The woman: Smile, nod, stay watertight

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It’s easy to dismiss it all with a casual, if pensive and somewhat distant, “It just never happened for me” when answering people’s intrusive questions about why you’ve never married or had children. I, for one, often flash to multiple interviews with former US Attorney General under President Clinton, Janet Reno, who died in 2016, and all the times she was forced to answer the question about whether or not she had wanted to marry and have a family; not one to be forced into answers on even the toughest of subjects, she seemed always to reply with some version of “it just never happened for me” (referring to herself as an “awkward old maid”). I don’t know if there’s any more to her story – and it doesn’t matter. She was – and is – entitled to that privacy. Aren’t we all? But that constant, awkward, pesky question about what we want, but didn’t get, persists… and always invites Janet Reno into my brain.

But it’s so much more complex than that. People want easy answers, if they are really looking for answers at all. They are not truly curious; they just want to pry a little bit and see if some horror story will come bursting out. If your inner dam of tears doesn’t burst upon their initial inquiry, they move on and start boasting about their progeny and their accomplishments. Possibly even their progeny’s progeny. Because, yes, like it or not, you’re at that age: near the very end of the possibility of fertility, while many contemporaries and peers have moved into happy, if quite early, grandparenthood.

And you, skin shriveling and pruning with age and passage of time, smile calmly, nodding along, feeling the rush of all the suppressed grief hit the buttress again and again. Smile, nod, stay watertight.

 

The aged: A life of training

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“How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved mystery.” – Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (Carlo Rovelli)

J said to me: “You seem to be someone who is blissfully, refreshingly, enviably free of… pressure.”

Perhaps this too is an unsolved mystery. It took time to be this calm. Or indifferent. (Picture John Hannah here, menacingly responding to an entreaty to calm down: “I’ve never been more calm.” I’d include the video but couldn’t find it.) Pressure isn’t building, even if heat bubbles up under the surface. That’s different: but how does the gravitational field behave when it heats up? We all want to know. But it’s probably not a pressure cooker.

Calm, one would think, comes with age. But not really. It’s an individual thing. Some continue to grow more uptight, rigid and agitated as time goes on and responsibilities, decisions and grievances accumulate. I, on the other hand, have moved slowly in the opposite direction. Is it some discipline that was once conscious that shifted imperceptibly into a natural, unconscious behavior? Some form of lifelong training?

FROM The Spirit of Place
-Adrienne Rich

Are we all in training for something we don’t name?
to exact reparation for things
done long ago to us and to those who did not

survive what was done to them    whom we ought to honor
with grief    with fury    with action
On a pure night    on a night when pollution

seems absurdity when the undamaged planet seems to turn
like a bowl of crystal in black ether
they are the piece of us that lies out there
knowing    knowing    knowing

But it does not matter. Not the why or how. Just that I am.

Many things that end up attributed to age, aging or being aged, may not in fact be related to age. Duh. Experience, and perhaps even more importantly, openness to experience, imbues one with a curiosity and, as Erich Fromm describes it, a concentration/sensitivity. It is learning to stand on your own two feet, to be freely alone, to embrace patience, to be sensitive not only to oneself but to others. I am not always good at these things, but it is a process:

“If I am attached to another person because I cannot stand on my own feet, he or she may be a lifesaver, but the relationship is not one of love. Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the conditions for the ability to love. Anyone who tries to be alone with himself will discover how difficult it is.”

“To have an idea of what patience is one need only watch a child learning to walk. It falls, falls again, and falls again, and yet it goes on trying, improving, until one day it walks without falling. What could the grown-up person achieve if he had the child’s patience and its concentration in the pursuits which are important to him!”

Mature sex: Stay calm, but hot

Embracing age, being alone and even the fundamentals of unconditional love (as a concept), we are still left with our bodies and the demands they make. And then what is most telling is how one thinks about the sexuality of the aged/aging. I’m calm, facing the realities of wild and dramatic corporeal metamorphosis (when is the body not changing, either from uncontrollable forces or our own manipulations?) and half a lifetime of experience and observation. I know the story isn’t finished. We are not a very mature society, at least from an anglo-world perspective, imagining sexuality to be the domain of the young, nubile, and virile, turning away from and denying that it may very well drive us at all ages, continuing to add fuel to the fire of our lives, until the end.

