His bicep still feels like a wall, solid and strong.
His energy and curiosity have long since out-paced that of his peers.
He just spent a month sailing in Greece with a friend.
But, for the first time, during a recent visit, my 85-year-old father finally, suddenly, felt old to me. And, to his clear dismay and surprise, to himself.
We’ve never had a smooth, easy relationship. He’s missed many of my birthdays and we rarely do Christmas together. He made it to both my weddings and walked me down the aisle.
We’ve had arguments so loud and ferocious I debated cutting off all contact with him.
But he’s my only father.
And I am, in many ways — competitive, stubborn, voraciously curious, a world traveler with a host of interests, artistic — very much like him.
A film-maker and director of television documentaries, he rarely hesitated to piss people off, preferably on their dime, a trait I’ve also inherited in my work as a journalist. Gone for months working while I was growing up, he’d bring home the world — literally: a caribou skin rug and elbow length sealskin gloves from the Arctic, Olympic badges from Japan, a woven Afghani rifle case, a hammered metal bowl from Jerusalem.
In the 60s, when I was at boarding school, his gold Jaguar XKE would pull into the parking lot and whisk me away for a day of fun., often a long walk through the countryside.
We’ve since driven through Mexico and Ireland, shared a tent while driving across Canada the summer I was 15 and drove from Montreal to Savannah, admiring the Great Dismal Swamp in the rain. Much of our time has been spent in motion.
We rarely, if ever, discuss feelings. It’s just not something we do.
But it’s sad, frightening, disorienting — inevitable — to suddenly see him tired, limping, sobered and chastened by mortality after a lifetime of tremendous health, good luck and international adventure.
Or this meteorite, that streaked through the skies above Russia, and was lifted from the bottom of a lake. It’s said to be 4.5 billion years old, the same age as our solar system.
This week on PBS, I also watched — and loved — the latest instalment, 56 Up, of Michael Apted’s amazing series of documentaries, which began in 1964 with Seven Up, in which he interviewed and filmed 14 London children of varying social and economic backgrounds.
Every seven years, he has re-visited them and filmed them again, to see how they were doing — at 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and now, at 56.
It’s a compelling examination of how people change, (or don’t), over time.
Today, “reality” television is so normal as to be cliche, an alternate universe in which people seem to think nothing of confiding to millions of strangers while staring straight into a camera lens. It was once quite a radical notion to broadcast people’s everyday lives, and their most intimate feelings.
Who were you at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 or 56?
I know many readers of this blog are still in their early 20s, so all those decades have yet to arrive.
I have few photos of myself as a younger person, most of them taken between the ages of six and 14. After that, it’s as though I vanished; my parents divorced and I spent most of my time divided between boarding school and summer camp.
I don’t remember anyone taking my picture between the ages of about 14 and 26, although I have one from my college graduation, which neither parent attended. In it is one of my then best friends, Nancy, whose last name I can’t even remember now.
Which is sad, as my life was a wild adventure in my early 20s — starting my writing career, traveling alone through Europe at 22 for four months, and then winning a life-changing fellowship in Paris at the age of 25. I do have, somewhere, some great photos of my visit to an Arctic village on assignment, being interviewed in a particle-board shack by a man speaking Inuktitut — the local radio station for the community of 500.
By 28 I had achieved my goal of being hired as a writer for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper and, restless, would soon jump to Montreal where I met the man I married at 35. By 42, I’d been divorced for five years.
Some days it seems everyone I meet is afraid of getting old — or at least of looking as old as they are. Occasionally, I see women who have had so many face lifts that they can barely move their lips when they talk, let alone smile.
Business is booming in the anti-aging market. Plastic surgeons who specialize in lifts, tucks and fillers barely noticed the recent recession. Cosmetics with anti-aging properties fly off the shelf, and new concoctions appear almost weekly.
I admit to supporting the multibillion-dollar skin care industry with my long use of night creams, as well as a slew of daytime facial and body lotions that purport to “smooth out” aging skin while protecting it with sunscreen. I also color my hair, which in its natural state is now about 80 percent gray.
But I draw the line at injectable fillers and muscle relaxants, face lifts and tummy tucks. I’ll do everything I can to stay out of an operating room.
I’m with her on that. I also really like her emphasis on who you are are as you age, not just the shape, size and condition of our bodies and faces:
Youthfulness is not just a question of biology. People are perceived to be younger than their years if they smile and laugh a lot (be proud of those laugh lines!) and are generally cheerful and upbeat, the kind of people who smile at strangers and wish them a good day.
