Not pretty any more

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“The faint lines on her face seemed to have deepened. She looked severe and competent and suddenly much older, not even very pretty anymore—a woman used to dealing with emergencies, ready to take charge.” Eleven Kinds of LonelinessRichard Yates

Wading my way through the writing of Richard Yates a few months ago, I found the repeated statements about characters “not being very pretty any more” (or a variation on this) distracting. Perhaps it was a hallmark of the time – to write about a woman’s beauty (fading as it might be) as though it were the only real currency she had. Even if in the quoted case, Yates gave the ‘severe’-looking woman a new competence and ability to take charge, she virtually becomes invisible because she looks both older and less beautiful.

It occurred to me, though (and this is no lightning-bolt of revelation – it’s pretty much something that smacks us in the face daily), that while it might have been more common to write about a woman’s appearance in literature in earlier decades, it’s still the same.

I grant that when dealing in literature, the writer is creating a person: a description, physical as well, is warranted. It is also fiction, so the writer is creating a space, a scene, in which the character must exist and those around him/her react and perceive. Yet, the writer frames the physical appearance as the highest-value sum of the female character’s total worth. And that’s a choice.

My reaction to Yates was more a trigger to thinking about contemporary writing in media. While not every media outlet is the Daily Mail, with its headlines on so-and-so’s weight loss or weight gain, there are still more subtle value judgments associated with age, with beauty, with “health” – it’s all just couched in different language.

A bout of stress

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You know how it is: as soon as you have a conversation about something you will see information about that thing -whatever it is- everywhere. A few weeks ago it was fruit flies, last week (or possibly earlier this week) it was aging/living longer lives and this week it’s stress.

The voices tell us:

And how does stress manifest? How does it serve?

As a child, I internalized all the anxiety I felt around me; I worried constantly. I did not know – and could not have – that this was ‘stress’ until a doctor diagnosed it as such. It took many more years before my own brand of ‘fuck it’ developed, and even as recently as ten years ago, there were situations that could push my buttons. Life, of course, was more stressful then – moving to a new country, starting a new job, figuring a lot of things out all alone, etc. But first I coped, then I conquered.

I don’t feel anything resembling stress now. I wish I could give that gift to everyone I know.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

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.

It’s not what we thought…

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Everything turns out, in time, not to be what we thought it was.

Women’s fertility, thought to hit a precipitous slide downward from the age of 27 – or 35 – or some other number conjured up by dubious science, may decline in general/on average. But then it turns out fertility is not quite that simple.

“But it’s no wonder we’re so easily panicked. The fearful narrative around women’s fertility fits with a broader theme that’s become all too common as women have gained economic independence over the last several decades: we’re going to pay for our equality. Mothers going to work in the 1980’s were told they were subjecting their kids to an epidemic of sexual abuse at daycare centers. In 1986, Newsweek reported that 40-year-old single women were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than find a husband. These stories and many more like them, of course, are completely false. Perhaps the best way to fight the panic is to question those who’ve made a business of selling it.”

Pregnancy after 40 is becoming quite common. In fact, in the UK at least, the number of over-40 pregnancies outnumbers the under-30 pregnancies for the first time in 70 years.

I lived for years in Iceland, where it is quite common to have children (many, in fact) when you’re quite young (late teens/early 20s). This is seen as the norm. When a non-Icelandic friend lived in Iceland, everyone around her hounded her about having a baby before she was an “old hag” (meaning mid-20s, I guess???). She did not have a child until she moved to Denmark, and by then she was in her late 20s. The Danes, though, insisted that she was “so young” to be having a child, and all the other women in her maternity ward had at least ten years on her.

And this very pressing issue – fertility – reminds me not only that life goes on but also that, as it does, there are so many other things we don’t know shit about but pretend to (or to trust experts about them): Addiction, aging, the brain, radiation, education, the powerhouse Japan was supposed to be… or even pasta. Nothing is definitive – it keeps changing as the environment around it changes. We really don’t know anything – even what consciousness means.

The same can be said of people, but that’s another and different challenge.

Big in Japan: “Neither a commodity nor human”

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In high school in the late 1980s, we still thought Japan was going to take over the world. Yeah, that really was a worry. Japanese money was flooding into the US and snapping up US landmarks… and this really freaked people out. The response, on the West Coast at least, was a resounding, “If you can’t beat them, join them”. Many of us enrolled in Japanese-language classes (and Japanese was introduced in schools all over the West Coast – if not elsewhere in the US). It made sense – Washington state, for example, had a huge trade relationship with/dependency on Japan and a very large Japanese-descended population. In the heyday of the “Japan-is-taking-over frenzy”, not only were language classes offered but Japanese-language camps (yes, camps!), competitions and exchanges (and scholarships/sponsorships for said exchanges) were everywhere. I myself attended two of these language immersion camps in two successive summers. And I hate camp(s). I went on an exchange. I bought into the whole thing! 頑張ってください!

