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Touch of Gray

On getting old.

My wife recently informed me that I am beginning to run gray around my ears. That’s fine. I have large ears, and parties less interested in telling me to get a haircut are unlikely to notice a few hoary strands hiding in their capacious shadows. The gray in my beard has, so far, mostly come under the jaw. My youthful beauty, such as it is—the ears are rather large—remains on the whole uncompromised, if fragile.

Still, I must face facts. I am not the man I once was. A frank inspection in the mirror finds bags under the eyes, the hint of a dewlap under the beard, eyebrows that have grown unruly. The teeth, although strong, were already yellow by the end of college. The twice-annual disruption of public order arising from “daylight savings time” inevitably results in a three-week spate of listlessness and depression as my sleep schedule adjusts. I can no longer eat fatty foods in the evening.

Mortality has begun to set in. And why not? I have a job, I have children, I have a mortgage and a lawn to mow and taxes to pay and various relations to pacify. Why shouldn’t my hair be gray? I have always been aware, perhaps morbidly so, of the slow but swiftening march toward death; when I was a child of about six, I would give my parents detailed instructions regarding my funeral arrangements. (Of particular concern, what was to be done with my stuffed rabbit—at that age, imaginary friends seem very real, and what if Peter Rabbit here outlives me? I nevertheless settled on the pharaonic expedient of having him buried with me in the casket. I can only imagine what my poor mother thought of all this.) Yet it all seems to have started to become real very suddenly.

From time to time, I’ll try to implement some sort of regime to forestall the inevitable. A few times a year, I’ll begin getting up an hour earlier than my customary 5:30 a.m. and running like an idiot in the dark. The dark is very important. I find this activity humiliating, arms flailing and ears flapping and all, and I prefer to avoid being seen that way by my neighbors. This will go on for a week or two, and then providence will intervene in the form of a catastrophic chest cold or a change in the baby’s sleep schedule. I must conclude that heaven also prefers not to see me that way.

My wife recently acquired one of those pull-up bars that you put in a doorway. This is it, I thought; no more indignity in sweatpants under cover of darkness, no more desperate changes to the schedule. I’ll heave myself up there a few times a day whenever I have a minute or two and will be a stronger, healthier man in under a month. No such luck. It creaks, which wakes up the baby if I do it at night or in the early morning, and brings the other children if I do it during the day. Each insists on being lifted up to dangle from it, an activity which they think is very funny. They have a point, but this brings me no closer to mortality-defying fitness.

I occasionally have the feeling that I’m letting down the team, that I ought to be doing a better job of taking care of myself and setting a positive example of life-affirming self-denial. Gentlemen of the press have a reputation for eating, drinking, and smoking in a dedicated, serious-minded way; yet I’ve had fellows who are enthusiastic about their health, devoted to exercise and clean diets and all the rest. There is an element of Christian morality about it, the idea that the body is a temple of the Holy Ghost. At any rate, they tend to be moralistic about it. But I worship in a church that is old and decaying, its paint peeling and plaster crumbling, and I cannot imagine it any other way. I am a romantic; when I cannot find ruins, I build them in my mind. And, as it may be, with my body.

The inevitable is inevitable; the dark head grows gray. “Cities, men, monuments decay, nec solidis prodest sua machina terris, the names are only left, those at length forgotten, and are involved in perpetual night,” Burton declaims. So it is. Yet there’s a charm to it; who actually enjoys being young? No money, untested and fantastical ambitions, constant change. It didn’t agree with me, and in retrospect the benefits seem pointless, almost freakshow-like. Who needs to be able to eat fast food after midnight? By contrast, perhaps a little physical evidence of experience will make people take me seriously, ears notwithstanding. Per the poets, a touch of gray suits me anyway.

And at least I’m not going bald.