People often guess me as 10 to 15 years younger than my true age, which is pleasant. This week, a NYC cabbie guessed me 13 years younger, and young people looking at me in broad daylight (i.e. their eyesight is fine!) do so as well.
If people perceive me a decade younger than some of my peers, it’s likely a combination of things:
— I’ve never smoked
— I get a lot of sleep
— I disconnect, often, from technology to meet people in person, read books in print, get into the real world
— I minimize my use of social media (however hip) to recharge and reflect
— I enjoy my life, and have a wide network of supportive friends
— I only drink moderately
— I exercise 3-4 times a week, often outdoors in nature
— I have much younger friends, some even in their early 20s, and love being part of their lives
— I’ve never hit rock-bottom, terrifying poverty, the kind where you have no idea where your next dollar, or dime, is coming from. Terror and 24/7 anxiety will age anyone quickly.
Here’s a great post from Emma Johnson, aka Wealthy Single Mommy, a fellow New York journalist, who is 36, about accepting and enjoying how our bodies change with age:
In the past year or so I’ve noticed other first, albeit subtle signs of aging: The large pores. A second glass of pinot grigio at night and I wake to extra-dark circles and creping under my eyes. The cellulite that has hugged the back of my thighs since I was 12 has spawned and now also covers the front of my thighs. After two babies and four decades, I don’t expect to see a flat tummy again. Everyone knows bodies age, yet are surprised when it happens to theirs. Here I am.
And yet for the first time in my life, I see something else that wasn’t there before. When I see pictures of myself smiling I notice the fine laugh lines, yes. There is something else in my whole face that is new. The same thing when I catch a reflection of my eyes in the rear-view mirror as I glance at my children sleeping in the backseat. I see the crow’s feet at the same moment and I see a pretty face. I did not see pretty before. It may have never been there, I’m not sure.
We now have a small army of male archetypes suffering sartorial midlife crises.
There’s the man still padding around dressed like the 28-year-old Silver Lake hipster—Vans, Daft Punk tee, thigh-hugging jeans—he was a decade ago. His proliferation is easy to understand, because his style requires no effort. Change nothing. No wonder he has numerous stuck-in-time siblings, like his urban-styled brethren.
Women, certainly in the U.S., are judged harshly when we’re not deemed sufficiently thin, perky and unwrinkled — which rules out plenty of us over 40, let alone 50.
It also focuses way too much attention on the size of our hips or ass when we really need to focus attention on the size of our paychecks and investments for retirement.
Active, curious,open minds and generous hearts are every bit as important — and generally far more within our control — as the inevitable ravages, and sometimes really lousy luck, faced by an aging body.
Some of the coolest women I know live in my apartment building, like M. who’s 80 — and feels about 60 — with fab clothes and a pompadour, a booming laugh and a spirit that still kicks ass.
I want to be her.
When you look in the mirror — especially those of you over 30 — are you happy with what you see?
I had a business lunch recently with a woman a bit younger than I. We both work for ourselves, battered survivors of the (most recent) recession, hanging on to long-term clients while seeking solid new ones, a combination we admitted can be exhausting.
We’re both married suburban home-owners.
Although we had never met, and knew no one in common, we felt comfortable enough to speak more personally.
“I’m not where I expected to be,” she said.
I sighed, with relief that she had said it, that someone else felt as I often do, that we could talk about it without self-pity or whining — but truthfully and candidly.
Where I live now, in suburban New York, one is expected, from birth onward, to be Very Successful. Those of us who live in apartments or modest homes, driving old vehicles and doing funky creative work with inconsistent incomes are very much the anomaly in a sea of corporate poobahs and tenured academics, like two of my next-door apartment neighbors.
I recently attended a backyard book party for someone I frankly envy: huge, gorgeous old house; her book an instant best-seller; a tiny, trim figure in a stunning new dress from Paris.
I admit, I find it hard sometimes, surrounded by others’ success in all the areas I’d once hoped for, to look at one’s own life with deep satisfaction and gratitude.
Yet I know mine is good: a loving second husband; a home we own and enjoy; friends, decent work, health, retirement savings.
I never was someone with a Set Plan. I married late, at 35, to a physician, so I basically expected to stay married, and to enjoy a life of growing material ease.
But the marriage was unhappy and brief. I was once more single, living alone on a very tight budget, for six years.
