Ah, to be young again!

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - November 10, 2013 - 12:00am

I was asked last fortnight by Dr. Gemmalyn Paa, chairman of the 2nd Annual Conference of the Philippine Anti-Aging Medicine and Clinical Aesthetics Society, to give an “inspirational talk” at the conference opening. It is not often that I am asked to speak before doctors and I welcomed the opportunity to interact with them in the hope that I may get insights into how to grow old without any hassle, and most of all, how to rejuvenate my flagging memory. Of late, I have had difficulty remembering names and words—and this memory loss is perhaps the severest obstruction for someone whose profession is based on the use of words.

In trying to outline my talk, I brought to mind the myths and stories about how men in eons past have vainly sought the fountain of youth, the anointed precincts of nirvana and longevity—Shangri-la. I remember reading about Hunsa—a valley deep in the Himalayas where people lived longest because they had a steady diet of apricot. I subsisted on it in Paris in 1976 when I was writing Mass—for which reason perhaps, the novel sold a lot. As my son, Alex, who majored in food biology in college told me later, the apricot is the world’s best brain food.

Literature—Eastern and Western—abounds with stories, myths, legends about the search for youth, for eternal life. Old Chinese gentlemen, for instance, believe that cohabiting with young women, particularly virgins, will make them youthful. The lore of aphrodisiacs as sexual and longevity potions resonate to this very day as do myths about how artistic excellence is transformed into palpable reality. I remember a particularly enchanting story about a Chinese woodcarver who chiseled into being a dragon so real, that one night, it became alive and flew away.

Ditto with the Greek myth—the bracing story of Pygmalion, the king of Crete, who created out of marble a beautiful woman, Galatea. She became real; he married her, and she bore him children. George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, inspired by this story, wrote that play about a teacher who taught a cockney girl upper class manners and speech and it became that famous Broadway musical and movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

I was particularly impressed by the Pygmalion myth, I wrote a novel, Sherds, about a Filipino potter who shaped a clay likeness of his student assistant and gave her the breath of life.

And of course, all those fantasies about the search for eternal youth, elixir, the possibility of resurrection, Frankenstein.

Meanwhile, history tells us plastic surgery is not a recent effort; attempts at sculpting the human face—a pretty common surgical method now—started way back in India in 800 BC, and onwards. In the last century’s two world wars where so much physical ravaging occurred, surgeons repaired faces and bodies with muscle and skin transplants.

As recent as the Sixties, Filipinos started having nose jobs, eyebag removal, facial surgery, some of it performed in a Tokyo hospital in the Shimbashi district. Incidentally, of this period, I wrote a story, The Roach Killer of a man-about-town who falls in love with a homely woman. He brings her to Shimbashi then falls out of love when the woman turned pretty after surgery.

I was also told at the time that some Arab girls who gallivanted in London had their hymen restored before they returned to their ultra conservative, stuck-in-the mud homeland.

We had a few friends who had their faces re-done. Some were really transformed; they looked younger, prettier even. But a few ended botched-up—we couldn’t recognize them with their new eyes.

Past middle age, some friends suggested that I should have my eyebags removed, the deepening creases on my face stretched. I often examined my face in the mirror, imagining how I’d look if I followed the suggestion. I decided to retain the old mug. I was too familiar and comfortable with it. And the final hindrance: the cost.

My hairline receded, too. I was telling my young Japanese translator that, indeed, I should visit the plastic surgery hospital in Shimbashi. I gestured, saying my knees were still strong but my head—she looked at it and said, I could remedy that in Tokyo. Wigs made in Japan are excellent and cheap.

So much for wanting to delay time’s corroding siege.

Before the opening of the conference, I was shown the latest machines that removed warts, erased skin blemishes, and the newest cosmetic creams advertised to promote skin health. The most striking technical innovation was what looked like a simple weighing scale with an attached rod held by the hands while the patient stood on bare feet on the scale. The printed reading analyzed the body and with it, the prescribed regimen. Again, the machine and the treatment were beyond my means.

I told the doctors I once considered a medical career after serving in the US Army medical corps in 1945 during the Liberation. I would be a neurosurgeon. I had a most lofty purpose; having known early enough that it is the brain which controls all body functions and organs, I’ll work on it, locate and define those specific areas of the brain that promote good will, initiative, then transform a person’s character, in other words, create a new persona.

I was to read later on how some of the Nazi doctors who pandered to Hitler had the same idea, how to create ideal men and women, a noble Aryan race.

Unfortunately I flunked chemistry.

As my former literature teacher, Paz Latorena, observed, it was perhaps for the best that I was kicked out of medical school. I would have become a lousy physician with my hyper-active imagination.

As most of us know now, genetic engineering has made it possible to grow food crops that are pest-resistant, bigger and loaded with more nutrients. Active opposition to such developments result from fear and apprehension that nature is being subverted for commercial gain, that the eco-system may be irreparably harmed.

Ditto with stem-cell treatment that delays aging. I think I need it, too, if only so I can write better. The cost is painfully prohibitive but as Dr. Ricardo Quintos of the Philippine General Hospital told me, it can be made much, much cheaper if some of the ingredients used in the therapy were made here. He knows whereof he speaks. He did stem cell research in the United States and helped create the drugs used in stem cell treatment.

I was asked to inspire the doctors with my opening talk so they will be firmer in their desire to bring beauty to a country blighted by so much ugliness.  I doubt very much that I did. I am sure that the doctors, like many possessed with social purpose, had helped a lot of people regain self confidence with the youthful looks they gave. But as all of us know, beauty does not go beyond the epidermis—that time easily corrodes it.

I remember telling the late Eddie Romero that the loveliest Filipina I ever saw in the early fifties was Susan Magalona—such a gorgeous creature even without the slightest trace of cosmetics on that perfect face. And her gracious manner, the sparkle in her eyes! Way back in the ‘90s Eddie told me she was around, I would like to see her again, but he cautioned me, time had done its nefarious work, I just had to covet and remember the image of what she was.

Beauty, it has been said, is in the eye of the beholder; aesthetics is conditioned by the viewer’s personal perception. Body and facial décor is nothing new—it was practiced in antiquity by the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans. Today, the natives of Papua New Guinea still adorn themselves with feathers, facial and body paint. The women of a tribe in Burma put successive rings around their necks to extend them. And the women in another tribe in Africa attach wooden discs under the lower lip to enlarge it.

I reminded the doctors how medical science had made a quantum leap in the last 50 years. The miracle drugs in those days were the sulfas, and penicillin had just come out. The technology, too: ultrasound, nuclear medicine, organ transplant. The life span of everyone has almost doubled in the last hundred years, thanks to these advancements.

For them who delay aging, who infuse decrepit bodies with youth and beauty—they must rejoice in the fullness of their deeds. Imagine the joy of a child with a harelip when he regains a normal face! What these skillful plastic surgeons do is assuage vanity but vanity also implies an indelible sense of self respect.

Youth, beauty—they are for all seasons—but in this, our ugly, hypocritical time, we need truth which is justice in action, too. And freedom, most of all, which only truth can bring. Truth and justice—in a society ravaged by poverty and the blatant hypocrisies of our leaders—are not inchoate abstractions, cosmetic frills. They are the greatest of our need today.

And for those of us approaching middle age or in their twilight when the skin loses its tightness and eyebags form, how may we regain our youth which, to quote George Bernard Shaw again, is wasted on the young? How may we become truly young and beautiful inside? How do we learn to live with age and infirmity and give meaning to our lives? Since all of us must go, how do we learn how to die on our feet?

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