In a somewhat related sphere, I have come to evaluate the people I meet based on how they react to a specific film: Cloud 9/Wolke 9 (a German film – not the Disney film). I wrote about it before. Basically it’s a story of average, normal senior citizens and their love and sex lives. It acknowledges how the body, how the perspectives, how the perceptions, how the wants and desires change. Do you stop wanting sex – or, more importantly, the intimacy of being with someone with whom you can talk and laugh and be understood through it all just because you’re old? No. I keep coming back to and referring to this film. Not that it was a masterpiece, but I have rarely seen these issues that we will all face depicted in a real, honest and stark way. Somehow “old people sex” as a topic is the butt of sitcom jokes and lines the pockets of big pharma.

I tell everyone I meet about Cloud 9 and gauge their reaction. I don’t love or rely on knee-jerk reactions and wholesale judgments based on something like this, but their immediate reaction gives me a glimpse of how the person works – and ultimately about their respect and compassion for the aged, for others, for themselves – and the aged people we will all become. A reaction of disgust or laughter causes me to pull back mentally. And frankly this is the reaction I usually get. Except from senior citizens, generally, although even they often tell me, “I would not want to see that.” Then I actually brought it up with someone recently, who said, “I saw that film at a festival. I found it very moving.”

After wading through so much nonsense, and living a life of experience and training “for something we don’t name”, that is exactly what I wanted to hear.

Photo (c) 2013 pelican used under Creative Commons license.

aged

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The beauty of being older is that you may experience pain but you know it’s only temporary. You will float right out of it eventually. You have all the evidence in memory and sometimes even in writing that all the things that so wounded and destroyed you when you were younger, and continued to do so over and over, will keep happening, and you will get over all of it. You will come right out the other side of the pain and feel almost as good as new.

Reading notes I’d jotted down from 1996, 2001, 2011, and various other points throughout, I see my pain splattered all over the pages, remembering exactly what I was doing, where I was sitting, even how I was breathing or crying or wringing my hands or writhing in physical pain, when all these catastrophes occurred – real catastrophes and crises or just those minor dust-ups that inveigle the heart – and I can even smile at this repeated pouring out of the fucked-up muck of life. All that agony, frustration, keeping up appearances, feeling used, tremendous loss, self-torture, deconstructing so many illusions, treading water, fecklessness, justifications: all of it felt like something once but eventually becomes something you don’t consciously remember.

Photo (c) Paul Costanich.

Age perception and sex for the aged and ages

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Yesterday was an unusually rich day for reading about age – in particular how women are perceived as they age. Both by society and by oneself.

In one article discussing turning 30, the writer describes the arbitrariness of how women’s ages are perceived. “Age is a weapon society uses against women. Each year that you gain comfort in your own flesh, your flesh is seen as worthless.” A woman’s age, she writes, is never right, but a man’s age is always right.

And, she argues, it is not only about perception. It is also about keeping women down. If women really believe that youth is where it’s at – that everything fades away after 30 – they may not achieve all they can in life. If their worth is entirely wrapped up in the nubile sexual attractiveness tied to the “innocence of their youth” and the attached male attentions that come with it, what will they aspire to – will they ever ascend to the level of achievement that they might threaten the middle-aged male status quo in the professional world? “Better to tell women that youth is their best quality—that when their ass starts sagging and their face starts cracking, everything they love will fade away.”

But there is plenty of evidence that life doesn’t end (god forbid! “Older” people can still have a life!) at 30. The other article I happened across was a Slate article about women’s sexual lives and how women over 70 seem to be having their own sexual revolution. A lot of the women interviewed in the book the article discusses seem to have been very sexual creatures all along – or, in many cases, many embraced their sexuality only after hitting 60.

One woman stated: “…combination of feeling wild abandon and total comfort has been just amazing. After 70, there comes a sweetness about making love. We go slowly, there is no rush anymore. When you’re younger, it’s all about the orgasm, then it’s over. I love this suspended feeling, the absolute intimacy we have been able to achieve.” It is a bit much, perhaps, but if nothing else, the idea of looking at one’s intimate life (and all its facets) as striving for wild abandon, total comfort and this inexplicable suspended feeling is worthwhile.

