What Did Dorothy Parker Know About Glasses?

Take me to the ophthalmologist — and the old memory wheel starts spinning.

1953: my eyes get dilated with atropine.  They stayed dilated, my parents told me, for two weeks.

1954: dilation finally gone away and pupil size back to normal, I’m diagnosed with a lazy eye.  I have to wear a patch over my (dominant) left eye so I will use my right eye more.  Pirates may look great in eyepatches, but 4-year-old girls do not.  I have the black-and-white photographs to prove it.

1955: I persist in believing that, without glasses, I would be drop-dead gorgeous.  I take off my glasses and see a blur in the mirror.  Moving toward this beautiful blur, I break my glasses over my knee and tell my parents it was an accident.  They tell me to be more careful and order new glasses for me.  For a few days, though, until the next pair of glasses arrives, I’m sure I’m drop-dead gorgeous.

1958: I get new glasses.  I want the red-and-white gingham-check glasses.  My mother insists the red leopardskin glasses look better.  We get the red leopardskin glasses.  I look like an anteater in them.

1959: For some reason, I’m watching Oral Roberts on TV one afternoon.  Oral is healing all kinds of people — the blind, the lame, the arthritic.  He says anybody in his audience can be healed, too, if they pray and believe.  I squeeze my eyes shut and pray for perfect, glasses-free vision, so I can be beautiful.  I take off my glasses.  I still can’t see.  I am now officially finished with Oral Roberts.  What part of quid pro quo doesn’t he understand?

1963: I’m in puberty.  For some reason, while everything else in my life is going down the toilet (my complexion, my crooked teeth, my social life), my vision improves dramatically.  I no longer have to wear glasses!  Someday, the ophthalmologist tells me, maybe when I’m middleaged, my eyes will change and I’ll have to wear glasses again.  It’s like he’s talking about life on a distant planet.  Who cares about middle age?  I’ll be old then, anyway.

I rush to the mirror.  This time, I can actually see my face without glasses.  The blur is gone.  I’m beautiful, aren’t I?  No, I’m not.

1972: I go to the ophthalmologist.  It’s been years since I’ve gone.  Since then, they have some kind of menacing blue light that sits — actually sits — on your eye to see if you have glaucoma.  I don’t like blue lights and I don’t like anything sitting on my eyeball.  I practically have to be peeled off the ceiling.

1994: New city, new ophthalmologist, new glaucoma test.  Just a brief burst of air, the doctor assures me.  It’ll be over in a second.  No big deal.

This test takes place, for some malicious reason, in the doctor’s waiting room.  As it turns out, one of my husband’s colleagues is in the room.  “You should have seen how high she jumped!” he chortles to my husband.

Today: Still another city, another ophthalmologist.  Has your right eye always been that weak? The physician’s assistant asks me.  Yes, I say.  I had to wear a patch when I was four.

The ophthalmologist comes in.  He tells me that, after all my middle-aged years of buying reading glasses, losing reading glasses, and buying new reading glasses, I finally need glasses full time again. Bifocals, in fact. Here we go again.

What ever happened to atropine? I ask him.  They don’t use it any longer.

And that awful rush of air test?  Oh, everybody hated that, he says.  We haven’t used it in years.

I don’t ask about red leopardskin glasses.  They’re all the rage now — except for those of us who had to wear them when we were eight.  For us, they’ll never come back in style.

This time around, I think I’m going for purple.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Speaking of Brazilians

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
4 comments

Why Age Gracefully When You Can Make the 10 o’clock News?

You’ve seen the videos and you’ve read the news articles. They’re always about some older woman or guy doing something highly age-inappropriate like walking a tightrope or doing a backwards flip or swimming the English Channel with a broken arm.

Look at that! The headlines scream. Can you believe this old guy (or dame)?  They’re still rockin’ after all these years!

The breathlessness, the wonder of it all always make me think of the Samuel Johnson quote after a friend reported hearing a woman preach to a Quaker congregation. “Sir,” Johnson said, “a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Precisely. Everybody’s always a little too surprised about these feats — in a patronizing kind of way. Then — even worse — they start wondering why the rest of us, who are aging a little more gently and decorously, aren’t out there storming glaciers and speed-hiking deserts.

Good grief. I didn’t survive to this age — enduring everything from adolescence to menopause, pimples to cancer — so I could go climb some damned mountain. (Sometimes, it seems, the dog doesn’t want to prance around on his or her hind legs, whether she does it well or not.) Also, I should add, I have developed a special relationship with indoor plumbing, and the two of us prefer not to be separated for long.

I think it’s fine people my age and older want to challenge themselves physically. But I’m a little exhausted reading about their exploits. Or about the 65-year-old German woman who’s now pregnant with quadruplets, bringing her sum total of children to 17.

(Even if I’m a pro-choice feminist who automatically points out that nobody raises an eyebrow when some terribly peppy 65-year-old guy trips the light fantastic into geriatric parenthood, I had to lie down and take deep breaths after that last bit of international news. Quadruplets? Seventeen children? Honey, did you ever think about giving your uterus a vacation?) 

