When goddesses die; thoughts on aging

I woke up today dreaming that I was having an affair with a 27 year old. Bonnie awakened at the same time, stretched gracefully, and looked at me adoringly, but it just wasn’t the same.

My dream was probably inspired by an old Western I watched last night, one of many old Westerns I have seen while Peggy is away. In this one, Abilene Town (1946), Randolph Scott plays a marshal who is loved by women from opposite sides of the street—one a virtuous, church-going, but somewhat boring, merchant’s daughter played by Rhonda Fleming; the other a sparkling, vivacious, and scantily-clad dance-hall girl played by Ann Dvorak. I was quite stricken by Ann Dvorak, and did what I often do with stars I don’t recognize—I looked her up on the Internet. Nothing too unusual. Started her career in silent films at age four. Married three times. Argued with Warner Brothers over money. Died at 67 of undisclosed causes.

I invariably get stuck on the last part—the died at __. How could she die? I just saw her. She was 33, could sing, could dance, was flirtatious, had beautiful eyes, looked like a goddess. One of her fan sites even called her a goddess. I get really bummed about all these beautiful women dying. They’ve let me down. Cheated me out of my fantasy of immortality. Well, not taken it from me, but made me feel more stupid for holding onto it against my conscious will.

I saw Elke Sommer last week on an episode of Jack Benny. She was 23, and as beautiful as a woman could get. I commented to Peggy that a fireman would leave a baby in a burning building for a date with Elke Sommer. It was an impolitic remark. Peggy sees my fascination with beauty as…well, excessive and irrational. She is right. But then I don’t actually do anything about it other than wish I had done more earlier on, when I still had my looks. Back then, even when I did act morally, it was out of fear rather than virtue. Fear of being rejected, fear of getting a disease, fear of being divorced, fear of making a fool of myself…

I went to the doctor last week to talk about my carpel tunnel problem. Kirk is his name, he’s my age, and I’ve known him for seventeen years. In 1990, he was muscular, big-boned, confident, competent, and charming. Three years later, I lost him as my doctor because he left my HMO. Last year, I got him back, and I wasn’t prepared for how bad he looked. He has age spots, wrinkles, a bent back, a tremor, and an expression of wisdom coupled with something that looks almost like humility. I thought, “God, man, you look damn near as bad as I—maybe worse, yet the last time I saw you, you were so full of life that I didn’t think the years would ever overtake you.”

The passage of time is like hiking in an arroyo when a little bit of water starts flowing, and you think that it looks kind of charming and refreshing way out there in the heat and the dust, and then, WHAM, you’ve been washed away, and your corpse isn’t even pretty. Generation after generation looks at their elders and thinks about how old and ugly they are, and their elders look back at them, and warn them against taking youth for granted, but the young ones think, “Yeah, right. One Christmas is separated from the next by an eternity; 39 is practically the same age as the pyramids; and six week report card intervals feel like six months. And I will never look like you anyway, because I couldn’t get that pathetic if I lived a million years.”

I used to impress the hell out of old people just by reading medicine bottles. They would carry on as if I had juggled ten balls while standing on my head, and I would conclude from this that their eyes must have never been as good as mine, and therefore mine would never be as bad as theirs. Old people try to tell the young about age, but they are doomed to fail because the speed of time is proportional to how much of it a person has lived. The young are like people who are standing too close to a painting to take it in, so the distance to the edge of the canvas appears indistinct and distant.

Not too many years ago, I would look at myself in a mirror and think I rated at least a 7.5. Now, I just try to find something redeeming to say, but the only thing I can think of is that I could look worse. I could have my ears burned off or one eye an inch higher than the other. Age spots annoy me most. Of course, all of my skin isn’t covered with age spots. My lower legs are covered with white spots, places where the color pigment got up and went, making me look like a splotchy albino.

Something that I didn’t expect about age was that it wouldn’t be an evenly paced deterioration. I thought it would be something like a one percent decline this year and then another one percent decline next year. I had no good reason for thinking this (given that my youth wasn’t a steady progression), but I never questioned it. Then I had knee surgery in March of 2006, and I think it likely that I have declined more in the intervening twenty months than I did in the preceding twenty years. I’ve become so fragile that I can practically injure myself staring at the wall. This has led me to re-conceive of my body as a row of dominoes; if one goes, the rest are sure to follow. I don’t mean this literally anymore than I meant the fireman abandoning the baby example literally. It’s just that exaggeration sometimes serves better as a pointer to truth than truth does—which is why readers sometimes learn more from fiction than from real-life accounts.