I don’t want to sit around thinking about the septuagenarian set going at it, but we are all going to get there. Not to add that the Germans have already given us a film that removes any doubt about what elderly sex and relationships would be like (Cloud 9). It even covers this topic – where the main character, a married woman, has an okay relationship and active sex life with her husband, but then she meets an even older man and connects with him in a way that involves this aforementioned “wild abandon and total comfort” that is so rare in relationships at any age.

If the article imparts anything, it’s that you don’t wait for your 80s to try to find this kind of satisfaction and depth of feeling/connection.

Age is just a number, and I am fond of reminding people that it is never too late to do anything. As the writer of the Vice article on turning 30 stated, “The only real thing 30 took from me was the sense of limitless time.” There is thus an urgency to what we do, no matter what we do – at any age.

I Remember Sex

Random thoughts: Wunderkind underdog & throwing away talent

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You can start off well, with something like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (“The False Husband”). Set the scene, tone, soundtrack.

I made a deal with myself that I need to be in the habit of writing, so I write in this blog come hell or high water, as the saying goes. I force myself to write every day – usually I have something to say, even if it is largely useless, and can cobble together something that stays thematically cohesive (for example, it might not be important to tell the world, i.e. whatever unlucky soul stumbles into this blog, that I changed my mind about Julie Delpy or that I desperately want to make chicken pho, but these posts at least have a theme and a target – a point.

Today, though, my head is a jumble of random thoughts that I want to spew out in a most random fashion, if for no other reason than to follow through on writing at least one post per day. Rest assured, all the deal-making with myself will hopefully not be for naught. I have specific writing projects I want to tackle at some point but have fallen so far out of the habit of regular, disciplined writing that I am at least trying to create a pattern or a rhythm to start with. The organization comes later. It’s kind of funny because you’d think that writing about things you really want to write about – whatever it is – would come easily. For me, as soon as I sit down, determined to write something with a purpose (other than something academic or a blog post, anyway, which is informal in any case), everything goes out the window. That is, every day in my job and in my freelance work, I research, organize and write all kinds of outlandish things that I never imagined knowing the first thing about. But it’s something that can be ordered – someone says, “I need a white paper about connected TV” or “We need a clinical summary of this paper on manual dexterity when employing double-gloving practice” – I am perfectly able to wrangle all the disparate details, read the studies, gather intel and info and get to work and produce perfectly workable results. Someone else has requested these things, so it’s work.

But when it’s me and my stuff – with a fairly solid outline and a crop of good ideas – I can find every reason to put it off. I don’t know when this happened. As a kid and teenager, I suppose I was less concerned with what other people thought about the outcome and wrote stories every single day. All I did was write and, like a maniac, get months ahead on school homework so I would have more free time to write. I earned this reputation among teachers and adults around me as “a writer” to the point that the reputation preceded me and stifled me and caused me to start feeling insecure and trapped. I stopped writing and buried myself in foreign language textbooks. I distinctly remember making a couple of choices at the pivotal age of 13 or 14. Take creative writing as my English course or enroll in regular English (where my friends were). I opted for the latter. The following year, our courseload was reduced from seven classes per day to six (so we could have even longer classes – ugh!), meaning we had fewer choices/options. I was faced with the choice between taking journalism or French. The journalism teacher (who had taught creative writing the previous year and was disappointed that I did not join) practically begged me to join – I took French. The journalism teacher still let me write articles for the school paper. I did it, but my heart wasn’t in it. By then, I was completely in love with all my irregular verbs and the passé composé.  I spent the rest of my school years studying all the languages the school had to offer – except German, which seems to have hurt the German teacher’s feelings. Writing for pleasure – complete fiction and imagination – stopped.

I still wrote a lot, of course, because I was a very engaged student. I wrote papers and never, ever managed to stick with word limits. I still struggle with this but am getting a little bit better. I became skilled at research and writing what was asked of me – and this continues today in my career and my lifelong engagement as a student (always enrolling in study programs just for the sake of learning).

