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?!

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My New Profession

I spend half my life waiting in lines and sulking about it. Who needs the aggravation, the tragic damage to self-esteem you suffer in a queue? Not me, no way.

So, when a friend told me I could get my TSA Pre-Check at an office in a nearby building, I was on it like a tick. I showed up first thing the next morning.

After all, with TSA-Pre-, I could hotfoot it to the airport and wait in a shorter line — not the line where people looked like refugees in “Casablanca,” hopeless and resentful. Not the line where you had to take off your shoes, lose your dignity, and expose your feet to a netherworld of fungus and vermin. No — a shorter line that moved quickly and didn’t make you go barefoot.

Upon arrival, I filled out the application, I tried to look respectable, I sat and waited patiently for my turn.

It all went pretty swimmingly until the time came to take my fingerprints on a little apparatus. The woman behind the desk kept rolling my fingers around, over and over, on the glass screen. She looked a little put out.

“Is anything wrong?” I asked helpfully.

She sighed. “I can’t find your fingerprints,” she said.

She continued to roll my fingers around on the glass. Finally, she gave up.

“You just don’t have any measurable fingerprints,” she said —  a little accusingly, I thought. “Do you garden a lot? You must have done something to wear away your fingerprints.”

“I don’t garden,” I said.

(Jeez, all I wanted was TSA-Pre- — and now the accusations were beginning to pile up. I am notoriously lethal when it comes to plants and wasn’t taking to this line of questioning hinting that I was a gardening suspect or something.)

“I do use the keyboard quite a bit,” I said, suddenly on to something.

(I’d never thought being a writer was a terribly healthy pastime — and now, here was the proof. It not only siphoned away your perilously low supply of self-esteem, it evidently whacked off your fingerprints, too.)

The woman shrugged, uninterested. “It’s probably just age,” she said.

She approved my application and told me I should be getting my Trusted Traveler number in the mail in a month. I left the office and walked home. Now and then, I stared down at my featureless finger tips.

Every so often, age serves up a new surprise — something you never imagined before. I mean, who ever contemplated wrinkled knees or sensitive teeth or arthritic joints before it happened to them?

Similarly, fingerprints. I mean, who ever knew fingerprints were temporary?

It all makes me think of the mischief I could pull as an older woman. Not only am I invisible to much of the world, I also don’t leave fingerprints behind. I swear, if I weren’t looking forward to my Trusted Traveler number, I think I’d become a kleptomaniac.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read My Little Problem With Cialis Ads

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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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

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It’s Only Food. Really

There are insanely adventurous diners in this world.

I’m not one of them.

I mean, I’ve eaten sushi, rattlesnake, hippopotamus, turtle, bear, alligator, and armadillo, so I’m not a total dud as a thrillseeker. But I won’t go near any kind of internal organs, suspicious-looking vegetables (sweet potatoes, eggplant, turnips, to name a few), goat, or goat cheese.

When my husband and I first met, he pointed out I ate only white and beige foods, like that was a big deal. Then, when we had kids, he hinted I was a bad vegetable role model for the children. Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I’ve reformed and now eat all kinds of formerly dangerous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and okra, which I like to loudly compliment myself for.

In spite of all my progress and sacrifice, my husband keeps pushing me, which is why we found ourselves at a restaurant called Mystery Cuisine when we were in Paris. I should have run when I saw the name. I like mystery in my books and my movies; I don’t like it on my plate or palate.

mystery food

The server/owner kept bringing us weird dishes and telling us how to eat them and how to drink the accompanying wine. (Did I mention this was costing a fortune, even if the euro had taken a nosedive?) Sometimes, he lit dishes on fire. Sometimes, he showed up in a mask.

“I think this is one of those molecular cuisine joints,” I hissed to my husband.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” he said. “I think this is the most incredible meal I’ve ever eaten — ”

“I’ve always hated the idea of molecular cuisine,” I continued.

” — the way they combine the tastes and ingredients is remarkable — ”

” — and I would have been perfectly happy to die without ever eating the stuff.”

The server came back with a slew of new dishes and bossy instructions on how to eat everything. This reminded me that I have real problems with authority. I could have sworn my husband had problems with authority, too, but you couldn’t tell it tonight.

“I refuse to eat anything in a single bite,” I told my husband after the server left. “My mouth’s too small. And I’m so tired of looking at foie gras that I may join PETA soon.”

“The way they’re combining tastes is extraordinary,” he said. “It makes me think of food in an entirely different way.”

He looked almost seraphic. I wanted to strangle him.

“I hate it when people fetishize food,” I said.

“What they’re doing is pure art,” he said.

Art? Oh, brother. I finally said what I’d been thinking the entire billion hours we’d been there: “You know — it’s only food.”

“That’s a sad commentary,” he said.

“Also,” I added, “foam is not food. I’m a little tired of finding foam on every course.”

We ate seafood, we ate sauces, we drank wine, we inhaled foamy mystery dishes, and — did I mention it earlier? — we paid a fortune. The euro might have been down, but it wasn’t subterranean.

We ate, we paid, we flew home, but in many ways, Mystery Cuisine lingers with us. So far, I’ve had to listen to my husband rapturously recount the whole ordeal mouthful by mouthful. He told our friends John and Helen about it at great length. Helen was intrigued; John was not.

“It’s only food,” I said again, and John agreed loudly. (John and I have decided we were either married in a past life or maybe we were the same person. In our past lives, they probably didn’t have molecular cuisine.)

Helen and John. He has good taste.

Helen and John. John has good taste.

In fact, my husband ended up writing an over-the-top review on Yelp about how Mystery Cuisine transformed him and made him think differently about dining experiences. He may have also said something about a rich cognitive and theatrical perspective, but I’d nodded off by then.

I almost never write reviews for Yelp — but I’m pretty sure I know what I’d say if I did: Just four little words.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about Forgiving Kitty Carlisle Hart

 

 

 

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