By Angela Noel Lawson
November 28, 2018
I first noticed a few dark hairs on my face as I glanced in the rearview mirror on my way to work one sunny morning a few years ago. I’m naturally blondish so the beginnings of an adolescent boy’s mustache seemed quite out of place on my face. But then I remembered: I’m middle-aged.
All kinds of things happen to our bodies as we grow. Some of them are wonderful, like the ability to have a baby. Or for boys, the development of muscles that later enable the opening of jars with sticky lids. Others are less amazing. But I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of person. I want to see the good stuff.
Like most people, I suffer from a cognitive brain elf known as the optimism bias. Studies have shown that we humans in general are more optimistic than realistic. And that this tendency has a protective effect on us in many respects. In The Guardian, researcher Tali Sharot wrote, “… optimists live longer and are healthier…”. But she also warns that optimism is also irrational. Being optimistic quickly becomes a problem if not tempered by a willingness to confront reality and take appropriate measures to protect oneself against disease, financial ruin, and general stupidity. But how can I protect against a weird mustache at forty? That’s the real question.
The answer is, I did what seemed natural: I ripped the darn hairs out by their roots. But, there were complications. That first time and ever since, I as often rip off a strip of skin as I do the fine dark hairs. This, it seems, is a war of attrition: me versus age. And I don’t think I’m winning.
My optimism bias, though, has me looking on the bright side almost always. Sure I knew changes would come. Hormones, the cause of teenage angst, would also be the cause of the indignities of aging. They’re essential, like taxes, but equally annoying. I should expect, for example, my metabolism to slow. “I eat half of what I used to,” my sixty-ish doctor said. But, I don’t want to believe it.
Like all of the changes I’ve observed so far, I still I prefer to believe they won’t happen to me. I can tell you, though, that some things–strange things–have already happened. No amount of denying them will make them disappear. Instead of hiding, I’m sharing to erase them in a different way. I can’t deny they’re real, but I can deny that I should feel ashamed about them. I’d much rather laugh instead. Care to join me?
It’s Funny . . . Sort of
- Beard Hair. Along with my soft, brown lip visitors, a few of their aggressive older-brothers claimed some face real estate. While an occasional coarse hair would crop up on my chin once a year or so throughout my twenties and thirties, these fellows seem to have closed ranks against me now. I’m plucking one of these suckers every week or so. In my youth, I liked my one little hair, almost enjoying every time I noticed him. I even gave him a name; “Chinny” I called him. But now it’s a battle. Chinny and his pals are as cute as starving crocodiles.
- Squinting. Having enjoyed forty-plus years of perfect vision, I found it troubling when my then eight-year-old could read print the size of dandruff on a stuffed animal tag and I could not. For the first time in twenty years I went to see the eye doctor. I could not see all the letters on the eye chart. Still 20/20–for now–the optometrist warned me readers were in my near future. Of course, I feel grateful for so many years of good eyesight. But how am I supposed to battle Chinny and his friends when I can’t see them? Asking Paul, my sprightly younger husband, to spot my chin hairs for me seems like straining the vows of marriage a bit too far.
- Aching Bones. I’m an active person. I love to do high-intensity workouts, yoga, and run. But, my bones like me less than they used to. My knees snap and crackle in the middle of a group fitness workout as we transition from burpees to crunches. Too many jump lunges and I’m wishing I’d picked up a book instead of my gym bag. And when I run now it’s not my heart and lungs stopping me from long distances, it’s my bones. I literally hear them creaking in protest like ill-fitting hinges on a screen door.
- Dairy. While I can’t say I’m lactose-intolerant, I would say I can’t eat with the type of abandon of my younger days. Always careful to put healthy foods at the top of my list, I’ve enjoyed a great amount of freedom in what I can eat. But one day recently I had a giant latte, cheese on my tacos at lunch, and a piece of pizza for dinner. I paid for it all night long. My son had a friend over and luckily they occupied themselves while I spent the night near the bathroom. I tried to keep my moaning–which even to my ears sounded ironically like a cow’s moo–to a minimum.
- Sweat. Weird places on my body sweat at odd times now. For example, I never noticed the back of my knees sweating before middle age. Nor did I wake up with a sweat-Rorschach test on my t-shirt before I hit forty. Now here’s where the optimism bias can bite. Sometimes night sweats can mean serious illness (or serious menopause). So I did ask my doctor about all this sweating. Turns out, in my case, all’s well–it’s just middle age.
I’m normal. Nothing to see here. I’m as healthy as any forty-something both inside and out. But sometimes I see myself in the mirror and I just don’t look like I feel. Most days I feel pretty great. Sometimes my back hurts. Sometimes I have a dairy hangover, but for the most part, I’m delighted with this body and my life. However, sagging bits of skin and strange puckers bug me. The fact that I still wear a retainer and treat acne while I ponder wrinkle cream options makes my hairy lips turn up in a rueful smile. Such is the price of living. The optimism bias helps me believe that while I might have a few things to deal with, I’m still lucky. I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Your turn: What’s the tragicomedy of your age?