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Usually I catch every case of pop-culture hiccups, but I didn't get in the Conger line. Darva Conger, Who Didn't Want to Marry a Millionaire, posed for Playboy, earning six figures for her one. And why not? She's got a beautiful body, and it ain't gonna last forever. While she's tight as a mainsail, why stop her ship from coming in?

Darva wanted her privacy back after "Millionaire," which wouldn't seem to include being in Playboy. But she defended herself against accusations of hypocrisy. "Everything changes," she said. "At the time I said it, I meant it. It was true." Was. The truth changes. If it didn't, we all would have married our grade-school sweeties. Let he who has never changed cast the first stone.

Still, I didn't buy the magazine. I might have if it featured, say, Harvey Keitel or Space Ghost naked. Nudie pictures are great, but I don't like teasing myself with a catalog that doesn't take credit cards.

The friendly skies

What excites me more is flying. A boarding pass makes me light up the way Darva's spread would a straight man. Maybe it's metaphoric: There's an endless tease at the gate, and finally that big cylinder takes you places you can't get to alone. Some people just want to come. I just want to go.

I doesn't bother me to be packed like an olive in a jar next to an assortment of weirdos. I've sat on airplanes beside some memorable wrecks: phobic flyers, blabby drunks and thickies who don't recognize that headphones and a book are international symbols for "piss off."

On a recent flight out of Miami I didn't even untangle the headphones before realizing that my seatmate would require some interaction. A flight attendant lifted her out of her wheelchair and into the seat next to me as if she weighed no more than a brochure. She was old and thin as an onion skin.

I don't mind olden ones. Except for the fact that they're slower than honey rolling uphill in January, drive like they're sitting in front of "Wheel of Fortune" and that you should never stand behind an old man on an escalator because they fart like they're doing the tuba part in "Stars and Stripes Forever," they're not so bad. You think they've spent their lives getting to Cracker Barrel at 4:30 p.m. for dinner, and then you find out that they used to be in The Who or something. There are things you just can't tell by looking at them.

We chatted about her cats and her hip for a pleasant while. Then her tone changed and she told me about some lady at her house who tried to take her things. Her son whispered to me, "She has a lady in the mirror." I realized the lady was herself. She saw her reflection and thought it was someone else, wearing her clothes, trying to take over.

I understand being afraid of the mirror; everyone has bloaty days. I can also understand talking to it sometimes, if only to say, "Gaad, you're cute." But imagine having to meet a specter every day in the glass, a stranger where you ought to be. That's got to be a scarier mirror than the one in the swimsuit department.

After a while she stopped talking and stared calmly ahead, and I watched her. She was frail as balsa wood; her skin, thin as phyllo dough, lay in folds and creases on her chest, neck and arms. Her mind and body, probably once springy as a new mattress, were betraying her.

Moment of reflection

Maybe I should have thought something rose-colored and wispy about her bravery and endurance ("A New Hip for Mother Hubbard," only on Lifetime), and I did, a little. But mainly I felt as satisfied as someone snoring after Thanksgiving dinner. God, I was so glad for every skin-tight dress I ever wore, every screechingly trendy outfit, every second of youthful vanity. The hands of time feel up everybody eventually, and watching her made me grateful for every instance when I danced like I was selling something or posed for my arteest friends. I'm glad people show themselves even if they, like me, don't look like they came from an airbrush can.

What's inappropriate isn't showing off our bodies, as Darva did. It's always wishing they were better instead of appreciating what we have while it works. Maybe I should feel this way about our minds, too, but I'm shallow, remember? Besides, when your mind goes, it might not bother you at all, because your mind is gone.

So bully for Darva and for making the most of it while you can. Everything changes. Especially us. Be proud of what you have, and show it. You might be sorry you didn't when someone is lifting it out of a wheelchair.

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