(But, as usual, I digress.)

I know I’m ranting, but I’m a little tired of the headline-grabbers and the feverish expectations and Samuel Johnson’s prancing dogs. So much of what makes a life worthwhile at my age or any age are quieter pursuits — friendship, reading, learning, kindness, empathy, concern about the world we’ll leave behind to our children and grandchildren.

Oh, sure, nobody ever writes anthems about Climb Every Elliptical or garish newspaper spreads about the amazing exploits of a 65-year-old soon-to-be-firstime grandmother. But, at my age, I’m not sure I care.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

As long as you’re here, please buy my new book about aging, Pucker Up! The Subversive Woman’s Guide to Aging With Wit, Wine, Drama, Humor, Perspective, and the Occasional Good Cry

 

 

 

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
4 comments

Don’t Call Me Middle-Aged, Buster

Scan the internet and you can find out everything.

Last week, in an article in the Telegraph, I learned that I am still middle-aged and will be until I turn 74. Old age should only include the last 15 years of life, scientists reason, and people today are living longer. Why not wait and call them “elderly” till they start circling the drain?

Huh. Well, this scientific re-classification has to work well for all my Baby Boomer cohorts who are going kicking and screaming into that good night. And I have to say, I marvel at their manicky energy and sheer stubbornness about age being a state of mind and 60 being the new 15 or 30 or something, blah, blah, blah.

But at some point, all this freneticism about aging gets a little exhausting. Don’t we all have better things to do than go around insisting we’re not old, that middle-age is as elastic as Spandex, that 60 (old or new) isn’t a perfectly interesting age on its own? Shouldn’t we be trying to do something a little more helpful to the world — like maybe ending poverty or going to Mars?

“I won’t accept aging,” some model used to announce on TV commercials. “I’m going to fight it every step of the way.” Oh, brother. This always reduced me to screaming at the TV in the same lather Cialis commercials reliably brought out in me. This woman was acting like fighting wrinkles was as noble as finding a cure for cancer.

(Neither commercial, however, produced nearly as much racket from me as my all-time most-loathed TV commercial with the model staring straight into the camera and saying, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” I could always be found screeching back at the screen: “I don’t hate you because you’re beautiful! I hate you because you’re a superficial moron!”

(I should add that I’m not particularly proud of my habit of banshee-screaming at inanimate objects but machines often bring out the worst in me. Also, I am a big fan of the First Amendment.)

Now, where was I? Oh, yes — the Spandex elasticity of middle age.

Well! Now that 74 is middle-aged, people are going to spend more than three decades of their lives as middle-aged, which strikes me as being in a rut. If we’re adding a new age group, we might as well call it something different — otherwise, we’ll be as pitiable as tofu billing itself as fake top sirloin.

Maybe merge young-old into  — something? What? How about y’old?

Practice saying it: I’m y’old, y’all. Doesn’t it have a certain je ne sais quoi?

After all, the middle-age years were fine — but haven’t we done them already? Aren’t we finished? Even Spandex, like dreams, can burst if you put too much pressure on them.

If you’re y’old, you should already know that.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about How Will You Punctuate Your Life?!

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
6 comments

Soccer Moms

I first met Paula on the sidelines of our sons’ soccer games. She was short, blond, and mouthy. Like me, she was a screamer on the athletic fields — but louder. When I got to know her better, I told people I’d rather have Paula on my side than the Mafia. I meant it.

Away from the soccer field, our lives were very different. She was a fulltime housewife and mother of three almost-grown sons — and the most scrupulous and exacting housekeeper and household manager I’ve ever known. My family’s household, in contrast, was more like a rattletrap jalopy than a well-oiled machine. I’d always worked outside the home, and “scrupulous” and “exacting” weren’t terms that usually cropped up in the same sentences with my name.

Paula and I didn’t really become good friends till she was diagnosed with colon cancer a few years ago. I’d had my own bout with cancer several years before, and it’s remarkable how a similar diagnosis gives you so much in common. Having a dread disease puts you in a lonely place that almost no one else can understand (which isn’t to say other clueless people don’t give you advice about your illness and your life. They do it constantly.)

But, anyway, Paula.  She had surgery and chemo and more surgery and more chemo. She was remarkable, indomitable. She kept getting slammed by recurrences and metastases, but she kept getting up. When she was well enough, she still ran on the Hike and Bike Trail in downtown Austin. And she still kept her house in perfect order — until she couldn’t.

I had lunch with her on one of those hard days, at a time when the hard days had begun to outnumber any other kind of day. “I can’t do anything,” she said. “I can barely shop for food or cook or clean. I can’t do anything I used to do.”

She went on, and I tried to comfort her. Of course she couldn’t take care of the house. She was sick, she was doing too much already. It was understandable. It was —

But I could tell I wasn’t getting through to her.

Who was she, she asked me, if she couldn’t work nonstop at her home, if she couldn’t take care of her husband and sons? Who was she? She was no one. She was worthless. She was nothing.

