Skin Deep

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, November 20, 2009

I really didn’t start using moisturizer until I was 48 years old. And as far as I know, only exotic types who stay out of the sun for years at a time — countesses or vampires, say — can get away with that.

I have no idea what I was busy thinking while the rest of the world stood in line buying kelp, ground-up pearls, Dead Sea minerals, topical vitamin C, and botanicals like calendula and heliochrism. It’s not like I didn’t need these things. Obviously, here at 9,000 feet, the air is so dry that you can actually feel desiccation occurring on site. We’re Appalachian apple dolls, our once juicy cheeks hollowing out and caving in at time-lapse speeds. And if you don’t put on sunscreen? You’re hundred-year-old shoe leather under a magnifying glass. You’re mummified, basically, but still alive and walking around under a permanent noonday sun.

Like everyone, I have a history with my own skin, one that explains in part what kept me from gunking up my pores with anything at all until pretty recently. In my case, it was trauma — the sundry humiliations of having grown up with acne and marching around splotched while the rest of the tweed-skirted Catholic girls sailed through high school without much facial stigmata at all.

The tale hit a low point when my mother dragged me, at 15, to Madigan, the army hospital in Tacoma, south of Seattle, where she consented to let them test-group me on a brand new product called Retin-A. In 1973, with a dosage of probably a trillion times what it is today, my face miraculously cleared to porcelain perfection for a couple of days before about-facing me down a different road, a bumpy, every-pore-is-a-pimple, paved-with-good-intentions, road-to-hell road. Disappearing further still into the dark and stormy teenscape, I picked up a few more cloaking devices to add to my wardrobe, and waited out the sadism of being a test rat in a military hospital.

Eventually — and long, long after my mother promised it would — my face did clear up, and I was somewhat protected against premature wrinkling by the same naturally oily skin that, as a teen, I’d cursed. I did very little to my skin for years, until one day, in one of those bed-and-bath stores, where I had a close encounter with my epidermis.

My own teenager and I are near the checkout counters, playing with back scratchers and massage balls, and looking at candy. I’m trying to decide if plastic is an actual ingredient in strawberry Twizzlers when I get distracted by a shelf of stand-up mirrors. I pick one up. It’s the 5x magnifier (which I’ve never used) and once its light is flicked on, I freeze into stone. For a moment, nothing exists but my face — in super-sized HD — set against the blurry world behind it.

“Mom!” Celine cries, fully aware of the pitfalls. “No—”

But, of course, it’s too late. I’m riveted. By splotches, craters, and harrowing wrinkles I’ve never even seen before. I press my face closer to the mirror, desperate for even greater magnification, thinking maybe at 25x things turn beautiful again, like anything does under a microscope. Eventually, feeling dizzy, I carefully put the thing back on the shelf and tiptoe out.

Suddenly, with an eidetic memory for every skin-care ad I’ve ever seen, I want it all: eye creams, wrinkle creams, non-greasy morning creams, highly rich nighttime ones, exfoliants, toners, masks, and tubes of topical oxygen. Unbelievably I reconsider Retinol, and also fruit acids, and small jars of super gels from the center of the earth. I don’t know what I need. Who am I, anyway? How did I get so lost?

For months and months, handcuffed to vanity — and with new wrinkles appearing pretty much at the same rate as my eyesight is disappearing — I flail with different products, different approaches. Then one summer day, at a little lavender farm in the Northwest, I buy a facial atomizer. And I discover that by spritzing my face, I am transported back to their hazy fields bending in the wind, bees swaying alongside the dusty blue stalks, sun above me, wind light on my arm hairs. Lavender unpanics me. My face likes it.

I get rid of every jar and tube on my shelf that has chemicals in it. Whatever I put on my face has to reconnect me somehow. That’s it. That’s as far as I’ve gotten on my skin care philosophy.

You know, at this very moment, magnifying mirrors are front and center at your local hardware store, two feet from the Christmas aisle. 4x purse- sized ones right up to lit-up 10x consoles. Some inspired and mischievous holiday elf is obviously encouraging anyone to start a little journey there. Because skin? Turns out even skin is deeper than skin deep.

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