Sometimes I am still shocked by where I am in life: a widow, former caregiver, film writer/director who still works a day job and barely scrapes by, at 42 years old. Not feeling sorry for myself, just stating the facts. Actually, I was reminded of the facts yesterday.
Before leaving said day job, whether next month or next year, I’m using my health insurance to get everything checked out. There I was with a new OBGYN, from whom I need a referral for a mammogram, getting thoroughly probed and questioned about my family, medical and sexual history. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the conversation found its way to a subject which I had not anticipated discussing, and inadvertantly brought up the reality of my situation.
“Are you thinking of having children?” the doctor asked.
“I’ve… thought about it,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not really sure what my options are at this point.”
Maybe, at any age, we’re all still waiting and wanting — something.
“It’s crazy. Isn’t being Jasper Johns’s assistant enough?”
Then there’s Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in a Blanche duBois-esque role, a Ruth Madoff character who’s plummeted from flying private in Chanel to living in her step-sister’s crowded, grubby walk-up in San Francisco. It’s a searing, depressing, reminder that hitching your entire identity and ego to wealth and power, especially someone else’s, is rarely wise.
A supermarket is not where Ms. Barberena, now 56, thought she would be at this stage in life. After completing undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at one of Mexico’s best universities, she led a comfortable middle-class life in Mexico City.
But she left in 1995 with her husband, two small sons and a sense of desperation. A neighbor’s daughter had been abducted, bringing an epidemic of kidnappings within reach of her own family.
“I lived in panic because I did not have any way to protect my children,” Ms. Barberena said.
In 1996, her father, a naturalized American citizen, presented a green card petition for Ms. Barberena, his married adult child. And the wait began.
It’s an odd thing, this life.
We often grow up with such high hopes, even expectations, of who we will become and where we will live, the people we’ll love and who will love us.
Of our children, our home(s), our studies and travels and achievements.
(Who factors in the stumbling blocks of infertility, miscarriage, divorce, premature death? Grieving takes time and energy. It slows, or stops, our momentum. So do illnesses, surgeries and recovery, job losses and and protracted searches for paid work.)
We — naively — assume, or hope, we’ll earn and enjoy rising, unbroken income streams and good health, stunned and felled when one or both fail us.
We forget, or don’t want to imagine, that people we adore will die, sometimes very suddenly, tearing a hole in our world that no one else can replace.
While still working, I’m doing it well outside the structured environment of corporate America. It definitely feels a little wacky some days. Technically, I think the actual description for what I’m doing is “Leaning Out.” Maybe even aggressively.
At least that’s what the 20-year-old-version-of-my-40-year-old-self thinks I’m doing. And she is deeply, deeply uncomfortable with it all.
My actual 40-year-old self is just fine thankyouverymuch. First of all, she begs to differ with her 20-year-old-version when it comes to the leaning out description. Um hello? Since when did sixty hours of work (even if you put them in at non-standard times) count as slacking?
As for marriage, kids, suburbia, and the unconventional job?
I chose them. Actively, willingly, excitedly, with arms-wide-open.
I want to be exactly where I am. Doing what I am doing. Downshifting, side- shifting, upshifting…whatever the current moment calls for.
Are you happy with where you are right now?
How much do you plan ahead — or wait for fate to dictate your next steps?
I had dinner recently with my friend G, a fellow writer. As we settled into a local restaurant for dinner — the music way too loud for comfortable conversation — we both kept saying “That music is too loud!”
Getting older is a bitch, kids.
What we really were talking about was how to handle the indignities and annoyances of aging.
We’re not that old, but we’re past 40, and things do start to look a lot different by then; friends have died far too young, parents are starting to become frail or ill and the endless mountain ranges of ambition we always planned to keep scaling are starting to just look exhausting.
“I’m going to be such a bitch when I’m older,” she said calmly. Me, too.
Because you’re running out of time, energy, strength and the endless determination to bounce back — from illness, divorce, a crappy betrayal, a crummy job.
Because, for better and worse, you simply have less stamina, physically and emotionally, for bullshit. If someone is petty or cruel or stupid or deceptive, in the old days I would have fake-smiled and sucked it up. Today? You’re gone!
You don’t have to kiss as many butts as in your gogogogogogogogogo 20s and 30s, when you’re desperate to get into the right college/grad school/jobs/marriage.
