For years, I walked untouched among the ranks of the surgically enhanced — all those nips and tucks, wondrously wider eyes, graceful noses and chiseled cheekbones.
But all that changed when I moved to a cosmetic surgeon's dreamscape: South Korea. In that high-pressure society, where improved looks provide the edge in the elbows-out race for jobs, education and spouses, plastic surgery procedures are as common as haircuts.
One reason is affordability. Doctors there charge a fraction of the rate of their American counterparts. I can't say Koreans are vainer than other ethnicities, but just about every other woman I ogle on the street seems to have had some type of enhancement.
Parents offer procedures to their kids for getting good grades. One billboard in a Seoul subway station tapped into the national insecurity: "It's not your personality he's into."
Now there are a lot of things I don't particularly like about my body, but I never once dreamed of taking scalpel to skin. Like most self-effacing guys, I've played the hand I was dealt. A man's face is the road map of his life, a reflection of his character, imperfect as it may be. Scars and wrinkles signify war stories that make the landscape only more interesting.
But in 2009, after I moved to the plastic surgery paradise, I began to weaken. I suggested to my Chinese-born wife that maybe we could do as the Romans and take advantage of our host nation's surgery advancements, not to mention those reasonable prices.
"What do you think I should have done?" I asked, half in jest.
"Um, get rid of a couple of your chins?" was her (just plain wrong) answer. I dropped the subject.
But eventually another issue reared its head: My eye bags.
They're the curse of heredity — me following in my dear old father's footsteps. According to my wife, mine had become more noticeable. Eye bags make you look like some punch-drunk boxer who's gone too many rounds. Add the dark circles and you look tired, even when you're well-rested.
Mine, my wife suddenly announced, had to go.
Mind you, this is a much younger little punk who complimented herself before a recent birthday with these words: "I've never looked better." Me, I'm apparently a different story.
Before my 50th, for example, she took me aside like a guy at the track with a tip on the seventh race. I was entering into my midlife crisis, she explained, and she couldn't waste money on any sports car. Then she handed me the dye bottle.
Her suggestion: Drop the auburn look and go blond. And so I resorted to a rash spiky mix of Annie Lennox and Billy Idol, much to the chagrin of my mother, sisters and anyone else with an iota of style sensibility.
But even though blonds have more fun, the eye bags weren't helping. I started joking about them, calling them duffel bags that I could keep stuff in. One friend called me a marsupial.
So I cast pride aside and went to a local clinic. The surgeon took one look and gave a small gasp, the kind you would at seeing a guy with six eyes or a bowling-ball-sized pimple on his nose.
Yes, he could help me. Two days later, I was back — ready for a procedure unlike any other I've had. For starters, I was tied down to the operating table. They didn't need me suddenly clawing at my face or trying to stop matters mid-cut.
They injected something into my IV that put me just below the surface of consciousness. The whole scene was surreal: I could hear them talking, fiddling about beneath the bright lights, but I was adrift in a dream of shifting blurry psychedelic bliss.
Then it started to hurt — a lot. My surgeon didn't speak much English but he seemed to immediately understand my whimpers. It felt like my eyes were being pulled out of my sockets. They turned up the laughing gas, but I still wasn't laughing.
An hour after it started, it was mercifully over. A colleague guided me home, where I dropped into bed for 12 hours straight.
The next day brought the rudest hangover I've ever experienced. My eyes hurt just to look at me. My sockets were red and swollen. The doctor had said I was both a bleeder and a bruiser — lucky me.
My colleague shrieked when she saw my mummy-like bandages. I suddenly longed for the old me, even if it meant replacing the fat globules they had removed from beneath my eyes.
For the next week, I became a homebody, afraid to inflict myself upon the populace. My friends — bless their cold little hearts — called with emotional support. "Are you going to stay home and read, or go outside and scare the locals?" one asked.
I wore sunglasses outside and took secret little cellphone pictures of my eyes, to use as ammunition against my wife next time she had another bright idea.
Each time I went back to the clinic for checkups, I saw others of my ilk, mostly women with their sunglasses and head wraps to hide the horribleness of their healing process. Together, we were like those mummies in "Night of the Living Dead," returning to the mall for sustenance. No one made eye contact.
Some patients had received surgery far more radical — and painful-looking — than mine, including jaw scrapings and facial reconstructions. Each time I saw them, I asked myself: What price, vanity?
And where do you stop? Why don't you go ahead and get the full Botox treatment, a cab driver suggested. Not me; I'm done. I'm like that skinny short guy who goes to the gym expecting miracles. After a year of weight lifting, he's still a skinny short guy — but with muscles. I'm still me, wholly imperfect, now without eye bags.
Of course, I still have appointments to get my hair bleached and dyed blond again. Like one of those professional wrestlers, I need to be ready to rumble.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun