Tuesday, October 10, 2006

High School and Naked Mole Rats

I felt really weird when I got to the train station this morning. It wasn't the start of a stomach flu or late season allergies. This was a weird feeling of the mental sort - one that I'm rarely, if ever, prone to feeling. I felt old.

See, as I walked up to the platform past the familiar three-piece-suits and Starbucks junkies, there was a new crowd waiting for my 7:40: twenty to thirty high schoolers - from my old high school - taking a field trip. Their jackets and sweatshirts were proudly bearing the bright orange N that flooded me with a rush of teenage nostalgia. And sure, they seemed much younger and much less cool than I remember thinking myself to be, when as a junior or senior certain classes got the privilege of train-to-Chicago field trips, but that's not what made me feel old. Rather as I watched them gathering around their teacher, eagerly calling out "here" as he took attendance, I recognized the teacher. I didn't say hello because he wasn't a teacher that I ever had, but he was certainly a teacher that all students knew, or at least knew of. He was The Cool Teacher. The hip, young, ponytail-sporting social-studies teacher that was talked about in all the hallways in sentences usually consisting of little more than "He's SOOO cool!!!" But today he didn't have his trademark ponytail. His hair was shorter with gray strands around the temples. His characteristic John Lennon glasses were replaced with larger frames, likely bifocals. Not to say that there's anything wrong with these outward signs of aging, but the largest contrast between "The Cool Teacher" I remember and this authoritative leader of high school students at the train station was a lack of fun. No smile graced his goateed face, no laughter echoed from the crowd around him. Perhaps there was just a certain element of field trip stress that tuned down a normally jovial attitude, but maybe it was something else. And what was worse, I saw the same drudgerous lack of joy in my own morning. That's what made me feel old more than anything. I'm reminded of a quote that says "We don't stop playing because we grow up, we grow up because we stop playing."

As I got on the train I was pondering this all and I couldn't help but think about the whole idea of growing up and aging in general. It made me stop and think about naked mole rats. Random, right? I'll explain. Let's look at two things that as a culture or society Americans are generally obsessed with - Youth and Beauty. If anyone wants to doubt the truth of that overly generalized claim, go down to your local drug store and peruse the aisles upon aisles of anti-aging and anti-wrinkle creams, masks, supplements, etc. etc. etc. If that doesn't convince you, all I have to say is Botox - the fact that in the name of beauty and less wrinkles Americans will go so far as to have someone subcutaneously inject them with the world's deadliest toxin is saying something for sure.

But back to the mole rats. Ugly little suckers aren't they? A biology friend of mine from college used to say "Awww, they're so ugly, they're cute!!" That's debatable, but I digress. Naked mole rats are one of the animals most commonly used in studies of aging and age related illnesses. They're from the rodent family, just as the common mouse is, but unlike the three year life-span of the mouse, naked mole rats live for an average of 28 years. So perhaps as Americans we fear our similarity to these critters and would rather have three beautiful years as a cute fuzzy little mouse than 28 years growing into a wrinkly naked mole rat.

But seriously, what's so bad about aging? Like the quote above says, we don't have to "grow up" just because our prime numbered birthdays get farther and farther apart. Heck with wrinkle-creams and Botox, you want an anti-aging solution? Have fun! Enjoy each day for all it's worth! Every year that passes doesn't have to mean fear of gray hairs and dreading the need for reading glasses, rather every new year is an opportunity to learn more, see more, do more, play more and be more. Perhaps the last two in the list are the hardest yet most important of the bunch.

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