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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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TRUTHS AND HALF TRUTHS

The distinguished gentleman

Nils Ling

Not too long ago, I slipped through that invisible barrier that separates a healthy young man in his forties and a doddering old fool in his fifties. My wife threw a big party, either to celebrate the event or just rub it in. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

At the party, I was sitting around having a soft drink or two when a bunch of the women around me started talking about how unfair life can be.. Why is it, they asked, that when a man gets older, he’s thought of as looking “distinguished”...but when a woman gets older, she’s just thought of as looking...”older”?

I’ve heard that observation before “and I’ve always accepted its basic premise. But lately as I look in the mirror I’ve started to wonder. I must be one of those rare men who got passed over when the “distinguished-looking” gene was handed out.

Take my eyebrows. Please. Get a wheelbarrow and some garden shears and take my damn eyebrows. For some reason, somewhere in my genetic pattern there’s this evolutionary trait I just don’t understand. What possible reason can there be, hidden deep within the history of our species, for eyebrows to start growing bushier once we zip past the age of forty? Was this trait developed as some sort of defence measure? Perhaps predators shied away from a man whose face looked like it was already being attacked by squirrels.

And what exactly is the deal with this hair growing out of my ears? You’d think that would be one trait that would have died out over millennia upon millennia of evolutionary development. I mean, as you get older, the hearing starts to go anyway... add to that a four- pound tuft of ear hair, and you’d wind up with an old guy who couldn’t hear a herd of mastodons thundering up from behind. So how does this feature survive?

But it did ... and now, every time I go to the barber he takes a few minutes and snips the hair out of my ears. Some people may think that giant plantations of ear hair look distinguished, but I have to admit that one slides right past me.

Likewise with nasal hair. That’s another chore the barber gets to deal with, and frankly I say better him than me. I sometimes wonder what this eyebrow and ear and nose hair would look like if a guy let it just grow for a year or so. Distinguished as all heck, I’m guessing.

The women in my life are always complaining about what time and gravity are doing to their bodies, but the last time I looked I wasn’t winning any battles on those fronts. When I was young, I had broad shoulders and a narrow waist. Now my shoulders are narrow and it’s my waist that has expanded. It’s as if everything is just sliding inexorably downwards. At this rate, in another thirty years or so I'll have enormous calves and feet that weigh seventy pounds apiece. And won’t that look distinguished?

I used to have a full head of naturally curly hair. I don’t anymore. In the great battle over my head, the forces of baldness have won the field. Distinguished? I don’t know. Bald can sometimes be distinguished ... but on most guys, it’s just bald.

Look, I’m okay with all this. A terrific songwriter, Laura Smith, wrote a beautiful line: “My face is a map of my time here ...” And she’s right. I’ve earned every wrinkle, every grey hair ... and every spot where grass used to grow but somehow doesn’t anymore.

I just don’t want to hear that story about men looking “distinguished” as they get older. Some do ... but my guess is they had the tools long before their twilight years settled in. They've gone from darling to cute to handsome to hunky to distinguished. Well, lucky them.

Those of us who miss the first four steps aren’t likely to reach the fifth.

This feature: From Nils Ling’s book Truths and Half Truths. A collection of some of his most memorable and hilarious columns.

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