Friday, March 25, 2011

Aging Gracefully

We spent last weekend at the Fairmont on Nob Hill in San Francisco.  The hotel was built from 1902 to 1906 and was days away from opening when the major earthquake (estimated to be a 7.9 on the  moment magnitude scale) struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906.  It survived the earthquake but was substantially damaged by the subsequent fires.  The hotel eventually opened in 1907 , which incidentally is the year my Dad was born.   It changed owners over the years, fell into ruin and was reborn after WW2, and suffered the slings and arrows of various decorators.  The famous Tonga Room was the site of the first performance by Tony Bennett of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco".

Fairmont Hotel San Francisco © 2008 Pargon  Creative Commons License 
Parts of the hotel as it exists today fascinated me-- the grand lobby, the beautiful Laurel Court Restaurant and Bar with its chandelier and central circular staircase heading downstairs,  the gorgeous wood doors on the rooms.  Our room was on the 6th floor of the main hotel,which has 7 floors above ground and 2 below.  It was next to the Singapore Suite, which announced its name in an elaborate gold sign on the door.  I like to think we were Singapore Suite adjacent given that our room was very small, but had a wonderful view of the Transamerica Building, the Bay and Chinatown.  The room had a great face lift but the walls were thin, like the skin of an older person.  I had the pleasure to listen to someone talk and chant in Arabic for a half hour on Sunday morning as if he were in my room.
Fairmont Hotel Lobby © 2008 Pargon  Creative Commons License
I was lucky to meet an old college friend on Friday afternoon.  We sat in the Laurel Court bar area in big winged arm chairs and talked for hours while drinking tea and coffee.   At some point an older couple came into the bar area.  The man was easily in his 80s but the woman was a striking slender redhead with an ingenue bob haircut.  The red hair fell across one of her eyes and covered part of her face in what would have been an alluring manner, if she had not been herself in her 80s and the object of numerous face lifts.  She wore fashionable and colorful clothes which fit her well.  I was so dumbfounded that I stared.  My friend also stared.  We agreed that her efforts to look like she was in her 20s were sad and misplaced.  The 20-somethings who were with me at the hotel saw her later and declared her "scary". 

How does one age gracefully as a woman?  I am grappling with that issue now.  I feel bad for judging the woman who felt the need to recreate herself as someone 60 years younger than she is.  I am struggling with how I look relative to others my age and a bit older.  I have two friends in particular that I have seen in the past week that look surprisingly like they did 30 years ago-- their hair and faces and bodies do not betray their age like mine do.  I have gray hair, a dumpy middle age body and a wrinkled face.   I want to look younger again and have people tell me like they did when I was in my 40s that I looked ten years younger than I was.

For a while I thought the gray hair made me look more serious and gave me gravitas.  But I no longer feel that as I realize that I am still treated with minimal respect at my job-- where there are clearly the grownups--senior management-- and the rest of us, the kids.  I also have been told that telling people that I am old and decrepit (as I look and feel) is not a great way to brand myself.   But of course, I worry, what is the threshold for looking okay while appearing younger than you are and what the woman in the hotel unfortunately was--a caricature.  In Japan, we saw 40 year old women dressed like their teenage daughters in short frilly shirts and fishnet stockings.  I found that effort to look young also a caricature.  So if I show up at work on Monday with blonde hair again, am I a caricature?

Like old buildings with thin walls that practically cannot be replaced, the older person can only do so much  of a makeover to appear young and vital again.  Our minds may be that of a much younger person (God willing) but our bodies have their limitations.  I suspect I can still squeeze a few more years of looking younger out of my body before I get the response that I am scary.  At least I hope so.

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