This article was first published in The eXile in November, 2002.
Look down at your hand. Flex the tendons, watch them ripple under the skin. What a nice design! So silent and quick. That’s what they never get in these cyborg movies: the fact that a really good design doesn’t whirr and clank. It’s silent and quick, like bodies are. Like yours. Yours, these sinews; and that long, stretchable leg, genital toy, brave shoulders, stubborn toes, a zoo of perfect forms and all yours for the price of admission.
There’s only one little flaw: you are trapped in the body of a dying animal. In fact, you can see how far gone you are just by testing the skin of that hand of yours. Try pinching the skin on the back of your hand. Now let it go. Count the seconds it takes to smooth itself out. The longer it takes, the older your skin is.
“Let’s face it honey. It wasn’t anywhere near worth it.”
And here’s a really cheering bit of news: your skin, the largest organ in your body, is also the organ which ages most slowly. So however depressing it may be to look at the skin of your hand wearily resuming its proper shape, you can make yourself feel even worse by remembering that things are much, much worse on the inside. Your liver, your lungs, your heart, your joints — all the things you can’t see are decaying much faster than your skin.
When you first see your skin dying, you assume there’s a quick fix: what’s that stuff, rototonin or something? You rub it on and your skin youngs up. But it’s expensive, embarrassing, and only works for a while. You forget to put it on, and the wadis of your skin deepen. Meanwhile, the last fringe of hair has vanished from the Sahel of your forehead, your eyebrows begin to look Brezhnevian, your back is hairier than a tarantula’s, and your breasts are bigger than your wife’s.
There’s been a mistake. Someone screwed up the design, with malicious intent. Can you sue Darwin? Can you negotiate an exit from this dying animal? Apparently not. What are we, mere medieval peasants, serfs? Absolutely.
It gets worse. Aging is drying; the cells get scaly, reptilian, sagging like Iguana-hide. It’s not so droll anymore. It invades your dreams: quick cuts of teeth crumbling and hair shedding like an old dog’s ass, in close-ups that scare you awake.
That cough takes more and more effort to ignore; the phlegm is thicker by the day, and you get used to hacking more and more violently, just to dislodge the layer of Elmer’s Glue which has somehow ringed your esophagus. Your trusted body has decided to shift production, radically cutting back on sex hormones while increasing supplies of frogspawn mucus.
For a year or so, it hurts to see women flinch when you hack onto the sidewalk. But like all the little shames of age, it’s too constant to pamper. And as decay accelerates, the habit of spitting in oncoming pedestrians’ path becomes a small, vindictive pleasure. The hack and spit become a political statement. Heck, they have to: like all the pitiful consolation prizes of aging, you take them because you can’t turn them down.
Aging is shrinking: cells wink out and you’re literally a smaller person than you were. You’re a walking brownout. Dead muscle, never to be replaced, is squeezed through your increasingly inefficient anus. In a typical Darwinian joke, the dead cells are processed into hard, unfriendly turds which sandpaper the anus until you grow a little grape-cluster of hemorrhoids. Nature is efficient, and never smacks you once when it can whack you twice.
As biological catastrophes accumulate, more and more of your mental energy is devoted to blocking the signals broadcasting damage and decay from sites all over the body. If you listened to these signals, you’d scream and collapse. You’re a dry-land version of those salmon in the grizzly documentaries, the humped mutant fish whose bodies are dead but still swimming, covered with necrotic patches, constantly flaking away downstream.
All these pain-broadcasts have their bitter stories, most of them reminders of avoidable injuries. The knee — whose fault is that? Yours. Every time you walk more than fifty yards, that knee broadcasts the phrase “bone on bone.” The tissues that were installed at the factory have worn down like old shock absorbers that bang against the frame. Then there’s your heart, and the jaw thing, and your queasy gut. Your fault, your fault, and your fault, respectively.
But the worst torments are the ones too dumb to be tragic — the gnat buzzes of the aging body. There’s a patch of skin in your left ear that starts itching as soon as you get into bed, and grows a pale scab which you must scrape away with the nail of your little finger every week or so. The doctor doesn’t believe in it, and you sound like a whining fool when you try to explain. So you resort to the fingernail-gouging approach. Naturally, it gets infected. This is your own fault. All these trivial nightmares are (a) ridiculous, and (b) your own fault.
You’re married to a slut, a slave: a human body. And try getting a divorce from that wife, baby. When you’re married to your body, it really is “till death do you part.” Short of walking off the tenth floor or eating a 12-gauge, you and your body are as married as a couple of Mormons. That’s Earth, man: one big Utah. Monogamy, you and your body sliding into decay hand in hand. Touching, huh?
But it all started out so well! You replay it over and over (because you seem to spend a lot of hours lying down these days)…but no matter how many times you rewind, it comes out the same way. Let’s face it: you never had a chance, any more than the trilobites did. All you can do is play it back, and back, and back.