What’s going on, I think, is the path-diverging choices that come with growing up. The thirties aren’t wildly different from your twenties, except for the part where the stakes feel so much higher. The carefree feeling of going out every night is replaced with a nagging voice that now reminds you of the repercussions, of what you should really be doing instead, and of the choices that may be slipping away, whether they are career, family, or fun. You are suddenly, irrevocably unable to waste time in the same way without chastising yourself.
By the time you’re in your 40s and beyond, you’ve done much of that, often several times (see: jobs, marriages.)
And we’re learning (resentfully!) that our energy has limits — even as she and I admitted to sitting at our computers for 10 hours a day when we write a major story.
I still, (thank God), can read without needing glasses. I still head off to jazz dance class and kick as high as some of the praying-mantis-thin chicks in their 30s. I plan to be back on the softball field this summer, after a three-year absence due to injury, surgery and recovery.
I’m also finally happy to see that my retirement savings — mine alone, even as a freelancer in a recession — have hit a number that actually makes all those years of scrimping feel worthwhile.I’d so much rather be in Paris/wear Manolos/drive a new car, but that growing number is deeply comforting.
My role model is a woman on our floor, soon to turn 98. She recently fell, off the toilet, cutting her cheek and shoulder so badly she needed stitches. Her live-in nurse, who I see often, said, in awe: “She’s so strong!”
That’s what you need as you age. Strength: of character, of mind, body and spirit. A network of solid, loving friends. As much cash in the bank, and/or income, as you can possibly scrimp, scrape and save — start now, young ‘uns!
Aging also means less patience for whining or negativity. If you’re healthy, solvent and alive you’re way ahead of a lot of others starting their days with an IV in their arm or wondering when to finish making out their will or wincing in pain with every step.
By the time you’ve done a few decades, you start to feel like a grateful survivor, because you are.
The other night, for fun, I decided to Google a former beau, one of the most fun people I ever knew, a journalist-turned lawyer who fought hard for the rights of workers who’d been screwed over by their employers. Instead, to my shock, I found his obituary — dead of cancer at 57. It feels unimaginable.
We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game — Joni Mitchell
Do you ever circle back to the places of your past?
Sometimes I do it on purpose. Sometimes it happens by accident.
The first major magazine story I sold, to a Buffalo newspaper when I was a college sophomore, was about radon gas leaks in a town near Toronto, from the decayed radium left over from watchmaking and its luminous dials.
Now my Dad lives there and it’s where I come to visit for a respite from writing for a living; that first story, insanely complicated and one for which I missed a lot of classes, created a career still sustaining me, one now allows me — thanks to laptop and wi-fi — to work from anywhere.
Like, back where I started.
I go back to my old Toronto high school sometimes to lecture about journalism and book-writing. I arrived there halfway through Grade 10, pimply and completely ill at ease around boys after years of all-girl schools and summer camps. It was a very rough few years of being daily bullied by a small group of boys before, finally, I was accepted and welcome — and even chosen as prom queen at our senior prom.
So when I go back now, as a published writer, it’s with relief and pride. I spoke there on Monday. The list in the photo is of Ontario Scholars the year I graduated; you needed an 80 average.
As I was climbing the stairs to give my lecture, I passed a man I couldn’t believe still roamed those halls. “Nick! You cannot still be alive!” I said. (He’s British, devilish and always let us call him Nick.) “I’m 68,” he said proudly. (He was then an English teacher, now a part-time athletic coach.) What a hoot to run into him!
On the weekend I went for drinks to the rooftop bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking the University of Toronto campus, still one of the city’s most elegant and intimate spots for a cocktail. I’ve been savoring it since I skipped my U of T classes 30 years ago to have a drink there. I went to meet an old summer camp friend, a woman I hadn’t seen since we were 16 and who found me (of course!) on Facebook.
I took the ferry across Toronto harbor to Centre Island to attend service at the tiny church where I was married last fall. I love the ferry and its feeling of freedom, the very best way to spend $7 I can imagine. The island, lush and green in late fall sunshine, is so lovely, its gardens carefully manicured, swans and ducks and geese flapping by. I’ve been going to the Islands since I was little. They’re sometimes what I miss most about the city — wild, beautiful, unchanged.
It was odd but very pleasant to walk the paths alone where I last walked as a newlywed. (The husband is home working.)
On this visit north, I’m enjoying sitting in my father’s house, surrounded by the art and objects I’ve known since early childhood. They’re images I’ve known and loved for a long time; in a life with plenty of upheaval, (a life lived in five countries, divorce, job losses), things and places that remain fixed and lovely are securisant. They soothe me.
