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Published 5/5/1999

"The strawberry grows beneath the nettle," Shakespeare said, an acknowledgment that the bitter and the sweet are often blended in an inseparable package.

This blending happened to me at an adult video store where I, the strawberry, was carded before I could get past the glass counter containing a novelty toy in the shape of a gun.

When you’re young and they card you, your eyes spin like pinwheels. When you’re older your reaction changes. You smile at the tyke who has just asked you for proof of your age, like he just gave you a prom corsage and a tiara. You get to walk away with something money can’t buy: The knowledge they are going to point and whisper as you go.

Once a kid at a drug store gave my ID the once-over and exclaimed, "Oh my God," like he’d just sat on a pine cone and, with customers waiting, called his friend over from the photo counter to bear witness to my remarkable decrepitude, or lack of it.

"Look how old she is," he said (I’m 34).

I wanted to tell him that old was something he would never get if he opened his mouth again, but ill will is one of those things that dies quicker if you don’t give it air, so I kept quiet. And anyway, it was really a compliment – a klutzy, backhanded lummox of a compliment, like "overqualified."

It was actually a testament to the fact that, while I may have other things to worry about in regard to my appearance, age isn’t one of them.

Having just gone to the beach with two women who wore sunblock with SPF factors that looked like bank account numbers, I know that keeping skin looking as young as possible is a serious concern, especially since we’re moving into the season of outdoor fun.

Having spent my entire life under the punishing Florida sun – we’re the state that catches fire, remember? – and apparently still being able to pass as the right age to be a Spice Girls fan, I thought I’d pass along some of the things I have done throughout my life to keep the radiant glow of youth while actually being old enough to remember when there were no SPFs.

Here, then, are the ways I managed to still have skin you could bounce a quarter off (although if you try it, I’ll pound you):

• Stay in direct sunlight as long as possible. Have no knowledge of SPFs – wear baby oil when you’re outside. If you hear sizzling noises, go in the water. Put some kind of lotion on only if you smell smoke and you don’t smoke.

• Smoke.

• Drink beer, hard liquor, whatever someone offers you for free. Drink while sitting in the direct sun and smoking. Tell yourself you’re going to temper your drinking by consuming plenty of water so as not to get dehydrated. Be feeling so nice and silly after the first drink that you forget this promise. Just drink until there’s nothing left to drink, then whine and go to bed.

• Don’t sleep very much. You might miss something. Naps are for babies. Drink something caffeinated when you’re tired in the middle of the day.

• Don’t fall for the marketing ploys of skin care companies. Your skin is not an army, it does not need a regime. Put on a little lotion if your skin feels dry, but buy it specifically for the way it smells, not the promises it makes. Coppertone is an excellent moisturizer and the best perfume in the world because it smells like the beach and makes people swoon and feel, when they’re with you, like they’re on vacation.

• Avoid stress at all possible costs. It makes you act old, which makes you look old. If you have to deal with a stressful situation, make the best of it, all the while telling yourself, like a mantra, that when you’re done, your reward is going to be to sit in the sun and drink. Then sit in the sun and drink. Congratulate yourself repeatedly on a job well done.

Different people with different skin types might want to vary these rules a bit, but this, perhaps mixed with the occasional bow to SPF 4, is what I have done in all these years of living in a place where everyone feels like an ant under a mean kid’s magnifying glass.

Perhaps in another 10 years when I look like the Cryptkeeper you can make fun of me and tell me what a bonehead I was not to arm every pore with products that cost a small fortune.

I, myself, am hoping at that time to still occasionally hear some of the loveliest words of all time: "Can I see some ID?"

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