I am, however, further away from personal writing, really good writing and being able to self-edit my own personal writing. I let all the creative energy slip away. Perhaps it is still there somewhere, but I have no one but myself to blame. As I wrote, all the adults in my life encouraged me to write to an almost daunting degree, but that was also the problem. It was daunting, and I did not think I could live up to their expectations or hopes. I was not sure I wanted to. Deciding to pursue something in life like writing or the arts or photography is undoubtedly a hard road – completely subjective, all about timing, a person needs to develop thick skin and embody perseverance. I was never sure I could endure the subjectivity and fickle nature of perceiving “talent”.

My feelings about it are still mixed. Creativity and imagination when we’re young are vibrant and unbridled forces – unfettered by the real life we later experience, which dampens the spark we may have to explore ideas that are fictional and illogical. Yet writing, fictional or otherwise, informed by life experience can have so much depth and meaning, touched as it is by reality, which requires time, insight and experience. My feelings on the subject are similar to how I feel about therapists. In addition to wanting to write, I always thought – and still think – I would like to be a therapist. I love listening to other people’s problems and thoughts more than almost anything, but it occurred to me early on that it seems, no matter how mature and insightful you are when you’re young, that you don’t really have enough insight, gravitas or authority to be a good therapist until you’re about 40. Rough rule of thumb, really. I am sure there are gifted therapists of all ages, but for me, and in my view, I never seriously considered going back to school to become a therapist until the last few years. I only feel fully prepared to do that right now.

Then again, if I am being honest (and random), there are a lot of things that I only feel prepared to do (or think about doing) right now. I only think of things like having serious relationships or rearing children now. It seemed totally improbable and unappealing in my 20s. More power to the people who did pursue those things when they were young and potentially had more – or at least less complicated – choices. I still think there are plenty of choices but I tend to think fairly broadly. The whole world is my workshop (my personal motto and seemingly also the motto of American foreign and military policy! Reminds me, totally off topic, that my brother described the end of the last US government shutdown thusly: “the dick show is over”). I don’t feel limited by location, language or any other constraints.

Things can expand into all kinds of crazy territory if you let them. For example, you can start out with a marketing idea of just giving your customers some cake and somehow end up with seven local, interactive microsites to capitalize on their brand loyalty. You can start off buying green beans from Kenya and end up with a wife from there! Sounds like a good case study, doesn’t it? “Kenya: From green beans to a new wife” – it certainly piques some curiosity and raised eyebrows. “What could this possibly be about?”

But then you can end badly. Toto will do it for you with “Africa”. Don’t get me started on the whole “generalizing Africa” topic.

Ring It In – Happy New Year 2014

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The new year is here. Isn’t it required to reflect on what the previous year held? I do this frequently enough in my near-quarterly letters/life soundtracks, but year-end reflections aren’t bad.

Last year someone kept trying to tell me that I am his port in a storm. The problem is that I don’t think he knows what that means. He is someone who gets himself into trouble – or at least into unwise, uncomfortable situations – and panics, and then wants to press the red button to eject and land safely in my port.

The other problem with this “boy crying wolf” thing is that it also takes advantage of me and my willingness to be, as he drunkenly put it once, “the easy option”. I am neither the port in anyone’s storm nor the easy option. I suppose this is in large part where all my cynicism comes from – especially in recent years. I always had the “consolation prize complex” but it grows worse as people actually, blatantly try to use me. I look at every interpersonal situation and ask, “What’s this person’s angle? What is s/he looking for?” I would in 2014 very much like to meet a person I can instinctively trust without questioning their every action and word. And dispense with those who do not fit these criteria.

To get away from this doubt and take a few steps back from the cynic who always steps out in front of the more understanding “real” and unfiltered me, I will have to cut out the existing influences that always leave me questioning. Some people cannot be trusted – on so many levels – and there are just certain elements that I don’t want in my life.

