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Catherine's trying to outrace time--and time's catching up

Time is a bitch. When you're running late, there is never enough; when you're looking forward to something good, it drags on forever. I remember as a kid, it seemed like 100 years between one birthday and the next. Now it seems like about a week.

My mother is 81. She thinks birthdays come every five minutes. Maybe if you're lucky enough to live to be 100, the years outpace your capacity to feel them, and you don't even notice when you run out.

But that esoteric shit is all too weighty to think about when you're 40-something and visiting the dermatologist. Especially if, like me, you're an outdoorsy type. The other day, every other sentence to emerge from Doctor Melanoma's mouth contained the words "sun damage," and "not covered by insurance."

He was referring, of course, to my questions about cosmetic procedures and creeping hag-iosity (definition: the continuing process of becoming a hag).

Yes, it's a sad fact that everyday dermatologists don't give two shits about the primary reason most women come to them in the first place: They want someone to fix their skin so they look younger.

"What!?" I said, grasping for any shred of logical argument, no matter how desiccated. "This isn't about cosmetics. It's about mental health. If I look good, it might keep me from going stark raving nuts for another couple of years."

It was a nice try, but he didn't think my HMO was going to see it that way.

I was about to leave, feeling sorely dejected, when kindly Doctor M. took pity on me. "Well, for those brown spots and lines ... ." (He was being polite. What he meant was wrinkles. ) Then he handed me a business card. "These people do excellent work, and they'll give you a complete evaluation for 125 bucks."

"Are you talking a facelift?" I said. No friggin' way. My mom got evaluated for one of those, and they don't so much lift your face as tear it off, pull it up and nail it onto your head beneath your hair. The Spanish Inquisition couldn't have come up with anything more dastardly.

"There are alternatives these days," he informed me.

I was on it a few weeks later. After spinning down my can of loose change in the counting machine at the supermarket, off I trundled, clutching a handful of $20 bills.

The cosmetic dermo's office was more like it! It was like entering a high-priced beauty salon and spa: fine earth-tone furniture and lighting, tasteful vases brimming with artfully arranged unidentifiable dried leaves and sticks. There were Pier One frou-frous and weird soap balls. And the receptionists and nurses! They all looked like they'd stepped out of fashion magazines. They say you can see peoples' whole lives on their faces. Far as I could tell, most of these women hadn't been born yet. I wanted to join that club and be one with those girls.

Until I saw the shit I'd have to go through to get there. I admit it freely: I am a wimp, a weakling, a coward. Most of all, I hate pain, and can barely make it through an entire evening in high heels.

Some people, on the other hand, are able to tolerate unspeakable agony. I know. I've seen the photos.

First were the before-and-after photos of something called a blue peel. I have to admit the results were pretty impressive: The woman shown went from a mass of redness, brown spots and creases to, ah, someone without all that. The physical procedure took years off, but to my way of thinking, the trauma of recovery must have put them all right back on. Just afterwards, she looked like someone who'd been beaten and thrown down a flight of stairs by thugs in a Scorsese movie. She was bruised, swollen, lacerated. If I'd seen her wandering the streets, I would have sat her on the curb and called the police.

"Probably not," I said, trying to stay cool.

The next was something called Intense Pulsed Light. I don't understand how it works, mostly because I was working so hard against my flight reaction that all thought eluded me. It had something to do with zapping your face a million times with a concentrated laser. This was the point where if I had been a seagull, I would have taken a shit, puked up my fish and flown seaward as fast as possible. The recovery photos for this one didn't look all that better than the chemical peel, only the lady looked like she'd been beaten with a strap, then thrown down the stairs.

In the end, they sold me $300 worth of lotions, cleansers and other magical shit. I'm not sure how it all works yet. There's something about dousing a goat beneath the light of a full moon and then insulting its relatives, but it doesn't look too painful.

Whew. I have the feeling that in the end, I got off pretty cheap.

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