I wanted my friend to know my attitude was different. We’ve been endowed with extraordinary power to shape our lives, I said. Only when we pretend otherwise do we feel powerless, victims of events over which we seem to have no control. Time isn’t the enemy, I insisted; our own limiting beliefs are what age us. We project our beliefs outward, creating our reality as surely as a sculptor shapes clay. If you believe that growing older is tragic, I said, you’ll grow into a tragic figure, brittle and bitter; if you believe, instead, that the passing years are a celebration of life, not a denial, who knows what they’ll bring?
I went on, in this same vein. These were convictions I’d held for years; they seemed as unarguable as the swaying pines above me, the earth under my feet. Invigorated by my morning run, heartened by the sound of my confident voice, I grinned at my reflection in time’s dark river. It was no river of sorrows, I assured my friend; not for me.
Yet the very next night, a seemingly inconsequential remark, a bit of good-natured teasing, wiped the grin off my face.
My wife and daughter were in a playful mood, joking with me about my thinning hair. It started out harmlessly. I even joined in the fun. I mean, I knew that male baldness follows a distinct pattern: a receding hairline at the temples that one day may meet up with the thinning spot at the crown. But I wasn’t worried. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw plenty of dark curls, a little rumpled and unmanageable, like me. Occasionally, I’d see a reflection of myself from an angle that was less flattering. But what difference did it make? To be vibrantly alive meant not only taking care of myself, but staying honest and undefended about such changes, cherishing my vulnerability, too, even my loss of hair. Besides, I was a long way from being bald.
Alas, not according to my wife and daughter. My conceit, their merry eyes seemed to say, was even more amusing than my thinning hair. I told them to stop teasing, but they danced around my objections, too giddy to hear the warning in my voice. “Look,” Norma said, peering at my hairline, then at the thinning spot on top, “the two bald spots are meeting!” My daughter, Mara, laughed.
If a howling wind had suddenly slapped me in the face, I wouldn’t have been more stunned. I turned toward Norma, disbelieving.
“No, they’re not,” I said.
“Yes, they are,” she replied.
“You’re exaggerating,” I insisted. Norma just smiled. Her tender gaze — the patient look she gives me when she knows I’m fooling myself — was worse than the teasing. I turned away.
Sullenly, I told Mara to go to her room. Norma looked at me in surprise. I stared back at her, my eyes two boarded-up windows; nobody home. Dimly, I knew she hadn’t meant to hurt me. She didn’t know — until that night, I didn’t know — how painful a subject this was. Hadn’t I just boasted that time wasn’t the enemy? Yet time — unimpressed by my little speech, indifferent to my unarguable convictions — was beckoning me toward the uncertain future, and I didn’t want to go.
Too late, Norma tried to change the subject, but I wouldn’t talk to her the rest of the evening. When we got into bed, I was still feeling angry; I refused to get under the covers; I didn’t want our bodies even accidentally to touch. So I lay there shivering as the night grew colder, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Images assailed me. I saw, as if they were long-lost friends, my bald spot and my receding hairline meeting, reaching across the years of my life to shake hands. I imagined how I’d look in a few years, one of those balding men who tries desperately to deny what’s obvious, parting my hair at my ear, swooping it over my head. I’d face the mirror each morning with a soldierly smile, remembering better days. Oh time, that barber that goes on cutting, oblivious to your plea to take just a little off the sides, leave a little more on top. Time, come to remind me that all the health food and jogging and honesty about my feelings meant nothing to him, a sprig of parsley on the feast of me. Oh, he would feast on me. . . .
How confused I felt! I curled up on my side of the bed, as far from Norma as I could get. She was the messenger whose message I wanted to deny but couldn’t, so I denied her instead.
The next day, I spent longer than usual in front of the mirror. The last time I studied myself this carefully was when I was an adolescent, and had started growing hair: pubic hair; and hair under my arms; and hair on my upper lip and on my chin; and those first few chest hairs, like the first rays of dawn streaking across the horizon, heralding my manhood. How amazing, at twelve or thirteen, to watch myself turn into someone else, like seeing a view unfold as you reach the top of a hill. It was all there, hair in all the right places — and on my head, of course, more hair than I knew what to do with, hair I took for granted even as I fought its unruly curliness. I’d rub some hair cream on my scalp; then, with merciless brushing, I’d struggle to get the wave in front just right. Some mornings, I’d spend ten or fifteen minutes in front of the mirror, coaxing that wave into place.
