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Dead Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann was recently spotted laughing maniacally and mumbling a bittersweet mix of "I told you so" and "Did you not learn anything from A Death in Venice?" as he reclined upon his chaise at Afterlife Beach.

Dr. Ron Livesey and Dr. Joseph Raffaele have, in less than a decade, helped spur at least 8,000 doctors (up from a mere dozen in 1993) to associate with an academy that advocates the untested "benefits" of hormone replacement shots to slow and, they suggest, perhaps even reverse the aging process.

Vacuuming butt-fat wasn’t enough. Injecting the face with poison to paralyze furrows to oblivion wasn’t enough. Now patients eagerly peel off ten Ben Franklins a month to subject themselves to treatments for which long-term studies are not even yet planned. There’s no time to wait — by the time such research is conducted, those currently in treatment will have already died.

What surprised the good doctors was that, instead of being approached by creaksters hobbling through the waiting room aided by aluminum walkers, they are being besieged by baby boomers who’ve already tried various other options to appear their shoe size rather than their age. Dr. Raffaele insists his clients seek only a better quality of life. Curiously, he admits that despite this universal desire, most are hell bent on keeping their treatment secret from even their closest friends (not unlike those pyramid scheme dinner parties or that little best-selling book from a few years back, The Rules). Proffered testimonials include one satisfied customer who swears the treatment has reduced her bunions thus allowing her, once again, to wear high heels (no sense of irony was noted by the reporter quoting the happy, newly spike-footed woman).

It would appear we are suffering a terrible, collective bout of Death in Venice-itis.

In Mann’s Venice, stoic German scholar Gustave von Aschenbach, a prideful control freak and revered scholar, takes a little seaside breather to face off with his writer’s block. On the boat en route, he notes with disgust an old man attempting to appear younger through the use of gaudy rouge and obvious hair dye. But a stern mental note to self (Don’t you ever be such a fool, Gustave!) soon flies out the window of good sense when, to his surprise, our protagonist finds himself on the beach, smitten from afar with a boy — all Greek-sculpture bod and blonde, ringlety-hair. Despite the threat of cholera in the air, Gustave cannot shake his need to observe his fixation. In the end, not only does he succumb to the disease but perhaps worse, he breaks down and adopts the old faux-red-cheeks-black-hair shtick in a futile attempt to win his love’s attention.

In our version of the story, the threat of cholera is replaced by the threat of having to concede our mortality. Botox and hormone therapy replace Mann’s powdered blush and bad dye, and the youth we long for is not some young person outside ourselves, over there in the sand, but some young person within, who nonetheless is at least as far out of reach.

We miss this young person we once were without stopping to acknowledge that this one we miss is as illusionary as Gustave’s belief that his unrequited love would ever reciprocate the attraction. Aided by pop cultural prompts (wistful love tunes, Nike commercials, peppy ads for muscle cars) we smear Vaseline over hindsight’s rearview mirror, recalling a glut of glory days that were far fewer in reality, if they existed at all.

As a commodity, youth is a terribly overrated. Youth isn’t joyful. Youth is awkward and ridden with bad choices made regularly using the Error and Error method of learning. Youth is navigating without a map. Like an imitation luxury car, youth looks good but lacks true comfort, always falling apart before too long. Youth is when we do the things we later regret for the rest of our lives. Carefree youth is the worst of the media myths. It tricks every one of us. We act like fools in response, some of us willing to risk our lives recreating what didn’t exist in the first place, rushing straight into the arms of potential danger. What next? The cosmetic companies and fashion mags join forces to reintroduce arsenic face powder?

Sure it will kill you, but you’ll look so good while you’re dying.

What about a plan to speed up the aging process, to increase the wrinkles, deplete the muscle mass, fatten the derriere more hastily? Forcing us to quit focusing on the external will remove false hope that looking far younger than we really are will net us some delicious interior feeling. How about hastening memory loss so we can faster shed those false recollections of giggle-saturated youth. Leave us to the tasks that agility and beauty steal us from, namely getting to that To Do List we’ve been compiling since youth: relearn Latin, finally conquer that stack of must-read books, sit down and write a long letter to all the good friends we’ve known.

Youth is not something we’ll ever find in refined botulism, Grecian formula, or testosterone injections. The longing will remain while the treatments bleat out the obvious: Youth is wasted on the old.
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About the author:
Spike Gillespie is the author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir, and the dotnovel thebelljar.net.  Her next book, a collection of essays entitled, Surrender (but don't give yourself away): Old Cars, Found Hope and Other Cheap Tricks will be out in September 2003. Gillespie is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and her work has appeared in, among other places, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Playboy and Elle, and online at Salon, Nerve, Oxygen, Underwire and AustinMama. She is a reformed circus poodle, a retired stripper (Crazy Lady, 1978-81) and mother to three spawn-of-satan mutts and one freakin' hilarious and very tall almost-twelve-year-old ("But remember, son, I'll always be wider than you...").  She is currently working on a novel about how utterly fucked up love can be (How novel indeed...). 

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