Recently I decided I was tired of diving down skincare rabbitholes (that’s a creepily provocative visual, now that I’ve written it out: so confining and dark, yet so … moist, and richly scented) in some endless unsatisfying and expensive search for which exact unguents and potions I should be using and in what order I should desperately trowel them across my face each day. I mean I don’t know if you have noticed but skincare has gotten BONKERS in the last few years: I can’t even understand half of what’s on the market but I’m constantly driven to try it out. Like sure I guess I DO need a 47-step regimen that includes snail mucus and something that’s mysteriously referred to as “essence” and don’t forget the mist which is I think just throwing some fragranced water on your face but it costs a whole lot?

And the MASKING. Why everyone seems to love sheet masks so much is kind of beyond me, I guess I have noticed that my skin feels briefly improved after I’ve endured the sensory horror of having a cold drippy slimy wet thing plastered across me like an Alien facehugger for half an episode of The Americans but dude, not worth it. The magazine articles that talk about sheet masking during plane rides are particularly baffling to me. I truly can’t imagine too many things that sound more upsetting than that, except 1) your seatmate vomiting a partially digested packet of Biscoff in your lap, or 2) the plane careening into the side of a mountain and the passengers being forced into cannibalism while waiting for rescue.

So I made an appointment with an aesthetician, which is one of those words I always have to just start typing incorrectly before spellcheck figures out what in god’s name I’m trying to say and saying it out loud is even worse than tackling “anaesthesiologist.”

(I can’t accurately tell you the difference between an aesthetician and a dermatologist, so don’t even ask, but I guess I think of a dermatologist as someone you go to when you have a rash or a weird mole or you need medical care for your skin while an aesthetician is someone you see when you want to look better?)

The lady I saw was super nice and very helpful and even had me treated during that consult appointment for a cluster of broken capillaries on the bridge of my nose. She took me to a room with a giant Dr. Evil-looking laser (“laser”) machine and with what seemed like one zap (it felt a bit like being snapped with a rubber band) it was done and it cost THIRTY FIVE DOLLARS. I had a tiny bit of bruising but after several days that spot — which I have been blanketing with concealer for years — was gone. GONE. I have no idea what kind of specific treatment that was but if you have a similar issue I highly recommend marching into your nearby medical spa place and telling them you read about a $35 capillaries-B-GON laser on the Internet and you want one too.

Anyway, she also recommend a prescription retinol (anti-aging) and something called hydroquinone (for lightening dark spots), which she said could basically replace all the serums and whatnot, and so I was like SOLD. She did warn me the retinol would likely make my face sensitive for a while (“It can take up to three months,” she said airily) and I basically waved a hand and thought privately that only wusses whine about how a lotion made their face get upset, and what America needs in these trying times is to TOUGHEN THE HELL UP.

Of course three days into using retinol my face felt like it was on fire, then it started flaking, then it launched into what the Internet calls “retinol purging” which is sort of like that dumb horror movie in that a bunch of zits come out of fucking nowhere and try to kill you, and I confess that I was officially triggered. “Sensitive”? More like “the smoking hot ruins of a burning hellscape,” thank you very much. Someone get me an awareness ribbon!

It’s been a few weeks now and my face has mostly calmed down, so hopefully that whole three months thing is for less sturdy individuals (rude flex but ok) and I think I am even noticing some improvements? A slightly better texture, maybe?

Whether or not these things actually make any kind of real difference long term I am glad to be down to a much more manageable routine: cleanse (I double cleanse with a balm and then a mild cleanser), moisturize (currently using CeraVe), then my retinol/hydroquinone (which are both from the brand Obagi, which sounds a lot like Okapi, so what these potions lack in fun packaging and froufrou smells they make up for with a nightly mental image of that weirdass animal that looks like a giraffe, zebra, and donkey went into the Fly telepod and came out the other side like BITCH CHECK OUT MY OSSICONES). I have mostly retired my mishmash collection of random goos although I still sometimes use a toner not because I believe it actually does a single damn thing but because I have some perma-memory of using Sea Breeze astringent a thousand years and being convinced it would change my life somehow and that has mutated over time to a Pavlovian toner application.

I am forever marveling at how strange aging can be and in the department of vanity it is particularly thorny. On the one hand, I do feel like I am less hard on myself than I used to be, and that I can appreciate how beauty means so much more than the ridiculous standards that are foisted upon us in our culture. On the other hand, I don’t love every single change and I never will. I guess I don’t see my skincare pursuits as being about trying to look younger, but rather doing what I can to feel my best in the age I am.