The trouble was… Japan was already on the decline. Its economy basically started sinking and has never done much since (other than stay afloat).

とても 悪い こと/Totemo warui koto (Very bad thing)

Add to this the dueling challenges of prolonged economic stagnation and a rapidly aging population that is coming nowhere near to being replaced, Japan is a society that is facing unusual problems (unusual both for Japan, culturally, and for the first society/test case to step into this world of the potentially catastrophic consequences of negative population growth).

Almost every day I read something about Japan that seems very un-Japanese… or something that makes the country feel like a dying entity (e.g., traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) that had been owned and operated by a single family since the year 718 or something (actually there is a documentary about it) faces its demise), mirroring its greying population.

Getting away with it

Despite the cultural/traditional mandate to revere one’s elders, which is especially prevalent in a country like Japan, being old in modern Japan reflects anything but reverence. Not because reverence and respect is in short supply but because the elderly demographic is growing at a breakneck pace and has not reproduced enough to create a social safety net that cares for the oldest, and possibly most vulnerable, in today’s Japan.

Similarly, the tradition of taking care of your parents has fallen by the wayside as working-age adult Japanese people are busy and feeling tremendous pressure. Younger working-age adult Japanese face the uncertain work environment and unemployment that the rest of the industrialized world has long lived with. (Japan used to be the pinnacle of “lifelong employment”.) The introduction of uncertainty has added to the pressure at both ends – middle-aged Japanese people who struggle to care for both parents and children, often opting out of having children at all because of the economic and social uncertainty.

And where has this whirlwind of conditions led?

Cradle-to-grave poverty

As a teenager, attending my Japanese immersion camps and later wandering the streets of affluent districts of Tokyo, I never would have associated words like “poverty” with Japan. It may not score high in individualism or personal space, but Japan did not just seem “safe” to me in every sense of the word – it exemplified and was the bedrock of “civilized behavior” and “social safety” – or so it seemed. That is, if you left your umbrella behind or lost something, you would probably get it back. And if you fell on hard times, you would probably find a way out (although this latter point is, admittedly, not something I know a lot about – I do not think the Japanese system was ever a “generous social welfare” state in the Scandinavian model; I do think, though, that it was less likely to let large swathes of the population fall through the cracks, largely due to corporate paternalism. What happened, then, when corporations cracked as the entire economy went into recession? Japan had to deal with something that most industrialized countries had experienced many times, but Japan did not have a culture for or contingency plan to weather). Yet, this all-around safety seems to have been an illusion – or at least an illusion whose grains of truth only applied when the machinery of the economy was functioning at full performance. The effects are not insignificant.

Been caught stealin’… once or twice or 40 times

My first introduction to Japanese poverty came in the form of several articles appearing that chronicled the growing problem of geriatric shoplifters. Apparently “hungry pensioners” account for 35% of Japan’s shoplifting and have a high rate of re-offense, landing them in prison repeatedly, which – on balance – might make more economic sense to a pensioner who is living on the annual USD 6,900 state pension. This falls at least 25% below the subsistence level.

Add to this end-of-life poverty the revelation that early-life/childhood poverty in Japan is a growing problem:

“Official figures on child poverty were not even published until 2009. They show that the rate of (relative) child poverty—defined as the proportion of children in households with income after tax and transfers of less than half the national median household income—rose from 11% in 1985 to 16% in 2012, one of the highest rates among OECD countries. The gap between well-off and poor children is more pronounced in Japan than in America, and not far off levels in Mexico and Bulgaria, said Unicef last month.”

In my wildest nightmares, I’d never have pegged productive-yet-tranquil Japan, once envied for its model-society credentials, as having the “highest rates of child poverty among the world’s developed nations, according to a UNICEF report unveiled Thursday, which ranked the nation 34th out of 41“. Not only, then, are the elderly suffering, but many of the youngest members of society are not getting a good start, which is bad in any case but all the more dire considering Japan’s population crisis. With nowhere near enough babies being born to replace the generation that is dying out now, the society can ill-afford creating a “lost generation” from the babies who are born.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant

By the same token, Japanese society can ill-afford the burdens of its rapid, collective aging without examining finding adequate solutions. They may just be temporary, Band-Aid style fixes – it took a long time for the foundations of Japan’s stability to crumble to this level, and it will take time to fix (should the problems be fully acknowledged and addressed) – but at least something’s got to give.

