Image: James Gandolfini, George Clooney
Vince Bucci /Getty Images file
Which one looks his age? Actors James Gandolfini, left, and George Clooney were both born in 1961, the same year as author Douglas Coupland, who writes: "I have this theory about men and aging. We have two ages: the age we really are, and the age we are in our heads."
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updated 8/4/2008 8:51:39 AM ET 2008-08-04T12:51:39

A few days ago, I had a business lunch with a guy I thought was about 10 years older than I am. I'm 46, and he looked to be 55 and resembled every English teacher you've ever had. At the end of lunch he said, "You know, I was born the same week as you..." and went on to discuss all the same music we listened to in high school. Meanwhile, it was all I could do to compose myself while looking around for a reflective surface — a knife blade, the hologram on my Visa card — to convince myself I didn't look 55 like this guy did. I felt as if I had progeria, that disease in which you age half a century in five years. That's what growing older does to a guy.

We've all bumped into friends who look like hell. Our first thought is always divorce, booze, or one of those other wicked speed bumps on the road of life. What's really happening, of course, is that your friend is in the middle of a progerial plunge. Time passes, and more time passes, and then you see that friend in the checkout line of a Safeway one afternoon, and you realize he's not drinking or having troubles. He's just aging. The kicker: So I must be too. That's when you head to the produce department and check yourself out in the mirrors above the lettuce and celery.

I have this theory about men and aging. We have two ages: the age we really are, and the age we are in our heads. Most men are almost always about 31 or 32 in their heads — just ask them. Even Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons” is 31 in his head. One of the most universal adult male experiences is of standing before a mirror and saying, "I'm sorry, but there's been a horrible mistake. You see, that's not really me in the mirror there. The real me is tanned, throws Frisbees, and kayaks the Columbia River estuary without cracking a sweat."

In myself I've come to notice that aging comes in spurts. I've asked others, and they pretty much agree. I'll look the exact same way for a decade, and then — wham! — God hits the progeria switch and for two years the downhill plunge begins anew.

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And then it stops again.

My body will plateau for another decade, until the next time it decides to collapse a bit more. Which is funny, because in a weird plot twist, I'm probably in better shape now than I was at 20. Many reasons: I quit smoking in 1988 (though I could start again right now), I stopped eating crap two years ago, and last year, I finally found a gym that doesn't allow music: no John Cougar Mellencamp blasting at maximum volume while circus freaks in harem pants and the thong equivalent of a T-shirt make those embarrassing orgasm noises while bench-pressing the mathematical squares of their IQs. Instead, I can think and enjoy my time working out without a massive sonic brain invasion. It makes all the difference. And what do I think about in the gym? Muscle tissue breaking. And then I try to decide whether to rebuild or pack it in. My ligaments are iffy about whether they should snap or strengthen. My body tries to decide whether to age or become more powerful. And as a control freak, it bugs me so much that a lot of this stuff is beyond my control. Exercise, sure, but at the end of it, instead of looking thinner, I may merely look gaunt. Or haggard. Or — ironically — my age.

Former astronaut Neil Armstrong was once asked if he exercised, and he said, "The good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats, and I'm damned if I'm going to use up mine running up and down a street." What I've found is that even if I do get into fantastic shape and shed the spare tire and stop eating junk, the best I can hope for is to stay in the same place. That's the main thing I've come to realize about aging. The elevator is never going up again. Well, okay, I think it goes up if you go the Beverly Hills-plastic-surgery route, but that's an expensive and shadowy realm. Compare and contrast George Hamilton with Samuel Beckett.

Lately, I've begun to have this heretical thought that people were never supposed to live to be old enough to age in the first place. We forget that until the 1950s or 1960s, senior citizens were extraordinarily rare, and the seniors one did see were begoitered, often-limbless, shrunken-apple-head people who wheezed and cackled. A hundred years ago, if you hit 70, you deserved every shred of respect you got. These days... well, does one deserve respect for wanting to look 55 at 70? Does wanting to appear younger in any form deserve any respect at all? In the 1990s, I helped design a plausible future for the film "Minority Report." One of the things I came up with was "young old people." Tom Cruise's character in the movie was actually 70 years old, even though he looked 35. Now that I think of it, maybe Tom Cruise really is 70. If that turned out to be the truth, would you be surprised? Be honest.

The way things are going now, pretty much everybody you ever graduated from high school with is easily going to make it to 70. Nobody thought of this a hundred years ago when they invented the high school reunion. The essential allure (and intrinsic unfairness) of high school reunions is that you never know who's still riding along a plateau, and who has just gone through a progerial plunge.

My father is 80 this year and still works as a doctor, a GP. His practice is largely older, and his specialty is keeping them not only alive but also alive and chugging. He has a belief that aging can be slowed by careful monitoring of the thyroid, by keeping folic-acid levels high, and by monitoring cholesterol a certain way. All of this is good advice in any event, but I bump into his patients all the time, and man, these people are vibrating. His waiting room is like the pool scene in Cocoon. These people still attend their high school reunions. It's the weird new circle of life.

I actually don't mind aging. The best part of aging is that everybody you know is aging right along with you. Last week, I checked online, and James Gandolfini, Leif Garrett, Michael J. Fox, Henry Rollins, and I were all born the same year, 1961, and yeah, that's about where I feel in my head — which feels honest and righteous. I'd be truly freaked out if I discovered that Nick Lachey was born in 1961.

It sounds obvious, but... we get old. It's one of the first things we forget once our teens are over and we've stopped counting the hairs in our armpits. Freaking out about aging becomes depressing or funny or pathetic only if you make the incorrect assumption that everyone else lives inside a change-proof hyperbaric chamber.

They don't, of course. We're all locked inside the time machine, and we're all going to the exact same destination. And I just checked: Tom Cruise was born in 1962.

Douglas Coupland is the author of the 1991 novel "Generation X." He's also written nine other novels including "Microserfs" and "Hey Nostradamus!" as well as nonfiction books. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.

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