Reflections on the completely gratuitous ravages caused by the passage of time. I mean, who asked it?
The hits just keep on coming.
Nothing brings you into touch with your ‘not quite as toned as you’d like’ almost-60-year-old body quite as harshly as trying on clothes in a four-foot-square cubicle with a full-length mirror on one wall. (Although there was that episode this summer at the in-laws’ lake house, where the new shower’s glass wall is only six feet away from the over-the-sink mirrors. What were they thinking? One thoughtless glance sideways could provoke an attack of some sort. After one quite startling scrub-down in August, when an old woman unaccountably got into my shower, I learned to keep my gaze straight ahead. And this Thanksgiving I remembered to give silent thanks for short-sightedness.)
But back to trying on clothes. Anywhere else, even fully clothed I can and do avert my gaze from full-length reflective surfaces—mirrors, storefront windows—at least until I am a decent distance from them. From 10 or 20 feet, I look 10 or 20 years younger, at least in my own eyes. But here in the cubicle, short of closing those eyes, there is no avoidance manoeuvre possible. Worse, there is no way to get far enough back from the damn thing. There I am, up close and all too personal. Worser, for much of the time I am only partly clothed, my untanned, unbuffed squishiness on full display. Not for the whole world to see, it’s true—be thankful for huge mercies—but hey! What about my sensitivities? Just as I still unconsciously expect to be able to do what I did 10 or 20 years ago—to have the same energy level and ambition—so, too, a not entirely rational corner of my mind expects to see a younger me in the mirror. A younger me that may only ever have existed in my mind’s eye, it’s true, but a self image that holds a fond place in my heart, nonetheless.
Yet if trying on clothes is harsh, trying on skin-tight bathing suits is cruel and thankfully unusual punishment. Needing a new suit for that almost catastrophic trip to the in-laws’ lake house, I braved the bathing suit store. Not for me the discount rack at the department store, where the big guy picks out a new pair of trunks and hardly bothers to try them on, confident they will fit. No, I need Specialist Assistance to navigate the maze of styles. One piece or two? Neck tie or shoulder straps? Scoop or v-neck? Regular or long torso? Panty leg or skort? Control ruching or cross-over?
Once all these structural issues are decided, there are style questions to consider: should I follow the ‘don’t attract their attention’ strategy of a plain, dark colour, or the ‘distract them’ strategy of overall pattern? No Specialist in her right mind offers me the plain, brightly coloured, ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ options any more. Then, finally, there is the sizing question, which comes down to this: Just how boa-constrictor-like does it have to be to guarantee that it won’t sag unbecomingly, even downright illegally, when it’s wet? I finally settle on this rule of thumb: If I can wriggle out of it without triggering an anxiety attack (‘I’m trapped!’), it’s too big.
I eventually settle on a bathing suit—‘select’ somehow sounding too positive for the whole benighted experience—thereby proving yet again the wisdom of the ancient Persian Sufi poets who promised that This Too Shall Pass. As I trudge back to my car, I am bruised in body, from all that wriggling and snapping of straps, and in spirit, from that too-close view of my own aging self. I ponder again how much easier it is to counsel sanguinity in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous mortality than it is to exercise it.
But the year is not done with me: not only my old bathing suit but my passport, too, is about to expire, launching me on the renewal process. The forms themselves have been dramatically simplified in the last few years, but the photo requirements are as unforgiving as ever: straight-on, no glasses, no earrings (no, big guy, not even for you), and no smiling. I’m not pining for an arty studio shot, all improbably swept-back hair and airbrushed skin tones, just for the equivalent of a candid snapshot taken by someone who doesn’t detest me. Wouldn’t that be recognizable enough? But it is not to be: the same artistic sensibility behind mug shots and morgue shots appears to be at work here. Knowing what to expect, I put it off until the last moment, trying at least to optimize hair length for this photo I must live with for the next five years. The result is about what I expected: a good likeness of Isabel under interrogation. Extended interrogation. The big guy fares not much better, coming off more like a Mafioso than the respectable retired officer and gentleman he actually is.
As we complete our application process and take custody of our old passports, now invalidated by hole punch, I flip nostalgically to my last photo. It wasn’t so bad, I realize. Wait a minute—how can that be? As I look searchingly at this photo that caused me so much angst when it was first taken, the penny drops. In the intervening five years, I have aged and my passport photo has not. Day by day, that shot became first more accurate, and then—dare I admit it?—downright flattering, assessed against the real live girl.
And so it is that I now carry and present my passport with pride: I used to look like this, it attests. Maybe I’ll start a campaign to have passport photos require a bathing suit. Because as good or as bad as the face and body are this year, they’re going to look damn good by comparison five years from now. This too shall pass.