Sunday, November 9, 2008

Written on the Body*

When I was in fourth grade and got caught chewing gum in church, my Sunday school teacher warned me that St. Peter was recording every bad thing I did. I found that hard to believe. How could one guy could keep track of so many people? As I got older, though, I realized that St. Peter doesn’t have to take notes -- your body is a living diary of every lousy decision you’ve ever made.

When you’re young, your flesh is very forgiving. If you drink too much, or stay out late, you may resemble a plate of refried beans for a day or two, but you soon regain your looks. As you get older, though, your body becomes grim and suspicious. It starts keeping tabs, adding up the score and getting even. “Couldn’t resist that third glass of merlot?” it says, “How does it taste now, coming back the other direction?”

Over time, all your bad choices roost somewhere.

If you smoke, it’s stamped on your face in a spiderweb of lines.

If you love tanning, you start to resemble -- well, a raisin.

Your feet are gnarled testaments to peep-toe pumps and stiletto heels.

Hate working out? Your upper arms develop wing flaps large enough to land a 747.

Love fried food? Your butt takes on the approximate dimensions of a beanbag chair.

If your addiction is sweets, TSA agents have to wand your jaw before you can board an airplane.

How many of us have two sets of ear piercings – one working set, and another that serves only as a reminder of our decision not to bother with earrings for a while?

And then there are the scars. I have one on my left knee from chasing my sister, Rita, across a gravel parking lot at the Plumber and Pipe-fitters Picnic when I was eight, and another on my right forearm from scratching my poison ivy (against my mother’s direct orders).

And that doesn’t even count all the odd bumps and lumps that are transforming my once smooth skin into a topographical map of the Rockies. It’s as though my DNA is forgetting how to follow its own blueprint.

My dentist summarized it all the last time I was in his office. By the time you turn fifty, he said, your teeth have racked up a million taps. Think of that: a thousand thousand little collisions between your maxilla and your mandible. Teeth are petty durable, but even a Mercedes would throw in the towel after a million fender benders.

I wish I’d known that back in fourth grade, before I got hooked on gum.

*My apologies to Jeanette Winterson for appropriating the title of her lovely novel.

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