Mirrors – an essay
By: Bob Forbes
The other day, I was in the men’s locker room at my Fitness Center. I go there three days each week to work out on a variety of machines, hoping to maintain some semblance of a male body. At age seventy-two this can take some work.
Standing in front of a sink while shaving, one of the ‘regulars’ shared the following joke: “When I was young, I had the body of a Greek god. Now all I am is a Greek in an old damned body.” Uncomfortable laughter all around ensued. You hear this sort of thing a lot when we old guys get together. It’s on our mind a lot. All we have to do is look in the mirror.
The mirror is our great equalizer. And there seem to be two basic types standing there, shaving and facing the realities of gravity. The first are the fellows that wear a towel. The others don’t. It could be that those of us who tend to don a wrap are more ashamed of our bodies. Also, I don’t know whether those perpetual nudists among us just hark back to their high school or college locker room days where no one seemed to wear a towel or whether these guys really think they still look better than most of us. Or, maybe they just don’t give a damn. Quite possibly, in our age cohort, it might simply mean some of my buddies have just forgotten to cover up.
At any rate, I am reminded that we should be grateful as Mother Nature tends to be gentle; our failing eyesight inclines to cover up many of our sags and wrinkles. Certainly, at this juncture most of us have reached the No BS stage of life: we either don’t care how our bodies look (or so we claim) or we have decided to fight to the end.
I am told the women’s locker room is another matter. Several women have shared that their locker room gets relatively little use. I have a theory, which I hope is not interpreted as sexist: many women are even more self-conscious about their bodies than us men. That’s not surprising when one considers the emphasis in American society placed on the youthful svelte, toned female body. It’s not a stretch (no pun intended) to believe that when women reach ‘a certain age’ (what, age fifty maybe?) the prospect of being seen naked by other than her partner can be downright terrorizing. This is tragic and seems especially true for my generation, the Baby Boomers. I am exceedingly pleased that younger generations seem to be making attempts at being less caught up in this obsession with the female body. Hopefully, that is the case. Of course, I may be wrong about this matter with my generation’s females. Maybe it’s just easier to do their hair and makeup at home.
Yet, even as great strides are being made in placing cracks in the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’, it seems obvious from the emphasis on feminine beauty that younger generations are a bit less liberated than the lip service our society pays to this supposed trend. For my daughters’ sakes I do hope I am wrong.
I digress. Let me return to the towel situation in the men’s locker room. I personally don’t care whether men wrap up or remain bare. Still, I find myself wondering why we spend so much time in front of those mirrors priming, trimming our nose hair and attempting to comb what little hair most of us have left. Maybe it’s because we have a misplaced hubristic view of ourselves, the “I look better than most of these guys” disorder. It could also be an act of desperation, determined to make the most of what we’ve got. This approach seems a logical coping mechanism, tempering the inevitability of facing our own mortality.
At this age we think a lot about mortality, which for most of us, equates with good health. Nothing even comes close in the media as a topic relating to mature Americans than the issue of health. I am almost to the point where I don’t dare open my AARP newsletter. There’s so much stuff about eating properly, exercising, keeping my mind sharp. I realize the intention is well-placed but it sometimes feels discouraging. If you are skeptical, or too young to notice such things, simply Google a topic such as “issues for seniors” and you’ll see what I mean.
However, mortality is about so much more than health issues. While none of us knows another’s inner thoughts, it’s a safe bet my locker room buddies all grapple with the same ultimate question I do: Is it completely over when it’s over, or is there another act to follow? While I am in no position to address this question for others, I grapple with it and then put it off, receiving some solace in recalling Dr. Seuss’ advice: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Be glad it happened in the first place.”
In the meantime, another daunting question for us older guys is, what will a good day eventually look like? What will a sense of well-being ultimately mean? Perhaps it’s not only about what is the next treatment to try, but more, what can I do to make this day worthwhile? As the body continues to lose its vitality, I hope my mind – that sneakiest of adversaries – remains strong, long enough.
Yes, mortality. When we consider this, my fitness center brethren and I will continue to arise early three times a week and do our darnedest to stave off further bodily breakdown. To paraphrase Woody Allen: 85% of any job is showing up. We’ll continue to show up as long as we are able. And as a source of mutual courage, we will continue to make jokes about ourselves and our buddies in front of those mirrors. We occasionally go a bit deeper, poking fun at ourselves about the fact that our younger arrogance had once convinced us that we could change the world. Seems like it still needs some work.
For me, this approach of showing up for as long as I am able mostly boils down to something as simple as the indomitable human spirit that keeps each of us going. We old guys aren’t quite ready to call it quits. Besides, there is another wonderful bonus for taking the time to face ourselves in those mirrors. At this stage, most of us have graduated from that horrible male syndrome stemming from our hopelessly competitive society. The most common term for this phenomenon refers to the “wagging” of a certain appendage, meaning, ‘I have accumulated more or I am more successful than you’. Happily, the pressure for success is long gone. Who you once were rarely matters. For many, this is the first time in life to know true freedom. By now most of us realize we’ve been played. For too long we fell for that game, hook, line and sinker.
This is a significant realization. Consequently, it’s now easier to build real relationships with other men because we are no longer competing with them. Until now, our souls have had little sustenance from close relationships other than those in our inner circles — partner, family, a close friend or two.
As a result of this epiphany, we now tend to be more gentle and respectful toward each other. It’s another reason I keep coming back to the fitness center, spending time with my cronies. One way or another, it has collectively dawned on us that we are living a credo of the ancient philosopher, Philo of Alexandria:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.