George Orwell said ‘At the age of fifty, everyone has the face s/he deserves’.
I first heard that saying decades ago and for some unknown reason remembered it. I was never very confident about exactly what Orwell meant by it, but I have always interpreted it to mean that if you spend your life being cross you will end up looking like a cranky old wo/man. But if you spend your life smiling kindly, you will look like a kind old person. It goes along with that other old saying, that your face will get stuck with whatever expression you are wearing when the wind changes (or does that rule only apply if you are making a face at somebody?).
If it were true, it’s bad luck for those that suffer a lot of pain or grief in their first few decades. They would end up looking permanently in pain or sad.
There’s not much we can do to avoid pain or grief, but we have at least some control over whether we scowl or smile on those around us.
Orwell’s saying came back to me at around the age of forty. I didn’t remember what the cutoff age was but I remembered that you had to watch out if you didn’t want to end up like Mr Wintergarten or any other fictional old person the neighbourhood children avoided in fear.
I started paying occasional attention to my facial expressions, noting when I smiled. I was somewhat relieved to find that I smiled quite often, partly because my children, who were all below ten years old at the time, often made me laugh or smile at their antics. ‘Thank goodness!’ I thought. I would be safe from ogredom and the neighbourhood children would be free from my future reign of terror.
There are two special occasions when I do my best to smile – they are when riding my bicycle on public roads, and when jogging.
The reason for the jogging smile is that I heard that a famous American public intellectual and wit said something like ‘If I ever see a jogger smiling I might try it‘. For a long time I thought Gertrude Stein said that but now the internet tells me it was actually the comedian Joan Rivers in 1982. I don’t know if others would count Joan Rivers as a public intellectual, but I like to think of Public Intellectuality as a broad church. Anyway, I resented the implication that joggers were a miserable bunch that hated jogging and did it either because, like banging your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop, or because like an Opus Dei monk wearing a cicatrice, they felt that the pain they were suffering was somehow accumulating points for them in their heavenly bank account.
Fie on you Ms Steinem (yes I know, I get Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem mixed up – pathetic isn’t it) I admonished her inside my head. I don’t suffer when I jog. I quite enjoy it most of the time, and sometimes I even love it. But I had to admit she had a point about the smiling. Joggers didn’t tend to smile, perhaps because they were too busy trying to breathe.
So I determined to set the world to rights. I became possibly the world’s first ever smiling jogger. I didn’t smile all the time. It is quite tiring on the facial muscles to maintain a smile for minutes at a time, as any games show barrel girl will attest (some people think that catwalk models look so sulky these days because they are perpetually hungry, but I think it may also be because it is more relaxing to maintain a vacant gaze than a beaming smile). But as soon as a passer-by hove into sight, I lit my face up like a Christmas tree, so they could see just how much fun I was having.
This led to some peculiar looks, and mothers shepherding their children anxiously away from me with worried expressions on their faces.
My campaign of smiling on a bicycle was for a different reason, and met with rather more success. There are a bunch of nasty ‘shock jocks’ in my city that anathematise anybody that expresses any concern for the environment as a Luddite, anti-democratic communist. They save their most virulent hatred for refugees and bicycle riders, in both cases, apparently because they clog up the roads and thereby interfere with the God-given right of every right-thinking person to drive their Land Cruiser down any street at 60km/h plus, unimpeded.
While most people, fortunately, are not influenced by this outpouring of bile, it does have some spillover effects and it did tend to generally increase the degree of hostility between cyclists and motor-car drivers. I thought that if I smiled at motorists that I encountered (or, at least, at the ones that hadn’t just nearly killed me by turning in front of me, cutting me off, passing too close and fast or just blaring their horn at me so close as to make me nearly fall off in fright) I would be doing my little bit to rebuild cordial relations.
I am pleased to report that this little strategy, unlike campaign Joggers-Can-Smile-Too, met with unexpected success. I received plenty of return smiles, waves and other gracious, heart-warming gestures. So, take that, Alan Jones!
For some reason it is also easier, and feels more natural, to smile when riding than when jogging. It might be because riding is after all more intrinsically fun than jogging, because of the whizzing. We all love to whizz after all, and not many of us are capable of jogging at whizzing speed. I used to be able to, but have not been able to for a long time now. Plus, every time one’s foot hits the ground (which is about eight-three times a minute, in case you were wondering), one’s facial muscles all get wobbled about by the shock-wave, making it more than usually hard work to maintain a smile. If you don’t believe me, look at a slow-motion replay of the 100m race in the Olympics and watch what the faces do. Ignore that famous sideways smile photo of Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. That was in a semi-final, so he wasn’t really running very fast (for him).
There’s also the fact that, because the air is rushing towards you quite fast on a bike, you don’t need to open your mouth into a big fat O shape to get enough air in. A sweet smile leaves more than enough opening for enough of the rearward rushing air to find its way to the lungs.
After a while, it just became a habit to smile when I was riding my bicycle, at least, when I wasn’t climbing a difficult hill or negotiating a particularly dangerous traffic situation.
So, in between the child-induced smile, the jogging smile and the bicycling smile, it seemed that my face was probably doing what was necessary in order to meet Mr Orwell’s challenge.
