Oct 7 2012

Judgment of Age vs Wisdom of Experience

I regularly receive emails from my octogenarian father. Because he lives thousands of miles away and the emails are at very least confirmation that the man I’ve adored my whole life is alive and well enough to sit at his computer, I forgive the sometimes inflammatory contents promulgating attitudes that I find ignorant and offensive.
And I’ve also grown to appreciate how alienating the world can become as one ages. Looking in the mirror in the full light of day with my glasses on — an inadvertent act that occurs when I absentmindedly visit the bathroom having neglected to remove my reading glasses — this doesn’t make me feel half as old as noticing my lips pursed in silent disapproval of some revealing new fashion trend or unobserved social convention.
Judgment accrued through aging is not necessarily the same as wisdom born of experience. I’ve noticed in some of my elders, even those I admire, a tendency to censure the new just because it differs from the way it always was. Critical assessment can sometimes happen too quickly, on the basis of relatively little evidence, from only one source. Evolving social mores, changing immigration patterns, foreign religious beliefs — especially when linked by daily news reports and provocative columnists to terrorist acts — can render benign institutions or individuals frightening and dangerous.
I understand this, because I’m occasionally guilty of it myself. But recognizing its pitfalls gives me pause. Because I also notice how unexamined responses can, left unchecked, make an insular world even smaller and more limited. I’m reminded of research I read in the 1990s about the impact of a TV diet heavy on home invasions, serial killers and rape victims. Senior citizens with restricted mobility often became convinced that their safe suburban or rural communities were as threatening as the gang-infested neighbourhoods of Miami or Detroit.
I don’t want to go — gently or otherwise — into that good night. So I appreciate that my life regularly exposes me to people and places, attitudes and experiences that force me to explore and challenge my expectations and assumptions.
In the meantime, I’m always delighted when one of my father’s forwarded emails contains a heartwarming story or gentle humour instead of a fear-inspired rant .
Like this one, for instance, which offered some relevant advice about aging:
Don’t worry about old age; it doesn’t last that long.
Good health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die.

Aug 24 2011

Mary Walsh on heartbreaking youngsters

Overheard on the patio of the Wooden Monkey restaurant in Halifax:

I know. I’m so old. When I turned 20 I literally thought I was going to die.

I rolled my eyes, tucked into my fabulous scallop and almond salad, and thought of Mary Walsh.

The Inimitable Mary Walsh (screen capture from canoe.ca)

Yes, that one. She contributed a vintage rant to I Feel Great About My Hands, every word of which leaps off the page in her inimitable voice. It’s so funny that although I’ve yet to have the honour of sharing the stage with her at a launch event, I shamelessly quote a few of her gems about menopause every chance I get, because they always get a laugh.

And towards the end of the piece she writes:

But really, what’s so great about being young? Just looking at the poor youngsters breaks your heart… tottering around with their pants down below their bums with their piercings and cuttings and brandings, as if life itself weren’t going to cut and pierce and brand them enough.

Most of the women in the book, like Mary, wouldn’t choose to trade places with their younger selves. And the feedback so far suggests that many readers find the contributors’ comfort in their own skins — however wrinkled — inspirational.


Aug 5 2011

Face half-unwrinkled and the dubious pleasures of pessimism

After 50, it’s just loose change.

This is Jason talking, a character in Miranda (Me and You and Everyone We Know) July’s new film, The Future.


According to Globe and Mail film reviewer, Rick Groen, Jason has reached “the no longer tender age of 35″, which I guess is supposed to account for the depression he’s anticipating at the prospect of his approaching demise.

I’ve been thinking a lot about optimism and pessimism lately, and the difference the orientations make to our daily experiences of the world.

The day I turned 50 I spent driving to and from the funeral of a former colleague of my husband’s. Under the circumstances, it was hard not to contemplate my own eventual end. But it was a beautiful spring day, and I was — and am — lucky to have my health, a wonderful marriage and work that I love. So I spent most of the car ride  a) recording all the things I was happy to have done in the past 30 years (including jobs worked, trips made, books written), and then b) making a list of what I might like to accomplish in the next 30.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that I’ll live to 80, but the genetic, economic and lifestyle odds are in my favour. And if I am so lucky, three decades of productive life is a very long time, during which I might live out all sorts of dreams I haven’t quite gotten around to yet.