After all these years, was I still so concerned about my appearance? Hadn’t I striven to go beyond appearances? I examined myself now from every angle. Of course I cared how I looked! My studied nonchalance about my appearance — the rumpled clothes, the bushy beard, the wire-rimmed glasses — was my look. Losing my hair threatened my self-image as profoundly as a sudden breeze on my way to school thirty years ago could undo fifteen minutes of careful brushing and ruin my day.
I drew my chin against my chest and leaned forward, ludicrously, straining my eyes to see the top of my scalp. I wanted to prove to myself that Norma was exaggerating, but the closer I looked, the less hair I saw. Oh my hair — hair that once fell past my shoulders, my hippie flag, my foolish pride. For seven years — back when long hair stood for something — I didn’t cut it. Dark and tangled, it was my declaration of independence, my way of keeping faith with myself, banner of my gypsy soul. When I finally did cut it — because long hair no longer stood for anything — it was still a symbol of distinction, proving that I could remain a stubborn idealist, that I could still be myself, without needing to look different. What did my hair say about me now? That I was a middle-aged man, balding and vain?
I tried to stop thinking about it but couldn’t. On the street, instead of noticing laughing children or beautiful women, I noticed balding men: I noticed whether they were more or less bald than I. Guiltily, I recalled Ram Dass’s observation that we put people into three categories: those who are makeable; those who are competition for the ones who are makeable; and those who are irrelevant. I was no longer on the make, I brooded, but I still liked to think of myself as attractive, not irrelevant — someone whose seasoned looks appealed to women. The friendly smile, the soulful eyes, the lines etched by sorrow, the shine of hope: this was the face of experience, uniquely mine; not a bad face at all — I’d earned it. Yet without my curly hair, would I still be the kind of man women flirted with, or treated instead with respect? I didn’t want to be like the bald men on television — the safe, non-threatening type. Married, and a father, I was in no hurry to become a father figure.
A well-dressed couple caught my eye. The man was about my age, the slender woman much younger. She was laughing at something he’d said. He winked. She smiled at him adoringly. Deeply tanned, with a trim, peppery beard, he was strikingly handsome, despite being almost totally bald. I felt momentarily comforted, like the victim of a natural disaster who discovers a fellow survivor.
I went to the public library. Perhaps reading something about baldness would allay my anxiety, I reasoned. With a sheepish smile at the woman behind the desk, I checked out a couple of books on the subject. Then, hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew, I hurried to my car — as embarrassed as if I’d just stepped out of a video store with a couple of X-rated films under my arm.
Alas, scientists seemed to know as little about baldness as porno directors do about sex. Why some men and not others lose their hair is an enigma. It has something to do with heredity, something to do with male sex hormones — though the exact cause-and-effect relationship is hardly understood. Apparently, the overproduction of sex hormones might be responsible — suggesting that, far from indicating a lack of masculinity, losing one’s hair might result from an excess of it. In light of the many old myths equating long hair with virility, this theory appealed to me — though it was, lamentably, a shabby kind of victory, like winning the battle but losing the war.
For all their theories, scientists don’t have a clue what to do about baldness. For men willing to pay thousands of dollars, and undergo a series of sometimes painful operations, hair transplants are available. Others wear wigs. (I couldn’t picture myself wearing a wig; I never even wear a hat.) Regrettably, few of the remedies on the market are effective; the search for a cure has turned up one worthless potion after another. Even an expensive new prescription drug that promised to grow some hair on some men seemed suspect; once they stopped using it, their new hair fell out.
This was gloomy news. But I’m not someone who puts immense faith in science. I believe in the power of the mind, in the innate ability of the body to heal itself. Many ailments can be affected by a change in consciousness; physical degeneration can be reversed. Might it not be possible, I wondered — through visualization exercises, for example, or a change in diet — to keep myself from becoming more bald, or even to grow back the hair I’d lost? No one really knows why the cells stop producing hair, any more than they understand why, in cancer patients, the cells multiply so shamelessly. Yet some cancer patients are able to stimulate their immune systems by picturing their white blood cells as white knights on horseback attacking the cancer. Less dramatically, I’ve used visualization techniques many times to ward off colds, to evoke feelings of well-being and strength. If I was so certain that we fashioned our own reality — that our deepest beliefs determined what we saw and didn’t see, what we did and didn’t call real — why not visualize a body that was healthy and beautiful? Whom would that be cheating? Myself? Of an aching sense of loss and poignancy?
