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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2003

It's having an open mind that keeps us from growing old

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

Please, God, don't let me end up one of those 70-year-old ladies who still dyes her hair black. Or a 60-year-old in a bikini.

I don't care how fine you look — there comes a day when you have to say goodbye to babehood. I'm hoping it comes on a wrinkle at a time — and that my necklines and hemlines creep along to meet it.

Appearances are only the visible aspect of what we call the Cher syndrome. It would be more of a shame if I didn't change my mind. Clinging to the same tastes year after year seems like the fastest ticket to growing old.

That's why the man in midlife crisis strikes us as such a ridiculous figure, with his hair weave, sports car and 28-year-old girlfriend. By clinging to the past, he only widens the gulf to the present, and ends up looking more antiquated than ever.

The key to staying young, it seems to me, isn't recovering the past but staying in step with the present, which is always changing. It's when people give up evolving that they begin to grow old. The fountain of youth isn't found in some skin-care elixir but in maintaining an open mind.

Music offers an easy example. Almost everyone listens when they're young, if only because everyone else does. Music helps define your tastes, your style, your crowd. It ties together a generation.

But at a certain point, about half the people I know stopped listening to anything new. Their collective weight sunk into a sediment that later could be archived in a K-Tel record. As music evolved, they stopped caring what happened next, because the '60s or '70s fixed their identity for all time.

I can't think of why this happens except out of sheer laziness. Just as there is no

biological mandate to grow sluggish in middle age, so it is by conscious choice that we stop tasting, trying on or believing in anything new. When you decide to ignore every latest discovery and creation, you are starting to harden like plaster in a mold.

It might not seem important at first, because there are more pressing things to follow — your stock portfolio, or the kids' report cards. But tune out too long, and you're off the radar. One day, reality jolts Rip Van Winkle to his losses: Where was I when all this was happening? Deciding you know it all — or know enough already — is a good way not to learn anything new.

And life is really about the new. A well-practiced ability to listen, ask questions, exhibit curiosity and wonder is the surest sign of a youthful mind, one that is not so easily satisfied its highest ambition is to lie down.

It's that spark of mental activity, I notice, that lends the face a radiance that can make silver hair beautiful, or an aging body dignified. As the saying goes, change is inevitable; it's the growth that's optional.

Gray hair, no hair, sagging flesh, wrinkled skin: None of these has to announce a loss if met with the creative energy of an open mind. Because it's not giving up who you were that makes people old. It's abandoning, while still alive, all efforts toward what you might yet be.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.