After all, Japan is facing a crisis that combines a whirlwind of immediate, physical problems and long-term public policy issues. An immediate shortage of people/workers, particularly critical in terms of caretakers, nurses and others who will largely care for the elderly, is high atop that list. But the country faces both the aforementioned problem of overtaxed family members who are unable to care for parents, and has a closed and difficult (dare I say racist/xenophobic/exclusionist?) immigration policy that makes it challenging to bring immigrants to Japan to pick up the slack. Even if the Japanese were willing to bring in skilled workers to manage this shortfall, who really wants to go to Japan to work in these capacities? Japan is a difficult and unwelcoming society to live in as a foreigner, the language can be difficult and working with the older part of the population could magnify the language gap even more – on top of which, the yen isn’t the strongest or most attractive currency. None of this dangles the carrot of opportunity for potential employees and much-needed caretakers.

Doomo arigatoo, Mr Roboto

If people refuse to come, then, the Japanese will do what they have always done best: automate. In an article that questions “Immigrant or robot?”, it sounds like robots are Japan’s answer. (I’m terrified of robots, but that’s another story.)

Seniors are dying alone. Japan is out of workers and uncomfortable with foreigners. But there is one last option — robots.”

But the coming robot army of carers is still not practical and not enough. They’ve been trying to make a useful robot for years but do not come up with something that really replaces a human. A robot may be able to lift a person, but it cannot combat one of the most pressing issues: loneliness.

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

The elderly in Japan are committing suicide or in some cases succumbing to dementia (and accidentally killing themselves, as was the case for a man struck and killed by a train whose family was almost held liable for the costs related to the fatal accident). Or worse yet:

“There is also a growing number of households where one elderly person is looking after another in need of nursing care.

Just last month, a 71-year-old husband was arrested for killing his wife who had dementia. “I got too tired from looking after her,” he confessed, according to local media. “I wanted to take my own life, too.”

It was not a one-off tragedy. And they are the real people behind some staggering statistics about Japan’s ageing and shrinking population.”

Stuck in the middle with you

And the middle generation – the stressed-out, economically insecure, middle-aged children of the poorly-cared-for elderly and parents of the decreasing number of children? Pulled apart, stretched too thin, hopeless, and experiencing greater income disparities and job insecurity than ever before.

What a drag it is getting old: The inhuman question

I wonder, as I reread the poem, “My Imperialism” from Japanese poet Ryuichi Tamura, what he might have said about all of this. He introduced a sharp, cynical tone to Japanese poetry, and his focus on capturing the harshness of life, of aging, of generational gaps in understanding, all feel fresh again, if they were ever dated. It’s just that the struggle goes on, and grows more acute.

In “My Imperialism”, he wrote (emphasis in italics mine):

“We must enslave the natives with our poems
all the ignorant savages under sixty
plagued by a surplus of clothes and food
when you’re past sixty
you’re neither a commodity
nor human”

He seems to mock and be resigned to the idea of aging and the nostalgia that accompanies it, but what would he say to the growing trend of “kodokushi” (lonely death) that awaits a Japan that will, by 2060, be populated at a full 40% by over-65s?

 

Softly into 40s: Where’s the party?

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An acquaintance recently turned 30 and fretted mildly about it. A mutual acquaintance and I chimed in immediately to reassure her that the thirties are by far the best decade. You finally know who you are – usually none of the anxiety and trying too hard to please others and finding your footing that shade your twenties. The mutual acquaintance and I are both on the threshold of 41. Neither of us felt one way or the other about turning 40, but somehow we’re both dreading 41 because it’s a nothing age.

I concocted a dream birthday party for 40 – maybe, despite not being a party person, I would invite everyone from all spheres of my life (Seattle, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, work, non-work, the past, the present) to one big event (in Seattle, in Iceland?). But the big trick would be to get 1. some bands I love that are still small enough to be able to do something like a big party (thinking here about stuff like The Wedding Present/Cinerama and Seattle band Tomten, for example), 2.the ubiquitous everywhere-man Tom Skerritt to choose his favorite poem and attend the party to recite it (haha – I know – crazy), and 3. a place big enough to accommodate all these dreams. And of course enough people agreeing to attend. It would be less a 40-year-old birthday for me and more a gathering of people who made the 40 years memorable, for better or worse.

In the end, I did nothing. Not a single celebratory thing. But now that I see 41 on the horizon, I wonder if I should aim for some big thing sometime this decade.