Artichoke

Whenever I see an artichoke, I am reminded of a chance encounter I had with an old man in Brussels. That year, I was 26.

I was sent to Brussels on a business trip. After my job was done, I went to dine at a restaurant near my hotel. Seated next to me was an old gentleman, well groomed and dressed in a suit. He was dining alone, just like me.

I ordered an artichoke as an appetizer—my very first time to try this exotic vegetable. I remembered vividly having seen this flower-like veggie in a French textbook when I was studying the language in my teenage years. I had been curious, and it remained a mysterious food, something to aspire for, ever since.

When the artichoke was served, I had no idea how to tackle it. I picked up my fork and knife and attempted to cut through one of the thick leaves. Mission impossible. After a couple of minutes of sweaty see-sawing with my silverware, nothing happened and my stomach was already growling. My waiter, looking sympathetic, approached me in a courteous and professional manner, nipped a leaf off from the stem with the tips of his thumb and index finger, and dipped it into the condensed milk on the side. “Voilà!” he said, putting the tip of the leaf in between his teeth, finishing off with a smile. I said “merci” a couple of times, with a tone of profuse embarrassment, but was grateful I learned this very important lesson of how to eat an artichoke. The rest of the course was pure joy, with me ravishing in the divine sweetness of the soft artichoke heart and the condensed milk.

Soon after I finished my appetizer, the gentleman at the adjacent table started a conversation. He looked at me with great interest. Perhaps his interest stemmed from the fact that I was the only Asian in the room. Or perhaps he was amused by my ignorance of how to eat an artichoke. Regardless, we exchanged a few sentences in French, and he finished off by saying, “Profitez de la jeunesse!”

“Take advantage of your youth!”

I’ve never forgotten what he said. But whether I have taken his advice to heart and practiced it–this is the question.

It amazes me how those years between my 20’s and now have passed, in the blink of an eye. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my youth, but in hindsight, it was perhaps infested with too much earnestness, worries and ignorance. Decisions were made mostly out of romantic ideals—and to most of my very rational friends who made decisions based on the laws of economics, I was the eternal dreamer who lived in the moment. But unwise decisions led to much suffering, and living in a dream does have its consequences. Nevertheless, I have been a stubborn person, perhaps to protect my ego, and my fragile sense of identity.

Fast forward, today I’m approaching 42. The common topics among my peers with whom I grew up are health issues and aging. There seems to be a consensus that as soon as a woman reaches 40, an internal bell goes off, and everything just goes downhill from there.

I have been a staunch disbeliever of aging as an inevitable fact of life. I have always believed that if one remains young at heart, we will also look and remain young. I have not given up that belief. But at the same time I also have come to accept some of the laws of physics. The thing that hits women most at this age is the drop in estrogen and in some cases, progesterone and androgen levels.

It used to be that perimenopausal symptoms occur much later among women, but given today’s toxic environment, the abundance of chemicals—which turn into xenoestrogen in our body—leads to a phenomenon called “estrogen dominance,” which in turn is responsible for a whole host of common female conditions such as fibroid tumors, polycystic ovarian syndrome, fibrocystic breast, etc. A woman can have estrogen dominance even though her estrogen level is already low. That’s because the progesterone level is extremely low (as in my case).

One interesting thing about estrogen is that it is the hormone that makes a woman a woman—and in her youth, it is responsible for that caring, loving and tolerating female characteristic that would allow her to take all kinds of shit in the name of procreation. But as estrogen level drops, not only does our skin becomes less elastic and our bones become more brittle, it also puts us into a cycle that is similar to what teenagers go through. We become more easily irritable and naturally want to take less shit. We become rebellious on the path to re-establish our identity. Perhaps this time, our true identity is independent of what used to define our womanhood.

Sometimes I look at the old photos from my 20s and 30s and realize how beautiful I looked back then, but the “me” at that time seriously felt terrible about myself, which made me not enjoy myself to the fullest. I was always envious of other people’s lives and their beauty, not appreciating myself. Now that I want to appreciate myself more, I have to learn to do so regardless of my looks. Like so many women of my age, I’ve been going through a mid-life crisis, looking at all the established things in my life with a fresh and radical perspective, questioning everything, challenging conventions, knowing that nothing stays unchanged and nothing remains certain. We just can’t take anything for granted anymore, especially youth and health. We need to work at them with great diligence. For that, I do envy my younger friends. Beauty and youth—they really are something to be relished and taken advantage of.

2014 will be a big year for me. I am looking at it with immense fear and excitement. To my young friends, I will say, “Profitez de la jeunesse!” And to myself, “Profitez de la quarantine!”

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