But the more I pondered it, the less certain I was. Sure, I’d been able to ward off illnesses, but warding off a cold was different from warding off the future. When would it stop? Would I try to resist other signs of aging, too, as if aging itself were a disease, an insult to the spirit? Would I try to keep my skin from growing more wrinkled? My beard from turning more gray? If I viewed every physical change as an intolerable loss, wasn’t I denying reality itself, and the inevitability of change? When did natural healing become unnatural? Besides, I wondered, what would be worse: losing my hair, or spending twenty minutes every morning praying not for world peace, or for the salvation of my soul, but for my looks never to fade?
Perhaps I was worried that Norma would no longer find me attractive. After all, I’m ten years older than she is. Suddenly, that seemed important. I was at the mercy of a body that had showed every sign until now — with the right food and the right exercise — of lasting forever, as I imagined our passion would last, not die out slowly, its ghost moving through us when we embraced, haunting us with memories of better days. How improbable that seemed — yet how improbable to be starting the week this way, glum-faced and uncertain. How improbable to see, in time’s dark river, an old man staring back at me — a man who looked just like me, except with less hair and more wrinkles; a man who called himself Sy yet was clearly an impostor, no longer able to get up before dawn each morning or run three miles or do fifty pushups or make love with his wife for hours. . . .
Yet time was calling to Norma, too, running his hand across her face, touching her hair with the tint of our mortality. So what if I didn’t have the same body as when I married her? We all change. Relinquishing a self-image that was no longer real shouldn’t be so hard, I reasoned. Life is a series of such losses. How many former selves had I left behind? The small boy, the awkward teenager — they were gone, as surely as spring is gone by summer and summer by fall. The young journalist who believed the facts would save us, the young poet who believed love would — gone, too, like leaves driven by a scattering wind. How many once-familiar faces and places I barely remembered, as if they were someone else’s memories. But we all go that way: we leave behind the hopes, the heartaches, the long-ago loves. Memory, like youth, fades, until what lies behind us is nearly as unknown as what lies ahead.
How unkind I’d been to Norma, I thought miserably. How unbearably glib I must have sounded to my friend.
That night, Norma apologized for having hurt my feelings. I was sorry, too, I said, for having acted the way I did. I wanted to say more but couldn’t, unable to find the right words for my fugitive fears. Instead, I reached for her, drew her to me. I wanted the taste of her, her body pressed against me — the way the future presses against the present, the present against the past. Here and now, I wanted nothing but us between us, our lovemaking as passionate as ever, and it was: as tender, as reckless, as urgent as ever — or so I assured myself, as we drifted off to sleep, Norma’s arms around me, my face buried in her hair.
But I woke up the next morning in sorrow’s arms, still burdened and confused. I didn’t want to feel this way; I shouldn’t feel this way, I scolded myself. I was being narcissistic, self-indulgent. But berating myself did no good. I felt lost, as if I’d wandered into some foreign city, not on any map — some old neighborhood, some walled-in part of me, a place of immeasurable grief.
I remembered something my friend David once said: “I always knew I was going to die. I just didn’t think I’d get old.”
For someone who knew that aging was nothing to fear, my beliefs fit me now like a bad suit. Time had called to me and I’d come running, ready to beg for my life, for a few hairs on my head. In the face of my own suddenly indisputable mortality, what I knew was suddenly insubstantial, smoke up the chimney: gone, like wisps, my hair, my beliefs.
“You never know how much you really believe,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life or death for you.”
What Lewis had in mind, I suspect, was something profound and wrenching — the loss of a loved one, the onset of some battering disease — not the mid-life crisis of an aging hippie who saw death wink at him from the mirror. Yet if my dilemma seemed banal — more appropriate to a television sitcom or a late-night talk show than a dark night of the soul — my beliefs were nonetheless being tested.
