by danny heitman
June 01, 2013
We had my high school 30-year reunion this summer in a reception hall that was once the site of a new car lot in my hometown. As a teenager, I’d often pass by that spot and see customers trading in old models for new ones. Entering my reunion this year, I wondered what it might be like to exchange my present body, which has extensive mileage, for a mint-new version of myself.
The desire to be young or stay young is as old as humanity. What’s changed, I guess, is the vast industry of youth preservation that’s evolved since my high school days.
In 1982, the year I graduated from high school, an ailing Seattle dentist named Barney Clark sparked international headlines by receiving the Jarvik 7 artificial heart. Clark survived for only 112 days on the bulky device, but his story buoyed longstanding hopes that people might live beyond the natural limits of their bodies, harnessing human ingenuity to extend both the quality and quantity of life indefinitely.
Three decades later, artificial hearts remain a pioneer enterprise, but artificial hips and knees are a routine commodity. On a more superficial level, our ancient quest to escape the consequences of aging now ranks as a national obsession. Ronald Reagan, who occupied the White House in my final years of high school, stood out back then as that rare American male who obviously used hair dye. These days, male celebrities of a certain age who don’t color their hair seem like the standouts. Beyond Hollywood and Washington, D.C., hair products to hide the gray have gone mainstream, as evidenced by any glance down the pharmacy aisle. On neighboring store shelves, one can also find an extensive line of moisturizers for men. Hand and face lotion for guys? In high school, my classmates and I would have doubled over laughing at the thought.
Plastic surgery to mask the years, an option more or less restricted to Beautiful People in Hollywood and Manhattan when I was young, has a firm foothold in the provinces now. I can pick up my local phone book and find plenty of doctors willing to help me banish the wrinkles and sag lines for a few years more.
Because we can look younger today, people of my generation have gotten the message that we must look younger. If 50 is the new 40, and 40 is the new 30, then what about the poor dope who’s decided to wear his years as a badge of honor, looking more or less the age on his driver’s license?
Luckily, I found plenty of fellow travelers at my reunion who were also willing to look their ages, not their shoe sizes. As one classmate told me, she’s lost the face of youth since leaving high school, but gained the treasure of wisdom. With that wisdom has come the knowledge that ultimately, aging cannot be stopped — that life is a finite resource. That awareness, properly embraced, sharpens our gratitude and makes us happier, not sadder.
Or so I tried to remind myself this summer as I gathered in a reception hall with lots of old friends who still look pretty good to me.