Now I am well past fifty, so I suppose I am out of danger. My face has, I suppose, become set in whatever configuration it is to maintain from here on in. The only expected future changes are ever-increasing numbers of wrinkles, perhaps sun-spots and scars from removed skin lesions and a gradual loss of teeth and hair. But can I be sure of that? After all, while Mr Orwell’s skill as an author is beyond question, his expertise as a gerontologist is comparatively unknown. Could he have been mistaken? What if it is sixty, seventy, or even eighty? One cannot be too careful. Perhaps it is too early to stop smiling.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay (better late than never): adolescent and young-adult offspring just don’t seem to compel beaming, helpless smiles from adults in the same way that two year olds do. Of the positive emotions that adolescents can generate (we’ll not dwell on the negative ones), there are affection, pride, sympathy and a number of others but “Oh my goodness that’s so adorable!” is not usually one of them. I presume this has something to do with evolution. We are programmed to find almost every utterance and action of a two-year old adorable, because they cannot fend for themselves and, if we didn’t find them adorable, we might not be inclined to fend for them – which wouldn’t do at all, not if we want them to grow up to be Prime Ministers. But above the age of about sixteen, the fending skills of the human species appear to be adequate, so evolution decided to ease off on the adorability spell. That may be all very well – after all, many adolescents prefer to spend time in any company other than that of their parents, and parents are easier to shake off if they are not following you around with adoring grins on their faces. But how are we to meet our smiling quota in the absence of such an influence? I have a feeling that now I may spend less than half the amount of time smiling that I did ten years ago. I can put some of that down to my mid-life crisis, but I think the partial maturation of my children has to bear some of the responsibility.
What, then, is to be done? One has to find other things to make one smile. But what? That will have to be the topic of another essay.
Ian Dury knew though. He made a list, in his song Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3).
Here’s a picture of Ian Dury showing he had not much to smile about, with his grim environment and the after-effects of his childhood polio on display. And yet…….
When I was young, I believed my body to be functionally perfect. I wished at the time that it were better-looking, and especially for it to have less pimples, but I thought it was functionally fine, most of the time.
I suppose I thought it perfect in the sense that it could do anything that I could reasonably expect it to do. It couldn’t attract girls like Robert Redford, run as fast as Sebastian Coe or be as muscly as Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it could run, jump, talk, dance, sing, read, write and do all the things seen by many as prerequisites to a full life.
Whenever I incurred an injury, there seemed to always be a potential horror lest the injury should lead to a permanent degradation of my body’s capability. One could tolerate a temporary loss of use of a limb, courtesy of a sprain or cut, but the idea of permanent loss of use was too horrific to contemplate. When I injured myself, the first thing that occurred to me was ‘I hope it’s nothing permanent‘.
Although I might have been less than Robert Redford in some schoolboyish calculus of value, I didn’t want to be reduced to less than I was at present.
Indeed, I expected my body to get better – stronger, faster, fitter, taller, less pimpled – and it generally did, up to the mid-twenties, maybe even longer than that for some activities, like long-distance running.
It was an obsessive attitude – like somebody that has a new car and is terrified that it might get a tiny scratch. It’s not that I spent time worrying about it. It was just that whenever an injury happened there was that sudden concern lest there be a permanent scratch.
The analogy isn’t a good one though, because scars were one change that I was perfectly prepared to accept. As long as they didn’t affect my body’s ability to function, and weren’t on my face, I was happy to accumulate scars. I suppose I imagined that they made me seem more manly. I have a dent in my right quadricep from running into a wire fence in the dark in 1987, a dent in my scalp from ducking insufficiently as I ran through a gap in a wrought-iron fence in 1996, a gouge in my left shin from slamming it into the iron footrest on the milk truck I worked on in 1979, when I slipped as I ran up to it, and from 1980 a scar across my right palm where I slipped with a milk bottle that then broke and stuck into my hand (Don’t ever let anyone tell you that running is a safe sport). I have many more scars, but those are the most noteworthy ones. And they’re only visual blemishes. They have no impact on function.
So it came as a shock the first time I had to accept a permanent loss of capacity. I’m not exactly sure when this shock was. It may have been in 2000 after an operation that was less successful than I would have hoped. That was like the first crack in the dyke, and the flood soon started coming through. A few years later I obtained my first pair of reading glasses and now I can barely read anything less than two metres away.
Fortunately, one’s concern about losing function seems to diminish in inverse proportion to the rate of loss of function. Once the new vehicle is a little scratched, one doesn’t worry so much about subsequent scratches.
Now of course, the vehicle is slowing down as well. A hard half-hour time-trial run for me now is much slower than a casual, conversational one-hour cruise jog was twenty years ago. But after a while, one comes to terms with it. It doesn’t worry me (I do wonder how I’ll cope when one of the wheels falls off though, or the transmission breaks).
And with the diminishing concern comes the realisation that my body was never functionally perfect anyway. It seems less dire to deteriorate from an already imperfect position than to suddenly lose perfection.
I wonder if there is anyone in this world of seven billion people that is entirely happy with how their body works – the digestion perfect, teach uncavitied, sleep easily achievable each night, anxiety, shyness or embarrassment never a problem; and for females: a regular, painless and easily manageable menstrual cycle. Out of seven billion bodies there must be one that has fewer problems than anybody else. But I imagine that even that one has some small challenges.
And all bodies will deteriorate as they age. Even if biologists eventually find the answer to programmed cell death, so that there’s no longer such a malady as ‘just getting old’, we’ll all still gradually accumulate permanent damage from our interactions with rocks, roads, fences and milk bottles. Fortunately, it seems that as we age we also learn better how to accept at least some damage with equanimity.
Bondi Junction, June 2015