Ironically, I’d always scorned the notion of a mid-life crisis. Like most psychological jargon, it seemed to reduce the rich complexity of an individual life to some deceptively simple pattern, as if a wiggly line on a map told you anything about the place where the sea meets the shore. I refused to believe that there were predictable stages of adult development, comparable to those of childhood and adolescence; that all of us went through similar growing pains, regardless of who we were or how we lived.
Setting off, in middle age, on a compulsive quest for lost youth, or a fervent search for inner validation, seemed, in fact, a tad bourgeois. Some anxiety about growing older was probably universal, but quitting a job in mid-career, trading in the station wagon for a sports car, becoming suddenly suspicious of the counterfeit luxury one had spent a lifetime acquiring and defending — these were the prerogatives of the well-to-do. A mid-life crisis was just one more aspect of mainstream culture I’d planned to avoid, the way I’d avoided selling my soul to a corporation, or dressing like everyone else.
Yet, right on schedule, I was changing, too — no matter that my lifestyle was different from that of the man next door, who wore a tie every day and voted Republican. I began to realize that what I’d really hoped to avoid wasn’t just becoming middle-class but becoming middle-aged — as if, by escaping one, I might escape the other; as if my values made me immune to the coarse demands, the disagreeable consequences, of growing old.
When I was a boy, my grandmother would reminisce about how beautiful she’d been as a young woman; how her arthritic, crippled legs had once been so shapely; how men would turn and look as she walked by. In her wedding photograph — with her proud posture, her black hair framing her unlined face — she looked so different from the wrinkled, bent, gray-haired woman before me. That someone could change so dramatically made sense to me only in the most abstract way. I accepted it, the way I accepted many things in my young life; but I had no idea what it meant.
As a grown man, do I understand it any better? “We dance round in a ring and suppose,” wrote Robert Frost. “But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” By facing my anxieties about growing older, I was hoping to get closer to the Secret, but mostly I’ve gotten closer to my fears. They’re like sleeping dogs: wake one, you rouse the others. After all, it’s not just my hair I’m losing. My memory isn’t as good as it used to be; nor, as the cold weather reminds me, is the circulation in my fingers and toes. Nor is sex the demon, or the refuge, it once was; the urge is there, as insistent as ever when the urge is there, but there are days, amazingly, when I hardly feel the urge at all. Even more disheartening are my doubts about writing. No longer willing or able to stay up night after night, punishing my body (as I did for years) to meet a monthly deadline, I wonder whether, as a writer, I’m not over the hill. (No longer able to get it up each month, the devil whispers.)
I wanted to end this essay on a note of acceptance, suggesting that losing my hair was a kind of blessing — a benign but persuasive reminder not to take my life for granted. But most of the time I don’t experience it that way. Instead, I worry; I project my worst fears on the future; I conspire with the mirror to hide my real Self behind my face. To pretend to be more accepting than I am — to cover up these feelings of loss — would be disingenuous, like putting on a wig.
No less blatantly than those who try to deny death with spas and cosmetics and surgeons, I, too, make death the enemy, and try to defend myself against it — with the myth of my ever-increasing vigor, with innumerable little lies. Immediate reminders of my mortality are few. It’s easy, living where I do, to pretend death is slightly unreal: on my street no one is dying of malnutrition, or disease, or war. Death happens out of sight. It’s the real X-rated scene, the one few of us can bear.
I ’ve known moments of transcendence — ecstatic experiences of oneness that have shown me, beyond any doubt, that death is nothing to fear. But, like distant islands in a vast sea, these moments can seem remote, inaccessible. Most of the time, I cling to this weathered lifeboat, this body, and don’t like being reminded it wasn’t built to last.
It’s hard for me to embrace the paradox that I’m going to die and that who I really am never dies. Fear beckons from the mirror, from the calendar, from the hair-clogged drain. To acknowledge the fear, as well as the fearless essence of me, is no small task.
At forty-four, I’d love to have the wisdom of a sage, but I’m not so readily served by the words and tidy philosophies that once made sense to me. No longer a young man, not yet an old man, I’ve learned too little, it seems — still struggling to get the wave just right, untangle these tangled beliefs.