Worthless, nothing, nobody, useless. That sounded sadly familiar to me.

“Oh,” I said. “I guess you hear the same voices I do. The ones that tell you you’re no good.”

“All the time,” she said.

Those voices. They sang a shrill chorus every day, starting early, finishing late. Day to day, they could be semi-placated by hard work and some kind of accomplishment — but they were always back the next morning, ready to harangue. They spoke with such authority. They knew you better than you knew yourself. They knew how unworthy you really were.

Maybe everybody in the universe is supposed to be “entitled” these days. But somebody vile sent some of us a different message: Every day, we needed to earn our small foothold on the planet. If we worked hard enough, we could beat back those voices that told us we were no good.

“Jeez, they won’t give you a break even when you have cancer,” I said.

Paula just shook her head. The truth was, she was dying of cancer and we both knew it. But you don’t talk about everything. even in a close friendship.

The weeks and months passed. Paula’s house was crowded with neighbors and friends, with the young men she’d mothered as firmly and generously as she’d mothered her own sons. They told her, again and again, how much she had meant to them and how much they loved her.

“Do you understand how much people love you?” I asked her occasionally. “Is it getting through to you?”

She said it was. Finally.

Paula’s memorial service took place on a hot autumn afternoon. The Lutheran church was so packed that my husband, son, and I sat far up in a balcony. We had to strain to hear the farewells that were spoken from below.

It’s been almost four years since Paula died. Like all of my good friends who have died, she’s still with me now and then. She reminds me of how you never know when you first meet a person how important she might be in your life. I can close my eyes and see the two of us — screaming soccer moms on the sidelines, a little shrill and obnoxious to the outside world, silently harsh and unforgiving to ourselves.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. I see those words, too, in so many forms. For some of us, the greatest battle is to be kind to our unworthy selves.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

You might want to read Aristotle’s Always Hogging the Credit

 

 

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
9 comments

What’s Wrong With Men? (The Latest in a Continuing Series)

We were at a birthday dinner, sitting at a round table and passing around peppery Chinese dishes. After a story about a recently retired friend who had worked at Yellowstone for the summer, one of the men leaned forward in his chair and asked a couple of questions:

Wouldn’t it be nice for all of us if we could have two or three different lifetimes so we could do everything we wanted — write more books, work at Yellowstone, climb a mountain, learn Esperanto? Wasn’t it a shame we were all limited to a short 70 or 80 years and could do so little?

Well. I know we were all supposed to chime in supportively about how that was such a great idea and how we’d really love to be a ballerina or an astrophysicist or a jockey at the Kentucky Derby, but this whole single lifespan business just got in our way. Instead, all I could say was:

Only a man could say something like that — getting hoggish about needing another lifetime. I’ve never known a woman yet who wanted more than an ordinary lifespan.

We went around the table and, sure enough, none of the women wanted to re-enlist for another 80 years. I know that didn’t exactly settle the point, but it looked like a trend to me.

Later, I talked to my husband about it. He’s one of those big-time immortality proponents, so I asked him what was wrong with men (I like to begin with neutral questions).

He seemed to think it was all about wanting to secure power and mastery and to leave a legacy behind — so what was wrong with that? Maybe men and women just defined legacies differently. Since men were less connected emotionally, maybe they were more driven to leave behind monuments and buildings and other bodies of work.

“Or maybe it just takes men longer,” I told him. “That’s why they want more lifetimes.”

Then I checked with my friend Brenda, who’s very authoritative about matters like sex differences. Also, she just retired recently, so she has plenty of time to opine about everything.

Brenda is kind of an authority on sex differences. Anyway, she has lots of opinions.

Brenda is kind of an authority on sex differences. Anyway, she has lots of opinions.

“Men don’t give birth — that’s their problem,” Brenda said. “They’re not as involved in the life cycle, with birth and death, as we are. Maybe women are too involved — and that’s why they don’t need do-overs.”

Or maybe we’re just more tired, I sometimes think. Maybe, being more intimately involved with others than men are, women lead lives that are richer emotionally — but they deplete us. It’s what my daughter and I once tried to explain to my husband/her father and son/brother: As women, we have harder lives — but we wouldn’t trade places with them for anything.

I’m pretty sure one normal lifespan is enough for me. I’ve had a great life with people and work I love, and I’m in no hurry to leave it. But you couldn’t pay me to re-live it or start all over. In fact, I find it oddly comforting that life has its seasons. Sometimes I just don’t think men get that.

Anyway, in the midst of all this discussion, we got an email, then a phone call, from our daughter. She and her husband, they just found out, are having a baby girl. After we hung up, I looked at my husband, who had tears in his eyes.

You know, he might talk a good game about immortality and multiple lifetimes and monuments, but when it comes down to it, he and I really aren’t that different: This is the closest either of us will ever come to immortality. This is what we care about more than anything else.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about Women and Men: From Tragedy to Farce

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
13 comments