An extension of this is my approach to friendship. I have always considered myself a good but vulnerable friend – sometimes extending myself way too far for people who ultimately don’t care that much (or as much) about me. Friends, as much as I love and treasure them in the moment, do come and go. In earlier life, people were fickle; we all change and can’t cling to the past. It does not mean that I don’t miss some people from 20 years ago who have disappeared and become the types of people who do not exist online (thinking here of Terra – I came across the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” video and laughed, thinking about how she and I used to joke that she wanted to stick her tongue between Roland Gift’s crooked front teeth. Checking out the video again now, I am struck by how the other band members look like blokes who might work at a gas station or tax office). Memories.

I have become a lot better at letting go of the past, or so I imagine. But the “port in the storm” guy is evidence that I don’t completely let go even when it is the best thing for me.

Therefore, in 2014, I need to start thinking about what is really best for me in the long run. Not what fills a few hours of loneliness in the middle of a Saturday night, not lingering on things that are dead just because there is not something else to replace it. I need to devote that attention to the friendships that are very much alive and want the nourishment.

I would like to embrace sincerely the whole “age isn’t everything”/“you’re only as old as you feel” concept. I give it a lot of lip service, and I genuinely feel like other people at my age are still young but experienced – the best combination. But because I have been feeling like I was 72 since I was 8, I feel positively decrepit now. It does not help that my body has betrayed me in such underhanded and uncontrollable ways – in ways that are actually fairly devastating to me, even if in all the cliché ways. The healthiest thing I can do in 2014 is give up on dreams that are next to impossible – and even if they could be within reach, they come at far too high a price. I am happy with me and just have to be happy being only me, whether I feel 72, my actual age or 8.

On a related note, I came across a brief article on CraigConnects.org about things Craig Newmark did after the age of 35. There is a lot of emphasis placed on youth, especially in the world of fast-moving start-ups, as though only people under 35 are creative and risk-taking enough to put it all out on the line. But maybe other attributes matter more – I agreed with Newmark’s points about experience making a difference, and life’s greatest rewards coming when you accept and embrace who you are. I know that I am and always have been like a 72-year-old lady who bakes a lot of stuff, writes a lot of old-fashioned letters and postal cards and can be a nerdy librarian type with a head full of all kinds of references that no one needs. And I like it – I like me – like that.

Beyond this, I have written before about how it is never “too late”. Nothing is too late until you are dead – and if this year slapped me across the face in any way at all, it was to remind me that death comes suddenly, unexpectedly. We all know this in an abstract way. But most of us don’t confront it – with our young child or young wife snatched away from us without warning. It is a cliché to say that we should live our lives, each day, as though it is our last. It would also be irresponsible to advocate that kind of complete reckless abandon. But these sudden losses are cause to evaluate seriously each part of our lives. There are things we must do to get by, but for example, if you are miserable in your job – you have to find a path to get out. If you have a business idea, find a way to start it. If you always dreamt of getting a master’s degree in architecture, what’s stopping you? If moving to France was your dream, what steps can you take to move toward your Gallic future? I am fully aware that people have debts, obligations, family, legalities and a laundry list of other obstacles to doing whatever they want. But you can make almost anything happen if you really want it. It’s said that nothing worth doing is easy – and usually this is true. You can make a change.

As a woman for whom “change” is a mantra, I learned in 2013 that even if one can make a change – or a lot of changes – change is not always the answer. Make change judiciously. As I have written elsewhere, I made a lot of life changes, which were needed because I needed to get out of the complacent rut I had been in. But the changes I made were made more because they were the options I had in hand – not because they were the right choices or things that would make me happiest or most fulfilled. Important to note and remember – just because you make a change, regardless of how big it is, does not mean you cannot reverse it. Almost nothing is absolutely permanent, so you can always make another change. I try to advise people along these lines quite frequently because people are often paralyzed by fear, and fail to change as a result, too scared of things not working – possibly scared that they will work – or scared of the things that may change as a result of the first change. Indecision can kick your ass and drag you behind it. As long as you don’t decide, you are floating and never taking your life into your own hands.

I started this new year doing something out of character for me, and I think it is important to test your boundaries sometimes – even if you don’t enjoy it. It is the best way to find out how well you know yourself and sometimes whether you can grow and become more than you imagined. Life is, after all, about the experience, which includes both the good and the bad.

If you can, start every new year with a kiss. And finally, don’t settle for stale crumbs when you could have the whole cake.