After reading “The Man in the Mirror” [Issue 169], I thought to myself that you’ll have another jolt in about thirty years — when you’ll be forced to realize that your children are becoming middle-aged! My oldest (of four) will hit fifty next year. An artist, she still seems like a kid to me. My youngest son, who’ll soon be thirty-nine, looks more middle-aged than she does, and so does the archaeologist son who is forty-two. Maybe the beards make them look their age. Certainly the daughter who just turned forty-seven, a single mother who recently got her master’s and is working on her Ph.D., doesn’t seem middle-aged to me at all. They are “middle” in the sense of being right in the middle of everything — kids, careers, creativity.
Three of my eight grandchildren are young adults, one already past her first marriage and divorce. This is another jolt.
But I have been trying hard to remember — when did I go through the transition that you describe so eloquently? When did I realize that I was no longer young, that I had tipped over onto the down-slope? Was it when I stopped dyeing my hair red and let the gray begin to creep? When we decided to take “early retirement” (not that I stayed retired) and left Manhattan for the redwood country? When I passed menopause? Or was it when I discovered that my husband could no longer crawl under the house to fix the furnace, and spading the garden was physically too onerous for me? Was it when I decided, the hell with it, I’ll always be short and fat, and devoted myself to walking miles or dancing to MTV but quit dieting? Was it when I realized that I could be “just friends” with men and nobody was hitting on anybody anymore? Perhaps all of those factors, little by little. I can’t remember any abrupt slap in the face such as you experienced with the baldness issue. (My husband is bald, and I think bald men are very sexy.)
In my late forties I had just remarried, and my man and I were going through a second teenager phase that was as delightful as it was ridiculous — fellow travelers with my hippie sons, Beatles freaks, peace marchers, and so on. I celebrated my fiftieth birthday by winning my Purple Heart — getting knocked down by a cop at the Rusk Riot. Another memorable day was the time in Riverside Park when my husband and I were mistakenly identified as the parents of my granddaughter!
Now, at seventy-two, with my first poetry chapbook just out and my weekly column appearing in the local paper, I am really trying to face this aging business.
First a word of cheer: as long as a person stays healthy, comfortable, active, I find this to be the happiest stage of life. Freedom! Minimal responsibilities! Age an excuse for anything you don’t want to do! Since my mother died and my kids are on their own, I am no longer the designated burden-bearer, as so many middle-aged folks are when both children and parents need their help.
However, I hear that countdown. The best one can hope for is the status quo, the delightful right now. The future does not bear looking at too closely. How much time have I got? Time comes out of the closet and leers at you in the dark hours.
There is the dread of illness or mental deterioration — for yourself or your mate. I volunteer twice a week at the local nursing home, forcing myself to face what can happen. I have always believed that a positive mind-set helps create a positive reality. I still believe it. It’s worked for me so far. But to what extent is it true, and to what extent is it a fancy masquerade for denial?
Aging is, after all, my “material,” given to me free, whether I want it or not; I use it quite a bit in columns and poems. But I have a hunch that somebody deep down inside me still isn’t convinced that it’s real.
I have to struggle with this. Your fine essay gives me an assist, and I thank you.
There is a part of each of us, I truly feel, that is afraid to die. This part (call it survival instinct, or primitive mind, or ego, or whatever else) is intrinsic to being human. I have come to an acceptance of the fact that I am never going to completely outgrow or transcend this fear, as long as I am alive in human form; so I wear it, much as I wear my face every day. We probably have about as much chance of ever being able to overcome this fear as we do of overcoming our faces. It seems rather silly to exert effort to eliminate something as fundamental to life as trepidation concerning its inevitable conclusion.
No matter how depressing any phase of life may become for us, we can take great comfort in the fact that it isn’t going to last.
What we really are never was born and never will die. The beauty of this is that it cannot be proven or disproven. If it could, would it be even remotely possible for life to have the same intensity and richness? I think not. Besides, everything I have ever experienced in other realms screams to me that this is true. And if it should somehow not be true, would I be any worse off for having gone through a lifetime believing that it was?
A friend gave me a subscription to The Sun for Christmas, and I’ve also perused a few of his back issues. Nice work; you’ve created a unique magazine. But as for “The Man in the Mirror” — really now, five pages on your thinning hair? I’m about your age with my own decreasingly bushy mane, so it’s a subject I have more than a passing interest in. But five pages seemed like self-indulgent overkill. I think you could have said it better in one page and left four pages for other contributors. How about exerting some of that draconian editor’s discipline and cutting your own verbiage, when warranted, down to an appropriate length?