It also feels good to finally have an open home to return to. There were many long, painful decades when I wasn’t very welcome. His second family took precedence and didn’t like me much.
As I drove around Toronto the past few days I’ve passed so much of my past — the white brick house I lived in as a teenager, the pool where I first worked when I was 15, my first apartment building, the Victorian red brick house where my writing career began at the college newspaper.
I like revisiting my past, the good bits anyway. It comforts me.
He’s the man who sells us our insurance and Jose and I were in his office yesterday morning pricing life insurance. Automatically seeking the least expensive price category, I looked at “elite preferred non-tobacco” — i.e. really healthy people!
It was marked N/A. Because we’re already too old.
Frankly, I’d never considered pricing life insurance, but that’s why I married a man whose most common phrase is: “Be careful.”
I never planned much of anything, I realized, when asked.
Which shocked me into writing this post…
From the age of about 12, I wanted to become a journalist, and ideally a foreign correspondent. I knew I never wanted to have kids. I figured I might get married eventually, but it was never anything I thought much about or fantasized over; I’ve now done it twice.
Hmmm, not so much. I knew I wanted to move to New York for work, but did not know exactly how that would happen. I did start writing for major American publications in my mid-20s, freelance, to start building some contacts. I even interviewed for a staff job at the Miami Herald in my late 20s. But actually leaving everything behind?
I ended up meeting an American medical student in Montreal, fell in love, got a green card through my American mom, and crossed the border to follow him, for good. I still had no definite agenda beyond finding work in my field and eventually, as I did, marrying him.
I would say, truthfully, I’ve spent a lot of my time and energy preparing for these goals:
— I studied French and Spanish throughout university to gain fluency
— I started freelancing before I was 20, so I learned a lot, quickly, about my industry and made contacts within it
— I knew I wanted to write a few books, so I took workshops and attended conferences which taught me how to write a proposal and find an agent
So why haven’t I been more directed in plotting a specific direction and set of coordinates for getting there quickly and efficiently?
I’ve always had self-confidence and have bounced back from some very rough times emotionally, so have always (correctly) assumed whatever shit showed up, I’d cope somehow.
I have good skills, and a variety of them.
I have savings.
I’m pretty smart.
I don’t take drugs or drink to excess, which could seriously cloud my judgement or decision-making.
I’ve also been faced with some serious headwinds that impeded my younger/idealistic assumptions about what I’d be certain to achieve professionally: three recessions since 1989; 24,000 journalists fired in 2008; having to re-start my career at 30 (i.e. losing the first eight years’ hard work and social capital when I left Canada).
And being fired from a few jobs also killed some of my drive. It’s painful and humiliating and every time it happened I lost a little more appetite for climbing back into that harness with a clear action plan ahead of me. Having my first marriage end within two years also shook my sense of certainty about planning for the future.
But, if I look back over my career and life, I’ve achieved pretty much everything I’d hoped for without a tick-the-box meticulousness.
Especially living in an affluent part of the gogogogogogo United States, I see a lot of people making themselves (and their kids) crazy when they fail to achieve their specific goals — getting into X college or Y company, not earning as much as they’d expected to by 25 or 30. I think that attitude adds tremendous stress, unnecessarily.
I always knew the broad outlines of what I most wanted:
interesting, well-paid work
a loving and loyal partner
a safe and attractive place to live
enough disposable income for cashmere, decent wine, tickets to the ballet occasionally
My mother, now in a nursing home at 76, inherited enough money in her 40s that she never had to take or keep a job. So she traveled the world alone for years. She never taught me the normal tools: how to dress, wear make-up, stay employed, find and nurture a husband, balance a checkbook. Nor did my Dad, a celebrated film-maker, still world traveling and kicking ass at a healthy 83.
They’re fun and interesting people, but normal and conventional life issues like wills, insurance, planning for the future (beyond, crucially, save money and stay healthy), just weren’t part of our conversations.
So, did I plan to be 55?
Hell, no more than I planned to be 17 or 29 or 37 or 42.
I can hear all you young un’s stampeding for the exits.
That old fart? OMG!
But today is my bloody 55th. birthday and the hell with it. Consider the alternative!
I’ve never been happier, and am grateful indeed: loving husband, good health for us both, a new hip and a pain-free life, my Dad still alive and healthy at 83; dear friends; work (finally!) in abundance. Whew!