Ready? It doesn’t matter if you’re ready. The eXile is here to dim the lantern as we guide you through a tour of the most horrible plot the world has ever known: Aging.
“Come on, just guess how old I am!”
Age: Birth to 10 Years
The first three years were nightmare material, from falling out of a uterus to facing the fact that you’re going to be a tetraplegic feces-factory for a couple of years. Come to think of it, that’s how you’re likely to spend your last few years, thanks to modern medicine, so maybe infancy is good training for your slow and expensive stay at the Pray for Death Convalescent Hospital. But Nature, the sadistic tapeworm who set up this existence, doesn’t trust you to deal with the horrible memories of your first three years. That’s why she set up this clever little subprogram: at the age of four, your brain will automatically delete all memories. Every wonder why kids smile? That’s why: they’ve had a brainwipe, and it’s the nicest thing, maybe the only nice thing, Ma Nature will ever do for them.
But from five to puberty it gets better. After you bang your head against the table 10,000 times, your growing brain begins to suspect it might be better to duck. This is how we learn: pain and pain and pain and pain. But at least you’re getting better. Well, taller at least. There are finally other children who are smaller and weaker than you. Nature put these creatures on earth as victims, so after you do your time as jailhouse bitch to the other kids in kindergarten, it’s your turn to torture and fondle the fresh fish. The body understands and appreciates this and becomes happy. This is because the body is a fascist thug.
At the end of the first decade, you’re an old hand. You can make the body do pretty much anything you want. Nothing breaks. Everything heals. And you know, from watching older kids, that there’s this weird mutation ahead, something to do with the wriggly parts of movies.
But when they actually drop it on you — puberty, the golden anvil — it’s another nightmare. Just when you’d gotten over being the torture-bitch of every older kid, your body starts molesting itself. It oozes at night. You spent the first three years learning to control the oozes, and now the body possesses you, makes your hand stray south and do bad things to your own equipment. Any notion of dignity you assumed as one of the bullies is now long gone. It’s going to be gross from here on, till the end, when your senile living corpse spews up pea soup like an aged Linda Blair. So get used to rubbing and oozing, ’cause that’s life in a body from here on out.
Because after all, whose world is this, kids? This is Darwin’s world. And Darwin has a sense of humor like Stalin’s. Puberty is only the first and kindest of his jokes. It amuses him to zap you into a clumsy eighth-grade dance-parody, to make you wriggle and beg some other hormone-stupefied wretch to breed with you. And you WILL obey. You WILL write painfully embarrassing love letters to the very hormone-cocked wretch who has already marked you as a bad mate. But that doesn’t stop you, because you’re too confused, you can’t steer the body right.
It’s then, when you’re trying to steer your body, that you notice something awful: this body isn’t right. The love you felt for your grown-child body vanishes in horror at every cosmetic defect. You spend a hundred hours accusing yourself in the mirror of having asymmetric ears. The right one sticks out at a grotesque right angle, while the other one is decently slicked back to the skull.
Heightism rears its ugly head, the biggest unrecorded bigotry in the world. To be seven feet tall! Yes, exactly seven feet tall! Why can’t you be seven feet tall, and also a genius? Can’t you just kill somebody, someone smaller and weaker, in exchange for being seven feet tall? It’s so damn unfair.
You are going to be like this, only worse, for the next ten years. It’s lucky you’re you, because no one else could stand being around you. You will suck up to the kids who hate you the most, and make a show of humiliating anyone who makes the mistake of treating you decently. You will be ashamed only when you display any emotion other than hate for the good and ass-licking submission to the utterly vile. You’ll lie in bed hoping that tomorrow you will be more vile, more cowardly and cruel, than you were today. And your taste in music will really suck.
“My secret? Water. 8 glasses a day!”
This, according to statistics, is when people are happy. Are you…
* under 26? If so, have you made preparations to be happy when the year of bliss arrives? If not, better get to work, because from 27 onward you will be more and more wretched every year, until you finally die, sucked screaming through old age and death. M’kay?
* Exactly 26? If so, are you happy? You’re not, are you? Here’s a question for you to ponder: what’s wrong with you?
* Over 26? Well, at least you can look back on that one year of total, utter bliss. Huh…it wasn’t? Oh. Gee. That’s too bad. Well, look on the bright side: you only have 50 or so years to serve in this medium-security institution called “Life.”
Wanna hear something really funny? 26 is also the age when the body stops reproducing itself effectively, and a steep physical decline begins. You don’t yet notice it. And even if you read all the right 20th century literature, you won’t really believe it. But this is it, the bull market high. After 26, the aging begins. Wheee!
