Recently I had a little reporting junket to Florida and wound up on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. Spring Break had just started, meaning that the mix of tourists skewed collegiate. Because I'm so much older and so very married, I tried to keep a respectable distance. But mostly, I just wore sunglasses. That way they can't tell where you're looking and what you're thinking. Shades are nearly as good as actual invisibility. Of course, being old is its own form of invisibility: College students see only other college students, in the same way that kids see only other kids. I was barely there.
Some people may argue that it's wrong to look at the hot babes, and others might say it's okay to look, so long as you don't have impure thoughts. Each person has to follow his (or her) own moral code. For me, the fear of having inappropriate thoughts is outweighed by the fear of no longer having them. You know the worst-case scenario: Despite the presence of beauty, your pulse ceases to quicken. You feel nothing, think nothing, and really see nothing as you survey what used to be a sublime landscape. And then you hear in the back of your head the unmistakable, grave, melodramatic voice of Dr. "Bones" McCoy: "He's dead, Jim."
The dilemma for any fortysomething guy looking at younger women is that he is dangerously close to the Daughter Line. Society is pretty firm about this: If someone is young enough to be your daughter, you have no business looking at her. Indeed, you must look away instantly, as though your eyeballs had been sprayed with acid. It's no excuse to say, "But I waited until I was 40 to have children." The Daughter Line has no connection to the age of your own progeny.
You also must be prepared to issue an emphatic "yes" when a woman your own age, having seen some ripe young sprite bounding across the beach, turns to you, gives you a long, analytical look, and says, "They really look kind of bland at that age, don't they?" You should quickly concur that they "need more seasoning." Lie like a fiend.
They say that youth is wasted on the young, but that's not true at the beach during Spring Break. They've got it, they flaunt it, they use it. They may stay up drunk all night and continue pounding beers at sunrise, but when it comes to the display of flesh, they demonstrate the kind of marketing efficiency that would warm the heart of any economist. Over time, alas, standards of beauty become tyrannical. Eve ate the apple, and God declared that, for her sin, she would spend the rest of her days trying to look 18 again. In Fort Lauderdale the beauty cult is particularly vicious; you see a lot of fiftysomething women who have "had some work done" in the same way that Louis XIV, the Sun King, "had some housing built" in Versailles.
Men are getting into the act. At the beach you can't help but notice how many guys are absurdly buff, ripped, cut, carved, as though daring someone to test them for steroids. They're particularly keen on having excellent abs. An eight-pack beats a six-pack. Some have an entire case of abs. Little do they know that, just a generation ago, men didn't even have abs. They had bellies. Abs have only been around for about as long as the personal computer.
Look at any old movie or TV show or even a comic book. Tarzan didn't have even a four-pack. Superman, of all people, seriously needed to hit the Bowflex (faster than a speeding bullet, sure, but no abs!). James Bond scored with the babes despite never being seen in the same room with an ab. Capt. Kirk was constantly taking his shirt off on Star Trek to reveal his rather casual attitude toward muscle tone. (Few people remember the entirety of the famous quote: "Beam me up, Scotty, I'm dying to hit the buffet.")
Now beauty industry executives hope to make billions off the male belly in the same way they've made billions off female thighs. Men are the new women. Sports Illustrated will soon have a monthly department devoted just to hair.
As I sat on the beach, I noticed another trend: I was trending fat. I was a sun-blasted shipwreck, rusty and barnacled, completely out of place amid all the gleaming yachts. And then I noticed my chest, and had a horrible thought: Good Lord, I'm developing. Talk about men becoming women! I was growing breasts practically right before my eyes.
And I caught myself staring.
Joel Achenbach's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org