Ultimately, I think skincare is about hope, and as long as you aren’t going broke or making yourself crazy (see also: clammy, supple rabbitholes lined with benjamins), hope is never a bad thing to have.

Here is a somewhat unexpected delight in my life right now: volunteering at the middle school library. I say somewhat unexpected because I did it last year and it was agreed that I would do it this year as well, so it’s not like Wow I had no idea that I would enjoy the thing I enjoyed several months ago, what a shocking turn of events what will happen next do you think I will also enjoy the same foods I have always enjoyed OH MY GOD I STILL LOVE POTATO CHIPS!!! However, I am more involved than I was last year, and that has deepened my enjoyment, and I am there more often, which means more enjoyment more frequently, and all of this is very very enjoyable, and I will really try to stop using variations of the word “enjoy” now.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I come for the first and second lunch hours (there are two lunch times at our middle school, which from my standpoint is not remotely ideal but I assume it’s done because the student body is big enough, or the student/staff ratio is small enough, that the logistics would be overwhelming if everyone had lunch at the same time) and just kind of help out. After they eat, kids are allowed to hang out in the library if they want, and last year I was foolish enough to think they came in to read. I actually put my hand over my heart and told the library lady how absolutely thrilled I was to be around so many young readers, and she was kind enough not to drop to the floor in hysterical laughter, because NO ONE READS IN THE LIBRARY. Okay, maybe one or two kids will actually look at a book, but the vast majority get in groups and engage in the somewhat-depressing modern socializing where everyone is completely engrossed in their phone/tablet but by some foreign-to-me multitasking ability they are also giggling about things together.

Anyway, the library is basically social hour and I am there to infrequently check out books but mostly to provide crowd control. There’s only one library staff member and she is the most incredibly gentle and mild person, and I think the only reason the kids haven’t eaten her alive is because she truly does not seem to have a mean bone in her body. But they can be noisy and rude and annoying and require some good old-fashioned Stern Beetle-Browed shhh-ing, although that’s on a bad day. On a good day, I find myself mingling a bit, now that I know more of the kids. I’ll chitchat here and there, check in with this group, ask that one kid what he ended up getting for his birthday, and so on.

It can be a real delight to spend time with the kids, when they aren’t being too teenagery (the 6th graders tend to provide better emotional ROI than the 8th graders), but what I really like is the peaceful period before or after lunches when I go around with a feather duster and shelve books and organize things. Oftentimes I’ll pause with a book and get lost in the pages for a bit, which feels more than a little magical. I remember how transported by books I was when I was a kid; I totally understand the siren call of the screens because I succumb to it so often myself, but what a loss to not be a reader. My own kids don’t read for pleasure — how on earth did that happen?

While there are precious few kids who spend their lunch hour reading (I suppose that isn’t so surprising, I can only vaguely remember my own middle school lunch breaks but I’m certain those times were spent with friends rather than novels, and I was a big reader) there are still some who choose to participate in OBOB, which is a state competition here in Oregon based on a selection of books, and that’s what I do in the library on Thursdays: OBOB coaching. Coaching sounds very official but it’s really just sitting with a group of kids and helping them try and prepare for the OBOB “battles,” which are far enough off right now that we are mostly in the who’s-going-to-read-what stage. For one group, for various reasons it seems unlikely that any of the books will be read to completion, so we just … talk. About the books, a little, but also about, well, whatever. One of the kids is devoted to Stranger Things, so we had a good discussion about Hop’s fate after that season 3 finale.

It is an enormous luxury to be able to spend part of my day at the school in this way, and I am so grateful for it. I never in a MILLION YEARS could have seen myself being a devoted library helper, in middle school no less. Holy shit, I might have said, had I been given the chance to peer into my own future. Is that a FEATHER DUSTER, who even uses those aside from BDSM enthusiasts? Heh. But also: How is that middle-aged lady surrounded by children me, when there is a big part of me that is mentally forever in 7th grade and middle schoolers are not children at all but peers, some of whom are intensely intimidating for social hierarchy reasons?

I observe all that social crap unfolding in ways both familiar and not among the kids today, and it’s like I watched some movie that made a HUGE impression on me all those years ago and now I can see how it was nothing but light projected on a screen. I wish I could convince my own kids that there is truly almost nothing less important than worrying about what other people think, but they of course are still seeing the movie. Aging is such a weird mix of loss and gain, loss and gain.

Well. My point is, I like my library gig an awful lot, and I think my favorite part of all is that it’s well-appreciated but not paid. If I can’t show up, no biggie. If I want to come in more, awesome! — but also not expected. And if I want to linger in the aisles and visit old friends like Island of the Blue Dolphins or Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or The Indian in the Cupboard, that’s perfectly okay.