vanity

September 14, 1999

I just spent a week in California — half in southern California, and the other half off in the ozone in northern California. Northern California is still three feet off the ground, and everybody wants to either share or network with you. People you don’t know still say “I love you,” and people still wear the clothes that they garden in when they go to a fancy restaurant. In northern California you can’t just go out and get a ham-and-egg breakfast for four bucks. Nope, you have to get “Edna’s deluxe Gouda cheese with ranch-raised eggs and whole buckwheat bread with French roast coffee” for $12.95, served by somebody who is wearing the clothes they just gardened in.

I think the most noticeable thing about California is its lack of old people. There are no old people in California. I don’t know what they do with them, but they aren’t there. Some claim that California is so health conscious that people don’t grow old there anymore. But the people who say that eat rabbit food and smoke the funny stuff.

I think it is just that California has put forth a better effort with what this whole country is really committed to: banning old people. Or rather, having no more people who look old running around in public. Of course there are old people in California; either that, or they’re deporting them to New Jersey and not telling anybody about it. In a country fixated on the hard body, the washboard belly, tummy tucks, face lifts, breast implants, liposuction and the general enhancement of everything you can think of, what else would you expect?

In recent years this country has gone through a number of stages regarding the elderly. At one time — a long time ago, I think — there was an assumption that having been around longer gave one a higher degree of wisdom. Now that we all get our information from the same sources, television and the Internet, that notion seems to have gone down the drain.
And there was a time when it was understood that most older people had fulfilled their responsibilities as parents and mates and, having been good, productive citizens, were deserving of some gratitude and respect. So much for that idea.

Maybe the way we live our lives nowadays creates our idea of the elderly: maybe we think they were lousy, dysfunctional parents and family members, just scam artists pretending to be citizens, and generally just a lazy bunch of complainers. That is called “projection,” but maybe it explains why we all seem to hate the very idea of old people. Of course, being old is a very dynamic reminder that death actually exists — death being a very unpopular concept in this country.

When everybody walks around looking young, it makes me feel like I look old. But I am determined not to use any radical remedies to change the way I look — though I’m told that a good single malt scotch sometimes works.
Let’s talk more about surgically altering the way you look. That really interests me. Is sculpting the human body just a new form of art? The surgeon as artiste? Maybe in the future, we’ll have body galleries where we can contemplate the most original tummy tuck or liposuction job. Just imagine Pablo Picasso as a cosmetic surgeon — or better yet, Salvador Dali.
The reason I want to talk about cosmetic surgery is because of all the things we do to keep looking young. It’s by far the weirdest trip to me. (And for those of you who know me, you realize that me calling anything weird is not unlike the pot calling the kettle black.)

Now, I can understand coloring your hair, but having a knife cut across your scalp, slitting the skin and then having it pulled up just like I would yank up my socks? And yes, it’s true that when I pull up my socks there are no wrinkles, but it’s also true that if I wear them long enough, they just slip back down again. Does this happen to faces too?

Apparently, a lot of women get breast implants. Why? I ask my women friends out there, why? What’s wrong with what you got? I promise you, whatever you got (assuming you got), I’ll like! For me, even small is big enough.

So maybe what I’m thinking about isn’t the plight of the elderly after all. Maybe it’s about how perversely vain we have become in this country. It’s not so much that so many people are obsessed with their looks; what bothers me is that we live in a culture in which we are constantly made to feel ashamed about how we look. How many of you ever feel like you look good enough? How many of us actually believe that a person is best judged by the content of their character and not by the tautness of their skin?
How many of you would trade in your new, expensive car for an older, cheaper car in exchange for just a bit more wisdom, a bit more heart?
I remember when it was only women, usually from adolescence to about sixty, who were constantly sold the notion that “you are your looks.” Now men have gotten into the trip, too. You just have to be a hunk nowadays. For Christ’s sakes, we even have designer clothes for infants.

Do you really want to be judged by your appearance? Think of the great figures in history. Lincoln — ugly! Gandhi — ugly! Churchill — ugly! Mother Teresa — I hate to say it, but really ugly. Maybe people who just accept that they will never be a Cindy Crawford or a Richard Gere are able to devote themselves to slightly higher pursuits than mall browsing, lip enhancements and spending the better part of every day in front of a mirror.

We keep talking about how important building moral character in our children is. Turns out that’s just all talk, and we keep talking even as we envy the neighbor’s new car and buy ourselves new cars so that we will feel better about how we think we’re perceived by others.

We teach our kids about morality right after double-checking that they are wearing the right label. Calvin Klein replaces Jesus, Gucci replaces Maimonides, Versace replaces Allah. It’s all vanity, vanity, vanity.

In America, you are what you own. And nowadays, even our bodies are just possessions rather than extensions of our inner selves. It’s not about how you feel about who you are, but about what you think. Or, more importantly, want others to think of you based on how you look, and better yet how you look with what you own.

Other than our pets, the only stuff we can own is inanimate. Right? Your car is inanimate, your clothes are inanimate and your cosmetics are inanimate. They are all just things. So, if you think you are no more than what you own, well, then, you must feel inanimate — dead. Now does it come as any surprise to you when kids do seemingly crazy things and then justify it by saying, “For that one moment, I felt truly alive.”

If it’s all about how we look, about our appearance, our car, our status, how good looking our mate is, all that stuff — then it can’t also be about how we feel or about who we really are. How many of you go through a day feeling as though nobody really has gotten to know you even a little bit? How many of you go through a year like that? How many of you have spent a lifetime feeling as though nobody really knows you? If you know what I’m talking about, feel better: a lot of people feel that way — at least, those of us who actually are still in touch with our feelings do.

Most of us wear masks, expensive masks, in a land that thinks of itself as one big theater. Don’t you occasionally want to take the mask off and say, “Hey, this is me. Like it or not, this is me.”

Here’s an old saying of mine: “If everybody likes you, well, then nobody really knows you.”

I know that I am not my car, nor my designer suits, nor my kid, nor my status. I also know that I am not what I look like to you — and I could care less how I look to you. I’ll never be represented on a TV commercial as an ideal or even close to an ideal. And that’s okay.

I do know what motivates me most of the time. I understand my compulsions and, to some degree, my fears and loves. I have some awareness of how my mind works and doesn’t work, when I am moved by fear and when I am moved by love. Chances are that I will never have a tummy tuck or have my chin extended or nose straightened. I refuse to feel shame about who I am.

So today, take a good, long look in a mirror. Look yourself in the eyes and say, “Hey there, me; I’m fine just the way I am.” Sometimes saying it more than once is helpful.

And if you feel as though nobody really knows you, ask yourself if it is their craziness or yours. Sometimes, you’ll find that your mask is getting in the way, which can make people afraid to really know you. Want to know why? It’s because once a person really opens up to truly knowing another, they are opening themselves to really knowing themselves — and that can be scary. When I run into people like that, I like to let them know that it is fine with me that they are scared, that I don’t judge them for that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t.

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