Hey, where’d that cheery 26-year-old world-beater go? Oh, THERE you are, you little rascal: sitting in your cardiologist’s office, trying to remember the meditation tapes your cousin who had the same blood-pressure thing gave you! That’s right, just try to remember the “Calm” section: “Imagine a forest brook flowing gently…” But shucks, you’ve never been near a forest brook in your life. You’re in a fifth-floor cardiologist’s waiting room, and you can smell death on the grimy cover of every old Reader’s Digest on the table. Every article in the August ’97 issue is about somebody in the Midwest who had a worse disease than you and overcame it with positive thinking. Somehow you know there won’t be an article on you in the upcoming issues. The best you can hope for is an obituary in the classifieds.
Worse yet, you know the cardiologist is going to tell you it’s all your own fault. And the funny part is…it IS all your own fault! Who finished off that whole roll of Pringles? Who was proud to look “a lot like Rush Limbaugh”? You, thass who, you scamp, you!
And now you’re going to die! What a hoot, huh? Hee hee! Ha ha!
And you’re going to pay this cardiologist half your savings…just to tell you the bad news! Oh well, Rush was still probably right about socialized medicine…and you can’t take it with you, can ya?
After all, who’ll inherit when you kick — that bitch Laura and the two kids? You still love the kids, of course. Yeah. Sorta. Except when they visit. But Laura? Fuck it, you’d sooner leave it all to a cat hospital.
There’s no afterlife, right? Jesus, there better not be. An eternity with Laura and those two. Anything but that.
“I’m not ready to die…I haven’t finished reading the club guide!”
But what hurts the most is the ones who aren’t dying. The ones as old as you who went into an age coma, like Michael Douglas. You can’t tell if they’re a bad 37 or a really good 70. Either way, you hate them. They cheated somehow…maybe one of those health fads was for real, melatonin or sesame oil. And they knew, the pigs. They had some kind of insider information and they bought the right supplements. And now they’re going to go on living, sunning themselves in the desert or down in Florida, one of the hot places where old reptiles like to bask. They’ll be constipated…they’ll be flabby…they’ll be forgetful and tell the same stories to the checkout ladies at the Scottsdale Safeway…but they’ll be alive.
Maybe there’ll be a big plague, like in that Stephen King novel, and everybody’ll die-especially the health freaks. That would be so wonderful — too good to be true. They’ll live. What a gyp. It’s not fair.
Of course there’s a little voice that says, “Fair? What about that spina bifida girl in fifth grade?” Yeah, but she was real happy, everybody said. She’ll probably live to be a hundred.
Rush isn’t as funny; you know he’d tell you it’s your own doing, just as every bum’s lot in life is his own responsibility. You don’t like Rush any more. It’s his fault you never lost weight, somehow. If HE had, YOU would’ve. He should’ve set an example, damn it.
Wait…is that Socialism? Well, even if it is!
You call Laura and try crying. You mess it up and hack up a lot of phlegm; she tells you to hold the phone away from your mouth, for God’s sake. It sort of goes downhill from there. Definitely leave the money to somebody charitable. Not liberal, just charitable. Orphans…are there still orphans?
And so we die. And look bad doing it, most of us. Why? Why must there be death and disease in this world?
Welp, there’s two schools o’thought:
On the one hand you’ve got the Bible (and, just to be fair, the Koran — the moderate Koran, of course — and the…whatever the Jews have and the Orientals). All these, if you sort of do a Reader’s Digest version, tell pretty much the same story:
Somewhere back there, our ancestors must’ve done something pretty godawful, pissed off Somebody Big. And they stuck us in these bodies and made us jump around like salmon in a bear documentary and get ugly and die with all those tubes and beepers.
“What’s it like? Pain. Every minute.”
That’s version number one. Then there’s the scientists, Darwin — which is just a theory, not a fact, but the theory is something like:
We’re just like cars, in a demolition derby, and we’re cheap models, like a Yugo, because we’re designed for Africa about a million years ago, where a hyena was likely to get us any day, so why bother making us like, say a Mercedes Benz or even a good American car — say, a Saturn! Anyway, that’s the idea: we’re not made to last, and that’s just how it is.
The interesting difference between these two explanations is that one, the God version, makes you feel guilty whereas two, the Science version, just scares you to death. So the best way is to do a little of the God version, till you feel TOO guilty, and then try the Science version till you get too scared, and keep going back and forth till you can go to bed.
At which point: vodka. Nothing beats it, not even the Diaza-whatever the HMO gave you. God starts lecturing you like some big bearded dragqueen version of your ex-wife? Two words: vod. ka. Not bourbon, Scotch-nothing colored. Pure clear vodka.
“But it’s bad for you.” Which is kind of funny, at this point. Point the bottle at your cardiologist and your ex-wife and, fuck it, God and the Scientists too, and tell them, tell them…fuck it.
Just as long as there’s no after. No white light, no robed figures, nothing. Like flicking off the TV. That’s something to hope for.
This article was first published in The eXile in November, 2002.
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