“Loose change” doesn’t begin to describe the way I feel about life “after 50″. And in conceiving of, contributing to and editing I Feel Great About My Hands, I realized that I really am a “face half-unwrinkled kind of a woman”.

Of course, maybe it’s merely that I rarely wear my glasses when I’m looking in the mirror, which relieves me of witnessing evidence that might challenge such optimism.

But I don’t think so; I think it’s a wiring thing, and my circuits are set up to look for things to celebrate, not criticize or condemn.

And maybe dwelling on the negative, and anticipating the worst, makes life feel a whole lot longer for those who view the world through grey-tinted glasses. And so they can’t help but feel old, and tired…



Jul 11 2011

“Magical thinking”, Groucho Marx and the power of denial


Author of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, speaking at Tulane University, screen capture of image on university website

Joan Didion explored the notion of magical thinking in her compelling chronicle of the period immediately following the death of her beloved partner, John Gregory Dunne, when her yearning for his presence fed a disbelief that he could actually be gone. The book is a brilliant treatise on love and grief, on the ways a heart can inexplicably keep on beating, despite its broken state.

I haven’t experienced that particular kind of intimate loss, but I do think that the attachment many of us have to our own youthfulness constitutes a milder form of magical thinking. At the age of 35, despite physical evidence to the contrary, I felt much the same as I had at 16. And when I reached 50 a few years ago and was forced by the milestone to take serious stock, I was only willing to concede that my sense of my self had matured marginally – to about 25.

But there’s nothing like pop culture to remind you that in some arenas at least, the intervening years have, indeed, made a difference.

Standing in line adjacent to a magazine rack yesterday, I scanned the guilty-pleasure tabloid covers for some juicy gossip about the stars. But as my eyes moved from one unfamiliar face and barely recognized name to another, I was forced to acknowledge that time is, indeed, passing. Absent references to Angelina, Brad and Jennifer, or the starving or bad-behaving starlets of five years ago (when I must have been paying more attention), I was traveling in unknown territory. (Not that this is a bad thing: think about how much more room I now have in my brain for more important, illuminating or inspiring content.)

Let's subvert Groucho's famous line...

In the meantime, I take solace in the wisdom of Groucho Marx — adapted to a feminist perspective. “You’re only as old as the woman you feel,” he said, chewing on his cigar. I’m pretty sure the “you” he had in mind when he delivered this insight was male, but I am the woman I feel most often (so to speak), so 25 it is!

May 27 2011

British women: feeling old at (gulp) 29

According to new research published in the Daily Mail, and reprinted in Harper’s Magazine, women in the UK report starting to feel old at the shockingly tender age of – are you sitting down? (or wearing inappropriate shorts?) twenty-nine.

Yes, 29: the age at which many young women are still completing a graduate degree, contemplating whether they’re ready to have children, and/or living in a crummy apartment and trying to get taken seriously in the workplace.

In contrast, British men identify 58 (do the math – that’s twice as many years!) as the age at which they begin to feel old.

Factors cited for precipitating the perception of being past it include the discovery of grey hair (women), the impact of gravity (and/or childbirth) on body parts (again women), and the inability to perform in the bedroom (obviously men).

Personally, I felt like I was 16 until I hit my late thirties, and then I imagined myself to be 25, which in turn only crept up to 40 when I turned 52. And many of the other contributors to the book shared this capacity for magical thinking.

Lyndsay Green explores it in her piece, asking:

“What accounts for this widely shared disconnect between our appearance and our self-perception as we age? One oft-repeated joke is that our failing eyesight protects us from reality. We can no longer see how far things have fallen.”

But she then goes on to argue that what’s actually more important is that our expectations have also dropped and we’re simply more grateful for the body parts that still work. (And she provides all sorts of context for why this is a useful attitude.)