So, as I celebrate, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the past few decades, some words of wisdom, (aka WOWs).
The greatest love of my life has been the work I chose, writer and photographer. From 12 I knew this was what I wanted to do and I shaped my university studies accordingly, learning French and Spanish well enough to work in both languages, in Montreal, France and Spain. It has not been a smooth and uninterrupted ascent to fame and fortune; I could have made a hell of a lot more money doing almost anything else.
But I know my words have changed lives; one woman wrote to me after I published this medical story, and said it saved her life. No paycheck can beat that.
WOW:Invest the time to find out who you are and what you do best, and in what situations. Find workplaces that allow you to thrive, not merely survive. If you can’t, use your talents and skills as a volunteer, mentor or friend.
My second greatest love has been that of/for my second husband, someone who for years I thought, “Nah, we’ll never make it.” We’re really different! We fought ferociously at first, and, on occasion, still do. But he’s the most affectionate, expressive and loving person I’ve ever met. Lucky me!
WOW:Don’t give up too quickly on a new sweetie, even if it looks a little challenging. Maybe you need to grow into this one. Maybe s/he needs to grow (up) too!
Many women, especially, are terrified of it. Get over it. Stand up for your principles. Speak your piece calmly, fairly and confidently. Not everyone will like you. Some people will get angry and rude and attack you. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means you’ve pissed them off. Big difference.
WOW:Get comfortable speaking your mind publicly, like — blogging! You can, and must, also write letters to your elected officials, to newspapers, magazines and blogs you disagree with. Question your teachers and professors. If you never disagree with or question anyone, what’s up with that? Time to reality-check your certainties.
The first time it happens, you think it will kill you. My first husband, for whom I’d left friends, career and country behind, abandoned me two years after our wedding — and was re-married to his next wife within a year. That hurt like hell.
The first time a client cheated me in my freelance business, I was 19, and stunned. But I did then what I do now — hire a lawyer. Works every time!
WOW: What role did I play in allowing this?
This one is huge. As 19th. century British poet Rudyard Kipling put it:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
WOW:Bad things will happen to every single one of us: job loss, divorce, illness and death of loved ones, financial or health struggles. A mean boss! An unfaithful lover. Whatever. Try your very best to deal with it calmly and thoughtfully.
Send for help! Hire lawyers. Get second or third medical opinions. Save money so you have breathing room in which to make smart(er) decisions. The ability to remain lucid, centered and helpful will pull you through most shit flying your way. And others you least expect, watching you handle shit gracefully, will help you because they so admire your sangfroid.
No one likes a drama queen. No one.
Nope, there’s never enough — if your desires are insatiable. Save 10-25% or more of your annual income, no matter how broke you feel. Once you have a f–k-you fund and serious retirement savings, you’ve got choices. Without those, you’re toast.
If you don’t save money now, who exactly do you think is going to save your broke ass when you’re old and sick and tired and no one will hire you?It’s no joke.
WOW:That designer handbag or shiny new car won’t pay for chemo or put your kid(s) through college. What are your priorities? Fund them consistently for a life that matters to you, not just one that enriches others.
The greatest gift in this lifetime. Nurture your pals through good times and sad. Show up for the funerals of their kids and wives and husbands and parents. Write thank-you notes. Remember their birthdays and favorite flowers or food or wine. Some of them will ditch you. Some of them you’ll outgrow. Others will appear and grow further with you where you are now.
WOW:Never take people for granted. Show them how much they matter to you!
Get a passport and beat the hell out of it — only 30 percent of Americans own one, and most of their trips are to Mexico and Canada. I’ve been to 37 countries, (so far), and it’s the best investment I’ve made, even when alone and ill in Venice and Istanbul.
Even better, and tougher, live in another country, culture and language. I lived in London ages 2-5, Mexico at 14, France at 25. I moved to New York, knowing no one, with no job in sight, when I was 30, leaving my native Canada behind.
All were life-changing, and for the better.
Only by getting out of the comfy, cozy bubble of what you know and like and think is “normal” can you truly realize that all values are relative.
WOW:Especially for women, travel alone is an essential way to gain strength and independence. There are cute boys (and girls) and kind strangers everywhere!
What are your defining values?
Mine include: ethical behavior, non-stop creativity, curiosity, lots of loud laughter, fierce hugs, loyalty, doing your absolute best, under-promising and over-delivering, sincere apologies. Beauty is everywhere: a bird’s call through the silent woods, a smile from your sweetie, an ancient painting on a gallery or museum wall, the light on the lake at sunrise.
