The Weather! The Weather!

My husband and I went to California on a business trip two weeks ago. At exactly the same time, our daughter and son-in-law flew to Austin for a wedding and stayed at our condo for a few days. We missed each other, but we kept communicating.

“It’s supposed to rain the entire time you and Bennett are here,” I told our daughter.

She’d read the forecast, too. She knew it.

“Has it rained much?” I asked her when I called a day later.

A couple of days later, I heard my husband talking to her. “How much has it rained since you all have been there?” he asked.

Minutes later, he hung up. “Teal says we’ve gotten really boring and obsessed with rain,” he reported.

“Of course, we’re obsessed by rain,” I snapped. “We’ve been in a drought for four years. Who wouldn’t be obsessed by rain?”

He shrugged his well-you-can’t-please-everybody-and-especially-not-your-adult-children shrug.

“Also,” I added, playing my trump card, “we’re both from West Texas. Naturally, we’re interested in rain. That doesn’t make us boring.”

Or does it? I don’t know.

I remembered coming back from a year in New York in 2010, wondering what it was I’d missed most about this crazy state of ours. It took me only a few hours to look up and see it — that vast, roiling sky. How had I gone so long without it?

You can’t escape being obsessed with the sky (the sky, the sky!) or the weather (the weather, the weather!) when you grow up in the flat, hard, unforgiving land of West Texas. The wind howls, the sun bakes, the dust blows, the tornado sirens scream, the skies part, and you — a puny, vulnerable human being — would be a fool not to pay close attention.

(Maybe, I’ve sometimes thought, this is why there are so many churches in West Texas, where a person’s insignificance and isolation are so frighteningly obvious. Then, I invariably wonder, why it is there isn’t more kindness and charity in those churches? I think about that till the skies begin to spit dust and grit and the clouds darken — and I realize that both the West Texas climate and its religions reek of Old Testament fury and certitude; the weak, the tolerant, and the sensitive should catch the next train to the coast, any coast.)

But anyway, in almost every corner of Texas, nature is often violent and humbling. What’s it serving us up next? Withering drought, blue northers, hurricanes, funnels — or the kind of merciless downpours that turn sleepy creeks into raging rivers that rip houses off their foundations and heave them downstream, destroying lives, killing randomly.

We’ve had those pitiless floods the past week or two and they’ve left death and debris in their wake. “Can you believe this weather?” we ask each other, over and over.

We’re transfixed by it, we’re boring about it, we’re newly aware, once again, of how vulnerable we are. We watch our skies and follow our forecasts with increasing care. Like our lives depended on it.

Texas weather — always interesting, always changing — has gone from being a diversion to a full-blown obsession. The only good thing about it, I sometimes think, is that at least it takes my mind off the Texas Legislature.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about How I Mark My Territory





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


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






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?!


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