WOW:Find joy in every day. Savor it, share it and celebrate it. Make time to be alone and quiet and reflect on who you are and where you’re headed in life. If you’re unhappy, figure out why and fix it. (Yes, it can be hard.) Cherish the people who nourish, challenge and guide you, in work and play and family and community — and shed the toxic ones. You know who they are.
In your teens, 20s and 30s, you just assume — most of us — that you’ll be healthy. You can work crazy hours, eat crappy food, never take breaks. After the age of 40, it starts to change. After 50, you’re fighting to stay alive to 65, after which, statistically, you’ll make it to your 80s.
WOW:Don’t take fitness for granted. Enjoy and safeguard every bit of health you have. Get your mammograms and teeth cleaned and Pap smears and annual checkups. If your behavior patterns (or others’) are destroying your mental health, find a good therapist. If you “can’t afford” health insurance, cut out every conceivable cost from your life and get some.
I think this remains an under-rated quality, especially in young women. Physical strength and stamina will see you through extended periods of work, travel, study, care-giving. Emotional strength will see you through almost any crisis, holding it together so you can make decisions or find wise, trustworthy people to help you make them. Spiritual strength means you’re not some greedy, mean pushover. Intellectual strength will prove its worth when you skip junk distraction for challenging material and smart companionship. It glows.
WOW:Weakness is deeply unattractive, whether you’re 16 or 66. Weakness demands others rescue you from your own (lousy) choices. Don’t choose to be weak!
How badly do you really want it — the job, the sweetie, that friend, the trip overseas, your Phd, losing all that weight?
Few accomplishments come quickly or easily, and those who give up and walk away too soon cede the field (bye!!!!!) to those of us who keep showing up and take your place. Both of my books, both of which have garnered reviews that made me cry with relief and gratitude, were rejected 25 times. Twenty-five! If my agents had given up….?
WOW:If your goal is too easy, what’s the point? Find coaches and cheerleaders to help you get there. After you arrive, champagne!
Without it, we’re just walking bits of meat, getting and spending until we die. In an era of stunning income inequality, of long-term and widespread unemployment, of political gridlock that threatens the very notion of democracy, we must recognize others’ humanity and connection to us and take action. Whenever you shrug and turn away, you deny your best impulses. Be a Big Brother or Sister. Find a volunteer position that feeds your soul. Commit to a life partner who shoves you back onto that path when you stray.
WOW:“I want to be happy” is not a great life’s goal. I want to help others be happy is.
If you, like me, are a strong personality with a few too many opinions, you’re bound to create some enemies along the way. It happens. You’re fine as long as you have allies. Assertive and powerful women especially need them. Enemies aren’t worth fussing over, but don’t be naive about their envy, insecurity and determination to mess you up. (See: allies.)
WOW:In every job, class, workplace, freelance gig, nurture as many relationships as you can. Receptionists and secretaries are the gatekeepers to power. Stay in touch. Send cards and flowers for special occasions. Write thank-you notes on your personalized stationery with a real pen. Keep a supply of stamps at hand for this purpose.
Such an old-fashioned word. So essential. I decided to marry Jose when we went out to rescue my mother after she was found lying in her bed for days, immobilized by a large brain tumor. Her mattress was soiled. We had to make sense of her condition and deal with her house and dog and doctors, in a few days. Jose didn’t hesitate to leave work, pay thousands of dollars to fly us out overnight, and even scrubbed her soiled mattress.
WOW:You can choose your sweetie and friends because they’re funny and cute and like the same music and food. We all do, especially when we’re younger and life is still mostly fun. But when the shit hits the fan — which starts around age 45, when friends and family begin to sicken and die — character will separate the wheat from the chaff. Character will propel the right people to your side in the chemo suite and the funeral parlor and the NICU. Choose wisely.
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“The women who I photograph are confident,” he said. “They know what they like, they know what suits their bodies, and they’re dressing for themselves. They don’t dress based on trends.”
“I think a lot of the young people are inspired by the style,” he added, regarding his audience. “And as they get older, they’re inspired by the attitude.”
That attitude finds its apotheosis in women like Ilona Royce Smithkin: a flamboyant 91-year-old bachelorette, whose burlesque charms include a penchant for show tunes, daring colors and false eyelashes cut from her own shock of bright red hair. In younger years, she made her living as an artist, drawing book-jacket portraits of authors like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill…
“In America, once you turn a certain age, you’re sort of forgotten, you’re sort of made to feel that you’re invisible,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is give these women a voice and also show people that your life doesn’t end at 50.”
I hit the big FIVE-OHHHHHHHH in June 2007, and Jose was kind enough to cushion the blow by taking me to Paris. Nothing hurts in Paris!
But, frankly, what are you going to do? You get older, then you die. In the meantime, you get older. And, if you’re female, you are going to have to go through the hell of menopause along the way. For years, my mother warned me, “It’s going to get worse! Lose weight now!”
I don’t want to write about menopause for a few reasons: it’s personal, it’s too boring, it’s been written about to death already and it’s not the least bit interesting to anyone who is not in the middle of it.
It was helpful, though, to hear a Canadian friend my age tell me she literally walked into the lake in front of her rural home just to cool off from the incessant inanity of hot flashes. I loathe them. No one, anywhere, ever, wants to feel the slimy sheen of sweat accumulating on their throat and face, let alone dripping down their back — usually when you’re in the middle of trying to look and behave professionally before a critical (in both senses of that word) audience of strangers.
One night, when I was working retail, I tried to finish up a sale, in a polished and smooth manner, at the cash wrap. Then a hot flash hit, leaving me…
with a huge drop of sweat hanging from the tip of my nose.
Yeah, that was fun. I couldn’t (or felt I couldn’t) swipe at it gracefully. So I just tried to ignore it, and hoped they would too, and that my sweat would not drip onto their new purchase.
A 22-year-old from New York City gave birth to me in Vancouver on June 6, 1957.
Today, I live near her birthplace and she, in Victoria, BC, lives near mine. We each married a man from across the 49th parallel.
It’s a gorgeous sunny day here in New York and, thanks to Facebook, birthday wishes have already arrived from Bhutan, London, Paris, Cracow, New Mexico, Tuscany and San Francisco — I have, literally, a world of friends, whose love and support are the greatest gift I could have. Being a career journalist/author partnered with a career photographer/editor means we share global tribes of fun, talented, adventurous people passionate about ideas, people and connection.
It’s day filled with a mixture of joy and sadness.
I’m a little terrified of being this age, although — yes — better than the alternative. I read the personal obits in the New York Times and yesterday read one of a woman, 45, who had made partner in one of the city’s top law firms but was cut down by cancer.
I know how incredibly fortunate I to have a birthday at all.
I normally get a card from my mother, and am her only child, but she is too angry with me for applying to become her legal guardian (she now has dementia) and instead is clinging to a weird and controlling woman who loathes me — and who shares power of attorney with me. So, today, I get silence from my own mother.
My father, thankfully, is a hale 81 — and hopes to be here this weekend, driving down from Ontario visiting friends, to share his 82d with us with dinner in Manhattan and maybe tickets to the ballet. We fought bitterly for years and in the past four (since the death of his wife, a woman I never made peace with) have become closer than I ever thought possible. That’s a gift.
My sweetie, Jose, plans to take me on a silent Buddhist retreat, mid-July. You can imagine my mixed feelings! But I’m exhausted (happily) from promoting my new book “Malled” non-stop for two months and can really use some quiet time in the country. Not sure how much meditating or chanting I’ll do, but we’ll see.
Tonight, I’m making pork roast and we’ll eat on the balcony and enjoy our river view. There’s a cheesecake in the freezer and I’ll make a mango-strawberry coulis.
I’ve been thinking about some of my best past birthdays:
12…We’re living in Montreal that year, but several good friends come the five hours by train from Toronto, and we have a pajama party on the living room floor. I have photos of me with a cake covered with sparklers, happily cringing.
16…After arriving in my super-cliquey Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, I’ve finally made some really good friends. Joyce organizes and throws a surprise party for me. Yay!
20…Both my parents are traveling, far away and out of touch, my Mom in Latin America somewhere and my Dad and his wife on his boat in the Med. My uncle Bernie, a well-known actor from London, is doing a show in Toronto and takes me out for dinner.
21…I’ve been traveling alone for months in Europe and want to wake up somewhere amazing for my 21st. I blow insane money and stay, one night, at the Gritti Palace in Venice. So worth it.
26…Paris! I’m at the end of the best year of my life, on a journalism fellowship with 27 others from 19 countries. My gal pals take me out for dinner there.
30…My mom hosts a party for me in her Toronto house. I still treasure two gorgeous art glass vases I received that day.